Firing the Canon: It’s the Caliber that Matters

Ever played a Star Wars video game and wondered how much of it was a “real” part of the Star Wars universe? Ever picked up a lunch box or a coloring book and thought to yourself whether or not this was part of the Star Wars mythos? For most people it’s unlikely, although for readers of this blog it’s a distinct possibility. Today we examine whether most everything with a Star Wars label on it should be part of the Star Wars continuity – or canon – or whether some products should exist just for the sake of fun and enjoyment, without complicating things unduly.

At the start, we’ll note that we’re not arguing for film purism. We’re not even arguing for snobbery that suggests a certain time period of Expanded Universe products was written better than others, which should be written out of the universe. In fact: we submit that the widely varied, inclusive, and richly textured Star Wars canon is what gives the Star Wars universe its scale, life, and energy. Instead, we want to focus our analysis on two specific recent Star Wars endeavors: The Force Unleashed video game and the Star Tours: The Adventures Continue attraction at the Disney theme parks. The question is: should these be an official part of the Star Wars canon, or can a ride be a ride and a game be a game sometimes?

**********Needless to say, this essay will contain spoilers for both the video game and the amusement park attraction**************

Canon – why all the sound and fury?

Canon – the term is redolent of literary and religious prestige. The canon, according to the Greeks and the Romans, was the body of literary work that was held in the highest esteem by the great and the learned: what we might today call classics or great works. To religious authorities, the canon is the list of books that can be deemed authoritative within religious dogma, and canon law is therefore the law set down by the Church since late antiquity. Both definitions derive from the original Greek word κανων, which was basically their word for a “yardstick” – later, a standard by which to judge other things.

Fictional franchises, including Star Wars, have adapted this usage: a canon work is a work within a franchise that is part of the official storyline. It is often distinguished from apocrypha – another term with religious roots – which refers to works which may share the same fictitious universe, but are not part of the official storyline or world that the creators have constructed. For the longest time, Star Wars fans debated whether anything that wasn’t a Star Wars film could ever be part of the authentic, canonical Star Wars saga.  Debate raged on among the fans, who clung to off-hand remarks and scattered quotes from George Lucas and Lucasfilm representatives over the difference between “canonical” and “licensed,” “official” or “alternate universe.” Eventually Lucasfilm Licensing settled the issue, creating a tiered system for canon. The system, as it stands today, refers to the highest level of filmic canon as G-canon, The Clone Wars television show as T-canon, the Expanded Universe of books, guides, and games as C-canon, obscure and sometimes contradictory material that might gain canon status by reference in other works as S-canon, and works that aren’t canon at all are called N-canon (or by a prior name, Infinities).

So why this complex scheme? Well, it’s a concession to the idea that the Lucas-created world has primacy and that spin-off materials might sometimes conflict with it (though usually it’s the other way around, such as when the Prequel films contradicted some of the material established in the older EU). This canonical hierarchy resolved the problem by declaring that EU materials would be displaced by television or filmic materials, although continuity-minded folk will tell you that a hierarchy only solves part of the problem: trying to reduce the damage to the EU continuity by mitigating and massaging potential conflicts through retroactive continuity adjustments is an on-going process.

Moreover, the canon hierarchy does not really solve the problem of conflicts within the Expanded Universe C-canon category. The general rule of thumb is that almost everything is C-canon unless stated otherwise as a higher level of canon, and more recent C-canon sources trump older ones. Here’s where the problem arises. We could have an entire discussion on whether it’s a bad idea to have the most recent source trump older ones, especially as a strict chronological assessment takes no account of quality. But today, we’ll be focusing on the all-inclusive nature of C-canon instead.

The Force Unleashed

The Force Unleashed – hereinafter “TFU” – was a video game with an accompanying multimedia blitz of books, action figures, and RPG materials that resembled the great Shadows of the Empire (“SotE”) project of the late 90s. However, as far as continuity goes, the similarity ends there: where SotE carefully made use of existing continuity to expand and develop the universe, TFU ran roughshod over existing continuity and failed to make a good accounting of itself.

Let’s be specific: we’re talking about two issues. First is the over-powered nature of the main character, and second is the way that TFU changes the story about how the Rebellion was founded.

The main character in TFU is capable of astonishing feats of the Force, as per the game’s title and premise: to showcase Force usage beyond any limits we had previously conceived or witnessed. Consequently, Starkiller can not only blow his enemies away with gale-level Force bursts, crumple reinforced bulkheads as if they were tin soda cans, or wield enough lightning to embarrass both Thor and Zeus, Starkiller can also pull an Imperial Star Destroyer out of the sky while destroying its TIE Fighter escorts – all on his own! Oh, and he can outfight Darth Vader. No big deal.

Additionally, Starkiller – once Lord Vader’s secret apprentice – redeems himself and becomes a good guy because it’s thoroughly necessary for every Star Wars work to completely undermine the mythic saga of Vader’s redemption… whatever! As part of his redemption story, Starkiller inspires Bail Organa to formalize his opposition to the Empire and arranges for him to set up meetings with key resistance leaders to create a movement that will be known as the Rebel Alliance. Now, to the game’s credit, the story does make use of existing continuity on the Rebellion’s foundation by involving three Old Republic Senators – Bail Organa, Mon Mothma, and Garm bel Iblis, but it places Starkiller in the central role. Worse yet, it turns the signing of the Declaration of Rebellion into an Imperial ambush, after which none other than the Galactic Emperor himself – on board the Death Star! – personally beholds the new Rebel leaders. Why is this problematic? Because Bail Organa in particular continued to serve in the Senate, and because the EU had long since established that he was a secret backer of the Rebellion within the Imperial Senate, as contrasted with the rather public retirements of Mothma and bel Iblis.

This is not only an EU problem: it stretches credulity for Princess Leia Organa to be Alderaan’s senator, and shielded by diplomatic immunity if her father is a known traitor. Why did Lord Vader need a pretext to arrest her? Why was her father free to operate as he saw fit?

One last insult to injury: Starkiller’s family crest became the symbol of the Rebel Alliance. Might as well go all the way, we suppose.

There’s an easy solution to all of this: TFU is just a game. Treat it as such. Now, we can hear the cries of all the EU completionists already: they’ll point out that games are a valuable part of the EU canon and have made a lot of important contributions, in terms of storyline, ideas, and even integration of existing continuity. This is all true, and we do not argue that video games are intrinsically non-canon. Yet when the logic of a video game requires immense suspension of disbelief – such as when Empire at War had us believe that Princess Leia’s corvette at the beginning of A New Hope was escorted by a Rebel fleet as it fought with Lord Vader’s Star Destroyer (making one wonder if she thought Lord Vader was mentally compromised to believe her protestations of diplomatic innocence) – one should just say a game is a game.

The premise of TFU was to break boundaries and astonish the audience. It succeeded. But its very goal demands that it just be treated as an imaginative exercise rather than an existing and functional part of the Expanded Universe.

Star Tours: The Adventures Continue

In 1987, George Lucas and Industrial Light & Magic dusted off their old Star Wars models and created the first live-action Star Wars film experience since Return of the Jedi. It was an astonishing feat and it echoes all the rollicking good fun and excitement of the original Star Wars films. It remains this author’s favorite theme park attraction.

Yet the attraction – a short film projected onto a motion simulated space transport – had some continuity wrinkles too. Ostensibly, the Star Tours company operated Starspeeder 3000 transports – providing an amusing Star Wars-ified view of air travel, but in space, complete with airport humor – on tours to familiar locales from the original Star Wars films. The attraction itself featured the “Endor Express,” but the riders never arrive at the planet, instead experiencing a wild ride through ice comets, a close call with an Imperial Star Destroyer, a dog-fight among X-wings and TIE Fighters, and finally an honest-to-goodness Death Star trench run. But wait – which Death Star was this? It had a trench, but it’s at Endor – but it’s fully complete, too! Lucasfilm employees and Star Wars writers have as much fondness of the ride as this author does, so they took great pleasure in referring to a hypothetical Death Star III, effectively treating the ride as canon. Yet there was no pressing need for the ride to be C-canon: an author could express their fondess for the ride by referring to specific aspects of it, such as when Timothy Zahn referred to the “Starspeeder 3000” craft in his Thrawn trilogy of books in the early 90s. The ride could have been S-canon!

Star Tours was recently redone with modern simulators and a 3D, HD video track. Since the ride eventually became “stale” among park attendees over a period of two decades, the new version of the ride featured several alternate scenarios: the odds of any two ride experience being the same were now much smaller. The potential sequences span different worlds, from arboreal Kashyyyk to urban Coruscant. Though the ride is notionally a prequel to the original Star Tours – featuring Starspeeder 1000s – and consequently set between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope (confirmed by video displays inside the ride waiting area itself), the Coruscant sequence features scenes right out of Episode III’s opening battle while the Hoth sequence features an Imperial attack on a Rebel base complete with AT-AT walkers. Even the Naboo sequence features a Trade Federation attack on the planet, even though the Naboo pilots offer to lead the Starspeeder to the planet’s “Rebel base,” where the passengers are inducted into the Rebel Alliance.

EU continuity buffs enjoy challenges of this nature: they enjoy coming up with convoluted explanations, such as a Clone Wars reenactment above the Imperial capital, or a pirate attack on Naboo using captured Trade Federation ships (admittedly it was enjoyable coming up with those). The question is, though, aside from an intellectual exercise: what do these fixes accomplish? What benefit do they provide to the larger Star Wars universe? Can’t a ride just be a ride?

Recently, Star Wars writer James McFadden published a blog article on the official Star Wars website chronicling, in-universe, the two incarnations of the Star Tours ride. He very deliberately avoided answering the question of whether or not the new Star Tours ride was canon in every aspect, although he did reveal in comments on TheForce.Net’s Literature forum that he favors treating the ride variations as snapshots into different Starspeeder journeys taken by Rebel spies at different chronological periods of the Galactic Civil War. This solution is probably the best solution offered: although we still wonder if perhaps a fun ride or a fun video came can be just that, without requiring so much extra effort just to squeeze it into continuity.

The Staff of Eleven-ThirtyEight Discusses Rebels

First, a little history. A long time ago on a website far, far away, I started a feature called EU Roundtable—wherein I would pick a few people from the Jedi Council Forums that I enjoyed talking to, and we would meet up in a chat room of some sort and discuss various Star Wars topics for eventual publication. Empire vs. Republic, Super Star Destroyer lengths, you know—simple stuff. In addition to being a rough prototype for this site in a way (ETE staff writer Jay was even a guest once), the goal of EU Roundtable was “to showcase the nitty-gritty of fandom – interesting, straightforward debates, typos and all”.

I was very happy with the way the roundtables turned out, by and large, but at the time I was beginning to drift away from my writing duties at, and ultimately the feature became a casualty of my waning devotion. While I would’ve loved to see someone else take over, alas, it was not to be, so I’ve decided to take the initiative of resuscitating the concept here at ETE—now known as Aggressive Negotiations, because let’s face it, “EU Roundtable” was hardly inspired. The goal of this first…volume? incident?…was partly to discuss the given topic, and partly so readers could get to know our staff’s individual voices (except for Ben, who is British and needed to sleep) in as raw a context as possible.

There is no spell-check here. No second drafts. And in my case, very little capitalization. What there is, on the other hand, is unapologetic adult language—so keep that in mind. As for the topic, well…

Final note: in honor of Rebels’ stated Ralph McQuarrie influence, I asked everybody to pick out a favorite McQuarrie image to include in this article. We’ll discuss our picks near the end. Enjoy!

Mike: Okay, first things first—obviously TCW was the show that launched a thousand discussion threads, but for better or worse…are we at peace with how it ended? Did it at least deserve another season to wrap up, or was cut-and-run as good an option as any? Read More

Kenobi: Roundtable Reactions

Before we get started, I want to note that there’s been a lot of great Kenobi-related content online this week—both fan-made and official. While it’s the goal of Eleven-ThirtyEight not to get bogged down in reporting every little thing, I do want to quickly shout out two awesome fan reviews—one by Bria at Tosche Station, and one by Megan at Knights’ Archive. Lastly, whether you plan on reading the book or not (though why the hell wouldn’t you?), do yourself a favor and head to to hear James Arnold Taylor, voice of Obi-Wan in The Clone Wars, read one of the book’s first-person segments in character. It’s magnificent. Anyway, ETE’s own Jay Shah and Lisa Schap received advance copies of Kenobi their own fine selves, so I thought it only appropriate to check in for their thoughts. Enjoy.

Mike: The thing that most stands out to me about Kenobi is that is might be the smallest-scale Star Wars novel ever. Not just in terms of the events of the book, but in terms of the perspectives presented, which are so tightly-focused that you don’t even know the gender of one of the major characters until halfway through. The best decision JJM made perspective-wise was to not actually tell any of the story from Obi-Wan’s point of view, instead only giving the occasional window into his mindset via his first-person attempts to commune with Qui-Gon. As for the plot itself, I feel like the whole thing could be boiled down to the word “parenting”, which is a pretty minor concern for a Star Wars book—no one is trying to take over Tatooine; no one even really cares about the Empire. Even the most outwardly antagonistic character, A’Yark, is also the one with the least power. They may be dangerous, but there is no threat whatsoever that her clan is going to wipe out the Pika Oasis. Thus, the book’s drama comes from how each of these people’s motives clash with the others’—and how even the slightest interference from Obi-Wan can totally alter that dynamic. Discuss.

Jay: The scale is small, but the ideas aren’t — and I think that’s a crucial element that Star Wars has been missing for a while. The post-NJO novels in particular have been stuck in this mindset that seems to think that a big conflict is required to discuss big issues, and that’s clearly not the case. The conflict in Kenobi is about as irrelevant as one gets on a galactic scale: we’re talking moisture farmers on a backwater dustball fighting with a group known pejoratively as either “sand people” or “raiders“. Heck, the farmers are living out in the boonies even by Tatooine standards: places like Bestine and Mos Eisley are referred to the way somebody out in the American west might have referred to glittering New York in the 19th century. Despite the technological advancement of the setting, there’s a clear sense of isolation and distance.

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Politics and the Expanded Universe (Part II)

Ah, the Clone Wars. Where to begin? Always controversial, the Clone Wars presents a veritable motherlode of potential discussion topics, from the characterization of the Jedi, to the failure to employ original characters to the extent of the post-ROTJ EU, and extending beyond those to the innumerable discussions of clone troopers. There have been a lot of let downs in the Clone Wars era, and a lot of missed opportunities to make that conflict have the dramatic heft it truly deserves. One aspect of the juvenility of the Clone Wars is simple: the lack of a truly compelling villain. We’re told that there are heroes on both sides, but – if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor – we rarely ever see that grand-sound phrase ever ring true.

A lot of ink has been spilled – and electrons shuffled – over why the Separatists are cookie-cutter caricature villains. We need not dwell on that aspect too heavily. Suffice it to say that the EU – and The Clone Wars animated series in particular – has singularly failed to answer the question of why anybody would ever want to be a Separatist in the first place, if the movement and its supposedly charismatic leader waste no time in subjugating its erstwhile allies at the nearest possible opportunity. Instead of providing a catalogue of the various ways in which the EU has failed to convincingly portray a credible Separatist cause, I thought I would instead propose three changes that would have made the Separatists good villains.

These changes are not strictly political – indeed, this article is more about how the political faction that was the Confederacy of Independent Systems could have been a more credible group.

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Politics and the Expanded Universe (Part I)

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.

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