Ok, so perhaps quoting FDR about the Pearl Harbor attack is a bit much, but it got your attention, so… can you guess that date? No? You can? Did you Google it? (I would have. I don’t care.) That date is the date that Lucasfilm declared the Expanded Universe of Star Wars fiction defunct and dead. It is the day almost forty (1976-2014) years of story-telling, adventures, and wonderful memories of the Star Wars universe were rendered obsolete and thrown by the wayside the way one throws out a plastic/paper drink cup from a fast food restaurant. (What are those cups anyway? Moving on) To those of you that know me personally, you are quite well aware of my near-obsessive fandom of the Star Wars universe. And I’ve gotten many a question to the effect of, Why Should I Care? What Of It? It’s Lucas’ Decision, Isn’t It? It’s His Story You (series of insulting adjectives and nouns.) Get Off His Case. And I’ll be honest, it was a move quite divisive within the fan base. The level of debate among Wookieepedia’s admins was quite impressive. That online encyclopedia by the way is respected as the effective Bible of Star Wars lore, referenced by even official Lucasfilm employees and works. Perhaps I am hanging on to a dream. Perhaps I underestimate the tenacity of the new Legends label. Or perhaps I’m just plain wrong. But for the next few minutes indulge me, and allow me to guide you in the ways of the Force, as it used to be.
Canon in Star Wars has always been a contentious thing. It’s gone back and forth over the many years it had existed. But it was the careful, loving work of those fans enthralled by a universe, and the endless realm of stories within that universe now opened up by the films. I can even quote George on the subject, from 1996, “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.“ Even a dating system was developed, based on the films. So effective, easy to use, and intuitive was the system that it was even adopted by George Lucas himself. It allowed an easy placement of the events of everything, from the earliest legends, 36000 years prior to the movies to the ultimate Legacy of the Force comics over 130 years after the events of A New Hope.
Also, the old canon of Star Wars was very carefully administered by those close to Lucas and to Lucasfilm. It was a very simple system; when in doubt, the movies reigned supreme. If some other form of media contradicted the movies, it was incorrect on that point. Not necessarily invalid as a whole, but it was considered null on the contradicting points. In other cases, such as contradictions between games, novels, etc., Lucasfilm would adjudicate the issue and deliver a retcon to the work whose details were considered incorrect. Due to the vast nature of the body of work that made up the Expanded Universe, such overlaps were rare, and as a whole the Universe stood on its own two feet, a wonderful rich universe of stories of all characters in all situations a galaxy across.
I am now going to present an extended metaphor concerning the Expanded Universe. Please bear with me through it. Consider that you are a child, the idyllic, stereotypical American kid. Normal family, normal life. Across the course of your childhood, your family goes on vacations, and six of them are forever your favorites. These six are to the beach. And every time, your family parks at about the same spot, same parking lot, same golden sands, but every year you do something a little different on the beach. One year you spend a lot of time exploring the forests and grasslands near the beach. Of the six you make three while you are still an imaginative little kid, the best fun of your life, and the other three after you become a jaded teenager. The three trips during your teenage years you don’t remember quite as fondly, but being the beach trips they are you still love them, whether or not you’ll ever admit it. Your last trip has you running around the boardwalk on the beach, something you had only done a little bit in the previous trips, and it is definitely a contender for the best of the six, although normally you don’t admit this little factoid. All in all they are some of the most formative times of your youth and they are forever special to you. You met all kinds of cool people, some that you saw again and some that you did not. And they were growing up and changing just like you were. It was always the same beach, but it was always a different adventure too. (The original six movies, the prequels of course being the teenage ones.)
You continue on in your life, have a good job, raise a family, all that good stuff. But you’ve never forgotten the beach, all that you learned about yourself and others on those trips. You never forgot the friends you made for a couple summers at a time, and you never forgot how beautiful the sunset was laying on the beach with family. One day you get an opportunity. There’s the perfect opening for you and your family to move to the beach and live there. You seize it and it’s yours. You move, and you visit the beach every day. But with all the time in the world now, you pace yourself. You explore that little village that had the hotel you always stayed in. You spent even more time in the forests and on the boardwalk. You ranged farther up and down that beach, discovering more and more fantastical adventures and beautiful things to behold with every step. In short your life is perfect. With your family there with you, you can’t imagine how you’ll be happier. You make more friends, friends for life. You know them, even better than the ones you made every summer. The beach, the village, the forests, it is your world. (The Expanded Universe of course.)
And then you find yourself waking up, at home, in your bed. Your parents rush to your side, joyful that you’re finally awake. On the way home from that last trip to the beach, you were in a car accident. You were in a coma for months. When you finally came to, you were babbling, going on and on about the fantastic life you had been living. Now that your sanity has returned you start asking questions. Questions about the life that you thought you had. You are met at best with condescending sympathy, at worst sometimes outright hostility. You’re told that everything you remember is a lie, that it was just the wild imaginings of your unhinged mind. The final blow to your sanity? Your family is going back to the beach again, only to realize that it won’t be the beach you know. You’ll be staying close to your parents, you were just in a coma after all, not allowed to wander those soft sands, the wide grassy plains or deep forests near the beach, or even meander through the boardwalk unaccompanied. It’s all gone. (April 25, 2014)
To me, personally, the Star Wars Expanded Universe was far more real than the movies ever were. The Expanded Universe were what made the Star Wars Universe a real Universe. It made the characters, the little tidbits and legends that one can find in the real world. It gave flesh to the skeleton George Lucas had built, it gave life to wonder he had assembled. The Star Wars Expanded Universe made it all real.
When you found out about Obi-Wan Kenobi’s fling with Mandalorian Duchess Satine, and the very human pain he felt when she was ruthlessly killed, Kenobi became real in that moment. And this is not to say Ewan MacGregor’s and Alec Guiness’ performances weren’t wonderful, but it gave Kenobi a story in a way they never could do in the films. It is a very human thing to feel loss, and it gave even more weight to his performance in Revenge of the Sith when after Order 66 and his duel with Anakin when he loses his brother in Anakin and is forced to kill him. When you read the Republic Commando novels, and become friends with Kal Skirata and the Null ARCs and you realize that Star Wars, just like the real world, isn’t all black and white, there’s plenty of grey too.
In all of the Clone Wars media, there is a savagery to the war. Yes there are incredible heroics, but they are performed by Jedi and clone alike. Across the whole Clone Wars TV series you end up falling in with this band of plucky clones, this band of brothers fighting a war they didn’t choose. And you watch as the casual brutality of the war kills every last one of them, and always when they are doing their duty. I daresay I learned more from the heroics of Echo and Fives than any number of “real” war films could ever hope to do. When you follow the path of Revan in the times of the Old Republic, thousands of years before the movies, returning to the light from the dark, and being forced to confront the atrocities you once committed, and atoning for them, you realize that there are always yet more stories to be told about people, and that the people around you can matter just as much as you yourself.
In all of the stories that followed Episode VI, you watched the Rebel Alliance confront the reality of governing a galaxy, and that the Empire hadn’t just rolled over, just because dear old Palps had kicked the bucket (or more accurately been thrown down a titanic shaft to his doom. With how big the second Death Star was, if that shaft really went to the reactor cores, I rather expect the station blew up before he hit the ground/bottom, but I digress.) You met new characters, like Natasi Daala, and Gilad Pellaeon, and realized that serving the Empire didn’t necessarily mean that you were evil, but that you were still doing your very best to do the right thing. In short, the Expanded Universe gave Star Wars a living, breathing complexity the movies could never hope to achieve.
I want to be clear about something. The decision to end the Expanded Universe was not a Lucas decision. It was a Disney decision. Lucas himself had no control over what happened on April 25th. Disney was the one that resurrected the follow on films, at the cost of the Expanded Universe. And to be fair to them, with the amount of history told in the Expanded Universe, they would have had to either adapt an existing story to the big screen (a decision I would have endorsed), tried to squeeze it in to the existing canon storyline (difficult at best), or do exactly what they did and remove the canon issue entirely by making the EU moot and dead.
Film-making is a wonderful medium for storytelling. It gives artists and writers both a visual and an auditory and a literary touch to the same story, all at the same time. There is just something special when in a movie you hear an actor say lines you read in the book. It brings those words to life in a way impossible to achieve any other way, with visuals, audio, and story all together in one unit. But it has its costs. The breadth and scope of a film is limited by the attention span of the audience, and the budget the director and his team are provided with by the studio. While it is possibly the best of all worlds, it also suffers in ways no other medium does. The strength of the Star Wars Universe was its lack of homogenous mediums. There were the movies, and the TV shows, novels, comic books, role-playing games, video games. Each piece contributed its part of the Star Wars Universe and each piece brought its own strengths to the table. Together it made the Star Wars Universe the strong vibrant place to tell stories that it was, the place that story-tellers and their audiences loved to come back to.
When Disney threw out the canon of the Expanded Universe, when it was once more limited to the films, the TV shows, and the handful of novels then in the pipeline, they took away the strength that the Star Wars Universe had from the Expanded Universe. Yes, more stories will be told of Star Wars, in all forms of story-telling, from the new movies, the trilogy and the spin-offs, new novels, comic books and games will all return to the Universe. But it won’t be the same. It never will be.
The new Star Wars Universe is being controlled. Disney has established an official Story Group to control Star Wars media going forward. In the past, Lucasfilm was in charge of licensing all official Star Wars media, but as long as it didn’t contradict anything before it too seriously, or be a threat to Lucasfilm itself (i.e. too controversial, and for Lucasfilm that basically meant that it had to be able to cause a massive public outcry), whatever passed over their desks kept right on moving on to the publishers. That freedom, that breadth of storytelling is what made the Expanded Universe strong. Yes there were contracted writers, writing for specific points, but there were plenty of freelancers as well, and nobody was told what to say by Lucasfilm by and large. That is not the case with the new Disney management. They have made it very clear that unless the story fits the bounds of their corporate strategy going forward, it will not be published as official canon media. They can’t let happen again what forced their hand with the movies, namely that when they wanted to set the movies, Chewbacca was dead. Can’t have the star Wookiee out off the hook just because some loony writer trying to make a point, trying to write a real story just murder a character now can we? That would end a possible franchise point, and that’s just lost money.
The greatest strength of the Expanded Universe’s freedom for its writers was that it let them be real. By the time the Expanded Universe had ended, Luke was exile, and two of three of Han and Leia’s children were dead, one to the Yuuzhan Vong, the other to the dark side and his twin sister’s lightsaber. Not exactly a happy, idyllic ending, something much more real. That is what the Expanded Universe did. It put Admiral Gilad Pellaeon in charge of the Imperial Remnant. Pellaeon was, quite frankly, one of my favorite literary characters, ever. An Imperial Navy officer, whose career dated back to the days of the Old Republic and the Clone Wars, loyally serving the democracy, Pellaeon was a force for the law and a force against chaos. He fought in the Clone Wars and in the rebellion with honor and dignity, and administered the same to his crew and his enemies. His ultimate loyalty was to the service, to reason and justice and order, and he stayed on after the rise of the Empire because he held that the Empire to be the legitimate successor of the Republic. He was Admiral Thrawn’s right hand man. But Pellaeon wasn’t evil. He fought against the Empire’s anti-alien prejudices. He refused when ordered to aid in the enslavement of Wookiees. He was wise enough to force the Imperial Remnant government to accept a peace with the New Republic, knowing it was the only way to save the Empire. He came out of retirement to lead the Galactic Alliance Navy against an insurgency and died on the bridge of his flagship refusing to fire on innocent civilians. In short, Pellaeon was a hero. But he served the Empire. Can’t have any complicated, thought provoking literary constructions like that now can we?
Without the freedom that created the Expanded Universe, Star Wars will never be the same. The greatest strength, to me, of the Expanded Universe is that due to its diverse authorship, due to the variance in the views, thoughts, ideas of all these different authors, no two stories were ever the same. It gave rise not only to the realism of the Universe, but to unusual characters, like the heroism of Pellaeon or the villainy of the Republic in the slave Grand Army, as told by Traviss. And through this patchwork of stories, the cohesive history of Star Wars emerged, and it was all the stronger for it. Without that patchwork, without that diversity, Star Wars story-telling will lose its dynamism. If it is all one franchise under one creative team, it will all be of the same mind, and for that it will lose the strength of its previous diversity. Disney dealt itself and Star Wars a dual blow that day, removing that diversity and alienating all of those authors whose hard work is now on the wayside.
I understand that there is likely no return of the Expanded Universe. With the addition of the new canon of the new movies, much of the post-Original Trilogy history must be discarded. But that does not mean that Disney must do away with it all, and it does not mean that they cannot learn from the successes of the Expanded Universe. The Expanded Universe was the story of the fans, investing themselves, their time, their energy, their views into Star Wars, and it gave a diversity no amount of movies never could. Give Star Wars back to the fans. Let a new Expanded Universe come to the fore. For the stories that can, return them to the fold of canon. Let new authors cut their teeth on Star Wars, and give them the creative freedom that let them create the incredible expanse that was the original Expanded Universe. Let that creativity, that personal energy, that pure story-telling once reigned free and pure and made Star Wars the wonderful experience that it was. Do not let corporate greed overpower the artistic greatness that made Star Wars as powerful as it was. Do not succumb to that newest evil in our materialistic world. Do not become the evil Lucas spoke of when he said before Congress, “People who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians”. Star Wars is a integral part of our cultural history. Do not just discard that as inconvenient as it is now as American as McDonald’s or a trip to the beach during the summer. Let story-telling once more hold reign over corporate profit. May the Force guide your actions.
As always feel free to comment below and give me your feedback. And come December 2015, stay tuned for a review of the reboot of my favorite science fiction franchise of all time. I’m going, hell, high water, or more Jar Jar Binks.