Monday, 18 July 2016

Star Wars: Why Thrawn's Return Changes Nothing

The sad thing about this is that I want to stop writing these pieces. As said before, the first of these articles criticising Disney's treatment of the Expanded Universe was supposed to be it. One last great slam of the door before turning away from a once great franchise cannibalizing itself in the name of appealing to the masses. Then, however, we had The Force Awakens openly stealing characters, ideas and plot elements from prior books Disney had crapped all over. Then, even after that, the new novels were spearheaded by works so bad they might as well have starred John Freeman; the opening chapters of which actively mocked the Thrawn trilogy itself. 

As you can imagine, personal opinions on the new canon were hardly glowing when it came to this new universe stomping all over the old one. So, you can probably understand my surprise when people proclaimed that I should be happy now that Grand Admiral Mitth'raw'nuruodo Thrawn has been made "canon". Well, i'm not happy in the slightest. In fact i'm livid, as this proves the very thing I have personally railed against since this whole debacle began.

Now, let's be clear here, this criticism isn't directed against many secondary elements. The fact he has been made to look like Tom Riddle's malformed brother is something which can be overlooked. The fact that this horrifying snakeman is being pushed into an alarmingly poorly written show as some Skeletor-like villain to be beaten every other week is irksome, yes, but even that can be accepted on some level. Then, however, we have exactly what this represents in terms of Disney's treatment of the Expanded Universe, and Disney's staggering hypocrisy.

Let's start with the obvious shall we?

The Expanded Universe has been something Disney has actively hated from the start, bordering upon ridiculously. Casting off everything involved, ditching even the opportunity to exist within its own right, they did all but actively remove it from existence. Declaring that the EU stories were merely myths or hearsay (their justification for the "Legends" brand), they shunted them off to one side as outright falsehoods before declaring that their new releases were the "true" versions people should actually care about. This did not sit well with quite a few people as you can imagine, as Disney were actively ignoring the obvious alternative timeline or mirror universe answers which they had allowed Star Trek to start over. That at least allowed both past and presence to be equally respected. Instead Disney actively refused to allow the Expanded Universe any degree of legitimacy or right to be seen as equal to their replacement universe starting over.

This would have been enough but the apparent hatred - if not at least a rather extreme level of derision - started to creep in. For starters, as mentioned above editors permitted Chuck Wendig to crap all over a famous part of Heir to the Empire, becoming a tumorous lump in the opening prologue as he took the time to spell out everything he saw wrong with it. While this was certainly extremely unprofessional on Wendig's part, the fact that an editor greenlit this personal filibuster was even worse, showing how little respect was held for the older setting. The same even goes for the new Marvel comics, with some rather immature snipes on Jason Aaron's part after Disney took the licence back off of Dark horse. Comments, scenes and acts which were rather less than subtly mocking the older setting Dark Horse had supported or even major storylines kept showing up, and each and every one was permitted by the mouse overlords.

Things would become worse over time, as things began to escalate from derision into an outright Orwellian refusal to recognise any accomplishment of the old setting. We started seeing declarations stating that Aftermath featured the first homosexual Star Wars character, that The Force Awakens featured the first coloured Stormtrooper or turncoat trooper, proving they were human. Things even became so ridiculous that we started seeing promotions and fans favouring the new films promoting Rey as the first major female Star Wars character to carry a lightsaber. A fact which is, if you are even vaguely aware of the Expanded Universe, is not just suspect but outright false. To cover the sheer range of these details would take an entire article unto itself, so here's just a quick question instead - 

When Disney promoted its Star Wars style #Maythe4thbewithyou campaigns on social media, where was the Expanded Universe material? 

Really, think about it, where was anything related to the EU at all? There were no reminders of characters, no comments upon past storylines, no effort to venerate the setting which had kept Star Wars alive for decades at a time. Even the most mainstream of works such as Bioware or Obsidian's contributions, or even the Force Unleashed games, were all shunned in favour of shilling the new setting. Disney did not want to even acknowledge its existence let alone celebrate it, and the very effort to remind people that it was there apparently offended them. 

We've talked before about how Expanded Universe fans have been thrown under the bus and scapegoated en mass for the actions of morons, by fans as much as the media. However, there have been signs and pushes just requesting that the Expanded Universe be brought back. The most famous of these was a massive billboard, funded by fans and requesting that the old setting be allowed to continue. There were no demands, no arguments that it replace the existing books, merely a request that it be allowed to stand in its own right. Disney's response to this act, proving there was an audience willing to pay out for more books? Nothing. No statements at all. Nada. To them, even when this billboard was almost directly across from their offices, it was only worthy of being ignored rather than officially responded to in any way. Why was that exactly? Creative control and cash.

To Disney, the Expanded Universe setting and all that was established is merely a junkyard of ideas. It is not to be venerated or respected, but to be treated to a "rape and pillage" approach to past works, stealing elements wholesale whenever possible. We have seen everything from superweapons to well established characters showing up as little more than slight colour swaps and little else. Oh there would be changes here and there, perhaps to the origins or visual appearance, but make one slight switch and they're back to their old selves. 

Doing so allows Disney all the profit, creative control and ideas it wants, but it means it doesn't have to pay royalties to the people who actually made them beloved or created them in the first place. If you think this is insane, just keep in mind that this guy has almost exactly the same appearance and personality as this guy, and it only takes a minute in Photoshop to show they look almost exactly the same. Even the recent sequel to the abomination known as Aftermath got in on the action, with Life Debt introducing a shadowy background military genius in control of the remaining Imperials. One who (from what I could make out from Chuck Wendig's atrocious descriptions) retained a body language and trace elements which were Thrawn to the core. 

Not only does this character (okay he's known as Gallius Rax, but read this book and you'll just be mentally calling him not!Thrawn almost immediately upon seeing him) retain a love of opera, classical music and art to help concentrate upon beating his foes, but he's a warlord, tactical genius and reserved, shrewd man known for pulling off the impossible. Known for pulling off unconventional tactics, using anything to his advantage and cultured ruthlessness, he's basically presented as retaining the Empire's best qualities. This is basically akin to a DC Comics writer showing up and creating an orphan who took a night beast as his sigil and trained with monks to become a heroic superhero, but isn't Batman at all.

So, how does this relate to Thrawn himself exactly? For starters, all of this certainly hasn't put devoted Expanded Universe fans in the best of moods. Quite a few are frustrated and many more are extraordinarily furious at this continuous mistreatment of a setting they were immersed in. Disney knows this and the fact it keeps making headlines in various places (notably via public acts such as the billboard) are not helping with the company's PR. So, their result is to basically take a character wholesale from the supposedly crap and irredeemable setting they have opposed, and put him in their new one. So, besides the aforementioned theft of prior ideas and elements, this only further reinforces the point that Disney is talking out of its arse when it comes to the EU and its quality. That, however, is just the tip of the iceburg. You see, this is just a minor response, a move some people have nicknamed "Cue Cullen" when a creator needs to deflect attention from failings or negative PR.

Think of the Michael Bay Transformers films for a second. They're widely recognised for being financially profitable, but critically panned across the board and these days you will find few who will say positive things about them. Perhaps the only nice thing you'll find fans saying about them is that they brought public attention back to the franchise and kicked off a few better comics/series. In fact, initially things were so bad with the fandom that the company and Bay himself had to take steps to stop them badmouthing the film upon its announcement. 

Their solution - hire Peter Cullen, the original voice of Optimus Prime, to reprise his role. It worked, and for a while people were more positive towards the film, at least until they bought tickets and saw the damn thing. The same promptly went for every following film. Each time they would try to sidestep backlash or badmouthing by digging up some beloved part of the franchise to try and maintain a positive word of mouth. First it was the Matrix and more characters, then Shockwave and the Wreckers, and then the Dinobots. At no point were any of the actual flaws people had ever fixed. They just distracted enough fans with the idea of seeing something they loved showing up on the big screen long enough to make them forget about the severe failings of the films. 

Such a stunt is akin to jangling keys in front of a child to distract them from something terrible - it doesn't solve anything, it just makes them laugh for a few seconds. It just makes them consider opening their wallets and giving out more cash to the corporation, without them actually dealing with the massive problems fans still have. Those who still hold out to solve actual problems to resurrect the EU will find more opposition, or they will be treated as being an unpleasant fandom acting irrationally towards others.

Don't believe me? Even without going into these predictions, even ignoring all of history and how many times this little stunt has been wheeled out by others, the author himself has come out and requested it. Mere weeks before it was revealed that Timothy Zahn, one of a scant few Expanded Universe authors now working with Disney, would be producing a new book he had this to say:

"You just have to take a deep breath and [say], ‘OK, that is over. We accept it. We go on. We’ve got the book.'"

Except, of course, we don't. That book is being stolen, picked apart by Disney to fuel its new stories or treated as if it never existed. As if it is nothing worthy of remembrance and never contributed anything of worth to the world. As if it never mattered. It pains me personally to see someone like Zahn, whose works I respected no matter the setting, open up and serve as a PR shill against fans. His words are little more than encouragement for fans of the EU to effectively not give a damn about the setting they loved; to ignore that it is being set alight and burned away, and that it is being scavenged by the same creators who sneer at its existence.

This is why Thrawn's return ultimately changes nothing. He is not returning to bring back the EU or right some wrong, he is merely returning as a weapon; a way of using a beloved character to distract people from Disney's failings, or beat down those who will not support them. 


  1. I warned people about this. That if Thrawn was brought back, he'd be a hollow caricature. Their too caught up in the hype to see it, but this, as you said, changes little. It's why I've moved on from this and Star Trek, and devoted my energies onto Warhammer now adays. Sure, the Necrons' Retcron was a, but at least they don't saw off whole sections of the universe, splash and new coat of paint and call it something new.

    1. Well, we don't fully know if he's going to be a hollow caricature, but he is being brought back for all the wrong reasons. He can't carry out the same role which made him popular in the good canon, he lacks a distinctive ending point in the setting to avoid being overused and the fact he's being shoved into an incredibly overrated children's show hardly helps matters. It certainly doesn't bode well for things to come.

      As for wholly focusing upon Warhammer, yeah, at this point I do not blame you for doing that in the slightest right now.

    2. Isn't "Thrawn" being brought back as a bad guy in a childrens show? I will freely admit I haven't seen Star Wars: Rebels, but I really doubt a master strategist like Thrawn won't get completely emasculated in a show like that...

    3. Pretty much. I saw a little of Rebels, but it seriously failed to impress me unfortunately. From what I saw of the characters, it seemed less like the old 90s Batman show or even Clone Wars and closer to Scooby Doo with bumbling Stormtroopers and a Mandalorian "artist". Could be wrong of course as this was early on, but i'm not holding my breath.

  2. Honestly this whole thing reminds me of Star Trek, mostly because of the whole 'we're making a totally new continuity, oh, by the way, here's that villain you loved from the original continuity' thing.

    It's different in that Khan was changed, rather infamously so, whereas Thrawn retains all of his defining characteristics (as much as I can tell from the trailer, all that's missing is Pellaeon).

    It's like, what exactly was the point of retconning away the old universe completely if all you're going to do is rest on its laurels (while simultaneously ignoring it from what you say about Disney's attitude to the old EU) and cut and paste its beloved characters into the new universe?

    The old EU had its bad moments, definitely, but even from what little I've read of it it had interesting ideas and great stories. 'Bring on your thousands, one at a time or all in a rush' and many other awesome moments. Disney's treatment right now is like a poacher shooting an animal and then stripping its corpse of everything of value with no respect for it. There were going to be canon conflicts due to the fact that the EU mapped everything out in the time period TFA takes place, but shunting the entire EU (including the Old Republic) into wherever GW sent Malal wasn't necessary. All that was needed was strategic retcons or the alternate timeline/universe solution.

    1. That is actually a pretty good comparison between the two in all honesty. The new Trek fell down the idiot tree, hitting every branch on their way to the ground, when they did that because it made the same mistake as this new setting - Taking old concepts purely to milk nostalgia, doing them badly, and then reminding people of the older, better established, setting as a result.

      Stunts like this just seem to forget that these characters are more than just a name and a couple of distinct traits. Their histories, their stories, help define them, and when someone starts over or tried to do something different it should be to explore new ideas, not use the older stuff as a crutch. This actually has worked wonders with Batman as between the Nolan trilogy, Animated Series and comics themselves, they have explored, altered and re-examined the histories and ideas behind characters time and time again, always understanding what made them tick. This on the other hand is just "Right, here's Thrawn, so buy our stuff now and stop complaining."

      Also, yeah, no one is going to argue that the EU didn't have its bad points between Karen Travess, Darksaber and quite a few other bits. Problem is that they keep ignoring the good or treating it as if it were a failure with no right to have ever existed.

  3. I've got a bit of a different opinion on this, I look forward to Thrawn's return because if people respond positively to it hopefully it'll get through their thick skull that people like a lot of elements from the EU, and they like them a whole hell of a lot more than they enjoy this new stuff.

    If they keep including older elements from the EU maybe it'll finally click that people enjoyed the EU enough to let some aspects of it continue in some way, shape or form.

    Granted it's a thin hope, but I'll take what I can get.

    1. Well, the main reason i'm not in the same boat there personally is how certain things have gone down. Thrawn is only here because Zahn is working for them now, so Disney have his blessing to use him and are willing to pay the royalties to his character. The rest they'll either strip mine or outright steal whenever they feel like it. We've already looked into the Kyle Katarn problem and Force Awakens' own issues in the past, but it's been happening non-stop since then. Take Life Debt for example - Wendig suddenly announces that Wedge is creating a fighter squadron of washouts, oddballs, elites and specialists for joint commando and airborne assaults, which he's calling (wait for it) Phantom Squadron. Anyone who is even vaguely aware of the X-Wing books know this sounds exactly like Wraith Squadron right down to the last detail, and even multiple characters from the X-Wing books show up with slightly edited names to make it look like Wendig has made them. The theft of old ideas continues, and Disney's open contempt for the EU ensures they will greedily eye it up as something to pillage concepts from, and little else.