Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: The Star Wars Expanded Universe. Fair warning: This piece reveals several plot points from the Star Wars Expanded Universe.
It’s a weird time to be a Star Wars fan, which is quite a statement to make, because it is always a weird time to be a Star Wars fan. There is no series that has self-evolved as fully and as shamelessly as those three original films. George Lucas created a fascinating, allegorical trilogy and then rapidly undermined it with special editions altering what came before and splashy CGI sequels. The franchise is its own worst enemy.
In 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm, adding another wrench to the works. Because Disney is not satisfied with just making action figures, children’s shows, and video games, it wanted a whole new set of films, and it wanted those films to go into the direction of the Star Wars universe that George Lucas himself, until now, had left well enough alone.
As a result, the company made a swift and decisive move that guts what Star Wars meant for many fans: It removed the entirety of the Expanded Universe from canon. Its actual language is quite a bit softer, temporizing that the EU is not being “discarded,” just changed. But the press release announcing the decision is an iron fist in a velvet glove—the corporate parent cracking down on its pampered fans. Take this especially strong-fisted assertion of power:
While Lucasfilm always strived to keep the stories created for the EU consistent with our film and television content as well as internally consistent, Lucas always made it clear that he was not beholden to the EU. He set the films he created as the canon. This includes the six Star Wars episodes, and the many hours of content he developed and produced in Star Wars: The Clone Wars. These stories are the immovable objects of Star Wars history, the characters and events to which all other tales must align.
It is the equivalent of hitting the reset button, which is something major franchises do from time to time. DC is familiar with the process, and Star Trek just tried it out with its J.J. Abrams’ helmed films, Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness.
To be fair, in all of these universes, usually it’s more than just simple erasure: For Star Trek, the films introduce the idea that an alternate timeline has been created, which allows the new incarnations to continue having their adventures while knowing that the old stories still happened, in some other history. Marvel is rumored to be heading toward a reboot in 2015, via a cataclysmic event that kills everyone; it’s still a reset button, but at least it’s a dramatic one. Disney, meanwhile, quietly hit “delete.”
It’s not the end of the world—okay, in some sense, it is, but it’s not the end of our world—but it is destabilizing. Up until now, the infinitely complex structure of continuity that legitimated the EU was a huge part of Star Wars’ ethos. Star Wars was a world where every device had a backstory; every droid, a serial number; every ship, a sassy onboard computer. Indeed, Lucasfilm even hired someone to keep track of canon: Leland Chee, colloquially called The Keeper Of The Holocron, who Wired profiled in 2008. (A holocron is, in the Star Wars universe, an ancient device created by the Jedi to house massive amounts of knowledge. See how apt the analogy is.) Everything—from packaging on new Star Wars toys for kids or stray details in an upcoming in-universe novel—had to make sense to Chee (and if not Chee, then the originator of all canon, the only figure who superseded Chee’s expertise: George Lucas himself).
“We don’t reboot. We don’t start from scratch … The thing about Star Wars is that there’s one universe,” Chee says. “Everyone wants to know stuff, like, where did Mace Windu get that purple lightsaber? We want to establish that there’s one and only one answer.”
Part of Chee’s job was to create reasons for simultaneous truths in the EU to exist, even when they shouldn’t—using one of those clauses that the Supreme Court deploys when they’re about to make a weird, one-off decision that can’t be used as a precedent for any future decision. Part of Chee’s job, too, was to work around the bizarre changes that Lucas himself made while creating the prequels—like the unsettling news that Anakin Skywalker created C-3PO as a kid. Here’s a recent example of his work: A cryptic tweet at first, but upon closer examination, one that indicates how the animated show Star Wars: The Clone Wars fits into the chronology of the prequel films.
(“T” refers to the animated movie The Clone Wars. The numbers are all episode codes.)
Now, presumably, Chee’s job doesn’t really exist—or if it does, it is being overhauled entirely, much like the Holocron itself. Disney’s upcoming films promise a whole new set of continuities to be managed: new truths for toy packaging, new truths for lightsaber origins. And though it will be pretty easy to suffer somewhat discontinuous merchandising, erasing the EU also erases a part of Star Wars fandom that had been distinct in and of itself. Part of the charm (or insanity) of the fandom lay in the discovery of the extensive thought that went into every bounty hunter who walked across the screen—similar to J.R.R. Tolkien’s appendices, Lucasfilm published Essential Guides to alien races, spaceships, droids, planets, and more. And as he ceded most of the storytelling of his creation to others, Lucas’ base of knowledge became the basis for a vast structure that offered a lens for re-experiencing the classic trilogy with fresh knowledge—oh, that’s Boba Fett, there’s Wedge Antilles, that’s a TIE interceptor, and hey, did you know that the Rogue Squadron fought a whole war over bacta, which is harvested from inner ears, because this evil woman seized all of the galaxy’s bacta for herself? It was rough for the New Republic’s medical doctors!
The official Star Wars categorization of the EU—because this universe that is obsessed with cataloging Star Destroyers is also obsessed with cataloging itself—has several different notations for the myriad eras of Star Wars media that exist outside film. There is The Sith Era and The New Jedi Order and the Era Of Rebellion. And then there is Infinities. Here is how it is described on the fan site Timeline Universe, which has a section devoted to Star Wars:
Parodies, comedies and stories which contain major contradictions are relegated to the section entitled ‘Infinities,’ marked by [a symbol]. ‘Infinities’ allows for stories outside of continuity to be told as “What If...” stories. This includes stories that existed prior to the establishment of the ‘Infinities’ label but which have been found to be irreconcilably contradictory to the historical events of the Star Wars saga. For a discussion of the subject, click here.
As of now, much of the EU—especially that which occurs after Return Of The Jedi—is now a “What if” story. But as with most stories that are just for our imagination—like Star Wars itself—it’s a story worth knowing. And if you’ve seen the films—and better still, if you’ve found yourself taken with the mythology of Luke, Leia, and Han’s galaxy—then that’s all you need to start tinkering with the Expanded Universe.
Expanded Universe 101
All of this obsession with continuity and slavish devotion to the original series glosses over what is perhaps the defining pillar of the Star Wars EU: The mythos of the movies doesn’t really make sense. At times, it makes some sense, but Star Wars is better at sketching out a world and insinuating grand significance than it is at fleshing those things out. It’s part of the original trilogy’s fundamental appeal: They have the ability to captivate the viewer with myths of a galaxy far, far away, but they also end with just enough unanswered questions to make the viewer want more.
This is why the most popular entry point for the EU, especially for kids, are video games and comic books that enthusiastically milk the “cool” part of the films—pod-racing, spaceship fights, shooting blasters at droids, and slicing a jewel-toned lightsaber through metal and hot flesh. The films dwell for long stretches of time on their action sequences, and though some fans daydream through those parts, others are rapt. As a result, there are a lot of Star Wars narratives that are tacked onto toys—Lego, racing games, first-person shooter games, fighter-pilot games. Many of these, like much of Star Wars, embrace a hefty amount of spectacle in order to appeal to its audience.
But the EU often buries its own complex narrative in the midst of a game that feels purely like an action-movie montage. Take, for example, TIE Fighter, a game set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi. For the untutored, a TIE fighter is the standard Imperial spaceship of choice—the spheres with flat panels on each side that spew out of the Death Star by the hundreds. The game is a flight simulator—but in it, the player is an agent of what the entire film franchise introduces as evil. The game introduces shades of morality in the Empire, presenting it as an important source of order and stability. Then it leads the pilot through saving the Emperor from a coup and shooting Rebel scum out of the sky—and good gameplay garners players a medal for their efforts.
An essential quality of nearly all Star Wars first-person role-playing games is that the player can choose whether or not to turn to the Dark Side. In the films, the difference between light and dark is hard to find. Sure, one side has Darths and the other, Jedi Master. But the functional difference between the two is explained primarily by Yoda and his cave of dreams on Dagobah, and it’s all deliberately a bit empty.
The EU, at its core, is about making sense of the mythos—the Talmud to the Torah, the Apocrypha to the Bible. And that sometimes means showing its audience how enticing and rewarding the Dark Side can be. Jedi Knight and Knights Of The Old Republic, which are both multi-game series, do not force players to lose the game if they choose the path of the Sith. They are just asked to live with it.
Along with games, comic books are another popular point of entry for the EU. (The whole thing follows the conventions of comic-book franchises by allowing dozens, if not hundreds, of authors to add their own story to a studio-established mythology.) In fact, Star Wars video game releases are often paired with comic-book releases—an opportunity to visually experience the story without having to play through the game.
But while comic books lack the player choice and accountability of video games, the stories in Star Wars’ comics have the benefit of potentially fractured narration, taking on numerous different viewpoints, without adhering to one specific “in” to the story. There’s Purge, a stand-alone comic book by John Ostrander and illustrated by Douglas Wheatley, that offers a sequel, of sorts, to Revenge Of The Sith. The newly minted Darth Vader goes to a Jedi hideout and massacres them. It’s the violence that is usually just hinted at in the films (or that occurs just offscreen), and is offered in a slim issue that forces the reader to confront unjust death.
Purge is followed by another series, Dark Times, that takes up the story of the young Vader and spins it into a longer saga. And that’s when novice Star Wars fans greet their first major obstacle: the specter of continuity.
The big jump between beginner and intermediate in the EU is when the storytelling begins to try to connect the characters from the films to the characters in whatever work of media is being presented. These are the novels where Luke and Leia show up as main characters; the ones where C-3PO and R2-D2 (often rendered into text as “Threepio” and “Artoo”) get side adventures.
There are plenty of stories in this universe that use the original characters to tell some part of the Star Wars mythology and fail miserably. (One could argue the prequels are the best example of this.) There are scores of “young Jedi” novels and “X-Wing” chronicles that have occasional brilliant moments, but are buried in otherwise rote genre conventions.
Then again, the novels (there are over a hundred) give the characters of Star Wars something they generally lack in the films—depth. Or at least they try to. Most do not succeed terribly well, but as with most geeky fandoms, much of the charm lies in the trying.
Shadows Of The Empire is the next logical step—it’s nestled in that weird gap between The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi. What’s behind Luke’s decision to suddenly wear black all the time? What is Leia thinking, exactly, when she flirt-fights with Han, then suddenly confesses she loves him, then can’t see him for three months because he’s cryogenically frozen? The novel might be a little simplistic—it introduces a Han Solo near-replacement, Dash Rendar, and an unsavory suitor named Prince Xizor who tries to seduce Princess Leia—but it also earnestly tries to fill that gap in understanding. Luke struggles with his own desire to join his father and the Dark Side. Leia considers what it means to have fallen in love so quickly. Shadows Of The Empire attempts to make characters out of archetypes.
But as soon as the EU begins to ask of the Star Wars films: “What happens next?” there is one series that proves to be definitive, both in quality and in influence. That is Timothy Zahn’s early ’90s Thrawn trilogy: Heir To The Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command. These novels could be episodes seven, eight, and nine of the film series—Zahn faithfully reproduces the structure and feel of the earlier films, right down to the inside jokes (“I am not a committee!”) and the classic expressions of anxiety (“I have a bad feeling about this.”). And as they were the first major novels in the EU, they set the plot foundation for the vast world set chronologically after the conclusion of Return Of the Jedi. Zahn gives Han and Leia children and a marital dynamic; he gives Luke Skywalker an ethical struggle that dogs him for the rest of his life. And he creates who is arguably the best original character in the EU: Mara Jade, the red-haired, green-eyed, Force-wielding avenger who Luke takes on as his first pupil, gently coaxing her away from the Dark Side toward the path of the Jedi. In the midst of this is a rather plausible threat to the New Republic—a cloned lord of the Sith and an Imperial admiral returning from a very long mission to discover that the Empire left no longer exists.
The Zahn trilogy’s success—it was a New York Times bestseller—proved that the EU could make money on its own, without a clear tie-in to a film. And as Star Wars’ continuity demands, every other novel in the series (primarily novels that play in the sandbox of the New Republic) leans on the Zahn trilogy for support. Jacen and Jaina, Leia and Han’s twins, have a long and storied struggle against the forces of evil (and one of them ends up succumbing to it); Anakin Solo, their youngest, grapples with the heritage of his own name as he, too, trains in the Force. There are countless threats to the New Republic, and constant abuses of the Force. But the foundation is the same.
It requires a strong stomach and a firm mind to really dig through the EU—even the best stories require processing some of the worst plot twists of the canon, whether that’s the anticlimactic saga of Kyp Durron or the implausible love affair between Luke and a Jedi ghost named Callista. Animated series take up space in the inter-film period between episodes two and three—The Clone Wars being one of the best and most well known, if also a hefty commitment of five seasons of CGI television. And in the wake of the Zahn books come more and more in the New Republic era: comic books like Dark Empire, where Luke temporarily goes over to the Dark Side; young-adult series like Young Jedi Knights that are the high-school-drama books of the Star Wars universe; and The New Jedi Order, a massive tonal shift for the EU that embraced a lot more darkness—with mixed results. (A planet falls on Chewie’s head, sort of. He dies.) The focus on dramatic plotting undermined the quality of Star Wars’ emotional depth—or, at least, it’s potential emotional depth.
Timothy Zahn swooped back in to the series in 1997, before The New Jedi Order began publishing, but after the universe had exploded with more stories. Perhaps Zahn felt a sense of responsibility to the world he’d kickstarted. Perhaps he was tired of other authors setting up Luke Skywalker with anyone except the most obvious choice—his own character, Mara Jade. And perhaps he was ready to be done with the Star Wars universe, but needed to go out with a bang. Either way, Specter Of The Past and Vision Of The Future came into the EU set a decade after the end of the Thrawn trilogy. Plot-wise, it’s fine—not as inspired as the first trilogy, but fine. And Luke Skywalker’s romantic life was never as compelling as Han Solo’s or Leia’s, in part because Mark Hamill is a colder on-screen presence than either Harrison Ford or Carrie Fisher. But through Luke and Mara, Zahn explores the question of the future of the Force—treating the philosophy of the Light Side and the Dark Side as an actual morality worth examining, instead of the mere sui generis of the universe. In a climactic scene where they first face near-certain death and then flirt-fight with each other to get through their anxiety, the two realize that in reality, life isn’t about dark or light but the gray area in the middle—and then decide to get married, because why not? They’re going to die anyway.
Luke and Mara don’t get the bittersweet ending that Zahn hoped for them—because the EU could not possibly let either character go for too long. But the appeal of it is wonderful.
Fittingly, Zahn sent Luke and Mara to the edge of the galaxy for their almost-end. On the fringes of the literary Star Wars universe are stories wholly about original characters and stories that delve into either the far past or the far future. These are, in many ways, the most “traditionally” genre—like the Dragonlance novels or a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, these are independent stories placed in an interesting world.
The Bounty Hunter Wars trilogy (kicked off by The Mandalorian Armor) is one of the best examples of this. The bounty hunter Boba Fett is technically in the films, but he has all of one line. Fett is the EU’s greatest star—a figure whose popularity is determined entirely by what the EU has done for him, a combination of George Lucas’ long backstory for the character and other visions for what his life would be like. (In the prequels, Lucas developed Fett’s early life—and that of his father’s—but that was, at least in part, in response to Fett’s already established popularity.) But wait: Doesn’t Boba Fett die in Return Of The Jedi, slowly digested by a sarlacc? As is the answer with most things in the universe, yes and no: In the EU, he claws his way out of the belly of the beast and begins hunting Han again, but not without gaining a backstory. Fett wears the armor in homage to his origins on Mandalore, but as he’s actually a clone of his father figure, Jango Fett, and any connection he has to Mandalore is tenuous at best. One line in the classic trilogy, and a lifetime of mythology since.
Another one-off, even more obscure than the life of Boba Fett, is I, Jedi, a stand-alone novel from Michael A. Stackpole that tells the story of Corran Horn, an X-wing pilot and Jedi who comes to personal crisis when his wife Mirax is kidnapped. The other characters make brief appearances, but the story is Corran’s—and as far as very readable genre literature on marriages goes, it is high caliber.
On the topic of infinities, there’s Star Wars Tales, a series of comics that have the dreamy quality of folk tales. There’s no continuity here, just imagination—Darth Vader and Darth Maul cross lightsabers in battle, for example. It’s what Grimm’s fairy tales would be in that galaxy far, far away: figures from legend and myth intertwining in new and surprising ways, offering more truths over the old ones.
One of the last installments of the Expanded Universe as we know it—the pre-Disney era—was the sixth season of The Clone Wars, which wrapped up on Netflix just a few months ago. The show, which aired on Cartoon Network—and was itself a sequel to another 2-D animated series, called Clone Wars—was, despite being aimed at children, one of the best explorations of the Star Wars universe. It ended on a fascinating, haunting note: A final arc of episodes where Yoda, aided by the spirit of his friend Qui-Gon Jinn, goes to Dagobah and reckons with five masked spirits who embody the Force. It’s the closest the series has come to adding a layer of ritual to the faux-religion of the Force; as Luke goes through a cave to confront his past in Empire Strikes Back, Yoda does so in The Clone Wars. It’s a powerful moment, and one that offers more substance and more rewards than the surface-level investment in the films. Star Wars is a mess of intersecting stories and infinite possibilities—or rather, Star Wars was that. It is now time to see what Star Wars will be next.
- The Zahn trilogy: Heir To The Empire, Dark Force Rising, The Last Command (novels): The easiest entry point into the series, and one of the most enjoyable.
- Star Wars: The Clone Wars (television show): Yeah, it’s an animated show for kids, but it’s surprisingly good (and mature). The female characters are far more fleshed-out; Anakin can act; Jar Jar is infinitely less annoying. And the clone storytelling is so much superior to the prequels that it is laughable.
- Knights Of The Old Republic, I and II (video game): Generally considered to be the best Star Wars video game. The player can choose to be male or female in both; canonically, KOTOR I has a male protagonist, and KOTOR II a female. And in the immortal words of Rowan Kaiser, the former is “an idealized Star Wars adventure,” while the second is “a loving deconstruction of that idea.” In both, the story is thousands of years before the films, when the Jedi Knights were vast in number. (Also, if you’re playing KOTOR II, you will likely need this mod.)
- Star Wars Tales, Vol. 1-4 (comic books): Embrace the infinities.
- The Complete Star Wars Anthology or The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy Soundtrack (music): You’re going to need something to listen to while reading all these books.