Before the Dark Times, Before the Empire: How Attack of the Clones Changed Star Wars Before Disney Owned the CanonMovies Features Star Wars
After purchasing Lucasfilm in 2012, Disney created a Story Group to go through the old Star Wars Expanded Universe and decide what was staying and what was getting thrown out. Much to my chagrin, they decided all of it was going to be redesignated as “Legends,” from Lord Revan to Talon Karrde, to be drawn from as needed but ignored by default. They raised my ire by creating clear corporate lines as to what is considered canon, but after George Lucas had already done that and after Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones established strong differences between how Star Wars existed on screen and in text. Attack of the Clones reconfigured Star Wars mythology, recontextualized the original films and pushed Star Wars further along a path of perpetually contradicting storytelling decisions, something which began with the original trilogy and reached its apex in the last film of the sequels. Fans didn’t let that ruin those books and games, and—eight years on—it’s safe to say we shouldn’t let Disney dictate what matters to us either.
There are lots of changes between what we knew about Jedi, the Republic and Anakin Skywalker between the release of Return of the Jedi in 1983 and the beginning of Attack of the Clones nearly 20 years later. There’s enough of this for a long list of plot holes that imply Lucas’ lack of storytelling restraint had him forgetting the things he laid down from 1977 to 1983. Yoda went from being the master that trained Obi-Wan Kenobi to the master that trained the master that trained Obi-Wan Kenobi. Kenobi’s outfit on Tatooine went from humble clothing to hide out among moisture farmers to the customary robes of the Jedi Order. But at the core of Attack of the Clones, there are changes to what fans previously knew about the Clone Wars, and added restrictions to Jedi for which there’d been no prior warning.
These changes are at the center of the story of Attack of the Clones—the A-plot focuses on Obi-Wan Kenobi discovering a scheme to build a clone army, while the B-plot focuses on Anakin Skywalker’s forbidden romance with Queen-turned-Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman). The way Attack of the Clones sets up the Clone Wars invalidates some of the existing EU stories because of the assumptions they’d made about the conflict. The institution of Jedi celibacy laws needlessly complicated Anakin Skywalker’s story and that of all the Jedi trained by his son Luke in the books set after the original trilogy. (Some of Obi-Wan’s behavior in the Clone Wars series implies that celibacy isn’t necessarily the law of the land, and beyond that lots of people have broken these rules in the EU anyway.)
For years, the Clone Wars were an uncertain myth in the back of Star Wars lore, a small part of a conversation between Luke and Obi-Wan after Leia mentioned it in her holographic message. It was only in Timothy Zahn’s 1991-1996 Thrawn Trilogy and Michael Stackpole’s X-Wing books (1996-1999) that some ideas began to get fleshed out. YouTuber Corey’s Datapad points out that, in Stackpole’s books, X-Wing pilot Wedge Antilles finds a document in a museum that explains Imperial propaganda about the Jedi purge—it’s pretty close to what we ended up getting in Revenge of the Sith, with some minor differences. The document states that the Jedi were destroyed by Senator Palpatine after he learned about their plot to control the government, with only one Jedi (Darth Vader) remaining loyal.
How about the content of the war? While “Clone Wars” and “Attack of the Clones” might imply that it was multiple conflicts and the clones attacked the Republic, Lucas’s vision around 2002 was that it was one war, and that the clones were on the side of the Republic. The Legends trilogy of Thrawn books (Zahn has written 13 books with the character, including a second trilogy for the new canon) focuses on their titular antagonist’s own plan to replace the Empire’s depleted forces through a clone army. He’s inspired to do this because an organization of cloners had raised an army to assault the Republic before the dark times, before the Empire.
Through the prequels, the clones move from being a fearful foe to a tool of the Republic; this pays off at the end of the prequel trilogy as well as in more interesting and intimate ways in The Clone Wars animated series. It is nevertheless unfortunate that a perfectly good and equally interesting version of the story was discarded, disrupting a timeline of post-original trilogy stories. According to internet correspondence between Star Wars YouTuber “EckhartsLadder” and Lucasfilm creative executive Pablo Hidalgo, the publishing side of Star Wars—connected with Del Rey and then Bantam Spectra Books—thought the Clone Wars ended 35 years before A New Hope based on what Lucas had told them. Moving that timeline up on a whim disrupted stories that had mentioned and chronologically linked specific events, objects and characters with the pre-Imperial era. For instance, Stackpole’s I, Jedi stars a protagonist whose father, according to the post-AOTC continuity, would have been 11 when he was born.
While changing the Clone Wars felt silly, there was thematic utility to giving the Republic an army of proto-Stormtroopers. While changing the timeline might have disrupted some stories, it didn’t rewrite the Jedi’s moral code. On the other hand, making the romance between Luke and Leia’s parents a forbidden love because of unclear monastic rules was melodramatic in the extreme. The EU novels had already established that Jedi could get married and have children. Luke gets married and has a child he trains in the Force, and Leia and Han have three kids that train in Luke’s academy. There are other characters in Luke’s Jedi Order with Jedi parentage. These include the main character of I, Jedi and the X-Wing stories, Corran Horn and Kyle Katarn, the main character of the Dark Forces/Jedi Knight game series, and one of Luke’s close friends in The New Jedi Order series (26 stories from 1999-2011), Troy Denning’s Dark Nest trilogy and Karen Traviss’ nine-book Legacy of the Force series. The fraying of the integrity of the Star Wars continuity began long before Disney purchased it; Lucas disregarded it as he saw fit, leaving dozens of authors and editors to scramble to adapt, and Disney decided it was easier not to deal with it.
The prequel films were financially successful but critically panned, and it isn’t unlikely the latter contributed to Lucas’ willingness to sell Lucasfilm. Eager fans anticipated which books following the original trilogy might be used as the basis for the sequel trilogy. The answer ended up being “none of them.” Despite nearly 30 years of books, comics and videogames establishing what happened in the New Republic, the sequels went in a different direction.
Meanwhile, the prequels have had a redemption arc marginally more believable than Darth Vader’s. It would be all too easy to blame this reassessment on something like the prevalence of the Prequel Memes subreddit and the spillover of ironic enjoyment into genuine enjoyment. Furthermore, some critics and political commentators were motivated by the accelerating downward spiral of U.S. politics to write essays such as Adam Elkus’ “The Accidental Masterpiece” and Peter M. Juul’s “Chronicle of Folly Foretold” about how the ridiculous and incoherent political machinations of the Galactic Republic’s downfall unwittingly predicted our federal government’s status quo. There might be something to that, but the overarching issue is that people who have nostalgia for the movies, for whom the prequels were their introduction to “a galaxy far, far away…” now have a prevalent voice in the pop culture public sphere. All that said, the well-earned distaste for the sequels that overlaps with anger at Disney’s unsympathetic treatment of preexisting continuity must coexist with the fact that Lucas, creator of the series, played fast and loose with it as well.
As someone that cares too much about Star Wars but doesn’t hold any of the films that have come out since I’ve been alive in high regard, witnessing Disney’s stewardship of the franchise has relieved me of the burden of caring. It’s turned from mass culture art into Content, though I enjoyed many of them in their time—perhaps due to ever-lowering, franchise-specific standards. Mandalorian is frequently aimless. Boba Fett is somehow far worse. What I do enjoy, however, is exploring the ways authors expanded the universe in various series that were written and took place between the end of the original trilogy and the release of the sequels. Pre-Disney Star Wars was on shaky ground with its continuity anyway. They had between 30 and 40 years of stories that were intended to continue the plot or set up the universe of the original trilogy. Its corporate validity was de facto jeopardized through little decisions by Lucas in his prequels before Disney made an official statement out of it. Yet they kept publishing stories and people kept enjoying them.
Corporations can try to control what stories matter, but fans and critics have the power to invest in art they think is worthwhile. Attack of the Clones is still significant, like the other prequels, for making grand changes to the official Star Wars canon that knocked a lot of well-constructed and deeply loved stories out of alignment. They would be frustrating for that reason even if they were otherwise well-executed. Nonetheless, as I learned from The Godfather Part III (which is better than a lot of movies, but bad for a Godfather movie) and X-Men: The Last Stand (of the 12 X-Men movies, less than half are good), as a fan, a critic or just an audience member, you always get to decide which stories matter and which ones to ignore. Neither George Lucas, nor Disney, nor the worst fans on the internet can take that away from you.
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.