Last week the final entry in the Skywalker Saga – Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker – arrived on BluRay in stores (it has been out for digital purchase for a few weeks), and I thought it might be worthwhile to look back at the Sequel Trilogy and compare it to the original Star Wars Expanded Universe (EU) that was ‘purged from canon’ when Disney took over the franchise.
I have a long history of loving Star Wars that goes back to seeing the original movie more than a dozen times in theaters mostly using paper route money, but I am going to be blunt here: The Rise of Skywalker ‘broke’ Star Wars for me. This is the first movie I have not bought as soon as it was released — dating all the way back to the initial 1990 VHS offerings of the original trilogy.
I forgave the Prequel Trilogy many sins due to the strengths of several characters, the intricate look at the fall of the Jedi, and of course the amazing lightsaber choreography – and I count Revenge of the Sith as my third favorite Star Wars movie. In 2015 I was hyped to ride along with the sequels, being right there in Star Wars shirts for the opening night showings – and once again, I forgave The Force Awakens for the same-ness and fan service and rejection of ideas forged and honed across decades because I saw promise in the new characters and actually liked some of the ideas plucked from the expanded universe.
Similarly, I forgave The Last Jedi for its treatment of many characters, lack of cohesive motion in the larger arc and overt desire to be different at any price, simply because I did enjoy a few things and continued to care about the central characters. And even while watching the in-your-face spectacle of The Rise of Skywalker I had very positive feelings … which began to fade rapidly the moment I left the theater and started thinking about the film. The final movie betrayed the characters, the four decades of history built across movies and extended lore, the fans who had brought the franchise such success, and by revealing that there was no ‘master plan’ and that things done in one movie could simply be undone in the next at the whim of the director, they betrayed Star Wars.
So rather than giving time and more money to re-watching The Rise of Skywalker, I have been reading old books and re-playing old computer games, and have been reminded at how incredibly rich the Expanded Universe once was before being trashed by Disney. The good news? You can still read these books and play these games – and I recommend that you do!
Here are 10 things from the Expanded Universe that are better than the Sequel Trilogy.
1. Kyle Katarn – one of the strongest characters in all of Star Wars … and that includes the main movie characters. Katarn sought an education, and therefore ended up at the Imperial Academy, but during a mission began to experience Force visions and encountered and spared Jan Ors and others, but his leadership set him up as a decorated Imperial Officer once he graduated the academy. Just before he graduated, he learned his father had been killed – he was told it was Rebels, but a later encounter with Jan Ors revealed it was actually an Imperial assassination. This leaves him with a lack of trust of both the Empire and Rebellion – but he sees the good in taking on those who killed his father while thwarting Imperial plans. His conflict has him constantly struggling between the Light and Dark sides of the force. He is a richly developed and complex character with a natural arc and a series of relationships that are allowed to grow throughout the games. And sorry to say… HE stole the Death Star plans!
2. Luke’s New Jedi Academy – in The Force Awakens, Luke has a new Jedi Academy, and then, something goes wrong and there is mass destruction and Luke quits. In the EU, having a ‘rogue student’ happened enough that it was practically a trope – yet the reason it happened made perfect sense: training older force-sensitive people without a dedicated master-apprentice relationship could easily lead to unpredictable ends. But it is the depth and breadth of students, their struggles, and stories and how they interact with all of the main characters that make this burgeoning new Jedi Order so intriguing
3. Grand Admiral Thrawn – a blue Chiss Imperial military officer who started out as part of the Chiss Ascendency before rising to be a key leader during the reign of the emperor, Thrawn (full name Mitth’raw’nuruodo) took ships into command into hiding after the Battle of Endor. Years later he returned and brought together the remnants of the Empire to threaten the very existence of the fledgling New Republic at a time when it was struggling to gain the confidence and respect of star systems. Thrawn is a great strategist and an intriguing character far beyond anything we saw in the sequels.
4. Mara Jade – she started out as the Emperor’s Hand, a skilled and trusted assassin, set on destroying Luke Skywalker for killing the Emperor. We first met her as the dangerous protege of smuggler Talon Karrde, in the ‘Heir to the Empire’ novel that also introduced Thrawn. She was the first really strong and complex female character in the Star Wars universe aside from Leia – and indeed it was Leia who initially placed trust in Mara. She quickly became a fan favorite, and her inherent Force sensitivity naturally put her on a collision course with Luke. In the end, she and Luke get married and have a child together before she is tragically killed trying to protect her son Ben from Han and Leia’s son Jacen who had become a Sith apprentice. She replaced Kyle Katarn as the primary character for the Mysteries of the Sith stand-alone expansion to Jedi Knight in 1998 and is responsible for saving him from his fall to the Dark Side at the end of that game.
5. The Dark Forces / Jedi Knight series – the mid-1990s were pretty much the birth of the first-person shooter computer/video game. id Software released Wolfenstein 3D in mid-1992, with the juggernaut Doom releasing at the end of 1993 and dominating the gaming world of 1994. As a result, there was a glut of ‘Doom clones’ released from 1994 – 1997, most of which were mediocre and forgettable, but others such as Heretic, HeXen, Blood, Rise of the Triad and Duke Nukem 3D became classics. Perhaps the best of all of these was Dark Forces in 1995 – it had missions rather than just levels, which made sense for the mercenary Kyle Katarn. And like ‘real’ missions, you either succeeded or failed the entire thing, without the ability to save along the way. The story was cohesive and engaging, and for the first time, you were dropped into the Star Wars universe in an immersive way. Improving upon this milestone was 1997’s Jedi Knight, complete with FMV (full motion video) cutscenes and deep characters and … lightsaber combat! While Dark Forces introduced the third dimension to levels, in Jedi Knight we got a new level of scale and scope with massive sprawling levels of staggering height and innovation. Kyle and Mara Jade returned in 1998 for Mysteries of the Sith, and then in 2002 Raven Software took over with the Quake III engine based Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, featuring a huge leap in narrative development and incredible lightsaber combat. 2003 brought Jedi Academy and a return to the mission structure of Dark Forces (but with choice of mission order), and Jedi Knight’s customizable Force Power allocation. Jedi Academy refined the lightsaber combat – and remains the best lightsaber combat system to this day (sorry Jedi Fallen Order!). Alas, NONE of the characters or events are part of the new canon.
6. Han & Leia’s Relationship – from the earliest Expanded Universe novels, the relationship between Han and Leia has been central to pretty much everything. And for good reason – pretty much half of what propels Empire Strikes Back to be such a great movie is the growth of that relationship which fully forms in Return of the Jedi. And as expected after those events Han and Leia get married and have children – but there is so much else happening that things are never so simple. In books such as the Jedi Academy trilogy, we see the Solo children return from their exile to begin integration into Jedi training and life with their family. At the same time, we see that Leia struggles to balance life as a Jedi Apprentice, leader of the New Republic, mother, and wife. She is drawn to diplomacy and leadership … and Han bristles at all the formality and often struggles at feeling like Leia’s arm-candy. He embraces opportunities to leave Coruscant on diplomatic missions, though Leia seldom trusts his motives and occasionally fears for him falling back into his scoundrel ways. It is a complex relationship built by two complex characters – and they never simply fall apart due to the struggles or failings of their children.
7. New Republic – one of the biggest complaints I have with the Sequels is how they immediately splintered the Republic and Rebellion against the overwhelming First Order. In the Expanded Universe, we saw the New Republic quickly gain popular support but at the same time, those who saw financial or power gains under the Empire were slow to come on board and would harbor former Imperial leaders and assist the Imperial Remnant in strikes against the New Republic. Others appreciated the key role Luke and the Force played in toppling the Empire, didn’t trust the Jedi to be leaders and so there was another point of conflict as the Jedi Academy grew – of course, having the occasional powerful Dark Jedi or Sith cause havoc fed into this distrust! But the point is, in the Expanded Universe things moved forward in a way that made more sense, was ugly and messy and full of power-plays and distrust associated with all politics, rather than a convenient splinter that allowed us to get back to the ‘pitiful rebellion’ status for the Skywalker-Solo gang.
8. The Solo & Skywalker Children – in the Sequel Trilogy we get only Ben, but in the Expanded Universe we have four main children: the Solos have the twins Jacen and Jaina as well as younger son Anakin, and the Skywalkers have a son Ben several years later. All are Force-sensitive and have many adventures through the years, becoming integral parts of the New Jedi Order as well as carrying many elements of all of their ancestors and parents. The ability to blend a variety of character traits and present them with different scenarios provided for a wealth of stories and relationship building.
9. Dark Jedi – the Prequel trilogy showed us the possibilities of ‘gray Jedi’, ones who rebelled against the blind dogma of the Jedi but were not interested in the ways of the Sith. Qui Gon Jinn was one such Jedi, and it seems that Count Dooku was also such a Jedi. Other books and games took the concept further – Jedi who embraced the Dark Side without adopting the ‘Rule of Two’ or other Sith traditions. Often they were Fallen Jedi such as Exar Kun or Ajunta Pall from the Old Republic, and Jerec from the Empire. But other times they were simply untrained Force users who were swayed by power to become thugs or tools of Dark Jedi, or like the Reborn Warriors were infused with the Force Powers of other and became twisted with rage and hate. Wherever they came from or how they chose to pursue power, they made for interesting stories beyond the ‘good vs. evil’ tropes of the main Star Wars movies.
10. Knights of the Old Republic – not just one of the greatest role-playing video games of all time, this is the embodiment of a series of comics, novels and tabletop games depicting a period of galactic history thousands of years before the events in the films. This is a rich period of history before the Sith Order adopted the ‘rule of two’, where the Republic and Sith Empire battled for control and Mandalorians and others were major forces. This period featured legendary Jedi and Sith with names we’d never heard before, allowing for incredible character and plot developments.
I could mention others such as Rogue Squadron, or the super-weapon Sun-Crusher that was dumped into a black hole, and other great characters such as scoundrel-hero Dash Rendar from ‘Shadows of the Empire’, Talon Karrde, Corran Horn, Admiral Daala, and many more. OK, maybe Rendar is a throwaway stand-in for Han Solo – but it is definitely better than the sudden reveal of Poe as a smuggler-scoundrel-turned-hero with a heart of gold. There are so many fun characters and ideas – even in some poorly written books – that it is a great look into the myriad ways we all envision this galaxy far, far away!
What about you – what are your thoughts about the Sequels in general, and ‘Rise of Skywalker’ specifically after a few months have gone by? Are you a fan of the old Expanded Universe? What are your favorite and least favorite parts?