[Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens](tag:711158) did a lot of things really, really well. It was funny, thrilling, and emotive in equal measures. By including characters like Han Solo and emulating the aesthetic of the original trilogy, Star Wars 7 had huge nostalgia appeal, while the fantastic Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron drove the plot forward into new possibilities.
But no film is without its flaws, and if there's one thing The Force Awakens was lacking it was world building (or uh... galaxy building).
Who Are The First Order?
At times it felt like Abrams and Kasdan were creating new characters and groups just to mirror those in the original trilogy: the First Order is the Empire, Snoke is the Emperor, and of course Kylo Ren is Darth Vader (but don't tell him I said that).
Like many fans, I walked out of the cinema with more questions than I had going in. How exactly did the First Order rise from the ashes of the Empire? Did the New Republic not see this coming when the First Order literally started building another Death Star? And why is the Resistance a scrappy band of rebels when the Rebel Alliance won the war?
Well, it turns out there's a good answer to all of these questions, and an excellent backstory behind the new conflict, you just have to know where to look. To replace the now non-canon Expanded Unvierse, Lucasfilm and Disney have released a slew of new books and comics to pack out the Star Wars mythology. The best for backstory are probably Chuck Wendig's Aftermath and Greg Rucka's Before The Awakening. So here's all you need to know about Star Wars' new Big Bads, mapped out from the books.
After The War Came... Another War
Return Of The Jedi ends triumphant, definitely leaving us with the impression that the war was over for good. Except it wasn't.
Aftermath helps to explain this. One of the opening scenes of the book is set on Coruscant, which we saw in the remastered edition of Return Of The Jedi. But celebration soon turns to riot, as this planet was still under Imperial rule. And it's kinda terrifying, as partiers topple a statue of Palpatine only to be cut down by stormtrooper fire. So the real war begins, as Wendig explained to EW.
"Now they’re a New Republic going toe-to-toe with the Empire in a somewhat more proper war. That’s where we begin, that hot conflict between these two massive galactic forces."
The Empire is crippled, but not totally destroyed, ordering counterstrike after counterstrike, even attempting to obliterate the planet of Naboo. But the Rebel Alliance is quickly forming a new Senate, and soon becomes the New Republic. The Empire is beaten back, and they recede beyond the reaches of the Republic's power, into the Unknown Regions.
But the Empire wasn't beaten yet. Over the course of 30 years they would reform into the First Order, and slowly become a bigger threat to peace than the Empire ever was.
The New Republic Ignores The Threat
In Poe Dameron's origin story, Before The Awakening explains how the First Order got to be so powerful and mostly, this is due to the New Republic's passivity. I'm not going to write out the whole story (though you should read it - it's really good), so here's the main points.
- Sometime in this 30 year gap, the First Order started attacking the New Republic.
- This conflict was brutal but a peace treaty stopped it from escalating into all out war.
- The First Order was confined to the Unknown Regions, with a chunk of neutral space separating their territory from the New Republic's.
But this peace was just an illusion, giving the First Order time to build up their ranks and prepare for their assault against the New Republic.
Poe's story begins with a mission gone awry, as the First Order attacks a Republic ship. Soon Poe finds himself questioning the judgement of the New Republic, and why they're ignoring what he views as the biggest threat the galaxy has ever faced.
"It didn't seem to matter that evidence of First Order incursions into Republic space continued to mount; the Republic refused to take any action outside of the most formal diplomatic protest. Striking directly at the First Order was out of the question."
General Leia Organa is similarly frustrated with the Republic's inaction, and so she forms the Resistance to covertly gather evidence of First Order action.
As it turns out though, the Republic's choice to ignore the First Order wasn't just through fear of breaking the peace treaty: from the new senate's creation, it was corrupt.
The More Things Change...
During Poe Dameron's final mission in Before The Awakening, he discovers that at least one of the New Republic's senators was feeding information to the First Order. It seems highly likely that this corruption was one of the reasons the First Order was able to become so powerful: every time it was suggested that the Republic take action, First Order plants would shoot the suggestion down.
And honestly they should have seen this coming, as Aftermath reveals that within a year of the New Republic forming, there were Imperial spies it its midst.
"The Empire knows their frequencies. Suggesting that somewhere, there's a mole in the halls of the New Republic."
It wasn't just a matter of spies and betrayal: the New Republic saw many ordinary citizens defecting and joining the Empire even as it collapsed. The ideology of authoritarianism was clearly quite appealing to some.
And that's pretty much all we know. It's interesting, definitely, that the New Republic's inaction caused its destruction. This backstory also explains why the Resistance is the underdog, a force smaller even than the Rebel Alliance. Personally, I wish some of this had been alluded to in The Force Awakens. This story fills in the gaps in the last 30 years of Star Wars lore, and it would be deliciously satisfying to see the hope of the New Republic collapse as history repeats itself.
But I'm just splitting hairs. The pace of the film probably would have been slowed down by this exposition, and for us hardcore nerds, there's always the books to fill in the blanks.