Star Wars is once again a major force in pop culture, perhaps even surpassing the impact it had during the reign of the original trilogy from 1977-1983. Anyone born after, say, the mid-90’s doesn’t know a world without Star Wars, but there was a time, about a decade, when the franchise went dormant, and many even thought it was gone forever. In an age where movie studios will drain every drop of profitability from a franchise, it is inconceivable to think that after Return of the Jedi came out in 1983, to mostly critical praise and a huge box office, there was no follow-up. Sure there were the Droids and Ewoks cartoons, and the dreadful TV Ewok movies (see prior posts), but that was it for fans. Rumors of the prequels would surface here and there, and we were treated to the “special editions” in theaters (yay), but it wasn’t until about the mid-90’s when Star Wars truly resurfaced into pop culture. So today we take a look at the best of the Star Wars universe post-1983.
I still remember the last gasp of the now highly coveted Kenner Star Wars action figure line. It was around early 1985 and the “Power of the Force” line could still be found in abundance in toy stores – because no one was buying them anymore. They were soon discounted, marked for clearance, and Kenner even put out these generic multi-packs in an effort to get rid of inventory. As a super SW fan, I was sad to see the franchise go, but then again I was getting older and it was natural to move on from it. I knew about George Lucas’ original 9-film vision of the saga, but in the pre-internet days, there was no indication it was ever going to happen. So my Star Wars collecting soon ended, and I boxed up my stuff and put it away, as I did in my mind. About 10 years later, I remember two things that kicked off the SW resurgence in my life. A girlfriend gave me Timothy Zahn’s Heir To The Empire in 1993, which I put on the shelf and didn’t read for a year or two – then loved it, and on a day-trip to Nantucket in 1995, in a general store I saw the rebooted Hasbro SW action figure line, and bought three. And just like that, Star Wars was back for me. Here are my favorite Star Wars properties since.
Heir To The Empire trilogy, Timothy Zahn (1991-1993)
I have to admit, when I got the first two books of this trilogy as a graduation gift in 1993, I callously passed them off as a bit of a lame gift. Up until that point, Star Wars novels did not have a good track record, think Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, and the Han Solo trilogy from the 80’s. However, I was pleasantly surprised when a year or two later I took Heir To The Empire off the shelf and started reading it. Zahn is not a literary genius with his writing, but he did craft an engaging story that believably expanded the Saga storyline past Return of the Jedi. The familiar heroes are there: Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie and the droids, but with Vader and the Emperor gone, Zahn was able to be creative in creating new Empire villains, especially the blue-skinned military strategist Grand Admiral Thrawn. There were also the new characters of smuggler Talon Karrde and the former “hand of the Emperor” Mara Jade, who has a complicated relationship with Luke. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the trilogy deserves its own feature film adaptations, but the books are fun reads and came along at a time when I, like many fans, didn’t realize how much I was yearning to return to the Star Wars universe. Although the books were widely credited with revitalizing interest in Star Wars, they are now, since the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney, no longer considered “canon” and don’t fit in with the timeline of what happens between Jedi and The Force Awakens. However, the characters of Thrawn, Karrde, and Jade all appear to have survived the Disney purge. Thrawn, for example, was prominently featured in the most recent season of the animated show Rebels.
DJ: As much as I loved Star Wars I didn’t get into the books especially when hordes of them came out mostly written by not so great authors. I have tried to read some and outside of the dismal Han Solo at Stars End and the great Shadows of the Empire haven’t been able to get through them. Most are non-canon now so I don’t have to go back.
Shadows of the Empire (1996)
This was the first time Lucasfilm really tried to expand the SW universe in a substantial way (what became known for a time as the “EU” for Expanded Universe). The concept was to create an original story set in the time between Empire and Jedi with both familiar and new characters. The twist was that it would not be in a feature film or TV show. Instead, it would tell the story through a novel and comic book series, while supporting it with full merchandising including a video game, trading cards, a dedicated line of action figures/vehicles, other merchandise, and even a soundtrack. The story was promising – it centered on a shadowy organized crime organization called Black Sun, led by a rival of the Hutt’s called Prince Xizor. It also included many of the bounty hunters, like IG-88 and Dengar, who was only briefly shown in Empire but had become fan favorites. While the idea sounded great, the execution of this was a bit uneven, starting with a story that should have been a bit darker, considering the subject matter of organized crime. The video game was decent, but not all that memorable, as it relied too much on fighting bosses at the end of each level instead of telling the story. Still, it was a great idea to do a multi-platform launch like this, and it would work much better today as web-content, mobile games, YouTube, and social media could all be utilized in something like this.
Come to think of it, I’m not sure why Disney isn’t doing more with online and social media. Why not do some short videos that could be posted on a website or YouTube? (I’m sure YouTube would love to have an SW series they could use to promote their Red premium service). Their mobile games are ok, but not industry leading and the only platform video game out there in the past few years has been the Battlefront series. It does seem like Disney is locked into its one-feature-film-per-year format for Star Wars content, with the only exception being the animated Rebels show. I understand not oversaturating the market, though they have no problem doing so with their Marvel property, there is still a lot more that could be done to give fans new content without going overboard. Even theme park rides have been lamely exploited (Star Tours anyone?), but that SHOULD change with their new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge theme park under construction in Disneyworld, due to open in 2019.
DJ: I was a big fan of Shadows of the Empire. Prince Xizor and Dash Rendar were cool characters. I remember getting the videogame on our original home computer, I loved it. Other than the graphics challanged Atari Empire Strikes Back game there really wasn’t a good game until this. And it added to the lore, the Wampas at the Hoth base was awesome. Alas also no longer canon, so unfortunately we will not see these characters in live action.
MG: Forgot about the Wampas at Echo base. Yeah, that was cool. Disney seems open to plucking some of the “non-canon” characters into new stuff, so maybe they will survive.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003)
From a story perspective, this is the best Star Wars video game ever made, and I wonder why it hasn’t been looked at for a feature film. This story is one of the true expansions of the Star Wars universe. KOTOR takes place four thousand years before the Saga films, and the developers did a great job of creating a world that was very different from the films, but felt like it would fit into that universe at that time. I loved that the game opens with you having amnesia, and you have no idea who you are or even if you are aligned with the light or dark side of the Force. The choices you make in the game help to guide you to either side until your true identity is revealed at the end. One of my favorite parts of the game is when you find the assassin droid HK-47 and he becomes part of your squad. He had this dry, dark, even gallows humor, which was remarkably creative for a video game, especially 14 years ago. Obviously, the graphics look crude next to today’s games, but it’s one of the only video games where I remember the storyline. I would love to see another game come along that could marry the photo-realism and detail of the Star Wars landscapes of Battlefront with a great storyline like KOTOR.
DJ: This sounds pretty cool but I never played it and know nothing about it. I will say another game that was cool but had little to do outside of fighting was Star Wars: Masters of Teräs Käsi with a fully playable Mara Jade.
As a child of the 70’s and 80’s I loved Star Wars, including the now realized travesty the Star Wars Holiday Special, but once Jedi came out I wasn’t necessarily looking for more and I just assumed Lucas would eventually film the other six. As time went by he didn’t and Star Wars was a memory. Then ten years later it hit again and I slowly started to relive that childhood. Although not everything was good, see our article on the Special Editions: https://thepopculturallists.com/2017/04/18/star-wars-un-special-edition/ there was some really great post-Jedi material.
Darth Maul Lightsaber Battle: Duel of the Fates (1999)
When I saw the first trailer for The Phantom Menace I got goosebumps and almost broke down and cried. The film looked awesome. The Lucasfilm logo, the music, and the way the trailer was cut was mind-blowing. Alas, the film, in all of its Boss Nass spitting glory, is not good, which is a topic for another blog. Its one redeeming quality, and the thing that puts Menace above the dreadful Attack of the Clones, is Darth Maul and his final battle with Qui Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Darth Maul is probably the best looking new character in the prequels that gets any real action. There are some cool looking Jedi but they don’t do much, mostly they sit and sit and sit and then die. Darth Maul is bad ass awesome and it’s a shame (spoiler alert) he doesn’t survive this film (I know the cartoons figured out a way to bring him back). He has a double lightsaber! Take that Kylo Ren! This battle is tense, Maul fighting both of them, and the concept of them getting stuck between force fields is cool and makes it tenser. Ray Park is so agile as Maul and looks like he really could take on these two. Maul takes down Qui Gon while Obi-Wan is stuck behind one of the force fields. The two fight until Obi-Wan is able to strike him down with Qui Gon’s lightsaber. That’s a great moment too if I didn’t love Darth Maul so much and feel meh towards Qui Gon. I like this lightsaber duel better than any other in the prequels. Dooku and Yoda’s fight is ridiculous, Mace Windu and Palpatine’s duel is weird and the final battle in Revenge of the Sith of Obi-Wan and Anakin is just out of control. The other awesome part of this is John Williams great musical piece “The Duel of the Fates” it’s awesome and just the right score to make this scene hum. Finally, it’s one of the best scenes Lucas has directed and maybe due to its lack of dialogue.
MG: Darth Maul is convincing as a Sith apprentice, in that he has the balls to take on two Jedi with mad skills and plenty of anger to go with it. The character’s look and force abilities are great, if only Lucas had given us some backstory about him – wouldn’t it be good to know why he wants revenge against the Jedi? I’m not sure how I feel about him actually not being dead in The Clone Wars cartoons, but I can’t blame them for wanting more of such a great character.
Clone Wars Cartoon Network Series (2003-2005)
In 2003 Genndy Tartakovsky created the first Star Wars TV series in almost twenty years, the last one had been 1986’s Ewoks. This aired on Cartoon Network starting in 2003 in three to five-minute intervals in front of other Cartoon Network shows. It was intended to be the bridge between Clones and Sith. The first two seasons had the same format but season three increased the episodes to fifteen minutes and concluded just before Revenge of The Sith begins. Tartakovsky’s animation is fantastic, very similar to his hit show Samurai Jack with a nod to Chuck Jones. For the most part, I enjoyed these way more than the actual prequels and it’s my favorite of the cartoons. The Clone Wars is fine and Rebels is decent enough but this is the coolest. For starters, it introduces the coolest villain since Darth Maul, Asajj Ventress, a two lightsaber wielding bad-ass. She is very cool and like Maul, since her appearance, she has received a backstory and continued on in other cartoons. Similiar to The Star Wars Holiday Special cartoon which introduced Boba Fett before Empire, The Clone Wars introduces General Grievous. I love Grievous in this cartoon, he talks normal and is a great villain not the cowardly asthmatic from Sith. Although at the very end you can see how he gets his coughing problem for his live-action debut, hint: thank you Mace Windu. I wonder if Lucas had to make them add that or if it was the plan all along? The other great thing about this series is it gives you more and better characterization of the characters and you see other Jedi fighting and doing stuff. Kit Fisto (my favorite secondary Jedi) gets to fight the Quarren, Shak-Ti, Ki-Adi Mundi and Aayla Secura get storylines. Lucas should have done more with these Jedi in the prequels, Kit Fisto dies in Sith like if I tried to fight a Sith, not like the crazy water mofo warrior he should be.
MG: I liked the animation style of these and the almost frenetic pacing of the action. My only issue with these is that their Force abilities are out of control, turning Jedi into unstoppable comic book heroes like Thor or Superman. These are fun to watch, and such a difference from the overly plodding pace of the wretched prequels.
Decipher Star Wars Customizable Card Game (1995-2001)
In December 1995 the Decipher company came out with a card game that would change my life for good. Ok, maybe not change my life, but it was pretty darn cool and fun to play. I like games but I am not a fantasy game player, i.e I don’t play Magic: The Gathering or anything that include wizards, elves or other Tolkien-like creatures. I tried Dungeons and Dragons in high school and the 20 sided dice didn’t do it for me. There is nothing wrong with that, it just wasn’t for me but a Star Wars card game, I’m in. The first two sets focused on New Hope and there was an introductory kit so you could play right away, additional cards came in packs. You got to pick the light side or dark side and you would battle a friend who played the other side. This game had so much cool detail, you had all the locations, characters, vehicles, starships and weapons of the movie. Games could take one to two hours and could get intense. The goal was to drain the other player of all his cards. Every character you ever saw in New Hope was not only featured but was given a name, a species, and a backstory. Who were those cantina girls? The Tonnika Sisters, Brea and Senni, twin thieves. What about that furry creature getting a drink at the bar? Well, she is Kabe a female Chadra-Fan who loves her Juri Juice and stealing from Jabba the Hutt. I ate this stuff up. I would rewatch the movies and shout character’s names Kabe, Momaw Nadon, Talz!
Once Decipher hooked me, they released more sets, Hoth, Dagobah, Cloud City, Jabba’s Palace, Special Edition, Endor, and Death Star II before producing a couple prequel sets that I generally shied away from. They also produced some special enhanced sets and a series called Reflections which incorporated some of the Expanded Universe, oh excuse me, Legacy. Each set came out with some new or fixed rules or specific gameplay for that set, for example, Jedi Training in the Dagobah expansion. Decipher stopped making this game in 2001 but not before I put in many hours and spent some cash. It’s a great game still despite its non-canon backstories.
MG: We definitely wasted a lot of hours putting together decks and playing this game, which was so much fun, even when there were hundreds of cards and we needed the rule book to keep things straight. Decipher did such a good job of giving depth to the Star Wars universe through the descriptions on the cards, and it’s a real shame these have all been stamped non-canon. Even the design of the look of the cards really fit with the Star Wars universe. It was fun to find out that it’s Chief Bast who warns Tarkin that there is a danger with the attack on the Death Star (and even more fun to refer to him as “Cheap Bastard”).