When Disney bought Lucasfilm, the company threw almost every piece of Star Wars lore away. In a flash, literally decades of stories from its expanded universe were nixed from canon — cleaning the slate in order to give director J. J. Abrams freedom to tell a new tale starting moments after Return of the Jedi ended.
But those missing pieces are very quickly being filled by a new Star Wars universe that's equal parts expansive and expensive, costing both time and money to learn everything. The story of Star Wars, for the kind of fan that wants to know everything, is much bigger than the movies, spanning several novels, comic book series, video games, and TV shows.
It's almost impossible to keep track of everything, and for the casual Star Wars fan, none of this is likely necessary to know before going into The Force Awakens. But if you really want to know what's happened in the three decades between the new film and Return of the Jedi's final party scene, we're here to help.
Warning: While there are no spoilers from The Force Awakens itself, we'll be discussing plot details from pretty much every other piece of the canonical Star Wars fiction currently in existence.
So what happened after Return of the Jedi?
Episode VI's triumphant closing note suggests the immediate downfall of the Empire, but it's not all fireworks and Ewok celebrations. As specified in Chuck Wendig's first Aftermath novel, moments after the statue of the Emperor is cut down on the central planet of Coruscant, Imperial forces start a brutal crackdown, clearing city streets of anti-Empire protesters with lethal force.
Some Imperial commanders are able to lock down their far-flung corners of the galaxy, restricting access in and out in a bid to cut their losses and maintain control, while others try and fail to elevate new Emperors to positions of power. The largest contingent of Imperial forces coalesces around the minor planet of Akiva, where high-ranking members form the Imperial Future Council and discuss how what's left of the Empire can strike back against the Rebel forces currently picking them apart. Some suggest a military stand, while Yupe Tashu, one of the Emperor's advisors and a Sith cultist, suggests that the fleet goes on a hunt for a font of dark side energy that'll propel them back to power.
A font of dark side energy?
Don't worry about that part, actually.
Okay. Carry on.
The talks don't go so well, though, and Alliance ships arrive at Akiva, pushing the Empire back yet again to the planet of Jakku. The unassuming desert planet becomes the real last stand for the united Empire, one last do-or-die battle that ends in an overwhelming victory for the Rebels. If you'd like to change that outcome, you can play Star Wars Battlefront and win the day for the Empire, but the canonical fight ends with hundreds of ships, including iconic wedge-shaped Star Destroyers, smashing into the planet's surface.
It's one of those Star Destroyers that we've seen Rey poking around in for parts in The Force Awakens' trailers and TV spots. We also know one of those ships was called the Inflictor, and was deliberately crashed into the surface of the planet Jakku by its young captain after it was invaded by a boarding party, led by her Rebel lover.
Speaking of, where did the Rebel Alliance go?
After Jakku, the Rebels formalize the New Republic and start the process of beating back the last Imperial remnants across the galaxy. (A treaty between the New Republic and the Empire was eventually signed.) The new government moves its official capital world from Coruscant to Chandrila — famous in the old expanded universe for its history of political discourse and beautiful architecture — and invites democratically elected representatives from more than 100 worlds to join its new Senate.
Mon Mothma, head of the Rebel forces during the insurrection and now the boss of the New Republic, sheds both the emergency powers held by Emperor Palpatine and the majority of the military forces controlled by the fledgling New Republic. But with the Empire still a significant, if scattered, force in the galaxy, Mon Mothma's government can't throw down arms entirely. Instead, she decides to divert money so planets in the New Republic can build their own defense forces. At the same time, Admiral Ackbar remains head of the Republic's fleet of capital ships, kept in reserve to fight back when portions of the Empire reject the peace treaty signed after Jakku.
So where does the First Order fit? Are they a part of the Empire, or something else?
You can think of them more as an outside group inspired by the Empire. Contingents like the First Order have a whole galaxy to hang out in, giving themselves time to get all nice and cult-ish out of sight. They're not the only such group: Aftermath introduces the "Acolytes of the Beyond," aiming to reunite Darth Vader's lightsaber with its owner in death. The connection between the Acolytes and The Force Awakens' Knights of Ren isn't yet clear, but both factions seem to share the same fetish for Sith memorabilia, and from the loving way Kylo Ren is talking to Vader's helmet in the film's trailers, it looks like he, too, is in the midst of a scavenger hunt for the Sith lord's things.
Enough talk about politics. Seriously, where's Luke?
That's still the big question, isn't it? Frankly, we don't know. But we have a few ideas. Soon after the Battle of Endor, Luke resumes the pilgrimage he started with his trip to Dagobah, traveling to the planet of Devaron — home of the devil-horned Devaronians — after having visited one of the many secret research stations on the edge of the galaxy that Palpatine set up while he was still alive.
From there, Luke's place in post-RotJ canon trails off, but we're guessing he didn't try to bring back the Jedi council. As Solo alluded to in the trailers, the Force is probably still considered some hokey religion. Think about it: The Jedi have been off the scene for more than 60 years at the time of the new movie — nobody but Luke's close friends know that he can use the Force — and even though the galaxy was ruled by one of the most powerful Sith of all time just 30 years previous, Palpatine took great care to hide his dark side powers. For the wider galaxy, the Sith are little more than boogeymen.
And Chewbacca? Han? Leia? What have they been up to?
There are also pretty big gaps on the fate of the main film characters, but here's what we know so far. Leia becomes a general in the rapidly demilitarizing New Republic, and Han and Chewie set off to save the Wookiee homeworld of Kashyyyk from slave-driving Imperial remnants.
The fate of other major characters are left more ambiguous. Boba Fett's armor makes it out of the Sarlacc Pit — the iconic green Mandalorian plate is cleaned up and sold by Jawa scavengers during Aftermath — but it's not clear what happened to the man inside. Given that Sarlacc can take up to a thousand years to digest bodies, and Fett's wide array of wrist-mounted weaponry, it's a good bet we'll be seeing the bounty hunter find his way in the post-Imperial galaxy again.
Any word on Lando Calrissian? He's my all-time favorite!
Not really, but longtime Star Wars screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan seems to think Lando might come back at some point — just not in The Force Awakens.
So what about the new kids? Do you really think their parents are —
Let's stop right there and just say we don't know, but if past Star Wars films are any indication, lineage will play a big role here with Rey / Finn / Kylo Ren.
Here's one we do feel confident about, however: it's a fairly sure bet that Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is the son of Rebel soldiers Shara Bey and husband Kes, introduced in the Shattered Empire comic. That background explains how Oscar Isaac's character came to become a crack pilot — he was born and raised in the Rebellion.
There are still hundreds of questions about the new Star Wars we haven't had answered. Why are Han, Leia, and others now fighting for the Resistance, not the New Republic? What exactly does Kylo Ren want? Where is Luke? And was Jar Jar Binks really the Sith architect behind the rise of the Empire?
Some of those questions will be answered by The Force Awakens this week, but still more will be answered by the huge slate of books, comics, video games, and TV shows that Disney has planned over the coming years. The galaxy might have been destroyed last year, but it's very quickly expanding.
Ross Miller contributed to this report.
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A brief history of the canonical Star Wars universe
Note: Years in the Star Wars galaxy were previously designated "BBY" or "ABY" to designate time before / after the Battle of Yavin, when the first Death Star was destroyed. It's not clear whether the new canon will adopt this designation, but for ease of reading, in this case we'll use The Phantom Menace as year zero. Years below are noted "ABN" — after the Battle of Naboo.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens Our first reactions
For those of you who have seen the movie, check out a very special Vergecast where we discuss The Force Awakens. Be warned: There will be spoilers