A friend asked me the other day what I thought Episode VII should be about. Before I even knew I had an opinion on it, I was weighing in: "It should begin the morning after Jedi ends, with Luke pulling Vader's helmet from the embers of the funeral pyre." The best way to think about the original Star Wars film is as an artifact of the late 1970s. But the "franchise" is something like a global-family story, one I first learned about when I was six, and have been invested in seeing through ever since. And my response reflected my desire for a really twisted, House of Usher, ending.
First of all, by "begin the morning after Jedi ends" I mean straight away; before the opening crawl, and especially before the logo. Everyone is already dreading seeing the Disney logo replacing the 20th Century Fox logo; not because Disney sucks and Fox is awesome (they both suck and are awesome in equal proportions as all other corporate bodies), but just because geeks are even more change averse then the general population. Give them a bolt of excitement while their guard is still totally down. Luke, ala Benjamin Button, restored to the flower of his youth, stooping to retrieve his father's now-scorched and distressed helmet and, with helmet in black-gloved bionic hand, walking alone into the dark misty forest... camera pans slowly upwards through the barely visible cathedral of redwoods, into the darkness of space, until we reach the aquamarine text:
This is like a license to print money, please don't blow it with copyright bullying.
It is a period of polarization and strife. As the enemies of the 2nd Republic have become more violent, political infighting has become more radical and extreme. As a hero of the rebellion Princess Leia remains an important leader, and a strong advocate for moderation and diplomacy, but even she and her allies have adopted methods that most had hoped were relics of the Empire. As wealthy factions, with roots in the Old Republic, work against Leia in public a darker force works against her in secret....
Han has earned a hero's death. He should have gotten one in Return of the Jedi. Episode VII must right that wrong. Since Han Solo would have been the world's worst husband/father, the obvious MacGuffin is a message for he and, his now-estranged ex-wife, Leia's children: the Solo twins, and a suitably circuitous route through a dangerous galaxy for R2D2 to navigate... or whatever. What's important, that we are reintroduced to Leia as morally compromised and Luke - now Uncle Luke the weird recluse - untainted and above reproach. But we should also have R2D2 once again manipulating events in order to keep the entirety of his message out of Uncle Luke's reach. Why? Because what Han has realized before he was killed is that Vader has returned and neither Luke nor Leia can be trusted. But by the time Episode IV is over, the Solo twins must have taken the mantel of hero and won their first battle against their grandfather, and they need to do it without Han's help. (he'll return in flashbacks to show audiences how he prepared his children to defeat the Sith by being scoundrels.) The victory must be the victory of this generation, not their parents.
Luke's Helmet; Vader's face
How is the return of Vader to be managed? What is Vader trying to achieve? In The Empire Strikes Back Luke had a vision of battling and decapitating Vader, only to find that inside Vader's helmet was his own head. That future never came to be. Instead Anakin was redeemed and, like Obi Wan and Yoda, he learned the new Jedi trick of surviving death as an angel on Luke's shoulder. Obviously if we are making Episode VII, that happy ending was illusory. Once a Sith always a Sith.
By the end of Episode VII the audience will understand that Luke has been chatting with the shade of an unredeemed Sith for 30+ years. A Sith, who by betraying his master (a predictable Sith act), has learned the one trick his master, Emperor Palpatine, had promised and failed to teach him: How to live forever and resurrect the ones you love. The stage is set for a struggle with the true protagonist of the Star Wars stories: Darth Vader. Rather than cloak this in generalities and coded language ("younglings") the effort should be to show us a "rock-ribbed" horror willing to destroy his own son in order to use him as a vessel for his own rebirth, and his granddaughter, in order to make her a vessel for the return of his long dead wife.
Phantom Menace; phantom Sith
Like Darth Sidious before him, Vader should begin the film as a hooded figure directing events from the obscurity of shadowy holograms, but in the aftermath of the Solo twins victory, it will become clear that what we have been seeing is Luke in Vader's thrall. The battle with the twins will leave him mortally wounded. Luke is going to put on that helmet; it is his destiny.
The broader conflict that this scenario sets into action is a struggle that is particular to Star Wars, one that is different from other space operas. Rather than an alien race that is a stand in for the Chinese, Global Warming, or some other external threat, the existential threat to the Star Wars Universe is always internal. The Star Wars films are about American Empire. The Death Star wasn't an allegory for Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, it was an embodiment of American ideological violence; we are our worst enemies. While the Star Wars universe is peopled by all sorts of alien races, and plenty of them are villainous, the face of evil is always human, and the core of the threat is always within. This is the second immovable part, screw this up and we'll have two Star Trek reboots.