TROS and the questions that were answered

I finally saw The Rise of Skywalker for the second, and presumably last, time in theaters with my wife. It was her first time. She wasn’t a big fan of it (for the record, her favorite of the sequel trilogy was The Last Jedi). I found that I still rather enjoyed it. I’d started to dread watching it again because I recognized so many weaknesses in the story, and I had read so many critical reactions that I found I agreed with. I felt there was no way that I’d be able to enjoy it as much as the first time, if at all. Thankfully, I was wrong on this count.

This very well could be the dumbest main Star Wars film, but it’s full of emotion, a resounding score, and amazing visuals. I wish the trilogy had ended on a stronger note, but it is what it is, and while the story has many flaws, there are a lot of interesting plot threads that can be expanded in future stories. There is a lot condensed into this movie, even as relatively long as it is, and there are plenty of additions to the characters and larger mythology that can be mined for years to come. No Star Wars film is perfect, and the original final chapter in the Star Wars saga, Return of the Jedi, sure had its share of problems. So yeah, TROS can be dumb, and I’ll still incorporate it into my larger appreciation for Star Wars over time (even as I simultaneously become more interested in considering Star Wars in three categories: George Lucas’s vision as told in the first six films and The Clone Wars; the parallel universe created through licensing under Lucas’s rule, which at times influenced his own design and story choices; and the new parallel universe that covers much of the same ground with new stories and claims to provide a “canon” continuation to the original saga under Disney).

I started a post that was attempting to address questions left from The Last Jedi that The Rise of Skywalker answered. Whether one likes the answers provided or not, TROS did at least feel like a response to its predecessor, even if it feels more connected to The Force Awakens. That attempted post was heavy with spoilers, though, and I felt like it would be good to have at least one more view before moving forward. After finally getting that second viewing, I feel ready to share this post, now that the movie’s been out for so long that anyone concerned with spoilers should have seen it already. If you haven’t seen the movie yet for some reason, please beware of the massive spoilers that will follow.

The questions I’m responding to are those I specifically discussed in a previous post before the release of Episode IX. Since I’d raised those questions in particular, it seemed worthwhile to see how TROS dealt with them.

1. What is the fate of Kylo Ren? Will he be redeemed? Killed? Imprisoned? Could you even safely imprison a powerful Force user? And what would redemption look like for such a monster if it doesn’t end in death?

Well, this is sort of the center of the plot of TROS. We learn that he is redeeemed and killed. I guess we don’t know what redemption without death could look like. Ben’s ending works well enough, and his final sacrifice to restore Rey to life is truly a selfless act that is at least on par with Anakin’s own final sacrifice for his son. I think it would have been more interesting to see a version of Ben who has to work to atone for his past actions in some way, but that’s a lot to ask for one already bloated last chapter.

I’ve resumed my rewatch of The Clone Wars with the approach of its new season, and I’ve realized my question about imprisoning a Force user has been answered quite thoroughly in the new canon. We had the Citadel specifically for imprisoning Jedi, and a battalion of clones successfully imprisoned Pong Krell. For that matter, Obi-Wan was successfully imprisoned in Attack of the Clones, and it was only a screwy staged execution and subsequent rescue mission that spared him. Ben seems to be on a unique level of power, but it seems theoretically possible to imprison any Force user.
2. What will Rey do with the legacy of the Jedi? Will she establish a new Jedi Order or something else? Will any of her compatriots be revealed to have Force powers as well?

One of my favorite things about TROS was that Finn was revealed to be Force-sensitive. I guess not everyone registered that on viewing, but it seemed quite evident to me, and I remember reacting excitedly to moments demonstrating his Force sensitivity. His conversation with Jannah did everything but explicitly say, “I feel the Force.” I also read that conversation as indicating Force-sensitivity in Jannah and some or all of her comrades. And on second viewing, I felt the movie may have been hinting at Force potential in Poe (especially given his apparently impossible abilities with hyperspace-skipping). This suggests to me that the broad awakening of Force abilities and inspiration of a new generation of Force users thanks to the actions of Luke and Rey that was suggested in The Last Jedi has been preserved and expanded upon. I think much like the Jedi Exile in KOTOR II, Rey seems to draw unaware Force users to her, awakening their powers as their bonds with each other are strengthened.

Rey has become a Jedi and embraced the legacy of the Jedi. We don’t know, though, if she will actually train others. Her legacy is still up in the air, maybe to be explored further in canon another day.
3. How will this trilogy’s romantic entanglements be resolved? There are quite a few implicit and explicit love triangles. Will Rey end up with Finn, or Kylo, or no one at all? How will Finn navigate his relationship with Rey and with Rose? And does Poe finally come out as gay?

Rey ends up with no one at all, but she seems the closest to romance with Ben, unfortunately. I think the kiss is ambiguous, but it’s certainly there. Of course, they kiss and then he dies, so on the one hand that frees her up again, but on the other hand that could be deeply traumatizing for her. It’s crucial to me that the kiss is between Rey and Ben, not Rey and Kylo–he’s happy and light and good, having cast off his Kylo Ren persona entirely and sacrificed a lot to get there. Still, Ben and Kylo are the same person. Ben never really died, just like Anakin never really died when he became Vader. They have their excuses and dramatic metaphors, but at the end of the day, they chose to do evil. And they continued to do evil at every opportunity. Sure, they found redemption in a loved one at the end, but that doesn’t erase everything they’d done.

Finn doesn’t navigate his relationships at all. (How could he explore a relationship with Rose when J.J. and Terrio barely allow her onscreen?) He’s given a new female companion he spends his time with, who just so happens to be a female black former stormtrooper. That seems a bit too neat, and while they don’t become romantically involved, it feels a little convenient that Finn is paired off with another woman and Poe is as well, as if to suggest that they have heterosexual options and thus need not end up with each other, while also clearing the deck for an uncomplicated Reylo climax. I’m uncomfortable with the racial, sexual, and gender politics in this decision. Jannah is a cool character but underused, and she largely appears in support of and alongside Finn. I don’t think that’s a particularly well-thought-through decision.

More frustratingly, Poe is bonded to Zorii Bliss. Poe didn’t need a new romance story. Poe didn’t even need a new background, for that matter! His subplot and backstory feel incredibly arbitrary, like J.J. and Terrio decided to insert answers to questions that were never asked because they felt Poe wasn’t interesting enough. The inclusion of his history as a spice runner feels like a desperate bid to make him even more like Han Solo–and on this second viewing, I was all too aware of the reactions from fans who were troubled by giving one of the few Latino actors in Star Wars a character with a background as a drug smuggler. On top of this, Poe already had a backstory that was deeply associated with the Resistance and with the inter-generational legacy of the Rebel Alliance in non-film media, so this felt out of left field.

But back to Poe and Zorii. I was really bothered by Poe’s recurring attempts to get a kiss from Zorii. Even though they never do kiss, it felt like an unnecessarily defensive, hetero-normative reaction to FinnPoe. No, folks, not only is he not interested in Finn, he’s actually had an ex-girlfriend he wants to get back together with this whole time. Frankly, Oscar Isaac seems so half-hearted in his efforts that I’ve convinced myself that Poe and Zorii are in fact both gay, and that this is an inside joke between them. They’re just two old friends who know he’d never kiss her even if he could. While this works as a head canon, it’s incredibly disappointing that the filmmakers went in this hetero-romantic direction at all, especially when the only explicitly queer moment in this film (in any Star Wars film, for that matter) involves two background characters briefly kissing in the celebratory crowd at the end.

4. Now that the Supreme Leader has been replaced and Hux finds himself following a man he despises, does he stay loyal to Kylo? Does he lead a coup?

Hahaha! He does not stay loyal to Kylo. He also doesn’t lead a coup. He becomes a spy for the Resistance out of spite, and he gets shot dead like a dog.

5. Who was Snoke? Where did he come from? How did he influence Ben into becoming Kylo? And where did the First Order come from, for that matter?

Snoke is a clone, apparently. A clone of what/whom? I don’t know. Sounds like the comic series The Rise of Kylo Ren is addressing Snoke’s influence on Kylo, but I don’t know when or if we’ll learn more about what Palpatine was really doing with Snoke. And it seems that we still have an incomplete idea of what the First Order was or where it came from, let alone the newly revealed Final Order. Although Palpatine’s weird Sith cult activities and hidden Imperial military might fit in rather nicely with elements of the Aftermath trilogy, there are still a lot of questions.

6. Does Kylo really hear from Anakin Skywalker? Does he suffer from some form of psychosis? Has Anakin become corrupted in the afterlife even after his redemption? Is there someone else impersonating Anakin? Why didn’t any Force ghost appear to Kylo to intervene?

Turns out it was all Palpatine. Why did no Force ghost intervene, though? That’s unclear to me. In many ways, TROS didn’t give a fuck about the mythology of this universe.

Example 1: All the Jedi apparently live on in Rey. They speak to her and give her power in her final battle. But George Lucas had previously established over six films and The Clone Wars that most people, including Jedi, merely become one with the Force on death. Only those who lived selflessly could freely preserve their identities in death, not for personal benefit but so that they could instruct and guide others. Prior to the sequel trilogy, the only ones who preserved their identities after death were Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Anakin, and while Anakin had a great sacrifice at the end, it’s always been something of a mystery as to how he achieved this feat. Qui-Gon didn’t even take his body into the Force. But now everyone’s back, for some reason.

Example 2: Before the sequel trilogy, Force ghosts seemed limited in their abilities. Obi-Wan could not help Luke in his fight against Vader, and he tells Luke as much. Obi-Wan often provides advice and information, but I don’t recall him actually acting on the physical world. The same with Yoda. The Clone Wars and Rebels provided interesting spirits and creatures that were specially in tune with the Force, but these were separate from the Force ghosts I’m talking about. The Last Jedi had Yoda striking the tree with lightning, but this was mystical and calling on a natural element; it’s not clear to me that that suggests he could have lifted an X-Wing or tossed a lightsaber. Luke has such a physical presence in TROS, and it becomes quite curious as to why Force ghosts wouldn’t more directly meddle in putting down evil.

Example 3: Anakin was supposed to restore balance to the Force, and while it was never certain what exactly that meant, it was generally agreed that he did do exactly that by the end of Return of the Jedi. And yet Palpatine wasn’t truly defeated, only deferred. I was more on board when we were dealing with a new awakening in the Force–Kylo rising in power within the Dark Side, and the Light answering with the rise of Rey. It feels like Anakin only inconvenienced the Dark Side for a few decades, in the end.

Example 4: The Sith had never before discovered the power to escape death. It was one of the ironies of Star Wars: if you’re selfish enough to do anything to survive death, you aren’t able to do so. We had Sith spirits in Legends, but even then they were typically bound to a particular physical element–perhaps a temple, a tomb, an amulet, or a weapon. They were not free. The Dark Side, at best, provided them an immortal prison. Now, it turns out that the Sith actually retain some form of immortality by inhabiting their successors. When a Sith disciple strikes down her master, she apparently inherits the spirits of all the previous Sith. This could be a cool thing–and it still bounds the Sith to one physical element–but it doesn’t sit easily with the existing mythology. Also, what is the trigger for this transfer? If Rey would be possessed whether she struck Palpatine down in a moment of anger or in ritual, why is there an exception if she gets Palpatine to destroy himself by deflecting his Force lightning back at him until he dies? How much was Palpatine lying about this? Perhaps he wanted her to kill him in the ritual tradition, and hate alone wouldn’t do it? But then again, wanting someone to strike him down in hate suggests that he would have actually been fine if Luke had killed him in Return of the Jedi, and that’s an interesting idea. Imagine that: Palpatine feels he’s in a win-win situation. No way the Rebellion can win, the Emperor thinks. That leaves three scenarios: (1) Luke is killed, and Vader has nothing left to cling to; (2) Luke kills Vader and turns to the Dark Side, thus becoming Palpatine’s student; or (3) Luke kills Palpatine and is possessed by all Sith, becoming a powerful, young new host body. Luke’s decision to stop fighting, and Vader’s decision to aid his son and defeat Palpatine, are unfathomably remote options for the Emperor. And it turns out he had contingency plans for if everything went wrong, anyway.

At the end of the day, while I find these new bits of lore difficult to reconcile, they are interesting. This is a movie that concludes a whole trilogy about legacy. Appropriately, some of the key new insights into the Force and Force practitioners relate to legacy. The Jedi are able to commune with those who precede them. The Sith literally embody previous Sith, spiritually consuming them. All Sith live within one body, the closest they can come to immortality, I guess. No wonder there can only be two Sith at any one time–and no wonder that the Sith are unique for Dark Siders.

Finally, while not playing light with the mythology, I have way too many questions left about how Palpatine came back. I have only read the first arc of Dark Empire, and that Legends comic seems more relevant than ever now. Certainly, Aftermath also hints at some of the Dark Side occult elements involved in resurrecting the dead. It’s not at all clear to me if this is somehow a reconstructed original body of Palpatine (and this seems unlikely, given how he died) or if it’s a greatly corrupted clone body. How will destroying this Palpatine prevent him from coming back? Are we really sure all Sith cultists were killed in that end battle? What about the Snoke clones in the canisters that were missing by the time Rey arrived? What connection does Snoke have to Palpatine? A lot of questions to presumably be answered some other day.

7. Who are the Knights of Ren?

Kylo Ren’s boy band. “Ghouls.” That’s all. Disney wants us to make sure to read all the ancillary materials, I guess. Star Wars has always seemed larger and deeper because of the references to things that aren’t developed within the movies, but this seems a big thing to leave so blank, especially when they serve as (nameless, faceless) tertiary antagonists in the film.

8. Were there any other survivors of the destruction of Luke’s training temple?

I guess we still don’t know.

9. How is the Resistance rebuilt? What allies join the cause, and why didn’t they respond to Leia’s message?

Again: I guess we still don’t know. Lando assembles a People Power fleet. Maybe people were motivated by the story of Luke’s sacrifice and the survival of the Resistance. Maybe Leia’s message did get through but people couldn’t react in time. The film starts about a year after The Last Jedi, but the Resistance is still more or less in shambles until Lando brings in the cavalry.

10. What happens to Leia? How does she fit into the movie? It seems likely that she was intended to have a significant role, but how much can she really appear in the film with the untimely death of Carrie Fisher?

She appears almost enough for the plot that was ultimately provided for her character. She proves pivotal to the final reformation of Ben Solo. On second viewing, it’s more apparent how little she appears and how much the movie is molded around what available footage they had of Carrie Fisher. Harrison Ford comes back as a vivid hallucination/memory to provide the final push, and I wonder if they would have used Leia in that scene if Carrie had been available. Another bizarre mystery of the Force: why does her body remain until Ben also dies? For that matter, the Leia material offers another example of J.J.’s apparent disregard for the new unified canon: it’s hard for me to reconcile Leia’s training under Luke so soon after Return of the Jedi with her portrayal as someone who had never undergone Jedi training in Bloodline. For the record, I was fine with her display of Force abilities in The Last Jedi because training isn’t essential to use the Force. But having her training basically completed, and then giving up her saber and the Jedi path, doesn’t quite fit with what is suggested in Bloodline. (For that matter, how does she know Rey is a Palpatine? When does she learn this? When did Luke learn this? And if she knew some of Ben’s tragic fate, why did she make the choices she did in allowing him to train as a Jedi?) That said, it’s not explicitly contradictory, either…


As a bonus round, I’d just point out that Lando appeared as sort of a retired trader / elder statesman, but the subject of L3-37 and her final fate is left unresolved. Bummer.


So, those were the questions I had going into The Rise of Skywalker, and those were the answers I took away from it. They weren’t always the answers I wanted to see, some of the answers seemed like very poor options out of the many available choices, and sometimes there wasn’t an answer at all, but it’s still clear that TROS continues on from The Last Jedi, continuing to develop themes and character arcs from that film even while making some course corrections to apparently better align with J.J.’s original vision. It’s very Star Wars of the saga to end with answers that often prompted even more questions!

Back to Star Wars, Hard

The true Star Wars faithful gathered for Celebration in Chicago over this weekend. I was not one of them. Yet the trailer for The Rise of Skywalker was enough to light the fire in my heart once more. It never really goes it. Sometimes, it settles to embers, but there’s always been something to reignite it.

So while I was not in Chicago, I still had a weekend that was overly devoted to Star Wars. After seeing the trailer at work on Friday, I struggled to stay focused on anything other than Star Wars, and I watched Return of the Jedi when I got home (between the second Death Star and Palpatine, it was Episode VI that the new trailer most put into my mind). I’d already been reading the Ahsoka novel, so I read some more of that. I dived back into Battlefront II and Empire at War. And now I’m writing a post about Star Wars again.

That trailer looks so good to me! There are so many mysteries, and I’m eager to see it. Experience has shown that I’m more excited for new saga films over anything else in the franchise, and the trailers for these movies are always great. Each time, it takes at least the first teaser to get me to finally acknowledge how excited I am. I’d actually been saying last week or so that I felt like The Last Jedi felt like a fair conclusion to the sequel trilogy and would have been an acceptable place to end the saga, so while I was curious to see what they’d do, I didn’t feel like anything was missing or unjustifiably incomplete. Now, though, there are so many tantalizing details, and I’m really eager to see what kind of story is being told here!

The other Star Wars announcements mattered less to me, as usual. I’ll probably get to much, though not all, of the new stuff eventually. The Jedi: Fallen Order game looks disappointing to me. I think there are already enough stories about Jedi on the run during the Dark Times, and the trailer felt very much so like a Light Side version of The Force Unleashed, a game I didn’t really get into at the time. And the protagonist appears to be another bland white dude. That all said, I’m sort of starved for a narrative-focused Star Wars game, and while I’d prefer an RPG, I’ll take this! Which means…maybe I’ll be looking into another console sooner than I thought? I love the Switch and Switch games, but it’d be nice to play more of the Star Wars games coming out. If I do get another console, it’ll probably be a PS4. I’m more interested in the exclusive titles available there versus the Xbox One.

Oh, speaking of Star Wars RPGs, VG247 had an article about Obsidian Entertainment’s planned plot for Knights of the Old Republic III. I really wish that game had happened. The Old Republic was reasonably fun, but I’ve never cared for MMOs and have always preferred single-player experiences. A mark in Fallen Order‘s favor is that Chris Avellone, formerly Obsidian writer for games like KOTOR II, is one of the writers for this new game.

Last thing I want to get to: I played a shocking amount of Empire at War this weekend and finally beat the Rebellion campaign. Yes, it was on Easy, but now I can mark both of the main campaign modes on my list of completed adventures (it was years ago, but I’m pretty sure I won the Empire campaign on Easy too). I mostly had fun, and I just pushed through the point I normally get burnt out. The gameplay just doesn’t mesh with the Rebellion-on-the-run feel that the setting, and the game’s story, establishes. But I’ve complained about that before. (Although I could complain now about some story issues I had, mostly related to the larger continuity. Just for instance, this came out after Revenge of the Sith and benefited from the expanded lore and setting of that film, but it didn’t include Bail Organa in the formative rebellion in any substantial way, and it had Captain Antilles affiliated with Mon Mothma instead of Bail for some reason, switching over to the Tantive IV only towards the end of the game.)

There is, however, something very interesting thing that the game did: after Alderaan’s destruction, the Death Star immediately set course for Yavin IV. I barely got Mon Mothma out in time. I defeated the Death Star’s support fleet, but with no Red Squadron, I still lost the moon. The Death Star then destroyed Wayland (a planet I’d conquered after the early story mission, because why not, and which I successfully defended from a later invasion attempt). Finally, Han showed back up with Luke and the droids, and I could send a sizable fleet to win the battle and leave the Death Star’s destruction to Luke. That final fight played out in the stellar wreckage of Wayland. There are three reasons why I like those developments:

  1. Everything happening is so sudden, shocking, and unpredictable. It puts you in the mindset of the fledgling Rebel Alliance as it faces potential devastation, with no obvious way out. I expected Luke to show up, I expected a warning before the Alderaan destruction cinematic, I expected the game to be predictable and give me time like it had at every other stage. I couldn’t rely on convention or the film’s narrative. It made me feel a little anxious and desperate, then really relieved when Luke finally showed up.
  2. It clearly established this narrative as an Alternate Universe. Sure, this was before the canon reset, but the implication up until that point is that we might have been playing a game that was supposed to be telling a definitive story of the Rebellion. Even if we had to ignore the gameplay and the narrative-defying conquest of the galaxy in the name of the Rebels, the core story being told could be seen as “truth.” The ending relaxes those rules and says, no, this is just a fun story, hope you enjoyed playing with the toys. Any galactic conquest mode to follow is more playing in the sandbox, no more or less “true.”
  3. It actually disrupted the conquest-focused gameplay and returned the emphasis to Rebels barely staying a step ahead of an over-powerful Empire. Too bad the rest of the game isn’t like that…

That’s more than enough about that game, but before I drop the subject entirely, let me quickly show you a story in four images:

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Now, will I ever play the Forces of Corruption campaign? Maybe. More unlikely things have happened (like finishing the Rebellion campaign), and my Star Wars appetite is currently insatiable and probably will remain so through December!

A Tarisian Ronin

It’s no secret that Akira Kurosawa’s films had a massive impact on international cinema. Spaghetti westerns and Star Wars especially have pulled heavily from the Japanese film master’s work. Nothing new there. And they’re also great movies, so it’s always fun and engaging to watch one.

I’ve only very slowly started watching Kurosawa’s films. It’s not something that I really have much of a drive to do; it just happens occasionally. I saw Rashomon in college. I saw Seven Samurai in the past year. And I just watched Yojimbo this week.

I wouldn’t even mention it, but it was funny to realize not only how it influenced the original Star Wars film, but how its plot was basically transplanted into the Taris portion of Knights of the Old Republic.

Yojimbo‘s plot in a nutshell: a masterless samurai enters a town torn apart by conflict between two gangs fighting over turf. One gang is led by a father and son; the other is led by the former right-hand man of the father, who split off when the son was chosen as the heir. The samurai plays the two sides against each other until they destroy each other.

The Tarisian section in a nutshell: a masterless soon-to-be Jedi enters a portion of the city-planet that is torn apart by conflict between two gangs fighting over turf. One gang is led by an old man; the other is led by his former right-hand man, after the elder gang leader refused to appoint him as heir. While the older man’s gang is depicted as fundamentally good and the younger man’s gang is depicted as degenerate and thuggish, there is still the option to play both off each other (even though the Light Side, presumably EU-canon version is that the eventual Jedi helped the “good” gang). Plus, since Taris ultimately gets wiped out via Sith bombardment, the hero’s meddling does destroy both gangs–from a certain point of view.

Oh, and there’s a subplot in film and game involving the capture of a woman by one of the gang leaders as a negotiating tool to gain power; said woman is freed at least in part by the efforts of the protagonist in both versions.

That’s all I’ve got. Funny to realize years later that a story I enjoyed is so indebted to an older source. It actually makes the Taris section, as mundane as it can be on replay as a bloated sort of prologue, rather interesting once more.

TCW Re-watch: Failings of the Jedi

Star Wars: The Clone Wars offered such a rich variety of stories that there are an endless array of lenses to approach the themes within the series, both those unique to it and those that elaborate on the subject matter of George Lucas’s six-film saga. I’ve gone into this re-watch with a few particular themes and contradictions on my mind, and the most current reviewed episode, “Mystery of a Thousand Moons” (1.18), touches on most of them.

Most interesting to me is the tension between the apparent necessity of the war in the moment in contrast to the audience’s foreknowledge that the Jedi’s mere entry into the war was the trap that doomed them. This narrative emerges clearly enough in the films with the end of Attack of the Clones, with Yoda’s admonition that “the shroud of the Dark Side has fallen.” Perhaps more subtly, that theme is present in the decision on the part of the Jedi and the Republic to assault a Separatist planet in the midst of heightened political tensions to rescue two Jedi and a Senator who had infiltrated that independent system to perform acts of political espionage, sabotage, and murder, and who were being punished under the laws of that system. While leaving the trio to execution would have been an unacceptable ending to audiences and would have seemed too merciless, and while viewers know that the Separatists were preparing their own attack on the Republic, interfering with the laws of another government via open invasion is a shockingly imperialistic act for a group of alleged peacekeepers. And, of course, that theme of loss merely through engagement sees fruition in the collapse of the Jedi and the Republic in Revenge of the Sith.

The Clone Wars readily acknowledges this burden. Yoda does a lot of wrangling with this moral crisis and imminent loss throughout the series. While that’s perhaps most emphasized in the final season’s episodes, the theme is present in moments with Yoda–and in merely observing what the war does to Jedi and clones alike–throughout the show. As Yoda says in “Lair of Grievous” (1.10), “To answer power with power, the Jedi way this is not. In this war, a danger there is of losing who we are.”

And this theme manifests in at least small ways in almost every episode. Returning to “Mystery of a Thousand Moons,” we see the Jedi once again putting innocents in harm’s way in an attempt to win a battle. In this case, Ahsoka, Padme, and several clone troopers are infected with a super-virus and almost die before Anakin and Obi-Wan can provide a cure. Padme’s a senator. Ahsoka is literally a child who is nonetheless invested with the powers of a military commander. And the clones have been manufactured to fight and–as Rex notes in the episode–to die, yet the Jedi were perfectly willing to enlist them and use them as though they lacked in personhood or choice (a damning decision no matter how many Jedi befriended them between battles).

Yet that super-virus is another example of the seeming necessity of the war. The recreation of the Blue Shadow Virus for biological war in “Mystery of a Thousand Moons” and in the virus’s eponymous episode (1.17) is a shocking atrocity, intended to quickly wipe out whole ecosystems on hundreds of planets. In the same arc, the Separatists have blockaded a planet with a force field that kills anyone who tries to leave orbit, seemingly with the intent of preventing the export of the one raw material that can be used to produce a cure to the virus. Similarly, in “Defenders of Peace” (1.14), the Separatists intend to test a weapon that wipes out all organic life in its blast radius but leaves droids behind–and their intended target is a village of pacifists. Messaging consistently reinforces a pro-war mentality, at least in the moment. “Defenders of Peace” and its companion “Jedi Crash” (1.13) have no room for pacifists; the ideology is portrayed as too naive to actually survive without outside intervention by occupying defenders. Certainly there are historical precedents where passive resistance or acquiescence have not halted or appeased a bloodthirsty oppressor. Yet, to complicate things further, the “Jedi Crash” arc is immediately followed by “Trespass” (1.15), which actually provides for a scenario in which peaceful diplomacy is the ideal solution in contrast to aggressive interventionism.

If nothing else, the show highlights how messy war and conflict are. Moral solutions are not always apparent. The Jedi, even early on in the show, frequently cross the line of acceptable behavior, but that line-crossing often achieves results. For specific examples, contrast “Cloak of Darkness” (1.9), in which Ahsoka brushes off Master Luminara Unduli’s warning that “terror is not a weapon the Jedi use” because her threat, which does (momentarily) convince an imprisoned Nute Gunray to cooperate, “wasn’t serious,” with Anakin’s threat in “Mystery of a Thousand Moons” to kill mad scientist Nuvo Vindi completely failing to produce results (and actually giving Vindi another opportunity to gloat).

Lastly, one little item of head canon that I’ve been toying with for a while is that some version of the Mandalorian Wars and the subsequent Jedi Civil War of Knights of the Old Republic actually happened, and that this resulted in a radical shift in Jedi dogma. We at least have confirmation of a Mandalorian-Jedi War, but it’s the latter war that’s more significant to me. Revan and Malak rushed off to join the Republic in defeating the Mandalorians, in opposition to the Jedi Order’s mandate to stay out of the war, but their experiences turned them to the Dark Side. Revan’s later redemption was the only thing that could stop Malak, and he went on to pursue a larger threat outside of the galaxy. Other Jedi who went to war did not necessarily fall to the Dark Side. The Jedi Exile, for instance, chose a life of nomadic wandering following her actions at the Battle of Malachor (a battle that has been partially introduced to the canon, as well). Her eventual return to the major events of the galaxy stopped another festering Sith threat, and it is implied that she and her disciples helped rebuild a decimated Jedi Order. (Light Side decisions and their resultant outcomes in video games were typically perceived to be closer to canon during the run of the EU, and even in this canon-reboot era, that assumption seems to me a valid starting point for discussing the state of the old EU lore.)

The implications of the first two games are cast to the wind to enable the direction of The Old Republic and its companion novels, like Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan, which conveniently wiped Revan and the Jedi Exile off the board. I’m not so impressed by the idea of Jedi and Sith joining together to combat a larger threat; it happened surprisingly often in the old EU, it seems counter to the core messaging of Lucas’s films, and it seems like something that exists in Star Wars: The Old Republic largely as a justification for players to join the Sith faction without necessarily being pure evil. So let’s set aside the implications of everything post-KOTOR II.

With that division of the franchise in place, I rather like the idea that Revan, the Jedi Exile, and their followers would have forced a radical rethink in Jedi philosophy. Perhaps the Jedi, over time, would have felt that earlier official involvement by the Jedi Order in curbing the Mandalorian expansion would have stopped a lot of cruelty and death–and would have prevented the rise of the Sith Lords that followed. The Jedi Exile, in particular, would have been a model for a more interventionist Jedi Knight. This change in doctrinal thinking could have resulted in an over-correction that could have made the Jedi all too willing to hop into aggressive pursuit of peacekeeping operations. The reform spirit of the Jedi Exile would have faded into institutional tradition over the centuries, such that the shift in Jedi mindset would have only served as another pillar of dogmatic thought for later generations of Jedi leaders. Such a mindset would have primed them to hop straight into the Clone Wars, before cooler heads (mostly a more reflective Yoda) could prevail, and with the assumption that they were fully in the right. I think The Clone Wars and its depiction of the last years of the Jedi Order provide some ammo for that theory.

(By the way, in my full version of this head canon, which veers hard into amorphously formed fan fiction, Bultar Swan offers a lot of storytelling possibilities as a potential Jedi who quickly sees the entry of the Jedi into the business of war as detrimental. I tend to imagine her getting the hell out of the Order and the war shortly after Geonosis, after seeing just what it takes to kill and seeing the Jedi leadership all too willing to keep going down that path. But that’s getting way off topic for this post.)

I don’t plan on regularly discussing The Clone Wars over the course of this re-watch, but I do suspect that I’ll have an occasional update as this gradual viewing continues. I’ve only watched the show in full once before, and this new trip through has been quite enjoyable and thought-provoking.

All the Books

I’ve finally allowed myself to learn to love audiobooks. They’re great for providing something for me to focus on when otherwise doing a fairly mindless or boring task. But since my multitasking ability sucks, I’ll only listen to things that I’m okay with missing something in. Listening is just not the best way for me to absorb a story (and I’ll never accept that it’s comparable to reading; they’re just apples to oranges–oral storytelling is great, but it is different than written storytelling, and this is real estate in the general vicinity of a hill I’m willing to die on).

Truly, the credit for my newfound acceptance goes to the Indianapolis Public Library’s collections and the accessibility of the Overdrive and Hoopla websites and apps. I’ve already made it through a couple books despite the recentness of this change of heart.

verily

The first audiobook I experimented with was William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope, by Ian Doescher. I enjoyed the stageplay feel, with a few different voice actors narrating the book. The sound effects were great. I was tickled by the human pronunciations of R2-D2’s whistles, and his internal monologues were a weird diversion. Nonetheless, the novelty wore off quickly enough for me. It’s hard to suggest that this has much merit on its own, after all–it’s entirely about the gimmick of combining Star Wars and Shakespeare. The saturation in pop culture and melodramatic nature of the two draw comparisons, and Doescher obviously put a lot of effort into emulating Shakespeare’s style, but it’s basically what it says on the tin, good for a bit of amusement and nothing more. Still, the production value of the audiobook was so good that I could listen to another in this series.

Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan was second on my list. My first observation: it has too many subtitles. The audiobook brought life to the story, and it really showcased how good Drew Karpyshyn is at describing action. The narrator’s decisions regarding voices were somewhat disappointing. Revan sounded like bored Batman, even though he was written in the book as a sort of funny guy who was quick to quip and often contemplative. The Sith Lord Scourge sounded like angry Batman. And the female characters–Meetra and Bastila, for instance–typically sounded like man-doing-a-high-pitched-voice (which is, after all, what was happening), so I think the emotional resonance of their characters suffered.

Despite enjoying the action sequences, I don’t like what this book did to Revan and the Jedi Exile. For one thing, it shouldn’t have defined who they were. The KOTOR games were stories set in the distant past, a fable even in the context of the old EU canon. There was no need to have a “canon” series of events–these games thrived on player choice and the consequences of those choices.

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But even accepting a “canon” version of events, it’s icky to have a story where the Jedi Exile acts like a subservient cheerleader of Revan and ultimately dies for him, becoming a Force ghost to keep him alive. Also, these are characters players have a lot of connection to–their tragic ends here are a let-down and seem to exist only to raise the stakes of The Old Republic and make that game seem EVEN BIGGER, LOUDER, AND BETTER THAN THE ORIGINAL (reminds me of the decision to kill off Newt and Hicks in Alien 3). Finally, the game seems to retcon things a little bit, once more in the service of making The Old Republic more important. For instance, and most significantly, the Sith Emperor’s Force-devouring evil is presented as this colossal threat that would even shift Sith to become Jedi allies–but isn’t that reflective of exactly who Darth Nihilus was and what he was up to in KOTOR II?

I liked the similarly over-subtitled Star Wars: The Old Republic: Fatal Alliance (by Sean Williams) when I read it years ago, but in retrospect, I cannot be sure if I was just more into the “edgy” take on Star Wars being offered by the writers of The Old Republic game and media push than I would be now.

The one Star Wars story of the bunch that I really enjoyed was something I read rather than listened to: an ebook version of Star Wars: The Prequel Trilogy: A Graphic Novel (yet another work with too many subtitles). The artwork is clean, colorful, and emotive. Best of all, it’s a masterclass in efficient editing. Each of the films is stripped down into a much tighter, action-packed core. Extraneous fight scenes (and the infamous podrace) are cut down considerably or even (as in the case of the starship fight over Geonosis between Obi-Wan and Jango) cut completely. Some quirky bits of dialogue and some genuinely good character moments get left on the cutting room floor, but almost everything felt improved by the omission. Some things I wish they’d been willing to cut even further. They opened late and ended early on a lot of moments, and yet midi-chlorians remain in, and Anakin’s admission that he killed even women and children in the Tusken Raider village stays as well. Still, given the source material that the graphic novel is operating from, this is probably the best format that I’ve seen the prequels in so far. The weird thing is that this collection seems to have been made with a crew big enough for a small film–it’s difficult to attribute to only a few individuals.

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I also read an ebook version of Dark Horse’s Age of Reptiles Omnibus: Volume I by Ricardo Delgado. The art was gorgeous and dynamic. So much was packed into each panel, and there was such a strong flow from panel to panel. Motion was clearly conveyed. There was a buzzing energy that propels you onward. This comic series appears to have a well-deserved reputation for its entirely visual storytelling. Motivation and emotion are clearly conveyed through dinosaur body language and action. There is no dialogue (obviously–they’re dinosaurs), and there are no descriptive sound effects. All storytelling happens through the art alone. My major criticism would be that the stories are a little too focused on nature red in tooth and claw, but we do see other aspects of the dinosaurs’ lives. The Journey was the most satisfying story (the image here comes from it), epic and yet also somewhat mundane, a slice-of-life story nonetheless replete with death and violence.

That’s it for the books. Next: all the video games.

Review: Aftermath

Aftermath (Star Wars: Aftermath #1)Aftermath by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A post-Endor Star Wars book trilogy, marking a fairly early publication in the stream of new-canon releases, must surely have called to mind comparisons to Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy. Thankfully, rather than retilling exhausted soil, Chuck Wendig has prepared something quite different.

Most interestingly, Wendig’s style diverges pretty hard from the traditional Star Wars standard. His narrative is a constant present-tense, and while the format could hardly be called experimental outside of this franchise, it’s probably not all-too-common in sci-fi as a whole and reads as a wonderfully fresh breath of air. Action, emotion, and thought all arrive with great immediacy, and there are efforts at something resembling stream-of-consciousness, especially in flashback sequences. Wendig is also quite skillful with metaphor and employs clever turns of phrase regularly and to great effect.

Unfortunately, I think that the dialogue suffers a little bit from that very same experimentation and florid verbiage. Characters sound all too clever for their own good. And when everyone (save one droid, whose staccato, all-caps style is emphasized at every chance) speaks in a similar cadence, they all blur together. Frankly, I think I’d be more forgiving had I first encountered a Chuck Wendig novel out of the Star Wars setting–he’s a great writer, and I’d like to see more, but the voice of the characters just doesn’t sound quite…Star Wars enough. There’s one exception: there is a brief interlude scene involving Han Solo, and I could practically hear Harrison Ford delivering the smuggler captain’s lines. The second novel appears to be positioned more around Han and Leia, and I look forward to seeing more of Wendig’s handling of the characters.

Speaking of the interlude scenes, I’m rather fond of these short chapters disrupting the action of the main narrative to share a vignette about events all throughout the galaxy. They often share thematic connections with the main narrative or imply a building toward a larger plot. And they let everything feel epic even while that main narrative is a rather tight story: a disparate group of rebels and outcasts bands together on the Outer Rim world of Akiva as a result of an Imperial blockade, and that blockade was in turn put in place to allow for a clandestine meeting of Imperial leaders attempting to decide how to lead the Empire following the death of the Emperor and the inspiration of open revolt throughout the galaxy. While it didn’t really dawn on me until the end, this novel was less about anything particularly momentous happening and more about assembling the team (and the primary antagonist) for future adventures. I liked getting to know the characters, and the story actually is self-contained, so I don’t have the usual “it’s just a prologue” gripe that I have about many first-in-a-series books.

The novel works on its own because it tells a simple story with a clear resolution. A bounty hunter is on Akiva to kill or capture several high-value targets on behalf of the New Republic. She needs a team to get them all. She assembles that team. Each of the characters has their own bit of growing to do, and the reunion of Rebel pilot mother and estranged tech-genius/scoundrel son forms a good bit of the emotional heart of the book, but everything makes a lot of sense when framed around that bounty hunter’s quest. In some ways, it’s Seven Samurai, but with a happier ending, in that we don’t see more than half the party wiped out in accomplishing their mission (given the connection, it’s sort of ironic that the bounty hunter is a niece of Sugi, who formed her own team to protect and train farmers in a Clone Wars retelling of the film’s plot).

That narrower focus is another way that this book is so different from the Thrawn trilogy. We aren’t following the Big Three heroes here. The characters of this book are accomplishing important objectives for the New Republic, but it’s the future of a planet and not the galaxy that’s on the line. Perhaps the biggest parallel to the old Thrawn books is the Imperial officer who has arranged the Akivan summit (Sloane), who in turn works for a mysterious strategist, which feels more like homage and is hardly a simple rehashing of the relationship between Thrawn and Pellaeon.

The galaxy is also a lot different in this post-Endor world. The destruction of the Empire’s leadership (at this point, twice over) has thinned the ranks, drained morale, depleted resources. More worlds are in open defiance. The Imperial fleet is stretched thin and being torn apart through defections and power grabs. The implosion of the Empire happens here so much quicker, within a year, than it did in the old canon. It’s a new interpretation of events, not necessarily better or worse; it offers different ideas about what the Empire was. I like that things are mixed up here.

Despite offering so much that is new and fresh, Aftermath is also laced with many clever Legends winks and nods (as well as plenty of connections to the burgeoning new canon). Wendig’s love for the Knights of the Old Republic games seems pretty obvious, with references to Czerka, Pazaak, a Dark Side Force- or life- draining power, echani martial arts, the history of Jabba sandcrawlers as stolen old mining vehicles, and of course a psychotic droid who speaks in a strange voice (while it’s supposed to be lilting and dissonant, the constant all-caps shout of Mister Bones reads like it could be the monotone of HK-47). The author must have a spot spot for roleplaying games in general; an ending interlude has a bartender rattling off a list of potential jobs that reads as a local-area map of quest markers and factions.

One of the few obvious flaws seems to be a persistent problem with these Star Wars publications: minor continuity issues. One minor character changes from an Abednedo to a Rodian between scenes. Another character who only appears in one scene has his name change from Cobb Vanth to Cobb Vance over the course of a page. Minor things like this. Things that might just have emerged in the process of printing; things that might have just been missed in editing; things that I can forgive but that are still jarring when I come across them. More generally, there is a tendency to always refer to “one” or the “other” person or side without specifying, which isn’t a flaw so much as a stylistic decision that I don’t like. Really, these are the merest quibbles.

This was a fun adventure and a good start to a trilogy. If the remainder in this arc are at least as good, I’ll be quite satisfied.

View all my reviews

Five Favorites Fast

Finishing Breath of the Wild, I thought to myself that it’s probably one of my top favorite games ever. This, of course, prompted a bit of further reexamination. A favorites list is an inherently subjective and personal artifact, no matter what numbers one assigns to a thing in the attempt to give a more formal rating. It is also fairly mutable; my favorites list–especially if you get out to the fringes of a top ten or top twenty anything–changes relatively frequently.

So if Breath of the Wild is one of my top favorite games now, how do the others shake out?

In no particular order, my five favorite video games are currently…

I. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

A massive game, and densely populated with secrets and surprise encounters. Experimentation and exploration are always rewarded. Most of the time, if you think to combine game systems to try something new, the game seems willing to let you do so. Add the characteristic quirkiness and clever puzzle-solving of a Zelda game, and it’s easy to see how this became an instant classic (and a new favorite of mine).

II. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

The list changes a little bit, but not that much. This permanent ranking at the top of my games pile is part nostalgia and part a reflection on what a wonderful game Bethesda put out back in 2002. It’s buggy and a bit ugly around the edges, and its (unmodded) graphics certainly don’t live up to the test of time–but it was rewarding exploration and wild experimentation almost two decades ago, and it felt like a truly massive game world at the time. Plus, by focusing on a fairly small geographic footprint, a volcanic island in an inland sea, the game tended toward density over sheer openness. There could be a lot of wandering, sure, but over just about every rise and in just about every hollow would be something new and interesting. The realm of Morrowind was a truly weird place, with bizarre plants and animals, fungi towers, and an elaborate set of competing and overlapping cultural and political systems. The tension between a (racist, classist) native culture and (corrupt, domineering) imperial presence blurred the lines of right and wrong. Not that your character was ever bound by doing what was “right” so much as what said character could get away with…

III. Beyond Good and Evil

This was another game with a bizarre world to explore, with humanized animals and strange invasive aliens and bizarre native wildlife. It wasn’t truly “open-world,” I suppose, but there were massive hubs to explore and plenty of secrets to uncover. Like Breath of the Wild, this game employed a photography system, and photographing key objects was often essential to completion of mission objectives. It could also be used to take pictures of native fauna to pick up extra cash cataloging the remaining life forms on the planet. The combat system was typically light and breezy, though some of the boss fights–especially the final boss–tended toward the tedious. I truly appreciated the wonderful sense of empathy expressed by the main characters, as well as the portrayal of a wildly multicultural and welcoming world. That’s in addition to the conspiracy-theorizing, love-letter-to-freedom-of-expression, resistance-to-fascism themes of the game.

IV. Fable II

Another fairly open-world game–huge swaths of territory to explore in open hubs containing either cities or wilderness. The ease of combat and the easier ability to intermix magic, melee, or ranged attacks into a fight improve upon its predecessor, and the additional ability to pick a gender was a nice change (even though you’re still stuck being a pale Briton, despite the inclusion of people of various racial/ethnic backgrounds in the game). The third game offered further improvements to combat and the interplay between the three types of abilities, and its expansion of property acquisition and rise-to-the-throne plot were refreshing. Still, I think the second game represents the peak because of the Hero’s companions. Hammer, for instance, is just a fantastic video game character and always more clearly heroic than the protagonist, even if she is prone to anger and rash action. Once again, experimentation is another thing that can be valued about this game–experimenting with combat styles, experimenting with mercantile tactics, and experimenting with social interaction. Everything feels quite organic at first, a series of player actions and world/NPC reactions, although the simplicity of each of the main systems in the game quickly reduces them to something feeling transparently mechanical. This is probably the most troubled game on my list, and I think the ending in particular was disappointing, rushed, emotionally manipulative, and overly simplistic (why must it be one of those three wishes? I could think of other variants with better outcomes!).

V. Deus Ex

Writing up this list, I thought the fifth entry would be Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Sure, there are other games I like more than that; they’ll come first. But I was sure KOTOR would take the final spot. And then I got here, and I realized, Deus Ex came out three years before, it was in some ways a more experimental game, it certainly gave the player a lot of agency (probably more so than in KOTOR), and it dealt with moral choice in a far more mature way than the other game! Deus Ex may not be the better game, but I think I prefer it, if I’m being honest and not blinded by fanboy nostalgia. I think I talk about that game more–and recommend it to others more, even now. And Deus Ex‘s story was wild, taking the most ridiculous conspiracy theories and rebranding them as a twisted truth, all adding up to an awful dystopian future. The blocky character models and dark environments are definitely dated, but they also fit with the gritty and failing cyberpunk world explored in the game. KOTOR’s characters stuck with me more, but the Dentons’ story is a bizarre one that’s worth remembering too. Plus, there were multiple approaches through any situation; stealth, diplomacy, or a tech-based approach were often not just alternatives but often far superior to a straightforward combat option. The dense, shady urban environments in each level were lurid and rotten and packed with secrets to find. It was a weird game, and it was hard at first for me to get into, but it’s worth taking the time to unpack it. It’s a game that’ll eat at you a while after playing.

Runners Up

It is really hard to contain oneself to five favorite things. Honorable mention goes to the aforementioned Knights of the Old Republic for a worthy Star Wars story with a robust dialogue system, interesting companions, exotic environments, and a turn-based combat system that was simultaneously tactical and cinematic; Stardew Valley, for its seemingly simple farming simulator that also contains a dungeon-delving combat game, a community of quirky personalities, and a deeply rewarding cycle of daily tasks, all set to the most pleasantly peaceful music; Analogue: A Hate Story for being a visual novel with a good story, interesting themes, and a clever collapse of the fourth-wall through the nature of play, making it a visual novel that I actually wanted to play; Life Is Strange, for the emotional (and not just melodramatic) high school drama and weirdness and cool game mechanics; and Halo, for being the first FPS I loved as a youngster and for its derivative-yet-imaginative epic sci-fi setting. Oh, I guess that makes five runners-up, so this is secretly a top ten list, and you’ve just reached the end.