The Walt Disney company acquired Lucasfilm in December of 2012, but the most controversial move didn’t come until more than a year later. On April 25, 2014, every piece of Star Wars media – books, movies, video games, TV shows, comics, you name it – that was not directly overseen by George Lucas was deemed non-canon in the official continuity in order to make way for a new, ideally more internally consistent collection of stories with the new series of films as its centerpiece. Meticulously cataloging dumb nonsense that no other sane human being cares about comes part and parcel with the territory of being a nerd, so as you might imagine the news that nearly forty years worth of storytelling was being tossed out was not particularly well received. To this day, if you wander into the wrong corners of the internet, you’ll still find dorks carrying on about how much superior the old Expanded Universe was to the current crop of movies, books, and TV shows.
But here’s the uncomfortable secret about the old EU: it was actually kind of bad.
Now, before you run to Twitter to flood my mentions with screaming, I’m not saying every individual story was bad (though plenty were); there’s a fair deal of “Legends” stories that I like a whole lot. No, when I say the Expanded Universe was bad, I’m talking about its broad, overarching impact on our collective understanding of what Star Wars even is. Put simply, when you strip away the aesthetic similarities of lightsabers and Jedi and the Force, the heart of what the overwhelming majority of these stories were trying to accomplish is radically different and fundamentally at odds with the thematic core of the Star Wars films. Let me explain.
For the purposes of this argument, let’s look at Star Wars: Clone Wars, the 2003 “micro-series” directed, produced, and co-written by Genndy Tartakovsky. Originally commissioned by Hasbro as a series of one-minute commercials to help sell toys during the gap between Episodes II and III, it was expanded into twenty three-minute long episodes with an additional round of five fifteen-minute long episodes after the first batch proved to be a success. All told, this original Clone Wars series is actually pretty good. The story is very thin, particularly in the first two seasons, which is kind of to be expected for what is effectively an hour-long TV movie chopped into three-minute chunks. What they ultimately become is a series of action vignettes, and on that level they’re fairly entertaining. Tartakovsky knows what he’s doing when it comes to creating large scale action on a small scale TV animation budget, and the spectacle of the whole thing is pretty impressive, but that’s also where a lot of the problem lies.
In discussing The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson talked a lot about the idea that the Force isn’t a super power. He went to great lengths to reinforce the notion that the Force is about a spiritual connection to something larger than yourself, not just space magic that lets you become Superman. The problem is that “the Force is a super power” is exactly the angle the vast, vast, vast majority of Expanded Universe stories took, and that angle is on full display here. In Clone Wars you see Yoda pulling starships the size of buildings out of the sky and Mace Windu shredding battle droids into shards of metal scrap with nothing more than his mind.
Part of this comes from hiring Genndy Tartakovsky to direct your Star Wars cartoon. You don’t hire Tartakovsky to not have him make over-the-top action spectacle. That’s what he’s there to do. And to be fair, the third season fares a bit better. With episodes extended out from three minutes to fifteen, there’s more time to allow for character development and quiet moments beyond the breathless action, but when the action does start it’s just as excessive and indulgent as ever.
The Force can repel bullets, redirect fire, allow you to leap tall buildings in a single bound. It’s cool and exciting and fun to watch, but it’s a far cry from the energy created by life that binds the galaxy together. When we see the Force used as a raw expression of power in the films, it is by those who have succumbed to the dark side, but though thematically rich, that distinction limits its potential as an escapist power fantasy, so it was ignored by so many writers of tie-in media.
And to be clear, Clone Wars isn’t the only or even the worst offender here. This was something that was baked deep into the identity of the Expanded Universe manifesting in almost every corner it explored. Perhaps the most extreme expression of this was the pair of Force Unleashed video games that were sold on the premise of being able to use the Force to achieve the kind of absurdist physical feats theretofore unimagined in Star Wars media.
And these, more so even than the movies, are the stories that defined Star Wars for a significant number of fans. There’s nothing wrong with that in theory, but this all sort of came to a very ugly head with the release of The Last Jedi. Suddenly this new Star Wars movie didn’t quite feel like Star Wars to a whole generation of fans whose idea of Star Wars was cemented by pieces of fiction that exist outside of, and are ideologically at odds with the Star Wars movies. Luke Skywalker defeating Kylo Ren not by any act of physical force but by projecting his consciousness across the galaxy to distract an enemy so that his friends and allies can escape is the ultimate expression of the ideals put forward by these movies. It’s also happens to be completely antithetical to literally hundreds of Expanded Universe stories where being a great Jedi means you can kill a bajillion stormtroopers with your mind and pluck Star Destroyers right out of space.
And as much as Lucasfilm tried for decades to support the notion that the Expanded Universe was part of the official continuity, for George that was never the case.
I don’t read that stuff. I haven’t read any of the novels. I don’t know anything about that world. That’s a different world than my world. But I do try to keep it consistent. The way I do it now is they have a Star Wars Encyclopedia. So if I come up with a name or something else, I look it up and see if it has already been used. 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. 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.
That’s from a 2005 interview with Starlog magazine, and despite Lucas being notorious for changing his talking points over the years, this one has been pretty consistent all along. The six movies (and eventually the 2008 Clone Wars series he directly oversaw) were canon and absolutely nothing else was, because almost everything else represented a different version of Star Wars than the one he envisioned – often radically so.
And again, none of this is to say you’re not allowed to enjoy the old Expanded Universe stories. I still really adore the Knights of the Old Republic games and, more to the point, Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars series is a blast! But even with that in mind, the EU needed to die in order for Star Wars to live. Solo was a stinker, but The Last Jedi, Star Wars Rebels, and a handful of story arcs from The Clone Wars (again, the 2008 series – it’s confusing) have pushed the Star Wars story in interesting, exciting new directions while still maintaining a dedication to the core thematic ideals that made Star Wars what it was in the first place. Pacifism over fighting, spirituality over institutions, connection to the word around you over personal power. I’ll happily trade a thousand stories of male-centric power fantasies if it means getting back to the roots of what Star Wars was intended to be.
Starting this week(!) I will be watching every canonical Star Wars movie and TV episode in chronological order leading up to the release of Episode IX. This is the last of the articles exploring Star Wars apocrypha, but look for my review of The Phantom Menace as I kick off…