The Power of the Force (Awakens)

Or, the rise, fall and rise of my Star Wars Nerdery

Star Wars: The Force Awakens premiered two months ago. All the articles and reviews have been written. People know if they love it, hate it or are ambivalent. There is fan art. The Stormpilot ship is a force of nature (much to my continued joy). But looking back over the weeks since its release there’s something I’ve noticed. Something, on a personal scale, which I think makes The Force Awakens especially important: Star Wars is back with pomp, with circumstance, and it is everywhere and it’s wearing a brand spanking new coat.

And I absolutely love it.

The Star Wars franchise has been active on our screens and in various forms of media from the written word to action figures since the 70s. Between anniversary releases, VHS, LaserDisk, version after version of questionable special editions and DVD/BluRay releases the original trilogy has never really been out of circulation. The prequels (for better or worse) played a role as well. Then we got Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which gives marginalized or mishandled characters from the prequels their due. And then there is Star Wars: Rebels (more on that another time). And beyond the screen, there are pages and pages and pages of the Star Wars expanded universe, now re-marketed as Star Wars Legends (which Brad wrote about a few weeks ago as part of our response series to the Force Awakens).

That’s basically a long way of saying: Star Wars is prevalent. And The Force Awakens changed this decades-long franchise in a profound way and exploded it up to another level. But more importantly to me, and this rumination on my thoughts and feelings regarding Star Wars, it exploded my Star Wars nerdery up to another level.

Or, to be more precise, it reset the level.

Star Wars is one of the first movies I can remember watching. From the first time I saw A New Hope the world captivated me. The idea of a galaxy full of futuristic technology that was actually far, far in the past. The farmboy who becomes a hero, evolving from whiny teenager to badass Jedi Knight. The princess who is secretly a rebel leader and has fought her entire life for the ideal of freedom. The smuggler WHO SHOOTS FIRST, asks questions later, but manages to find people he cares about more about than himself. A little blue beeping robot and his fussy, shiny gold companion. I fell in love with all of them. I read the Star Wars Encyclopedia cover to cover. I knew all about the planets (my favorite being Ithor. Seriously. The Ithorians are cool). I watched the movies again and again. When The Phantom Menace first came out I loved it because it was Star Wars (this was not to last where the prequels were concerned).

Then I discovered the Expanded Universe.

The books expanded the world of the movies and introduced new characters flying around the galaxy shooting blasters and wielding lightsabers. I cheered for the epic romance of Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade. Mara Jade was the complex, badass, heroic lady (one of my favorite character types). My love of Ithor (mentioned above) grew as I actually read events happen on the planet rather than overviews about it and its plant-loving inhabitants in the aforementioned encyclopedia. I also like Tynna. I mean, its inhabitants are sentient otters, what’s not to love?! The expanded universe saw the rise of a brand spanking new Jedi Order under Luke’s guidance, giving me characters like Kyp Durron, Tionne, Kirana Ti (she was another favorite: a force-wielding warrior woman who wore lizard skin armor). There was also Cilghal, a Mon Calamari Jedi healer.

They were all awesome. And I relished every story whose pages they graced.

The expanded universe also provided me with my very first book crush: Anakin Solo. I talked about this already on our Valentine’s Day podcast, but Anakin was around my age, growing up with me as I read the books. When the New Jedi Order series began, and the Yuuzhan Vong began invading the galaxy, we were both teenagers. He was a little cocky. A little arrogant. But he was also kind, powerful and had a hell of a lot of pressure on his shoulders. I was fairly unashamed of my infatuation with this fictional character. For me, he, just like the world he inhabited, was very real.

The Expanded Universe is what truly drew me to becoming totally obsessed with Star Wars. The scale, the expanse of possibility, the creativity, the idea that it was constantly evolving, building and growing fascinated me. It allowed me to delve into the galaxy in a fashion even the original trilogy never allowed. And yet. The Expanded Universe, specifically the New Jedi Order, is what broke me away from Star Wars for a time.

First. They killed Chewbacca. They dropped a bloody moon on top of him. I was annoyed. It seemed unnecessary. They had a killed a beloved character as a cheap way of getting drama and creating tension between characters. It was lazy storytelling and now the big, lovable Wookiee was gone. And that just plain sucked.

Then they killed lots of characters as the Yuuzhan Vong went on a crusade against the Jedi. And I mean A LOT.

Particularly rage-inducing for me were the off-page, throwaway deaths of Lusa and Lyric. Two cool alien characters (based off centaurs and mermaids respectively) who were friends with Anakin and his siblings, Jaina and Jacen. Their deaths, at different points, are announced with a line of dialogue and it feels like they are forgotten by the next paragraph. I had to put the book down and walk away for a little while in both instances.

Oh, and those planets I loved? They destroyed both. Specifically, Tynna is conquered and all of its vast seas are poisoned. What happened to Ithor you ask? Well. The Yuuzhan Vong attack it with biochemicals, destroying its forests and killing all animal life on the surface and then a spaceship crashes and explodes, igniting the atmosphere and turning it into a burning hellscape of a planet.

Yeah.

My annoyance grew. I’m obviously not opposed to character deaths–they are often a necessary and painful part of storytelling. But were they just going to kill everyone? Old characters from the films? Characters introduced in the expanded universe? Were my favorite planets doomed to be destroyed? But I read on. This was Star Wars, after all.

And then.

Then they killed Anakin.

No lie: I mourned. I was heartbroken at the loss of this character. There was so much left for him to do, so many stories about him to be told. And I suppose, possibly, that tragedy is what they were going for, but, for me, it was the sacrifice of another character not because of narrative or because it made a better story, but because the stakes needed to be higher and there needed to be Consequences, whether they were earned or not. Once again, it felt like lazy handling of a character I loved.

I stopped reading the Expanded Universe.

The encyclopedias were put away (I had several).

I didn’t stop loving the world, but I withdrew from the fandom. I gave away or donated most of my Star Wars books.

Star Wars Legends was great for all the reasons I elaborated above, but when looking back, I think it allowed the galaxy to grow too fast in some ways. So much was packed in, so much happened, so many threats rose against the forces of good that every new series needed to best the last one. Something bigger. Something darker. A battle with higher stakes. A war with more tragic deaths. Character development and narrative became secondary concerns. Too much of a good thing is a cliche phrase, but it’s exactly what happened with the expanded universe.

Anakin was dead. Later, in a moment of “I wonder what’s happening in the books now?” I found out about the death of Mara Jade and any brief interest I had in returning to the expanded universe faded quickly.

And then, at then end of 2015, The Force Awakens hit theaters. When I first heard about it, I was very cynical. New Star Wars movies? Did no one remember what happened the last time new Star Wars movies came out? And besides, how much would they be drawing from the expanded universe given the problems it faced?

Then I read a couple articles. The first sneak peaks came out. Then I watched the first trailer. And the Millennium Falcon soared across the screen to swelling music and my determination to remain cynical frayed and finally broke. I was excited. My friends and I booked tickets to an early showing on December 17th. We got there extra early (5:30 for an 8pm showing) just to make sure we got good seats.

This isn’t a review of The Force Awakens. If I were going to talk about everything I loved about the movie I would need half a dozen articles to explore those feelings in their entirety (I talked about one particular aspect I love here). So I will sum it up and say I loved the movie. Every bit of it. I left the theatre so very happy and the first thing I did, when I got home, was I started reading into this brand new version of Star Wars. I pulled out my old encyclopedias which had miraculously survived my purge as they had been packed away in the attic. After all, the Expanded Universe was now Legends, no longer canon, and that meant that there was a blank slate, a whole new world to learn about, all new characters to meet.

But let’s be clear. The Force Awakens, as amazing as it is, does not erase my mixed bag of feelings towards the expanded universe.

I still love a lot of the books from Star Wars Legends. The Thrawn trilogy is still amazing (I’m currently rereading it). Its sequel duology is also excellent. The Jedi Academy books and the Rogue Squadron books are stories I still remember fondly and am very eager to reread. They provided me with so many characters I love, including the most badass of villains: Ysanne Isard and Admiral Daala (seriously, don’t mess with those ladies). But the books still went off the rails, they still killed my favorite characters and that’s something that’s not going to change.

True, there’s no Anakin. There’s no Mara Jade. No Kirana Ti. No Cilghal. And there will always be a little hole in the Star Wars universe for me where they are clearly and obviously meant to exist. But Star Wars Legends has not ceased to exist. It is still there and I can dive into the parts of it that don’t make me incredibly sad and irrationally angry when I catch the fancy for that version of a galaxy far, far away.

But The Force Awakens allowed the franchise to take a breath, lose a ton of baggage and take up the story left off by the original trilogy with fresh purpose and possibility. And it needed that.

Chewbacca is alive. And there’s Rey, an awesome badass lady at the center of a new Star Wars trilogy. And there’s adorable Finn and hot-as-hell Poe Dameron who are both positive portrayals of a non-toxic form of masculinity and that’s beyond amazing. There is angry Kylo and General Leia and Maz freaking Kanata. I get both: the new Star Wars canon AND the parts of the expanded universe that don’t make me weep. Sure, one is canon and one has been swept more than a little to the side but it’s still there.

I have been jettisoned back into a bordering on unhealthy obsessive love for Star Wars with a power I did not see coming.

I have bobbleheads of Rey, Finn and Poe on my bookshelf. I have a small action figure collection dedicated to the marginalized female jedi of the prequel movies which started when I found a box of Star Wars action figures while moving. Amidst Leia, Luke, Han, R2-D2, Yoda and Obi-Wan was an action figure of Shaak Ti, a Togruta Jedi Master from the prequels. She did not have a word of dialogue in the movies. She just looked cool in the background. It made me irrationally angry so the collection was born. I’ve so far acquired Luminara Unduli (possibly my favorite), Barriss Offee, Adi Gallia, Yaddle, Aayla Secura and Bultar Swan. They also adorn the bookshelf and guard my boxset of Fringe.

I can be watched over by the Rey and Stormpilot bobbleheads, slowly build my marginalized jedi collection, read the expanded universe and watch the movies. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say there has never been a better time to be a Star Wars nerd and that started with The Force Awakens.

Even my computer desktop background is the Force Awakens.

But my profile picture for my login on my computer? That’s Anakin Solo.