Parts of a Plan: Two Brits Debate the Sequel Trilogy

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Ben: It was the best of times, the worst of times, the time with a plan, the time with parts of a plan. Wait a minute, ‘parts of a plan’ ? What’s next, 11 percent of a plan? Yes, per this recent snippet:

“I had presumed (wrongly) that JJ Abrams and Larry Kasdan might have sketched out an arc for the entirety of the current trilogy. But as Rian Johnson told me, it really was a creative handoff—‘Over to you, Rian.’ And Rian is handing off to Colin Trevorrow in the same way. He said he’s made a mess that Colin will somehow have to clean up.”

David Kamp (Vanity Fair) on what surprised him most about The Last Jedi

This certainly set a Wookiee loose among stormtroopers, with people inclined to being confident, or considerably less so, of a successful outcome for the sequel trilogy. So, I got together with a fellow Brit fan to do a quick exchange as to what effect this has, both for the film trilogy but also wider elements.

Mark, I’ve got a couple of reasons for why this admission of there being no plan pulls the rug out from under a good few aspects of Star Wars.

One is the sheer degree to which The Force Awakens took it – originally I planned to hold off until Episode IX came out and then watch the lot, with the advantage of the films being bolstered by the books or comics. Problem is I’m no longer as certain that’s going to happen now as there isn’t as much of a plan as I thought. That’s a problem when your opening shot culminates, in part, with Han Solo being killed by his dark-side son. Just throwing that out there and leaving it to someone else to pick up feels awfully slapdash. If it was more restrained, I’d likely be less wary.

The other aspect is the impact on the books and other tie-in material. One of the things I had looked forward to was that some sense of where they were going would mean the material could be bolder, but that now seems probably not so. If there’s no known set direction, how can tie-in material be produced for it? Sure, we’ve had Bloodline but part of me now suspects that’s going to become to the ST as X-Wing: Mercy Kill was to the Legacy of the Force/Fate of the Jedi era of Legends, one great story amid an awful lot of rubbish that it has to succeed in spite of.

Mark: This has certainly put the Loth-cat among the pigeons, hasn’t it?

I can’t speak to what happened in the later Legends series as I don’t have a lot of knowledge of them, but one thing to keep in mind is that they’re in a cycle years ahead of us. Johnson read the TFA script in the summer of 2014 and developed his screenplay while that film was in production, and Trevorrow had a draft of the Episode IX screenplay ready in December 2016. So although there may not have been an outline guiding everything, as things stand now they’ve known where this trilogy is going for some time. That should be enough to build the novels and comics around, and I wonder if the relative lack of sequel trilogy-era worldbuilding is mainly because the central issues – the backstories of Luke, Rey, and Kylo Ren – are being held back, so they can reveal them in the movies themselves.

It’s funny, because Star Wars started out as something that, whatever Lucas might now claim, was made up as it went along. Even the exact number of episodes in the saga would change every time he opened his mouth. That worked, but it sounds like LotF and FotJ ended up as a bit of a mess. On the other hand, one of the problems with Attack of the Clones is that Lucas knew exactly where he had to get to in Revenge of the Sith with no wiggle-room, and spent that movie moving all the pieces into the right place rather than finding a story to tell. Is there a right or wrong way to do this? And is the danger that handing control to three very different directors could lead to a lack of thematic unity, which might affect the wider material?

Ben: Yeah, it has and it’s a surprising admission to let slip, intentionally. Who knows?

In one way I am pretty much predisposed to dislike the sequels due to the tack taken by TFA, as it gets awfully close to LotF – Skywalker kid gone bad, government gone off the rails, though in the sequels it’s through fear of the past rather than becoming too authoritarian. I’ve never really been a fan of tearing down everything the heroes achieve just to put them through a mangle. At the same time Star Trek: Destiny makes a good case for how you can hit the heroes severely without going so far as to take everything from them, but it seems to also be an exception, especially on the follow-through which saw the Federation slowly recovering over three to four years, no time jump, no easy fix, which is what happened in the aftermath of The New Jedi Order in Legends.

SW_Bloodline_coverIt is strange there’s been less of the worldbuilding, as that can be done independently of the characters and their stories – though Bloodline seems to make the case that nothing much happened in the bulk of the interim, so we’re probably looking at everything going wrong four to five years before TFA, with a couple of years of mopping up Imperials and pirates post-Jakku. It’s also odd that I get a far more hopeful picture of the Republic from Bloodline than from Aftermath: Empire’s End, so was everyone being delusionally nostalgic in that book? Because the picture EE paints is not anywhere near as good and fitting the two together? Well, that’s kind of hard because they just don’t go together.

But more, it feels like the late post-Return of the Jedi era is likely to be akin to the later stories of Legends, with even more viciousness and actual Big Three fatality – one by design, another by the whims of fate – which is why I have this sinking sense of déjà vu. Does that mean the era is a total write-off? No. There was a bare handful of good stories outside of the big monoliths of later Legends, but I really had to go looking for them and there’s no attraction in a repeat of that for me. What really got me interested in the new material was the idea that it would be distinct from what had come before and, to be fair, in other eras, it has succeeded in that, so why can’t they do the same for TFA? Is the problem that TFA just put too many insurmountable roadblocks all over the place?

Mark: I get the feeling – and I might be reading too much into this, but bear with me – that TFA will turn out to have been something of a special case. It was a co-production with Bad Robot, as LFL needed time to set itself up as a production company again. Abrams wanted to recapture the Star Wars of A New Hope – similar visual look and central conflict – so that effectively meant bringing back the Empire and the Rebellion in different guises. There’s enough that’s different about it to make the “it’s just retreading ANH” criticism unfair and simplistic, but choosing to go in this direction and making it a continuation of the same struggle meant that the story naturally involved the Big Three’s victory collapsing around them.

Things are a little different now. Every movie since has been developed with the Story Group, and with a view to cohesive storytelling across all formats, and I wonder if the lack of a plan will actually help to differentiate this trilogy from Legends. It means Johnson and Trevorrow were free to steer the story in a new direction, with a vision that may have been different from Abrams’s. But as you say, the ending of TFA does box them into certain conflicts that can’t just be abandoned. This is good or bad, depending on your point of view.

The sequel era does feel incredibly light at the moment, though, especially compared to the Dark Times. We still have no real sense of the civilian side of the First Order, or the nature of Luke’s new Jedi. I do wonder how much of that Abrams and Kasdan even thought about, and how much was left to Johnson and Trevorrow. Kasdan even said he doesn’t know who the Knights of Ren are – that was left up to Rian. Nothing wrong with developing a story like that, but it’s not ideal if you want the expanded universe to explore all of that before you dive into the films themselves.

Ben: You’ve nailed my difficulties exactly, but I also like your idea that it could be an isolated case with TFA.

When they started on the new material, with the talk of improved coordination, talk that did appear to be backed up with action – it started to look like we might actually get an attempt to try to integrate the various pieces of SW. So, there’s a major push to factor in how the consequences of the Clone Wars would really play out across the years and decades that I really liked the look of, particularly when you see those still lingering in Bloodline, along with Vader as a terrifying spectre despite being 25 years dead. Which is why, for me, this admission has suddenly thrown a large banana, Mario-Kart style, right under the feet of the franchise and it’s really gone for a spin as a result. On the other hand, as has been sardonically quipped online, it is also the best escape device ever: Who were the Knights of Ren? What happened to Luke and Kylo? To these and any other questions Abrams can just go: Meh, ask Rian.

thelastjedi-posterFrom the way it’s looking I think TLJ will be the make-or-break point for a lot of people with this new trilogy, either cementing their liking for it or having the exact opposite effect. There is also the indications that it might also be a bit too much of a homage to The Empire Strikes Back, which, given the amount of flak TFA got for not departing from the original trilogy structure, could well see it get a kicking. In a way, if it succeeds, it could be the cinematic The Unifying Force of the ST – taking a load of story concepts some were highly critical of, but rendering them in a new, improved form that make them work far better.

Mark: The post-RotS era has been incredibly well coordinated, and I think part of that is because the Story Group had established itself in time for Rogue One. They’ve been able to give the Dark Times a real narrative – the nationalization of industry in Ahsoka and Thrawn, early localized and ineffectual resistance in Lords of the Sith and Tarkin, and the Rebellion finally coming together as a single movement in Rebels and Rogue One, with the Death Star looming in the background. The post-RotJ era doesn’t have that yet – it’s just a few glimpses, many years apart – but I’m encouraged that Rian Johnson had some input into Bloodline, because it shows that he has really thought about this and wants to be involved in making sure it all fits together. If Phasma covers her life story over many years, it might give that era a bit more of the shape we’ve been looking for, and I’m hopeful that once TLJ is out, they’ll really get into exploring Luke’s life between RotJ and TFA – all, hopefully, with Rian’s input.

I can see why people are expecting TLJ to be an homage to ESB, because Abrams did leave us with that – both in terms of TFA’s similarity to ANH, but also because he finishes his movie with the familiar beat of the heroes being separated while the protagonist goes to find a Jedi mentor. It’s clear he, at least, was thinking along ESB lines for the second chapter, but this is where giving Johnson and Trevorrow more freedom to develop their own stories could help this trilogy. Johnson said this week he’s worked very hard to make sure it’s not derivative of ESB, and the actors involved have said that tonally it’s quite different. Visually, the Vanity Fair piece suggests a look somewhere between Naboo and The Hunger Games for part of it, and if he has gone off in his own direction and subverted our ESB expectations, it’s hard to see Trevorrow just retelling RotJ. More than anything else I just want the ST to have its own identity, its own look, its own ideas, and if this is the best way to get that, I’m totally fine with it.

Ben: And that brings us to an excellent close point. Of the two of us you’re the more optimistic, but even where I consider myself to have reason to be more pessimistic, it’s still only restricted to one era, one piece of the overall mythos. For me I don’t want any part of SW to go back to the bad old days of mixed messages, of ‘yes, it is’, ‘no, it isn’t’, with LFL spinning itself into a mess of announcements, which is what this felt like. I want that sense of well-done coordination to be across the whole, not least as the ST, if it succeeds, will cap off the series – well, until Disney give the go-ahead for Episodes X-XII, with another dead Jedi order, a really hacked off Rey and an actual Starkiller (you know, one that actually blows up stars).

3 comments

  1. Master Ki-Aaron-Mundi says:

    Nice discussion. The revelation that the Sequel Trilogy hasn’t been mapped out surprised me, but didn’t concern me. Admittedly, I was looking to the example George Lucas set in crafting his own movies, as opposed to thinking through the implications for storytelling outside of the films.

    To play devil’s advocate for a bit:

    1) One of the benefits of not pre-outlining the Sequel Trilogy as a whole is it gives maximum creative freedom to Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow–and, I would argue, maximum creative buy-in, as they know they are the ones shaping the story rather than executors of someone else’s (or the Story Group’s) plots. Perhaps the same can be said for the novel and comic authors? If they are given more of a blank canvas as to the state of the post-ROTJ galaxy, they themselves can have more of a hand in shaping what that galaxy looks like. For example, perhaps Rian Johnson doesn’t have strong opinions about what to do with the Knights of Ren–but if Claudia Gray does, she could be allowed to plant some seeds and make suggestions to the Story Group that could then be adopted by Johnson and Trevorrow.

    So long as the Story Group tracks who is developing which ideas and ensures future additions in any medium are consistent with what’s come before, a lack of a plan could embolden creators and result in more daring storytelling that needn’t suffer from a lack of unified vision.

    2) Sometimes, the best writing occurs when a creator is between a rock and hard place and has to write out of a corner. Without prescribed plot points and pre-built details as to how the post-ROTJ galaxy works, any perceived contradictions in tone or details between different stories can push writers to make sense of those contradictions and come up with creative twists and turns to tell the story they want to tell. Here again, so long as we have a Story Group alerting creators to possible contradictions, those creators might be at their most creative when accounting for contradictions and finding a way to nonetheless make the moves they want to make.

    3) I’m likely in the minority here, but I embrace the often different tones and different takes on the Star Wars universe found in the now-Legends EU. There’s something fun about a universe where Cindel Towani exists alongside D’harhan exists alongside Grand Admiral Thrawn exists alongside the Yuuzhan Vong–all of them representing some aspect of Star Wars that an author looked at and said, “Here’s what’s essential about making something feel like Star Wars, and this fits.” The more the Story Group dictates a unified vision of the GFFA, the more it risks sidelining certain creator (and fan) perspectives as to what is an acceptable take on Star Wars. That has pros, but it also has cons.

  2. chriswerms says:

    For what it’s worth, I’m hoping the initial lack of vision for the ST will turn out to be in its favor. So far, it seems like a re-tread of the Old Republic story we’ve seen in the PT. Maybe not having this mapped will allow for greater flexibility and freedom to go in an entirely different direction.

  3. John says:

    I’ve gotta say, the comments on the creative process haven’t bothered me as much as they seem to have bothered other fans. On the one hand, I expect that at least some of the details of the overarching Sequel Trilogy have been worked out, whatever Vanity Fair came away with. I can’t imagine that the secret of Rey’s identity, and why she was stranded on Jakku, was left entirely open for Johnson and Trevorrow to decide. A great deal of creative freedom, sure. Total ability to direct the entire franchise, I doubt.

    As to how this relates to the new canon books/comics/games/etc., I’m not at all surprised that the creative direction of the movies takes precedence. Although the new Story Group provides an opportunity for greater narrative cohesion, I had never understood that to mean that there was some essential equivalence between the movies and the paraphernalia. Star Wars remains a movie franchise, with a number of tie-ins (and I say this as someone who has loved those tie-ins for many years). As such, it makes sense that the ultimate creative direction should be exercised in the creation of the movies, with other material produced to support that core narrative.

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