The Star Wars Expanded Universe: Why it Matters and the Danger it Faces
“After Star Wars was released, it became apparent that my story—however many films it took to tell—was only one of thousands that could be told about the characters who inhabit its galaxy. But these were not stories that I was destined to tell. Instead, they would spring from the imagination of other writers, inspired by the glimpse of a galaxy that Star Wars provided. Today, it is an amazing, if unexpected, legacy of Star Wars that so many gifted writers are contributing new stories to the Saga.”
―George Lucas, from the introduction of Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, 1996
I “took my first steps into a larger world” and watched Star Wars when I was 5, and it absolutely blew me away. This galaxy far, far away featured a thrilling story filled with strange alien worlds, even stranger alien species, and heroes fighting evil in an epic struggle that absolutely captivated my young imagination, as well as those of millions around the world. While the average movie-goer or fan might only be peripherally aware of it, the story of Star Wars was never limited to the films, and continues in a grand fashion across practically every form of media. These stories enrich and fill the universe of Star Wars, stretching from hundreds of thousands of years before the films to a hundred years after. The Expanded Universe allowed fans to continue to follow the beloved heroes from the movies while also providing context through new heroes and adventures from throughout (and sometimes beyond) the vast galaxy of Star Wars, creating a truly vibrant universe with unparalleled depth and continuity.
Through several bestselling novels we followed Luke, Leia and Han as they struggled to re-establish the Republic and the Jedi Order and starting families on the way. Threats such as Grand Admiral Thrawn, one of the greatest tacticians in the galaxy and a dedicated servant of the Empire, and the Yuuzhan Vong, extra-galactic invaders invisible to the Force and brutally genocidal are only the tip of the iceberg. The comics bring us to the beginnings of the Jedi Order on their ancient homeworld of Tython, before disagreement over the dark and light sides of the Force caused a devastating schism, and also show us how the galaxy continues after the passing of Luke Skywalker and the struggles of his descendant Cade. The video games allow us to take the reins in the eternal struggle between Jedi and Sith as they fought for the fate of the galaxy, and The Clone Wars TV series showed us the pitched battles of the war we only saw pieces of in the movies.
These various works also gave us countless original characters who have since become beloved fan-favorites, such as the aforementioned Thrawn, Mara Jade Skywalker, and Jaina Solo. They confirmed that Boba Fett was indeed too tough to be killed by the Sarlacc and gave us the wedding of Han Solo and Leia Organa. The Expanded Universe is simply too vast to briefly summarize, but the unfathomable amount of information is painstakingly documented and maintained by a legion of passionate editors (including yours truly) at Wookieepedia, and even a quick glance at the site displays just how much the Expanded Universe has to offer. From starship specifications to lightsaber combat to planetary histories, if you have ever had questions about the Star Wars setting, the Expanded Universe likely has an answer!
Admittedly not everything to come from the Expanded Universe has been good, and even diehard fans have found much to take issue with, but these missteps pale in comparison to the overall value of these contributions. The greatest strength of the Expanded Universe comes from its diversity and variety; different authors offer unique styles of writing, with genres stretching from horror to noir. To my knowledge no other franchise has such a widespread presence with this level of depth and it is truly astounding how much work has been put into building this world. A great deal of love and care has obviously been put into the crafting of the franchise and a significant population exists which appreciates it. The Expanded Universe clearly matters to the legions of individuals who have significant emotional (and likely monetary) investment in it.
This same Expanded Universe now faces a grave danger of being rendered obsolete and discarded, tossed to the side as if it never existed.
As everyone is undoubtedly aware, the rights to Star Wars were purchased by Disney in 2012, who promptly announced they would be releasing more movies starting in 2015. While most fans, myself included, initially were overjoyed at this news, excitement would soon give way to a sense of foreboding as they realized what the creation of new movies would have to entail. The vast majority, and arguably the best, of the Expanded Universe stories already take place in the years after Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, and there is hardly a year in the lives of Luke Skywalker and others that is not documented in some way. Director J. J. Abrams has since stated that the script for Episode VII has been completed and rumors suggest the story plans to feature Luke, Leia and Han in their later years, as well as their children. Fans of the Expanded Universe know that these children have already existed and grown up for quite some time and have even begun to take center stage from their parents even in the EU. If Abrams and the others in charge of the production so wished, they could systematically dismantle and nullify at least half of the Expanded Universe with their new movie.
The established canon of Star Wars can get VERY complicated, and even diehard fans and the authors of the EU have difficulty keeping it all straight sometimes. Contradictions are inevitable, and despite the best efforts of Leland Chee and other officials in making sense of it all, the difficulty of adhering to previous canon can be overwhelming at times. It is difficult to imagine that Hollywood will tolerate the cumbersome task of researching and obeying canon, and unfortunately it seems far more likely that these new films will simply overwrite what has previously been written. From a storytelling standpoint it would make sense as well. Luke’s son Ben has already lost his mother and lived through several galactic crises as of the current Expanded Universe stories, and Han and Leia’s daughter Jaina has gotten married and seen her two siblings perish, one of them at her own hand. It would be exceedingly difficult to introduce these characters to new audiences when they have already accomplished so much and undergone a great deal of development. There is little incentive for Disney to cater to what they likely view as an insignificant faction of their audience.
Precedent for this sort of disregard for canon already exists in the form of The Clone Wars TV series. While showrunners did their best to respect previous works, large contradictions did emerge. Many of these could have been quite easily avoided as well, implying a lack of concern on the part of the creators. More blatant examples include the deaths of Jedi Masters Even Piell and Adi Gallia who both died over the course of the show despite having previously been showing dying under different conditions in other sources. These conflicts could have been easily rectified by a simple substitution of characters but The Clone Wars prioritized telling its own stories over the need to respect canon. To their credit most of the canon conflicts were smoothed over in a reasonable fashion with only minor alterations, but the potential for abuse is very evident.
While Abrams is certainly among the best possible choices for take the helm for the new Star Wars films, he simply does not have the knowledge, and quite possibly the desire, to maintain the complicated canon of the universe, and it is difficult to fault him for this. The Expanded Universe has become so vast that attempting to break into is can be a daunting effort and requires far more time than any director would be willing to devote. Given the past tendency of Lucas and others to simply ignore and overwrite established canon when it suits them, it unfortunately seems Abrams will do the same, destroying much of the best Star Wars has had to offer outside of the films.
Fortunately the news is not all doom and gloom, and there is some hope for at least portions of the Expanded Universe. As the films are sequels, most if not all of the material which takes place before Return of the Jedi should be spared, which includes the critically acclaimed Knights of the Old Republic game, The Old Republic MMO and several other novels and comics. The success of The Clone Wars will likely protect it and its spiritual successor, Rebels, from any changes as well. Leland Chee and other stewards of the franchise have also announced the creation of the Lucasfilm Story Group which seeks to “abolish the current canon hierarchy system and create a single cohesive continuity,” and these individuals do possess the necessary knowledge and experience to make these cuts as painless as possible. The remote possibility that Disney does decide to work within existing canon also remains, and with advisers like the Lucasfilm Story Group they could do so with minimal alterations to the Expanded Universe.
Many people may be of the opinion that none of this matter, and ask why anyone should care. Simply put, people DO care, and can care a great deal. Star Wars actor and fan Sam Witwer put it best when he stated that Disney risks “pissing off a lot of people” with their new movies. Witwer’s own character, Galen Marek, might even be wiped by canon changes. Many fans like myself have invested over a decade into enjoying and studying various aspects of the Expanded Universe and would feel a definite sense of loss if it was simply discarded, and community fansites such as Wookieepedia show that I am not alone. The Star Trek Expanded Universe represents my worst fear for the future of Star Wars, where it is indisputably non-canon and ignored and belittled, leading to an inevitable decrease in quality. Some of the most enjoyable science fiction novels I’ve read were from the Star Wars Expanded Universe, and I feel a great sense of sadness that such works may soon become extinct. Characters like Mara Jade, Cade Skywalker, and Jaina Solo have become precious to the fandom, and it would be a great tragedy for them simply to be wiped from existence without any form of acknowledgement.
Many of you have never and will never read anything from the Expanded Universe and will enjoy the new movies without a care for this issue, and that’s perfectly fine. It is understandable that the average viewer will not be affected by this plight, and while I urge everyone to give the better works of Star Wars fiction a chance, my goal is not to convert others or start a riot, I have no illusions about any amount of fan outrage influencing Disney (although such outrage can be quite noticeable, see the Mass Effect 3 Ending debacle). Rather, I simply hope to help others understand how strongly many fans feel about the Expanded Universe, and how devastated we may feel by future decisions. While others may disagree with me and argue that putting the Expanded Universe on the chopping block is a good thing and the franchise will be better off losing all the deadweight, I have spent most of my life reading these stories and will maintain that there is more good than bad to be found in the Expanded Universe. The universe of Star Wars is only famous for its wealth and depth because of the rich tapestry of tales it is made up of, and something truly beautiful will be lost if it is crudely cut.
I love Star Wars, and always will, no matter what future entries in the franchise may bring, but if the Expanded Universe is discarded, I will be unable to view the new movies without a sense of bitter loss. As with anything we truly love, we must take the bad with the good, as greatness is only recognizable with context. I remember the awe felt by a child who first saw starships and worlds beyond his wildest imagination, who first saw the face of evil in the mask of Darth Vader, and realized what it meant to be a hero by the light of a blue lightsaber. I also remember the joy of the teenager who read late into the night, gaping in amazement at the tactical genius of Grand Admiral Thrawn, grinning at the childish antics of a young Jaina and Jacen Solo and laughing out loud at the wit of the members of Rogue Squadron. These feelings are not and should not be mutually exclusive. The passion of fans is what gives Star Wars its strength as a franchise, and if Abrams and the others in charge have the ability to continue the saga while appeasing all of these fans, then they should stop at nothing to do so. May the Force be with us all.
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