Disney Star Wars Canon Is Broken

Star Wars was broken, to begin with.

And actually, that's a good thing.

You see, back in the old days when George Lucas still helmed Lucasfilm, there was a standing agreement about what was real and what was not – that is, what was “canon” and what wasn't.

But with Disney's acquisition of the company in 2012, the previous timeline for the galaxy far, far away was restructured, remodeled, and largely relegated to oblivion.

And that was a huge mistake.

What Is Canon?

First of all, let's clarify what canon actually is. Drawn from ecclesiastical terminology, “canon” initially referred to the “rule of the Church.” More specifically, it defines the texts regarded as good and holy scripture as opposed to the apocryphal writings of dubious origin and worth.

The term was first applied to secular content in the early 20th century by theologian Ronald Knox. A fan of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, Knox intended the use of the term as a playful acknowledgment of how highly fans of the famed detective prized the original works.

In this original context, it was meant to help distinguish between the stories penned by Doyle, and those written by others, after – The Book of John (and Sherlock), if you will. Basically, it was a little joke for himself and other nerds.

Like many other fandom terms (such as “shipping” or “slash“), the term “canon” has since transcended the bonds of its original fandom. Nowadays, it is common parlance both within and without die-hard fan spaces. What is and isn't canon distinguishes the parts of an IP which are “real” and which ones aren't.

What Did Disney Do?

Though not the first or even most famous IP holder to try to rein in canon to control the narrative, Disney is by far the biggest. And Star Wars is the studio's most notable universe to receive this treatment.

To be clear, Disney's stance on canon is not new. It is only unique in that it attempts to incorporate all media, all works, and all stories into a single timeline it retains absolute authority over.

Unlike Star Trek, which generally holds only the TV shows and films as canon, or comic books, which frequently sprout multiple realities that occasionally need pruning, Disney's canon is meant to include everything.

At the time of their acquisition, Disney abandoned all Expanded Universe projects. This left several anticipated series incomplete, and many characters stuck halfway through an arc. From this angle, it is understandable why so many fans were upset. Imagine Tolkien was forced to leave Frodo and Sam halfway up Mount Doom? Unbearable.

Instead, Disney focused their efforts on creating a completely connected canon. One which would have every comic, every novel, every film and show, and every sourcebook tied together in one single continuity. A “unified canon,” they said.

Of course, this is impossible to maintain. Because everything is equally weighted, any slight inconsistency is up for scrutiny and creates massive discord within the fandom. I mean, just look at how many times Kiersten White had to clarify that her novel Padawan takes place before Obi-Wan meets Satine simply because one poorly worded sourcebook mentioned the Mandalorian Civil War occurring in the year 42 BBY (Before the Battle of Yavin).

Arguably, the conceit behind this change was that this would allow fans to engage more consistently and deeply with the story. Some people loved that they could pick up a book and see more of their favorite characters. Others argued that it was annoying to go into the main trilogy film and not understand why on earth Luke hands Leia a pair of random dice at the emotional climax of his story.

At the time of this decision, Disney cited Chewbacca's death in a previous novel as the reason for their abandoning the Expanded Universe. In an interview with SyFy, Leland Chee, a member of Lucasfilm's story group tasked with maintaining the integrity of their canon, cited this as the main reason for ending the Expanded Universe and wiping the slate clean with their own continuity.

“Publishing had decided they needed to kill somebody, and it was Chewbacca,” he said. “There's no way that I'd want to do an Episode VII that didn't have Chewbacca in it and have to explain that Chewbacca had a moon fall on his head. And if we were going to overturn a monumental decision like that, everything else was really just minor in comparison.”

And so, the Expanded Universe became petrified and stagnant, and Chewbacca returned to a trilogy that saw Han, Luke, and Leia killed off instead.

What Was Lucas' Canon?

To be fair, George Lucas' canon was by no means perfect.

The same novel that saw the death of Chewbacca was also an example of how, despite his non-involvement with the EU, he still had a massive influence on it.

According to the author of Star Wars: Vector Prime, Bantam Books became concerned that readers no longer believed the stakes of Star Wars novels. The fourteen faves had plot armor decades thick. So the publishers decided that they wanted to reintroduce the threat of danger by killing someone. Someone important.

They went to Lucas. He told them, “You can kill anyone you want to.”

So they looked at the story, and they looked at the characters, and they tried to determine whose grief would be the most interesting to depict. Ultimately, they realized that the one person's perspective that couldn't be put down on paper was Chewie. Turns out Shyriiwook isn't immediately accessible to readers. And that was that.

But ultimately, the permission had to be given by Lucas.

Lucas always described his relationship with the Expanded Universe as being nebulous. Though he maintained that it was a sort of parallel world, there are multiple instances of him borrowing from that content. Aayla Secura is one example.

But generally, they were separate, and Lucas was happy to share the sandbox, saying, “There's three worlds: There's my world that I made up, there's the licensing world that's the books, the comics, all that kind of stuff, the games, which is their world, and then there's the fans' world, which is also very rich in imagination, but they don't always mesh. All I'm in charge of is my world.”

Now, it does get confusing because Leland Chee, for instance, was hired in 2000 – before Disney's takeover. He did work to establish a single continuity for Star Wars, but the difference is that it was never going to cross all platforms. Instead, the world operated on something called “tiered canon.”

Basically, this means that each licensed story or source has varying authority. Non-canon (deleted scenes, fanworks, and what-if stories) was at the bottom. Above it was S-canon or Secondary Canon.

This included things from older works that could be used or abandoned as required by authors. Continuity Canon was next and referred to things published in books and films, and finally, at the top was G-Canon. George Canon. That included anything made or acknowledged by George.

Sure, this might seem confusing, but ultimately it left a lot more room for authors and artists to play in and gave fans a much vaster world to explore.

Why Is It Broken?

As with any system, there are pros and cons, but for my money, tiered canon is what allowed Star Wars to stay fresh, expand its demographic, and survive sixteen years without films.

Disney's canon, however, does not have this ability.

In fact, it has a huge problem. That problem has nothing to do with the stories or the artists who work on them. Because they are a huge studio, Disney can hire and market the best of the best! This is why there is so much amazing Star Wars content. They can regulate and control the quality and range of their canon, and in that way, this approach is fantastic!

However, it cannot last.

See, the thing about time is that it's pretty strictly measured. One year is three hundred and sixty-five days. One day is twenty-four hours, and one hour is sixty minutes. And don't come at me with “actually, it's only five days a week in Star Wars,” because according to Wookiepedia, that's not canon.

Anyway, time is set, and once you use it up, it's gone. Therefore, Disney can only tell so many stories before they run out of time. And this is a problem.

Whereas with tiered canon, multiple timelines can overlap, and events can be placed in different continuities where they're adapted, overwritten, or bumped around at will, Disney's unified canon means that once things are set, they're stuck.

Maybe it would be okay if they released one film every three years. But they're not. Because Disney wants to capitalize on every market, they emphasize that every piece of media is directly tied to another. So everything they make is part of this single canonical chain of events. That means a book covering four years is as authentic as a film covering several months and a comic series covering a single day.

And that means at some point, every day will be filled, and there will be nothing left to tell.

And since everything counts, that point is going to arrive fast.

In fact, we're already seeing the strain of this.

A popular comic series depicts Caleb Dume's escape from Order 66. People who wanted more of his story bought it on the promise of it being canon.

But then, The Bad Batch was released, and Caleb's story was completely different. Fans became confused and angry without tiered canon to keep these sources' authority consistent. Many people loved the comic run, and many more felt betrayed at this significant retconning of a beloved character. But this is a natural consequence of having one single sandbox to build in instead of an entire playground.

Perhaps this also explains why some have noted that the newer novels feel relatively inconsequential. Though it is unconfirmed, it feels as if Disney is holding back its best stories for television series. Lucasfilm keeps a tight grasp on these characters, and authors are held in check by the story group.

They are only allowed to use certain characters and reference certain events in specifically approved ways. Such restraint limits the scope of the writers and artists hired to bring them to life.

By committing to this single continuity, Disney has hamstrung itself. They have established a system with a natural and inevitable cap for content while simultaneously producing more content faster than ever before.

While this might be alright if they pushed the timeline along, or explored new characters, their focus on the prequel and original trilogy era makes this unlikely to be a solution. In fact, Disney seems to have little interest in returning to the sequel trilogy. And though a push is being made for their High Republic, it is clear that most fans are still most interested in legacy characters.

Many of these characters, like Obi-Wan, for instance, have stories that are nearly entirely already documented. But still, they push for more. Disney is producing as if expecting infinite growth from a finite number of resources.

It's like a metaphor for capitalism or something.

And it's why their canon is broken.

In the End, Does Canon Even Matter?

Here's the thing, though –

Does canon even matter?

Within the fandom, tensions are worse than ever as people argue over which piece of lore is canon and which isn't. Backstories and significant events are referenced in TV shows. Yet, their originating work has been erased, making it difficult to judge what counts and what doesn't. And no one takes well to being told the thing they love most is lesser or invalid.

But here's my real hot-take.

Canon is fake.

Canon doesn't matter.

In fact, I think the healthiest way of looking at canon is as if it's a buffet. You walk into the Star Wars dining hall and laid out before you are an infinite number of tables laden with endless dishes. Each dish has its own flavor and culture, and each may appeal to more or fewer of your tastes.

But that's the beauty of a buffet – you take only what you want.

So fill your plate up with your favorites! Heap up a portion of Empire Strikes Back. Add a little side of The Force Awakens. Sprinkle on some Crimson Empire, and slather it all in as much Jedi Apprentice as you can keep on your plate. Go back for seconds. Throw out what you don't like, and try something new.

The beauty and tragedy of Star Wars is that none of it is real. Canon isn't any more true than non-canon. The way it is held up as some kind of divine work by zealous fans is precisely the attitude Ronald Knox was making light of way back in the 1900s.

Star Wars is not the Bible. It is a story, and it is a story that is whatever you decide you want it to be. There is no single authority over your imagination. And if you don't believe me, just ask George, master of G-canon and so-called ‘Voice of God.'

He made his Star Wars, and we are all free to make our own. “All I'm in charge of is my world,” said Lucas. “I can't be in charge of those other peoples' world because I can't keep up with it.”

Everybody's Free

Star Wars continuity has never been free from controversy. Even under George Lucas' rule, the world was impossible to regulate. It was too vast and too populated. His Lucasfilm also tried to maintain a single narrative, but Lucas' own self-awareness allowed that effort to be pretty flexible.

Disney's desperate iron grip makes the new unified canon fragile.

They want to control the narrative. But that is impossible.

Star Wars is meant to be fun, and canon is only useful as a tool to help unify people in a shared experience. It is not meant to be a stick we use to gatekeep and beat each other into submission.

“After Star Wars was released,” Lucas said, “it became apparent that my story—however many films it took to tell—was only one of thousands that could be told about the characters who inhabit its galaxy […] Today it is an amazing, if unexpected, legacy of Star Wars that so many gifted writers are contributing new stories to the Saga.”

Like any story – any cultural myth – once the tale is out there, it belongs to the audience. Those who hear it. Those who pass it on. Star Wars belongs to all of us now. There is no canon. That galaxy far, far away is only as real as we choose to make it.

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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Author: Hannah Drew


Hannah is a fangirl born of fangirls. As a child, she lived vicariously through her favorite stories, but as an adult, she became an actor so she could live them directly. A graduate of the University of Toronto and Sheridan College, Hannah has a deep love of storytelling and analysis. Having gotten her start in writing as a young book critic, she is excited to be expanding into the world of freelancing and fandom content.