The thing about a franchise that never ends is that it never ends.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’s novelisation hits shelves (or whatever books hit nowadays) on March 17th. Like any novelisation, it expands upon the movie in several ways, mostly giving characters inner thoughts that can't be conveyed onscreen. However, thanks to early copies circulating here and there, a number of passages have emerged that recontextualise some significant story elements. We're exhausted by it all.
For one thing, the novelisation confirms that as speculated by Resistance officer Meriadoc Brandybuck, the returned Emperor Palpatine is in fact a clone. Specifically, he’s the latest of many clones carrying a Force-essence Palpatine projected across the galaxy into a new body, all in the moments between being thrown down a reactor shaft and blowing up in that reactor. It's going to make watching Return of the Jedi a little weird, but the image of Palpatine consciously going through that mental process in that moment is pretty hilarious.
More hilarious is that according to the novelisation, Rey didn’t even get the truth about her parentage in a movie almost slavishly dedicated to solving that unnecessary mystery. Rey’s father, it turns out, was not the result of Palpatine having sex, but a “not-quite-identical clone” who, despite lacking his progenitor's power, lived a full(ish) life and fathered Rey. So she’s not Palpatine’s granddaughter after all, but rather his daughter, sort of once removed.
Oh, and that kiss at the end of the movie? Totally platonic, as the book takes great pains to point out. A whole swathe of fandom cries out in agony.
Much of the criticism centres on the notion that these explanations should have been in The Rise of Skywalker in the first place. Though it's likely all from scenes deleted from the film, it reads like a desperate attempt to deal with the film's criticisms by spraying out extra story material. The film's visual dictionary-type books similarly explain away some of the film’s more inexplicable and convenient story points, one of which - the origin of the millions of Star Destroyer crew members on Exegol - saw an innocent Star Wars trivia account roasted on Twitter for a tweet that really epitomised the whole sorry state of things.
For what it’s worth, Ian McDiarmid has stated that the “cloning thing” was indeed in the shooting script, but was cut from the final edit. Cutting extraneous bits of story is a normal practice in filmmaking, but neglecting to note how a decades-gone villain has returned from the dead seems an oversight. McDiarmid offered up a bit of cut dialogue that would've done some heavy lifting:
“The cloning thing? Yes. Well, of course, there were all sorts of explanations for why I might return. But it’s interesting because at one point the script had a line in that first scene with Adam when he says ‘You’re a clone.’ And I said in that original script, which is no longer with us, ‘More than a clone. Less than a man.’ Which seemed to me to sum it up really.”
Ultimately, though they might have calmed complaining fans, these details don’t really matter. It doesn’t matter to Rey whether or not her lineage includes Palpatine doing the nasty; any relation is enough to drive her story as it plays out. It doesn’t matter whether Palpatine is a clone or a miraculous survivor. It doesn’t matter how exactly his base was built or staffed. The movie's “plot-hole” problems, while highly lucrative for the YouTuber set, don’t hold a candle to its much larger issues of character development, thematic consistency, and shameless fan-pandering.
A lot of this content - like the Rise novelisation’s reminiscence over Palpatine's original death - has the effect, like Rise itself did on its two predecessors, of retconning previous films and destroying or altering their original meaning. That’s not new to Star Wars, of course; hell, the series’ most well-known plot twist did that. But in the variety of media surrounding the film, the Lucasfilm Story Group is shouldering the weight of the issues in a hastily thought-out movie whose story, for whatever involvement the Group had or didn't have in its writing, strains credulity.
This isn't going to change. Disney’s plan for the franchise is for an ongoing multimedia franchise encompassing movies, TV shows, books, comics, video games, a theme park, and even a fucking hotel - official canon, all of them. Sometimes, that power’s going to be used for good. The introduction of new characters and settings, like the upcoming High Republic cross-media event, could be a really positive step forward for an increasingly stagnant franchise. But it can also be used for evil, and the exasperated groans of fans at this suggest that's where we're at right now.
Over the years, we've become accustomed to this kind of nonstop storytelling from Marvel Studios (and the comics industry in general), but it’s new to Star Wars. For forty years, any new Star Wars movie was an event - something that happened only ever so often, and in 1983 and 2005, something that might never happen again. Coming only a few months after The Last Jedi, the disappointing Solo: A Star Wars Story really brought Disney’s faster release cadence to its knees, and at this point, fatigue has set in - surely driven, subconsciously, by the shift from occasional to quotidian. Lucasfilm and Disney’s decision to space out the releases of future theatrical Star Wars films indicates at least some acknowledgement of that, but the content firehose will not be turned off in other media.
When Universal issued an updated DCP of Cats to cinemas on the film's release date, with slightly more-polished visual effects, jokes propagated about the movie issuing a day-one-patch - a common practice in video games wherein games require updates immediately upon release to fix last-minute bugs and whatnot. Star Wars, by comparison, is more like a live-service game - a title that’s designed never to be finished, but to simply carry on being updated and amended and fleshed out ad infinitum.
Hopefully the next films will be able to exist independently without libraries' worth of supporting material, but it seems more likely that Lucasfilm will follow Marvel Studios' lead and knit all its media together more closely. This is what Star Wars is now. May the Force have mercy on us all.