When the mass hysteria over Return of the Jedi began to die down in the mid-80’s, there was an outcry from die-hard fans who wondered “What’s next?” Most assumed that Lucas would strike while the iron was hot and get busy making the prequels as quickly as possible, but he was weary from Star Wars and decided that he would take a break. With that Star Wars kind of languished over the next seven years, cropping up now and then in the form of TV shows and TV movies, but nothing really of substance.
It took a group of science fiction writers to bring the series back in any meaningful way. When, in 1991, Timothy Zahn published the Heir to the Empire trilogy (which took place five years after Jedi), he touched off a decade-long continuation of Lucas’ work on the printed page. It was meant to be a placeholder while Lucas got busy with his new trilogy, but at that moment few knew that Lucas had no real interest in Star Wars. He abandoned his plans to make the subsequent trilogy and publicly stated that he was distancing himself from the Expanded Universe though he had given his blessing.
Through The Expanded Universe the world of Star Wars thrived and grew and evolved in a way that Lucas was not able (or willing) to do on screen. The fans, who were kids when Star Wars came out, were now in their 20s and were making Star Wars fandom not only cool again but extremely profitable. That fury reached a fever pitch in 1997 when Lucas decided to put the trilogy back in theaters and grown-up fans flocked to see it again.
On the heels of his “Special Edition,” Lucas was already at work on The Phantom Menace, yet, lightning didn’t exactly strike twice. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace was arguably the most anticipated and then reviled movie in history. Its missteps were seen by the public as evidence of a once great filmmaker whose predilection for technology was solid but who had clearly lost touch with his audience. Personally, while it is flawed, I don’t happen to think it’s all that bad – but that’s just OMO. That information is sort of boilerplate when discussing TPM; I mention it only out of obligation. My purpose here is to discuss the presentation, not the reaction.
The changes to the lore of Star Wars with regards to The Phantom Menace are both interesting and troubling at the same time. In pulling the story backwards to the time of The Old Republic, Lucas is able to focus on the role of the Jedi within society without the hindsight of the Sith having rendered them nearly extinct. Much of this draws from The Expanded Universe (Yes Disney, I’m still calling it that) which sought to portray the Jedi less as a secular religious order and more as functioning diplomats and peacekeepers. Later the military role would come into play but here it’s mostly social until The Trade Federation turns trade disputes into a street fight.
At the time of Phantom Menace, the galaxy is okay. There are political disagreements but things are more or less on friendly terms. The Jedi at this time are such an integral part of society as a whole that no one seems to think them all that strange or odd (this would cause a problem that we’ll get into when we discuss Revenge of the Sith).
The Jedi Order, for the first time are seen as a group. They are not secular loners but live and organize within The Jedi Temple, which seems to be located in the middle of Coruscant, which settles the erratic contradiction in the EU in which apparently no one could decide whether the temples were extremely rare or as common as Synagogues. Anyway, the Jedi meet by councils apparently to discuss matters both social, personal and political, but their main concern here seems to be who is fit to be trained. Of particular concern currently is the issue of an uptight moppet with sand in his shoes.
Jedi training in The Phantom Menace is an issue that is always in flux; who can train who? And are they fit to train or be trained? There is an issue all through the Star Wars legacy about exactly how long it takes to train someone to be a Jedi and when exactly it starts. Based on information constructed in the EU, it seems that Jedi training operates on the idiom of “The sooner, the better.” That is, when you are detected to be Force Sensitive as a young child, you are taken from your family to go through training which becomes a life-long pursuit. Anakin in The Phantom Menace is about nine years-old and Qui-Gon indicates that if he had been born in the Republic he would have been detected early, signaling that training begins sometime in early childhood.
The lore around training itself is a bit difficult. Apparently it takes the rest of your life, or about as long as it takes to get your medical degree, but in The Empire Strikes Back, it seemed to take only a few days (perhaps Yoda was just giving Luke the $5 run-through). A Master gets one student – referred to as a Padawan – but how long that student remains a Padawan isn’t exactly clear. I suppose they just keep getting their training until they earn it, although Obi-Wan and later Anakin are seen being knighted somewhere in their 20s.
Yet, the question remains; how do Jedi know who is suitable for training and who isn’t. Well, in A New Hope we are left to assume that it’s on par scouting a basketball team – you see who has the right stuff and you train them. That legacy is given to us by the fact that A New Hope suggests that The Force is not inherent, but is a Zen-like skill that can be learned by anyone willing to be dedicated to it. The Phantom Menace however, tosses that idea right out the window.
Enter: Midi-chlorians, a microscopic lifeform that apparently lives inside the cells of every living being acting as a conduit through which The Force makes itself known to those who are sensitive enough to hear it. This lifeform is the reason that a person can tap into The Force and also the reason that a person can use it to cheat death. It can also be manipulated. Both The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith heavily suggests that Anakin Skywalker was conceived through a manipulation of this microscopic lifeform. Perhaps this is what lends to The Force being hereditary in the Skywalker bloodline (and the reason that Shmi didn’t seem to have it).
The idea around The Midi-chlorians received a dubious response from fans and regular audience members who had been sold on the idea of The Force being a more a religious concept than a matter of biology. As a result, discussions of the Midi-chlorians are toned down for the rest of the prequel trilogy – mentioned but not hammered in. It is last mentioned as a matter of importance in Revenge of the Sith. It is hard to recall if it was mentioned in “The Clone Wars” series but what is known is that it would be toned down until it was written out of the lore entirely. Star Wars lore could conclude that the Midi-chlorians ultimatley concluded to have been a myth since there is no mention of them in the Original Trilogy, “Star Wars Rebels” or The Force Awakens.
The abilities of both the Sith and the Jedi were not really anything new in The Phantom Menace if you’d been keeping up with The Expanded Universe. The Force Push, The Force Pull, The Force Jump and the Zip Run were all inspired by the EU, and so was the fighting style. In the Original Trilogy, many of the lightsaber battles were based on either stage fighting or classic sword play. Here it’s more aggressive, utilizing a much more martial arts style that requires a lot more kicks and turns. This is laid in by the fact that the final duel requires three participants, one of which wields a double-bladed lightsaber. This style would apparently fall out of fashion once the Sith took over.
The apprentice/student model would remain in place throughout the Star Wars cannon, but the training model of the Sith got a little confusing. At the end of The Phantom Menace, Yoda mentions that the Sith operate on the rule that there can only be two at a time, a master and an apprentice. This was a rule kept in place by Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader but it seemed to slip out practice in several instances, particularly in both “Clone Wars” TV series, “Star War Rebels” (in which there were several at a time) and The Force Awakens – in which there was only one.
In relation to the rest of the trilogy, The Phantom Menace opens many doors to the Jedi within society as a whole but it would come to full bloom as the series progressed. Here the role is expanded but it is also muted. They help the Republic in its battle but they don’t seem to be taking a major role except in matters of defense. Their role would expand as things headed toward war. That’s an issue for the next chapter.