“You came in that thing? You’re braver than I thought.” Canon, continuity, and the Expanded Universe

There’s been a lot of talk about continuity and canon in fandom lately. Well, there always is, but this latest round was prompted by the tail end of The Clone Wars S3 and the Petition of the 2000.

I mentioned the petition – and the reaction to it – in my last opinion piece on civility in fandom, but I didn’t really address the actual issues that prompted it. Mostly because, quite honestly? The whole thing bores the hell out of me, but the lack of casual/moderate voices bugs me even more. Go figure.

I’ve been reading Star Wars books and comics for nearly 20 years now: They have never been been perfect, and expecting them to be at this point strikes me as just plain naïve. The Expanded Universe is kind of like Millennium Falcon: It more than does the job, and many of us are awfully fond of it, but it’s not without flaws. Big, honking, flaws. And sometimes? It just flat-out sucks.

First, though, let’s get the Ric Olies out of the way for those who haven’t been following this constant argument discussion:

Canon is basically ‘what counts’ in the eyes of Lucasfilm. They have a ‘Keeper of the Holocron,’ Leland Chee, whose responsibility it is to keep track of all this in an internal database called the Holocron. There are several different layers of canon, some of which hold more weight than others. Basically, things that George Lucas has created – like the movies – or has a significant say in – The Clone Wars – count more than things in which he doesn’t. Chee himself goes into more detail on the system on his Facebook page.

Continuity is more of a catch-all phrase for keeping all the events, people and details straight. (For instance: Making sure that Luke’s lightsaber is green, except when it’s supposed to blue.) Some things (What is Mandalore supposed to look like, again?) may involve more detail – and a canon over-ride or two – than others. It’s about making sure that all the dots connect. And due to the layered nature of Lucasfilm’s canon system, things don’t always fit perfectly. (And in the case of The Clone Wars, it’s not like we weren’t warned.)

A retcon (short for retroactive continuity) is when Chee or an author finds a way to take information or a plot point that has been overwritten by canon and makes it work again. For instance, some books and comics published before The Phantom Menace make reference to Jedi marriage – and show ancient Jedi (like Nomi Sunrider) being married. When the prequels contracted that, the retcon became that Jedi at one point had been able to get married, but by the time of TPM the rules had long since changed – or could only be bent in special circumstances. (Sorry, Anakin.)

The Petition of the 2000 is asking that Lucasfilm respect what’s already been established in continuity before overwriting it with a canon source. (Instead of killing off a minor Jedi Master in a Clone Wars episode set several years before he died in a book series.) Here’s what Chee had to say about the petition the other day:

While I am humbled by your passion, I strongly believe the Expanded Universe should always strive to adhere to George Lucas’s vision of the Star Wars universe. When discrepancies arise, we’ve always made every effort to adjust the EU to adhere to that vision while at the same time, preserving as much of the existing EU as possible. We did this when new films came out, we will continue to do this with The Clone Wars series, and we will do this with anything else that stems from George’s vision of Star Wars. Given it has been over 30 years since the release of the first sequel, I think we’ve done a pretty good job of holding together the EU so far.

I, for one, have no problem with that approach. (And given that most of the reaction I’ve seen from EU fans to the petition has amounted to a big old shrug, I doubt I’m alone in that.) The retcons and other spackling will happen in good time. It might take a little longer than it did with the prequels, but such is the nature of dealing with a live canon.

The EU has many flaws, just as the movies themselves do, and certainly The Clone Wars does as well, if I can trust our reviewers. But as fans, we have the freedom to focus on what we love best. If continuity is your thing, then fine: Sign the petition. Will it do any good? I really doubt it. But I don’t think it’ll hurt anything, either, as long as most of us retain the ability to act like adults.

My take has always been to value the parts of the EU that I like above those that I don’t. It’s highly subjective, so I stopped debating about these things years ago. I certainly don’t expect Lucasfilm to cater exclusively to me and my viewpoint about these things. (To put it frankly: My KOTOR/prequel apathy is not their problem.) Does George Lucas have the right to overrule things in the EU? Of course he does. I’m not going to dispute that the movies and (now, apparently) the cartoon come first. It’s George. That’s his thing.

And true, I’ve been pretty lucky so far… There were a few minor issues from the prequels that required some fairly gentle retconning, but nothing particularly strenuous. (Not counting any of the Boba Fett stuff, because I was barely aware of his ‘original’ backstory to begin with. I was actually kinda hoping it would turn out to be Jar Jar under that mask.)

Will George change his mind one day and venture into the post-ROTJ era? Will the cartoon or (eventually) the live action series ever conflict with anything I do care about? I don’t know. But George doesn’t seem all that interested in what I’m into. So what if he thinks Han, Leia and Luke are living happily ever after having backyard barbecues every weekend? That doesn’t mean that all the stories I’ve read and enjoyed over the years suddenly don’t exist. Lucasfilm is not going to break into our houses and take them away.

And if George ever does change his mind about the barbecues? Well, I’ll wait and see and judge the work on it’s own merits. I’m not totally adverse to tearing down the EU and using it for parts: Hell, I actually suggested it at one point. In the end, they’re all just stories, and I’m willing to enjoy some of them individually if it ever comes to that.

Does a seamless, overreaching continuity have to matter to us, on a personal level? Well, that’s up to you. But for me? I’m okay.

Canon and continuity have their place, of course: Obviously, Lucasfilm doesn’t keep a guy like Chee around for nothing. But the vast majority of us aren’t writing anything official; We’re not adding to the canon. As fans, we have the freedom to chose what ‘counts’ to us, individually. Why not make that choice?

I know there are those of who feel very strongly on this issue, but I’ve always tried to be something of a realist about Star Wars and the EU. I find the endless arguments to and for and about canon and continuity totally tedious, and if my approach offends anyone, well, all I can say is: It’s personal. Sorry.

Quite frankly, at this point I’d rather have good stories that are internally consistent than a flawless overreaching continuity. Making continuity one’s main focus for the franchise seems like focusing on details to the detriment of the whole. Flaws happen, with or without the Holocron (let’s not pretend that George has never contradicted himself) and if it’s perfection you’re looking for in a franchise… Well. Good luck with that.

Right now, all I can do is hope that the forthcoming abandonment of the multi-author series format will bring a few more good stories that actually appeal to me – no matter where or how they fall into continuity.

UPDATE: Pete at Lightsaber Rattling talks about intellectualizing the process of conflicts in continuity.

33 thoughts on ““You came in that thing? You’re braver than I thought.” Canon, continuity, and the Expanded Universe

  1. Kelly

    I’ll admit that I’m kind of anal about canon, mostly because I’m fairly linear and mono-focused, so I want everything to be contained in one, neat package.

    But when you have a “package” as huge and continually-growing as SW? Not gonna happen. The movies weren’t told in order to begin with, and the universe is being added to in patches all over the timeline, so there’s just no way to keep it all to one, simple, neat continuity. Given that, I think your approach makes the most sense. And you’re always open to your own retconning of things that do mess with the things you care about.

    Keep what you want and leave the rest. If it works for AA, it should work for fandoms, too.

  2. Cy

    The Ric Olie bit made me laugh, and I really like your point about a “live canon”. Maybe we should just be glad we’re always getting new material.

    I state my own opinions on Clone Wars and Revan continuity problems at my blog, so no need to rehash that. But I think you also make a very valid point that it all comes down to the individual parts of the canon that each fan is most passionate about. I admit that I don’t care a whit (or a Whill?) about what happens to the Mandalorians, but as soon as they start messing with Darth Maul’s backstory I get growly. And Lucasfilm can’t please us all, and they can’t, as you said, break into our houses or brains and take what we like away.

  3. Lyn

    I guess I’m just so glad to constantly be getting new material, that continuity isn’t an issue for me. Actually, I think the books have made a bigger hash out of some stuff than anything GL does. There’s my loyalty showing because I was an adult when Star Wars came out in ’77, and I’m going to be forever grateful to Lucas for gifting the world. Do you know how much sci-fi dreck and gloom we had to sit through before Star Wars? It’s all in the perspective.

  4. Mark "Jedi" Hurliman

    Awesome Dunc!

    Love your stance! See here Fandom; an article can be written without name calling or finger pointing. LOVE IT! To the point without going too far! Well said indeed!

  5. Mark newbold

    Top article as ever. “live cannon”, I like that. It is a big living document so always going to be tough to keep in check. My main gripe is that its a galaxy with trillions of people and millions of worlds, so is there really a need for contradictions (like Even Piell for example) to happen. But, that said you make a good point. As much as Uncle George cant take away my VHS of the Holiday Special, he cant take all those great (now contradicted) stories. My opinion changes like the tide, but for today its all cool.

  6. Nanci

    I’m sure I’ll rage and scream if TTT is ever deemed non-canon…but when it’s all said and done, I’ve still got my autographed copies and they are never going away. Just like there are AU fanfics that I love more than some actual EU books, the stories I love will always be a part of me. Man, was that cheesy or what?

  7. Chris Mathers

    You know, I kind of agree with this article, but one thing I have an issue with…every one has their own personal preference and far be it from me to convince anyone who thinks something either sucks, or is the best thing since sliced bread, otherwise. We all have our favorite characters, factions, time periods, etc. But the one thing nobody should have is their own “personal” canon. Just because I really like the Republic Commando novels compared to the Tales of the Jedi comics, just because I think they’re awesome whereas TOTJ is kinda take-it-or-leave-it for me, doesn’t mean TOTJ somehow “doesn’t count.” The point is…there’s only one canon, and everything with a Lucas stamp counts, unless it also has an Infinities stamp. Don’t matter if it’s that horrible “Corruption” episode of the Clone Wars, or the epic “Rookies” three-parter.

  8. Dunc Post author

    Yes, there’s nothing more dangerous than an individual making personal choices about what they care about in a fictional universe.

  9. Mark Newbold

    Chris makes a lot of sense, unless it’s Infinities and it’s passed LFL licensing then it’s part of the universe…or perhaps not, maybe Luke and Leia aren’t bro and sis, maybe Obi Wan is really Owens brother and perhaps palpy is Anakins dad…who knows, it’s Tuesday. Could all change on Wednesday.

  10. Dunc Post author

    Well, to be serious, there’s a whole lot of stuff in Star Wars I just don’t care about. So while most of the prequel era stuff ‘doesn’t count’ to me (I generally don’t watch TCW or read books in that era,) I’m not saying it doesn’t exist at all in my mind, just that I don’t really care. I have no problem accepting the wider strokes of the PT movies, but I don’t really have any great need to see all the blanks filled in: They just don’t matter to me. It’s apathy, not rejection.

    But my point isn’t so much about having a ‘personal canon,’ it’s that a work doesn’t need to be 100% canon or in continuity for me to enjoy it.

  11. Mark Newbold

    Oh, don’t get me wrong Dunc, totally understand that (the apathy part that is) as there are huge swathes of SW that I’ve either never got to or not had the great desire to delve into.
    Coming from a fan fic POV, my writing was always done with the intention of trying my best to weave it into the greater story without treading on the toes of previous writers or writing stuff so flagrant that it would easily be contradicted by future stories. I know there are a vast nunber who either wrote ‘infinities’ stuff, or stories using so many main characters that it would inevitably be contradicted sooner or later by other ‘official’ stories.
    Given that, I’d always hoped that SW WAS a tight continuity, in a way that Trek and it’s novels were not. SW stuff IS what happened, not simply ‘based upon’ as Trek is, and the work of timeline guys like Nathan P Butler (as just one example) bore out the fact that to a greater degree it all could hang together.
    But, that said, I understand that this long-standing centrepiece of the SW galaxy is now being eroded by TCW (which BTW I adore) and that the retcon crew at LFL are going to be very busy (and without a functioning databank to help them explain stuff).
    As with most, if not all SW subjects, it’s all about ‘a certain point of view’.

  12. Jennifer Volpe

    I have friends who subscribe to all three points of view: one will only acknowledge what has the George Lucas Stamp of Approval and views all other media tie-ins (books, comics, games) as glorified fan fiction, one who will go nowhere near The Old Republic MMO because how dare Darth George make Revan male, and one who is totally apathetic to anything that he’s not interested in (The Clone Wars, NJO books).

    Here’s my two cents: Star Wars is George Lucas’s toy box and he’s being nice and sharing. Ultimately it’s his say; they’re his toys. And I completely agree with everything Dunc says. I was more excited to see the Nightsisters and Death Watch in The Clone Wars that upset over any little detail that might be wrong. Did the Death Watch armor and helmets match that of their comic book counterparts? Nope. Did I care? Nope. Did I stop watching the show because of it? Nope. In fact, that whole storyline is one of my favorites from the show.

    People get too hung up on the intricate details instead of enjoying the spirit of the story. Just because Revan’s male doesn’t mean I’m going to stop playing the game as a chick, and just because Satine’s a pacifist doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read the Karen Traviss books. Focus on the spirit, not the details. You’ll go crazy otherwise.

  13. Kelly

    I’m not sure I understand Chris’s point about why it would be bad for people to have personal canons. What practical application does canon have, anyway? None, except for the people involved in making more canon (ie the LFL people, the Clone Wars makers, the licensed authors.) If I as a fan decide that in my head, the events of the Clone Wars cartoon never happened, the only impact that could possibly have is on me personally and maybe on any fanfic I choose to write. So why would that be a problem?

    Just like LFL can’t come and steal my books even if something they produce contradicts it, neither can my head canon erase anything LFL or anyone else produced.

  14. Mark Newbold

    Totally get what you are saying Jennifer, but with the greatest respect Star Wars has been ‘out there’ for 34 years – it isn’t just ‘Georges sandbox’ any more (the new popular phrase, which seems to have replaced ‘George Lucas r**** my childhood’ these days).
    As soon as Brian Daley and ADF released Stars End and Splinters, and Marvel released issue 7 of the comic it wasn’t ‘just’ GL’s sandbox. And I am 100% sure that while he doesn’t know the EU in any great detail (and why should he), he’d tell you ‘thank goodness for the EU’. It’s what brought Star Wars back to the mass consciousness via Heir to the Empire, Dark Empire, the LucasArts X-wing games, etc. He okayed putting The Outrider in the Star Wars Special Edition, Aayla Secura in AOTC. There are numerous EU nods in TCW (thanks to Dave Filoni and crew) all of which passes Lucas’ desk.
    George is 68 in July, he’ll not be around forever (scary thought) and what then? Does it suddenly become ‘Dave Filoni’s sandbox’? ‘Katie Lucas’ sandbox’? Where does that line of thinking stop?
    He is the Alpha Dog of the SW Universe – he created the saga and set the whole ball rolling, but in my opinion it’s now far from being ‘just’ George Lucas’ sandbox. He created a juggernaut back in ’77 and there are now numerous creative minds at work on it, with Lucas or Lucas licensing (acting under his directions) having the final stamp of approval on everything that’s ever been released with the Star Wars name on it.
    Look back to previous storylines in comics and books. No one’s been allowed to discuss Ben’s past, Yoda’s homeworld, Hans meeting with Chewie. No Vader in the Solo trilogy, he vetoed Luke dying in Vector Prime and okayed Chewie. He does have an interest and a hand in these storylines, even by detailing these omissions for his own use down the line in other stories, and makes suggestions in their stead. If that doesn’t make it ‘official’, what does?
    BTW again Dunc, loving this thread, very interesting to put all these thoughts on virtual paper like this.

  15. Jennifer Volpe

    And I completely respect where you’re coming from, too, Mark. You’re right that the EU did help to reinvigorate the franchise, and the nods here and there (The Outrider and Aayla, as you point out) are great. I think that’s why I enjoy The Clone Wars so much.

    I’ve wondered about the continuation of the franchise and who he’d pass it down to, as well. I still think, though, for now he views this as his baby, but I won’t deny that it’s grown way past that, either. There are a lot of EU characters and story lines I love and would hate to have them be completely written out. (Others I wouldn’t mind as much…) And I’ve heard so many conflicting reports about what Lucas does and does not have a hand in concerning the EU it’s ridiculous. (Most of them come from the aforementioned friend who only acknowledges the movies. That’s probably my problem.) You’re in a better position to speak to that than I am.

    Ultimately you can’t please everybody, and I can appreciate the compromises Lucas and his team are making. They could have easily taken the Star Trek route, but they didn’t. Doesn’t mean I have to like the compromises (a lot of them I don’t). But I feel that meeting the EU fans halfway is better than not acknowledging the EU at all.

  16. Dooku

    I agree with the gist of the post, but I strongly disagree with your definition of Canon and retcon. Leland Chee works for the Lucas Licensing division of Lucasfilm, not the movie production arm or the Lucas Animation division, and this is an important distinction that is often overlooked.

    Canon is what George creates, i.e., the films and current animated TV series. Continuity is keeping all the details straight. This is what Leland does. He takes the facts from the movies and film and fills in all the gaps using the expanded universe of novels, comics, video games, etc. into one cohesive universe. However, somewhere in the process different levels of Canon (G-canon, T-canon, N-canon, etc.) were introduced to determine/describe the precedence of conflicting details. But this doesn’t change that the novels are EU, not canon.

    Retcon is retro-active continuity. When new material comes out that contradicts existing material, e.g., Boba Fett being a clone of Jango Fett, a retcon is a change to a previously existing part of the continuity so that it can remain part of the continuity rather than be excised. Jaster Mereel was turned into a separate character rather than a name previously used by Boba Fett. Explaining an apparent contradiction about something that changes over time (Jedi marriage) or isn’t what it appears to be (Slave I destroyed) aren’t retcons because nothing is changed.

  17. Pabawan

    “It’s what brought Star Wars back to the mass consciousness via Heir to the Empire, Dark Empire, the LucasArts X-wing games, etc. ”

    I always wonder about this. Would there be any significant difference in the viewership of the 1997 re-release without these?

  18. Dunc Post author

    Dooku: The explanations of the terms are intended to be very basic. Though yeah, I probably should have stuck “retro-active continuity” in there.

    Lucasfilm Licensing is still part of Lucasfilm, last I checked, and this kind of thing is at least one small part of why they’re there. Chee says the novels and comics “C” canon and “S” canon; By the whole definition of the system, they are considered canon – a lesser canon, but canon until overwritten or contradicted by a “G” canon or “T” canon. You may not count C or S, for whatever reason (and my entire argument is that you have that right) and of course George and Filoni are welcome to do whatever they chose, but the books do have a place. Even if it is Licensing saying it.

    Confession: Once upon a time I did kind of care about all this stuff. Before the NJO, before even the Holocron (maybe?) certainly long before we knew anything about any of this level crap. And I still do believe some basic level of continuity is required, even if it can’t be applied to everything. But the slavish devotion to minor details? (And yeah, that’s what I consider pretty much everything TCW has contradicted thus far.) I’m so over it.

    Pablo: Well, I can’t say for sure I would have seen the re-releases, or even that I’d actually be in the fandom if not for the novels. I can be pretty sure that Club Jade – neither the group, not the site – probably wouldn’t have formed, and that there’d be a lot of ladies (and a few guys) out there with no idea that there was anyone else as deeply interested in Star Wars as they were.

  19. Stooge

    I’ve always wondered if Jedi only throw BBQs when someone dies…

    My guess on Pablo’s question: the number of individuals seeing the SEs wouldn’t have changed, but the amount of repeat viewers probably would have been much lower. (I imagine there’s some info out there on how that might translate into box-office figures, but hell if I know where to look.) The post-1993 EU didn’t bring SW back to fandom, but it brought hard-core fandom back to SW.

  20. Sompeetalay

    Interesting thread, for sure. While I truly love source, I’m not interested in the post RotJ EU novels for several reasons.

    I think that Lucas and Filoni can change continuity or source in TCW. Lucas doesn’t have to answer to anybody when he wants to create a story. But I do feel that it wouldn’t hurt sometimes, to check if there aren’t any other good options. TCW has also shown that it can follow existing information (Ventress’ story, Trandoshan culture).

    I’ve read many comics and novels since I became a fan and I think we must not forget that the movies and the television projects will always be more important than comics and novels. Star Wars has become much more than movies, of course, but when we go back to the core of its existence, the movies started it all and television is able to show us much more of the universe than a novel ever could.

    Somewhere along the line in the nineties a feeling grew among fans that the comics and the novels are as important than the movies and the television shows. Because the nineties were an important era for the rise of the EU (sales) and the renaissance of SW (sales), LFL Licensing did nothing to suppress that feeling, although smart fans must have realized that those EU stories often contained things that contradicted the movies.

    There is one fact in TCW that worries me though and that’s the fate of Darth Maul. If Maul would indeed still be alive, that would mean that Lucas does not contradict EU or source, but the movies themselves. If Maul would be alive, then I guess any character that died in the movies can still be alive.

  21. Mark

    “I always wonder about this. Would there be any significant difference in the viewership of the 1997 re-release without these?”

    Speaking for myself (and not anyone else on the planet): I came to Star Wars via Dark Forces, which had a terrible story but a fantastic universe to put it in. I still have it on my shelf and play it with DOSBox every once in a while. Most of the rest of the Katarn stuff can take a flying leap as far as I’m concerned, but something about the way they put that game down in the underbelly of the world… The X-Wing books, particularly Aaron Allston’s, are my favorites among the EU books, I think for similar reasons. Anyway, the settings that catch my eye like that are few and far between — I think it was actually a bit more intriguing and captivating to me than the movies were when I eventually discovered them.

    It might just be that I’m more a computer nerd than a movie nerd. Would I have seen the re-releases without the games? Hard to say. There was a media blitz around them, for sure, and I had friends who knew the movies. But that game definitely laid the groundwork for me.

    (Oh, and to stay remotely on the topic, I couldn’t care less about canon issues — I’m basically with Dunc on that one. I have my favorite stories and places, and how the keepers of the grail want to rank them in official-ness is up to them.)

  22. Mark Newbold

    It’s a good question Pabs raises though. I still think the resurgence of the books, comics, LucasArts etc did what Stooge says, brought the fans back to Star Wars. (Oh, Stooge – when does the BBQ kick off?)
    Then again, asking a ‘What If?’ question like that is a little bit too much like ‘Infinities’ for my liking, and that’s not canon…:-p

  23. Pete

    Thanks for linking to my post Dunc.

    Pabawan brings up a good point. But I think it also speaks to the branches of fandom. Some people are movie only fans, some people are in to the collecting side of fandom, some fans are into the EU, some fans dabble in a bit of everything.

    The fact that there are all these different outlets for Star Wars fans makes it a pretty large tent. I will say that I think without the EU (novel and comic) fan there would have been less sustained interest in the franchise and profit motive for Lucasfilm to produce new Star Wars stories in various media. EU sales proves there is a market for the various TV series.

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