I count myself among those who are quite happy with the newest Star Wars trilogy. It has its setbacks, just like any other film, but overall, they manage to bring a nice story. The area in which they fail is presenting the setting in which they take place in a consistent manner. This deeply concerns me as a world-builder and as someone who cares more than anything else about inner consistency. I am not talking about any nitpicky details here, but about the fundamental failure regarding some chief building elements of the world – and therefore, the story.
Let us show this on one remarkable example: The First Order and its portrayal, both in the films and in extra-film sources.
Do The Films Say What First Order Is?
Before you read on, ask yourself the following question: what is the First Order? Stop for a while and try to formulate a concise answer. If you are only a casual fan, maybe you can’t answer much more than “some sort of new version of the Empire”. If you are a hardcore fan and have read all the new books and encyclopedias, maybe you know much more. However, an average fan who cares, but doesn’t delve into every minute detail of every Star Wars book, comic or video game, should be able to provide a satisfying answer. But even if you are such a fan, maybe you discover that you can’t – not to your own satisfaction.
For casual audience, this doesn’t really matter. They are the bad guys, they look enough like the traditional Star Wars bad guys, and who cares where exactly did they come from. For people who remember nothing more about the movies that there was Darth Vader and two droids in a desert, the re-creation of Star Wars feeling is sufficient. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
For slightly advanced audience, what the opening crawl text says may suffice at first: that First Order “rose from the ashes of the Empire”. This is vague enough that one can fill in whatever they will. Sure, it makes sense that all evil didn’t disappear with the Emperor’s death. It is very “realistic”, a viewer says and nods approvingly. The ideals of a strong government, which was totalitarian, but provided “peace and security”, could have survived in the minds of some, and some would want to bring it back.
But that kind of fan might already begin to wonder: where did the First Order get all its weapons from? How does it relate to the New Republic? Is it an internal or external threat – in other words, is it a political fraction inside the Republic or is it essentially a foreign power invading from the outside? The film doesn’t state any of this information clearly enough. The audience is left to make their own conclusions – but nothing that would explicitly confirm them. On the one hand, it is very good that the film doesn’t bother casual audience (the first type I mentioned above) with recounting hundreds of names and historical events that they aren’t interested in. On the other hand, this is the other extreme – the origin of the enemy isn’t explained at all. And not just throughout TFA, but in The Last Jedi, too. At least in matters so fundamental, there shouldn’t be any doubts about the nature of the enemy.
You might say, the original trilogy also didn’t explain how exactly did the Empire come to be. Until the prequels came, we didn’t know anything about senator Palpatine and we didn’t care. But we aren’t in the same situation anymore – this time, we know what was before, and what we lack is the knowledge of how could it possibly have transformed into what we have now. This information is so fundamental that it should have been present in the films. And if not in the first, for fear of overloading the audience with information (or, possibly, because the filmmakers themselves had no idea yet), then definitely in the second.
Is This A Problem Of The Canon?
How is it possible that the films have omitted such a fundamental piece of information? Well, it isn’t my plan to make a case suspecting J. J. Abrams and his team of simply ignoring this (although I am not ruling it out). We know that J. J. Abrams mentioned where he got the inspiration from: “That all came out of conversations about what would have happened if the Nazis all went to Argentina but then started working together again?” One has to agree – it’s an interesting idea. It is also possible that J. J. Abrams didn’t see past this interesting idea, and didn’t see the process to the end – the process of incorporating it into the Star Wars universe, that is. For making (and in this case, maintaining) a consistent world, it’s important to finish what you started.
However, whether The Force Awakens team is to blame (or The Last Jedi team for still not rectifying that omission), I would like to highlight another problem: that there may be a deeper “flaw in the system”. Personally, I believe the case of the First Order is only a symptom of something that the new system under Disney has been doing fundamentally wrong. And that is how they decided to approach the new Star Wars canon.
Let us do a short recap: simply speaking, before The Force Awakens, Lucasfilm and its associates oversaw the larger Star Wars canon in a sort of benevolent manner. There were films, animated series, games, books and comics, and basically all of them were considered “canon”. The difference was that only the six original films were, we could say, “officially binding”. As a rule of thumb, if a writer mentioned a planet by name, it existed and future writers could utilise it. The same went for characters and events. But if George Lucas decided that in his next canon episode, the planet’s name was to be used for a character instead, the extended canon had to deal with it (for instance by explaining why a character is called after a planet, or vice versa). It caused some confusion from time to time, but at the same time prompted creativity; and because the canon consisted of good ideas coming from good authors as well as terrible ideas by less good authors, a fan had the freedom to ignore those parts of canon that he considered ridiculous, such as a planet full of rancor-riding witches.
Most importantly, the films did not depend on any external knowledge to work. In fact, they were required to be understandable alone, without reading extra encyclopedias and novels. Encyclopedias and novels were for those hardcore fans who wanted to know what in the name of all is Kessel and how can you get around it in 12 parsecs, if parsec is a unit of length, not of time.
The switch to Disney meant a change that could be compared to a switch from free economy to more controlled central planning. Not that the extended canon wasn’t controlled and planned before, but Disney brought one new rule: all parts of the new canon are equally canonical. There is no “core” and “extended”. If a writer happens to mention in a book or a comic that Poe Dameron doesn’t like ice-cream, that’s it. You won’t ever see him eating an ice-cream in a film again.
Exiled Imperials or Order-Loving Senators?
This creates a trap I would like to talk about some other time. For now, let us only see what this means for the First Order. Shortly before The Force Awakens came to the cinemas, a series of materials (in the forms of novels, comics etc.), all labeled as “Journey to The Force Awakens”, were released. In vague enough terms so it won’t spoil the film itself, it sketched out some details about the Galaxy in the thirty years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. Most importantly, they sort of told us about how the Imperial remnants were forced to surrender shortly after the events of the sixth film, but that their ideology survived and resurfaced in the form of the First Order.
The funny thing is that these original sources were not much more specific than the film itself. But future publications began correcting this. Probably the two most important volumes dealing with the First Order’s history and beginnings are the novel Bloodline by Claudia Gray and Chuck Wendig’s trilogy Aftermath, especially its third volume, Empire’s End. Aftermath tells about the vain struggle of the Imperial remnants against the Rebels in the year after the destruction of second Death Star, leading up to (spoilers) their exodus from the known space into the unknown regions (where they will later build up their military might and construct the Starkiller Base). Bloodline, on the other hand, is situated barely half a decade before the seventh film and tells about Leia’s attempt to counter the trend among young Senators, who didn’t remember the Empire for what it was, and forgetting the darkness of the past, glorified the order the Empire had brought. In Bloodline, the two strands of the ex-Imperials (or their children, by this time) in exile and the senators within the Republic are connected via an underground illegal network – the ex-Imperials wish to infiltrate the Republic with their ideas, and wish to build a powerbase for themselves.
Nonetheless, this is all still six years before the film events and both the stories are still somewhat vague. But even if they weren’t, should every fan who desires just the most basic information about the First Order be required to read a 400-page novel (or a trilogy!)? Sure, there are good old “Star Wars encyclopedias” for The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi, that provide some basic information – but an encyclopedia, by default, can provide only a brief summary. And I would still argue that a good film should work without an encyclopedia.
Keep Passing the Hot Potato
It seems as if, in order to properly answer the question “What is the First Order”, a fan needs to read if not each, then at least majority of Star Wars materials published in the recent years, puzzle it together and then come up with a definition. And even that doesn’t guarantee a satisfying result (for instance, the abovementioned novels each come up with their own etymology for what “First Order” refers to).
To return to my premise – it seems like having a unified canon resulted in the authors passing each other the “hot potato” – in this case, the definition of the First Order – hoping that “somebody else” will explain it for them. It looks like J. J. Abrams and his team did it – maybe they hoped the novels would do it for them. But those didn’t, either. And it shouldn’t have been their job in the first place! Most of the fans are still just film fans, and for them, all the basic information should have been included already.