When George Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney, promises were made about continuing the tale well past the numbered “Saga” films, but there was one casualty. One of Disney’s first moves was cancelling The Clone Wars animated series, a project Lucas had been working on creatively since the prequels had ended. Along with Dave Filoni, a superfan who got the dream gig of helping expand the Star Wars universe into television, Lucas helped shepherd the Star Wars stories in the form of the legendary Clone Wars. Set between Episodes II and III, the computer animated series expanded on the backstories of known characters like Obi-Wan, Padme and Anakin, introduced new ones like Ahsoka Tano, and helped bridge the gap in storyline alluded to as early as A New Hope, with Ben Kenobi talking about fighting with Luke’s daddy during this fateful time.
What the show fostered was a creative vision of the Star Wars universe unencumbered by the heavy expectations of the theatrical films. Lucas in particular was notably liberal with the ways he shaped his characters and rules of his galaxy, while Filoni and his team continuously pushed into dramatic, cinematically interesting ways, incorporating shots of dynamism and impact, and pushing characters farther and darker than many “kids” oriented properties. It showed explicitly that there remained a flexibility to stretch the canon, much the way the novels had done, yet still very much feeling part of a greater whole.
After the Disney sale the focus abruptly shifted, and the contiguous storyline was unceremoniously left to falter in favour of a new direction. Shifted a few decades, Star Wars Rebels occupied the space between III and IV, that time period between the liquidation of the Jedi and audiences meeting a young farm boy on the plains of Tatooine pining for Tosche Station’s luscious power converters. Meanwhile, the films were going to plow past Return of the Jedi, meaning novels that explored at length the post-Ewok phase were decanonized, freeing up the films (and other properties) to literally rewrite the events that transpired.
These novels, particularly those by Timothy Zahn, very much played a role in keeping the entire notion of Star Wars alive in what some not-so-factiously refer to the “dark times”, that gap between 1983 and the resurgence of interest with 1997’s Special Editions and 1999’s The Phantom Menace. Zahn’s novels, starting with 1991’s Heir to the Empire, introduced a particularly nefarious, post-Vader baddy in the form of Grand Admiral Thrawn, Supreme Commander of the Imperial Fleet. With his glowing red eyes, blue skin and tactical genius, he quickly became a fixture in many aspects of the so-called “expanded universe”, colouring in that period free from exploration from the film timelines.
Naturally, all that has changed, and to give J.J. and co. the liberty to bring us the likes of Finn, Rey and Poe an entire constellation of sources needed to be chucked out. Yet with Rebels, it seems, some of that storyline is set to make an appearance.
The Return of Thrawn
During Celebration we saw a trailer that hinted at other character returns. The mention of Wedge showing up gave a bit of a holler, but when Thrawn showed up the 4,000 strong crowd went mental. Zahn himself showed up in a video message, giving his blessing to Filoni’s project and even showcasing a new novel of his own, titled Thrawn, expected in 2018.
How Do All the Puzzle Pieces Fit?
For its third season Rebels continues to mine the growing resistance to Imperial rule, finding nascent appearance of Leia, the introduction of iconic vehicles that truly bridge the gap between prequel and sequel trilogies. Additionally, Filoni has managed to bring forth several characters from the Clone Wars series into the new work, finding ways of expanding his own storylines that were abandoned.
Part of the deal with the films, meanwhile, was to intersperse between the “Saga”, numbered works a series of standalone projects that would continue, on a yearly basis, to tell individual tales to develop and expand the canon. The first, Rogue One, is set like Rebels between the trilogies, taking place just before A New Hope, making it the closest tie (or TIE) to the ’77 original.
Interestingly, this provides a lot of overlap with what the animated series is doing. Like Rebels, Rogue One showcases a blind swordsmen Chirrut Imwe played by martial arts legend Donnie Yen, while the cartoon Kanan ended the second season without sight. Both characters echo a character “like Zatoichi”, as Filoni described, continuing Lucas’ own well reported fascination with Japanese cinema and narrative.
Watching Rebels after the trailers to Rogue One, one can’t help but see the thematic interaction, as a small band of disparate individuals seek to cause havoc with the Imperial forces. Rebels, of course, is the more childish of the two, while Rogue One, helmed by Gareth Edwards, promises to be a gritty, kinetic affair. Yet both feel part of a whole without feeling redundant, which is something that Lucasfilm is trying explicitly to accomplish.
In a fairly unique fashion these projects – TV series, standalone film, and saga entry, are combining to create a master narrative that expands in a coherent fashion Lucas’ original vision. What’s notable is that Lucasfilm now has a centralized “story group”, helmed by Kiri Hart, whose job it is to craft a hierarchy of these storylines. It remains unclear just what trumps what, but it does seem clear that the saga films remain the definitive touchstones, the anthology films weave their way between, and the TV series, comic books, games and other assorted properties make their way around as well. The goal isn’t to stifle creativity but to make the puzzle pieces fit, it seems, and while Clone Wars once seemed to be the only game in town, now Filoni and his team have to navigate more populated star systems.
“Get Out of the Way!”
I spoke privately with John Knoll at the celebration about this tricky balancing act. Knoll’s a VFX veteran, a pioneer in CGI, and not only the Chief Creative officer and Senior Effects specialist at ILM, but the person who first pitched the idea of Rogue One to the Lucasfilm story team. I asked about the echoes between projects, and he admitted candidly that Rebels “did have to get out of the way” a bit based on what Rogue One covers.
Knoll’s original idea was based explicitly on what he saw during the first few seconds of the 1977 original. When presented at Celebration we saw the Episode IV crawl do something almost magical, tilting from its oblique angle, the camera literally moving through the letters. That crawl is the fundamental key to Rogue One’s narrative. It begins with:
Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.
During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.
This battle, and these plans, are the focus of this new film, yet similarly for Rebels it’s very much a lead-up to these events. In the show, spaceships are being stolen, collected for that very battle. The whole building blocks of this rebellion are being shifted as the central characters come to terms with the growing power of the Empire.
With this bit of crawl magic, something fun for the fans at Celebration, the presenters presented perhaps the ultimate metaphor for what these new stories embody. Our perspective is literally being shifted, finding new angles to look at what we’ve already known. The prequels did this to a certain extent, post-facto changing given certain lines of dialogue new meaning after we’ve filled in a bit of back story.
At the same time, like the virtual camera we’re delving in deep here, getting far more detail about these characters that were alluded to rather than explicitly drawn. In fact, this “greater universe” is what gave Star Wars its original power. When we first walked into the Mos Eisley Cantina you felt that all these creatures had their own stories, and that Han and Chewie sitting in their corner booth were just one of many scoundrels who had stories to tell about Kessel Runs or whatnot.
Crossing the Streams
Time will tell if these storylines will prove to be repetitive and redundant, simply sequel fodder to fuel the economic gains of a studio looking to benefit from its investment. Yet it seems there remains a real passion to not only respect Lucas’ original creation but push at its limits, to make these works serve the greater whole while still very much being their own creations. As Gareth Edwards mentioned during the sizzle real revealed at Celebration, working on these films “is like the fantasy you always had as a kid”, and this infectious enthusiasm is palpable.
Yet the key to all this is to make something that’s not just a copy, not just fodder for nostalgia. “The pressure is so high, you’re touching a film that’s my favourite movie of all time [Episode IV]”, admitted Edwards, “yet if you’re too respectful, if you don’t do anything new or take a risk, then what are you bringing to the table?”
From Clone Wars to Rebels to Rogue One these non-saga works have been taking risks, continuing the spirit of exploration, expansion that Filoni was quick to credit to the original creator of the narrative galaxy. Lucas, perhaps more than many of his fans, has been surprisingly not precious about this series, encouraging his collaborators to stretch the storylines and visual flair.
For all its detractors the prequel trilogy showcased this expansion of theme, finding a larger canvas for tales beyond the Luke/Han/Leia triad while still explicitly tying to the Skywalker arc. With The Force Awakens Disney wisely gave a full adrenaline shot of nostalgia, crafting something far more familiar as a kind of safety rope for those that felt things had gotten too far away from the core principals. Moving forward, we’re now at a place where these storylines will expand out once again, with risks taken, new characters developed, and a sense of play being brought to the fore. The pieces are there for this to work – a robust story group, young filmmakers versed in the lore but anxious to make their own mark, and a series of stories that after all are based on fundamental, Campbellian structures of myths that are both universal and timeless.
We’re truly on the cusp now of at least a decade of works that tie together yet stand alone. From Rebels to Rogue One to Episode VIII to a myriad of other offering it’s exciting to witness all these disparate elements build upon Lucas’ legacy. It will falter if they play it safe, it’ll be hobbled by pure nostalgia. This is the biggest pitfall, while the biggest opportunity is that we’re going to see things that are new, exciting and adventurous while still respecting what came before.
It’s an exciting time indeed, one well worth, as we did in London, celebrating.