When George Lucas delivered his little space movie to 20th Century Fox in 1977, nobody wanted it. To get it into theaters, the studio had to package it with what was seen as a surefire hit, a drama called The Other Side of Midnight. That movie bombed, and Star Wars (later re-christened A New Hope) became a worldwide phenomenon, the highest-grossing movie ever made at the time. With a sequel three years away from the release of the original, the rampant desire for more Star Wars caught many people unaware, and demand couldn’t be met. That gap made way for what came to be known as the Expanded Universe, a series of officially licensed media including books, comics, video games, and more that were tangentially related to the Star Wars universe. While many have found solace in this kind of glorified fan fiction for the past 30 years, the release of The Force Awakens means it’s time to completely do away with it once and for all.
For one, we’ve finally met the demand for legit Star Wars stuff, and how. Fox and Kenner grossly underestimated demand for their toys. Once they ran out, they were reduced to sending kids an empty box called an Early Bird Certificate Package and promised toys would be delivered sometime in the future — sort of an I.O.U. for Wookiee figurines. In a way, that early scarcity was a feature, more than a bug: It’s natural to revere something that you want but can’t have. Along the way, Star Wars — expanding where Planet of the Apes had only pioneered — became the first movie as multi-faceted franchise, existing on-screen and permeating fans’ everyday life.
The Star Wars trilogy sewed these seeds everywhere, with mentions of Clone Wars, the unseen spies stealing the plans to the Death Star (only via the movie’s opening crawl), and Han and Chewie flying the Millennium Falcon in the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. Shaded details like those were a genius move by Lucas to create a complex offscreen world not because of his constantly creative imagination, but because of budget constraints. It was only until the movie exploded that people latched onto this idea of the lived-in world beyond Han, Luke, and Leia that could be explored even further.
The ripples of this trend are finally being executed in-canon with the new trilogy and standalone movies. Before the Disney acquisition it was up to wide-ranging, officially licensed E.U. properties to fill in the blanks however Lucasfilm wanted. The E.U. technically begins with the Marvel Comics adaptations of the movies, which not only single handedly saved Marvel from a financial drought in the 1970s and 1980s, but also provided the perfect opportunity to shade in different characters and scenes from the movie. Fans who wanted to know more about things like Luke’s best bud Biggs Darklighter ate it up.
Other major proto-Expanded Universe properties were the much maligned Star Wars Holiday Special and the novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, a 1978 spin-off novel by author Alan Dean Foster commissioned by Lucas as a potential sequel after Foster wrote a novelization of the first movie. But Lucas went in another direction for what would be The Empire Strikes back and rounded out what he saw as canon with 1983’s Return of the Jedi. To Lucas, everything else was ancillary to be commodified in service of the movies themselves. Even after other tangential efforts like two Ewok movies or the Droids TV show through the latter half of the ‘80s, they didn’t get much clout from the Star Wars mastermind himself.
By 1991, Lucas got the itch to return to the galaxy again. But instead of making another movie, he approached sci-fi writer Timothy Zahn to create a new post-Return of the Jedi storyline with Luke, Leia, and Han titled The Thrawn Trilogy. The first installment, called Heir to the Empire, launched Star Wars back into the mainstream after it raced to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, and provided the catalyst for the E.U. to flourish.
After that, the floodgates opened. Writers could plug the gaps between movies or turn background characters from the movies into the focal point. In the new E.U., Luke gets married, Han and Leia have kids who turn into Jedi, Chewbacca dies after having a moon fall on him, and so on.
These contributions broadened the Star Wars mythology at the cost of making it unwieldy. The E.U. offered bizarre contradictions, especially when Lucas got into the prequels. Boba Fett’s backstory on a planet called Mandalore was explained in the E.U., which clashed with his clone origins from Attack of the Clones. But at the same time the prequels also beefed up the need for people to create new stories in this whole new time period before A New Hope.
It forced Lucas as the keeper of the knowledge to go so far as to pass the entire mythology along to someone else to be catalogued. Lucasfilm hired a guy named Leland Chee to create the Holocron (named after an ancient Jedi device meant to house huge amounts of knowledge), an internal database that would maintain continuity between everything Star Wars. The conflicting stories had become too much to handle. Then Disney came along.
The key is that the canon has always reigned supreme. With the Disney acquisition, the E.U. was compressed and streamlined by getting the boot from on high. The announcement on StarWars.com explained, “While Lucasfilm always strived to keep the stories created for the E.U. consistent with our film and television content as well as internally consistent, Lucas always made it clear that he was not beholden to the E.U. He set the films he created as the canon.” It continued, “These stories are the immovable objects of Star Wars history, the characters and events to which all other tales must align.”
Because The Force Awakens would contradict the post-Jedi E.U. stories, the E.U. was rendered bunk. All the previous E.U. media would now simply be referred to as Star Wars “legends.” By definition these legends are all unauthenticated, and that’s a good thing. Understanding the Star Wars universe will be easier than ever now since all of it is technically canon. Gone are the days where new storylines are floated in thousand-page novels/appendices.
The acquisition has aligned Star Wars into the Marvel model of making everything matter to the core stories. The fact that Chewbacca died during the Destruction of Sernpidal or that Han and Leia’s third child became a Sith Lord named Darth Caedus is irrelevant. Get rid of them. Star Wars fans won’t have to worry about glorified fan fiction anymore.