How Disney Could Make Star Wars Episode VII Awesome

In the rare bit of news that could blow Hurricane Sandy off the map, Disney announced today that it had purchased Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion—and announced that the company will debut Star War Episode VII in 2015. “It’s now time for me to pass Star Wars on to a new generation of filmmakers,” George Lucas said in the official announcement of the transaction, in what is a substantial understatement, given the creative quality of the prequels. “I’ve always believed that Star Wars could live beyond me, and I thought it was important to set up the transition during my lifetime.”

While this opens up a new chapter in the cinematic development of the Star Wars universe, that doesn’t mean Disney will be flying off into uncharted territory. The Star Wars Expanded Universe includes a huge number of licensed books (not to mention video games, comic books, graphic novels, and animated television series) that lay out the story of the franchise’s main characters, and in some cases, their distant descendants. Given that Disney will need to woo legions of long-term fans who love the larger Star Wars universe and were burned to greater or lesser extents by the awfulness of the prequels, and will certainly want to keep monetizing the expanded universe, I expect they’ll preserve that continuity. The question is just which stories they decide to use as source material. Here are five options:

1. Heir To The Empire: One of the most venerable entries in the Expanded Universe, this series of three novels, also known as the Thrawn trilogy, explore one of the most fascinating problems left behind in the wake of the battle of Yavin: how do you clean up a counterinsurgency that includes highly trained admirals with considerable industrial resources and military hardware at their disposal, not to mention a Dark Jedi? Chock-full of military strategy, major roles for all the core characters, and a romantic foil for Luke Skywalker who isn’t secretly his sister—the awesome former Imperial agent Mara Jade—Heir to the Empire is probably the strongest contender for Episode VII, and Episodes VIII and IX to follow—that is, if you want to stick with the original characters.

2. X-Wing: Rogue Squadron: That said, the smartest thing for this new franchise to do would be to move beyond the core cast Luke and Leia Skywalker and Han Solo. The actors who played them are too old to reprise their roles in storylines set relatively soon after the events of Return of the Jedi, and too iconic to be replaced. But there are a lot of terrific other stories set in the Star Wars universe, and for my money, the best is Michael Stackpole’s X-Wing quartet, which involves Wedge Antilles, a minor character who survived both Death Star runs, setting up a new commando squad of flying aces. The franchise introduced Corran Horn, a Corellian Security Force veteran (basically, a Star Wars cop), who joins the squadron and learns more about his family history, and the forces that make him such a remarkable pilot. It also featured Ysanne Isard, one of the great villains of the Expanded Universe era, a former Imperial agent who seizes control of Coruscant, the Imperial capital planet, and then when she risks losing control of it, wages a biological war on non-human species that can only be fought with an extremely expensive cartelized medicine. It’s still an Imperial-New Republic showdown, but in foregrounding commando skills, conflicts between humans and non-humans, smugglers, and trade wars, the Rogue Squadron books explored strikingly new dynamics and made the Star Wars universe a much richer, more thoughtful place.

3. Yuuzhan Vong: If you want to throw out the conflict between the New Republic and the Empire—by this point in the Expanded Universe a breakaway state called the Imperial Remnant—Disney could tell the long-arc story of the Yuuzhan Vong invasion of the galaxy. A wacky conquering species that worships pain, views mechanical technology as an abomination, and terraforms planets to their needs, the Yuuzhan Vong unites the New Republic and the Empire, explores all sorts of complex new dynamics in the Force, and gets seriously violent and crazy. This franchise could be an amazing match for a monster-builder like Guillermo del Toro or an innovator like District 9 director Neill Blomkamp. But it’s probably too far out of the core Star Wars brand for this to happen.

4. Legacy of the Force: The most conservative choice, but probably also the most sensible one, is probably for Disney to skip forward a generation. This franchise explores the rise of Han and Leia’s twins, Jacen and Jaina Solo, as powerful Jedi Knights in their own right, and stages a very different kind of deadly familial showdown as Jacen’s arrogance leads him to the Dark Side, and Jaina rises as the Sword of the Jedi, the greatest warrior of the order. There are big romances, explorations of Han Solo’s home planet, Corellia, the tragic death of Luke Skywalker’s wife, Mara Jade, and lots of other collective drama. I wouldn’t mind a Legacy of the Force series. But it would be giving away a lot of potential to truly develop the world George Lucas built, with much greater nuance than he lent to the prequels.

5. Indie Star Wars: There is a lot of delightfully weird stuff in the Expanded Universe, including The Courtship of Princess Leia, in which Han finally tries to get it together to put a ring on it, but not without kidnapping, incredibly awful attempts at cooking, and a bunch of Force-sensitive witches with pet Rancors; Children of the Jedi, which literally involves Luke Skywalker having ghost sex; Truce at Bakura, which involves soul-stealing aliens invading the fragile New Republic; and superweapon stories like The Crystal Star and Showdown at Centerpoint. I think, however, we’re safe from an adaptation of Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, which was written before the big Luke and Leia reveal, and reads as disturbingly sexual in retrospect.