Saturday 24 May 2014

Disney and the Star Wars Expanded Universe

(I started this post on May 4th – so that’s something that can be said about having a baby, they suck down a lot of time…).

Disney's culling of the Start Wars extended universe (EU) came as a surprise to pretty much no one. No one except the guys of the recent Hate Bit Podcast, who were absolutely livid - particularly Razorfist.

Being a fan of Star Wars

I think many Star Wars fans can relate to my experience of Star Wars.

I lived and breathed Star Wars when I was a kid. I watched the film's at every opportunity. I used to get up at 6am to watch the Ewoks cartoon before school - and hunted out the Ewoks live action spin off films. Star Wars gear often made up a large part of my birthday and Christmas presents, and any money I had was often split between gaming and Star Wars stuff - when I was about 14 I worked out that my collection was worth over $1000. Games like X-Wing, Tie Fighter, Dark Forces and 'Star Wars' for Sega Master System absolutely blew my mind and are still among my favourite games and most treasured nostalgic memories. Countless hours were spent drawing space combat scenes, making my own star wars Lego designs, reading Star Wars books, reading about Star Wars online (after the internet actually became available that is) and playing Star Wars with my friends. There are lots of things that I was 'really into' during my childhood - Ninja Turtles, Transformers, Jurassic Park - but it was Star Wars that was the thing that I consistently enjoyed through the years.

But I haven't actually sat down to enjoy the film's the way I did as a child in years. And I desperately want too. One of my earliest memories is sitting on the couch watching A New Hope with my dad - who was himself a big fan. And I really want to share Star Wars with my daughter, in the same way that I enjoyed it growing up. So we could experience that amazement together. But the whole franchise has just been watered down to the point that enjoying it to the level I did as a kid is just impossible. Now I would consider myself a dedicated but casual fan.

It started off with the release of the 1997 special editions. I was pumped about these coming out. New digital enhancements, and new scenes? Hell yes! Then I saw them.... I can still remember my 12 years old self yelling at the TV (didn't get to see them at the movies... parents) that there is no way that Han Solo would step on Jaba the Hutts tail. And the God damned dancing scene in Jaba's palace. The bastardising of the original trilogy is still ongoing, and too this day the only copy of the special editions I own is the 2008 DVD, and only because it came with the theatrical versions as a bonus disc - as craptastic non-anamorphic as they are.

Like everyone though, it was the prequel films were the final nail in the coffin. I remember seeing Episode 1 in theatres back in 99 (when I was 15). Again I was totally psyched. And again I was completely let down. Darth Vader built C3P0? Obi Wan Kenobi worked with R2D2 decades before A New Hope? Poor cinematography and dialogue? And Jar Jar Binks? Then through the 2000s Star Wars was whored out as much as it could with crappy games, crappy books, and crappy merchandise flooding the market. By the time I was sitting in a theatre with the entire audience laughing at Darth Vader's 'nooooo' at the end of Episode 3 my passion for Star Wars was over.

Star Wars Expanded Universe

Tie Fighter - Greatest Star Wars game ever made
But anyway, the expanded universe. My experience with the EU has been mostly with games - X-Wing and Tie Fighter series, Rebel Assault, the Dark Forces series, Rogue Squadron.... And I completely agree with the guys on the Hate Bit Podcast that officially classifying all of the expanded universe as non-canon and taking the stories of Episodes 7-9 in a completely unique direction ignoring any previous EU material will devalue some great Star Wars games and books.

But the problem with the expanded universe is that it's a gigantic cluster fuck. George Lucas and LucasArts had the right of veto on all Star Wars licenses. Every story and every setting in the expanded universe got the green light from Lucas - and so in some way every licensed Star Wars product can be considered canon. Keeping track of all the sorry lines, characters, and technical details present in all the books, games, board games, card games, spin off series, D20 RPGs and toys (many of which contradict each other), and making sure that the upcoming movies don't contradict any of them and that all major plot points are considered would be absolutely impossible. Just considering the games and books of the EU when writing the new movies would be a nightmare. At some point someone’s favorite part of the expanded universe would need to be cut just so the movies could be made. Someone was always going to be pissed off. And where do you draw the line?

But this gets a while lot more complicated when you consider that the expanded universe, especially the games, is incredibly self referential and it would be almost impossible to remove some parts of the EU without impacting the others. Consider this - recently I've been repaying Jedi Academy. In this game you fight against Imperial Remnant troops, which suggests that Jedi Academy, and by extension the entire Dark Forces series, is set in Kevin J. Anderson's Darksaber universe. You could not keep Jedi Academy as canon without also keeping the rest of the Dark Forces saga which preceded it, and all the the other EU materials that have gone into the formation of the Imperal Remnant which the game is referencing.

Kyle Katarn as he appeared in Dark Forces
But it goes so much deeper than that. Kyle Katarn (of the Dark Forces series) appears in the X-Wing Miniatures Game, so for that game the Dark Forces saga, the Imperial Remnant, the Darksaber universe, and associated materials are canon. But the miniatures game also features ships from the X-Wing game series, making that series also part of the miniatures game's canon. 1994s Tie Fighter for DOS (the sequel to X-wing) features Admiral Thrawn indicating that X-Wing/Tie Fighter is set in Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy universe making that canon for the miniatures game as well. And the miniatures game also has ships from the Rebel Assault series.... Finally, just to top it off, the story of 1993s X-Wing contradicts the story of the original Dark Forces, and aspects of the Thrawn Trilogy and 1994s Tie Fighter have already been made non-canonical by the prequel films. And that's only scratching the surface...

Admiral Thrawn as he appeared in Tie Fighter

Keeping the Star Wars games canonical would require Disney to navigate a maze of poor storylines, one-off characters, contradictions, and referencing to source materials outside the games themselves. And would we have gotten a good movie trilogy out of it in the end? Doubtful. Leaving the games as canon was never going to happen. And given the complex and restrictive nature of the EU should never happen.

My Thoughts

George Lucas always maintained that he was not bound by the expanded universe. The EU was always licensed fan fiction that could be discarded at Lucas's whim. And at the end of the day I feel that Star Wars needs all the help it can get. We cannot have three more bad movies destroying the franchise. And if ignoring the expanded universe will allow the writers and Abrams to have full creative control for the production of the next film trilogy and we get a great core canon experience because of it then I'm all for it. Let them make the movies the way they need to be made, and we'll see what still fits from the expanded universe when they are done. Perhaps they'll even make an effort to preserve some of the better expanded universe materials.

And when it's all done I'm still going to enjoy playing X-Wing and Tie Fighter regardless of their canonical status.

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