Thesis, Antithesis, and Star Wars
I’ve spent more than a little time thinking about how hard it must have been to come up with a story entry point for a sequel to the original Star Wars trilogy. By the end of Return of the Jedi, both Vader and the Emperor have been defeated. The movie doesn’t establish any structure to the Empire to imply it would survive having its leaders killed, and doesn’t give us any new villains who might take over. Character-wise, Luke has successfully avoided the temptations of the Dark Side and become a full Jedi. Han became a team player in the first movie, grew emotionally in the second, and had no real arc in the third. Leia sort of ditto, having been a complete character from the start. Jedi leaves no stories unresolved, in large part because George Lucas had grown wary of filmmaking and so shoved his main ideas for the entire third trilogy into that movie.
Michael Kaminski’s The Secret History of Star Wars carefully lays out what Lucas’s early ideas for the series were. Once he eventually settled on the nine picture structure, his trilogies were broken up this way:
- The prequel trilogy would have followed young Obi-Wan and Anakin, culminating in Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side, becoming Darth Vader.
- The middle trilogy follows the Luke vs. Vader conflict and ends with Luke defeating him.
- The sequel trilogy would follow Luke’s search for the “other” Yoda mentioned in The Empire Strikes Back. Luke and the Other would unite and overthrow the Emperor.
As Kaminski traces through Lucas’s drafts and interviews, a lot of the series wasn’t sketched out until after he made the first film. Leia wasn’t originally intended to be Luke’s sister, hence their kisses in Star Wars and Empire. Lucas hadn’t conclusively decided that Darth Vader was Luke’s father until after he made Star Wars. Or, even, that “Darth” wasn’t just his first name:
Vader: When I left you, I was but the learner; now, I am the master.
Obi-Wan: Only a master of evil, Darth.
“Darth” didn’t become an honorific for evil force users until decades later.
Crucially, Yoda’s Empire line referring to “another” following Obi-Wan’s “that boy is our last hope” was, when Empire was written, intended to be a plot thread that would dangle until after the next movie. Luke would defeat Vader in the third (sixth) movie, and then Luke would go off in search of the Other and confront the Emperor, who’s only seen in one short scene in Empire.
What changed? Lucas got tired. Making the movies was incredibly hard and his marriage was falling apart, eventually ending in divorce the same year Jedi came out. So he made Leia the “other,” moved the Emperor into the third movie, and dispatched both villains at once.
Where, then, does the story go after Jedi?
[Warning: I’m going to spoil The Last Jedi in a few paragraphs.]
Going with what we have so far, I’ll argue that a Star Wars trilogy¹ should:
- Follow a generation of the Skywalker family. The original trilogy is about Luke. The prequel trilogy is about his father.
- Involve a series of events that have galactic-political scale. The original trilogy is about Luke and the Rebels defeating fascism. The prequel trilogy is about Darth Vader falling to the Dark Side, murdering the Jedi, and the rise of fascism.
From that, in broad strokes, I would expect the sequel trilogy to involve Luke or Leia’s offspring and his/her/their place in a post-Empire galaxy.
Imagine you’re tasked with writing the sequel trilogy. Job 1 is to answer the question, “how does the story of this galaxy proceed from where we last saw it?” There aren’t any lingering plots to continue. How did J.J. Abrams answer this question? He solves part 1 by giving us Kylo Ren, and man is he a great character! Obnoxious, powerful but unfocused, wanting to be like Vader but not succeeding at being even 50% as cool, rejecting his famous do-gooder parents, and so on. He’s a cool tick-tock, too, from “good turns bad Skywalker” (prequels) to “good Skywalker” (original) to “starts out bad Skywalker.” Is episode nine his redemption story?
I do worry that Abrams basically punted on part two, though – the answering of the question of what the state of the galaxy is post-Jedi. The original trilogy is set in a world that’s a direct result of the not-yet-seen but implied events of the prequel trilogy: the Republic has fallen, the Jedi are all dead, and the Empire has risen. Thinking about it I don’t really want someone to have done a five-minute “as you know…” explanation of the last few decades of history, but we get basically no explanation for why a new group of fascists took over after the last ones were defeated.
What’s bizarre about The Last Jedi is that it takes what you’d expect to be the entire plot of the sequel trilogy (“Luke trains new Jedi”) and shunts it to a series of quick flashbacks. This is a fascinating decision. Obi-Wan’s dialogue in the original trilogy shows the weight of the burden he carries for being an ineffective tutor to Vader (which the prequel trilogy then failed to adequately explore). Luke’s failure to temper Ben Solo is a direct parallel to this, but the movie just skips ahead to Luke-as-hermit, putting him in the same place as Obi-Wan at the start of Star Wars.
Soviet filmmakers in the 1920s experimented with the use of the dialectic, a theory derived from Hegel, as a narrative and editing tool. They would intentionally set up a thesis, show its antithesis, and from the tension between the two establish a new synthesis. (This synthesis can then, in turn, become a new thesis with an opposite, and so on.) I’ll argue that in some ways what Abrams and Rian Johnson are giving us, thus, is not a true sequel to the original trilogy but a synthesis of the original and prequel trilogies. The formal references to the original trilogy are obvious: the structural similarities to Star Wars in The Force Awakens, the sort of backwards homages to Empire in Last Jedi (white salt planet at end vs white snow planet at beginning, etc.) But we’re also seeing corrections to the prequel trilogy. Last Jedi ends showing us the full start of the new rebellion, which is what we’d have expected episode three to be about. The prequels didn’t properly show us how Obi-Wan failed Anakin, so episode eight is doing that with Luke and Ben. Luke seems to tell Rey that the Force itself isn’t Light Side (thesis) vs Dark Side (antithesis) but a more nuanced mystery. Meanwhile the status quo of the galaxy is more or less what it was as the original movie started: fascism reigns, and we wait for something new to be resolved in this conflict.
I really don’t want to come off sounding too critical of a trilogy that’s not done yet. I love that the new Star Wars movies aren’t what I expected. Given their new status as money-makers for the Walt Disney Company, they could just be action movies featuring computer creatures and laser sword fights. Instead, they’re making us think in deep ways about storytelling. That’s cool, and I’m thrilled to see where it goes from here.
¹ Excepting/accepting that Johnson is planning to make a new trilogy that doesn’t follow the Skywalker clan. That’s fine. I’m just thinking about the structure of this particular saga. ↩