Monday, April 28, 2014

Hello Star Wars Episode 7, Goodbye Expanded Universe

I was just as excited as the next Star Wars fan when a new trilogy was announced and when JJ Abrams signed on, that was just icing on the cake. His take on the Star Trek franchise was essentially Star Wars in disguise and if he could do for the next era of Star Wars what he did for Trek, I was on board.

With the announcement, we learned the long awaited Episodes 7-9 would finally see the light of day, but the question remained; how would this effect the Expanded Universe that fans had come to accept as the canonized events following the conclusion of Return of the Jedi?

Well, it came as little surprise with the recent news that the upcoming movies will be taking a different direction, thus negating the Expanded Universe (EU) as we know it for the past three decades plus. After all, I can’t blame Abrams for wanting to carve his own path and not be tied down to multiple authors’ interpretation of “what happened next.”

At the same time, I grew up reading the books, playing the video games (not to mention the Star Wars Collectible Card Game!), and obsessing over the minutiae of every ancillary characters’ backstories in my Star Wars encyclopedia (it was all for nothing!). I’ve relished exploring new corners of that galaxy far, far away and it’s very bitter sweet to know that the EU has more-or-less been relegated to fan-fiction status. Although that doesn’t mean they’re going to stop publishing them by any means, apparently under the banner Star Wars Legends.

So, as I eagerly await new details from Episode 7 to surface, I thought I’d count down the 5 things I’ll miss most from the Expanded Universe:

5) “Tales” Anthologies

This “Tales” anthology series of short stories focused on minor characters that populated some of the most notorious Star Wars locations such as the Mos Eisley Cantina and Jabba’s Palace. Many of the SW novels published by Bantam in the 90’s focused primarily on post “Jedi” chronology, with a timeline in the back placing each novel “X years after the Battle of Endor.” These books, however, took a slightly different approach, showing readers a different angle to events during the movies themselves. The behind-the-scenes look at what other stories were taking place during some of the most iconic scenes gave characters with as little as three seconds of screen time their own backstory, which really helped enhance the movies, giving them a more lived-in feel.

Focusing on a variety of characters from fan favorites (Boba Fett) to the obscure (the Rancor keeper), these stories were thrilling, sometimes heartbreaking, and occasionally hilarious. The tales were written by a variety of authors, many of whom have contributed notable entries to the EU, including Timothy Zahn, Barbara Hambly and Kevin J. Anderson (who also edited the series). As mentioned, because these stories took place during the original trilogy, I’m not sure how much affect they would have on future events of the series, but despite that, nothing can retcon the laugh-out-loud “Gamorrean Guard’s Tale” from my history.

4) The Force Unleashed

In the same way that the “Arkham” games allowed me to immerse myself in Batman’s world and experience what it was like to be the Dark Knight, The Force Unleashed was the first Star Wars game to truly produce the sensation of having the Force under my command (sorry Knights of the Old Republic). Timeline-wise, Force Unleashed falls between the prequel trilogy and A New Hope, introducing fans to Starkiller, Vader’s secret apprentice. The engaging story paired with dynamic gameplay made for a worthy addition to the SW mythos and added new depth to Vader’s relationship with the Emperor. Plus you get to bring down a frickin' Star Destroyer!

3) Splinter of the Mind’s Eye
Another “fill-in-the-gap” story, Splinter slots in between Episodes 4 and 5. Originally a story written by Alan Dean Foster that was intended to be shot as a mini-movie if Star Wars wasn’t a success, it ended up as a novel and eventually adapted into a comic. This was the first Star Wars comic I ever read and between the spot-on likenesses of the actors and the flawless renderings of the starships and props, it wasn’t hard to visualize this as an official entry into Lucas’ universe. The story starred Luke and Leia and it was cool to see the siblings on an adventure of their own, with subtle foreshadowing about their yet-to-be-revealed relationship. They cross paths (and lightsabers) with Vader, at his most menacing, and share a hilarious moment which may be my favorite Luke/Leia scene in all of Star Wars history.

2) Shadows of the Empire

Bridging the gap between Empire and Jedi, Shadows of the Empire felt very epic in scope, a major Star Wars event of its time. Shadows was treated with the gravitas of a new entry to the cinematic saga. A novel, a video game, comics, even a new line of toys. The works. And I ate it all up. The novel was so cinematic that all that was required was John William’s score in the background and it felt like the official Episode 5 ½. Han was frozen in carbonite during the events of this story (spoiler alert!) so the rogue mercenary, Dash Rendar, was the fill-in Han. You play as Dash in the game, and although the N64 graphics haven’t held up, the game itself was another solid effort from LucasArts. Shadows was the perfect entry point for fans of the movies into the Expanded Universe and helped fill the void until the prequels arrived. But Shadows wasn't mere filler, it felt like it was always part of the plan and now I can’t imagine the original trilogy without it.

1)    “Young Jedi Knights” series

Years after the events of Jedi, it was time for the new class to take center stage. With the Emperor ensuring the Jedi were all but extinct, it was now up to Luke to train new recruits at his academy. No surprise that Leia’s kids with Han turned out to be force sensitive and quickly rose to the top of the class. Jacen and Jaina’s adventures were just beginning and being the same age as them at that time, it was easy for me to relate to them and imagine myself training alongside the young padawans. Admittedly, Chewbacca’s nephew being one of their classmates felt a little too convenient to tie it in to the family but the series did manage to introduce some captivating new characters and tell some fresh stories with real stakes as written by the previously mentioned Kevin J. Anderson and his wife Rebecca Moesta. It’s a little to sad to think that their existence has now been blinked out of continuity for the foreseeable future, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that some elements of the EU will carry over into future movies. Time will tell!

Honorable Mention: The Ewok Adventure. Just kidding, the less said about this, the better. If killing off the EU takes this down with it, we’re all better off.

So that’s my list! The fact is, the Expanded Universe isn’t going anywhere. To me and millions of other fans, it all still happened and will never be separated from our own personal SW canon. I eagerly await future movie installments of one of my favorite sci-fi franchises and am curious to see what will become of a brand new incarnation of the SW EU. Did I forget to mention your favorite SW novel, comic, or game? Let me know!

You can follow my random string of consciousness here - @Scott_Duvall

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