Back in mid-October I decided on a project—I was going to move through the entire Star Wars canon in chronological order, hitting every film, TV show episode, novel, and comic from start to finish. I am now within two books of being finished (although what it means to be truly finished is an open question) so now I’m reflecting a bit on the experience. Ideally I’ll pull some of these thoughts into a more coherent form, perhaps a conference paper or journal article, but for now here’s what I’ve got.
Also, to give some context, this project began with my 7-year-old son arguing that he knew more about Star Wars than I did. At first I balked, given that I saw the original films in the theater when I was his age. But then I realized that I was wrong and he was right; there was a new “canon” after Di$ney’s acquisition of the Star Wars intellectual property from George Lucas and that constituted the “truth” of the Star Wars galaxy, whether I chose to acknowledge it or not. As I dipped in to see what was there, I became fascinated with this attempt to create this massive yet somehow entirely unified story world. I’m teaching a course in the fall entitled “Transmedia Story World: The Star Wars Universe” that will be getting at these questions.
Some early thoughts:
The canon is very big and very diverse and trying to keep up is very expensive
When I say that “I completed the Star Wars canon” this means I made a good-faith effort to engage with all forms of media for different audiences, which I imagine most people don’t do. So what does this mean in total?
- 9 films (including Clone Wars theatrical release) that hover around 2 hrs each
- 180 TV episodes that are around 22-25 min each
- Somewhere in the neighborhood of 130 comics
- 10 novels for adult audiences
- 6 novels targeting young adults
- Around 10 novels/books for younger/juvenile audiences
- Some games and works that are harder to classify as “canon”
The reason why I add “sort of” when I say I’ve completed the Star Wars canon is because it’s not clear what actually counts. Do novelizations of the films and TV shows? While they are (apparently) canonical, do I need to read all the junior novelizations of Star Wars Rebels episodes and films when they don’t add much new? Is the “pure” canon a combination of what we get in the visual media plus whatever other details we get from the books? Or are these novelizations merely one possible interpretation? Hard to say.
Also, take a minute to do some rough calculations of how much it costs to own/access all of this material. Hint: it’s a lot. I bought some books used, watched the shows on streaming services, checked things out from the library, and used discounted offers on course texts to help make it easier. It’s a lot of work and still cost me quite a bit.
Star Wars is at its best in visual forms and episodic storytelling
The strongest storytelling in the Star Wars galaxy comes from the films and TV shows, with the comics a bit further behind. The dynamic, fluid nature of the stories along with vibrant scenery means visual storytelling has the edge.
The print fiction tends to be good but doesn’t pack the same punch. I would guess that there are roughly 20 different species (if not more) that are routinely referenced and sometimes I have a hard time keeping the mental pictures of Devoranians from my Pantorans from my Kubaz and Talz. Even if you’re just a casual Star Wars fan, you’ve seen all these species before, trust me, but might not know them by name. The same goes for the different planets. They’re hard to keep straight simply because of the diversity and volume.
Arguably the strongest form is in fact the TV show. Both The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels are high quality storytelling, even if they are sometimes uneven, but the episodic structure allows for lots of expansion and exploration of characters, politics, and settings. The question of audience for these shows is another interesting one. Star Wars Rebels is clearly targeting a YA audience on Disney XD, but I know plenty of adults who follow the series. The target audience for The Clone Wars is another interesting question, as it depicts explicit violence and cruelty quite often, yet it also has sillier episodes geared for younger audiences.
Despite its numerous flaws and inconsistencies, stories in the Star Wars galaxy are often quite good
Over the entire canon, I’d say most of the work falls into the categories of “good” and “very good” with some entries being “excellent” and others being “poor,” all of which are my admittedly my subjective opinions. One of my major gripes is that a galaxy is really really BIG and mostly empty, but there’s no shortage of the same people running into each other and visiting the same places. Scale is a problem overall; it simply doesn’t make sense that an Empire would be able to exert authoritarian control over an entire galaxy in the span of a few decades.
Still, if you take these issues with a grain of salt, there’s plenty to enjoy. Star Wars Rebels seems especially apt at tying together strands from The Clone Wars and the films in ways that reward those fans who are keeping tabs. I know my son flipped out when he recognized elements from Star Wars Rebels in Rogue One—details that completely went over his grandfather’s head. This is when the transmedia environment works the best, where such added details enhance the story if you recognize them but take nothing away from the experience if you miss them. This is in direct contrast to things like the appearance of Dr. Evazan and Baba in the city of Jedha in Rogue One. These are the same two who later accost Luke Skywalker in the cantina on Tatooine. To me, this is one of the worst examples of a tie-in. It makes perfect sense that the Rebels crew would get caught up in the events of Rogue One, but it makes zero sense that two random characters in an entire galaxy would come across the group that steals the Death Star plans and also have a run in with the pilot who eventually destroys it. I also found the tying of the end of Rogue One to the literal beginning of Star Wars: A New Hope was pretty sloppy and didn’t make much narrative sense. Why would Princess Leia be right there in the middle of a battle? Why is it that their jump to light speed didn’t throw off pursuit, as it does it literally every other story in the Star Wars galaxy? Why wouldn’t Vader say to her in the beginning of Star Wars, “Look, I was just trying to slash my way in here five minutes ago.” To me, this attempt to connect them is sloppy and unnecessary, whereas the subtle Rebels additions (of their ship the Ghost, the paging of Hera Syndulla over the intercom, and the droid Chopper rolling by) makes a lot more sense and actually added something.
The TV series and films share the closest connections, while the novels feel peripheral and most comics seem like fanfic
The films and the TV series The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels do the best job of fleshing out the universe in a (fairly) consistent fashion without introducing too many inconsistencies or too much incoherence. In fact, with a tight remake of the prequels, a lot of the biggest problems could be addressed. Most pressing in my mind is why Ahsoka Tano and other events from the Clone Wars wouldn’t be mentioned in The Revenge of the Sith. These provide a much more compelling reason for Anakin to turn to the Dark Side than what we see in the prequels. The prequels should be good movies. They make more sense once you dive deep into the Clone Wars, but they’re still awful—both individually as films and as a trio of movies.
The novels as a whole don’t add as much to the transmedia environment, even though I liked the unique perspectives in both Lost Stars and Battlefront: Twilight Company quite a lot. Fiction provides access to characters’ thought processes and emotions, but perhaps we know characters like Han Solo and Leia Organa so well that a novel might not tell us anything we don’t already know. Dark Disciple, however, is a great example of taking two minor characters and spinning out a compelling story that deepens our understanding of the world. The events in Dark Disciple provide another great example as to why Anakin would become disgusted with the Jedi Order.
The comics, most specifically the Star Wars and Darth Vader series, feel more consistent with the galaxy as presented in the TV series than in the one shown in the films. One of the things I asked myself throughout this project was “Do I believe that this is truly happening in this timeline? Does it fit with everything else I know?” When reading the comics, the answer is generally no, even if I like the story lines. The characters are consistent and the plots are usually interesting, but I don’t think these events are really what’s happening in and around the films. The timeline presents the biggest problem problem. The main characters would be impossibly busy and emotionally spent if they truly had so much happening in such a compressed time span. The two-volume series Kanan: The Last Padawan and Kanan: First Blood are good examples of how a short series can help round things out though. Those two volumes provide an excellent bridge from The Clone Wars and Revenge of the Sith to Rebels—much better in my mind than the novel A New Dawn, which explains how Kanan joined up with Hera.
The franchise is still trying to work out how to do this transmedia storytelling thing, with stories set in a single universe with a coherent timeline, and do it well. It’s fun to watch it unfold. Happily, Disney has an aggressive plan to expand across all forms of media, so it will give me something to explore for years to come. Also, I’m really excited to see what my students will do with these questions come fall. The sheer volume of work means I can use the same course structure and explore the same questions, but select different texts each time. That’s a huge bonus too.
Overall, it has been a fun ride and it’s not over. There are new books coming in April and May and then Star Wars Rebels season 4 will be out soon enough, as well as trying to keep up with the constant flow of comics. The end is nowhere is sight.