“But a frightening new adversary threatens…”
The High Republic, the upcoming series of novels and comics exploring an era two hundred years before the events of The Phantom Menace, may or may not act as the incubator of future Star Wars. But from what we know so far, it could represent a new hope for its storytelling, one that reflects our turbulent times and the fears (and idealism) of today’s young people.
Initial reaction to The High Republic has been broadly positive: it’s time to move on from the Skywalker saga, with new stories to be told. I see three reasons for hope, based on three storytelling principles that helped to make Star Wars great and which could be reflected in The High Republic. (Yes, I’m just speculating – The High Republic could go in many directions, but it’s a way of thinking about the past, present and future of Star Wars.)
Firstly, the setting. The High Republic is set in a “golden age” at the height of the Galactic Republic, protected by the Jedi Knights as guardians of peace and justice. While Star Wars’ used-future aesthetics seem to be endlessly enjoyable, there’s a deeper meaning to “setting” here, meaning context.
Crucially, this setting needs to be in crisis – it’s not Star Peace, after all. In A New Hope we were thrown into the midst of a Galactic Civil War. Even more, what propels the plot of Episode IV is that the principal characters realize they’re witnessing the final consolidation of the Empire’s power, its total domination of the galaxy, through its ultimate weapon coming online. This is what the characters need to respond to, and immediately (we’ll return to those responses later).
The little we know about The High Republic so far seems to recognize this need for crisis. We start with “the Great Disaster”, some kind of breakdown which causes starships to be abruptly launched out of hyperspace, and throws the galaxy into turmoil.
The Great Disaster might be a smart choice, and a prescient one. The key point isn’t the particular nature of any given crisis, but how systematic it is, how wide-ranging its effects are. What if a core means by which the galaxy operates – the way that trade happens, diplomatic missions occur, and peace and justice are guarded – suddenly no longer works? What happens then?
In our world, the coronavirus crisis is making us painfully aware of how quickly the almost invisible economic and social systems we rely on can falter and collapse, and what the consequences are. But the pandemic might “just” be a preview of an increasingly unstable century.
It’s possible that The High Republic’s writers’ room were informed by the (widely-shared) sense of a dark, disruptive future, most obviously because of climate change. What we’re now recognizing (though still not quickly or widely enough) is that a heating planet will destabilize virtually every part of our lives and societies: from water supplies to food production, politics to climate related conflicts and migration. It’s been described as a “long emergency”, a slow-motion apocalypse. No wonder we’re suddenly more interested in books about civilizational collapse.
While it will force us to be inventive and resourceful, the climate crisis is also likely to lead to fear, scarcity, and increasing authoritarianism and social control. We’ve already seen this in our politics, and it’s likely to increase. This is our new existential “civil war”. It’s also reflected in the alarming rise in mental ill health among young people: in fear, anxiety, depression, and underlying this, a sense of loss of control, of a frightening and uncertain future. Dramatizing the future, rather than trying to deny it, might help us to face it.
The second storytelling principle is a meaningful antagonist. In The High Republic, the immediate threat comes from the Republic’s borders. The main villains are the Nihil, described as “space Vikings”. One of the reasons that The High Republic has been so welcomed is because Star Wars needs a fresh new villain. But the antagonist is not the same as the villain(s), again it goes deeper than this.
Certainly, from the beginning of the Skywalker saga, the Empire, Darth Vader, Moff Tarkin, and the Emperor represented effective, instantly recognizable villains. But the deeper antagonist was what the Empire represented: the desire for power, domination, and control, achieved through arbitrary violence and advanced technology.
As we know, this reflected the times in which George Lucas first developed his universe. Lucas’s perspective was informed by a 1960’s new-left critique of America and specifically of American government – its militarism, imperialism, corruption, the ‘machine’ that corrupts and engulfs even its creators (manifested most obviously in Darth Vader).
As taught in screenwriting courses, the real antagonist is a “value”, an idea. It shouldn’t just be chaotically “evil”, it has to have a logic. The Empire’s was that the Republic was corrupt, disorderly, unjust, and there needed to be order, peace, justice, achieved through force if necessary.
But taken to its furthest point (which it always should be), the antagonist is a double-negative, not just bad but truly the negation of the positive. In the Skywalker saga, this is tyranny disguised as justice and order (as we see in the saga and in real life, tyranny promises order but is highly inconsistent, “justice” comes at the whim of the dictator and the regime).
Crucially, the antagonist also needs to be made internal, which is what’s so effective about the idea of the light and dark sides of the Force. It lurks inside us psychologically, not just outside us politically. Characters are repeatedly faced with the temptation to adopt the same imperial desire for power and domination, often out of fear.
Certainly, many of the same issues that propelled the Skywalker saga are still with us: the corrosive influence of militarism on democracy, the persistence of inequality and injustice. But endlessly replaying this particular dramatic formulation of good versus evil, now more than half a century old, neglects today’s crisis and how it’s experienced by young people.
What’s encouraging about The High Republic is how the Nihil could represent what their name obviously points to: nihilism, from the Latin nihil or “nothing”. When we think about the gathering crises we face, the real negation is not denial – that’s “just” a mixture of ignorance, fear, and an understandable desire to hold onto our current lifestyles (those of us fortunate enough to live in comparative comfort and security). The real negation is to know, for example, that climate change will lead to chaos and suffering, and to not care, because life has no meaning anyway.
But as with the Empire’s claims to justice and order, philosophically there is some logic to nihilism. The term was popularized in 1862 by Ivan Turgenev’s novel about generational conflict, Fathers and Sons, in which the novel’s young nihilist was driven not just to destroy a corrupt and unjust political and social system but to build a new, better world. It would be interesting, and more dramatically compelling, if the Nihil felt the same way about the High Republic and the “opportunities” offered by the Great Disaster…
Which brings us to the third storytelling principle: how characters react to the crisis and the antagonist. The choice, which is a classic Star Wars theme.
In A New Hope, while Leia has already committed herself to the rebellion, Luke and Han are faced with the choice of whether to flee or join the fight. This represented Lucas’ generational perspective, that hope lay in the young people who recognized the true nature of the antagonist and that the necessary response must be to step up and bring down the Empire.
If today’s deep antagonist is meaninglessness, in The High Republic this antagonist could once again lie within us – in despair, resignation, and possibly characters’ own role in contributing to the Great Disaster. Some will accept the chaos caused by destabilization, some (the Nihil) will welcome it and even cause it, but others will fight to restore balance to the galaxy, just as today’s youth-led climate movement fights for survival, for a once-more stable climate.
To react with hope, courage, determination, empathy – with love – may be philosophically “unprovable”, but it’s what makes us human. Whatever the logic of nihilism, we hang onto meaning because it gives us purpose and, crucially, teaches us that other people’s lives have equivalent meaning as well. This wouldn’t be a bad way for Star Wars to connect with a new generation, to once again illuminate the dark times in which we live and the way back to the light.
Michael Harris is an independent writer and researcher. His book Welcome to the Rebellion: A New Hope in Radical Politics will be published in June 2020 by Zero Books.
2 thoughts to “New Hope in the High Republic: How Star Wars’ New Setting Can Speak to a New Generation”
Well written, well done!
It’s spooky how Star Wars always seems to predict the future of actual world events sometimes.
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