Let's talk about scale and suspension of disbelief. How, in my opinion, scale is one of the central tenants that makes Star Wars great. And why disregarding it can damage storytelling.
"For over a thousand generations the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic."
Wow. As a child, hearing Obi-Wan Kenobi state that in A New Hope, my first thought was, 'How long is that?' Because it sure sounded like a long, long time.
(Taken as 25 years per generation, which is a pretty standard measure, that's obviously 25,000 years - the figure I always had in my head growing up with the Expanded Universe.)
As a young Star Wars fan, my mind started to fill with possibilities. This was a huge amount of time, and the potential for stories within it mind-boggling.
|Obi-Wan relates to Luke about the Old Republic and the Jedi (Lucasfilm / Starwars.com)|
As I learnt more and more about Star Wars I realised that the Old Republic Obi-Wan spoke of didn't cover the entire galaxy - not even close. Nor did the Galactic Empire that took its place, although it appears to have enlarged somewhat from its democratic predecessor. This was fascinating: there were whole areas of the galaxy simply labelled 'Wild Space' or the 'Unknown Regions'. Even the 'Deep Core', relatively close to many of the most important locations from the films, remained largely unexplored.
This was great. I loved that the Star Wars I knew, as rich and diverse an experience for the senses as it was, was just a tiny moment in time across a handful of locations in a sea of stars. Scale, whether it's temporal or geographical, is very important: the breadth, depth and complexity of the galaxy is what makes Star Wars so appealing to me.
I don't want the galaxy to be small. I want it to be big. Very big. The bigger the better! Scale is good for storytelling. The more space, the more stories, the greater variety we're going to get.
Temporal and geographical contraction
Come the 21st Century and some cracks started to appear. Palpatine's comment in Attack of the Clones that the Republic had 'stood for a thousand years' jarred with everything I had grown up knowing. It was subsequently retconned that he was merely referring to the Republic as it had been since the Ruusan Reformations a millennia prior, so as not to contradict Kenobi's earlier (or later, in-universe!) comments. Bullet dodged - it turns out Mr Lucas hadn't contracted the age of the Republic by a factor of 25.
Wherever that particular discontinuity came from, sometimes scale is sacrificed for narrative purposes. A more cruel commentator would call this merely the absence of more creative writing, but I understand why it's sometimes necessary. There is no excuse, however, for handling it badly.
Rogue One (one of my very favourite Star Wars films) began a series of more recent geographical contractions: a squadron of X-Wings can leave Yavin IV and effect an attack on Eadu in the time it takes for Jyn Erso to climb a ladder... Believable perhaps if the two systems were right next to each other, but they're not... Not even close. Rogue One just about gets away with this, I think, without breaking the suspension of disbelief.
However, the sequel trilogy is more guilty of these sort of tropes. The arrival of First Order and Resistance forces to Takodana in The Force Awakens being a good example. Perhaps they were all just in the neighbourhood?
Flitting from one planet to another as quickly as the sequels do could be argued as expanding the geographical scale of the galaxy, but it also reduces the temporal impact. The original and prequel trilogies do a much better job of sticking with a few well-defined and explored locations that the audience really has time to get to know. In the sequels we're off to somewhere new before we can really learn to love somewhere.
Narrative driving in-universe mechanics is absolutely fine (The Last Jedi does this a bit better), but there has to be a balance, otherwise the entire set-up becomes simply unbelievable. And on a couple of occasions I think the sequels take this a little too far.
The future of the past
Fast forward to the last few months and much discussion has focused on the pre-prequel era of Star Wars content. With seemingly such a large history to explore, would we be transported to the Old Republic on screen? Would we see a range of stories spread across those 25 millennia?
With The High Republic announcement, we have learnt that the content will be set a mere 200 years before The Phantom Menace, 'when the Galactic Republic and the Jedi Order are at their zenith'. I'll be honest, I was surprised at that. 200 years? That doesn't feel like too much time in the Star Wars universe.
The High Republic content will cover 'a time of galactic expansion in the Outer Rim.' This also struck me as a little odd. Surely the Outer Rim would be very well settled a mere two centuries before the fall of the Republic?
I'm getting twitchy about scale again... And these fears are probably unfounded. The announcement stresses that, 'This period on the Star Wars timeline will not overlap any of the filmed features or series currently planned for production', which of course leaves the door open for exciting adventures set further back in time. The High Republic is a publishing sphere, so despite my reservations over the timeframe, there's still thousands of years of Republic history for Lucasfilm to delve into.
|Lucasfilm / Starwars.com|
I think some of my unease comes from wanting Star Wars to be completely different to our own understanding of history. It's difficult to not draw parallels between certain aspects of Star Wars and the real world experiences of the human race, and in particular American history. Indeed, George Lucas has spoken himself on the subject.
It's hard not to draw a parallel between The High Republic and the American West: the dominant power pushing out into a (for them) unexplored frontier. As the announcement states, 'expect there to be rich tales of exploration; charting out the galaxy, meeting new cultures, and discovering what pioneer life in the Outer Rim was like.'
None of this is necessarily bad. Parallels are fine, and of course you want the audience to relate on some level to the story. But when they cross a certain line the whole suspension of disbelief can come crumbling down.
When we run parallels too close, or make the galaxy smaller because it suits our story, we start to lose the essence of what makes the story great in the first place. Star Wars has always been about, 'Wow, I've never seen anything like that before.' Not, 'Ah, that feels a little like...'
And you certainly don't want people sitting in the cinema thinking, 'That doesn't feel like it could happen...'
When it comes to Star Wars, bigger, longer and unfamiliar are generally better.