When attempting to create a cohesive extended universe, what qualifies as part of the story is often just as important as what is excluded. Enter the notion of canon: the portion of the narrative that is considered official and definitive. By properly employing canon, a storyteller can provide parameters for what will be included within the narrative – an essential element of extended universe building. Let’s look at Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote and George Lucas’ Star Wars to see how delineating what qualifies as canon creates the boundaries of an extended universe.
Although typically published in a single volume today, Miguel de Cervantes’ most famous novel, Don Quixote, was originally published in two parts. The first volume, published in 1605, was immediately successful. Sensing that there was money to be made, an author besides Cervantes attempted to capitalize on the success of the story by publishing a fraudulent second part during the decade between the publication of the first and second volumes.
Unfazed by this imposition upon his narrative, Cervantes conceived of a clever method of subverting the unauthorized sequel: at the start of Volume Two, the protagonists reveal that they are aware that the first volume of their story was published, and then decry the fraudulent second volume before launching into the “official” Cervantes sequel. If Cervantes is to be credited with creation of the first Western novel, then perhaps he also deserves recognition for sparking the first fan fiction, followed by the first instance of a creator delineating canonical boundaries.
By differentiating between the official canon and the unauthorized canon, Cervantes legitimized his sequel, identifying it as the definitive narrative. The conflicting story, penned by a different author, is thus eclipsed by the continuation of the creator’s tale.
The Star Wars Extended Universe
In 1977, Star Wars premiered, leaving an indelible mark on American pop culture. From the first time it appeared on a movie screen, part of the intrinsic power of Star Wars has been its ability to inspire its viewers. Shortly after the release of the movie, Star Wars action figures arrived on store shelves, inviting imaginative young fans to participate in the story by exploring the adventures their heroes might have off screen.
In 1978, the first official original Star Wars novel was published. Penned by Alan Dean Foster (who had previous ghostwritten the novelization of the first movie), Splinter of the Mind’s Eye took place between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. With Splinter, an integral element for the formation of the Star Wars Expanded Universe was born: the notion that these characters might have lives beyond what occurred on the screen during the movies.
In the three decades that followed, Splinter was followed with hundreds of novels set in the Star Wars Expanded Universe – not to mention a slough of comic books, video games, and television shows. These stories featured thousands of new characters, locations, and sundry details about the Star Wars galaxy, often the product of the individual creator’s imagination, rather than originating with Lucas.
Boba Fett: Canon Fodder
Which is all well and good, until Lucas decides to withdraw his official endorsement. One of the earliest and most infamous instances of a behavior that would become increasingly pronounced over the decades to follow emerged from the abysmal 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special. One of the first official Star Wars spin-offs, the Holiday Special tells the story of Chewbacca’s return to his home planet to celebrate Life Day (and imparts an important moral – anyone involved in the production of a television holiday special should be administered cocaine only sparingly, if at all). Mortified by what he considered a misrepresentation of his “vision” for Star Wars, Lucas made it a personal mission to thoroughly eradicate any record of the holiday special he could find.
However, the Holiday Special was not entirely without merit: included between the live-action story about Chewie’s Life Day celebration was a brief, animated segment which introduced the most famous bounty hunter in the Star Wars galaxy – none other than Boba Fett himself.
Perhaps Lucas never got over the fact that the bounty hunter emerged from the Holiday Special, because outside of Han shooting first, Fett is subject to more narrative reconfiguring than almost any other character in the narrative. After making a brief appearance in Empire Strikes Back and seemingly being unceremoniously killed by the Sarlaac in Return of the Jedi, the extended universe novels revealed that Fett survived being eaten by the rapacious alien sand-hole.
But when Lucas decided to make the prequel trilogy, he also decided to re-write Fett’s backstory, making him a carbon copy of his father, Jango Fett, blueprint for the Clone Troopers. Adding extraneous details to a character’s history is one thing, but Lucas wasn’t content, going so far as to digitally replace Boba Fett’s lines in the original trilogy with recordings made by the “new” actor.
Creator Quashes Conflict
In both instances, we see an instance of a creator’s vision for his narrative coming into contact with a contributing artist’s interpretation. In the case of Don Quixote, this conflict came from an unauthorized sequel, and thus Cervantes quickly banished the fraudulent second volume. By contrast, Star Wars demonstrates how Lucas ultimately excised an official sanctioned portion of the narrative when it came into conflict with his new addition to the narrative. Although considered legitimate at one time, these extraneous pieces of the story were banished in order to create a cohesive and definitive narrative – better known as the canon.
Next up: We’ll venture further into the world of Extended Universes as Other Worlds Than These continues. Plus, tomorrow marks the release of the next round of Pleasant Hill comics.