The Benefits of the EU (not that one)
by Sam Honour
Have you ever had the feeling, when you’ve reached the end of a book or film, when you say “man, I want to know what happens next” except you can’t and never will? Book’s over, roll credits, shop’s closed. Wouldn’t it be amazing if there was a way that you could continue on the adventure with the characters you’ve grown to love? Enter the EU (not that one!)
The EU, or Expanded/Extended Universe, is what occupies the space that surrounds fiction series, outside of the main action. It gives the audience the opportunity to go that little bit further with the characters and experience more of their journey. But this universe can come any many forms; it could take the audience to a time many centuries before the main series where they can find out what an ancient civilisation was like. It can take them to moments before the series starts to reveal what triggered the action. It could even fling them far into the future so they can see the consequences of the characters’ actions. And the EU can be delivered to the audience across a host of mediums; books, games, graphic novels, TV series, crockery… actually, maybe not crockery but you get my point.
A sublime part of the EU is it often allows other authors and writers to put their spin on the universe and more often than not they tell the story they want to hear. This is sometimes agreed with the creator, done under licence from whoever owns the rights or occasionally a writer can go rogue and write whatever crazy story they like without permission, though this is straying into the land of ‘fan-fic’ and, as Rule 34 has shown us, this can spiral wildly out of control. Point is the multitude of contributors add to the richness of the universe and make it seem far more expansive than perhaps it is.
So now let’s address the elephant in the room, perhaps the best example of an EU and one of the only EU’s I’m aware of that has essentially been rebooted. Back in the late 70s, a little film was released called Star Wars; you may have heard of it. The guy who invented Star Wars, a chap called George, likely had little to no idea the nuclear explosion that his film was going to trigger or how much people were going to love it and in fact, he himself commissioned the first official EU novel of the series, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, as a back-up in case the film was unsuccessful. Luckily for future generations, the series was actually fairly successful (and by fairly I mean the second highest grossing media franchise in the world, worth an estimated $42 billion) and our pal George had had the foresight to retain the merchandising rights to his series which meant even after its immense success and popularity, he still retained control over every aspect. Reborn as Darth Moneybeard, George set about making the most sprawling, diverse and popular EU that had ever existed.
Star Wars existed on every platform, in every form of media, on the back of every cereal box (the cereal I ate anyway) and the characters and stories told in the EU were every bit as interesting and compelling as those from the main series. There was the Han Solo Adventures Trilogy by Brian Daley; the Thrawn Trilogy of the early 90s by Timothy Zahn set after Return of the Jedi, the New Jedi Order series exploring Luke Skywalker’s new generation of Jedi, including Han and Leia’s children; the Knights of the Old Republic video game which took us back over 4000 years to the Jedi of old (my personal favourite era); the Legacy graphic novels which catapulted us 125 years into the future where the Skywalker name was all but forgotten; and over two dozen more novel series, games and comics. From only 3 films this entire universe had spawned, grown and allowed fans to go on their own adventures across the galaxy with completely new characters. Then the prequels came along and messed it all up. This is referred to as the Dark Times by us in the community. And even more disappointingly, when Disney acquired the rights to the franchise they essentially deleted everything that had been done in the meantime. All that rich 30+ year history gone with a signature on a line, now categorised as Star Wars Legends or whatever. I mourned for nearly a month. But hopefully the guys at Disney will allow the universe to grow again as organically as it did before, without the vice-like grip of Darth Moneybeard.
But Star Wars is far from the only example of a successful EU. Hard sci-fi also has its own fine instances of gripping and engaging EUs, such as the Second Foundation Trilogy, a collaboration between Gregory Benford, Greg Bear and David Brin continuing Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series after his passing and filling in the blanks about the Second Foundation. Dr Who too has an ever increasing list of novels and comics, the time travelling aspect of the series lending itself perfectly to prequels, sequels and concurrent stories. Some series, such as Firefly, now solely exist in their EU format thanks to short-sighted and greedy producers. One more series. Would that have been so much to ask? I mean it’s not like they were strapped for cash, it’s Fox for… my apologies. Still a little tender on that.
One risk of an EU is it has the capacity to perhaps isolate more casual fans if aspects of the EU are incorporated into the main series. This can leave members of the audience confused or frustrated if they aren’t clued in on what’s been going on outside the main series. Case and point; the Halo series. Fans will already know that Halo chronicles the struggle of humanity against an alien threat known as the Covenant. Within the series, a race known as the Forerunners are referenced to as existing thousands of years prior to humanity and the Covenant but mysteriously disappeared, leaving only buildings and artefacts behind. Well Greg Bear was also responsible for writing a series about the Forerunners in which certain characters are introduced, the Didact and the Librarian, are central to the plot. Cue the game Halo 4 where both characters show up, the Didact as a villain and the Librarian as an ally, with no prior introduction in the game series, no real development in game and no back story. I can only imagine how many people were scratching their heads wondering who these people were. I’ve read the Forerunner series and even I was scratching my head.
The EU (not that one) can be a powerful tool in keeping hardcore fans engaged and appeased until the next installment of a series is released. They allow for professional geeks such as myself to immerse themselves in the new stories and show off our knowledge to casual fans, though to date no one has ever been particularly impressed that I can tell them when the Devaronians developed hyperspace travel. It was around 27,000 BBY in case you were wondering. Unless Disney have retconned that too. Bloody Disney; messing with the canon.