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First of the New – Why Episode VII Needed to Happen

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When the Disney purchase and the sequel trilogy were announced, my immediate reaction was to be much more excited about the prospect of non-Episode “spinoff” Star Wars movies than about The Force Awakens, then just Episode VII. The Expanded Universe had told all manner of interesting stories in the Galaxy Far Far Away through the tropes and traditions of other genres, and not only did that sort of grab-bag approach appeal more to me off the bat, it just felt safer. Making an “Episode VII” was at best a necessary evil, something that had to be done to establish that this new generation of Star Wars films was as big of a deal as the first six and not just “The Further Adventures of…”; never mind the seemingly monumental task of getting all the original actors back and up to snuff, and never mind what that story might mean for the EU.

For a long time, though, I’ve been hearing whispers (and, I’m sure, lots of baseless speculation) that Disney had no intention of just making a sequel trilogy—the sequels weren’t just a thing they had to get out of the way, they were going to steer the boat, and if all went according to plan there’d be not three but at least six of them. Oy, I thought, Episode XII? Even leaving aside the presence of Anakin Skywalker, Chosen One and Almighty Main Character, making an “Episode” of Star Wars is a high bar, and brings with it all manner of expectations, from an in media res opening crawl to a John Williams score all the way to shot composition and wipes. Releasing an indefinite number of those would at best be a much bigger challenge than the spinoffs (which could at least succeed or fail on their own terms), and at worst, in comparison, would become boring.

Anyway, that was how I felt up until maybe six months ago. And now that I’ve seen The Force Awakens and lived with it for a bit, I think I get it: Star Wars is a serial again.

It’s not just the fact that I love all the new characters and would be happy to see more than three movies with them—though if multiple trilogies do indeed come to pass that’ll be a big reason why—it’s that TFA broke the seal: Star Wars is no longer Anakin’s story. That was the first saga, which will and should remain important to what comes after, but now that we’ve definitively moved on from that arc, what it means to be a Star Wars Episode has changed for good, and there’s no reason they can’t keep going.

A recent piece on Slate made the case for Rian Johnson taking his film (or films, given that he’s writing IX in addition to writing and directing VIII) in a “truly unique direction”, now that TFA has set the stage. TFA, writer Kevin Lincoln argues, was a “throat-clearing”—a way to shake off the baggage of the prequels and convince every generation of fans that the franchise was in good hands.

One day later, Joanna Robinson at Vanity Fair tied TFA to “reboot fever“, and the current trend of revisiting old stories at the expense of their happy endings. This is a good thing, she argues, because no one’s story ever ends that cleanly—no matter how high a peak we leave our characters on, they’re still going to wake up the next day and have new stuff happen to them (I might add that Han Solo in particular would have been immensely bored if his life had been perfectly happy from Jedi on). We’ve been trained by our fiction to believe in happy endings, but being forced to see past them can be good for both future storytelling and for our cultural consciousness overall.

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The Force Awakens, then, isn’t just a reboot, it’s the keystone between one kind of Star Wars—in which there’s one overarching story that has a beginning and an end—and another, where it’s a true serial in the vein of Buck Rogers or even Superman. The context refreshes every so often, but the tone and conflict are consistent. At first glance this might terrify some, as it implies that the good guys will never fully win, but freeing the Episodes from the Anakin story means much more leeway in terms of the context. Already we’re dealing with a much different villain than the original Empire, in that they’re politically a minority in the galaxy and don’t even seem all that interested in governance. The Empire was a superpower, while the First Order is at best a rogue state—that alone is a very different kind of story, because it transfers the responsibilities of authority from one side to the other. The First Order may be a grave new threat, but it’s important to remember that for most of the last thirty years, the good guys had indeed won; Poe and countless others like him grew up in a free and peaceful galaxy because of the Galactic Civil War, and what happens now doesn’t change that. And when and if the First Order are defeated at the end of this trilogy, who’s to say what kind of story the next would tell?

Nazi flavoring notwithstanding, the conflict with the First Order is also a very modern story, which brings me to another key feature of post-Return of the Jedi Star Wars: postmodernism. Many have derided the movie as a product of “remix culture”, and well, that’s fairly accurate. But reflecting the times is part of what makes something Star Wars, and it’s long pat time to move out of the fake seventies. The premise of TFA has been described as “Star Wars fans in a world where Star Wars actually happened”—Poe is a Leia fanboy, Rey sees Luke as a myth, and Kylo is the quintessential Vader fetishist. We respond so well to these characters for the same reason people responded to Mr. Blank-Slate Skywalker in the first movie, because they’re us. That’s not a coincidence, it’s the intention.

And being us, they have one other important job: actually looking like us. The original trilogy forced everybody to identify with a white guy, and that it was so successful at doing so is proof of its significance. But we’re past that now; we want women and people and color and, god willing, various orientations not just present in our mythology but on equal footing. As long as Star Wars revolved around Episodes I-VI it was going to be playing diversity catch-up, as demonstrated by the tie-in material’s recent efforts (which are beyond admirable, don’t get me wrong) to paste in as many female stormtroopers and officers and X-wing pilots around the margins as possible, as if that could change what the movies actually show.

For Star Wars to remain modern mythology, it needs to remain modern, and for better or worse, that means leaving the Galactic Civil War behind. I’m still very excited for Rogue One, but I now see the spinoff stories the way I originally saw Episode VII—as something that needs to happen to ease the transition into 21st-century Star Wars. We can pretty much guess what a movie about stealing the Death Star plans is going to look like, but we have absolutely no idea where Rey and Kylo are going. I hope they stick around for a good long while.

2 thoughts to “First of the New – Why Episode VII Needed to Happen”

  1. I think your point about the serial nature of the new Star Wars is interesting. Lucas had in mind the serials of his youth when he made “Star Wars” – yet even as he tried to say, “Oh no, these are meant to be a serial – see, this is episode 4 now”… he really cut them off. He turned them from a series of adventures to the tale of one man’s life. And while that’s fine… it’s not a serial. It’s not the on-going adventures.

    I remember Weird Al’s song “Yoda” which had the line, “the long term contract I had to sign means I’ll be making these movies til the end of time with my Yoda.” There was a time 30 years ago when that was the expectation.

    Except George didn’t want to be stuck making all the movies… and he didn’t want to pass them off. Instead, his own focus shifted to “who is Anakin Skywalker”. I love the idea of getting fresh directors in – it’s a beautiful thing.

    A live-action Star Wars TV series? Eh, we’ll just have a serial set of films.

    1. Yeah, it really is interesting how he kind of lost sight of the serial thing over the years. I guess part of that concept is that you can’t get too precious about one particular chunk of the story.

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