There have been a lot of speculations and posts on the state of the Star Wars universe in the latest film, The Force Awakens. So this is a brief to get new and old fans up to speed. This has been gathered together from solid sources, and from a critical examination of information in the film itself.
The end of Episode VI left many with the impression that the Empire collapsed immediately following the destruction of the Death Star, and the deaths of Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. Episode VII takes a more realistic view to the situation. While immediately leaderless, the Empire still had a fleet, military, bureaucracy, and governing structure. So in effect, the galaxy was split between the Rebellion, which moved to create The Republic, and the remaining areas held by the Empire.
How this came to be though is a key to the current film’s situation. While still militarily weak, the Rebellion and nascent Republic were, on the strength of their recent victories and the disruption caused by the events around Endor, able to force a severe treaty on the Empire. We’re talking Treaty of Versailles severe. Mass disarmament, punishing reparations, and humiliating conditions. Now, much as such terms adversely affected interwar Germany, we see the same in the remaining space claimed by the Empire.
The events of this movie however, greatly shifts the balance of power in the Star Wars Universe, almost resetting it. The Republic has been seriously crippled, with the destruction both of its capital world and the home fleet. The Empire however, after 30 years of forced disarmament and punishing reparations, is in no condition to seize the initiative and reestablish itself. So the Empire is now the only remaining government, and the Resistance is the defacto force capable of defending against the next moves by the First Order.
The military forces in Episode VII seem small because they are small. The reason for this is that neither is actually representative of the governments of the space they come from. After a fashion, Episode VII handles this rather brilliantly without getting too far into the nuts and bolts of it.
The First Order is not the Empire, nor is it an official force. It is more akin to the Freikorps that emerged in interwar Germany. It has the trappings of the Empire, but is founding consists of fanatics and it appears to have been founded by the creator of the Knights of Ren, Supreme Leader Snoke. While they ape the dress and organization of the Empire, they have limited resources and are unable to fully mount a military operation to seize back the territory lost to the Rebellion 30 years ago. Their goal is to destroy the Republic, and to restore the glory of the Empire, under their control of course.
The Resistance is a much more morally dubious organization than the Rebellion was. They are based in Republic Space, but operate in Empire Space, and have the tacit support of the Republic, who shield them from reprisals with their fleet. The Resistance has the apparent goal of continuing the insurgency against the Empire, and to combat extremist groups in the Empire, such as the First order. They are smaller, and vastly less well equipped than the Rebellion was, and as a result, uses guerrilla tactics to husband their strength.
So, in effect, this is conflict between two insurgency groups, which is why everything seems to be so small scale when compared to Episodes IV to VI. The First Order is larger and more organized than the Resistance, and has more trappings of a conventional force, but is still restricted in its abilities. The Resistance is more reminiscent of the Rebellion when it first started, tiny, under equipped, and facing overwhelming odds, especially now that it has lost its shield from reprisals.
The situation with the Force is bad. The Sith, predictable and low in number, have been replaced by the Knights of Ren, a larger organization that is much more direct and kinetic than the Sith were in their tactics. They appear, at this juncture at least, to have taken some cues from the Jedi, forming themselves as a larger body and using similar titles. They are also the driving force behind the rise of the First Order. The Light Side of the Force is in trouble. Luke’s school was wiped out in a surprise attack by the Knights of Ren, spearheaded by Kylo Ren, a former student who had been brought over to the Dark Side by Snoke.
Interestingly, there appears to have been a reversal of the tradition Jedi/Sith relationship in Episode VII. Where in the past, the Jedi had numbers and the Sith were always a master and apprentice duo, we now see a large contingent of Dark Side knights, who will, presumably, be faced by the master and apprentice duo of Luke and Rey.
I was very leery coming into this film, because Star Wars has always had a very inconsistent and sometimes simplistic approach to politics. Rebels good, Empire bad, kill the leader win the war sort of stuff. It was a fantasy story approach to things. I’m glad to say that, at least so far, the politics of the situation have received a much more nuanced approach than expected.