Review: BlacKkKlansman

I cannot imagine leaving BlacKkKlansman without a strong emotional reaction. In the film’s final moments, when it cuts from the narrative to footage of present-day racist gatherings and racist violence and finally ends in solemn silence, it felt as if a sobering pall had settled over the audience, who digested a few moments in silence before beginning to leave the theater. For me, white supremacist groups in America have felt so distant and ridiculous, not so much a threat as an absurd caricature, but this film portraying fictionalized events in 1970’s Colorado Springs reminded me of just how virulently evil and close and dangerous racism could be. I have remained perpetually disgusted with Trump’s administration, but I had the cooling distance of a native-born, white, middle-class American male, and with the never-ending string of controversies and scandals, most seeming more ineffectual and frivolous and unchanging, I stopped being so angry without ever realizing it. It’s a privilege to not be angry, to not be constantly troubled by the sudden confluence of blatant white supremacists and longstanding racist institutional structures, and this film reignited that anger and reminded me that a good portion of Americans don’t have the privilege of turning a blind eye to the never-ending racism in this country.

Some left the film confused–I know that. I overheard a discussion between mother and daughter, the mother hesitant and reserved in her evaluation of the movie, disbelieving. Some might be angry at the film itself, either for allowing nuance and complexity or for being too militantly activist. Others might challenge the factual events underlying the story (although any dramatic film actually trying to tell a story with any degree of artistic merit and structural cohesion will of course deviate from and embellish facts–it’s not a documentary). I’ve heard and seen some of these reactions emerging. The only sure thing is that people will react upon seeing it.

The film validates black anger and various black responses to a racist system and to individual racism, but it still credits those black people accomplishing good by working within the system rather than opposing it, and it recognizes white allies and other minorities who can work together and produce positive good in or out of the system, supporting or working in parallel with black activists. That was a fascinating trick, to simultaneously validate black anger against white people, to understand how someone could feel that all white people are bad, and yet to see that there are good white people who can be counted on to make a difference. Part of the success of this “trick” is that the film fundamentally recognizes that there is no single universal experience, that white people and black people don’t fit into monolithic demographic groups without any divergences or varied opinions and experiences. Even police officers are shown to inhabit a variety of attitudes, some compassionate and good, some obviously racist and power-hungry and evil, some subservient to additional power structures and punishing of those who push against them. But it’s still a trick that I can’t fully explain, because it’s not something revealed in a single moment. That nuance, the validation of the anger of many black people and the recognition of the range of attitudes among white and black people and among those within institutions of power in this country, might be what the film is about–one of the many things the film is about.

Other things the film is about: how individual and institutional racism are separate but serve similar oppressive functions and ultimately work together to mute or neuter progressive change; how a certain brand of conservative politics and religion, coalescing around a cluster of issues including crime, immigration, and entitlements, has given racism a reformed look; how certain politicians (irrespective of party or platform), from Wilson to Nixon to Trump, have directly benefited from playing to the concerns of white supremacists; how gun ownership and ready access to firearms is simultaneously a tool of white supremacists and a potentially empowering protective force for minorities; how even the most absurd, caricatured, cartoonish racism can be violent and dangerous and never really vanishes; and how even people with good intentions and admirable goals can still do terrible things (Stallworth starts the movie spying on the black power movement so that the police leadership can keep the minority population in check). That’s not an exhaustive list by any means, and it’s a combination of themes that are clearly intended by the creators and also inferred by my own viewing.

BlacKkKlansman is a film that sits squarely in the director-as-auteur tradition; Spike Lee’s fingerprints appear to be all over it. That said, I only know of Lee and his films by reputation, not familiarity, and so I can’t comment coherently on this or say what does or does not reflect his previous works. The cinematography was excellent (Chayse Irvin was director of photography), but this is definitely a film that benefits from careful editing and post-production. Posters, film clips, radio transmissions, music, and documentary footage flit between diagetic and non-diagetic. A particularly powerful moment flashes up images of a rapt audience reacting to a speaker, faces illuminated against a black void, showing the power of the speaker’s impact and the personal relationship between speaker and listener that is felt in a particularly moving oratory. The film is sometimes surreal, and its surreal moments develop an emotional authenticity. So even while the movie feels like an auteur production, it’s impossible not to easily recognize the influence of editing and the art, visual and special effects, and sound design departments in crafting a masterful whole.

The pacing is spectacular for the over-two-hour run-time. The dialogue is smart; it’s at times repulsively, unbearably hateful (which, in this context, is incredibly appropriate to show just how insidious and terrifying racism is), while at other times it’s charmingly, playfully light. No matter how dark the film gets, and it gets very dark, there is a lot of humor, and even some of the darkest moments can be funny, if uncomfortably or shockingly so. (Writing credits were given to Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee; the film was based on a book by the actual Ron Stallworth.) Interestingly, the plot feels very much like neo-noir: an investigator unravels a series of discoveries that result in a small win that is in turn ultimately crushed under the weight of institutional corruption and fails to produce lasting change. The comparisons are more numerous than that, but even in a nutshell, the noir influences are obvious enough. It makes sense: the narrative conventions of the genre work rather well for a story about battling against organized racism without ever really making a substantial dent. The local Klan by the end of the film has been somewhat defanged, but not deterred, and the organizational structure and political pressures in the police force cause efforts to curtail the Klan to be derailed just as soon as the undercover cops begin to make progress. They are too successful in stopping the worst of the Klan, such that the threat seems unimportant to higher-level officials.

And the film is full of fantastic acting. Most noteworthy are the leads (as is appropriate, I suppose). John David Washington has such natural charisma and a gleaming white smile, while his eyes alone are able to project such a range of emotions, even while the character of Ron Stallworth is often reserved or inhabiting a role. Adam Driver dripped sarcasm but always projected a heart of gold as Ron’s undercover partner Flip, and he has his own emotional arc as Flip finds himself reflecting more on his Jewish identity and how he has passed as “white” even as he burrows into the role of white supremacist to infiltrate the KKK. Laura Harrier conveys intelligence, passion, flirtatious charm, and self-righteous fury as Patrice, a black student union president, activist, and Ron’s romantic interest. Topher Grace is very hilarious as a young David Duke, and while I assumed he was just doing outright parody, the ending and very real clip of the current-age Duke made me realize that the performance was hilariously spot-on. And the cast of cops, activists, and white supremacists in supporting roles is deserving of note, as well–the supremacists in particular shockingly had a range of roles that, while all detestable and often idiotic, allowed at least local KKK leader Walter (Ryan Eggold) to seem charming and intelligent and almost-sympathetic. (I could say a lot more about the character of Walter–one of the interesting choices of the film was that it gives him a moment to explain why he’s a racist, but never explores it further; we don’t know if his history of violent encounters with black people is true or false, and ultimately it’s irrelevant, because nothing would support his racism. Actually, each of the characters represents something worthy of discussion about white supremacists, including the role of white women in these organizations.)

You may not like BlacKkKlansman. You may not agree with the film’s apparent messages. You may walk away with a variety of emotions or experiences that I cannot fully predict. But I’m sure that you will react. See it, and see it soon.

Review: Disenchantment Part One

I watched Disenchantment over the weekend. Ten roughly half-hour episodes spaced over a couple days didn’t quite feel like a “binge.” So it’s easy to digest, and not a huge time commitment. With that in mind, I can safely recommend it. But so far, ten episodes in, it’s mostly just OK.

For those who are unaware: Disenchantment is the new Netflix-original series from Matt Groening. It has justly drawn ample comparison to Groening’s Futurama: it’s of course an animated parody of a particular type of genre fiction; the character models are similar; there’s a fair amount of cartoonish violence; many of the voice actors are Groening veterans; and the core cast is familiarly divided between a reckless warrior-woman leader (Princess Bean, who wants purpose and meaning beyond being married off in a political alliance), an ignorant and lovelorn dope (Elfo the Elf, whose purpose on leaving his tightly regulated society quickly becomes earning Bean’s affections), and a Bad Influence. The Bad Influence in this show–the demon Luci–is perhaps the most different, in a subtle but important way: where Bender typically was willing to show fondness for friends but could sacrifice them at a moment’s notice, Luci is more adamant that he despises everyone and is explicitly there to corrupt them but regularly goes out of his way to save his new pals. By the end of the first season, there’s even some evidence that he might be overriding his prime directive as a dark influencer bonded to Bean, but that’s about all I can say without major spoilers. In other words, while he starts off cruel and malevolent, he often reminds me of ultimately benevolent bonded spirits like Mushu in Mulan or Calcifer in Howl’s Moving Castle.

Despite the simultaneous release of the ten episodes, Disenchantment nonetheless feels like a show that was attempting to find itself and adapt to an audience throughout its run. For the first seven episodes, the show refuses to commit itself to serialized or episodic storytelling; there’s a broad background story, and events in earlier episodes typically inform future events, but death doesn’t seem to stick, and some events (like a renewed war mid-season) just get reset to the baseline level for narrative convenience after the fact without any acknowledgment of how or why things were reset. Disenchantment is prepared to laugh in the face of any such criticism, or any attempt to really unspool its continuity; in the episode “Castle Party Massacre,” a city-dweller challenges a newly arrived “land viking” by complaining, “Well, I’m sorry; things get confusing in a world with occasional magic and curses, and while I am a fan of such worlds, I just feel some more clearly set-out rules for what can and cannot happen would help–,” but he is unable to finish the thought because the land viking has already killed him.

It’s cute and cheeky, the backgrounds are beautiful and detailed, the voice acting is consistently good, and there are a lot of fun background gags and references to medieval fantasy stories, but the show challenges any effort to take it too seriously or to expect consistency. Despite this, the final three episodes radically shift to a grand dramatic narrative that ends with several mysteries, some surprises, and virtually every character in shockingly different circumstances. Despite the collossal stakes, I found myself intrigued but not invested, and I think that comes down to the light absurdity and casual tone of the bulk of the season as well as the comically broad interaction between the primary characters. They were all selfish and spoiled in a world full of horrors for most; I just couldn’t care about their petty complaints, even though I laughed at many of the jokes and generally enjoyed the stories being told. Even the central will-they-won’t-they romance between Bean and Elfo was too forced (and commented on directly as a joke), and I couldn’t see why these two characters without any chemistry or common ground should be together at all, especially since the romantic feelings appear to be entirely one-sided except for when Bean is seeking attention or intoxicated. Then there’s my usual complaint about serial fantasy installments: the opening arcs typically feel like unnecessary prologues. Here, there’s very little needed world-building, so it feels especially pointless. If the phrase “medieval fantasy” means anything at all to you, you already know enough to understand the tired tropes that get parodied, occasionally subverted, and often used seemingly without irony in the show. I’m more excited about what Disenchantment promises to be in the future, but it wasted so much time to get there.

While watching ten half-hour episodes isn’t the biggest television commitment out there, you could probably get away with watching the first episode and then the last three without missing anything vital.

Clone Wars Re-watch Go!

The official Star Wars site is leading a chronological re-watch of The Clone Wars, with new posts by the site’s Associate Editor, Kristin Baver, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If that sort of thing sounds appealing to you, you can find the first episode recap/analysis here and a list of all the episodes here; the show and the film are available in their entirety on Netflix.

It’s still fairly early in the re-watch, and the pace of two episodes a week is not too demanding, so it’s still an easy time to get started. As of this writing, they’re just now through the film.

There are two improvements about this particular viewing schedule.

First, there’s a more consistent narrative, and it’s easier to see the war–and individual battles–evolving. The show seemed to take a while to settle into itself and didn’t get into long-form storytelling until later on, but part of that is attributable to the fact that episodes were aired out of chronology. With a streaming service like Netflix, the effort involved in hopping between episodes (and seasons, and the film itself) is minimal and the payoff, in having a richer narrative immediately with clearer character development, is big.

Second, this re-watch breaks the film into three acts. Watching the acts on their own, as complete episodes in and of themselves, makes the film just another arc in the series. Its lower stakes (compared to the saga films), meandering pacing, somewhat jarring cuts between acts, and shifting tonal dissonance is forgivable when it’s understood that each episode is doing its own thing. We don’t need to have a galaxy-shaking event every week for the television show; The Clone Wars was often at its best when showing clone troopers with their boots on the ground. And it feels natural to make these divisions–after all, the film was originally a few different episodes of the planned television series, spliced together into a single theatrical release at the request of George Lucas.

Also, treating the film as its constituent episodes rather than a single component separate from the series means that it flows rather well with the supporting stories that chronologically take place earlier. We see Anakin and Obi-Wan break the blockade of Christophsis, deal with loss and betrayal, encounter Ventress, and then meet Ahsoka just in time for a final battle before racing off to beat the Sith to recovering Jabba the Hutt’s child. I wouldn’t point to any part of the film as one of my favorites in the entire series–a lot of it was silly, the animation and character models and storytelling still having had a bit of growing to do. But the Anakin defying Jedi orders in “Cat and Mouse” and the Rex who was just shaken by a betrayal of one of his own in “Hidden Enemy” meeting Ahsoka for the first time and being changed by her even as they provide guidance is a pretty cool thing to see. Plus, the Battle of Teth sequence, with its electric-guitar-and-exotica soundtrack, misty purple forests, and vertical firefight, is a fantastic television experience, even if it’s a bit short and (relatively) quiet for a theatrical sci-fi war film’s centerpiece battle.

Another takeaway from the re-watch: I don’t recall registering just how brutally the war was depicted. Maybe it’s the structure of the re-watch, or maybe I’m just registering because I already know that I got attached to some of these clones. So many die, often in heroically pointless ways. So much of the Battle of Christophsis, for instance, is repeated Jedi over-extension, with the clones dying for Jedi heroics. It’s not remarked on so much yet, but it’s very visible. And while the droids are played for laughs, it’s hard not to read them as sentient, many with full and unique personalities. While Anakin and Ahsoka are quite willing to mow down hostile droids, they do show an endearing love and respect for allied droids, especially R2-D2; similarly, while they are both willing to accept battlefield losses (at least later on), both are fiercely loyal to and protective of Captain Rex.

Similarly, the failings of the Jedi Order are really apparent to me now in a way that they weren’t on my initial watch. While Anakin is unwilling to leave an infant Hutt to die, he thinks it’s a very bad idea to work with the Hutts. Of course he would! They enslaved him and his mother! And Jabba is a notorious criminal! The Jedi and the Republic are willing to throw away principle and get in bed with a slave-dealing criminal organization for a strategic advantage. The war has already skewed their thinking. And while Ahsoka might be old enough to be a Padawan, placing her in command of troops and in the midst of battle is a terrible idea! The use of child warriors is shockingly poor judgment. It’s hard not to see the Jedi as radical religious crusaders at that point. Ahsoka sees so much killing and dying, and while she handles it well, it’s just wrong for the Jedi to have put her in that situation.

One of the weirdest things for me on re-watch is knowing that The Clone Wars represented a sort of soft canon reset before the official Disney reboot. Dave Filoni always showed himself to be aware of the Expanded Universe, even when he changed it. There was more respect for the EU setting than George Lucas ever showed, at least. But still, it was jarring to see an over-complicated, cluttered Clone Wars added to even further with so many new central characters and events when there was supposed to have been so much already documented post-Attack of the Clones. Re-watching with knowledge that this series represents almost the entirety of the “official” version of the Clone Wars relieves a lot of confusion and some mild frustration that younger me had (I’ll admit that I’m also just a lot mellower and less worried about canon issues than I was as a teen).

There’s a new, minor thing that bothers me now though: there is a level of familiarity with the old Expanded Universe, and that causes a new bit of confusion when those stories don’t “exist” within the current canon. Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Ventress have a clear history together. They hint at it a lot in their sparring. At the very least, this would seem to incorporate the introduction of Ventress from Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars. This makes sense–prior to Filoni’s run, Tartakovsky’s show had been well-promoted, highly praised, and rather visible on Cartoon Network. In addition to introducing Ventress, the show introduced Grievous, and it also showed Anakin’s transition from Padawan to Knight! But we don’t have any canon versions of these happenings, and Tartakovsky’s series now has very little visibility to new audiences. I feel that, at some point, at least certain elements of Clone Wars should be retold in the new canon. We can iron out the continuity contradictions, dial back the hyper-stylized format, and develop certain plot points more, but introducing Grievous and Ventress, charting the early course of the war, and showing Anakin’s growth from Padawan to a Knight ready to train the next generation would be great material for new stories.

Finally, I am struck by how much the chronological re-watch clearly centers the show around Anakin, Ahsoka, and Rex. This is really Ahsoka’s story–she’s present almost from the very beginning, and what comes before in that story directly lays the groundwork for her entrance on the scene. Yes, I know the film came first, but it felt like a separate and detached experience. The show itself started with more of a scattered anthology approach. The impact is rather different when we get this focus on Ahsoka almost immediately, with just enough of Anakin and Rex to see where they are when they meet her. It’s a different experience than encountering the show for the first time with the one-off “Ambush” episode. (And I didn’t even watch the show episodically at first–I was very sporadic and really only got interested in the series after seeing the 1.15 episode “Trespass,” though I later went back and watched in order after picking up the DVDs.)

If it’s been a while since you’ve watched The Clone Wars, or if you’ve never watched chronologically before (or even never watched the show at all), now’s a great time to dive in.

Review – 1898: Los Ultimos De Filipinas

This was a strange and interesting movie to come across on Netflix. It’s a war story, a psychological horror, and a fairly accurate (though biased) recounting of a unique historical event. The plot is easy to summarize: Spanish soldiers sent to garrison the town of Baler in the midst of the Philippine Revolution are besieged by Tagalog resistance fighters; cut off from the outside world and abandoned by the Spanish government, the defending troops continue to hold out months after the end of Spanish influence in the islands and into the early occupation by the Americans.

A Spanish-language, Spanish-produced film, 1898: Los Últimos de Filipinas (directed by Salvador Calvo; written by Alejandro Hernández) could have been a standard patriotic tribute. It could also have been a radical, anti-imperial production. Instead, it lands somewhere in the middle, reminiscent of works like Heart of DarknessApocalypse NowDances with Wolves, or The Last Samurai–works that criticize colonialist, imperialist, militant policies, primarily through the psychological impact on the (mostly white) individuals sent to enforce them, and only secondarily through often grotesque violence committed en masse against the oppressed indigenous communities. 1898 inherits the awkward tropes of these other narratives; whether that’s through familiarity or just the nature of anti-colonial narratives filtered through the lens of the former colonial power, I’m not sure.

I’ll miss plenty of the tropes, but I’ll target a few. We have a charming white male lead who is sensitive and artistic but who turns to opium and is physically and emotionally scarred in horrible ways by the war. And–for double our money!–we have yet another charming white male lead who defects to the natives (this happens early on, and his character decreases in importance, serving more as a representation of escape for the bulk of the soldiers still trapped inside their defenses). We have upper leadership acting in stubborn and stupid ways, fixating on patriotic fervor and a dogged belief in superiority over the natives to keep fighting past anything sensible. We have natives in three roles: the noble warrior, the tempting women who serve as a siren call away from “civilization,” or the faceless and nameless hordes who die in wave after wave. And we of course have a senseless conflict motivated by profits for an absent ruling class.

I shamelessly enjoy a lot of this genre of safe, white liberal fantasy about the White Guy Who Does The Right Thing. I recognize it’s massively problematic. I recognize how it often dehumanizes or denigrates native cultures, how these films could be better if they had a greater focus on the indigenous peoples themselves and if they were created by the surviving voices of those same indigenous peoples. I see how having a convenient narrative like this does less to actually challenge the American and European history of empire and more to soothingly whisper to white liberals that if only we had been there, we would have been different. I don’t approve of that, but I can’t help it that these sorts of productions are often really engrossing historical epics! And that’s the case here.

It’s also hard to set aside that this film is beautiful. When soldiers are approaching or leaving Baler, we often get lovely shots pulling back to show just how small and overwhelmed the soldiers are, just how ready the massive jungle is to consume them entirely. Visual allegories are frequently used without much, or any, comment: a crocodile snatches a dog, a spider slowly prepares its trapped prey. When in the “fort” (actually a fortified old church), shots are dark, tight, claustrophobic. It always feels as though the men are practically stumbling over each other, with too little room and too little light. Their faith fails, their health fails, their reserves fail, even as the building fails.

The performances are great too, and the characters in that fort are so varied and vulnerable. Luis Tosar plays Lieutenant Martín Cerezo, an officer forced to take charge after the premature death of their commander; he’s sympathetic, compassionate, and principled at first, but the strain of command and his desire for glory, with nothing back home to look forward to, corrupt him into a cruel dictator. The tempting force that leads him down that dark path is Sergeant Jimeno Costa (Javier Gutiérrez), a survivor from the original fighting forces in Baler and something of a half-mad Kurtz. In contrast, Vigil (Carlos Hipólito), the unit’s doctor, is a rational and empathetic counterbalance who unfortunately goes ignored (Vigil was my favorite character, portrayed with a subtle pathos under his stoic demeanor that gave him perhaps the most complexity of any character in the film). Carlos (Álvaro Cervantes) is the sensitive and naive artist I mentioned; Juan (Patrick Criado) is the defector-gone-native. Carmelo (Karra Elejalde), the town priest, joins the soldiers in the temple and is obsessed with preserving a history of what happens–even while introducing Carlos to opium and showing himself to be a thoughtful philosopher who is perhaps lax in his own faith. And critically, Teresa (Alexandra Masangkay) is a village singer and not-so-subtle spy who is derided as a whore but who also gives the Tagalogs the friendliest face.

While the Tagalog resistance is only rarely seen, they are gradually shown in a different light–in some ways, quite literally. At first, we only see the soldiers at night, charging recklessly at the defenses to be gunned down. I’ll be honest: the faceless, anonymous violence of the freedom fighters seemed so biased in its depiction against the natives that I was close to giving up on the film in the first third, but this improves quickly. When Juan defects, it is because he sees a Tagalog fighter dead on the ground, young and human and lifeless just like the Spanish dead. We gradually start to see more of the Tagalogs, still mostly at night and only from the Spanish perspective. The Tagalogs gradually make entreaties for peace, asking the Spanish to surrender, attempting to inform them about the status of the outside world–but the commanding lieutenant continues to disbelieve. And they do small kindnesses for the Spanish, offering short truces to bury the dead and delivering oranges when the Spanish stocks ran low, though the Spaniards do not show gratitude in return. The Tagalogs mostly move on with their lives, returning to village activities and training their men of fighting age to be more of soldiers. It’s a subtle development, not detailed directly, but by the end of the film the freedom fighters are a true army, with artillery, uniforms, and disciplined soldiers. The Spanish are shown to be the ones out for blood, fighting way past any point to do so. And in the end, the Filipinos accept the Spanish surrender and provide an honor guard out of the fort, proving themselves to be honorable and quick to forgive.

It’s not just a “happy” ending, either. It more or less reflects the actual outcome of the siege. That’s striking to me.

I don’t think we’re ever supposed to be on the side of the occupying force–other than that Spanish viewers might recognize them as military heroes from textbooks or something similar. One character says early on that the natives were fighting for their freedom, while the Spaniards were fighting to save an empire. Even that early on, we are surely meant to see the Spanish side of things while recognizing that between freedom and empire, there’s an obvious right side. We can sympathize at the suffering of the besieged Spanish forces, but even without ever centering the film on the Filipino resistance and villagers, my greater sympathies were always with them, dealing with an occupying force after the rest of the nation had already moved on to the next threat (unfortunately, yet another occupying force).

The premise of the film is simple enough, but its execution is close to masterful. The lack of a distinct Filipino counter-narrative is a detriment, but this movie is morally complex, thoughtfully disturbing, and often quite beautiful.

Review: West End Games’ Star Wars RPG, Re-Released

Star Wars: The Roleplaying GameStar Wars: The Roleplaying Game by Greg Costikyan

I first became exposed to Star Wars roleplaying games with Wizards of the Coast’s d20 system. I collected many of those sourcebooks and intermittently played with friends. I dabbled with Fantasy Flight’s newer, narrative-focused system, as well. But the original West End Games version had preceded me; I was born about a year after the publication of the first edition. Yet it held an important place in Star Wars history, keeping interest in the franchise alive at a low point and helping feed the re-ignition of popularity in the early nineties, so I’ve long been aware of it, though never involved with it or truly knowledgeable about its systems.

When Fantasy Flight announced a special anniversary edition over a year ago, I was pretty excited to get the chance to explore this game system. While the release was delayed, that delay was well worth it; this is a worthy addition to the various sourcebooks and systems on my shelf.

There are two books included in this anniversary set: a rulebook and a sourcebook.

The rulebook offers a fairly simple game system oriented around six-sided dice. I imagine that this helped its popularity in the late eighties and early nineties: not only was it more Star Wars to play around in, but it was incredibly easy to throw together the materials to play! Creating player characters (or, for the GM, NPCs and monsters) seems quite simple, with a quick distribution of abilities and a focus more on skills. Plus, any new player could simply grab one of the templates from the back and start with an archetype that allowed for room to role-play while requiring only a few minutes to prepare for the game.

Some of the modifiers and more advanced rules, as usual, got a bit math-heavy and convoluted, but the most complex of those rules were condensed into compact tables across a few pages at the end of the book. And more importantly, the rulebook consistently advised a focus on fun, cinematic, creative, narrative play that prioritized player experience over strict adherence to rules. A GM with a healthy knowledge of the rules and willingness to let things slide as needed, focusing more on working with players to craft a fun collaborative experience, could thrive with this system.

It was funny, then, to see the advertisements in these new editions promoting Fantasy Flight Star Wars game systems. Their narrative RPG is fun, but the need for custom dice plus the necessary learning of the various dice symbols and how they interact seems to actually result in a more exclusionary, rules-heavy environment than that offered by the WEG game, even if less numbers are strictly involved.

The sourcebook was the volume that I enjoyed the most. Even though I knew it influenced a lot of the tone, lore, and language of the EU, I was still surprised and impressed to see how much was still relevant. Even with the new canon, the sourcebook only seldom was directly contradicted. It wisely limited itself to extrapolations from the movies, so even the most specific Clone Wars references can for the most part be easily integrated into the current canon. In contrast, most character descriptions are now outdated and at least somewhat contradicted, and I actually preferred most of the new versions over the old; of all characters, Boba Fett’s remained one of the most accurate still, given the mysteriousness of the character at the time and the lack of hard answers.

Other unique lore elements I actually preferred: droids (or at least the more advanced droids) are definitely treated as sentients who are cruelly held in bondage, and the Force is a mystic religion that allows access to its secrets to just about anyone willing to train diligently under a Jedi Master (downplaying bloodlines and the like, though still keeping Jedi abilities quite limited because it is very clear that the universe intended here has virtually no Jedi left to learn from). Interestingly, the EU and the prequels moved away from some of these ideas, but the newest properties are coming back around to some of these interpretations.

There were very few lore elements in this early version of Star Wars that I actually disliked. The primary element that I found unpleasant: this version of Star Wars is very anthropocentric, and there’s almost as much of a divide between all of humanity in contrast to Aliens as there is between Rebellion and Empire. In a large galaxy, of course there are unaffiliated, unknown, and lost societies out there, and I wouldn’t want that removed from Star Wars. But the newer canon has integrated aliens into a much more diverse version of the galaxy–heck, the prequel trilogy really started that shift. I wouldn’t want to go back to a view where aliens were always so other, where the various non-human races were lumped together simply by being non-human, classified broadly with a capital-A Alien designation. (This version also leans hard into the roleplaying tradition of assigning fairly rigid personality and cultural traits by race.)

In a similar vein, I prefer the newer, more nuanced approach to the Mon Calamari and the Quarren. Their involvement in larger galactic society, rather than being newcomers, makes them less “Exotic.” Still, it’s impossible not to recognize how much has been carried over from the WEG sourcebook. The Mon Cal and the Quarren still shared a homeworld, and the Quarren still felt jealous of the Mon Cal. The Quarren joining with the Separatists, and later realigning with the Mon Calamari, and the Mon Calamari’s oppression under the Empire and early support of the Rebellion, are clearly drawn from elements of their original story. In all things, later Star Wars owes a significant debt to this early attempt at a Star Wars RPG–not to mention that so much of the weird nineties Star Wars short fiction that I love so much emerged out of communities oriented around the game.

Finally, I must point out the charm of the use of movie stills and a wealth of concept artwork to illustrate the various races, equipment, vehicles, and concepts described within.

The original WEG game holds up to the test of time. And this beautiful anniversary edition, with hardcover core rulebook and sourcebook contained in a slim black casing with beautiful cover art, is an excellent version to introduce oneself to it.

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I sure hope that I have the opportunity to play soon. David Schwarz’s recent advice on Eleven-ThirtyEight for leading your own RPG campaign certainly got me thinking about the possibilities just as I was reading through these WEG books. Plus, I’d already accumulated some fun WEG companion books from past convention sellers, providing additional lore and examples of NPC stats to me well before I’d even read the core books…

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I don’t know if I’ll have the time, or even an interested group of friends who would have the same time available, but we’ll see.

Bultar Swan Watch

I’ve been following 365 Days of Star Wars Women, which is exactly what it says on the tin: daily posts about the women in Star Wars–and not just the heroes and villains, but the actors, writers, producers, and film crew as well. It’s a fun way to highlight women’s representation in front of and behind the camera in a franchise that still leans heavily male both ways. I bring this up now because Bultar Swan recently got a post! I’ve written about my fondness for the character before…and it’s not often that she gets much notice.

20171001_150537I’ve reviewed the Powers of the Jedi Sourcebook entry on Jedi Knight Bultar Swan once more. It’s not just that such a minor background character had a write-up, though that was enough to get my attention as a youngling. What’s stayed with me about her is that she was a Jedi who was so familiar with violence and yet made a point to avoid killing in combat. The Jedi are depicted as quite willing to kill, despite Yoda’s admonition that a Jedi “uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.” It’s veering on an uncomfortable reduction of Chinese martial arts that Swan is written as notable for a unique fighting style “that required her to maintain physical contact with her foes to judge their next moves,” but that fits into the character profile of one who focused on defense and disarming attacks to subdue, rather than disable or kill, an opponent. She knew there would probably come a point in time where she would have to kill an opponent, and while she apparently did not take pride in her mortality-free combat record, she was concerned with how she would react to the taking of a life. She first apprenticed under Micah Giett and then Plo Koon following her Master’s death; when Master Plo mentioned the possibility of her one day joining the Jedi Council, Swan said that she would not be anywhere near ready “until she had more experience with life and the Force,” including understanding how she would react to killing an opponent, before she could sit in judgment over any other Jedi. To me, all the above made Bultar Swan the model Jedi, much like Obi-Wan.

But that opinion must not have been very popular, as she remained virtually unused throughout the years of Legends storytelling following her initial appearance in Attack of the Clones, in which she was portrayed by Mimi Daraphet (Power of the Jedi was published in the same year as the film). The closest to starring role for Bultar Swan was the first arc of the Purge comics. Written by John Ostrander with art by Doug Wheatley, the first story followed a group of Jedi survivors of Order 66 who met in a secret conclave to discuss what to do next; one of the Order had actually betrayed the location of the conclave to the Empire, so that her fellow Jedi would be forced to fight against Vader and hopefully destroy him in a final battle. Swan and Tsui Choi are close to protagonists–to the extent that the protagonist isn’t Vader himself. Swan and Choi argue against seeking revenge against Vader. When they are forced into battle anyway, Swan attempts to stop one of her Jedi by giving in to the Dark Side, and she is killed by her fallen compatriot when he refuses to back down.

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For me, Purge represents a disappointing appearance for Bultar Swan. She has little agency over the story, and she is quickly transformed into a martyr, killed off. I recognize that a story like Purge doesn’t allow for a happy ending, and almost all the Jedi had to be killed off somehow, but aside from highlighting Swan’s embodiment of the Jedi Code, it doesn’t really do anything with her as a character. She’s a prop to show Vader killing some last, desperate Jedi.

Bultar Swan also has a very brief appearance in the 59th issue of Star Wars: Republic (also written by Ostrander, with art by Jan Duursema). Unfortunately, she just provides a few moments of exposition as a subordinate under Ki-Adi-Mundi.

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The 365 Days post references one other Bultar Swan appearance: Clone Wars Adventures Volume 7, in the story “Impregnable.” I’ve never read it, but it turns out that it’s fairly cheap and easy to find online. I’ve ordered a copy. That’ll probably result in a short follow-up to this post somewhere down the line. But given that it’s Clone Wars Adventures, a pulpy action series modeled after the Genndy Tartakovsky cartoons, I don’t expect anything close to a deep examination of the character.

Finally, Wookieepedia informs me that Swan also appeared in the children’s series Star Wars Adventures. I’m not particularly desperate to track that down for what seems to be a minor appearance in a children’s book.

Of course, all of the above representations of Bultar Swan, except for Attack of the Clones, are now non-canon, Legends. The character could be written in an entirely different way now, if she ever really appears at all. Her only new-canon appearance so far is in On the Front Lines by Daniel Wallace. Her character is presented as young, inexperienced, and surprised to see opponents willing to fight back instead of surrender before a lightsaber. There’s nothing that suggests that the original interpretation of the character is invalidated, but I do get the impression that Swan still has a lot more growing to do in this incarnation. It’s enough to know that she canonically survived the battle and was able to recount it, for now.

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What happens to Bultar Swan after she gets a taste of war? Does she soldier on, like a loyal Jedi? Does she recoil at the taking of life? Could she at first be accepting but later rethink the Jedi’s methods as the droids are recognized as increasingly sentient? Maybe she would stay loyal; maybe she would eventually become disillusioned and leave the Jedi Order, like Ahsoka, or stay to attempt to reform it from the inside. Could she have survived the Purge? And if not, how did she meet her end? She’s an excitingly blank slate of a character with just enough motivation and just enough dangling plot threads to remain compelling to me. I really hope that some day she sees more use.

Ghosted

My wife and I binged Ghosted over last week. We both liked it, though it was flawed. A lot of what we liked about the show came down to the charismatic and very funny people in the show, especially the core cast:

  • Adam Scott (who is of course excellent on Parks and Recreation and The Good Place) plays Max, a paranormal true-believer and disgraced physicist who everyone assumes is crazy;
  • Craig Robinson (who is such a scene-stealer in The Office) plays Leroy, a stubbornly skeptical former LAPD police officer turned mall security turned paranormal investigations special agent;
  • Amber Stevens West plays Annie, an over-eager weapons expert, perpetual second-in-command, and type-A personality;
  • Adeel Akhtar plays Barry, a nerdy, socially awkward scientist who alternates between self-awareness and a complete misreading of any social situation; and
  • Ally Walker plays Ava, the director of the unit.

The writing, unfortunately, is never worthy of the actors. The laughs are too broad, too safe, and too sparse. And the show can never really decide what it wants to be, leaning between sci-fi parody and office dramedy. It’s a real waste, because the promise of the show is that it will gloriously lampoon the paranormal drama subgenre of shows like The X-Files or Fringe (confession: despite repeated recommendations from friends, I’ve never watched Fringe). The show even directly references The X-Files at one point, when Leroy compares Max to Mulder, and Max, the super-nerd, says he’s unfamiliar with the show. (In point of fact, Max is a good match for Mulder, but Leroy’s cop background and too-stubborn-skepticism read more like Doggett than Scully.) Yet there is very little evidence that the show’s creators have that much love or interest in the genre of shows they’re spoofing, or even in the paranormal more generally.

You can buy into the wackiest X-Files episode because everything is taken so seriously on-screen. And even when that series mixed things up and developed its own mythology, it was clear the writers had done their homework. They knew the paranormal topics they were riffing on; they knew the conspiracy theories. There was an intimate knowing, even in the show’s self-parodying episodes. The X-Files laughed with those lovably nutty ’90s conspiracy theorists, not at them.

But Ghosted never takes any idea very seriously at all. Ideas are thrown at a wall, and most of them slide away to nothingness. Random monsters are tossed up, and an arbitrary answer is arrived at by episode’s end, if at all. Sure, it’s a type of parody, but I would’ve loved to see Ghosted really dig in and laugh at the weirdness, bringing that paranoiac subculture back into the light, pimples and all. Maybe the show’s creators have decided that conspiracy theories just can’t be loved anymore–and given the 9/11 truthers and the birthers and the Sandy Hook false flag assholes, I get it. The heart of the conspiracy isn’t a toothless grey alien whose truth or fiction ultimately does not matter; now the theorists are malicious, challenging reality itself, spitting in the face of empathy or common decency. But then why do this show at all? (In contrast, The X-Files reboot chose to engage directly with contemporary conspiracy culture…to admittedly mixed results.)

The creators never did seem to figure that out. We start with Max and Leroy being abducted by the shadowy Bureau Underground, a secretive federal agency devoted to the investigation of the paranormal. They’re immediately thrown into a bizarre plot involving multidimensional theory and alien abductions, and by episode’s end we have two mysteries: what happened to Max’s long-missing but now-rediscovered wife, and why did the agent we last see abducted by aliens specifically ask the Bureau to recruit Max and Leroy? The pilot is shaky, and not terribly funny, but it has a good sense of direction and intrigue.

Almost immediately after that, the show pivots to mostly monster-of-the-week episodes. Unfortunately, rather than leaning into that format, the episodes minimize the monsters and give story resolution little focus in favor of trying to convince us that Max and Leroy are actually good guys with good chemistry, something hard to do when they’re often emotionally removed or catty for comic effect. Still, that try-hard effort paid off, and I started to love them both, plus the fairly small regular supporting cast.

And then, boom, right around mid-season, the show radically shifted in tone and style. Where we’d mostly had monster mysteries filmed with fairly static single-camera scenes, we shifted to a goofy office comedy about a group of screwups, suddenly with a lot more dynamic, reactive shots zooming in or panning over knowingly to observe particular character reactions. Tonally and visually it shifted from “funny X-Files” to “weird Parks and Rec.” And the show received a soft reboot: now, the shadowy organization is actually just an embarrassment rather than a secret, the top boss is demoted and gradually loses her cool (if not her sanity), the new boss is a petty and boring bureaucrat, and the gang (which has expanded to include other minor office-admin-type characters not really present before the reboot) spends more time worrying about whether they’ll keep their jobs during a paranormal drought rather than actually hunting monsters. The central mystery shifts to who bugged the Bureau’s office and why, with Max’s wife and the missing agent shelved as virtually nonexistent concerns. And Leroy and Max, who had been portrayed as newbie agents given the worst gigs early on, are suddenly the central agents, without any explanation for this shift.

So suddenly we have a lot safer narrative and style (especially in light of the success of shows like Parks and Recreation and The Office). And most of what I was interested in had been stripped away. Instead of low-level subordinates barely able to see any of the cool secret operations and paranormal activities afoot, Max and Leroy are suddenly the star–and only–agents. Their kidnapping in the first episode now makes very little sense, especially if the Bureau is not an ultra-classified organization. There’s even a bizarre reorientation of romantic pairings, which frankly would have been fine if it didn’t play out so cruelly and trivialize so much of the character development from early on. And the mysteries motivating the show dissolve for a bureaucratic narrative. But there’s some really soft commentary on the Trump administration, I guess?

And then, like a slingshot, the season ended with the sixteenth episode in a hard reset. Suddenly, the status quo of the first half is restored. Ava’s back in charge. Max and Leroy, who had just been fired, are back on the force. The Bureau is back to its normal sprawling operation, with Max and Leroy the least and worst agents in the organization. And the show refocuses hard on the original mysteries, advancing the plot somewhat!

What the hell happened? My wife believed that the multiverse elements of earlier episodes were involved, that the middle episodes actually represented another timeline or reality. But there’s no setup for it, no explanation of the shift, no clue to the audience other than the jarring change in tone and style. And the show hadn’t really been very clever up to that point, didn’t really demand serious thinking–I simply doubted the show was smart enough to do that, and trying to pull off a reveal like that at the end (without ever being explicit) would be bizarre.

The truth turned out to be quite mundane. You see, Ghosted has been canceled. The mid-season shift, as it turns out, maps directly with Fox’s order of additional episodes and mandated change of showrunner from Kevin Etten to Paul Lieberstein. Even the bizarre springback finale is easily explained by the fact that it was to be a part of the original lineup of episodes until Fox postponed it to air following the extended seasonGhosted probably wouldn’t have been a great show anyway, but Fox mismanaged it to hell.

I’d love to see this show get continued on a streaming service, picking up from the mid-season story and ignoring the rest, or alternatively seeing reincarnation in some spiritual successor that more carefully pairs paranormal mysteries with comedy. But I haven’t been this disappointed to see a mediocre genre show get canceled after the first season since Terra Nova.