Honorary Canon: Disney’s revamp of the Star Wars fiction, and why it matters (sort of)

by James M. Potter

Ever since Disney announced that it would be putting out new Star Wars films and products, there has been a mixed response from one of the world’s most devoted fandoms. To the sci-fi or fantasy fan, more time spent in their chosen universe is almost always an unequivocally good thing. But the fans are realising there will have to be sacrifices. Disney have recently announced that they are streamlining the canon of the Star Wars universe. They’ve appointed a ‘Story Group’ to sift through the vast corpus of media set long ago in that galaxy far, far away, and decide which of it should be considered to have actually happened. It’s put me to thinking – why is canonicity important in fantasy fiction? If all of it is made up anyway, why should it be important that some it is agreed to have ‘happened’ and some of it isn’t?

As Lee Hutchinson points out in this article, in order to make new films that have even a chance at being any good, the directors and writers can’t be tied down by the massive body of stories currently considered part of the ‘Expanded Universe’ of the Star Wars franchise. The events of the existing six films take place over a period of about twenty years, and mainly treat the rise, fall, and ultimate redemption of Anakin Skywalker, the ‘one who will bring balance to the Force’. The Expanded Universe, however, stretches thousands of years before Episode I, and a couple of centuries after (and it’s growing all the time, or at least it was until the announcement). Authors have been given a great deal of freedom to elaborate on the details of the universe, to invent characters and play with them as they see fit. Suffice it to say that the Force is not particularly balanced.

So why is this important? How different is this material to published fan fiction? A lot of it is similarly variable in quality, that’s for sure. I think it breaks down like this. A universe has been created, initially by George Lucas, and subsequently fleshed out by a myriad of authors and fans who care deeply about it. Giving these stories canon status implies that they belong, that they are somehow a true record of events, and therefore something a fan might consider a pleasure or perhaps a duty to read. It’s not just the legitimacy of the writing that’s important, but also the legitimacy of reading it.

The franchise has conferred a good deal of legitimacy on many of these stories. In the rather complex system of canon levels, they are considered canon unless directly contradicted by the films (which inhabit the highest level of canon). But as Hutchinson points out, there’s now so much material that the EU is groaning under its own weight.

Star Trek, by contrast, has always controlled its canon very deftly. When it was decided that the franchise needed rebooting, this was accomplished by effectively splitting the timeline in two (in the events of 2009’s Star Trek). For the purposes of the new films, it meant complete freedom to create new stories for Kirk and pals (or to basically remake older films), whilst not completely erasing the much-loved TV shows which can still be said to be ‘true’.

Things are more problematic for the writers of the new Wars films. Since they will be set after Episode VI, they will inevitably come into conflict with the huge amount of literature which also covers this timespan. We could end up in the strange position of having Timothy Zahn’s lauded 1991-3 Thrawn trilogy, set 5 years after Episode VI, overruled by a film series which itself drew inspiration from Zahn (the inclusion of the planet Coruscant in the prequel trilogy, for example). Will the solution be as simple as fiddling about with what Doctor Who has recently taken to calling ‘wibbly wobbly timey wimey’? I doubt it, if only because in story terms Star Wars is a much more old-fashioned universe than Who or Trek. Time manipulation never comes into it – remember, we’re a long time ago here. Who can get away with it because internal consistency just isn’t important to its largely story-of-the-week format – as they’ve proved recently, nothing is set in stone, not even supposedly time-locked conflicts. That’s all part of its flippant charm (or a source of frustration, depending on your viewpoint). But Star Wars takes itself a great deal more seriously, and if vast swathes of the SW Expanded Universe have to be sucked into a black hole to make room for a simpler story (ie, one that can be told in 120-minute movie chunks), the canonic legitimacy of those stories will be erased in a more fundamental way than, say, the pre-reboot Trek franchise.

A still from ‘Star Wars Holiday Special’. Despite the universally negative reaction, much of it is considered canon.

The fate of an imaginary universe rests in the hands of Disney. In a way they’re like the compilers of the Bible, deciding what did and didn’t happen in order to construct a sequence of events that is internally consistent. Maybe the stories they leave out can just become apocrypha, referred to when needed but not really counted. But what of the effect on fans/believers? Imagine the next Vatican council concluding that due to necessary canon modifications, the book of Acts would now be considered apocryphal. Replace ‘Vatican’ with ‘Disney’ and ‘Acts’ with ‘the Rogue Squadron series’ and you perhaps get close to how fans will feel about it.

Of course, it may simply depend on whether the new films are any good. If they are, fans will gradually be won over to the new continuity. If, however, we end up with another Star Wars Holiday Special, we’ll probably stick to the novels, thank you very much.