Make no mistake: it’s a great time to be a Star Wars fan. Sure, we’ve got The Rise of Skywalker coming up in not too long, but right now I’m stuck on The Mandalorian and Jedi: Fallen Order, two of the best Star Wars stories that I’ve interacted with in a long time, and both rife with possibility for the future. Over at Disney+, The Mandalorian shows that we can have full-scale live action Star Wars in a serial format, and over in video games Jedi: Fallen Order shakes us out of a years-long despondency over Star Wars games and gives us hope that there are cinematic interactive experiences yet to come. And yet for all the accomplishments in format and style that we’re seeing here, I’m still a little bit worried about what we’re seeing with story. Not in the particularities of these stories, mind you, both of which are capable and strong, but in how they fit into what’s bound to become an increasingly ungainly expanded universe.
Spoilers for Jedi: Fallen Order and The Mandalorian Below, but pretty minor ones
There’s an issue that bugs me in both of these stories. Both are smaller adventures predicated on big implications: in Fallen Order, the protagonists are attempting to rebuild the broken Jedi Order in the wake of the purge. In The Mandalorian, the titular character is defending a baby Yoda creature that could grow to become a powerful force user, changing the balance of the force in a galaxy that’s been thrown into disarray after the fall of the empire. Powerful stuff, at least in theory.
The problem is that we know that the Jedi Order doesn’t get rebuilt. And we know that baby Yoda does not have far-reaching implications for the balance of the force in the post-Empire era, unless they’re saving it for a truly strange deus ex machina in Rise of the Skywalker. These stories both take place in a world where “the big stories” have already happened, and so we know, on an essential level, that the grandest implications of these smaller stories will not come to pass. And as good a job as the writers can do making us care about these smaller stories, it still shunts things to the side when you know that the larger stakes are already moot.
What’s happening in Star Wars is a variation of the prequel problem, something we see in all sorts of media: meaningful stakes are hard, but not impossible, in stories where we already know the outcome. Call this, instead, the expanded universe problem.
Luckily, there are a couple of solutions to the problem. Rogue One used one to great effect: draw out a small piece of the larger story, and then tie your protagonist’s success in a direct way to the action of the big story. It’s a good trick, but it’s only going to work so many times.
There’s the Marvel route, where you just sort of tell a story that’s so mind-bendingly complicated that it can stretch over dozens of movies. Hard to get that one to work, almost shocking that it worked the one time.
You can also just tell a totally self-contained story that is capable of resolving without making an impact on the larger story, which is what I thought was going to happen with The Mandalorian. Still, there’s a ton of room for this going forward, and I hope we see Obi-Wan get up to Ronin stuff that has nothing to do with the grand machinations of force and empire.
And then there’s what I would recommend with Star Wars, which is just to keep the universe intact but work with a very different time scale. Knights of the Old Republic is one of the most beloved non-trilogy stories in the whole world because it does exactly this: moves so far out of what we know that it can tell a big story again without worrying about that story’s impact on what we already know. There’s so much to do here! There’s the entire era of the Republic, there are the early Jedi, there’s a universe of potential content that could be spun back into the canon. I get why we didn’t see a lot of this at the beginning of the new Star Wars era, but I hope we start to see more of it soon. Games are a particularly good place to do that sort of thing, because you can give a game familiar touchpoints in terms of mechanics that let you do further afield stuff in terms of setting and story.
We’ll see how this universe expands. Right now, it’s formed around a central story that begins with lil’ tiny Anakin pod racing on Tattooine, and concludes with whatever is going to happen in Rise of The Skywalker. That’s great, but the expanded universe cannot function if everything else must relate back to that central story. We need to branch things out.