Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Canon Menace

Star Wars "Legends" and the Question of Canon

"Always two there are... no more, no less"

First off, I consider myself a huge Star Wars fan. HUGE.

I grew up on both trilogies, the originals as cropped, blurry VHS tapes, and the prequels on the glorious big screen. And yes, as a 14 year-old, I did actually love the prequels, too — even Jar Jar.

I've read some (but not nearly all) of the books, from the Young Jedi Knights series (so awesome I even created a fan site for it for a high school project!), to the classics, Shadows of the Empire, the Courtship of Princess Leia, and even a few of the New Jedi Order books, too.

The Young Jedi Knights — I LOVED this series when I was a kid!

I've played videogame after videogame, from the green-black Star Wars on my GameBoy, to the epic Shadows of the Empire and Rogue Squadron on the N64, heck, I've even played Yoda Stories on the PC!!!!

Although it hasn't aged well, my memories of playing through Shadows of the Empire still give me chills

All of which is why I'm kind of saddened, and even a little bit confused, about all the hub bub about the Star Wars "Legends" announcement, and what it means for the Star Wars "Canon" as we know it.

But first, a quick, unofficial primer.

Star Wars began with the original film trilogy, created by George Lucas. After that, the series almost died a slow death, until Lucas agreed to open up his Star Wars universe, to expand the universe, so to speak, by allowing other writers, and other creators, to continue telling Star Wars stories (through said books, comics, and videogames), telling us what happened to our favourite characters, and even characters we didn't know about. The universe continued expanding, maintaining relative continuity and consistency, with Lucas overseeing, but not micromanaging, the stories. Even through the release of the prequels, the creators were free to create.

Then came the idea of "Canon".

Although most of these Star Wars stories remained true to the nature and tone of the original films (and prequels), some were different. Sillier. Darker. Just plain weird. Some told stories people didn't expect, some dealt with the (surprising) origins of key characters. Characters died, turned dark, and otherwise did things you may not have wanted them to do.

Hence, the million-credit question: What is "Canon"?

What really happened? What is a "true" part of the Star Wars Universe, the "official" history and future of these characters, and what is fantasy — stories that aren't official or true, just one creator's take that lives within its own separate world?

The Ewoks TV series — yes, I watched this when I was a little kid. Not canon.

Jar Jar Binks getting what he deserves. Canon.

For as long as George Lucas, the original creator of the sandbox, oversaw this universe, and continued to make his own Star Wars films (even decades apart), it's always been pretty clear to me, as a fan, what was "Canon", set in stone as official Star Wars history, and what was a bit more flexible, creative, and... different. In my mind, the six films, which were George Lucas' projects, were "Canon". The stories beyond the films, which were written, created, and produced by those working under George or for George, were not. They were amazing Star Wars stories, which I loved and still do, but they weren't necessarily George Lucas' vision or plan, if he had one.

And that was okay.

Then came Disney.


They bought Star Wars, and the sandbox, and everything in it, from George Lucas, and the original creator, the overseer, the man who had the ultimate vision and say in what happens to the characters in his universe, retired. No more George Lucas, no more Lucas-steered films to add to his "Canon" of stories, no more overseer to yay or nay tangent ideas, just Disney.

This changes things.

Why? Because the Star Wars live-action feature films, which, up to that point, had been Lucas' only true contribution to his Star Wars "official" story "Canon", would no longer be sacrosanct. Disney wasn't just buying the ability to continue creating Star Wars books and videogames and TV shows, they were buying the ability to create new FILMS, without Lucas, starring the characters we already know and love.

Of course they're back. Were you expecting someone else?

In my mind, that's the only thing that made Star Wars worth 4 billion or whatever they paid for it. Books and games are all well and good, but Disney is about building an empire of properties, and the best properties, the truly big and successful ones that reach the biggest number of fans across the world, are films.

So we have a new problem. For the first time in the Star Wars universe, we have the potential for real conflict.

Because while the stories told in the books, videogames, comics, and TV shows have always shown deference to the six Lucas-steered films — telling the stories around and between the film events, but never overlapping or cancelling events that happened in them (without a viable explanation) — the new films made by Disney could indeed overlap the time periods already covered in the existing Star Wars universe. Remember, in the Lucas-steered Star Wars universe, the films ALWAYS had precedence over everything else, right?

Why should it be any different now?

This has upset people. A lot of people. Hardcore fans kind of people. My favourite hardcore fan who has really taken this new direction for the Star Wars universe — these overlapping, possibly conflicting stories — to heart, is Matt Wilkins, who's been posting frequent YouTube video blogs about his views on the "Canon Menace" (Disney) and what they're doing to the beloved Expanded Universe of Star Wars.

Here's Matt's initial reaction to the Disney-buys-Star Wars news:

And here's his lengthy but thoroughly entertaining take on Disney's "Path to the Darkside", and what it might mean for the future of the Star Wars Universe:

Now, although I'm excited and thrilled about the new, Disney-steered Star Wars films (and subsequent books, video games, TV shows), the big hub bub is this — what about those Star Wars stories we've been reading and playing and enjoying for the last 20 to 30 years? If the new films and stories take the series in new and different directions, what does that mean for the stories we've already fallen in love with?

Do Han and Leia still have twins — Jacen and Jaina Solo? Do they still have another child — Anakin Solo?

Jacen and Jaina — these twins helped keep Star Wars alive. Will the lightsaber be passed to them in Episode 7? PLEASE??!

Does Luke still create and run his own Jedi Academy on Yavin 4? Does he still get married? Does Ben Skywalker still exist?

What about Shadows of the Empire and Dash Rendar? What about the Emperor's clone? What about Chewbacca's fate in the New Jedi Order?

Did they happen or not?

And if the new films say otherwise, then which version is true? Which will be part of George Lucas' true, "official" Star Wars "Canon", and which will not?

But of course, Disney has already decided.

Heir to the Empire is now a "Legend"

Every story told about the Star Wars universe up to this point, OTHER THAN the six Lucas-steered films and the Clone Wars TV series (which Lucas supposedly had a huge hand in steering), is no long part of, or connected to, the Disney/George Lucas "Canon" of true Star Wars stories. They'll exist under their own separate Star Wars banner called "Legends".

Which means the universe is now split in two:

(1) "Canonical" Star Wars: EPISODES I — VI and beyond, The Clone Wars film and TV series, and all post-Disney Star Wars stories, in all mediums.

(2) Star Wars "Legends": all Star Wars stories, told in all mediums, up to this point (outside of the above).

In essence, because of the Canon Menace, the Separatists have ceded from the Galactic Republic!

Disney's stockholders will sign your treaty!

For hardcore fans like Matt Wilkins, this is a bad thing.

A very bad thing.

It means Disney has essentially taken what was a continuous, connected, rich, and highly-entertaining universe and thrown it in the trash. By grouping them under the banner "Legends", and creating new stories that may overlap or change what happened in these "Legends", Disney is saying that these old stories never happened. They're not "true", "Canon", or "official" parts of the Star Wars history or lore, they are "Legends" and that's it.

Fan fiction. Tangents. They don't exist!!!

But now, after thinking about this "Canon Menace" for a while, and considering my own love and connection to the Star Wars universe, as well as the opinions and passion shown by fans like Matt Wilkins for the same universe, I don't think the "Star Wars Legends" decision, or the decision to create new, Disney-steered stories of the same characters and time periods, is necessarily a bad thing. I don't have "a bad feeling about this", people!


Because anytime the Star Wars universe is opened up, it's a good thing.

The old Expanded Universe of books and videogames, now "Star Wars Legends", is case in point. George Lucas could have kept his Star Wars universe, and its sandbox (the characters, planets, and stories we know and love), closed. He could have kept it all for himself, his own personal "Canon", and not allowed any other writer, creator, or producer to touch his story. It could have been his six films, the tie-ins, and that's it.

Many other creators have opted for the closed universe route. The Harry Potter series is a closed universe — J.K. Rowling's. She wrote seven Harry Potter books (her "Canon"), which each had film versions and accompanying videogames and companion books, but there are no other Harry Potter stories other than the ones she told. THAT'S IT. Unless she chooses to write more, the Harry Potter universe will not continue.

That's all she wrote, folks

But of course, George Lucas DIDN'T close his universe. He allowed others to play in it, create in it, fill in the gaps, explore new directions, and try new things, while always respecting the quality, overall vision, and (at the time) the continuity and history of the stories that had been written before. And for 20 - 30 years, there's no doubt in anyone's mind, this Expanded Universe worked wonderfully, beautifully. Lucas had his "Canon" of films, while the other creators were free to create, adding to the timeline where there was room, writing histories where they didn't exist, answering unanswered questions.

But it still wasn't a true open universe.

It was still closed, in a way, limited, by the stories and histories that had been written before. Once an event in the timeline was written about, or covered in a videogame, film, TV show or what not, that was it. A space and a time period in the universe had been closed. Imagine a vast spider-web of stories and characters, each with their own threads, connected to all other threads, slowly being cut off, one by one, as each new story is told.


So Star Wars had two options:

(1) Keep expanding the universe, forward (beyond the existing New Republic stories in the current timeline), backwards (into the Old Republic, before the prequel trilogy), and filling in the current gaps (between Episodes III and IV, for example).


(2) Keep expanding the universe (as above), but also open the universe up even more, allowing new and different stories to be told as alternative versions (or visions) of the existing events in the timeline.

Two paths. Which one's better?

As a writer myself, and a Star Wars fan, I'm not adverse to Option (2).

As I said, if the first time the Star Wars universe (or "Canon") was opened up by Lucas was a good thing, allowing new and creative and different stories to be told, why would opening it up even more, by allowing new and creative and different stories to be told (and re-told), not be a good thing as well?

There are many examples of totally open universes, with an unlimited number of alternate universes and origin stories, that have been successful both creatively and for their fans. The Marvel and DC universe is incredibly open — each new series (a new line of comic books, a new film franchise, a new set of videogames) is free to present its own take on the characters and stories that we know and love.

A sample of the different takes on Batman

How many versions of Batman have there been? Superman? Spider-man? These stories are told and re-told, reimagined, and presented in new and different ways. Some versions you may like, others you may hate, but the point is, they're there, all under the same Marvel or DC umbrella, you accept them as new stories that have been added to each universe, and you don't worry too much about conflicts or continuation.

So why can't Star Wars be the same?

Why can't the Star Wars "Legends" (the old Expanded Universe stories) exist and continue on in their own, alternate universe? (ie. "The one where Han and Leia have twins")

Why can't the new Disney films and videogames and books exist in their own version of the Star Wars universe, "Canon" or not?

Why can't there be more, different takes on the Star Wars characters and their histories, different than what's in the "Legends" or the new Disney "Canon" stories?

Does the idea of "Canon", with George Lucas and his six feature films out of the picture, even make sense? Aren't ALL non-Lucas Star Wars stories part of his expanded, open, and alternate universe?

Um... isn't anything not directly created and developed by George non-canonical anyways? Aren't all future stories technically "Legends"?

The bottom line in my opinion, as a writer and Star Wars fan since I was a kid: I think the idea of "Canon", the Canon Menace, and an all-knowing Emperor who says what is and isn't "true", should be destroyed, Order 66'd right out of the Star Wars universe.

With George Lucas now retired, Disney, and all of the writers and creators under them, should be free to create their own Star Wars stories and explore their own visions for these characters and worlds that we love so much, and that, continuity and conflict aside, will only make the universe richer, more diverse, and even more timeless.

As long as future stories maintain the quality, sense of wonder, and overall sci-fi drama and conflict that made the original trilogy, and yes, even its prequels, so great, I say bring it on.

Now this is what I call "Canon"! ;)

What do you think? Do you believe in a Star Wars "Canon"? What should the future of Star Wars look like and why? Let me know by commenting below.