My memory doesn’t work like most people’s. I’m bad with hard details—from minor trivia-question stuff like what year the TIE interceptor debuted in-universe all the way to the major plot mechanics of books I read even a handful of years ago. I can tell you that Kenobi is my favorite Star Wars novel, but when writing my recent EU Explains piece I still had to read the plot summary on Wookieepedia to remember what the hell actually happened in it. What does stick in my mind is the big picture, the tone, the flavor of a character, a book, an era. That’s why I’ve always been into the sweeping, historical aspect of Star Wars canon(s); I have a good eye for context, and I enjoy picking out new insights from the tapestry of stories the franchise puts out and how they interact—intentionally or otherwise—even as their particulars are quick to flee my mind.
What’s been especially interesting over the past five years has been the things I notice about the new canon that feel distinctly different from Legends continuity. Foremost among these is the sense that the Galaxy Far, Far Away is bigger now; more anarchic, harder to get around.1 While the EU tended to portray galactic society as not too different from contemporary Earth—where the relationship between Corellia and Rodia, say, was roughly along the lines of that between Vermont and Colorado, or Greece and Luxembourg—in the new canon there barely is a galactic society. Luke Skywalker is a myth, the Empire was good for employment, and it’s entirely possible to go through life without running into anyone who’d testify otherwise.
While novelist Alexander Freed has played with this provincial take on the galaxy more than most, one particular detail in his recent novel Alphabet Squadron really stood out to me. The central protagonist Yrica Quell isn’t the only Imperial defector in the cast, but as a participant in Operation Cinder, she is by far the most loyal Imperial in the book not currently serving with the Empire. Yet despite her cooperation with the worst the Empire could dish out, we also learn that during Yrica’s youth, her sympathies were with…the Rebel Alliance. Lacking any other way to receive flight training, she enlisted in the Empire with the express intention of learning just enough to ditch them and fight for the other side. Sound familiar?
As much as Yrica’s backstory reads like Luke Skywalker’s worst-case scenario, the commonalities of their two stories—combined with the rest of Alphabet‘s cast of rebels—catalyzed something in me: maybe the galaxy is just plain too big, too ornery, to individualistic, to comprehensively govern. Maybe its natural state is not representative government so much as rebellion itself.
How to Win Planets and Influence Species
I’ve talked about this before, too—what the canon Empire’s speedy downfall suggests about the overall state of the galaxy during the original trilogy, and how that same galaxy would respond to the sudden rise of the First Order. But what if those teeming masses that helped bring down the Empire—not the organized Rebels but the average schmoes even Palpatine needed a Death Star to keep in line—weren’t yearning to restore the Republic, but rather to be left the hell alone?
Certainly there were lots of former Separatists who felt that way. Well before Imperial grey came into fashion there were already countless planets open to leaving the Republic in favor of a (theoretically) less overbearing authority. Of course, by the time the story opens the Old Republic is nearing the end of a thousand-year downturn so it would be unfair to take that moment as representative of the Republic’s heights. But what did those heights actually look like?
Another big change from Legends is that those thousand years were really it for the Republic as we know it—prior to that the Sith may well have been the only entity to govern the entire galaxy at once. Jedi occupied the site of their temple on Coruscant as far back as five thousand years ago so something in the spirit of the modern Republic apparently existed way back when, but its actual sphere of influence is debatable—and the Sith ruins below the modern temple are a clear indication that the planet changed hands more than once in those days. The Republic, then, was not the final evolution of an increasingly cosmopolitan and interconnected galaxy but a pointed rejection of the ruthless domination of a death cult; a way to say “screw you, Sith, we’re gonna do democracy now!”
And for the next thousand years, that initial boost of populism seems to have sufficed. The galaxy was stable enough that no standing army was needed and five or six figures’ worth of Jedi were enough to keep things civilized. If we take the prequel era as the Old Republic at its worst, and the Separatist crisis as an outgrowth of its biggest failings (encouraged and inflamed by the Sith, of course), then I’d speculate that the early, “ideal” Republic was likely one with a very light hand, with a senate that regulated commerce and mediated disputes in ways that the average citizen really did see as representative of their interests, and a bureaucracy that stayed out of the way.
Worth noting, though, is that on the playing field Star Wars gives us a thousand years isn’t actually all that long. With long-lived aliens like Yoda and Maz Kanata kicking around, it’s likely not even out of living memory. What seems to a human like a timeless golden age (to an Earth human even more so) might seem to other species like a pleasant interregnum; a trial balloon that deserved a shot but was unlikely to go on forever. If anyone could have been convinced that the Old Republic was the galaxy’s rightful state it should have been Maz herself: she lived through the entire thing, and the entirely of the New Republic to boot, with the Empire barely a blip in that span of time. Having seen the peaks of this supposed utopia firsthand, surely she of all people would be dying to get back to it?
But Maz has nothing to say about the Republic. She speaks instead of “the fight against darkness” as an eternal cycle, with the entities changing but the conflict going on in perpetuity. And she does so not from Hosnian Prime but from a private operation well out of the line of fire (or so she thought, anyway). It says a lot to me that the longest-lived character in the franchise preaches not of representative governance but of the righteousness of the eternal struggle.
Several years ago, somewhat coincidentally, Eleven-ThirtyEight asked Star Wars novelist Jason Fry how to govern an entire galaxy. He was skeptical: “Frankly, I can’t imagine any government working on that scale—you have too many leaps upward in terms of the few representing the many, too much power concentrated in too few hands, and too many opportunities for very large populations to feel disenfranchised.”
Certainly this is exactly what happened to the Old Republic, until discontent got so bad that one power-hungry space wizard was gleefully handed absolute power and refused to give it up. And when the galaxy realized what it had done, it overthrew the most advanced, omnipresent military power the galaxy had ever seen in the span of a generation or so. Even Palpatine seemed to recognize that Star Destroyers and stormtroopers wouldn’t be enough to keep the rabble contained, so he sank twenty years’ worth of resources into a boondoggle of a superweapon…that was promptly destroyed. He then built another one, quite literally bet his life on it, and lost both. In the GFFA, keeping an Empire appears to be far more difficult than creating one.
That being said, democracies are no easy task either. While plenty would have been able to remember the Old Republic, recalling its true glory days was no doubt harder, and agreeing on what exactly made them glorious likely harder still. Restoring it wasn’t enough; the former Rebels had to make something better, and do so in a way that would please not just Core World idealists like Mon Mothma but former Imperials like Ransolm Casterfo, former Separatist worlds like Onderon, and to some extent even independent worlds like Ryloth.
This is where the real problem lies: the overwhelming majority of beings in the galaxy are provincial. They’re not hopping from planet to planet having adventures, they’re farmers and engineers and barkeeps. Only when the farmer leaves his farm does Star Wars suddenly concern itself with his desires, so for the vast multitudes who don’t it’s hard to say what exactly they want. Our best guide here is to consider the franchise’s origins: its plot may be World War II in space, but its setting is a mix of two primary influences—fairy tales and westerns. The new canon has largely returned the storytelling to those roots, hence our new, bigger, emptier galaxy.
Those two paradigms, fairy tales and westerns, have given rise to two primary types of planetary society: enlightened monarchies like Alderaan and Naboo, and dusty little shitkicker communities like Jakku and Cloud City (don’t tell Lando I said that), with naught but a lone sheriff to hold the raiders at bay. There are exceptions, of course, but the actual story content rarely pays them more than lip service. Chandrila is supposed to be the poster child for New Republic-style democracy, but their own democratic assembly as seen in Legends has yet to be canonized. Who runs the planet itself and how has thus far been irrelevant.
What do these two types, bucolic kingdoms and ragged outposts, have in common? The nuances of representative democracy are not a high priority. Naboo might elect its queens, but they’re still queens, because that’s more interesting. Where a lone, all-powerful authority figure was disastrous for the galaxy as a whole, the needs of the average planetary community seem basic enough—less universal pre-k and more food and land—that autocracy suits them just fine. If you don’t like your particular planetary situation you’re ostensibly free to leave, but space travel is expensive and onerous enough that hardly anyone bothers; why else would you farm for moisture in your backyard when Mon Cala is hours away? Why else would smuggling be so profitable for those that do own a ship?
Naturally, this more cynical view of the galaxy makes for a fantastic plot engine during the corrupt Old Republic. The senate of the prequels, Jason Fry noted in the aforementioned interview, is “basically Rome, with flamboyantly corrupt senators, a handful of statesmen and chancellors who will always be tempted by an authoritarian power grab.” We’re comfortable with it not because it’s moral or aspirational, but because it facilitates the type of storytelling Star Wars is built for.
Alexander Freed seems to get this as well. Hazram Namir, the protagonist of his Battlefront: Twilight Company, comes from Crucival, a planet racked by constant warfare between local factions—other planets don’t even enter into it. Namir has fought so long he doesn’t know any other way to be, so when the Empire shows up it’s just the same war against a bigger enemy.2 Alphabet‘s Wyl Lark comes from the comparatively idyllic Polyneus, a planet that likewise doesn’t care much about the greater galaxy but where people live in harmony with the natural environment and have a strong sense of right and wrong. When the Empire’s presence became too much to bear their leader issued a decree that spread verbally across the planet:
Let every village send a warrior, for the battle against the Empire has become our battle; and no people in the galaxy fly as the people of Home fly.
“Home” is how the Polyneans refer to their planet. Their culture has so little interest in the outside galaxy that no more specific name is necessary. What I’ve come to understand is that that mindset is the rule in the GFFA—and true cosmopolitanism like Coruscant and Hosnian Prime is the exception.
A New Paradigm At Last
Representative galactic governance for the people of Polyneus, it seems to me, means leaving them the hell alone. But that doesn’t make them amoral or xenophobic; when the time came, they sent their warriors, as did Crucival, as did Onderon, as did Ryloth. This galaxy may or may not want a Republic but they emphatically will not stand for an Empire—a fact I’m sure the First Order will be reminded of shortly.
But after their defeat, what happens next?
Take Alderaan, for instance. Its archipelago continent was practically carpeted with a fine, whitish stone that was most often used as gravel. But take that stone to Rodia—show it to Rodians, whose eyes detected some wavelengths humans didn’t—and it became spectacular, iridescent, glittering. It became precious.
This passage from Claudia Gray’s Master & Apprentice, offered as an explanation of why two jewel thieves don’t really consider themselves to be jewel thieves, is also a great illustration of the complexities of not just policing but regulating an entire galaxy. A comparatively small group of senators—each representing a range of interests all the way from individual monarchs to entire planetary sectors—attempting to legislate around every possible interaction between every possible combination of planets in a million-planet society seems like exactly the kind of exercise in futility whose endpoint would be, well, the Old Republic.
If the Resistance wins its war and just plops another new senate back into place where Hosnian Prime left off, that would strike me as a woefully insufficient conclusion to the GFFA’s adventures in galactic governance. But surely something along those lines would be needed—not just for in-universe reasons but to provide a satisfying resolution to the story we’ve been following all this time.
I asked Nick Adams, our resident Republic obsessive, what he saw as the core duties (no pun intended) of a Galactic Republic. First among his recommendations was the establishment of common laws and a system of free trade, which as I’ve already stated seems like a dubious proposition. They could always just tell us that the New New Republic figured all this stuff out and everything is fine now, but if Leia Organa and Mon Mothma couldn’t pull that off I don’t know if I’m prepared to believe that Senator Poe Dameron could.
More compelling were Nick’s further recommendations of a set of universal rights, and a forum for the resolution of interplanetary disputes. This sounds to me a lot like the domain of the World Court here on Earth—a place where the whole galaxy can come together under truly extraordinary circumstances like sending Armitage Hux to the Space Hague.
Once you start thinking about the complexities of governance in these silly space movies it’s easy to get lost in the weeds—but if there’s one legislative failing of the Old Republic that feels fully within the films’ purview to address here at the end it’s the original sin that kicked off this whole story: the toleration of slavery. And why was it tolerated in the case of poor little Anakin Skywalker? Because he happened to be born outside Republic territory, and the Republic was too busy dealing with its internal problems to give a shit.
A Galactic General Assembly, if you will, wouldn’t function that differently from a Galactic Senate, it would just have a much narrower range of responsibilities—one that reflected the realities of the galaxy the canon has been showing us. A Galactic Bill of Rights could represent a set of ideals for all beings to aspire to rather than some bare minimum standard that’s been deemed realistically enforceable. Coruscant, or its new equivalent, would be less an authority figure in this system than an aspirational one—a shining city on a hill, a monument to shared principles, yet freed from the responsibility of keeping the entire galaxy in line with them.
Nick’s final recommendation, naturally, was a standing naval force. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the best-case-scenario Republic, the one that lasted for a thousand years, was the one with no armed forces. After Jakku, the galaxy’s wounds were too fresh and the New Republic too imperfect to prevent Imperial sentiment from rising again, but that doesn’t mean Mon Mothma was wrong in principle to try and get the galaxy back to that place.
So who does keep the galaxy in line, then? Who would protect the powerless, guard peace and justice where the government can’t reach? You already know what I’m going to say.
The fall of the Republic and the fall of the Jedi were intertwined, so a new paradigm for one necessitates a new paradigm for the other. With no central galactic authority to tether themselves to, imagine Rey’s Jedi Order as nomads, moving from planet to planet like Caine in Kung Fu, following only the will of the Force and the needs in front of their noses.
The Jedi of the prequels were already too far gone, too compromised, to function this way—but we’ve seen snippets of what it might look like. A former Sith in his final moments seeking not vengeance but comfort, cradled in the arms of his sworn enemy. A man with no Force abilities whatsoever walking through a swarm of blaster fire to pull a switch. A farmboy with ten minutes of X-wing time firing the shot that sealed the fate of an entire Empire. That same farmboy single-handedly saving the Resistance from the lotus position half a galaxy away, and in so doing inspiring a whole new generation of heroes. A true Jedi knows exactly where, when and how to act, and that’s more powerful than a whole fleet of Star Destroyers.
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Am I saying the new galaxy I’ve sketched out here would be an ideal one? Not for them it wouldn’t—but that’s not the goal. What it would be is interesting, and fresh, and a wide-open door to a whole new era of stories that feel genuinely different. Star Wars, as Maz Kanata wisely recognizes, is a perpetual conflict machine, and whether or not they ever make Episode X there’s almost nothing The Rise of Skywalker could do that would convince me we’ve returned to another millennia-spanning era of peace and prosperity (any more than I believed that about Return of the Jedi). What I want instead is a sign that our Star Warriors have learned something from all this conflict, and aren’t just cleaning up an Episode IX mess with an Episode I solution. The Republic was a nice experiment, but it failed. Twice. It’s time to try something else.