Starkiller: Superweapons and the Sequel Trilogy

starkillerbase

Buried in the Force Friday blitz at the beginning of this month was the first The Force Awakens-related update to StarWars.com’s Databank section. Naturally, very little new information actually came out of the new entries; many didn’t include pictures, and some of the character entries were nothing but the same one-sentence bios from the back of their action figure cards.

One big new piece of info did show up, though—or rather, if you follow the spoiler reporting, a confirmation of one of the oldest rumors: there’s a superweapon on the table.

I actually stopped reading spoilers a long time ago, but even I had heard bits and pieces to this effect; and sure enough, the exceedingly minimal entry for the First Order’s Starkiller Base nevertheless deigns to include the apparent in-universe reasoning for its name:

“An ice planet converted into a stronghold of the First Order and armed with a fiercely destructive new weapon capable of destroying entire star systems.”

While certain reporting (and certain memes) has tended to paint the First Order as an upstart group of ne’er-do-wells rather than a serious galactic power, the ability to destroy an entire star system? Well, that changes the equation. Superweapons have a mixed reputation among Star Wars fans, though; the Expanded Universe is known for adding a whole bunch of ’em to the lineup (including the Sun Crusher, which did exactly what the Starkiller is alleged to do and was totally invulnerable besides), and even many movie purists will tell you that concluding the original trilogy with a second Death Star wasn’t exactly George’s Lucas’s most creative idea. So I put the question to the staff: is this a mistake? A ham-fisted attempt to replicate the feel of the OT? Or are superweapons a crucial part of Star Wars’s magic formula?

Rocky: Yes, superweapons have kind of a bad rap. We were all there for the Bantam era of publishing in which one couldn’t sneeze without running into a superweapon. For a while, I was fairly certain we’d never get rid of the Sun Crusher and it was going to show up in every book. Thankfully, that small matter was dealt with, but the very presence of superweapons did kind of taint that whole era. They really ended up a laughingstock, which kind of defeats the point of weapons powerful enough to destroy stars and planets on their own.

There’s a place for such things, though. The Death Star works very well in Star Wars not only as a weapon, but also a symbol of the Empire’s might. It takes a very powerful galactic government to be able to create something of that size, get the resources to build a space station/battle station without actually bankrupting itself, and keep the thing’s existence mostly secret until people need to know about it as an intimidation tactic. And they’re able to make two of them! The Death Star is impressive and works very well for what it does.

If we remember the lessons of the Death Star, then yes, superweapons can have a place in the ST. They have to be respected as superweapons; they aren’t the sort of thing every warlord and crime boss should be able to get their hands on. They should be highly secret projects, and only possible to finance and build by an extremely powerful galactic government. Furthermore, they have to be not easily destroyed. If it weren’t for that one tiny thermal exhaust port, then yes, it would have been remarkably difficult if not impossible for the Rebel Alliance to destroy the Death Star. The message there is not that superweapons need to not exist, but instead that they have to be treated with the proper respect. If we manage to do that, and we don’t have a stray Sun Crusher running around or the plans to the Death Star cropping up behind every wannabe galactic ruler’s throne, then we could find a great superweapon to menace our heroes.

Ben W: Superweapons are an interesting point of discussion in today’s world. In the original Star Wars films, they served as symbols of Imperial strength and excess, of the terrible extent that this evil galaxy-spanning government was willing to go to in order to enforce and ensure their own supremacy. The Death Stars, in that way, served as a sort of backhanded analogy to the nuclear arms race of the time, giving a terrifying what-if scenario that put world-shattering power into the hands of the worst possible people: those willing to use it.

Today, it’s different. In today’s world of Tom Clancy-style government conspiracies and post-Cold War tensions, real life superweapons can be procured by anyone with the right channels and enough capital (at least in fiction they can). So how can we update the superweapon concept in Star Wars to catch up to the times?

darksaberRumors have been flying for months that a superweapon arms race of sorts forms the backbone of The Force Awakens‘ political struggle between the Resistance and the First Order. At first, I was rather against the idea. Superweapons, I thought, had all of their potential played out in the EU years ago when Kevin J Anderson had the Durga the Hutt build the equivalent of a nuke built from trash cans and black market plutonium. But the more I let the idea fester, the idea of the sort of stories that the prevalence of superweapons could provide intrigues me. Like many of KJA’s ideas, the concept is solid, but it’s potential was never fully realized.

Remember how everyone acted in the NJO during the whole debate about Alpha Red? How you could get the gist of what the debate was supposed to be but it fell flat because the New Republic (and later Galactic Alliance) were caught up in a fight for survival against an enemy that was killing millions every day? What if you got that same sort of debate, but with a more generic weapon, one that can kill stars instead of targeting a specific alien race? And what if that weapon was developed by well-meaning scientists within the New Republic, and then put into the hands of politicians instead of the military? How would Leia react, knowing that the government she fought her whole life to raise had built something worse than the Death Star? How would Luke and Han react? How would the rest of the galaxy react?

And what if a weapon with that sort of destructive power were to get into the hands of a radical terrorist group who believe that the Empire should never have fallen and made Darth Vader a martyr?

You can see where this sort of potential might lie. Now, maybe some of this is in TFA, maybe none of it is. We’ll see come December. But I don’t think the idea of superweapons is played out, there are a lot of untapped plots and character work that can be done around the idea. So long as it’s treated with the sort of respect that the ability to push a button and annihilate millions should be, and not ridiculed in a Nostril of Palpatine manner, there might be a strong overarching narrative in the coming films dealing with the fallout of a new superweapon being unveiled. It will come down, as with much of the sequel trilogy in general, to the execution. But I’m all for them giving it a try.

Jay: The Imperial Ministry of Information is unable to confirm or deny the existence of any super weapons and/or this “First Order.”

Ben C: I find it hilarious that the new film will be bringing in an idea last seen in a Kevin J. Anderson book. Years back the net discussion rendered an ongoing feud between advocates of the Stackpole-Zahn alliance versus the Dark Lords Anderson and Veitch. What it was about was a more serious versus out-right pulp tone, with Anderson leading on the crazy stuff. Thing is though, the idea that the Empire – and Tarkin in particular – would want a bigger gun than the Death Star was fairly logical. The next step up from planet killer is a star killer. Plus, Jedi has Death Star 2 which says this was never going to stop.

suncrusherThe galactic populace in SW, somewhat depressingly, tend to mirror the public in the real life world – they’ll go along with all kinds of rubbish, are easily vulnerable to fear-mongering and will generally do what they’re told. If the new books decide to go with a mass rebellion, that’ll really change the picture but, for right now I’ll go with the notion that if Obi-Wan Corbyn was in SW, the citizenry would be shit scared of his left-wing religion!

What people would want to say is the Death Stars never worked, but the problem is they did work. There was nothing wrong with the technology save for an exhaust port and the small matter of some rebels being nuts enough to blow up an incomplete one from the inside by nuking the reactor! Nonetheless, say the First Order put the word out they have a starkiller and that the galaxy must kneel before its might, the initial response will be to tell Darth Zod to sod off. So that means they have to include plausible proof that can be verified. Just to put the knife in, the proof likely is of a star system that is dead, no life, handful of worthless planets to show that yes, the First Order, can be benevolent and unrestrained unlike those maniacs Tarkin and Sidious.

Could that work? If they go with the idea that Vader, while a total bastard, was a total bastard with some reason and restraint, then the demons to invoke are those who wanted the Death Stars and more – Vader’s bosses. I could well imagine the message having a pulpy, cheesy line like ‘the vengeance of Vader will darken the stars’ which just begs for a response from Leia, 300-style, that they’ll be fought in the dark! Which could be the other way it goes – far from cowing a galaxy into submission, the First Order incites rage on an apocalyptic level. It won’t ever be in the films but I could imagine Ackbar’s response being: Find that base and annihilate the motherfuckers!

Sarah: I’m of two minds when it comes to superweapons in Star Wars. On the one hand, I feel it’s somewhat played out; we had two Death Stars (well okay, more like one and a half) in the original trilogy and a plethora of superweapons in the Bantam era books. At a certain point you wonder if it’s become a worn-out trope that needs to be retired for a bit until it feels fresh and original again. Because here’s the thing: if any warlord or general can get their hands on a planet-destroying laser then the severity of a superweapon decreases. It’s no longer a way to dramatically raise the stakes within the story; it’s just another Tuesday.

However on the other hand, I don’t think Star Wars has quite reached that point where a new superweapon automatically comes across as trite. Clearly the concept of weapons that kill by the millions is still a popular trope in current sci-fi: the destruction of Vulcan in 2009 Star Trek and Project Insight from Captain America: The Winter Soldier are two recent examples that spring to mind. Basically, when including superweapons in the story, it all comes down to execution.

So I’m interested to see just how this new superweapon is used, narratively. In the original trilogy, the Death Star is the manifestation of the Empire’s might. It makes them “the ultimate power in the universe.” It’s a visible representation of power and so obviously there’s significant symbolism behind the Rebellion destroying the thing. The Empire was the evil, oppressing, powerful entity in the galaxy and the Death Star represents that.

We don’t know the exact relationship between the First Order and the Resistance, and whether the New Republic or any sort of less-fanatical Imperial Remnant exists, so it’s difficult to speculate on just how this superweapon fits in. Is it another Death Star, meant to symbolize the First Order’s iron fist of power? Is it the result of an arms race between the First Order and the New Republic/the Resistance? Is it a whole bunch of propaganda bravado to make the First Order appear more powerful and threatening than they actually are? Any one of those scenarios could create interesting consequences going forward for the rest of the sequel trilogy. Or, it might come across as a cheap attempt to imitate the success and nostalgia of A New Hope by hitting the same narrative beats (though I choose to be optimistic and hope that won’t be the case). Again, it comes down to execution and respecting that a superweapon shouldn’t be used lightly within the story. It shouldn’t be something to just inject whenever some intensity is needed in the narrative to show that Things Are Serious Now or that These Guys Are The Evil Ones.

Mike: Sarah comes the closest to my own perspective, I think. On the one hand, I very much hope that the film’s climax has more to it than just another restaging of the Death Star trench run (though putting Rey or Finn into the Luke role in a scene like that does have a certain appeal in itself). On the other hand, I do think there’s a lot of story potential that the film, even the entire sequel trilogy, could yet extract purely from the notion of a superweapon in the mix.

I’ve mentioned once or twice now that what little we know about TFA so far has an interestingly postmodern feel to it—the story doesn’t just follow up the events of the old films but actually addresses those events’ reputations within the GFFA to some extent: Vader’s (and Luke’s) status as a cult hero to certain groups of people, Finn’s erroneous faith in the First Order, and so on. Another interesting angle for that to take on is, how do people remember the Death Star? Do they remember it at all? What was the official Imperial line regarding its fate, and to what extent did the Alliance’s later success mitigate that propaganda?

starkiller-notfound

What would be most interesting to me, I think, is if there is no superweapon—rather, it’s an old myth the First Order capitalizes on (or creates from scratch) to make itself look like more of a threat (to those who would fight it), or even more legitimate (factoring in Rocky’s comments about the resources necessary to build such a thing). That would allow TFA to reframe the Death Star as a plot device without needing to hit the same story beats—if the First Order holds some amount of galactic territory, how do its citizens feel about the Starkiller? And if they don’t, what good is fear of a superweapon if you don’t have the manpower, as the Empire did, to actually rule through it?

Of course, because I’m the king of hedging, it could easily be real. Regarding those resource issues, my own speculation is that if the weapon does exist, it’s more Centerpoint than Sun Crusher—something ancient that the First Order stumbled upon and got working rather than something they built themselves. It could even tie into the vague mentions in Aftermath of the “seeds of the Empire” and the “source of Palpatine’s power” coming from the Outer Rim. Maybe the Starkiller isn’t a machine so much as an instrument of the dark side itself.

Of course, I’m still keeping my fingers crossed for propaganda. Ironically, I’d almost feel better about a new superweapon if it was just another planet-killer, because think about it: destroying a star and its entire planetary system would require vastly more power than the Death Star had, but in practice, from a strategic standpoint? It’s the same damn thing. But it sure sounds scarier—and isn’t that the real point?

9 comments

  1. Eric Brown says:

    The key will be whether we end up thinking of the new weapon as a weapon itself, or whether it gets shuffled off into the “just another superweapon” category. We don’t normally treat the Death Star as “just” a Superweapon – it has character, feel. If there’s character and feel, it will work… if it doesn’t stand on its own and falls into the superweapon bin, it will be disappointing.

    Of course, I think the greatest superweapon in the Star Wars universe is the threat to put KJA in charge of all publishing. That’s a true weapon of terror.

    • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

      So you’re saying it needs a stylish hat? =p

    • Al says:

      I liked KJA. He and his wife were responsible for influencing like half of Legends materials. I don’t know if we would have gotten KOTOR without his influence on the old republic and all the minor characters from the young jedi knights books became major players in the eras that followed.

      • Ben Crofts Ben Crofts says:

        Yeah, I can’t be that harsh to KJA as he did give us TOTJ that led to KOTOR and Exar Kun, wielding a double saber no less, years before Maul!

  2. John says:

    I agree that a “superweapon of the week” format would be a bad one for the upcoming Star Wars movies. However, I also think that making superweapons a perennial threat helps fill a major plot hole that many fictional works fall into: namely, that fictional characters never try the same plan more than once.

    Fictional characters often fall into this pattern. The characters (protagonists or antagonists) will hatch a scheme and try it. It goes *really* well, but gets foiled at the last second (because it’s more dramatic that way), oftentimes due to a confluence of very unlikely factors. Despite the fact that the plan showed promise, the characters will abandon it entirely and move on to something completely different.

    I understand why from a narrative perspective the storytellers want to move on to something different – the audience gets bored if they are asked to watch the same story again and again. However, this does generate a pretty substantial plot hole. If the plan was that close to succeeding, why not just try it again and iterate to avoid the last-minute problems?

    That’s why I think the decision to build a second Death Star in Return of the Jedi was an effective storytelling choice. The first Death Star was destroyed due to a number of interrelated shortcomings, technical (the infamous exhaust port), operational (Tarkin’s refusal to deploy the Death Star’s defenses), and just plain bizarre (the presence of Luke Skywalker, Jedi savant, to take the final shot). Other than that strange confluence of factors, the Death Star worked reasonably well from a technical perspective. (Though there was good evidence in Legends that destroying Alderaan actually ended up backfiring, which perhaps would call the entire strategic rationale for the Death Star into question). Why wouldn’t the Empire build another one? The fact that the boring “try an iteration of your previous plan” plot was then subverted (“it’s a trap!”) meant that the movie both made sense, but also went in unexpected directions.

    All that’s to say, it makes sense to me that characters in the Sequels would want to build superweapons. However, the storytellers need to think hard about ways to still subvert audience expectations and provide a new story. The straight-up “they have a superweapon and we kill it” story was tapped out by Episode IV.

  3. […] going to shout it from the hills: I love the Bantam era. I love warlord and superweapon of the week. I love silly, disjointed things that years later, make us wonder what exactly we were thinking […]

%d bloggers like this: