The Star Wars extended universe is dead: long live the extended universe.
Science fiction and expanded universes always seem to go hand in hand. Go to any major bookstore, and you’ll find Star Trek novels continuing the adventures of the various televised captains and crews. Look up the history of Doctor Who, and you’ll find comic books and audio dramas for almost any regeneration. But outside of occasionally mining the tales for film or TV content, these are usually kept at arms length from the core series. When an agreement is signed with a comic book publisher or media company, the owner basically assumes they’re generating semi-official fan fiction, something with no pretense to canon that can be brushed once the license expires.
The main exception to the rule? Star Wars, where all canonical bets are off. Critics have tried to dismiss the expanded universe as a half-canonical afterthought, but the truth is Star Wars has a symbiotic relationship with third-party content. Where Star Trek and Doctor Who occasionally sees expanded content make a lasting impact, Star Wars creators have long been encouraged to make the official universe bigger.
Given Star Wars history, it made a lot of sense. From 1983 to 1999, no new Star Wars films were produced, but the franchise remained as popular as ever. With little more than Special Editions to tide fans over, the expanded universe grew at an exponential rate to fill the void. By the time George Lucas sat down to write the prequel trilogy, the scope of his films had grown well beyond anything he’d ever planned for. But instead of scaling the EU back, he referenced the Star Wars Encyclopedia to avoid conflicts with other artists, even borrowing a few of the more relevant contributions.
The Sith Order that was so prominent in the films? Never mentioned in the original trilogy; it was fleshed out in novelizations, comics, and video games long before The Phantom Menace confirmed the name. The galactic capital planet of Coruscant? First appeared in Heir to the Empire, cementing its role in the definitive canon for twenty years. Even the original trilogy was impacted by third-party authors during the 70s and 80s, such as when Boba Fett was introduced during the Star Wars Christmas Special. (And let’s be honest, Boba Fett’s only contribution to the original trilogy was calling Vader about Han and Leia, then getting eaten by a Sarlaac. If it wasn’t for the EU, he wouldn’t anywhere close to the legendary bounty hunter we prefer to imagine.)
The point is, whether you love or hate the expanded universe, it’s impossible to ignore its impact. These extraneous stories were essential to Star Wars‘ historical development, and the franchise would have been completely different without them. That helps explain why fans were so shocked when Disney axed the expanded universe, it was like the franchise was cutting off its own limbs. But that’s also why Disney immediately replaced it with an official, multimedia canon. Star Wars has always been stronger as a universe than standalone movies with licensed products around the edges.
The big question is where will this new canon can take the Star Wars universe? The answer is already being established through shows like Rebels and novels like Tarkin, and for the moment, it doesn’t look so different than what came before.
It helps to clarify what Star Wars officially consists of. According to Lucasfilm representatives, the six live-action films, Clone Wars/Rebels cartoons, and all novels, games, and comics published after the transition date are considered canonical. (At the moment, that largely consists of two novels, with another two being published next year, making now the perfect time to catch up on the entire Star Wars canon.) Literally everything else is part of a “Legends” brand line where it can be enjoyed by fans and, more importantly, used as reference material for future publications.
That’s significant, because portions of the Legends continuity are already creeping into current canon. The evil Inquisitor from Star Wars: Rebels may seem like a new addition, but his order was firmly established in the expanded universe setting. Fan favorites like Darth Plagueis (Palpatine’s master) and the ancient Sith Darth Bane are also canonical, although their full backstories might not make the transition with them. Alien races like the Lasat, Imperial equipment, force crystal lore, and even the RX-24 droid have been salvaged into Star Wars mere months after the new continuity debuted.
And where conflicts do occur, there’s a significant amount of canonical overlap. The latest example is the new Star Wars: Tarkin novel, detailing the official backstory of Grand Moff Tarkin. In both settings, Wilhuff Tarkin was born to a wealthy family on the planet Eriadu. After serving in the military, he made the surprise change to move into politics, becoming the governor of Eriadu and eventually, a rising star in Palpatine’s inner circle. After the formation of the Empire, he became known for his policy of ruling through fear, usually by publicly executing dissidents to discourage others from following their example.
The differences between Legends Tarkin and the current Star Wars Tarkin are minor, removing mentions of his brother, wife, and mistress who existed in the old continuity. The Ghorman Massacre, where Tarkin literally landed a Star Destroyer on peaceful protestors, has also been cut in favor of executing a pirate captain by flying her into a sun (while cameras recorded her ordeal, to everyone’s horror). But outside of these points, and the novel’s adventure that sees him promoted to overseeing the Death Star, very little has changed outright from almost forty years of character developments.
It’s not too surprising that the new continuity hasn’t moved very far. Not only does the Legends line offer a wealth of material to draw from, creators like Rebels producer Dave Filoni and Tarkin author James Luceno worked within the old continuity for years. Plus there’s the simple fact that there’s no reason to redesign the wheel when writers have been actively fleshing out the universe for the past two decades, even at an increased rate as the prequels trilogy was released. While it’s far from official, there are even rumors that the Old Republic timeline may be preserved; not only would it not impact the upcoming films, it would keep The Old Republic and surrounding games within the current canon.
But this attempt to preserve the continuity will only continue for so long, and certainly not for most of the stories following Return of the Jedi. As soon as A Force Awakens reaches theaters, which is already believed to be a game-changer for the Star Wars franchise, a new wave of expanded universe content will arrive to supplant what the Legends line had established. There’s a reason Lucasfilm’s new stories are focused on the original trilogy period; it’s the only one creators can work in until the new film provides a clear framework to build from. While Legends characters like Mara Jade or Admiral Thrawn may be referenced, they’ll no longer have the same significance Star Wars canon used to provide for them. On the bright side, that also means elements like the force-immune Yuuzang Vong can be purged from the canon entirely, who for many readers were just as unwelcome as midichlorians.
This much is clear however: whatever direction the new Star Wars EU takes, it will be as closely bound to the new films as the Legends line was. For the next few years, that means the galaxy far, far away won’t change much at all.