Thursday, 26 December 2019

There has been an Awakening

I recently saw the Rise of Skywalker (RoS) and I have comments to make, don't worry though this won't be a spoiler review of the film, instead I'm using the opportunity to talk about the Disney canon and its relationship with the old Expanded Universe (EU) material.

When Disney took over Star Wars in addition to the six films and a cgi tv series they also inherited a vast and confusing labyrinth of science fantasy, pulp adventures and confused mysticism called the EU. Hundreds of novels, dozens of games, table top adventures and comics and audio dramas and mountains of plastic tat.

They made a controversial but from a certain (business) point of view sound decision to scrap most of it by downgrading them to legend status. What on earth does that mean? Well essentially if they said something in a shiny new Disney IP that a newspaper comic strip from 83 contradicted they wouldn't care.

It doesn't matter to them creatively, but don't despair fandom, this is Disney, if you still won't those old paperbacks you can still buy them, (Republic) credit cards will do fine.

Which while annoying a lot of people I completely understand why they did that, before the EU was considered semi canon with Lucas famously just shrugging off everything he wasn't involved in, and the Prequels caused a massive pain in the neck for dozens of editors when the new films effectively contradicted dozens of existing properties including fan favourite Boba Fett*.

And since they've got the ball rolling again Disney has been helping itself to what's been considered the best parts of the old EU, Thrawn the blue skinned alien naval commander is back etc. And this recycling is a trend that RoS has continued, though in a confusing and lazy manner.

I said I wouldn't get into specifics about RoS and I won't, however I am going to talk a lot about several old EU properties like the Dark Empire comics, and if you're familiar with them then you already know a lot of the plot of Rise of Skywalker.

Dark Empire is a strange beast, published in the very early 90s its probably the first time they tried to essentially re-do the first three films, its also an early example of an attempt to outdo the Death Star with another hyper powerful weapon of mass destruction. The popularity of the Death Star and it being used in the first movie left a massive shadow over the EU and even the new Disney films can't escape it.

It has its fans, I remember when Disney announced new films were in production quite a few comments were wishing for them to bring Dark Empire to the big screen, but in general and personally its regarded as not very good. Its confused and at times reads like a synopsis for a work of wish fulfilment by the author.

To boil the Dark Empire down, its the Star Wars films but comics and bigger and darker, but so exaggerated the dark bits are cartoony and funny, but the tone of the rest of the work says we're supposed to take the threat seriously.

Regarding the Empire the EU had a sort of spectrum, on one end you had them depicted as an institution that could potentially exist, full of political zealots, career officers and opportunists all swept up in this massive military. On the other end they're cartoon cultists going around wishing each other "dark greetings" and Dark side weddings. Most works are somewhere on the scale and can lean one way but have elements from the other side. This was true of the films, the Empire is shown to be a very powerful institution but its lead by an evil wizard in a cloak and its second in command murders his own men at the drop of a hat.

Dark Empires problem is that it wants to be the former but leans really heavily on the latter. Its easily the silliest EU story I've read that wasn't a book series for very young children. The baddies do all the clichés, they don't care about how many men they lose to get what they want, they keep going on about how amazing the Dark side is and how Dark and powerful they are. Every issue has them release a new super weapon they just have in storage, everything that happens including successful acts of resistance are all according to the plan etc.

Oh and they bring the Emperor back from the dead and he has been hiding out on a remote planet building a massive war machine including a super weapon that can destroy planets. My favourite part of the whole mess is when two Darksiders (The Emperor can just make people Sith, or Dark Jedi its a bit loose with terminology) bully Boba Fett to try to get him to work for them for free. No really, the text box actually says they're bullying Boba Fett because they want his help but don't want to pay him.

Its not great, it isn't terrible, there's a plotline about Luke trying to revive the Jedi order and managing to track down a handful of old runaway Jedi which wasn't amazing either really but it added some interesting ideas about how brutal the purge must have been and spent some time on some interesting planets. Though it was also an early example of the Force being genetic and inheritable so a precursor to midiclorians and the weakest part of RoS.

In addition to not being good in its own right the Dark Empire also caused a lot of problems for the rest of the EU, whom essentially largely ignored it because there was no way to account for it in other works set after it. And causing issues for canon is also something RoS has done as well.

Dark Empire is set about 9 years after Endor and doesn't gel with any other work set in the same time frame. The year before the Empire was on the back foot, Grand Admiral Thrawn was leading the Empire on a counterattack against the New Republic and despite winning most of his battles he was the underdog. He was stretched to the limit and constantly trying to acquire more ships and men to maintain his momentum, he even teamed up with another evil wizard who he knew was unstable and experimented with cloning tech. The plot of the second novel largely revolves around the hunt for a fleet of ghost ships Thrawn is that desperate.

Then Dark Empire comes along and suddenly the Empire is legions strong and can churn out massive new Star Destroyers within days and has thousands of brand new droid fighters all of which were built at a secret base. And the Imperials are all completely loyal to the Emperor, a man who essentially was dead and then left them in the lurch for 8 or so years while building up his own personal citadel in the deep core of the galaxy.

It just can't be reconciled, so they mostly don't bother, aside from a few references like a bonus level of the Rogue Squadron video game the Dark Empire was largely quarantined and most EU properties set and created around the same time ignore it and focus on the much more interesting Imperial Civil War.

The Civil War is where in the aftermath of the death of the Emperor and several of his most important officers the Empire essentially splinters and is carved up by competing warlords many of whom dream of conquering the whole galaxy.

Disney Canon did a version of this too, but in a streamlined and honestly very unbelievable way. Whereas the Imperial Civil War took over ten years and ended with a smaller but stable and secure Imperial rump state, in Disney the Empire collapses and is defeated utterly within about a year or maybe two.

To explain this we have the Aftermath trilogy, and its revealed that the Emperor out of spite didn't bother establishing a succession for his Empire but did arrange for it to eat itself if he died. So instead of an immoral and authoritarian institution collapsing organically under its own weight because its stuffed itself full of the ambitious and cold blooded we have a convoluted evil for evil sake plan that also undercuts the struggles of our heroes.

Instead of the New Republic fleet filled with volunteers bravely standing up to decades of oppression defeating the Empire it was the Emperor and his cronies stabbing them in the back.

Personally I enjoy the Aftermath books, I like the characters and it does a good job of fleshing out bits of the galaxy and the political situation, its just a shame that there's such a convoluted core that undermines so much and only exists to get everything ready for the Force Awakens.

Although now that I think about it, the message of the Aftermath trilogy is also largely undermined by RoS. Oh well.

Anyway the Legends were a big mess, and it had many, many missteps, though often the mess was very enjoyable so long as you didn't get hung up on 100% continuity and consistency. I don't really like Dark Empire but there was just enough in there to keep me reading to the end, and I can see why someone who look at the outline and think there's potential for an improved version. I'm just surprised and confused that JJ Abrams and Disney turned to it at this late hour, and this is the best they could do with it.

Ultimately JJ Abrams greatest crime was that we came so close to making Trioculus cannon again and he didn't follow through

*This is probably the most well known example, as a fan favourite since 1980 but having few lines and no backstory the EU built his entire life from beginning to end. And then Attack of the Clones was released undermining literal decades of work.

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