Sunday, December 27, 2015

Expanding Universe 02 is now available on Amazon!

This installment of the Expanding Universe series will begin to examine the rich history of the STAR WARS Expanded Universe. The previous installment covered the roots of the saga and how we got to the first original expanded work, SPLINTER OF THE MIND’S EYE. This volume will examine how the STAR WARS universe expanded in the world of Marvel Comics. From Jaxxon the giant rabbit to Simon Greyshade's space casino, we will look at the first original comic book adventures of Luke Skywalker and his fellow Star Warriors.

For a limited time, you can read the first volume of Sean's retrospective series about the Star Wars Expanded Universe, EXPANDING UNIVERSE 02: ROCKETS, RABBITS, & ROBOTS, for free through Kindle Select or you can purchase it for $2.99.


Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Franchise Awakens!

SPOILER ALERT! I will be discussing STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS in detail, so if you haven't seen it yet (however unlikely that seems), I would not read this article yet. For now I'm focusing on the opening sequence of the movie to explore what it could mean to the saga as a whole.

As the opening crawl informs us right off the bat, Luke Skywalker has vanished. In the ashes of the Empire, a new set of villains called the First Order has arisen. To fight the First Order, the Republic government supports a Resistance led by General Leia Organa. The First Order is searching for Luke in an effort to destroy the final remnants of the Jedi. Leia is also desperate to find Luke so they can restore order and justice to the galaxy. She sends her best pilot , Poe Dameron, to meet with an old ally, Lor San Tekka, on the planet Jakku. There Dameron is to retrieve the missing piece of a map that will lead them to Luke Skywalker.

Okay, so there’s a lot to process here already. Fans of the Expanded Universe that was developed in the nineties have to make peace with the fact that all those adventures following the original characters after RETURN OF THE JEDI are no longer officially considered canon. This effectively negates the Thrawn Trilogy written by Timothy Zahn, which established the framework for all the challenges the characters would face after the Emperor was defeated. With those stories declared non-canonical (until such time as the new canon chooses to embrace them), the overall story could go absolutely anywhere in this new trilogy. Nothing in the established premise so far contradicts the events established in the Expanded Universe, but the tone suggests a very different history than the timeline established in those stories.

For a while, photoshopping your favorite actor blue was the preferred method of suggesting that Thrawn should be in the new movie. 

Sorry, but it looks like this is not the direction the new saga will take... 

Points for creativity, but... Really? 

Whether you’re familiar with the Expanded Universe or coming into the film after having only seen the other films, the premise immediately raises a few questions and/or eyebrows. First, the basic concepts appear to mirror those explored in Episodes IV - VI, with a few Mad Libs-style semantic adjustments to the nomenclature. Instead of an Empire there is now the First Order. Instead of leading a Rebellion, Leia is now the leader of a Resistance. It feels very much like the original story is being re-worked with new names for everything. But is that the case?

One of the questions that comes immediately to mind is: Why is there a Resistance? That name suggests they’re still rebels and that the First Order has managed to get a strangle-hold on the galaxy just like the Empire did. But the crawl also tells us that the Republic has been re-established, presumably reasserting itself as a legitimate presence throughout the galaxy. If this is the case, why does Leia have to form a separate Resistance in order to defend the Republic against the First Order? Isn’t she already part of the Republic? Shouldn’t the Resistance simply be the military arm of the New Republic? Seems like the reason for this distinction will become an important part of the story later on.

The crawl also says that Luke is still the last of the Jedi, suggesting that he never rebuilt the Jedi Order as he did in the Expanded Universe. The galaxy that we enter as the story opens is one that thinks of the Jedi as little more than a folk tale. So what happened? Why is Luke missing and why did he never rebuild the Jedi Order? And why is there a map to find him, considering that he is a person and not a place? Some of these questions are addressed later in the movie, but none of them are adequately answered.

Leia is not identified as Leia Organa Solo, so we’re left to wonder if she is or ever has been married to Han Solo like she was in the Expanded Universe. No mention of Han is made at all. Poe Dameron is not named in the crawl; it simply says Leia is sending her best pilot, possibly intending for us to wrongly assume it’s referring to Han Solo.

As the opening crawl ends, the shot pans down to a scene of a massive Star Destroyer eclipsing the planet Jakku. Troop transports, silhouetted against the light of the planet, can be seen being dispatched from the destroyer. Inside we get our first look of the First Order stormtroopers (assuming we missed the endless merchandising and promotional tie-ins plastered to every flat surface in the real world).

Like everything else we see in the film, the stormtroopers are analogous to something established in the earlier films, superficially altered to distinguish it from its more familiar counterpart. Much like the Clone Troopers in the prequels, The First Order stormtroopers look just like regular stormtroopers with slightly different armor.

A cynical person might suggest that all these cosmetic variances were made just so they had new designs for the merchandising. 

I'm just sayin'... 

Jakku is also a throwback to something seen in the earlier films but now presented with a new name. It appears to be a desert planet just like Tatooine, but in this story it is a completely different desert planet that serves the same purpose. On the surface of Jakku, Lor San Tekka tells Poe Dameron that the Jedi must return to restore balance to the Force. He does not elaborate and does not explain what that means. He also says that giving the Resistance the missing piece of the map will begin to make things right. Again, he says this with no explanation and Poe does not ask him for one. Poe refers to Leia as General Organa and Lor San Tekka recalls that to him she is royalty.

At this point no one explains why there is a map that leads to Luke Skywalker and why everyone thinks finding him will be of any tactical value. There is also no explanation as to why Lor San Tekka has it. Like a lot of elements established in the story, there may be a very good explanation that will be revealed later on.

From a story perspective, San Tekka’s role is clear: He is there to deliver to Poe the MacGuffin that will drive the story. In this sense the how of it all becomes irrelevant, because his basic purpose is to get the story going.

Like the original trilogy, this movie appears to be drawing on motifs outlined by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In a mythological sense, Lor San Tekka could be considered a herald. He has knowledge of the larger world in which the story takes place and he offers up the magical boon that will aid the hero in his journey. This is not completely the case, it seems, because San Tekka is aiding Poe, who is not the hero of the story. Lor San Tekka has no interaction with any of the characters who are on the hero’s journey we see in the film, so at this point his role as herald is somewhat diminished unless we later see Poe Dameron personally following the mythic hero’s path.

First Order stormtroopers attack the settlement and Poe has to flee, with the data module that contains the map. Unable to escape due to damage to his X-wing, Poe entrusts BB-8 with the data module and tells him to complete the mission by getting the information to the Resistance.

At this point we see another plot similarity to the original film. Poe is in the role Leia played in the first movie, getting the crucial plans to his droid and setting the story in motion before being captured. That’s why I say he is not on the hero’s path like the protagonists we will be introduced to later in the film. Like Leia in the first movie, Poe spends more time getting captured, tortured, and rescued than he does completing the various trials that Joseph Campbell attributed to the classic hero’s journey.

Lor San Tekka is captured by stormtroopers and confronted by Kylo Ren. We don’t know anything about Kylo Ren at this point, but he looks almost exactly like Darth Vader, with some notable exceptions. His face mask is rougher and doesn’t appear to have any technical function. His clothes are dark leather but he doesn’t appear to have any hardware incorporated into his outfit and he doesn’t have Darth Vader’s trademark assisted respiration. Cosmetically, he is designed to look like Darth Vader, but the similarity does not extend beneath the surface. Like a lot of what we see in the movie, this comes off at first as a failed effort to mimic the first movie but actually represents a significant deviation in the story.

Kylo Ren - Vader 2.0 or fanboy cosplayer? 

Kylo Ren comments on how old San Tekka has become. How does Kylo Ren know Lor San Tekka? How long has it been since he’s seen him? Lor San Tekka says the First Order was born from the Dark Side, but Kylo Ren was not. He knew him before he called himself Kylo Ren and he knew his family. But how does Lor San Tekka know Kylo Ren’s family? How much does he know about the rise of the First Order and its connection to the Dark Side? This is not revealed and it may never become necessary to do so.

Kylo Ren slashes Lor San Tekka with his lightsaber, apparently killing him. Why does Kylo Ren kill Lor San Tekka instead of taking him in for further investigation? He learns nothing from him even though San Tekka clearly knows more than he has said. This could be attributed to a lack of impulse control in Kylo Ren, which is further demonstrated throughout the film.

Stormtroopers capture Poe Dameron and destroy his X-wing. BB-8 escapes on Poe’s orders, hoping to meet back up with him later. This is the necessary handoff of story information that provides plot threading for the story. At least at this point, Poe has fulfilled his function and BB-8 will now lead the audience to other characters who will take up the story where Poe leaves off.

Among the stormtroopers there is one who is visibly shaken by the battle. After a comrade is killed, he freezes and appears overwhelmed by the carnage around him. Kylo Ren orders all the villagers killed, but as the others fire on the crowd this stormtrooper is unable to comply. As Kylo Ren returns to his shuttle he sees the trooper standing like a statue in the middle of the slaughter.

Here’s a little bit of trivia: The stormtrooper’s designation is FN-2187, which refers to the detention area where Princess Leia was being held aboard the Death Star in Episode IV.

Many fans found it conspicuous that FN-2187 was only identified as Finn prior to the film’s release, noting that he had no stated last name. This led to a lot of conjecture that Finn may be related to a known character in the STAR WARS universe. This immediately led to speculation that he must be the son of Lando Calrissian. And by the same logic, Mace Windu would also be his grandfather, if we’re all of a sudden assuming that there is only one black family in the STAR WARS universe.

The Lando rumor gained some traction early on, when an Amazon listing for a 1000 piece puzzle featuring Finn misidentified him as Lando Calrissian’s son. This was posted only by the seller and was not part of the official item description from the manufacturer, so it’s likely the seller had no real basis for saying this other than to bring attention to the item. Which, in their defense, it did.

One very logical argument offered up for Finn not being the intended son of Lando Calrissian (besides the idea being based on no other evidence than skin color) was the original casting of the character. Actor Jesse Plemons, probably best known as one of the villains from the final season of Breaking Bad, was originally considered for the role of Finn, but eventually lost out to John Boyega.

You say Lando's the one, but this kid is not his son. 

The name Finn could be a slight homage to the early Expanded Universe. In the original Marvel STAR WARS comic, the rebels met up with a former Mandalorian soldier named Fenn Shysa, who wore armor just like Boba Fett’s and had – according to that story – fought with Fett during the Clone Wars.

An even more interesting theory about Finn is that he could actually be Han’s son. In the new Marvel comic, which is accepted as part of Disney’s new canon, Han once had a wife named Sana Starros, who was black. This was a sham wedding and occurred before the events of Episode IV, so Finn is too young to have been the offspring of that relationship. That’s not to say Han couldn’t have re-connected with Sana at a later time, which could have contributed to his poor relationship with his son Ben and the fact that Han and Leia are no longer together. But we could assume anything happened outside of the story if we wanted to; that doesn’t make it true. The best theories are the ones that can be supported by what we actually see in the story.

Sana Starros Solo from Marvel's current STAR WARS comic. 

Because Lor San Tekka is portrayed by legendary actor Max Von Sydow, his character is of more significant interest that he otherwise would have been. Why cast Max Von Sydow in such a small role? Fans have speculated that Lor San Tekka is actually a reformed Boba Fett, seeking to make amends for the sins of his past. Nothing in the story supports this claim so far. It seems more likely to me that he was once an Imperial agent of some kind. It is later revealed that the map was recovered from Imperial archives and the portion that Lor San Tekka gave to Poe Dameron was erased from the records. Because of this, it seems more likely to me that he was once an Imperial agent of some kind, seeing as how he appears to have had access to retrieve and delete records from the Imperial archive. That’s all speculation, too, since it’s just an assumption that Lor San Tekka was the one who retrieved and deleted the data from the archives.

Max Von Sydow as Lor San Tekka, seen here playing herald to Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron. 

In any event, the first few minutes if Episode VII give us a lot to think about as they establish a whole new epoch of the STAR WARS saga.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Star Wars VII: Before and After!

Sean, Brooks, and Greg join Megan and Melissa to watch STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS! Recording on location just moments before seeing the movie, they discuss their expectations going in, then follow up with their initial reactions once the film is over.

Props to Greg for recording and editing this special edition minisode!


Saturday, December 5, 2015

Our Expanding Universe

What is the Expanded Universe?

The main interest and focus of this series will be the analysis of licensed properties which have sought to expand the Star Wars story. While these works contribute to the same fictional universe as the Star Wars movies, they are not necessarily considered part of the story’s official timeline. Since they are not granted the same level of credibility as the movies, any works classified as “expanded” works make up a fictional universe all their own, one with a much richer history than what was exclusively established by the films.

The Star Wars Expanded Universe began with Edward Summer, a fellow filmmaker and friend of George Lucas who served as a marketing consultant on the original Star Wars film. Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz were extremely interested in Disney’s marketing model. Summer, who had a number of Disney press kits in his collection, showed many of them to Lucas and Kurtz. According to Summer, the marketing of Peter Pan was particularly masterful and stood out to them. That film enjoyed a massive amount of marketing and merchandising, including comic books, toy tie-ins, and games. This initially served as the model for how they intended to market Star Wars. Although none of them realized it at that time, it also served as the genesis of the Star Wars Expanded Universe.[i]
Lucas Licensing oversaw the creation and publication of countless Star Wars stories in printed media, during the production of the original films and long after. The effort was less structured at first, but eventually these stories developed their own intersecting storylines, legitimizing them as genuine contributions to the Star Wars universe. This ongoing effort to maintain the Star Wars mythology outside of the films was branded, and is now popularly known as, the Expanded Universe.
Like our own universe, the Star Wars mythology is an ever-expanding and sometimes contracting world of limitless possibilities. Also like our universe, there are conflicting theories and debates concerning how or why (or even if) this occurs. It sounds more like physics than fiction, but that parallel is one of the reasons I find myself fascinated with the subject in the first place. When fiction creates worlds, mythologies are born.
So the question really is...

What is a mythology?

As a point of clarity, I am defining the mythology of a story based on the themes and motifs discussed in the works of Joseph Campbell, specifically The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Any story that creates worlds and explores universal themes within those worlds is, to some extent, a mythology. What we will focus on as we examine the Star Wars mythology is how that story creates for us a new expression of the mythical hero’s journey. This is in part because Campbell’s work on the subject is as definitive as any work I know, but also because his study of the hero’s journey was a direct influence on George Lucas when he created Star Wars.

The existence of an expanded universe in any franchise hints at the existence of a greater mythology in the core story. While often enough “expanded” works offer little more than repetitions of the larger story in a smaller medium, some franchises have managed to advance the mythology even in the absence of an ongoing incarnation of the core story.
Put simply, that means that franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars can be sustainable even during considerable periods of time where there are no movies or television series being produced. Stories told in other media - such as novels or comic books - fill in the gaps between larger productions, even though such stories rarely enjoy any attention or contribution by the original creators of the franchise.
Mythology at the most basic level comes down to two things: The complexity of the universe that is built around the story and the simplicity of the themes explored within the story. The universe in which Star Wars takes place could not be more alien to us cosmetically, but when we examine the problems and dreams of Luke Skywalker, we cannot help but feel that at his core he is not very different from us.
The core story in a fictional universe is focused on themes that are to some degree universal to all audiences. The story at this level is told in mainstream media that will appeal to the largest audience, for obvious reasons.
So before we go into the thematic construction of mythologies, it’s more important for us to focus on the process of world-building. The mythos of a story is determined by the scope of the universe it creates and the richness of that universe. Scope defines size while richness defines detail. An epic story requires scope, but its mythical qualities are defined in the details.

Continuity vs. Canon

The scope of a story is defined and ultimately regulated by rules that determine both the potential and the limitations of the world they govern. These rules are not overtly stated and are generated over time by events that occur within the framework of the story. As these events unfold, they create an intuitive understanding of what is and isn’t allowed in that universe. If this is not part of a larger plan (which it usually isn’t), how do these universal laws just organically manifest?
I think in order to answer that question it’s important to explain the difference between continuity and canon, because they are the most commonly cited governors of mythological world-building. Often these terms are used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing.
Continuity refers to the level of consistency that can be expected from one installment of the story to the next. It is quantitative in that it governs the basic constants of the universe. That James Kirk’s middle name is Tiberius is a matter of continuity, as is the fact that he is from Iowa and he serves on a spaceship called the USS Enterprise in the twenty third century. Someone has to remember from one episode of Star Trek to the next that these are part of the story’s universe. If this is not done, then the universe is only as big or as small as it is in the episode you are currently watching, and your investment in the story is managed accordingly.

Continuity is essentially the record of what has happened in the history of the story, incorporating all information contributed to the universe in the course of those events. When previously established details are later contradicted, the integrity of that history is called into question and the story illusion is jeopardized.
Canon performs a similar function, but is a much newer construct as a storytelling device. Canon is less concerned with specific content as it is with the context of the story as a whole. Continuity is quantitative, describing the timeline of what happened. Canon is a qualitative concept, informing our abstract understanding of the message those events are meant to communicate. In its subtler form, canon guides our perception of what transpires within the continuity of the story. In its more intrusive aspect, canon is also used to determine whether certain events belong in that continuity, regardless of whether or not those events occurred in an episode of the story that has already been presented to the audience. Canon sometimes follows the dubious pretext that what was heard is not always what was said.
It’s complicated enough when this process follows the events within a single story, even if the story unfolds in an ongoing series of individual episodes. When you’re dealing with a franchise that spans several media outlets and formats, many of which are not created or directly supervised by the original author of the work, there comes the question of how a story in the expanded mythology is to be considered. Specifically: What makes a story canonical (meaning that it is officially regarded to have actually happened)?
There are a lot of different approaches to how the canon of a fictional universe is developed, but in the broadest sense it is generated by an indirect creative collaboration between the story’s creators and its audience. Writers put forward certain ideas and they are either embraced by the audience and therefore ratified, or they are rejected and eventually overwritten. This shared concept of what makes the fictional universe function is generally recognized as its canon.
Canon is not a function of the mythological aspect of storytelling because if a story is mythological in tone, the themes within it should already be inherently understood by the audience. For this reason I will go over what is considered canon as we discuss various expanded works, but the relative canonicity of those works will not in any way impact my analysis of them or their place in the Star Wars mythology. I’m more interested in the content of the stories as it was originally presented.

Expanding Universes

Star Wars is a movie. Star Wars is a series of books. Star Wars is a series of comic books and newspaper comic strips as well as television movies, series, and specials. In a universe that broad, what is “real” and what isn’t? Is all of it real? What if one story contradicts another? What if a future movie contradicts what is said in one of the expanded stories? These are not questions that really got asked back in 1977, but people were slowly starting to decide that they should be.

Star Wars and Star Trek were the first major franchises to address the question of a comprehensive canon because they were the first franchises to fully develop their own expanded universes. Corporate entities licensed out properties as a marketing tool long before Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas came along, but in the case of Star Trek and Star Wars we see the first instances where the original creative force behind the story worked to retain enough creative control to insure the overall integrity of their fictional universe.
They approached the challenge in distinctively different ways. Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, considered the television series and subsequent films to be “Star Trek fact” (canon) and all licensed properties like the myriad novels and comic books to be “Star Trek fiction” (non-canon). The creative teams behind the licensed properties were forbidden to maintain any continuity of characters and events with each other or indeed to develop original characters and continuity on their own. The Star Trek Expanded Universe, such as it was, served merely as a money machine for the various corporations that owned it. Gene Roddenberry had his research assistant, Richard Arnold, work with the Paramount licensing office to make sure the expanded works didn’t contradict the film canon, but there was no concept of an expanded canon that could stand on its own.[ii]
The same could be said for the Star Wars Expanded Universe, but the methodology was significantly different in how it would be regulated. An absolutist would argue that the only true Star Wars canon would be the films, and everything else is just a different interpretation of what might have happened outside the films. But this is not the case in terms of how expanded stories are classified in Star Wars canon.
It all comes down to control. The amount of control that Roddenberry and Lucas wanted to exert was roughly the same, as were their reasons for it. They believed in their creations and wanted to protect the brand they represented. But Gene Roddenberry didn’t own Star Trek. His role in terms of how its canon was developed was almost ceremonial. He was a creative consultant, but Star Trek was licensed out to unrelated corporate entities with or without his approval.
On the other hand, Star Wars was owned by a single person. 20th Century Fox owned the original film, but George Lucas owned and controlled all interests concerned with licensing and merchandising. Because Lucasfilm controlled the Star Wars Expanded Universe, Lucas Licensing could put a lot more effort into developing it. To that end they created a model that would be more flexible to the creative process of its contributors and a lot more satisfying to the fans. George Lucas was just as concerned with protecting his story as Gene Roddenberry had been with his, but Lucas also had a financial interest in assuring that the licensed properties had enough creative freedom to be successful in their own right.
At times it felt like Gene Roddenberry would deliberately hamstring the creative teams working on Star Trek licensed properties, because the expanded works were a necessary evil whose success was of no direct benefit to him.[iii] The Star Wars Expanded Universe was a departure from that methodology because Lucas had full creative and financial control of it. That distinction is significant, because it meant Lucas had the unique opportunity to construct a fully-functioning multi-platform fictional universe with himself as the final judge of what would go into it and the primary beneficiary of everything it produced.

The Star Wars Expanded Universe was the first consciously engineered and carefully cultivated expansion of a fictional mythology. Because its success as an entity has always been a priority, we as an audience have benefited from the creative directions the Expanded Universe was allowed to take. Its actual contribution to the overall mythology has always been questionable, but it was allowed to be self-sustaining as a microcosm within that mythology, and that’s worth studying too.


[ii] In the Hailing Frequencies Open editorial page of Star Trek #1 (DC’s 1989 comic series), series editor Robert Greenberger explained some of the restrictions dictated by Paramount’s licensing team and Gene Roddenberry’s office, including a prohibition against using any original characters created for their previous Star Trek comic book. The decision had also been made that the Star Trek animated series, which had previously been considered canon, was no longer considered canon and therefore the characters from that series were also off-limits.
[iii] In the Hailing Frequencies Open letters column of Star Trek #5 (DC’s 1989 comic book series),  a fan letter condemned  Gene Roddenberry’s research assistant Richard Arnold for forcing the DC creative team to dump their original secondary characters and focus only on main characters. Robert Greenberger was quick to clarify that Richard Arnold spoke on behalf of Gene Roddenberry, so those dictates did not come from Arnold but from Roddenberry himself.

Read Expanding Universe Volume 1 for free!

For a limited time, you can read the first volume of Sean's retrospective series about the Star Wars Expanded Universe, EXPANDING UNIVERSE 01: INTO A LARGER WORLD, for free through Kindle Select or you can purchase it for $2.99.