Making Sense of the 'Star Wars' Timeline

Thanks to the TV shows and spinoffs, it's not as simple as following the episode order.

For an epic of galactic proportions, it might come as a surprise that the entirety of Star Wars canon takes place in less than a century. In fact, according to official mythology, there are only 60 years or so between Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, most of which can be filled by watching all of the Star Wars material that's already available out there. But if you were going to watch it all in the order in which it happened, where would you start?

The first onscreen Star Wars is, fittingly, Episode I. (There are both prose and comic books that take place before that, but we'll set them aside for now.) Next up is Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones, which is set a full decade after the first movie, finally answering the question, "Wait, did Jake Lloyd become Hayden Christensen overnight?"

The gap between Episode II and Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith is nowhere near as long — just three years of story time — but in an example of time-twisting magic, that three-year gap is where the entire run of the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series (which ran for six seasons) exists.

Episode III closes out the first trilogy of the big-screen movie, and sets the status quo for what's to come. In story terms, there are 19 years between that movie and the original 1977 Star Wars (AKA Episode IV: A New Hope). As the franchise expands, this 19-year gap is becoming increasingly important: It's where the Star Wars: Rebels animated series takes place (starting 14 years after Episode III), as well as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (which is set 19 years after Episode III, although the prologue takes place just four years after Episode III) and the untitled Han Solo stand-alone movie, although its exact placement remains a mystery for now.

By the start of the original 1977 Star Wars, the series has reached the 32-year mark. The Empire Strikes Back takes place three years later, giving the Rebels just enough time to move to Hoth before the Empire discovers them, and then Return of the Jedi takes place just a year after that, which either means that Luke is a very quick study or else it really doesn't take that much to become a Jedi after all.

For those keeping track, that means that the Empire was in power for just 23 years before Darth Vader saw the light and threw the lightning-throwing Emperor down a deep dark well. That fact — that the galaxy was under Palpatine's wrinkly thumb for little more than two decades — makes the next time jump in storytelling all the stranger: After Return of the Jedi, the next onscreen Star Wars story is last year's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which takes place 30 years later. The shadow cast over the galaxy by Palpatine's fascistic rule lasted longer than the rule itself, turning the mission of the First Order into some kind of creepy version of 1980s nostalgia in the real world.

Of course, there is one piece of non-canonical Star Wars that needs placement in the wider timeline of events, for those who know about it. While few at Lucasfilm would even pretend that The Star Wars Holiday Special fits into the official mythology, fans have placed it as happening one year after the 1977 movie. Now you can try and figure out how old Chewbacca's son Lumpy is by the time Rey, Finn et al showed up — and whether he's too old to join them in the still-untitled Episode VIII.

TL;DR edition:

Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace— year 0
Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones — year 10
Star Wars: The Clone Wars TV show — years 10-13
Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith — year 13
[Han Solo movie somewhere between year 13 and year 32]
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Prologue) — year 17
Star Wars: Rebels TV show — year 27
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story — year 32
Star Wars (AKA Star Wars: A New Hope) — year 32
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back — year 36
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi — year 37
Star Wars: The Force Awakens — year 67