The Star Wars universe as we know it is changing.
To a lot of fans, Star Wars is far more than just the movies. The "Expanded Universe" includes novels, comic books and video games that, to many fans, define Star Wars even more than the films that started this phenomenon.
But Disney and LucasFilm are producing new Star Wars movies set after the original trilogy, and they've decided that the task of reconciling the stories in these new films with the incredibly dense Expanded Universe lore is an impossible one. And so on Friday they announced that Episodes 7, 8 and 9 will likely disregard at least those parts of the Expanded Universe that take place after Return of the Jedi.
More cynical geek commentators might say this is no big loss. And while there are some things being discarded I'm happy to be able to forget now, there are other aspects of the EU I will mourn.
Good: Context and universe-building
I spent my school years reading Star Wars novels and comics and playing Star Wars games. It's because I grew up with all that history that I've had a ridiculous amount of context for every trip I take into the Star Wars galaxy.
Though I would assume many of the Expanded Universe characters will make appearances in the new films, they won't have the same histories that have been hammered into my skull over the last 20 years. Rebel pilot Wedge Antilles, who appeared in all of the original three films, has been fleshed out in novels and comic books into one of the most beloved characters in all of Star Wars. Likewise Mara Jade, who is an EU creation and eventual wife to Luke Skywalker, has been the prototypical Strong Female Character among so many others in the EU (more on that later). And Thrawn—an alien tactical genius so much better at warfare than everyone else that even the openly racist Empire couldn't keep him from rising through its ranks—is almost a symbol for the EU despite not making many appearances.
Maybe those folks and others who have kept us coming back to the Expanded Universe will survive into the new Star Wars canon, but they won't be the characters we've gotten to know so intimately.
When the Expanded Universe became a stated licensing initiative by LucasFilm over two decades ago, they wanted at least the book and comic content to be placed on a coherent timeline with everything counting and referencing everything else. In terms of world-building, it's been a huge success. Even now as a recovering Star Wars fan I almost reflexively talk about it all the time because I know in-universe Star Wars history about as well as the history of our world. That should give you an idea of the impressive amount of lore built into Star Wars.
Bad: Helter-skelter lore
On the flip side of that, the first eight years of the Expanded Universe effort, from 1991 to early 1999, were pure chaos. And while most of the stories told did fit together decently on a timeline, there are some books that really just didn't at all and have long been ignored, like the Jedi Prince series. And as much as I enjoy the Jedi Knight games, the folks who made them certainly didn't try too hard to make them fit into the canon.
Kyle Katarn, for example, is the lead character in three of the four Jedi Knight games. While he does show up in some novels, his adventures in those games never feel like they exist in the same timeline as the rest of the lore, and are never (as far as I can recall) referenced in other works, just as those games never reference what else is going on in the galaxy at the time. The expansion pack to Jedi Knight, Mysteries of the Sith, even stars Mara Jade, and it exists in that same almost context-free bubble.
Star Wars novels were always more internally consistent in terms of continuity, but in that first decade, authors very often were placing stories in gaps in the timeline rather than each new story taking place after the last. Which could make it feel strange to read some of the early-written novels that tied into but did not reference key events from books that were written later but took place before.
But even many of the stories that fit on a timeline weren't necessarily coherent or sensical in context with each other. In The Crystal Star, for instance the bad guy kidnaps Han and Leia's kids because he wants to feed them to an extradimensional jelly monster called Waru. In the Jedi Academy Trilogy, Jedi Kyp Durron fell to the dark side and committed genocide but he wasn't punished for it because they turned him back to the good side. And the less said about the Black Fleet Crisis, the better. Also indicative of this lack of baseline standards were Old Republic-era comics in which powerful Sith lords cause stars to go nova with their minds, making you wonder why the Emperor needed Death Stars, really.
Good: Wraith Squadron's mentally ill misfits
Being a space fantasy, Star Wars has always been preoccupied with the Jedi and the Force, but a series of books nominally based on the X-Wing games got away from that entirely by focusing on a fighter pilot group called Rogue Squadron and its military operations in the New Republic — the successor government to the Rebel Alliance from the films. The nine books of the X-Wing series that were published in the '90s (a 10th was released in 2012, and I haven't read that one) are just about the most readable novels in all the Expanded Universe, and three by Aaron Allston about a starfighter group called Wraith Squadron is probably the peak of the EU in terms of human interest.
This squadron, created by Rebel hero Wedge Antilles (you'll remember him as the pilot Luke ordered out of the Death Star trench in Star Wars and again flying alongside Lando in Return of the Jedi), is made up of misfits whose military careers are basically over but who have skills that make them suited to working both as pilots and commandos, and who will plan and execute ops with non-traditional methods.
The hook is that most of Wraith Squadron's misfits are either mentally ill or have serious emotional hangups. We have, for example:
- Face Loran, who acted in Imperial propaganda films as a child and now feels immense guilt over it
- Ton Phanan, who is allergic to bacta (that magic healing fluid Luke was submerged in after his ordeal on Hoth at the start of The Empire Strikes Back) and so he's been given lots of mechanical parts after traumatic injuries and has become depressed and suicidal about it
- Myn Donos, who is suffering from PTSD after his previous squadron was wiped out in an ambush
- Falynn Sandskimmer, who has a serious inferiority complex that causes her to hate herself because she's not the best pilot in history
- Runt, a member of a species that naturally develops multiple personalities but who has no control over them and thus is basically a crazy person
There are more, but you get the picture.
Wraith Squadron is an extraordinary success for a 12-person group specifically because, as we so often see with artists, those seemingly huge character flaws make them think in unique and unpredictable ways. Part of that, of course, is they take some unnecessary risks, but the point here is that this weird group of people gels with each other in a way they couldn't with normal squadrons, and because of that they're able to pull off ops nobody else would think to try.
Bad: Dark Empire comic stains the timeline
The first thing Dark Horse Comics did with Star Wars after acquiring the license was publish a series called Dark Empire in 1991, a few months after the acclaimed novel Heir to the Empire began this Expanded Universe initiative in earnest. While Heir to the Empire felt pretty grounded, relatively speaking, Dark Empire was about Emperor Palpatine being resurrected in clone bodies six years after Return of the Jedi. Yes, I'm serious.
This "Emperor Reborn" announced his existence to the galaxy by opening a hyperspace wormhole with the Force on Coruscant and sucking Luke Skywalker into it, taking him to the Emperor's base on the planet Byss. And Luke turns to the dark side to keep from being murdered on the spot, which is kind of OK at first except nothing even remotely thought-provoking happens because of it.
The kicker is that during the three Dark Empire series, Leia gets pregnant and has a baby boy, and she and Han decide to name this kid Anakin. Kind of a horrible thing to do — imagine if Hitler's adult kids had been the ones to take him down and then half a decade later one of them had a kid named Adolf — but it gets worse. The Emperor is using up clone bodies like candy because something something dark side, and so he needs a new body that's more sustainable. And Palpatine, in all his wisdom, decides the only option is baby Anakin. Technically, this was an adviser's idea, probably as a double cross, but, really, the final battle in Dark Empire was about the main antagonist of the Star Wars movies trying to possess a baby.
There are lots of bad Star Wars books and comics, but few of them contain a story that is so significant and sweeping as Dark Empire's. It left such a mark in-universe that it had to be referenced often in other works, and we could never forget.
There are more reasons why Dark Empire sucks, but we'll come back to that.
Good: Progressive gender politics
This doesn't come across in the movies at all, but the Star Wars Expanded Universe has a long tradition of opposing discrimination in any form. The Empire, aside from being generally evil and fascist, is institutionally racist and misogynistic; they rarely allow non-humans or women in the military, and those who do make it in rarely get the chance to have glorious careers. The Rebellion and then the New Republic, on the other hand, don't care about that stuff.
Throughout these stories we see our heroes fully embrace inclusiveness. There are so many awesome, kickass ladies in these stories — the fighter squadrons in the X-Wing series are full of women and female aliens, for example — and the good guys never act like that's a thing. People are people and whether they're men or women or aliens doesn't come into the conversation, unless it's somebody like Borsk Fey'lia, regularly painted as the New Republic's main Typical Asshole Politician, bringing it up.
Though, yes, the lack of gay people—or even homosexuality as a concept—in nearly all these stories is lame, and there's no good reason for it. But even so, these stories do strongly encourage inclusiveness, and I can't help but think that reading so many Star Wars books in my developing years helped make me be less of a jerk than probably I would be otherwise.
Timothy Zahn is best known in Star Wars circles for writing two sets of books, the Thrawn Trilogy and the Hand of Thrawn duology, the first taking place five years after Jedi and the second happening ten years later. In the Expanded Universe chronology, the time in between those stories is mostly just a black hole of bullshit. It's also the main reason the EU is thought of as a collection of terribleness, since all this stuff was written in the '90s when the Expanded Universe was just becoming a thing in earnest.
A big reason why this period sucks is because there are so many superweapons found there, a trend that began in Dark Empire. Let's count them off.
- World Devastators, which would break up a planet and consume its resources. It's a possibly benign purpose, but their name is ominous and the Emperor used them on New Republic planets.
- the Galaxy Gun, which destroyed planets
- the Eclipse dreadnaught, which destroyed planets
- a second Eclipse dreadnaught, built after the first one was blown up
- the Darksaber, which was just a Death Star superlaser without all the extra stuff
- an old Death Star prototype
- the Sun Crusher, which causes stars to go supernova and was invincible
- the Eye of Palpatine, a "battlemoon" with enough conventional weaponry to destroy a planet's crust
- Centerpoint Station, which was a machine that could do anything, pretty much.
There's also a book about a guy who used a factory to implant bombs in every droid and computer it produced and then eventually blew them all up at once. Not a superweapon, really, but implausible and over-the-top in the same way.
None of these weapons were the result of an arms race, either, as is the case in Bioware's MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic where both sides are trying to outdo each other. Most of these superweapons are Imperial things created during the movie era, and apparently totally unnecessary since they weren't used until much later. The non-Imperial weapons are Centerpoint, made by ancient beings called the Celestials to assemble the Corellian star system, and the Darksaber, which an ambitious Hutt funded in a power grab.
Good: The long-awaited introduction of moral shades of gray to Star Wars
In the late '90s, some folks at LucasFilm realized they were putting out lots of really stupid books that had little regard for each other and decided to curate some longer-running story arcs that were more coherent than the one-offs and random trilogies that had been the norm. The first of these was the New Jedi Order, begun in 1999 and eventually spanning 19 novels over the following five years.
This series is where Chewbacca was infamously crushed by a falling moon, and it involved an invasion of the galaxy by some extragalactic aliens with a pain fetish. Which was fun. But for a couple years these books got bogged down in the same old Jedi philosophizing that had always been annoying in previous books and the prequel movies, with the main protagonists embracing a boring black-and-white view of the Force.
But this time it was a setup. In the 13th book and first-ever Star Wars novel that didn't include a character from one of the movies, Traitor gave a different perspective: there are shades of grey in the morality of the Force. A person's intentions do matter; using Force lightning does not make you a bad person by default, and enjoying a fight doesn't mean you're turning into a Sith. The old Jedi teachings would say this is heretical, but really it was refreshing that discussions about the Force were for the first time not horribly stodgy and dull. the 2004 RPG Knights of the Old Republic 2 is regarded well today despite being unfinished for that same reason. Alas, it was not to last.
Bad: Legacy of the Force novels and retcons
Some very vocal fans, however, were pissed about legit moral nuance being introduced to the series. Three years later another long series, the 9-book Legacy of the Force, revealed that whole philosophy from Traitor was just a trick by two old Sith named Lumiya and Vergere to turn Han and Leia's son Jacen to the dark side. The plan succeeds, and Jacen becomes a Sith Lord who kills Mara Jade and rules the galaxy for a minute. The arc itself is not really even a bad one, being about a man trying to avoid a galactic war by doing some unpalatable things only to end up being the villain. But it's ruined by having it come as the result of Jacen not thinking of the world in black and white because he was tricked by a secret Sith. This series is basically LucasFilm asserting that in Star Wars there is no such thing as moral nuance. Or that not only Sith deal in absolutes?
This sort of thing is indicative of why LucasFilm is now saying that only new stories and the past movies are perma-canon. Even after LucasFilm took firm control over the direction of the Expanded Universe in the late '90s, they kept the old stuff as canon and so retcon after retcon continued. With this statement, they give themselves the right to disregard things from the past instead of adapting them, and with new movies on the way the post-Jedi continuity was far too dense to navigate.
It's still painful, of course; for me, sure, but Leland Chee at LucasFilm has been in charge of franchise continuity for a decade and it probably sucks to have so much of his efforts be wiped from the record in this post-Jedi reboot. But at the end of the day there's far more money in having movies with context that can be easily communicated to normies than in satisfying Expanded Universe die-hards.
Can't really blame them, then, for taming the Wild West of this massive universe by way of carpet bombing it.