The Highs and Lows of an Expanded Universe

As geeks, we all come across stories that we fall in love with. Sometimes, the world of a story is just large enough for the tale within it to be told, but there are other stories so vast, with worlds that feel so large, lived-in, and open that we want more. Some creators (or IP owners as the case may be), hearing the demands of fans for more, and, whether it’s simply to make more money from a successful property, or to make loyal fans happy, will agree to this, which brings us the concept of the expanded universe.

In and of itself, this is not necessarily a bad thing. If a world lends itself to further stories, and those stories are in the spirit of the original story, or do something fresh and new with the same trappings, then the world of creative expression has won a victory, all while working within the safe confines of a proven universe.  That said, it is very possible to do it wrong.

One matter that is very important to consider is the time period in relation to the original story. Usually, writers of expanded universe material try to move the time period away, either forward or backward, to avoid stepping on the toes of the original work, which is reasonable, but a chronological move in just about any direction has its risks. A move backward is probably the riskier of the two, because setting stories in the past (much in the manner of a prequel, which could itself be considered expanded universe), often chances contradiction and retconning, which loyal fans are likely to pick up on and be bothered by. If done properly, however, a story set in the past can add richness to the world by filling in gaps the original work never got around to and reopen doors that were closed, usually by character death or the like.

The future runs less risk of contradiction, but at the same time, if it is close enough timewise to the original work, it may force the readers to ask why the original heroes aren’t solving the new problems in question. If it is a bit farther in the future, perhaps we’re seeing the heroes’ children, or a whole new cast of characters, it’s easier to take more risks and not retread old ground. If the expanded universe does cover the further adventures of the old heroes, it can risk a lot of mistakes as far as taking the characters in directions they were never designed to go, or revisit the past too much, undoing the accomplishments of the heroes in the original work. Some writers might take unnecessary risks or overly permanent moves, such as killing off a beloved character, effectively closing even more doors. I would contend that closing off possibilities is something an expanded universe should never do, but more on that later.

An expanded universe, in any chronological direction, should also be wary of power creep.  Which is to say, as readers, we are trained to want to see stakes grow higher. After everyone has seen Luke and the Rebels destroy The Empire, it may feel like a letdown to some if a new hero merely faces a crime lord. Now, it’s natural to want to tell stories that have a sense of significance to the readers, and one way to create that significance is a credible threat. But once the greatest threats from the original work have been conquered, anything less will feel insignificant to readers, because the heroes already did it. This leads to bigger and badder threats, which require greater reserves of power or resolve to overcome. There’s nothing wrong with this innately, but power creep is insidious, sometimes stretching a story beyond its initial themes and logical limits, and can often lead to questions of logic about the nature of the new threats and how insignificant they might render previous works within the system. 

An expanded universe should absolutely never make a setting feel smaller. How could it, you ask? Wouldn’t expansion by definition make a universe feel larger? Not necessarily, and this is probably more common than one would think. It is possible to overuse elements or characters already in play and make it seem as though the only people living in even a vast setting are those we already know and their relations.  The Star Wars prequels are a good example of this, making it seem as though everyone in an entire galaxy was directly connected to Anakin Skywalker or Boba Fett, but since this is pretty heavily trod ground, I’ll pick on something else. The Dreaming, the expanded universe follow-up to Neil Gaiman’s critically acclaimed comic series Sandman, started off as a series of short stories detailing occasional adventures of Dream’s supporting cast, set in various time periods. Initially, it was quite enjoyable, because it remembered that these characters were immortal beings who often spent large portions of time inactive, but occasionally broke out of their mold as servants who were in some ways sentient automatons because of the imaginative nature of their master and realm. It served to make a fantastic place we saw largely in glimpses in the past feel more whole and real. Eventually, however, author Kaitlyn Kiernan took over, and began pushing the series in the direction of a single arc, directly involving all the beloved dream creatures from Sandman. Soon, these characters who often spent centuries doing nothing of note, or at least not changing dramatically, were embroiled in an endlessly incestuous plot, and the fact that they lived in a magical kingdom of dreams where anything was possible was forgotten in the face of their own petty intrigues. For me, this withered the Dreaming realm in scope and scale, and damaged what it should have been.

This leads to my last major point about what an expanded universe should and shouldn’t do.  Readers enjoy expanded universes because they want more of something they love.  This is understandable, and while in some cases a writer may close the doors to their kingdom, as is their right, by allowing the creation of an expanded universe, the writer is effectively swinging the doors of the kingdom open wide.  Hence, an expanded universe should always create new possibilities, and never, or at least very rarely, close off possibilities left behind by the original series. It should truly lead to a sense that more things than we have seen are possible, and while the expanded universe writers certainly have the right to tell their own stories, they should attempt to preserve the spirit left behind while building on it. This means that while defeating an old minor villain who escaped justice is probably fair game, an EU writer should almost never kill off major characters left behind by the original series.

In the above Dreaming example, Kiernan [SPOILER ALERT] killed Matthew the Raven and replaced him. Besides the emotional reaction I had at the death, it was actively damaging to the setting of the Dreaming and went diametrically against one of the major points at the end of Sandman. After Morpheus died, even though his master and friend is dead and he wants nothing more than to die as well, Matthew chooses to live. Even though the new Dream isn’t Morpheus and never will be in his eyes, he realizes that life goes on, and it’s wrong to simply give up because something bad happened. He decides that he won’t be the official raven of the new Dream, but he will be a friend and adviser to him nonetheless. In many ways, he was designed to speak for the readers who may have been angry and resistant toward the new Dream, as Matthew was generally the audience voice of the series. Killing him off robbed the dreaming itself of one of its most unique and important voices, and cut off far more possibilities than it createed. In case my point isn’t clear, this was a bad move.

In short, an expanded universe should truly expand, rather than inflate, the universe in question. It should stay true to the themes and ideas expressed in the original work, without slavishly adhering to the same story elements. It should make us happy to return to a world we loved, without making us ask why we’re not just reading the original.  It should fill in gaps and tie up loose ends without making it feel as though those gaps and loose ends are all that exists.  It should go beyond the original work without contradicting or overriding it. It should be its own story, while still being a part of something greater.