An archivist’s night at the movies, part IV: Science fiction edition

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As a lover of science fiction, I have decided to add another entry in our Archivist Night at the Movies series, seeking to boldly explore how creative teams involved with various science fiction movies or television series have depicted or used records and archives in their storytelling. It’s no surprise that this genre lends itself to some fascinating approaches to this topic. As a result, you will find that this archives in popular culture exploration will run longer than previous installments, as there is a fair bit of material to unpack.

For this post I have decided to explore the films Blade Runner 2049, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, Back to the Future Part III, and The Martian, as well as episodes of the TV series Star Trek: Picard, Stargate: SG1, and Travelers.

Make it so

Warning – Plot spoilers follow

Star Trek Picard: Series 1, episode 1: “Remembrance” (2020) – directed by Hanelle M. Culpepper

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Many Star Trek: The Next Generation fans were thrilled when it was announced that legendary Captain Jean Luc Picard (now a retired Admiral) would be returning to television screens with Star Trek: Picard. As both a Trek fan and an archivist, I was thus thrilled when the very first episode featured Starfleet’s “Quantum Archive.”

To my knowledge, the Star Trek television shows and movies prior to this point have not dealt with Starfleet’s Archives in any detail. There have been side references at times, but here we are finally shown what a 24th century archives might look like, and it is very interesting!

To set the context: In this first episode Picard is giving an interview to a news service regarding his decision to leave Starfleet. Dahj, a young woman on the run (with a very complex backstory) happens to see this interview and recognizes Picard from one of her perplexing dreams, and thus decides to seek him out at his vineyard in France. Picard invites her to stay, and shortly thereafter he has an odd dream of his own, wherein he watches his long-deceased friend and android colleague, Lt. Commander Data, painting a picture of a young woman. However, the face of the woman is unclear.

Something about the painting stirs a memory in Picard, so he decides to seek answers among his records stored in Starfleet’s archives.

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Upon arriving at the facility, he speaks to “Index” a holographic archivist and possibly museum curator.

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It is interesting to note, that like the Region of Peel, Starfleet appears to have decided to situate the archives and museum within the same building/complex:

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“Starfleet Museum – Quantum Archives”

Index walks with Picard through a great hall that is criss-crossed with what are perhaps flying record retrieval units.

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But it is unclear if the walls are lined with storage containers or if they are perhaps made up of server decks holding born digital or digitized content.

Eventually Index stops accompanying Picard, saying that due to privacy concerns she will leave him, but that he needs only to ask for her and she will reappear. Picard then arrives at his personal “vault” wherein can be found a wide range of mementos from his time in Starfleet, including framed certificates, models of ships that he served on (including the U.S.S. Enterprise E and the U.S.S. Stargazer), The Globe Illustrated Shakespeare: The Complete Works, a Bat’leth (Klingon sword), and a “Captain Picard Day” banner that once hung in the U.S.S. Enterprise D’s observation lounge.

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But where things really get interesting is when Picard decides to retrieve an item from storage. The vault contains a computer pad interface, where Picard enters some unknown search terms.

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The search finds something relevant, and then a box containing the item materializes on the table, likely “beamed” into the space by Starfleet’s matter-energy transporter (teleportation) technology.

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If you look closely you can see that the box itself appears to have its own self-contained environmental control system (Oxygen, Argon, Nitrogen, etc.), allowing staff to monitor the atmospheric composition within the box to ensure the long-term preservation of the contents.

The box then “unfolds” from around the item and repackages itself on the corner of the table (if one of our boxes did this in Peel we would be running for the exit).

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Picard has retrieved a painting from storage, and interestingly, it is an exact match to the painting that he saw Data painting in his dream.

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In this case, though, the face of the young woman is intact, and both Picard and audience recognize Dahj’s likeness.  Excitedly, Picard summons Index and asks that she identify the painting, which she does:

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“Item 227.67 Archives of Jean Luc Picard, Admiral, retired. An oil on canvas, part of a pair by Commander Data, ca. 2369. One of set of two he gifted to you on the Enterprise. The other is hanging on your study wall at home, I believe.”

Somewhat frazzled by this information, Picard seeks confirmation that no one else has been in his vault. He asks that she “check the records” to confirm. Given her holographic nature, she is able to instantly do so (her eyes glaze bright blue as she does) and she confirms that he is the only one to have had access to the space, and by extension, painting.

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I took it he was concerned that someone might have tampered with the item, but maybe he was also concerned that someone else might have seen the likeness in the painting, given that Dahj is on the run.

Picard knows there is a title, but cannot remember, so asks Index, who reveals that the painting was titled “Daughter.” This revelation tells Picard that Dahj is somehow his long-dead comrade’s daughter! This is a huge revelation and ensures that Picard will be taking an even more active interest in Dahj and her story.

Narrative fun aside, the nature of Starfleet’s teleportation retrieval function shown here raises some significant questions. That the box containing the painting was beamed onto the vault table is not in dispute. But was the box stored as a physical item in another secure space, or was it stored simply as bits and bytes on a server?  I assumed that the box was beamed in from somewhere else, but I have read some speculation online that the item was instead stored as data on an archive server and was only reconstituted (made “physical” again) when Picard ordered it.

This sort of storage and retrieval system presents a litany of issues vis-à-vis the authenticity and reliability of records. One could fairly ask if an “original” record can be said to exist at all;  the original object as painted by Data and subsequently donated by Picard would have had to been converted into a complex pattern of subatomic particles that was then saved onto a sophisticated hard-drive as part of the quantum servers. And when retrieved its molecules would have been routed through a pattern buffer and reconstituted. As a result, one could perhaps argue that what Picard is retrieving is merely a reconstituted copy of the now lost original painting.

That said, if one follows this line of thinking, any record anywhere in the Star Trek universe that has been “beamed” off of a planet or starship would be potentially suspect, not to mention the fact that they use these transporters to move people around.

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The metaphysical implications of this mode of archival storage and retrieval makes my head hurt and requires some deeper analysis – by someone else.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017) – directed by Denis Villeneuve

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This movie serves as a sequel to the acclaimed 1982 film Blade Runner. In these films a corporation has found ways to bio-engineer humans, known as replicants, to act as slave labour. When a replicant goes rogue they are hunted down and killed by officers known as “blade runners.”

In this film, K, a replicant and blade runner who works for the Los Angeles police department, is tasked with investigating a mysterious skeleton that was found buried on the farm of a rogue replicant. During the police department’s analysis, they learn that the skeleton belonged to a woman who had given birth at some point, and startling, they then notice a serial number imprinted on her bones. This number tells them that the skeleton belonged to a replicant; but this should be impossible, because replicants are not able to reproduce. So, K heads to the Wallace Corporation to see what information they may be able to provide about the remains. (The Wallace Corporation currently produces replicants and they are the successor corporation to the Tyrell Corporation featured in Blade Runner).

When K arrives at the corporation he gives the serial number to an employee, and the employee comments that it seems to be an old number and warns that not many records survive from that time.

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He then takes K back into what appears to be a large record repository or archives, containing files on replicants. He opens a drawer and pulls out a record, seemingly printed on a plastic or glass sheet, and reveals that the name of the deceased replicant was “Rachael.”

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This is a hugely significant reveal, for anyone who has seen Blade Runner will recognize this name as belonging to a replicant who ends up romantically involved with Rick Deckard, the other main protagonist of the Blade Runner movies.

They are then interrupted by the personal assistant to Mr. Wallace, who takes K to a different room containing other records, including audio-visual recordings.

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The recordings, which were captured on some sort of crystal orb, document interviews used to determine if someone is indeed a replicant.

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As it turns out, an interview with Rachael survives, and as K listens to it he concludes that she liked Deckard, her interviewer. K further suspects that there may have been a romantic relationship between the two.

Next, he checks the police’s DNA Archives to follow a lead involving Rachael (and Deckard’s?) child.

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The records, which appear to be stored on a type of microfilm, reveal that there were possibly two babies, with one dying and one being sent to an orphanage. (We later learn that these records have been tampered with by the father of the child).

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Following this lead, K heads to the orphanage where the headmaster initially refuses to cooperate, but eventually produces his records, including ledger books that document the children taken in by the orphanage.

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Just when K thinks he may have a solid lead, he is told that the pages for the year in which the child was taken in have been ripped out of the ledger.

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There are other twists and turns, shootouts, and some major reveals about Rachael and Deckard that I won’t go into here. Towards the end of the movie records make one more poignant appearance, when Mr. Wallace produces another audio recording of Rachael. He hopes to use it manipulate Deckard into sharing some information, but he is ultimately unsuccessful.

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The writers of this movie certainly understand the pivotal role records often play during official investigations, because there is a definite “records as useful evidence” thread woven throughout this film.

Stargate SG1: Season 2, episode 15: “The Fifth Race” (1997) – directed by David Warry-Smith

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One of my favourite television series is Stargate SG-1; it boasts terrific characters and clever storytelling, with an alluring mix of history, mythology, and science fiction tropes throughout. And interestingly, a sort of alien archives plays a significant role in the narrative arc of the series.

In terms of some context, this series follows the adventures of SG-1, a team of daring adventurers that travel through stargates, ancient gateways that generate stable wormholes between different planets in the Milky Way Galaxy.

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The first one found on Earth was unearthed in Egypt in 1928; eventually the US military, with the help of scientists and scholars, activates the device and teams begin to travel to distant worlds.

During an early mission, SG-1 finds a strange metal device on a distant world. Unsure as to its function, they approach it cautiously. When Teal’c, one member of the team, looks into the device, nothing happens. But when the leader of the team, Col. Jack O’Neill, looks into it, it activates, and an extending arm and helmet-like apparatus encases his head, while he is dazzled by bright lights.

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After it disengages he falls to the ground, unconscious, and the team is left perplexed. Back at their home base in Colorado, O’Neill begins to act oddly, randomly spurting out words in an unknown language. Shortly thereafter he writes and uploads a program to the mainframe, adding hundreds of previously unknown stargate addresses into their computer:

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Dr. Daniel Jackson, another member of the team, helps deciphers some writing that was found in the room with the device as “We are the ancients. This is the place of our legacy.” This inscription, along with O’Neill’s newfound knowledge and skill, leads Jackson to speculate that the alien device downloaded into O’Neill’s brain “…all of the knowledge that these particular aliens possessed.” (In future episodes the team refers to these sorts of devices as “Repositories of Knowledge.”)

He further speculates that the aliens, now known to be the Ancients, are in fact, the ones who built the stargates in the first place. This hypothesis is essentially proven when Teal’c and Major Samantha Carter (the other member of the SG-1 team) are stuck on another world because of some malfunctioning stargate hardware. O’Neill is able to save them by providing, from memory, detailed blueprints for the malfunctioning unit:

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The excessive amount of information placed in O’Neill’s brain is slowly killing him, and so he subconsciously comes up with a plan to save himself, involving creating a modified power generator with enough power to let him dial a stargate in a different galaxy. There he finds what he is seeking: advanced aliens known as the Asgard, who he knows will be able to remove the knowledge of the Ancients from his brain.

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One moral of this story is to not stick your head in strange looking metal contraptions; but perhaps the other is that sometimes it is good to take a break while conducting research, otherwise you might be in for a bad headache (especially if one is trying to decipher challenging handwriting or an ancient alien language).

Travelers: Season 3, episode 8: “Archive” (2018) – directed by Amanda Tapping, and season 3, episode 9: “David” (2018) – directed by Bryan C. Knight

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This inventive series follows the exploits of a team of “travelers” who, in an attempt to save the world from catastrophic events in the future, have had their minds sent back in time and transferred into “host” bodies of present-day individuals who were otherwise moments from death. To complete this process, the computer controlling the initiative (an artificial intelligence referred to as the “Director”) requires the exact location of the target, made possible by access to 21st century GPS and other digital data.

The Director also uses data pooled from cell phones, satellites, television cameras, and radio programs to keep track of what is happening in the past to assist the field teams executing their various missions, and to send back additional operatives as necessary. However, problems start when a group of people from the future opposed to the Director’s plan, referred to as “The Faction,” travel back in time and start to destroy huge amounts of electronic data in an effort to “blind” the Director.

As a countermeasure, the traveler teams secretly set up “Archives” all over the globe, but these are unlike any other archives I have ever seen depicted.

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The audience learns about these Archives when the Faction begins to target them with nuclear explosives, managing to destroy all but one. At first glance the Archive resembles some sort of medical facility, with equipment, refrigerator units, and numerous bags of blood hanging from racks.

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However, it is revealed that the Archivists assigned to each archive are using the blood stored on site to transfer a great deal of information to the future. How? By using nanites, microscopic robots able to work at the cellular level, to actually “write” the required data into the genetic code of the blood.

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“Nanites [are] placed in the blood [and] write and store information into dormant genes of DNA. You can archive a hell of a lot of data into a small amount of blood.” “How much?” “Pretty much all the digital information in the 21st century, well, all that’s useful to us – traffic cameras, cell phone videos, phone calls.”

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The blood with the encoded information hidden inside the DNA is then transfused into people whose descendants are known to survive into the future. The Director’s agents take blood samples from those descendants in the future and decode the information hidden in the DNA. Ingenious, but a bit creepy, especially for those of us archivists who get faint at the sight of the dreaded file folder paper cut.

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) – directed by George Lucas

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Among archivists, this is a very well-known (and I would argue almost infamous) example of a popular culture depiction of an archives. More on this in a minute.

The plot of the movie is a bit convoluted, but it should be sufficient to say that early in the movie one of the heroes, Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi, is tasked with tracking down a bounty hunter who attempted to assassinate a Galactic Republic senator.

During his investigation he learns from his friend Dex, a diner chef and well-traveled prospector, that one of the weapons used in the attack was manufactured on the planet Kamino. Dex is also able to tell Kenobi roughly where that planet is. But to find an exact location he needs to consult a star chart, and so he heads to the Jedi Archives.

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While there he runs into some difficulty, and pages an archivist, Jocasta Nu, to seek assistance.

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Here is their full exchange:

  • Nu: “Did you call for assistance?”
  • Kenobi: “Yes, yes I did.”
  • Nu: “Are you having a problem Master Kenobi?”
  • Kenobi: “Yes, um. I’m looking for a planetary system called Kamino – it doesn’t show up in the archive charts.”
  • Nu: “Kamino…. it’s not a system I’m familiar with. Are you sure you have the correct coordinates?”
  • Kenobi: “According to my information it should appear in this quadrant here just south of the Rishi Maze [galaxy]”
  • Nu: “I hate to say it, but it looks the system you are searching for doesn’t exist.”
  • Kenobi: “Impossible. Perhaps the archives are incomplete.”
  • Nu: “If an item does not appear in our records, it does not exist.”

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After her last curt line Nu turns sharply on her heels and walks away, seemingly taking offence at Kenobi’s suggestion that the records in the archives may not be complete. There are a couple of things to unpack here, especially given that a few scenes later Kenobi does locate Kamino by flying to the general coordinates.

First, the reference service on display here is atrocious. Archivists have all had the occasional researcher that is absolutely convinced of a certain fact, but when the records arrive they contradict said fact or are silent on the matter. When archivists encounter such a situation we need to pause, think carefully, perhaps suggest other records or approaches that might shed light on the inquiry, and never, under any circumstances, insult the researcher or refuse to help. Nu took another approach, utters a declaration that Kamino simply cannot exist since it is not reflected in the Jedi star charts, and rudely ends the reference exchange.

Second, Nu’s tone and her dismissive attitude when questioned about the completeness of the archive suggests that she operates as if the Jedi Archives holds within its walls “all that is known or knowable” (also referred to as “comprehensive knowledge”). [1]

No real archivist will ever make such a claim – every archive is incomplete, with total documentation and knowledge simply not possible. Consider all of the records in the world that have been lost due to neglect, natural disasters, fires, and conflicts. And then consider that even among the records we have been able to save that errors, omissions, and perhaps even falsehoods will have certainly crept in.

Of course, we here in Peel do our best to ensure that the records in our care are authentic and reliable, but we cannot account for human error or deceit, i.e. a typo in an old government memo or embellished claims in a personal love letter. So, to argue that an archival collection of records is 100% comprehensive and error free is the height of arrogance. It is especially so in Nu’s case because it is later revealed that an enemy of the Jedi (Count Dooku) managed to erase Kamino from the records held in the archives. I would argue that this successful act of manipulation/destruction calls into question the veracity of all of the records in the holdings of the Jedi Archives.[2] But that is a diplomatics question for another day.

Back to the Future Part III (1990) – directed by Robert Zemeckis

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The Back to the Future trilogy follows the time travelling exploits of teenager Marty McFly and eccentric scientist Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown. A series of adventures and mishaps beset the duo as they use a now extremely famous DeLorean time machine to visit their fictitious hometown of Hill Valley (California) in various years spanning 1885 to 2015.

The third and final chapter (which has always been my favourite of the trilogy, don’t @me) revolves around Marty’s attempt to go back to 1885 to rescue Doc who has been stranded there, after the DeLorean was struck by lightning at the end of the second movie.

Unbeknownst to Marty at the time, Doc has been sent back to 1885, and Doc, knowing that the communications company Western Union is still in operation in 1955, deposits a letter with them in 1885 with directions to deliver the letter to Marty at the exact day and time the DeLorean disappeared (leading to some interesting speculation among the Western Union employees).

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In the letter, Doc tells Marty that he is happily living in 1885, and to not come back for him. He leaves Marty and Doc’s 1955 “counterpart” directions to the DeLorean, buried in an abandoned mine, so that they can fix it and send Marty back to 1985. So far, so good. However, while retrieving the car they discover a tombstone in a nearby cemetery that reveals that shortly after the posting of the letter someone named “Emmett Brown” was shot in the back by one “Buford Tannen.”

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Marty and Doc are both horrified and concerned that Doc may have been murdered in 1885. In a desperate move, Marty suggests that there might have been another “Emmett Brown” in Hill Valley at the time, but Doc is not convinced.

So, in an effort to understand the sequence of events leading to the murder they head to the local library and consult a variety of archival records and published history books.

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I suspect that this shot bothers most archivists – note the damage caused to the photographs by the ink stamps applied by members of both the “Hill Valley Department of History” and “Hill Valley Historical Society.” Both should have known better!

From these resources they learn that Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen was a very dangerous man known to have murdered numerous people. They further ascertain that Marty’s ancestors lived in the area at the time as well, and then they find a dated photograph of Doc Brown in front of the famous Hill Valley clock.

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Taken together, these records and revelations strengthen Marty’s resolve to head to 1885 to rescue his friend from a ghastly gunshot in the back.

What follows is a highly entertaining series of events involving wild west dances, Clint Eastwood-esque shootouts, and a time travelling train, all set in motion by a chance tombstone find and a frantic search through the local archives.

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The Martian (2015) – directed by Ridley Scott

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Another of my favourite films, this movie follows the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut who finds himself stranded on Mars after the NASA base camp is hit with a massive sand storm. In this movie archival records do not influence or shape the plot per se, but they do serve as a sort of storytelling device.

Throughout the film the audience listens to Watney discuss his thoughts, feelings, and experiences via the creation of a video diary or log. He starts these initially because he knows that they are the only way to leave a detailed record of his plight and efforts to survive.

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“This is Mark Watney, astronaut. I’m entering this log for the record in case I don’t make it. It is 6:53 on sol 19 and I’m alive. Obviously. But I’m guessing that’s going to come as a surprise to my crewmates, and to NASA, and to the entire world really, so…surprise!”

He makes hundreds of these entries during his eventful stay on Mars, and while often humorous and illuminating to the viewer, I suspect that they would also be of much use to future fictional scholars in the Martian cinematic universe researching Watney’s experiences on Mars.

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I hope that our readers have enjoyed this exploration of the use and depiction of records in assorted science fiction tales. There are certainly other examples out there that we may explore in future posts. Stay tuned!

Cheers and stay safe everyone.

Kyle Neill, Senior Archivist

P.S. I would like to thank my colleague Jacob Keszei for recommending Blade Runner 2049 as a candidate for this series.

Notes

[1] Thomas Richards, “The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire” (London: Verso, 1993), pg 7 and 11

[2] Star Wars novel “Labyrinth of Evil” by James Luceno, 2005 – Master Yoda: “A theory I have – nothing more. Murder, Dooku committed. Then, from the Jedi archives erased Kamino, he did. Of that tampering, proof Master Jocasta Nu [the Archivist] found – proof of Dooku’s action, though well concealed it was.”

4 responses to “An archivist’s night at the movies, part IV: Science fiction edition

  1. Well done, Kyle! It is interesting to me to see that screenwriters use archives to further plots, but don’t always get it 100% right. Still, I guess that’s their creative prerogative!

    Like

    • Thank you very much Diane! I love looking for archive references in film, and was excited to see how many interesting and creative sci-fi examples exist!

      Like

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