Why is Star Wars So Stuck on the Death Star?

Just a fun fact to pull out at the next party when you’re not trying to impress a potential romantic interest. Or maybe you are, I don’t know how your life works.

There have so far been 7 Star Wars films, and we know enough about the 8th to start making some judgement calls. Namely, to judge that there’s a curious crutch in this series, that of the giant superweapon/command center known as the Death Star and the need to blow up said superweapon/command center.

Out of those 8 aforementioned films, 3 have directly had the Death Star as a part of its main plot. A New Hope features the original, Return of the Jedi features the Empire’s second attempt at a Death Star, and Rogue One features the oft-mentioned in A New Hope heist to steal the Death Star plans.

2 more have featured Death Star-like space stations which essentially serve the same narrative function. The Force Awakens features Starkiller Base, which is blatantly an escalated attempt at the Death Star and is even directly compared to the original Death Star only to say “NO, THIS ONE IS BIGGER.” The Phantom Menace features the Trade Federation Droid Control Ship, which while not quite a superweapon, is a large space station that must be blown up in order for the narrative to resolve and our heroes to win.

This leaves three that do not have narratives revolving around some sort of Death Star: Empire Strikes Back, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith. But Attack of the Clones reveals that Palpatine, Dooku, and the Separatist Movement were beginning plans on the superweapon that would become the Death Star, and is chronologically the idea’s first appearance. And Revenge of the Sith chooses the building of the Death Star as part of its final moments.

That leaves Empire Strikes Back as the only film largely devoid of any appearances or narrative significance surrounding a Death Star. Which begs the question…

Why the hell is Star Wars so stuck on the Death Star?

The promise of the franchise’s return with the Disney structure was that we could explore new avenues of narrative possibilities and take new paths through this universe. Yet, two films in, and we seem to be stuck down the same obsessions that have carried this franchise through almost four decades.

This isn’t necessarily something like the Jedi, where there are always new paths to go down in terms of what sort of stories we can tell. We filter the Jedi in these films through the characters who are Jedi, which means that as long as the characters are fresh and new, it won’t bother any but the hardcore that we continually return to that well. Besides, there’s always new revelations about how the Force works and how these characters can react to it to be had.

Hell, this isn’t even like the whole fact that the series revolves around the Skywalkers. At its core, Star Wars is a story of generations, filtering a universe of experience through a single family’s history. The tale of the Skywalkers is a foundational core to the story and moving away from it moves away from the fundamental idea of Star Wars, at least in the mainline canon.

Rather, it’s a single narrative device that has few avenues. Permutations, sure. But it always comes back to the same basic function, and it leaves the question of why? Why does this franchise keep coming back here?

One answer could that it’s as simple as an easy narrative win. The Giant Superweapon is a clear goal and a definite thing that we as an audience would not want in the hands of those that are evil. It’s pretty much a nuclear weapon in the hands of the Nazis (for all the WWII war film imagery that surrounds the Empire/First Order/Separatists in the Star Wars franchise) and the audience pretty quickly gets behind stopping it. Star Wars has always been a series best defined by its characters and their relationships, as well as the often good v. evil distinction between them. Getting a shortcut through the narrative to orient their fight isn’t a bad approach necessarily, but one that makes me weary going into the “Star Wars now, Star Wars forever” future.

The other is that it’s a simple thematic shortcut. The story of Star Wars, at least the Original Trilogy to which everything is still ultimately pointing, is the story of the underdogs overcoming the greater powers. That’s why the Sith ultimately win in the Prequel Trilogy, and why they are defeated again in the Original Trilogy. Hell, it’s why the Resistance is organized in the Sequel Trilogy, to reorient the good guys as a small scrappy guerilla force.

The villainous Superweapon is the easiest way to posit the bad guys as an overwhelming and powerful force. They had the resources to build it and they’re taking the easy way to accomplish their goals. Plus, it generally gives them the power to commit an overwhelming act of evil to let you really know that they’re bad. The imagery of a number of small ships attacking this one massive thing really reinforces the underdog nature of our heroes and the idea that ultimately it’s dedication and elbow grease that’s the mark of a hero.

We could also get just a bit of a metanarrative going here. It shows up in the Original Trilogy because of the fairly radical politics (for the time). Namely, it’s a Vietnam movie that poses the Vietcong (our ideological, rebellious force) as the good guys against the United States (our superpower). The Death Star is the superior weaponry of the enemy, representing the overwhelming US military might and its nuclear weaponry. The Death Star is there because it must ultimately be overcome to be truly free, an end to the military complex Lucas would have seen as choking the world.

For those of you who don’t necessarily think that Lucas is that political, watch the Prequel Trilogy. It’s an anti-Bush screed written around the Iraq War. He’s always been very left-wing, he just got less subtle about it.

As for why it shows up in the Sequel Trilogy? Because the metanarrative there is about Star Wars as the mythology it became (and also accidentally exemplifying our intensive chokehold by nostalgia). The Starkiller Base is an exaggeration of the Death Star, the logical conclusion of a story where the weapon got bigger and bigger and more powerful. It’s there because the original story had one, so must this telling have one too.

It shows up in the Prequel Trilogy because it showed up in the Original Trilogy. Its path is defined, we just had to find out how it got there. Sorry that one’s not more interesting. Here’s a silly picture:

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These are possible reasons, ones I hope that are a little more than a dismissive “They’re being lazy.” The core of Star Wars has gone relatively unchanged and that means the reasons behind its narrative decisions aren’t altering too much. The Death Star’s recurrence is more symptomatic of a franchise a little too stuck in telling the same story.

It’s possible we’ve been trying to ease people into the future of this franchise, which is fine. But for right now, Star Wars is already looking to be in a rut, which means all eyes are on Episode VIII to signal an actual new way forward.

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