Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens first impressions

According to Entertainment Weekly, the Lucasfilm story group plans to release a slew of books, comic books, and other publications, chronicling the major events of the new continuity between Episode VI, Return of of the Jedi and Episode VII, The Force Awakens. This Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens will begin publishing in the fall.

Details in the EW article are sketchy, listing only a couple of titles and a handful of authors—it looks like the named ones will be writing YA. The only name I recognize from the list is Greg Rucka, whom I haven’t read, but I understand his run on Wonder Woman was highly regarded*. The only other thing I noticed about the concrete announcements is that it looks like we so far have three male writers and just one female writer confirmed. Hardly surprising, but discouraging nonetheless. Anyway, here’s what I think, given the preliminary nature of the information we have at present.

*Though as John Jackson Miller’s output attests, good comic book writing doesn’t necessarily equate to good novel writing. Not that his novels are terrible, they just can’t compete with his comics. (And yes, I know not everyone thinks Jackson Miller is that great a comic book writer, either, but I still do.)

You know, I was just wondering at the lack of book announcements coming out of Lucasfilm lately. I suppose I should have suspected something like this was in the works.

I find myself oddly conflicted about this development. I’ve already explained in detail why I, personally, am overall pleased with the decision to reclassify the former Expanded Universe as non-canon. So this should be no big deal, right? Why the trepidation?

Well, as I mentioned in the previous post, I’m still reluctant to let go of so many of my beloved stories from the New Republic era of the Expanded Universe, and more importantly, my favorite characters who debuted in that era. If they’re being retconned out in the context of a new movie trilogy unfolding before my eyes, and the story that trilogy tells is sufficiently compelling, that would soften the adjustment process. But if the first sight we get of the new continuity is in books and graphic novels—of which we’ve had plenty over the decade since the last trilogy ended—that’s a bit different.

Also, as I pointed out in the previous post, the sequel trilogy takes place more than three decades after the original films. If we started the new, EU-exclusionary continuity with The Force Awakens, we’d be free to imagine that anything which took place in the EU and isn’t directly contradicted by the films still happened more or less as originally written. Apart from elements like Mara Jade and the Solo children, that encompasses most of the New Republic era. Any necessary gaps could have been quietly back-filled in after the release of Force Awakens, when fans will hopefully be basking in the glow of a new Star Wars film. (I’m prepared to give Abrahms and crew the benefit of the doubt that that, at least, will be worthwhile.)

Instead, we get this. I was already steeling myself up to have my favorite characters erased, but to have all the great stories taken out along with them, and not even in the films proper, but in a bunch of spin-off media? I guess the Lucasfilm story group folks don’t believe in easing fans slowly into the new status quo. Perhaps they’re just that confident that the Journey to Force Awakens material will blow even the best New Republic era stories entirely out of the water. Forgive me if I take a more skeptical approach, at least until I’ve seen the finished products.

The one potentially hopeful possibility for me, which I almost don’t dare to type, is that Timothy Zahn has been brought on board as one of the writers for Journey to. That would be awesome. Granted, his Star Wars books have been of variable quality and none, in my opinion, have recaptured the heights he attained with the original Thrawn trilogy. On the other hand, I would contend that even his worst Star Wars material is head and shoulders above the best offerings of ~90% of the other authors who contributed to the old Expanded Universe*. More than that, he’s about the only Expanded Universe author whom I trust at this point to get what Star Wars means to me—perhaps because he played such a big role in shaping what it means to me with the Thrawn books all those years ago. If anyone can, he’d also find a way of slipping in favorites like Thrawn, Pellaeon, Karrde, and even some version of Mara. And most importantly, in the latter case, even if he takes her story in a wildly different direction than he did in the EU stories, Zahn can be trusted to write her in bloody character. (Yep, still sore about Legacy of the Force.) And if it was necessary to kill Mara off for the sake of a storyline, Zahn could probably find a way to give her an appropriate send-off, rather than the bullshit we got in Sacrifice. (Definitely still sore.) Even he couldn’t fit in the Solo children if that’s not in the sequel trilogy gameplan—as seems likely—but Zahn would still come closest to generating what I loved best from the New Republic era EU and deliver it in the form of a deeply engaging, fun, and exciting story.

*And Aaron Allston, perhaps the most prolific of the exceptions—when he’s not collaborating with Troy Denning—is sadly no longer with us.

(Also on the subject of writers for Journey to, please tell me Denning either isn’t involved, or at least has been relegated to low-key projects like Tatooine Ghost, which was a decent enough story.)

Like I said, I don’t quite dare to hope Zahn will be attached to this project, and even if he is, my mind can all too easily imagine scenarios where it still all falls apart. Given the general mediocrity of the books published in the lead-up to the Expanded Universe’s fading out, and the fact that from what I can tell, the folks who presided over that pile of unmitigated adequacy are still integral to the decision-making process, I have significant reservations about Journey to the Force Awakens.

Don’t get me wrong, even in my bleakest moments, I don’t expect a clusterf**k on the level of “Legacy of the Force.” Obviously, it could happen, but it would take an incredible amount of doing—I think the chances against it are pretty good. But I do worry that it’ll be a mess of bad stories on the order of, say, Scourge or Deceived, not-good stories like Empire and Rebellion: Razor’s Edge, and some decent but forgettable stories like Kenobi, and maybe one or two pretty good but far from amazing, stories like A New Dawn. Admittedly, the old EU had of mediocre and outright bad stories, but it didn’t have another narrative of that period in Star Wars history to compare itself against. And the way nostalgia works is that the whole of the Journey to material is going to be compared against the best of the Old Republic era EU. Not fair, but that’s how it is. Even if most of Journey to is of similar quality to A New Dawn—which would be an accomplishment all on its own—it’s still not going to live up its competition for me.

Basically, what I’m saying here is that the Journey to folks have set a really high bar for themselves in order to win me over, and nothing I’ve seen so far gives me any reason to expect they’ll clear it. Overall, I’m still optimistic about the new continuity in the long run, but for the short term, I suspect I’m in for a lot of disappointment.

Peace out, everyone

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Anakin Solo Day, thirteenth anniversary

So here we are yet again. Another year rolls around and—oh wait a minute, the entire Expanded Universe has been explicitly rendered non-canon. Well, that changes things, doesn’t it?

Overall, I’m pretty much in agreement with Nash on this move. I mean, ever since they announced they weren’t going to adapt one of the post Return of the Jedi novels, it was inevitable that whatever they come up with will be irreconcilable with so much of the EU that there’s no point trying to salvage it. Something like this was only to be expected.

(Granted, the details of exactly what is being retained and what is being discarded are interesting to consider, and the subject of some confusion. Nash, for instance, claims that everything Lucas had a hand in, including The Star Wars Holiday Special and the two live-action Ewoks films* remain in the new canon. However, the starwars.com announcement only specifies the six films, and Star Wars: The Clone Wars the animated TV show, and the folks at Wookieepedia, at least, are operating under the assumption that these are the only pre-2014 Star Wars media which remain in the new continuity.)

*The first of which, Caravan of Courage, I still have a soft spot for.

And keep in mind, both the prequel trilogy and the Clone Wars series have a habit of incorporating elements of the Expanded Universe into their canon, and the PR surrounding the new canon goes out of its way to suggest that this will continue. Granted, they’re prone to changing details such as the name of the Sith homeworld switching from Korriban to Moraband, or (and I’m a little surprised Nash didn’t bring this one up), the pronunciation of the second “c” in “Coruscant” going from hard to soft, despite not being followed by either an “e” or an “i.” But I’ve always been more impressed that they included stuff like Coruscant or the Nightsisters of Dathomir in the first place—not just EU easter eggs, but stuff which has a substantial impact on continuity.

So a lot of Expanded Universe material which doesn’t directly contradict the new continuity may yet find its way back into official canon. To take an example from Nash’s video which is also near and dear to my heart: Grand Admiral Thrawn. Sadly, the overwhelming likelihood is that we will never get a big screen adaptation of the Thrawn trilogy. However, the sequel trilogy takes place 30 years after Return of the Jedi, decades after Thrawn’s death in EU chronology. This being the case, nothing could be simpler than to have one of the characters in Episode VII mention Thrawn as a powerful enemy they defeated many years ago. For the EU fans, it cements Thrawn’s canonicity, and for those who don’t follow the EU it could serve as a bit of background flavor, like the references to the Clone Wars in the original trilogy, without need for further elaboration. Heck, you could throw in Joruus C’baoth at the same time, with the filmmakers no doubt dreaming up yet another way to pronounce his last name that contradicts what every previous narrator has come up with. And all it would take would be a single line of dialogue—nothing could be simpler.

Similarly, popular EU characters like Kyle Katarn and Corran Horn could get cameo roles, like Aayla Secura in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, or even just name drops like Quinlan Vos in Revenge of the Sith, and boom!, those characters are now established elements of movie canon. (And even if they don’t make it into the movies, EU writers who’ve been brought on to write books and comics in the new continuity could still include them.) A Wraith Squadron mention would be particularly welcome, in honor of the late Aaron Allston.

I’m not saying your favorite planet, species, supporting character, or cool piece of tech or worldbuilding is necessarily going to show up in the new canon, just that it’s entirely possible for that to happen.

Really, the only bit of EU lore which easily be brought into the new continuity this way are the post-Jedi storylines and a couple of the characters who have a direct bearing upon our main cast. In terms of storylines, as I’ve already pointed out, many of the New Republic era events can be assumed to have taken place in the past, without tying the filmmakers’ hands too much. And even if they are directly contradicted, as much as I love the EU, I find there isn’t any one storyline which I’m so invested in that I regard its loss as a mortal blow to the saga. (To explain: while I feel absence of the character of Grand Admiral Thrawn would be a major loss for the franchise, I wouldn’t mind in principle if the details of his campaign against our heroes and eventual defeat diverged wildly from Zahn’s original story, so long as they were equally compelling.)

And needless to say, I won’t be shedding any tears over the Legacy Era, books or comics. I know both have their fans, but if I can accept the potential loss of stories I actually enjoy—like the Knights of the Old Republic and Dawn of the Jedi comics—I’m certainly not going to bat for them.

That leaves us with a handful of characters who are, to be fair, some of the most important characters in the EU at present. First off, there’s Ben, whom I wanted to like, but his storyline in the Dark Nest trilogy was meh, his storyline in Legacy of the Force I actively despised, what I’ve read of his storyline in Fate of the Jedi I didn’t care for, and whose part in Lord Denning’s Crucible was back to meh. I know Zekk and Jagged Fel both have their fans, but personally, I find them both insufficiently interesting to serve as love interests for Jaina. Tahiri and Tenel Ka I like, and will be sorry to see them go, but not devastated.

Then we have the Solo children: Jaina, Jacen, and Anakin. Now, I’m a huge fan of Anakin and Jaina Solo, and a pretty big fan of Jacen Solo (from the New Republic and New Jedi Order eras, of course, not to be confused with the awful caricature seen in the Legacy era), and you’re damn right I’ll be sad to see them go. Of course, new main characters have been cast, and at least one of the younger ones is likely to be a daughter or son of Leia and Han. However, we’re unlikely to all three Solo children, and their personalities are apt to be completely different—heck, we’ve no particular reason to believe they’ll even have the same name(s).

And then, of course, there’s Mara. Even more than the Solo children, I grew up with the character of Mara Jade. My first exposure to Star Wars was the Thrawn trilogy on audiocassette before I’d seen the movies and before I’d learned to read—she’s always been as integral to what Star Wars means to me as Luke or Leia or Han or Darth Vader or the droids. And—aside from the fact that none of the three women who’ve been cast in new lead roles for Episode VII seem likely candidates to portray Mara—I don’t see how the filmmakers could include her without completely derailing the movie.

I mean, if they just give Luke a redheaded wife who, by the way, used to be a top agent for Emperor Palpatine, the non-EU viewers would be completely at all loss. You can’t just toss off something like that in a line of dialogue, it would have to be explored in the movie, which would then distract from whatever story the filmmakers are trying to tell. (Kind of like how they couldn’t resurrect Kirk Prime in Star Trek|| without making it a story about that Captain Kirk coming back, which was not the story J. J. Abrams and co. were there to tell.) It’s especially unlikely given my understanding that the sequel trilogy is supposed to be about the new cast, with the original trilogy characters playing supporting roles—adding in a whole character arc for a new love interest for one of the characters who isn’t even one of the main protagonists seems highly dubious.

Much as it pains me, and much as I still foster diminishing hopes that I’ll be proved wrong, I’ve always assumed that Mara is one aspect of the Expanded Universe who will not survive the transfer to the new continuity in any recognizable form. A couple months after the re-shuffle though, I had a horrible thought: I could potentially see the filmmakers mentioning that Luke had a redheaded wife named Mara who died—under tragic circumstances, of course—some time before the events of Episode VII. If the character in question isn’t there any more, there’s less of a need to delve into her and Luke’s backstory. This would be the worst of both possible worlds: she technically exists in the new continuity, but as a plot device to provide backstory (and a cliché one at that), without ever getting a chance to be a character in her own right.

Sometime later, a more palatable if still unsatisfactory option occurred to me: they might preserve Mara Jade pretty much as she was through the end of the Thrawn trilogy, and just drop the part where she hooks up with Luke ten years later. If she’s not directly tied to one of the major characters, then like Thrawn, Corran, and the others, she could just be a cameo or mentioned character without raising too many questions. Even her the part about her starting out wanting to kill Luke and working with him in the end could be brought up in passing as “just one of those things” if her role in the story is entirely incidental. While disappointing, this scenario is where most of my increasingly slim hopes for inducting Mara into the new continuity lie; this way, at least fans like me can console ourselves with the thought that she’s still out there somewhere being awesome.

By far the likeliest scenario, though, is that—bar Thrawn—none of my favorite Expanded Universe characters will make even token appearance in the sequel trilogy, and furthermore, that the events of the trilogy will negate the possibility of their ever existing in the new canon.

And you know something? If this were fifteen, even ten years ago, I’d probably be livid at having so many of my favorite Star Wars characters consigned to the memory hole like this. As I’ve said, I’ll be hugely disappointed to see my fears for them confirmed—but even assuming they are, this shift over to a new canon still comes to me as a profound relief.

The reason why is simple: up until practically the very last minute, the EU authors were still busily at work ruining those characters far beyond any damage rendering them non-canon could bring. Let’s run down the list shall we?

Anakin Solo: Ignobly killed off at age seventeen in New Jedi Order: Star by Star (published thirteen years ago today), just as he was embarking on two fantastic storylines: transformation from naïve kid to mature hero, and a really sweet romance with Tahiri. Death revisited in Legacy of the Force just to twist the knife a little bit more.

Mara Jade: Stuffed into the fridge in Legacy of the Force: Sacrifice to further Luke’s, Ben’s, and Darth Mary-Sue’s storylines, after having her character gutted of competence and relevance through much of Legacy of the Force and Dark Nest. (Rereading the part in Zahn’s Vision of the Future where Mara calls Luke on “not slapping down a tipped turbolaser like Kyp Durron the minute he started showing dark tendencies” is darkly hilarious when you consider how Dark Nest and the first half of Legacy of the Force portray her as happily oblivious to Darth Ego running around doing everything short of tying young women to train tracks while twirling his mustache and cackling madly to indicate his villainy.)

Jaina Solo: Spends New Jedi Order, Dark Nest, and Legacy of the Force playing second fiddle to her God-Moded twin brother (despite presumably having equal potential), and has to be trained by the karking Mandalorians to be a match for him. Heroically commits fratricide in Legacy of the Force: Invincible, after which point she, I guess, maybe starts getting the respect she deserves? I dunno, I never read Fate of the Jedi. The final book in EU chronology in which she appears depicts her as finally having earned the rank of Master, but goes out of its way to point out that some random (male) apprentice still has the potential to match her, and shows her to be complacent with Faux Skywalker’s jackbooted authoritarianism. Also, like I said, both of her love interests put me to sleep.

Jacen Solo: Killed off in Legacy of the Force: Invincible in the culmination of a painfully trite, unimaginative, and out-of-character “yet another descendant of Anakin Skywalker falls to the Dark Side” storyline that began all the way back in the middle of the Dark Nest trilogy, and involved him murdering quite a lot of sympathetic characters, Mara included, along the way.

Tahiri Veila: The writers don’t seem to have known what to do with her after the end of her character arc in New Jedi Order, other than angst over her dead boyfriend. So, turned evil in Legacy of the Force and then redeemed, but not before killing Gilad Pellaeon*, and apparently having sex with Darth Recycled Plot. Some shenanigans surrounding her crimes as the latter’s apprentice in Fate of the Jedi, and maybe hints at a possible romance between her and Ben Skywalker, as a substitute for Anakin, just for that little added glurge.

*Probably the character who came closest to a spot on my “absolute favorites” list without quite making the cut.

Tenel Ka: Almost completely sidelined after becoming Hapan Queen Mother in late New Jedi Order. Hooks up with Jacen and has a daughter with him, both of them then going on to serve as a plot device both for his fall to the Dark Side and kind of redemption at the end of Legacy of the Force. Sends her daughter away to be raised by Leia and Han afterward and, to my knowledge, plays no part whatsoever in later story events (though again, haven’t read Fate of the Jedi).

Ben Skywalker: No impression in Dark Nest, except for his trauma from events of New Jedi Order which doesn’t really seem to go anywhere, and dislike of lizards, which really doesn’t go anywhere. Annoying in Legacy of the Force without displaying any particularly awesome or heroic qualities, and his big character arc in the first half is learning that assassinating people and leaving people to die aren’t actually okay. Has an extremely … disturbing scene with Vestara Khai in the penultimate book of Fate of the Jedi, which people who’ve read the series and know more about these sorts of things than I do have compared to domestic abuse. Charming. No real impression in Crucible, either.

In other words, even among the surviving characters, their situations—and in many cases, their personalities—have been f*cked up beyond all recognition*, to the point where it’s very hard to see how you could realistically have a fun and engaging storyline for any of these people. And, of course, no question whatsoever of there being any fun and engaging future storylines for the dead ones. (You can still expand their backstories, but you can’t give them any further character development.)

*Which also applies to at least some of the movie characters, as well. Faux Skywalker, for sure.

And the thing is, fictional characters are not like people. Where their story ends casts a pall upon everything that’s come before in ways a person’s death doesn’t—or shouldn’t—upon the life that has preceded it. This is because the life of a fictional character is comprised of that character’s story, no less and no more, whereas the life of a real person can never be reduced down to just a story (or even many stories).

The early adventures of Mara, Anakin, Jaina, Jacen, and the others are all irrevocably poisoned by the knowledge that this is the shit they have to look forward to, this is where their stories ultimately lead. For fictional characters? Better never to have existed than to have that as the culmination of their stories.

So if rescuing them from that fate also means obliterating them from canon completely, I may be disappointed, but I’d still call that a bargain at octuple the cost. (Likewise, while I think it’s a shame not to get a big screen adaptation of the Thrawn trilogy, I’ll take that if it means we’re spared big screen adaptations of Star by Star and Legacy of the Force.)

For the past eight years, I’ve used the same sign-off for all my Star Wars related posts: “Bring back the Man Who Killed Ithor.” This was in reference to a line by Corran Horn at the end of the third New Jedi Order book: “If there ever comes a time when folks look forward to the return of the man who killed Ithor, well, we know that means the invasion is completely out of hand and things are truly beyond saving.” I took this comment referring to the invasion of the Star Wars Galaxy by the Yuuzhan Vong slaughtering populations and warping their planets into unrecognizable monstrosities and used it as a call-sign in reference to the invasion of the franchise by the grimdarks, slaughtering my favorite characters and warping their personalities into unrecognizable monstrosities.

But now, a day has come I never really thought I’d live to see. It may not have come in quite the way I would have preferred, but the ruination of the characters and stories I grew up with and loved so dearly in the mid- to late-90s has now definitively been rendered non-canon. There will be no more Anakin Solo Day posts, or Jacen Solo Day, or Mara Jade Skywalker Day—none of that applies anymore. So, long, Man Who Killed Ithor, your services will no longer be necessary.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that Abrams and the other filmmakers will take the franchise in an equally bad, if not worse direction (from seeing Abrams’ two Star Trek reboot films, I have fears for the presentation of race and gender), but until that actually happens, this is still a potential win, which I’ll accept for the time being.

For the first time in over a decade, the future of the Star Wars universe is looking bright to me again.

See you in ~14 months when Episode VII comes out. For now, peace out, and remember: The Force will be with you, always.