As we saw with the very vocal minority of Star Wars fans who got upset about The Last Jedi, bringing new features of the Force to the screen can be somewhat controversial.
Now we’re witnessing a new freakout over Force powers. The TV show Star Wars Rebels, set between Episode III and Episode IV, just revealed for the first time in the saga’s official storyline that the Force can let you travel in time.
But there are good reasons why fans should hold their blaster fire on this one.
In The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker used a hitherto unseen skill, Force projection, to send an image of himself across the galaxy and save the Resistance. “That’s not how the Force works,” cried some fans — until director Rian Johnson dropped the mic by showcasing the book from which this power was drawn.
In Rebels‘ most recent episode, “A World Between Worlds,” apprentice Jedi Ezra Bridger discovers the entrance to an ancient Jedi temple on his home planet of Lothal. He opens a mysterious door via a moving mural, and finds himself in a vast netherworld of pathways and portals.
“It is a pathway between all space and time,” says the Imperial minister who has been excavating the temple. And then, more ominously: “whoever controls it controls the universe.”
As Ezra walks through the eerie space, he hears whispers of people from the past and future of the entire Star Wars saga: Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Princess Leia, Yoda, Kylo Ren.
Finally he reaches a portal showing a scene from the finale of a previous Rebels season: former Jedi apprentice and Rebellion leader Ahsoka Tano dueling her former master Anakin Skywalker, aka Darth Vader. He also sees himself as a younger man, confirming that this is indeed the battle he witnessed in the past.
And then Ezra crosses the threshold, pulling Ahsoka out of the fight and into the netherworld to save her from Vader.
Here’s the moment itself — but if you have five minutes it’s worth watching the full scene here.
And there we have it. The first instance of time travel in all of Star Wars filmed entertainment — and a step too far, grumbled some old-school fans on Twitter. Meanwhile, one film website suggested J.J. Abrams might use time travel in Episode IX to “fix” the “problems” of The Last Jedi — and perhaps even bring Luke Skywalker back from the grave.
To say i’m not all enthused by the introduction of Time Travel to @StarWars is a monumental understatement.
To expect @disney to use it artfully and responsibly is ridiculous given recent efforts. Perhaps this really is the death spiral.
Its kinda depressing.
— RIP Star Wars (@RIP_SW) February 27, 2018
But is this really a betrayal of the basic idea of Star Wars? Will Force-wielding residents of the galaxy far, far away suddenly start zipping around time and space through portals like they’re in some mashup of Stargate and Doctor Who?
The answers are no, and very likely not. Let’s dig into the reasons why.
Almost no one can time travel
After impulsively saving Ahsoka, Ezra visits a couple other portals. In one, he sees his master Kanan nobly sacrificing himself a couple of episodes into the past; Ahsoka convinces him not to mess with the timeline by reversing that necessary sacrifice.
In the other, he sees Emperor Palpatine, voiced by Iain McDiarmid. As even the most basic Star Wars fan knows, the Emperor is the most utterly evil and one of the most powerful Force users in the galaxy, a Sith Lord who pulled a decades-long con on the entire Jedi order.
And notably, even the Emperor cannot enter the world between worlds. He needs Ezra’s help to do so (and crucially, he knows Ezra’s name), although he can send his Force lightning through the portal in an attempt to reel Ezra in.
Why was Ezra able to access the temple? Why is he known to the Emperor? That’s a question that may well be answered in the series finale of Rebels coming up next week. In the meantime, the time-traveling temple mysteriously vanished at the end of “World Between Worlds,” suggesting even Ezra won’t be able to use this ability again.
This is part of a bigger mystery
According to the wonderfully creepy moving mural on its outside, the temple appears to have been built by a mysterious, squabbling family of all-powerful Force users from the planet Mortis — known only as the Father, the Daughter, and the Son.
This trio was introduced by George Lucas himself during the Clone Wars series, in conjunction with showrunner Dave Filoni (who also runs Rebels). They were there to test whether Anakin Skywalker was the true “chosen one,” and gave the young Jedi a vision of his horrific future as Vader (which was then wiped from his mind).
We’ve not seen the Mortis trio since, and their origin remains unexplained. But the future vision clearly indicated they had some kind of power over time, so the netherworld is at least somewhat consistent with previous Star Wars canon.
In short, perhaps this isn’t so much about the time travel. We should see it more as the Star Wars storytellers’ promise that they haven’t forgotten about these weirdest of the weird fringe of Force-using characters.
This is not really the first time
We’ve seen Force users travel in time before, albeit not on the screen.
In the pre-2014 series of Star Wars books now known as Legends, the characters Jacen Solo and Ben Skywalker are able to use a rare power called “flow walking” to view (but not change) the past and the future. In the 2006 novel Bloodlines, Jacen goes back to see his grandfather Anakin Skywalker being trained by the Jedi order.
Granted, these books are no longer part of the official Star Wars saga (as you can tell from the fact that those kids don’t exist in the movies; they’re effectively combined into Ben Solo, aka Kylo Ren.) However, Lucasfilm has made it clear that Star Wars writers are free to pick and choose elements from the vast Legends archive to reuse going forward — so we may see flow walking on the screen yet.
What we saw inside the temple seems to be more proactive than flow walking, considering Ezra actually changed the past by saving Ahsoka. Still, it’s not as if time traveling skill is entirely unheard of in Star Wars’ long history. There is precedent, just as there was with Luke’s Force projection.
Rey’s Force vision in The Force Awakens and her trip into the underground cave in The Last Jedi both have time travel aspects. In the former, she sees brief snatches of long-distance past and future; in the latter, a string of versions of herself seconds in the past and future. Luke’s vision on Dagobah in Empire Strikes Back — of his friends being tortured in Cloud City — may also have been a glimpse of the future.
In short, Star Wars likes to get timey-wimey with it — but only in brief glimpses. As much as it breaks new ground, the time travel of Rebels is also extremely limited and judiciously used. There’s nothing here to suggest a time-traveling retcon in Episode IX.
The Force as we know it is still with us — but it also has a constant capacity to surprise.