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On Space, Time, the Force, and The Rise of Skywalker

The final season of Star Wars Rebels painted a picture of the Force that was much stranger, grander, and more unexpected than many things that had come before in Star Wars storytelling. Its characters even jokingly mentioned how weird things were, but accepted them nonetheless. However, one of the main plot points for the show’s resolution was perhaps a step too far for some fans: the revelation of the World Between Worlds, a realm in the Force that could allow one to travel to and manipulate events across the entirety of space and time. Access to this power would of course have far-reaching consequences for the entire saga, and Emperor Palpatine’s efforts to gain control of it in Star Wars Rebels become unsettling now that we know he’ll soon appear in some form in The Rise of Skywalker.

But does this addition of time travel change Star Wars too much from what it was before? Is the weirdness shown in Rebels too separate from what the Force was originally supposed to be? This might come as a surprise to those who know me as “the astrophysics guy” on this site, but I must confess that I didn’t really see a problem with this new game-changer. And I venture that, at least in part, it might have been my background as a scientist what made me accept it more readily as I thought about the physics of what we’d just witnessed.

We have known the Force transcended the limitations of space and time ever since we saw Obi-Wan feeling the destruction of Alderaan the moment it happened many light-years away. Instant communication of information, however, is a violation of relativity that we see routinely achieved in Star Wars via technology, with no Force required, and I’ve already explained in a previous post how accuracy to our real-world physics could still be respected in such a fictional universe. I won’t talk here about networks of wormholes or similar speculations to attempt a physical explanation of the World Between Worlds. Since on this occasion we deal with the Force, that even the most devoted in-universe scholars do not truly comprehend, I will take a different approach.

It turns out that even when a work of fiction introduces elements that require suspension of disbelief, it can still treat physics with respect by taking into consideration the physical implications that said elements would create. Also, the scientific mindset when faced with an unexplainable phenomenon is to look at the effects it causes, and use those to gain insights into its underlying properties. This is something we astrophysicists do for example when studying dark matter, a mysterious component of our Universe that accounts for about eighty percent of its mass. We still have no idea what it’s actually made of, but from our observations we already know it doesn’t emit or reflect light nor interact with electric or magnetic fields, and we can measure its distribution and even simulate its behavior at large scales. We can apply this mindset when thinking about the Force, too, and then interesting properties start to reveal themselves.

In a way, time travel through the Force has been present in Star Wars since nearly the beginning. Luke in The Empire Strikes Back had visions of the future showing his friends in danger, and the Emperor, the most powerful known Force user at that time, kept boasting in Return of the Jedi about how he foresaw future events. Granted, in both of these instances the information might have been unreliable and led to bad decisions when acting upon it, but years later Revenge of the Sith let the audience in on how accurate the information conveyed in this way could be: we discover near the end that Anakin’s visions were exactly how things would transpire, but the lack of context and partial picture ended up driving him to the wrong conclusions. The same thing happens in The Clone Wars and Rebels, with visions conveying very accurate but partial data that could lead you astray when acting impulsively upon it, or let you find a solution to the feared outcome with reflection and a clever use of the information gaps. More recently, Dooku: Jedi Lost taught us more about the torment suffered by Sifo-Dyas as he understood he was truly seeing the future, and how this accuracy later led him to defy the Jedi Council and secretly order the creation of the clone army.

Two stories in the wonderful book From a Certain Point of View provide insights from the other side, of how things look when you’re part of the Force itself. Claudia Gray’s “Master and Apprentice” (not to be confused with her later novel) refers to linear time as an “illusion”, and has Qui-Gon Jinn perceiving Obi-Wan not only as he is in A New Hope, but also as he was in the Clone Wars and before, and with full knowledge of his former Padawan’s impending death. Such event is retold in “Time of Death” by Cavan Scott, which shows Obi-Wan’s initial confusion in the instant he becomes one with the Force and begins experiencing events from the past, present and future at the same time. This simultaneous access to different points in the timeline is also exploited with psychometry, the Force ability that allows gifted users like Quinlan Vos, Cal Kestis and Karr Nuq Sin to see events in an object’s past.

These examples, however, just tell us that the Force allows information to travel between different moments in time. Moving an entire object or person across time could be a whole other thing—although we are used to the Force moving things along three-dimensional space, and we know that time is just another dimension of an entity we call spacetime. As our own inability to voluntarily time travel can attest, time is a dimension that works differently than the other three, and perhaps moving things with the Force would only work in the latter. Luckily, the Star Wars universe has extra dimensions for us to look into. One of them is, of course, hyperspace. We know the Force exists in that dimension, as the Falcon was there when Obi-Wan felt all those voices from Alderaan, Luke managed to connect to it when taking those first steps during the same trip, and more generally we don’t see Jedi cut off from the Force on long-haul trips. If the Force can transport objects through dimensions other than normal space, perhaps it could work on this one too. One could imagine, let’s say, Force-attuned wolf-creatures using this dimension to carry an assortment of heroes to the other side of Lothal. Indeed, these events in Star Wars Rebels might have been preparing us for the true scope of possibilities that the Force can really offer. The Force encompasses all of time, allows communication across different moments, and can move things through many of the known dimensions. The time travel allowed by the World Between Worlds, then, doesn’t seem so out of place.

While I think my point is made, there are still a few more examples (even restricting ourselves to the current canon, since Legends depictions of time travel were sometimes not well received). Manipulation of time by the Force could also be behind the strange passage of time that some claim to take place on Dagobah and Ahch-To during the films. And perhaps we’ve even seen actual time travel in Star Wars before, too: the Mortis episodes from The Clone Wars end with Obi-Wan, Anakin and Ahsoka in a shuttle just a moment after it all started. If the story happened to them physically and was not just a vision inside their heads, then they must have been transported back in time after their ordeal. It probably wasn’t a coincidence that the Force Wielders of Mortis were key to enter the World Between Worlds from Lothal.

So, what does this all mean? Palpatine’s craving for this kind of power was evident in Rebels. It is possible that his appearance in The Rise of Skywalker is the result of him gaining some kind of access after all, perhaps through another temple. Maybe the blue energy shooting up the reactor shaft from the Emperor’s apparent death comes from the same arts used in Rebels to try to enter the gateway, or he influenced the future through the portal when he was still alive. The World Between Worlds could even be in the movie, whether its appearance matches Ezra Bridger’s experience of it or not. Or perhaps we could see a different manifestation of the same Force capabilities. Something like this happened in the “Fortress Vader” arc from the comics, where the mask of Lord Momin tricks Vader into building a “door to the dark side”. Once done, the ancient Sith used it to emerge from the gateway in his physical form, which had been consumed by dark side energies ages before.

But of course, The Rise of Skywalker could take a different path. Perhaps the Emperor transferred his consciousness to a clone, computer, droid, or artifact. Maybe he foresaw things and left interactive recordings, or appears through means not seen before in either Legends or the current canon, and very soon my particular speculations are rendered moot. Meanwhile, did I use this as an excuse to talk more about physics and the scientific way of approaching a problem? You bet I did. If you wish to ask me questions, leave a comment below, or if you’d rather just yell at me you can find me on social media as DarkSapiens.

7 thoughts to “On Space, Time, the Force, and The Rise of Skywalker

  1. A little over a week out from the Rise of Skywalker, I find that I’m not so concerned about the world between worlds (or even bringing in a multiverse or what have you) fundamentally — if you want to have the mystic energy field do extra wild stuff, well, extra wild stuff is its specialty.

    The bigger concern is the execution of introducing a concept like this and then utilizing it in a satisfying way. Consider Luke’s appearance at the end of Last Jedi – it’s a perfectly fine concept, but many folks didn’t like how it was introduced. There was no real hint that such a thing might be possible prior in the film, so it ends up feeling sort of like a Deus Ex Machina at the end. (I think that’s a bit harsh – what Luke does isn’t all that different than what a force ghost does, and it was difficult enough to kill him. But I present this position for the sake of argument…) If something timey-whimey is going to be important in the end, it needs to be brought up in the beginning.

    Of course, even then, sometimes people don’t like having their notions of what is possible being shifted. I can remember the cries of lament over Midichlorians — I thought it was fascinating as it showed just much information about the Jedi and how things worked were lost. Of course – it doesn’t really play out elsewhere in the story. If Midichlorians had never been introduced and instead Qui-Gon simply said, “Wow, I feel as though he is incredibly strong in the force” the story would have been the same. Perhaps if there is something that shifts the force, it ought to play a key role somehow (like the Emperor having an anti-midichlorian drug or something to weaken the Jedi).

    1. There was no real hint that such a thing might be possible prior in the film, so it ends up feeling sort of like a Deus Ex Machina at the end.

      “You’re not doing this, the effort would kill you.”

      1. Yeah this is exactly what I thought. Kylo Ren establishes with that phrase that this kind of illusion is possible. And he immediately starts analyzing it to see what kind of connection or projection is taking place, too.

    2. Hm. Maybe at some point they’ll talk more about how the original ideas from Lucas would have made more extensive use of the midi-chlorians in the sequels.

      And I don’t know how they’ll approach the Emperor thing… The teasers and promotional material point to the group being on a quest, Palpating saying he’d been waiting for them… Maybe the info that prompts the quest itself provides the hints and pieces that the public needs to know beforehand.

  2. I’m still very convinced Palpatine’s return will probably more or less be vague and visually implied but nothing really confirmed or denied. Then something like the animation will probably be able to do some World Between World stuff since animation tends to delve into the more….Wider ….View of the force….and Mortis…I’m sure Mortis will be involved in some way.

      1. If Project Luminous is about that stuff…..Though I do have a weird theory for some reason that Ep 9 will probably be vague on how Palpatine returned but if they do a follow up series to whatever Ezra is doing, I feel like Palpatine return to the physical realm will somehow play into Ezra, Ashoka, Sabine (And maybe Thrawn’s) story in the Unknown Region….But that’s just a theory.

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