Why you should care
Because the world’s largest sci-fi franchise has a secret recipe for success: a fan-created expanded universe. But that might soon change.
Think you know Jabba the Hutt? The giant puppet slug that gets strangled by Princess Leia probably comes to mind. But did you know his last name is Tiure, or that he’s hundreds of years old, or that members of his species are notorious criminals?
If you’re a casual Star Wars fan, chances are you didn’t — and that’s OK. You haven’t been falling asleep in the middle of the films, either. Jabba’s backstory is just one of hundreds that didn’t make it into the six generation-defining movies, but exists in an extended fictional universe as mysterious and complex as the Force itself.
Star Wars is part of our cultural psyche. Even people who’ve avoided the films know Darth Vader is Luke’s father, Princess Leia’s hairstyle rocks, and Yoda speaks in rearranged sentences. The series’ longevity — followed up by the much-anticipated 2015 Star Wars Episode VII — is part timelessness and part great marketing.
But, as any die-hard fan will tell you, its fanbase hasn’t survived since the 1970s on just six movies (by comparison, Star Trek has had 12 official films and five different TV series). Instead, the sci-fi epic has morphed into an expansive fan-created universe — one that’s been largely sanctioned by Star Wars production company Lucasfilm. The Star Wars canon, therefore, is made up of hundreds of books, comics and even TV shows that sketch out thousands of years of history and culture in a galaxy far, far away.
There are entire series of books fleshing out small characters like the Death Star’s skull-faced commander, Grand Moff Tarkin, and Luke Skywalker’s trusty wingman, Wedge Antilles, complete with childhoods, dreams, romances and motivations. A kid’s cartoon on network TV tells the epic story of the Clone Wars fought between Episodes II and III. Comics explore the histories of alien cultures, from the warrior Mandalorians to Chewbacca’s Wookiee family to the lost origins of the Jedi themselves.
And, of course, imaginative authors have fixed every plot hole in the canon; if you ever wondered what happened to Luke, Leia and Han after Return of the Jedi, you can find out. George Lucas acknowledged the huge number of stories at his disposal. “My story — however many films it took to tell — was only one of thousands that could be told about the characters who inhabit its galaxy. But these were not stories that I was destined to tell,” he said.
But the upcoming new J.J. Abrams’ space odyssey, it turns out, is abruptly jumping away from the existing canon and into hyperspace.
When rumors of a new Star Wars film finally came true, nerds everywhere rejoiced at the possibility of exploring their decades-old expanded universe onscreen. They had good reason to hope. This isn’t just obscure fan fiction — many of the books, games and comics have been commissioned and marketed under the Star Wars brand for years. Timothy Zahn’s massive post-Return of the Jedi trilogy even topped the New York Times best-seller list in 1991.
But the upcoming new J.J. Abrams’ space odyssey, it turns out, is abruptly jumping away from the existing canon and into hyperspace. In April, Lucasfilm — now a subset of Disney — announced that the expanded universe was moot. Only the six films and the Clone Wars cartoon series are now officially in the canon. The expanded universe, though still bearing the Star Wars logo, has now been renamed “Legends” and cast off as old news. Even though several original cast members have been confirmed for the new film, this leaves the door wide open (and betrayed fans guessing) for what comes next.
Fictional imaginations of Star Wars in the future might not be as marketable as a rip-roaring, shoot-’em-up, and you need look no further than J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot films to see how box-office sales win out over a loyal fanbase. But however Abrams reinvents Star Wars, the loss of the expanded universe is a blow to the creativity and determination of fans.
Nearly 40 years of off-screen Star Wars content means that many fans have grown up alongside Jaina, Jacen and Anakin Solo, Leia and Han’s children who struggle through adolescence, education, and choices between good and evil. Some older fans saw their own relationships in Mara Jade and Luke Skywalker’s complex and often fraught marriage. Others benefited from the real-life political parallels of the unstable Republic after Return of the Jedi’s seemingly happy ending.
Ultimately, maybe film doesn’t have room for the Star Wars expanded universe. But one thing’s for sure — it’s not going to stop growing anytime soon.