Star Wars is getting complex. Should we be impressed or worried?

Rogue One is a different experience for those following the spin-off material

As the opening scene of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story unfolded on screen, one of my teenage sons was having a significantly different experience than everyone else in our party.

When Jyn Erso’s mother was gunned down by Imperials and her father taken captive, of course everybody found it shocking. But my older son had been reading James Luceno’s tie-in novel Catalyst, whose publication was perfectly timed so that fans could read it in advance of the movie and still have it fresh in their minds.

For such fans, Galen and Lyra Erso were not characters they had just met – they were rounded protagonists who had already featured in a tale of their own.

I guess the academics would call this phenomenon intertextuality. It’s part of a carefully coordinated approach to the development of the Star Wars franchise, and I’m not sure whether to find it impressive or a bit alarming.

James Luceno’s novel Catalyst

When Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, it was, above all, buying Star Wars. And that meant everything Star Wars – past and future films, books, comics, all part of a $4 billion job lot. It has exploited those assets with astonishing acumen – and, in fairness, it has displayed pretty good creative instincts too, so far.

Back in the 1990s, when George Lucas was turning his mind to making Star Wars prequels, he licensed a line of Star Wars spin-off works that became a pretty significant strand of the publishing business. I read the first book, Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, and was impressed, but as the Star Wars universe mushroomed, it was clear that if you attempted to keep up with it, you would find yourself reading nothing but Star Wars.

In those days, authors seemed to have the freedom to take the series anywhere they wanted, as long as Lucasfilm gave the results the once-over and nobody impinged on territory that Lucas himself intended to cover in his prequels. But as the number of such publications grew, it became quite a  task for Lucasfilm to keep track of them.

Before long, Lucasfilm began to develop a policy about what counted as part of the official history, or canon. There was G-canon (the G standing for George), which comprised the movies themselves; C-canon (for continuity), consisting of recent spin-offs and selected older stuff; S-canon (secondary), mainly consisting of material from the very early days of such spin-offs; N-canon for oddities like stories set in alternative timelines; and T-canon, for the TV series that were being planned.

Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) was the hero of his own story away from Rogue One

The most devoted followers spent a lot of time and money keeping up with all this material. But then, with the sale of Lucasfilm in 2012, things that had been canon suddenly were not canon any more.

Like a revolutionary leader just installed into power, Disney wiped the slate clean and decreed that none of what had gone before was now part of the official time line. It would all be given the status of “legends”. Bad luck if you liked those stories of Han Solo and Princess Leia getting married and having twins. Now, they were no more a part of official history than the Ewoks TV series, or Jaxxon the giant rabbit from Marvel Comics’ early Star Wars strips.

This was probably the only approach Disney could feasibly take, since it wanted its own films to cover an era that the “expanded universe” had already colonised. But it became clear that Disney’s plans for its own expanded universe were extremely shrewd. Now, plot lines and character arcs would be woven through TV series, comic books and novels before being referenced in the films.

On one level, I have to admire Disney’s ability to keep all these balls in the air. As with its Marvel movies and TV series, it has to create stories that reward the viewer who’s been following every possible installment, without confusing those who only dip in periodically.

On the other hand, I have concerns about where this could go. In theory, at least, Disney could incorporate plot  elements in one medium that only make sense if you followed the franchise in another. As long as the films remain much more popular than the attendant printed media, I don’t suppose that will happen – but the pressure on the fan to consume more stories in more media will surely increase.

Like the Force itself, all this intertextual cleverness is a power that should be used cautiously, lest it lead to the Dark Side.

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