Dramatic Escalation

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.

State of the Galaxy

Two of the most interesting parts of the new Star Wars movie is what state the galaxy is in (especially compared to the one previously established in the expanded universe) as well as the possible future conflicts.  These two components will be dissected and analyzed across several continuities:  the current Disney Star Wars EU, the former Star Wars EU with the focus being on Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy and Fate of the Galaxy (the name of the Star Wars tabletop RPG campaign I’m currently game-mastering with Fate rules).  For the sake of having a focus, only the state of the Star Wars galaxy will be assessed here with future conflicts saved for another day.

Regardless of continuity, the ending to Return of the Jedi wraps up all plot points.  The Emperor is dead, an Imperial super-weapon has been destroyed along with a great deal of resources and all character arcs are concluded.  The Rebels even throw a luau on Endor to celebrate and the audience leaves with the impression of a happy ending.  All continuities state Endor was the turning point in the galactic civil war, a point that would culminate in the Rebels emerging victorious and establishing a new republic.  Where they differ is in execution.

The Thrawn Trilogy takes place five years after the Battle of Endor.  The Rebels have formed the New Republic, established the capital on Coruscant and pushed the Imperials to a mere quadrant of the galaxy.  It’s established that the Imperial war machine is reliant on raw recruits and they don’t have the resources to match the New Republic in terms of capital ships.  What’s left of The Empire is on the defensive and there’s a sense the real fight is over.

However, the Imperials being relegated to the fringes of space doesn’t mean all is well within the galaxy.  One of Han Solo’s main responsibilities in the books is trying to recruit smugglers like him to sign on for honest work with the New Republic.  The galactic civil war really upset the economy, so the Republic needs men and ships so they can jump-start interstellar trade.  I’m no economist but a healthy economy should generate opportunity and money for all involved, so the fact the New Republic’s economy is lacking suggests the Zahn EU galaxy isn’t the greatest place to live.

There’s also in-fighting among the Republic factions.  One of the Republic council members, Borsk Fey’yla, is nothing more than a political opportunist.  Borsk and his group of Bothans do good work but only because they expect substantial influence in Mon Mothma’s New Republic government.  This manner of behavior rubs individuals like Admiral Ackbar, a Mon Calamari who prefers to be more open and direct in his dealings and opinions, the wrong way.  Even Mon Mothma, who is holding this alliance together, has her own biases like refusing to ally with a political rival until she has no choice.  Such a political rival includes Garm Bel Iblis, who feared Mon Mothma would establish a dictatorship not unlike Palpatine’s and stockpiled resources to lead a counter-revolution.

All of this, of course, pales in comparison to the main plot of the books:  An Imperial Grand Admiral (Thrawn) returns to known space, seizing command of the Imperial Remnant and taking the fight to the New Republic.  All Thrawn has to work with is an Imperial military full of raw recruits, one of the Emperor’s storehouses that allows him to create a clone army as well as his own tactical and strategic abilities.

The Thrawn Trilogy is impressive because of how well it handles the Imperial resurgence and how they can give our heroes problems again.  It’s also really easy to see Thrawn’s viewpoint and how different leadership can be under him vs. Sith Lords like Palpatine and Vader who have infinite resources at their disposal.  Because the Thrawn books are so great, the Fate of the Galaxy campaign kept most of their themes intact.

No plot survives contact with player characters, though, so Fate of the Galaxy isn’t an exact copy of The Thrawn Trilogy.  Notably, Fate diverged fairly significantly from Return of the Jedi with a more somber ending based on the suggestions of Gary Kurtz (who had significant input on the original two movies).  Such suggestions include Han Solo being dead, Leia becoming ruler of the galaxy and finding the task incredibly stressful.  Luke goes off into the sunset unsure of what to do with himself in a brave new world.  This moves established characters out of the picture and allows player characters to put their influence on the world.

Non-Kurtz input replaced the Death Star II with Elysium:  A re-initalization program that could purge an entire planet of life forms and repopulate them according to a select genetic archetype (it’s ultimately the end goal of the antagonist in Mega Man Legends 1 and 2).  After the Rebels destroyed the weapon above Kashyyyk, the Emperor’s death created a power vacuum among the Imperial Moffs that ruled each galactic sector.  Some surrendered to the Rebels and the results of that coalition that would lead to the New Republic.  Others would carve out niches in space and style themselves with fancy titles and basically become Emperor themselves.  These people would lead Imperial Remnant forces that would trouble the New Republic for years to come.

The players themselves would make their own destinies.  Jace Beleren (yes, the same name as the Magic character) would be the one to reform the Jedi Order instead of Luke.  The Crime Lord Spice would fill the position of power left by Jabba the Hutt. While the Crime Lord had his own objectives to pursue, he would have considerable influence over the New Republic government since he could make his enterprises completely legitimate (negating the need for the Republic to convince smugglers, since the majority of them work for him).  He would also oversee a gradual transition between an Imperial command economy and the Republic’s more laissez-faire capitalist-oriented model.  Various members of another player’s family would hold high positions in the galaxy, from Jedi Knight to Commander of the Republic Defense Fleet.

Despite their varied backgrounds, all players agreed on a decentralized government.  All agreed that a centralized government with a powerful military would result in the same tyranny that created The Empire.  They abolished forced conscription of a planet’s populace and empowered local systems at the expense of sector governors and the Senate.  Star Wars is rife with historical references so an Articles of Confederation-style government being established after a tyrannical one wasn’t out of the question but there were consequences to this decision.

Interestingly enough, The Force Awakens operates under a similar idea.  While the movie takes place 30 years after Return of the Jedi, the novel Aftermath takes place only 2 years afterwards and in the same continuity.  According to the book, Chancellor Mon Mothma is considering cutting the Republic’s military presence by 90% once an end to the civil war can be confirmed.  The film reveals that definitely happened, with Leia Organa Solo spearheading the Resistance which only has newer-model X-Wings to play around with.  Compare this to the situation in A New Hope, where the Rebels at least had Y-Wing bombers to complement the X-Wings.  The Rebel Fleet is even more robust in Return of the Jedi with the addition of A-Wings and B-Wings.

It was actually pretty neat to see the idea of a demilitarized Republic play out on the big screen after being tested in our game group.  It was neater still to see that our group handled it better than the movie!  In Fate of the Galaxy, our players still had to contend with Imperial holdouts.  They also realized having no standing army would be incredibly dumb from a diplomatic standpoint (can’t argue from a position of strength without, you know, strength).  In The Force Awakens, this mistake goes uncorrected for nearly three decades and results in the death of the entire star system of the Republic’s capital planet!

There is so much either wrong or unclear with the New Republic’s post-war approach, with the most obvious being why the Resistance is even called the Resistance.  True to the name, resistance groups are underground operations that resist some sort of higher power (usually some foreign invader, the French Resistance probably being the most famous).  This moniker would have worked 30 years ago when The Empire dominated the galaxy but now it’s less appropriate.

An even bigger offense than the name itself is why the Resistance is a paramilitary arm of the Republic.  There is no reason why the Resistance shouldn’t just be the New Republic military!  For why this is completely insane, picture the following scenario:  A Resistance operative is caught following their discovery in an attempt to impede a First Order/Imperial plot.  The opening title crawl explicitly states the Resistance has Republic support.  How would the First Order retaliate, especially if they have a weapon that can destroy an entire star system:  Hit the Resistance (wherever their main base may be) and watch the New Republic either back off or just fund another group…or attack the New Republic, sending a decisive message through supreme show of strength that possibly eliminates them outright or galvanizes them into action?  The latter option is particularly attractive if the Republic is stupid enough to have all its political leadership in one convenient spot!

Speaking of Starkiller Base, how the Republic allowed the First Order to get so well-equipped is another damn good mystery.  The idea that the First Order can develop a more powerful Death Star without the Republic’s knowledge has no good implications.  Either the Republic underestimated the First Order’s capabilities (dangerous, since this is the remnant of a group that built two Death Stars already, blew up a planet and imposed galaxy-wide tyranny through fear) or it’s an incredible intelligence failure (do they not have people investigating or are the reports being ignored?).

This isn’t to say the Resistance is completely worthless.  All of their actions against the First Order end up succeeding, either because of writer fiat The Force or possessing better talent (pretty sure Poe Dameron eliminated an entire TIE Fighter squadron by himself at Takodana).  The problem, like it was 30 years ago, is resources.  Starkiller Base was well-fortified and while it was lost, it’s a certainty that Supreme Leader Snoke’s base of operations is just as strong.  Conversely, when the Resistance shows up at Takodana, it looks like that’s all the Republic has to offer.

The Republic military mess could be tied to the political one it created.  The star system that is destroyed by Starkiller Base contains a planet that looks like Coruscant but isn’t.  That planet is called Hosnian Prime.  The Visual Dictionary to The Force Awakens reveals another interesting tidbit:  the Republic capital planet changes via election every so often.  There is some logic to the decision, what with Coruscant being the seat of the Old Republic and eventually corrupted enough to oversee the formation of The Empire.  However, constantly changing the government capital would lead to less stability in the long run.  Imagine if the American capital changed every 10 years:  All the bureaucratic agencies and the records they keep would have to be moved.  Instead of using that time to relocate, they could be addressing issues or doing work or hell, doing something (anything) that’s more productive!

It’ll be interesting to see how the repercussions of all this show up in the next few movies.  The First Order looks to still be a formidable force despite the loss of Starkiller Base.  The Resistance did find Luke Skywalker but there’s a giant power vacuum in the Republic now that an entire planet containing the Senate was destroyed.  Who or what fills that gap in leadership and when someone/something steps forward, who challenges them (either because they don’t trust them or don’t want to follow them)?  If the Resistance steps in that role, why didn’t they just do that 30 years ago!?

In essence, the galaxy in The Force Awakens is a complete mess.  It might be a bit unfair to compare The Force Awakens to the post-Jedi world established in The Thrawn Trilogy or even a personal Star Wars tabletop RPG, what with the movie taking place 30 years after Jedi whereas the other continuities only have to worry about 5 years.  That said, how much time has elapsed has no bearing on making a galaxy with some sense behind it.  The Force Awakens’ set-up is needlessly complicated.  The only backstory they needed was the Republic was still fighting Imperial remnants, which is entirely plausible with the galaxy being such a big place.