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Disney takes a chainsaw to the Star Wars expanded universe
And good riddance, because almost all of it is crap.

January 16, 2013 by Lee Hutchinson

Star Wars is sacred to geeks. Characters in Kevin Smith movies refer to it as "the Holy Trilogy," and for almost as long as Star Wars has existed, fans have wanted to know more about the universe outside of the movies—and the canonicity of all the elements of that universe is the subject of almost ecclesiastical-scale debates. The movies are unquestionably official—they are the foundational elements of Star Wars, even Episodes I-III. However, the combined mass of video games, board games, tie-in novels, cartoons, and anything else branded with a Star Wars logo occupies a lesser tier in the hierarchy: all these things are still "official" in that they carry the logo, but they are merely part of the Star Wars Expanded Universe.

The Expanded Universe—the "EU"—sprawls like a bloated dead thing with tentacles stretching in all directions. Everything is in there: Timothy Zahn's Thrawn series (which introduced the eponymous Admiral Thrawn, as well as fan favorite Mara Jade, the former Emperor's Hand-turned-smuggler who overcame her hatred of Luke Skywalker and became his wife). Clone Wars and The Old Republic. The Yuuzhan Vong and the death of Chewbacca. Kevin J. Anderson and all the unspeakably, unreadably bad literary atrocities for which he's responsible.

A sci-fi universe with as long a tail as Star Wars can be death for new stories, though. Finding space among the EU to make a mark without being hamstrung by established ideas is difficult, and even keeping the EU somewhat organized is challenging. Its growth has been cancerous—like a tumor, it has no plan and no organization—it simply expands, blindly, as the collective fan engine shovels in new material.

And like a tumor, Disney is going to rip it out.

The mouse and the chainsaw

Word began trickling out over Twitter last week that Disney will be drastically redefining the state of the Star Wars lore, eliminating the bifurcated mainline/EU arrangement and in its place constructing a single official canon. All things that are part of the canon are "real," as far as Star Wars is concerned; all things not in the canon are "not real." This eliminates the quasi-real EU tier—going forward, things will either exist officially, or not at all.

Lucasfilm employee Leland Chee, who currently maintains the internal Lucasfilm database that tracks the different elements of the canon, will be one of the folks making this decision. He tweeted that "Star Wars Canon is now determined by the Lucasfilm Story Group," which he and fellow Lucasfilm employee Pablo Hidalgo are part of. When asked specifically whether the group's goal was to eliminate the mainline/EU canon arrangement and its tiers of official-ness, Chee responded with a definitive yes. "More so than ever," he said, "the canon field will serve us internally simply for classification rather than setting hierarchy."

Now, no longer will there be a complex multi-level hierarchy of canonicity—there will simply be canon, and not.

This is an excellent decision, and one that a certain other science fiction franchise whose name also includes the word "Star" made long ago. For Star Trek, the tie-in novels and other ephemera have always been non-canonical. At times, this has been a good thing, because some of the novels have been truly terrible, although at other times it's prevented Star Trek from going down what might have been some truly wonderful paths (like an on-screen exploration of John M. Ford's beautifully poetic take on the Klingons, or a far less idiotic tale of Human-Vulcan first contact).

De-crapifying the universe

The slap-dash, anyone-can-add-to-it nature of the existing Expanded Universe and its tiers is great for detail-oriented fans who want to write a Mary Sue fanfic that includes a perfectly accurate depiction of the seven prime forms of lightsaber combat, but it's absolute poison for Disney. The company will be releasing their next Star Wars movie in 2015, and the giant swamp of the EU stretches out before them, threatening to ensnare and swallow up any potential ideas they might try to include. They need to be able to re-launch the franchise in a direction that they control, and that requires the freedom to let Empire Strikes Back writer Lawrence Kasdan pen the script without worrying about stumbling over years' worth of baggage. In fact, Kasdan's unfamiliarity with the EU is a strength here—and one that Disney is capitalizing on by drastically reducing the number of things he has to worry about.

Most of the EU is simply layers and layers of garbage. It's filled with thinly veiled Mary Sue characters, ludicrous minutiae, and a ponderous and plodding history (past AND future) of the galaxy. It's creaky under its own weight, and Chee's pruning is a welcome change. In him, Disney has a person who intimately understands the core elements of what makes Star Wars, Star Wars.

It's unclear at this point what in the EU will be pitched out into the trash, and what will be promoted to canon. When asked, Chee himself responded that he can't say when fans will be able to see the results the trim's impact on the universe's lore. Still, it's a safe assumption that every single bit of EU story set after The Return of the Jedi will have to go—and, for the most part, good riddance to it, because almost all of it is terrible.

Ironically, nuking all post-RotJ material would remove Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy, which Lucasfilm authorized and provided limited collaboration on. Zahn's three books are easily the best of the often-literally-vomit-inducing tie-in novels, but they also are set shortly after the events of RotJ and deal specifically with the aftermath of the fall of the Empire. Losing them would mean losing some of the best content the EU has to offer; it would also, however, mean considerably more latitude in following up Episodes IV-VI.

Regardless of what gets kept, the chainsawing of canon is unequivocally a good thing. It's time to dump the EU into the garbage chute and feed it to the dianoga.

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