Many Star Wars fans view the Sequel Trilogy’s First Order simply as a Galactic Empire 2.0. It is however a very different beast. And that difference may have implications for how Episode IX is going to wrap up the Skywalker Saga.
The First Order is not Galactic Empire 2.0
The first time we heard and saw, as fans, of the First Order is in The Force Awakens. Although the books written about the lead-up to the Sequel Trilogy state of the Galaxy, far, far, away, do give some background quite a few readers were left dissatisfied. The First Order seemingly coming from nowhere and the Republic seemingly unable to field anything other that a rag-tag Resistance to fight the First Order without all to obvious Republic support. However that impression, and the dissatisfaction it gives rise to, rests on an implicit assumption that the First Order is simply “Empire 2.0”. That however is not what it is.
Star Wars: Resistance‘s season 1 nicely illustrates further that indeed the First Order was and remains pretty much an unknown entity, that indeed the Republic did not wish to be seen to openly engage it and that indeed the Resistance was a rather unorganised proxy for a Republic push-back against the First Order. I agree that this would all be really confusing if it weren’t so entirely recognisable from the state of our world in the early 21st century.
Clues in the name
The deviation of the First Order from the “Empire” pattern already starts in the name. The Galactic Empire in the Original Trilogy seeks to come across as a technocratic, a-religious and a-political organisation. At every corner the Empire claims it only seeks to establish and guarantee order, stability and peace but it does not dress itself up as a Sith-driven, religiously or ideologically radical, organisation. In fact, whenever we see Stormtroopers depicted in the Original Trilogy they, despite being dehumanised and deindividualized by their uniforms, appear rather casual beings more interested in the latest speeder models than in any kind of special or sacred ‘mission’. Consequently Imperial Stormtrooper occasionally lack any kind of particular drive or fanatism when executing their jobs as soldiers. The only driving forces we see in the officers surrounding Darth Vader are either fear for their well-being or seeking to gain favour in order to further their careers.
The First Order gives itself a name that clearly sets it apart from the Galactic Empire of old. In terms of its aesthetics in logo, uniforms, ship-designs and organisational structure it seems to resemble the Galactic Empire. So obviously the First Order seeks to connect to that notion of Empire and their can be no doubt about their imperial aspirations. Also Snoke in many ways reflects that. However referring to your own organisation as an “Order” has all kinds of secretive and spiritual connotations that inform how we as an audience can ‘read’ this new entity. The use of the term Order in-universe can only have been intended to associate the First Order also with the orders of the Jedi or Sith, or other Force-inspired groups.
We tend to associate “Orders” with some measure of “fanatism” be it benevolent or malicious. But when we think of the “Orders” in our world, monastic orders, heraldic orders, etc, they all have elements of initiation about them and elements of sacrifice for a higher cause, no matter how small or large that sacrifice might be. When we look at the First Order of the Sequel Trilogy we see this reflected as well. Already in The Force Awakens do we see General Hux’s speech as an example of a speech that befits a fanatical fascist leader, but hardly an ordinary General.
Star Wars: Resistance in the first-half of the two-part season finale repeats this and, notably, also repeats the “greeting” executed by the First Order trooper: their raising of their fists. Now in part this is in line with our expectations of fascist iconography. But don’t underestimate the difference between these displays and their notable absence amongst imperial troops or officers in the Original Trilogy.
The hallmark of the First Order is not that it is authoritarian and oppressive. These are characteristics it shares with the Galactic Empire. The true hallmark of the First Order that sets it apart from the Galactic Empire is that it is an ideologically fanatical organisation. The Galactic Empire emerged from the ruins of the Republic. It did not seek to destroy the Republic, but merely to replace it or even better: to transform Republic into Empire. The First Order has no such goal, instead it seeks to annihilate the Republic.
Striking from the unknown
Although many of Palpatine’s machinations to bring about the transformation of Republic to Empire are evidently happening covert, there is also a lot which he does in broad daylight, simply using opportunities that are presented to him by the political realities in the Republic. The whole Prequel Trilogy goes great lengths to tell us this story of the slow decline of democracy until the Republic hands itself over into the hands of an Emperor it had previously elected Chancellor with emergency powers.
The First Order clearly follows a different path. Star Wars: Resistance makes quite clear how the Republic is largely in the dark about the exact nature and size of the First Order. But it also shows that this is exactly the way the First Order means things to stay until they are ready. The Republic, evidently not wanting to give further oxygen to a vague threat decides to engage the First Order in a similarly vague manner: through the local proxy of the Resistance. The First Order meanwhile spreads its terror in the ‘failed states’ of the Unknown Regions, where they build a ‘territory’ out-of-view of the Republic. Star Wars: Resistance leaves no doubt that it is terror they spread. One of the agents of the First Order Security bureau in the final episode of the first season says to Tam that the First Order seeks to bring “absolute order“. The addition of the word absolute is relevant here. Not only does it speak of fanatism, and Sith-like qualities, but also does it hint at the fact that the First Order’s notion or ‘order’ may not be what the common person in the Galaxy would view as ‘order’.
When Starkiller base is fired it is clear that the First Order means ‘absolute order’ to mean first and foremost the annihilation of, thus genocide on, your opponents. Where the Galactic Empire ends up committing genocide against Alderaan in the Original Trilogy, the Prequel Trilogy reserves that crime for one the Sith commit against the Jedi. In the Sequel Trilogy however the First Order starts out doing so against Hosnian Prime once it has revealed itself, whilst Star Wars: Resistance suggests it had already done so earlier against unknown-region planets while developing their Starkiller technology.
The First Order is not an organisation that establishes itself and then declares war on the Republic. Quite to the contrary, it is an organisation that prepares to strike from a hidden and covert position in an attempt to inflict maximum casualty and damage, with the aim to annihilate. These are methods we know all to well from the 21st century terror groups, including in the very public way in which they commit their crime once they have reached readiness to do so.
The First Order is not modelled on the Galactic Empire, which itself was modelled after the Roman and some 20th century totalitarian empires. Instead the First Order is modelled after the radical and territorial terror-organisations of the 21st century. The Republic’s response to the First Order is equally modelled after the proxies that the 21st century main powers send into battle against these organisations, seeking to minimize the direct involvement of their troops and equipment.
What may this mean for the future?
This way of viewing the First Order sheds a slightly different light on both The Force Awakens as well as The Last Jedi. It makes clear that we are seeing the ascent of an organisation, unlike what we saw in the Original Trilogy where the Empire was already established. But also quite unlike what we saw in the Prequel Trilogy where the Republic was transformed into Empire. As a result, whatever end the Sequel Trilogy brings, it cannot simply be a return to the Republic because it no longer exists. Whatever comes in its place is not merely a rebuilt version of what was, but something new. Let the past go, kill it if you have to” says Kylo in The Last Jedi. Despite the fact that many Star Wars fans believe this to be a Rian Johnson addition to Star Wars … it is exactly what Hux does with his Starkiller weapon to the Republic of the Sequel Trilogy.
Viewing the First Order as a kind of radical terror organisation that has acquired a territory and draws in unhappy and impressionable youngsters also sheds a different light on Kylo’s “fall”. Kylo does not fall to the dark side like Anakin does. It looks more as if Kylo was ‘radicalised at a distance’. Snoke found access to Kylo’s thoughts in a way Luke and Leia failed to recognise. The Last Jedi depicts it as something that happened under Luke’s nose. Something which, when he decided to look into it, filled him with so much horror that for a moment he considered sacrificing his sister’s son to spare the Galaxy the pain Kylo would unleash. Can you imagine how a parent would feel walking into the room of their child to find out they are planning a school-shooting or an IS- or extreme-right inspired terror attack? I struggle to image that … and in most cases we see in our world the parents, relatives and friends discover this too late after the evil deed has been done, the journey to join IS has been completed.
This allows for Kylo’s fate to be settled in an entirely different manner from Anakin’s. He does not represent just another light-side force-user who has fallen into darkness. He is a radicalised youth who has joined a terrorist organization and has committed unspeakable crimes in its name. The answer Episode IX finds to this may well be worth contemplating for a while before writing that quick-fire review of the film.
Was the Sequel Trilogy necessary?
So much more can be said about this but I want to end on the following consideration. If we view the First Order simply as Empire 2.0 then not only does that raise many questions as to the where, why and why now of the Sequel Trilogy. But it also condemns us to viewing the entire Sequel Trilogy as an Original Trilogy rehash that has no independent justification for its existence. Of course this is exactly how the Sequel Trilogy haters view it.
But if we view the Sequel Trilogy as expressing a story of our times in Star Wars. A story about the emergence of a brutal terror group, that seems to spread indifferent pain and suffering in the name of a twisted ideological or religious ideal, with a leader that preys on the fears of ordinary people to exploit and radicalise them. If we view Luke inadequate response as mirroring the inadequacies of our responses in deterring or preventing the radicalisation of our fellow citizens. If we view the Republic’s half-baked attempt to counter this threat through the Resistance as an echo of the failed and insufficient attempts we see around us in our world. Then it becomes easy to recognise how the First Order is the radicalised, extremist, organisation driven by a nostalgic yearning for a return to an imperial past that never was. An order that will stop at nothing to build that nightmare from the bones and blood of their victims.
Finally, then can we begin to recognise that Luke’s Last Stand in the closing moments of The Last Jedi, as well as Rose’s “protect what we love” are attempts to find a new and different way of facing this challenge of destructive and hate-filled nostalgia. Then the Sequel Trilogy not only truly adds a further dimension to the Star Wars narratives of intra- and inter-human conflict. It actually gives the Sequel Trilogy finale an urgency and current-relevance that Revenge of the Sith also held in 2005.