Star Wars: The forgotten history of Shadows of the Empire
A new Star Wars film comes along every year – there’s one next week – but in the wasteland of the late 1980s there was nothing. Then came Shadows of the Empire
A detail of the cover of Shadows of the Empire, by Steve Perry
I envy the Star Wars kids of today, I really do. Not a year goes by without a new Star Wars film arriving in their local cinema from a galaxy far, far away. At the risk of sounding like crazy old Ben Kenobi, we had it tough when I was growing up. I was born in 1983, the year Return of the Jedi was released. My life started as a Star Wars drought began.
It would be more than 15 years until the release of The Phantom Menace. We waited for so long for that awful, sarlacc of a film that we convinced ourselves it was the greatest thing ever. Up until this point our lives as Star Wars fans had been limited to well-worn VHS copies of the original trilogy. For us Tatooine and Hoth existed only on 15-inch tellies in our bedrooms. There were no Madalorians for us.
We did have one thing. In the barren wasteland of Star Wars films that was my childhood, we had Shadows of the Empire. It’s the Star Wars film you’ve probably never heard of, which makes sense because it wasn’t a film. In 1996, with a growing chasm between Return of the Jedi and the much-anticipated Phantom Menace, Lucasfilm needed to bolster the franchise. They wanted the excitement and buzz of a movie without the hassle of making a movie. The plan was to create action figures, trading cards, comics, a novelisation, video games and a soundtrack – everything but the movie itself. Enter writer Steve Perry.
They had come up with the basic premise of a kind of a darker Star Wars project
Perry had been called in at very late notice to write the film novelisation of the Jim Carrey film The Mask. Impressed with what he was able to do and in such a tight turnaround, his editor repaid him by suggesting him to the folks at Star Wars.
They were looking for someone to help come up with the story for Shadows of the Empire, to bridge what happened between Empire and Jedi. He was summoned to the famous Skywalker Ranch, the secluded workplace of George Lucas.
“I got to go in and be with all these people. There were some pretty heavyweight people who were artists and writers and publishers and producers, and we sort of sat around and basically knocked out an outline for the story,” says Perry. “They had come up with the basic premise of a kind of a darker Star Wars project. So I had that laid out and then we just started coming out with other characters and players and scenarios that would give everybody a chance to put their oar in the water, as it were.”
While this method of creating a story may seem overcrowded, Perry says it worked. “You had a group of people around the table who were all very bright, who all wanted this to work, and so they were all throwing out their ideas.”
I came up with basically Han Solo’s younger, cockier brother
For example, the video games people wanted a chase scene. “The game people would say ‘we need to have a motorcycle chase!’ Well not with a motorcycle but the Star Wars equivalent. I said ‘okay, fine’.”
As far as characters for their story went, they were missing one key ingredient.
“We couldn’t use Han Solo because he was on ice – frozen in a block of carbonite,” explains Perry. “So I came up with his basically younger, cockier brother. We needed to have that note to ring.”
While he wasn’t Han Solo’s brother as such, Dash Rendar was similar. A charming smuggler with a spaceship Outrider, not unlike the Millennium Falcon. He could fill the void until Solo thawed out.
Everything seemed to be going smoothly but Perry was still nervous. It was a big project to be at the helm of. He confided in other Star Wars novelists Kevin Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch over lunch. “We were sitting around and I said, ‘you know I’m trepidatious about this. Maybe a million people might read this book which is far more than anything else I’ve written.”
Kevin offered some sage advice. “He said, ‘don’t worry about it, just be sure not to put your home city on the blurb because you’ll be getting calls at 3am from people who want to talk about it. And at three o’clock in the morning you don’t care if they love it or they hate it.”
Phone calls weren’t the only thing Perry had to worry about. The internet, though in its infancy, was becoming the forever home of the irate Star Wars fan.
You know that scene with the droids flying? Can you make it longer
“I logged in one day to AOL and there was a note there on the Star Wars boards – ‘Bad news folks. Steve Perry is writing the Shadows of the Empire book’.” Perry laughs. “I thought, oh no, I’ve been killed before I even put a word on A4.”
He also received a death threat. One of his fellow Star Wars writers remarked to him glibly, “is this your first?”
Perry’s story saw Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia join forces with Dash Rendar to battle an all-new villain Prince Xizor, the leader of a powerful criminal organisation Black Sun. For the most part Perry had a ball writing the novel.
“I wanted to have a scene where RD-D2 and C-3PO fly the Millennium Falcon. They said no. ‘No, we can’t do that.’
“Oh, please,” Perry implored. “This will be great. You’ll love it. I tell you what I’ll do. I’ll write it as a set piece. Complete beginning, middle to end and then if you don’t like it you can just pull the whole thing out and I’ll replace it with whatever you want.
“They said, ‘well, okay. But we aren’t going to like it’.”
Perry got busy writing it, sent it off and drummed his fingers waiting for the response until finally he got a call. “You know that scene with the droids flying? Can you make it longer?”
Perry was also getting help from the fans. Or at least the ones who weren’t knocking him anonymously online. He knew that they knew much more of the universe than him. He’d experienced it writing for other big space franchises.
“In fact, I wrote in the Aliens universe. Those people also take things very seriously. They get into minutia. They know what colour the lint was in Ripley’s pocket last Thursday and I don’t.”
This came in helpful while writing Shadows of the Empire. Perry remembers asking Lucasfilm, when he was starting if they had a map of the galaxy. “They just laughed,” he said.
But a fan sent him a list of all of the planets that he had catalogued in the Star Wars universe – where they were and what happened on them – so he used that instead.
Perry’s novel was the foundation for this “multimedia event”, a base for licensing to be built on. Action figures were made. Comics were created. A video game for the Nintendo 64 – which we played endlessly as kids – was released.
A full soundtrack to the book was composed by Joel McNeely. Even a movie trailer made up of footage from the original films was cut. The deep voiceover exclaimed: “After the Empire Strikes Back and before Return of the Jedi, there was a time when heroes and villains alike lived in the Shadows…of the Empire.”
For my friends and me it was the closest we came to our own generation’s defining Star Wars film, albeit without the actual film. That’s probably what made it so successful. We had nothing else. For us it was a New Hope.
Perry smiles. “It’s quite gratifying to see all of the things that came out of this outline that I did. It was a collaborative project all around – a lot of people had a lot of input into it so I can’t claim any great authorship but my piece of it was quite exciting.”
He’s particularly fond of a limited-edition statuette of Shadow’s main villain. “There’s Vader, next to the Emperor next to Xizor sitting on my desk. It’s about six inches high and every once in a while I just look up and go ‘wow’.”
For Perry, though, his pride and joy is a paperback edition of his novel, signed by Mark Hamill. It reads: “For Steve. I heard my acting is much better in your book. Thanks.”
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is released on December 19th