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Loose canon: Why Lucasfilm's Star Wars reboot was the right thing to do

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“We don’t reboot. We don’t start from scratch,” Leland Chee, Lucasfilm’s continuity database administrator, told Wired’s Chris Baker in a 2008 profile. “When Chewbacca died, he died.”

What a difference six years –– and $4.05 billion –– makes.

On Friday, April 25, Lucasfilm announced that it was restarting its tie-in literature program. The Expanded Universe of books, comics, short stories, and other material was declared an alternate universe, although EU titles will continue to be sold under the “Legends” banner. As of today, only the six films and The Clone Wars movie and TV series are canon. The Disney animated series Star Wars Rebels will be canon when it premieres, as will the four new books that Lucasfilm announced.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: I have been a big fan of the Expanded Universe for a long time. I own hundreds of books. I write for Suvudu, the science-fiction blog run by Star Wars book publisher Random House. I’ve met and interviewed numerous EU authors. I do not hate or bemoan its impact on the franchise. In fact, I think the ancillary material has performed a great service over the years. In the absence of the films, and before episodic television like Star Wars: The Clone Wars (and now Star Wars Rebels) was the norm, printed stories continued to give fans a window into the universe. It’s hard to understate how valuable that has been to die-hard Star Wars fans.

The problem is that, from the perspective of the most authoritative Star Wars storytellers like George Lucas and Dave Filoni, the window opened by the Expanded Universe looked into an alternate reality. After decades of books, comics, short stories, and magazine articles, the Expanded Universe was very expanded indeed. But those expansions altered the overall makeup of the EU, such that it shifted out of alignment with the universe in which Lucas and his associates were telling stories. As a result, there arose a disconnect between the universe as envisioned by Lucas and most fans and the universe as envisioned by EU fans.

If you were to ask George Lucas, “Who is Luke Skywalker’s wife?” his response would be, “Luke doesn’t get married.” Then, if you could somehow assemble everyone who called him- or herself a Star Wars fan and randomly select one of them, they would probably give you the same answer. Of course, EU fans would answer the question with the words “Mara Jade,” because as far as they are concerned, that is the correct answer. And to paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, what they say is true, from a certain point of view. The Star Wars universe that is composed of the material they consume includes a character named Mara Jade who married Luke Skywalker nineteen years after the events of A New Hope.

The fact that neither of the answers to this question was truly incorrect gets to the heart of the matter: prior to now, Lucasfilm never clarified what was “really” part of the Star Wars universe. And although virtually nothing in the Expanded Universe came into conflict with Lucas-created material, there have been occasional continuity clashes. Some fans of the Mandalorians, a clan-based society whose best-known member is Boba Fett, were devastated to see the society “retconned” as a largely pacifistic community in The Clone Wars, overwriting much of what author Karen Traviss had described in her Republic Commando novels.

More recently, Jedi Master Even Piell died in an episode of The Clone Wars, contradicting and superseding his death in the novel Coruscant Nights I: Jedi Twilight. The aforementioned Leland Chee, whom fans refer to as the Keeper of the Holocron because of the massive database he maintains, addressed the contradiction on Facebook. According to Chee, who is now a member of the Lucasfilm Story Group that coordinates trans-media storytelling, “The series always trumps what happens in the EU.”

As Chee’s words suggest, Lucasfilm’s official position has always been that The Clone Wars and other works with significant input from George Lucas trump the tapestry of stories in the EU. And as I said, in virtually every case, the EU and the story that Lucas was telling intermingled nicely. But the Chee quote above was only part of his response. In fact, that quote is only the first half of a sentence. The second half is, “but we try to salvage what we can.”

From a forward-looking standpoint, the second half of Chee’s sentence was the bigger problem for Lucasfilm and its new corporate parent. In the grand scheme of things, conflicts like Piell and the Mandalorians were few and far between. The larger problem –– the one that Lucasfilm evidently decided it no longer wanted to deal with –– was that the accumulation of material in the Expanded Universe limited the ability to tell new stories. Lucasfilm acknowledged this limitation in its canon announcement: “In order to give maximum creative freedom to the filmmakers and also preserve an element of surprise and discovery for the audience, Star Wars Episodes VII-IX will not tell the same story told in the post-Return of the Jedi Expanded Universe.” (Emphasis added.)

When George Lucas was the man in charge of Star Wars, he only cared about on-screen media, and because he didn’t pay attention to the work of the EU, it continued to accumulate in forms that did not jive with what he saw as the story of Star Wars. It wasn’t that Lucas actively disdained the EU; he just didn’t feel the need to get involved in the stories that the authors were telling. He saw it as a separate beast from the universe that he had launched in 1977, even if hardcore EU fans didn’t see it the same way. As a result, EU authors continued to produce new stories, but the disconnect that I discussed earlier (“Is Luke Skywalker married?”) always complicated discussions about what Star Wars was and what it included.

“We let Marvel Comics do the stories they wanted as long as it didn't interfere with the upcoming movies, and they went in some bizarre directions,” said Howard Roffman, the president of Lucas Licensing, in Leland Chee’s Wired profile. The leporine smuggler Jaxxon, who debuted in 1977, was one of Marvel’s “bizarre” creations, but he was far from the only example of the EU interpreting Star Wars in, ahem, unique ways. Almost forty years later, the EU is home to a massive collection of oddities and minutiae, and once again Lucasfilm finds itself with new movies on the horizon.

It appears that after George Lucas retired in October 2012, the company he founded, led by new president Kathleen Kennedy, decided to address the continuity issue. The significance of Lucas’ departure cannot be understated. For the first time ever, the people in charge of telling Star Wars stories cared about off-screen media and valued its ability to contribute to the universe. Never before has the person with the power to put all authorized content on the same level of canon also had the desire to do so. Now that this is the case, we’re seeing that desire put into action. The announcement of Lucasfilm’s new continuity plans, combined with what little we know about the Lucasfilm Story Group, suggests that Kathleen Kennedy and her top lieutenants are serious about creating and expanding a unified fictional setting.

Given the changed attitude toward canon that Lucas’ departure brought about and the growing problem that the EU posed to storytellers, I think it’s pretty clear both why Lucasfilm decided to reboot the universe now and why this was a smart business and creative decision. But the content creators are only half of the story, even if they are the half that shapes the story. Producers produce for consumers, who need to keep consuming if the producers are to remain employed. So, having considered the reboot from Lucasfilm’s perspective, let’s evaluate it based on what it means for fans.

Most people won’t stress out about this new state of affairs, but the transition will be tough for those fans who derive special gratification, on top of whatever they like about a particular story, from the belief that that story fits into the overall Star Wars universe. The most important thing to remember is that you can continue to enjoy every single story you have purchased regardless of what the new movies, TV shows, and literature bring. Just because something is no longer an authoritative part of continuity, that doesn’t make it a bad read. Nothing will disappear from your physical or digital shelves. If you liked a plotline or a character from an EU story, you can reread that book or comic as many times as you want and it will remain the same. Meanwhile, some of the material that you read and loved will survive, becoming more visible and more popular, as Lucasfilm integrates it into the new canon.

I have no doubt that this reboot will bring benefits to fans and creators alike. Look at the four books that were announced along with the canon news. Luke. Vader. Palpatine. Tarkin. Those are some of the most interesting characters in the Original Trilogy. And this is just the start.

         

Lucasfilm rebooted the universe because they were increasingly lacking the creative freedom necessary to tell great stories, and Disney paid a lot of money to be able to do just that. Now that the slate has been wiped (mostly) clean, longtime fans should look forward to fresh stories, which is always a good thing for a franchise that is several decades old. In the new continuity, many elements will feel familiar, and that familiarity, those links with the past, will reinforce one simple truth: this is still the Star Wars universe you love.

Furthermore, in the coming years, the Star Wars universe will welcome many, many new fans. Those of us on the inside often forget how impermeable this vast web of stories can seem to people who aren’t already invested and paying attention. A convoluted fictional universe like Star Wars can prove intimidating to potential fans. Anyone could take the time to watch the six films and say that they enjoyed Star Wars, but the scope of the EU tended to make diving in further a daunting prospect. Given that fact, reboots can be a useful tool for expanding a franchise’s fan base. “Clever preservation of original story elements retains the old fans,” Chris Baker wrote in his Chee profile for Wired, “and streamlining and modernizing lets newbies spend their hard-earned quatloos, too.”

Ever since Disney bought Lucasfilm, I’ve seen people foaming at the mouth at the prospect of a reboot. To be honest, I feel bad for those people. If you care so much about how canon a story is that this reboot actually sours your enjoyment of the story itself, that’s a little bit worrisome. It suggests that you have been spending too much time worrying about how all the material fits together and not enough time enjoying the material for what it is. If your attitude toward Lucasfilm sours because you believe that they don’t value their readers highly enough, that’s a perfectly reasonable belief, and you’re entitled to it. But if this reboot makes you want to throw out your books or just never read them again, that’s sad.

I’m not going to mince words here: It is manifestly unhealthy to invest yourself so heavily in the continuity of a fictional universe that you lose your taste for the stories when the house of cards collapses. (This is not to disparage continuity wonks. It’s great to care about the cohesiveness of a universe. The problem arises when your insistence on cohesiveness inhibits your ability to enjoy the stories as stories.)

The word fan is short for fanatic. Even before Disney bought Lucasfilm, certain segments of the fan community were starting to resemble fanatics, with many of the worrisome religious connotations that the word conveys. Over the past few years, on forums and in blog comments and in my email inbox, I have read reactions to continuity issues –– real and imagined –– written by Star Wars fans who I can only describe as militant. The ugly truth is that the continuity discrepancies of the last half-decade –– Mandalorians, Even Piell, Adi Gallia –– have led to a growing divide between those who can accept change in a fictional universe and those who cannot. People have worked themselves into a lather over the silliest things.

It’s not surprising that passionate people sometimes find counterproductive outlets for their passion. As Chris Baker observed in Wired, “The ecstasy of true fandom can, after all, approximate religion.” Thankfully, however, these fanatics are a minority of a minority. I suspect, and hope, that most EU fans will, like me, remain cautiously optimistic as we move forward.

Lucasfilm now has a vast, nearly empty universe to populate, a blank canvas on which it can paint new stories without having to confine its brushstrokes to decades-old outlines. I for one am excited to see what they do with it.
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