As the premiere of The Force Awakens approaches, I’m reminded of when a young Cheapskate and his high school girlfriend drove to the Kennedy Mall theater to see The Phantom Menace on opening night. After the film ended, we left the theater, and drove about halfway home in silence before she turned to me and said, “What the f*ck was that?!?”
Since then, we’ve seen innumerable pieces about exactly why Episodes I through III didn’t live up to their forebears, and I’m not going to rehash all of them. Suffice it to say that the prequels felt like someone used the Star Wars intellectual property to create a series of films with entirely different pacing, themes, and tone from the originals. We’ve also seen plenty of criticisms of how particular scenes failed to achieve their goals (and at this point the reader is probably muttering about pizza rolls). But maybe that’s not the right way to build a better set of prequels. Maybe instead of fine-tuning them, we ought to junk them and start over.
When I started thinking about what story I would’ve told in the prequels, I thought back to what we knew in the original three films. In George Lucas’ prequels, the Jedi are ubiquitous only twenty years before people like Han Solo and Admiral Motti dismissed the Force as mere superstition. (Which means I’m totally justified in dismissing the prequels as mere superstition as well!) Let’s forget that understanding of the Jedi, and work backwards from the original trilogy.
We know that most people don’t know who the Jedi were. We know that their powers include telekinesis, supernatural athleticism, mind control, and unnatural distractions, and we know they wield a weapon that can cut through anything and deflect blaster shots.
Lucas had these guys working as diplomats and battlefield leaders, but you know what would be a far better use of their powers? Espionage. A Jedi can sneak around a secure facility (like, say, the Death Star); grab keycards, datapads, and other equipment without ever having to touch it; convince guards to give up their passwords simply by waving a hand in their faces; and if caught, the Jedi can carve a hole in any prison cell and run away.
This leads to the premise upon which I’m rebuilding the prequels, which is as follows:
The Jedi are a secret society. They defend the Republic through spycraft and counter-intelligence.
This explains why very few people in the original trilogy know who the Jedi are: they were never supposed to know. This explains why Obi-Wan Kenobi is described as a “general in the Clone Wars” and Anakin Skywalker as “the best star pilot in the galaxy:” military officer and pilot were their cover jobs. This explains why people invoke the Force in the same way Unitarians invoke God: they only know the Force as an abstract, beneficial power, and are unaware that some people can make concrete use of it.
Now that we’ve turned the Jedi into a secret society, we have an obvious plot hook around which to splinter them, namely, whether they should use their powers more openly, or whether they should restrain them to stay secret. And the devastation of the Clone Wars would serve as the catalyst for Obi-Wan siding with one side and Anakin siding with the other. So here’s my proposed outline for a completely rewritten Episodes I through III.
Episode I (“Secrets of the Force”) begins with Major Obi-Wan Kenobi of the Republic military taking command of an anti-piracy patrol on the Outer Rim. The crew of his flotilla includes a young pilot by the name of Anakin Skywalker. (By starting with Skywalker as a young adult, we get rid of child actors.) Kenobi senses that Skywalker may be Force-sensitive, and his suspicions are confirmed when the flotilla finds a pirate attack in progress, and Skywalker chases off the pirates even when his targeting computer breaks down.
The would-be victim of the pirate attack is a brash, streetwise freighter captain named Padme Amidala. Changing Padme from royalty to rogue serves many purposes. It gives Han Solo fans someone to cheer for, it lets Padme serve as a more active character in the plot, and it shows where Princess Leia inherited her temper from (and why she’s attracted to Han). Most importantly, it breathes life into the romance. Instead of watching two people who have to restrain their emotions mope at each other, we get to watch a passionate woman try to cope with a man who’s gradually becoming more emotionally distant.
Major Kenobi notes that Amidala, like most other pirate victims in this area, was carrying medical equipment. He plans a sting operation where Amidala will draw the pirates into a trap. In the meantime, he contacts his Jedi cell leader, Yoda, to report Skywalker’s Force potential. (The cell organizational structure is used by many real-life clandestine groups, and would explain why Yoda trained Kenobi but Kenobi trained Skywalker.) Yoda’s cover job is something menial, something modest, that still gives him access to people in power. Gardener’s been done to death: maybe he’s a bellhop at an exclusive hotel? (Admit it. You’d love to see Yoda in a bellhop uniform.) Yoda tells him to give the kid an espionage assignment and see if he can handle it.
Amidala’s gunner died in the pirate attack, so Skywalker goes along on her freighter as a substitute—and as a chaperone to make sure she doesn’t take the cargo and run. Neither one of them are initially happy with this. Skywalker thinks Amidala can’t hold her own in a fight, and Amidala thinks Skywalker relies too much on his guns and not enough on his brains. Over the course of the movie, they’ll gain respect for each other’s skills, and the thrill of the mission will bring them together.
After getting captured by pirates and escaping (because pulp adventure relies on captures and escapes—even the real prequels got that one right), our heroes discover the pirates’ destination, and as soon as the Republic flotilla jumps into the system, they’re attacked by a much larger fleet. During the ensuing space battle, Kenobi, Skywalker, and Amidala are aboard the same ship, and when it gets boarded, Kenobi pulls his lightsaber and goes to town. The attackers are soon revealed to be clones.
Yes, I know fans of the Clone Wars cartoons like their clones. But that’s because the cartoon gave them individual personalities and motivations. The movies didn’t, and a fight between purpose-built droids and purpose-bred clones doesn’t carry the same emotional weight as a fight between purpose-bred clones and ordinary people.
The pirates have been working for a group of separatists who are upset that the Republic doesn’t devote enough time or attention to the frontier worlds and who have been stealing medical equipment to build a clone army to win their independence. As the remains of Kenobi’s flotilla limp back to Coruscant to report the threat, Kenobi begins to teach Skywalker the secrets of the Jedi.
Episode II (“The Republic in Crisis”) begins on Kenobi’s homeworld of Alderaan, where he’s still training Skywalker. (Alderaan needs to be in the prequels to give us a stronger emotional reaction when it’s destroyed, and it would only be natural for Princess Leia to go to Kenobi for help in Episode IV if Kenobi is the “hometown hero.”) Skywalker and Amidala are married, and Skywalker is spread thin between his military obligations, his Jedi training, and his now-pregnant wife.
The Clone Crisis turns into the Clone Wars as Count Dooku (who may or may not be a former Jedi) leads the first strike on Republic facilities in the Outer Rim. Skywalker’s training is cut short as he and Kenobi report to active duty. Amidala isn’t willing to sit around doing nothing when the war is raging, and she offers her ship as a blockade runner.
After a spectacular space battle, Kenobi starts to wonder where the separatists got their equipment so quickly. He joins with Skywalker and Amidala on a secret Jedi mission to infiltrate the supply chain.
During the course of the mission, two terrible things come to light. First, there’s another, independent entity that’s been supplying the separatists and is secretly preparing to join the war. There are a few options for this other entity. I’m not personally a fan of the Mandalorians, but if you want them in the movies, this would be a fine place to put them. Alternately, you could insert Jabba the Hutt here, or if you’re a real Expanded Universe junkie, you could use the Corporate Sector or the Chiss. What’s important is that there’s an Other Power here, for reasons that will soon become clear.
The other big problem is that there’s a Force user on the separatist side, a guy by the name of Darth Maul. (I suppose it could be General Grievous, but Maul looks a lot cooler.) He’s tracking our heroes as they travel to Other Power space and get to the bottom of the separatist plot. Just as the heroes uncover conclusive proof of the planned alliance, Maul attacks, and it takes both Kenobi and Skywalker to defeat him in our first lightsaber duel. Skywalker, of course, loses a hand in the process.
The heroes race back to Coruscant with proof of the treachery and present it to the Senate’s War Council. Some of the senators (including Palpatine) promote an immediate declaration of war against the Other Power, but the majority vote down the resolution, claiming that Republic diplomacy will keep the Other Power neutral. Skywalker is immensely frustrated that he went through all that work, only for his warnings to be ignored.
The movie ends with Amidala giving birth… and with the Other Power openly joining the separatists in their war for independence. By using this storyline, we’ve given Skywalker a clearer motive to turn against the Republic and demand power for himself. Instead of dealing with bad dreams and random Sandpeople, Skywalker is now dealing with a bureaucracy, a bureaucracy whose incompetence gets people killed. The feeling of having a good idea that gets ignored in a committee is also very relatable to the audience.
Episode III (“Rise of the Empire”) starts a year or two later, with the Republic still struggling under a two-pronged attack. Kenobi’s been promoted to General because so many officers have been killed. Skywalker and Kenobi go on another secret mission and uncover the location of the next separatist attack, killing Maul in the process (because I can’t figure out a better location to put this fight).
Meanwhile, we see a montage of assassinations. All of the victims are secretly Jedi. Yoda comes to Amidala and tells her that he thinks Darth Maul handed over the Jedi secrets to the enemy, and the separatists will try to kill Amidala and the children. Flee, she must. Amidala resolves to place her son Luke with her relatives on Tatooine, and Leia with Kenobi’s relatives on Alderaan.
When the War Council debates the evidence the Jedi secretly uncovered, Palpatine urges them to send a fleet to defend the target system (whatever your favorite planet from the prequels was, it doesn’t really matter). But the Council refuses. The members are unwilling to send ships away from their home planets to defend another.
Sure enough, the separatists strike the target system. Skywalker defies orders and rushes to the scene, but he’s too late. He finds only wreckage—and among the wrecked ships is Amidala’s. She was passing through the system on her way back from Alderaan and was caught in the crossfire.
Skywalker is now totally fed up with the Republic, and wouldn’t you be? He knows his wife is dead, and he thinks his children are dead, too. (He doesn’t know Yoda so he can’t ask him for the scoop.) He’s starting to wonder if he ought to use his Force powers only for espionage, or whether he ought to take a more direct role in protecting the public. He goes to Kenobi with his concerns, and Kenobi warns him about the temptation of the Dark Side. (If you want to incorporate material from Knights of the Old Republic, Kenobi could say that the Jedi went underground after members of their order attempted a coup thousands of years ago.)
Skywalker isn’t happy with that answer. He talks to Palpatine, who reveals himself to be a Jedi, too. Palpatine is afraid that if the War Council remains in charge, the Republic will lose the war. But Palpatine has a plan to win. It involves using Jedi mind tricks to convince the Council to vote correctly. Only for the duration of the crisis, of course, and only for the good of the galaxy. Skywalker agrees to help him.
A good villain is the hero of their own story. By making Palpatine a sort of space-Robespierre, we’ve made him the hero of his own story. This interpretation also fits with the characterization of the Empire we’ve seen elsewhere in the series. The Empire is a totalitarian state, not an authoritarian state. Authoritarian states are founded by despots who only care about power. They don’t much mind what the people believe, so long as they obey. But totalitarian states seek a total upheaval of society in order to fix all its problems. It requires the elimination of disloyal thoughts as well as actions. Palpatine believes that by using his Jedi powers, he can build a new, better society.
When Kenobi claims, in the original trilogy, that Darth Vader was “seduced” by the Dark Side, his statement doesn’t really match what we saw in the prequels. Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader largely because Palpatine hoodwinked him. I suppose this was intended to make him more sympathetic, but it also makes him a weaker character. In our version, Skywalker really is “seduced.” He consciously decides to go down an evil path because he thinks it will serve a greater good.
Most importantly, this scene establishes a theme. The real-life prequels don’t really have a theme. Can you explain the message of the films in one sentence? The best I could come up with was “Boy, that Palpatine sure is crafty.” Now we’ve got a real theme. A few of them, in fact. “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.” “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” These themes were relevant in the early 2000s, when the War on Terror raised questions about executive power, and today, when Congress and the President despise each other and when countries around the world see the rise of anti-democratic political movements.
Back to the story: Palpatine and Skywalker use mind tricks at a War Council meeting to grant Palpatine emergency powers. Yoda is nearby and senses that these guys are using the Force to brainwash the Council. He dashes off to warn Kenobi, who is out in the field.
When Kenobi finds out what’s happened, he condemns the takeover and orders his ships to stand down. Palpatine dispatches a fleet, commanded by Skywalker, to defeat the mutineers. In the lava planet showdown, Kenobi and Skywalker each accuse each other of betraying the Republic. From here, the movie plays out much like the real Episode III, with Kenobi defeating Skywalker and running to Tatooine, Yoda hiding on Dagobah, and Skywalker becoming Darth Vader (but without the “Noooooo,” obviously). The Republic-turned-Empire wins the war… but at what cost?
Now isn’t that an improvement? The Force remains mysterious. The villains and heroes have proper motivations. There are plenty of action scenes. The story resumes the swashbuckling tone of the original.
You may point out that this outline omits a few fan favorite characters. There’s no sign of C-3P0 or R2-D2. But, to be fair, did the droids really do anything plot-crucial in the actual prequels? If you want to include them, you can make them crew members on Amidala’s freighter who get dropped off with Leia on Alderaan. Likewise, Mace Windu isn’t in this outline, but he could be inserted as a member of Palpatine’s cell who becomes suspicious of Palpatine’s motives before getting bumped off at the beginning of Episode III. Liam Neeson could appear as a member of the War Council.
This story could still be ruined by poor pacing, poor acting, or poor dialogue, but it’s a good place to start.
What do you think? How would you rewrite the prequels?