Movies and TV
Star Wars Apocrypha: The Expanded Universe Canon and Religious Mythology

Marshall Lemon | 12 Jun 2014 12:00
Movies and TV - RSS 2.0
Star Wars Apocrypha title

If you're upset that Star Wars nixed its expanded universe, what Disney did is nothing new in religious mythology.

Not long ago, in a place not too far away, a small group of thinkers brought a massive Expanded Universe to a close. Generations of fans who had grown up with its stories were told such tales no longer reflected any official narrative, and were provided with an official canon to replace it. The decision wasn't welcome to everyone: many diverse writers had made impressive contributions to a growing cultural movement, taking root and inspiring loyal devotees from all walks of life. On the other hand, the Expanded Universe had become unwieldy, contradictory, and missed the point of the original tales that inspired it. New readers could be confused by the wide selection of stories, each varying in quality and tone, and come away with different impressions than other fans. Realizing that the franchise needed a controlled number of texts anyone could follow, the organization that managed this franchise trimmed all extraneous material and declared it as non-canon.

Some readers may think I'm referring to the Star Wars Expanded Universe, which Lucasfilm declared non-canon in preparation for Episode VII. And make no mistake, that was an incredibly disappointing decision to many. For decades, Lucasarts and its licensed affiliates produced hundreds of novels, comics, video games, and television episodes, taking great pains to unite them as a single storyline. For fans growing up in the 1990s, there was no difference between Star Wars on film and Star Wars in other media; everything came together to form the tale of a galaxy in constant flux. When Disney purchased the rights to Star Wars and announced that the EU non-canon, fans were outraged that the unified universe they imagined was being split in two.

But I'm not discussing Star Wars, at least not exclusively. I'm talking about Christian apocrypha, referring to documents that are "secret" or "not canonical". Today, the term is most commonly applied to religious works that aren't accepted as official scripture. Many major religions address apocrypha at some point in their history. Some, like the Hebrew faith, produced works that some considered superior to accepted scripture. Early Christians, on the other hand, produced dozens of books and gospels that were rejected from the New Testament Bible, and denounced many of them as heretical. The development of the Star Wars Expanded Universe isn't so different, which can help explain the overwhelming fan loyalty, how contradictions are formed between creative voices, and why Disney's decision to create a New EU isn't so bad; in fact, it could have been far worse.

The important thing to remember about apocrypha, both for Christianity and Star Wars, is that neither started with a unified canon. Early Christian writings and beliefs could change wildly from community to community, since the church's organizational structure wasn't fully formalized until at least 90 CE. Despite the lack of oversight, Christianity underwent phenomenal growth during this period, spreading across the Roman Empire faster than church leaders were prepared for. Beliefs on the nature of Christ could vary between regions and cultural groups, be they Roman, Greek, Asian, or even Jewish-Christian. Religious texts proliferated as locals added to (or heavily rewrote) versions of gospels and apostolic teachings.

Star Wars' beginnings were no less chaotic. The Expanded Universe started, coincidentally, as a 1977-1986 Marvel Comics series produced with minimal oversight from Lucasarts. Outside of a ruling from George Lucas to avoid Darth Vader's origins (obviously revoked after Episode I), Expanded Universe authors were free to explore any topic they desired. When the floodgates open, each EU writer fashioned their own Star Wars canon, sharing only the films as common ground. Marvel Comics designed original adventures and an extensive cast of secondary characters who would never be found elsewhere in the Expanded Universe. Spin-off novels and TV specials did the same, usually contradicting each other the same way early Christian scripture once did. Complicating matters was one simple fact: in 1980 George Lucas was still developing the original trilogy! Marvel linked its own series to The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but most content from this period was so inconsistent that it was retconned almost immediately (the Star Wars Holiday Special being a prime example).

Eventually, both organizations made a concerted effort to focus on a unified narrative anyone could follow. For Star Wars, this began with the 1991 novel Heir to the Empire, launching the Expanded Universe most readers are familiar with. Moving forward, each Star Wars novel, comic, and game storyline tied together, while editors ensured that new plotlines didn't contradict previous volumes. Internally, Lucasarts established the Holocron, a database that ranked the canonicity of licensed products to ensure everything fit together. While Lucasarts always considered the Expanded Universe to be unofficial, editors exerted great effort to ensure fit everything together, even using religious language to make their points.

RELATED CONTENT
Comments on