When is a movie not a movie?
In 1996, Lucasfilm finally told the story of what happened between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Titled Shadows of the Empire, it had a novelization, new toys, a video game tie-in, and a complete soundtrack; everything but a film. In fact that was the goal: to create every commercial property possible without making another Star Wars movie.
The story is presented over three different mediums, each with a slight variation of the same general story. Luke and Leia track Boba Fett in the hopes of freeing Han Solo (which won’t happen until Jedi). In their quest, they enlist smuggler Dash Rendar and his robot partner Leebo to track the bounty hunter. Soon, the whole group is targeted by Prince Xizor, head of the Black Sun mafia. Xizor seeks to gain favor with the Emperor and supplant Darth Vader as second-in-command. So, pretty typical Star Wars stuff.
The novel offers the fullest picture, while the comic book tie-in by Dark Horse focuses on Boba Fett and the Nintendo 64 game stars Dash.
Dash Rendar is the poor man’s Han Solo (no offense to the creators, but everyone who is not Han Solo is the poor man’s Han Solo). He brings the swagger that is absent since our daring smuggler is still frozen in carbonite. He fits into the story perfectly well; it’s just kind of like when the Three Stooges had Shemp. He was also the one responsible for the deaths of the many bothams who died retrieving the plans to the second Death Star. But his ship, the Outrider does get an appearance in the Special Edition of A New Hope.
The soundtrack is mostly riffs on the classic John Williams score. In fact, composer Joel McNeely was personally recommended by Williams after he declined to do the score himself. Perhaps McNeely’s strongest contribution to the musical legacy of Star Wars is “Xizor’s Theme.” The piece has a bluesy feel to it, paying homage to golden age gangster films the way Williams’ original score invoked Flash Gordon and other adventure serials.
The video game was one of the first games available for the Nintendo 64, the company’s first 3D console. It also offers the first onscreen depiction of Coruscant, beating the Special Edition of Jedi by three months (December 1996 vs. the re-release in March 1997). And aside from the few seconds added to the end of Jedi, the video game gives the most substantial look at Coruscant following the rise of the Empire.
Shadows of the Empire is a significant project in the Star Wars universe, not just in terms of the story, but as multimedia project. It is credited with renewing fan interest in time for the theatrical release of the Special Edition trilogy in 1997. And along with Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, it set the foundation of what would become the Expanded Universe (May it rest in peace).
Shadows of the Empire is our best glimpse into what is possible with the upcoming new trilogy; when the galaxy far, far away isn’t created by Lucas himself, but by people honoring his vision.