Star Wars and the problem with expanded universes

Andy Serkis in Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (2017). Photo: Lucasfilm.
Andy Serkis in Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (2017). Photo: Lucasfilm. /

Today’s Star Wars canon continuity has a huge problem with continuity.

Ever since the release of its first film in 1977, one of the things people loved most about Star Wars was its illusion of a much larger world. Oblique references to “the Kessel Run” and “the bounty hunter on Ord Mantell” would spawn a myriad of retroactive justifications in the form of novels and even a spin-off film that no one asked for.

Usually, this is a fantastic exercise in fictional worldbuilding. After all, in a universe as vast as Star Wars, the possibilities for interconnected storytelling are endless! In a way, Star Wars’ original extended universe served as a spiritual prelude to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in the fact that they’re both vast, continuity-laden multimedia franchises.

But alongside the endless supply of novels, comics and television episodes comes an endless number of restrictions. For example, prior to the release of the prequels, Star Wars writers were forbidden from ever diving into the detail of the Clone Wars, out of the worry that it would end up contradicting future films. They were also barred from writing stories that took place before A New Hope (except for stuff like Tales of the Jedi, which was thousands of years removed from the Skywalker saga).

This problem is accentuated further with the new canon. After all, the sequel trilogy was the group of stories meant to be the event. It didn’t matter if you were a casual or a diehard fan. Anyone who professed to having even a mild interest in the franchise would show up in December to watch the new Star Wars episodic film in theaters. The novels, comics and video games? Not so much.

Consequently, writers were only allowed to tread lightly and maneuver around the trilogy’s events so the films could maintain continuity. (For example, a quick glance at Wookieepedia would show that the only stories that take place between The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker, but came out before Episode IX’s theatrical run were the Poe Dameron comic, Resistance Reborn and Star Wars Resistance season 2. None of them deal with the galaxy’s political situation in a significant, complementary way.)

Except they didn’t maintain continuity. Through no fault of their own, writers have routinely written content that has callously been disregarded (and even contradicted) by the filmmakers and showrunners.

Snoke’s identity

The following quote is from the novelization for The Force Awakens:

"Kylo Ren, I watched the Galactic Empire rise, and then fall. The gullible prattle on about the triumph of truth and justice, of individualism and free will. As if such things were solid and real instead of simple subjective judgments. The historians have it all wrong. It was neither poor strategy nor arrogance that brought down the Empire."

In other words, Snoke was present during the Clone Wars or at least the tail end of it. Certain novels such as the Aftermath trilogy hinted at the First Order sprouting up from the Unknown Regions, while The Force Awakens’ novelization and visual dictionary would both suggest that Snoke and Kylo Ren were a new group of Dark Side users set to supersede the Sith.

Then in The Last Jedi, he turns out to be… some guy.

But wait! The Rise of Skywalker reveals that he was actually a clone created by zombie Palpatine in order to secretly rule over the First Order.

So why did Snoke try to kill Rey? And what was the whole deal with the Unknown Regions? It’s almost as if J.J. Abrams and Chris Terrio paid no attention to the setup the novels gave them.

Poe’s backstory

While the question of Rey’s heritage was largely ignored throughout the novels due to writer constraints, Poe’s backstory was far more well-defined. Canon novels and comics would establish that he was the son of two rebels and grew up as a member of the New Republic.

Instead of drawing from this backstory, The Rise of Skywalker instead ignored it, establishing that… he was a spice freighter?

In The Rise of Skywalker, Poe’s past as a New Republic officer isn’t even mentioned as a throwaway line, which is all that would have been necessary to indicate that the filmmakers care about supplemental material.

But nope. This seemingly crucial element of his past, one that was never even mentioned prior to this, forced Lucasfilm to publish an entire novel about his past in order to retroactively justify a poor filmmaking choice.

So… yeah. In a way, the trouble that abounds in the new canon mirrors the continuity problems that plague modern-day Star Trek and the way the Marvel Cinematic Universe has treated its television shows. In Star Wars’ case, the problem is most apparent if you’re a novelist or comic writer.

If you are, you’ll always be playing second fiddle to the filmmakers and showrunners. You’ll be forced to go out of your way to doodle around the margins in order to accommodate the upper echelons, only to realize afterward that they had no intention of exploring the very things you were given the opportunity to explore.

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Every canon Star Wars film and TV show is available on Disney+.