Star Wars reviews: The Clone Wars Season 7

Presenting a really late entry in the latest round of Super Blog Team-Up, looking at Expanded Universes. Everyone else got their contributions up around June 24th. Oh, well, maybe that’s actually appropriate, since I’m looking at the much-delayed conclusion to The Clone Wars.

The long-awaited seventh and final season of the Star Wars animated series The Clone Wars was released earlier this year thru the online streaming service Disney+.

My initial experience with The Clone Wars was underwhelming.  In the three year period between Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005) there had already been numerous stories set during the Clone Wars presented in Dark Horse’s Star Wars comic books, in various novels, and the original Genndy Tartakovsky animated series.  So when the computer animated movie The Clone Wars was released in 2008, followed by the ongoing series on Cartoon Network, my initial reaction was basically “Why do we need more of this?”

There were a couple of other reasons.  I actually read Karen Traviss’ excellent novelization of The Clone Wars before I saw the movie.  Traviss gave the characters some very complex, subtle motivations, and explored the ambiguity of the conflict.  None of that was present in the actual movie, leaving me disappointed.

And then there was the character of Ahsoka Tano, the teenage Jedi padawan introduced as Anakin Skywalker’s student in The Clone Wars movie, created by George Lucas & Dave Filoni and voiced by Ashley Eckstein.  I’m going to quote Wikipedia here…

“Although initially disliked by both fans and critics, Ahsoka developed into a well-rounded, complex character who received positive reactions from both groups. Serving as a foil for Anakin Skywalker, she has been highlighted as a strong female character of the franchise.”

Yes, that sounds very accurate, and it was basically my experience with Ahsoka Tano.  At first I did not like her, and I thought she was a pointless addition to the Star Wars mythos.  I never followed the ongoing television series, only catching an episode here or there, so this impression lingered for a while.

However, over the next several years The Clone Wars developed a huge following of younger viewers.  For these new fans, this was their Star Wars, and Ahsoka Tano was their Jedi hero, just as Luke Skywalker had been mine growing up in the early 1980s.  I did catch a few of the later episodes, and read some summaries of the others.  I realized that the overall writing on the series had improved tremendously, and Ahsoka had developed into an interesting, three-dimensional character.

Season Six came out in 2014, meaning there’s been a six year wait for the series’ conclusion.  In that time another animated series, Star Wars: Rebels came out, in which we learned Ahsoka Tano and clone trooper Captain Rex both survived the war.  I’m sure this must have left a lot of regular viewers with plenty of burning questions about what had actually happened.  So now we finally have the conclusion, and the answers.

Season Seven is 12 episodes long, divided into a trio of four-episode storylines:

The first four sees Captain Rex (Dee Bradley Baker) working with a misfit group of clone troopers known as the “Bad Batch” to go behind enemy lines in order to discover how the Separatist armies are seemingly anticipating all of the Republic’s battlefield plans, and to find out if Rex’s comrade, the missing and presumed dead clone trooper Echo, is actually still alive. (A spin-off animated series featuring the Bad Batch was just announced by Lucasfilm.)

The second storyline features Ahsoka, who has left the Jedi Order due to the hypocrisy and politics she saw the Jedi Council practicing.  Ahsoka’s speeder bike breaks down in the undercity of Coruscant, and she meets teenage sisters Trace and Rafa Martez (Brigitte Kali and Elizabeth Rodriguez).  Trace is a brilliant, idealistic mechanic, and Rafa is a more cynical figure who believes that breaking the law only way the two of them will ever escape poverty.  Ahsoka initially sympathizes with Trace, but she comes to realize that Rafa has a legitimate point, that the sisters’ socioeconomic circumstances have left them with very few paths.  When the sisters’ involvement in a spice-smuggling operation goes pear-shaped, Ahsoka helps them escape from the ruthless Pyke Syndicate.

I did think this four part segment was a bit padded out.  It reminded me of a Doctor Who serial from the Jon Pertwee era, with Ahsoka and the Martez Sisters getting captured, locked up, escaping, running around, getting recaptured, locked up again, escaping again, running around again… you get the idea.  Nevertheless, it was still a fun and thoughtful story.  It also leads into the next segment, as Ahsoka learns that Darth Maul (Sam Witwer) is working with the Pykes.

The final four-parter chronicles the Siege of Mandalore.  Ahsoka has joined forces with a group of Mandalorians led by Bo-Katan (Katee Sackhoff) who want to liberate their planet from Maul’s control.  Realizing they don’t have the numbers to stage an assault, Ahsoka goes to Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Sywalker, who she has not seen since she left the Jedi.

Unfortunately the Separatists have launched an attack on Coruscant and kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine, and Obi-Wan (James Arnold Taylor) has orders to return there immediately.  Ahsoka accuses the Jedi of once again playing politics, of prioritizing the Chancellor over the people of Mandalore.  Anakin (Matt Lanter) agrees to split up his clone forces, giving Ahsoka and Rex half of them to take to Mandalore.  Ahsoka, Rex, Bo-Katan and the clone army arrive, and there is a huge, stunning battle against the Mandalorian commandos allied with Maul.

Ever since the introduction of Boba Fett waaaay back in the animated sequence from the Star Wars Holiday Special and The Empire Strikes Back, there has been a lot of speculation about Fett and the other occupants of Mandalore.  Due to the technical limitations of the early 1980s, as well as Fett actually being a fairly minor character in the original trilogy, very little of this was ever explored on-screen.

I think part of the appeal of this storyline is that we finally get to see the mythical Mandalorians in combat.  The same goes for the live-action series The Mandalorian, also on Disney+.

Initially I thought bringing Darth Maul back from the dead was a bit ridiculous, but it is another area that worked out well in the long run.  Maul is a lot like Boba Fett, a visually interesting character who was ultimately underused in the movies.  Maul in The Phantom Menace was basically Darth Sidious’ attack dog, nothing more.  Maul, resurrected in The Clone Wars, and then later seen in Rebels, is a cunning, dangerous agent of chaos who seeks to carve out his own power base and undermine the plans of Sidious.

There are definite parallels to Ahsoka and Maul at this point.  Both of them have become disenchanted with their previous beliefs.  Ahsoka has lost faith in the Jedi Order, and Maul wants revenge on Sidious for casting him aside.  Maul makes a pitch to Ahsoka to join forces with him, and we can see that she is definitely tempted.  In the end, though, she rejects the offer, and the two come to blows.  Ahsoka, with the aid of Bo-Katan and Rex, eventually defeats the former Sith.

And then everything goes to Hell.  Anyone who has seen Revenge of the Sith knew this moment was coming, but it nevertheless remains a wrenching experience.

I really thought The Clone Wars would end before the events of Revenge of the Sith, because I just could not imagine the series actually showing Order 66.  But they went full-in.  Palpatine / Sidious orders the elimination of the Jedi.  Ahsoka, just like all of her former comrades, finds the clone troopers turning against her.

A good development introduced in The Clone Wars was the idea that the clone troopers had control chips implanted in their brains, chips that when activated would make them follow Sidious’ commands without question.  This enabled the clones to be loyal, courageous, honorable soldiers throughout the series, and explain why they so quickly turned on the Jedi.  In the end the clones were also victims of Sidious, robbed of their free will, reduced to mindless assassins, forced to murder their own generals.

Ahsoka discovers the existence of the chips and is able to extract the one in Rex, freeing him from Sidious’ control, but she is unable to save the rest of her troops.  The final scene of Ahsoka and Rex standing before the graves of the clone troopers is genuinely haunting.

Someone on Twitter recently commented “The last four episodes of Clone Wars was some of the best written, acted and directed Star Wars ever created.”  That’s a sentiment with which I definitely agree.  Those final four episodes are exciting and moving and heartbreaking.  Dave Filoni’s scripts were incredible.  The voice acting by Eckstein, Baker, Witwer and everyone else was superb.

The animation on this final season was absolutely stunning.  There were moments when I forgot that this wasn’t live action, that’s how good it was.  I realize that there is a large group of people involved in creating the animation for this project, and the majority of them unfortunately do not get the recognition they deserve.  My compliments to everyone involved in literally bringing all of these characters and all of these action sequences to life.  Job well done!

I recognize that some of the Star Wars movies released under Disney have been underwhelming.  This final season of The Clone Wars, as well as the first season of The Mandalorian, are refreshing reminders that there is still a tremendous amount of potential to the franchise, that there are many more fun, exciting, interesting stories that can be told within this fictional universe.

Here are links to all of the other #SBTU contributors. We had a lot on entries this time. Please check them all out. Thank you.

Star Wars reviews: The Rise of Skywalker

The reviews and reactions to the new Star Wars movie The Rise of Skywalker have been extremely mixed.  In a way, that is to be expected, because this movie is intended to be the conclusion of the decades-long saga that has unfolded through the eight previous “episode” installments of the franchise.  Episode IX had an extremely formidable task to fulfill and, let’s face it, there was almost no way writer / director J.J. Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio could possibly fulfill everyone’s expectations.

Here are some of my thoughts about The Rise of Skywalker.  Call it a review, an analysis, or just the ramblings of a 43 year old fan, and (as always) feel free to disagree.

SW TROS

1) Star Wars is for kids

I have been a Star Wars fan ever since my father and grandfather took me to see The Empire Strikes Back in the theater in 1980 when I was four years old.  In the early 1980s I was absolutely mad about Star Wars.  I had a whole bunch of the action figures, and I would make up my own adventures.  The three years between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi felt like an eternity to my young self.  Finally it arrived in the theaters.  My father took me to see it, and I absolutely loved it.

Star Wars creator George Lucas has long argued that the series is really intended for kids.  I believe there is some truth to this.  Yes, there are quite a few elements to the movies that older viewers can appreciate & enjoy.  But at its heart Star Wars is basically a space opera, the big budget descendant of the old movie serials featuring Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, high tech fairy tales set in outer space.

As an adult, watching first the prequels from Lucas and now the sequels from Disney, I have always endeavored to try to remember that I was a kid when I saw the original three movies, and to mentally bring myself back to that place.

Seven year old me would have absolutely loved The Rise of Skywalker.  It was a really fun, exciting movie.  There were a lot of parts that I genuinely loved, that caused me to laugh out loud, and that left me gasping in awe.

Having said that, I am an adult, and there were several aspects of The Rise of Skywalker that my older sensibilities found to be flawed or problematic…

SW TROS Finn Rey Poe

2) Rey of sunshine

Two of the best parts of the sequel trilogy have been the characters Rey and Finn, played by Daisey Ridley and John Boyega.  Both are great additions to the mythos.

In the previous installment, The Last Jedi, it was revealed that Rey’s parents were basically nobodies, and she was not the heir to any kind of family legacy.  This was a crucial aspect of the movie’s main theme, that the Force was not just for the Jedi, that anybody had the potential to access it, no matter who they were or where they came from.

I liked this development.  Unfortunately others did not.  Following Rey’s introduction in The Force Awakens there had been a ridiculous amount of speculation on social media about who she really was.  There were some really insane theories put out there tying her to established characters.  So when Rian Johnson revealed that Rey was no one in particular, these people lost their collective minds, seeing this as a huge disappointment.

Unfortunately Abrams either disagreed with Johnson’s approach, or was pressured by Disney to reverse this because of the supposed fan backlash.  So in TROS we find out Rey is the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine.  Watching the scene where this is revealed, in my head I could almost envision Disney shouting to the audience “Okay, okay, stop yelling at us! Fine, Rey isn’t a nobody! She’s actually Papatine’s granddaughter! Are you happy now?!?

This felt like an attempt to placate angry fans, with the story falling back into the well-trod, traditional structure of myths & fairy tales.  I don’t think it was necessary.

Having said all that, Ridley does her best with the material. She really shows just how shocked & horrified Rey is at discovering she’s kin to the most evil being in the galaxy.  Ridley definitely sells the character’s inner turmoil, as well as her struggle to leave her heritage behind and become her own person.  Obviously the theme of “transcending your family’s dark legacy” was already done with Luke Skywalker in the original trilogy, but Ridley nevertheless does a good job showing Rey’s journey through this difficult process.

I’ve also enjoyed the character arc of Finn through these three movies.  He really grows during the course of the storyline.

When you think about it, Finn is a brave, extraordinary individual.  When he was only a child he was kidnapped by the First Order and conscripted into their Stormtrooper army.  Despite years of indoctrination by his fascist masters, Finn was able to retain a conscience, to recognize what the First Order was doing was wrong.  More important, he found the strength to actually do something about it, first by deserting their ranks, and then by standing up to his former masters, actively fighting against their tyrannical cause.

TROS continues Finn’s development.  He is a much more confident figure than he was in the previous two movies.  Additionally, the idea that potentially anyone, no matter what their background, can use the Force is basically transferred from Rey’s character to his, and it is revealed that Finn is Force-sensitive.

Another important development for Finn occurs when he meets other ex-Stormtroopers who have also fled the First Order.  Boyega’s really does a good job of showing just how much it means to Finn to find others like him who have broken free from the First Order’s brainwashing and are now fighting against it.

SW TROS Kylo Ren vs Rey

3) Ren faire

One of my favorite online bloggers / reviewers is Darren Mooney.  He is an intelligent, insightful writer.  Even when I disagree with him, I find his arguments & reasoning to be well-constructed and thought-provoking.

Two months ago Mooney wrote a piece entitled “The Rise of Skywalker Can Correct Return of the Jedi’s Failings.”  One of Mooney’s criticisms of ROTJ is as follows:

“Return of the Jedi isn’t interested in whether Vader is redeemed. It only matters that Luke’s idea of Vader is redeemed. Vader never faces any justice for the crimes that he has committed. But Luke is able to convince himself of his father’s decency rather than confront the reality of what he’s done. The Star Wars franchise has always been about generational strife, with children inheriting a world scarred by their parents’ mistakes. Return of the Jedi retreats from that concept and betrays the franchise.”

A bit harsh, perhaps, but possibly accurate.  Now, none of what Mooney argues ever occurred to me when I was seven years old watching ROTJ.  Indeed, in 1983, having only seen Vader’s very limited actions in the original trilogy, killing the Emperor to save his son did appear to be a genuine act of redemption.

However, in the decades since, having witnessed Anakin Skywalker’s fall to the Dark Side depicted in detail in the prequels, actually seeing the atrocities he committed in Revenge of the Sith, Rogue One, the Rebels animated series, and the comic book stories set during these periods, you might very well find yourself asking if turning against the Emperor in ROTJ to save Luke really does balance the scales, if it is truly enough for him to earn redemption.

So I had what Mooney wrote in mind while watching Kylo Ren’s arc unfold during TROS.

Leia uses the Force to connect with Kylo Ren, dying in the process.  A distracted Ren is mortally wounded by Rey, but she immediately uses her own Force energy to heal him.  After his mother’s sacrifice and Rey’s act of mercy, it’s clear that Ren no longer wants to continue down the terrible path he is on.  At the same time, he is fully aware of all the horrible crimes he has committed, including the murder of his father, and he is afraid that, with all the blood on his hands, he does not have the strength to change.

Adam Driver’s performance as Kylo Ren / Ben Solo really is haunted, especially when he reaches this turning point.  The conversation between him and his dead father Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is both well-written and subtly performed.  I appreciated that it was left ambiguous if Ben is truly communicating with his father’s ghost, or is actually struggling with his conscience within his own head.

Looking at it from an adult perspective, Ben’s ultimate act of redemption does feel more genuine than Vader / Anakin’s did.  Yes, Ben turns against the First Order and stands side by side with Rey in opposing the Emperor.  However, he truly redeems himself after the battle is over, Palpatine has been destroyed, and victory has been achieved.  Rey has been killed, but Ben uses his own life energy to revive her, sacrificing his own life.  His final act is not killing an enemy, but selflessly saving the life of a friend.

SW TROS Leia

4) Farewell to a Princess

One of the obvious obstacles that faced Abrams & Terrio in making TROS was Carrie Fisher’s unexpected death in December 2016.  Early plans for the movie would have had General Leia Organa as one of the main characters; obviously all of those plans had to be scrapped.  Abrams & Terrio were left with about eight minutes of unused footage from TLJ featuring Leia, which meant that they had to write the story around that.

To their credit, Abrams & Terrio do a good job of smoothly incorporating the footage of Fisher into the movie.  None of it feels forced.  If you were watching the movies and had no idea how real life events had dictated the production you might be left wondering why the character of Leia had so little screen time, but there wasn’t anything there that leaps out to indicate that Daisey Ridley was acting opposite footage of Fisher that was shot two years earlier.

5) Cavalcade of cameos

It was good to have Lando Calrission return to the series. I had a huge smile when he first appeared on screen.  It certainly seemed like Billy Dee Williams was having a blast playing the character again.  I think Lando’s character was pretty well served by the screenplay, so his presence wasn’t just an exercise in nostalgia to please older fans.

We also see a glimpse of Wedge Antilles during the final battle, although in that case it was unfortunately just a cameo.  It would have been nice if Denis Lawson’s character had gotten a bit more screen time.  I realize Wedge was a minor character in the original trilogy, but he became a major figure in the X-Wing comic books & novels from the old Expanded Universe.

The most surprising appearances by older characters were during Rey’s confrontation with Palpatine.  Rey taps into the Force to give her strength, and she hears the voices of a number of Jedi Knights, both from the previous movies, as well as from the animated series Clone Wars and Rebels, certainly a cool nod to those characters.

SW TROS Lando

6) United we stand

The Rise of Skywalker is much less overtly political than The Last Jedi.  Nevertheless, there is a message to the movie.

We meet Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell) a smuggler Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) knew from his pre-Resistance days operating on the fringes of the law.  Speaking of the threat posed by the First Order, Zorii tells him:

“They win by making you think you’re alone… There’s more of us.”

This is later demonstrated when Lando organizes a fleet made up of ships from numerous planets to stand against the Emperor’s armada on Exegol.  On their own, none of the ships from these disparate civilizations would be able to stand up to the First Order, but united together they are a match for Palpatine’s forces.

Without getting into too many specifics, the point here is that the far left, liberals, moderates and centrists need to set aside their differences and work together to fight against fascism.  Once that is accomplished then we can sit down and hash out compromises for our various positions, but until then we must present a united front.

Also, the whole subplot with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) turning out to be the spy in the First Order giving information to the Resistance feels timely.  Considering what a smug, sadistic creep he it, at first Hux would appear to be the last person you would expect to help the Resistance, at least until he explains to Fin and Poe: “I don’t care if you win. I need Kylo Ren to lose.” Yes, that is perfectly in keeping with Hux’s petty, selfish nature.  I was instantly reminded of the numerous anonymous leaks out of the Trump Administration, as well as the backstabbing and scheming that has taken place over the past three years as the grifters and opportunists have jockeyed to grab power.

Likewise, it is not surprising that General Pryde (Richard E. Grant) takes the first opportunity available to shoot down Hux in cold blood.  Later, after Kylo Ren abandons the First Order, Pryde quickly & eagerly switches his allegiance to the Emperor. There is no loyalty or honor in the First Order, only a craving for power at any cost.

7) Bursting at the seams

There was enough material in TROS to fill at least two movies.  That resulted in some rushed scenes, and certain characters getting short shrift.

The most notable instance was Rose Tico, played by Kelly Marie Tran.  Rose was a central figure in TLJ, but she spends most of TROS sidelined.  Maybe it was that there were too many characters.  Maybe it was because Rose was created by Johnson, and Abrams didn’t have much interest in her.  Whatever the case, it’s unfortunate, because following the release of TLJ both the character and the actress were subjected some truly vile racist and sexist attacks on social media.  Even if it’s inadvertent, Rose’s diminished screen time here feels like Disney kowtowing to toxic fandom.

Another area where there wasn’t anywhere enough development was with the mysterious Knights of Ren, who were first briefly glimpsed in TFA.  They finally show up in TROS, but they’re just a bunch of faceless, nameless mooks who silently follow Kylo Ren around for most of the movie and then, after he turns away from the dark side, unsuccessfully try to kill him.  And that’s it.

8) Let’s get Sidious for a moment

The return of Emperor Palpatine, played by Ian McDiarmid, was certainly one of the most noteworthy aspects of TROS.  Even though he was spectacularly killed off at the end of ROTJ, it does feel appropriate to bring him back.  While Darth Vader is, thanks to Ralph McQuarrie’s design and James Earl Jones’ vocal performance, the most iconic villain of the whole SW saga, it is the Emperor who is the true Big Bad of the first six movies.  So if TROS was to be the conclusion of the Skywalker family story then it makes sense for the ultimate evil of the saga, Darth Sidious, to play a key role.

The Emperor’s return doesn’t make much sense in-story (more on that below) and the actual mechanics of his resurrection are left extremely vague.  When Kylo Ren threatens to kill him, Palpatine merely responds by saying “I have died before” and then repeating his famous declaration from Revenge of the Sith: “The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.”

Later on a member of the Resistance suggests a few possible explanations, one of which is cloning.  Perhaps this was a nod to the now out-of-continuity comic book miniseries Star Wars: Dark Empire by Tom Veitch & Cam Kennedy, published by Dark Horse in 1991, which saw the Palpatine return in a cloned body.  (Likewise, the ancient Sith planet Exegol might be inspired by Korriban, which appeared in several of the Dark Horse SW series.)  Whatever the process the Emperor returned to life, it was apparently not perfect, as he spends the entire movie looking even more ancient & wizened than before, hooked up to an elaborate framework of life support machinery.

The Emperor’s plans are also left vague, other than a general “conquer the galaxy again” type of thing.  He seems to alternate between wanting Kylo Ren to kill Rey so that she can’t oppose him, and getting Rey herself to kill him so that his spirit can transfer into her younger body.  Towards the end of the movie Palpatine seems ready to abandon both those plans when he suddenly discovers he can drain energy directly from Rey and Ben to restore his own body.

However dodgy the plotting is, it was good to have McDiarmid back as the Emperor.  He’s played the role on & off for over three and a half decades now, and he effortlessly slips back into the Emperor’s foul persona, turning in an evil, twisted performance, once again making Palpatine the man we all love to hate.

The resolution of the battle between Rey and the Emperor was also well done.  Rey is faced with a seemingly-impossible conundrum.  If she kills the Emperor his spirit & powers will inhabit her body.  If she doesn’t kill him than he still has more than enough life in him to live long enough to destroy the Resistance.

In the end Rey wins by turning the Emperor’s own power against him.  She uses her lightsabers and the Force to deflect the Emperor’s lightning bolts back at him, in effect causing him to kill himself. As Yoda advised in TESB, “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.”

SW Dark Empire 2 pg 18

9) Making shit up as we go along

It’s pretty obvious that bringing back the Emperor in TROS, revealing that he created Snoke and was controlling the First Order from behind the scenes all along, was something that Abrams & Terrio came up with pretty late in the day.  There’s absolutely no indication of any of this going on in either TFA or TLJ.  A revived Palpatine hiding away on Exegol and preparing a massive fleet of Dark Side Star Destroyers capable of obliterating entire planets, and using the First Order to keep everyone occupied in the meanwhile, doesn’t make much sense, because the previous two movies already showed the First Order wiping out the New Republic and making good progress in seizing control of the entire galaxy all on its own.

Over the past few years several people have suggested that it was a mistake to have the First Order simply be the Galactic Empire with a new coat of paint.  It would have made more sense to have the First Order be some sort of insurgent group organized by Imperial war criminals who had escaped justice, a subversive entity undermining the New Republic via terrorist attacks.  That sounded like it would have been good idea even before TROS came out.  It would have made even more sense now that it’s actually been established that the First Order was always intended by Palpatine to be a diversion while he rebuilt his forces in secret.

All of this speaks to Disney’s failure to plan this trilogy out ahead of time.  It was a mistake to have the writers / directors working in isolation, with no general overarching plan.  Abrams did TFA, then passed the ball to Johnson to do TLJ, and who in turn was supposed to hand it off to Colin Trevorrow to do TROS before that fell through due to “creative differences,” with Abrams getting brought back late in the day to wrap things up.

Honestly, this has been a problem with Star Wars throughout much of the series’ existence: it was made up on the fly.  Despite what Lucas later claimed, it seems pretty obvious that the original was intended to be a stand-alone movie.  Otherwise Lucas would not have asked Alan Dean Foster to write Splinter of the Mind’s Eye as a story that could be filmed quickly & cheaply, using as many existing costumes & props, just in case Star Wars happened to do well enough for a second movie to get the green light.

It was only when Star Wars unexpectedly became a gigantic runaway success that Lucas really committed to the whole nine episode storyline, and even there he continued to make it up as he went along, working with several other writers.  For example, Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader were still separate characters in the early drafts of TESBThe early plans for ROTJ were for only Darth Vader to die, and for the Emperor to escape at the end.  That was supposed to set up the next trilogy, which would see the Empire rebuilding, and Luke searching for his twin sister, who was hidden away at the opposite end of the galaxy. Unfortunately while Lucas was starting work on ROTJ his marriage fell apart, and he was in such a bad place emotionally he decided to just bring everything to a close with that movie.  So suddenly both Vader and the Emperor died, the Empire was defeated, and Leia was implausibly revealed to be Luke’s sister.

This meant that three decades later, when Disney decided to finally make that third trilogy, they found themselves having to undo the final, decisive defeat of the Empire in ROTJ.  So all of a sudden the First Order appears out of nowhere, and the New Republic is quickly wiped out, in a really blatant resetting of the status quo.

Looking at all of the movies, it’s clear that the ones that are most internally consistent are the prequel trilogy, all of which were written & directed by Lucas.  Say what you will about the scripting or the acting or whatever, the fact is that Lucas appears to have plotted the whole thing out ahead of time, and stuck to that plan throughout the making of all three movies, resulting in a trilogy that actually does feel like a cohesive story with a beginning, middle and end.

Disney really should have looked at the missteps that Lucas made with the original trilogy, and the successes that he did actually achieve with the prequels, and planned the entire storyline for their trilogy out right from the start.  Instead they just rushed into it without any concrete idea of where they were going, and it shows.

SW TROS Emperor

10) To make a long story short… Oops, too late!

I’ve already written over 3,500 words about The Rise of Skywalker, so let’s cut to the chase.  I enjoyed it.  It had some really great action sequences, as well as some genuinely good, moving character arcs & developments, and felt like a pretty good emotional conclusion to the overall saga.  Nevertheless, it also had a lot of flaws.  It was good, but it could have been better.

I really think Disney should step back for a bit, learn some lessons from the missteps of this new trilogy, and take the time to decide exactly what they want to do next with Star Wars.  The franchise still has a ton of potential to tell all sorts of stories, but it’s the kind of property that cannot be approached half-assed, that needs a certain amount of thought & planning.  I wish them luck, because I would love to one day see Star Wars return better than ever.

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 (Mark Hamill), 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 real-world analogies at play here.  Over the decades various 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.

But the most obvious example of this is Nazi Germany, with its Hitler Youth program, which indoctrinated young children into serving the State first and foremost.  Which brings us to that scene…

5) Springtime for Palpatine

At one point in The Force Awakens there is an assembly of First Order military forces that is very reminiscent of the infamous Nuremberg Rallies , with General Hux delivering a chilling Hitler-esque rant against the Republic.

The original trilogy drew a few parallels between the Empire and the Nazis, but this is far and away the most obvious evocation of the Third Reich’s evil in the Star Wars universe.

6) 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.

7) 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 a character from a mid-1980s Saturday morning cartoon, right?  No, wait, those were Snorks.  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

8) 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.

Star Wars reviews: Jedi Aayla Secura

I’m continuing the countdown to the debut of The Force Awakens in December with another look at entries in the Star Wars Expanded Universe.  Today’s post spotlights Star Wars: Jedi – Aayla Secura published by Dark Horse in August 2003.  It was written by John Ostrander, drawn by Jan Duursema & Dan Parsons, and colored by Brad Anderson.

SW Jedi Aayla Secura cover signed

Several months have passed since the Battle of Geonosis.  The Clone Wars, the war between the Republic and the Confederacy, has spread throughout the entire galaxy.  Republic supply convoys are being ambushed in space by Confederacy raiders.  The Jedi T’ra Saa receives a holocomm message from Senator Elsah Sai Moro from the planet Devaron.  Elsah informs T’ra that the raiders are operating from Devaron and are being assisted by a member of the government.  Before the Senator can name the culprit, she is assassinated on-camera.

Soon after a trio of Jedi arrive on Devaron undercover: Aayla Secura, Tholme, and the mysterious Dark Woman.  Unfortunately the Dark Woman is recognized by Elsah’s killer, Aurra Sing.  Years before, the Dark Woman was Aurra’s teacher, but the young Jedi-in-training was kidnapped by space pirates, and she turned to the Dark Side.  Now a bounty hunter and assassin, Aurra hates the Jedi with a burning passion.  Aurra informs her employer, Senator Sai’Malloc, that the three visitors to Devaron are Jedi and that she intends to kill them.

Sai’Malloc does not want more murders on her hands and reluctantly admits her collaboration to Aayla.  By this time, however, Tholme and the Dark Woman have already fallen into a trap laid by Aurra.  To save her fellow Jedi, Aayla is forced to fight the deadly bounty hunter.

SW Jedi Aayla Secura pg 8

As I’ve mentioned before, one of my favorite writers on the Star Wars comic books from Dark Horse was John Ostrander.  The penciler he most frequently worked with on these stories was Jan Duursema.  Having previously penciled issue #92 of the original Marvel Comics series in late 1984, Duursema became a regular contributor to the Dark Horse titles a decade and a half later, making her one of only a handful of creators to have worked on both SW runs.

Ostrander and Duursema were quickly paired up at Dark Horse and became an effective team.  One of their first collaborations was “Twilight” in Star Wars #19-22.  It introduced Quinlan Vos, an amnesiac Jedi tempted by the Dark Side, and his Twi’lek apprentice Aayla Secura.  Over the next several years Ostrander & Duursema did excellent work developing the characters of Quinlan and Aayla, as well as the brooding Tholme and the beautiful tree-like T’ra Saa.  Ostrander & Duursema examined the upheavals all four experienced as the Jedi were drawn into the conflicts and politics of the Clone Wars.

One of the threads Ostrander & Duursema wove in and out of the Republic monthly and the Jedi quarterly book was Quin’s continuing struggle with the temptations of the Dark Side.  By the time of Jedi – Aayla Secura, Quin had apparently defected to the Confederacy, falling under the sway of Count Dooku.  In fact Quin was working deep undercover as a double agent, so deep in fact that the handful of Jedi who knew the truth, as well as the readers, were constantly left questioning if Quin really had gone bad.

Quin had previously saved Aayla from becoming a pawn to a Dark Jedi, and she now wishes to go after her old teacher to return the favor.  Tholme, one of few to know the truth of Quin’s scheme, forbids it.  Consequently throughout this issue Aayla finds her memories returning to her past instruction by Quin, and the bond of friendship they shared.

SW Jedi Aayla Secura pg 25

Ostrander compares and contrasts Aayla Secura and Aurra Sing.  Both of them were kidnapped and subsequently tempted by the Dark Side while they were still Padawan learners.  Quinlan refused to give up on his pupil, pursuing Aayla across the galaxy to locate her and bring her back to the light.  On the other hand, Aurra’s teacher was the Dark Woman, who was so fanatical about observing the Jedi’s code of avoiding attachments that she even gave up her real name.  When Aurra was abducted, the Dark Woman simply resigned herself to her student’s loss since she never allowed herself to develop any sort of emotional attachment to her.  Aurra’s subsequent corruption, her transformation into a sadistic killer-for-hire, is at least partially due to the Dark Woman’s negligence.

An interesting bit of characterization by Ostrander is Senator Sai’Malloc.  Like many politicians, she is not genuinely evil, merely weak and greedy.  She had only intended to line her pockets with Confederacy money, and to gain favor with them, so that if they emerged as the victors of the War she would be in a position to use them as allies.  But as Sai’Malloc’s involvement with the Confederacy grew, her crimes snowballed out of control.  Eventually, in order to keep her role a secret, she resorts to murder.  It is a very believable, realistic depiction of how corruption gradually eats away at a person.

SW Jedi Aayla Secura pg 29

The pencils by Duursema are incredible.  She draws some amazing action sequences.  The fight between Aayla and Aurra is absolutely dynamic, a ballet of violence.  Duursema also excels at the quieter scenes of characterization.  The flashbacks to young Aayla being taught by and developing a friendship with Quinlan are very effective.

I really like Dan Parsons inking Duursema’s pencils.  They began working together with Republic #50 and have been an art team ever since.  I had previously enjoyed Parsons’ work writing & drawing his creator-owned series Aetos the Eagle and Harpy.  His detailed inking has a very dark tone to it, simultaneously very slick & polished and rough & gritty.  Parsons’ early art reminded me somewhat of Michael Bair.  Parsons’ inking gave Duursema’s pencils an atmosphere that was appropriate for the grim, moody tales of war and espionage that Ostrander was writing in the Star Wars comics.

The coloring by Brad Anderson is also very effective.  It is vibrant yet subdued, somber when necessary without becoming muddy.  Again, it works well at creating an atmosphere in these stories.

Aayla Secura Attack of the Clones

Aayla Secura has the distinction of originating in the Expanded Universe and then appearing in the actual movies.  George Lucas, while he was in the middle of making Attack of the Clones, saw Dark Horse artwork featuring Aayla and, struck by her appearance, added her to the movie.  She was portrayed by ILM production assistant and actress Amy Allen.

Aayla subsequently appeared in Revenge of the Sith where she was one of the numerous Jedi killed by the Clone Troopers during Order 66.  Between the comic books by Ostrander & Duursema and the movies, Aayla had definitely became a fan favorite, and many, myself included, were upset at her demise.

I wonder if Aayla’s popularity and the reaction to her death helped inspire Lucas to create Ahsoka Tano, another female teenage alien Jedi.  She also became popular among Star Wars fans and, unlike Aayla, survived the events of the Clone Wars.

The majority of the Dark Horse material is apparently now non-canonical, but don’t let that dissuade you.  If you cannot find this one via back issues or the now out-of-print trade paperbacks, I’m sure that Disney-owned Marvel will eventually be repackaging it.  All of the issues by Ostrander & Duursema are well worth reading.  They are among the best entries in the entire Expanded Universe.

This review is dedicated to Jan Duursema’s daughter Sian, who convinced John Ostrander not to kill off Aayla at the end of “Twilight,” therefore leading to many more wonderful stories featuring the character.

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.

Star Wars reviews: Republic #61

The new Star Wars movie The Force Awakens comes out in December.  Although I haven’t written much about it on this blog, I’ve been a big Star Wars fan since I was a kid.  At first I was thinking of re-watching and reviewing the previous six movies on this blog as a sort of lead-in to The Force Awakens.  But I realized that so many others have written about them already.  Besides, I just couldn’t decide what order to review them in!

Then it occurred to me to look at some of the tie-ins that have been published over the past 38 years, the comic books and novels.  Most of those have never been examined in-depth.

I know that many people were disappointed in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy.  While I readily acknowledge that those films were flawed, I still enjoyed them.  And they opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the so-called “expanded universe.”  Dark Horse, which had the rights to publish Star Wars comic books from 1991 to 2014, released many excellent stories set during the prequel era.

My favorite writer to work on the Dark Horse comics was John Ostrander.  He has always been incredibly adept at crafting stories that combine action, drama and political intrigue.  This made him particularly well suited to examining the events of the prequel era.

Star Wars: Republic #61 is written by Ostrander, with artwork by Brandon Badeaux & Armando Durruthy and a cover by Brian Ching.  It was published in January 2004.

Star Wars Republic 61 cover signed

Sixteen months after the Battle of Geonosis the Clone Wars are raging across the galaxy.  Senator Bail Organa is en-route from his home planet of Alderaan to the capital on Coruscant when his ship is attacked by space pirates.  Fortunately the Jedi arrive to drive off the raiders.

Landing on Coruscant, Organa is greeted by Senator Mon Mothma.  She is unsettled by the Senate’s willingness to leave oversight of the war to Supreme Chancellor Palpatine.  Organa acknowledges he is perplexed the Senate hasn’t discussed the Republic’s recent catastrophic defeat on Jabim.

That evening Organa is secretly visited by Finis Valorum, the previous Chancellor who resigned in disgrace after a vote of no confidence.  Valorum is aghast at the Senate granting Palpatine more and more power.  Organa rationalizes that this is “temporary,” to which Valorum fires back…

“The Senate barters away the fundamental rights upon which the Republic was built! You trust that the tyrant you are creating will give them back to you when the crisis is over? Palpatine will give back nothing! No one who seeks power the way that he does ever surrenders it willingly!”

Valorum informs Organa that Palpatine is using the assault on the Senator’s ship to reintroduce the Security and Enforcement Act.  Organa is alarmed by this news.  As their meeting ends the two are unknowingly observed by a cleaning droid equipped with a camera.

The next day Organa has an audience with Palpatine.  The Senator questions the lack of debate on Jabim.  Palpatine waves this away, arguing that if the facts of the Republic’s defeat were on the record it would serve to alarm those whose loyalty is wavering.  Organa then informs the Chancellor that he resents the space pirate attack being used as an excuse to reintroduce the Security and Enforcement Act, and that he will be opposing it.  An unperturbed Palpatine simply replies:

“You must, of course, do as you think best. Might I give you a small warning? It would not be wise for you to see Finis Valorum again. Dirt rubs off so easily, and can tarnish those who would otherwise seem clean.”

Of course Organa detects the implied threats beneath Palpatine’s seemingly polite words, and he begins to ponder if Valorum is correct.  Soon after he and Mon Mothma meet with Valorum, who is preparing to depart Coruscant.  Organa says he is starting to share Valorum’s  suspicions concerning Palpatine.  Valorum boards his ship, which takes off… and then, to Organa and Mon Mothma’s horror, the vessel explodes above the spaceport.

The following day in the Senate, the destruction of the ship by an act of “terrorism” is offered as a further argument for the necessity of the Security and Enforcement Act.  Organa addresses his colleagues, voicing his opposition.  He passionately argues of the dangers that occur when too much power is held by a single individual:

“This chamber is a place of reason, invested with certain powers and authorities! When power is invested in many, it cannot be seized by one! That was the plan and the purpose when the Republic was formed!

“The powers that this Act seeks to invest in the Supreme Chancellor belong to the Senate! They are our responsibilities and given to us in trust…

“We fight for the Republic. But what is the Republic, if not the principles on which it is based? To cast aside those principles would make even a clear-cut victory in this war pointless.”

Despite Organa’s efforts, the Act is passed into law by the Senate.  Although he has lost this battle, Organa tells Mon Mothma he now recognizes the importance of fighting for the integrity of the Republic.

Star Wars Republic 61 pg 9

When Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were released in 2002 and 2005, Lucas was asked if he was commenting upon George W. Bush’s “War on Terror,” the passage of the Patriot Act, and the formation of the Department of Homeland Security.  Lucas denied this, stating that both the original trilogy and the back story he utilized in the prequels were originally conceived in the early-to-mid 1970s.  If there was any influence, it was actually Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War.

Lucas went on to state that the prequels were an observation of the cyclical nature of human history.  Specifically he was commenting upon how democracies often give way to dictatorships as citizens willingly give up their rights & freedoms for the promise of security.

This is something that I’ve observed on this blog before, the seductive lure of the so-called “benevolent dictator” who will supposedly guide a nation through turbulent times with a firm hand, relieving the population of the burden of the messy, complicated business of democracy.

I went to see Attack of the Clones in the theater with my father. He didn’t regard the rise of the Separatists and the Battle of Geonosis being secretly orchestrated by Palpatine to enable himself to obtain “emergency powers” from the Senate as a reference to the War on Terror.   Instead my father was reminded of how in 1964 Lyndon Johnson convinced Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in response to a supposed act of aggression by North Vietnam.  This gave the President the power to utilize military force in Southeast Asia to combat “Communist aggression” without a formal declaration of war from Congress.

Star Wars Republic 61 pg 12

In 2008 I met Karen Traviss, author of several novels set during the Clone Wars, at a book signing.  As with Lucas, she commented that her books were not inspired by the War on Terror per se, but on reoccurring motifs throughout history.  Traviss stated that just as people seeing the prequels in the early 21st Century might be reminded of Bush, so too would those born in the mid 20th Century recall Johnson and Nixon, and a Roman centurion watching the movies would see parallels to the rise of Julius Caesar.

Nevertheless, when I met John Ostrander at a comic convention in early 2005, he confirmed for me that Republic #61 was certainly his commentary on the War on Terror.

There were several scenes filmed by Lucas for Revenge of the Sith where Padme Amidala, Bail Organa and Mon Mothma, realizing that Palpatine does not intend to relinquish his extra powers once the war concludes, begin organizing the movement that would become the Rebel Alliance.  Unfortunately these ended up on the cutting room floor, although they were included in the extras on the DVD.  As these were omitted from the actual movie, I’m glad that at least in the comic books Ostrander was able to depict some of the events that placed Organa and Mon Mothma on the path to opposing Palpatine.

Ostrander is correct that “temporary” or “emergency” powers granted to heads of state are often anything but transitory and are seldom relinquished.  One only needs look at the transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama.  I don’t know if Republicans honestly believed that the authorizations that they granted the Presidency in the aftermath of September 11th would simply vanish into thin air once Bush left office.  But they certainly appeared to be completely shocked when Obama utilized those same broad powers to authorize drone strikes and conduct warrantless surveillance on millions of American citizens.

Star Wars Republic 61 pg 21

This is one of the reasons why I am a huge science fiction fan.  Yes, sci-fi is fun with its robots and rockets and ray guns.  But the genre also allows writers to offer commentary on political and social issues via allegory and symbolism.  Often it is much easier to critically analyze these controversial topics by transposing them into the future or onto another planet, to address divisive questions in a setting less likely to arouse bitter partisanship.

Ostrander certainly did this in his work on the Star Wars comic books published by Dark Horse, crafting stories that were both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Christopher Lee: 1922 to 2015

Veteran actor Christopher Lee passed away on June 7th at the age of 93.  Judging by the numerous comments and posts that have appeared online in the week since then, Lee had a legion of fans, many of whom grew up watching the movies in which he appeared.  And, yes, I am definitely one of them.

Christopher Lee

Lee led such a long, interesting, full life that entire books could be written about him; I am sure that at least a few already have.  There is no way that I could do his life & career justice by attempting to cover them in a single blog post.  So I am merely going to share my thoughts on him, and on the performances I found most memorable.

One of Lee’s famous early roles was in Dracula, released in the UK in 1958 by Hammer Studios (titled Horror of Dracula in the States).  Lee portrayed what some would argue is the most iconic depiction of the vampire lord.  In the role of Count Dracula, Lee was suave, cultured, and sensual, yet also savage and frightening.

Playing opposite Lee in Dracula was Peter Cushing as Professor Van Helsing.  Lee and Cushing co-starred in a number of films, and they were also very close friends.

The next Dracula movie, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, was not released by Hammer until 1965, with several more sequels following in rapid succession.  Lee reprised his role of the vampire in most of these, albeit very reluctantly.  In later years he commented that he found the dialogue written for him to be atrocious and begged Hammer to utilize some of the lines from the original Bram Stoker novel.  When they refused to acquiesce Lee instead played Dracula mostly dialogue-free.

Christopher Lee Dracula

Lee’s final two performances as Dracula were in movies that I consider quite odd even by Hammer standards.  Dracula A.D. 1972 opens in the late 19th Century, with the vampire and Van Helsing, reprised by Cushing for the first time since 1958, in what appears to be their final battle.  Van Helsing once again manages to slay his undead adversary, only to succumb to his own wounds.  The movie then jumps ahead a century to present day London, where Dracula’s disciples revive him.  Opposing him is Lorrimer Van Helsing, a descendant of Dracula’s adversary portrayed, naturally enough, by Cushing.

The modern day storyline wrapped up a year later in The Satanic Rites of Dracula.  The movie cast Dracula in the role of an apocalyptic super-villain who plotted to wipe out humanity with a mutated strain of the bubonic plague.

By now Lee’s dissatisfaction with having to play Dracula was palpable.  In what appears to be an interesting piece of method acting, Lee as Dracula, contemplating the total eradication of humanity, displays a tangible ennui, and it can simultaneously be read as the vampire’s weariness at his endless cycle of destruction & resurrection and Lee’s frustration at feeling imprisoned in the role.

In any case, this was his final outing as Dracula.  The next year Lee went on record, stating…

“I will not play that character anymore. I no longer wish to do it, I no longer have to do it and I no longer intend to do it. It is now a part of my professional past, just one of the roles I have played in a total of 124 films.”

Despite his despondency as having to repeatedly reprise Dracula for Hammer, Lee nevertheless acted in numerous other movies made by the studio.  A part of that was obviously due to his desire for steady work, but he also appeared to have a real fondness, if not for the studio’s management, then for his fellow actors, and for the people working behind the cameras.

In his 1997 foreword to The Hammer Story, a look at the history of Hammer Studios by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes, Lee wrote…

“Hammer inspired some superb work from a talented group of technicians and actors. Even our canteen, run by Mrs Thompson, was the best in the country. I know this has become a cliché, but, for a while, we really were a family.”

Certainly some of the Hammer movies that Lee appeared in were quite good.  One of my all-time favorites is The Devil Rides Out (1968).  In one of his all too rare turns as a hero, Lee portrayed the Duc de Richleau, an expert in the occult who uses his knowledge & abilities to fight against the forces of darkness.  The movie was adapted from Dennis Wheatley’s novel of the same name by another talented writer, Richard Matheson.  Lee knew Wheatley personally, and one gets the impression that the actor was keen to ensure the adaptation of his friend’s work turned out as well as possible.  Without a doubt The Devil Rides Out is an amazing movie, and it was one of the few that, decades later, Lee would look back upon with genuine satisfaction.

Christopher Lee The Devil Rides Out

Lee worked on numerous other movies outside of Hammer’s output.  That aforementioned desire for steady work meant that Lee would accept nearly any job offer.  And he certainly was offered a great many, as he was a very talented actor.  As noted by the website TV Tropes, “Christopher Lee made a career out of doing any role at a reasonable price without excessive prima-donnaism. In other words, if you could fork up the cash, you’d get a classy talent who’d play any role.”

Of course, this inevitably resulted in Lee appearing in some really bad movies.  Sturgeon’s Law states that “ninety percent of everything is crap.”  Well, Lee undoubtedly appeared in a lot of crap.  It definitely speaks to his talent and professionalism, though, that he was almost inevitably the best thing in most of those awful movies.  Often his presence in an otherwise-execrable production would be the one thing preventing it from being a total disaster.

Regarding some of the less-than-noteworthy movies that he appeared in, Lee philosophically observed…

“Every actor has to make terrible films from time to time, but the trick is never to be terrible in them.”

All of this comes to mind with Lee’s performance in the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).  Lee was related to author Ian Fleming, who unsuccessfully attempted to have him cast as Dr. No in the very first Bond film.  It’s regrettable that did not come to pass, although twelve years later Lee finally had an opportunity to play a Bond villain in The Man with the Golden Gun.  Unfortunately it is one of the campiest entries ever in the Bond film series.  The highlight of the movie is undoubtedly Lee’s portrayal of Scaramanga, the world’s most dangerous assassin.

Actually, the cinematic version of Scaramanga is a definite improvement over the literary one.  In the novel, Scaramanga was a crude, sadistic thug whose only distinguishing quality was his incredible prowess with a gun.  In contrast, Lee’s Scaramanga was cultured, sophisticated and chilling in his casually ruthless actions.  It was a memorable performance in a somewhat mediocre movie.

Christopher Lee Peter Cushing Horror Express

Fortunately, amidst all the rubbish Lee appeared in were a number of quality films.  In 1972 Lee was reunited with Cushing when they co-starred in Horror Express, a Spanish / British co-production about a monster stalking the passengers of the Trans-Siberian Express.  Horror Express contains another of Lee’s infrequent turns as the protagonist.  Despite its low budget, the movie’s intelligent script coupled with Lee and Cushing’s performances make it enjoyable.  I just re-watched it about a week ago and it’s still entertaining.

Of course, when it comes to listing Lee’s greatest movies, mention must be made of The Wicker Man (1973).  Written by Anthony Shaffer and directed by Robin Hardy, The Wicker Man featured Lee in the role of Lord Summerisle.  On numerous occasions Lee cited it as one of his favorite performances.

I saw The Wicker Man in the mid-1990s when I was in college at Pace University. Rebecca Martin, who taught two of the literature classes that I took while I was a student there, screened the movie one evening as part of an informal series of films that members of the Lit/Com Department were presenting.

The Wicker Man is not a horror movie per se, but it is definitely horrifying.  It is a film about religious fanaticism.  Perhaps that is why I found Lee’s performance so riveting and creepy.  Unlike so many of the other antagonists he portrayed over the decades, there actually are many individuals such as Summerisle in the real world, a charismatic man who regards himself as “good” but who exhorts others to commit terrible acts in the name of religion.

Christopher Lee The Wicker Man

Lee’s career was on the wane in the 1980s and 90s, although he did pop up here and there.  However, with the dawning of the 21st Century, Lee suddenly became very much in-demand, and was once again being offered numerous roles.

Lee was a longtime fan of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.  He stated on several occasions that he re-read the trilogy once a year.  One of his longtime ambitions was to appear as Gandalf in a cinematic adaptation of Tolkien’s works.  The stars finally aligned in 2001 as Peter Jackson began filming his adaptation of the trilogy.  By this time Lee was unfortunately too old to play Gandalf, but he was cast in the role of Saruman, the once-noble wizard who was corrupted by power and ambition.

I haven’t actually seen the three Lord of the Rings movies all the way through.  Like Tolkien’s novels, they are loooooong!  Actually, I never finished the original books either.  One of these days I really need to, at the very least, obtain the DVDs and take the time to watch the trilogy.  I’ve heard so many good things about them.

Lee’s old friend Peter Cushing had appeared in the original Star Wars, playing Governor Tarkin.  It was therefore quite appropriate that George Lucas cast Lee himself in the second and third prequel films, Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005).  Lee portrayed Count Dooku, a former Jedi who had turned to the Dark Side.  He also voiced Dooku in the animated movie The Clone Wars (2008) which was set between those two films.

It was somewhat frustrating that Lucas’ scripts offered very little to explain Dooku’s fall from grace.  Nevertheless, despite the limited development of the character, Lee memorably brought the Sith Lord to life, imbuing him with gravitas and menace.

(Thinking about it, I am left wondering if Lucas was influenced by Saruman when casting Lee as Dooku. There are definite similarities to the characters.)

Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings introduced Lee to an entirely new generation of viewers, and gained him many new fans.  He was subsequently cast in various high-profile projects. After decades of toiling in low-budget movies, at long last he finally gained real prominence, as well as a decent paycheck.

Christopher Lee Count Dooku

Lee appeared in 206 films made over a 67 year period.  However there were definitely many other aspects to his life.  Lee was also an accomplished singer, recording a number of albums, including heavy metal.  He spoke several languages fluently, and he was an expert fencer.

Lee was also a World War II veteran.  This was an aspect of his life that he mostly kept to himself, offering sparse details.  He was assigned to the Special Operations Executive, which was also known as the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare… and what a very British name that is!  Apparently Lee participated in a number of covert operations behind enemy lines.  At the end of the war he was reportedly involved in hunting down Nazi war criminals.  In regards to the specifics of his military service, Lee would only comment

“I was attached to the SAS from time to time but we are forbidden – former, present, or future – to discuss any specific operations. Let’s just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that. People can read into that what they like.”

Lee also had this to say about his experiences during the war…

“I’ve seen many men die right in front of me – so many in fact that I’ve become almost hardened to it. Having seen the worst that human beings can do to each other, the results of torture, mutilation and seeing someone blown to pieces by a bomb, you develop a kind of shell. But you had to. You had to. Otherwise we would never have won.”

It seems likely that during the war Lee not only witnessed but was also required to commit many deeply unpleasant acts.  I imagine that his reluctance to discuss this was motivated by the fact that he did not regard himself as a hero, but merely as someone who did his duty to help keep his country safe.

I regret that I never had the opportunity to meet Christopher Lee.  I’ve sometimes commented that he was the real life version of “the world’s most interesting man.”

Christopher Lee narrator

A number of years ago one of his Hammer Studios movies, Scars of Dracula, was released on DVD.  It is a rather unremarkable entry in the Dracula series.  Nevertheless, I purchased it because it included a second bonus disk containing a documentary, The Many Faces of Christopher Lee.  Indeed this nearly hour-long piece was infinitely more entertaining than the Dracula movie.

In the documentary,  Lee speaks at length about his career and on of a variety of subjects, including his knowledge of fencing, his spirituality, and his great-grandmother, the English-born Marie Carandini who was an acclaimed opera singer in 19th Century Australia.  Lee discussed his thoughts on roles in specific movies, and there were brief clips of these, among them The Devil Rides Out, Rasputin, Hannie Caulder, The Three Musketeers, The Wicker Man and his 1978 appearance on Saturday Night Live.

If you can find The Many Faces of Christopher Lee on DVD then I highly recommend getting it.  It offers a fascinating glimpse of a multi-talented man who led an extraordinary life.