Recently, Star Wars fans, along with much of the planet's pop-culture collective, nearly ruptured the Internet in their enthusiasm to share set-building photos from next year's long-awaited new feature film.
But these weren't shots of just any set. They depicted the construction of the Millennium Falcon.
You've never heard of the Millennium Falcon? It's the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. It's the modified YT-1300 light freighter that rumbled off a Corellian assembly line half a century before being piloted by that space scoundrel Han Solo. It's the same ship he was flying 50 years later with his granddaughter at his side following the Second Galactic Civil War.
Wait a minute. Corellians? Second Civil War? Han Solo has a granddaughter? There's a lot more known about that hyperdrive-powered hunk of junk than meets the eye in any Star Wars movie. Thank the Star Wars Expanded Universe for that.
The Star Wars Expanded Universe — or simply the EU, as many fans call it — has been around almost as long as George Lucas' Star Wars itself, which, for the record, turned 37 years old over Memorial Day weekend. While the core Star Wars Universe consists of the six Lucasfilm feature films released between 1977 and 2005, as well as the animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars movie and TV series that followed, the EU includes the characters, creatures, star systems, technologies and, most importantly, the storytelling in novels, short stories, comics, radio shows, video games, amusement park rides, and any other official Star Wars material created over that time.
That same EU fueled a similar Star Wars internet wildfire at the end of April, one lit by Lucasfilm itself as The Walt Disney Company commenced production on the as-yet-untitled Episode VII of the Star Wars films. In a statement on starwars.com, Lucasfilm declared all of the EU creative material as inconsequential and even irrelevant to films yet to come. To be clear, while screenwriters and filmmakers can and may still look back on that material and draw elements of it forward, no creator must adhere to it and, in all likelihood, they won't.
While Luke Skywalker's wife, Han and Leia's three children, tens of thousands of years of Star Wars history before the first Death Star exploded, and about 150 years of adventures afterward — it's all out there, in one form of another — still can be read and enjoyed, no one should expect it to appear on screen.
The announcement swept pop culture in much the same way as the Force informed Obi-Wan Kenobi of Alderaan's destruction by the Empire: Millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror. It's just that those voices were not suddenly silenced. Almost two months later, many passionate Star Wars fans continue to view the announcement as Disney's "eff you" to the EU, feeling betrayed after their devoting time, attention and, let's face it, money to knowing each detail of the universe beyond the films over the course of three decades.
That material never would have been created in the first place had moviegoers not found the original Star Wars so rich in imaginative detail that begged for elaboration. Force-wielding Jedi Knights and 200-year-old Wookiee co-pilots and howling TIE fighters and rolling, bleeping droids — droids! — proved way too cool to be contained by the screen alone for long.
Consider that for the first 22 years of Star Wars being a thing, movie fans could watch a little more than six hours of storytelling, an amount of screen time surpassed by the Harry Potter films released in fewer than three years and nearly equaled by the first two Lord of the Rings films over just two Decembers. Star Wars fans were hungry for more adventures in that galaxy far, far away, and storytellers delivered — just not with more movies.
Star Wars was only a few months into its theatrical run when the first EU story of Han Solo and Chewbacca hit comic-book racks in issue No. 7 of Marvel Comics' Star Wars (the first six issues had adapted the movie, while the seventh pits the Falcon crew against the cunning space pirate Crimson Jack). That winter, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and the droids C-3PO and R2-D2 faced none other than Darth Vader in the original novel Splinter of the Mind's Eye by Alan Dean Foster. The next year would see a trilogy of Han Solo novels by Brian Daley, who also scripted National Public Radio's dramatizations of all three original Star Wars films, and the EU was born.
And now, it's gone. Kinda.
Genre fans and pop-culture buffs are no strangers to such decanonization, as it were, of previously established facts and events for fictional characters. Comic-book publishers pull apart and smash together their internal universes with regularity these days. Star Trek fans have been seeing the TV adventures of Captain Kirk and the U.S.S. Enterprise crew re-imagined in Episode VII director J.J. Abrams's feature films for the past five years (even though those films are regarded as occurring in a new time line that protects the nearly 50 years of onscreen Star Trek as still "existing"). Even fans of the primetime TV have witnessed the events of episodes getting swept out of mind as not actually happening to the characters. The 1985–86 season of Dallas, its ninth, became regarded as Pam Ewing's dream by the start of the 10th season, effectively returning Bobby Ewing from the dead. Series finales of shows such as Roseanne, St. Elsewhere, and Newhart left viewers wondering whether anything in the series had happened at all. (Oh: Spoiler alert.)
The real difference with the Star Wars EU was the effective lengths to which Lucasfilm went to tell fans that it mattered. Events chronicled in novels and comics and elsewhere influenced and depended on each other, weaving it all into one cohesive whole because creators cared enough about it to do so — and fans loved them for it. When something happened in the EU, it affected the whole, and sometimes in ways most fans didn't like so much. George Lucas himself approved Vector Prime, a 1999 novel by R.A. Salvatore, in which Chewbacca is killed in the destruction of a planet. And poor Chewie hasn't been seen in any story set since. A suggested reason behind the choice to let the Wookiee lose this time was that authors and editors believed fans were not taking the books so seriously anymore, so a character was chosen to die. Fans weren't happy about that, either.
To a lot of fans, the move compares more to a college basketball team having a championship season reduced to an asterisk in a record book because of a rule violation. They are not taking kindly to the idea of someone telling them that an experience they cheered and embraced and wore and loved simply never happened.
For those who have explored it, the Star Wars Expanded Universe really matters, not because it simply exists, but because it sometimes offers what they regard as top-quality storytelling within it. Fans point to the Thrawn trilogy of novels by Timothy Zahn, the Dark Empire series released by Dark Horse Comics, and Genndy Tartakovsky's animated shorts shown on Cartoon Network as Star Wars: Clone Wars among EU highlights they enjoy more than even some of the films.
Now, Lucasfilm has tied up in a bow those years of storytelling as a new generation of fans awaits the next Star Wars film. Up front, they managed the expectations of longtime fans that the sequel we really have wanted since 1983 is not going to be hamstrung by agreeing with the events of a decades-old novel or comic book — and in many ways, fans should be thankful. Episode VII is unencumbered and in the hands of storytellers bounded by only their own imaginations, and moviegoers won't be watching a new film with a 25-year-old story some of them already have dreamed up.
Hey, if nothing else, Chewie is alive and well again, and ready to roar into a theater near you.
Kevin Dilmore wrote his first and only Star Wars Expanded Universe story as an eighth-grader in 1978. It remains unpublished.