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“What’s a Duck?” – The Current State of Star Wars Canon

There’s been a lot of talk since last week’s news about the Expanded Universe – talk that ran the gamut from ecstasy to outrage. Some folks have been excited to see the end of the EU that they feel has gone downhill over the past several years, or even become too bloated to sustain. Others are so upset by the loss of their cherished stories that they cannot see themselves continuing onward in the fandom. We’ve even seem some who say “finally! Now that the EU’s starting over, I can start reading books without feeling lost.”

Personally, we’re more inclined to feel a profound sense of loss at this decision. For us, the EU has always been the essence of Star Wars. While we had enjoyed the original films before reading any of the books, it was the Expanded Universe that made us a fan and that kept our interest long after. The stories of Rogue Squadron, Thrawn’s shenanigans, the foundation of the Jedi Academy, and the bright promise of the Solo kids: these were our earliest and fondest Star Wars memories. Even after the prequels, the ups and downs of the NJO, and our decided disenchantment with what came after, we still looked at those original stories with fondness. If anything, the announcement has made our affection for the old EU even stronger.

Today, though, we’re here to talk about the future. It’s been long enough now that most people have come to terms with what’s happened: either feeling a sense of loss or optimism, but the strongest harshest feelings have had time to mellow out. What we want to present is a sober-minded assessment of where we are, and what this really means. Our basic feeling is this: the post-ROTJ EU is on seriously shaky ground depending on the specifics of the films and its status won’t be clear for some time, but it is highly likely that the pre-film EU (particularly KOTOR) will get recanonized without a hitch and that much background continuity (e.g., the name of the Bothan homeworld) will be recanonized by reference too. That said, there’s still cause for concern: until we get there, we have tremendous uncertainty what’s still canon and there’s no guarantee that all the little bits and pieces that comprised the grand tapestry of the EU can possibly be brought back. That’s something worth being concerned about.

When the EU announcement broke, most people were concerned with the fate of their favorite or most hated stories. Some folks were happy that a messy, convoluted series of somewhat compatible stories and inconsistent characterization was going to be restarted on a fresh basis while others were upset that their cherished tales were coming to an end. Others processed it and accepted it for what it was, choosing not to vent outrage or glee. A lot of verbiage has already been spent on this particular aspect of the discussion, so we won’t dwell on it (all three linked points of view are well worth reading, and were chosen because of it). Suffice it to say that while we have a particular distaste for certain aspects of the modern EU – the post-NJO and its handling of Jaina Solo foremost among them – we don’t like seeing our favorite stories jettisoned. As many have pointed out, they are still there to be read (and if anything, we’re more inclined to revisit them now) but the sad part is that we will never see a continuation of some of those stories, particularly aspects of the post-ROTJ EU that probably will conflict with the films (say goodbye to the hope of a Vong War video game, more NJO-based action figures and statues, and perhaps most importantly, a continuation of the sudden surge in awesome official art portraying scenes from the post-ROTJ EU as found in the Atlas, Essential Guide to Warfare, and the Essential Reader’s Companion). As noted, the EU brought us into this fandom and we’ll miss it. But that’s all we’ll say about that.

Lost at first, though now increasingly coming to people’s attention, is the sheer breadth of background information that the EU has built over the decades. Little observations that have percolated even beyond the EU fandom, such as the fact that Hutts are hermaphroditic, that Nar Shaddaa is the smuggler’s moon, or that Chewbacca is already pretty darn old are suddenly non-canonical. Even the word Ewok, which never appears in the films or TCW, is non-canon. We can be confident that Ewok is the furthest thing from EU arcana. The things I’ve listed are not under terrible threat of being de-canonized though, and are likely to be referenced and thereby recanonized without anybody having the slightest awareness that they were doing so. It’s fundamental, and basic. Yet the fact remains that for now, in this moment, the canon is startlingly empty. Just where is Tatooine in relation to Naboo such that the Queen’s ship could limp to it in TPM? Damned if we know.

The few Star Wars authors who have been asked about the reboot are generally consistent in their views. John Jackson Miller has indicated that he will continue to use reference materials in writing the first tie-in novel of the new continuity. Timothy Zahn cautioned that it’s too early to say what has or hasn’t been decanonized, and even stories like Heir to the Empire may well end up becoming compatible with the new continuity. Jason Fry told ETE that he supposes that Lucasfilm is probably still exploring the extent to which the new continuity may or may not apply but that even in the prior EU, he made adjustments to lore in order to fit storytelling. In short: it’s too early to tell, but some things may still seem pretty familiar. This parallels the tone of the original announcement, which made clear that the old EU was available as a resource.

Our own supposition is that there’s going to be no inclination to reinvent the wheel, and that things will end up being recanonized just as a natural part of storytelling without any conscious decision to do so (save perhaps vetting by the Story Group). As such, we fully expect that Incom still manufactured the X-wing fighter and that Princess Leia Organa was still the youngest member of the Imperial Senate. However, just because a particular fact or concept from a story or reference book is mentioned doesn’t mean the whole work is canon. If JJM references a CorSec investigator named Corran Horn in his story, that does not mean that Corran Horn has a Jedi grandfather or that he has a frustrating Imperial liaison named Kirtan Loor (and it certainly does not mean that the X-wing novels are suddenly all canon again).

This is the worrisome part. Until something is referenced, it’s not canon. Even if it is referenced, its precise relationship to everything else is completely unclear. The old EU was this vast, gloriously interconnected web. While things got a little too incestuously self-referential near the end, the Corran Horn example indicates the essentially problematic nature of the reboot. If EU characters are referenced, it’ll be entirely unclear how much of their background applies or ought to apply. Even if the new story is approached in a wholly original way with no references to characters or events from the EU, referencing a planet, a ship, or even a type of engine will leave completely unclear whether or not all the history associated with it can still apply. If Caamas is mentioned in a story, it leaves open the question of whether Caamasi are famous pacifists or whether the planet was still destroyed under the orders of the Emperor. Just because Mandalorians exist in The Clone Wars and Rebels, doesn’t mean that a single thing we know about them is true.

This is the troubling part. We don’t expect Star Wars to reinvent the wheel and toss out all the reference materials, but we do expect it to be horribly confusing when nothing is really canon. How do we know what applies and what doesn’t? One possible answer is that it doesn’t matter – canon exists for storytelling purposes only, to free up room for creativity. Other associations, things broadened and explained by the EU may be assumed to apply to the extent that they fit. The problem with this approach, though, is it essentially reinvents the old canon hierarchy while pretending that there is still a single unified canon.

So either there is a single unified canon that is a completely new and unexplored universe where Ithor can be a city planet and Yuuzhan Vong might be the name of a sports drink for all we know, or there is still a canon hierarchy and Lucasfilm is pretending there isn’t one.

Judging by the twitter questions presented to Del Rey and LucasBooks, it’s possible that the powers that be simply have no idea. That doesn’t necessarily present cause for alarm so long as they come up with something to give us a sense of what the universe is like. In either case, there is one thing we can say with certainty: once the new novels and reference books are released – and certainly when the new films are released – we’ll finally be able to connect the dots.

Until then, if anyone asks “what’s a duck?” the answer is “beats me!”

7 thoughts to ““What’s a Duck?” – The Current State of Star Wars Canon”

  1. “There is still a canon hierarchy and Lucasfilm is pretending there isn’t one.”

    That’s the one. Only now the G-Canon equivalent is far younger and more powerful.

  2. This is a thoughtful and encouraging piece, and I’ve felt the same way after reading the comments of Jason Fry and JJM about referencing the EU in the future works.

    But all of this encouragement ignores JJ Abrams. We know Abrams came in and tussled the script away from Michael Arndt and now has creative control of Star Wars. He may have a vision in his mind of post-ROTJ continuity that he’s held since he was a kid, in which case, none of this matters. There will be no deference to any existing materials or characters. If he always thought Luke disappeared and became a hermit, and Han became president of the galaxy, that’s what EpVII will reflect. This is the aspect of the whole experience that scares the hell out of me.

    1. “We know Abrams came in and tussled the script away from Michael Arndt”

      Yeah, but we also know that Arndt’s script was based on an outline by Lucas. You’re right that we have no idea to what extent JJ will want to incorporate EU stuff, but we know all too well how Lucas felt about it. I’m certainly not optimistic, but we really don’t know anywhere near enough to make predictions beyond the fact that it’s a new continuity.

      1. You’re right I just get the feeling that the influence and knowledge of guys like Leeland and Pablo had a positive affect on the course of TCW, and that Filoni and Lucas were – while certainly not deferential – at least aware and mindful when decisions had to be made about characters or locations or whatever. I hope this extends to Rebels as well.

        It just makes me fear that, despite all we’ve heard about the Story Group, JJ will steamroll them. I thought the choices he and the screenwriters made for both characters and events in the new Star Trek films (especially Into Darkness), were just terrible and have left that franchise in a lurch. It terrifies me that we could see something similar with Episode VII.

  3. Excellent article! This has been my primary concern with the EUpocalypse. I’ll miss my favorite characters and stories, but it’s the potential loss of the 30+ years of background info – an unprecedented exercise in world-building (well, galaxy-building) on a massive scale – that makes me worry for the future of the GFFA (although the story group does have Leland Chee and Pablo Hidalgo involved, which is comforting).

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot since attending a Star Wars-themed pub quiz on May 4 which was ostensibly only about the three original films; in fact, the majority of the questions required knowledge of EU material developed to explain back stories and give depth to the comparatively sparse information provided by the movies. It’s amazing how much of the EU is just taken for granted, even among fans who’ve never touched an EU novel. I agree that Lucasfilm/Del Rey should clarify how the more mundane aspects of the EU (the aspects that give depth and literal breadth to the GFFA) fit into their new canon… Never mind Mara Jade, I want to know if the Perlemian trade route, Whyren’s Reserve whiskey, and Interdictor-class star destroyers will make it into the new canon!

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