I’ve been living in Star Wars the past few weeks. The Mandalorian on Disney+. Jedi: Fallen Order on the Xbox. A full franchise rewatch gearing up for the release of The Rise of Skywalker, including dipping into relevant episodes of Clone Wars and Rebels. My brain has been living in a galaxy far, far away, and perhaps the most amazing thing about returning there is realizing how much of the inane trivia is still in that old grey matter of mine. Side characters from the Prequels who were only named on toys or in books – I know their names. Aliens that pass through the frame for a second – I can tell you their species. I can point out how the events of Rebels sets up this moment or how Clone Wars established this piece of lore. I know less than some, but much more than others. I am full of Star Wars mythology.
We were watching Rogue One the other night and I had a realization. Jyn and Cassian were making their way through Jedha City when they bumped into two aggressive jerks. “That’s Ponda Baba!” I said to my girlfriend. “Obi-Wan Kenobi is going to cut off his arm in Star Wars!”
But that wasn’t all I knew. I knew his companion was Dr. Evazan, a vicious surgeon turned pirate who was on Jedha creating Decrainiated – the people you see in Solo who are like half Lobots, with the top of their heads missing. I knew that Ponda Baba was Aqualish, and that his people had belonged to the Confederacy of Independent Systems in the Clone Wars. I knew that he got a cybernetic arm after the events of Star Wars.
I didn’t tell her any of that, though. What I said was just, “We used to call him Walrus Man.”
Before all of that lore accumulated, before the mythology of Star Wars calcified into dogma, we just had Walrus Man. Everybody in the Cantina scene in the first Star Wars was just called a weird name – he’s Momaw Nadon now, but when I was a kid he was just Hammerhead. Today I know that the race is called Devaronians, but back then he was just The Devil. The Cantina band is made up of Bithians, and they all have names now, but once upon a time they were just the Cantina Band (and once upon a time I did not know they played – I shit you not, this is real – jizz music).
Star Wars was different back then. You couldn’t know the name of every species because every species was new; there was very little revisiting of what had come before. Even when we did return to the familiar – when we came back to Tatooine in Return of the Jedi – it was with a sense of discovery of new corners of this planet. Star Wars was all frontier, and every new thing in it opened doors on new characters, species, planets, ships.
For decades this was Star Wars, and it was integral to its success. Nobody explained what a Jawa was, or where they came from – you just got to figure it out for yourself. The structure of the galaxy, of the Rebellion, of the Jedi Order was vague, and it allowed your mind to go wherever it wanted to go. There were toys for literally every character who appeared onscreen, but their histories were unsketched, and so you could play with them however you wanted. There were no rules, no boundaries, no solid answers.
I’m not trying to say this was better, simply that it was different, and that Star Wars is no longer like this. Star Wars is like the American West, in that what was once unknown frontier is now Google Mapped and littered with strip malls. There are still places to explore and things that are new to you, but the shape of it is known. Once the mention of the Clone Wars perked up my imagination center, and I dreamed about what Obi-Wan Kenobi could have meant when he talked about that conflict. Today I know most of the battles of that war, and how the events of it played out and all about the clones and who they were cloned from. I love that I know these things, I love that there’s this depth of history that has accumulated, but it’s not the same thing as the mystery of that one throwaway reference, dropped in Star Wars and not picked up again until the late 1990s.
Those references were the key to making Star Wars a place we could live; the undefined nature of the universe let us move through it in our own ways. But as the details piled up and the canon grew (and, in recent years, become granted the mantle of Truth by decree of the Story Group) what had been an empty plot of land where we could build our dream home has turned into a gorgeously furnished property. You still love to live here, but you have to make do with the couch that came with the place.
This is really reading like a dragging of modern Star Wars, and it isn’t. I have been playing Jedi: Fallen Order and I got very excited when Forrest Whitaker showed up as Saw Gerrara. He’s a minor character, with most people meeting him in Rogue One (where he dies), but who had actually been introduced as a young man in Clone Wars and then grown to become a terrorist in Rebels. Saw Gerrara is a great example of what is only possible with the accumulation of lore; the way that he has grown and changed across the various media is only possible in this kind of longform storytelling.
Gerrara represents the ways that Star Wars has gone from a black and white fantasy and become something more nuanced and complex; beginning as a young freedom fighter in Clone Wars, Saw was hardened by his own torture and the death of his sister (this was on a children’s show!) into a man who saw the ends justifying the means. When he returned in Rebels he had become a terrorist willing to do whatever it took – including wiping out a species – to strike a blow against the Empire. When he made his final appearance in Rogue One we saw the toll his choices had taken on him, with his mind reduced to paranoid ravings and his body broken completely. This character explodes the David vs Goliath simplicity of the Original Trilogy, and reveals the universe to be a place way murkier than simplistic talk of the Light Side vs the Dark Side would indicate.
The same goes for the Jedi Order; while their vagueness created endless opportunities for personal flights of fancy from 1977 to 1999, the eventual definition of the Order – and the revelation that they really kind of sucked – allowed George Lucas the opportunity to explore something more interesting than just ‘space samurai wizards.’ While the Prequels are, frankly, pretty bad, the concept that the Jedi Order was an institution that collapsed on itself due to the entropic nature of all institutions is pretty incredible stuff for a series of kids movies. It also stands as a grim warning to the institution of Star Wars itself.
Can Star Wars ever again return to that frontier sensibility? Ironically, I think that Star Wars itself created the environment wherein that sensibility isn’t that popular. Everybody wants lore and tie-ins and prequels and explanations of who characters are and where they come from. Sometimes it’s called world building, but a lot of the time it ends up feeling like world limiting. The expanded universe of Star Wars feels like ground zero for this in the modern world; Star Wars was released into a mainstream culture that didn’t fret too much about continuity and stuff, and it brought an attention to detail that had previously only appealed to the hardcore nerds. The hardcore nerds were, in the late 70s and early 80s, an absolute minority, hunkered together over fanzines and mingling in small crowds at local conventions. Now that level of interest has metastasized out into the larger world, and it’s hard to imagine that a throwaway reference would be allowed to just be that.
Still, Star Wars could return to its roots. If you look at the entirety of Star Wars canon media – games, books, comics, movies, TV shows – you’ll realize that everything has taken place over the span of about 100 years. What’s more, you’ll realize that there’s only been a small portion of the fictional galaxy explored in these works. This is basically like only telling stories set in the United State in the 20th century – there’s a lot to work with, but history and geography offer so many more opportunities.
Once The Rise of Skywalker ends ‘the Skywalker Saga,’ the powers that be at Lucasfilm have the chance to leap at that opportunity. Setting stories in the distant past or distant future from this 100 year period allows new storytellers the option to do what Lucas did – throw around tiny seeds of imagination without concern of whether or not they’ll grow into a spin-off or tie-in. It will allow storytellers to get away from Rodians and Corellian shipyards and battle droids and Tatooine, things that are in Star Wars but don’t define Star Wars. It’ll allow storytellers to explore what really defines Star Wars – a frontier of imagination, where good and evil come into conflict against the vastness of space and where the cultivation of spirituality is as important as the cultivation of martial prowess. Throw in a blaster and maybe a lightsaber and that’s all you need for Star Wars, and that’s all you need for Star Wars to move beyond the current restrictions and become, once again, something new and exciting and ultimately undefined.
I believe we can have it both ways – Star Wars stories that are set within the defined structures of the Century of Skywalker, stories that build on and explore existing myth and lore, but also have stories that exist in uncharted space and time, that connect to nothing we’ve seen before, that offer unfettered playgrounds for not only the imaginations of new generations of storytellers but new generations of audiences. This is the Star Wars we lost, but we can get it back.