Shadows of the Empire began life when, in an attempt to reinvigorate the franchise prior to the cinematic release of the special editions, Lucasarts met with Expanded Universe author Steve Perry to develop a story set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The original idea had been originally discussed during a meeting between Lucasfilm publishing director Lucy Autrey Wilson and Bantam Books Editor Lou Aronica, where a multimedia crossover was proposed, encompassing the disparate license holders of Star Wars, and leading to the prospect of a “movie project without the movie”, that Shadows of the Empire would eventually become.
An interquel, Shadows of the Empire takes place immediately after the events of The Empire Strikes Back and tells the tale of our group of intrepid rebels and Han Solo surrogate Dash Rendar’s quest to rescue Han Solo from Boba Fett. Darth Vader, meanwhile, undergoes his own power struggle against leader of the Black Sun organisation, Prince Xizor. Each licensee involved in the event told the story from a different perspective, be it that of the saga’s main characters in the novels, struggles between the various factions of bounty hunters in the comic books, and the adventures of Rendar himself in the Nintendo 64 videogame. Together each viewpoint formed part of one cohesive whole. It was a masterclass in marketing.
Maybe I’m a sucker for advertising, but I was swept up in the event. And then some. I needed to get my hands on everything produced for this story (obviously, the intended purpose). Unfortunately, even in my 20s with so much disposable income to spare, there was no way that could happen - there was just so much of it. Videogames, Books, Pop-up Books, Comic Books, Micro Machines, Action Figures, Trading Cards, a soundtrack (yes, there was a soundtrack for the movie that never existed, composed by Joel McNeely), even a ‘making of’ book cataloguing each element of the project and how it came to be. To this day I still have an official Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire statuette sitting on my shelf.
The videogame was immensely popular at the time and became a huge seller for Nintendo. The graphics may have aged somewhat, and Hoth levels have become ubiquitous in Star Wars games since then, but bringing down an Imperial Walker was an unmatched thrill, to say nothing of battling IG-88 on Ord Mantell. As for the action figures. It was the first time that Slave-1 had been rereleased since its initial production, and in slinky new black and purple Shadows of the Empire packaging, to boot. Together with Dash Rendar’s Outrider, Leia in Boushh disguise, Chewbaccas as Wookie Bounty Hunter Snoova, Luke in Coruscant Guard disguise, Dash Rendar, Xizor and twin packs featuring Vader, Fett and IG-88, the toy line was a huge seller. The figures were snapped up off the shelf at the place I worked within minutes, and with most UK-based toy stores sadly lacking the Power of the Force range, they became incredibly difficult to acquire.
I can’t comment on just why so many of us were caught up in the hype for the story. Maybe it was the multimedia aspect, maybe it was the sheer amount of merchandise (and man, some of those things released were just beautiful), maybe it’s that it expanded on events in the movie in such a way that it brought a freshness to them that we hadn’t seen for such a while. Maybe it was the fact that finally, after so long, we had new Star Wars material to look forward to. I’m not disparaging the EU novels and comics that came before with that sentence, but to a fan such as myself, to see the characters and events of this storyline treated as if it were a movie release, it felt more official. A feeling compounded with the eventual release of the movie Special editions that saw several elements from Shadows incorporated into official continuity. It was one thing to have the event referenced in the Return of the Jedi radio drama, but another entirely to see it referenced in the saga itself. I remember sitting there, mouth agape as the ASP droid appeared onscreen in the outskirts of Mos Eisley, followed shortly afterwards by a swoop bike, and wait… was that Dash Rendar’s Outrider seen blasting off from the spaceport…?
I can’t stress enough just how mind-blowing that was at the time. And it’s a testament to the care invested in that project that even now, coming up on thirty years since it was initially conceived, many fans like myself still have a love for that story. Certain aspects of it have not aged well at all - I am well aware that I probably look back on it through rose-tinted spectacles. However, to my mind, there hasn’t been a multimedia crossover in any fandom that has even approached the success that Shadows of the Empire had.
Alas, as with all those fond-remembered storylines from what was once the EU, Shadows of the Empire’s canonicity was relegated - for the most part - to Legends continuity. Those aforementioned glimpses we saw in Episode IV: A New Hope still remain, as does the Black Sun organisation - though it is known more now for its more infamous boss, Darth Maul - and Xizor’s race, the Falleen. Of Xizor himself, there has been no sign in current continuity, past a fleeting glimpse of a Micro Machines miniature used in a crowd scene in Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Dash Rendar, a brief mention aside in the Solo: Star Wars Story tie-novel Tales from Vandor has suffered a similar mysterious fate. And while Thrawn was eventually rescued from Legends obscurity to take his turn in the spotlight once again in Star Wars: Rebels, the two main breakout characters from what was once a major event in the Star Wars saga have yet to return to the limelight. Until then, Shadows of the Empire still takes place in my personal headcanon. It just takes a little squinting on my part for it to slide into place.
Over twenty-five years on, it’s difficult to put into words just how big Shadows of the Empire was at the time, especially to those fans who have never even heard of it. But it is arguably a very important milestone in the history of Star Wars and brought back the excitement that a new movie brings with it even though there seemed to be very little likelihood of there being any more movies. That it wasn’t a movie itself is completely beside the point. We had everything that a motion picture release entails, and back then, that was enough.
If you hadn’t heard of it until now, by all means, do yourself a favour and take a look at what you missed out on. Just, please don’t go snapping up all that merchandise you missed out on until I’ve completed my own Shadows of the Empire collection…
Written By DK
Syndicated From Culture Slate