You can hear it coming from more than miles away. That pitch-perfect shredding scream, like Darth Vader's own breathing stuffed into an amplifying cardboard tube. The shape appears on the horizon, two vertical lines with a round ball in the center. As it gets closer, you catch the glass framing the cockpit, incredible supporting beams lacing in from every angle to obstruct the view. Its big side panels make easy targets for hunting X-Wings. Without any shields whatsover, any pilot is destined for an early grave.
And yet, to me, the TIE Fighter is perfect.
On Wednesday I talked a bit about spaceships being fun and about them serving the needs of the story. The TIE Fighter is not only fun, it also tells you all you need to know about the Galactic Empire.
- They're all the same colors. The Empire wants nothing to do with individuality.
- The ships are cheap and numerous, just like Stormtroopers. Perfect for an organization that places low value on life.
- They can't travel far, because, again, the Empire values control. No way that TIE pilot is sneaking off to defect.
Star Wars doesn't exactly give the Empire many gray shades, but the TIE Fighter does a lot to clarify its particular brand of evil. It's not the chaotic, monstrous domination of someone like Sauron or Thanos, but rather a rigid machine working to preserve the authoritarian rule of the Emperor.
There are rules, they will be followed.
Consider A New Hope. After the Millennium Falcon escapes from the Death Star (later revealed to be a deliberate ruse), the Empire's leaders send four paltry fighters after the fleeing freighter. They have dozens upon dozens on that massive station, but instead four go off to their deaths. Necessary sacrifices for the cause.
Did those TIE pilots know they were being tossed to their dooms? Did they chase after the Falcon under some belief that reinforcements would be coming? Or were they so fanatically loyal to the Empire that it didn't matter?
Either way, their TIEs soared in, reckless and gray, to get eaten up by Han and Luke. Their lasers were ineffective, the TIEs blowing up one by one. Sacrificial scrap.
There's one more way that TIEs are perfect for the Empire. At A New Hope's end, Luke's attack run on the Death Star succeeds thanks to Han Solo's last second intervention. Solo actually misses the primary target here, Darth Vader, and instead manages to hit Vader's wingman instead.
A sturdier fighter might've been able to retain control, might've been able to adjust its shields, drop back or dodge away without crashing into Vader. Not so with the flimsy TIE. Instead, hit and spiraling, the TIE crashes into good ol' Darth and sends the masked menace spiraling into space. Luke nails the shot, the Death Star goes boom. This success paves the way for the Rebellion's survival and the Empire's eventual downfall.
All because they didn't invest enough in the TIE fighter or the pilots who flew them. The same stinginess, carelessness, and disregard for life and limb plays out for the Empire through the rest of the saga, all foretold by the humble little spacecraft.
The TIE Fighter: sci-fi storytelling done right.