The Phantom Canon

Star Wars is dead. Long live Star Wars.

It’s been thirty-seven years since Luke Skywalker and his bunch of college friends showed up on our screens, and in that time the universe surrounding George Lucas’ magnum opus expanded to a size three times as large as the Roman Empire and only one quarter as interesting.

Fandoms are wonderful things, and when franchises build further stories for that fandom to enjoy it can either strengthen the artistic integrity of the original IP, or just add a whole lot of chaff to be targeted and ridiculed by fans and fandom foreigners alike. And let’s be honest, Star Wars has a lot of chaff.

Or, rather, had. The Expanded Universe ain’t there no more, aside from that Clone Wars cartoon most right-thinking fans prefer to forget exists.

star-wars-the-clone-wars-jedi-wallpaper
Yep, this is all that’s left. The Force help us.

This is old news, but bears scrutiny nonetheless. Was hacking off all the Star Wars tentacles at once a good idea, or should they have picked and chosen which suckers could stay? One sideways glance at Wookieepedia tells you all you need to know: there was a ton of crap with a few gems embedded. Fitting Episode VII into the 60+ years of written, scribbled and video game’d content following Return of the Jedi was never going to happen. I don’t knock Abrams, Lucasfilm or whomever was responsible for pulling the trigger.

I do, however, question why everything pre-Original Trilogy had to get the axe. Unless a plot point for the sequels deals with tying into very old (chronologically-speaking) parts of the Star Wars ‘verse, couldn’t a bunch of events preceding The Phantom Menace still have stuck around? Moving a little further inward, are there things in the gaps between the prequels or original movies that could be salvaged? Of course, carefully selecting anything to keep would raise the question of “But why couldn’t this be saved instead?” for all that gets sacrificed. I’m sure there’s at least one fan of The Force Unleashed who’s bitter they canned that but kept The Clone Wars around; surely there’s only so much poison you can let linger in Star Wars‘ veins.

So presented herein is my idea for four pieces of pre-Episode III Star Wars spin-off (and one that’s post-) that could’ve survived the cull and, hopefully, had no impact on the upcoming trilogy. Don’t worry, I’ll explain to you what each thing is in detail for those who’ve not read/played/watched the relevant entries (and if you haven’t played the first one, you should cease what you’re doing this minute and purchase it) in a way that doesn’t come off as too fanboy-ish. Maybe. I can get pretty into this stuff on a level that makes my Batman obsession look well-adjusted.

For those as embedded in canon as me, please don’t take it as an insult if I leave a piece of your favourite EU missing. This is hardly an exhaustive list, and no-one judges you for liking The Star Wars Holiday Special.

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1 – Knights of the Old Republic

WHAT THE HELL IS IT?

KotorboxOver a millennium before Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor invade a spaceship looking like a half-eaten donut in The Phantom Menace, you play as a recently-discovered Jedi on the run from the dominance of the Sith Empire. See, in a reverse of the Jedi situation of the Prequel Trilogy, you’re kinda one of the last of an endangered species. You might also have a mysterious past that could redecide the fate of the galaxy, once a guy with half a Darth Vader mask stops chasing you while seeming to find you strangely familiar.

WHY SHOULD WE HAVE KEPT IT?

Ask any enduring Star Wars fan what their favourite video game was. If the first answer is Battlefront, the second will be KotOR.

The first Knights set the bar for both Star Wars games and action-RPGs for the newer console generation, starting life on the original Xbox and PC. Even today, though the graphics are dated, both story and gameplay are top-notch. More importantly, the story is excellently told no matter what alignment of the Force you set yourself to; burgeoning Jedi Masters or emerging Sith Lords find equal ground for satisfaction here. Even disregarding that, both the setting and umbrella plot of the ‘verse over a thousand years before The Phantom Menace is awesome and engaging. Part of that stems from a bit of familiarity, but a lot from the fact that we’ve got literally an entire galaxy to play with here.

Also, you can fight Dark Jedi in your underwear. Because Internet.
Also, you can fight Dark Jedi in your underwear. Because Internet.

The timeline of KotOR is verdant, free of any entanglements with protagonists that usually plague other games set within already-defined canon (see the first two Dark Forces games for an idea of what I’m on about). You can go anywhere, make any story you want, and it’s all having consequences only on itself. Nothing’s verboten. It’s a remarkably freeing feeling, knowing you’re playing a story where the ending or inclusion of characters isn’t predefined by a poorly made CGI sequel where Hayden Christensen pretends to emote.

The second game was good, but most tend not to talk about it. Let’s not break from tradition here.

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2 – The Darth Bane trilogy

WHAT THE HELL IS IT?

Some time passes following the end of Knight of the Old Republic, during which the Jedi have thrived and the Sith are facing Path-of-destructionsomething of a cultural and military ennui. A young miner on a crapsack planet discovers he has violent tendencies that inadvertently trigger the Force, and thus sets off to join the Sith and get hold of all that passion, anger and other nasty stuff Emperor Palpatine always seems to find a turn-on. Over time, the miner becomes Darth Bane: if the Sith ever had a version of Chuck Norris, he’d be it.

Over the course of three novels, Bane sets about reformatting the Sith into a more cohesive, ordered entity, largely by cutting down their numbers from dozens to just two. Remember that Sith axiom from the prequels referring to there only being two – a master and an apprentice? Were it a royalty-driven trademark, Darth Bane’s estate would make Terry Nation’s look like nothing.

WHY SHOULD WE HAVE KEPT IT?

Not only are the Darth Bane books exceedingly well-written, especially by Star Wars standards, but they set up fundamental power dynamics between all the Sith characters throughout the existing six movies. Am I the only one who felt the explanation given in Phantom Menace – or, rather, the lack of one – about why only two black-cloak-wearing badasses are running around foiling the Jedi was kind of non-explanatory? These books go a ways towards redeeming that lacking quality, as well as giving us an interesting story that, for all intents and purposes, is the origin of the Sith as we know them.

darth-bane_00321727
Those eyes will now inhabit your nightmares.

Bane as a character also presents something of a dichotomy. Granted, he’s as evil as a bag of possessed ferrets with the ax-crazy tendencies that exemplify Sith attitudes, but there’s a number of moments – even following his adoption of the Darth moniker – where there’s real sympathy felt for the guy. The best villain protagonists are written in a way that makes me feel for them, even if only in fleeting dalliances, and this is something Bane’s trilogy managed to pull off from time to time.

The distance from all six films makes the Darth Bane books ideal to keep around, unless Episode VII plans to completely rework how the Sith got their groove back.

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3 – Cloak of Deception

WHAT THE HELL IS IT?

cloak_of_deceptionA novel set immediately before the events of The Phantom Menace, and manages to redeem a lot of the poor storytelling choices Lucas made in that film. Cloak of Deception is an introduction to Qui-Gon Jinn, a view into the rotten, corrupted core of the Republic, and a great prelude to the events that would prove disappointing at best and disastrous at worst.

WHY SHOULD WE HAVE KEPT IT?

Admittedly it’s been a very long time since I read it, and my copy’s probably squeezed inside one of my storage boxes somewhere in the Himalayas, but in general terms James Luceno writes a lot of what should’ve been included in the first prequel here. Qui-Gon suddenly has a bit of depth and semi-consistent charactersation. The Senate’s not just an obtusely corrupt entity. Things have weight and a bit more depth here, or at least more than what was present in The Phantom Menace.

I know a movie should stand on its own in terms of conveying plot and character, and not rely on expanded universe material to give context to a story they should’ve already told. But since Cloak of Deception does quite a bit to redeem some of the dodgier parts of the first prequel film, I’d be quick to keep this fix-fic on hand for the canon guide.

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4 – Outbound Flight

WHAT THE HELL IS IT?

Set between Episodes I and II, the Jedi launch an expedition to go colonise other parts of the universe and see what’s out there. 200px-OutboundflightfrontcoverUnfortunately, “what’s out there” turns out to be an alien empire called the Chiss, led by this dude called Thrawn. The expedition also turns out be led by a Jedi who’s not in possession of all the marbles.

Oh dear.

WHY SHOULD WE HAVE KEPT IT?

Keen-eyed readers will no doubt see one glaring thing about Outbound Flight: if nothing else, it’s a prequel to the very excellent Thrawn trilogy that began the post-Return of the Jedi canon all those years ago. Indeed, several of the major players of that trilogy are introduced in Flight‘s pages, which is probably a given when the writer of both is Timothy Zahn (a.k.a. the author most-cited by fans as being the best at the Star Wars EU).

Part of what makes Outbound Flight rock more than a Chilean landslide is its almost complete divorce from every other element of Star Wars canon of the period. Yes, Obi-Wan and a still-

Seriously, doesn't that just look awesome?
Seriously, doesn’t that just look awesome?

neophyte Anakin appear, but are quickly dispatched from the action by Palpatine and allow the story’s cast of characters to develop without the aid of movie protagonists. There’s a distinctly alien feel to the story in comparison to other EU books, and not just coz the Chiss are involved. The actual Outbound Flight ship is alone, with a bunch of new characters who may not all like each other. They’re being led by an unhinged Jedi Master. The safety net of Coruscant and the Republic is very, very far away, with the great yawning maw of the unknown staring them in the face.

As well as having Zahn’s usual flare for character and descriptive writing, Flight is a fantastic premise and story all on its own.

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5 – Allegiance/Choices of One

WHAT THE HELL IS IT?

AllegianceA pair of novels set just after the end of A New Hope, featuring the chronological first appearance of Mara Jade and a bunch of stormtroopers who decide life under Imperial rule ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. The former hunts Luke Skywalker, the latter set off to become the stormtrooper Justice League (no, seriously).

 

 

WHY SHOULD WE HAVE KEPT IT?

First of all, if that premise don’t grab you, nothing will.

Join the Empire, indeed.
Join the Empire, indeed.

The stormtroopers calling themselves the Hand of Judgment are awesome, well-rounded and distinct. The idea of them taking vigilante justice into their own hands and kicking Imperial ass is awesome. Not much more I can say on that, except that it mildly comes across as a “screw-you” to George Lucas’s Clones ideas.

Mara Jade, on the other Hand (a pun for fellow Star Wars nerds), is too good not to have somewhere in the upcoming movies. I don’tchoicesofone care that she’s technically no longer canon anymore. She was awesome right up until Legacy of the Force dropped a bridge on her, and I want her back. Even if she’s not Luke Skywalker’s wife, she’s a damn good character in her own right. Who needs a character like Princess Leia when you’ve got a strong feminist with red hair and a purple lightsaber who’ll slice you for crossing her?

On the less subjective side, both books – and Allegiance especially – do a lot to fill in some gaps between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. We see how Vader learns about Luke, how Luke learns about the Force, and how Han continues to be a lovable jerk. So that’s always nice.

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BONUS – Kyle Katarn

WHO THE HELL IS HE?

If Star Wars ever had an equivalent of Chuck Norris, Vin Diesel and a grizzly bear, it was Kyle Katarn.

223505-119461-kyle-katarn
Awww yeah.

Former Imperial agent turned freelancer turned Jedi, Kyle debuted in a game called Dark Forces back in the days when 3D gameplay looked more like paddle-pop puppets shooting cellophane at you. He moved through several games after that, primarily the awesome Jedi Knight series, and made a few appearances in latter-day EU books like The Unifying Force and Fury.

Let it not be understated that Kyle is a badass. He’s killed more Dark Jedi than most main characters across all six films, carries a lightsaber and pistol, owns a kickass starship, and is able to be morally grey (at times channeling Dirty Harry) without succumbing to the Dark Side (unless you pick that ending, in which case, man is he evil).

Rated M for Manly.
Rated M for Manly.

WHY SHOULD WE HAVE KEPT HIM?

Kyle_KatarnI want to make it clear we should’ve kept Kyle, not necessarily the stories he was part of. Yes, Dark Forces and the Jedi Knight games were awesome, but by the time of the latter’s third instalment Jedi Academy Kyle was experiencing a little badass decay. Plus, does anyone really want to relive that battle with a ghost in a space pyramid?

Book-wise, Kyle was little more than a footnote except for a story called Fury, where he had a substantial appearance that almost killed him off forever. So, y’know, best forgotten.

The character’s dynamic, three-dimensional and fleshed out amongst most of the Star Wars EU’s cardboard cutout Jedi. True, that doesn’t come across so well in the books as it does in the games, but those who’ve experienced the latter can apply it to the former. The truth is Kyle is one of the best characters Star Wars ever produced, and while many may disagree with me since he is, as compared above, a bit of a Chuck Norris too-much-badass figure, I think he’s fantastic. Hell, give us a trilogy of films just focusing on him and it’d be gravy.

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As I said at the top, this is hardly an exhaustive list. I’m sure there’s plenty more that could be added, and I’m not so socially-deprived that I’ve experienced every single piece of story the Star Wars canon had to offer. Well, I mean, I am socially-deprived, but not that socially-deprived.

I look forward to seeing what J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and everyone else has to offer with Episode VII, but it’s always good to remember what came before. If it was something bad, just have a drink afterwards to forget it again.

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