When Star Wars (later identified as Episode IV; A New Hope) was released in 1977 it quickly became a box office phenomenon. There were lines out the doors and around the block of most theaters. I was 2 (almost 3) years old when it released in May of that year, but back then, movies didn’t leave theaters in just a few weeks or after a few months. I distinctly remember going to the theater to see the movie and getting to the ticket counter and my dad being told, they were sold out. I had a fit, temper tantrum right there in lobby of the theater. Now unfortunately, I never got to see it in the theater, but we did see it at the drive in a few months later. From the very first seconds of the film I was hooked. My dad read the opening scroll to me, and the ships came on screen…heaven.
The follow-up movies, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi, were, for me, some of the best cinema I have seen to this day. I was so enamored with Star Wars and the story, I wanted as much as I could get; I had so many toys, play sets, action figures, ships. But I wanted more. I wanted more stories, more Han Solo (my favorite character at the time), Luke Skywalker, and Princess Leia. I got that, in the form of comic books produced by Marvel Comics, ran for 107 issues starting in 1977. I don’t remember which number comic was the first I received, but I do remember my parents reading them to me. I also remember my mother showing me a really cool thing that could be done with silly putty and the comic books. I had a lot of fun with those. After The Empire Strikes Back came out, in 1980, I did start to get away from the comics and by the time the hype of The Return of the Jedi had passed, I was kind of past all of the “collecting things” aspect, although I still have the original printings of the Star Wars Trilogy novels (not in great shape, mind you). What I didn’t’ know, at that time, is the fact that novels were being written in the Star Wars Universe. One day, my 15-year-old self, was out, shopping with my mom or something, when something caught my eye. It was a book! It said “Star Wars” on it! I was ecstatic! I had never seen anything like this. I mean, I had the books that told the movies, and I had some of the comic books, hell, I even had to read along 45 record books, that when R2-D2 beeped you turned the page to keep up; but this was the first time I’d seen a full on new story in the Star Wars Universe. Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars: Heir to the Empire, introducing the coolest villain since Darth Vader himself, Grand Admiral Trawn. It was the first book in a trilogy, that would be the defining voice of what would become known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe. That same year that Heir to the Empire was released, Dark Horse Comics released their own Star Wars tale, Dark Empire, a 5-issue arc that launched that companies run of Star Wars titles.
The Expanded Universe stories, for a while, seemed to only be tacitly connected to the movies or each other, and read a lot like fanfiction. With the publication of Zahn’s trilogy, it’s wide spread success, popular appeal, and die hard fan approval, it seemed as though authors who chose to write in the Star Wars Universe took much more care in developing their stories and fitting them into an appropriate timeline. There is wide spread debate on whether or not George Lucas had a direct hand in the maintenance of the ever expanding Expanded Universe, before he sold the franchise to Disney, but there does seem to be very strong evidence to indicate that Lucas, at the very least, had a team in place to help build continuity throughout the publishing of the Dark Horse comics and various publisher who released the novels that fell within the Star Wars Universe. I, for one, believe he did. There is an abundance of anecdotes, from Lucasfilm employees, of Lucas walking through his Skywalker Ranch compound looking through story points, making notes and changing things to fit more into HIS Star Wars story. In 1999, the release of The New Jedi Order series of books, launched by R.A. Salvatore’s, Vector Prime and concluding in 2003 with James Luceno’s The Unifying Force, it was clear that Lucasfilm was taking an active interest in the novels that were coming out and driving a cohesive continuity for the 19 book, 12 author series. The books that followed, The Dark Nest trilogy, The Legacy of the Force, and The Fate of the Jedi, continued with a cohesive story line that had many points and easter eggs planted, referencing plot points started, concluded, and impacting the universe, years later.
1999 also saw Star Wars return to the big screen with the release of Star Wars: Episode I; The Phantom Menace. The movie was received with mixed reactions. From my point of view, I thought the concept of the story was amazing. The execution on screen was lacking, whether through, bad directing, a poorly written script, bad casting choices, or just bad actors, I can’t say. I will say, that I was not impressed with Jake Lloyd’s (Jingle all the Way) young Anakin Skywalker and he had no chemistry with the rest of the cast, especially Natalie Portman (Thor, Black Swan, Leon: The Professional), who played Padme/Queen Amidala. Side Note: Jar Jar Binks was an amazing character portrayed phenomenally by Ahmed Best who reprised the role in both subsequent movies and the voiced him in The Clone Wars animated series. The big take away with Episode I, with all its flaws and missteps, it still felt like a Star Wars movie and I left the theater feeling like I just experienced a new Star Wars story. The follow up movies to The Phantom Menace, Episode II; Attack of the Clones and Episode III; Revenge of the Sith, had their own derision, from the overuse of green screen and lack of practical effects, to the poor acting of the lead actor Hayden Christensen. Even through all the fallout, Episode III; Revenge of the Sith, is lauded as one of, if not the best installment in the Star Wars Saga’s movies (including the post-Disney sale releases). This era gave fans so many great stories to the Star Wars Expanded Universe, the Republic Commando novels by Karen Traviss, Matthew Stover’s Shatterpoint, Yoda; Dark Rendesvous by Sean Stewart as well as, David Sherman and Dan Cragg’s Jedi Trial are some of my favorites. There was also a revitalization of video games incorporated into the Star Wars Expanded Universe.
When Star Wars: Episode VI; Return of the Jedi came out in 1983, my family took me to see it opening weekend. My dad, remembering the lines for Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, got us to the theater early. We got matinee tickets, but it was still an early afternoon showing giving us a few hours to kill before the movie started. In the lobby of the theater, there were standup cabinet video games. I, of course saw the “Star Wars” one, and really wanted to play it. With some convincing, my father got me out of there so we could have an early lunch and be back in plenty of time to play a few games before the movie. It wasn’t the best game graphics, especially by todays standers. But you, as the player, got to control an X-wing fighter attacking the Death Star. I must have spent ten dollars in quarters to play that game trying to beat it, never succeeded…to this day, I’ve never succeeded. Later, home consoles, the Nintendo, and Super Nintendo Entertainment Systems, had games following the story of the original movies. I played those for hours on end. I never did well, to be honest, as much as I enjoy video games, I’m not very good at them, and when it comes to Star Wars games, I’ve played very few. The later games that came out on console, continued something that really came to the forefront of the Timothy Zahn’s first novel, the introduction of great original characters in an amazing original story.
There have been dozens, if not hundreds of new characters introduced throughout the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Most of the authors who wrote stories that arced across several books introduced at least one new character to the Universe. Earlier, I mentioned Thrawn, quick spoiler, he dies at the end of the that trilogy, but his influence is felt for decades after his story ended, mainly through his successor, Gilad Pellaeon. Zahn introduced other characters that became fan favorites as well, such as Mara Jade, Talon Karrde, Jaina Solo, Jacen Solo, Joruus C’baoth, and he’s not the only one. Michael Stackpole who wrote the novels of the X-Wing series introduced Coran Horn, Mirax Terrik, and Tycho Celchu also expanding upon the characters Wedge Antillies and Wes Jansen. Kevin J. Anderson who wrote The Jedi Academy Trilogy, introducing readers to several young jedi in training under Luke Skywalker’s tutelage at his resurrected Jedi academy on Yavin 4. There are many other, but to get the point across, there are characters that became as synonymous with Star Wars as Han, Leia, and Luke, without sacrificing aspects of those original characters, continuing to be used and involved and developed by other authors for years after their introduction. Enriching stories and adding depth to the world.
The Star Wars Expanded Universe, had so much going for it. The depth of world building from so many different authors yet still able to capture a similar voice for their stories and the ability to keep it quite concise and continuous making the experience of reading stories set in the world that George Lucas began an treasured memory. Even though Lucasfilm discontinued the Star Wars Expanded Universe in 2014, the love of these stories continues. The game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic gave birth to Star Wars; The Old Republic, a Massively Multiplayer Online game set at roughly the same time period, that is still alive today and in 2019 Marvel Comics released Star Wars issue #108 in essence finishing the arcs began more than 40 years prior. In fact, the desire for more Expanded Universe content runs so deep amongst fans, the Twin Suns Foundation placed a billboard outside of Lucasfilm, so employees could not miss it as they came in on a daily basis, and has raised more money to place more billboards requesting the continuing stories from the much love Star Wars Expanded Universe. The Star Wars Expanded Universe was all the Star Wars I had for nearly 20 years, in truth, it was all the Star Wars I needed.