The Emperor's secret cloning facility on Mount Tantiss, a conical mountain above a jungle floor, broods under a near-black stormy sky.

The Old E.U.

So anyway: I re-read the Timothy Zahn Heir to the Empire trilogy. I last read them in the ’90s when they came out; I found three fusty paperbacks (because I am obsessed with fusty paperbacks) of the vintage that once lined the shelves of every male nerd of my generation, and consumed ’em one-two-three on my balcony last August.

Ahsoka was airing. Dave Filoni was a few months away from being named Lucasfilm’s Chief Creative Officer, a position he’d now hold in deed where he had once presumptively held it in fanboys’ wet imaginations. Grand Admiral Thrawn, who had returned to Star Wars canon* in two belter seasons of Star Wars: Rebels, was being teased for his live-action debut at the end of Ahsoka‘s first season. The old “Expanded Universe,” or “E.U.” as it was known, was on the ascendant in Star Wars proper.

* And I am talking about the old E.U. here: every story other than the movies (and the Clone Wars animated series) with the Star Wars label on it, which was summarily declared non-canonical in 2012 when Lucasfilm was purchased by Disney. Theoretically, every story since that moment, whether novel or comic or video game, has been in-canon, although as with the old E.U., an unspoken class hierarchy still exists: until you see it onscreen in live action, it might not be real real.

Dave Filoni is renowned for sneaking references to the Old E.U. into his work. A master synthesist and Star Wars archaeologist, Filoni loves pulling things back into canon that had previously been red-lined out of existence by the Disney wipe. In doing this, he tends to take the kernel of the idea and ignore the specifics of the original story architecture — see Thrawn in Rebels, or the planet Wayland on The Bad Batch — which infuriates some fans of the E.U. while thrilling others, forever on the hunt for a recognizable reference that can only reveal itself to the “true” (read: most obsessive) fans. If the original Star Wars architecture was built on recycling older genre tropes from prior ages of cinema (Westerns, samurai pictures, Flash Gordon-era sci-fi), Filoni’s Star Wars epoch seems to be built on recycling and rejuvenating older Star Wars itself.

Hence, my return to Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy, which (give or take a Dark Horse comic book) effectively launched the Expanded Universe in 1991. With Filoni in charge of Star Wars’ story direction for the foreseeable future — very possibly the rest of my life, given both his and Jon Favreau’s “made man” status in Disney’s fractious handling of the brand over its first ten years — I wanted to re-familiarize myself with the foundational text of this landscape.

Bad news: it still sucks.

Power fantasies corrupt absolutely

The Expanded Universe was never my bag. Deploying an admittedly very freighted term, the E.U. never felt like “my Star Wars” when I dipped in and out of it in the 1990s and 2000s**.

** And hey: in fairness: if it’s your thing, that’s fine. This piece is maybe not going to be your thing. I fully acknowledge that the E.U. gave a lot of fans who were (otherwise) similar to me something that they were looking for and not getting elsewhere, especially in the Dark Times between the first two trilogies. And there’s nothing wrong with that! …Unless there is. Uh oh!

I didn’t really have the language to articulate why I didn’t dance with the E.U. at the time, but I do now. Actually, I now — on the other side of a decade of Disney Star Wars, and (you guessed it) The Last Jedi schism particularly — understand exactly what it was about those old stories that left me cold, and what their embrace elsewhere says about a whole sector of the Star Wars fanbase. Or fandom, in general! Uh oh!

Let’s start with a bit of what has become a foundational text about Star Wars for me, in the three years since it was written: Matt Zoller Seitz’s essay on the reappearance of Luke Skywalker on The Mandalorian.

Vader’s hallway rampage in Rogue One underlined an area in which Lucas’s vision always needed bifocals: the tendency to let the spectacle of violent domination become an adrenaline-stimulating drug powerful enough to shatter any philosophical frame the storytellers try to put around it.

That phrase, “shattering the philosophical frame,” has recontextualized Star Wars and my relationship with it. Matt was writing about how Luke’s appearance in The Mandalorian rhymes with Vader’s hallway assault on Rebel officers in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, finding both image sequences troubling. In the Vader sequence, the moral dimension of what Vader is doing is subsumed by the sheer ass-kickery of what an audience full of repressed Star Wars fans is being allowed to see for the first time: the Dark Lord fully unleashing himself on human Rebels with absolutely no ability to defend themselves. It’s so ennervating that I recall a fan igniting his (red) lightsabre at the premiere screening of Rogue One that I attended and waving it over his head like a big red dildo; the moral reprehensibility of what Vader is doing gets lost under the tide of how cool it is to finally be seeing Vader do what, till then, we’d only imagined him capable of.

And The Mandalorian sequence with Luke pairs with this. Luke is only fighting droids — the status of droid personhood remains frustratingly vague in the Star Wars cosmology, but for the time being, let’s presume that the droids on Moff Gideon’s star cruiser are not meant to be people — but the intentional mirroring with Rogue One establishes a textual point anyway: Jedi Luke, at this point, is super fucking powerful. Oh man, is he powerful. He is a five-alarm badass!

And coming in the wake of The Last Jedi (The Mandalorian takes place before, but was released after, Episode VIII of the Sequel Trilogy), where Luke is a broken old man working through the grief of unintended consequences, the Mando sequence functions as the Vader sequence does: it lets the audience finally see how cool a fully-powered Luke is, doing the things we imagined him capable of.

Not to start a re-litigation of the story choices of the Sequel Trilogy in this article, but let’s at least acknowledge that there is a storytelling horse-sense to having a fully-powered Luke on the back-burner in Episodes VII and VIII, only deployed in the final moments of The Last Jedi. Superbeings are tough from a storytelling perspective (unless it’s the Avengers and everyone is a superbeing). There’s a huge narrative trap in having any character be effectively omnipotent, around the creation of stakes, tension, and character growth.

It’s a trap the Old Expanded Universe fell into whole-hog.

Dark Force Rising

I’ll be fair to Timothy Zahn: his Luke Skywalker is not a superbeing. Zahn plays very fair, even conservatively, with Luke’s power set in the years post-Return of the Jedi. He allows that Luke’s training is incomplete; he even takes Ben Kenobi off the spiritual plane early in the first novel to ensure that there is no mechanism for Luke to receive further training. He balances Luke’s prowess with the Force against a power-limiting invention of Zahn’s own: the ysalamiri, a sort of alien slug that projects a Force-free bubble around itself. The Imperial agents in the Zahn trilogy can protect themselves from Force-users by working within those Force-free bubbles. Zahn works overtime to ensure that Luke’s Jedi powers are not the easy solution to every problem he sets up in his narrative.

Zahn also resists something that many, many E.U. writers (in novels, but particularly comics and video games) would find irresistable in the years to come: he does not make an expansion of Luke’s power set the solution to the problems, either. Luke does not learn how to overwhelm ysalamiri and those they are protecting by, like, doing a Rocky IV training montage where he becomes even stronger with the Force. Luke and his friends defeat Grand Admiral Thrawn and his cronies by working within the confines Zahn has set; they adapt to the limitations presented by the ysalamiri and other elements, and work around them through cleverness. This is good storytelling, and as I said, it’s not a choice that everyone who followed Zahn was able to duplicate.

Zahn doesn’t grow Luke’s power set in Heir to the Empire, which makes good storytelling sense. But it also points a big red arrow at the fact that Zahn also doesn’t grow Luke — or Han, or Leia, or Lando — at all.

There is no character story in the Heir to the Empire trilogy, because there can’t be. There is no character story (for the movie characters) in the entire Expanded Universe, because there can’t be, and that’s a fundamental problem with the Expanded Universe.

To keep it strictly within the Zahn trilogy: Zahn cleverly creates a sandbox in which the surviving heroes of Return of the Jedi can face and defeat a resurgent Imperial threat, with adequate tension and stakes, because a) his villain (Thrawn) is strikingly well-conceived, and b) Luke’s growth as a Jedi is effectively neutralized as a story point. And at the end of the story, the toys can be taken out of the sandbox exactly as they were put into it, plus or minus a few non-character additions or subtractions that happened through the course of the books. Zahn can explain what everyone’s job is now (Lando runs a mining colony again!), and gin up some new communities of side-characters (Borsk Fey’lya and his political cadre; Talon Karrde and his smugglers), and he can have Han and Leia do what married couples do and punch out a couple of babies.

What Zahn can’t do — what none of the E.U. writers can do — is have the Han, Leia, Lando and Luke at the end of his story be different from the Han, Leia, Lando and Luke at the end of Return of the Jedi. No growth, no change, no arc.

I mean, of course he can’t. It’s a fundamental limitation of creating ancillary content at all, and it goes back to that first decision Disney made when they bought Lucasfilm: the canonicity of it all. If Luke, in Heir to the Empire, starts a Jedi Temple only to have it burn down and gets all disillusioned and goes off and lives on a rock, the next writer has to deal with that, and the characterization that goes along with it. And worse, if they ever actually go and make a Star Wars Episode VII, you’ve screwed the narrative pooch for the “real” story that will now supercede everything you’ve written.

And worse-worse, from a fan-servicing perspective, you are now failing to do the only thing these books and stories are there to do in the first place: give fans of Luke Skywalker (from the Star Wars movies) more adventures of Luke Skywalker (from the Star Wars movies). If you change him from the core model of Luke Skywalker (from the Star Wars movies), then you are officially failing on your brief.

Let’s tease that brief out one more time for clarity: the brief is to give fans more of the same.

Thus, the E.U. always felt airless. It only succeeded (for me, intermittently) in the things it was allowed to do: namely, set up new characters or scenarios, entirely the province of this alternate dimension, with which it could therefore do whatever it wished. I’m a big fan of the pack of Younglings who accompany Yoda on an adventure in Sean Stewart’s Dark Rendezvous; humanizing out these young Jedi adds great pathos to Anakin’s actions in Revenge of the Sith. I like the titular living planet of Greg Bear’s Rogue Planet, which gives Obi-Wan, in his first days of mentoring Anakin Skywalker, a very different lens through which to consider the nature of the Force. Jacen Solo’s interrogation of the light/dark binary and transcendence into something beyond in Matthew Stover’s Traitor is an extraordinary piece of writing, not just from a character perspective, but as a meditation on core tropes of the Star Wars cosmology itself.

In other words, those stories could do what the Sequel Trilogy was ostensibly there to do before Bob Iger and J.J. Abrams decided to tear the whole thing apart: use the energy field of the original characters to establish a larger community of interesting characters who could have new stories. Unfortunately, as with that selfsame Sequel Trilogy, the E.U. could also never get far enough away from the original characters, per the overall brief as described above, to chart any truly new adventures on their own. A lot of people — and, I suspect, a lot of Star Wars fans who lived on the Expanded Universe in between movies — only wanted more of the same. To provide otherwise would risk alienating the people who were buying the paperbacks in the first place.

The characters — caught in perennial amber as aging versions of the quartet sitting around the fire in the Ewok Village — also had to stick closely enough to the people you imagined after you walked out of your first screening of Return of the Jedi that you could still endlessly play with them in the sandbox, or there was no point to the whole thing.

Operation Cinder

I often wonder how much of the ire directed at the Sequel Trilogy by the perenially online was simply built around The Force Awakens‘ implicit violation of that very basic premise for one very important character. The Sequels’ portrayals of Han and Leia were, for all intents and purposes, unaltered from their personae in the Original Trilogy; they were older, and had been through some shit, but they were still Han (hapless smuggler) and Leia (no-nonsense general).

Luke Skywalker, on the other hand, was in every measurable way not the fanboy wet dream of an empowered Jedi Knight extending from his apotheosis in Return of the Jedi***. He was lost, both (in The Force Awakens) in space and (in The Last Jedi) in self. Luke was the problem Abrams couldn’t solve for in his writing, preferring instead to shuffle the character offscreen entirely and let somebody else deal with it. But even the premise of pushing Luke to the island carries enormous narrative burdens, and creates an unease in an audience that now needs this major narrative hurtle to be cleared at a level conversant with their own comfort. If there are fans who want the story to continue and not change, and other fans for whom the change is the point of storytelling in the first place, this drives an irreconcilable wedge between two types of fans.

*** Returning briefly to Matt Zoller Seitz’s premise above: there’s also something to be said for the fact that the conclusion of Return of the Jedi both explicitly and implicitly has Luke rejecting violence. The Expanded Universe — both old and new canon — quickly assured all readers that, don’t worry, Luke picked up his lightsabre again immediately, and started using it to enforce peace and justice in the evolving New Republic. There is nothing in the canonical text of the Star Wars trilogy, however, that proposes this; and Luke’s doing so sends the series in a different direction from the philosophical framework of the Original Trilogy — the same frame Zoller Seitz proposes gets occasionally shattered by spectacles of violent domination.

I am one type of fan of Star Wars. I like the trilogy’s philosophical framework; I like the character journey that Luke goes on in that trilogy, and the moral of its story (it was a fairy tale, after all). I like who that moral is aimed at and how George Lucas went about aiming it. I agree with Zoller Seitz that there is an “original sin” buried in the Original Trilogy regardless — it’s a whiz-bang space adventure that makes becoming a powerful Jedi seem really, really cool — but again, the explicit and implicit text of the story holds that apotheosis only arrives when Luke rejects his power and embraces his compassion. The fact that this happens at the very end of the story also helps slip it past that original sin, because Luke doesn’t have to do anything really cool to win the day after he’s thrown his lightsabre away. Lando blows up the Death Star and Han blows up the shield generator. All Luke has to do is fly away with his father.

But of course, I said “the very end of the story” above, a fundamental narrative requirement that no longer exists in the Star Wars universe. The Faustian bargain of continuing the story at all is that the story has to… well, continue. The ending wasn’t the ending. There have to be new problems, new obstacles, new messages, new growth. The Faustian bargain requires that these stories contend with whether they’re going to fulfill the E.U.’s brief — more of the same — or follow a better one, new stories. And this brings me to the other type of Star Wars fan.

If the Disney Lucasfilm era has proven anything, it’s that there is a large and vocal voting bloc of fandom that seems to both insist that the story to continue — “more… MORE!” — but for nothing about the story to change. If you’ve read all of the above, you already know what I’m about to say. With apologies, I call this type of fan an “Expanded Universe fan.”

Project Necromancer

Among Dave Filoni’s many labours, he has mentioned that his critical objective is to make “this feel like one big, connected galaxy. That’s what Star Wars is: where all the stories come together.” As recently as this week’s premiere of the final season of The Bad Batch, we can see one of those key creative decisions in play: a lot of the architecture for the post-Prequel Trilogy era is being undergirded with the question of how Palpatine returned in The Rise of Skywalker.

Now, it’s important to note — and I suspect Filoni knows this as well as anyone — that explaining the “somehow” of “somehow Palpatine returned” doesn’t make his inclusion in Episode IX any less of a shitty story decision. It was poor dramaturgy (because Palpatine had no bearing on the stories of the lead characters of the Sequel Trilogy besides what could be hastily retconned into place in the final instalment), and will remain poor. None of us were thrown out of Episode IX by the mechanics of how Zombie Palpatine was floating around Exegol; the fact that it was bad story was the problem. But I digress.

As a narrative thread that can bind fifty years of story together (from Order 66 to the Battle of Exegol) in significant or insignificant ways — or be omitted altogether from projects where it doesn’t apply, such as Andor — “Project Necromancer,” as the Emperor’s cloning project is called, makes good strategic sense. Like various coloured gems turning up in MCU movies, the cloning project can either be a story’s particular MacGuffin itself (in Omega’s case) or a just an ancillary story point in a tale focused elsewhere (in the Mandalorian’s). Project Necromancer can bring threat to forthcoming big deals (Grand Admiral Thrawn’s attempt to rebuild the Empire) even if the dramatization thus far has felt wildly unthreatening (Thrawn’s live-action debut in Ahsoka).

Naturally, Project Necromancer’s seeds come from the Old E.U., because Filoni never troubled himself to gin up a new idea where a perfectly usable old idea had already been written and subsequently decanonized.

Were Wayland / Mount Tantiss / the Spaarti cloning cylinders / Joruus C’Baoth, as Timothy Zahn invented them in the Heir to the Empire trilogy, good? I dunno. They were story points, although resurrecting the dead through cloning never felt like a particularly interesting spitball answer to “what were the Clone Wars actually about?” in the pre-Attack of the Clones era of E.U. guesswork.

Whether they were good or not, however, they’re here now; and they are a means to provide story continuity and recognition across an impressively broad array of timeframes and hero characters. Again, Project Necromancer isn’t a story unto itself, but it is a unifying principle — and if it unifies the adventures of Omega, the Bad Batch, the Skeleton Crew, the Mandalorian, Grogu, Crime Boss Boba, Cobb Vanth, Ahsoka Tano, and ultimately Rey, it will help fans find their way through the post-Prequel Star Wars universe in the same way that Order 66 did for everything prior. I wish them all luck.

There is one other aspect of Expanded Universe-type storytelling that Project Necromancer makes me think of, however: the difference between telling me what happened, and telling a story.

Ahsoka, for example, often felt like “telling me what happened.” Here’s how we got from A to B to C to D, so that you can understand how Grand Admiral Thrawn is back in the galaxy to threaten the nascent New Republic. “Telling me what happened” is thinking that explaining the “somehow” of “somehow Palpatine returned” will make The Rise of Skywalker not suck. It’s mistakenly thinking that Project Necromancer, by dint of simply being inserted into various Star Wars projects, makes all of its connected stories more interesting.

I much prefer “tell me a story.” Telling a story is ultimately where Ahsoka, and a lot of the Expanded Universe, fell down, because the “how” of things — how Thrawn got home; how the Solo twins were born; how Palpatine returned — is simply nowhere near as interesting as the “why,” and the “why it matters,” and particularly the “why it matters to the characters I care about.” How does being a clone of Palpatine matter to Rey?**** Why does Thrawn returning to the galaxy frighten Ahsoka? What is Omega willing to do to protect her brothers?

**** One last sidebar: I am eternally tormented with worry at the possibility that the mooted Rey movie is not asking this question, or any other question about Rey’s continued journey as a character. She is my favourite, after all. Hit me up, Star Wars: I have a pitch.

Further adventures of the Original Trilogy (and eventually, Prequel Trilogy) characters in an array of spinoff novels and comics and video games, forever hamstrung by the fact that they couldn’t matter from a narrative perspective, fell limp. Storytelling always falls limp when it’s running in place, and more and more of the new canon Star Wars, on Disney+ and beyond, has felt uncomfortably familiar to the bottom of my old E.U.-averse guts. With Dave Filoni in charge and making broad promises about Star Wars as a storytelling nexus, I am forever hopeful that he is a certain type of Star Wars fan, and not the other type.