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‘Star Wars’: The State of the Galaxy
Everything you need to know about ‘Star Wars’ right now.
There has never been a better time to be a Star Wars fan than right now. The 38-year-old franchise is about to blast back into the public spotlight with the seventh film in the saga, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which industry observers expect to make all the money. The world is about to be gripped by a Star Wars mania that everyone—including the franchise’s most loyal devotees—assumed they’d never see again after 2005’s Revenge of the Sith marked the end of the second trilogy of films.
The Force Awakens will be a seismic event, but the first sequel is far from the only thing happening in Star Wars right now. The franchise has spread out to television, books, comics, and video games, and unlike in the past, these stories are all just as important as the films. As we draw closer to the point when Star Wars buzz will eclipse just about all other pop-culture conversation, it’s worth stepping back and looking at the state of the overall saga. Now more than ever, the direction of the Star Wars franchise will be determined by stories that never reach the silver screen.
Before we discuss the content of the Star Wars universe, we need to understand the content creators. George Lucas sold Lucasfilm, which he founded in 1971, to the Walt Disney Company on Oct. 30, 2012. But even before the sale, Lucasfilm was heading in a new direction under company president Kathleen Kennedy, the veteran Hollywood producer whom Lucas chose to replace him in June 2012. Kennedy, a longtime collaborator of both Lucas and Steven Spielberg, is widely respected in the industry. Lucasfilm insiders regularly praise her for her warm approach to the fan community and her grasp of the sometimes-elusive “feel” of Star Wars.
Under Kennedy’s direction, Lucasfilm formalized and enhanced many elements of its storytelling operation. The biggest change was the establishment of the Lucasfilm Story Group, a team led by one of Kennedy’s hand-picked lieutenants that ensures consistency across all Star Wars stories. The Story Group is best known for overseeing the all-important Star Wars canon, helping authors, television writers, and comic artists understand what works and what doesn’t in the universe. With Lucasfilm producing more stories across more media than ever before, it is the Story Group’s job to keep tabs on who is expanding the frontier of the Star Wars universe in what ways, in what time periods, with what characters, and with what consequences.
Shortly after Disney bought Lucasfilm, the Star Wars Expanded Universe—which consisted of tie-in material not directly created by George Lucas—was rebranded as “Legends” and explicitly deemed non-canon. Lucas, and the people who worked with him on the saga’s most important and popular content, had never considered the EU to be canon. But many fans who didn’t understand what was and wasn’t authoritative Star Wars content acted as if the EU had been invalidated. In truth, Lucasfilm simply needed the creative flexibility and clarity to explore Star Wars in a new way. Kathleen Kennedy and the Lucasfilm Story Group didn’t want people expecting them to incorporate or work around EU material. They needed to draw a clear, bright line in the sand, and they did.
The benefit of this decision was that, from that moment on, all Star Wars stories, regardless of their medium, were created with the same authoritativeness and overseen by the same people (the Story Group). No longer would a film brush aside a novel. Instead, novels would be crafted to fit the same framework as the movies, and vice versa. Films would still have a wider audience than novels, but they would no longer be treated as more “important” to the actual mythos.
The following is a list of everything that is part of the new unified Star Wars canon:
The six existing Star Wars films
The novelizations of these films (to the extent that they don’t contradict the films)
The Star Wars: The Clone Wars television series and 2008 feature film
Everything* created after April 25, 2014, the date that the canon change was announced
Yes, there is an asterisk there. Certain products, like the Star Wars: The Old Republic MMORPG, were launched before the canon change but continue to produce new content today. Such material is non-canon until Lucasfilm says otherwise—and Lucasfilm hasn’t ruled on The Old Republic yet.
To reiterate, every wholly new story told after April 25, 2014—including the Star Wars Rebels television series and all new books and comics—is canon.
Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens
The Star Wars franchise has been dominated by the 8,000-pound gorilla of The Force Awakens, at first simply known as Episode VII, ever since Disney announced that it was buying Lucasfilm and continuing the film series. There is simply nothing in Star Wars as big or important as The Force Awakens right now.
J.J. Abrams is directing the film—which takes place approximately 30 years after Return of the Jedi—based on a script by Abrams and Jedi screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. It will be released on Dec. 18. Original-trilogy stars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, and Kenny Baker are reprising their roles as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Leia Organa, C-3PO, Chewbacca, and R2-D2.
Joining them is a new trio of young leads: John Boyega (Attack the Block), Daisy Ridley (Lifesaver), and Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis). Boyega, Ridley, and Isaac, who appeared onstage at the kickoff panel of the recent Star Wars Celebration, are the clear successors to the so-called “Big Three,” the mantle that Hamill, Ford, and Fisher carried throughout the original trilogy. Also starring in the film are Adam Driver, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Gwendoline Christie, Domhnall Gleeson, and Max von Sydow.
We know very little about the characters in the new cast. John Boyega plays Finn, a stormtrooper who has to make an important decision early in the movie when he meets Daisy Ridley’s character Rey, a scavenger on the planet Jakku. (Rey’s droid BB-8 is already a breakout hit with Star Wars fans.) Oscar Isaac plays an X-wing pilot named Poe Dameron. Adam Driver plays the main villain, Kylo Ren, whose strange crossguard lightsaber has been perhaps the most controversial thing about The Force Awakens. Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o plays a CGI pirate leader named Maz Kanata. Gwendoline Christie is playing Captain Phasma, a stormtrooper commander.
We don’t yet know who the other actors are playing. It is likely that Andy Serkis will do motion-capture work, as he has in most of his biggest roles (he played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings and Caesar in the recent Planet of the Apes reboot movies).
We similarly know very little about the film’s premise, setting, or story. The teaser trailers show that there are new stormtrooper uniforms and slightly redesigned TIE fighters. At Star Wars Celebration, there was a costume and prop exhibit that showed off some of the items used in the film. Plaques next to several costumes revealed that the Empire, which dominated the galaxy in the original trilogy, has either been replaced by or transformed into something called the First Order. The good guys, meanwhile, are part of a group simply referred to as the Resistance.
One of the biggest questions bothering fans since Disney announced Episode VII has been whether the Rebel Alliance would have established a new galactic government to replace the Empire sometime after the death of the Emperor in Jedi. Based on the plaques in the costume exhibit, this appears not to be the case. It is still unknown whether the First Order retains the massive footprint of the Empire or has shrunk to a regional presence. (We do know that they have a “secret base” on a snowy planet.) What is clear, however, is that the good guys are still part of a resistance movement and not an established, dominant government.
We have seen several environments in the film’s teaser trailers, but so far, we only know of one planet: Jakku. A massive battle took place on Jakku decades before the events of the film, leaving wrecked starships strewn about—including, as seen in the second teaser trailer, an Imperial Star Destroyer and an X-wing. It appears that Jakku will play a pivotal role in the film by launching Rey, Finn, and Poe on a journey out into the larger galaxy.
Although the highest-profile member of the production crew is director J.J. Abrams—about whom Star Wars fans seem to have mostly optimistic opinions, given his lifelong love of the franchise—The Force Awakens stands to benefit greatly from the involvement of veteran Star Wars production talent. Lawrence Kasdan, who helped close out the original trilogy by writing the script for Jedi, is a consulting producer, along with X-Men writer/producer Simon Kinberg. John Williams will once again lend his unparalleled conducting skills to the film’s score. Ben Burtt, who created some of cinema’s most iconic sounds, like R2-D2 and the hum of a lightsaber, is the sound designer. Doug Chiang and Iain McCaig, whose designs for the prequel trilogy are widely considered some of the most universally impressive elements of those controversial films, are returning as concept artists.
The Force Awakens is sucking up all the oxygen in the room right now—well, almost all the oxygen. At Celebration, fans were treated to their first glimpse at Rogue One, the first live-action film in the Star Wars franchise that is not part of the core saga of “Episodes.” The technical name for these standalone movies is the Star Wars Anthology Series.
Rogue One, directed by Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) and written by Chris Weitz (Cinderella), focuses on a group of “resistance fighters” who attempt to steal the Death Star plans. The only announced cast member is Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), who will be playing a rebel soldier. The tease at Celebration consisted of one piece of concept art and a short computer-generated teaser produced by Lucasfilm’s legendary visual-effects company Industrial Light & Magic. (No actual footage exists yet, because filming has not begun.) Rogue One will be released Dec. 16, 2016.
In addition to Rogue One, Lucasfilm is already working on Star Wars: Episode VIII, which Rian Johnson (Looper) is writing and directing. The film has a May 26, 2017, release date. That means it’ll hit theaters 40 years and a day after the premiere of the original Star Wars film, A New Hope. We know of at least four other future Star Wars films. In 2018, Lucasfilm will release the second Anthology Series film, which was going to be directed by Josh Trank until he abruptly and mysteriously left the project on May 1. Star Wars: Episode IX will follow in 2019. Then there are two more Anthology Series films, one written by Kasdan and the other written by Kinberg.
As you might expect, given the culture of secrecy at Lucasfilm, nothing has been confirmed about Episode VIII, the Anthology film that Trank was going to direct, Episode IX, or Kasdan and Kinberg’s Anthology films.
Star Wars television, from clones to rebels
The Star Wars franchise was not dormant between 2005’s Revenge of the Sith and Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm. There were novels, comic books, and video games, of course, but what really kept the franchise alive among the general public was Star Wars television.
From 2008 to 2014, Lucasfilm Animation produced Star Wars: The Clone Wars, set during the Clone Wars between the Republic and the Confederacy of Independent Systems, which was the subject of the prequel films Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Although many longtime fans were initially skeptical of this Cartoon Network animated series, it eventually established itself as an indispensable part of the franchise. Under the personal supervision of George Lucas, The Clone Wars illuminated aspects of the galaxy that Lucas hadn’t been able to address or flesh out in his films. The series explored the spirituality of the Force, the Band of Brothers dynamic within the clone army, the intrigue of the Senate, the quandaries of aiding guerilla movements and trusting bounty hunters, and so much more.
Remember how Palpatine used Order 66 to wipe out the Jedi? In its final episodes, The Clone Wars revealed how Palpatine secretly laid the groundwork for that fateful order. Remember how Grand Moff Tarkin was in charge of the Death Star in A New Hope? The Clone Wars showed Tarkin as a young Republic captain, distrustful of the Jedi, loyal to Chancellor Palpatine, and already ruthlessly efficient. These are just two of the core Star Wars plotlines that gained new depth thanks to The Clone Wars. The show also brought in characters from Expanded Universe novels and comics like the Sith assassin Asajj Ventress and the Jedi Master Quinlan Vos. Ventress, in particular, is a testament to the success of the show. She began life as a relatively two-dimensional comic-book villain, but The Clone Wars gave her a rich and fascinating character arc that took her far beyond her initial cardboard-cutout role.
The Clone Wars is best remembered for two characters it introduced into the franchise: Anakin Skywalker’s apprentice, Ahsoka Tano, and his clone captain, Rex. The massive popularity of Ahsoka and Rex speaks to two of the show’s distinct but complementary strengths. Through the personal journeys and struggles of clones like Rex, The Clone Wars shined the spotlight on the clone army in an unprecedented way, and Star Wars conventions are now full of cosplayers sporting armor that debuted on the show. Ahsoka, meanwhile, became the symbol of a newly empowered female segment of the Star Wars fan community.
Women have always loved Star Wars, but until The Clone Wars, there was little indication that Lucasfilm was interested in embracing them. Ahsoka, and her voice actress Ashley Eckstein, changed that forever. Eckstein, who now runs a company called Her Universe that produces licensed geek apparel specifically for women, is the leading face of Star Wars fangirls. She appears regularly at conventions, hosts Star Wars fashion shows, and organizes other events that promote the participation of women and girls in science-fiction and fantasy universes.
The Clone Wars was Lucas’ swan song. But throughout its development and production, he was training a television director named Dave Filoni in all things Star Wars, from the big spiritual questions that underpin the entire mythology (How do Jedi think about the Force?) to the fine print that needed to be authentic for a story to work (How would Mace Windu treat bounty hunters?). While Lucas picked Kathleen Kennedy to succeed him as president of his company, to many fans, Filoni remains Lucas’ spiritual successor as the keeper of the Star Wars flame.
Filoni, who joined Lucasfilm in 2005, received nearly a decade of Star Wars education directly from Lucas while the two of them oversaw The Clone Wars. The show was canceled in March 2013, shortly after Lucas retired; a half-season of bonus episodes premiered on Netflix in March 2014. But Filoni wasn’t done telling animated Star Wars stories. In fact, he was just getting started—and his storytelling was about to become even more important to the overall saga.
In October 2014, Disney XD began airing Star Wars Rebels, an animated series set five years before A New Hope that explores the nascent rebel movement that will eventually become the Rebel Alliance of the original trilogy. Dave Filoni is an executive producer, along with The Force Awakens consultant and Anthology Series screenwriter Simon Kinberg. The first season ended on March 2. The second season will premiere on June 20 with an hour-long special and continue in the fall.
Star Wars Rebels focuses on a small group of heroes created in the mold of the A-Team. Kanan Jarrus (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) is a Jedi who survived Order 66 as an apprentice and now struggles to improve his skills without formal guidance. Hera Syndulla (Vanessa Marshall) is a Twi’lek freedom fighter who brought the rest of the team together and leads their ragtag crew from the bridge of her ship, the Ghost. Garazeb “Zeb” Orrelios (Steve Blum) is the team’s muscle, a former member of his planet’s honor guard who watched the Empire wipe out his entire species. Sabine Wren (Tiya Sircar) is a Mandalorian demolitions expert who fled the Imperial academy after witnessing the Empire’s brutality and now infuses her explosions with an artistic flair as a calling card. Ezra Bridger (Taylor Gray) is a Force-sensitive orphan from the planet Lothal—where nearly all of season 1 took place—who joins Hera’s crew and begins his Jedi training under Kanan’s uncertain direction. And then there’s Chopper, an ornery droid who is about as far from R2-D2 as you could imagine.
Season 1 was about getting to know these rebels and watching them foment small-scale unrest in the Lothal system. Along the way, they tangled with an Imperial Inquisitor (voiced by Jason Isaacs, best known for playing Lucius Malfoy in Harry Potter) and an Imperial Security Bureau agent named Kallus (voiced by Selma star David Oyelowo). Ezra shed his selfish street-rat personality as he began to appreciate having a real family for the first time in years, building a lightsaber in a sign of his growing discipline.
The season 1 finale dramatically expanded the scope of the series. Our heroes finally met Hera’s shadowy contact Fulcrum, who had been giving the Twi’lek guidance as she led her crew. In a twist that lit up the faces of many longtime fans of The Clone Wars, Fulcrum was revealed to be Ahsoka Tano, alive and well despite the turmoil of the intervening years. (Remember how her master became Darth Vader and wiped out their entire Order?) Ahsoka introduced the crew of the Ghost to a larger rebel movement, and season 2 promises to explore the effects of meeting these newfound allies and taking on darker missions.
To get a better sense of where Rebels is going, check out this trailer shown at Celebration. If you’re a fan of The Clone Wars, you’ll be very happy to see which other familiar characters appear.
The Clone Wars and Rebels are both available on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, and other major streaming platforms. The Clone Wars is also available on Netflix, while Rebels can be streamed with a cable subscription that includes Disney XD.
Electronic Arts has the exclusive license to produce Star Wars video games for computers and game consoles. Its first title will be Star Wars: Battlefront, developed by its DICE studio as a reboot of the Battlefront series that began in 2003. EA’s Visceral Games studio is developing a second title, with celebrated game director and writer Amy Hennig serving as creative director. Nothing else is known about the Visceral game at this time.
Battlefront will be released on Nov. 17 with Tatooine, Endor, Hoth, and Sullust (in its first canon appearance) as playable locations. A free DLC pack will be released a few weeks later that adds Jakku, the sand planet that will play an important role in the beginning of The Force Awakens.
The game, which is set during the original trilogy, eliminates the single-player campaign mode of prior Battlefront games in favor of multiple unconnected battles. These battles support single-player, online multiplayer, and offline split-screen play. A 40-person multiplayer mode, with 20 people per team, will also be available. As in previous Battlefront titles, there will be first- and third-person perspectives, different soldier classes, and “hero characters” like Darth Vader and Boba Fett. There will not be space battles, which were a core feature of 2005’s Battlefront II.
In its pre-release publicity campaign, EA has stressed Battlefront’s customizability. The developers wanted to build a game that recreated the fun of playing with action figures and vehicle playsets as a children. Among the benefits of this approach is greater flexibility to play as hero characters. In Battlefront II, hero characters were tied to certain locations, but in EA’s Battlefront, you can, for example, play as Boba Fett on Hoth.
To give you a better sense of what to expect, here is the Battlefront reveal trailer from Celebration.
Books, comics, and short stories
Because of the recent canon change, there is relatively little canon Star Wars literature right now.
At this early stage, Random House’s Del Rey imprint—which publishes the adult Star Wars novels—has only announced eight books. Four have been released:
A New Dawn, a prequel to Star Wars Rebels that shows how Kanan and Hera meet
Tarkin, a novel about the famous Imperial officer set during the Death Star’s construction
Heir to the Jedi, a novel about Luke finding his way in the Rebellion after A New Hope
Lords of the Sith, a novel set between the prequel and original trilogies that shows Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader teaming up to survive an attempted assassination
Four more will be released later this year:
Dark Disciple, a story about Asajj Ventress and Quinlan Vos based on unproduced scripts from The Clone Wars
Aftermath, a novel that explores what happened after the events of Return of the Jedi
Battlefront: Twilight Company, a stormtrooper-centric novel based on EA’s Battlefront
The Force Awakens, the novelization of the first sequel film
Marvel Comics, the Disney subsidiary that took over the Star Wars license from Dark Horse Comics in January, has similarly announced multiple series. Four are ongoing, and the first three take place roughly concurrently:
Star Wars, which focuses on Luke, Leia, and Han after the Death Star’s destruction
Darth Vader, which focuses on the titular Sith Lord as he struggles to regain his influence after the embarrassment of the Death Star’s destruction
Princess Leia, a mini-series focusing on Leia’s quest to reunite the survivors of Alderaan’s destruction
Kanan, a Star Wars Rebels prequel comic that explores how a young Kanan deals with the aftermath of Order 66 and the loss of everything he held dear
Two more will begin later this year:
Lando, a mini-series set sometime before Lando Calrissian takes charge of Cloud City
Journey to The Force Awakens—Shattered Empire, a mini-series set between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens
Canon completists should know that there is one canon comic series from the Dark Horse era: Darth Maul—Son of Dathomir, published from May to August 2014. It was the last comic that Dark Horse published before it lost the Star Wars license, but because it was based on unproduced scripts from The Clone Wars and released after the canon change, it is canon.
You probably noticed the term “Journey to The Force Awakens” in Marvel’s last announced series. Journey to The Force Awakens is a massive publishing project involving most of Lucasfilm’s major licensees, including Del Rey, Marvel, and DK (which publishes young-reader novels and other kids’ books). The Del Rey novel Aftermath is part of JTTFA, as is Marvel’s Shattered Empire comic and single-issue C-3PO comic. DK will publish a reference book called Star Wars: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know, while children’s-book company Studio Fun International will publish a guide called Ships of the Galaxy.
Disney’s in-house Star Wars imprint, Disney–Lucasfilm Press, will also participate in JTTFA, publishing four young-reader novels set during the original trilogy. These books, which will be released on Sept. 4 along with most of the other JTTFA titles, are intended to bring young fans into the franchise in time for The Force Awakens. The titles are Moving Target: A Princess Leia Adventure, Smuggler’s Run: A Han Solo Adventure, The Weapon of a Jedi: A Luke Skywalker Adventure, and Lost Stars. The last book will offer a big-picture view of the war between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance from the perspective of two “star-crossed lovers,” and it will include hints about The Force Awakens.
If you’re a completist, you’ll want to subscribe to Star Wars Insider magazine, which in 2014 began publishing short stories that are just as canon as the novels. Some of these stories were written by authors who have also written canon Star Wars novels, and they fill in the gaps in the timeline in a succinct but compelling way that will leave you wanting more.
These are the canon short stories that have been published so far in Insider. Issue numbers are listed in case you want to buy back issues to complete your canon collection.
“Blade Squadron,” about a unit of B-wing fighters during the Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi (two-party story in Insider 149 and 150)
“One Thousand Levels Down,” about two Alderaanian children escaping Imperial oppression in the sublevels of Coruscant (Insider 151)
“The End of History,” about a man preserving a secret archive of Jedi history who meets a resistance fighter and must make a difficult choice (Insider 154)
“Last Call at the Zero Angle,” about a bar full of TIE fighter pilots that gets rowdy (Insider 156)
“Orientation,” a tie-in to the novel Lords of the Sith (Insider 157)
The Star Wars franchise is firing on all cylinders, and The Force Awakens isn’t even out yet. Thanks to the new Lucasfilm Story Group, all of these books, comics, TV shows, and other media are telling a single, unified story. You don’t have to pick up every item to enjoy that story, but the more you watch or read, the better your picture of the Star Wars universe will be.
Most of the stories being told right now are set during or immediately after the original trilogy, but this is just the beginning of Disney’s plan for Star Wars. Once The Force Awakens has set the tone for the new, post-Jedi era, expect to see more stories set in other time periods. The Anthology film Rogue One, which will take place before A New Hope, is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to filling in gaps in the saga and blazing new trails in unexplored areas.
Whether you’ve been an obsessive Star Wars fan since 1977 or you’re casually dipping into the universe now that it’s heading back to theaters, take advantage of the diverse slate of fresh material from the galaxy far, far away. The scope of Disney’s effort to expand the Star Wars franchise is unprecedented in the history of popular culture—and as an early arrival to this effort, you are in the best position to sit back and enjoy.
Photo by Eric Geller
Eric Geller is a politics reporter who focuses on cybersecurity, surveillance, encryption, and privacy. A former staff writer at the Daily Dot, Geller joined Politico in June 2016, where he's focused on policymaking at the White House, the Justice Department, the State Department, and the Commerce Department.