Since its announcement, the news of new Star Wars sequels has excited and worried many fans of the series. Though the man on the street doesn’t know it, there have already been sequels to the classic movies. It’s just that these sequels have been in novel, comic book and video game format. So how do Disney’s plans for the future fit in with already established works? . . .
The problem with a vast and sprawling franchise such as Star Wars is that the demand for more stories set in that universe is always going to be high. Being a franchise, this means producing as many interesting tales as possible, which in turn means multiple authors are going to be telling multiple stories, all at the same time. Because George Lucas simply didn’t have the time to individually approve every single novel, comic book and game, but wanted to keep enough creative control so he could tell the stories he wanted to tell without contradicting the works of others, he created The Expanded Universe; a setting for Star Wars stories that maintain the look, feel and consistency of the Star Wars Universe, but at the same time allowed Lucas the creative freedom to do whatever he fancied with his own intellectual property.
The short explanation of this complex canon system is this; the movies George made are the ones he wants you to pay the most attention to. The stories other people have weaved, using his intellectual property, are less important. At least that’s what George says.
When Lucas sold the rights to his life’s work to Disney, many fans speculated that the proposed sequels might involve elements of the Expanded Universe, namely The Thrawn Trilogy, a set of books written by Timothy Zahn that followed on from Return of the Jedi. This rumour was very quickly quashed; Disney had not spent four billion dollars simply to turn 21-year-old spin off novels into a movie. All, however, is not lost. Hollywood likes to play it safe, and though the Star Wars prequels made a lot of money, they didn’t gain a lot of critical acclaim. It is thus likely that any creative team involved with developing the series post–Lucas will look at the wealth of previous works and mine them for good ideas.
After all, it’s happened before. Boba Fett originally appeared in Star Wars Holiday Special, a disastrous and notorious one shot TV spin-off which failed on almost all levels. It was so bad that George Lucas declared that it wasn’t anything to do with Star Wars, and utterly non-canonical. However, Fett appeared in a mini-cartoon that was part of the show. The character also appeared in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, so it’s clear that there is a two-way street between the movies and other sources. Fett’s armour and origin story was also expanded in various spin-off media, and when it came to the prequels, you can clearly see that the armour design and ideas used in both the clone trooper and Jango Fett costumes have been influenced by this work. Other examples, such as the depiction of Chewbacca’s homeworld, have also dripped its way into the mainstream movies.
It’s important to remember where the Expanded Universe came from. Though there had been a single spin-off novel (Splinter of the Mind’s Eye) and a pile of Marvel Comics, the main source of early EU work came from the original role playing game. Tabletop games work best when the players have a detailed world available to them. For example: the games designers wrote back-stories for everyone you can see on screen; everyone in that cantina has a tale to tell. When Timothy Zahn came to write his sequels, they sent him a big box filled with these gaming supplements, and later on, all of this work was bundled into a thing called the Star Wars Encyclopaedia. This, and subsequent editions, formed the basis for the Expanded Universe as we know it, but George Lucas also used this same book when creating the prequels. It is highly unlikely that subsequent writers and producers will ignore this tome, even though its origins come from the Expanded Universe. It is worth remembering that up until this point, George Lucas has had the power to declare anything as canon. This includes jokes and ideas he’s made up on the spot. For example when talk-show host Jon Stewart asked which plant Obi-Wan-Kenobi came from, Lucas jokingly claimed that this was the planet Stewjon (a play on Stewart’s name). This was dutifully recorded by the official Star Wars twitter feed, and then the official database was also updated; because at the time if Lucas said it, it became fact. If this strikes you as silly, it’s because it is, and it’s an excellent reason not to take canon too seriously. Continuity and consistency are vital to good storytelling, but declaring that one person’s made-up story is somehow more valid than another can be problematic, as the planet Stewjon shows. Still, now that it is canon, it’s likely that this gag will stay to haunt the fans, though with a world as layered and as detailed as Star Wars it is likely we’ll see many references to the entire body of work created thus far.
Does this mean that we’ll see shout outs to Mara Jade, a well-loved character from the Zahn books? Maybe. They may even kill Chewbacca off in the same way that tie-in author R. A. Salvatore did in the 90’s. What’s more likely is that designers, writers and other creative types will come in with fresh ideas, and build upon the vast lore that already exists. The new movies won’t look like the movie that people created in their minds when reading the spin-off media because that would be impossible.
It seems highly likely that the Expanded Universe will continue to inform and inspire Star Wars fans all over the world, as well as creative types working on various levels of the franchise. It is also worth remembering that just because one person says that one story is more valid than another, it doesn’t make it true. Lucas has created a sweeping space fantasy epic that has inspired people all over the world, and the ideas we draw from inspiration belong to us. It is up to you to decide which of these stories means the most to you, after all, and we will be keeping an eye on all things Star Wars in the future, regardless of their canonical status. A good story is a good story, no matter what label happens to be stuck on to it.