An Excellent, In-depth Take on The Star Wars Saga

I only recently discovered the podcast Story Wonks.  It’s excellent.

I am particularly grateful for the discussion of the Force Awakens. There is a lot there that opened my eyes to themes I hadn’t noticed, and I like the insight he has as well.  I also agree with his observations on the likely backgrounds of Snoke and Rey, sort of going against the popular speculations.  I hope that he is correct.

Fiction: Ghosts of the Sith: Foreword

Note: This intro, along with the chapters that will be posted were all written before seeing The Force Awakens. Having seen it, I am please that nothing I am doing here seems to contradict anything else from that movie.

I will be posting a series of chapters of a story I have begun to write I am titling “Ghosts of the Sith.” It’s a “fan fiction” work that takes places in the world of the Star Wars universe, (yes, that is copyright material owned by Disney™, Lucasfilm™, etc.) Let me state the usual caveats: this is a writing exercise. It’s being published free, as these are licensed creations, and I am doing this also as an homage to the Star Wars universe as a fan.

I had an idea for this story some time ago. My point of inspiration involved reading some stories of the creation and conception of The Empire Strikes Back, including some ideas which were kicking around, including commissioning Ralph McQuarrie to create sketches of Darth Vader’s Castle, intending possible scenes to take place there. I had a thought of wondering what would Darth Vader’s “home” actually be like?

I realize that much of the action remains in characters I have created, mostly in the form of the stormtrooper garrison that is left behind. I always liked the idea that the stormtroopers were regular troopers, ones who had signed up out of patriotism or youthful restlessness, like soldiers usually do. Full of training and spirit, they were eager to spring into action. Over time, the war would grind on them, making them suspicious of the Empire, as well as the limits of their duty. As I write this, I have not yet seen the new movie The Force Awakens, but previews indicate that the character of Finn is a former stormtrooper who questions his duty to the First Order. Well, I want to get this story out there, lest it seem a little too diluted or too derivative of other work.

The setting of this story is the immediate aftermath of RoTJ and the destruction of Endor, and the death of Vader and Palpatine. Luke goes to take possession of the castle of which Vader was “Lord.” This story seeks to gently go into the background of the Star Wars universe, exploring the meaning of the Force, and the people (human and non) who have been scarred by the Empire.

I would normally be hesitant to write Star Wars fan-fic, as there have been tons and tons of licensed work in the old Extended Universe of novels, comic-books, and games, etc. Now that Disney has officially made all those EU works non-canon, I realized that there is a little room for my own interpretation, which would otherwise clash into specific things that happened in old EU. So why not? I’m having fun writing this.

A note on the old EU: being “legends,” I certainly hope that some things that were in the old EU get to be reincorporated.  It would be a shame to lose conceptions such as holocrons and great characters like Mara Jade and Admiral Thrawn. Overall, I have read very little of the massive old EU, although I definitely liked Timothy Zahn’s trilogy, as well as bits of other works. I also liked the “Dark Empire” comic series for what it was, even though, in reflection, I think it does impeach the resolution at the end of RoTJ quite a bit. I have made a specific homage to Dark Empire, and I like to think that the way I frame it is the way I would recommend that it remain within canon.

I also make copious use of the world gleaned from the creators of the multi-player online game, Star Wars: The Old Republic. The planets and settings appear in my work. I really have liked the game, and playing it has kept my interest alive in the Star Wars Universe. My use of the planet Voss, I realize, may not accurately represent it the way it has been in other works, so I hope that nobody feels that I dishonored their work.

I’ve never served in the military. I’m from a family with past generations of service, which, like so many others, has fallen off in the post-draft era. For me, I had an interest in the military, and I did pursue ROTC in college, getting some MILS training, and I just didn’t sign up to continue on to Fort Lewis for full induction. I can say I at least got to spend some time with some interesting Non-Coms as my instructors a few years after the first Gulf War, and they had quite a bit of wisdom to share. My experience in sleeping in barracks and doing infantry maneuvers was thus that of a cadet doing the phony version of such things that soldiers do for real, but as far as gaining useful knowledge of the wider world, they were some of the better, actually immersive college courses I took. Hey, I also qualified on an M-16, so there’s that, too. I have kept in mind that the stormtroopers in my fiction are humanoid grunts who suffer under those helmets that make them anonymous, and who get through on their missions relying on training, repetition, along with a bit of soldierly dark humor.

I was also influenced by a couple of military artists of whom I am personally very much a fan. I was inspired a lot by Maximilian Uriarte, creator of Terminal Lance, a cartoon about Marine Life, to whom I’m indebted for getting an insight into the musings and grumblings of Marine Infantrymen. It’s a good cartoon about a specific subculture, that I recommend to anyone. Also, I came across the artwork of Matthew Callahan while doing this. I would like to say I had a similar inspiration, at least seeing in the troopers of the Star Wars universe, a vector to relate the nature of martial duty as veterans experience it.

I also have conceived a lot of background info to the SW universe which may have been covered elsewhere. I have described mundane things such as generators and fusion cores. I also have described the neoprene-like black suit which stormtroopers wear under their shells as a bio-mechanical “overskin.” My idea here is not unique, as it’s appeared in numerous science fiction conceptions, and is based somewhat on actual scientific prototypes of environmental protection suits, and pro-biotic concepts. I imagine it as a suit which not only breathes, but maintains the bacterial balance of the skin, and it constricts or expands for temperature and pressure control for the comfort of the person wearing it. It occurred to me that about the only way in which stormtroopers could be even close to comfortable would be if their suits provided them some degree of regulation like this. Also, what is sci-fi for, if not for imagining how things might be otherwise than what they are? Ask any grunt sitting in a hole or standing for guard duty if they could have a suit that kept them dry, regulated their temperature, and ate their sweat, and they’d probably be highly motivated to fire on whatever Sandcrawler you point them at. Not that the Empire would worry about trooper individual comfort, but they would prefer to get their full investment out of every grunt, I am sure.

I’ve enjoyed conceiving of what stormtrooper organization and regulation would be. I have described the stormtrooper helmet as carrying a HUD within it which doesn’t always work as well as promised, which I will say accounts for occasionally terrible aim when caught by surprise, as well as the problems an ignorant farm boy might have when putting it on and trying to see out of it. I imagine the weapons in here as if they were real weapons which have heft and kickback, and get hot. I recall reading from somewhere that I do not recall that the “blasters” in Star Wars are supposed to be bolts of super-heated plasma, not lasers, which makes sense for a projectile weapon. I have treated light sabers the same way, although the light saber is a bit of a fantasy weapon, so speculating on its heft and weight in real life is a debate about how so many proverbial dancing angels.

The way I see Star Wars in terms of the setting of the story that is being told is that it is a proper mashup of genres. I get why we don’t really want to call it “science fiction,” as it is less about futurism than it is about basically bronze-age, or medieval cultures with the veneer of retro-futurism. The “retro-futurism” is another part that was brilliant about Lucas and company’s original conceptions in that the “future” of spaceships and landspeeders wasn’t purely glittering perfection, but was also a little rusty, worn, and unimpressive to the people who live there and are used to it. Conceptually, it’s a medieval, pre-industrial setting with spaceships superimposed on it.

This fanfic is aimed at an adult audience. As I have written it thus far, there is relatively little sex, but sexuality is acknowledged, and acts do occur (mostly) offscreen. There is violence in this, but this is not fanfic with non-stop fights. There will be heroics, confrontations, and characters will be killed. However, if you prefer non-stop light saber duels, then this is not the story you are looking for.

Four chapters will be posted shortly. A fifth is on the way. I am unsure what will happen after that, as much will depend on my own time whether I consider this project worthwhile to continue.

Daniel Jeyn, December 2015

My Force Awakens Review

I would be glad to agree with the eyerollers that Star Wars has reached a nausea-inducing threshold. It should be by now, shouldn’t it? But I’m still a sucker for more content. I am a fan of the online game Star Wars: The Old Republic, an MMORPG that takes place in the pre-movie world of Jedi and Sith forces at odds. I find it is immersive and fun, and the game squeezes in some good storytelling content. So Star Wars is still fresh in my mind with stories to tell in that world.

The less personal and more universal reason that Star Wars still sells a tsunami of output has to do with it being a perfect pastiche of other genres. It has a clever resonance that vibrates as universally as any fictional world ever has. Star Wars, from its conception in 1975, must have been a very weird film when they were putting it together. The effort is as much a collage as anything Tarantino does today. This long article is so wonderful about the pastiche of styles that Lucas incorporated, that I won’t add anything more to it.

The original movie also worked splendiferously because of the right kind of collaboration Lucas had when he made it: from the model makers to the costumers, creature molders, sound design, and a legendary musical score. It also succeeded by being made in England, with a superb supporting cast of Hammer studio veterans who knew how to deliver lines. It spawned a million imitators, and while great sci-fi and great fantasy films have been made since then, I don’t think any have ever happened hit the right note at the right time to become as iconic as the first Star Wars has.

Episode VII, The Force Awakens (TFA) gets certain things right that satisfy my nostalgia for the originals. It also hits the right beats for telling a new story. With those basic things going for it, I say the bottom line is that, yes, it’s worth seeing. It will be compared favorably, inevitably, to the prequels – the poor prequels – I say with regret and pity. (I’ll have more to say on that, later.) The best Star Wars movies to me are still the first two that were made: Episode IV, A New Hope (ANH), and Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back (ESB).

I put TFA on par with Episode VI, Return of the Jedi (RoTJ), which I’ll call the weakest of the first three movies. In RoTJ, I really like the Jabba’s palace sequence in the beginning, and the coda of  Luke vs. Vader vs. Palpatine. But the Ewoks and the second death star sequence are parts of the movie where Star Wars starts to flatline for me. The reason for this is because both sequences could be excised from the film, replaced with almost any other side stories, without losing any of the impact of the denouement involving Luke. The two first films have story beats that all move the story forward to the final act, and each part feeds into the rest of the story, moving it forward. RoTJ and TFA are on par, then, for me, as the good parts are iconic and as good as it gets, and then there are parts I felt were there to fill time and justify a lot of effects being used.

I’m keeping this review opaque to avoid spoilers, so I’m going to talk about broad plot points, but I’m avoiding specifics on which character in context something happening might refer to.

What the movie gets right: the idea of the Force. There are no midichlorians in this one, thank the maker. The Force is mysterious, but it is a relatable fable of faith. Relatable, I mean, because whether you are Christian, Muslim, or believe in ineffable existentialism, etc., the Force is a metaphor for a deeper meaning to existence than merely existing. There is a power fantasy to the protagonists and antagonists being able to use the Force to do amazing, even supernatural things, and to continuously overcome unrealistic odds. The Force being mystical is what raises this story approach above just a matter of characters randomly having super powers with no context. The Jedis are not super heroes, but remain grounded in an older, chivalric idea of heroism.

The new characters are defined and contrasted well, distinctly drawn with personalities, and I think they all have staying power for future films, if they return. (No spoilers!) I find I can care about what happens to the new characters: Poe, Rey, and Finn. Rey is the seemingly orphaned girl was left behind on a desert planet, who exhibits a terror of being abandoned, which makes her plight heartening, and one with which the audience can clearly sympathize. This is a heroine with an arc. Similarly for Finn, who makes a momentous decision to leave behind the life he knew as a stormtrooper to on a journey of discovery as well.

The pacing is very fast, but that is how it was in the original films, too. We barely get to know Poe, Finn, and Rey before they are out having adventures. I liked that. I liked the way the ships looked. I liked how the world felt a little worn and lived-in. These are characters that are relatable. It’s the simplest concept to understand, but it’s no small feat to pull off on a scale like this.

Han Solo was used well. Harrison Ford got to play the character as an old grizzled cowboy, and it was tonally perfect. This is Han with the right motivation to be doing what he is doing, for getting in the trouble he does, and perfectly understandable for why he heads into a fight and adventure without looking back. I was surprised at how much Han and Chewie there were in the film, but it’s what the fans wanted to see, and I found every bit of it worked.

As far as Kylo Ren, I thought the new villain was handled perfectly. Going back and watching ANH, Vader is kind of an enigma in the film. He is a mostly quiet, armored badass who spends much of the time sulking in the corner. He is clearly intimidating, but also someone that the Imperial military commanders feel comfortable in talking back to, or arguing with – even if Vader gets a little force-chokey. Ren is a very well-conceived villain that calls back to this early relationship that Vader had with Tarkin. He is not a single dictator, nor is he just a cool-looking character with no personality like Darth Maul. He’s a powerful villain: scary, but also unstable; he’s young, angry, troubled, and unsure whether he can measure up to Vader’s legacy. This was the best approach I think could be taken for this character.

Okay, being spoiler free: there are deaths. I thought they were handled as well as they could be. We want to see deaths have meaning, and when heroes die heroically, then it is all the better.

A good review which I pretty much entirely agree with by the panel at RedLetterMedia points out that this movie could be considered what Hollywood is calling a “soft reboot” much in the way the Jurassic Park movie this year similarly was not a full reboot, but a fourth sequel to an original trilogy, leading to a new trilogy. In that sense, TFA left me a little deflated. For one, in order to propel the story forward, and to even have an existential threat of an evil empire, there is the implication that what was so hard fought and won in the first trilogy didn’t work out, which is a downer. This reviewer at io9 pointed it out, and I agree, that it does leave one a little disappointed that it is implied that the main characters had an unhappy resolution at the end of RoTJ. Nevertheless, it works. Forward, we go.

::|:: Nerdy Nit-Picking ::|::

So, on disappointments, I have some. For one, the whole obvious call-outs to previous movies just was a little dull. Another super weapon, semi death-star kind of thing? I couldn’t help but think of J.J. Abram’s 2009 Star Trek – another soft-reboot – and Nero and his planet-crunching mining vessel. Beat-for-beat, they are so similar, that I believe that if you were to see this movie without knowing that it was directed by J.J. Abrams, you might guess it from the shockingly repetitive motif here compared to Star Trek.

The biggest gripe I have with the super-weapon is that when you keep upping the ante of super-weapons being more powerful and more intimidating, the less tension you have to play with for the next one. It’s the old “turn it up to 11” conundrum when you want to get louder than loudest.

None of these super-weapons will ever pack the emotional impact of the Death Star in ANH. When Tarkin started blowing up planets, it was a direct reference to fears in the real world. It was a specific callback to the massacres of World War 2, and a very clear analogy to threats of nuclear annihilation hanging over our heads in the 1970s. In ANH, we got not only the cries of Leia when Alderaan is destroyed, but we also see Obi-Wan become instantly upset from feeling the genocide of Alderaan through the Force. All this happens while Tarkin chews the scenery just right – he is practical, rational, so seemingly civilized – and he practically twists his mustache with delight.

In TFA, I don’t get exactly why the First Order wants to destroy planets, and I don’t feel invested in deaths here at all, even though one has to assume they are way up into the millions. If we see the same plot device hit over and over in each movie, each time supposedly raising the stakes, the amount of destruction in this fake world gets depressing, and rather than get invested in it, I just start feeling numb and realize “it’s just a movie.”

It’s ironic that it takes this turn, because otherwise the movie starts out treating deaths very well. The movie establishes in the first scene that deaths are individually a tragic thing, and we see how a single death in the context of a battle is still devastating, even while hundreds of deaths occur around it. I found the cruel, personal deaths, such as the stormtroopers killing innocents in a village as a matter of policy, all made it very clear that the First Order were the bad guys. I was more moved by this than the super-weapon sub-plot.

On a more cynical note, as I watched yet another X-Wing going into trenches to blow up a MacGuffin, I sensed that this was showing me exactly what the video game that comes out eventually will involve. I won’t quibble that it looked very good. In another way that it stands out as superior to the prequels, it didn’t try to go over the top by shoving hundreds and hundreds of ships on screen. Special effects and CGI-wise, it was very well done, because it the right amount of minimalism to be enjoyable. No complaints, technically. Full cheers. However, this part of the storyline just didn’t introduce anything new to me. So I was fine in watching a repeat, but that toe-hold to realistic danger just wasn’t there for me.

The cold war and WW2 analogies from the first movie are a little stale now. The unhinged, unpredictable, violence of a group of fanatics is the kind of thing which is truly scary nowadays; ISIS is a more unnerving threat than a fascist empire. And the storyline filled that role perfectly with an unhinged Kylo Ren. That was already accomplished. A super-weapon sub-plot in the movie added nothing to the tension for me.

A note here on Rey, and I say this isn’t a spoiler beyond what anyone has seen from the trailer. As others have pointed out, I found that there wasn’t much tension with her scenes given that she was just very good at everything that she did. Look, I’m all for “grrrl power” in sci-fi, and enjoyed Rey just for the character that she was. I could accept, for instance, that she was very good at tinkering with gizmos, given that she was a scavenger and mechanic. I bought that she was a skilled fighter and survivor, and she could defend herself from attackers with a melee staff. Still, it was a bit too much that she was also an expert pilot right away. I could have used a throw-away line that she had worked as a freighter pilot on weekends or something, just to make it a little more believable that she could jump into a pilot seat and do barrel rolls in a spaceship.

Much has been made of Luke being a whiney kid in ANH, but that was part of the journey: Luke had to earn Han Solo’s respect. Having Rey show up and instantly earn the respect from other characters because she is so very good at her job was a little weak, story-wise.

::|:: Post-Credit Thoughts ::|::

A last word on the prequels. Walking out of the theater last night, I reflected that I was glad they got the Force right in this one, and then I felt an immense sadness. What a waste of an opportunity the prequels were. I will just note that after seeing TFA, the prequels really come through as just not actually proper movies, but at best could be called experimental films.

I keep thinking, again, how this movie will be constantly compared to the prequels. I kind of wince at that. George Lucas probably feels very hurt and defensive how much more this film will be adored, compared to Episodes I-III.

Quibbles with the prequels are an art unto themselves. Yes, Lucas should have invited more draft revisions to his script, and yes, should have asked someone else to direct, and yes, should have used practical sets and locations to add a sense of reality. Those drawbacks are all on him and maybe his handlers. I feel bad, because, after seeing TFA, I reminded again at how much the original movie was a triumph of using pastiche so successfully, so George Lucas still gets more credit for creating Star Wars than I would give J.J. Abrams for refining it.

There is no character design as “cool” looking in TFA as Darth Maul or General Grievous. But the new characters, Finn, Rey, Poe, and Kylo Ren, all have arcs in which we feel invested, which was completely missing from the prequels. I can easily imagine the prequels being cut up an interspersed as cut scenes for a first-person shooter game wherein you play the part of Obi-Wan Kenobi. I grieve for what a waste it was with Ewan MacGregor playing Obi-Wan, that he wasn’t given a proper journey with which we in the audience could relate to.

The prequels contained beautifully rendered worlds, spaceships, and underwater cities. As digital art, they were magnificent. As settings for a drama performed in front of green screen, they were just flat. This isn’t for lack of any talent Lucas’ team had in creating worlds, but a lack of foresight that the movies weren’t going to work being done the way they were being attempted with purely digital settings. The prequels would have worked better just as cartoons, or produced as video games.

::|:: Bottom Line ::|::

The Force Awakens is easily the fourth best movie in the franchise, and it could be argued it is above Return of the Jedi. I happen to think not, though. RoTJ is crucial to paying off the storyline of ESB. And any Star Wars movie is going to exist in a tough creative space to judge, seeing as it will exist somewhere between The Empire Strikes Back, which is simply one of the best movies of all time, and above the unfortunate prequels.