Stories are built on a foundation known as “dramatic conflict.” While it can take many forms, drama usually boils down to one of two possibilities. Conflict will either specific to a character or revolve around their response vs. a threat to the world they live in. Stories will often have both but one will take precedence over the other. The Star Wars saga has successfully tackled both approaches but has gone to the well containing one option a little too often.
The main plot of the original Star Wars revolves around the Death Star, an Imperial space station with enough firepower to destroy an entire planet. There’s some character conflict present (Luke unsure if he wants to accept his Jedi heritage, Han’s conflict of selfishness v. selflessness) but the movie really revolves around the Death Star. The movie’s climax, for instance, has Luke trusting the Force over his targeting computer and Han choosing to save his friend…actions that result in the Death Star’s destruction. Their character development exists for the sole purpose of wrapping up the main plot.
Now it would be obvious to up the stakes for the sequel. Instead, the genius of The Empire Strikes Back is not that the Imperials have a super-weapon that’s even more super than the Death Star. It’s that the conflict of the story is entirely character-driven. The Imperials find the Rebel base, causing an impromptu evacuation that has the heroes split up. Han and Leia have to evade Darth Vader’s fleet in a piece of junk that doesn’t even have a functioning hyperdrive. The two of them eventually reach Cloud City and it looks like they’ll be safe…
…Instead, Han’s smuggler past catches up with him as his “buddy” has made a deal with The Empire. Han gets frozen in carbonite and turned over to a bounty hunter that’s going to return him to Jabba the Hutt, who put out a bounty on him when Han chose not to repay his outstanding debt. Luke senses his friends in trouble and has to decide between helping them or completing his Jedi training. Luke ignores the advice of his Jedi teachers to go aid his friends. Instead of helping them, he loses his hand and lightsaber in a duel with Vader.
And the best part is that all this dramatic conflict is completely reasonable. The audience has already been introduced to a galaxy dominated by a tyrannical empire. Sure, they can’t blow up planets with impunity but they’ve still got starships, soldiers, droids, vehicles, credits and connections. All of those resources can be used to hunt down a few people of interest, not to mention a rebellion. They can also be used to set a trap, an incredibly effective one if the person setting it is skilled in the Dark Side of the Force.
Oddly enough, Empire Strikes Back is the only time character-based drama trumps a galactic-wide threat in terms of plot significance. For a series that prides itself on characters rather than plot, it’s amazing Star Wars doesn’t try character-based conflict more often. It’s not even that difficult to do: Just put them in tough situations and figure out how they’ll prevail (or not). As we’ll see, this method is a lot easier than creating threats on a galactic scale.
The follow-up, Return of the Jedi, centers around a second Death Star although Luke confronting Vader and the Emperor is also significant. However, Jedi suffers from a bad case of copying the original movie too much. Once the heroes free Han Solo from Jabba’s clutches, the only thing any non-Luke character can do is blow up a second Death Star. This Death Star is unfinished but it can now shoot capital ships with little difficulty. Of course, we only find out about that capability a few minutes before Death Star 2.0 is blown up by the Rebels…
For the sake of being thorough, the prequel trilogy has conflicts on a galactic scale (Palpatine engineering a galactic war so he can turn the Republic into an Empire he rules) and on a personal level (Anakin being lured by the dark side). The problem with the prequels, though, is that they are terrible at establishing why the audience should care about any of the drama. We already know the creation of the Empire is destined to happen but aside from our own predisposition towards republicanism, that belief isn’t reinforced in the story. It wouldn’t have been difficult to have a Senator oppose Palpatine and give speeches that reinforce the values of republican democracy. Sure, there’s people in the Senate who eventually go on to support the Rebellion (Bail Organa, Mon Mothma) but none of these people do anything when Palpatine institutes a galactic empire. Why not use the political process to drag out his charges against the Jedi?
The character drama fares no better. Anakin’s written as a bad person from the start when he’s deemed “dangerous” by Obi-Wan, the person who will become his future Jedi Master. Obi-Wan made a promise to train Anakin to fulfill Master Qui-Gon’s wishes but he completely fucks it up. The rest of the Jedi are completely oblivious to Palpatine’s plot. Nothing seems to matter because since everything is predestined to happen: No one tries to stop the Empire from rising or Anakin falling to the dark side until it’s too late.
To the prequels’ credit, at least their plots didn’t revolve around a super-weapon. The Force Awakens features another Death Star (Starkiller Base), that’s now the size of a planet (instead of a moon) and can destroy multiple planets in the same star system. Given that the Death Star in each appearance has been getting more powerful, how does the post-Force Awakens universe escalate the threat from here? Destroy multiple star systems at a time? Destroy the entire universe itself?
The Star Wars Fate game I’m currently game-mastering has run into the same problem. While the Imperial Remnant is still a force to be reckoned with in the galaxy, the greater threat involves nanotechnology. Said nanotech was developed by a mad scientist, implanted in a Force-sensitive crime lord whose mentally unstable and can replicate itself by cannibalizing the Force. If left unchecked, this could lead to these “nanites” eliminating all life in the universe. While that’s all pretty threatening, it does raise questions about how to escalate the threat from there. A later campaign revolving around a re-surging Empire to conquer the galaxy would get eyerolls from the players, who would note (correctly) they’re not as dangerous as the nanites. The only answer to this problem is to make future game sessions revolve around conflicts specific to the player characters.
Hopefully, Disney doesn’t go the route of bigger and better Death Stars when character drama would be much easier to handle. The Force Awakens has a established a new ensemble with enough depth to them that’s worth exploring while raising possibilities for the old Star Wars characters. Who is Rey, how is she so strong with the Force yet so reluctant to embrace it? What will Finn do once he wakes up from his coma and his primary motivation to aiding the Resistance, Rey, is off training to be a Jedi? Kylo Ren seems to have passed Supreme Leader Snoke’s test of resisting the redemption of the light side, what further training will he undergo? Luke has isolated himself from the galaxy, what will he do now that it needs him again and his isolationism resulted in the death of his best friend? With no Republic Senate and the Resistance the only ones who understand the threat of the First Order, does Leia become Queen of the galaxy or assume some other leadership role?
The forecast for Episode VIII is cautiously optimistic. With J.J. Abrams no longer involved, the audience doesn’t have to worry about the same problems that plagued Star Trek Into Darkness (where the film hit too many familiar beats covered in Star Trek 09 and went as far as bringing back Khan). Think of this way: If J.J. had directed Episode VIII, it honestly shouldn’t surprise anyone if he gender-flipped the famous carbon freezing scene (Finn would be watching helpless as Rey gets frozen in carbonite, tells her he loves her before she rolls her eyes and says, “I know”). New director Rian Johnson directed the best episode of Breaking Bad (Ozymandias) and, hopefully, was taking notes from Vince Gilligan about putting characters in the worst possible situation.