With the casting announcement, we now know that the heroes of the original trilogy will be sharing the screen with characters played by younger actors John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, and Domnhall Gleeson, some combination of which will presumably be their successors as primary heroes. If there is one Expanded Universe project that embodies the lessons Disney should take into account when creating a multigenerational sequel trilogy, it’s The New Jedi Order. In our Everything Disney Needs to Know series, Mike and Lisa have suggested lessons to be drawn from standalone Expanded Universe works, but nothing in the Expanded Universe so perfectly parallels the task of the sequel trilogy, nor offers such directly applicable lessons, as The New Jedi Order.
The Thrawn trilogy is often touted as the Expanded Universe’s “sequel trilogy,” and that’s true to the extent that it’s the best of the immediate saga-level followups to Return of the Jedi. If the sequel trilogy were being made in 1990, the Thrawn trilogy might be the best model. The nineteen-book super-series The New Jedi Order, set twenty-five years after the movies, however, not only much better accords with the challenges of the sequels being made now, but it functions better in general as a continuation of the Star Wars saga. By focusing on passing the torch from the heroes of the original trilogy to their children and spiritual heirs, the NJO mirrors the task the sequels must undertake. By constructing meaningful character arcs and creating a bold new narrative, the NJO accomplished something outstanding in the Expanded Universe and set the standard for genuinely continuing the saga.
Do Something New
The base lesson the sequels need to take from The New Jedi Order is to do something new. The original trilogy told its story. The prequels stepped back to a prior generation to tell the backstory, but did so in a way that featured new bad guys, new heroes, and its own distinct narrative. For the sequels to stand on their own as the next chapter of the saga, they likewise must be distinct, introducing their own unique paradigm rather than recapitulating that of their predecessors.
The planners of The New Jedi Order understood this. Previously, post-Return of the Jedi stories had remained largely within the paradigm of the original trilogy. The Rebellion became the New Republic, Han and Leia had kids, Luke started training students, but the core of the narrative was the same. Luke, Leia, and Han, sometimes with Lando, fought Imperials. Occasionally you’d get a new twist, but overwhelmingly, the same movie heroes stood front and center against a parade of Imperial warlords, sometimes with Dark Jedi or superweapons. Readers got more adventures with their heroes, but it was more of the same, as not much changed and the story essentially amounted to the aftermath of the saga rather than a full-fledged next chapter that could stand alongside it.
After about eight years out-of-universe and twenty years in-universe of the same thing, The New Jedi Order came along and pushed boldly into a new galactic paradigm, the next step of the saga. The planners behind this realized that, as the timeline crept on and the next generation of heroes came of age, they couldn’t keep surviving on the diminishing returns of the old setup. Instead, they moved the next generation of heroes — the children, students, and successors of the heroes we knew — to shared prominence in the story. They abandoned Imperial warlords and Dark Jedi in favor of creating an entirely new threat, one that was not merely a change of pace within the Imperial-remnants paradigm but which entirely replaced it by plunging the galaxy into existential warfare with extragalactic invaders. An entirely new species with new living technology, new religion, new leaders, new goals, the Yuuzhan Vong gave the galaxy a foe it — and fans — had never seen before. The Galactic Civil War was the stuff of history; the Yuuzhan Vong War was a new war for a new generation.
This not only changed the superficial elements the OT-continuation stories had relied upon — the ships and weapons of the enemy, the bad guys’ look — but had significant impact on the nature of the story. New villains and a new paradigm meant the heroes were challenged in ways they couldn’t be before. Outside the Force, the Yuuzhan Vong challenged the Jedi to learn and grow in a way the evil of darksiders couldn’t. They pushed the New Republic and Imperial Remnant to cooperate rather than fight. The invaders shook the stability of the established New Republic, superpower-to-superpower, in ways scattered scraps of the Empire couldn’t.
If the sequel trilogy is going to succeed, it needs to build its own paradigm in the same way. If Max von Sydow is playing a crusty old Imperial, or Adam Driver is just another Sith Lord, I will be greatly disappointed. Replaying the threat of the Empire will only yield diminishing returns. Our new heroes need to face their own challenges, not their predecessors’. The galaxy needs to be threatened in a new way. The Empire has been done; the Sith have been done; this trilogy needs to do something new, something of its own. Those saying it wouldn’t be Star Wars without Sith or Imperials are mistaken; it’s much more important that with Sith or Imperials, the sequel trilogy won’t be its own story.
Pass the Torch
One component of doing something new, as I mentioned, is introducing a new generation of heroes. As the timeline moves forward, our heroes age and their successors must step up. We know, thanks to the casting announcement, that our next generation will be there. But simply having kids there is not enough. There are a lot of franchises that, as they age, introduce the central heroes’ children or younger characters to mentor — as sidekicks. The last Die Hard might have had John McClane’s son, but that doesn’t mean Die Hard is moving on from John McClane. Indiana Jones connected with his son, but he pointedly snatched his fedora away at the end of the movie — if they make any more Indiana Jones films, Harrison Ford is going to be anchoring them, not Shia Labeouf.
The sequel trilogy has to do more. It has to pass the torch — to introduce new main characters we can follow going forward as the older generation steps aside.
The New Jedi Order did this perfectly. With Han and Leia’s three children on the cusp of adulthood, the time was ripe for them to graduate to the main cast. The NJO included them, and a supporting cast of friends, as up-and-coming heroes, formed in the crucible of the Yuuzhan Vong War to become the next generation of heroes. Jaina, Jacen, and Anakin were introduced as main characters sharing the ensemble cast with the established heroes, and by the end, Jaina, Jacen, and Jagged Fel were set up as the major heroes going forward. They weren’t sidekicks, but heroes of equal stature, able to hold down their old stories, with the prior generation retiring from the spotlight as they stepped up. Crucially, the NJO did not restrict this development of a next generation to Han and Leia’s kids and their love interests: Luke’s students received the spotlight as the next Jedi heroes and leaders. Characters like Admiral Ackbar and General Rieekan were replaced by Admirals Sovv and Kre’fey, while Gavin Darklighter stepped in for Wedge Antilles as Rogue Leader. The baton of political leadership was handed to Chief of State Cal Omas.
It was a seamless passing of the torch, as new heroes stepped up to work alongside the old ones on equal terms, and the old heroes stepped aside at the end to let the newly introduced anchors of the cast headline future adventures. The perils of failing to pass the torch are best illustrated by the subsequent novels, which walked back from The New Jedi Order‘s developments in order to place Luke, Han, and Leia at the head of the story once more. They marginalized the next generation to the point of completely compromising the future of the Expanded Universe, creating an unsustainable scenario in which increasingly elderly heroes hogged the spotlight as their progeny withered on the vine.
With rumors that J.J. Abrams is foregrounding the original cast for Episode VII at least, he should beware of giving the next generation short shrift, lest they not be able to establish themselves well enough for the franchise to move forward with them. Instead, he should take his cues from the NJO, and give the new characters equal prominence so that the series can continue to grow with them, rather than hanging on nostalgically to characters past their prime as primary protagonists.
Key to developing the next generation of characters as Leia, Luke, and Han’s equals was putting them through dramatic arcs of their own. In fact, this was one of the key components necessary to make The New Jedi Order stand on its own as a saga-level storyline. There are a lot of “further adventures” out there — stories where the heroes have more space opera escapades because fans want more stories with the characters they like, period. But it is stories where the characters grow and change, where the setting grows and changes, that actually push the saga forward and have any chance of standing on the same ground with the films as key chapters of the overall story.
Perhaps the NJO’s greatest strength was its depth of ideas, exemplified in the arcs of growth and development it found for all kind of elements of the franchise. The new heroes had theirs: Jacen Solo engaged philosophically with the challenge of the Yuuzhan Vong, overcoming his own paralyzing fear of making the wrong choice to understand the enemy and embrace a peaceful solution. Jaina Solo became a warrior, a combat pilot who struggled through post-traumatic stress disorder to embrace her identity as a protector (and found love with Jagged Fel, loosening up the reserved pilot in his own arc). Anakin Solo reconsidered his straightforward view of the conflict to have greater compassion for the Yuuzhan Vong before sacrificing himself to save his friends. The old heroes had their arcs, too, as Luke wrestled with the burden of responsibility as a Jedi leader, and Han and Leia reforged their marriage stronger than ever after struggling through grief.
More than just characters had their own arcs, though. The Jedi as a whole suffered dissension as their philosophy — their understanding of the Force and their moral boundaries — was challenged, but developed a new leadership structure and became more unified as they reexamined what it meant to be Jedi. Galactic leadership passed from disappointing, petty politicians to statesmen who rose to the challenge of wartime leadership and remade the structure of government. The Yuuzhan Vong as a whole had their own arc, as their lowest caste challenged the destructive, sado-masochistic religion of their society and instead embraced the Jedi, ultimately allowing a peaceful solution short of the genocide our heroes feared, as the Yuuzhan Vong surrendered and began the work of remaking their society to reclaim the moral values they had lost.
In each case, the creators had clear and strong ideas about where the story would go, filling it with significant development. The result was a thematically rich, intelligent story deep in ideas and meaning. The NJO team understood Star Wars storytelling has a need for strong underlying ideas and narrative development. The sequel trilogy must do the same. If these films are going to succeed, Han, Leia, and Luke have to go through their own arcs, not spend this chapter of the saga static. The new characters must be developed equally well. The galaxy should change and evolve, and some greater ideas should underlie the nature of the villain, who must have a narrative arc of his own.
A superficial zip-bang-boom action-adventure spectacle might satisfy those who just want to see more of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker flying spaceships and swinging lightsabers, but to be truly worthy of continuing the Star Wars story, the trilogy must embrace the blend of profound underlying themes and strong character development with pulp action that underlay George Lucas’s original masterpieces.
What made The New Jedi Order such a perfect continuation of the saga was its impressive execution of all these elements. No other Expanded Universe story has come close. As a brilliantly-executed, smartly-conceived next-generation epic, it is exactly the part of the EU to which Disney should be looking for lessons as it undertakes its own effort to extend the Star Wars saga to a new generation. Star Wars got this scenario right once. There’s no reason it can’t do so again.