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The Rise and Fall of the Supporting Cast Post-Return of the Jedi

The New Jedi Order featured tons of supporting characters

One of the most distinctive features about the post-Return of the Jedi Expanded Universe is the wealth of characters who have become part of a large, unified cast supporting the small group of movie leads. This sort of cast is a fairly unique asset for a franchise, and even for an era within this particular franchise, yet in recent years it has been dismally handled. Not only have fewer members of the secondary cast been used and been used more poorly, but the focus has crept from a large cross-section of the galaxy squarely onto members of the Jedi Order. In this post, I want to address how this situation came to be and make the case for better use of the unified cast, to be followed up by a post specifically focusing on the implications of limiting stories to an emphasis on Force-sensitives.

The road to the unified cast

The initial EU did not set out to create a large-cast universe in the way of, say, A Song of Ice and Fire. This makes a certain amount of sense, as the original films had not featured a big recurring cast. They did, however, set the stage for the eventual expansion of the cast.

Aside from the villains and the core cast of Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, Artoo, Threepio, and eventually Lando, the films featured almost no recurring characters. Wedge Antilles was the only supporting good guy to make it through multiple movies, much less the entire trilogy. The focus was clearly on a small band of heroes. But what the movies did have was a large-galaxy aesthetic resulting from the use of a lot of supporting characters who just didn’t recur. We didn’t get a consistent Rebel leader throughout the films, but in getting General Dodonna, General Rieekan, General Madine, Admiral Ackbar, and Mon Mothma, we got a large body of distinctive, interesting leaders who could be used and expanded on in further stories, along with the sense that the Rebellion was big and full of important people. There was a lot there for the EU to work with, and a sense that the Star Wars galaxy should have a deep bench of characters.
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Politics and the Expanded Universe (Part I)

Politics and the Expanded Universe (Part I)

Introduction

Before anyone gets too excited, we won’t be discussing the taxation of trade routes in the Outer Rim or the establishment of trade franchises in the Old Republic. Instead, we’ll be talking about the use of real world politics in Star Wars, whether by allusion or direct reference and whether to draw out certain themes or to make sociopolitical commentary. We won’t be surveying the entirety of the EU, but just specific examples that come to the author’s mind as particularly good or particularly poor ways to integrate real world politics into the fictional Star Wars narrative. If there are any striking examples you think we’ve missed or you think are worthy of discussion, please mention them in the comments!

 

Political references have been a part of Star Wars since the very beginning, so the argument that Star Wars is purely escapism is untenable.  In 1977, A New Hope comingled references to Nazi Germany with allusions to the American Revolution.  Imperial uniforms closely resemble those of the Wehrmacht, while Imperial stormtroopers appropriated the nomenclature of the Nazi SA. By The Empire Strikes Back, it became a decided theme that Imperial officers would adopt various British accents while the Rebels would resemble plucky Yankee revolutionaries. Lucas had mentioned in interviews before the release of the Prequel films that the fall of the Old Republic and the rise of Senator Palpatine to the position of Galactic Emperor resembled the rise to power of historical dictators such as Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Adolf Hitler.  Lucas drew from more than history though, because he drew themes from contemporary political events as well. The older drafts of A New Hope – the influence of which still permeates the novel ghostwritten by Alan Dean Foster – presented a weak, corrupt, and ineffectual Emperor Palpatine largely controlled by his advisors. Supposedly, this portrayal was based on President Richard Nixon, who had resigned from office earlier in the decade. Neither the films nor the novel directly allude to the former president in any real way, and though the original film channeled the political pessimism of the day towards an old-fashioned heroic romp, the only evident political allusions are to historical events decades and centuries past.

 

How has the EU handled real-world political references? Well, answering that question thoroughly would take more words than I have the patience to write and more words than a reader would have patience to read. More importantly, I don’t intend to just document all the political references used in the EU because I don’t think that would be very useful, and would just be cataloguing for the sake of cataloguing. Instead, I’m going to focus on only two authors and I’m going to direct my attention on how they used contemporary political references to the benefit or detriment of their story telling. I’ve deliberately picked two authors that I actually like, and those two authors are well-regarded by the fandom because I want to make it clear that it’s not a matter of good writing or bad writing: even a really good author can use politics in an ineffective way, and that’s what I’d like to show.

 

James Luceno

James Luceno’s first contribution to the Expanded Universe was the Agents of Chaos duology for the New Jedi Order series. He was subsequently known for his intricate handling of continuity as well as his portrayal of in-universe politics, such that he was tasked to write two novels taking place immediately before and immediately after Revenge of the Sith – namely Labyrinth of Evil and Dark Lord – as well as the celebrated Darth Plagueis. These works – along with his other EU contributions – have cemented his reputation as the go-to novel author for delicate and weighty matters in the EU. He even rehabilitated the confusing and nigh-nonsensical trade dispute plot of The Phantom Menace with Cloak of Deception and Plagueis, but I’ll have to leave it at that since I promised not to write a dissertation on Outer Rim taxation disputes.

Where Luceno goes wrong, however, is his invocation of real-world politics. This problem manifests itself most glaringly in Labyrinth, but it also mars the otherwise stellar work that is Plagueis. Without giving anything away, both novels document different stages of the Sith plot to subvert the Old Republic and replace it with the Galactic Empire. In so doing, Luceno details the emergence of organizations and individuals later iconic in the EU’s presentation of the EU – we see the rise of the totalitarian and fascistic Commission for the Preservation of the New Order (COMPNOR) as the Commission for the Protection of the Republic (COMPOR) and we see the political involvement of the inner circle of Palpatine’s advisors, who would later appear in Return of the Jedi as fellows in cassocks and miters who accompany the Galactic Emperor. These are great touches, and appropriately show continuity in the storytelling sense: they give the impression of an enduring and substantial fictional world.

Unfortunately, Luceno also accompanied the Nazi-esque COMPOR organization with another late Republic entity: the department of Homeworld Security. Coupled with a reference by Chancellor Palpatine to a “Triad of Evil,” Luceno’s invocation of the then-governing Bush Administration could not have been more clear. Plagueis subsequently makes more overt references to real life politics: the rituals on the world of Sojourn closely resemble those of the Bohemian Grove, while Sith governing philosophy appears to imitate stereotypes of rich Republican politicians. Finally, several planets are granted “Most Favorable World status” – a term that betrays a misunderstanding of “Most Favorable Nation” clauses in bilateral investment treaties (to wit: nations are not classed as “most favorable” as if they were placed on some exclusive list – which seems to conflate the term with free trade agreements, but are rather guaranteed the most abbreviated procedural hurdles in arbitrating private investment disputes for their citizens).

The misunderstanding of the MFN clause highlights the key issue with this kind of political reference in Star Wars: the use of certain buzz words and terms to substitute for actual argument. Authors should absolutely feel free to have political opinions, and may even use the vehicle of literature – even tie-in literature – to communicate their ideas. Literature has been used for this purpose for thousands of years. The problem is when this message undermines and distorts the work of literature it’s placed in. As seen in A New Hope, the Imperials are already “space Nazis” – making them “space Republicans” does not enhance this portrayal. The implication is that such real-world references are used less to characterize the fall of the Republic into the Empire, but more to characterize real-world politicians – or in other words, to compare these politicians to Sith. I’ll leave comparisons to terms such as “Darth Blair” aside. Using Star Wars as a platform for real life political beliefs in this clumsy a fashion draws the reader out of the escapism of this fantasy universe, and doesn’t contribute to the story.

 

Michael Stackpole

Michael Stackpole is one of the earlier writers in the Expanded Universe – he contributed five books of the X-wing series as well as the Dark Tide duology of the New Jedi Order, he partnered to write several short stories with Timothy Zahn, and he authored the X-wing series of comic books published by Dark Horse. Though known primarily for his ability to write detailed and convincing military sci-fi, I have a particular appreciation for his talent at portraying politics, both in-universe and out-of-universe. Since this article is about real-world politics, I shall have to discuss his deft handling of the foundational years of the New Republic at a later date.

Though his X-wing novels have an ensemble cast, Stackpole’s primary point of view characters are Corran Horn and Wedge Antilles.  Their chapters highlight what I feel is a very effective use of real-life politics in the EU: politics that are very tightly drawn to a character’s own thoughts and beliefs, and politics that channel in-universe concerns and ideas. Such is Stackpole’s handling of politics in his books that I never get the sense that he is ever preaching to the audience, or that he is using his novels to make a political point.

For example, Lieutenant Corran Horn is a former Corellian Security Officer who has become a Rebel X-wing pilot.  He is very much a law and order type of person, and is distinctly uncomfortable with joining an illegal criminal insurgency. This tension between his police background and the moral imperative to free the galaxy from the Empire is an important part of his character development. Along those lines, Corran Horn is exploring his romantic feelings as he is torn between his attractions to one of his co-pilots, the aristocratic Erisi Dlarit, and to a smuggler, Mirax Terrik. His law enforcement background initially provides some friction between him and Miss Terrik, but he eventually realizes that their common homeworld unites them more than their occupations separate them. On the other hand, he is physically attracted to Miss Dlarit but realizes she comes from a completely different world in every sense of the term: she is prone to conspicuous consumption and treating those who work for a living as her inferiors. His discomfort with her entitlement is more social commentary than political commentary, but Lt. Horn’s internal monologue about privilege and wealth mimic those seen in contemporary political discourses.

As another example, Commander Wedge Antilles – an almost life-long Rebel – ponders the state of mind required to be an Imperial Loyalist after the death of the Emperor.  His thoughts are more directly rooted in politics, because he considers the impact prestige and comfort have on convincing a populace to be quiescent in the face of tyranny, or the willful disregard of information that would portray the government as far worse than it is letting on. These ideas were jotted down in Wedge’s Gamble almost two decades ago, but they are as relevant then as they are now. The examination of willful ignorance and the condoning of governmental action, and the stakes necessary to forgo material comfort and rise in revolt against an unjust government  is just the sort of thing we might see on a political blog or a Facebook post today – but in Stackpole’s novel, it’s tightly rooted in the time and place of the story.

These are just examples of two characters with similar points of view on wealth, government, and society. Stackpole does similar service to the villains of his story, where their personal station and life experiences inform their views: it’s just that the villains have the complete opposite conclusions about government and society. In both cases, the characters thought processes are compelling and realistic.

Conclusion

Therein lies the key difference between Stackpole’s use of politics, and Luceno’s. Luceno uses buzz-words that would be familiar to anybody remotely aware of politics: there is no subtlety, and the reader is forced to make a mental comparison to the real world. On the other hand, Stackpole keeps his political references contained within the world of the story. Consequently, the ponderings of his characters enhance the story because they develop and flesh out the political entities being described in almost entirely in-universe terms. That’s not to say that out of universe references are unwarranted – they belong, as A New Hope demonstrates, but they belong in a fashion that is wrapped up in story and characterization: they should develop and enhance the verisimilitude of the fictional world, rather than draw the reader out of it.

When reading the political cogitations of Stackpole’s characters, a reader can easily stop and explore the applicability of these thoughts to the real world, or to history. A reader’s experience is therefore enhanced, and one of the key goals of literature – causing people to think – is thereby achieved. However, that goal is reached in a way that does not figuratively bang the reader over the head with a mallet or directs the reader to think a certain way prompted by the author. Instead, the reader is invited merely to think and draw his or her own conclusions, just as Wedge Antilles and Corran Horn drew their own conclusions based on their own life experiences.

 

 

The End of Illusions: Part 1: Not Really Liking the Big Three All That Much!

Credit for sparking this one goes to fellow conspirator here Lisa Schap, but she’s unaware of what she started! Do I like Star Wars because of the characters of Luke, Han and Leia or is it more than that? Do I even need the big 3 as they’re called at all?

In a way the OT succeeds where the PT mostly does not in running at a pace that sweeps the audience along. The result of this is that their attention is kept at all times and they do not notice the weaknesses. Those weaknesses being the characters! I’m fascinated to see what happens after ROTJ because, at that point, the characters work for me, but why do they not before? Because Solo’s the cocky bastard type I tend to dislike on general principle despite the considerable charm Ford’s portrayal gives him. Organa is, in a lot of ways, your standard aristocratic type and a ‘for the cause!’ evangelist. Don’t really like evangelists either. And Skywalker? He’s the fish out of water and in over his head who eventually wises up, but he is a bit of whinger in the OT.

But to be fair, these are their starting points! The whole idea of a character development arc is precisely that – so where do they go and what changes? It should also be mentioned at this point the OT, to a degree, delights in throwing gender stereotypes into a blender and generously splattering them!

Leia is the one who thinks she knows all she needs to, her foil is Han who also thinks the same way – in hindsight, of course they were on collision course! Luke is the one who’s far more aware than both of what he doesn’t know and needs to, give the kid some credit – he’s a fast learner. Until writing this I had not considered Han and Leia as being opposite mirror images, but it’s an interesting picture – Han teaches Leia that she can have some things for herself, that it’s OK to not share them with the world, while Leia brings Han into accepting the fight for the galaxy. And Luke? His arc is one of ascension, to gaining the knowledge and confidence he needs to be doing what is expected of him.

Back to those gender stereotypes in the blender! By rights, Han should be insufferably cocky, Luke too incompetent and Leia too cold and arrogant an aristocrat. There’s times when that happens, but the OT ensures it’s isolated incidents, mostly within ANH. Instead it tends to invert a few things – Leia’s the one who tends to keep her emotions under control, where Luke doesn’t and nor is she content to sit back and be rescued – instead in ANH the terms of rescuer and rescued flip around frequently between the characters. Now it doesn’t seem all that big a deal but it was cutting edge for 1977. Later ROTJ fanned the flames of controversy with Leia’s treatment by Jabba, which remains a hotly contested debate topic: Was Leia badly treated in character terms or not? For me, there is the little matter that she strangles the fat bastard that says not.

By the end of the OT, they’re all in different places and I want to see where they go from here in contrast to the films where I do want to see changes because, all in all, don’t like them all that much! Then again, if the screenplays are known to have weaknesses, then it’s also known to be in the characters – oh and let’s not forget the dialogue! Sometimes you need a better pair of hands to go to work. In the shape of Good win and Williamson on their Classic Star Wars run and Perry’s Shadows of the Empire, there are two excellent works that I’m inclined to say handle the characters better than the films. They can examine them more closely and bring their out better aspects more effectively.

Of the trio, Luke is likely the one I like most because he’s less out-right cocky, but inclined to do some really stupid stuff if he but thought about what he was doing – case in point, the Battle of Yavin! Fly around a moon-sized battlestation that’s going to annihilate a planet, then go into a narrow trench and hit this one small spot? But that’s also what makes SW what it is, people doing insane things and getting away with it! Outwardly confident characters who think they know it all? Nah, just not drawn to, I need to see some flaws and them then being aware of them, if only so they can turn them to their advantage.

The Emperor and his second Death Star are toast, Vader’s dead too, what happens now? Can you really consider the story over? Why would you not want to see Leia as the politician she’s said to be? Why shouldn’t we see her build a new government to take over from the Empire? That was the point of the rebellion. Equally, the Jedi knights, how is Luke to revive that idea? And Han? Han gets to stay the smartarse he always was, but not an insufferable loner who thinks he needs no one.

Part 2 will look at where they get taken, what has worked and has not and if these characters are needed for an Expanded Universe at all!

Antagonism: The Next Generation

Should the Empire still be the primary antagonists of the Sequel Trilogy, or can the film saga move on and still remain relevant? What can we learn from the Expanded Universe about this?

Mike: While I’ve always been quick to point out how crazy it is to believe that the entire Galactic Empire just folded their cards and went home after Endor, I’m on the fence about whether they should remain the villains of a bona fide Episode VII. On the one hand, I think the New Jedi Order series is hands-down the closest the EU has come thus far to giving us a Sequel Trilogy in terms of tone, and something as wholly different as the Yuuzhan Vong would be awesome on the big screen and would go a long way toward rejuvenating what’s bound to appear to some as a tired, extraneous post-Return of the Jedi status quo, but on the other hand, George Lucas really did tie his story up in a nice little bow there.

The question, really, isn’t do the films need the Empire, it’s do the films need Palpatine? Even Lucas has admitted that if he were to have done sequels himself, Dark Empire—wherein the Emperor returns in a cloned body—came the closest to what he’d have come up with. In fact, given that Michael Arndt is ostensibly working from Lucas’ own outline, it’s entirely possible that a reborn Palpatine will indeed be what we end up with.

I don’t know if we need to go that far, but I can see the argument that the threat has to come from Palpatine in some direct way—maybe a cult of rabid non-Sith followers sowing dissent, maybe even a crazed and manipulated Jedi like Joruus C’Baoth. If the Prequels were about the Republic crumbling from within, and the Classics were about the ideals of the Republic rising anew, then the Sequels need to be about demonstrating that new Republic’s fortitude, and most importantly, showing that it—and our heroes—have learned the lessons of the Prequels and created something better, in terms of both the government and the Jedi Order. Anything that doesn’t deliberately and aggressively make that case—whether it’s more Sith, Imperial remnants, or an alien invasion—won’t truly feel like the same story. Jay, am I right?

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Star Wars and Genre: The Crime Story

Jabba the Hutt, Star Wars’ original gangster

The criminal underworld is a rich part of Star Wars’ tapestry. Han Solo was one of the three main characters of the original trilogy, and supporting characters like Lando Calrissian, Boba Fett, and Jabba the Hutt abounded. Our introduction to the “wretched hive of scum and villainy” was one of the most memorable moments of A New Hope, and Return of the Jedi spent its opening act in Jabba’s palace. Smugglers, crime lords, bounty hunters, pirates, and grifters all play major roles in many Expanded Universe stories. This is fairly natural, as crime stories are a major part of modern fiction in general. The number of popular movies, TV shows, and books about crooks is massive, reflecting the tremendous storytelling potential of criminality, which comes prepackaged with loads of the element most key to storytelling: conflict.

The greatest gangster epic of all time

Not every story featuring criminals or crime is what I would count as a crime story. Crime fiction focuses on the stories of the criminals — unlike, say, mysteries, which tell the stories of the people investigating the crimes. It can come in many forms. The great “gangster movies” of cinema — The Godfather and its sequels, Goodfellas, Once Upon a Time in America, Casino — have associated the genre with stories of the rise and fall of organized crime figures (and primed audiences to expect Robert De Niro to play a major role). A very different type of crime fiction is the heist story, following crooks who execute a complex plan to make a major theft. Many films noir documented an individual — crook, innocent, or investigator — caught up in a web of crime that threatens to consume him. Think Out of the Past, Double Indemnity, Night and the City, and The Killers. The varieties of crime story are even more numerous than the varieties of crime.

As might be expected of a franchise with such a large share of criminals among its cast, Star Wars features a reasonable number of crime stories. The recent Scoundrels is a high-profile example of a heist story, and I could stand to see several more such capers from Han, Lando, or the other scoundrels of the setting. The Ahakista Gambit is an overlooked entry in the same subgenre, and similar caper elements can be found in almost any story involving the execution of an elaborate plan, the Knights of the Old Republic comic series being a good example thereof. In its depiction of an underworld broker caught in a nightmarish scenario as a result of a bad deal, Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter has a great deal in common with the film noir style cited above. The Han Solo Trilogy does not engage in particularly heavy use of crime story tropes, but it is certainly the story of Han Solo’s criminal career.

The cantina scene was such an iconic introduction of the fringe that it got its own short story anthology

Far more stories make heavy use of “the fringe,” the Star Wars underworld, in a way that brings criminals and crime-story elements into play without revolving the entire story around crime. The pirate Nym plays a lead role in the Starfighter games. Talon Karrde’s smuggling and information brokering storylines play a significant role in the Thrawn trilogy and The Hand of Thrawn Duology. Scourge explores the Hutt crime syndicates, Darksaber uses a Hutt kingpin as a major villain opposing the New Republic, the comic Darth Maul sets the Sith Lord against the gangsters of Black Sun, and Shadows of the Empire plunges the heroes deep into the criminal underworld to face the galaxy’s biggest crime lord, Prince Xizor. The fringe was central to West End Games’ roleplaying game, which envisioned players acting out their own underworld stories, and it is reassuring to see the fringe again taking a leading role in Fantasy Flight Games’ RPG. Of the many genres I intend to tackle, the crime story is certainly one of the best-represented in the EU, with numerous stories revolving around criminal endeavors.

Booster Terrik is a badass. Write me more stories about Booster Terrik.

Yet for all the presence of the underworld in the Expanded Universe, it could still stand to show off a greater diversity of crime stories and to focus more on stories about crime, rather than about petty criminals who get caught up in bigger Empire-and-Rebellion plots. We get some smuggler stories featuring Han or others, but efforts to make a major storyline, something on the level of a novel or comic arc, out of Han’s criminal exploits have been relatively lacking. A story about one of Lando’s grand con games wouldn’t be amiss, but Lando stories are depressingly rare to begin with, and those that do feature him have tended to look elsewhere for their material. Efforts to get a fringe-set game off the ground at LucasArts have come to nothing, most recently with the cancellation of 1313. The rise and fall of crime kingpin Jorj Car’das, together with the rise of Talon Karrde as his successor, cries out for “gangster movie” treatment in a novel or two. Star Wars has many bounty hunters who could hold down a gritty novel about tracking down dangerous criminals. A war between crime syndicates could provide a fertile setting for storytelling. Everyone likes pirates, and a pirate crew could make interesting protagonists. The proliferation of fringe supporting characters in his circle — Karrde, Booster Terrik, Droma — and the breadth of enemies in his past offer many avenues for a story about an older Han (and Lando) being dragged back into the fringe for a bar-brawling, cargo-smuggling, con-playing, card-sharking adventure in the classic “one last job” tradition.

Scoundrels was great, and it featured Lando, two related qualities. Feature Lando more, EU.

The underworld has gotten a lot of mileage as a key Star Wars element, and is among the genres most exploited in the Expanded Universe. EU storytellers could still stand to do more, however, as many potential angles for crime fiction remain underused. Hopefully, with Scoundrels and Scourge leading the way in the recent embrace of standalone stories and genre exploration, that will change.