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The Rise and Fall of the First Galactic Empire

In case you missed it, a new Star Wars trailer came out. If you haven’t yet watched it, I admire your forbearance. It’s embedded below. Spoilers follow.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Trailer (Official)

One of the key themes in the trailer is that public memory of the Force has basically disappeared. We hear some dialogue:

Unknown: There were stories about what happened.
Han Solo: It’s true. All of it. The dark side. The Jedi. They’re real.

This dialogue makes it clear that people have “forgotten” about the Force and the Jedi. While perhaps counterintuitive, this view is quite justifiable, and even likely, if we think in terms of historical memory. My contention here is that if you were a historian writing about the fall of the Empire, you would probably not see any place for the “Force,” unless you were already predisposed to believe in it. As a historian or layperson in the Empire, you would never have seen Luke at Dagobah, or heard what Luke heard while attacking the Death Star, or chatted with Obi-Wan Kenobi or Yoda. You would have just seen a Civil War that was won by a Rebel Army.

The Force had been forgotten by the time of the first movie (the fourth movie in the timeline). Grand Moff Tarkin notes, “The Jedi are extinct. Their fire has gone out of the universe. You, my friend, are all that’s left of their religion.” Han Solo was dismissive, describing the Force as a “hokey religion.” And Admiral Motti dismissed Darth Vader’s warnings about the Force as the product of his “sad devotion to that ancient religion.” Presumably, this was reflective of the views of most people. For this to have changed, the public would have needed a reason to believe, but there were perfectly plausible secular, or natural, explanations for the decline of the Empire.

What follows is a broad historical narrative of the rise and fall of the First Galactic Empire, as told by a fictional historian living in the time of The Force Awakens. The Force plays a role, but only tangentially.



Rebel Propaganda Art by Hildebrandt, from a Long Time Ago

The First Galactic Empire was ultimately a solution to the problems of the decaying Old Republic. For centuries, the Republic was a source of order and stability, with the galaxy kept in balance via representative government and the security assurances provided by a body of warrior-priests known as the Jedi. Skilled in military command, diplomatic negotiation, and close combat, the warrior-priests provided a measure of stability.

Unfortunately, a burgeoning separatist movement, brought about by issues of trade, proved that the Jedi were not up to the task of providing security assurances. The Old Republic dispatched two Jedi to handle the so-called illegal “Trade Federation” blockade of the Naboo system, but the Trade Federation simply ignored them. The blockade was eventually defeated by a concerted effort of local militia and fighters, but Naboo owed little to the Republic, and it became clear that the Trade Federation had assembled a capable army of droids that made it a force to be reckoned with in ground combat throughout the periphery of the Republic. The Trade Federation eventually became leading members of a separatist Confederacy of Independent Systems.

Facing such a credible threat to stability and political dysfunction in the halls of government, the Republic did what was necessary to resolve the crisis: it ousted the ineffectual Chancellor Valorum in a vote of no confidence, appointed Senator Palpatine as Chancellor, and set about to build a modern military force out of clones to combat the massive droid army that the Trade Federation had established. Once the new Chancellor had assembled a genuine army, rather than the smaller force that the Republic relied on, it finally could take the war to the separatists directly.

The ensuing three-year struggle resulted in the death of most of the warrior-priests, many of whom died in combat. One surviving warrior-priest, known only as “Yoda,” held Palpatine directly responsible for their deaths, and attempted to assassinate Palpatine in retaliation. Surviving the attempt, the canny Palpatine used the assassination attempt as an excuse to establish the First Galactic Empire. One of the last of the warrior-priests, a young Jedi named Darth Vader, was nearly killed in an incident on Mustafar. He was saved by modern technology and served as Palpatine’s right-hand man for decades, acting as an enforcer and a military commander for the Empire.

An aside about the warrior-priests: they believed in a mystical Force that surrounded and bound all of the beings in the universe, backing up their beliefs with the pseudoscientific “midichlorian” count. Well-intentioned though they were, it was the belief in their mystical powers–rather than powers themselves–that kept the galaxy stable. Once the veil was removed, it was all but inevitable that modern technology and sheer force of numbers would eliminate the true believers. Only Vader saw the writing on the wall.

The irony of the triumph of technology is that it was ultimately technological hubris that did in the Empire. Palpatine had an almost-slavish devotion to modern technology. Once the original Death Star was completed, Palpatine immediately abolished the Imperial Senate, thinking that fear of the central authority could keep star systems in line. But the abolition of the Senate served only to embolden a fledgling rebellion, which had been fighting the Empire for years on a fairly low level. Now, more star systems lined up against the Empire, preferring democracy to dictatorship.

The Empire poured immense resources into the first Death Star, and it was ultimately destroyed by a small squadron of a dozen rebel fighters and retrofitted smugglers’ ships after being used in anger one time: a massive waste. (The Empire got all of the backlash from destroying Alderaan, and none of the benefits.) The first destruction of the Death Star also resulted in the death of the highly-capable Grand Moff Tarkin. Lesser commanders like Admiral Ozzel–who was famously described by Vader as being “as clumsy as he is stupid”–were elevated in the absence of competent leaders like Tarkin.

Instead of changing course, Palpatine doubled down after the destruction of the first Death Star. He ordered the construction of a second Death Star, this one more powerful than the first (and of course more expensive). During its construction, the Empire installed a shield generator on a moon of Endor that was populated by an indigenous tribe experienced in guerrilla combat and defended it with only a few thousand stormtroopers. The Rebel Alliance did what it did best: it allied itself with the locals and successfully destroyed the shield generator. Without the protection of the shield, the half-constructed Death Star was an easy target for the now-seasoned Rebel Alliance, which had added many new supporters as the war had raged.

Adding insult to injury, in an example of extreme micromanagement, Palpatine oversaw the construction of the new Death Star directly, on site at the facility. The destruction of the second Death Star was a true decapitation strike, resulting in the deaths of both Palpatine and his trusted right-hand man, Vader. Much of the imperial fleet of Star Destroyers was destroyed in a massive battle surrounding the Death Star, and the remaining imperial military officers accepted generous peace terms from the Rebel Alliance.

While the Empire struggled with leadership and bureaucratic stagnation, the Rebellion had the benefit of talented and audacious commanders that they brought in from diverse backgrounds. The commander of the assault on the shield generator was a former low-level smuggler. Lando Calrissian, a former mining baron, led the raid on the second Death Star. Luke Skywalker rose from humble origins to leading rebel commander within a couple of years of showing up for the first raid on the Death Star. The rebellion promoted its commanders on merit rather than background or tenure, and managed to retain an extremely high esprit de corps in the ranks. The Empire’s leadership was stale, and its vaunted stormtroopers were not nearly as motivated as the rebels.

The galaxy today is still grappling with the after-effects of the fall of the Empire. While the Empire fell, the Old Republic has not yet been restored, because the center of gravity of the Old Republic was belief in the Force and the protection provided by the warrior-priests. Of course, rebel fighters in particular would often tell one another “May the Force be with you” as a statement of well-wishes. But this was merely a vestige of the older ideology. No one has yet figured out how to build a stable Republic across a galaxy without the external council’s role in peacekeeping and diplomacy.

On edit: I removed the phrase “billions of dollars” from the historical narrative, because dollars are not technically the currency of the Star Wars galaxy. I apologize for the error.


Dan Scotto lives and works in New Jersey. He has a master's degree in history, with a focus on the history of disease and the history of technology.

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81 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of the First Galactic Empire

  1. In the place of the lame summary of events that scrolls up the screen (in trapezoidal perspective) before Episode IV, your summary is what should roll before Episode VII.

    Seriously! Send it in!

    Yes! Now! It’s not too late!

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  2. Star War’s weakest bit or one of them isn’t that the chronology never made much sense. Nobody forgot about the a-bombs after they happened. They were actually a big obsession for years. The same should be true about the Force and the Jedi and the Death Star. You don’t forget about things like that even if you are a bit to young to remember them.

    Also, Star Wars needs more togas.

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    • Dan’s whole point is that the only people who know about the Force during the rebellion are Obi-wan, Yoda, Vader, Palpatine, and Luke, plus sort of Han and Leia. At the end of the rebellion, the four with a motive to talk about that stuff are dead, and who would believe Luke if he told everyone about the Force? Maybe if he did demonstrations and took on students, but clearly he didn’t as of this movie.

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  3. This reads like the prologues to David Edding’s Belgariad and Malloreon where the very secular Tolnedrans and Melcenes try to make sense of what is going on but ignore all the Gods walking about.

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  4. I really loved this.

    One thought though, which I confess I had when I first watched the trailer: Do we know that everyone forgot about the Force and the Jedis?

    I ask because this was a thing I asked myself once after the first movie came out. Luke has to be told about Jedis, and the Force, and my initial assumption was that it was so long ago everyone forgot. But thinking about that years later, it hit me that everyone else seemed to have heard of them: Han, Jabba, Jabba’s assistant, the officers aboard the Death Star. Leia knew. I decided that the reason Luke hadn’t heard much about all of this wasn’t that it had been forgotten. It was that he was a farmer on a backward planet out in the middle of nowhere.

    At least from the trailer, this seems like just as likely a possibility with the new film. The woman who doesn’t seem to know much about Jedis and the Force and such is from the same backward planet. And it appears she’s a scavenger, or at least a woman of meager means.

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    • I mean, you’ve heard that the Nazis had the forces of Hell and/or aliens on their side. Do you think any of that stuff is true?

      Of course, this stuff probably applies in both cases: Han, Jabba, and the other sophisticates probably don’t believe 90% of what they hear about the magic space wizards, as implied in the historical piece. At least not until a magic space wizard shows up and starts dicing people.

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      • And even then, a light sabre is a piece of technology – technically anyone could use one, if they were trained well enough. How much force-using do most of those characters actually see? Jaba sees the Jedi Mind Trick at work, but it doesn’t work on him and of course a group of charlatans would be good at manipulating people. Yet more proof that “The Force” is just stage magic, backed up with a little technology.

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        • I think what makes the lightsabre + force combo special is the whole “guy shoots at a guy holding a lightsabre” thing.

          If the guy holding the lightsabre has the force? The guy holding the gun catches some blaster in the teeth. If the guy holding the lightsabre does not have the force? The guy holding the gun gives a speech about bringing a lightsabre to a blaster fight.

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          • Eh, I don’t know that the Force is required to deflect the blaster fire. In the movies it’s remarked that blaster fire is highly inaccurate (confirmed by every Stormtrooper we see).

            And, blasters aren’t lasers (that is, they aren’t firing at the speed of light).

            First, let me comment on the ground base’s blaster shots. The average for these things is just 34.9 m/s (78 mph). This is in the ballpark of a baseball pitch. Compare this to the speed of a Nerf gun bullet at about 10 m/s. This means two things:

            A Jedi deflecting blaster bolts with a lightsaber is about the same as a baseball player hitting a pitched ball.
            Playing with Nerf guns and plastic lightsabers in the backyard isn’t too terribly different than the movie.

            Actually, it wouldn’t be all too terribly difficult for any normal person to dodge one of these blaster bolts — especially if it were fired from so far away. Maybe this explains why the Storm Troopers suck so bad at shooting. They don’t suck, it’s just that Han, Chewie, and Luke can easily dodge these bolts when far enough away. The Storm Trooper, on the other hand, can’t dodge. Why? Because those blasted helmets block their vision. You can’t dodge what you can’t see (well, except for Luke).

            (emphasis added by me, since):

            Master swordsman Isao Machii uses his sword to slice a 100-mph baseball in half just 30 feet from where the pitching machine fires the ball:


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            • The blaster is a melee weapon. Which is reasonably practical, if you’re using it in corridors on a spaceship. Because not breaching hull integrity is a far more important thing than actually catching the damn idiots breaking into a base.

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            • The difference is that a baseball pitch to be a strike is aimed at a narrow volume of space, none of which is directly at the batter. And the batter still usually misses it, and sometimes fails to get out of the way of a (poorly aimed?) ball to the head.

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              • Not really. It is at the upper end of R. A. Dickey’s knuckleball velocity, but he throws an unusually fast knuckleball. A typical Tim Wakefield knuckleball was about 65 mph. 78 mph falls nicely within the typical curveball range.

                Also worth keeping in mind is that the guy down at the adult rec league who pitches a 78 mph fastball is blowing the batters away.

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                • When the strike of ’94 was looming, ex-MLer Bob Stoddard was pondering being a replacement and accepted an invite to use our rec league as a live tuneup. He’d never been great in pro terms, and was out of shape, out of practice, and out of training. If his FB was more than kissing 80, I’d be amazed.

                  He was perfect over the six innings when he faced us (if anything, he ran out of stamina, not stuff). Somewhere between 10 and 13 by strikeout. I’m proud of being the only guy who didn’t strike out at least once in their two at-bats – and that was only by completely selling out at 1-2 looking for a slider low and away, and even that just doomed me to a groundout to first…

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          • Yes, but that doesn’t prove the Force exists.

            Plus, we’re sorta viewing from a universe where people can’t really do that, so we know it’s magic. And a universe where everyone is a baseline human.

            Imagine you live in a universe where you’ve seen some news recordings of a group of monks that can block blaster bolts, and, let’s say, jump rather high and land safely. Both of which can easily be explained by the *decades* of training that Jedi have, and various technology assists. (This is a universe with cyborgs and part-human species and nanites and sentient computers.)

            They *also* claim to have other powers, but it’s not like Jedi mind-tricks make the news, so that’s probably just them being charismatic.

            They *claim* it’s magic. But it seems likely that this magic thingy is just their religion, and they’re just really really well trained. Perhaps humans can be trained to those levels, if you start young enough.

            But, under the Republic, you might believe the magic, if you happened to watch that holovid of a Jedi saving those kids from a speeder using telekinesis on holoyoutube. Or you might think it’s just tricks.

            But then the empire happened, and all that stuff was taken down off the holonet anyway, and now it’s 20 years later, and even if you were alive back then, everyone sorta knows all that was just religious mumbo-jumbo.

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              • Oddly enough, I don’t mind midichlorians, but that’s because I ignore everything everyone says about them.

                In my mind, midichlorians are just things that generate the Force, and everything else is delusional religious nonsense from the Jedi.

                We already know the Force is created by living things, and in the EU, there is an animal that can dampen the Force, and an intelligence species that was severed from the Force, so we already know species can have weird relationships to the Force. So maybe it’s just one species responsible for (almost) all access to the Force in the first place!

                Everyone being ‘infected’ by midichlorians actually makes a *hell* of a lot more sense than convergent evolution of all life in the entire galaxy just happening to get access to the same energy field. I like it! (I’d like a less stupid name, but whatever.)

                But they are not intelligent, they do not whisper in your ear, they are frickin symbiots. They do not allow virgin births. All of that is delusional gibberish from the Jedi, gibberish we have no evidence is true.

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            • But CCTV footage from Cloud City, of Darth Vader telekinetically ripping machinery from the walls and flinging it at Luke, has like 7 trillion hits on YodaTube…

              And anyway, this whole midichlorians mess throws “magic” into question. Are midichlorians some sort of symbiotic life form that have their own ways of appearing to bend physical laws? My guess is that they can somehow manipulate magnetic fields; this could account for inducing amnesia via “mind tricks”, and lifting X-Wings out of swamps.

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              • What makes you think that footage would get out? And these days, people with laptops can make fairly decent special effects Jedi fights. What do you think slicers can do in a future with uncountable shackled AIs wandering around? (Droids).

                I’d imagine the Empire would not just suppress the Jedi-Religion-Works stuff really darn hard, but would also push the view into Imperial Dogma. Taught to schoolchildren, repeated on all the official channels. After 20 years of dedicated indoctrination, what would people believe?

                If you hadn’t actually seen a Jedi, what’s so hard about convincing people that they were just a religion that was considered ‘neutral’ and thus useful for diplomacy? Especially with so many dead over the course of the war, unable to correct the record?

                Especially if you cover up the rest with a second layer — Yoda’s assassination attempt, against the ‘so called Sith’ as evidence of how their religion had caused them to become fanatics. They tried to assassinate the head of the government because they thought he was their metaphorical Satan. Poor guy barely survived!

                So you give those people who don’t buy the official line a list of conspiracies and excuses — they became fanatics, they were plotting to gain more power, they used religion to get the acceptance of the masses, etc. And add in “secret military tech” — their lightsabers, for instance — to cover the rest. (As noted elsewhere).

                Plenty of good conspiracies and believable stories, and an official line that they used to be rather useful (negotiator-commanders who were studiously neutral in all affairs) and sadly they got too fundamentalist and started seeing Satan all over the place.

                Any ‘video’ of magic powers is obviously ‘shopped, probably by some religious true-believers.

                Now after Alderaan blew up, well — people might reconsider. But even if Luke created an Academy and pumped out Jedi like there was no tomorrow, in a galaxy of uncounted trillions — it’d take a LOT more than 20 years of geometric growth to get enough numbers for the average person to even have a ‘friend of a friend of a friend of a friend who swears’ story.

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                • And these days, people with laptops can make fairly decent special effects Jedi fights.

                  Additionally, ‘video’ in the Star Wars universe is *really really crappy*.

                  Seriously, everyone seems to use holograms…and hologram tech there is monochrome, staticy, and six inches high at the most.

                  I mean, yes, in the prequels, we get that a few times as a communication channel, and perhaps that’s the best you can push over a intersteller connection, I’ll buy that. But it happens even without bandwidth problems, like Leia’s recording in A New Hope.

                  Meanwhile, I don’t think we’ve ever seen an actual 2-D video playing there. Or even a computer screen. Ever. In any context.

                  Is 2-D video even a *thing* in the Star Wars universe? (Yes, I know it exists in the EU.) Or did they somehow skip it and go straight to holograms…which are still basically the quality of 1930s television.

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            • As the old saw goes, any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic.

              The Jedi had all sorts of technology they controlled & kept the secrets of to themselves. Take lightsabers. Not exactly mass produced, are they? Why? Because you need a Kyber crystal, and not just any crystal, but one attuned to the Force & the Jedi/Sith in question. So while anyone can pick up & swing a lightsaber, only well trained, Force sensitive people can build them using crystals found on only a handful of planets.

              Ergo, secret technology. A lot of other force powers can be similarly rationalized away. Even really big displays can be rationalized away. Think about us humans today & how eager a lot of people are to attribute divine intervention to random events. There is no reason why it can’t work the other way.

              PS lightsabers & blaster bolts – lightsabers are tightly focused plasma fields, as are blaster bolts. Plasma fields are contained by very powerful magnetic fields. The Jedi trick of blocking blaster bolts is mostly physics (magnetic fields attracting & repelling each other).

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              • The Jedi had all sorts of technology they controlled & kept the secrets of to themselves. Take lightsabers. Not exactly mass produced, are they? Why? Because you need a Kyber crystal, and not just any crystal, but one attuned to the Force & the Jedi/Sith in question. So while anyone can pick up & swing a lightsaber, only well trained, Force sensitive people can build them using crystals found on only a handful of planets.

                The EU sorta goes back and forth as to whether or not a Jedi is needed to build a lightsaber. And they also go back and forth on exactly how ‘personal’ lightsabers are. (I.e., whether a Jedi building his own is some sort of Force-important thing, or if it’s just a rite of passage.)

                It seems possible that Jedi’s, *if they want to use the Force to help them*, have to get a crystal attuned to the Force and somewhat compatible with them, but if you weren’t actually going to use the Force at all (Because you weren’t a Jedi), you could just get any old Kyber crystal and build a lightsaber.

                PS lightsabers & blaster bolts – lightsabers are tightly focused plasma fields, as are blaster bolts. Plasma fields are contained by very powerful magnetic fields. The Jedi trick of blocking blaster bolts is mostly physics (magnetic fields attracting & repelling each other).

                You are correct about canon, but this actually makes no sense. Lightsabers cut through almost anything. Blaster bolts just…scuff the walls, and even when they hit people, just sorta leave a smoking hole instead of, you know, going straight through them like would happen if you threw a lightsaber at them. Also, normal armor blocks blaster bolts, but not lightsabers, you need special armor to stop lightsabers. (Well, I *assume* normal armor blocks blaster bolts, otherwise stormtrooper outfits are really really stupid.)

                I guess that’s explained by blaster being like 1/10th the power and using Bespin gas instead of the crystals, but, seriously, that seems like an obvious design issue.

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            • Wait, that was too hostile.

              Okay, from inside. We know that the Force flows through all living things. Humans, whatever Yoda was, whatever the Mac Tonight guy was, all those guys.

              We know that it is inheritable, to some extent, and shows up more in some families than others *BUT* hey, it flows through all living things.

              Sure, we can have disciplined people who are monks, but the Sith are big on the whole “let your hate flow through you” thing so I’m sure that there are a lot of Force Sensitive people out there who developed Force powers that they don’t even know they have. (For example, I’ve heard it argued that the bullcrap at the end of the first movie that involved Jar-Jar tripping and falling and killing robots was untrained Force doing its thing. Same again for Anakin blowing ish up without even knowing what he was doing when he was piloting the A-Wing or whatever it was).

              As such, the Jedi Religion is something that you’d think that more people would be delighted with because it would be a religion that actually has *RESULTS*. That thing you do where you instinctively grab the tool out of the toolbox without even looking? That thing where you talk your husband into going down to the store tonight instead of tomorrow like he wants to? That thing where you just knew to bet on the longshot instead of Sebulba?

              Showing up on Sunday morning helps you get even better at that sort of thing. It’s not just the toolbox anymore. It helps you with the fridge and with outfits. It helps you not only win fights with the spouse but helps you not have them. It helps you not only win when you go to the track, but you don’t get addicted to gambling and you give a good chunk of the winnings to the charities that happen to need it most.

              The Force *WORKS*.

              You know the Crossfit guys? Imagine that times a kabillion.

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  5. I think this post is great, but I also think this post requires a trove of data greater than either the KGB archives or wikileaks could provide combined. Look what’s going on with Seymour Hersh and the back and forth of what definitely did and definitely not and maybe perhaps could be happened with the Bin Laden raid.

    New Republic scholars are going to have a hard time picking through fact, fiction, and myth from the period just before the Battle of Naboo to just after the Battle of Yavin. The Empire was at war with the Separatists. The Empire had always been at war with the Separatists. But Order 66 needs to be either justified or buried deep. Having Jedi be the good guys helping Brave Little Naboo will not do. There’s very few people alive during the period that could provide a counter-narrative to whatever the Empire is peddling as the official story of the Clone Wars, and the Empire has 30 years to fudge with the computer systems to make them read what they should.

    After the Battle of Yavin, the record is probably more complete, because the Alliance is starting to write their own story, but we still don’t know how the politics shook out after the Battle of Endor. As everyone knows by now, it’s comparatively easy to depose of government, but hard as a Bantha’s horn to install a new one. In any case, there’s a lot of inconvenient facts for the new government too. For instance, was the Admiral of the Fleet ever held accountable for leading the Rebel Alliance into a trap?

    There’s also a question of how much Battle of Yavin and later got publicized. The first Death Star was a military secret, it’s destruction also one. (The Imperial Press does have to say something about the death of Gran Moff Tarkin, but a simple ‘killed in action heroically’ suffices.) The destruction of Alderaan couldn’t be covered up, but it could be explained (‘Emperor calls for Asteroid control’). Then the rebels spend the next couple of years on the run, with the Empire always one Friedman unit from finally crushing them.

    The second Death Star, also a military secret. (most military contractors can actually keep secrets). It’s destruction kills everyone involved in its operation and construction. We are lead to believe (in some, more recent sources) that the fall of Coruscant happened pretty much right away, but most analysis indicates that it was actual death of the Emperor and the elimination of Sith power on the minds of the planet that led to the revolution, not news of the 2nd Death Star’s demise. So, bottom line, with all the conflicts of interest the Rebel leaders had and the various magical and million to one events that needed to occur, there’s good reason for the New Republic government to keep some things quiet, and promote the legend where it suits them.

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  6. I just watched The Phantom Edit for the first time. You know, the fan project where some guy edited the three prequels into a single two-hour movie, to see if he could salvage a good movie out of the mess that was the prequel trilogy.

    In my opinion, it was a tighter and better story, but still weighed down by bad dialogue and clunky, phoned-in acting. One thing that the editor was able to do very well was convey the potency of the droid army, and its utility to the separatist movement, as well as the way Palpatine manufactured a crisis, and played both sides of that crisis, so as to consolidate political power within himself. Less exposition, but more storytelling.

    I wouldn’t watch it again. While the editor did indeed significantly improve the product, the product ultimately cannot rise above the flaws baked into it.

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