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photo illustration of Darth Vader in close-up Source image: Walt Disney Films/Lucasfilm | Illustration: James Bareham/Polygon

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Why Star Wars, and Doctor Who, had to go into the wilderness to survive

Every endless franchise needs to get weird to survive

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During the Mandalorian panel at Star Wars Celebration Chicago, executive producer Jon Favreau promised that the new Disney Plus series would not only take inspiration from the films, but would also be “pulling stuff in from Legends.”

That promise was met, unsurprisingly, with thunderous applause.

Star Wars Legends — a catch-all term for any and all licensed Star Wars media produced between 1978 and 2014 — has been something of a sore spot for Star Wars fandom in the wake of Lucasfilm’s acquisition by Disney. Check any Star Wars debate on Twitter or the darker sections of YouTube, and you’ll find a vocal fan base that feels forgotten after Disney reset what was called the Star Wars Expanded Universe in order to focus on the new canon of movies, TV shows, novels, comics, and the rest of the now-Disney-owned Star Wars machine.

Yet in many ways, the Expanded Universe was never truly abandoned. If anything, its birth, growth, and death were necessary for Star Wars to remain relevant for decades to come. If you want a franchise to last forever, in fact, the best thing you can do from time to time is send it out into the wilderness.

What is, or was, the Star Wars Expanded Universe?

The Expanded Universe (or EU) began in 1978, with Marvel’s Star Wars comic books featuring original stories that built upon the movies as well as Alan Dean Foster’s book Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. From there, the EU slowly grew with prequel novels about Han Solo and Lando Calrissian, the made-for-TV Ewok films Caravan of Courage and The Battle for Endor, plus two animated spinoff series: Ewoks and Star Wars: Droids – The Adventures of R2-D2 and C-3PO. Star Wars was always too big to stay contained in the core movies.

Darth Vader looms over two figures on the cover of an old book titled Splinter of the Mind’s Eye
Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was one of the first novels that expanded the scope of Star Wars.
Del Rey Books via Amazon

And it was the release of the Star Wars pen-and-paper RPG from West End Games in 1987, Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game, that marked the most significant development of this embryonic universe. Since it was the first licensed role-playing game set in a galaxy far, far away, its designers had to expand on what little information the films and early novels provided about a number of topics. The goal was to build a coherent universe of content in which players could begin their own campaigns.

Everything from character backstories to the specific modifications Han Solo made to the Millennium Falcon required definition in the RPG’s sourcebooks. Aurebesh, the fictional language found all over Disney Parks’ Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, was formalized for the game. So much of what we love about Star Wars came from these side stories and projects, only to be brought into the main canon much later.

The breadth of detail contained in these sourcebooks was vast — so vast that they would be refined and effectively used as the “series bible” for the next major evolution of the EU. Fans know this as the post-Return of the Jedi era, which began with Timothy Zahn’s 1991 novel Heir to the Empire. Set five years after Return of the Jedi, the series that would become known as the Thrawn Trilogy not only gave us our first glimpse of what happened to Luke, Han, and Leia after the fall of the Empire, but also marked a dramatic rise in popularity for ancillary Star Wars content.

The Millennium Falcon at Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland
Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge benefited from work done in the Expanded Universe.
Photo: James Bareham/Polygon

All three books were New York Times bestsellers, and to this day, they’re considered by many fans to be some of the best Star Wars trilogies of any media. The Thrawn Trilogy’s success led to a tsunami of books, comics, and games that would tell Star Wars stories that spanned literally tens of thousands of years.

With decades’ worth of content, the quality of the EU naturally varied somewhat wildly, and it was often outright weird. It featured characters such as Jaxxon, the green-furred rabbitlike smuggler, and Triclops, Emperor Palpatine’s long-lost three-eyed mutant son. From Death Stars that were refashioned into giant lightsabers to transdimensional blobs, this extra content often felt as if its authors were trying to test the boundaries of what could be defined as a Star Wars story, to varying success.

While Star Wars creator George Lucas had very little — if any — direct involvement with the EU, he did outline some specific restrictions, such as:

Yet for as occasionally bad or weird as the EU got, it was beloved by an incredibly passionate section of the fan base, myself included. And while we may have been a smaller overall audience, many of us bought all of it. This was the wilderness period of Star Wars canon, and we were happy to explore it, even when things went out there. There were strange warriors who enjoyed pain and didn’t seem to exist within the Force, for instance. Chewbacca died. It was a weird time.

the cover of Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game’s sourcebook, complete with classic poses of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and others
The first Star Wars role-playing game later became a sort of bible for writers working in the Expanded Universe.
West End Games via Amazon

Disney, not wanting to be beholden to decades worth of (often contradictory) chronology, chose to wipe the slate clean in 2014 when it acquired Lucasfilm for $4 billion. Executives declared that any Star Wars story that wasn’t in some capacity directly overseen by Lucas (i.e., the theatrically released films and the TV series The Clone Wars) would now be considered non-canon and named “Legends.” The stories still existed in our hearts and on our bookshelves, but not in any official capacity, where they might impact the future movies.

Disney tasked J.J. Abrams, director of The Force Awakens, to not only create a film that felt like the Star Wars that general audiences wanted, but also pushed the narrative forward. Weaving in decades of chronology that Lucas himself actively ignored might have been an impossible task.

He and the other directors — Gareth Edwards (Rogue One), Rian Johnson (The Last Jedi), and Ron Howard (Solo) — needed to evolve the franchise beyond what came before. They needed to challenge the original characters so that these new films could move beyond the pure nostalgia that defined the era. The carefree days of strange spinoffs and franchise-defining role-playing sourcebooks had to come to an end. The adults were back in control.

In other words, Star Wars needed to return from the wilderness.

This cycle is healthy for long-running franchises

What Star Wars went through in this period is actually common.

Nearly every major franchise in science fiction has experienced some kind of wilderness period: a time when the main source of the franchise, whether it be a film or television series or even books, no longer produced content, allowing licensed media to continue narratives left unfinished or explore the edges of a complicated fictional world.

Star Trek has had a near-constant run of original novels since 1970 — one year after the original series’ cancellation, but before the later TV shows were created or the movies were rebooted.

The X-Files, Farscape, Ghostbusters, Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Angel have all had comic book continuations, as well as video game adaptations and other spinoffs in some cases.

Doctor Who has a wilderness period that most clearly resembles that of Star Wars — indeed, the term originated to describe when the British science fiction series was off the air. Virgin Books’ New Adventures novels featured stories that were larger, more complex, and, frequently, more mature than what fans were used to from the original series. Audio drama company Big Finish Productions hired erstwhile Doctors as well as the “current” Doctor, Paul McGann, to reprise their roles for audio plays. These recordings thus became the de facto home for new Doctor Who content until the series’ revival in 2005, 16 years after the previous episodic series went off the air.

Novels, comic books, video games, and other secondary material can help make a fictional world more real in the eyes of the audience. Countless elements that have defined franchises — from kryptonite to Harley Quinn — were introduced in spinoffs or adaptations and have since been worked into canon. Exploring new ideas away from the core competency of a franchise can be a healthy way to try new things with less risk to the main story.

As with the Star Wars Expanded Universe, these wilderness periods tested the boundaries of their respective franchises, trying out new ideas while being limited by some significant rules:

The creators of Star Wars Legends material showcased massive, galaxy-altering stories featuring new characters such as Mara Jade and Dash Rendar whom fans came to love. While these characters played vital roles in the ongoing narrative, and even acted as protagonists in various media, they were never elevated anywhere near the main characters. In fact, they often ended up being expendable.

Both Mara and Dash were killed off to further the plots of specific stories, while Luke, Leia and Han had “plot armor.” Their lives were never at risk, no matter what they did, and their personalities couldn’t evolve much further from the characters we left at the end of Return of the Jedi. They could do new things, but they couldn’t change, nor could they die. (Chewbacca excluded, I guess.)

So while these wilderness periods superficially push the boundaries of their respective franchises in different ways, introducing some new characters or ideas, they are rarely, if ever, allowed to make lasting changes to the central canon. Wilderness periods look and feel weird, and they may help the overall world evolve, but the core characters remain static, kept safe until the next movie or TV show. They remain, in the ways most fans care about, stagnant.

Which is why, in order to survive, each franchise needs to return from the wilderness, ready to piss a few people off. And that’s what happened when The Force Awakens was released. The wilderness was left behind, and suddenly all the sacred cows were in danger. The story could move forward, refreshed with new ideas and experiments from its time away from blockbuster releases.

Within two movies, both Han Solo and Luke Skywalker would be dead. It was time for the franchise to change, even if some fans were taken back by just how much would be changing with it.

The new ways run deep

This is not to say that the lessons learned during wilderness periods should be forgotten or left behind. If anything, a wilderness period acts as a petri dish for a franchise. It can serve as an experimental playground for creators to better understand what a franchise is or what it isn’t.

Lieutenant Uhura’s first name, Nyota, first originated in the novel Star Trek II: Biographies, and wasn’t said on screen until Abrams’ 2009 reboot, Star Trek. That detail stuck.

Doctor Who’s wilderness period showed that the series was more than a children’s show. Future showrunner Russell T. Davies wrote New Adventures novels before taking over the show itself, and fellow author Paul Cornell would adapt his novel Human Nature during the revival’s third season.

The stories told in Big Finish Productions’ audio dramas were so influential that showrunner Steven Moffat canonized many of the Eighth Doctor’s audio companions in The Night of the Doctor. In fact, both the destruction of Gallifrey and the Doctor as a romantic figure found their origins in licensed media. The wilderness was very kind to Doctor Who, and the show returned to the BBC ready to shake things up now that these creators were able to play with larger stakes. The stories sometimes became scarier, or more emotional, and we’re now in the era of Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor. Big Finish continues to produce dramas to this day, now telling stories the cut across all eras, including periods long left off-limits, such as the seismic Time War that set off the show’s modern era.

The best wilderness periods keep the main story safe and looked after while experimenting with what a franchise might be. That allows the core creative team to examine these ideas and the fan’s reactions to them, before deciding how to evolve the franchise itself when it’s ready to come back in its most potent form. Writers working in the wilderness need to be willing to add to the universe or change things around — within the rules — whereas writers working on the main franchise need to be willing to break stuff. It’s a back-and-forth rhythm that can’t be rushed.

Lucasfilm has been slowly weaving Legends elements back into the new Star Wars canon. Grand Admiral Thrawn was reintroduced in the animated TV series Star Wars Rebels. Timothy Zahn himself has since written a new trilogy of canonical stories with the character.

Ben Solo’s dark turn as Kylo Ren bears a number of similarities to Jacen Solo’s descent into Darth Caedus from the books. Jacen’s turn to the Dark Side was simply the road to hell paved with good intentions, but Ben’s story is proving to be not only much more complex, and also turned Luke Skywalker from a standard hero into a flawed and fascinating character. The books experimented, and the movies began to play for keeps.

If the sort of transformation that happens after a wilderness period is disquieting to a section of the audience, that’s all the better. It means that the franchise is no longer bound by the limitations of nostalgia, that it can move forward while still looking back, that it can grow beyond giving the audience what it wants and give them — and the franchise — what it needs.

Special thanks to Steele Filipek, lead producer and executive editor at Starlight Runner Entertainment, for research assistance.