Canon. The word of unclear significance to some, the source of inspiration for others. A horror for fan-fiction writers and all “sub-creators”.
In a previous article, I touched the problem of canon in regards to how some elements of the new Star Wars films (namely, the origins of the First Order) seem to be explained only in the extra-film sources, such as novels. I raised the question whether Lucasfilm’s new model of canon didn’t contribute to this confusion. I talked about how Lucasfilm changed the official policy after being bought by Disney: nowadays, everything published under the “Star Wars” brand post-2014, from young adult novels to cartoons, is canon.
But what does canon mean for the Star Wars universe and for its future? And, by extension, for us fans?
Lucas Ignored the Expanded Universe
Let’s take a look back first. The products officially released by Lucasfilm and its associates have always been many – that hasn’t changed. Toys, games, novels, comics – they have always been around.
What has changed is the approach. George Lucas, for his part, tried to avoid the problem of extra-film sources. He accepted their existence, and he forbade them to directly interfere (not to tell the origins of Darth Vader, for example), but otherwise he let them “do their thing”. In one interview from 2001, he stated:
“There’s my world, which is the movies, and there’s this other world that has been created, which I say is the parallel universe—the licensing world of the books, games and comic books. They don’t intrude on my world, which is a select period of time, they do intrude in between the movies. I don’t get too involved in the parallel universe.”
For Lucas, the “Expanded Universe” (EU) was a kind of parallel canon, a level lower than the films, but still a child of his own legacy. He appreciated it already in 1994: “After Star Wars was released, it became apparent that my story-however many films it took to tell-was only one of thousands that could be told about the characters who inhabit its galaxy. But these were not stories I was destined to tell. Instead they would spring from the imagination of other writers, inspired by the glimpse of a galaxy that Star Wars provided.”
Lucas saw it as enriching the Galaxy – not in a way different from fan-fiction, just with the official blessing: Lucas eventually appointed people to oversee the internal consistency of the EU, but that was as far as he wanted to go. In 2014, however, the old Expanded Universe was erased, and the newly created works have been elevated to the same canonical status as the films.
A Restart, Wasted
Many fans of the old EU were devastated by the loss of the expanded universe – or most of it. Some of the planets and characters, namely for example those appearing in the Clone Wars animated series, have survived the transition, thus creating a “bridge” between the new and the old. It was, however, still a punch in the face especially for the old writers. Just like that, it discarded hundreds of pages they have written over the years, that they may have been rightfully proud of for contributing to the Star Wars saga, even if not with the same weight as the films.
But it was also an opportunity, a chance to start anew. The old canon had some bright moments, but not by a small part, it was also full of old junk: like a room not cleaned for years. There was good writing and there was bad writing. There were a few inconsistencies due to the lack of control. There were stories introducing elements that couldn’t have possibly existed in the Galaxy without bringing into question everything we have seen in the films: creatures too dangerous, Force powers too potent, machines and artifacts making the Death Star seem like a toy, therefore relativising its importance.
The new canon had the opportunity to discard all this while also bringing order into the new as it was being formed. Like an architect building a new house instead of trying to repair an old one, Lucasfilm had the original opportunity to make a new, coherent whole, putting it together piece by piece, connecting it: the old films, the new films, the characters’ backgrounds, all of it. But it seems like it hasn’t done that. The novels and comics that started coming out were anything but systematically organised.
The most striking detail seems to be that despite elevating the EU to the same level as the films, the connection still seems one-way only. The extra-film sources produce many interesting new characters, but those are not reflected back in the films, and it kind of seems like they will never be. Poe Dameron’s friends in the Black Squadron, who appeared in TFA and who got their own comic series, seem to have been discarded since. Important founding figures of the First Order are not even referenced in the films, so even if they canonically existed, in practice they are about as important as any piece of fan-fic.
In some way, Lucasfilm is doing the same thing as George Lucas did with the old canon: the films do not seem to care, at all, about what exists in the novels or comics. But why then keep them on the same level? And one may as well ask then – why erase the old canon in the first place? What could have been a fresh start is just, it seems, an opportunity to do the same thing again – for more profit, probably, but with no more quality than before.
Fear Leads to Inactivity
Let’s look at one more element. Perhaps the most “practical” function of EU is to provide background for characters or places only mentioned or briefly sketched out in the films. Something about life on Jakku, about Captain Phasma’s past, about Poe’s beginnings as a pilot and so on. These all actually do exist, but so far, in most cases, they seem lacking. They give the feeling that there was a lack of communication between those in charge of “organising the canon” and the particular author. A fear of telling too much combined with the push not to say too little.
Almost every single novel I have read feels like the author wanted to tell something, but in the middle of the sentence became afraid of getting too close to the film canon, and decided to leave the sentence unfinished. This is the worst combination possible: it closes the window of opportunity while not using its potential entirely.
For example: a recent comics has told the history of the Rebel base on Crait (from the end of The Last Jedi). Luke and Leia visited it after Episode IV… but nothing really happened there. From now on, however, nobody can write a story set there, because it has already been told, however insufficiently. Similarly, we are very unlikely to get an “in-between trilogy”, or films about the end of the Empire (post-Return of the Jedi), and see how the Imperial remnants formed the First Order. Why? Because that, too, has already been written. Lucasfilm and Disney are closing their own doors before them.
Loose ends breed creativity. Filling gaps and answering open questions is natural, and it is a positive endeavour (and it is one of the greatest joys for fans). But Disney had the chance to do it systematically – to make sure every gap was filled with something relevant, something that had a beginning and an end, and was connected to the rest. So far, it hasn’t been doing it with enough attention. The train of the new canon is already rolling down a hill – I believe there would still be a chance to pull the brakes, but it becomes more difficult with every passing moment and with every new random short story released.
Filling The Empty Room Too Fast
Let’s mention one last problematic thing about the new canon. While not nearly keeping the consistency it should, the canon is at the same time becoming bloated with irrelevant content. It seems like the authors gravitate towards “playing it safe” and create their own, new environments every time a new book is published – not even using planets created by other authors (and the same thing goes for characters). Maybe, afraid of messing up with pre-existing setting, they keep sending young Luke to more and more new planets. This way, neither of these places gets enough depth, and at the same time, the canon becomes inflated.
Of course, the Galaxy is big. There can be a million planets, each with its own culture, and the Star Wars universe can be the richer for it. But, let’s face it, human imagination is finite – sooner or later, we are going to see yet another snowy planet, yet another planet controlled by criminal gangs, yet another planet where primitive, but kind native species are being enslaved by evil invaders. What is worse, human capability to hold information is also finite. Most of these planets and characters are inevitably going to be forgotten, will become a footnote. And the “factory line” will just continue churning out more.
But the available timeframe isn’t infinite, either. There is only so much Luke and Leia could have managed between Episode IV and V, no matter how many novels come out. It is now canon that they made a visit to Crait, crash-landed on a desolate island and spent several weeks there, liberated a super-secret Imperial prison, visited a “haunted castle”, narrowly escaped Darth Vader more than a few times… and the materials just keep pouring in. You would think that after all the horrors Luke and Leia (and others) have seen, according to the canon, their actions in the movies make them far from unexperienced first-timers.
Is There A Way Out?
I have kept my hopes up for the new canon for several years, but it continues to show its shortcomings. It could have done the things the old canon did over and better, but so far, it hasn’t. The films ignore the extra content, as they always had, and at the same time, the books don’t provide enough background for the film characters and places. Not telling, for instance, Snoke’s backstory in the films, but being afraid to put him in a book creates a grey zone with unanswered questions. That the new canon is a coherent whole where everything is equally important is an illusion – just like with the old EU, the canons are parallel at best. At the same time, a mountain of irrelevant novels is piling up, consisting of one or two sentences related to the existing universe and four hundred other pages of completely arbitrary content, but this content claims canonical authority for itself. So far, the new canon seems to treat fans who want to dig deep into the lore badly, forcing irrelevant content on them, while refusing to provide decent, well-detailed accounts of their favourite elements from the films that would organically connect to the rest.
Maybe Disney and Lucasfilm will stop the rolling train and bring it back on the right track. But we can only hope for that.
My advice? Don’t let any concept of canon break your image of the Star Wars universe. Decide for yourselves every time you come across some new information. Nobody can impose the canon on you. George Lucas said that he was happy his creation stirred others’ imagination. It isn’t in his spirit, then, that our vision should be limited by any imposed authority. We should treat the canon as open doors into the greater Star Wars universe – not as something that closes those doors.