The 'Star Wars' Sequel That Never HappenedMike Ryan |
George Lucas had a backup plan.
It might not seem like such a bold move today – in the era of blockbuster franchises – to be planning for a sequel before the first movie has even been released. But, in the 1970s, this was downright revolutionary thinking. Especially considering that we’re talking about a movie set in another galaxy in an era where such films were considered inane. (Granted, some people still consider them inane.) But not only did Lucas have a plan for a 'Star Wars' sequel, he had two plans. One, as you know, became ‘The Empire Strikes Back.’ The other exists as a sort of alternative universe oddity of what could have been – a story titled ‘Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.’
Even after the enormous success of ‘Star Wars,’ its sequel, ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ nearly bankrupted Lucasfilm – which financed the film independently instead of accepting backing from 20th Century Fox as Lucas had with the first film – and if ‘Empire’ had bombed, Lucasfilm itself would have gone bust. (This, as we know, didn’t happen.) The money Lucasfilm used to finance ‘Empire’ was basically what Lucas had earned on ‘Star Wars’ after Fox took their cut.
Now, in this aforementioned alternative universe, let’s pretend ‘Star Wars’ was a modest success and not an entity that changed movies and mainstream culture forever. Under this scenario, Lucas wouldn’t have the money to make a film on such a grand scale like ‘Empire,’ so – before ‘Star Wars’ was even released – he commissioned Alan Dean Foster to write a lower-budget sequel to 'Star Wars' titled 'Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.'
"I was originally brought in while 'Star Wars' was still in production, on a two-book contract to do the novelization of the film," Alan Dean Foster told me by phone from his Arizona home, "but he also instructed me to write a novel that could be filmed on a low budget."
'Star Wars' did become a huge hit, so the idea for a ‘Splinter’ film was scrapped for the much more ambitious ‘Empire,’ but the novel was still released in 1978 as a follow-up story to ‘Star Wars’ – due to rights issues with stars Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, the book couldn’t even feature their faces, which is why Luke and Leia have their backs turned on the Ralph McQuarrie-painted cover – and the first book of the expanded universe of ‘Star Wars’ stories.
The plot of 'Splinter' is fairly simple. Taking place after the events of 'Star Wars,' Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia Organa – along with C-3P0 and R2-D2 – are on their way to an important meeting with representatives of a system that might join the Rebellion. On the way, the two crash-land on a swamp planet called Mimban (Lucas asked Foster to scrap a space battle that originally led to the crash because it would be too expensive to film), where they soon discover that the Empire has a secret mining colony in operation in an effort to find something called a Kaiburr crystal. Eventually the two are discovered, ending with a showdown between Luke and Leia against Darth Vader.
One character missing from the book entirely and only referenced twice (and only once by name) is Han Solo.
"I couldn't use the characters of Han Solo and Chewbacca," Foster explains. "Chewbacca because he's Han Solo's buddy and Han Solo because Harrison Ford hadn't yet signed on to do anything related to future developments of 'Star Wars.'" Which, to Foster’s credit, didn’t seem to bother him too much, "It was kind of liberating. The story idea I had in mind focused on Luke, Leia and, in the background of course, Darth Vader. And working a third major character into the storyline would have been a little awkward. It was less that I had to worry about."
Solo and Chewbacca aside, due to some very important plot points that are revealed during 'The Empire Strikes Back,' 'Splinter' had a tendency to create a lot confusion for anyone who happened to read it after they watched 'Empire.'
It was somewhere between Leigh Brackett’s original 'The Empire Strikes Back' script (which looks very little like the completed film) and the second draft when George Lucas had the idea to make Darth Vader Luke Skywalker’s father. So, there was no way for Foster to know that as-of-yet-undecided plot point when he wrote ‘Splinter’ – let alone the twist that Luke and Leia are siblings (which Lucas didn’t decide until after the release of ‘Empire.’)
At the time, some of the sexual tension between Luke and Leia might seem fairly PG-13 for a ‘Star Wars’ book, but reading it today it’s a little...uncomfortable, with lines like, "Awkwardly pressed up against him, the Princess seemed to take no notice of their proximity. In the dampness, though, her body heat was near palpable to Luke and he had to force himself to keep his attention on what he was doing."
With Luke’s leg trapped under a large rock, it’s Leia who has to duel Vader with a lightsaber. “That would have been very cool,” Foster adds.
Foster concedes, "What I was working from, basically, was the kiss in 'Star Wars,' before they swing across the gap. That didn't strike me as a particularly brotherly-sisterly kiss at the time."
Though, like 'Empire,' 'Splinter of the Mind’s Eye' ends with the first confrontation between Luke and Vader with a surprisingly similar result to what happened at the end of 'Empire.' Well, sort of.
With Luke’s leg trapped under a large rock, it’s Leia who has to duel Vader with a lightsaber, at least at first. ("That would have been very cool," Foster adds at the thought of watching Leia duel Vader on the big screen.) Eventually Luke joins the fight, dismembering Vader’s right arm before sending him down a seemingly bottomless pit. Pretty much the exact opposite of what happens at the end of Luke and Vader’s duel at Cloud City in 'Empire.'
"Yeah, that's been mentioned to me, too," says Foster, "but that's fine." He continues, "I have no problem with stuff like that. It's the nature of film that it's a collaborative enterprise. In many cases, something that works in one place gets picked up for another place and you don't know if you had any influence on the situation or not."
When I first started research for this project, it was long before the now Disney-owned Lucasfilm disowned all of the Star Wars Expanded Universe as non-canon, thanks to the anticipated release of ‘Star Wars: Episode 7,' leaving just the films as the only things that actually happened in this fictional universe, which looks so silly to actually type out.
For Foster, not only did he write the first Expanded Universe book, he was also the first author to have his story stripped from official canon. Could Foster take solace with the fact that even though it wasn’t part of the larger story, he still wrote a novel that many, many people enjoyed? "That's what you have to say," adding, "It's not my universe. So there's no reason for me to get upset about it."
Timothy Zahn, who has written a plethora of popular Star Wars novels, offered similar sentiment on his Facebook page this past Monday, "As far as I can tell from the announcement, [Lucasfilm] is *not* erasing the [expanded universe], but simply making it clear that nothing there is official canon. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, nor does it immediately send everything into alternate-universe status." Then adding, "Bottom line: let’s all sit back and relax and see what new adventures are offered to us, both in new books and new movies. It’ll be Star Wars, and that’s what counts."
This isn’t the first time that a now J.J. Abrams-directed franchise has squashed a proposed expanded universe. Simon & Schuster commissioned four ‘Star Trek’ novels set in Abrams’ quasi-rebooted ‘Trek’ universe, one written by Foster. But, Foster explains, "Apparently the word came down from Paramount that, no, we're not doing any spinoff novels right now."
Which raises another, larger question: Is this the end of expanded universe? At least, how we used to know it? Where, sure, there were plenty of contradictions, but everyone seemed to be fairly okay with that? "As I heard," says Foster, "it is because they didn't want anything to come out that might conflict with any subsequent films or anything Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman wanted to do – or any other writers wanted to do in any subsequent films. They were worried about that canon/continuity problem. So, they just buried the books."
Adding, "I understand why they did it. I kind of wish they hadn't done it. It's a commercial decision. So be it."
Plus, as Foster points out, the Internet does lead to more nitpicking, "In the old days, fans didn't have access to something like the Internet where they could check the color of somebody's boots and say, 'These don't line up with the third book in the blankity trilogy.'"
Regardless of where any of this fits in our own personal life canon, 'Splinter of the Mind’s Eye' still remains a fascinating look into what could have been if 'Star Wars' wasn’t 'Star Wars.' It's the 'Star Wars' sequel that never happened, yet, somewhere, in an alternate universe, someone right now is popping in a Blu-ray copy of 'Splinter of the Mind’s Eye,' just so he or she can watch that palpable body heat between Luke and Leia.
Mike Ryan is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.