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20 Years of the Star Wars Expanded Universe

FEATURES - MOVIES

From tentative beginnings to...zombie stormtroopers!

The Star Wars Expanded Universe

On May 1, 1991, Star Wars fans the world round were treated to the first major addition to the Expanded Universe since the lackluster Ewok television movies. Timothy Zahn wrote Heir to the Empire, the first new Star Wars novel in several years, having been given the blessing of George Lucas to take off where Return of the Jedi had left off. Zahn’s novel would reinvigorate interest in Star Wars with a story worthy of the original trilogy, breathed new life into the characters we all grew up with and loved, introduced the oft-mentioned Imperial capital of Coruscant (even being allowed to name it) and gave us our first real glimpse of Kashyyyk since The Star Wars Holiday Special, while also introducing new characters to the EU that would become instant fan favorites. Characters like Mara Jade, Talon Karrde, Gilad Pellaeon, and the villainous Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Heir to the EmpireZahn set his novel five years after the events of Jedi, which allowed for a whole new look at the Star Wars universe. Luke is trying to establish a new Jedi Order; Han and Leia are married with twins on the way, while she also deals with helping establish the government of the New Republic and learning to use The Force with instruction from Luke. And the Empire has been reduced to a fringe group existing on the outskirts of the galaxy. Han is using his old smuggling contacts to find cargo ships for the Republic. And Thrawn – a Chiss from another galaxy and the only alien to have ever risen to prominent rank in the Empire – who has found the clone of a Jedi Master (originally, Zahn had wanted the clone to be that of Obi-Wan Kenobi, but Lucas rejected the idea) from the old Republic, and has designs to use him to re-establish the Empire to its full glory. And then we have Mara Jade, who is in the employ of Talon Karrde. Throughout the book, we find out her backstory, having been raised in secret by The Emperor, and brought up to be his most valued assassin and mercenary, known throughout the galaxy only as The Emperor’s Hand. Toward the end of his life, his only true mission for her was to kill Luke Skywalker, because he knew that Luke could have the influence to save Vader and turn him against his master.

The novel was welcomed by fans and was a New York Times bestseller. It was followed by two more novels – Dark Force Rising and The Last Command – finishing out what is now referred to as “The Thrawn Trilogy”. Its fast pace and respect for the characters made it an instant classic with fans of the series. The newly ignited interest in all things Star Wars led to a long line of books being written to fill in the gaps between movies and progress the story past Jedi.

Shadows of the EmpireSteve Perry’s novel Shadows of the Empire was set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, telling the story of the Rebels as they desperately try to save Han and their discovery of the plans for a new Death Star. It also introduced Dash Rendar, a smuggler and captain of The Outlander, a Corellian ship similar to The Millennium Falcon. The book was such a success that it was the basis for a videogame (which even received its own new score, unheard of for a Star Wars game up until then), and The Outlander makes a brief appearance in the Special Edition version of A New Hope. Perry would go on to collaborate with fellow Star Wars scribe Michael Reeves and write two MedStar books set in the Clone War period, and the novel Death Star, which tells the story of the building of the original space station from the perspective of a motley bunch of Imperial dissenters, prisoners, and others. The book also reached back to the original material for inspiration, like when a designer tries to bring awareness to the unprotected exhaust vent.

Lucasarts also had helped revolutionize videogames. They first ventured into breaking new gaming ground with their popular flight simulators, allowing gamers to fly a TIE Fighter for the Empire or an X-Wing for the Rebellion. Next they would venture into FPS territory with Dark Forces, which followed smuggler-turned-Jedi Kyle Katarn on different missions. Dark Forces would spawn several sequels in the Jedi Knight video games. There was also a fighting game, Star Wars: Masters of Teräs Käs (Teräs Käsi being a martial art used in the EU), racing games, games based on popular board games, and both trilogies have Lego videogames (a third one is coming soon, based on The Clone Wars). They have also gone into MMORPG with their Star Wars: Galaxies title, Empire at War (a real-time strategy game), and The Force Unleashed, a sequel to which was also released.

For more than a decade, writers were filling in every gap they could to tell the story of the New Republic, and the dangers they faced. In “The Black Fleet Crisis” Luke journeys to what he believes is his mother’s home world to find out information about her. But this wound up leading to the major problem with the EU novels. When Zahn first released Heir to the Empire, it was accepted that all media released in the EU would be canon. But soon, Lucas would change his tune, claiming that the events of these novels, comics and video games were the author’s “interpretation” of the universe. He would further complicate matters with his reworking of the original trilogy, and the release of the prequels. Suddenly, works produced had to be retconned in order to fit in with Lucas’ new storyline. However, the release of the prequels also gave writers the opportunity to utilize characters and situations for new novels. In Tatooine Ghost, Han, Leia, Chewbacca and C-3PO travel to the desert planet to retrieve a piece of Alderaanian artwork, and come across the journal of Leia’s grandmother Shmi.

Darth MaulThe release of the prequels has also given rise to a number of works that chronicle the time before A New Hope (in the Star Wars timeline, time is recorded as BBY – Before the Battle of Yavin – and ABY – After the Battle of Yavin). Not only have there been a number of books, comics, and videogames revolving around the prequel years, but we have also been given glimpses further back in the history of the Old Republic, with the popular game Knights of the Old Republic (which also spawned a comic book of the same name) and several novel chronicling the Sith Wars, leading up to the Darth Bane novels, establishing the Sith Rule of Two. Even the prequels’ most underused character, Darth Maul, has been given a full history with a novel and a graphic novel to flesh him out.

And while the prequels let us see more of the oft mentioned Clone Wars, it would seem that Lucas wishes to bleed every dollar he can out of the event, with two animated series and a slew of books, comics, videogames, and toys all derived from this single event. It’s not that the Clone Wars weren’t a major part of the saga, and that fans weren't aching for more than what we saw in the films, but it seems that this is now the real focus of Lucasfilm, pouring all of their time and energy into that one period of Star Wars history.

ChewbaccaAnd for as popular as the Star Wars EU has become, the works haven’t been without some controversy. The first came in 1999’s Vector Prime, when beloved character Chewbacca sacrificed himself to save the life of Han and Leia’s son, Anakin. Fan backlash was near on a level with Han no longer shooting first. Soon after, a four-part comic titled Chewbacca was released, featuring C-3PO and R2-D2 traveling the galaxy meeting those who had met Chewie and had had their lives affected by him.

Fan favorite Mara Jade had come a long way from her Imperial beginnings, eventually falling in love with and marrying Luke Skywalker. The two eventually had a son, Ben. But in the novel Sacrifice, she is slain by Han’s son Jacen, who has fallen to the Dark Side, eventually taking on the mantle of Darth Caedus. This not only caused furor amongst the fans, but also created tension between her creator, Timothy Zahn, and writer Karen Traviss. Traviss claims that she had Zahn’s blessing in killing his creation off. However, Zahn maintains that no request was ever made.

The new SkywalkersBut even with the controversies and retconning, the EU has provided fans with a vast library of media in which to spend more time in their favorite galaxy far, far away. And there is something for everybody, from books for children and young adults, to space battles, political strife, newly found love, and even horror, as found in Star Wars’ first zombie novel, Death Troopers (a prequel to that novel is due out later this year). I don’t think anyone could have predicted this when Zahn released Heir to the Empire. But I’m glad it happened, because it proved that Star Wars has a longevity to it, one that has proven that this is no mere fad to jump on. The fans are diehard, and we’ll remain that way. This May, Lucasbooks is releasing a Twentieth Anniversary edition of the novel that started this all off (followed by the release of Zahn’s latest entry in the EU this July), and I hope it just starts it all over again.

See also:

Does Canon Even Matter?

Will the real geek please stand up?

Six unlikely changes for the Blu-ray release of Star Wars

8 easy ways that the Empire wins in Star Wars

Star Wars Clone Wars Season 2 Blu-ray review


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Comments 

 
#1 RE: 20 Years of the Star Wars Expanded Universe Mark Cotterill 2011-03-24 08:40
Caleb, I feel that your selection of Heir to the Empire as the "First major addition to the Star Wars EU" is a little bit arbitrary, and therefore the title of this article seems somewhat innaccurate; the expanded universe began in 1978 with Splinter of the Minds Eye didn't it?

Still, the books you do cover were all good ones. The fact that you inevitably had to miss out some of the other great additions to the EU such as A.C. Crispin's excellent Han Solo Chronicles and Brian Daley's Han Solo stories (which Crispin incorporated) is surely down to the vastness of the material rather than any oversight on your part.

I would love to read a more comprehensive series on this subject, perhaps subdivided into decades? (70s, 80s, etc.) and include the video games. It really is fascinating how in SWEU one writer's ideas can be picked up and used by another author, or even Lucas himself.

(Short Version: Well done - please expand and write more on this subject)
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#2 I'm sure it'll come as no surprise... Gabriel_Ruzin 2011-03-24 17:13
to you, Caleb, that I have probably about 20-30 of the EU Star Wars books: Zahn's Thrawn trilogy, Jedi Academy trilogy, Black Fleet Crisis trilogy, Bounty Hunter Wars trilogy, the 'Tales of...' books, and so on. And that's not even mentioning the official original trilogy script treatments, the Death Star schematics, the quiz books...sorry, let my Star Wars geek cred get the better of me for a moment... ;)

Anyway, out of everything EU, Zahn's Thrawn books were far and away the best thing that was ever churned out, although the Dark Empire comics and Genndy Tartakovsky's Clone Wars toons are close. As much as it pains me to say it, I actually think that George was smart in disallowing canon status to the EU. It is his franchise and if I were him, I certainly wouldn't have let a bunch of random peoples' visions flesh out my original work. So consider this a rare instance of me actually agreeing with something George has done in the past 30 years. hehe

After all, the novels started getting really silly later on. And I'll argue that with anyone who will listen. It got really irritating to watch the SW universe devolve into soap opera status after a while. There was the tendency to let the pitiful dregs of the Empire hang around for way too long. I'd be sitting there reading a novel with some old outpost in the ass-end of space as basically all that was left of the Empire and it was still considered some kind of threat! Yikes, that is lame.

Then, when the Empire stories were finally exhausted, they started filling in back stories of everybody. And I mean EVERYBODY. I guess that's a little ironic that what turned me on to the EU inevitably turned me off of it. Initially, I thought it was really awesome that you (unofficially) learn about the pasts of all these minor characters but eventually it got to be enough already. I mean, who really cares about the 17 different battles that Nien Nunb fought in. Ugh, I'm a nerd, but I'm not THAT big of a nerd. Then the EU novels started killing off characters because there was nothing left to do. So yeah, soap opera.

I do wish, however, that George had said something to the effect of "I think Timothy Zahn's Thrawn novels are fantastic and a worthy addition to the SW universe, but I'm not interested in considering any further additions to the SW canon at this time". I think Zahn deserved that much. If any EU material deserves to be considered 'official', it's the Thrawn trilogy.

Great article, Caleb. Always love a chance to read something on SW, of course. :)
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#3 The SWEU Caleb Leland 2011-03-24 17:34
It wasn't so much an oversight on my part, so much as no one really started to think much about the EU until the Thrawn Trilogy. Yes, technically, Splinter of the Mind's Eye was the first EU novel, but the novels and television series/movies up until then really weren't categorized as such. Zahn's novels brought back a real interest in all things Star Wars, and as far as I'm concerned, it was for the better.

I do agree that not every SW novel was gold. I have everything Zahn has written, which is always a great read. Some I would suggest avoiding are "The Courtship of Princess Leia", and "Crystal Star". And the novels that had Luke channeling his Dark Side and becoming an apprentice to the Emperor. Luckily, Zahn brought Luke back around with the Hand of Thrawn duology.

Gabe, we need to hang out. I have two different versions of Star Wars Trivial Pursuit, as well as two different versions of LOTR Trivial Pursuit. I think our wives would probably leave us somewhere for our unashamed geekness, but that's what makes us the men that we are. :)
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#4 RE: 20 Years of the Star Wars Expanded Universe Chris Morgan 2011-03-27 10:42
Great read, Caleb. I used to read quite a bit of the EU until the number of novels being churned out meant I'd literally have to read nothing but Star Wars all the time in order to keep up with everything. It just got overwhelming.

That said, I'm still curious, on some level, to see what happened. As the first poster suggested, a breakdown of the EU would be genuinely awesome to see if you're up to it - perhaps chronicling it as they say, from the Old Republic era to the ABY stuff, the Yuzhan Vong (is that right? It's been a long time) and the whole Jacen going evil stuff which always sounded a bit desperate to me. That said, if you were to write it, I'd totally read it. Great stuff.
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#5 RE: 20 Years of the Star Wars Expanded Universe jawajames 2011-03-28 18:50
You definitely captured the sense of the EU as it really created the resurgence in interest in Star Wars and get the basics down for people looking for a primer to the EU and the issues in it. A couple details are off, but overall you show the main history.

The Death Troopers prequel, Red Harvest, has already been released - December 2010.

The Shadows of the Empire video game was not derived from the novel as its basis. The novel, game, comic, toys and even soundtrack were all conceived together as part of a single multimedia project and the novel, comic and video game all tell overlapping parts of one larger story.

While the Knights of the Old Republic game did spawn a comic of the same name, it itself was heavily influenced and set in the timeframe created by the earlier comic series Tales of the Jedi (whose first story arc was later titled "Knights of the Old Republic")

If I were to suggest expanding anything to this article, it would be mentioning the role of both comics and young adult/younger reader novels as key parts of the EU, along with the novels and video games.
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#6 Dash Rendar's ship Harry 2011-03-29 21:10
It's actually called The Outrider, not Outlander.
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#7 Oh, snap! Caleb Leland 2011-03-30 02:29
You are correct. I was thinking of a storyline from the Star Wars comics when I typed the name. Thank you.
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