Earlier this month, The Phantom Menace turned 20 years old. The lasting legacy of what it added (for better and worse) to Star Wars’ rich tapestry is still being debated today, but the recent release of another bit of prequel storytelling has had me thinking about something: Why aren’t we getting more stories setting up the strange new world The Phantom Menace re-introduced the galaxy far, far away with?
Dooku: Jedi Lost is a peculiar beast for Star Wars. Penned by Cavan Scott, in terms of format it’s unlike any of the tie-in media we’ve been seeing lately, a hybrid between an audiobook and a full-cast audio drama rather than a traditional novel or comic. But also peculiar for this particular era of Star Wars is that it’s mostly set in a time period that’s been largely left alone in the wake of Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm, and the death-and-rebirth of Star Wars canon that came with it.
Set around a framing device that follows Asaaj Ventress in her earliest days in the employ of Count Dooku as she glimpses flashes of her new master’s past, Jedi Lost is actually mostly set well before the time Dooku had become the Count of his homeworld, Serenno—or before he’d slipped into the clutches of the Dark Side of the Force under Palpatine’s guidance. It covers different periods of his life—across childhood and his teenage years to a young man and eventually a respected Jedi Master, with a young Qui-Gon Jinn at his side.
Yes, Jedi Lost finally tells us the full story of Dooku’s time in the Jedi Order. But most importantly beyond that, it introduces us to a valuable time frame well before the events of his cinematic debut in Attack of the Clones, or even before the events of The Phantom Menace—a time frame where the cracks in both the Jedi Order and the Galactic Republic were beginning to truly open up, exposing a stagnant core in the moral centre of the galaxy.
Yoda stages a mock duel with his former Padawan in a flashback to Dooku’s time as a Jedi in the Age of Republic comic series. (Image: Luke Ross, Travis Lanham, and Java Tartaglia/Marvel Comics)
In revealing to us the shady political manoeuvrings and fringe lawlessness of a Republic stretched too thin to accommodate its expansive membership, as well as a Jedi Council that’s blindly reluctant to acknowledge the slow resurgence of the Dark Side, Jedi Lost doesn’t just paint a convincing narrative for its titular character’s decision to become one of the rare Jedi to turn on the order. It gives insight into the state of the galaxy before we reach the earliest stages of the Skywalker Saga in The Phantom Menace.
Over the course of the roughly six hours or so Jedi Lost takes to tell its story, Dooku’s slow evolution is a gripping one to examine. Dooku changes from a young Jedi who strives to constantly perfect and improve himself, to seeing that same desire for self-improvement transform into a growing resentment of the Jedi Council’s hands-off approach to Republic affairs (or dissension in its own ranks), to ultimately deciding to leave the Order when a conflict around his homeworld Serenno is left to worsen by Republic and Jedi to the point of a planetary civil war.
But it’s made so compelling because it crucially separates his disillusionment with the Jedi from his path to the Dark Side, in such a way that it makes the Star Wars galaxy much more interesting to consider than if it had simply been “Oh, he fell to the Dark Side and that’s why he left.” It becomes more of an indictment of the state of the Republic and the Jedi than it does the state of Dooku’s morality. And that’s something I wish we got a lot more of in this new era of Star Wars storytelling.
The Stark Hyperspace War broke out over, well, as the name implies, hyperspace routes. (Image: Davidé Fabbri, Christian Dalla Vecchia, and Dave McCaig/Dark Horse Comics)
Back in the old expanded universe, the pre-Phantom era became a fascinating hotbed of exploration into the role of the Jedi before the Clone Wars just turned them into fancy generals. Dark Horse Comics’ old Star Wars books explored the adventures of characters like Ki-Adi Mundi and A’Sharad Hett (a Tusken Jedi who would eventually fall to the dark side and even re-emerge in the Expanded Universe’s far-flung future as Darth Krayt) roaming the outer rim like ronin, navigating brief sparks of conflict in a galaxy that was mostly at peace.
And when there were larger conflicts, like the Stark Hyperspace War? They weren’t massive battles for the fate of the galaxy, but disputes over pirate raiders or hyperspace trade routes. And, above all, they were rare, meaning you got to see moments where Jedi and Padawans who’d known nothing but a life of diplomacy and temple bureaucracy confront having to actually put their combat training into action—and how that impacted them as people. And not just Jedi, but the men and women of the Republic too, at a time before potential disputes could be solved by flinging a battalion of battle-ready Clones at a planet.
Beyond that, stories like these gave readers a much more layered view of how the Republic at large really came to be in the declining state it was by the time the Naboo crisis really started pushing it over the edge, similar to what Jedi Lost does. Between corruption within the Senate, disillusioned leadership, and a Jedi Order that became increasingly more inward-looking and sheltered from the realities of galactic politics, these stories made the political situation blasted at you in The Phantom Menace feel less like it was coming out of nowhere and more like the slow, but steady crumbling of an institute that had been around for thousands of years it was meant to be. One that not only would be easy to see renegades like Dooku grow disenchanted with for not going far enough, but also one that would be incredibly easy to exploit for someone like Sheev Palpatine.
Ol’ sneaky Sheev. (Image: Lucasfilm)
Basically, it made a line like “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute”...actually kind of interesting? Sacrilege, I know. But that’s part of why it felt so valuable at the time—it added a context to the worldbuilding of The Phantom Menace the movie itself never really could hold up to explaining. It helped set down parallels that would not just be picked up across later prequels, but then be mirrored in the cyclical nature of Star Wars—interesting from a symbolic, thematic point of view, even if it does mean there’s a sort of storytelling sameness that sinks in—as the material now set between the events of Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens paints us a picture of a New Republic falling into old habits.
Star Wars has the chance to do that kind of exploration again with this revitalised canon—especially as we’re now on the precipice of a three year “hiatus” for the franchise as it takes a break between December’s launch of The Rise of Skywalker and what we now know is the first of a series of movies from Game of Thrones’ David Benioff and D.B. Weiss in 2022.
And that’s not to say it hasn’t been doing it already, albeit in fits and starts compared to other eras of the Skywalker Saga. From the release of Jedi Lost and Master and Apprentice last month, to tales in the comics like the Age of Republic one-shots, to Darth Maul’s standalone miniseries, to even in books like the recent Padmé Amidala novel Queen’s Shadow—sure, it’s not before Phantom, but set in the similarly fertile ground that is the 10 year gap between that movie and Attack of the Clones—this early timeframe around the opening of the Skywalker storyline has slowly but surely been chipped away at.
And following the 20th anniversary of us being drawn back to that time in the galaxy far, far away, stories as great as Jedi Lost prove that there is so much potential in Star Wars exploring a little further back into even its earliest cinematic past.
Featured image: Random House Audio