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Saving the Star Wars Expanded Universe

on December 16, 2015, 12:00am

Nothing But Star Wars 2A long time ago, we were just stargazing kids, worshipping our letterbox collection of George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy. Years later, the Force is strong with us once again as we do the Imperial March towards J.J. Abrams’ highly anticipated sequel, The Force Awakens. To celebrate, we’re spending the week talking about Nothing But Star Wars! with a rogue squadron of features, essays, and stories. Today, Nerdy Show’s Matthew Spill sifts through the rubble of the former Expanded Universe and attempts to salvage its best stories. 

On April 25, 2014, to better clean the slate for December’s The Force Awakens, the Lucasfilm Story Group fired the Death Star superlaser at the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Effectively destroying over 30 years of collected novels, comics, and other media that furthered the adventures of Luke Skywalker and the Galaxy Far, Far Away, many fans cried out and were suddenly silenced.

But like the ghosts of Alderaan, their legacy lives on under the Star Wars Legends banner. What follows is an overview of what the Star Wars universe lost the most by eliminating all of its storied, continued history.

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Tales of the Jedi (1996) / Knights of the Old Republic (2003)

tales of the sith Saving the Star Wars Expanded Universe

“At last we will reveal ourselves to the Jedi. At last we will have revenge.” –Darth Maul

There are plenty of reasons why BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic became an instant classic: gameplay, story, scale, among them. But it, and the comic-series Tales of the Jedi, brought something more important to the Galaxy Far, Far Away: foundation.

The term “Sith” was never used in the original trilogy. It predated A New Hope by appearing in its 1976 novelization, but Vader’s association remained largely a mystery – a cool title with no substance. It wasn’t until Dark Horse started publishing Tales of the Jedi in 1996 that the Jedi, the Republic, and their greatest foes – the Sith – received the lore they deserved.

kotr Saving the Star Wars Expanded Universe

Other media followed Tales of the Jedi in developing the Old Republic. But none came close to accomplishing what BioWare did with 2003’s Knights of the Old Republic. Over the course of the sprawling space epic, the player character gained and lost well fleshed-out companions, made morally gray (or stark) decisions, and shaped the galaxy’s Jedi-Sith conflict in ways that would resonate for thousands of years. All of a sudden, not only did the conflict have a foundation, but now it resonated personally for so many.

By the time of the prequel films (some 4,000 years later), the Sith are all but extinct. The slate-cleansing by the Lucasfilm Story Group now means that the entire context of Sith history is within the films and Clone Wars. But they never offered many hints as to where they came from, why they are in hiding, and why they so badly need revenge. Without the tales from the Old Republic era, their return and ultimate triumph in Episode III has little weight.

With EA holding the license to publish Star Wars games, it almost sells itself to re-release an HD “canon” edition of Knights of the Old Republic.

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Jedi Academy Trilogy (1994) / The New Jedi Order (1999)

jedi academy Saving the Star Wars Expanded Universe

“Luke, the Force runs strong in your family. Pass on what you have learned.” –Yoda

If the loss of Old Republic era eliminated motivations and foundations, then the loss of the Jedi Temple on Yavin signified that the saga could have lost its legacy.

Beneath the wreckage of the Death Star, the Alliance and their Ewok allies celebrated triumph over villainy. In the Special Edition, the galaxy celebrated: The Empire had fallen. The New Republic was ascendant. The Jedi had returned.

But wait just a parsec.

From what can be deduced from The Force Awakens promotions, Luke has likely failed to reestablish the Jedi. And the old trappings of the Empire, complete with a spherical battle station, are back.

In the Legends timeline, the Jedi Academy Trilogy established the Jedi Praxeum on Yavin. Grand Master Skywalker began to train the New Jedi Order. This was uncharted territory – there were no prequel institutions such as Padawans, braids, and training from infancy. Luke’s academy proved communal with apprentices of all ages. On a humid, jungle world, Luke’s teachings were more attuned to the Living Force than their Coruscanti prequel counterparts. While Mace Windu and Yoda engaged in – and were manipulated by – secessionist politics, Luke’s apprentices kept the galaxy safe from warlords, monsters, and the Imperial Remnant.

The post-Endor galaxy of the Legends timeline was the true Skywalker legacy of a thriving, resurgent Jedi Order, neither a prequel retread nor the one-man army of the original trilogy. And while the Empire was never quite the same, there were still other “Star Wars” to fight: the Eye of Palpatine, Disciples of Ragnos, and the Shadow Academy, to name a few. But none represented so great an enemy as the Yuuzhan Vong from The New Jedi Order.

new jedi order Saving the Star Wars Expanded Universe

Led by the Solo children, Jacen, Jaina, and Anakin, the seeds had been planted at Luke’s Praxeum for the next generation of heroes to star in their own space opera. The Vong quickly proved to be a capable enemy, killing Chewbacca and Anakin, as well as capturing and terraforming Coruscant.

The Vong were from beyond the galaxy, worshipped pain, and were “invisible” to the Force. They used living creatures as ships and weapons. Their contrast to the Empire was an opportunity for the Jedi and the Force to be used creatively in ways that built upon the foundations of Luke’s Praxeum.

Yoda’s command and Luke’s legacy had been fulfilled, as a Jedi-populated galaxy went to war against enemies without wedge-shaped battleships, Twin Ion Engine snubfighters, and pristinely white-armored soldiers. All in all, it makes The Force Awakens seem like a retread in an era with the opportunity to be incredibly novel.

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The Han Solo Adventures (1979)

han solo adventures Saving the Star Wars Expanded Universe

“You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon?” –Han Solo

An effective “prequel” is not an “origin story.” It is a successful transplant of beloved characters in new, but earlier, adventures, much like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Ignoring the how’s and why’s, they instead ask “what”: What would Indiana Jones do if he were swashbuckling in 1920s Asia?

Brian Daley’s Han Solo Adventures were Han Solo and Chewbacca’s Temple of Doom. Over three adventures, Solo and his Wookiee sidekick wreak havoc in the Corporate Sector, staging a prison break, freeing slaves, and hunting for pirate treasure. They were pure pulp bliss and added nothing to the origin of Han Solo more than, “Yes, he is the badass I thought he was.”

Despite being the first pieces of Star Wars literature to take place before the films, Daley’s adventures didn’t try to answer questions like, “How did Han and Chewie hook up?” “Where did he get his blaster?” “How did he get the Millennium Falcon?” The answers to those could never live up to their promise – they will always play out better in the imagination.

And that is why the Lucasfilm Story Group should take note bringing a young Han Solo film to the big screen. We shouldn’t want to see a young Han Solo film that attempts to answer how’s and why’s, offering meaningless cameos by Lando Calrissian, Boba Fett, or Max Rebo. And when faced with whether to help the Rebels at Yavin, I should still be surprised when the Falcon shows up to save Luke. Because why would Han Solo risk his neck for a lost cause?

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Republic (1998) / Shatterpoint (2003) / Republic Commando: Hard Contact (2004)

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Your clones are very impressive. You must be very proud.” –Obi-Wan Kenobi

Opinions on the prequels vary, but there are few who could argue Lucas’ abilities as a world builder. The galaxy of the prequels is at once familiar but visually distinct: more vibrant, polished, and curved than the one-note environments of the original trilogy.

Lack of stark environments and a clear “good vs. bad” setup also provided opportunity to explore grayer themes. Creators tapped into quandaries never before seen in the Galaxy Far, Far Away.

Dark Horse began publishing the Republic series coinciding with The Phantom Menace. Initial stories usually centered on Jedi heroics. As Episode II neared, they took a darker turn – in particular, the saga of Quinlan Vos. Quinlan was a different sort of Jedi – an undercover Jedi spy; Quinlan was the perfect lead-in to the bleaker era of the Clone Wars. At the war’s onset, the series tackled what it meant to be a Jedi “General.” The Dark Side weaved in and out of the souls of the Jedi of Republic, from Quinlan himself to the cadre of Dark Jedi that Darth Tyranus collected. The Clone Wars was the unraveling of the Jedi Order and Republic was among its most thought-provoking runs.

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According to the Jedi, there were three separate aspects of the Force: Control, Alter, and Sense. The films demonstrate their manifestations, from the Jedi Mind Trick to levitation. But that didn’t mean those were the limits. Matthew Woodring Stover’s Shatterpoint introduced readers to the Sense technique the novel takes its name from. To “see” Shatterpoints was to detect where divergent pathways of actions hinged. Stover’s novel takes the reader on an Army of Darkness-esque tale of the Clone Wars through Mace Windu’s perspective, as he makes decisions based not on the moment, but the moments that would be created by Shatterpoints. Entirely different from the usual Jedi perspective, Shatterpoint provided solid foreshadowing to Mace’s thought process during his final confrontation with Palpatine and Anakin in Revenge of the Sith.

Better than a videogame tie-in novel had any right to be, Karen Traviss’ Republic Commando: Hard Contact painted the Clone War in a completely new coat. The fact that the Jedi did not question their instant Clone Army in Attack of the Clones was baffling. But there were indeed questions to be asked: What are the moral ramifications of creating sentient beings for war? Did they have rights? Did they even want to fight? Are clones of Mandalorians inheritors of Mandalorian culture? And for the Jedi who were snatched from their parents in infancy, did that put them on the same level as their clone soldiers? In a way only great science fiction can, Traviss’ novels posited serious social commentary behind a guise of fiction in an era that demanded it.

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The Expanded Universe did a better job exploiting the prequel era than the films themselves. They afforded needed depth and innovation, enhancing the movies. But without, the prequels cut only skin-deep.

Like all great sagas, the history of the Star Wars Expanded Universe had its share of highs and lows. But taken as a whole entity rather than in parts, it was a series of platforms for both furthering the legacy of the films as well as innovating.

I personally do not begrudge the decisions of the Lucasfilm Story Group to abolish the old timeline – it would not serve its purpose for bringing in newer audiences. But there are certainly a number of things they could take away from the EU’s treatment of the Saga. From the Han Solo Adventures’ approach to a “prequel” to The New Jedi Order’s realization of the Skywalker legacy without old trappings, there are lessons for and blueprints to good storytelling. Once the nostalgia goggles have been taken off sometime after The Force Awakens, it will be time to innovate in familiar territory and build a new foundation for an enduring franchise.

The Universe is still expanding. May the Force be with it.

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