Star Wars: The Evolution of the X-Wing & Its Storytelling Capabilities

The X-Wing was central to the Star Wars Original Trilogy. But what does its evolution through the films tell us?

Spoilers for the two Star Wars trilogies to date lie within, as well as Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

Incom’s T-65B fighter, and its precursors, have been a staple of the Star Wars universe from the moment that we arrived at Yavin IV’s Massassi Temple just prior to A New Hope’s climactic battle. Pitched in supplementary material as an easy-to-fly fighter, adopting the same control system as the common-or-garden T-16 Skyhopper—a vehicle beloved of farm boys looking to bullseye Womp Rats—its simplicity goes some way to explaining Luke Skywalker’s seemingly inherent ability to fly one with the best of them straight off the bat. Though the fact his dad was a bit of a natural helped as well, presumably.

Importantly, it has one distinct advantage over TIE adversaries: it is augmented by a hyperdrive, allowing pilots a means of escape from tricky situations, something that, predictably, mattered more to the commanders of the Rebellion than those of the Empire. This safety measure does mean, however, that a mech droid is required to perform the calculations in lieu of the navicomputer you would find on, say, the Falcon—and thus every pilot has one accompany them on every flight as a “co-pilot.”

This is the role taken by Artoo (R2-D2) for Anakin in the PT and Luke in the original Star Wars trilogy, that Arfour (R4-P17) performs for Obi-Wan in the Prequels, and which it would appear BB-8 performs for Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron in The Force Awakens, certainly in the latter stages of the film—though it appears likely that his role accompanying Dameron is the reason BB-8 is on Jakku, and thus meets Rey.

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While the familiar silhouette of the new X-Wing has been a key part of the build-up to The Force Awakens—revealed by J.J. Abrams in his first Force for Change campaign video, and featuring in that eye-catching water-skimming sequence in the first teaser trailer—closer inspection makes it easy to see that its distinctive design has evolved as time within the Star Wars universe has gone on.

This evolution is a continuation of the process that has seen the X-Wing follow a definite lineage from the Arc-170 and Z-95 machines seen in Revenge of the Sith and The Clone Wars, through the T-65 and on to this T-70 iteration we’ve seen in a fair amount of footage so far this year.

The original Prequel Trilogy X-Wing was conceived and refined by Joe Johnston of ILM, though the design for The Force Awakens appears to be influenced directly, as so much of the recent Disney Star Wars universe appears to be, by the A New Hope concept art created by Ralph McQuarrie. His concept drawings feature the most significant design change that separates the new T-70 from its iconic predecessor: the semi-circular drive units, as opposed to the T-65’s quartet of circular ion engines. The T-70 design refines McQuarrie’s look further, though, by allowing the wings to interlock when the s-foils are retracted, simultaneously allowing the two engines to form full circles.

McQuarrie’s semi-circular ion engine design features on the Z-95 ‘Headhunter’ that we first saw in Clone Wars episode “Darkness on Umbara” (4×07), and then turned up regularly through the remainder of that series. It has also featured in a couple of recent canonical stories. It’s referenced in the recent James Luceno novel Tarkin as still being very common in the years just prior to the building of the first Death Star, and also features in Jason Fry’s “Last Call at the Zero Angle” from Star Wars Insider 156.

The Z-95’s style—while an obvious stepping point between the bulkier, hornet-like ARC-170 (and its massive twin engines) we see in the later movies of the prequel trilogy—allows both a retro reference point and a more sleek aspect when the vessel’s servo actuators push the S-foils into their attack position.

S-foil is the term used for the entire wing assembly of the X-Wing. We first hear it mentioned by Red Leader Garven Dreis in A New Hope. Supplementary material tells us that the S-foil serves several purposes on a technical level: it helps cool the engines when they’re under pressure in combat situations, it increases stability (don’t question Lucas-physics), and affords a wider coverage of fire for the four wing-mounted laser cannons the ship carries to augment its twin proton torpedo launchers.

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The decision to go back to the source of much of George Lucas’ inspiration for Star Wars appears to have been a very conscious one by the minds behind the new trilogy of films. The new X-Wing should be far from the only example: the arch we will see at the ‘Trading Post’ on Jakku, and the tented village we see in the trailers, appear to be very reminiscent of McQuarrie art. As do parts of the Snowtrooper uniform, Rey’s costume (very like his early concept art for Luke), her speeder, and BB-8 itself—or, at least, the idea of a droid based around a rolling ball mechanism.

This makes a lot of sense on many levels.

Firstly, McQuarrie pretty much symbolizes the spirit of the minds that created Star Wars. He is the Alpha eye that all the other artist appear to reference and respect.

For dedicated fans, McQuarrie’s art is a powerful shared language that they’ve spent years looking at in various books and magazines. To evoke it is to hark back to the very start of Star Wars, when it was fresh. As a fount for nostalgia, it’s hard to beat. Though these references will be overlooked by the vast majority of people who will see the film, it could also be seen as an admirable attempt by the filmmakers to strip back some of what Star Wars has become during the Prequel era and put the focus back on the visual style and world-building genius of Episodes IV-VI.

Almost as distinctive as the ships themselves are the callsigns used by Rebel pilots that fly them, corresponding to their squadron. A New Hope introduced us to both the Red and Gold Squadrons, though the latter exclusively consisted of Y-Wing ships, while The Empire Strikes Back brought us Rogue Squadron (or Group) as part of the Battle of Hoth. Many more squadrons featured in the Battle of Endor, both on-screen—as ILM showed off its mastery of the motion control special effects techniques it pioneered for A New Hope—and in the supplementary stories surrounding it.

Recently, Star Wars Rebels has made extensive use of Phoenix Squadron—as, perhaps, the prototype to the way the Rebellion would name its teams of pilots—the novel Lost Stars introduced us to the Corona and Gray squadrons, while the Shattered Empire comic story brought us a Yellow Squadron. Renegade Squadron is now canon. thanks to the game Star Wars: Galactic Defense, while a 2014 Star Wars Insider story introduced the ‘Blade Squadron’ of B-Wing pilots in an story of the same name. This connection between B-Wings and the term Blade was reinforced in the recent Rebels episode “Wings of the Master,” which tells of the part the crew of The Ghost had to play in the ship’s development and its integration into the Rebel fleet.

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This Star Wars Databank entry appears to confirm that The Force Awakens will bring us Black Squadron, pushing the previous usage of that name, given to the TIE squadron led by Darth Vader, to the backwaters that is Legends status.

With Poe Dameron as its leader, fulfilling his billing as “a leader in the Resistance’s fight against the evil First Order.” Recent comic Shattered Empire filled in some interesting details about Dameron’s back story: he is the child of Shara Bey and Kes Dameron, who served as a pilot and soldier respectively at the Battle of Endor (indeed, he was conceived on the night of the Rebel victory there), and was raised on Yavin 4 (the shooting location for which was Taikl, Guatemala, actor Oscar Isaac’s native country). His role as Black Leader certainly makes sense of the distinctive Black X-Wing that caused such a stir when drone pics of it appeared during the film’s production.

Black Squadron appear to be the crackerjack pilots of the new Resistance (the novel Moving Target’s Prologue and Epilogue reveals Dameron has been tasked with an important mission by Leia in the run up to the new film, and so is presumably among the brightest and best), and appears to boast Nien Nunb (Lando’s Sullustan co-pilot during the Endor Death Star assault and a character revealed to be a bit of a Solo-esque rogue as well as a talented pilot in the same book) among their number. It is Black Squadron we can see undertaking the lake-skimming attack on ‘The Green Planet’ (probably called Takodana) where Maz Kanata’s ‘castle’ once stood, in various snippets of trailer footage.

As best as we can piece these sequences together, it would seem that over-water attack of the X-Wings comes in the wake of a First Order bombardment that has reduced the castle (which we have seen Han, Rey, and Finn enter below an eye-catching array of flags) to the rubble from which we see Han and Chewie emerge from shooting in various edits.

We have also, it would appear, seen Black Squadron in action above the ice planet (possibly Ilum) where it is generally held the First Order’s new super-weapon is located, and which could serve as a callback to A New Hope’s climactic trench-run sequence.

What is not clear, however, is whether we’ll actually see Black (or any) Squadron battle it out in space. If you’re looking for hints, it’s not good. The creators of the game Battlefront went out of their way to stress that none of its action actually takes place in space, so could The Force Awakens keep its ship-to-ship battles in-atmosphere, too?

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Rumours have hinted that the final battle will take place both in space and in the atmosphere surrounding the Starkiller base, though. That contrast, from a purely aesthetic point of view, should allow us to see effects we’ve never seen in the Star Wars movies before (all those atmospheric/haze/vortex/spray touches that JJ Abrams seemed to want to feature in his Star Trek outings) and could provide an interesting visual contrast as we move between the two. Similar to the way Return of the Jedi’s closing scenes play out in the darkness of space and the light and nature of Endor, The Force Awakens may move us in and out of space to show several fronts of the fight.

Stylistically, what little footage we have appears to hint that The Force Awakens will look to take the same approach to shooting these scenes as was successful in the Original Trilogy, specifically a documentary shooting style that looks to both involve the viewer in the battle by offering the point of view or over-the-shoulder perspective George Lucas took away from the WWII dogfights he viewed in preparation for A New Hope (and famously used as placeholder footage in early edits). Whether or not it will include the documentary style, observational flourishes he brought to the Prequel Trilogy, refocusing cameras and skittery changes of attention that almost broke the fourth wall, is, as yet, less clear.

However it plays out on-screen, there’s little doubt that that the X-Wing is still central to the efforts of Resistance pilots, and will remain key in the Star Wars universe.

All speculation of course but, as is the way with Star Wars, that’s a good chunk of the fun…