Star Wars: The Force Awakens had a number of roles to play, and several difficult jobs to do. The seemingly simple task of actually feeling like a Star Wars movie was of far more importance than it should have been.
By wide consensus, even among those (like myself) who appreciate some of their qualities, the prequels felt quite distant from the original trilogy. Because of this, the most pressing post-prequels goal of anything attempting to open up a future for Star Wars was bound to be this task of feeling like Star Wars.
If indeed part of its goal was to consciously and subconsciously assure a critical mass of fans that the spirit of the original Star Wars was back, then it is clear that this goal has already succeeded beyond all reasonable doubt.
But I feel the resonances between Awakens and the originating trilogy run deeper, have story-related roots, and cover an even deeper level of storytelling yet to be explored in future episodes.
It is not as if thematic echoes are something new to Star Wars, or somehow careless. In the case of the six films prior to the Awakens saga, their internal reflections and resonances are very well documented by Mike Klimo in his Ring Theory of Star Wars.
Awakens is, of course, heavy with reflections of themes and tropes in the original Star Wars trilogy, partly due to its need to feel like Star Wars. Yet those who’ve watched the Clone Wars series, or Rebels, know it is possible to tell a vast and different range of story types that feel every bit like Star Wars.
Even within those tales, some themes and stories have already recurred. Notably, there is a plotline regarding the kidnapping of Force-sensitive younglings that has been an episode in both Clone Wars and Rebels.
It may be my experience as a writer (or roleplaying gamer/gamemaster!), but instantly when I see resonances, I look for larger patterns and lore-related reasons why these similarities and echoes could be more than mere coincidences. Looking for story functions of recurring themes leads to new ideas, and opens new possibilities for the story one wants to explore.
In the case Awakens, there are two new levels of resonance I wish to explore here.
The first is a more subtle look at its story-related resonance with the originating trilogy.
The second is its resonance with the Expanded Universe, which may be all the more important in the long run.
As discussed in my longread first article on Star Wars over time, there are two canonical aspects to the Force as we see it throughout the films and series’: the Living Force and the Cosmic Force.
My interpretation of these mysterious forms is that the Living Force is what viewers remember of the original trilogy: a more spontaneous source of power which surrounds and binds all living things. I have come to see it as the place from which the spontaneous and unanticipated arises in the Star Wars galaxy.
The Cosmic Force remains more vague. We know it has to do with premonition and destiny; that it is a place where there is no future and no past, a wheel of cause and effect which is fueled and turned by the Living Force. I have come to see it as the archetypal aspect of the Star Wars galaxy: where the recurring themes and motifs and patterns actually arise.
In this way, as explored in an incisive (if predictably clickbait-titled) article by Seth Abramson, the Cosmic Force begins to stand in for the shaping hand of the writers and directors, and the recurring structures of a galaxy-spanning mythic story-pattern in which all occurs and recurs. This article is a must-read for anyone either struggling with or debating others turned off by recurring motifs between the Star Wars episodes. In it, he paints the picture:
… the Force is a mystical, essentially divine energy whose sole purpose is to make sure that neither the good guys nor the bad guys ever pull out a permanent win. More specifically, the Force compels both the good guys and the bad guys of the Star Wars galaxy to play out the same plotlines over and over again, because only by repeating these plotlines can the Force ensure that neither the good guys nor the bad guys will permanently gain the upper hand.
Essentially, the Force is an invisible script, and as long as everyone stays on-script — which the Force uses many subtle means, and many not-so-subtle vessels, to ensure — the Force is preserved (or, if you like, it “wins”). …
The Force is a proxy, then, for the film’s writers, which simply means that George Lucas and now J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan are more honest than most screenwriters, not more cynical. It means, too, that when a character acts oddly in Star Wars — as they often do, with it often, and wrongly, being chalked up to bad writing — it is in fact, in the world of the films, because that character is either (a) being manipulated by the Force, or (b) trying to combat the Force to re-assert his or her free will.
Many have critiqued Awakens’ resonances with A New Hope, by suggesting that Awakens is a kind of nostalgic blender, into which the contents of the A New Hope have been thrown.
Awakens is more structured than that: while it draws its main resonances for Act I primarily from A New Hope, it draws more resonances for Act II from Empire Strikes Back, and resonances for Act III from Return of the Jedi.
It is worth exploring echoes such as Poe Dameron’s interrogation vs Leia’s on the Death star; or Han’s confrontation with his son on a catwalk vs Luke’s with Vader, complete with a surrendering fall (one from death and the other from refusal of fate).
But even more interesting is to consider the possibility that in Awakens, Skykiller is not an analogue to the Death Star of Hope, but rather to the second Death Star of Jedi.
On a story level, the destruction by Poe’s starfighter squadron is background to the struggle of Rey, Finn, and Ren, which is intimate and pivotal. This echoes Lando’s run which backs up the unfolding drama of Luke, Vader, and Emperor Palpatine.
On a thematic level, it is resonant with Jedi for another reason: The motif of doomsday devices.
Once is a fluke. Twice is a pattern.
Three times is an archetype.
And indeed, on the level of Star Wars’ lore, both canon and legendary, there is something deeper at work here with this theme of recurring power-pivots like the Death Star and Starkiller Base.
Before taking a look at what and why, it’s worth quickly describing the role of the Star Wars Story Group in relation to story canon and non-canonical work.
It is worth keeping in mind, in all that follows, one key thing: Legends (the official name for what was called the Expanded Universe of licensed tales and stories over the years) may not tell us what will happen next in Star Wars, but is a priceless trove of clues as to which motifs might yet recur.
In April of 2014, Lucasfilm (under Disney) clarified which works were to be considered an official reflection of the Star Wars fictional galaxy’s history, and which were not.
In a nutshell, the existing films and the two animated series The Clone Wars and Rebels were designated canon (and those who balk at their status have probably never watched to see how exceptional The Clone Wars became), as well as works published after that point unless otherwise stated. Meanwhile, works which explored the Expanded Universe, tales long before or after those films, were now called Legends. They could be drawn from for inspiration, but they would not constrain what the teams working on new movies could do with their characters or stories.
Overseeing the continuity and thematic cohesion of these many elements is a Lucasfilm team called the Story Group. Among several other members, one key member of this group is Pablo Hidalgo. Because of his role within the Story Group, and as writer of authoritative sources such as the Force Awakens Visual Dictionary, we can place some trust in the answers he gives.
As part of the regular background series Rebels Recon for the canonical series Rebels, Pablo answers fan questions about the lore as established in Rebels episodes.
In the segment for Episode 1.06, the following question and answer is given (04:17).
Q: This is the second time that we’ve seen the Empires Kyber crystals plans foiled. We saw it once before with Anakin and Obi-Wan in The Clone Wars, but what has the Empire have in store for these crystals?
A: Kyber crystals are what focuses the energy in a lightsaber to create a blade. So its got this very potent ability to focus energy in a very powerful way. So I imagine that if you had 8 giant Kyber crystals, and perhaps arranged them in a ring, and put them on a gigantic space station, that could probably have some very powerful effects. So it is clear that the Empire is experimenting with something, and you could probably guess what that is. (Here, brief image of the Death Star’s secret weapon is shown.)
Will next year's Anthology film Rogue One delve into these mysteries at all? Perhaps too much to hope. But not impossible.
That the Death Stars used kyber crystals as the main elements of their destructive arrays might lead us to look more closely at the Starkiller Base. And indeed, there is a well-explored theory that the base was built on/of the planet Ilum.
It is delightfully possible to get a good taste of what Ilum was like and how much it may have mattered to the old Jedi order. In canon (Clone Wars, episode arc starting with (s5 ep6) The Gathering), Ilum was a world rich with the Force, on which countless Jedi had quested in the past to find the kyber crystals needed to build their lightsabers.
(These episodes are wonderful viewing, and after the first in the arc, also include the Emmy-award winning portrayal of lightsaber construction mentor and droid played by Dr. Who alumni David Tennant: Professor Huyang. They also take place in part aboard the ancient lightsaber-forging academy ship The Crucible, perhaps my favorite Star Wars ship beyond the Falcon. But I digress…)
Thus far, Pablo Hidalgo has neither confirmed nor denied this theory. On Twitter, questions regarding Ilum have gone unanswered. In The Visual Dictionary for The Force Awakens, however, he writes for the entry on the Starkiller base:
“The First Order selected the icy world for its unique energy-transmitting crystalline deposits.” (p.69)
If indeed the Starkiller base was built on/of Ilum, it would achieve at least two major goals (for the First Order): It would be the culmination of experiments begun with the Death Stars -- and as we will see below, of themes even earlier in the Legends. The First Order would be perfecting principles the Empire attempted, themselves based on even earlier currents in the Legends. The creation of Starkiller Base on/of the planet Ilum would also dispense with (first by occupation, and then through its destruction) one of the primary and even sacred locations used in the Jedi quest to build their lightsabers.
Luckily for the future of any rebirth of the Jedi, or any group remotely like them, Rebels has established as canon that lightsaber-bound kyber crystals may be quested for in other ancient ruins and Jedi temples.
In the Legends, through the initial quests of the post-Disney acquisition roleplaying game Force and Destiny, persecuted Jedi as far back as the days of the Empire were able to quest for kyber crystals in various places, also using them to discover or resurrect Jedi Holochrons: devices which stored the essence and teachings of Jedi masters running far back into history.
Some of the earliest such history lies in a legendary series called Dawn of the Jedi, where we learn that an ancient species known as the Kwa created the first holochrons, teaching this art (and others) to species throughout the galaxy.
In the Legends, of course, these sites ultimately had to be deactivated or destroyed. Yet with that destruction or deactivation, the secrets of the Infinity Gates and their star-spanning access were lost as well.
Though out of print, the Dawn of the Jedi comics now seem to be available (and only since December 15, 2015) as Kindle releases. Like all things Star Wars, though cheesy in their ways, they are well worth a read.
If any aspect of these legends holds true (fictionally speaking!), it took many thousands of years for the forces of darkness to recover this level of destructive power, starting much further back in the Star Wars galaxy’s history.
No simple or unimaginative copycat plot, the archetype for that weapon had been laid down long before. Starkiller Base was the Cosmic Force at work through destiny and fate, woven into the archetypes of Story.
In fact, there is one important way in which The Force Awakens marks a real (fictional) beginning: This film, right now, is the first moment in the history of Star Wars that its very namesake makes actual, literal sense.
Starkiller draws from a star to wage war, and becomes one in the end.
(What role those countless kyber crystals — fused through Ilum into one new star — may have in the future is anyone’s guess.)
We know, now, that one of these worlds -- the island world of Luke's hermitage and exile -- is called Ahch-To, a new world in the Unknown Regions. But this is all we know.
If Luke is truly seeking out the First Jedi Temple, his path is bound to lead him into realms explored through these earliest (in fictional timeframe) tales. For these were the temples that first awakened the Jedi order in the Legends, through massive arks called Tho Yor (which bear a striking resemblance to that monolithic mystery of the Clone Wars, Mortis.)
All this is a deep dive into a realm of background which (to their great credit) the new Star Wars films should never require for face-value enjoyment.
However, this is also part and parcel of one of the great triumphs of Awakens: Far from being carelessly repetitive or derivative, its echoes yield deep clues as to the possible direction of its saga for years to come, for those interested enough to explore them. I believe this is partly due to the guiding stewardship of the Star Wars Story Group, and their appreciation of all eras of Star Wars (original or prequel; Legends or canon).
Because of the guiding hand of the Story Group, which seems quite respectful of the value of the Extended Universe, not all of this needs to have been a decision of J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan for it to be possible as background.
Certain situations and themes must be established: the first Jedi temple, the mystery of Snoke, and so on. Beyond that, the ever-shaping current of the story itself can leave directors freedom to do what they will. This interweaving of mystery and (provisional!) backstory suggests a much deeper and richer future lore for the Awakens saga (and beyond).
There is more to the motif of recurring patterns in Star Wars than meets the eye.
The fateful, shaping nature of the Cosmic Force is woven into the Legends, which the film team seems at least to be drawing from. Thus, when motifs recur in Star Wars, we should not be surprised.
It is as if the Star Wars galaxy itself had a pattern deeply woven into it, something which needed to be explored and unfolded in as many variations as possible...
For its task to reach completion.
To what end?
The only way to know for sure is to step slowly forwards as the Awakens saga unfolds, bearing in mind all the legends and lore as we do.