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Star Wars: The Force Awakens (prelude)

It was a very stagnant time for Star Wars fans after Return of the Jedi premiered in 1983. Darth Vader was dead, the Empire had been defeated, and no one seemed to be in any rush to go and make more movies. There were a couple of short-lived animated series, some ill-received telemovies based on the massively unpopular Ewoks, a highly influential tabletop RPG from West End Games, and Kenner re-released some of their classic Star Wars action figures. And for eight years, that was it.

The franchise had gone dormant. Until May 1st of 1991.

This was the beginning of the Thrawn Trilogy, a series of books written by Timothy Zahn, named for primary villain Grand Admiral Thrawn. You may not recognize that name, because the character appeared for the very first time in Zahn’s pages. As did Mara Jade, Talon Karrde, and so many other characters and locations that would immediately become fan favorites and franchise mainstays. Zahn’s novels continued the story from Return of the Jedi, introducing new conflicts and storylines without retreading too much old ground. The book trilogy was made to feel like a natural extension of the movies, and it gave audiences a whole list of reasons to fall in love with the franchise all over again.

The booming success of the Thrawn Trilogy led to a renewed mainstream interest in Star Wars. Though it wasn’t technically the beginning of the Star Wars Expanded Universe (that would be “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye”, written by Alan Dean Foster while A New Hope was still in production), this proved to be the foundation of the EU for a solid decade.

The floodgates had been opened and we were treated to no shortage of new material. We got the classic “X-Wing” and “TIE Fighter” computer games. We got the “Shadows of the Empire” multimedia campaign. We got the “Dark Forces” video game, which introduced fan favorite Kyle Katarn. We got “Crimson Empire” and “Dark Empire” and a whole bunch of other Dark Horse comic books. There were so many stories about the Jedi Academy, the Rogue Squadron, and everything else that was happening in the galaxy far, far away. To say nothing of the original film trilogy, which was re-released in theaters with brand new special effects in 1997.

That’s not to say all of the Extended Universe stuff was good, or even coherent. Though everything technically had to gain approval from LucasArts before getting published, it was abundantly clear that the franchise was under very lax management. There was a fair bit of retconning going on, not to mention a convoluted canon hierarchy, as different authors had to dance around each others’ interpretations of the characters and the greater Star Wars universe.

That said, at least it was functional. It was being crafted by people who genuinely loved the franchise, and there was a sincere effort to keep the continuity straight. Moreover, it helped that the EU authors all had the original film trilogy as their touchstone. Everyone understood that George Lucas was the primary storyteller and his will was the Word of God when it came to Star Wars.

Which sounded fine in theory until May of 1999, when Lucas stepped back into the ring.

The prequel trilogy caused immediate controversy in the fandom, in no small part because despite Lucas’ claims to the contrary, he quite clearly didn’t give a damn about what happened in the EU. To name one especially prominent example, we learned in Episode II that Jedi are technically forbidden from marriage. Even though Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade were married in “Star Wars: Union”, which had been published by Dark Horse two years prior. So now it had to be retconned that Luke Skywalker repealed that prohibition while he was putting together the New Jedi Order. There were a lot of retcons like that, when — despite Lucas’ order that everything before A New Hope was off-limits to the EU while the prequel trilogy was in development — the prequel trilogy kept contradicting what had been established in the EU.

But oh, if only it ended with the prequel trilogy. Then came “The Clone Wars”, a 6-season CG-animated TV series overseen directly by Lucas himself. Not to be confused with the Emmy-winning 3-season “Clone Wars” TV show that came out five years before, made by grandmaster Genndy Tartakovsky. The latter beloved series was now pretty much entirely knocked out of continuity, and that would’ve been bad enough. But Lucas just couldn’t stop there.

During one of the final episodes in the Lucas-produced series, Yoda visits the ancient homeworld of the Sith. Star Wars fans had come to know this world as Korriban, after countless games, books, and comics had referred to this world as such. Even as recently as the massively popular “Knights of the Old Republic” video game in 2003, this world had been known as Korriban. Then Lucas came along and decided that it should be called “Moraband”, just because it sounded better. Cue the fans shitting themselves and the canon keepers scrambling to explain that this world had come to be known by many names over thousands of years.

Even worse, “The Clone Wars” made it clear in 2010 that the Mandalorians were a peaceful people whose last remaining warriors died out years ago. Which means that Jango Fett and his clone-son Boba were impostors who were not Mandalorian, but somehow acquired Mandalorian armor through unknown illicit means. And yes, this reportedly came directly from the mouth of Lucas. If you know even the slightest bit about Boba Fett and his massive popularity in the Star Wars fandom, you can imagine the shitstorm of insanity this caused. Fans were outraged, EU authors quit in protest, and the retconning hit like a fucking tsunami.

Then came all the miscellaneous little proclamations handed down by George Lucas. He decreed that there would be no more Wookiee Jedi. He named Obi-Wan Kenobi’s homeworld after Jon Stewart. Then there’s my own personal favorite, from this anecdote about the development of the “Force Unleashed” video game:

“The team threw a Hail Mary to George, saying the game would have more credibility if the [player’s character] had a ‘Darth’ title,” a Force Unleashed team member says. Lucas agreed that this situation made sense for Sith royalty, and offered up two Darth titles for the team to choose from. “He threw out ‘Darth Icky’ and ‘Darth Insanius.’ There was a pregnant pause in the room after that. People waiting for George to say ‘just kidding,’ but it never comes, and he just moved on to another point.”

This is reportedly how it was. George Lucas would just spout out all this random nonsensical fuckery and everyone had to go along with it. And I assume that if anyone dared to question his logic, he’d just raise a middle finger and say “Who am I?”

Finally, word came in January of 2012 that Lucas would gradually be stepping down to focus on smaller works. Like Strange Magic, the CG-animated film that came out in January of 2015 and was promptly tossed into obscurity before anyone could remember how awful it was. There were other shakeups at Lucasfilm in the surrounding months, along with upcoming books and video games either getting postponed indefinitely or outright cancelled. Then it was made official in October of 2012 that Lucas had sold pretty much his entire estate to Disney, to the tune of $4 billion. Which Lucas then gave to charity, the magnificent bastard.

Shortly afterward, in January of 2013, Disney announced that Star Wars: Episode VII would be moving forward with J.J. Abrams as director. We all had known this was coming ever since the buyout was first announced. Of course Disney bought Star Wars to make money, which naturally meant that we’d be getting more movies. But in turn, that meant making movies that anyone could appreciate and pay to see. They couldn’t risk turning away viewers who wouldn’t know a Yuuzhan Vong from a Chiss, and even the slightest error in continuity would trigger another massive wave of retcons to piss off the fans.

So it was that in April 24th of 2015, it was announced that only the mainstream Star Wars stories would be considered canon moving forward. Anything G-canon and T-canon (read: the movies and CG-animated TV shows) would be kept, and anything else would have to go.

Yes, this means that we have to keep on treating the godawful prequel trilogy as canon. But consider that due to the advancing ages of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford, The Force Awakens will take place roughly 30 years after the end of Return of the Jedi. Which means that Episode III ended roughly 53 years before Episode VII begins.

We already know that Anakin Skywalker is dead. We know that Padme Amidala is dead. We know that Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn, Yoda, Mace Windu, and all the other Jedi aside from Luke Skywalker himself (and possibly a couple of other stragglers we don’t know about) are now dead. Emperor Palpatine, Count Dooku, and General Grievous are all dead. It’s still open whether Boba Fett is alive, but even if he survived the Sarlacc Pit, he’d have to be pushing 70 by this point. What are the chances that such a notorious bounty hunter would still be alive and active at that age? However, with all of that said, do you really think that Jar Jar Binks is still alive? Or anyone else who was around for the prequel trilogy, aside from Threepio and Artoo?

Even better, Luke is (in all probability) the only Jedi left. Which means that whatever he learned about the Force from Obi-Wan and Yoda is all that anyone knows. Everything else either died with the Jedi or died with the Emperor. And somehow, I very much doubt that either Obi-Wan or Yoda decided to waste precious time explaining what a “midi-chlorian” was.

Even if all that stuff in the prequels still happened, it’s far enough removed from Episode VII that there’s no guarantee that any baggage will still be a problem moving forward. This is a chance at a fresh start. And it’s a chance that the franchise was right to take.

At this point, Lucasfilm is now in the hands of Kathleen Kennedy, who appears to be an analogue for Kevin Feige over at Marvel Studios. At least I assume that’s how it’s going to be, because Marvel practically invented the multimedia superfranchise, and their new corporate siblings at Lucasfilm would be fools not to take a few notes. And so far, it appears that they have.

I’ve read a few of the Star Wars comic books set in the rebooted continuity, and I’m very impressed so far. I love how there’s such an emphasis on making Darth Vader legitimately scary again, which shouldn’t have been possible after everything we learned about him in the prequels. I appreciate how there’s a much steadier hand on the rudder, with management that seems far more invested in keeping everything straight while still allowing individual creators enough breathing room to create something new. Plus, the different titles have been crossing over in neat little ways, which is a huge part of what made the Marvel Cinematic Universe such a hit.

But more importantly — and this is really the point I’m trying to make with all of this — I’m glad that Star Wars is back in the hands of talented people who care about the franchise. Because that’s the way it was back in the glory days of the ’90s, when many geeks (myself included) first fell in love with the galaxy far, far away. The franchise was always at its best when George Lucas let other people into his sandbox and just let them play — we can’t ever forget that neither Empire Strikes Back nor Return of the Jedi were written or directed by Lucas.

The franchise has been a collective of authors and creators coming together to make something without much in the way of organization or a clear goal. And the franchise has been a dictatorship, with one lunatic shaping everything to fit his own unique vision, and leaving everyone else to clean up the mess. This way, with a fresh slate, there’s the freedom to learn from past mistakes and find the best of both approaches. And by “past mistakes”, I’m including the Palpatine clones, the zombie stormtroopers, the ysalamiri, etc.

Moreover, it’s crucial to remember that the internet was still nascent in the time before the prequel series. The fans were powerful enough back then without broadband, and the fandom is even more powerful now. Our voices are being heard by the powers that be, and every choice they make with this franchise is being scrutinized like never before. And that makes a huge difference, now that Star Wars is in the hands of creators and execs who are not only fans themselves, but actually give a damn about what we have to say.

Consider: It was social media and overwhelming popular support that won a terminally ill Star Wars fan an early viewing of Episode VII, just before he died. If that’s not proof of what great things the fandom can accomplish, and how much the PTB care about the franchise and its fanbase, I don’t know what is.

The previous generation had its chance to discover and shape Star Wars. Now, this generation is getting its turn. And I think it’s gonna turn out to be something incredible. We’ll see soon enough after Star Wars: The Force Awakens makes its debut on December 18th.

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