“I felt a great disturbance in the Force,” a shaken Obi-Wan Kenobi (Sir Alec Guinness) tells Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) during a pivotal scene in George Lucas’ original Star Wars. “As if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.”
The wizened old Jedi was responding to the psychic aftershocks of the peaceful planet of Alderaan being annihilated by the Death Star, but he may as well have been referring to the fans’ reaction after Disney and Lucasfilm pulled a corporate Order 66 and purged the “Expanded Universe” books, comics and video games from the official continuity of the beloved sci-fi franchise. With the exception of the six films, the upcoming Disney-produced sequels and spin-offs, the now-cancelled Clone Wars animated series and the new Disney XD show Star Wars: Rebels, more than a quarter-century’s worth of storytelling set in a galaxy far, far away has now been demoted to little more than glorified fan-fiction.
The announcement means that many of the Star Wars properties we grew up with, from Timothy Zahn’s highly regarded Thrawn trilogy and Tom Veitch’s audacious Dark Empire comics to LucasArts’ extremely popular Knights of the Old Republic and The Force Unleashed video games, are no longer considered canon. Fans of the Expanded Universe -— or EU for short -— will now have to contend with a Star Wars sequel trilogy that’s unlikely to include Emperor Palpatine returning as a vengeful clone, Luke temporarily turning to the Dark Side and marrying the beautiful assassin Mara Jade, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) siring Force-sensitive twins named Jacen and Jaina, Boba Fett surviving his tumble into the Great Pit of Carkoon and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) being crushed to death by a falling moon. On second thought, let’s be realistic: Han and Leia will in all likelihood still have little Jedi running around, and you’d have to be a scruffy-looking nerf-herder to bet against the return of everyone’s favorite Mandalorian bounty hunter.
So why jettison such a wealth of ready-made material? The thinking behind the decision was to allow Episode VII director J.J. Abrams and legendary screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark) as much creative freedom as possible to explore new storylines and characters without being beholden to decades of byzantine narrative restrictions, the kind that give DC and Marvel scribes four-colored nose bleeds.
The action also demonstrates Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy’s considerable media savvy. She timed the “clean slate” announcement to coincide perfectly with the revelation of the best-kept secret in Hollywood: the cast of Episode VII, which was disclosed on Tuesday after months of rampant speculation.
Though plot details remain scant at best, Episode VII is projected to meet its May start date. Principal photography will commence in London’s world-famous Pinewood Studios, the same facility that has housed multiple installments of the James Bond and Harry Potter franchises. The highlight of Kennedy’s announcement, however, was the news that Fisher, Ford and Hamill are all returning to the saga, even though their involvement was already something of a given, especially since Abrams hinted that Kasdan’s screenplay focuses largely on the characters from the original trilogy, with Ford in particular being promised a “gigantic” role. The “Big Three” will be joined by a bevy of talented veterans and newcomers, including Max von Sydow, Andy Serkis, Harry Potter’s Domhnall Gleeson, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver from HBO’s Girls, John Boyega from the British sci-fi comedy Attack the Block and Oscar Isaac, the breakout star of the Coen Brothers’ folk odyssey Inside Llewyn Davis.
As for the fate of the Expanded Universe, fans can take heart in the knowledge that it isn’t being discarded entirely. According to a statement recently released by Lucasfilm, the creative teams involved with each new project will be able to pick and choose elements from the EU to include in future works. For example, Clone Wars found ways to incorporate fan-favorite EU characters such as the rogue Jedi Knight Quinlan Vos, while the upcoming Rebels promises to feature the Imperial Security Bureau, the TIE Fighter manufacturer Sienar Fleet Systems and other organizations that were first introduced in the Star Wars role-playing games of the 1980s.
The old books, video games and comics, meanwhile, will be re-printed under the newly formed “Legends” banner, thus ensuring that future generations will not be denied the twisted genius of Grand Admiral Thrawn, the iconic, Sherlock Holmes-esque villain of the Zahn novels, although his piercing red eyes, azure complexion and sinister intelligence practically cry out for a big screen realization by the likes of Hugo Weaving, Jeremy Irons or Benedict Cumberbatch. Oh well. Maybe they’re saving him for Episode VIII.
Interestingly, the future of the revitalized franchise will begin not with movies or television but in the realm of literature, starting this September with Star Wars: A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller — a story that will serve as a formal introduction to several of the main characters from Rebels — and Star Wars: Tarkin by James Luceno, which charts the career path of the cold-blooded military commander so memorably portrayed by Peter Cushing in the original movie. Both Miller and Luceno are bestselling authors with longstanding ties to the fan community, and their books are being written with input from Kennedy and her story team. To paraphrase Master Yoda: Always in motion, the future of Star Wars is, and only the most capable hands are involved in shaping its destiny.
Landon McDonald is a graduate student studying public relations. His column, “The Reel Deal,” ran Thursdays.