It’s a day for controversial opinions, so let me advocate on behalf of the devil: all you movie watchers don’t know shit. Got your attention yet? Good.
Star Wars is a cultural phenomenon for many reasons. It’s conception of the force is ingenious; the idea of Jedi and the Sith gives a unique context to the perpetual and cliche fight between good and evil; and most importantly, placing this narrative in a sci-fi universe with numerous planets, star systems, and cultures captures the imagination while driving home the sheer scale of what is at stake. The movies are wonderful, but they are the least of what the Star Wars universe has to offer.
Over the past several months, I’ve read sixteen EU novels, watched both of Cartoon Network’s clone wars TV shows along with the Disney once post Lucasflim’s acquisition, played far too many video games, and read countless Wookieepedia articles. And in my opinion, if you have only watched the movies and nothing else, you are doing yourself an incredible disservice, because the books, cartoons, video games, comic strips, and novellas that accompany Star Wars - lovingly dubbed the expanded universe, or EU - provide the most compelling stories the universe could possibly have to offer.
Many fans argue that, with Disney’s recent purchase of Lucasfilm, none of these will be canon any longer. Bah. You want me to disregard the best villains, some of the greatest heroes, the most epic battles - because your business arrangement prefers it? I might have given you a shot, Disney, but in light of Episode 7 and that horrific stack of papers you call a novel, let’s just say I’m going to stick with my EU, and y’all can keep making reruns of the original trilogy while introducing no new aliens, no new star ships, no new planets, and not expanding the universe in a single meaningful way. Oh, but you have a soccer-ball droid - which, oh that’s right, is just a replacement for R2D2 since you had him stay silent for the entire movie. Fuck you, Disney. Fuck you.
So why would you want to step into the expanded universe? For many reasons.
Maybe you’re curious about the nature of the Sith. Hadn’t you heard that they used to be as numerous as the Jedi? When did that all change? Who established the Rule of Two, of having only a master and an apprentice? The Darth Bane trilogy (Path of Destruction, Dynasty of Evil, and Rule of Two) offers a glimpse into the life of the founder of the modern Sith. A man so legendary he destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives and eliminated every last remaining Sith to restore purity to their order.
Or perhaps you want to read about some of the most powerful Sith ever created. How about a man so strong in the force that the destroys a Star Destroyer by pulling it back into orbit merely with the force? You won’t find that in the movies, I promise you that.
How about a man so powerful that the Jedi didn’t even kill him; rather, they preferred to wipe his memory and try to get him on their side. A man who, eventually, realizes that neither the dark nor light sides understand the true nature of the force and eventually forsakes both, becoming a grey or dark Jedi. You’d have to go to the Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR 1 and 2), or perhaps if you don’t like the video game versions, read the book associated with it.
Want to go even older? How about back to a time when the Sith and Jedi were part of the same order. How did an academic disagreement about the force - whether or not to use feelings - become warped into a religious battle with good and evil? Read about apprentices who would train side by side with Jedi and Sith masters, and people who detested all force users because they were slaves to the will of the force. A very unique perspective you won’t find in the traditional movies, I promise you.
Like the old Cartoon Network movie about the clone wars reminiscent of Samurai Jack-style combat with Mace Windu literally punching everything to death.
But perhaps awesome battles aren’t what you seek. Maybe you want romance - not sappy sitcom romance, but real, gritty love set in a harsh world of changing allegiances and an unending war that leaves no room for compassion. Han and Leia are iconic because they set the stage for the entire series, but settling for a bounty hunter after discovering your first choice was actually your brother is not real romance.
Lost Stars is probably one of the best romances in the entire expanded universe. A pair’s love is tested between a war, notions of duty, and familial obligations. For once it focuses on ordinary people; poor civilians from the outer rim who do anything they can to simply make it in a harsh world. And how a war affects them. It’s remarkable. (Full disclaimer - I’m a teary-eyed romantic, so your mileage may vary.)
If you prefer to focus on force users, Dark Disciple paints an extraordinarily good picture of why the Dark Side is incompatible with love, and simultaneously embeds a redemption story alongside a tragic love that could never succeed. It’s quite good. (Again, teary-eyed romantic tinted glasses.)
And, of course, perhaps the largest of them all, the multi-novel, multi-comic series romance arc between Luke and Mara Jade, whom Luke eventually marries. Timothy Zahn, a Hugo winning author and considered by most to be the father of the expanded universe as a whole, sets up the relationship wonderfully over a course of a three books that gave birth to it all: The Thrawn Trilogy. These three books, Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command, are set immediately after the original trilogy. It follows a still unsure Luke Skywalker cleaning up the remnants of the old Empire, and it does a much better job than its competitor, Aftermath - a novella bridging episodes 6 and 7. I’m not going to spoil anything, but this is one of the most compelling romances in the entire EU; nothing is rushed or forced (Attack of the Clones much?), and each character is alive and vibrant.
But I think the most compelling reason to get into the expanded universe is to see a more adult telling of one of the greatest stories of our generation. The movies are marketed to the general audience, and they do a great job, but at some point we all tire of the same old ‘Jedi good, Sith evil’ narrative that’s forced down our throats. The lines are so clear cut in the movies to the point where children leave wondering why there was even a war in the first place. But the fact is, the Outer Ring planets have legitimate grievances, and the inner systems are plagued with corruption and non-action. Darth Plagueis, in addition to setting up the prequel trilogy, does a phenomenal job of highlighting all the reasons for which the separatists… well, separated.
Tarkin is a fantastic introspection into one of the greatest generals the Empire has, and to see beyond the veil of ‘evil imperial’ to a man who has hopes, dreams, and principles transforms the rather two-dimensional villains the movies provide us with into actual people with whom the audience can empathize. Along the same vein, we can see that even after the events of Revenge of the Sith, Anikin is still very unsure in his new roles and is constantly plagued by doubts. Lords of the Sith provides a wonderful insight into the strange relationship that Siddius and Vader develop as they expand their dominion into a galaxy-wide empire.
But I think the biggest jewels of the EU are the cartoon series, primarily The Clone Wars, but Rebels to a lesser degree as well (and I suppose A New Dawn, which is set in between the two). The Clone Wars pretends to be a kids’ show, but it is absolutely not. There are no clear cut answers. We’re faced with numerous Jedi who defect, many separatists who are honorable (including Padme’s mentor, for one), and the harsh consequences of Republic policies. Nothing is black and white, and everything has a consequence. Including, most of all, the Jedi philosophy for ‘letting things go’. That’s a tall order indeed, and Ahsoka’s story is the most compelling arc - dare I say it - in the entire Star Wars universe.
Ahsoka is a phenomenal character, and her relationship with Anikin is masterfully executed. As we watch her grow and fall in love, her being betrayed by the Jedi Council and Windu’s telling her to basically suck it up is one of the best arguments for why the Jedi are fundamentally misguided. When Anikin shouts “In my view the Jedi are evil!”, we are given such little explanation. The cartoon series finally fills in the gaps of the many steep costs of having such a philosophy can have. And after watching someone so close leave the Jedi order, it would set up Anikin perfectly to consider leaving permanently as well. This cartoon series, by the way, was the first online show to win an Emmy. Well deserved, indeed.
To many of you, my argument is effectively coming across as “You’re not nerd enough, so your opinion doesn’t count.” And, to a degree, I can understand why that’s the case. If you’re a genuine fan of Episode 7, that’s great; more power to you. I’ve written close to two thousand words ragging on your favorite movie. So you might be upset.
But I can’t help but wonder what these same fans who, frothing at the mouth insisting that Episode 7 is the greatest yet, would say to someone who saw the first installation of the prequel and insisted that was the greatest episode of all time. Indeed that Jar Jar Binks was the best comedic relief Star Wars had to offer. Would you, then, hold onto your very mature, very adult, consideration and simply nod along? Or perhaps you would, like me, snort and roll your eyes.
So when friends who’ve only watched the movies tell me they love Star Wars, I can’t help but wonder what they really mean by love. The movies have cheesy, forced romance; some of the weakest Sith lords in the universe - and the cool ones they do have (Darth Maul), they kill off far to early. Don’t get me wrong - if there wasn’t something beautiful and innovative underneath, I wouldn’t have even bothered with the expanded universe. So of course the movies captivated them, as it did me. But it’s like looking at a three year old’s scribbles and saying “Ah, that’s the height of painting.” If only you could know how awesome the Star Wars universe really was!
And as with most things in life, it’s rarely about what you say, and more about how you say it. “Oh, if you like that, then you’ll love these books” is probably what I should say. It would be the polite thing to say, and maybe even increase my conversion rate to the SWEU. And I know that. But I won’t.
:) I’ll continue to hold onto my nerd cred - if only with my
P.P.S. Check out Belated Media’s videos.
P.P.P.S. I am fun at parties, thank you very much.