As I’ve probably mentioned before, I don’t really follow The Force Awakens spoilers. I recognize that in this line of work it’s inevitable that certain things will get around to me, and some have, but by and large I don’t know if what I’m going to talk about in this piece is already confirmed, debunked, or neither—these are just my impressions, as an educated guesser who’s seen more than his share of Star Wars stories. When the new teaser was revealed last Thursday, a lot of stuff was pretty much what you’d expect—X-wing pilots in orange, TIEs chasing the Millennium Falcon, a masked villain with a red lightsaber.
But if you looked closely, not everything was so easy to contextualize—especially one shot of stormtroopers fighting against a rogue TIE fighter in some sort of hangar, immediately following a distraught-looking Finn removing his own helmet. If there’s one plot point we can safely rely on at this stage, it’s that John Boyega’s stormtrooper character defects or deserts early on. The stormtroopers in the original trilogy were nothing if not anonymous and interchangeable, so choosing to begin the story of the sequel trilogy with the face of the Empire going AWOL is an effective way to demonstrate that things aren’t quite as clear-cut now as they were with Palpatine in charge.
While the outside world was still digesting the teaser, details began to emerge from the TFA prop exhibit also on display at Celebration. The first real pieces of context were very interesting and unexpected: the X-wings were not rebel X-wings, but Resistance X-wings. The stormtroopers weren’t Imperial stormtroopers, they were First Order stormtroopers. For all the familiar design elements, it appears that the sequel trilogy is not about the Rebellion versus the Empire; that conflict is as dead as those crashed ships in the image that began the teaser.
So, with thirty years to fill between the two trilogies, what does that tell us? Well, believe it or not, it makes me think of the Bantam era—the 90’s version of post-Return of the Jedi that had to work with no knowledge of the prequels. In those days, the lack of official information on the Jedi and the fall of the Republic was handwaved in-universe with the idea that Palpatine had destroyed records, and that the civil war had taken its toll on cultural memory, to the point that even people who’d lived during the Republic—though they seemed much rarer back then—didn’t remember much about it, or at least weren’t inclined to share.
Lately, the new canon material has retained a sense of this despite having all the information we could possibly need. Luke finds a helpful tomb in Heir to the Jedi, but few answers about the knight who occupied it—even telekinesis, that most ubiquitous of Jedi powers in the prequels, is something whose existence he can only guess at. Lords of the Sith, in particular, leans quite extensively on the conceit that the average citizen of the galaxy (and even active resistance fighters, for that matter) is barely even aware of Darth Vader’s existence, and certainly has no idea what he can do.
Once the prequels had come out, Del Rey had taken over from Bantam, and new information was slowly parceled out to the characters and the galaxy at large. By thirty years after Endor, the Big Three of the EU were celebrities; they were the living Legends—sorry, legends—who’d saved the galaxy and overcome their dark origins to usher the galaxy into a peaceful future that never quite seemed to show up no matter how old they all got. They were still heroes, certainly, but everyone knew they were heroes, and to my mind, they lost something with their anonymity (and yeah, Leia was a princess, but there are a million planets in the Empire—how many real-life royals can you name?).
So what does all this have to do with TFA? When I hear the names “First Order” and “Resistance”, what that tells me is that the galaxy far, far away is an enormous place, and military supremacy is a much, much different thing from having the means and motivation to govern the damned thing. Much like the New Sith Wars era of the EU, and, indeed, the “warlord” era of Bantam, the GFFA of the sequels seems like one devoid of unified government. For these neo-Imperials to choose a name like “First Order” and forego the EU tactic of stubbornly clinging to the name “Galactic Empire” no matter how little it applies suggests they’ve realized that the galaxy doesn’t want a Galactic Empire anymore, and they’ve become too weak to simply impose one. “First Order” is a public-relations name; it seeks to communicate Imperial effectiveness and prestige without all that Death Star baggage.
Now apply this same thinking to the Rebellion—in the EU, they were quick to rebrand themselves the New Republic for much the same reasons the Empire stayed the Empire; they couldn’t imagine themselves as anything else. But after the prequels, it seems likely that much of the galaxy wouldn’t feel any better about a Republic than about an Empire, or for that matter, even see any difference. There may well be a New Republic in the ST—I’ve seen speculation that the Resistance is a splinter group taking the fight into First Order territory while the NR deals with governance elsewhere—but it’s easy to see that as a branding problem equal to the Empire’s, and flying under the “Resistance” banner certainly doesn’t suggest much in the way of governing authority. It’s a reactive title in response to the First Order’s proactive one.
Let this settle for a minute, and it sounds like a status quo much like that of the aforementioned New Sith Wars; a galaxy with pockets of stability but no true governance, where communications are torn to shit and one sector doesn’t always know what’s going on in the next, and everyone with a little territory is jockeying to present themselves as the next big thing. In this context, it’s easy to imagine Leia still playing the role of ambassador; journeying from planet to planet, attempting to convince ex-Separatist holdovers of the Resistance’s pure intentions. And Luke, wary of serving as either a military or governmental figure, choosing to focus on rebuilding the Jedi Order somewhere far out of the spotlight and the dark temptations of conflict.
And Han, well, I can’t imagine what the hell Han’s been doing. My real question, though: what’s happening on Coruscant?