The original Star Wars doesn't start out by explaining much. You're just thrown in the deep end with a space battle. Meanwhile, The Phantom Menace tells us about trade disputes and negotiations and taxation. So does this prequel have better worldbuilding than A New Hope?
This question came up over the weekend, as a result of last week's article about deadly sins of worldbuilding, over on Matt Zoller Seitz's Facebook page. And it mirrors some of the discussions we were having on the io9 article itself. When we talk about "worldbuilding," are we referring to endless explanations of backstory, or something else? Is worldbuilding something the reader or viewer ought to notice, because the writer makes a point of showing it off?
If anything, I'd argue it's closer to being the other way around — oftentimes, the more you notice the scaffolding, the less skillful the worldbuilding is. And the best worldbuilding frequently escapes your notice, unless you're paying a lot of attention. And in fact, the original Star Wars succeeds at worldbuilding for many of the same reasons why The Phantom Menace fails.
"Taxation of Trade Routes"
So yes, The Phantom Menace does start with a huge infodump about the Trade Federation blockading the world of Naboo because of a dispute over "taxation of trade routes." And later, Senator Palpatine anti-explains that the dispute began with this taxation dispute and has now "engulfed our entire planet in the oppression of the Trade Federation."
So there is jargon being tossed around, sure, and we're told that something or other is going on — but we're never shown what it is, nor does it actually matter. The actual story is something to do with a lot of droids shooting at people.
And meanwhile, we're told that the Galactic Senate is weak, and Palpatine makes vague statements about corruption and the "bureaucrats" who actually run things and are in the pocket of the Trade Federation. Like the taxation thing, this is mostly irrelevant, since the actual plot is Palpatine getting himself elected Chancellor. But the actual politics in the Galactic Senate scenes are cartoonishly simple — and no amount of vague but lengthy statements, alluding to complexity that we don't actually witness, can make it otherwise.
Also, The Phantom Menace infamously tries to explain the Force, the mystical energy that Jedi draw upon for their powers, using microscopic blood particles called Midi-chlorians. But this explanation doesn't actually clarify anything, and meanwhile, there are lots of scenes in which the Jedi debate about whether Anakin represents a "vergence" in the Force, and also whether he fulfills a prophecy about "bringing balance." None of this is ever made clear — or particularly interesting — but there's a lot of talk about it.
Basically, his is exactly what good worldbuilding shouldn't do — bombard you with information without giving you any sense of why this stuff matters, or how this world actually works.
"It is a time of civil war"
By contrast, A New Hope offers very little explanation of what's going on — the opening text crawl is fairly sparse and just says there's a civil war and the rebels have the plans to a new weapon, the Death Star. We're tossed into the middle of the fighting, and it's pretty obvious that the Stormtroopers are bad guys, while Princess Leia and her droids are good guys.
So does A New Hope fail our worldbuilding criteria, as one person suggested on Facebook, because of the thing of "why are these events happening now?" No. In fact, it's very clear what's changed recently, and what event has caused this plot to swing into motion — the creation of the Death Star. It's an unprecedented weapon that can change the balance of power, and its very existence not only threatens the Rebels but changes the political situation inside the Empire.
In fact, when we first meet Grand Moff Tarkin, he explains that fear of the Death Star will keep the local systems in line, and thus the Emperor has dissolved the Imperial Senate. We don't need to see a scene of the Imperial Senate being informed of its dissolution — the important thing is that the Death Star is a powerful enough weapon that it's strengthened the Emperor's direct control.
(Tarkin similarly claims that the Death Star will keep star systems from slipping through the Emperor's fingers, as Princess Leia contends.)
We see enough bickering and in-fighting between the different sections of the military to know that there are factions within the Empire, and not all of them are as excited about the Death Star as Tarkin is. And the military doesn't seem to have much respect for Darth Vader, who's described as "sad" in his pointless devotion to the Force.
Speaking of which, the original Star Wars tells us all we need to know about the Force, when Obi-Wan Kenobi describes it as "an energy field created by all living things [that] surrounds us and penetrates us [and] binds the galaxy together."
At the same time, no two people exactly agree about the Force, or about what happened to the Jedi — Han Solo believes the Force is a bunch of "simple tricks" and the Jedi are a "hokey religion." Tarkin believes in the Jedi but says their "fire has gone out." Kenobi says the Jedi were the "guardians of peace and justice" until Vader helped the Empire to hunt them down.
And meanwhile, A New Hope shows us how people eat — thanks to a tour of the workings of Luke's moisture farm, with its reliance on "vaporators" to gather moisture in the desert — and also shows us where their garbage goes. We see where the working folk of the spaceport go to get a drink and hire a spaceship. I don't want to oversell it, but we do glimpse a decent amount of how the world actually works, as part of the adventure.
And finally, as often discussed, most of the technology and sets in the original Star Wars look dirty, weathered and old, as if this is a world where people make do and reuse stuff, and this has been a spacefaring civilization for a long time.
So even though at first glance, A New Hope offers less exposition and fewer scenes of political wrangling than The Phantom Menace, the original Star Wars actually has way better worldbuilding — because you get a few glimpses inside the way this universe actually functions, and you see enough of the political reality to understand why the Death Star is a huge, all-important gamechanger. It's good worldbuilding, because it boosts the story, instead of getting in the way.
Thanks to Matt Zoller-Seitz, John Damer and everyone else who prompted this discussion!