‘Thrawn’ and Beyond: The ‘Star Wars’ Expanded Universe’s Legacy

Debates over canon, for centuries past, were generally either about religious texts or literary works. Which gospels belong in the Bible? Which plays did Shakespeare actually write? At some point, a consensus was reached, and today we have a definitive canon, for the most part, with only a few splinters claiming otherwise.

But in the Star Wars community, those splinters are huge — more like kindling wood. And they’ve been burning for a few years. In the spring of 2014, Lucasfilm announced that its new films would be taking a different direction from the nearly four decades of novels, games, comics, and other materials that had come to be known as the Expanded Universe, or EU. Only the six feature films and the television series The Clone Wars, in addition to all materials published under Disney’s ownership, would be counted as “canon”, or considered to have “happened” in the universe, not to be overwritten by future stories, with all prior material reclassified as being in the “Legends” universe. Going forward, all games, comics, books, and the like would have their stories coordinated by a dedicated “Lucasfilm Story Group” of creative executives, rather than Lucas Licensing as they had always been. This new publishing would be canonical, with not even the films able to override even the most minor detail of a comic book. As a consequence, however, planned stories set in the Expanded Universe, including the long-awaited Sword of the Jedi novel trilogy, were cancelled.

Fan reaction to this decision was very passionate and widely varied, with petitions circulated, organizations formed, and protests planned by some who felt betrayed for their dedication to these stories they loved, while others awaited the new stories more eagerly than ever, excited about the prospect of a clean slate for a new generation of filmmakers and storytellers and improved consistency. This is the first in a series of articles exploring that debate, the Expanded Universe’s history, its fandom, prior controversies, and, of course, the legacy that an epic 38 year publishing program has left on the Star Wars universe.

Earlier today, in the above trailer screened at its Star Wars Celebration convention in London, Lucasfilm confirmed what has been speculated and dreamt for years: fan-favorite Star Wars Legends villain Grand Admiral Thrawn, a brilliant Imperial tactician renowned and feared for his ability to analyze and break an enemy by examining their culture and its artistic merits and weaknesses, will be a primary antagonist for our heroes in season three of the animated series Star Wars Rebels, with veteran EU author and Thrawn creator Timothy Zahn involved in the character’s writing. In addition, Zahn will be debuting an all-new Thrawn novel, set in the new canonical timeline, next April, simply titled Star Wars: Thrawn. 

Perhaps the most intriguing promise of the Lucasfilm Story Group and their new Star Wars canon was that the Expanded Universe would be used as a resource for new stories, and elements might be reintroduced into canon. It sounded as though the very best of the EU would be cherry-picked bit by bit and brought back into relevance and validity in the new era of the overall Star Wars story. It sounded too good to be true, but looking back, it’s been happening for quite a while.

George Lucas rarely took an active role in the EU, preferring to allow Lucasfilm’s licensing department to manage it. Despite a masterful internal continuity within the EU itself, where the rare contradiction was swiftly rectified, Lucas would often overwrite and contradict the books and comics in the Star Wars films and The Clone Wars (a subject for a future article for sure!). This laissez-faire attitude towards publishing contrasted sharply with his exacting control over his films. That said, in development of new stories or even tinkering with his existing movies, he would also often incorporate his favorite aspects of the EU, often visual, into his own stories, even in the most minor of ways.

One little known change in the 1997 Special Edition of A New Hope was the addition of several key elements of Shadows of the Empire, a 1996 Star Wars “multimedia project” which used a video game, novel, comic book, toy line, and even a symphony to tell the story of the plan to rescue Han Solo and the criminal underbelly of the Empire between Episodes V and VI. The ASP droid seen swatting at an annoying little seeker drone, the Outrider ship blasting out of Mos Eisley as our heroes cruise down an avenue, the swoop bike that frightens a huge reptilian ronto, and the Imperial landing craft seen leaving the “Look, sir, droids!” sandtrooper search party all originated in Shadows. 

These blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bones tossed to EU fans could be considered minor easter eggs, but the most prominent Expanded Universe element in the theatrical films is the planet of Coruscant. Although best-known now for its central role in the prequel trilogy (and a quick shot in the montage at the end of Return of the Jedi’s Special Edition), this global city was first introduced at the same time as Thrawn, in Timothy Zahn’s 1991 novel Heir to the Empire. Although Lucas had first explored the concept of a planet-wide city as a galactic capital for the original trilogy, the name originated with Zahn.

Several years later, while in production of Attack of the Clones, Lucas came across artwork for the Dark Horse comic series Star Wars: Republic depicting a blue Twi’lek Jedi, Aayla Secura. Captivated, he decided to replicate her design for an extra in Attack of the Clones. Secura went on to play a more featured role in the Expanded Universe and The Clone Wars, as well as being a featured Jedi in the Order 66 montage in Revenge of the Sith. 

Secura’s Jedi mentor, Quinlan Vos, is often indicated as an example of Expanded Universe characters who have become canon, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. The loose-cannon Jedi Master who struggles with temptation when going undercover and brushing the dark side, who won the hearts of fans in his numerous comic book appearances before appearing in an episode of The Clone Wars as a crime investigator and comedic foil for Obi-Wan Kenobi, actually appeared in the films first…technically.

According to Dark Horse author John Ostrander, he and illustrator Jan Duursema had already begun to create the character of Vos when they received permission from Lucasfilm to base him off of an extra in The Phantom Menace to link their story to the film. Duursema spotted a roughneck barely in focus in the background of Mos Espa’s cafe scene, and this extra was elevated to become a major character in the comics. Lucas toyed with the idea of including Vos in Revenge of the Sith’s Order 66 sequence before ultimately scrapping it, but developed story arcs beyond Vos’s sole The Clone Wars appearance that would have made him an extremely pivotal figure in the show’s planned but unproduced seventh season. These stories ultimately were adapted into last year’s novel, Dark Disciple. 

Besides these cardinal characters and locations, there have been many more minor allusions. The Podrace, Dex’s Diner, and Grievous’s wheel bike all have very close analogues in the 1985 short-lived cartoon series Droids. Double-bladed lightsabers like Maul’s and curved lightsabers like Dooku’s appear in various comics and stories about ancient Sith predating their film conceptions. Even The Force Awakens, arguably the catalyst for the controversial Legends reboot, featured R6 droids in many of its Resistance starfighters, which were present in the period following Return of the Jedi in Expanded Universe stories, as was the New Republic itself, a major plot point of the film, originating, like Coruscant and Thrawn, in Heir to the Empire.

In fact, at one point, while developing his version of Episode VII prior to the sale to Disney, Lucas was once again inspired by a comic book character. In what could’ve been the biggest EU-to-film character transition ever had it happened, Lucas directed concept artist Iain McCaig to explore Darth Talon, from the Star Wars Legacy comics, as an antagonist. Whether he would have merely applied her appearance to a new character or used Talon in her EU form is uncertain, but his film would’ve been set nearly a century before Talon’s birth in the Expanded Universe timeline. He also intended to include the Yuuzhan Vong in the final season of The Clone Wars. These weird bio-engineering, technology-hating extragalactic invaders were completely resistant to the powers of the Force. They took over the galaxy and killed Chewbacca in the Legends universe decades after Return of the Jedi. Their cancelled Clone Wars arc would’ve seen a lone Vong ship kidnapping a Jedi starship, but Lucas’s version of the Yuuzhan Vong were not resistant to the Force and did not originate from outside of the galaxy. These are the clearest examples of how Lucas would utilize what he felt to be the cream of the crop of publishing, altering it to fit his vision, a tradition that continues today with Thrawn and more.

All of the inclusions that did make the cut throughout the series were largely welcomed by Expanded Universe fans with enthusiasm, even if characters and places transformed a bit from EU to film. Coruscant sometimes had seas or ice caps in the EU, but it was a complete ecumenopolis in the movies. Vos wasn’t quite so jovial in the comics. The patterning on Secura’s head-tails was more elaborate in some EU depictions. Despite these minor changes, the essence of the original appearance remained intact. It’s too early to tell how Thrawn’s prominent role in Rebels will be viewed by fans of the new canon, fans of Legends, and fans in general, and how faithful they will be to his initial depiction in the EU, but from the trailer, it’s looking spectacular.

In the tradition of pruning certain elements when transitioning a character to the screen, Thrawn’s ysalamiri will not be in Rebels or the new novel. They were a species of lizard that was resistant to the Force (much like the Yuuzhan Vong) and accompanied Thrawn as pet and protector. Their absence was confirmed by Rebels executive producer Dave Filoni at Celebration earlier today. As an element that was developed by Zahn and not by Lucas, they admittedly don’t quite fit in a story like Rebels, which is, at its core, about a boy learning to discover the seemingly limitless powers of the Force for good and for evil as much as it is about the roots of the Rebel Alliance. With Lucas’s Yuuzhan Vong missing the ability as well, it seems George didn’t approve of the existence of Force-resistant creatures. But Thrawn appears to have two ysalamiri statues in his office in the trailer, so what is gone is not forgotten.

The same can be said of the Expanded Universe. Although the story has been discontinued and may be overwritten by future works, fans still have their books. They’ve still enjoyed those stories and characters, and you never know who might be the next Secura or Vos or Thrawn and pop up again in a new Star Wars story for a new generation of fans to enjoy alongside the old guard.

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