Razor’s Edge: Why I Struggle With Star Wars “What-Ifs”

The embodiment of evil in the galaxy lies disarmed at Mace Windu’s feet.

Ravaged by his own reflected lightning, Palpatine whimpers helplessly. Anakin Skywalker, standing uncomfortably close, insists that he live to stand trial. Mace swats the notion away: “He’s too dangerous to be left alive!”

Maybe he is, maybe he’s not. Maybe he’s faking his current weakness, maybe he’s not. With the entire galaxy hanging in the balance, Mace refuses to take that chance. After a moment of agonized uncertainty, he swings his lightsaber.

The saber connects. Palpatine has wagered everything on Anakin’s loyalty, and dies knowing he’s lost.

What happens next?

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AUs—alternate universes—are having a moment right now.

This is mostly Marvel’s doing, with the first season of Loki introducing several “variants” of the titular character and What If…? now doing the legwork to show how those variants might come about by changing one or two little details from the history we already know. Whether coincidentally or otherwise, Star Wars is now poised to dive heavily into AUs for the first time since D-Day with Star Wars: Visions, an anthology of anime shorts untethered by canon—some diverging in small ways (if at all), some existing in wholly different realities with only aesthetic and tonal connections to Star Wars as we know it.

While we’ve seen lots of ambiguously-canon stories over the years—from the recent LEGO games and specials all the way back to “Skippy the Jedi Droid” in the Star Wars Tales comics—that material has almost always been set in the familiar continuity, with its ambiguity stemming solely from a comedic tone. Only once before, with Star Wars Infinities, has the franchise so pointedly and prominently delved into AU storytelling. Where in Visions continuity is ultimately beside the point, Infinities was much more in line with Marvel’s What If…? model—picking a single point of divergence from the story of each of the three original films and then spinning out a whole comic miniseries from how that divergence might change the story.

The actual stories we ended up with were…fine. There were a few genuinely inspired ideas and a few outright bananas ones—like Yoda ramming Coruscant with the Death Star and a redeemed Anakin wearing this thing on purpose—but as the trilogy of miniseries unfolded from 2001 to 2004, they started to feel hemmed in somehow: as drastically as things might change, they always more or less worked out. Luke missed his shot on the Death Star, but the Rebels still won. Luke flat-out died on Hoth, so Leia became a Jedi instead. Palpatine survived Endor but lost the second Death Star and his hold on Anakin.

This beat justified the whole project if you ask me.

Years later, Peter David, author of the aforementioned “Skippy the Jedi Droid”, revealed that he had pitched a concept for the original Infinities that had been rejected for being too dark. The details of his pitch can be read here, and while I will leave you to decide their merits for yourself, what most interests me was the exact reasoning he claimed to have heard:

“The whole reason I’d taken on the assignment was because I’d been told that Lucasfilm had effectively given us carte blanche. But then, after I drafted the outline, they turned around and said that the story had to end with Luke, Leia and Han triumphing over evil. In other words, it had to have the same exact ending as Star Wars.”

While David has a long and venerated history in comics, like a lot of older white guys in that industry his reputation has waned in recent years—however, looking back on the stories in question I see no reason at all to doubt this claim. For all the potential of the Infinities concept, Lucasfilm at that time seemed to view happy endings, or at least hopeful ones, as an absolutely essential part of the Star Wars formula.

That bugged me when I first heard David’s comments (I actually got into it a bit at the time) and had bugged me in a more amorphous way back when I read the stories for myself, but at the time I wasn’t able to fully articulate why.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it boils down to one thing, an idea that fans and creators alike were still adjusting to when Infinities was coming out: the Prophecy of the Chosen One. Upon being introduced in The Phantom Menace, the prophecy transformed the story from happenstance into destiny; turned it into something that had to happen. No exhaust port was too narrow, no stormtrooper’s poor aim was too improbable to prevent the Force from doing what the Force wanted done. And yet that very inevitability underlines the actual precariousness of each individual event: only by Luke making his shot can the Death Star be defeated. Only by his surviving the wampa attack can the Jedi return. Only through a ridiculously circuitous plan to rescue Han can the Rebels triumph at Endor. With the prophecy in play, the Star Wars saga becomes a razor’s edge of impossibility that can only end the way it does, because the slightest change would unbalance the entire apparatus and plunge the galaxy into an eternity of Sith rule.

Or at least, that’s the way I think it should work. Which absolutely doesn’t mean they can’t do “what if” stories, or even that any AU we see has to end up completely terrible—it just means that I think AU storytelling should reinforce the significance of our heroes’ actual choices, rather than undercut them by suggesting that things will probably work out anyway.

The dyad we deserve.

Which brings me back to Mace Windu and Palpatine. The thing is, while this mentality is nice and uplifting when talking about the original trilogy, it applies to the prequel trilogy as well: if you change one little detail and everything works out, you undermine the lessons embedded in the story that does happen. People love to cite this moment for just that purpose; if Mace had acted a hair sooner, if Anakin has hesitated a hair longer, Palpatine would have died and the galaxy would be saved.

And I think that’s crap.

The way I see it, Mace’s fixation on the Republic—not democracy, not peace, but the Galactic Republic as it existed at that moment—was every bit as unhealthy as Anakin’s fixation on Padmé, and for all the immediate benefits of a galaxy without Palpatine, killing him in that way at that moment would have crossed a moral threshold for Mace just as significant as the one Anakin actually crosses. The senate and the courts, already under Palpatine’s sway, would be out for blood over his murder and the Jedi Council, rather than surrender Mace to the same corrupted justice that almost killed Ahsoka Tano, would be left with no choice but to temporarily take control—thereby becoming exactly what Palpatine accused them of being, and bringing about, eventually, a dark side theocracy of their own. For a safe and secure society.

I’m happy to debate the logic of that sequence of events, or whether a full heel turn would be within Mace’s character, to say nothing of Yoda’s. Maybe it wouldn’t go down in exactly that way. But what I believe most strongly is that no, the galaxy could not have been saved by simply getting rid of Palpatine, no matter when, no matter how. Not because there’s no logical or morally justifiable way it could have happened, but because it defeats the point.

If Visions proves popular, there could be lots of new AUs in our future. Everything is cyclical in this franchise, and we could well see Infinities-esque stories about the prequels or sequels someday. I don’t know where that edict about happy endings came down from twenty years ago, if indeed that’s how it happened. But I hope very much that Lucasfilm sees things differently now.