“You’ve Taken Your First Step Into A Larger World” – The Extended Star Wars Universe, Alternate Narratives & Me
Tonight I’m going to slip on my Emperor Grandma t-shirt, get along to the IMAX, sit my increasingly large arse in a chair and watch Rogue One, the new Star Wars movie. I’m finally going to learn how the plucky Rebels got their hands on the Death Star plans. What a story that must be!
I’m excited. How excited? This excited. A year and a half in advance excited.
Within the world of Star Wars fandom, this is perhaps heretical – how could the grand saga of Skywalker and Co be less of a draw to me than some chumps humping through undergrowth with some admittedly quite important paperwork?
Especially since – hang on.
I already know how the Rebels get the Death Star Plans.
An outpost in an asteroid field intercepted signals from captured Imperial communication satellites. I know this, because the 1993 PC game X-Wing told me so. A game that fulfilled the dreams of kids (and, who are we kidding, adults) the world over by letting you take control of the eponymous Coolest Space Craft Every Made TM and throw it around some often infuriatingly difficult missions. You get to fly as Luke in the final mission and, yes, do that famous trench run that makes use of those stolen plans in order to commit what is probably a genocide in order to prevent another genocide.
No wait wait – that’s not it at all.
Fuck that noise. I think you’ll find it’s Kyle Katarn, Imperial officer turned mercenary, who actually stole the plans during a daring raid, a raid I got to participate in as part of 1995’s Doom-inspired first person shooter game Dark Forces. I loved Kyle. Kyle was a badass. Kyle was my boy. And when he – of course- turned out to be a bit of a Jedi all along I was dead pleased for him. Now though, he’s just dead.
Disney’s buy out of Lucasfilm as a way of paving the way to making new films meant that there would have to be a re-organsing of the plethora of material in what is known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe. The EU (ho ho) takes in books, comics, computer games, heck – card games, bedsheets, anything that continued the Star Wars stories beyond Return of the Jedi, or filled in blanks between or before the other movies. In the main, this re-organisation meant “none of this is real anymore” (I mean none of it was real in the first place, but you get me.)
Bye bye, Kyle. Bye bye anonymous satellite listening in-ers.
Disney aren’t total morons and have astutely realised that wiping this all from the (Galactic?) map and starting again is unwise and have generously allowed the previous stories to exist as “legends” whilst firmly asserting their own cannon. And why not? It’s an arrangement that allows to pick the ripest elements within them for incorporation into the official timeline. See how Grand Admiral Thrawn, everyone’s favourite art-appreciating evil genius finds his way into the Star Wars: Rebels animation. There are some even fainter echoes – before there was Ben Solo (aka Kylo Ren), son of Han & Leia, there was Ben Skywalker, son of Luke.
As much as I see the need to give a consistency to the story universe, to bend them to the gravity of the new Episode films, it makes me sad because it feels like the narrative gorilla throwing its weight around, when it was never actually the main stories in the films themselves that kept my love of Star Wars burning. It was the smaller stuff, the the visceral parts I delighted at. The design aesthetic was intoxicating, the way those little words “a long time ago” freed it from contemporary chains.
The whine of an X-Wing accelerating. The S-foils opening. The spat spat of its blaster.
The Death Star alarm.
Tatooine’s twin suns.
Leia’s twin buns.
The Stormtrooper who smacks his head on the door frame.
Lightsabers. Fucking hell. Lightsabers.
It was the detail of the world and the broader one it intimated to exist that my fandom was built on. I devoured histories of the companies that designed the starfighters. I saved my pocket money to buy a model of the shuttle Tydirium from Toys ‘R’ Us, which led me to joining the US Star Wars fan club at a time when The Phantom Menace was but a twinkle in Georgie’s eye. I still have the little membership card somewhere in my bedroom.
Looking at the books in said bedroom, I desperately hope against my own memory to find some well-thumbed copy of a literary classic to smile at, to validate the idea that I was some precious storysmith. Not at all. The most dog-eared book of the lot is Michael A. Stackpole’s X-Wing (are you sensing a theme here?): Rogue Squadron.
The continuing exploits of a crack fighter squadron, tasked with dealing with a post-happy-ever-after world? Yes, please. (Now that I think of it, that feels very 90s, good guys have won, end of history, doesn’t it?)
Because of the Rogue Squadron books, Wedge Antilles, a minor character in the original trilogy occupies as much space in my affection as any of the Skywalker mafia. The best Expanded Universe books were not the ones that dealt with what Luke, Leia and Han et al were up to. They were often too weighed down by the film’s characterisations. You can’t let those guys drift too far from who they were, partly because the fans are coming for those characters and partly because with so many different writers and explorations of the stories, there wasn’t necessarily consistency of continuation and you couldn’t bank on casual fans having that knowledge. Yes they would have kids and what not, but essentially they were now sitcom characters who change superficially with each story but cannot progress.
So the film lot could jog on. Their lives are more or less set*. It’s the scumbags, the mercenaries, the wannabes, the not-so-powerful, the defectors, the former slaves, the ones still with something to prove all playing in that rich world whose stories sucked me in and that i could relate to. In fact, remember how I said that X-Wing had infuriatingly difficult missions? One of the novels actually turned one particularly notorious mission into an actual rite of passage for pilots, not unlike Star Trek’s Kobayashi Maru. I yelped with joy when I read that link between the worlds. It made it feel cohesive and truthful in a way that didn’t rely on the films to hold it together.
This isn’t to say that the films aren’t dear to me – one of my earliest memories is sitting with my grandma at Christmas, watching the telly, seeing a robot upside down in some sand. It’s not any robot, it’s C-3PO, and it’s Return of the Jedi (the third act of which is a story masterclass, yes, Ewoks included. Fight me). But it’s telling that once we got it on video, I would fast forward through the people bits in Jedi to watch the space fights. Who are the men and women who got to be daring but never get the kudos, except for maybe a cool line or two, or a fiery death? They could be anyone. They could be me.
That’s why Rogue One, a franchise’s stand-alone tale where they could well kill off every new character, feels exciting. These are the people whose stories I want to see. It fulfils Star Wars’s original promise of the heroic anyone, which is slightly betrayed through the Episode movies’ gradual cementing of the Skywalker lineage as the story of Star Wars.
And, I won’t lie, I’m looking forward to the X-Wings. None of those The Force Awakens Muller Light X-Wings, it’s full-fat, four engine bastards for me.
Perhaps in a world where it feels like centrist, tent-pole narratives are collapsing around our ears, we can but look to the edges for our hope, for new stories to speak to us, to make sense of the world. Too grand a statement by half for what is still a Hollywood monster?
I’ll probably hate Rogue One anyway, won’t I. You might too.
If so, don’t worry – I’ve got two great little PC games for you to play if you want an alternate take on how dem fine Death Star plans end up in the hands of a certain space princess.
*I have to tell you though that Chewbacca meets his end by being crushed by a moon.
An actual moon.