(needless to say, spoilers for The Force Awakens ensue)
The First Order is the new villain of the Star Wars saga, and at first glance it looks a lot like the old villain. The First Order has the Imperial aesthetic down pat, if a bit further refined with more technological whiz-bang, sleeker starship architecture, and stormtroopers that appear “designed by Apple® in California.” Due to the film’s preference not to overexplain lore, audiences could be forgiven for thinking the Empire was still in charge. But there’s sufficient context in the film – and certainly in the background material – to give people the idea that the First Order is something different, a refashioned iteration of the Empire seeking to get back into power. It’s like the Empire, but different – changed. They’ve got the same trappings, but are something else – more intense, more driven, more fanatical. Some might say that they’re a little more black (cf. white), a little more overtly Nazi, than the Galactic Empire was. They are – but that’s not due to simplified storytelling, but because it’s the natural direction for the First Order to go. We hope to explain why.
During the cantina scene in The Force Awakens, Maz Kanata explains: (paraphrased) “Throughout the ages, evil has taken many forms: the Sith, the Empire, and now the First Order.” These forms of evil track with the enemies of the film trilogies, and while it’s tempting to say that they’re ultimately the same thing (the Sith create the Empire, which in turn lives on in the First Order) that elides the essential differences between them. The forms that evil takes depends on the role of evil in the saga and the context in which evil develops. To characterize these forms with a simple one-word descriptor, let’s describe the forms of evil as subversion, domination, and purification. Now – the villains of Star Wars have a lot more nuance than that, but those three words are a useful roadmap for charting the path from the “phantom menace” of the Sith in the Prequels to the resurgent First Order of the incipient Sequels.
Evil is not isolated to one or two villains, but acts upon the characters (primary or ancillary) in the story. One useful lens of looking at it is the evolution of the iconic white-armored soldiers of the Star Wars galaxy. Clonetroopers are bred to order, and yet develop individuality. Imperial stomtroopers, on the other hand, start out as recruits and conscripts and have their individuality steadily eroded away in the form of dehumanizing numerical designations as if they were automata (Edge of the Galaxy presents stormtroopers as emotionless husks, while the stormtroopers of Twilight Company still embrace humanity underneath their indoctrination). By the time of the First Order, however, early Imperial experiments in raising stormtroopers from birth have come to fruition and people who started out as normal human beings turn into unthinking tools of evil “raised to do one thing.” The Sith subverted a Republic, the Empire dominated a galaxy, and the First Order seeks to purify itself and everything else.
The Sith – Corrupting a Republic
We’re pretty familiar with this one, since the Prequel Trilogy just concluded a decade ago and has dominated the popular consciousness of Star Wars for some time. The Sith once ruled the galaxy, as referenced by the soon-to-be-acclaimed Emperor Palpatine in Revenge of the Sith (and were an ancient and historical menace to the Old Republic via various Legends comics, video games, novels, and short stories) and sought to do so once more. Sith subversion entailed more than a simple takeover scheme, as ensuring election to high office was not too difficult. Sith subversion also entailed more than simply declaring a Galactic Empire, too.
Arguably, by the time Palpatine declared the First Galactic Empire it was a fait accompli. He had successfully undermined the institutions of a millennial Republic by using war to inure it to militarism, dictatorship, stratification, central planning, loyalty tests, and all manner of things that became later hallmarks of the Galactic Empire. His control was not absolute under the Republic, nor would it be in his early days as emperor, but Palpatine was well on his way to the Empire by Attack of the Clones. The role of the Sith then was more than mere blade-wielding antagonists and/or political schemers, but to undermine the Republic (and perhaps to a certain extent, the Jedi) by corrupting their ideals.
This is why the Sith were the true villains of the Prequel trilogy, rather than greedy corporations or insipid droids (not that anybody had any doubt on that score).
The Galactic Empire – Ruling and Reshaping
The Galactic Empire is the familiar villain from the original trilogy, the supreme galactic government that controls all of known space. As developed through post-Prequel Legends and new canon works, the Galactic Empire didn’t assume a position of dominance overnight. But it managed to shape the galaxy in such a way that the Empire seemed a lot older than its nineteen years by the time of A New Hope. Imperial efforts to reshape the galaxy are most effectively detailed (as far as the canon goes) in the Servants of the Empire books and Lost Stars.
For the Galactic Empire, simply ruling the galaxy is not enough. Power must be self-perpetuating, and dissent threatens the established Imperial order. But force is inadequate: the scale of the galaxy is too large. Fear is too unwieldly and can backfire, witness Alderaan (editorial: I hate you Tarkin. So much.). Instead, the Empire uses propaganda to create a citizenry more in line with the New Order’s thinking. Admiral Rae Sloane is an example of one of these “new Imperials” – coming of age after the institution of the Empire, she’s not attached to the cherished institutions of the Old Republic. Imperials like her and Ciena Ree are taught to discard their provincial loyalties for a grand Imperial view of the galaxy, which portrays Imperial rule as just and righteous. The Core Worlds, long accustomed to being the center of galactic culture and politics, are nurtured as the fundamental pillars of Imperial rule and officers are taught to imbibe Core Worlds culture and mores in the hopes of creating a unified ruling class.
The Empire was a galaxy-spanning, bureaucratic state. Acts like the destruction of Alderaan do not actually help the Empire accomplish its goals of running the galaxy, because wanton destruction of prosperous planets at the Empire’s heart undermines the Empire’s own power. Instead, the Empire co-opts people and ideas and replaces them with a Coruscant-centric ruling paradigm. Those who are lucky enough to be at the top are taught how to rule, while those at the bottom must do their part to serve the Empire. Dissent and/or simple negotiation for better conditions tended to be met with harsh reprisals, especially in the Outer Rim. Those exploited Rim Worlds existed only to further the Imperial war machine and support the lavish and luxurious lifestyles of the opulent Core Worlds.
The Empire was the culmination of the Sith attempt to reshape the Republic in their own image. It was a sprawling state with a very privileged central upper class that lorded it over the rest of the galaxy, ruled by advisors and ministers in the Imperial Court and governed by moffs who were uncaring and exploitative. It was little wonder that few in the galaxy actually believed in the Empire, and unsurprising that it fell so quickly after the twin blows of Endor and Jakku.
The First Order – Distilling the Empire to its most sinister parts
Though it’s not immediately clear in the film, the First Order is a fresh organism burrowing out from the rotting husk of the Old Empire (a term liberally used in the novelization, so we suppose it’s as fitting as Old Republic). The Empire suffered a massive defeat at Jakku and signed the Galactic Concordance, which was a crippling treaty that mandated Imperial disarmament and harsh reparations. Consequently, the Empire withered away before hardliners – locked in a cold war with an ascendant New Republic – formed the First Order in the Unknown Regions.
These hardliners perhaps believed that the Empire couldn’t have lost, or were unwilling to join a government that they saw as tantamount to disorder. Perhaps they were true believers, indoctrinated by COMPNOR, or perhaps they were disinclined to share power. Whoever these people were, they don’t seem to be like the Generationals – the so-called law and order Imperials – or Core World aristocrats. They’re zealots, and they retreated to the Unknown Regions to lick their wounds and nurse old grievances. Their children, then, were brought up on tales of the Empire’s glories and taught how the Empire saved the galaxy from the chaos of the Clone Wars, only to be brought low by Rebel treachery.
The First Order is a refinement and distillation of the Old Empire. Gone are the massive bureaucracies and competing ministries, gone are the big-hatted and fancy-robed advisors of the Imperial Court and Ruling Council, and gone are the aristocratic and cultural traditions of the galactic Core. Militarism is in and good government is out (to the extent that it existed as an ideal or justification at all). The Empire trains its men to be obedient, to follow orders, to kill in the name of the First Order.
Doubt? Grounds for reprogramming, particularly with Stormtroopers. The officers are raised to worship their Imperial forebears, wearing armbands emblazoned with the names of key Imperial leaders as their rank insignia. It’s a cult that worships the dead Empire, but also appears fanatically loyal to Supreme Leader Snoke (whoever he is).
The First Order operates without restraints – it experiments with technology at a feverish rate, unencumbered by Imperial bureaucracy. It hones a deadly fighting force, which can focus entirely on killing efficiency because it is not a governing body and has little interest in maintaining order. And it pushes an extremist narrative.
The First Order is not a ruling government, seeking to maintain order or its own power base. The First Order is a revanchist movement of second-generation zealots, children of hardliners unwilling to make peace with a changed galaxy. It has pushed a victimization narrative: viewing the New Republic as illegitimate, as a treacherous organization that subjected the once glorious Empire to humiliating treaty terms. The First Order does not recognize the Empire’s failings or complicity in its fall. The First Order does not recognize its violations of treaties that it (as the Empire) signed and subjected itself to. The First Order is happy to grow its military beyond the bounds of treaties, it is happy to make incursions into Republic space, and it is happy to create a genocidal superweapon (at this point, genocide seems too inadequate a term).
Yet such is the First Order’s propaganda and its revised version of history that General Hux can convince his men – and judging by his fanatical expressions, himself – that it is the New Republic which has shown bad faith by partially supporting a private militia to defend the galaxy from an organization which seeks to destroy it.
The First Order is the Galactic Empire unhinged and unmoored of any restraints on its action. Not needing to worry about governing the galaxy, and driven by a victimized and triumphalist view of history, the First Order seeks to purify the galaxy as it has purified its own ranks of all but the die-hards and the most well-engineered tools of war. Its purification is one of blood and war, mass destruction and revenge on a galaxy that rejected its Imperial forebears.
Gone are the subtle subversions and machinations of the Sith. Gone are the social engineering and aristocratic snobbery of the Galactic Empire. Instead, the First Order is left with a raw angry fanaticism. It’s little wonder that Hux and Kylo Ren appear to be violent children, angry at the world: they are emblematic of the First Order as a whole. Groomed by their Imperial mothers and Imperial fathers to never forget, all of the First Order was raised for one thing: the violent and chaotic overthrow of a peaceful, democratic galactic government. To bring back the Empire?
No. That’s not possible. It’s not even clear if the First Order has thought that far ahead, if it’s thought of an endgame beyond its violent birthing. But perhaps its name is a hint as to what it plans: the First Order will create for the galaxy what it created in itself, a horrifying pastiche of the Empire streamlined and refined to its worst, most horrific elements. These elements were in the Empire and in the Sith might-makes-right mentality from the very start, but they’ve been honed to their sharpest, most horrifying points.
If the idealistic New Republic sought to bring out the best in people to create a new era, the First Order surely seeks to bring out the absolute worst.