Should the Empire still be the primary antagonists of the Sequel Trilogy, or can the film saga move on and still remain relevant? What can we learn from the Expanded Universe about this?
Mike: While I’ve always been quick to point out how crazy it is to believe that the entire Galactic Empire just folded their cards and went home after Endor, I’m on the fence about whether they should remain the villains of a bona fide Episode VII. On the one hand, I think the New Jedi Order series is hands-down the closest the EU has come thus far to giving us a Sequel Trilogy in terms of tone, and something as wholly different as the Yuuzhan Vong would be awesome on the big screen and would go a long way toward rejuvenating what’s bound to appear to some as a tired, extraneous post-Return of the Jedi status quo, but on the other hand, George Lucas really did tie his story up in a nice little bow there.
The question, really, isn’t do the films need the Empire, it’s do the films need Palpatine? Even Lucas has admitted that if he were to have done sequels himself, Dark Empire—wherein the Emperor returns in a cloned body—came the closest to what he’d have come up with. In fact, given that Michael Arndt is ostensibly working from Lucas’ own outline, it’s entirely possible that a reborn Palpatine will indeed be what we end up with.
I don’t know if we need to go that far, but I can see the argument that the threat has to come from Palpatine in some direct way—maybe a cult of rabid non-Sith followers sowing dissent, maybe even a crazed and manipulated Jedi like Joruus C’Baoth. If the Prequels were about the Republic crumbling from within, and the Classics were about the ideals of the Republic rising anew, then the Sequels need to be about demonstrating that new Republic’s fortitude, and most importantly, showing that it—and our heroes—have learned the lessons of the Prequels and created something better, in terms of both the government and the Jedi Order. Anything that doesn’t deliberately and aggressively make that case—whether it’s more Sith, Imperial remnants, or an alien invasion—won’t truly feel like the same story. Jay, am I right?
Jay: I have to say that I’m strongly in favor of the Sequel Trilogy making use of the Empire as a continued antagonist. While the Expanded Universe has already beaten that drum to death and has consequently moved on to creating different sorts of antagonists, I think that the recent history of the EU has shown that sometimes the struggle to create antagonists bigger and better than those which came before ends up cheapening the original story and bogging down the continued narrative in a search for a compellingly large scale villain. This isn’t to say that villains need to be scaled up, and I would make an argument that as far as the EU goes there’s a need for a villain that’s conceptually more sophisticated rather than conventionally more dangerous. But we’re talking about the sequel movies here, which have to fit in as the third act of the overall Star Wars saga.
I agree that it should be framed in terms of seeing the ultimate success of what the heroes in the original trilogy have created. If the prequels were about the downfall of the Republic and if the originals were about the defeat of the Empire which replaced it, then the sequels ought to show the birth pangs of the New Republic and end on an ultimately optimistic note. There has to be something to struggle against, and I think it would be poetic if the struggles at least paralleled in some way the triumphs they made earlier. Just as A New Hope ended on a high note but was followed with an even more intensified struggle against the Empire, so too does the Rebel victory after Return of the Jedi close one chapter of the struggle but end another.
ROTJ is not undermined if the Rebels have to keep fighting. Once the Rebels have created a New Republic, they have something that others will seek to destroy — something that’s worth fighting for. Moreover, they’ll have the same difficulties that the Old Republic had and whole new ones too, and it would be great to see how the heroes deal with them. I would especially like to see how they deal with former Imperials in their midst, defectors or those who have surrendered to be part of their new government.
While the Force and Jedi will undoubtedly play a huge role in the sequels, I hope the political story remains too. It’s always been an important part of the saga: Lucas showed us how even an ideal society can be brought low by corruption and opportunism, and he showed us how terribly seductive and dangerous the siren call of dictatorship could be. That all resonated with the audiences of the time — today, especially after the Arab Spring and the difficulties going on in Egypt as we speak, seeing a struggle to maintain the gains of a democratic revolution and seeing how it is definitely worth it to experience pain and struggle to avoid backsliding into comfortable dictatorship is very timely.
Lucas: I think it would be silly if the Empire showed up decades later in the sequel trilogy. It was logical and perfectly intelligent of the EU to show that simply killing the Emperor and blowing up a superweapon and some ships doesn’t defeat a galactic regime overnight — winding that up has to be a process. But for the process to take the thirty years one would expect to pass between the OT and ST is ridiculous and totally undervalues the original trilogy and its happy ending. In four years, Luke, Han, and Leia put an end to the two greatest Sith Lords of all time and dealt the Empire a mortal wound . . . only for it to take thirty years to wrap up the cleanup work and turn out to be a long generational struggle in which the heroes actually didn’t defeat much of anything and now it’s going to be up to the next generation to wipe out the Empire for real? It just doesn’t work. It’s one thing for Anakin to sacrifice himself to defeat Palpatine, the greatest Sith Lord of all time, and still have some cleanup work to do afterward and some unrelated lesser Sith pop up afterward — it doesn’t invalidate the story that’s been told, because he really did defeat that threat, cleanup worth notwithstanding, and the new threats are their own thing. It’s another thing for Anakin to sacrifice himself to defeat Palpatine, but actually it didn’t really solve anything, sorry.
The EU got the original timeline right, I think — the Empire is rolled back significantly within a few years of Endor, defeated within seven years, and a few tiny scraps from it survive for fifteen years after Endor until they, heavily reformed, make peace with the New Republic so that a little remnant of the Imperial elements we know from the movies can stick around in the stories. And those were stories that were specifically wrapping up the Empire, not presenting themselves as a next-generation installment of the saga on par with the films. The thing that came closest to that, as you mentioned, Coop, was the NJO, and it quite rightly recognized that it had to introduce a new enemy for the next generation to combat rather than keep dragging out the death throes of the OT’s villains.
Any attempt to draw the villain from Palpatine’s legacy likewise runs into the issue of demeaning the OT’s ending, and also runs the risk of feeling derivative. The fact is, George Lucas told a six-part story; the existing movies are a closed loop that don’t admit any logical attachment point for sequels. He wrote the end of the story, and went back to write the beginning . . . but there’s really nowhere to go after the end of the story. Any attempt to follow up by drawing out the previous films’ story, or clumsily building an addition onto them, is going to feel like the pointless cash-in attempt that, let’s admit it, the ST basically is. It’ll be, at best, like Hans Gruber’s brother showing up in Die Hard: With a Vengeance: a transparently lame attempt to justify a sequel with a nebulous, jury-rigged sense of connection, but at least they kind of tried, they’re not completely unoriginal about it, and hey, it’s Jeremy Irons. At worst, it’ll be like one of those sequels where the original thrived on the love-hate romance between two characters, so the sequel breaks them back up again so they can repeat the whole thing all over.
No, the fact is, if they’re doing sequels they need the sequels to stand on their own, not as a jury-rigged extension of the OT’s story, but as a new chapter in the saga. The focus should be on the next generation facing a new threat, one they can call their own. There’s already a connection in the heroes of the OT being there, passing on their legacy in some way, and the next generation defending what they built. It’s possible that the Sith could provide a better vector for connection than the Empire — a secret Sith apprentice or teaching or artifact being passed down in some way — but even that might seem to be piggybacking too derivatively on the prior films when what they really need is to step out and be their own beast.
If the ST is ever going to have any kind of sense of artistic integrity, of artistic necessity, of being more than just a stupid, lame corporate cash-in attempt on one of the most beloved cinematic stories of all time, it has to stand on its own two feet and be itself. It can’t scavenge for scraps of the the OT’s storyline, much less simply drag the Empire back out to defeat all over again.
Ben: I’m inclined to draw a distinction between the films and the EU, as the films now have a far more substantial Imperial collapse than what was initially the case at the start of the 1990s. I think it’s quite clear that now the idea is without the Emperor and Vader the Empire does immediately implode. For me, that idea does not really fly at all, but it’s the EU that really runs with it.
But the EU does not go so far as to repudiate the Imperial ideals that Zahn reconfigures them as. In place of totalitarianism comes a military authoritarianism that works as a form of social contract willingly entered into, probably along the same lines as the military. If you are a citizen of the Empire, you are so on the basis the Empire can call on you at any time if it sees fit. You are free to a point and protected by the state but on the basis that you are the state’s to use as it sees fit. If you want to be totally free in a chaotic democracy the New Republic is that way! Neither does the EU have the NR obliterate the Remnant, despite it having the ability to do so. There is no final defeat for the Empire in the EU but neither are its ideals so horrific as what is seen in the films.
As to what the villain should be for the ST, that’s a tough one. While it’s a new trilogy, it’s not unlikely that audiences will expect some thematic continuity. I think that’s a near certainty in the area of spaceship aesthetics, with next gen X-Wings and Mon Cal Cruisers featuring but to not draw on the Star Destroyer design, perhaps one of the most iconic images going would be a shame. Having a form of the Empire as an ally could be quite daring and would allow those ships to be used in a new way.
But we don’t become friends with our enemies, do we? No, but your enemies can change in ways that render them no longer as enemies. You’re not friends, but neither is there a need to go to war. There’s instead a healthy understanding of how the other operates and co-operation is recognised as delivering bigger benefits than war and confrontation. One thing it could tap in order to sell this is the Separatist crisis. Of course Sidious had no interest in peace and was running both sides for maximum war, but still, could work with careful handling.
The new enemy? I think it most likely to be the Sith because it’s now too well-established that red lightsaber = Sith. It’s too strong an association for there to suddenly be a new bunch of red saber wielders. A Sith army requiring a galactic Republic and Empire team-up response so inverting the PT? Could work.
Lisa: The Empire should not remain the primary antagonists of the Sequel Trilogy. The story is done on the rise and fall of the Empire. It is not out of the realm of possibility for the Empire to still be present though and a part of the story. Twenty or thirty years after war people can still be in the process of rebuilding and establishing a foothold for the new government so I’d like to see some parts of how the New Republic is operating and how there is still some struggling on worlds throughout the galaxy.
I agree with those that have said the antagonists are going to be the Sith. I have a hard time imagining Star Wars on the big screen without the Sith being the ones trying to take down Luke and the rest of the Jedi. The NJO made it work, but I don’t see that translating well on the big screen without people thinking it isn’t enough like Star Wars and it is too much like Star Trek. That said how do they top the two most powerful Sith?
The progression of the expanded universe made sense. The X-Wing series aptly showed the real progression of ‘winning a war’ and the rebuilding process that goes on after that. If the Sequel Trilogy were set closer then it would make sense to show things like this, but with the distance I think it makes more sense to move on and create a new threat to the Galaxy for this new generation.
I’m also interested in seeing a female bad guy. The EU had used several with varying successes but more recently the Clone Wars did a good job of using Ventress (Sith, female) as an antagonist for Anakin Skywalker. The Empire does not accept women in positions of power any easier than it does nonhumans, even in the Expanded Universe. I have to say I like Ben’s idea of teaming up the remnants of the Empire with the New Republic and having them take on an Sith Army.
Mike: We all seem to at least be in agreement on the subject of the Empire still existing in some form, whether or not they’re still the bad guys. But that raises another question I’ve always been on the fence about—if the Empire isn’t the bad guy, should it still be around at all? Was it a mistake (either in-universe or out-of-universe) to leave the Imperial Remnant intact?
They’re great, certainly, as a little extra color to the Post-RotJ galaxy and as a way to keep characters like Fel and Pellaeon around without losing their edge, but I can’t help but think narratively, having the New Republic sign a peace accord that left part of the galaxy under even nominal Imperial governance isn’t really a total victory—it feels like a tacit admission that the Imperial bureaucracy had at least some good aspects, which okay, there may be truth to that logically speaking, but I don’t know that it feels right on the scale of storytelling the film saga is supposed to be doing.
Is a New Republic that doesn’t comprise the entire known galaxy really a new Republic? Jay, would you rather see a peaceful Imperial Remnant in Episode VII, or no Empire at all?
Ben: If you go by the films, the Empire likely shouldn’t be around but if the EU can have an entire species redeemed, in the form of the Vong, why not a system of government?
Plus, a large part of the Zahn-Stackpole EU work was on how the Empire came to continue to hold sway over the galaxy by a set of publicly declared ideals, of public service and order – it’s practically a form of authoritarian social contract! Hand over your freedom and you will be entirely protected, but you may be asked to contribute to the state that supplies your protection. Legacy‘s Empire goes and formalizes this with the Emperor and Imperial Knights’ relationship in a respect.
Lucas: I think it’s a necessary storytelling concession. The Empire is such a huge part of the Star Wars films; if it goes away entirely, the EU loses a big, distinctive chunk of the universe — stormtroopers and Star Destroyers and TIEs and all that. The preservation of the Imperial Remnant as a rump state, which has reformed to the point where, if politically distasteful, it is no longer repressive and evil, allows the Imperial elements to continue making up part of the fabric of the Star Wars universe while still letting the New Republic win and holding out the possibility of both team-ups and new threats from within the Empire. Star Wars can’t let go of something so iconic, and the Remnant and later the Fel Empire are the best way of preserving the Empire without changing the fact that the Empire lost.
As far as the ST goes, it would probably be unnecessary to show the Empire in the films. It could be there as a remnant if they want to use it, but nothing would be hurt by just strategically ignoring the relatively small part of the galaxy it controls and leaving casual fans to assume it’s been entirely defeated, while leaving the option for it to be used later if they want to.
Jay: I’m torn. If it’s not there as an antagonist, it’s better that it not be used at all UNLESS the central thrust of the film / new saga is that former Rebels and Imperials should work together to rebuild the galaxy. If it’s not a central player in that sense, the Empire’s remnants should be left for supplemental material and not distract focus from whatever new direction the films are taking. I still hope that the primary antagonist isn’t the Sith though — I feel that the Sith are best left ultimately defeated at the end of ROTJ, while the secular Empire that they created ought to function as the antagonist. But if it’s a new antagonist altogether, then I guess I don’t have any opinions on that until we get more information.
Finally — my big thing with the Empire is that it’s the legitimate galactic government. If it’s no longer that, then I have relatively little interest in or time for remnants that are wasting their time fighting a losing war. But I’ll leave it at that, since I could write a whole article on that matter.
Lisa: “The legitimate galactic government” is a bit of a stretch. Being granted emergency powers in the first place and then just deciding through fear tactics and destruction to never step down is not the same as being a legitimate galactic government.
I do agree, Jay, that it is going to be difficult to stomach the Sith being brought back considering how powerful the Emperor and Vader were but I just can’t imagine Star Wars on the big screen without an epic lightsaber duel between a red blade and green/blue/purple blade. We’ve seen the Legacy comics work with the Sith taking over without a government entity behind them so I’m not sure the Empire is needed.
Mike: Aaaand I think I’m going to leave it there. Look for Not A Committee to reconvene with a new topic sometime next month. In the meantime, please stay tuned to the comments section below where Jay and Lisa will likely resume their debate any minute now.