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.

Politics and the Expanded Universe (Part II)

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.

I. A truly charismatic leader

Sir Christopher Lee performed quite well in Attack of the Clones, and it’s a shame that much – though not all – of the subsequent material failed to capitalize on his potential as a villain. Part of that is a failure of the films themselves: revealing Dooku as a darksider too early and eliminating him in the opening stages of Revenge of the Sith really reduced him as a character. Yet even without those filmic bounds, the EU still had the ability to use him to his fullest.

What gave Dooku such potential was the fact that he wasn’t a villain in the public eye. He was a former Jedi of some renown who had left the order because of philosophical objections to the state of the Republic. It was all well and good for Dooku to cater to the greed of the Separatist leaders, but the rank and file should have seen Dooku differently. When a world of difference it would have made if Dooku were a more heroic figure instead of a cackling villain who backstabbed any ally he could find!

II. Greater utilization of the Separatist Council

One of the greatest things that The Clone Wars TV series did for the Confederacy of Independent Systems was endow it with a legislative body that reflected its origins as an alliance of states seceding from the Galactic Republic. Their existence not only underscored the notion that the Separatist cause was one that many thought worth fighting for, but it also would have synergized well with a more charismatic Dooku: if he were a rallying figure or a roving idealistic ambassador instead of the de facto head of state of the CIS, the Council would have even greater means of showcasing the points of view of those opposed to the Republic. It may have even added nuance to the Separatist movement, because not all Separatists need have the same grievances against the Republic. Moreover, the vibrant, multipolar Separatist Council with the inspirational Dooku figure would have contrasted strongly with the toothless Galactic Senate and the increasingly dictatorial Chancellor Palpatine.

III. (Non-)Human Perspective

The constant use of droids in the CIS undermines the ability for the audience to ever empathize with the Separatists. Droids in the CIS have none of the personality and warmth that the audience associates with Threepio or Artoo, and consequently the audience lacks a basic emotional and mental touchstone. How can there be heroes on both sides when one side uses droids? Efforts were made all over the Clone Wars EU to show the human side of clone soldiers, and their individuality was often highlighted. Separatist droids, however, were dehumanized to an extent that even stormtroopers would envy; their lack of humanity is what lets them be cut down in droves in this family-friendly franchise, but it is also a cause of audience alienation. The viewers and readers know that the Separatists use droids so that our heroes can kill them with impunity – but this comes at the cost of compelling storytelling. Some of the most successful EU portrayals of the CIS made great use of human (or alien) face characters to make the confederate cause relatable.

This isn’t to say that the Separatists need to be portrayed as good guys: but given that the whole war was orchestrated to begin with, it might have done well to underscore the fact that the Separatists were victims of Sith machinations as well. It might’ve done well for people to realize the Republic already had its problems, even had Palpatine never come along. At the very least, it could help explain why so many worlds left the Republic and why this war raged on for so long: and a personal touch would go far longer towards accomplishing that end than any extended monologue on economic corruption and stagnation.

Going forward

These three suggestions share a common theme: compelling characterization. This is essential and basic. One of the hallmarks of the OT and the OT EU was that the villains were seductively evil. This was more than a matter of cool ships and uniforms:  Lucas intended for the Empire to appear just a little bit tempting. Villains in Star Wars are all the more sinister because of that. It’s something important to the essential feel of the universe.

Politics and the Expanded Universe (Part I)

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.


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.


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.