By Tom Anderson
Mention prequels and problems, and it is quite likely that your listener’s first thought will be of the Star Wars prequel films that debuted in 1999, 2002 and 2005. Indeed, without prompting our editor chose the poster of the first and most emblematically disappointing of these, The Phantom Menace, to illustrate my introductory article in this series. The science fiction critic Chuck Sonnenburg once commented that the trouble with the Star Wars prequels is that everything has already been said. The films came out just as the internet was slowly becoming mainstream, and were right in the firing line when online video technology advanced to the point that caustic web review shows started appearing around 2008.
There has been a limited amount of reappraisal of the prequel films more recently, for two reasons. Firstly, the people who viewed them as kids are now grown up and can argue their nostalgia filters against their elders who complained at the time that they didn’t live up to their own 1970s and 80s childhood impressions of the original films. Secondly, after Disney purchased the Star Wars franchise and made sequel and interquel films from 2015 onwards to a mixed fan reception, there has been some attempt to rehabilitate the prequels by contrast. I think it is fair to say that Disney sought to be so different to the generally-unpopular prequels that they went to the opposite extreme and made opposing mistakes. The Disney sequels generally avoid typical criticism of the prequels such as bad acting and dialogue, overuse of ‘weightless’ feeling CGI that lacks solidity, annoying characters like Jar Jar Binks and so on. But conversely they can also feel much more cautious and derivative of the original films, lacking the freedom to experiment with original new planetary locations, outright copying plotlines rather than merely ‘rhyming’ them as Lucas claimed he did with the prequels, and so on. Regardless, no matter what criticisms can be made of the Disney sequels (justified or otherwise – unlike some people on the internet, I must confess I am not histrionically outraged by the fact that women exist) I don’t think the prequel films will ever have a positive critical consensus. This is not to say that they do not have some redeeming features worthy of analysis.
What is rather striking, to my mind, is that so little of the criticism of the prequels is about the fact that they are prequels. Considering all the points I have made in previous articles in this series about just how easy it is to screw up writing a prequel, and how iconic Star Wars as a franchise was (and is), I feel that is quite remarkable. This is not to say that there was no such criticism of this type, but typically it fell into two categories. Firstly, there were rather vague and indefinable, though not necessarily incorrect, claims that the films felt either tonally inconsistent with the original films, or just did not live up to their sense of gravitas and majesty. I feel there is a grain of truth to this view, but it is rather exaggerated. There will inevitably be some style shifts when making films twenty years after the original, and in fact Lucas and his team actually put in a fair amount of effort into evoking some of the original style when they didn’t need to – I particularly noticed the scene transition wipes. Furthermore, there are already tonal shifts between the original films, with the first film (aka A New Hope) being much more ‘1970s’ in pacing and Return of the Jedi being more evocative of 1980s fantasy films. Where there is more solidity to the claim of prequel tonal shift mostly rests on matters more related to production than the fact that the films are prequels, like the aforementioned sometimes poor acting/writing and overuse of CGI. Furthermore, we should not forget those nostalgia filters making the original films seem grander to those who saw them as children or young adults.
The second main prequel-based criticism of the prequels is related to an intrinsic issue of prequel writing, which I have touched on before – the limitation that if your original story is about hope (and indeed the retroactive subtitle of the first Star Wars film became A New Hope) then what precedes it must be the dark before the dawn, and thus depressing. In 2005, when the last prequel, Revenge of the Sith, debuted, I recall a stand-up comedian (sadly I forget his name) doing a thoughtful routine about George Lucas telling the comedian’s younger self in the 90s about what the upcoming prequels would be about. “You like Darth Vader, he’s cool and villainous? Well in Episode I he’s here as a little kid, and his mom dies and it’s really sad. You like Boba Fett, he’s awesome and badass? [citation needed – ed] Well in Episode II he’s here as a little kid, and his dad dies and it’s really sad. You like the Death Star, it’s scary and impressive? Well in Episode III it’s here as a skeleton under construction and it’s really sad”. Beneath the gags there’s a serious point about the limitations of prequel storytelling.
Yet, interestingly, I don’t remember anyone ever criticising the prequels based on the fact that they were telling a story whose broad strokes had already been told to us through hints in the original films. We know Anakin Skywalker will become Darth Vader, that the Republic and the Jedi will fall, that Palpatine is evil and will establish the Empire (though allegedly some people watching the prequels were not aware of this!) There are few opportunities for real surprises and twists in the storytelling. Again, I find it rather remarkable that this seems like the most obvious and inherent criticism of prequels to films as iconic as the original Star Wars trilogy, yet seems to be made so seldom – which perhaps suggests there is a certain self-justifying je ne sais quoi to the prequels, despite their flaws.
Another criticism rarely made is raising inconsistency of content between the original films and the prequels, and the primary reason for this is that such inconsistencies, largely, do not exist. Again, I feel it is worth emphasising just how surprising this is considering how iconic and well-known (particularly by obsessive fans) the original Star Wars trilogy was. It helps that the original trilogy was typically small-scale in terms of following our protagonists around the edges of the galaxy, whereas the prequels dealt with grander-scale politics and war. This meant that the original trilogy only vaguely hinted about things such as galactic governance and the old Jedi Order, so there wasn’t much established for the prequels to contradict. Even with this advantage, it is still impressive considering how many other prequels manage to screw up established character backstories – even when they involve stories set in our own world, and do not need to make the ‘galaxy far, far away’ setting consistent as well.
Yet I do not intend to focus this article on this factor strictly, but rather on an even less-examined aspect of the prequels’ consistency with previous canon. In order to explain why I find this so worthy of examination, I first need to establish the rather unorthodox way I first got into the Star Wars franchise myself. I grew up in the late 80s and early 90s, when Star Wars was widely regarded as uncool and passé – an embarrassing relic of the 70s, like disco and Carry On films. In the 90s a combination of the pen and paper Star Wars RPG, and the Expanded Universe (now called Legends) novels which I have written about in three previous articles, revived Star Wars’ popularity in time for Special Editions of the original films to be released in cinemas, followed by the prequel films. I have a vague memory of seeing part of the opening of the first Star Wars (aka A New Hope) on television on holiday in Wales in the late 80s, but they were seldom on TV and I did not see it in full until the Special Edition was released. I actually found the first film rather disappointing, largely because I had seen many of the derivative films and TV series that took inspiration from it before I saw the original (e.g. Battle Beyond the Stars, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century) and it seemed generic as a consequence.
No, I got into Star Wars in the late 90s because I wanted to develop my own science fiction ideas about technology and settings, and wanted to take inspiration from a setting very different to the more familiar Star Trek. The first Star Wars media I avidly consumed were reference books such as The Essential Guide to Vehicles and Vessels. As these vaguely referenced the media from which their contents were derived, this intrigued me. I ended up watching The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi on rental VHS from Blockbuster, and found them much better than the original film in my eyes (especially the latter, don’t @ me). I also ended up reading most of the then-current Expanded Universe (now Legends) novels published by Bantam, and playing some of the video games brought out around the same time to capitalise on the revival leading up to the prequels. In the process I became more interested in the plots, settings and characters as well as the starships, technology and worldbuilding that had first attracted me. My visceral, personal grasp of Star Wars is thus not of any of the films themselves, but of a particular era of the wider franchise when the Bantam spinoff novels were wound up in 1999, just before The Phantom Menace came out and the novel franchise passed to Del Rey. Therefore, when I went to see The Phantom Menace at the cinema, I was not only (or even primarily) comparing it to the existing Star Wars film trilogy, but to my knowledge and mental imagery of the broader Expanded Universe franchise.
I felt I was going into this with a realistic sense of the possible. The Star Trek franchise had always been very clear that spinoff novels, comics and games were non-canon and would not be acknowledged by future big- or small-screen canon. While Star Wars had always taken the different policy of regarding almost all spinoff media as canon, I felt this was obviously a position that had been made in the assumption that there would be no further Star Wars films, and would now be abandoned. Perhaps the prequels might take vague inspiration from the spinoff media, but without acknowledgement, and there would certainly be no attempt to keep detailed content in canon. Indeed, this is precisely the position that Disney took sixteen years later with The Force Awakens, and it is hard to criticise them for it considering the spinoff novels had written themselves into a corner for anyone seeking to write sequel media. Yet, while LucasArts editorial policy had prevented the spinoff novels from covering the time period of the Clone Wars up to this point, the Expanded Universe had still established many things that might seem to be inconvenient for prequel writers. Indeed, the prequel films did contradict and retcon a number of items, which I’ll be talking about below – but what was genuinely surprising is that this was the exception rather than the rule, and those responsible for designing the visual look of the prequels deliberately referenced many things from the Expanded Universe.
Firstly, let’s talk about the small number of fundamental things that shifted from the Expanded Universe (as depicted in the RPG, novels, comics, video games, etc.) and the prequels. Most of these involve the Jedi Order, and I feel they could have been avoided if LucasArts editorial policy had been stricter on depicting flashbacks to the Jedi in their glory days or Luke Skywalker encountering traces later (as they similarly and sensibly did about too many references to the details of the Clone Wars). Unfortunately, however, media such as Tom Veitch’s “Tales of the Jedi” comic series were allowed to depict the Jedi of centuries ago as only vaguely hinted at in Obi-Wan’s lines in the original film, and the RPG and novels conveniently allowed a number of Jedi to survive Palpatine’s Great Purge as fodder for future stories. The latter was particularly problematic just from a storytelling point of view, as at one point it felt as though there were enough leftover Jedi between the various stories to crew a Star Destroyer, never mind take on Palpatine – each time cheapening the idea that Luke Skywalker is the galaxy’s last hope. These detailed descriptions put in a number of things that the plot of the prequels necessarily contradicted: the idea that the Jedi had a mobile base on a starship (The Courtship of Princess Leia); that the Jedi married and had children (there’s literally a novel called Children of the Jedi about it) and that apprentices routinely came to training in adulthood by default. More controversially, of course, the prequels also reduced the idea of Force sensitivity to merely the level of ‘midi-chlorians’ in a person’s blood, although Kevin J. Anderson’s Jedi Academy trilogy had already depicted a purely technological test used by the Emperor’s Jedi-hunters.
Cue The Phantom Menace, and longtime EU fans were surprised to find Anakin Skywalker’s apprenticeship being controversial because he was nine years old, rather than the usual three; that Jedi apprentices are called ‘Padawans’; and that this was told to us in a permanent Jedi temple on the galactic capital planet in plain view. But this was nothing compared to the other point mentioned above, which doesn’t appear until Attack of the Clones. I vividly remember seeing a poster for this upcoming film in 2002 showing Anakin and Padmé and the tagline “a Jedi shall not know anger. Nor hatred. Nor love,” and being shocked to learn this was a plot point – nothing in the Star Wars franchise had ever hinted that this was a Jedi rule or defiance of it was related to Anakin’s fall. As I said above, entire EU novels had been written on the assumption that Jedi had children and that their membership of the order was even sometimes hereditary. This is certainly the biggest shift in continuity between the EU and the prequels, and led to some fans being disenchanted with the depiction of the Jedi in the prequels – this cold order that took children from their families and shunned emotional connections did not seem to have much in common with the fabled ‘guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy for a thousand generations’ that Alec Guinness told us about in 1977. Again, I feel this could have been avoided if the EU had been stricter in allowing people to depict the ancient Jedi; granted authors would want to write about contemporary Jedi because they’re cool, but I feel it would have been better to suggest Luke is having to make all of this up from scratch because Palpatine suppressed all knowledge of the old Jedi ways. This sometimes accurately describes what was depicted, but not always.
If the biggest change in the prequels involves the Jedi, perhaps the second largest involves their opponents. I feel it’s probably the single most surprising thing for younger readers to learn that nobody in 1998 would have described Darth Vader or the Emperor as ‘Sith’ or interpret Sith as meaning the evil counterpart of Jedi. The original use of this term was in a title of Darth Vader as ‘Dark Lord of the Sith’, and as late as 1991, Timothy Zahn wanted to create an alien race called the Sith which Vader had saved from destruction (with strings attached) who had given him this title – the look of their skulls would also have inspired the look of Vader’s mask. Zahn was shut down on this, and called them the Noghri instead. Later, the Sith name was used for a (different) alien race which inspired a group of ancient Dark Jedi who took their name, but this was explicitly something from the distant past. ‘Dark Jedi’ remained the generic term for evil Force-users right up until The Phantom Menace came out. I remember seeing a cast list in 1999 and being surprised firstly to find two characters described as ‘Sith Master’ and ‘Sith Apprentice’, and secondly that their names were Darth Sidious and Darth Maul. Once again, younger readers may be surprised to learn that no-one had treated ‘Darth’ as a generic title until that point, and Palpatine had only ever been described as the Emperor. Past Dark Jedi depicted in the EU, such as Exar Kun, had not had ‘Darth’ titles. However, this is much less of an explicit contradiction than what I discussed under the Jedi, so is easily ignored.
There are some other, smaller contradictions from the EU in the prequels. Boba Fett got a new backstory, but the original one was always vague and sensibly rarely mentioned by EU writers anyway. Hints about the Clone Wars and who made the clones were, also, usually vague anyway (it is worth remembering that nobody thought the stormtroopers were clones before Episode II came out). One change which I personally dislike but is really a very minor matter (and was never that consistent even within the EU) involves Admiral Ackbar’s race, the Mon Calamari. The EU had a backstory that the Mon Calamari were a completely uncontacted civilisation, advanced but peaceful, whom had been conquered by the Empire and then broken free with the help of the Rebels. Their old cruise liners had been armed to become the Star Cruisers which gave the Rebels a fighting chance at standing against Star Destroyers, as seen in Return of the Jedi. Ackbar had been Grand Moff Tarkin’s personal slave who had learned his secrets, breaking free to design the B-wing fighter used by the Rebels in the Battle of Endor and lead their forces there. I personally found this to be a very interesting concept, especially as it shows the Rebels going from a beleaguered band fighting an asymmetric war to showing how they built their strength to face the Empire directly with the help of a force from outside known galactic civilisation. However, precisely because the Mon Calamari are an iconic race, the prequels showed them already as part of the Republic, and later Disney’s Rogue One film showed the Rebels already with Mon Calamari admirals and capital ships before the Battle of Yavin. As I said, even the EU itself had been inconsistent on this, but I feel it’s a bit of a shame and emblematic of how the Star Wars setting can feel static and stagnant rather than dynamic; even fiction set during the distant past of the Old Republic usually has to involve something that looks a bit like a Star Destroyer chasing someone who looks like Han Solo but wearing a hat.
Enough contradictions. As I said earlier, I really expected the prequels to largely ignore the EU spinoff material altogether when they came along, so to me the real surprise was when they embraced it. Put yourself in the shoes of a Star Wars EU fan seeing The Phantom Menace for the first time. Yes, you’re being disappointed by borderline racist CGI aliens, bad acting and so on – but you’re also seeing Coruscant, the galactic capital city planet you’ve read about in all those books, depicted on the big screen in all its urban glory and called by its proper name. Then, at the climax of the film, Darth Maul appears to face Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan as “Duel of the Fates” plays. This is an iconic scene to anyone, and probably the best in the film, but it means a lot more to an EU fan. The average viewer just thinks “Wow, cool” when Darth Maul ignites one lightsaber blade and then a second, turning his weapon into a quarterstaff – but the EU fan is thinking “Wow, Exar Kun’s double-bladed lightsaber!” The prequels took explicit inspiration from the EU material, even in this case from “Tales of the Jedi” which they contradicted in other ways.
This is the clearest example of what I am talking about, but there are others. The prop department for Attack of the Clones made Jedi Holocrons, the devices used in “Tales of the Jedi”, “Dark Empire” and the Jedi Academy trilogy, even though they didn’t appear on-screen in the end, only in the DK Visual Dictionary tie-in book. Revenge of the Sith featured the Republic fielding Y-wing fighters, which had been established in the EU to be old ships dating from the Clone Wars, but added the brilliant touch of showing them wrapped in sleek outer armour which had ‘fallen off’ by the time the Rebels are using the clunky, ramshackle ones in A New Hope. All of these are a little hint that the makers of the films cared about the wider EU setting and those who had worked on it, taking inspiration and not contradicting unless necessary.
Of course, this is often not how we saw it at the time. We were complaining why there weren’t Dreadnaught cruisers and AT-PT walkers and Z-95 Headhunters and Victory Star Destroyers on-screen as the EU said there had been in the Clone Wars – little thinking that those had not been very iconic designs, mostly dashed off by game designers who quickly needed an ‘older’ enemy ship for you to have a decent chance of beating in Level 1. It is only in hindsight that I realise how much we took for granted what we got. For example, the scene near the start of Attack of the Clones where Anakin and Obi-Wan chase Zam Wessel through Coruscant’s undercity is one that could have easily come from an EU property (in fact, it is very video-gamey in feel, almost Dark Forces with better graphics).
So that’s something about the Star Wars prequels I feel we shouldn’t forget. Disappointing though the films were in many ways, their makers understood that Star Wars’ popularity had been revived in the 90s by the EU (in the broadest sense, taking in the RPG, videogames etc. as well as the comics and novels) and the way they made the films reflected that. It is something we should be grateful for. As I said above, Disney has taken a much more conservative approach for entirely understandable reasons – no sane person would try to write sequel films that take in everything the EU established. Indeed, many elements from the EU have been quietly snook back into the setting since the Disney takeover (though more often in the new spinoff media than in the films themselves), just without the story-restricting detailed past plotlines.
The main problem Disney faces is that if you’re going to decanonise past spinoff media, you’d better hope you have something just as solid to put in its place – and the reality is often disappointing. This is something I may discuss in a future article in a different context. Though I’ve written a lot about the Star Wars setting, I really don’t have that strong feelings about it, having come to it later in my formative years and for the rather cold reason of wanting to compare and contrast technology in different sci-fi settings. The same is not true of a different franchise which fell much less ambiguously into the problem of its ‘primary’ canon being far less compelling than the spinoff media it sought to sweep away: Sonic the Hedgehog. But that’s a story for another time.
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.