Star Wars reviews: Rogue One

The new Star Wars movie Rogue One was enjoyable. While I liked The Force Awakens, I nevertheless felt that Disney played it very safe with their first installment since acquiring the franchise.  Rogue One, in contrast, does attempt to stretch out in different directions.

Rogue One reveals how the Rebel Alliance stole the plans for the Death Star from the Empire. Despite the fact that it is set immediately before the events of the very first Star Wars movie, Rogue One successfully expands what previously felt like well-explored territory.

rogue-one-poster

1) Rogues Gallery

The protagonist of Rogue One is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) a woman in her early twenties who has spent most of her life on the run from the Empire. When she was only a child Jyn’s mother was killed, and her father, scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson), hauled off to work on the construction of the Death Star by the ambitious Krennic (Ben Mendelsen).  Jyn is recruited at gunpoint by the Rebel Alliance, which hopes she can lead them to her father.  Grim, brooding Intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his reprogrammed Imperial droid, the sarcastic K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), are assigned to accompany Jyn in tracking down Galen.

2) Darkness Falls

Rogue One has been described as the darkest entry in the series since The Empire Strikes Back. While I think some people are overlooking Revenge of the Sith, which was hardly a laugh-fest, the point is that Rogue One is a very gritty movie by the standards of the franchise.

Whereas the original trilogy focused on the main figures of the Rebel Alliance, this is the story of the men and women fighting in the trenches against the Empire. Yes, they are motivated by the idealism of the Alliance, but after long years of conflict they are also driven by ruthless pragmatism.

When we are introduced to Cassian Andor, he is meeting with an informant, who tells him of a defecting Imperial pilot in possession of a message from Galen Erso. Unfortunately Andor and his informant are discovered by Stormtroopers.  To prevent the Empire from learning about the existence of the defector, Cassian, showing little hesitation, shoots his informant in the back and flees.

As ruthless as Cassian can be, he is positively tame compared to Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) a militant member of the Rebel Alliance. Having spent nearly two decades fighting against the Empire, Gerrera is scarred, physically and mentally, consumed by paranoia.  His followers utilize guerilla tactics, launching attacks against Imperial forces in heavily populated areas.

rogue-one-jyn-and-cassian

3) Parallel Lives

Jyn Erso is, in a way, a reflection of Luke Skywalker. In the opening scene Jyn and her parents living on an isolated farm, in hiding from the Empire.  There are definite similarities between this and how we first met Luke in A New Hope.  We even see Jyn’s mother with a glass of blue milk!

Luke, of course, was bored by the uneventful life of a farmer, and yearned for adventure. He couldn’t wait to leave and explore the galaxy.  Jyn, in contrast, spent a decade and a half scrambling about the galaxy, afraid and alone.  Instead of craving excitement, she yearns for safety and normality.  Having seen her mother gunned down by Stormtroopers and her father dragged off in chains, she would no doubt give anything to regain the quiet life on the farm she once shared with her parents.

4) Old Friends

It was nice to see a few familiar faces in Rogue One. Jimmy Smits returns as Bail Organa, a role he originated in the prequels.  Genevieve O’Reilly once again portrays Mon Mothma.  Nearly all of her scenes from Revenge of the Sith ended up on the cutting room floor (although they later appeared as extras on the DVD) so I’m glad she got some actual screen time here.  C3PO pops up long enough to utter one of his characteristic complaints.  Darth Vader also appears, once again voiced by James Earl Jones.  Via unused footage from the first Star Wars movie, Rebel pilots Red Leader and Gold Leader both participate in the Battle of Scarif.

Saw Gerrera is actually a character who originated in the Clone Wars animated series, and Forest Whitaker is set to voice him in upcoming episodes of the Rebels series, which is set a few years before this movie. Speaking of Rebels, there is also a brief glimpse of grumpy astromech droid Chopper, and The Ghost is part of the Alliance fleet.

rogue-one-saw-gerrera

5) Let’s Get Digital

A contentious element for some fans was the recreation of Grand Moff Tarkin via digital effects. I felt that this started off quite effectively, but the more scenes that Tarkin appeared in, the more artificial he appeared.  It is understandable that Tarkin, who was originally played by Peter Cushing, had to be included in Rogue One in some capacity.  His omission would have been rather glaring, given his position as the commander of the Death Star.  Perhaps it would have been better to have used him in less scenes, or in a couple of instances have him communicate with his subordinates via hologram transmission.

I have heard, however, that casual viewers, people who were not huge Star Wars fans and who hadn’t seen the original movie in a number of years, did not realize that Tarkin was a digital effect. That makes sense.  If you go in knowing that Peter Cushing passed away back in 1994, of course you’re going to focus on how realistic Tarkin appears in Rogue One.  But if you don’t really remember the character from the first movie, you’re probably not going to pay as close attention.

In the final seconds of Rogue One we also see Princess Leia, looking as she appeared in A New Hope, via a digital recreation of a young Carrie Fisher. It is such a brief shot that the movie just about pulls it off.

6) Less Is More

Darth Vader is one of those characters who I have often felt is best used sparingly. He is such an iconic figure that overexposure both decreases his menace and results in fuel for parody.  I think it was a mistake for Marvel to publish an ongoing monthly Darth Vader comic book series.

Vader has two short scenes in Rogue One, and as result has much more of an impact. He first appears about halfway through the movie, with Krennic showing up at the Sith’s fortress to voice his anger at his authority being usurped by Tarkin.   An impatient Vader abruptly dismisses Krennic’s complaints, sending him on his way.

We don’t see Vader again until the very end of the movie. The Rebel fleet has received the Death Star plans and are about to retreat from Scarif when Vader’s star destroyer abruptly emerges from hyperspace, attacking them.  Boarding the Alliance flagship, Vader attempts to retrieve the plans, brutally cutting his way through the Rebel soldiers.  He is a terrifying, seemingly-unstoppable figure.  It was the first time since I was a little kid that I found Vader to be genuinely scary.

(I think I was actually muttering “Oh shit!” under my breath when I was watching that scene.)

rogue-one-vader

7) Plugging A (Plot) Hole

Unlike some Star Wars fans, I never really saw the Empire seemingly overlooking the exhaust port in the Death Star as a glaring plot hole.  It’s very obvious from the final battle in the original movie that the exhaust port is heavily defended, and scoring a direct hit on it is nearly-impossible.

Nevertheless, over the years various people have complained “How can the Empire have missed such a huge vulnerability in their giant planet-destroying weapon?!?” Rogue One provides an answer.  Galen Erso realized that whether or not he assisted the Empire in building the Death Star, sooner or later they would find someone who could get the battle station to function properly.  So he pretended to be browbeaten into submission by Krennic and went to work on the Death Star, which enabled him to sneak a weakness into it: the exhaust port.  Not only is this a nice explanation, it also adds an extra dimension to Galen, revealing that he never completely gave up defying the Empire, that he saw his forced servitude as an opportunity to subvert them from within.

8) This Issue: Everyone Dies!

Going in to Rogue One, I was half-expecting that most, if not all, of the new characters would die. After all, none of them were ever seen or even referred to in the original trilogy.  On the other hand, there was a part of me that really didn’t think that Disney would pull the trigger, and at least a few of the Rogues would escape to fight another day.

But, no, they all die. No cheats, no last-minute reprieves, no cop-outs.  Jyn, Andor, and everyone else die in the Battle of Scarif, all of them sacrificing their lives to transmit the Death Star plans to the Alliance fleet.

Rogue One Galen Erso

9) Nail-Biting Suspense

You might think that a movie with such a foregone conclusion would be a bit dull. Of course the Rebels are going to steal the Death Star plans; anyone who’s seen A New Hope knows that!

Rogue One, however, is so well done that I nevertheless found myself constantly on the edge of my seat. Gareth Edwards does an amazing job directing the movie, making it an exciting, riveting experience.

10) Be Careful Not To Choke On Your Aspirations

There are times when Rogue One’s reach exceeds its grasp. During the first 15 minutes the narrative jumps all over the place, switching between different characters on different planets, leaving me somewhat confused.

Several of the characters also felt underdeveloped. Saw Gerrera feels like he’s being built up to have a major role, only to suddenly get killed off halfway through the movie.  We aren’t given any real insight into why Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook has decided to defect to the Rebellion, other than he was somehow inspired by Galen.  Two of the Rogues, Chirrut Imue and Baze Malbuus are interesting characters, but we get very little background on them.

Jyn could also have used more development. She spends the first half of the movie very reluctantly working with the Rebels, but in the second half she has suddenly become the loudest voice in attempting to galvanize the Alliance to fight against the Empire.  Yes, Jyn has seen the Death Star in operation up-close, and she also doesn’t want her father to have died in vain.  But it still feels like a rather abrupt jump from one position to the other.  The movie could have done a slightly better job at explaining how she came to change her mind.

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11) A House Divided Against Itself

There has been some debate the last month over whether or not Rogue One is a political movie. I think that all great art (and even some mediocre art) can have a message, even if it might not have specifically been intended by the creators.  If there is a political lesson to be gleamed from Rogue One, one that can be applied to our real world, then perhaps it is this…

The Rebel Alliance that we see in this movie is a very diverse group, made up of cultures and species from numerous worlds. Unfortunately that means they have varying viewpoints and agendas, and as a result are often working at cross-purposes.  They all seek the same ends, stopping the Empire, but they disagree on the means.

Mon Mothma is hoping for a political solution to the injustices perpetrated by the Empire; she wants Cassian and Jyn to rescue Galen so that he can provide testimony about the Death Star to the Imperial Senate. That mission is immediately, and secretly, countermanded by General Draven, who pulls Cassian aside and orders him to assassinate Galen.  Other members of the Alliance, learning of the Death Star, are ready to capitulate, believing that they have no hope of winning.  And then there is Saw Gerrera, who is labeled an “extremist” by the rest of the Alliance, a man who dismisses his former colleagues as too moderate and ineffectual.

On the other side is the Galactic Empire. In spite of the individual ambitions of men like Tarkin and Krennic, the jockeying for influence, in the end they all share the same goal: the subjugation of the galaxy through force and terror.  Whatever their individual aspirations, they are nevertheless ready to work with colleagues who they may dislike for the promise of great power.  The members of the Empire are unified in their ambitions for control over others and their willingness to embrace utter ruthlessness.

It does not matter how noble the Rebels may be, how lofty their goals are.  Until the various factions that make up the Alliance set aside their differences, resisting calls for ideological purity, they remain unable to fight the monolithic Empire. It is only at the end, when the Rebels are unified on a common course of action, working together to achieve their goals, that they are finally able to become an effective opposition against the Empire’s tyranny.

Star Wars reviews: Rebels season one

As the release of The Force Awakens approaches, I’ve been reviewing various entries in the vast Star Wars Expanded Universe.  Today I’m looking at a recent piece of Star Wars lore, the first season of the animated TV series Rebels, originally broadcast between October 2014 and March 2015.  I picked up the season one DVD last month.

Rebels season one DVD

Set a decade and a half after the events of the prequels, Rebels chronicles the exploits of a small cell of the Rebel Alliance operating out of a freighter starship known as the Ghost in the vicinity of the planet Lothal:

Ezra Bridges – The fifteen year old is the figure through whom the audience is introduced to the crew of the Ghost.  Ezra’s parents conducted underground anti-Imperial broadcasts on Lothal.  They were arrested when Ezra was only eight years old.  Spending the next several years as a homeless thief, Ezra comes to the attention of the Ghost crew when he makes off with a supply shipment which they themselves had only just stolen from the Empire.  At first motivated solely by survival and self-interest, Ezra joins the Rebels after they risk their lives to rescue him from the Empire.

Kanan Jarrus – The leader of the Ghost crew is a former Jedi Padawan who survived the destruction of the Jedi Order during Order 66.  Spending the next 15 years in hiding, he became a smuggler and guerilla fighter, keeping his Jedi abilities hidden.  Kanan finally unsheathes his lightsaber in a battle to liberate Wookies who have been captured by Imperial slavers.  After years of running from his past, Kanan reluctantly re-embraces his Jedi heritage when he realizes that Ezra is a Force sensitive, and he takes on the boy as his apprentice.

Hera Syndulla – The Twi’lek owner of the Ghost and an extremely skilled pilot, Hera is the den mother of the group.  She has a close friendship with Kanan, and it’s implied that there is a mutual attraction between the two.  The level-headed Hera serves as the link between the Rebel cell and the larger Alliance, communicating with a mysterious contact known only as “Fulcrum.”

Sabine Wren – A sarcastic teenage explosive expert and graffiti artist, Sabine is from the planet Mandalore.  She was previously enrolled in the Imperial Academy, until an experience there completely embittered her towards the Empire.  As a result she developed an aversion to blindly following orders.  Ezra has a crush on Sabine, but she has declined to acknowledge it, preferring to remain friends.

Garazeb “Zeb” Orrelios – The large, hairy Zeb is one of the last of the Lasat, an alien race who were brutally invaded by the Empire.  Seeking to avenge his people, Zeb became involved in the Rebellion.  Something of a grumpy hothead, Zeb is less than enthusiastic about Ezra joining the crew, although they eventually develop a grudging mutual respect.

Chopper – A beat-up old astromech droid, C1-10P aka Chopper helps keep the Ghost running.  Possessing an irritable, mischievous personality, the droid expresses himself through grunts and beeps.

Over the course of the first season, the writers do a good job introducing the main characters, spotlighting each of them throughout the 15 episodes.  By the time I was finished watching the DVD set, I really did not have a favorite, having grown to like all of them.

Rebels characters

Probably the best character development was in the deep friendship that grows between Ezra and Kanan.  They become not just student and teacher, but also a surrogate family, with Kanan becoming a father figure and role model for the reckless orphan.  Teaching Ezra to use the Force and become a Jedi is just as much a learning experience for the teenager as it is for Kanan.  Both of them need to discover patience and understanding.  It is a different relationship than that of Luke and Yoda, as can be seen by this amusing exchange from “Rise of the Old Masters”…

Kanan: Enough jokes. Focus!

Ezra: I’m trying!

Kanan: Do, or no not. There is no try.

Ezra: What does that even mean? How can I do something if I don’t try to do it?

Kanan: Well, see… Actually, that one always confused me, too. But Master Yoda sure used to say it a lot.

That was one of my favorite bits from the first season!

Rebels appears to be geared to a slightly younger audience than the Star Wars movies.  There is more of an emphasis on comedy and slapstick, although at times it can also be pretty intense and serious.

Some of the humor derives from the fact that the Empire comes across as pretty damn incompetent.  Yes, there’s that old joke that Imperial Stormtroopers cannot shoot straight.  But if you actually watch the movies, most of the time they are incredibly dangerous adversaries who mow down their enemies left and right.  It’s only when they encounter major characters such as Han, Luke or Leia that they are utterly incapable of hitting the broad side of a Jawa sandcrawler.  And such is the case with Rebels, where the Ghost crew constantly runs circles around the Empire.  You almost get the impression that it’s only sheer force of numbers that’s allowing the Emperor to maintain control of the galaxy!

There are exceptions, such as Agent Kallus of the Imperial Security Bureau, who is dangerously competent, but who is constantly frustrated by the bumbling antics of his troops.  Likewise the utterly ruthless Grand Moff Tarkin arrives on Lothal late in the season to take charge of operations, and he seems to spend half the time uttering exclamations of exasperation at the people serving under him.

The closest thing to a “big bad” for season one is the Imperial Inquisitor, a Force-adept disciple of Darth Vader who utilizes a double bladed lightsaber capable of whirling like a propeller.  The arrogant, mocking Inquisitor spends much of the season in pursuit of Kanan and Ezra.  The design and personality of the Inquisitor is somewhere between Vader and his Sith predecessor Darth Maul.  He is definitely a formidable adversary.

Rebels Inquisitor

Several actors from the movies reprise their roles.  As always, Anthony Daniels is on hand to voice C-3PO.  James Earl Jones returns for his iconic vocalization of Darth Vader, as do Frank Oz as Yoda and Billy Dee Williams as Lando Callrissian.

Lando appears in the episode “Idiot’s Array.”  Zeb loses Chopper to Lando in a game of Sabacc, much to the droid’s indignation.  To get Chopper back, the Ghost crew agrees to help Lando smuggle cargo through the Imperial blockade of Lothal.  And, no, the cargo is not a case of Colt 45 (which was my first guess) but so-called “mining equipment,” namely a very odd animal that is a cross between a pig and a puffer fish.  This is a few years before Lando became the semi-respectable administrator of Cloud City, back when he was still a smooth-talking gambler and con artist.  Williams does a good job recreating the part.

“Idiot’s Array” is one of the most offbeat and comedic installments of the entire season.  Actually, it’s a great episode, genuinely funny and entertaining.  And it actually works out well, coming right before the final four episode arc of the season, a very intense and serious storyline.

Season one draws to a dramatic conclusion with “Fire Across the Galaxy.”  The crew infiltrates Tarkin’s star destroyer to rescue Kanan.  This leads to a final, riveting showdown between Kanan and the Inquisitor.

“Fire Across the Galaxy” also reveals the identity of Fulcrum; she is none other than Ahsoka Tano, former Jedi and fan favorite from The Clone Wars animated series.  It was a pleasant surprise to learn that Ahsoka survived the Jedi Purge and was working alongside Senator Bail Organa to organize the Rebel Alliance.

Rebels Ahsoka Tano

As “Fire Across the Galaxy” came to a close, I found myself very much looking forward to season two.  The first year had done a great job at developing the main characters, and I am interested in seeing Ahsoka becoming a regular.  Also, with the arrival of Darth Vader on Lothal in the final scene, the possibility of Ahsoka encountering her former master and learning of his turn to the Dark Side appears to be in the cards.

By the way, in watching Rebels season one, I came to realize just how crucial the visual designs of Ralph McQuarrie, the music of John Williams and the sound designs of Ben Burtt all are in recapturing the feel, the atmosphere of the Star Wars universe in an animated series.  All of these have been utilized by the makers of Rebels, and it just would not be the same in the absence of any of them.

I cancelled cable TV service a while back, but I can always get Rebels season two through iTunes.  It’s definitely something I’d rather not have to wait for the DVD release.  It’s an entertaining, well-written series that does a great job of exploring the period between the prequels and the original trilogy.

Star Wars reviews: The Apprentice and The Dream

Continuing the countdown to The Force Awakens, I am looking at past Star Wars comic books.  Today I’m spotlighting two more issues from the original Marvel Comics series.

“The Apprentice” appeared in Star Wars Annual #3 (Summer 1983).  Its sequel, “The Dream,” was in Star Wars #92 (Feb 1985).  Both stories were written by Jo Duffy.  “The Apprentice” was illustrated by Klaus Janson.  “The Dream” was penciled by Jan Duursema and inked by Tom Mandrake.

Star Wars Annual 3 cover

Set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, “The Apprentice” sees members of the Rebel Alliance on the planet Belderone investigating rumors of an Imperial project that threatens their base on the nearby world of Kulthis.  Most of the locals are secretive except for two curious teenagers, Flint and Barney.  Flint in particular is intrigued.  Noticing the lightsaber Luke Skywalker carries, an excited Flint mentions that his late father was a Jedi Knight.  The teens take the Rebels to the local tavern, which is run by Flint’s mother Zana.  Princess Leia realizes that the two teenagers are star-struck by Luke, but he brushes this off, insisting that they have an important mission.

The Rebels’ arrival does not go unnoticed, and one of Zana’s neighbors notifies General Andrid.  The Imperial officer dispatches assassins to eliminate them.  But Luke’s connection to the Force alerts him to the impending ambush, and the Rebels are able to thwart the attack.

Off in space, Darth Vader’s ship is en route to Belderone.  He has sensed that something important will take place there, and he is expecting Luke’s involvement.  Vader learns of Andrid’s failed attempt to kill the Rebels, and the enraged Sith strangles the General.  Vader decides to take personal charge of operations planet-side.

Luke, realizing Vader is near, leaves for Kulthis to summon reinforcements.  Leia and the other Rebels are led by Flint and Barney to the mysterious installation where most of the population is employed by the Empire.  Suddenly the ground splits open and a group of Imperial Walkers emerge.  They begin marching to the nearby airfield, where they will be transported to Kulthis to attack the Rebels.

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Flint and Barney, seeing the enormous AT-ATs heading towards town, rush off to warn everyone, including Flint’s mother.  They are secretly observed by Vader and one of his men.  The aid asks if they should have stopped the two teenagers, but the Sith is dismissive of the pair.

Before the Walkers can reach their ships, a group of Rebel X-Wings led by Luke arrives, catching them off guard.  With the aid of Leia and Lando Calrissian, who have seized control of one of the AT-ATs, the Rebels defeat the unprepared Imperials.

Unfortunately, before the battle is over, one of the Walkers wrecks a path of destruction through the nearby town.  Among those killed are Zana.  Flint, crouching by his mother’s body, is distraught…

“It was all just a game… we were useless… we couldn’t do a thing… And they let us go on… pretending we could help… But we couldn’t… we were useless… I was useless… and now you’re dead…

“I swear… I swear to you… I’m going to learn… I’m going to get the training… the same training my father had… I’m going to become someone who matters… And then I’ll show them all!”

The grieving Flint does not realize that he is being watched.  The observer steps forward and addresses him…

“I know how you feel… I had almost forgotten what it was like to feel that way… It has been some time since I heard anyone speak the way you do now… I did not take you seriously before, and I should have… forgive me. Let me make it up to you now…

“I could not single you out for special training right away… you would be just one of our men at first… but I have sensed the power in you… in time, I promise you, you will be tutored specially… and if you really wish it… you will become someone who matters very much!”

The way this scene is written by Duffy and illustrated by Janson, the reader is led to believe that it is Luke speaking to Flint, recruiting him into the Rebellion.  However, a few pages later we learn from Barney, who witnessed this exchange, that the individual who has approached Flint is none other than Vader.

As the Annual closes, Barney leaves Belderone with the Rebels.  Elsewhere, watched over by Vader, the grim Flint dons the armor of a Stormtrooper, joining the ranks of the Empire.

Star Wars Annual 3 pg 36

“The Dream” takes place several months after Return of the Jedi.  The former Rebel Alliance is attempting to organize the newly-freed planets and to deal with the Imperial remnants still active across the galaxy.  Luke is having a series of troubling dreams in which his now-dead father, Darth Vader, appears to him in an eerie mist-filled void.

A ship piloted by Prince Denin of Naldar arrives on Endor.  The desperate Denin informs the Alliance that Imperial forces are laying siege to his world.  The Prince demands assistance.  He also wants to be trained as a Jedi by Luke.  Reluctantly Luke declines, remembering how his own father Anakin Skywalker was not adequately trained, allowing him to be turned to the Dark Side of the Force.

Despite Denin’s brusque manner, Leia convinces the Alliance to investigate the Prince’s claims.  Luke accompanies Leia and the others.  Aboard the Millennium Falcon, Luke falls asleep.  He is once again in the void, but this time he is greeted by the spirits of Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and even his father Anakin.  Luke realizes the image of Vader represents a new Dark Lord.  Anakin explains to Luke…

“Do you not recognize him? We share the blame for his creation, my son.

“He is not beyond redemption, my son… but I am unable to return and undo the evil I did. Only you can save him, Luke.”

The Falcon arrives to find Naldar completely decimated by the Empire.  The ship is hit by a powerful energy cannon and crashes.  While repairs are being made, Luke heads out with Lando and Denin to investigate.  They are attacked by Imperial forces and soon surrounded.  A black-armored figure approaches.  Luke faces down the dark figure and challenges him…

“Why don’t you show us what’s under that armor? It’s not as though you need it to survive. Or are you afraid to face me without it?”

Grimly the armored figure removes his helmet… and, yep, it’s Flint!

Star Wars 92 pg 30

Luke and Flint engage in a lightsaber duel.  Flint reveals that Vader began training him in the use of the Force, and accuses Luke of killing him.  Luke tries to explain that Vader was his father, and that in the end he turned away from the Dark Side, but Flint is too enraged to listen.

The crew from the Falcon then arrives, and Barney is among them.  Flint is shocked to see his old friend.  Barney approaches him, accusing Flint of fighting the people he once admired.  When Flint argues that the Rebels couldn’t save him mother, Barney counters this…

“Was it an Alliance bomb that killed her? No, it was the Empire. And you couldn’t save her and be a hero… so now you’re gonna punish the whole universe, and kill a whole lot of mothers and sons and innocent people? That makes a lot of sense!

“Frankly, I don’t think you can. But I’ve been wrong before. So, prove it to me, for old times’ sake. See the face of one of your victims. Kill me first, Flint.”

And, despite all the crimes he has committed, Flint realizes that he is unable to murder his friend.

One of the Stormtroopers, watching this unfold, prepares to shoot Flint in the back for his “betrayal.”  But Denin (who we now know to actually be Princess Vila, taking on her fallen brother’s identity) sees this and grabs Luke’s fallen lightsaber.  Throwing herself in front of the Stormtrooper, Vila intercepts the blast meant for Flint, and kills the Imperial.

Witnessing Vila’s sacrifice, a disgusted Flint turns his back on the Imperial cause.  He uses the controls on his armor to destroy the energy cannon.

Star Wars 92 cover

Jo Duffy became the regular writer of the Star Wars comic book with issue #70 (April 1983) and, except for a few fill-in issues, wrote the series until its cancelation with issue #107 (September 1986).  Her stories were a wonderful mix of drama and comedy.  Duffy’s run is rather underrated, especially the later issues, where she was working to devise a new direction for the series after Return of the Jedi.  Duffy showed the characters attempting to transition from freedom fighters to diplomats, politicians and teachers.  She also introduced new adversaries to threaten galactic freedom.

“The Apprentice” and “The Dream” are two of my favorite stories that Duffy wrote for Star Wars.  She examined Luke’s burden to continue the legacy of the Jedi.  Luke was understandably reluctant to train a new generation of Jedi, concerned that if he did not do so properly that they could be corrupted by their powers.  But with the events of these two stories Luke learns that if he neglects to take up that responsibility then those with the potential to utilize the Force, such as Flint, might fight other teachers who would not hesitate the steer them towards the Dark Side.

This is another one of those instances where I’m really left wondering if George Lucas was influenced by these stories!  Flint is similar to how Anakin Skywalker was depicted in the prequels.  Flint’s mother dying, resulting in him accepting Vader’s offer to train him, is remarkably similar to what would happen in Attack of the Clones, when Anakin’s mother was killed by the Sand People, beginning his descent towards the Dark Side.  Vader’s own dialogue here implies that he was once in a situation that was similar to this.  Flint even looks somewhat like Hayden Christensen!

Speaking of the artists, these two issues were both well done.  Janson had a very moody, noir-ish style to his work on “The Apprentice.”  That’s not unexpected, given that this was drawn around the time he was wrapping up his six year long association on Daredevil.

The battle between the X-Wings and the AT-ATs is unfortunately a bit on the sketchy side.  Janson does much better work on people than machinery, although that splash page reveal of the Walkers is really stunning.  Most of the scenes are well-rendered, especially the shootout in the tavern.  Vader’s recruitment of Flint is effectively told, and Janson’s depiction of the Sith is menacing & sinister.  On the lighter side of things, I always laugh at the expression Janson gives Chewbacca on finding the tavern food disagreeable!

Star Wars Annual 3 pg 16 Chewbacca

Jan Duursema and Tom Mandrake happen to be married.  I believe “The Dream” is one of the few occasions they’ve worked together.  This was fairly early in their careers.  Nevertheless, the artwork is extremely good.

Duursema and Mandrake have very different styles to their work.  Duursema’s art is well suited to sci-fi and fantasy, while Mandrake’s is very much in the horror and supernatural vein.  This makes their collaboration on Star Wars #92 especially effective.  Duursema’s effectively pencils the characters and technology of the Star Wars universe, and Mandrake’s inking gives the story a genuinely eerie, atmospheric feel.

Although this was Duursema’s only work for the Marvel series, years later she would become a regular contributor to the Star Wars comics when Dark Horse held the license.  From 2000 to 2010 she did great work on several of their of Star Wars titles.  But hopefully more on that in a future post!

Star Wars 92 pg 19

The cover to #92 is an interesting collaboration by Cynthia Martin and Bill Sienkiewicz.  Martin was the regular artist on the Marvel series for its final two years.  She had a rather cartoony look to her work.  Having her finished by Sienkiewicz, with his bizarre, abstract style, results in a cover that very much suits the story within.

I recommend reading these two issues.  I’m confident Marvel with be reprinting them in the near future.

Star Wars reviews: Splinter of the Mind’s Eye

With Star Wars: The Force Awakens arriving in theaters this December, I’m examining some of the Star Wars comic books and novels of the past.  Today’s post looks at the very first entry in what is now referred to as the “expanded universe.”   Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was written by Alan Dean Foster and published in February 1978, eight months after the debut of the original movie.

Splinter of the Minds Eye novel cover

Foster’s novel opens shortly after the events of A New Hope.  Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia Organa, accompanied by the droids R2-D2 and C-3P0, are traveling to the fourth planet in the Circarpous system.  They hope to convince the inhabitants of Circarpous IV to join the Rebel Alliance.

Before they can arrive at their destination, Leia’s spacecraft develops a malfunction.  They are forced to head towards the fifth planet, Mimban, an inhospitable swamp world.  A sudden electrical storm causes both Leia and Luke’s ships to violently crash-land.  After days of slogging through treacherous swamp, the two Rebels and their droids come across a human settlement. Unfortunately it is an Imperial installation; the Galactic Empire is secretly mining the planet’s mineral wealth.

Stealing mine uniforms, Luke and Leia visit the town saloon.  They meet Halla, an elderly woman who possesses a slight affinity for the Force.  Halla is seeking the Kaiburr Crystal, a red jewel that “increases one’s perception of the Force.”  The crystal is thought to be a myth, but Halla has acquired directions to the ancient native temple where it is supposedly located, as well as an actual shard of the crystal (the eponymous “splinter of the mind’s eye”).  Luke touches the shard, and his connection to the Force confirms that it is genuine.

Halla makes a deal with Luke and Leia: if they assist her in locating the Crystal, she will help them steal a spaceship to escape Mimban.  Before plans can be made, Luke and Leia get into a brawl with a group of drunken miners and are arrested by Stormtroopers.  The two are brought before the planet’s Imperial overseer, Captain-Supervisor Grammel.

While suspicious of their claim to be criminals fleeing from Circarpous IV, Grammel is intrigued by the crystal shard Luke and Leia possess.  He orders them locked up and contacts his superior, Governor Essada, who possesses some knowledge of crystals and minerals, hoping to obtain an assessment of the splinter’s value.  Essada unfortunately recognizes Leia from the security photo Grammel sends him, and the Governor orders the two to be held until someone can be dispatched to interrogate them.

Luke and Leia are placed in a cell with two large hairy aliens known as Yuzzem.  Hin and Kee have been jailed for drunk & disorderly conduct, having caused a major ruckus after they realized they were unable to get out of their indentured servitude to the Empire.  Luke convinces the angry, hung-over Yuzzem that he and Leia are also enemies of the Empire.

At that point Halla pops up at the window of their cell.  She combines her minor Force abilities with Luke’s, and the two of them levitate a food tray between the bars, using it to activate the switch for the cell door.  The prisoners make a break for it, with Him and Kee causing tremendous destruction.  They rendezvous with Halla and the droids, steal a swamp crawler, and flee the settlement.

Heading out in search of the Kaiburr Crystal, the seven fugitives encounter numerous dangers in the swampy wilderness.  Luke eventually realizes that they face another fearsome adversary: Darth Vader has arrived on Mimban searching for the Rebels.  The Sith Lord also recognizes the significance of the Crystal and seeks it to augment his dark powers.

Splinter of the Minds Eye TPB cover

Alan Dean Foster was involved in the Star Wars universe from very early on.  When the first movie was still in production he was hired by George Lucas to ghost write a novelization based on an early draft of the script.  Foster was also contracted to write an original novel that could serve as a sequel.  Lucas was uncertain if Star Wars would be successful, and he instructed Foster to devise a story that could be shot on a small budget, using as much of the existing props and costumes as possible.  From this directive Foster devised Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, with its relatively small cast and its setting on a dark swampy planet.

Of course, as we all know, Star Wars was a gigantic success, and Lucas was able to make a very ambitious sequel, The Empire Strikes Back.  Nevertheless, although Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was never filmed it is still a good read, an interesting link between the two movies.

Even working within the constraints given him, Foster writes an entertaining novel with exciting action sequences.  There is a cinematic quality to Foster’s writing that definitely brings these scenes to life.  The novel culminates in a riveting lightsaber battle between Luke and Vader in the ruined Temple of Pomojema for possession of the Kaiburr Crystal.

Written as it was in 1977, there are inevitably a few aspects of the novel that don’t fit the later canon too neatly.  There’s no indication that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father.  Some of Foster’s dialogue for Vader seems a bit off, at least considering how the character was subsequently scripted in the next two movies.

Foster includes sexual tension between Luke and Leia, as this was well before Lucas revealed (or perhaps even decided) that they were brother and sister.  Commenting on this in 1996, Foster stated “the tension in the book between Luke and Princess Leia works even better in hindsight, now that they can be seen as squabbling siblings ignorant of their true relationship.”  I suppose you could argue that.  At least Foster didn’t show the two of them actually kissing, unlike that now-unfortunate smooch on Hoth a couple years later!

On the other hand, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye actually forecasts certain elements of the series.  I wonder if Lucas was influenced by it when writing the sequels and prequels.  Mimban is very much like the planet Dagobah.  During the battle in the Temple, Vader uses something similar to the “Force lightning” later utilized by the Emperor.

An interesting thing occurs towards the end of the novel.  When the group arrives at the Temple, Luke leaves R2-D2 and C-3P0 outside to keep watch.  Later, when Vader appears, surprising them, the Sith explains “As for your ‘droids, they are conditioned to obey orders. I had them turn themselves off.”  When Luke reactivates them, a panicked C-3P0 tells him “We couldn’t escape him. He knew all the proper code words and commands.”

The first time I read Splinter of the Mind’s Eye in 1989 this was puzzling.  How could Vader possibly know how to shut down R2-D2 and C-3P0?  Of course, once the prequels came out, this made perfect sense, as we found out that C-3P0 was built by Anakin Skywalker, and R2-D2 was his astromech droid during the Clone Wars.  So of course decades later Vader would know how to deactivate both of them.  Again, I wonder if Lucas got the idea of tying Anakin / Vader to the two droids from Foster’s novel.

One of the weak points of the original Star Wars was that we never saw the events of the movie having any sort of lasting impact on Leia.  The way that Lucas filmed the scene setting up Leia’s interrogation by the Empire, it is very strongly implied that they are going to do something horrifying to her.  But the next time we see her she is seemingly unharmed and defiant.  Likewise, the destruction of Leia’s home planet of Alderaan is almost shrugged off by Leia.

Foster addresses this in his novel.  Leia has been hardened by her experiences.  Luke is aghast at the carnage and bloodshed of their battles with the Empire, but the more cynical Leia grimly accepts it as an unfortunate necessity.  While imprisoned by the Empire on Mimban, Leia finds out from Grammel that an Imperial Governor will soon be arriving to question her.  Her immediate reaction is uncontrollable panic as she flashes back to her ordeal on the Death Star.  Leia soon recovers her composure, but it is apparent that she still carries psychological scars from that experience.

The cover for Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was painted by Ralph McQuarrie, the artist who played a significant role in devising the look of the Star Wars universe, designing many of the characters and sets for the original trilogy.  His atmospheric rendering of a stunned Luke and Leia witnessing Vader’s arrival at the Temple of Pomojema is now an iconic image.

Splinter of the Minds Eye TPB pg 32

In 1996 Dark Horse published a four issue comic book adaptation of Splinter of the Mind’s Eye written & inked by Terry Austin and penciled by Chris Sprouse.  The miniseries was collected in a trade paperback with a cover by Duncan Fegredo.  Alan Dean Foster contributed an introduction.

It’s interesting to observe the choices Austin made in adapting a 300 page prose novel into a 97 page graphic novel.  A certain amount of condensing of scenes and dialogue was required.  Austin did a good job at keeping the important plot and character elements while working within a smaller length.

Austin took advantage of the fact that he was working in 1996 to add a few elements from subsequent movies.  Darth Vader is given a couple of short scenes that precede his original introduction more than three quarters of the way into the original novel.  In these Austin gives glimpses of Captain Piett, the flagship Executor, and an Imperial shuttlecraft arriving on Mimban.

Sprouse does wonderful work bringing the elements of the novel to life.  His designs for Halla, the Yuzzem, the giant swamp worm Wandrella, the native tribe of the Coway, and the Temple are all very effective.  Sprouse has always done good work on sci-fi / pulp-themed series, most notably Legion of Super-Heroes and Tom Strong.  That makes him a great fit for the Star Wars universe.

Austin is, of course, one of the all-time greatest inkers / embellishers in comic books.  As good as Sprouse’s penciling is on the Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, Austin’s inking makes it even more amazing.  Their styles mesh very well indeed, and their adaptation of Foster’s novel is wonderful.