I’ll be counting down the days until I see The Force Awakens with a series of remembrances and observations about the franchise. Today, Star Wars lurches back to life.
We weren’t very connected back in the early ’90s. American Online was just getting started, but even with that, internet access was far from a household thing. So it was much harder to get news on new things coming out. Unless you subscribed to some kind of genre or industry magazine, in which case your news was weeks or even months old by the time you got it. Except for big blockbuster movies, you didn’t always know when something was coming out.
So imagine my surprise as I walked through a Waldenbooks (which used to be one of many bookstores before all bookstores were Barnes & Nobles) and saw this:
“Star Wars“? “The saga continues”?? “THREE-BOOK CYCLE”?!? Where in the blistering blue hells did this come from? Why was I not told? Why was I not buying it immediately? I remember the embossed words STAR WARS having a slight metallic tint to them that almost made the cover sparkle when you looked at it. It was beautiful, a tall glass of water to a man emerging from the desert.
I bought it and couldn’t start tearing through it soon enough. I had no idea who this Timothy Zahn was, but I could tell he got Star Wars. The pace was breathless. Old characters felt right. New characters felt like they belonged. We were being shown the fledgling New Republic struggling to not only mop of the remaining Imperial forces, but to go about the business of running a galaxy. Luke was still coming to grips with the death of his father and his status as the only remaining Jedi. Han and Leia were expecting twins. There was a fascinating new villain who was shockingly competent for an Imperial officer. This felt like the closest thing we were ever going to get to Episode VII, and I absolutely devoured it. Which was bad, because all too soon I hit the last page, and I had almost no idea when the next one was coming out.
My copious reading of fantasy series at the time let me guess that I probably had a year to wait. And another year after that for the third. A damn sight better than the three-year wait between movies, but after being given this taste after going without for so long, it was still agonizing. But we finally had new Star Wars things to talk about! And people started paying attention again. Heir to the Empire hit the New York Times Bestseller list, something science fiction novels weren’t doing very frequently at the time, let alone movie spin-off novels. The Expanded Universe, ruled mostly by the role-playing game and the Marvel comics, suddenly had dozens of new characters and places to play with. Zahn’s name for the Imperial home world, Coruscant, would actually make it into the movies, a stamp of approval if there ever was one. Even though we’d yet to see if Zahn could stick the landing, Heir to the Empire showed that Star Wars still had stories to tell, and what’s more, that people wanted to hear them.
We did get Dark Force Rising about a year later, and The Last Command a mere ten months after that. Even that relatively short wait was agonizing. We had a network of friends keeping an eye out at bookstores so we’d know when it was on the shelves; one false alarm had me dashing out of my house just before a nearby Barnes & Noble closed only to find out the book was not in fact out yet. It felt good to be excited about Star Wars again, and not just these books. The same year The Last Command was published saw the release of the groundbreaking flight simulator X-Wing. Now we could actually get in the cockpit and fly against the Empire, shooting down TIE Fighters and being heroes of the Rebellion from the safety of our desk chairs. By today’s standards the graphics were downright primitive, but it was the feel that was right, and that’s what really mattered.
The mid-90s saw the Star Wars renaissance reach its height — and also give off tell-tale warning signs we really should have paid more attention to.
First, Hasbro rolled out the first new Star Wars toys in almost ten years, and … well, they were something, that was sure. We didn’t quite remember Luke and Han being that buff in the movies. And nobody seemed to have the ability to stand with their legs together. But we didn’t care, because our second childhoods were in full swing and we were snapping up little plastic people as fast as we could. Some of us actually opened the packages too!
Then came Shadows of the Empire. Zahn’s trilogy had had the Lucasfilm seal of approval, but this was born from within the company itself. A multimedia production that crossed over a novel, comic books, toys and video games, Shadows told a story that took place between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. In the novel, Leia was trying to find Boba Fett in order to rescue Han, Luke was continuing his Jedi training, while Vader was trying to find him. Since Han was currently frozen, a new character was introduced, ostensibly named Dash Rendar, but who might as well have had “Han Solo Stand-In” tattooed on his forehead. Because he was basically there to do all the flying and wise-cracking Han would have done had he been around. The new villain, a crime lord named Prince Xizor who had designs on replacing Vader, was pushed really really hard as a major new threat, but we knew none of the main characters could die or else Jedi could never happen, so there wasn’t much tension there. The comics and video games told ancillary stories, and while the whole thing was very ambitious and it was exciting to have even more new Star Wars stuff, I remember most people being pretty underwhelmed by the whole thing.
And it seemed Lucasfilm picked up on that. Because the next big project they announced felt like nothing less than both an apology and a present. A gift to all us fans who’d been there from the beginning, and who’d hung in there through the ups and downs. They were going to re-release the original films for Star Wars‘ twentieth anniversary. And not just any re-release: they were going to clean up the special effects, put in deleted scenes, add some new treats. These wouldn’t be just any editions. They’d be special.
What could possibly go wrong?
The Twelve Days of Star Wars