Doctor Who reviews: Face The Raven, Heaven Sent and Hell Bent

Here’s my write-up on the Doctor Who Series Nine three episode conclusion. “Face the Raven” was written by Sarah Dollard and directed by Justin Molotnikov.  “Heaven Sent” and “Hell Bent” were written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay.

Yeah, it took me a while to get around to this… although fortunately not nearly as long as it took the Doctor to escape from the Confession Dial!

Face The Raven

1) Familiar faces

It was really nice to see the return of Rigsy (Joivan Wade), who was introduced last year in “Flatline.”  Our intrepid artist has gotten married and is now a father.  Unfortunately his past association with the Doctor and Clara has put a target on his back.

I expect that by the end of “Face the Raven” the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) had come to regret saving the life of Ashildr (Maisie Williams). Especially as Ashildr’s manipulations had once again gone awry, this time resulting in the death of Clara (Jenna Coleman).

2) Death becomes her

I admit that the whole concept of the death mark tattoo being transferable from one person to another was awfully convenient.  The raven and the tattoos controlled by Ashildr were much too supernatural-type elements for my liking, as well.

Nevertheless, Clara did get a good, well-written death scene in “Face the Raven.” Coleman certainly played it very well.  The only thing that kept me from total shock & mourning was the fact that there were two more episodes left to Series Nine, and I was really left questioning if we had truly seen the last of Clara.

Heaven Sent

3) Solo act

Aside from the Veil, the figure of death that incessantly stalks him throughout the “Heaven Sent,” the Doctor is the sole character in this episode. Peter Capaldi completely blew me away with his performance in this.  Casting him as the Doctor was such a masterstroke, and that is amply on display here.

I loved the insights into the Doctor’s character and his thought processes. It was interesting to see how his so-called miraculous escapes are really the result of him retreating into a mental space in his head (represented by the TARDIS console room) and working though all of the variables and possibilities.

The direction on “Heaven Sent” by Talalay was amazing. She previously did superb work last year on “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven.”  It was great to have her back again to close out Series Nine.

Interesting fact: early in her career Talalay was a production assistant on the John Waters movie Polyester, and the producer of his next two films, Hairspray and Cry-Baby. So, yes, Talalay has worked with John Waters and directed Doctor Who, which officially makes her one of the coolest people ever.

4) Repetition is good for the soul

There was that moment towards the end of “Heaven Sent” when it’s finally revealed that the Doctor had been repeating the same sequence of actions over and over and over again, hundreds of thousands of times, as he attempted to break through that twenty foot thick wall, wearing it down ever so slightly, before dying each and every time. There’s that awful instant when you realize that every single one of those skulls at the bottom of the lake belongs to the Doctor, each one of them the result of another cycle, another death.  It’s a genuinely chilling moment.

How many times did the Doctor have to die and be reborn within the Confession Dial before he finally broke through that wall? It seems that it couldn’t have been more than a week for each sequence.  There are 52 weeks in a year.  The Doctor was imprisoned for approximately 4.5 billion years.  Very roughly speaking, that comes to 234 billion times.  And now my head hurts.

5) Drawing a conclusion

Mike Collins is the artist who storyboarded “Heaven Sent” and several other recent episodes. When trying to figure out how many times events had repeated for the Doctor, I e-mailed Collins to ask if he knew how long each go-round was.  He responded that he didn’t recall a specific length being mentioned in Moffat’s script.

In any case, Collins is a very talented artist who has been involved with the Doctor Who comic books for a number of years now. Given his obvious fondness for the series, it’s wonderful that he now has the opportunity to work on the actual television program.

Hell Bent

6) A masterful plan

While inside the Confession Dial, the Doctor refused to divulge what he knew of the Hybrid, the entity that “will unravel the web of time, and destroy a billion billion hearts to heal its own.” We discover in “Hell Bent” that the reason why the Doctor kept this knowledge was because he needed a bargaining chip, something with which to manipulate the Time Lords into providing  him an opportunity to rescue Clara.

And, yes, she’s back… sort of. Takes from an instant in time from right before her death, Clara is neither alive nor dead.  The Time Lords are afraid that an attempt to undo Clara’s demise, a fixed moment in time, has the potential to cause massive, horrific damage to reality.  But the Doctor, having spent literally billions of years pounding against a wall, is in no mood to listen.

In the end, the mystery of the Hybrid is more a McGuffin to propel the story along than it is a question to be answered. The Hybrid could be the Doctor, who might just be half-human after all.  Or perhaps it could be Ashildr, an immortal half-human, half Mire.  Ashildr herself, still alive at the very end of time, suggests another possibility, one did not even occur to the Doctor…

Ashildr: What if the Hybrid wasn’t one person, but two.

The Doctor: Two?

Ashildr: A dangerous combination of a passionate and powerful Time Lord and a young woman, so very similar to him. Companions who are willing to push each other to extremes.

The Doctor: She’s my friend. She’s just my friend.

Ashildr: How did you meet her?

The Doctor: Missy.

Ashildr: Missy. The Master. The lover of chaos. Who wants you to love it too. She’s quite the matchmaker.

The Doctor: Clara’s my friend.

Ashildr: I know. And you’re willing to risk all of time and space because you miss her. One wonders what the pair of you will get up to next.

7) Time Lord Victorious

I’ve previously hypothesized that the Doctor and the Master were once very much alike, but over the centuries they developed in extremely different directions. Certainly it has been suggested on more than one occasion that the Doctor, if he is not careful, if he disregards morality and ethics, has the potential to become someone quite like the Master.

The Doctor Who novel The Dark Path by David A. McIntee was published in 1997. It revolves around an encounter between the Second Doctor and a fellow Time Lord, an old friend known as Koschei, the Master before he became the Master.  Koschei is at this point not evil, but he is arrogant, as well as quite ready to utilize violence as a first resort, rationalizing that the ends justify the means.  He is in certain respects much like the Doctor was when we first met him in “An Unearthly Child.”

Koschei’s carelessness accidentally causes the death of Ailla, a young woman who is traveling with him. Consumed by guilt, Koschei attempts to utilize an ancient artifact known as the Darkheart to rewrite history and undo Ailla’s death.  In order to do so, he uses the Darkheart to destroy the home planet of the Tereleptils, killing millions of sentient beings.  This horrifying act sets in motion further tragedies, all of which place Koschei on the path to becoming the Master.

Doctor Who The Dark Path

I do not know if The Dark Path is considered canonical, but it certainly offers an interesting possible explanation for how the Master came to be. And there are undoubtedly parallels between McIntee’s novel and Moffat’s script for “Hell Bent.”

The Doctor, the man who never carries a gun, uses one to shoot the General (who was actually more or less on his side up until that moment) in cold blood so that he can escape with the retrieved Clara. The Doctor argues that he didn’t really commit murder because the General is a Time Lord and that he will regenerate.  But that sounds like a very self-serving justification indeed.  Certainly the fact that the Doctor is willing to resort to violence, that he is ready to gamble on the stability of reality itself, and that he wants to wipe Clara’s memories in order to keep her “safe” all leaves her aghast.

Finally, seeing Clara’s reaction to everything that he has done, the Doctor is at last forced to step back and look at acknowledge just what he is doing, what he is becoming…

“Look how far I went for fear of losing you. This has to stop… I went too far. I broke all my own rules. I became the Hybrid.”

8) The restaurant at the end of the universe

I’m not sure how I feel about the idea of Clara and Ashildr traveling through time & space in a TARDIS stuck in the shape of a 1950s American diner. Obviously at some point Clara needs to return to Gallifrey so that she can be sent back to her proper time to die, allowing history to continue uninterrupted.  But that might be in five minutes, or five years, or five centuries.  That’s really open-ended.  Besides, the whole crisis caused by the Doctor’s actions was supposedly predicated on the notion that the longer Clara is removed from her timeline the more danger reality is supposed to be in.  And I’d hate to think that down the line someone uses all this as an opportunity to somehow undo Clara’s seemingly-inevitable death.

Still, it was pretty cool to see a TARDIS console room with the “default” setting, just as the Doctor’s own TARDIS originally appeared back in the early 1960s.

Anyway, however they turn out, Clara is now off on her own journeys. The Doctor has had his memory wiped of all the specifics of who Clara was.  So this appears to be the end of their time together, which is a good thing.  Coleman did a very good job portraying Clara, but the character was sometimes inconsistently written, which was frustrating.  And after three years I think many viewers are ready for a change.  Hopefully the Doctor’s next companion will prove to be very different.

Star Wars reviews: The Force Awakens

Michele and I went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Thursday evening. We both wanted to go ASAP in order to avoid the inevitable spoilers that would soon be proliferating the Internet.

What did I think of it? Short answer: I liked it.  Long answer: read the rest of this review.

Be advised: there are MASSIVE SPOILERS. If you have not seen the movie yet and do not want it ruined for you then do not proceed any further.

SW The Force Awakens poster

1) First things first

In many ways the set-up of The Force Awakens is similar to the original trilogy. Thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, the remnants of the Empire have reorganized as the fascist First Order.  Opposing them is the Resistance, a movement made up of both veteran members of the Rebel Alliance including General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and a younger generation of freedom fighters.  The Republic has begun to reform and is providing backing to the Resistance.  Both the Resistance and the First Order are attempting to locate Luke Skywalker, who vanished years before.

Elsewhere in the galaxy, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) have gone back to smuggling. Due to personal tragedy, Han is once again a man who wants no part of any noble cause.  He’s looking to stay as far away from the war between the Resistance and the First Order as possible.  However, once again, despite his wishes, Han and his Wookie best friend are reluctantly drawn into the conflict.

2) New faces

Writer / director J.J. Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan & Michael Arndt introduce several new characters in The Force Awakens.

The main protagonist is Rey (Daisy Ridley) a teenager eking out an existence on the desert world of Jakku. She comes across the droid BB-8, whose owner is Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a Resistance pilot captured by the First Order.  (For those who didn’t catch it, Poe is the son of Shara Bey and Kes Dameron from the Marvel Comics miniseries Star Wars: Shattered Empire.)

BB-8 contains part of a map Poe located, a guide to Luke Skywalker’s location. Rey and BB-8 soon encounter Finn (John Boyega), a young Stormtrooper who defected from the First Order and helped Poe escape.  Crash-landing on Jakku, Finn is separated from Poe.  Looking for a way off the barren planet and away from the First Order, Finn joins Rey in attempting to return BB-8 to the Resistance.

On the opposite side of the fence, the First Order’s efforts to locate BB-8 are spearheaded by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a practitioner of the Dark Side of the Force. Accompanying him are the ruthless General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and armored officer Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie).  Ren and Hux report directly to the Supreme Leader of the First Order, the mysterious Snoke (Andy Serkis), who only appears as a hologram.

SW The Force Awakens Rey and Finn

3) The Good, the Bad, and the Whiny

Abrams, Kasdan and Arndt do a good job introducing the new heroes in The Force Awakens, making them compelling characters. I definitely became very interested in Rey, Finn and Poe as the movie progressed.  The fact that Ridley, Boyega and Isaac all turned in solid performances certainly helped to sell this next generation to me.

I did think Finn had a few too many humorous “Aww yeah” lines of dialogue. You would think someone raised by a militaristic dictatorship might be a bit more socially awkward and have some trouble coming up with snarky remarks.

There’s also the breakout “star” of the movie, namely the droid BB-8, who looks across between R2-D2 and a soccer ball. The SFX and sound people gave him a fun, mischievous personality.

Wisely, much of the movie was devoted to introducing these new heroes. Other than Han and Chewbacca, all of the original trilogy characters have small roles.  That was a good way to establish ties to the previous movies without overshadowing the new characters.  Ford and Ridley definitely work well together, as we see the world-weary, mournful Han begin to once again lower his guard and become something of a reluctant father figure to Rey.

On the other hand, the villains Hux and Phasma are both very one-dimensional and don’t have too much screen time. Well, most Star Wars antagonists are unfortunately underdeveloped, so this is not too surprising.

And then there’s Kylo Ren, aka Ben Solo, the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa.  He reminds me of a brooding Goth teenager who wants everyone to take him seriously.  Ren idolizes Darth Vader and wants to follow in his footsteps.  One gets the impression that the reason why Ren wears a sinister black mask with a voice modulator is because he is so desperately attempting to emulate Vader.  And if you thought Vader had a short fuse, well, Ren is worse.  Something goes wrong, next thing you know he’s furiously hacking up equipment with his lightsaber.  I don’t know how the heck the First Order can afford a weapon like the Starkiller if they have to repair all the property damage caused by Ren!

It appears that Ren’s weakness as villain is actually deliberate. Han Solo suggests that to Ren that Snoke regards him as nothing more than an easily manipulated pawn that can later be discarded.  Certainly Ren would not be the first hotheaded bully attempting to mask an inferiority complex with a façade of strength.

SW The Force Awakens First Order rally

4) Take this job and shove it

In the past I touched upon a question occasionally asked by fans, namely who would actually want to work for the Empire. That query is especially raised in regards to Stormtroopers, who appear to have the most thankless job of all, typically serving as cannon fodder.

The Force Awakens addresses that particular question, and the answer is very unpleasant. Stormtroopers are conscripts who are kidnapped while only infants, who are then indoctrinated with the ideology of the First Order throughout their childhoods, emerging as adults who mindlessly follow the orders of their commanding officers.

Finn was one of these children. In fact, Finn isn’t even his real name.  All he knows is his serial number, FN-2187.  The capture of Poe on Jakku is his first mission in the field, and despite years of brainwashing FN-2187 is shocked at the slaughter of innocents.  Horrified at what the First Order is doing, FN-2187 helps Poe escape from them.  It is the Resistance pilot who gives him the name “Finn” after the letters in his First Order ID.

There are obvious real-world analogies at play here. The most obvious is Nazi Germany, with its Hitler Youth program, which indoctrinated young children into serving the State first and foremost.  At one point in The Force Awakens there is an assembly of First Order military forces that is reminiscent of a Nazi rally, with General Hux giving a Hitler-esque rant against the Republic.

Of course, other totalitarian governments have utilized this technique, such as the various Communist regimes of the mid-20th Century. More recently various terrorist groups like Boko Harem have kidnapped large numbers of children to mold into future members.

5) Build a better Death Star

Seeking to outdo the Empire, the First Order has created an even more insanely dangerous superweapon. Instead of a moon-sized battle station, the First Order transformed an actual planet into the Starkiller (no doubt a nod to George Lucas’ original name for Luke Skywalker in the early drafts of Star Wars).  Rather than merely destroying nearby worlds, Starkiller can obliterate multiple targets on the opposite end of the galaxy.

The Starkiller is also a hell of a lot more fortified than the Death Star. Even after Finn provides the Resistance with the location of the Base’s obligatory weak point, destroying it still proves to be an almost-impossible task.

6) Go Snoke yourself

Sorry, but Snoke is just too ridiculous a name for a character who is supposed to a dark, menacing villain. Yes, I know, nearly all Star Wars character names are strange: Obi Wan Kenobi, Boba Fett, Mace Windu, Padme Amidala, etc.  But most of the time George Lucas devised names that were odd but still cool.  Snoke just sounds goofy.  I mean, that’s the thing you get at a fast food place when the management is too cheap to supply both spoons and forks, right?  No, wait, that’s a spork.  Never mind.

Maybe in this particular case Abrams should have asked Lucas for a favor. “Hey, George? Look, I know that you sold Star Wars to Disney, and that we then decided not to use any of your ideas for the new trilogy of movies. But could you help us out on one thing? We’re having a hell of a time coming up with a really cool, evil name for our Big Bad. Got any ideas?”

SW The Force Awakens Chewbacca and Han Solo

7) There’s no service like fan service

Michele expressed the opinion that The Force Awakens was much better than the prequels, stating “They made the movie that the fans wanted.” I responded that the prequels were better than most people give them credit, and that sometimes it is not a good idea to give the fans exactly what they are asking for.

The late Marvel Comics writer & editor Mark Gruenwald once observed “The writer’s job isn’t to give the fans what they want. The writer’s job is to give the fans what they didn’t even know they wanted.” Another comic book writer, the very talented Steven Grant, has expressed similar sentiments, and also offered the view that “The best ideas are usually the ones that are almost obvious, the ones that when you get it you stop and wonder why no one ever came up with it before.”

As much as I enjoyed The Force Awakens, as well made and visually impressive a movie as it was, in a certain respect it was by-the-numbers. One can visualize Abrams and his collaborators literally going through a checklist of what to include…

Appearances by a whole bunch of the original trilogy characters? Check!  A ragtag group of freedom fighters struggling against a monolithic adversary of pure evil?  Check!  A massive superweapon that can destroy entire planets?  Check?  A hero who grows up on a desert world and who discovers that it is her destiny to embrace the Force and become a Jedi?  Check!  Another hero who is concerned with self-preservation but who gradually comes to believe in a cause bigger than himself?  Check!

As I’ve observed before, the prequels were flawed, but they were still enjoyable. What Lucas really, REALLY needed to have on those three movies was a strong co-writer on the screenplays, someone like, well, Lawrence Kasdan, who previously worked on The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi.  I expect that the reason why the dialogue in The Force Awakens is so well written is due to Kasdan’s involvement.

Because of weak scripts, as well as the fact that Lucas was attempting to tell a story that was somewhat different from the original trilogy, the prequels were not well received by many.

Imagine a scenario where you enjoy a new music group because they do amazing cover versions of old songs that you love. In fact, you like this new group even better than the more recent work of the original artists, whose later albums weren’t as well written, and who no longer can hit the high notes as often, or play the guitar as fast.

That’s sort of how The Force Awakens came across to me, as J.J. Abrams doing a cover album of Star Wars Greatest Hits. But the thing is, no matter how you play around with the material, tweaking it, speeding it up, emphasizing certain things over others, no matter how fantastic it turns out, at its core are still the same notes  & lyrics Lucas wrote over three decades ago.

As I said, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a fun, well-made movie. It is also a movie that plays it very safe.  Obviously Disney was not going to allow anything too experimental or offbeat on their very first Star Wars movie.  I hate to think that they are going to require the entirety of the franchise to remain so formulaic.  Hopefully in the future, in some of the spin-off movies that are in the works, Disney will let the directors & writers strive for a different tone and go in new directions.  We shall have to see.

Super Blog Team-Up 7: Star Wars sketchbook

Welcome to the seventh edition of Super Blog Team-Up! This time, to celebrate the release of The Force Awakens, all of the participating bloggers will be writing about various aspects of the Star Wars phenomenon.  This ties in very well with what I’ve been doing on my own blog.  For the last few months I’ve been writing reviews of my favorite entries in the Star Wars expanded universe.

StarWarsSBTU7 Header

For my contribution to SBTU 7 I’m glancing through the Star Wars theme sketchbook that I started in 2003. In the last 12 years I’ve obtained incredible sketches & commissions from a number of very talented artists.  There are so many great pieces that I had genuine difficulty deciding which ten I should include here.  I would have featured more, but then this post would have been much too long!

1) Princess Leia by June Brigman

Princess Leia by June Brigman

June Brigman has a charming style to her work that I have always enjoyed. With her husband Roy Richardson she illustrated the Star Wars miniseries River of Chaos which featured Princess Leia.  June also did a cute trading card of Leia with the Ewoks for the first Star Wars Galaxy set from Topps.  She’s also drawn illustrations for a few SW young adult novels.  It was an obvious choice to ask June to draw Princess Leia in my sketchbook.  She did a really wonderful job!  The backgrounds on this commission remind me a bit of the SW work of legendary artist Al Williamson.

2) Boba Fett by Tony Salmons

Boba Fett by Tony Salmons

Tony Salmons penciled “Wookiee World,” issue #91 of the original Marvel SW comic book series. At first I was going to ask Salmons if he’d draw Chewbacca.  But I thought Salmons might prefer to tackle another character.  I asked him who else he’d enjoy drawing.  He suggested Boba Fett.  That was a great idea.  Salmons had a lot of fun drawing the bounty hunter, and it shows.  I love that “ZAT” sound effect.

3) Han Solo by Rich Buckler

Han Solo by Rich Buckler

Rich Buckler has a very bold style, influenced by Kirby. I thought Buckler he’d be perfect to draw either of the action heroes from the first movie, namely Han Solo and Luke Skywalker.  I asked Buckler who he’d prefer, and he immediately chose Han.  Buckler did an amazing job at capturing Harrison Ford’s likeness.  Buckler’s only published Star Wars art was the Lando Calrissian trading card he drew for the Galaxy series two set from Topps. That’s definitely unfortunate.  This sketch shows that he’s perfectly suited to the material.  I would really enjoy seeing him do further SW work.

4) Admiral Ackbar by Michael William Kaluta

Admiral Ackbar by Michael Kaluta

Michael Kaluta previously did an imaginative rendering of Ackbar for the first Star Wars Galaxy trading card set. When I began this sketchbook, I hoped to eventually have Kaluta draw that character.  Kaluta was generous enough to agree to it, with impressive results.  Note that he rendered Ackbar’s pupils in pencil to convey a watery, “fish-eye” look.  It’s that attention to detail that makes Kaluta such an incredible artist.

5) Tusken Raider and Bantha by Michael Lark

Tusken Raider and Bantha by Michael Lark

I suppose you can lay the “blame” for this one at the feet of fellow Star Wars sketch collector John Higashi. He obtained a nice sketch of Tarkin from Gotham Central artist Michael Lark.  When I later met Lark at a convention I asked him if he would be willing to draw that character again.  Lark felt it would be more fun to draw one of the Sand People on a Bantha, and asked me if that was okay.  I decided to let him go for it, and Lark produced this very impressive illustration.  It’s interesting to see Lark, who often works on noir-themed stories, illustrate sci-fi material.

6) Yoda by Guy Dorian

Yoda by Guy Dorian

Guy Dorian saw a scan of a Star Wars sketch his brother Ian had done for me, and he e-mailed to say he wanted to contribute one too. Guy told me that he’d worked on a SW coloring book several years earlier, and so had drawn a number of the characters before.  A few months later at the next Big Apple Comic Con, I stopped by Guy’s table with my sketchbook.  Guy told me he was interested in drawing Yoda.  He spent a fair amount of time working on this.  As you can see, there’s some very detailed linework to this piece.

7) Emperor Palpatine by Paul Azaceta

Emperor Palpatine by Paul Azaceta

Paul Azaceta was at the 2007 New York Comic Con to promote the release of the trade paperback collection of the Grounded miniseries he drew for Image Comics. He was also doing a lot of sketching at the show.  An incredible drawing of Johnny Depp from Pirates of the Caribbean that was sitting on his table immediately caught my eye.  Seeing that, I asked Azaceta if he’d be able to draw something in my SW sketchbook.  He agreed, and produce this stunning rendition of the malevolent Emperor.

8) Mace Windu by Jim Webb

Mace Windu by Jim Webb

When getting SW sketches, some artists are understandably uncertain if they’ll be able to do good likenesses. In his Comic Art Fans gallery Jim Webb has posted a scan of advertising art he did for the board game Stratego that had the characters from the sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun. I figured if Jim could draw a good likeness of John Lithgow, I might as well ask him if he’d have a go at sketching Samuel L. Jackson in the role of Mace Windu. After Jim agreed to do a commission for me, I said something along the lines of “Maybe you can have him fighting a snake as a nod to Snakes on a Plane.” That’s how we got this epic struggle. A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, one very frustrated Jedi Knight is shouting “I have had it with these mother@#&%ing snakes on this mother@#&%ing spaceship!”

9) Aayla Secura by Jan Duursema

Aayla Secura by Jan Duursema

I saw Jan Duursema at the November 2002 Big Apple show where she was drawing some amazing convention sketches of Star Wars characters. That was what inspired me to start this theme sketchbook in the first place.  One of my goals was to get a sketch by Duursema. Well, it took some time, but I finally met her again at the 2009 New York Comic Con.  I asked Duursema to draw Aayla Secura, the very cool character she created with John Ostrander for the Dark Horse comic books.  Fortunately, I just managed to get onto Jan’s sketch list, and she drew this on Sunday afternoon.  It turned out great.  So, yes, it was worth waiting six and a half years for this after all.

10) Shaak Ti by Jodi Tong

Shaak Ti by Jodi Tong

Jodi Tong is a talented artist with a really fun style.  Every time I get a new sketch from Jodi it’s inevitably better than the last one. She did an amazing job on this drawing of Shaak Ti, one of the Jedi from the prequels who was featured prominently in the Dark Horse comics.  There’s so much detail to this piece.  I’m hopeful that I’ll have an opportunity to obtain more sketches from Jodi in the near future.

I hope everyone will check out Comic Art Fans to see the rest of my Star Wars sketch collection. There are some really great pieces.

SBTU Crawler

Here are the links to the other Super Blog Team-Up 7 contributors.  You will not find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy…

This concludes Super Blog Team-Up 7.  May the Force be with you!  Well, either that or… Something, something, something, Dark Side; something, something, something, complete 😛

Alter Ego #138

I am excited to announce that my very first published writing will be appearing in Alter Ego #138.  Edited by comic book legend Roy Thomas, Alter Ego is published by TwoMorrows Publishing.  Issue #138 is scheduled to ship on February 17, 2016.

It was due to my work on this blog that Thomas generously invited me to contribute to Alter Ego.  He asked me to write a short article on the life and career of artist Fred Kida, who passed away on April 3rd of last year.

AE49 Trial Cover.qxd

The cover feature of Alter Ego #138 is an interview of Harlan Ellison by Brian Cremins wherein the acclaimed science fiction author discusses his love for the original Captain Marvel from the Golden Age of comics.  Also in this issue are excerpts from the 1944 deposition of Captain Marvel co-creator C.C. Beck from the infamous National Publications / DC Comics lawsuit against Fawcett Comics, as well as a piece Beck wrote in 1981 looking back on that sordid affair.

It is a genuine pleasure to have my first professional writing appear within Alter Ego, a quality publication which I have long enjoyed reading.  And it is an honor to be present amongst the prestigious company of Harlan Ellison and C.C. Beck.

I hope that everyone will purchase at copy of Alter Ego #138.  It is currently available for pre-order on the TwoMorrows Publishing website.  Thank you.

 

Star Wars reviews: Shattered Empire

Over the past few months I’ve been doing something of an informal countdown to The Force Awakens on this blog, reviewing some of my favorite Star Wars spin-offs. Today I’m looking at Shattered Empire, which was released in October by Marvel Comics.

Confession time: I haven’t been following the Star Wars comic books since they returned to Marvel, mostly because I’ve gotten the impression that they suffer from an extremely decompressed style of storytelling. But I decided to get Shattered Empire since it was a four issue miniseries and it was released on a weekly basis.  That meant I’d have the entire story in hand very quickly.  I waited until all four chapters were released and read it in one sitting.

Oh, yes, according to the indicia, the full title of this miniseries is Journey To Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Shattered Empire. What a mouthful!  I’m just going to call it Shattered Empire for simplicity’s sake.

SW Shattered Empire 4 cover

Shattered Empire is billed as a canonical prequel to the events of The Force Awakens. Writer Greg Rucka and artist Marco Checchetto examine how events unfolded across the galaxy in the weeks and months following Return of the Jedi.  We see these developments through the eyes of Lieutenant Shara Bey, aka Green Four, a pilot in the Rebel Alliance, and her husband Sergeant Kes Dameron, a commando in Han Solo’s strike team.

The Battle of Endor was undoubtedly the Alliance’s greatest, most important victory yet. Both Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader were killed, and the second Death Star was destroyed.  However, as we see in this miniseries, this was not the end of the struggle against the Empire.

I was only seven years old in 1983 when Return of the Jedi came out. Even at that young age I briefly questioned if this really did mark the end of the Empire.  Yes, I was obviously too young to comprehend such concepts as the difficulties in dismantling the remnants of a vast dictatorship, the challenges of establishing a stable democratic government, and the likelihood of ruthless opportunists taking advantage of the sudden vacuum of power.  Nevertheless I distinctly remember thinking that much of the Imperial fleet at Endor apparently survived the battle, and it seemed odd to me that they would all surrender.

As we see in Shattered Empire, there are indeed Imperial forces throughout the galaxy that have no intention of relinquishing power. Their defiance is spurred on by none other than Palpatine himself.  Master chess player that he was, the Emperor left in place a deadly contingency plan to be implemented in the event of his demise.  Via technology and loyal agents, many of the Empire’s officers are convinced that Palpatine still lives.  They are given orders to implement Operation: Cinder, the total devastation of numerous inhabited worlds.  Clearly the Emperor intended that if he couldn’t have the galaxy then no one would.

Shara and Kes’s elation at the victory at Endor, their optimism for the future, gradually gives way to weariness and despair, as the promised end to hostilities fails to materialize. Instead the couple is forced to face the possibility that they will have to spend the rest of their lives fighting against an adversary that is unwilling to capitulate.

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I’ve enjoyed Greg Rucka’s work in the past on Whiteout, Queen & Country and Gotham Central. He is definitely good at writing interesting, well-rounded characters.  Certainly he does a fine job developing Shara Bey.  She is a welcome addition to the Star Wars universe.  Her husband Kes Dameron is given somewhat less “screen time,” and is consequently not explored nearly as much.  Nevertheless, given the requirements of fitting such a large amount of material within four issues, Rucka succeeds at establishing both characters.

One of the subplots in Shattered Empire involves Princess Leia and Shara Bey visiting Naboo. This provides Rucka with a good opportunity to connect some of the strands from the original trilogy and the prequels.  Naboo is a peaceful democracy, but it was also the homeworld of the late Emperor.  Its people are understandably horrified and ashamed by this, and are quite eager to support Leia’s efforts to organize the New Republic.  Unfortunately this possibility was foreseen by Palpatine, and Naboo is one of the planets targeted by Operation: Cinder.  Leia, Shara and Soruna, the current queen of Naboo, are forced to pilot decades-old fighter craft in a desperate effort to fight off the orbiting Imperial fleet.

The final issue sees Shara joining Luke Skywalker infiltrating an Imperial facility on a rescue mission. The object that they seek to retrieve from the Empire is unusual, to say the least.  Well, perhaps that was why Luke only brought along one other person to help him, because he didn’t want to endanger anyone else on what might have been a questionable task.  This does give Rucka the opportunity to write an exciting action sequence showing Luke using his full Jedi abilities against a squad of Stormtroopers.

There’s another nice sequence Rucka has where he shows the Alliance have learned from past losses. In issue, #2, fighting against the Empire on Sterdic IV, the Rebels are pitted against an Imperial Walker.  Obviously remembering their devastating defeat on Hoth, this time the Rebels launch a group of Y-Wings to fly above the AT-AT, dropping clusters of magnetized bombs onto it.

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As Shattered Empire comes to a close, Shara and Kes have both put in the paperwork to muster out of active service. Shara explains her conflicted feelings concerning this decision to Luke…

Shara: I’ve got a son I’ve barely seen since he was born. A husband I get to see for an hour at a time every couple of weeks, if we’re lucky. I’m tired, and I feel guilty for even saying so. I feel like I’m abandoning the Rebellion.

Luke: But if the cost of our struggle is the lives we fought to protect, the future we hoped to see, then what is it we were fighting for?

At first I was a bit surprised that Shattered Empire ended without much resolution. Thinking it over, I realized that it did have closure as far as Shara and Kes are concerned.  And at its best Star Wars has always been concerned with how the lives of individuals and families unfolded amidst vast galactic events and upheavals.

Besides, until The Force Awakens actually begins showing, there is no way to know if Shattered Empire actually does set up any characters or subplots for the new movies.

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Marco Checchetto, with assists by Angel Unzeta and Emilio Laiso, provides the artwork for this miniseries. Checchetto’s work is very detailed.  He also lays out his pages dramatically.   Checchetto is definitely well suited to drawing both ground combat and space battles.

Checchetto is also good with the quieter, character-driven moments. That’s important, since the relationship between Shara and Kes is a central element of this story.

For the most part I found Shattered Empire to be a strong, enjoyable miniseries. Hopefully Marvel and Disney will ask Rucka and Checchetto to return to chronicling the Star Wars universe in the future.

Star Wars reviews: River of Chaos

As the release of The Force Awakens approaches, I’ve been reviewing a few of my favorite entries in the Star Wars expanded universe.  Today I’m looking at River of Chaos, a four issue miniseries published by Dark Horse in 1995.  It was written by Louise Simonson and illustrated by June Brigman & Roy Richardson.

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Six months after the destruction of the first Death Star, ace Imperial pilot Ranulf Trommer is summoned before the high-ranking Grand Moff Lynch.  There are rumors that Grigor, the Imperial governor of M’Haeli, is engaged in illegal activity.  Lynch assigns Ranulf to be the Governor’s new aide, with orders to report anything suspicious.  Before Ranulf can arrive on M’Haeli, one of Grigor’s informants alerts him to the pilot’s secret mission.  Seeking to dispose of him, Grigor sends Ranulf to infiltrate the Rebel cell on M’Haeli.  The Governor subsequently dispatches Stormtroopers to attack the Rebels, intending for Ranulf to be killed in the crossfire.

Posing as a merchant, Ranulf brings a damaged protocol droid to Mora, an 18 year old human mechanic suspected of Rebel activity.  When she was only an infant, Mora was orphaned, and she was adopted by Ch’no, one of the H’Drachi, the native inhabitants of M’Haeli.  Ch’no has subsequently been ostracized by the rest of his people.  Likewise, because she was raised by a H’Drachi, Mora does not feel any real kinship with the human settlers.  She is not comfortable in either society.

Soon after Ranulf arrives at Mora’s shop, the two are attacked by the Governor’s troops.  Ranulf is wounded, and Mora helps him to escape.  She brings him to several of her Rebel friends, including the visiting Princess Leia, although they are immediately suspicious of Ranulf.  The Rebels discover that Governor Grigor is working with space pirates to run an illegal mining operation on M’Haeli.  Ranulf is convinced that once the Governor is arrested, he will be replaced by someone fair & honest, and that the planet will no longer want to join the Rebellion.

When it becomes apparent that Ranulf is working for the Empire, the Rebel cell understandably panics, fearing that an attack is imminent.  Mora once again feels like an outsider and an outcast as the other Rebels look upon her as a gullible fool who brought a spy into their midst.  She also wonders how she could have so misread Ranulf, who she sensed to be a good person. Ranulf, in turn, also begins to experience doubts.

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Louise Simonson does good work developing the characters in River of Chaos.  I really like how she wrote Ranulf and Mora, as well as the supporting cast.

One of the things she touches upon is something you occasionally see pondered in fandom, namely just what sort of person would actually work for an organization like the Empire?  Obviously, as in real-world totalitarian regimes, you have those with a superiority complex who enjoy wielding authority and who wish to exercise power over others.  You also have those who see the excesses of the Empire as an unfortunate  necessity in maintaining an ordered society.  You then have those who see in a cold, impersonal bureaucracy the opportunity to exploit the system and become wealthy.  Finally, there are those who are unable or unwilling to think outside the box, content to blindly follow orders and unquestioningly listen to Imperial propaganda.

After he is assigned to his mission of espionage, Ranulf expresses uncertainty to his father, an Imperial Admiral…

Ranulf: We used to serve the Old Republic. And now we serve Grand Moff Lynch’s New Order. Doesn’t it matter who we serve and why?

Admiral Trommer: You were too young to realize the sewer the Old Republic had become. Grand Moff Lynch took control and changed all that.  He is strong, and we will help him keep the peace in any way possible.

Later on M’Haeli, away from his fellow Imperial troops and officers, among Mora and the Rebels, Ranulf gradually begins to see the universe through their eyes.  He starts to perceive that they have legitimate grievances.  Ranulf’s slowly begins to understand that there is little difference between Governor Grigor and Grand Moff Lynch.  He start to realize that Grigor subjugated M’Haeli in order to line his own pockets, but that Lynch is also willing to do exactly the same in order to further the cause of the Empire.

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One of the themes that run through Simonson’s work is family.  She explores that here through Mora and Ch’no.  In many ways this human teenager and H’Drachi elder are much closer than most daughters and fathers who are united by blood.  At the same time, Mora realizes that she needs to have more than just Ch’no.  The Rebels become the friends and family Mora never had.  You also get the impression that Ranulf is the first person for whom she has ever developed romantic feelings.

I like that Simonson has Princess Leia appear as a supporting character.  One of my favorite aspects of the EU is that it has enable writers to develop various minor characters from the movies, as well as brand new ones.  By having Leia appear in a minor capacity, it connects River of Chaos to the larger narrative of the movies without overshadowing Mora, Ranulf, Ch’no and the rest of Simonson’s characters.

The artwork by June Brigman & Roy Richardson is really lovely.  I have been a fan of both Simonson and Brigman since the early days of their careers when they co-created Power Pack.  It is always nice to when they have the opportunity to reunite on projects such as this one.

Brigman and Richardson’s work is very clean, with a cute and charming quality to it.  There is a genuine tone of fantasy and wonder to their style and the designs of their characters.  At the same time, they do a very good job rendering the established Star Wars elements such as Speeder Bikes and Stormtroopers.  Brigman & Richardson are definitely underrated, and I wish that we had the opportunity to see their work in comic books much more often.

I think River of Chaos fell somewhat under the radar amidst the rest of the Star Wars releases from Dark Horse, which often featured hyper-detailed and embellished artwork.  That’s a shame, because this was a nicely written miniseries with wonderful artwork.  The creators did a fine job of exploring and developing the Star Wars universe.  It’s well worth searching out.