The Expanded Universe as “Low Pulp” Star Wars by Dom Nardi
When Return of the Jedi hit theaters in May 1983, it supposedly brought the Star Wars saga to a conclusion. The Rebels blew up the second Death Star, Darth Vader redeemed himself by throwing the Emperor down a bottomless pit, and the Ewoks held a luau over the bodies of dead Stormtroopers. For most of the public, the film also marked the end of Star Wars as a force in pop culture. True, there were Marvel comics, two made-for-TV Ewok movies, and even an animated Droids series, but without a major movie Star Wars seemed destined to fade into a binary sunset. Even Kenner’s vaunted action figure line died out in 1985.
That all changed in 1991, when Bantam Spectra published Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, the first officially licensed sequel to Return of the Jedi (followed by Dark Force Rising and The Last Command). The trilogy’s brisk sales helped revitalize the franchise and revealed a huge market for more Star Wars stories. Soon after, Lucasfilm commissioned more novels, comics, and video games, which collectively became known as the Expanded Universe. However, the EU did more than simply keep Star Wars alive; it also expanded the types of stories that could be told in the Star Wars franchise.
While some people erroneously call Star Wars science fiction, it in fact falls more clearly in the tradition of space opera or space fantasy, along the lines of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars. As Chris Taylor recounts in How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, Lucas enjoyed the Flash Gordon comics and movie serials of the 1930s and wanted to make his own space opera, only better (ironically, Lucas initially sought to purchase the rights to Flash Gordon, but was rebuffed). The Original Trilogy—with its galactic conflict against an evil empire, cheesy dialogue, laser guns, scientific inaccuracies, and outlandish costumes—clearly comes across as an homage to pulp space opera.*
* The term “pulp” originally comes from the cheap wood pulp paper on which early science fiction magazines were printed. It has since developed a connotation of “trashy” or lower quality adventure stories, as opposed to “hard sci-fi,” which allegedly engages with more sophisticated scientific, social, and philosophical concepts.
Zahn’s trilogy started to nudge Star Wars away from its pulpy roots. When Heir to the Empire begins, the Rebellion had pushed the Imperials to the outer rim of the galaxy, taken over the capital planet, and established the New Republic. Leia and Han had married, while Luke sought to reestablish the Jedi Order. Unbeknownst to the Republic, the last Imperial Grand Admiral had recently returned from exile and begun reassembling the Imperial fleet. The books establish Grand Admiral Thrawn as a tactical genius who studies art from alien species in order to learn about each race’s culture and mindset. In short, he’s a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Erwin Rommel. Thrawn nearly cripples the Republic through asymmetric warfare and deft use of diplomacy.**
** For those who don’t want to read the books, the Star Wars Essential Reader’s Companion provides useful “CliffsNotes” summaries.
The Thrawn Trilogy reads more like military sci-fi than pulp space opera.*** In the films, the Rebels’ discussion of military tactics consists exclusively of telling X-Wing pilots where to shoot their torpedoes. By contrast, in the Thrawn Trilogy, the Grand Admiral frequently explains how he expects his opponents to behave and how he plans to counteract them. Zahn spends more time describing Thrawn’s planning for space battles than the space battles themselves. It’s certainly difficult to imagine a villain with Thrawn’s calm intelligence laughing maniacally like Ming the Merciless (or failing so often).
*** Not surprisingly, before writing for Star Wars, Zahn wrote military science fiction, most notably his COBRA series.
Moreover, Zahn, who has an M.S. in physics, seems more intent on finding scientific solutions to storytelling problems. When Luke is stranded in his X-Wing, he is acutely aware of his lack of oxygen and the vastness of space (unlike Han who in Empire Strikes Back walks outside the Millennium Falcon without a protective suit). Thrawn even finds a biological defense against Jedi in the form of ysalamiri, alien creatures that had evolved to remain invisible to the Force.
Although Zahn never entirely abandoned the pulpy elements of Star Wars, his books paved the way for the franchise to explore other genres and styles of storytelling. During the 1990s, the EU had its share of lighthearted pulp space opera, with giant space lizards (Truce at Bakura) and ridiculous superweapons (Darksaber), but it also included stories about ethnic cleansing that mirrored what had recently occurred in Bosnia (Black Fleet Crisis). At the turn of the century, the New Jedi Order series (1999-2003) depicted an alien invasion that killed off major characters and created a humanitarian crisis; Star Wars had become “grimdark” before it was cool. Later works played with horror (Red Harvest), detective (Jedi Twilight), spy (Agent of the Empire), military (Republic Commando), political (Darth Plagueis), and even western (Kenobi) genres.
The success of Heir to the Empire, combined with advances in special effects, encouraged George Lucas to finally make the Prequel Trilogy. Yet, in many ways, the Prequels are even pulpier than the Original Trilogy. The pomp and pageantry of the Naboo royalty in The Phantom Menace would be perfectly at home in A Princess of Mars. As actor Ewan McGregor noted, the title of Attack of the Clones “sounds terrible, because it does sound like a sort of ‘Flash Gordon in A-t-t-a-c-k O-f T-h-e C- l-o-n-e-s!’” In Revenge of the Sith, General Grievous’ coughing and maniacal laughter hearken back to villains like Snidely Whiplash. The high concentration of pulp might be one reason the Prequels met with such mixed critical reception.
In April 2014, Disney declared all preexisting EU materials no longer part of the Star Wars canon. All of the works mentioned above, including Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy, are now classified as “Legends” and will be superseded by new stories. However, the impact of the EU is still being felt, most notably in how it allowed the Star Wars franchise to interact with different genres. Star Wars is no longer only pulp. Films like Disney’s upcoming Rogue One, which from publicity photos looks like a gritty war film, seem to owe more to Zahn or Michael Stackpole’s X-Wing novels than to Flash Gordon. In short, the EU helped transform Star Wars from an homage to pulp space opera to a galaxy-wide playground that can accommodate a diverse range of stories.
About the Author:
Dom Nardi is the Contributing Writer for Star Wars at Legendarium Media. He has worked as a political scientist and as a consultant throughout Southeast Asia. In addition, he has published articles about politics in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. You can find more of his writing at NardiViews.