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What can the old Star Wars Expanded Universe give to the new canon?

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Who is Thrawn, anyway?

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Star Wars’ big blue bad is back. Disney announced this summer that Grand Admiral Thrawn, one of the best-known villains from Star Wars’ past, would be reentering the official canon. This past weekend, he made his triumphant return with the premiere of the third season of Rebels.

Thrawn is notable because he's one of the only major characters from the Expanded Universe (EU) to make the leap between the previous Star Wars canon and Disney's new one. But why does that matter? Star Wars has had samurai wizards, armored jetpacking super-soldiers, and an evil magic prune in a cape as its big villains; Thrawn’s main ability seems to be unnerving red eyes and a particularly neatly pressed uniform.

For those Star Wars fans out there who don’t know who Thrawn is, go out and pick up Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command, all written by Timothy Zahn. More than any others, these three novels kicked off the first Star Wars Expanded Universe, laying down ground that would be built upon by the hundreds of comics, video games, and novels that followed.

Rich Kelly

But for those who can’t face three books of now-unofficial galactic history, here’s a quick primer: Thrawn is one of the most dangerous threats to the galaxy, with a genius-level IQ, a capable fleet at his command, and a working knowledge of a sector of the galaxy almost unmapped by outsiders. His people, the Chiss, were one of the few alien races not to be directly subjugated by the Empire, but instead brought in as almost-equal partners. The Chiss are calculating, ruthless, and careful as a species, and Thrawn was one of their very best.

He succeeds so often in Timothy Zahn’s books because he’s one step ahead of Luke Skywalker, Mara Jade, and the others in the fledgling New Republic: not through some mystical power, or because he has incredible superweapons, but because he’s done his homework.

His victories are merciless masterstrokes, drawing his enemies into steel space traps that spring shut behind him, closing off any chance of escape. Star Wars has tried to equal Thrawn’s imperious genius in subsequent EU comics, novels, and games, but none of the revolving cast of baddies have come close. Ex-Imperials like Ysanne Isard were too interested in personal glory, while Sith villains chased a fickle and ethereal power.

When The Force Awakens entered production in 2012, Lucasfilm faced a dilemma: it could construct a movie based on the massive collection of novels, comics, and games, or start fresh. The company formed the Lucasfilm Story Group, a centralized committee which would determine the direction of the story moving forward.

Now that The Force Awakens has been released, it’s clear that the entire Expanded Universe wasn’t being tossed out completely: bits and pieces are making their way in. The term “The New Republic” has its origins in the EU, while a story involving Han and Leia’s son going to the Dark Side occupied a long series of the later novels. At first, it seemed like the galaxy had been destroyed, but it’s clear that the Story Group is looking back on the Expanded Universe and figuring out what would be worth repurposing.

To be fair, there’s quite a bit there that really shouldn’t be brought back. The Crystal Star was particularly poorly received, Kevin J. Anderson’s “Superweapon of the Week” approach got old fast, and let's leave the Ewoks TV series where it belongs. But there are definitely parts worth saving. As The Verge's ranking Star Wars nerds, we decided to work out which bits we want to see come back.

Andrew Liptak: The first and most obvious choice when it comes to characters is Mara Jade. She was introduced in Heir to the Empire along with Thrawn, and arguably she’s one of the best-known EU characters after Thrawn. She was a badass spy and Imperial operative who later came over to the New Republic after meeting Luke and eventually marrying him.

Art: Jason Felix / David Stevenson

Obviously, until we know more about Luke after Episode VIII, we can't say for sure what path her life would take, but she's a hugely distinctive female character — something the new story really has been working on. Star Wars has an improving track record when it comes to female characters, but it would be nice to see Mara brought into canon status in some form.

Rich McCormick: Mara comes to define Luke in the books. She's a tough character in her own right, but she's also a tool writers used to sharpen his softer edges. Her gritty background and no-nonsense attitude give him a reason to fight rather than sit around meditating. As much as I’d love to see her back, I don’t think she’ll fit in the new universe, primarily because — based on Episode VII’s final shot — Luke seems to have those hard edges already.

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The dude’s been living on a rock in an alien sea for who knows how many years, potentially grief-stricken by his nephew falling to the dark side. Introducing an instant love interest to a guy that damaged would be tricky. And if you went the other way — bringing her in shortly after the fall of the second Death Star — then we know the relationship’s going to end awfully enough to send him into hermitism.

But I am in favor of bringing back a badass spy. My vote goes to Iella Wessiri, the absurdly capable ex-Corellian Security agent, who could slip so easily into the ranks of Imperial upper echelons to report back to a young Rebellion. I want a movie, book, or show from the other side, amid Coruscant’s glittering spires, as Iella navigates a life as a double-agent.

Andrew: There are some other good ones to bring back as well. Winter Celchu was one of those background characters who popped up quite a bit. She was another Thrawn trilogy alum, but I felt like she was fleshed out more in the comics. She was a friend of Leia’s who joined the rebellion and later became an operative for the New Republic, and she could be the basis of some really great stories about the Rebellion and the post-ROTJ era.

Bringing her in would also help tell some interesting stories about Leia. She’s held up as a really important female character, but she’s one of the only ones. That’s expanding a bit with Rogue One: we’re seeing Mon Mothma come back into the picture, and we’ve got the introduction of Jyn Erso. But we could use more women, and the EU gives us some good ones.

Rich: With Disney's planned production schedule, Leia's surely a lock to get her own standalone movie at some point. She's already had her own comic, a short run that painted her as a fearless — if reckless — figurehead. But I want to know more about how she got involved in the Rebellion.

I'm particularly interested to see where they take her Jedi development. She had a few false starts in the earlier Expanded Universe, promising to pick up her saber and start training, but she never reached Luke's level of Force mastery. Episode VII suggested the Story Group copied this template, sending Leia into more practical matters than space magic and meditation, despite Yoda's portentous assurances that she wasn't the Jedi's last hope.

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Andrew: Something I noticed while catching up on Rebels was a neat callback to The Truce At Bakura by Kathy Tyers, of all books: the Quasar Fire-class cruiser-carrier. I had to pull out my old copy of The Essential Guide to Vehicles and Vessels (page 56!) to figure out what it was, but it was a big starship that’s essentially used to carry around starfighters. Flipping through the reference guide, it occurs to me that the EU can contribute a lot to the new canon simply in terms of ships and planets, like the Empire’s Carrack Cruisers. Since Thrawn has returned, maybe we'll see other background elements that figured prominently into his plans from the books, such as Interdictor Cruisers or cloaked asteroids.

Rich: Man, I love these nerdy background details, and I love the Story Group’s apparent willingness to cater to them. The tactical power of those Interdictors has been touched on previously in Rebels, and the show's also described the birth of the B-Wing bomber — minor elements that wouldn't work in a movie without boring an audience, but make inveterate fans (hello) go all giddy.

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After spending too much on the X-Wing miniatures game, I'm hoping we see the return of the E-Wing, the updated snubfighter that looks like a cross between an X-Wing and the faster A-Wing. It's a beast on the tabletop, especially when piloted by Corran Horn, another character I'd like to see return to the universe. Ideally he'd come back to help the New Republic clean up Imperial remnants with smuggler partner Mirax Horn and her dad, Booster Terrik, if only so I can finally see a bright-red Star Destroyer.

Andrew: One thing I really want to see the story group look at is the X-Wing series, by Michael A. Stackpole and Aaron Allston. They’ve done some other warfare-themed books like Twilight Company by Alexander Freed, but the X-Wing series’ approach to the franchise was refreshing. No Jedi or any of the central cast, but a whole new group of characters who were working to fight against the Empire. Given the entire purpose of Rebels, and the approach Disney appears to be taking with Rogue One, it would be cool to see a similar type of story brought in to show what happened when the Rebellion really became a threat.

Art: Ian Fullwood

If that doesn’t work, there’s always sequel novels, like what Chuck Wendig is doing with his Aftermath series. The EU left a huge gap, and there’s plenty of space for a similar type of series to fill in the holes between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens.

Rich: The X-Wing books remain my favorite part of the whole Expanded Universe. Stackpole's stuff was great, but still felt wed to the movies and their over-explored main characters. Aaron Allston's Wraith Squadron was better because it divorced the conflict completely from Luke, Leia, and friends, giving us a rotating cast of damaged characters that felt like Star Wars' take on the Dirty Dozen.

Even better than that, it was funny. The Star Wars movies had levity and Han Solo, but the previous Expanded Universe was overly credulous and often dour. Allston's work had the kind of comedic moments you'd expect to get when you pack a squadron of cynical pilots into close quarters and make them fight and die for each other.

Allston sadly passed away in 2014, but I can't think of a more fitting tribute than giving Garik "Face" Loran, Piggy saBinring, or even Lieutenant Kettch — a stuffed cyborg Ewok — a run around in the new canon.

Andrew: Yub yub, Commander.


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