Saturday, December 3, 2016
Force in Focus: Shadows of the Empire
It was a reasonably clever idea (at one point, LucasFilm even cut together a trailer for the "film", using pre-existing footage, and showed it at a few conventions, before eventually pulling it for fear that fans would get confused and expect a movie), one which showcased the growing multimedia might of the Star Wars brand in the mid-90s and helped stoke interest in the franchise ahead of the 1997 Special Editions and The Phantom Menace in 1999. The Silver Age of Star Wars had begun in 1991 with the release of Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire, reviving interest in the brand after the franchise had more or less gone dark in the late 80s. That renewed interest eventually led to subsequent novels, a new comic book universe via Dark Horse, and a revamped action figure line from Kenner. Shadows of the Empire, then, could be viewed as the zenith of this brief era in Star Wars history, when the franchise was becoming more and more popular despite the lack of any new stories being told via film.
The novel itself, written by Steve Perry, is a mixed bag. Prince Xizor is something of a Mary Sue, a character created for the event and immediately thrust into a position where he's the third most powerful figure in the galaxy despite having never been mentioned before, and it's hard to accept Dash as anything more than the watered-down Han Solo he was created to be. But the story does have some fun moments, like Threepio briefly piloting the Falcon, and it helps show Lando's transition from reluctant heel to comfortable ally of the other main characters. And, of course, the continuity buff in me has always appreciated the bits of Jedi setup, though much of that is probably, technically, non-canonical nowadays.
But in the end, Shadows of the Empire's most lasting legacy has more to do with its genesis and how its story was told than anything about the story itself, a snapshot of a time when Star Wars was returning to a position of pop culture prominence it would never again completely cede. While the details of Prince Xizor and Dash Rendar may be non-canonical and mostly forgotten by now, Shadows as a whole will be remembered for the novelty of its gimmick, for the way LucasFilm said, "so what if we don't have a new movie to support licensed tie-ins, let's just create the tie-ins like there was a movie!", a pretty big leap that nonetheless paid off and illustrated the power of Star Wars not just as a series of films, but as a brand unto itself.
A closer look at the Shadows of the Empire action figures.