Jedi, Sith, and Force Tunnel Vision

Jedi vs. Sith is a fantastic comic, but its title should not be applicable to the entire EU

No, Force Tunnel Vision isn’t a Force power you’ve never heard of. It’s the tendency that has emerged ever since the release of the prequels to focus stories on the Jedi and emphasize the Jedi-vs.-Sith conflict as the core of storytelling. This has compounded the issue of supporting cast underuse in the post-Return of the Jedi era, as the focus has become too narrow to take in much of the wider universe. In all eras it has resulted in repetitive storytelling as the Sith are trotted out again and again to fight Jedi protagonists. In this post, I will cover how the prequels transitioned Star Wars from stories that included Jedi and Sith to stories that were about Jedi and Sith, just how monotonous this has made the Star Wars universe, and how this has damaged the Star Wars universe by excluding non-Force-sensitives from the story.

The way it was

Jedi and Sith were both present in the original Star Wars trilogy. It was central to the films’ story that Luke Skywalker learned to become a Jedi Knight from Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda so that he could defeat the evil Force-user Emperor Palpatine and redeem his father Anakin Skywalker from life as Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith. How, then, can I say that the prequel trilogy changed Star Wars’ focus? The difference is between stories that include Jedi and Sith as a component and stories that are centrally about Jedi, Sith, and the struggle between light and dark sides of the Force. The issue is the context in which the Force elements of the storyline are placed.

In the original trilogy, the conflict between Luke and Darth Vader, and later the Emperor, was vital. The introduction of the Jedi Knights and the light and dark sides of the Force were key components of Star Wars’ unique universe. The story, however, was not simply about the Jedi. Luke’s conflict with the dark side’s servants was one component of a much larger storyline concerning the war between the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire; the light and dark sides were merely elements of the struggle between freedom and tyranny, good and evil in the broadest sense. Luke did not fight alone, but as part of the Rebellion, alongside the gunslinger Han, political leader Leia, scoundrel-turned-administrator-turned-Rebel Lando, and ordinary warriors like Wedge Antilles, Admiral Ackbar, and General Rieekan. He and his allies fought not only Darth Vader and the dark side, but also Forceless manifestations of tyranny like Grand Moff Tarkin, Death Stars, and stormtroopers; and Forceless agents of criminal corruption like Jabba the Hutt and Boba Fett. Jedi and Sith were one component of the bigger story, which included ordinary soldiers, political figures, and the criminal underworld.

Tarkin in the foreground, Vader in the background: The evil of Tarkin’s Death Star drove A New Hope, not Vader’s dark side

In fact, in A New Hope, Luke didn’t use his lightsaber once in combat. He never drew it after practicing aboard the Millennium Falcon, instead meeting stormtroopers and TIE fighters in battle with a blaster rifle and his X-wing. He may have been a Jedi, but he fought as a Rebel. Darth Vader was the most memorable villain of the film, but he acted merely as a henchman to Grand Moff Tarkin, and it was the temporal villainy of Tarkin and his Death Star that motivated the heroes to battle. Darth Vader was simply an embellishment on the Empire’s evil, which even without him would have been manifest in its planet-destroying authoritarianism. In Return of the Jedi, Luke’s Jedi quest to redeem his father was given weight in the climax equal to the Rebel Alliance’s battle to defeat the Empire, a mission of which Luke’s Jedi business was only a personal component.

The Expanded Universe initially followed this lead. Luke was often given Jedi plotlines, but they were understood to be only one component of a greater storyline. Grand Admiral Thrawn was the lead villain in Timothy Zahn’s trilogy, the person whose defeat the story concerned, whom Luke, Han, Leia, Lando, Karrde, Mara, Wedge, Ackbar, Mothma, and the New Republic as a whole battled. Joruus C’baoth was only his henchman, a special concern for Luke; the story was not centrally about that conflict. Exar Kun’s Sith spirit plagued the Jedi Praxeum and attacked Luke, but he was only one horse in The Jedi Academy Trilogy‘s villainous stable, alongside Admiral Daala, Ambassador Furgan, Moruth Doole, and the administrators of the Maw Installation. Similarly, villains like Hethrir, Irek Ismaren, Kueller, and Jerec might have been Force-sensitive, but that was secondary to their status as evil warlords, and they engaged the New Republic at large, not simply the Jedi, as their targets. Luke’s Jedi fought them not as Jedi Knights in a war against the dark side, but as guardians of the New Republic in a war against despotic Imperials and warlords, and did so alongside non-Force-sensitive New Republic allies. It was at least as important that Hethrir wanted to recreate the Empire or that Jerec wanted to enslave the galaxy as that they happened to use the dark side of the Force in furtherance of their schemes.

Han Solo and Wraith Squadron fought Warlord Zsinj all on their own; no Jedi required

There were also multiple storylines in which there was no dark side villain at all. The Ssi-ruuk, the Yevetha, Admiral Daala and Durga the Hutt, Ysanne Isard, and Warlord Zsinj all menaced the New Republic without needing any dark side assistance. Some of them featured in stories that didn’t involve the Jedi in the New Republic’s battles at all. When The New Jedi Order, planned before the prequels were released, launched, it presented the entire galaxy with an existential threat, which was met by fighter pilots, admirals, commandos, politicians, smugglers, and even the Mandalorians, as well as the Jedi. The Jedi played an important role and a significant component of the storyline was the way they were challenged by the Yuuzhan Vong’s existence seemingly outside the Force, but this challenge, the Yuuzhan Vong’s grudge against them, and their philosophical growth were stimulated by a threat that operated outside the light side-dark side Force-user dynamic.

The shift in focus

The prequels did not share the original trilogy’s breadth of focus. Instead, they focused narrowly on the Jedi and Sith. Their story was about the rise of the Sith to power and their defeat of the Jedi Order. The replacement of the Republic with the Empire was treated as secondary, a passing consequence of Sith ascendance and removal of the Jedi rather than a serious storyline of its own.

Of the four main protagonists, three were Jedi: Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, and Qui-Gon Jinn. Padmé Amidala, the lone non-Force-sensitive of the group, was the most minor, increasingly shunted to the side as the series progressed. The only other non-Force-sensitive to be in the main group of characters, Jar Jar Binks, was thankfully ejected after one film and was never more than bad comic relief. Other Forceless characters like Captain Panaka and Bail Organa existed only around the margins, and especially after The Phantom Menace, Jedi like Yoda and Mace Windu completely overwhelmed non-Force-sensitives in significance as supporting characters. The only non-Jedi-centric storyline in the films, the subplot in which Padmé, Bail Organa, and Mon Mothma considered the political implications of Palpatine’s increasing power, was cut from Revenge of the Sith. Having marginalized their Leia character, the prequels lacked any Han character at all. Despite the possibility theoretically offered by the storylines, there were no Republic soldiers or pilots, no fringers as part of the main characters.

Instead, the story was Jedi, Jedi, Jedi. Jedi saved the queen in a diplomatic crisis, Jedi fought the Clone Wars, Jedi tried to save the Republic. They worked not with other servants of the Republic, but alone or with faceless clone underlings. The Jedi dominated the cast and dominated the storyline.

There’s a reason this guy was the face of the prequels

On the other side, the Sith dominated the role of antagonists. The Jedi cut down battle droids in action scenes, but the films downplayed their Trade Federation masters as Sith flunkies and practically ignored the Separatists. The story was never particularly concerned with what the Trade Federation or Separatists wanted, and in a reverse of the original trilogy’s formula in which the darksiders were merely a component of an independently justified villainy, their vague and nebulous evil was a mere appendage to the genuine threat of the rising Sith, who imbued the battle against them with any gravity it had. Darth Sidious, Darth Maul, Darth Tyranus, and eventually Darth Vader were the real villains of the saga, the people the Jedi had to beat, and their casually handled pawns General Grievous and Jango Fett were merely irrelevancies, distractions from the Sith threat. The clash was between the Jedi and the Sith, and the Republic was treated as something that existed to supply the Jedi with something to defend, the Sith’s dupes considered even more briefly.

The Expanded Universe since the prequels has followed their lead in depicting the cosmic Force clash between the Jedi and Sith as the central conflict of Star Wars storytelling. Every new era that has been opened up has been predicated on Jedi-Sith conflict. The New Sith Wars: Sith rose and reduced the galaxy to ruins while battled by the Jedi, who eventually took over the Republic entirely before defeating them. Knights of the Old Republic: in an era that already had its story of Jedi-Sith conflict, a new war between the Republic and the Mandalorians was created — not to be told, but to serve as backstory for a new group of Sith who attempted to overthrow the Republic and defeat the Jedi. Legacy: a new war broke out between the Galactic Alliance and the Empire, but it had all been masterminded by Sith who seized absolute power over both institutions and proceeded to attempt to purge the Jedi. The Old Republic: a hidden Sith Empire emerged and did battle with the Republic; it was up to the Jedi to stop them. Dawn of the Jedi: the founding of the Jedi is currently being explored in a series entirely concerned with the balance of the dark and light sides. Some of these stories were better than others at including the non-Force-sensitive components of the galaxy, but all posited their stories as fundamentally about the clash between Sith and Jedi. The Jedi were the primary venue for the protagonists; the galaxy was a Jedi Order with a Republic attached, rather than a Republic with Jedi serving among its many guardians.

New protagonists? Better be Jedi.

In the prequel EU, the trend continued. Whether the film heroes, supporting film Jedi, or entirely new characters like Ahsoka Tano, Quinlan Vos, Aayla Secura, and Scout, Jedi have dominated the ranks of protagonists. A few scattered stories have featured non-Jedi major characters, but almost none have done so without including at least one Jedi. The Republic Commando series and the Reaves/Perry miniverse have developed consistent casts including non-Force-sensitives, but neither have integrated their casts with the main film cast and the main overarching story, which remains stubbornly bereft of significant recurring non-Jedi supporting characters on the level of the original trilogy-based stories. The attempt to add clonetrooper sidekicks, most visible and consistent in The Clone Wars, has failed at providing much variety and is complicated by the clones’ unique, isolated status as Jedi auxiliaries rather than independent characters. The prequel focus has extended into the Dark Times era, which remains fixated on the stories of Order 66 survivors battling the Empire and has yet to move beyond them to tell stories free of the Jedi Purge.

Once The New Jedi Order wrapped up, even the books continuing the original trilogy’s storyline moved their focus to the Force factions exclusively. The Dark Nest trilogy pushed Leia fully into the Jedi Order, bringing Han along as a Jedi auxiliary, and posited the conflict as between the Jedi and the darksider-controlled Dark Nest of the Killik species. The Galactic Alliance was just something that got in the Jedi’s way as they dealt with the conflict themselves. Legacy of the Force started a civil war between the GA and a new Confederation faction, but it quickly became mere background for Jacen Solo’s turn to the Sith, and was ignored almost completely once the conflict was comfortably located between the Jedi Order and the Sith. The Jedi were even deliberately cut off from the government, which fell under Jacen’s control, and acted completely as their own faction, with only a few established non-Force-sensitive characters as auxiliaries. This tendency continued into Fate of the Jedi, which once more set the Jedi against the government, brought in a cosmic Force entity targeting the Jedi, and then on top of that, still unable to escape the Sith, dropped the Lost Tribe of Sith, a group of thousands of Sith pulled out of narrative thin air right after a previous Sith threat purely so that the Jedi could battle yet more Sith — just as they were doing everywhere else on the timeline.

If Jaina’s marriage to Jag caused her to so much as leave the Jedi Temple, according to Troy Denning, she would exit the story completely, “ripped from [his] writing life forever”

In these stories, non-Jedi figures have increasingly disappeared, as Jedi monopolize the protagonist role and those without the Force find themselves marginalized from the currents of the story and from association with the main characters. Jedi have taken on the role of fighter pilots and commandos, usurping story roles previously available to Forceless military characters, and taken upon themselves the burden of deciding the galaxy’s fate, literally usurping control from the Senate in Fate of the Jedi and marginalizing the relevance of political characters in general.

The fixation on stories inside the Jedi orbit has gotten so bad that Troy Denning, the primary architect of the post-New Jedi Order stories, is apparently unable to conceptualize stories away from the Jedi Order. In an interview, he stated of Fate of the Jedi‘s relationship between Jaina Solo and Jagged Fel, “I didn’t want to see Jaina going off to live with Jag somewhere other than the Jedi Temple, because I didn’t want to lose her as a character.” If a character steps outside the immediate milieu of the Jedi Order, he sees her as lost to the franchise, “ripped from [his] writing life forever.” He only consented to their marriage after kicking Jag out of his role in the Empire so that he could become “a part of the Jedi Order.” Apparently Denning never considered that it might be possible to write stories about characters who aren’t defined by their membership as foot soldiers in the Jedi Order. Could there be a better illustration of the incredible tunnel vision at work in focusing stories on Force conflicts?

The same thing everywhere you look

The result of this fixation has been a profoundly boring universe. Before the change in focus driven by the prequels, Star Wars used to be full of variety. Imperials, Dark Jedi, alien attackers, criminals, and warlords all served as antagonists. The cast of heroes was populated by fighter pilots, politicians, admirals, commandos, smugglers, scientists, and spies alongside the Jedi. Now, the antagonists of virtually every significant story are Sith or some form of darksider (when we’re lucky, they come with non-Sith minions for minimal variety), and the Jedi are the progagonists of even more, usually on an exclusive basis or as the pronounced leads with a few Forceless secondary characters.

SITH. SITH EVERYWHERE.

When every era looks just like the others, different only in the exact permutations of its Sith — the Jedi have become mercilessly, almost pitifully homogenized across every era — the incredible storytelling variety that the Star Wars galaxy offers simply is not being tapped. The Old Republic could have faced a thousand different threats, and has if you pay attention to the reference books — attacks from outside powers as it expanded, Mandalorian raids, the religious crusades of the Pius Dea era, corruption and crime within in times of peace, regional conflicts — but instead stories have featured Sith attack after Sith attack, going back endlessly to the same well until the regular outbreaks of Sith Wars seem downright silly, rather than creating anything new.

This sort of unimaginativeness is embarrassing. It suggests that the people in charge of the franchise think it has only one thing to offer. While the dark side does sell, they need to diversify their product before they risk burnout. Churning out endless iterations of the same thing is no wise strategy.

The importance of non-Force-sensitive characters

In my previous post, I already addressed the importance of supporting characters. Equally important is diversity among those supporting characters. The Star Wars universe is a big place full of many kinds of people, and to exclude them from the storyline removes a great deal of texture from the universe. A story with no place for scoundrels in the vein of Han and Lando does not represent all of the galaxy the original films established. Neglecting the X-wing pilots and fleet commanders of the galaxy cuts off an important part of the galaxy, featuring numerous characters fans love, from the story.

The story is so much richer when the Jedi are only one part of a varied tapestry of characters stretching throughout the classes and occupations of the galaxy. Especially as the Jedi have tended to be homogenized, smushed into one standard type of generic good Jedi, it has become even more important that characters as diverse in nature and role as Syal Antilles, Droma, Soontir Fel, Face Loran, Releqy A’kla, and Danni Quee be there to take up the slack and diversify the storylines. Focusing on more than just the Jedi would do so much to liven up the stories with new perspectives, fresh storytelling hooks, and more varied interactions. Non-Jedi are necessary to show a bigger, fresher, more exciting galaxy, and that is exactly what the franchise needs, not endless iterations of Jedi-vs.-Sith myopia.

These guys used to matter

Keeping non-Jedi in the story also contributes to an important theme of Star Wars. It was important to the tone of the original trilogy that, while Luke and his destiny as a Jedi Knight were important, they were not all-important. Mystical powers did not set the Jedi so far above the galaxy that others became irrelevant; the mundane contributions of Han, Leia, Lando, Chewie, the droids, Mon Mothma, Admiral Ackbar, and thousands of Rebels were just as crucial in determining the fate of the galaxy. Ordinary people mattered. Focusing the story solely on the Jedi sends an elitist message that those who have not been blessed with superpowers need not apply; they are immaterial to the story and irrelevant to the galaxy. The flip side of this is narrowing in on the Sith as villains, which suggests that the Sith are behind every threat and the Jedi’s job is simply to fight them, rather than to guard the galaxy from all threats. Are pirates, slavers, and tyrants not worth the Jedi’s time? The franchise should not be reduced in this fashion.

The future

This narrow, limiting focus needs to change.

The dark side will always sell, and there will always be stories in which blue and green lightsabers clash against red lightsabers, but that does not mean that those stories need to dominate the timeline or the product slate so exclusively. There are already one thousand incredibly underexploited years of Sith upheaval in the New Sith Wars — let authors set any new Sith-focused stories there or within other existing conflicts. More importantly, diversify the storytelling to include more than just those tales. Exploit new sources of conflict. Tell stories about the Mandalorian War, or the Pius Dea Crusades, or Ben and Jaina exploring the Unknown Regions, or Obi-Wan and Anakin taking on pirate nests before Attack of the Clones. Finally, move beyond the Jedi. Let Rogue Squadron and the Senate back into the big picture. Introduce a young, dynamic non-clone Republic officer as a companion for Obi-Wan and Anakin in future stories. Tell a novel or comic series from the perspective of characters like Adar Tallon, Jan Dodonna, Gilad Pellaeon, and Nym, if you’re really bold. Do something with Canderous Ordo in the KOTOR era and Gar Stazi in the Legacy one.

It’s my hope that the sequel trilogy will go in this direction, showcasing a threat that’s not just another dark-side-centric lightsaber-duel generator, but is genuinely new and innovative, and protagonists who range outside the Jedi Order. If so, and if the EU is still intact, it may help push the EU out of this Jedi/Sith rut. But it should not take the sequel trilogy for the Expanded Universe to demonstrate its expansiveness and variety.

10 comments

  1. Ben Crofts Ben Crofts says:

    Well, this really didn’t take you long! Feel better for the vent? :)

    More seriously though – yes. Precisely the problem – a narrow, mono-vision stupidly applied across eras in the name of baffling need to impose conformity.

    That said though, in getting out of the Force-user obsession, the either-or mistake shouldn’t be made. Having Jedi does not mean you exclude other characters, similarly focusing on other characters doesn’t mean cutting out the Force. It’s all about Balance!

  2. […] expressed concerns about the diversity, including in recent weeks. Author Troy Denning’s comments regarding Jaina Solo’s storyline and use of Tahiri Veila in the flagship series have reignited the […]

  3. Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

    I’ve never considered that the Prequels might have been the cause of this problem. Do you think it really boils down to that, or do you think it would’ve happened anyway?

    • I think that’s the biggest factor. If you look at the Bantam-era material, it’s all kinds of variety in antagonists, all kinds of variety in protagonists. The NJO, conceived pre-prequels, had the same variety. But you start looking at the prequel tie-in stuff, and between the brand-new introduction of “Lucas’s Jedi” as the answer to twenty years of curiosity, and the fact that the films just didn’t give them much else to work with in terms of characters, the Jedi completely take over the tie-in material. Republic . . . is about Jedi. It’s all Jedi and Darth Maul from TPM on, and then the Clone Wars hit and the movies become even more Jedi-centric, and if you’re not a Jedi or a clone, you don’t exist in the prequel EU. “Regular” Republic characters are off the map, and the fringe is forgotten. They can’t entirely escape, and Zahn, Luceno, and Ostrander have been raised on the OT enough to inject some, but it can’t overcome how narrowly focused the movies are.

      Then we start branching out into other eras, and KOTOR and Legacy both go with “What if the Empire was openly full of tons of Sith, now that we finally know about the Sith?” as their premises. And the post-prequels ROTJ books zone in on the Jedi and Sith conflict. The movies gave the authors new toys to play with, and their narrow focus, I think, had a big effect on reshaping conceptions of what Star Wars “was about,” for audiences as well as authors, and audience expectations became focused in on lightsabers rather than X-wings.

      Without that big public refocus, the revelation of those newly burnished elements to latch on to, the generational element of redefining Star Wars to the entire public, I don’t think the franchise makes the hard swerve in this direction that it has. Some growth in Jedi prominence, like you see in the NJO, but not this kind of tunnel-vision always-have-a-Jedi-protagonist, always-fight-Sith hard turn.

      • Ben Crofts Ben Crofts says:

        I think it started with NJO as that’s where the Jedi were suddenly using the Master-Padawan structure so reflecting TPM, despite no indication previously Luke even knew of it! But the nature of the story and that the PT was in progress I think limited it from taking over. Although NJO still had the stupidity of killing of Anakin Solo to prevent people confusing him with Anakin Skywalker!

        Post NJO and post-ROTS, those limits are removed entirely and the attitude there must be 1 version of the Jedi and Sith repeated across the millennia took off. That might be said to reach its height with TOR – TIEs and Star Destroyer aesthetics millennia before the OT? That’s scraping the bottom of the barrel!

        Finally, the Tosche Station article is an excellent read alongside this.

      • Aleja says:

        I just found this –

        And yes, perhaps the Prequels had an influence on the EU. But Padme was not Force sensitive, nor – gods help him – Jar Jar, nor the droids, and the whole thing started over a trade disagreement. There was plenty of political intrigue. And the prequels had to explain how Anakin fell and the Jedi disappeared, so I don’t think anyone was too shocked to see the prequel films follow that trajectory.

        I do agree that creators seem to have forgotten that the OT is the CONCLUSION to the story, and that Anakin’s fall is not the ending point from which subsequent stories should spring.

        However, I firmly believe the real reason for the monolithic focus on the Jedi is a horrid dearth of imagination, coupled with (in the post-NJO era) Troy Denning’s inability to tell a story without cribbing from someone else’s story structure and/or universe.

        Denning is not just a story creator. He’s fine with putting characters in action so they travel from point A to point B, like the game designer he is. But an actual story, with themes and character arcs and subtext? No way. So the Dark Nest is Prequels plus StarCraft. The LotF is the Prequels plus the Prequels plus ignoring all established characterization. FotJ is the Prequels plus Star Trek: the odd numbered films with the original cast. Crucible is all of Denning’s favorite tropes (torture, torture and more torture) plus The Crystal Star.

        And the editors at Del Rey and the overseers at Lucas Licensing were probably too concerned with ensuring the money continues to roll in from diehard completists to worry about the longterm damage done to the franchise by hitting the same story notes over and over. Just give the fans what they say they want: more gore, more violence, more character death, but zero emotional impact, zero real consequences (let’s face it, by now Han and Leia would be emotional cripples reliant on psychotropic drugs to get up in the morning and to sleep at night. Ben Skywalker – manipulated, molested, lost a mother and turned into a murderer by a loved one by the age of 14 – would be either a psychopath or in daily therapy sessions, three hours each.)

        Note, however, that giving the audience what they SAY they want is very, very different from giving the audience what they REALLY want – which is simply a well-told story that engages the reader.

        I stopped reading the NJO after Balance Point and I’ve only skimmed the books set in the EU timeline since then, so I can’t speak to Lucerno and Stover. But I do think Del Rey Zahn has escaped Prequelitis (although most of his roads lead back to Thrawn. Not that I mind, Thrawn is awesome, but still. A little goes a long way). Survivor’s Quest was an excellent self-contained adventure in which Luke’s and Mara’s Jedi skills were in evidence, but the McGuffin had nothing to do with the Force. Allegiance and Choices of One focus on the machinations of Imperials and Rebels. Mara and Luke aren’t yet as adept in the Force as they will be, and Vader and Palpatine make only token appearances. I haven’t read Scoundrels yet, but from what I’ve heard it’s mostly non-Force users.

        Of course, Zahn’s work set during the OT has to dovetail with the films, hence the lack of red lightsabers, but his books are great examples of how one can tell a compelling story (with themes! characterization! emotional resonance!) without having to rely on the same old same old. (Plus, note that his books are usually set somewhere in the chronology so that the readers knows ahead of time that the headline characters will survive and go on to have more adventures – yet he always ensures the stakes are high enough that you can’t wait to read on and discover HOW the characters complete this particular journey. Compare this to the NJO and beyond books, where the only suspense the writers really have going for them is: ok, fine, so who dies and/or is horribly incapacitated this time?)

        tl;dr: you’re right.

  4. […] anyone but me see a pattern here??? (The answer to that is no: Havac wrote a great blog post on Eleven-Thirty Eight about this same […]

  5. […] the process of writing about the supporting-character situation of the Expanded Universe, a few thoughts occurred to me about […]

  6. I disagree with this article for the purely selfish reasons of loving Jedi and Sith.

    :)

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