Why the non-canon Star Wars Expanded Universe still matters

Right now, almost everyone is thinking about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, even if they'd rather not be. Marketing for the film is ubiquitous, and covers everything from billboards to cans of soup at the supermarket. Its stars are hitting every talk show on the planet and covering every magazine and newspaper; trailers and TV spots are on every channel.

If you're not a fan, that might just be an annoyance, but if you are a fan, it's more than just an enticement to buy a ticket that you likely already purchased months ago: it is a reminder that, finally, we get to know what happens next. The idea that Luke, Han, and Leia are back, played by the original actors, is absolutely intoxicating to Star Wars fans, myself included. But as exciting as The Force Awakens is, my brain's been reminding me of something a lot lately: We were told what happens next years ago, and even if that story doesn't count anymore, it's worth remembering.

That's right, it's time to talk about Star Wars "Legends," or what used to be called the good old Star Wars Expanded Universe.

Though we're all obsessed with what happens next right now, it's important to remember that Return of the Jedi is not a film that particularly lends itself to "...and then" thinking. Sure, the kind of mind that tends toward fanfiction might think like that anyway, but Jedi is a movie that ends on a note of sincere finality. Darth Vader is dead, and so is the Emperor. The Death Star and the mighty Imperial Fleet are destroyed. The Rebel Alliance is having a big party with space bears, the ghosts of Jedi past are smiling, and to put an exclamation point on the whole thing, Luke torches Vader's body, reducing the Dark Side to ashes. Years later, George Lucas added yet another exclamation point: a shot of the Emperor's statue being ripped down on Coruscant to cheers from a jubilant crowd. The message was clear: The Empire's over, and the galaxy is rejoicing. We're done. Mission accomplished.

And yet, someone had the bright idea to tell the next chapter, and we got the Expanded Universe as a result -- most famously stories like The Thrawn Trilogy and Dark Empire, the "official" versions of What Happens Next. Today, these stories are often credited with keeping Star Wars alive in the public imagination in the years between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace, and it's easy to see why.

As we're all learning again in the lead-up to The Force Awakens, the idea of revisiting these characters is so satisfying. When I was a kid, I took it as a given that Jedi was the end, and that there were no more battles left to fight. Then my mother bought me Heir to the Empire, and I was immediately swept up in the galaxy again, in the idea that some Imperial genius could come back and threaten the finality of Jedi, and that Luke would have another lightsaber wielding baddie to duel with. 

I wasn't alone, and so the EU grew and grew, getting ever more vast and convoluted, and as a result, Disney pulled the plug, preferring a blank slate to one covered in fanfiction-esque squiggles. The old EU lives on as the "Legends" line, but even as I'm re-reading things like Heir to the Empire and The Black Fleet Crisis trilogy, other fans ask "What's the point? It doesn't count."

It is true that the old EU doesn't "count" canonically anymore, but even as we move into a bold new era for Star Wars, I think it's important to remember that it counts in a massive way when considering the pop culture legacy of Star Wars. In the early '90s, when Heir to the Empire came out and became a massive bestseller, we didn't know if we'd ever seen another Star Wars movie. We were nearly a decade removed from Jedi, and then suddenly there was this story, and Star Wars was alive in the public imagination well beyond the die-hard fans. Suddenly, everyone was encouraged to ask big, soapy, what-if questions about this world and these characters again. "What if a brilliant tactician decided to rip apart the New Republic?" "What if the Emperor cloned himself and managed to turn Luke to the Dark Side?" "What if there was a hidden superweapon that could destroy suns?" "What if Han and Leia had twins, and one turned evil, and his sister was forced to kill him?"

That kind of thinking infected and invigorated the fandom, and stayed there for decades, right up until Disney decided to start over and ask their own "What if?" questions about the universe. It is that invigoration that I remember feeling and sharing with friends and fellow fans, and it extended in all directions, to comics, and video games, and toys, and TV. Like The Force, it surrounded us and bound us together in a time well before we ever thought we'd see something like The Force Awakens. That might sound corny, and it might actually be corny, but for me it's true.

So, as we get the new "official" story of what happened after Return of the Jedi this weekend, I have a simple request: Don't forget the old "official" story, because it was a blast, and it helped Star Wars to endure.


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