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Lop, a rabbit-like alien from Star Wars: Visions solemnly accepting a lightsaber Image: Disney Plus

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Star Wars needs more non-human heroes

Star Wars: Visions had a chance to tell the wildest Star Wars stories ever, so why is it still so focused on humans?

Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

The new Disney Plus anime anthology series Star Wars: Visions is a thrilling divergence for longtime fans of the franchise. The nine anime shorts in the first season, produced by some of Japan’s most forward-thinking and creative animation studios, range widely in tone and style. They’re set all over the Star Wars timeline, taking radically different approaches to the endless war between warriors who access the Force, either from the Light Side or the Dark Side. In the process of telling these small, scattered stories, the Visions shorts escape the need to obsessively follow the Skywalker line, and its impact on the galaxy. But strangely, Visions still echoes one of the film series’ big, consistent flaws: It’s almost exclusively concerned with human protagonists, and human stories.

The Star Wars franchise’s diverse galaxy is one of the things that makes its stories stand out. George Lucas obsessed over the look of the crowded cantina in 1977’s Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope, cramming it full of mysterious, inhuman oddities, and Star Wars creators ever since have taken up the challenge, developing and depicting new species and new worlds. Star Wars canon says the setting features more than 20 million sentient species, and the movies consistently remind viewers of that diversity, cramming virtually every crowd scene with alien faces. But over and over, the movies have returned to human protagonists, sidelining all those alien species as sidekicks or background details.

Back in 1977 when A New Hope came out, that decision made sense on a purely practical level: It reflected the limitations of convincing special effects and of George Lucas’ budget. Many of Lucas’ cantina aliens looked like believable creatures in the right light — but it helped that they barely spoke or moved. Non-human characters that got more screen time, like Chewbacca, Greedo, or R2-D2, didn’t speak English — a detail that made the galaxy seem more real and lived-in, but also saved puppeteers and operators from having to worry about convincing lip-sync during dialogue scenes.

Greedo in Star Wars: A New Hope, definitely about to shoot Han first Photo: Lucasfilm

Bigger budgets erased that problem by letting Lucas put more money into more sophisticated puppetry, which made room for bigger roles for strikingly inhuman aliens like Yoda and Admiral Ackbar. They in turn set the stage for Maz Kanata and The Mandalorian’s Baby Yoda. And as digital effects advanced, CG-dependent characters like Jar Jar Binks and Watto became much more common. But while the movies’ non-human characters became more elaborate and convincing, they still all played background roles in human-centric stories, whether the stage was dominated by Luke, Leia, and Han Solo; Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Padmé Amidala; or Kylo Ren, Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron.

The franchise’s move into animation made non-human protagonists even easier. There’s no particular reason to favor human characters in animation — Asajj Ventress might even be easier to animate than Obi-Wan Kenobi, because no one worries about Ventress falling into the uncanny valley, or not resembling her live-action counterpart closely enough. And in animation, non-human characters don’t strain anyone’s budget — even back in the mid-1980s, Star Wars expanded by telling non-human tales with the animated series Ewoks and Star Wars: Droids. That’s the strangest part about Visions’ near-universal focus on human leads: As far as cost or convincing imagery goes, there’s no compelling reason why, say, Jay in “Tatooine Rhapsody” couldn’t be non-human like the rest of his bandmates, or why F in “The Village Bride” or Dan in “The Elder” couldn’t be Twi’lek, Gotal, Rodian, or Lasat.

It’s possible that Star Wars creators just don’t think audiences can fully identify with non-human protagonists. That would be a strange reason to keep aliens to the sidelines, given that the franchise’s most beloved breakout characters have consistently been the non-human ones, from the Ewoks back in the 1980s to BB-8 or Baby Yoda in recent years. Star Wars’ most prominent non-human protagonist, Ahsoka Tano, has been part of the franchise since 2008, and she’s an outright phenomenon in fandom. But she’s pretty lonely out there in the Star Wars animated stories, surrounded by non-human characters who get, at most, a short leading arc before they disappear again.

The series’ long list of memorable non-human villains, from Jabba the Hutt to Darth Maul to General Grievous to Grand Admiral Thrawn, suggest that Star Wars creators are a bit stuck in a rut of equating relatability and heroism with humanity, and relying on alienness to make antagonists more threatening. Even the Visions shorts visualize around half of their villains as non-human characters troubling human protagonists.

Even the two Visions shorts that do feature non-human protagonists — the child droid TO-B1 in “TO-B1” and the loyal orphan Lop (possibly a Lepi?) in “Lop & Ochō” — both still lean into that dynamic. When TO-B1 fantasizes about being a Jedi, he pictures himself as human. His story does briefly take advantage of his artificial nature — he loses an arm (a longstanding Star Wars tradition) without any visible ill effect, and he’s clearly long-lived enough to survive in hiding and carry out his mentor’s ambitious plans. But his story doesn’t ever focus on the fact that he isn’t human. It’s conceived entirely around his relationship with his human creator, and his ambition to become like the Jedi — who, in his imagination, are apparently all human.

t0-b1 looks out at the desert planet in Star Wars: Visions Image: Lucasfilm

Lop, meanwhile, is adopted into a human clan, and wants nothing more than to hang onto those family ties. She repeatedly emphasizes how, even though she’s an outsider, she empathizes with her adoptive human father and sister, considers herself kin to them even when they don’t feel likewise, and thinks of their planet as home. The short never lets her take advantage of abilities or strengths only a Lepi would have, or otherwise addresses her non-human nature: It’s only concerned with her emotional ties to human characters.

“Lop & Ochō” is still the closest Visions really comes to adopting an actual alien viewpoint. That isn’t because Lop has fur instead of smooth skin, or long dangling ears instead of little round ones. It’s because she’s an outsider in a human world. She’s been separated from her homeworld, culture, and biological parents, and left to try to integrate with humans who are alien to her, and who waver on whether they consider her family. While her short only touches glancingly on her feelings of literal alienation, it’s a fascinating dynamic that stands out amid so many other Visions stories that just echo familiar good-vs.-evil conflicts between Sith and Jedi. It’s no coincidence that the other short that diverts furthest from that dynamic, “Tatooine Rhapsody,” is the one that gives its aliens and droid character the most prominence, and focuses on something they want that has nothing to do with the endless Force battles being fought around them.

There isn’t anything fundamentally wrong with Star Wars stories about humans, or occasionally about how non-human organics and droids relate to humans. It’s just a strangely narrow choice to have all Star Wars stories be about that dynamic, and Visions makes the narrowness of the choice even more striking, given how many of its stories strike the exact same notes of humans facing off over their Force alignments. There are at least 20 million other perspectives on the galaxy built into the setting. Why don’t we get to see more stories from those perspectives?

The initial shorts of Star Wars: Visions don’t individually suffer because of their humanocentrism. They mostly emphasize visual dynamism and energy, finding creative and colorful ways to portray those familiar star wars we’ve been watching play out since 1977. But it’s surprising to see that so few of the anime studios involved stepped outside those familiar lines, given how wildly creative and unpredictable anime stories normally get, and how much they normally love non-human viewpoints.

But by limiting themselves to such familiar character templates and types, the studios ended up limiting the stories they could tell, too. If Star Wars: Visions continues as a project, the producers could guarantee that the next batch of stories is even more dynamic and varied, just by asking the studios to think further outside these decades-old lines, and look further into the immense diversity that makes Star Wars so compelling and memorable. There are so many other fantastic stories out there waiting to be told, and there’s no reason that every single one of them needs to center on a human with a lightsaber in hand.

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