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The Star Wars Expanded Universe: Decades of Greatness Gone to Waste
The past two weeks have provided a plethora of Star Wars news. First, there was the de-canonization of the Expanded Universe, which has served to deepen the lore of the franchise far beyond the films. Next, there was the announcement of the main cast of Episode VII. While the latter is certainly exciting news, it’s the first that stirred us more. Given some of the wonderful stories produced in the Expanded Universe, it’s a real shame it has been removed from official canon. Today, Stephen and Tim will share their thoughts on the de-canonization of the Expanded Universe while highlighting some of its more memorable entries.
When I read the news of the Expanded Universe being disregarded, I was at first bummed, then as I thought more about it, took it as a mixed bag. The Expanded Universe is huge, and when something is so massive and has so many different collaborators, there’s bound to be good and bad in it. On the one hand, de-canonizing the Expanded Universe eliminates a lot of the bantha fodder that’s out there. On the other, a lot of great stories are now completely irrelevant. Personally, I would rather Disney take a pick-and-choose method. Certainly some of my picks wouldn’t be chosen, but the obvious ones, like pretty much everything mentioned below, would be saved from oblivion. That would also give them a chance to weed out the bad apples. Alas, I am not in control of the creative direction of the Star Wars franchise.
Truthfully, I can’t think of a bigger shame than the Thrawn trilogy – perhaps the most revered story in the Expanded Universe – being reduced to glorified fanfiction. Aside from the books telling an awesome story, introducing some of the best characters in the entire Expanded Universe (Grand Admiral Thrawn chief among them) and garnering the love of Star Wars fans worldwide, author Timothy Zahn actually engaged in discussions with George Lucas before writing them. In essence, they’re about as close to canon as anything in the Expanded Universe, so much so that they had been regarded as the unofficial Episodes VII, VIII, and IX by fans until the announcement of Episode VII.
For those who never read it, the Thrawn trilogy dealt with the aftermath of the Galactic Empire’s fall, namely the organization of the New Republic, and the threat of the remnants of the Empire under the leadership of a grand admiral named Thrawn. Other Expanded Universe characters introduced included Talon Karrde and, perhaps most popular of all, Mara Jade, a hostile woman who would be won over by and eventually wed Luke Skywalker, fathering his child. To disregard this pivotal point in Star Wars lore seems downright blasphemous, and for that I am truly disappointed.
While maybe not the most popular of the Expanded Universe novels, the Legacy of the Force series is another I’m sad to se go. The series served as a huge turning point for the Solo children (also introduced in the Thrawn trilogy as babelings), particularly Jacen. As the Galactic Alliance faces a threat from the Corellian system, Jacen believes he can unify the galaxy once more and is ultimately pitted against Luke, creating chaos among the Jedi Order. The series depicts the death of Luke’s wife, Mara Jade, at the hands of Jacen, who becomes Darth Caedus. Ultimately, Jacen is slain by his twin sister Jaina and peace is restored. (Isn’t it always?)
Of all the Expanded Universe stories, this one seems most likely to have some impact on the new trilogy of films. Jacen and Jaina will almost certainly feature, and it would stand to reason their story arcs will at least be similar to their Expanded Universe counterparts. Really, there is no reason they shouldn’t, either, as Jacen’s story in particular is a dark and tragic one that deserves to be venerated in official Star Wars canon. Yes, I realize there were disappointing aspects of the series, but minor flaws aside, it is still a great story.
Of course, I could list all the major Expanded Universe stories I hate to see go, but I also lament some of the less prominent stories, like Shadows of the Empire. Released as a novel, a comic, and a game (each telling different sides of the same story), Shadows of the Empire serves as an interquel set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. It may not be the most relevant—or even the best—of the Expanded Universe, but it holds its place in my memory.
The game, released for the Nintendo 64, was plagued with some crappy shooter mechanics and an inherent penchant on the part of protagonist Dash Rendar to fall/leap off ledges to his death, but it was still one of the better Star Wars games, especially for its time. Taking control of the aforementioned protagonist, the player battled bounty hunters IG-88 and Boba Fett while assisting the Rebel Alliance. The tie-in novel more heavily featured Luke, Leia, and Lando as they searched for Han Popsicle, and also introduced Prince Xizor, a crime syndicate boss hoping to usurp apprenticeship to Emperor Palpatine by facilitating Luke Skywalker’s death, invoking the Emperor’s wrath against Darth Vader and ousting him.
All in all, it seems kind of insulting that stories like these are being swept under the carpet when The Clone Wars, ridiculous in pretty much everything beyond its most basic premise, is allowed to remain. I mean, seriously, Darth Maul surviving his own bisection and Anakin, who was not a Jedi Master, having an apprentice is canon? Gimme a break!
A long time ago, in a bedroom not too far away, Star Wars came alive a second time, not from a theater screen but from the pages of a book. That book was Heir to the Empire, and I can’t think of a time since that any series expanded as rapidly in so short a time as George Lucas’. Whether it was through books, comics, or video games, Star Wars always seemed to be destined for more than a simple film trilogy. It’s become a universe so immense and deep that it’s simply staggering to consider. All the while, I can’t help but feel that that universe is slipping away faster than a jump to hyperspace.
With the announcement of Star Wars: Episode VII, I can confess to having held a variety of reactions: joy, anxiety, and skepticism, often all at once. Those feelings were only exacerbated with Lucasfilm’s effective de-canonization of that of the entire Expanded Universe, minus Cartoon Network’s The Clone Wars. The move was predictably unthinkable to someone who loyally followed two film trilogies’ worth of supplementary material, and I remain as torn as I’ve ever been about a series I’ve loved so much.
Now, I can’t deny my emotional bias to the news. Not unlike their films, all the Expanded Universe’s off-screen adventures have become like a second family to me as other series came and went, from the deck of the Enterprise to Stargate’s ninth chevron. At the same time, many would say the feeling’s not terribly healthy for a series that’s desperately needed to grow out of its roots and onwards to new territory. On a good day, I wouldn’t disagree, but I would counter that the move creates far more problems than it does solutions.
It’s undeniable that Star Wars has evolved into a mythos so complex it outright blows over any newcomer. There’s every chance the new film trilogy would do right to welcome a fresh start. Let’s also remind ourselves that the notion of “canon” is one that’s all too often been approved on a whim by George Lucas himself, or dare I say it, “taste” regarding a certain Cartoon Network spin-off and a certain Secret Apprentice.
Then again, we have Expanded Universe material that’s already become a common language to the rest of the series, including that of The Clone Wars. Dathomir Witches, Sienar Fleet Systems, Delta Squad, and now Darth Maul’s bizarre resurrection are all staples within what’s now the only canon in the Star Wars universe. That’s not to even mention the amount of Star Wars fiction derived from games. Knights of the Old Republic, Jedi Outcast, Republic Commando—these are just a few of the names you’ll see pop up in Star Wars top tens in gaming, and frankly, it’s a low blow to erase what’s too far removed to interfere with Star Wars: Episode VII’s own plot anyway. More disconcerting than contradictions is the notion that “former” canon is being victimized for no apparent reason at all other than driving up action figure costs for all of those rare, “non-canon” Dark Trooper figurines you know you still have in your closet.
More concerning are the subtle hints Lucasfilm seems to be dropping quietly in the background, citing a further method of “mining” the Expanded Universe for ideas, allowing most of its characters to serve as “templates” for that of Episode VII’s. In many ways, that reality is far worse than the prospect of simply ignoring the Expanded Universe entirely. While not privy to either, I’d much rather settle with a polite turn of the back to the Expanded Universe than continue tinkering with it like some Hollywood Frankenstein. Letting the Expanded Universe go is a means of respect in itself, but tampering with a universe not known for alternate realities or time travel only seems destructive to the narrative. Nevertheless, I’ll always have my memories and the pile of books and games that complement them.
I can gladly say that the bulk of my love for the Expanded Universe hearkens back to where it all seemingly began. The Thrawn Trilogy became what’s most regarded as the original Episode VII to most folks of the 90s, and for good reason. Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars master work still stands tall as a piece perfectly capturing our favorite trio of Han, Luke, and Leia and pitting them against a worthy foe that proved brain over brawn, or even the Force, was as viable a threat as any.
Introducing such great character studies Noghri, as well as those Stephen mentioned, and even Coruscant years before its film debut, its splash continues to resonate with what the Expanded Universe built itself as: real people in decidedly extraordinary circumstances. The Hand of Thrawn duology served as the perfect exit to a legendary villain and properly took Luke and Mara’s relationship in a direction. What would follow would span my favorite era of the New Republic period, from Barbra Hambly’s delightfully creepy Planet of Twilight to Kevin J. Anderson’s endearing Young Jedi Knights series to Michael Stackpole’s action packed X-Wing series. To me, it was these early classics that cemented what were the perfect epilogues to what I already knew.
While the New Jedi Order was a hit or miss with the Yuuzhan Vong, the prequel trilogy (think what you will of them) was a blessing to the Expanded Universe all its own, albeit one in disguise. Even from the worst of Jar Jar Binks and a whiny Chosen One, such authors as Matthew Stover, Karen Traviss, and Sean Steward beautifully realized their greater supporting cast, giving us such keen insight into folks like Mace Windu, clone commandos, and even what makes Yoda and Dooku tick. Meanwhile, James Luceno complemented the films splendidly with such interquels as Cloak of Deception and Labyrinth of Evil. I’ll admit to holding a most special place in my heart for Jude Watson’s Jedi Apprentice and Jedi Quest series as the two series that gave any credit to the prequel era Jedi. Between Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan and Anakin, even the thought of Hayden Christensen’s Anakin couldn’t dispel what were made to be kiddie but meaningful glimpses into the master and apprentice relationships that drive the series at its core.
Maybe most polarizing of all is one of the most recent to bring the Expanded Universe to its knees: Legacy of the Force. Hot off the heels of what tragedy the New Jedi Order left in its wake, its triumvirate of Aaron Alston, Karen Traviss, and Troy Denning made for a compelling if not the most powerful story to be conceived since we’ve theorized what Episode VII could be forty years later rather than four. While its plot and pacing can be found lacking from one spot to another, there’s little denying its family drama being its greatest strength in making me finally hate one son of Han Solo and question what separates the good from the evil in the Star Wars pantheon. I’ll always be torn on its dissatisfying conclusion, but it’s not a series I’d ever want to erase for all its fresh ideas.