The Star Wars Expanded Universe Made the Prequel Trilogy Better
But can it do the same for the Disney era sequels?
As the evening stretches into the night, my mind lingers on something I can’t deny…
A long time ago in a different world, one where the vast reach and invasion of privacy that is today’s internet was a much smaller, less invasive web of information. Way back when you had to dial up to connect; when cell phones had telescoping antennae and could only make phone calls or play Snake; back when LucasArts was making exceptional non-Star Wars video games for the PC. This was when Timothy Zahn published the unofficial (and significantly better) sequel trilogy. Star Wars fans were excited about the upcoming, HUGE movie project — the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker as presented in the Prequel Trilogy. If you were old enough to remember the tremendous hype leading to the release of The Phantom Menace, then you know what I’m talking about. If not, close your eyes, concentrate, and take a step back into the late 90s.
It was an exciting time for fans. Information about the prequels was difficult to obtain if you didn’t subscribe to Star Wars Insider, read entertainment magazines, or just plain know someone who was in the trenches, digging out any bits of news about Episode 1 that they could find. The mystery surrounding this movie, coupled with the legacy of the franchise itself, created a level of excitement about Star Wars that hasn’t been matched since. We came close in the lead up to The Force Awakens, but even that energy didn’t match the frenzy of May 1999. The scene was set for fans to be wowed and left in awe by the next entry in George Lucas’s Skywalker saga, and it was a grand disappointment.
Only in the last few years has the Prequel Trilogy enjoyed favorable sentiment, likely attributed to the now adult Star Wars fans praising them who were little children when they came out. Nostalgia paints things in a rosier hue, but trust me when I say that these movies did not capture fans’ hearts and imagination the way the Original Trilogy did. I’ll admit a bit of hypocrisy here because I was a youngling when I first saw the OT, so it imprinted on me. I doubt any Star Wars Trilogy will affect me the same way again, but I’ve hoped it would happen.
By the time The Phantom Menace rolled around, I was a junior in high school, and my expectations for the movie were high, like many of the other fans anticipating its release. George Lucas set a standard with the Original Trilogy that he couldn’t quite meet again, save for the technical advancements ILM made in the decade and a half between Episode 6 and Episode 1. Or maybe it was that the stink of Jar Jar Binks was too much to ignore. Maybe Lucas rushed Attack of the Clones, or maybe shooting most of these films in front of a green screen cheapens the emotion and sincerity actors attempt to convey. The Prequel Trilogy was panned by fans and became a blight on the beloved Star Wars franchise. About the only good thing about them was John Williams’s score. That man can do no wrong.
Years after Order 66 and the Duel on Mustafar went down, in 2008, the Clone Wars debuted: redemption. Ah yes, a familiar theme from the galaxy far, far away. This animated series expanded the story of what transpired between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. It gave background characters, like Jedi Master Luminara Unduli and Darth Maul, more depth, and a larger role, in the grand Star Wars narrative. It established the future paths of beloved characters, like Boba Fett. It introduced us to Ahsoka Tano, the Kryze sisters, Death Watch, Cad Bane, and other characters who still affect the current canon. Fast forward a few years later to the House of Mouse takeover of Lucasfilm, and we got a new animated series, Star Wars: Rebels, serving the same function as Clone Wars: advancing the narratives of characters outside the Skywalker saga sphere who were drawn into the same fight for freedom against the evil Empire. This show was a bridge that connected the fall of the Republic to the rise of the Rebel Alliance. It continued to build on characters that were introduced to us during the Clone Wars era while giving us new characters whose impact on the Star Wars galaxy will be felt during the Galactic Civil War through the New Republic era and into the rise of the First Order (and perhaps even beyond this era). We also got to see Grand Admiral Thrawn on screen for the first time, a move that only a certified Star Wars story-telling mastermind like Dave Filoni could pull off.
Filoni and Favreau would combine forces and bring balance to the rocky Disney Sequel-era with The Mandalorian, certifying their status as creative gods with the knowledge, passion, and vision that George Lucas himself channeled to launch this entire damn franchise into hyperspace in the 1970s. But, without the expanded universe of both Legends and Canon, the franchise would have lived and died (and disappointed some) with only the cinematic adventures. This medium is too limited to provide a complete picture of the characters that fill this galaxy. You wouldn’t be wrong if you argued that the Star Wars expanded universe exists in the first place to rake in the dinero because fans will certainly fork out their earnings for a fix, but I would also like to think that George Lucas (then) and Filoni, et. al (now) are using these platforms to create because they love the Star Wars galaxy so much, and they want to play in the sandbox and create radical stuff. They nailed it with The Mandalorian and seem to be continuing on the right track with The Bad Batch. I believe that Lucasfilm will continue to thrill fans with its upcoming slate of projects over the next decade, and I’ll wager that The Book of Boba Fett is going to be better than The Mandalorian.
Del Rey Books, Disney Lucasfilm Press, and Marvel are currently doing the heavy lifting on all Star Wars written content. A middle-aged fan with a family and responsibilities greater than satiating his desire to engage with everything Star Wars may experience some limits to the amount of content they can consume, as is my case. I did my fair share of Star Wars comic book collecting, from Dark Horse to Marvel, up through early 2020, when the pandemic shut things down. I kind of grew up a little bit and decided to stop buying all those damn comics (sigh), but I enjoyed the experience of seeing new and beloved characters get into and out of trouble. I’ve read the From A Certain Point of View series and enjoyed how the different authors have created more layers to the beloved OT films with stories from background characters involved in directly in the action, or caught up in it. These mediums have done a wonderful job of describing and showing us the things that happened to main characters between the movies and to the things that have happened to lesser-known characters during the movies.
Because of this tremendous work from so many great authors, illustrators, and creative folks in general, I can forgive the sins of the Prequel Trilogy, like the pacing and the corny dialogue, because it’s not my only opportunity to engage with those characters. I can take the things that I do love about those movies (pod-racing, set pieces, classic lightsaber duels, the score) and catch references to them in the other content. It gives me a greater appreciation for the complexity and scope of this running history of a fictional place and time. So, can the same be done for the maligned Sequel Trilogy? I believe it can be done.
Already, The Bad Batch and The Mandalorian have provided parts of a backstory for Emperor Palpatine’s sudden return in The Rise of Skywalker, one of many slapdash occurrences in that movie. Such a shame it was to waste the talents of a great cast and to squander years of character development in movies and the expanded universe by breezing through the critical moments that changed them from who we knew to who they’ve become. This is a specific reference to Luke Skywalker, but it also includes our original heroes: Han, Leia, Chewie, and the droids.
Bless Dave Filoni and John Favreau for making bold moves in showing us the first steps of the part of the story we didn’t get to see: Luke re-establishing the Jedi Order. If somehow they can take us to the moment it all goes south, there is a chance the Sequel Trilogy may be remembered fondly in another 10 or 15 years. Marvel, Charles Soule, and Will Sliney gave us their comic book miniseries, The Rise of Kylo Ren. Perhaps Disney+ will give us the Fall of Luke Skywalker or the Han and Leia version of Marriage Story. It can be done. This is the way.