Boldly Going Where the Story Hasn’t Gone Yet
Debating what may happen in future Star Wars movies has been a favorite spectator sport since 1980, when we all saw The Empire Strikes Back and spent the next three years madly surmising what would happen in the third episode. Was Vader really Luke’s father? (It’s hard to believe in this era, when “I am your father” is a classic meme, but in 1980 it was a viable theory that he was lying.) Who was the “other” of Yoda’s enigmatic remark, “There is another”?
That last question illustrates the danger of too much speculation. By the time Return of the Jedi came out, we’d debated every possibility, from a complete unknown to Han Solo—including the winning choice, Princess Leia (requiescat in pace). The revelation in Episode VI couldn’t help but be an anticlimax. So I’ve been trying not to spend too much time spinning my wheels over the unanswered questions in The Force Awakens. We’ll find out soon enough.
The title of Episode VIII, though, does bring up an interesting point.
Last Now, or Last Forever?
Disney announced the title The Last Jedi for Episode VIII on January 23, 2017. The fan community immediately went to work to ferret out the implications. It was pointed out, for example, that “Jedi” can be either singular or plural. There might be one last Jedi, or two last Jedi, or an entire academy-full of last Jedi. Still, some sort of finality seems to be indicated.
Comments around the Web as of February 12, 2017, suggest there are at least two major possibilities:
(1) The film is about the last Jedi who happens to be left alive at the moment. That’s obviously Luke Skywalker, and Rey could reasonably say, on meeting him, that she’s found the last Jedi. It doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be any more to follow. The Last Jedi might show Luke taking on Rey as an apprentice and making her a new Jedi. If so, the story could well be captioned, from Rey’s point of view, How I Met the Last Jedi and Became the First Recruit in a New Jedi Order. This would simply put us back in the realm of “That boy is our only hope / No, there is another.”
(2) The more interesting, more drastic possibility is that Luke is the last Jedi there will ever be; that Episodes VIII-IX will involve some sort of epoch-making shakeup that will end the Jedi order permanently. That might seem an anticlimax, after taking all that trouble to restore the order in Return of the Jedi. But if it did, what would the future look like?
This possibility raises a question that has long intrigued me: Is the Jedi order as we see it in the prequel series really a good thing?
How Not to Train Your Jedi
We had to wait for the prequels (Episodes I-III) to see how the Jedi order actually worked in its heyday. What emerged was rather surprising. The training program is of particular interest, because how you form the next generation of Jedi shapes what kinds of people they become and how they carry out their somewhat hazy galactic peace-keeping responsibilities.
(I should note that I’m referring only to the movies here and not the vast expanded universe of novels and spinoffs, much of which is no longer canon anyway.)
When we meet young Anakin Skywalker at nine years of age in Episode I, he is already considered too old for the normal Jedi training program. This is borne out by the scenes we see of five- or six-year-old “younglings” practicing their Jedi arts. Evidently in the Republic, Force-gifted children were taken away from their families as young as five or six and brought to Coruscant for full-time training. (No wonder Yoda also complained about Luke’s age in Episode V.)
If Anakin’s own experience is any guide, the younglings don’t return to their families, even, say, for summer vacations. They are expected to grow up without normal family interactions, living a sort of monastic existence. This approach might produce an intense concentration on one’s studies, and a sense of fierce fellowship among the Jedi members. But it’s not clear that the resulting Jedi Knights would be especially well-adjusted for dealings with other, normal citizens.
We saw how badly this worked out for Anakin himself. When Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi redeem Anakin from slavery in Episode I, they can’t afford to buy out his mother Shmi as well. But, appallingly, they never go back with more funds to do so; apparently they’re content to leave her enslaved while they concentrate on her Force-enabled son. (This omission itself says something about the mind-set of the Republic and the Jedi in particular.) When Anakin returns in Episode II just in time for his mother to die in his arms, this experience plays a key role in his eventual turn to the Dark Side, with the avowed aim of bringing “order to the galaxy” to prevent such tragedies.
No Valentines for Jedi
The exclusion of Jedi Knights from normal family and community life extends forward in their lives as well. We find out in Episode II that Jedi are not permitted to marry. (No one seems to have considered that this restriction is a fine way to breed Force-sensitivity right out of the participating species.)
While this barrier may have been set up simply to create a story conflict, it also intensifies the separation of the Jedi from ordinary social interactions. The trope of a celibate monastic order certainly has some narrative power. But it may not be an ideal way to establish the primary enforcement and conflict-resolution arm of a galactic society. In a curious way, the Jedi order resembles the army of familyless clones that the Jedi themselves initially create, and later combat.
A Failing Republic
With this issue in mind, the whole plot of Episodes I-III looks less like a simple tale of scheming intrigue by Senator Palpatine and more like a civilizational tragedy. A polity falls most easily to a destabilizing force when it is already rotting from within. Palpatine could not have succeeded so easily, one might argue, if the Republic and the Jedi had not already become decadent or dysfunctional.
In fact, the Jedi leaders in the prequels speak uneasily about some sort of failure or lessening of their communion with the Force, which is never really explained. Is it possible that the Jedi ways of cultivating young pupils had become hidebound and ossified in a way that decreased their powers and made them vulnerable to a sneak attack or “phantom menace” from the Dark Side?
This is all speculation, of course. I don’t know whether any such thing was in Lucas’s mind when Episodes I-VI were made, much less in the current screenwriters’ minds now. But these considerations do suggest that it’s not enough just to restore or return the Republic’s Jedi order. A renascence or renovation of the Light Side organization may be needed as well.
A Post-Jedi Order?
We now know that you don’t have to be a Sith Lord like Vader or Palpatine to serve the Dark Side. We’ve also got Kylo’s Knights of Ren, and Snoke, whatever he is. Maybe it’s also possible to serve the Light Side without being a Jedi Knight.
Based on the above thoughts about Jedi training, I’ve always rather hoped that Luke would rethink the historical Jedi practices (which he hardly knows, anyway) and develop a more humane, more balanced cadre. We now know that he tried to train a new group between Episode VI and VII, but from the movies, at least, we don’t know how he went about it. (I haven’t yet read any of the new-continuity novels.)
We do know that Luke’s new Jedi academy was a failure: it produced Kylo Ren and collapsed after his turn to the Dark Side. Perhaps now, after years of meditating on his mistakes, Luke may be ready to try something different. It could be that the new knights of the light won’t be Jedi at all, but a new kind of Force for good. To my mind, that would be a really interesting development.
These idiosyncratic guesses have a pretty low probability of panning out, to be sure. The subtleties of training programs might not appeal to the Star Wars audience as a key plot device. But they’re fun to think about.
The real entertainment value of SWAGs like these is to see how far off they were when the movie actually comes out. We’ll see in December what “The Last Jedi” really means—and probably have a good laugh about this post.