A Man vs. The Machine

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There’s a fat little book on my bookcase that I bought a long time ago, in a galaxy… okay, it was this galaxy. That book is called A Guide to the Star Wars Universe, and for many years I was happy to have bought the “Second, Expanded Edition!” because it included all the material ever released in Star Wars fiction up until that point.

Yes, I was (am?) a huge Star Wars fan, and part of the magic of that Guide was that it cataloged everything into two neat categories: “Stuff from the films” and “Stuff from the Expanded Universe,” which we fans had creatively marked as the “EU.” George Lucas even went on record (take that as you will) acknowledging that he saw the Star Wars franchise as basically these two universes. In George Lucas’ universe, the films tell you all there is you need to know. In the Expanded Universe, the films are just the starting point for what has been decades’ worth of contributing material, all of which has more or less stayed intact. New authors would reuse characters created outside the films. Characters that debuted in video games found their way into novels and comic books, and prose-original characters worked their way into games and TV shows. It was a sort of cross-pollination that was commendable because unlike franchises like Star Trek and Doctor Who, there weren’t multiple timelines and universes; there was one EU and for the most part it managed to work.

So with The Force Awakens coming out, it reminded me of of what happened not long after Disney bought Lucasfilm.

Let my bias be known: I do not have a high opinion of The Walt Disney Company. I do think it weird that Walt Disney had his corporation explore options in urban development. I do think it underhanded to buy a TV network and have that network’s shows start using “I’m going to Disney World!” as a plot device. Let’s not get into the copyright issues, either.

I do have this to say: the Disney Company is extremely good at crafting their products to resonate with people. So I don’t think it was necessarily a bad decision for the next Star Wars film to be entirely fresh; it puts every viewer on the same level. People won’t have their movie experience spoiled by someone who says “I hope they put General Whatshisname in the next film.” It’s a great relief and great fun to experience something new together.

That said, the cynic in me can’t help but curse What Disney Did to the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Basically, they nullified it.

On April 25, 2014, StarWars.com released a statement notifying the public that the EU was no longer canon. Everything that was created by those thousands of people over those 40 years doesn’t count. All the collaboration, all the cross-checking, all the work going into keeping a universe pretty much intact, didn’t count. Everything, no matter how good or terrible it was, didn’t count. And to a guy with a Disney bias like mine, it meant that “no stories counted unless Disney said so.” The initial press release attempted to soften the blow by pointing out that all legends differ in the details, and that the Expanded Universe wasn’t going away completely. The content would still be available under a “Legends” banner, and characters and ideas fleshed out in the original EU might be used again in the future films.

To be fair, this kind of thing has happened before. The stories between Star Wars and the release of The Empire Strikes Back (major ones being Splinter of the Mind’s Eye and The Star Wars Holiday Special) were “corrected” by the release of other films, and the prequel trilogy changed facts established by authors in other media.The major difference is that the EU tried to make these facts work together. I’m not saying that the EU was perfect; far from it, actually. It was full of overpowered characters and irreconcilable contradictions. It was a mess, but it was our mess.

In a way having a story group make sure that the timeline stays intact is probably the best thing for the EU. I just wish that the stories hadn’t been invalidated to do so. Disney’s willingness to appropriate the ideas of the EU in order to make a quick buck does nothing to quell my resentment towards the company, but I have to be honest: my resentment does nothing to quell my desire to see the new films.I just think it’s important to  remember the 35 years of collaborative fiction that got those new films on the screen.

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