Star Wars ’90s Throwback: How ‘Shadows of the Empire’ Changed the Galaxy

The original title for The Force Awakens references Shadow of the Empire, a ’90s Star Wars saga that filled in the gaps between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

01.03.16 6:15 AM ET

Star Wars: The Force Awakens left moviegoers with a lot of big questions over the holidays, but one was on people’s minds long before the film was released: What does the title mean? How does the Force “awaken”? It was a question that brought forth many jokes on places like Twitter. 

That’s where, last weekend, Lucasfilm creative director Pablo Hidalgo unveiled Episode VII’s original name: Shadow of the Empire. 

That was the name of a video game from the ’90s—and a novel. And a comic book series. And an assortment of trading cards, action figures and such that told the story of what happened to the Rebellion in between the events of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

In 1994, Lucasfilm started developing a project spanning several different formats in the Star Wars universe. It would be called Shadows of the Empire, which is not a misspelling. (Shadows, pluralized, is the name of the ’90s products, while Shadow was the working name for Force Awakens.) According to a book called The Secrets of Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, an exhaustive look at this multimedia venture, the idea for Shadows came about in a meeting between Lucasfilm and Bantam Books, which had previously published several Star Wars novels. 

Thanks to Lucasfilm’s unique licensing agreement—which allowed George Lucas to retain the rights to his beloved creations—executives proposed a project in which one story would be told across different platforms. With approval from Lucas, the “movie project without the movie,” as various participants called it, was underway by 1996.

The Shadows story would fill in the details between Episodes V and VI, a chunk of the Star Wars canon Lucas had previously considered off-limits. In it, we saw Luke, Leia, Chewie, and Lando try to save Han Solo from the bounty hunter Boba Fett while caught in a feud brewing within the ranks of the Empire. Some of the story was designed to explain puzzling details in the Jedi film, like the disguise Leia wore at Jabba’s palace. Other parts helped set up the battle to destroy the second Death Star on Endor. 

Shadows also introduced new characters like Dash Rendar, who was more or less a carbon copy of Han Solo, right down to his smuggler’s background and rebellious attitude. He flew a ship that resembled the Millennium Falcon, got involved in a chase featuring hovering motorbikes, and is even retconned on Hoth, the snowy planet from Empire Strikes Back. If you thought Force Awakens was a hodgepodge regurgitation of A New Hope, Star Wars was recycling itself long before Disney threw money at it.

Dark Horse’s Shadows of the Empire comics, meanwhile, were told from the perspective of bounty hunters like Boba Fett. The video game, published by LucasArts, took Rendar and the Rebellion’s perspective, and the novel jumped between plots featuring Darth Vader and the Empire. Other official products such as toys, cards, models and statues were made by companies like Kenner and Topps. Even an official soundtrack was released, though it was not by John Williams, the original composer for the films. “Everything but the movie,” indeed.

What started as something of a cash grab became the biggest Star Wars project since the ’80s. The scale of Shadows’ cross-platform marketing push was a first for the franchise and would soon become the template. (Now, such a blitz is standard for new installments in the outer space tale, as seen with the aggressive two-year marketing campaign for The Force Awakens.)

Despite mixed reviews, Shadows of the Empire satisfied fans until the prequels and Special Edition films destroyed their hopes. When Disney bought Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012, however, it was decided that anything outside of the movies and Clone Wars TV series would now be considered Legends, meaning non-canon. Shadows was lumped into this category, despite its specific place in the Star Wars canon timeline.

But not everything from Shadows was lost. You can still find Shadows Easter eggs in your Star Wars prequels and Special Edition DVDs (or your streaming collection). With the re-release of A New Hope in 1997, Lucas added a version of Rendar’s ship, the Outrider, shown flying outside of the Cantina on the desert planet Tatooine. The Clone Wars TV show established the existence of the Black Sun, an organization run by the main villain of Shadows, Prince Xizor. And Rendar’s name is included on as one of the pilots fighting on Hoth in Empire Strikes Back.

None of the Shadows characters seem to exist in Disney’s new Star Wars canon, despite the Outrider’s interior shown at the Star Wars Celebration event last year. The Force Awakens has no other nods to this heavily marketed side story, but maybe in Episodes VIII or IX, or perhaps one of the upcoming anthology films, fans of this discarded chapter will finally be acknowledged. After all, the new film borrows so much from the Star Wars novels and comics that Disney will probably continue to mine Shadows for more beyond its name.