May 19, 1999 was a day long anticipated. The lines started months in advance. The marketing was pervasive and overwhelming — it would have been impossible for anyone not to know that Star Wars was back.
Of course, for some of us, Star Wars never left. After Return of the Jedi debuted in 1983, there wasn’t a whole lot going in the world of Star Wars. If you wanted to revisit the Galaxy Far, Far Away, your options were limited. Kids who grew up in that era probably remember the two live-action ewok TV movies and the Ewoks and Droids cartoons. Droids was especially notable, because the voice of C-3PO for the animated series was performed by the same actor from the movies, Anthony Daniels. In addition to the cartoons, you could also hope for the occasional theatrical rerelease of the films. Eventually, of course, the movies came to home video and could be watched whenever the urge struck.
Still, they were only three films. Star Wars as a franchise seemingly went into hibernation after the aforementioned cartoons finished their relatively brief television runs. Only gamers kept the home fires burning: the pen-and-paper role-playing game saw the release of many successful books and supplements (some of the most creative Star Wars work of the ’80s, in fact), and there was the perpetual, ubiquitous videogame presence — but for the most part, the franchise had left mainstream pop culture behind, or perhaps had been left behind. There wasn’t much in the way of new comics, books, or file, to absorb. It was a dark time to be a Star Wars fan.
[[image:epone_heir.jpg:Heir to the Empire:right:0]]All that changed in 1991, with the release of the Thrawn trilogy, a trio of novels by noted sci-fi author Timothy Zahn. The release of the first book, Heir to the Empire, was incredibly well received by all strata of fans — that is, die-hards who never stopped fanning the flames of Star Wars as well as more casual science-fiction/fantasy fans who were impressed by the high quality of the writing. Zahn expertly captured the tone and feel of the films like few authors before or since. The characters he created — Admiral Thrawn, Gilad Pellaeon, Mara Jade, Talon Karde, Garm Bel Iblis — were immediate fan favorites and stood up well against the established characters from the movies. Many lapsed Star Wars fans were drawn back into the fold after reading the books. Not only were the Thrawn novels of a very high quality, but they were well supported with a strong marketing and PR push. Star Wars was back, and it wasn’t just the nerds who knew about it, as demonstrated by the books’ healthy showing on the New York Times bestsellers list.
The success of Timothy Zahn’s books, part of what fans have come to refer to as the Expanded Universe, led to even more expansion of Star Wars. As the Thrawn cycle revitalized the franchise’s fiction through the medium of novels, Tales of the Jedi and Dark Empire were similarly raising the visibility of Star Wars among comic book fans. The success of the Thrawn books opened the floodgates of merchandising and tie-ins, and the marketing empire has been going strong ever since. For me, the Zahn books were a revelation. I’ve always been both an avid reader and a Star Wars fan. Here, two of my passions merged, and Zahn probably has as much to do with George Lucas for my continuing passion for the saga.
[[image:epone_potf_copy1.jpg:Power of the Force:left:0]]The next major Star Wars push didn’t hit until 1995. Not only was this the year that George Lucas began scripting Episode One, it was also the year Kenner relaunched its 3.75″ action figure line based on the old moves. The Power of the Force line was a huge event at the time. One of the few ways people could stay in touch with their love for the films during these years was through collecting, and the original run of figures from the time of the movies was the most popular target of the collector. Kenner’s new run tapped into that collector mentality among many Star Wars fans while introducing new fans to the thrill of the hunt. Speculators also jumped on the toy line, hoping to see the same astronomical value increase on these new figures as was seen on some figures in the original run. The franchise’s return to toy stores was newsworthy, but even that was nothing compared to what was coming around the corner.
[[image:epone_shadow.jpg:Shadow of the Empire:right:0]]1996 saw an event universe that laid the foundation for much of what was to come for the Star Wars brand. Shadows of the Empire is probably best remembered by GameSpite readers for the Nintendo 64 game it spawned, but that wasn’t nearly the extent of its reach. It probably seems quaint now, but at the time having a cross-media event like Shadows was unusual. It was treated by Lucasfilm like a new movie, barring the fact that there was no movie at the center of the blitz. Everything else was in place for a major motion picture release, however: the novel, the comic line, the action figures, the video game tie-in, the trading cards, the making-of and art books, and more. Shadows was also a major event for Star Wars fans because unlike the books and comics that had come in recent years, this story actually took place during the timeline of the original films, featuring characters such as the Emperor and Darth Vader in their prime.
“Han Shot First!” became a rallying cry among the faithful the next year as special edition versions of the Star Wars trilogy was released to theaters. The special editions were director’s cut versions of the original films with remade effects and hundreds of little technical fixes. While some changes made to the films were regrettable, I still think it was amazing simply being able to go and see the restored classics in the theater. With the special editions, Lucas accomplished two goals: he raised the quality of the effects in Star Wars and brought the trilogy more in line for his evolving vision of the franchise — most notably expanding the immensity of the universe with tiny cosmetic changes such as adding windows to Cloud City — and he tested whether or not special effects technology had advanced to the point where he felt he could get his vision for the prequels onto the screen without compromise.
Having decided that he could, preproduction on Episode One began in earnest. The long wait for a brand-new Star Wars movie was almost over.