The Star Wars universe is friggin’ huge. George Lucas’ brilliant vision of a “galaxy far, far away” was imaginative and well crafted, and audiences immediately fell in love with the sci-fi epic. They craved more of it – lots more of it – and Lucas delivered in spades. Star Wars showcased him as a great storyteller, but he demonstrated his true genius in marketing. If there was a product to be sold, there was a Star Wars version. And we ate it up; every Han Solo action figure, every Darth Vader Halloween costume, every pair of Chewbacca underwear. The landscape of popular culture was altered forever.
But the marketing genius didn’t stop there. Multimedia was the next frontier, the next section of the Outer Rim to conquer in the name of the Empire. Writers created new adventures spanning books, comics and videogames. The media invasion gave other talented artists and storytellers a chance to inhabit the universe and create their own piece of Star Wars fiction. That Lucas allowed fans to create new stories and mythologies is both the greatest triumph of the Star Wars saga – and its undoing.
My journey into the Expanded Universe began when I was young, as it does with most fans not old enough to witness the movies’ debut in the theaters. After a particularly nasty fight with the flu in middle school, my dad brought home a present to relieve the cabin fever: The Truce at Bakura, just released in paperback. As I sat in my room, coughing up lung juice and drinking flat 7UP, I read about the events immediately after Return of the Jedi, of Luke traveling to a mysterious planet and of Leia and Han as they dealt with the consequences of overthrowing the Empire. It was simply awesome to discover that the story didn’t end with the fireworks on Endor. Cue the Aladdin soundtrack – I was in a whole new world of Star Wars.
From that first book onward, I sought out as much multimedia from the Expanded Universe as I could find. And thanks to the ceaseless productivity of the Star Wars industry, it was in an almost never-ending supply. I quickly discovered Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy, perhaps the best and most popular point of entry into the Expanded Universe. Taking place after Truce at Bakura, the story introduced the beloved characters of Mara Jade, Grand Admiral Thrawn and Talon Karrde. A small entry in The Essential Guide to Vehicles and Vessels led me to the Tales of the Jedi comics. With the announcement of Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, I played the demo daily after school, savoring every moment of being a Jedi. At age 15 I was terrible at videogames, but that didn’t stop me from trying to gun down stormtroopers and Bossk lookalikes after homework. When I finally bought the full game – I still sucked, even at the demo levels – it felt like being the main character of Return of the Jedi.
At that time, the expanded Star Wars universe’s synergy had power over me. It mixed with the trilogy in a homogeneous way, never detracting from the magic of the movies. The Original Trilogy stood as the monolithic source for all extraneous Star Wars media, casting a giant, benevolent shadow over all onlookers. Out of love for the series, authors brought their creation under that shadow willingly. Sure, authors developed new characters, planets and alien races, but every story meshed into a persistent world with its own chronology. To do otherwise was tantamount to blasphemy.
Every author took extreme care in regard to the Jedi and the Force. No Jedi Master wields a lightsaber in the Tales of the Jedi comics, just as neither Master Yoda nor Palpatine have one in the original trilogy. The Force is their ally, and a powerful ally it is. Jedi Knight elaborated on the abilities of a Force user, distinguishing between neutral, Light side, and Dark side powers. The neutral and Dark side powers are derived from scenes in the movies, but there wasn’t any demonstration of Light side abilities to draw from. So Light side powers had to be invented based on Yoda’s teachings: “The Force is for defense, never for attack.” Eventually Kyle Katarn, the protagonist, must choose the Light side or the Dark side and obtain the rank of Jedi Master. By the last half-dozen levels, Kyle’s Force powers are so powerful I didn’t need to bother with conventional weapons on my way into the Valley of the Jedi, truly reinforcing the image of a powerful Jedi Master.
There were some black sheep in the family – the Star Wars Christmas Special, anyone? – but overall Star Wars thrived in the Expanded Universe. And then came the great divide, throwing fans around the world into disarray. We all know exactly where we were when it happened: the exit of the movie theater. After the amazing “Duel of Fates,” after the lights came back on, after the endorphin rush of seeing the first new Star Wars movie in 16 years, questions arose, as if a million voices suddenly cried out in terror. Didn’t Obi-Wan say Yoda trained him? Why didn’t the aliens speak their native languages? And what’s up with Jar Jar Binks? Then it dawned on us: that wasn’t anything like the Star Wars we grew up on. We had to either accept this disappointing new world or rebel against it.
But rebellion is futile when the LucasArts marketing colossus is fully operational. The prequel movie immediately bled into new books, comics and games. The Phantom Menace novel came out a month before the movie, and the game Episode I: Racer on the day of the film’s release. Fans new and old flocked to expand the universe of the prequels, using them as another monolithic source of material, one which seemingly stood in opposition to the Original Trilogy instead of beside it. The most egregious point of dispute came from a single word: “midi-chlorians.” It wasn’t uttered since Episode I, but the damage was done. The word is etched by the tip of a lightsaber inside every fan’s brain, a scarlet letter warning future generations of sci-fi creators that it’s possible to ruin the best part of your invention.
Some fans have been able to reconcile the new movies with the established universe, or at least accept them as wholly and truly Star Wars. I heard two kids at my local GameStop discuss how the Borg would react to assimilating midi-chlorians. Those two, at least, had no problem with Lucas’ embellishments – it’s all Star Wars to them. But there are those of us who feel uneasy about anything associated with the prequels. We speak of them in hushed tones, either to pretend they don’t exist, or to ignore the small part of us that accepts the prequel universe, flaws and all.
Enter The Force Unleashed. The tech-demo-turned-full-fledged-game is the latest creation to become a multimedia event, much like Shadows of the Empire and The Clone Wars before it. The game has all the trappings of an olive branch from LucasArts to the still-disenfranchised fans such as myself: It takes place in between Episodes III & IV; the protagonist is a Jedi; and the Force is central to both the gameplay and story.
The first trailer made me reach for that olive branch, that’s for sure. I watched a Dark Jedi bring down an Imperial Star Destroyer with the Force, then a montage of stormtroopers dying from a plethora of Force-related injuries. I’ve never witnessed Darth Vader’s famous line, “The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force,” so fully realized. It’s any fanboy’s dream.
I quickly snatched my hand away as this Dark Jedi turned out to be Vader’s apprentice. Apprentice Luke can barely lift Artoo; this guy looks like he can kick Palpatine’s ass without breaking a sweat. Nothing in the game looks like the Force I saw in Empire Strikes Back, which seems to be the point: Crank the special effects up to 11, give the player control and hope that’s all the fanboys want.
LucasArts hasn’t revealed much of the story at this point. We know it will involve the apprentice, an imperial love interest, a droid companion, a grizzled veteran and Darth Vader. The theme is supposedly redemption, the major theme of Return of the Jedi. Lucas himself gave direct input to the narrative. So if the story will be Lucas-certified as official, what’s his stance on the gameplay abilities of the protagonist? One can’t be canon while the other is considered alternate-reality. I guess there’s a 19-year time period where the Force is magnified twentyfold, then drops back to normal when Luke steps out into the Tatooine sunset.
Maybe all of this comes down to personal bias. Debating the correctness of a fictional mythology is like arguing on the internet; but there is real beauty in creating a consistent narrative in storytelling. And The Force Unleashed, despite looking spectacular, is not fostering consistency. To do that, Star Wars needs another Knights of the Old Republic. The game resides in the new media empire of LucasArts and adds its own story, planets, and characters to the mythos. But it doesn’t fall prey to the “this or that” mentality that one so easily falls into with the two trilogies. It pays homage to the Tales of the Jedi comics, and in that way, to the Original Trilogy vision at large.
So where does that leave us? Wishing for the elimination of all things associated with the Prequel Trilogy. A happy dream, to be sure, but not feasible. So perhaps, after the game is released and I’ve played it through a few times, I can find room in my heart for both my beloved pre-Episode I universe and the bold vision of The Force Unleashed. The Star Wars universe is friggin’ huge, after all.
Andrew Taylor studies physics and loves Star Wars, even though Special Relativity dictates that Luke and Leia would never see each other again after the Battle of Hoth.