Why Disney blew up more than 30 years of Star Wars canon

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WHILE the arrival of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a new beginning for the storied franchise, it’s a painful reminder of something else: More than 30 years of novel, toy, game, and comic book tie-ins collectively known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe. In April 2014, Disney — which had purchased the series in 2012, when it bought Lucasfilm — announced that all such previous efforts would have no bearing on future Star Wars projects. It was, as Obi-Wan Kenobi might have put it, “as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.” In its place would be a new Expanded Universe, one crafted to complement Disney’s multiyear plan for the world’s most beloved space opera.

The casual viewer of a Star Wars movie may think that the only stories extant are the ones in the (now) seven films, but the Expanded Universe used George Lucas’s films as a launching pad for new narratives. As early as 1978, Kenner toy company’s action figures gave names to characters otherwise unmentioned in the movies. Who can forget Walrus Man at the Mos Eisley cantina, or Lando’s co-pilot Nien Numb — to say nothing of Sy Snoodles and the Rebo Band — in Return of the Jedi.

“I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.” — Obi-Wan Kenobi

The original Expanded Universe was scattershot — a tabletop role-playing game here, a comic book there — but that had changed by 1991 with Timothy Zahn’s book Heir to the Empire. Many fans viewed the text as the first installment of sequels George Lucas never made. The novel reached The New York Times fiction best-sellers list.

What differentiated the Expanded Universe from such corporate-owned mythologies as Doctor Who or Battlestar Galactica was that it was not just tolerated by the creator of Star Wars but managed by him as well. “When I said [other people] could make their own Star Wars stories, we decided that, like Star Trek, we would have two universes: My universe and then this other one,” Lucas told Starlog magazine in 2005. “They try to make their universe as consistent with mine as possible, but obviously they get enthusiastic and want to go off in other directions.”

Lucasfilm licensed a slew of media that added to the adventures of Luke, Leia, and Han, as well those of as completely new characters. Eventually, more than 100 novels were written by dozens of authors, all with Lucas’s blessing. Clean as the Expanded Universe may have been, it still had inconsistencies, just as anything made by many different people would. That’s why fans were in fear after Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012.

Aside from the six movies (the original trilogy and three prequels from the last decade) and an animated series called The Clone Wars that ran from 2008 to 2014, Disney shunted everything released before April 25, 2014 to the side under the “Legends” banner, removing it from the Star Wars timeline. The company’s stated goal was “to give maximum creative freedom to the filmmakers” — J. J. Abrams in particular, who had by then signed on to direct an Episode VII.

Since then, Disney has set about creating its own expanded universe. New timeline-approved Star Wars cartoons, comic books, and video games began appearing last fall, as well as seven adult books touching on everything from the prequel films (Dark Disciple) to the gap between the trilogies (New Dawn, Tarkin, and Lords of the Sith) and the unseen moments between the first three movies (Heir to the Jedi and Battlefront: Twilight Company). Most exciting of all has been early hints as to what really happened after Return of the Jedi (Aftermath), and what will appear in the upcoming film.

The new books have been solid so far (something that couldn’t always be said about prior Expanded Universe material), and four of the titles have cracked The New York Times fiction best-sellers list so far.

That’s not to say that the original isn’t missed. “What I miss the most is that the [Expanded Universe] truly made me feel like I was entering a galaxy far, far away that was even bigger than the one I saw in the canon films and TV series,” said James Akinaka, a site administrator for the online Star Wars encylopedia, Wookieepedia. “The world-building that occurred in the [Expanded Universe] was incredible, and it will be a while before the current Star Wars continuity can reflect that.”

So the Expanded Universe may have been wiped from the canon, but it has not been forgotten. As John Jackson Miller, one of the new novels’ authors, said last year: “The thing about ‘Legends’ — and that’s the word on the cover of the previous material — legends can be true, in part or in whole.” — Bloomberg