With Star Wars: The Force Awakens hitting theaters this week, it'll be a helpful reminder to know about where we are in the Extended Universe. I'll be covering canon, non-canon but legitimate, and retconned material that's simply too good to ignore in a brief synopsis of Star Wars history.
It's worth noting that since we don't yet know the plot of The Force Awakens I can't accurately portray events beyond the destruction of the Death Star, so I'll only be covering three eras of Star Wars history: The Old Republic, The Rise of the Empire, and The Rebellion. Each of these eras have a date associated with them annotated in BBY or ABY, which stand for Before (or After) the Battle of Yavin. Within these eras, I've outlined the books, games, movies, and animated series in chronological order; however, there is a significant amount of overlap in some areas of the franchise, so the order may not be precise.
So, without further adieu, let's get you spun up on Star Wars history so you can fully enjoy the face melting awesomeness that awaits us next week!
the old republic
extended universe (25000 - 1000 bby)
the birth of the jedi and sith
In Dawn of the Jedi, we peak into the Tython system where we get our first glimpse into the eternal Light and Dark Side conflict of the force. In this standalone story, we gain insight into how the Jedaii (Jedi) order uses fear to keep humanity from spreading and how those motivated by the selfish call of the Dark Side use technology (in this case, Hypergates), to finally allow the order to leave the core planets and spread throughout the galaxy.
In The Lost Tribe of the Sith, we fast forward to one of the first conflicts between the Jedi and Sith, where we follow the tales of the marooned mining ship Omen. As a result of the Great Hyperspace War which set the galaxy up for The Old Republic and Darth Bane, the Sith aboard the Omen are sent on a mining excursion which leads to them being attacked and marooned on an abandoned planet.
Neither of these books set up anything extremely profound or epic in the Star Wars Universe, but rather they provide the historical context for the more profound works that occur later in The Old Republic. It's in Dawn of the Jedi that we see just how manipulating and stuck in the past the Jedi Order is, and in The Lost Tribe of the Sith we really get a good look at how dysfunctional the "every man for himself" Sith Empire is.
knights of The Old Republic
With the Republic barely holding itself together against Darth Revan and Darth Malak's empowered by the Star Forge, an ancient ship used to pull power from local stars to create a nearly endless supply of ships and technology, the Jedi Council drafted a plan by which they could capture both Sith Lords.
First, the Jedi and Republic, aided by the talents of a young Bastila Shan, a small force of Republic warships engaged the fleet of Darth Revan and Malak. While the two sides fought, Shan, accompanied by a number of Jedi Knights, boarded Revan's flagship The Endar Spire, overcoming his guards and cornering the Dark Lord on the bridge of his command ship. However, Malak became aware of what was happening and, in a bold maneuver, he ordered the ships under his command to fire upon the bridge of his mentor, intending to kill not only the Jedi boarding party, but his own friend in order to claim the mantle of Dark Lord of the Sith for himself.
Bastila Shan used the Force to preserve the flicker of life that still remained within the unconscious Darth Revan. This act caused the formation of a near-physical bond, linked through the Force, between the two, an event that would have lasting repercussions though nobody knew it at the time. Hoping to save his life and, perhaps, bring about his redemption, Shan took Revan's body from the wreckage of the warship's command deck, escaping from the battle and bringing him to the Dantooine Jedi Enclave Council.
Knights of the Old Republic begins with Revan awakening from a comatose state on the Endar Spire as it's under bombardment by Darth Malak; the ship is destroyed after the Revan and a Jedi, Bastila Shan, escape to the Sith controlled world of Taris.
The video game takes the Revan through the rigors of Jedi training and then on an adventure to determine the location of a mysterious "Star Forge" while being hunted by the leader of the Sith forces, Darth Malak. During the course of his hunt for the Revan and his party, Darth Malak destroys the Jedi Academy on Dantooine and reveals the hero's identity to the player and the rest of his party: Darth Revan, Malak's former mentor and leader of the Sith.
The revelation that our light-side jedi hero was the former ruler of the Sith, Darth Revan, is particularly important. Until this point in Star Wars history, no force sensitive individual had been both dark and light side. The implications that an individual can be redeemed from the Dark Side would have ripples throughout Star Wars canon for the next several thousand years.
After this revelation, our party goes on to discover the location of the Star Forge and lead a Republic attack on the capital ship, destroying it and evening the scales of the war. The destruction of the Star Forge allowed the Republic and the Jedi to stop the Sith from overtaking the galaxy in their quest for domination, but the weakened Jedi could not completely defeat their enemies.
The sequel Knights of the Old Republic II, follows a separate group of heroes as they attempt to rebuild the shattered Jedi Order while giving the player different glimpses into the history of the Star Wars Universe.
Then, finally, there is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) called The Old Republic that drops players further into the chaos of this time frame. It's unknown how much of this game (or its predecessors) is canon now, but so far Disney has not ruled out the possibility. In fact, Kylo Ren's lightsaber is a direct tribute to this time period.
The Darth Bane Trilogy
This trilogy is one of the most influential points in Star Wars history while simultaneously being one of the most underrated books in the Extended Universe.
Born a poor miner in the outer rim, Dessel, unknowingly force sensitive, kills a Galactic Republic ensign and flees to join the Sith as a foot soldier. However, after a few brief battles, his superiors recognized his force sensitivity and sends him to train on Korriban with the Sith Academy. He enjoys a meteoric rise as one of the top students before he becomes exhausted with the constant backstabbing and hidden agendas of the large Sith Order.
He abandons the order and finds holocrons left behind by Darth Revan, when Revan was a Sith leader, and armed with this knowledge he returns to destroy the Sith Order and institute the "Rule of Two," a rule that established that - in order to prevent the Sith infighting that weakened it for millennium - stated there can only be two sith: A master and an apprentice. He takes an apprentice, Darth Zannah, and his order eventually over infiltrates the Republic during the Rise of the Empire era.
Rather than trying to take on the Republic through sheer numbers, as the Sith Empire had, Darth's tactic is to use subtlety and espionage to infiltrate and destroy the Republic and Jedi from within. While it takes several generations of Sith, his plan takes root when the Sith infiltrate the Senate's highest offices and set the stage for what would become The Clone Wars and, eventually, The Empire.
rise of the empire
the prequels (1000 - 0 bby)
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
The first Prequel catches a lot of shit - some of it very well deserved - for being "the worst movie ever." Luckily, this article isn't a series of book and movie reviews so you don't have to listen to the same trite anti-Lucas drivel here.
Here's what you need to know: We're introduced to Anakin Skywalker, an imaculate conception child born into slavery who is discovered by two wayfaring Jedi (Obi-wan and Quigon Gen) as they are marooned fleeing an intergalactic trade dispute centered around the planet Naboo. There's a lot of political maneuvering that, in the end, doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot, and in the end Quigon is killed by the Sith Darth Maul (who is killed by Obi-wan), and Obi-wan takes Anakin as an apprentice.
Star Wars: Attack of the Clones
This installment starts The Clone Wars. This is probably the richest backstory - if not the best movie - for the universe building. It's here where we learn about the origins of the clone troopers and the army of the Republic. They're all cloned from, essentially, Boba Fett's father on a remote planet and raised from birth to follow orders and kill this well.
The movie also explores a little bit of history between Anakin and Padme - the senator for the planet Naboo, and sets up the love story that will eventually lead to Anakin's downfall.
Other than that, you get to see Yoda fight the apprentice who replaced Darth Maul, Count Dooku.
The Republic Commando Series
While not technically canon anymore, this series is simply phenomenal. It follows the adventures of an elite squad of clone commandos as they fight the separatists. Nothing absolutely significant happens, but it explores a more human side of the fabled Order 66, it explains the transition from "clone troopers" to "storm troopers" (and why they were no longer worth a damn).
As with all Extended Universe novels, nothing significant happens to dramatically alter the Star Wars universe, but this book saga simply offers the best insight into life as a clone that's ever been, and likely ever will be, made available.
The Clone Wars
This animated series technically replaced The Republic Commando Series, and follows the adventures of Jedi Knight Skywalker as he battles the droid army of the Separatists while training his new padawan, Ashoka Tano. A LOT happens in these five seasons, so it's difficult to really capture it all succinctly. So, instead, here's i09 to do it at length:
Clone Wars does some serious rehab on Anakin’s character, making his ultimate fall a great deal sadder. It isn’t that the Jedi Council failed to rein in a powerful Force user—they failed a man who loved his wife and also served the Republic with honor and heart.
Ahsoka represents a powerful legacy for Anakin. Under his tutelage, she learns how to be a leader, when to break regulations, to respect but not blindly follow those with more experience. She grows up into a resilient and compassionate person, one who is never broken even when the Jedi forsake her. She was already starting to pass on those same values to the Jedi younglings.
She is not told that she is a valued and valuable member of the Order or that they need her to inspire the next generation of Jedi. Anakin and Ahsoka are by no means perfect, but they could have infused the Jedi Order with a new spark of life and perhaps rewritten some of the rules that allowed the Order to be so blindsided by Palpatine. The Jedi needed more people like Ahsoka and Anakin, people who are thoughtful and aware and always trying to do the right thing. Instead they cast Ahsoka aside and treat Anakin as mere tool of war rather than as a complete person.
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith
While the first two episodes set the stage for the downfall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire, the third episode focuses on the fall of Anakin Skywalker and the rise of one of the most iconic Sith in Star Wars history: Darth Vader.
The story is told to humanize and rationalize Anakin's fall, namely the fear of losing Padme in child birth and his desperation to save the only person he loves, and give viewers a way to view the perils of placing one's own desires above those of the Jedi Order.
the rebellion era
the original trilogy (0 - 5 aby)
Star Wars: A New Hope
The first Star Wars movie ever made, A New Hope takes us on a journey with Anakin's son, Luke Skywalker, as he begins his training with The Force. The Imperial Forces -- under orders from cruel Darth Vader (Anakin Skywalker) -- hold Princess Leia hostage, in their efforts to quell the rebellion against the Galactic Empire. Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, captain of the Millennium Falcon, to rescue the beautiful princess, help the Rebel Alliance, and restore freedom and justice to the Galaxy.
This movie introduces us to the conflict of the force, the fallout of the prequels, and sets us up for the underdog fighting for what's right against the dreaded Empire that Star Wars is known for.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Episode V focuses our adventures around developing the characters (Luke, Han, Leia) that we were introduced to in Episode IV. The majority of this film highlights the spirituality and power of the Force as Luke trains in its ways.
It's here that we see the struggles that every Jedi must endure to fend off the Dark Side, and we learn more about the war between the Empire and Republic.
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
The finale of the original trilogy, Return of the Jedi brings us to our logical conclusion: Balance to the Force. Unfortunately, though we see Luke defeat his father, Anakin (Darth Vader), the movie ends with the idea that balance may not mean the defeat of every Sith, but rather an understanding that Light and Dark must coexist.
With the defeat of the Empire, has balance really been brought to the Force, or has Luke simply tipped the scales into the Light?