The modern-day Expanded Universe is built on one great, big, foundational mistake.
In his “A Case for Starting Over” series, Alexander has been looking at ways a new Disney-era Expanded Universe could improve the post-Return of the Jedi stories. I tend to disagree with that outlook: I don’t think that a few small mistakes or missed opportunities, many of which can simply be remedied with additional stories, call for starting over and throwing out the entire vast enterprise of the EU. But if I were to look forward to any possibilities to be found in a fresh start, correcting this glaring error would be the one.
What’s the mistake? The decision to have Han and Lando resign their commissions.
This might seem like a trivial issue. Han and Lando have dipped in and out of the military so often since Return of the Jedi that there are some works that feature them as generals. They weren’t introduced as generals, we didn’t fall in love with them as generals, and they continue to play major roles in stories, so what’s the harm in having them frequently out of the military? But the truth is that this represents a major failure to follow through on their character development from Return of the Jedi — a regression in characterization that has stranded them narratively, especially Han as he has grown older, and prevented their character arcs from continuing. It’s a much bigger drag under the surface of the post-ROTJ narrative than it seems.
I’ve harped on the importance of character arcs here already. Without them, stories are just a series of actions by a character; with them, they are stories about the characters, taking them on a personal journey. All of the characters went through arcs in the films that left them, at the end of Return of the Jedi, with direction going forward. After revealing the heart of gold under his cynical, mercenary exterior, Han showed his dedication to the Rebel Alliance by accepting a commission as a general and risking his life on a mission to destroy the Death Star’s shield generator. This left a perfect arc to continue: how does the independent spacer cope with respectability and responsibility? How does Han grow into the burden of leadership that he has accepted? Lando’s commission likewise signaled that the former traitor was now all-in, and raised the question of how the once studiously neutral, smooth-operating scoundrel would adapt to a life of idealistic service and sacrifice. There was a clear forward progression — one that has been thoroughly followed through upon for Luke and Leia — yet in a great disservice to the films, Han’s and Lando’s arcs have somehow been dropped like hot potatoes. Those two have been left adrift, their film arcs sabotaged, by authors who failed to take their final-film growth into account.
When Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire came out, it immediately set the tone for the EU going forward. Leia was in politics, Luke was studying the Jedi and hoping to revive them, and . . . Han and Lando were reset to their The Empire Strikes Back selves, as if Return of the Jedi had never happened. Lando was a business administrator with a new exotic mining venture, and Han was a guy who gallivanted around in the Millennium Falcon, ferrying Leia to and fro and cracking wise at Threepio. In most of the succeeding EU, these basic roles were followed — Lando had some crazy business scheme he was running, and Han was the guy vaguely associated with the New Republic but without a real job, who flew around in the Falcon with the characters who had actual things to do. There were some exceptions — Dark Empire and the excellent Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor featured General Calrissian, while Han got brief stints as a fleet-commanding general in the Wraith Squadron X-wing books and The Black Fleet Crisis, as well as being name-dropped as a general without an actual assignment in a few of the Falcon-chauffeur books, but these were intermittent diversions at best from a status quo of character stagnation.
I will focus on Han for the moment, because it was his regression that did the most damage. By taking Han out of the military, Han became a character without a defined role. Luke, as Jedi, and Leia, as a senior government official, fit naturally into any story by virtue of their roles in the galaxy and in the story. Han, without a job, had no natural entry point into any given story via his own agency. He was reduced to tagging along in the story via his connections to other characters, like Luke and Leia, who did have roles. At most, he served as a sort of unofficial troubleshooter called on by his official friends. This was not a disastrous model throughout the Bantam era, as Han’s marriage to President Leia gave him ample cover to serve as her companion in storylines, but it frequently made integrating Han into the story awkward any time he wasn’t paired with his wife in a First Husband storyline. See, for example, the incredibly contrived scenario of The New Rebellion, in which Han was suspected of bombing the Senate and fled to clear his name by investigating the bombing (this was a really dumb book), or how irrelevant Han became in Planet of Twilight when the plot required Luke and Leia to both go through the story alone. Han was left to wander around in a few scenes looking for his wife.
The problem only grew in The New Jedi Order, when Han’s circle of friends, including Leia, had moved out of political power. Now merely the captain of the Millennium Falcon, Han was stuck in a paradigm where his ability to play a role in a galactic-war plotline was severely limited. As a general, he could have commanded fleets on the attack against the invaders who killed his best friend, led secret missions, and commanded his daughter as she flew for Rogue Squadron. Instead, authors used to thinking of Han merely as a ship captain rather than a military figure were left to find ways to stick Han and the Falcon into the story. The level of contrivance has increased even further since that series, as the jobless Han has been stuffed into stories or used as a mere Jedi auxiliary. Fate of the Jedi reached record proportions of awkwardly-contrived makework plotlines for Han, who had no natural entry point into the story.
Yet stories that have dared to use Han as General Solo have been among his very best, showing a focus, vitality, and depth of character rare among Han-as-chauffeur tales. The Wraith Squadron books chronicling his campaign against Warlord Zsinj, especially X-wing: Solo Command, exhibited Han-as-general as a driven warrior, a man uncomfortable with responsibility and bucking against the official trappings of command, but determined to do his duty and do it well. He was still the witty scoundrel we love, but he was also more than that, a scoundrel being forced to mature, take on responsibility, and deal with the consequences of his actions. Author Aaron Allston developed Han and imbued him with depth rather than simply recycling The Empire Strikes Back dynamics for cheap laughs. In The Black Fleet Crisis, General Solo was used to provide a distinct perspective for Leia — that of an experienced military officer — and naturally fit into the naval-conflict plotline. In Legacy of the Force, Han was at his best when he returned to his military role for the Corellian faction, resonating with a sense of purpose and direction capable of holding down an actual ongoing plotline rather than stumbling from contrived B-plot to throwaway supporting role to B-plot. One of Han’s most interesting usages in The New Jedi Order was not as a general, but as a refugee camp administrator in Balance Point. It trod the same thematic ground in depicting Han as a matured authority figure taking on responsibility while maintaining his iconic personality.
It is not as if having Han as a general would have been too limiting, either. The Black Fleet Crisis posited Han as a senior general whose official posting was as military liaison to the president of the New Republic — his wife — leaving him available and flexible. General Solo could tag along with his wife, or be sent on covert or diplomatic missions (Zahn and Anderson had the right idea in sending Han as an unofficial ambassador to smuggling concerns and Kessel, respectively — they just got the “unofficial” part wrong) — but he could also lead fleets against the New Republic’s enemies, too. This would also give Han more story options as he grew into maturity — Han playing a leading role in the Yuuzhan Vong War alongside Wedge Antilles and Garm Bel Iblis, and opening into other authority-figure roles afterward, perhaps as Galactic Alliance Minister of Defense, or taking over Talon Karrde’s information-sharing organization, giving him a way to stay relevant in stories without staying in the field in his seventies or relying on contrived plotlines.
The real point is not that Han should have been used exclusively as a military commander, but that authors should have taken the hint of Han’s character development in Return of the Jedi and conceptualized him as a character who was now a military officer, taking responsibility, continuing through an arc of maturation, and committing visibly to the New Republic — indeed, Han was closing the circle that began when he entered the Imperial military, idealistic, talented, and eager to serve. Instead, authors undid Han’s development by having him de-commit to the New Republic ASAP — a cardinal sin in material purporting to continue the films’ story — and undercut further development by leaving him to bum around in The Empire Strikes Back mode while Luke and Leia matured and accepted greater responsibility. Two out of the Big Three grew via the Expanded Universe; Han shrank. Rather than being the scoundrel who bought in to the Rebellion and volunteered as a general, he became the general who abandoned the New Republic in the middle of its war to retake the galaxy because he found it easier to be a scoundrel and pitch in on his own terms than sacrifice his scruffy independence to a cause larger than himself. Talk about making a character look bad and missing the whole point of the movie — the authors might as well have had Luke decide he didn’t want to be a Jedi after all.
Lando’s case has been slightly less deleterious, as the pre-Return of the Jedi status to which he was reverted allowed him a relatively defined role with some agency and relevance. Lando the businessman was at least a role of authority and maturity to begin with, and authors have been able to parlay that into distinct roles in the story. This was especially so from mid-The New Jedi Order afterward, when Lando settled into the role as the successful head of Tendrando Arms, outfitting the heroes with advanced technology and enjoying a mostly-quiet retirement from which he could slip in to lend a rich, charming hand.
Lando’s retirement from the New Republic shortly after Return of the Jedi — like Han’s, well before the New Republic had its war won — presented the same problem of diminishing his character, however. Rather than continue to show his developing commitment to a cause larger than himself — putting aside his prized independence and search of profit to put his life on the line for freedom — the Expanded Universe had Lando quit after a year or so and go back to trying to make money in the middle of the New Republic’s fight. Even putting aside the authors’ subsequent failure to understand what to do with him for the next ten years out-of-universe and twenty-plus in-universe (bouncing him from failed business venture to failed business venture to semi-successful business venture everyone else ignored to the most spectacularly misguided plotline of all, a coldly mercenary search for a rich heiress to marry), it cannot help but be a thematically bad idea for the Expanded Universe to promptly roll back the critical character development of Return of the Jedi.
Like Han, the few glimpses we have of Lando as a general — the leading military character in Dark Empire, a cunning and vital commander in Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor, an unconventional troubleshooter in the Tales comic Lando’s Commandos: On Eagles’ Wings — are among his best moments. It would have done little harm to delay Lando’s return to business until after the Empire’s 11 ABY collapse, while maintaining Lando’s growth as a character and emphasizing his aspects as not only an entrepreneur, but also an officer — a multidimensionality that would also give him more depth and more narrative options if only authors would keep it in mind.
It is that multidimensionality that is a real loss here, for both Han and Lando, as well as the disappointment and lost opportunity of their compromised arcs. By painting these two vital characters into the corner of their initial characterizations, only rarely to escape, we have been denied the opportunity to see them play the roles they grew into and really mature and expand as characters the way Luke and Leia have. With these two crucial protagonists, the Expanded Universe has unfortunately failed to live up to the promise of its name and mission.