My Favorite Scenes: Part 1

So while I’m working on some short stories to post, here’s a new series I’m going to start. Analysis of series-wide plot and character arcs takes a long time to write, but what I can do is post about some of my favorite scenes and why they work. These scenes are going to be presented in no particular order, just as I either see them or think of them.

So without further ado:

My Favorite Scenes, Part 1

Attack on Titan:

The Death of Eren’s Mother

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I may do a whole article on Attack on Titan at some point, just because it’s a fascinating story (that totally goes off the rails in Season 2 unfortunately.) Regardless though, Attack on Titan begins with the titular Titans attacking Eren, our main character’s, home. In the chaos a giant boulder lands on his house, crushing his mother’s legs and pinning her in the wreckage. Eren tries to move the wreckage and free her but he lacks the strength, and his mother screams at him to run. Eventually a soldier comes and whisks him and his adoptive sister to safety, leaving his mother to die.

While the entire scene is well done, what I want to talk about is one line in particular.

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Eren’s mother says these words as she watches the soldier fleeing with her children, but she also covers her mouth while she says them, so that Eren and Mikasa won’t hear her. This is an incredibly powerful moment because of how honestly it portrays her fear. Logically she knows that she can’t escape, and that Eren can’t save her, so she does what she has to and tells them to flee. But after she’s done so, she’s left alone with her own terror.

In so many stories, after a character makes a heroic sacrifice like this, they stoically accept their fate. Yet it was this scene from Attack on Titan that struck me as a far more truthful, and therefore more emotionally resonant. Because even if you make that sacrifice, you’re still going to be afraid.

Eren’s mother is so afraid that she cries out to them not to go, but she also covers her mouth so they can’t hear her; she knows that if they hear her, they’ll come back and they’ll all die. It’s the ultimate expression of love and it’s made all the more powerful by the fact that Eren’s mother is still afraid to die, but makes the sacrifice anyway.

Mass Effect:

Ashley or Kaidan’s Death

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This remains one of my favorite gaming moments. In most games, the choices you are able to make are minor ones, mere flavor added to the overall story of the game. Sometimes that flavor is damned good, so good that you could almost mistake it for the meat of the game, but it’s not. Side with that group against another, or take this route instead of that one, in the end it’s all just a sideshow to the main story. This moment from Mass Effect though is different.

For one, you lose the character you sacrifice forever. No heroic rescue at the last minute, no crazy story of resurrection or near-death survival, just dead. You never see that character again. Their voice is forever silenced. It took guts to write that scene, and it took an incredible amount of effort to make it work. For the next two games Bioware had to hire both voice actors back again, write different dialogue for them, and keep them in arms reach of the story. Admittedly it wasn’t perfect, given that they only get a cameo appearance in Mass Effect 2 and are downed for half the game in Mass Effect 3, but I still appreciate the effort.

Ashley Williams

The second, and most important reason, that I love this scene though… is that you lose no matter what decision you make. You can’t save both of them, no matter how hard you try or how well you did on the mission. It’s that simple, inevitable choice that elevates the game to a whole new level, because it’s speaks a fundamental truth that is incredibly hard to accept: you can’t save everyone.

Though most games set their stakes based on the deaths of their characters, at some level we all know that those characters can’t die, and if they do it means game over and restart. Having a character actually die, and forcing you to choose which one, truly made Mass Effect a unique experience.

 

Bojack Horseman: Why Are Your Sleeves Rolled Up?

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I could, and probably should, do a whole article on how amazing Bojack Horseman is, but let’s start with one of my favorite scenes. In Season 2 of Bojack Horseman, Todd, Bojack’s roommate, laments how awkward and clumsy he is. Well Todd is overheard by the stereotypical wise janitor, who points him to a machine that will make him cool. Of course the machine doesn’t do anything, but Todd is just naive and innocent enough to believe that it works, and of course immediately begins acting cool because his confidence is up. At one point he even kisses a biker’s girl, steals his bike, and the biker isn’t even mad because that dude is just so cool.

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And then, of course, he meets with Bojack again, who upon seeing him says:

“Why are your sleeves rolled up like that? It makes  you look weird.”

Todd’s confidence turns to dust and blows away in an instant. What I love about this scene, and it’s something that Bojack Horseman does exceptionally well, is that is shows how easy it is to hurt someone. There are other scenes that do this of course, Bojack Horseman is essentially built on them, but I like the simplicity of this one. Bojack Horseman says some awful shit, where he’s intentionally trying to injure people, but what I like is that this isn’t one of those times. Bojack isn’t being intentionally cruel, to him it was just an observation he was making, he saw something about Todd had changed and so of course he looked “weird” to Bojack.

What this illustrates though, is that Bojack still hurt Todd, and Bojack should have kept his mouth shut. It’s a simple retelling of that old adage “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.” Yet it’s something that I think our society needs to be told more often, because I’ve been Todd so many times. Days where I’ve been feeling great, or even just decent enough to not feel worthless, and then suddenly someone makes an offhand comment.

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I’ve been this, and said this, too many times to count.

A friend of mine once told me I reminded her of a family member, who used to make her cry as a kid because his facial hair scared her. It wasn’t meant to be cruel, she was relaying what was probably a very funny memory to her about her childhood. But to me? It hurt to hear, and to this day I wonder if my facial hair is making me look creepy.

Part of me wishes I was more vocal, that I didn’t spend as much as time as I do worrying about how I word things. Yet at the same time, I’m careful with my words precisely because I know that kind of damage they can do.

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Breaking Walls

[I almost didn’t release this post. Like so many others, I didn’t think that it was good enough. I simultaneously thought that it as both too self-congratulatory and too self-pitying. It was too much about me, who cares about what’s happening in my life? Well, I do for starters. So I’m posting this for me, to remind me of everything I learned.]

It’s been an incredible few weeks for me: I just got from an incredible adventure with my best friend Hali; we spent two weeks in Europe, exploring 9 different cities in 8 countries and walking over 150 miles, an experience so amazing I’ll likely be discussing it in another blog post. Aside from all the great food and experiences, Hali helped me work through a lot of things that have been holding me back in my life. Fears, insecurities, regrets.

While in Berlin, I saw the broken remains of the Berlin Wall. In fact Hali and I even followed it’s old course through part of the city, walking in what would have been no man’s land. 40 years ago we would have been shot for walking in that area. Instead we strolled down streets lined with restaurants and stores.

It was a powerful reminder that walls can be broken down, and that things can get better when they are. I’ve built so many walls to protect myself that even ancient Constantinople would be envious. I’ve made friends yes, but I feel like I’m yelling down at them from the ramparts, never letting them actually get inside.

The First Wall: Stop Isolating Myself

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Oktoberfest in Munich!

This wall has been coming down slowly but surely over the past two to three years; I’m hoping that my trip to Europe heralds the final fall of that wall, because I had a lot of anxieties going on this trip. We’ve been friends for 10 years, but this was the first time we were going to essentially be living together for a solid two weeks. We even had to share a bed on a few occasions. Surely living with my disgusting habits, my boring personality, or just looking at my stupid face would drive her absolutely crazy.

Yet this trip made me realize how truly remarkable our friendship is. I still can’t believe how well we got along, the magical evenings we spent together just laughing over the ridiculous events of our day… how naturally we coexisted. Platonic love between friends is one of the greatest things in the world, and it’s sad how little it’s valued in society when compared with romantic love. It was that love, that connection, that allowed me to open up to Hali about the walls that have come to isolate me.

One of the things that’s always been a source of profound sadness in my life, is that my friends have never been as close as I’d like. With the exception of Hali, I’ve never had a friend I would consider close, and that’s been an incredibly lonely experience. For a long time, my whole life really, I believed that was because I simply wasn’t someone who people wanted to befriend. The reality, though, is that this was my own fault. How could anyone become a close friend of mine, when I’ve closed myself off behind walls taller and thicker than a fortress battlement?

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Yet despite these walls I’ve built, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some incredible people who have never stopped trying to get through them. Nearly three years ago now, I was invited to play Dungeons and Dragons with a small group of friends. These people are some of the most intimidatingly talented people I’ve met; artists, actors, writers, and occasionally philosophers. But while on my trip with Hali, I told her how much I like this group of people and how much I regret that I’m not closer to them.

Yet how can I expect to get closer to them if I never let anything get close?

Hali and I spent around 6 months planning our trip to Europe, but you know when I told my D&D friends about my trip? About two weeks before I left, too afraid they’d think I was bragging about my good fortune. They ask me how my day is, I say it was fine, even if it wasn’t. Heck, they even asked about my trip when I got back and I barely managed to string together a few descriptions of our trip, constantly second-guessing what I should say because I was afraid of boring them.

I need to change this, because I want to experience more the connection I feel with Hali, to be more than just acquaintances with people. I need to destroy these walls I’ve built around myself. They weren’t built in a vacuum, they were built brick by brick by various cruelties through the years, but I’m finally realizing that I was never building a fortress to keep myself safe.

I was building myself a prison.

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It’s time to break out.

 

Wall 2: Start WRITING

This is the biggest wall of them all. I’ve written about it before, several times in fact, but it’s one I’ve never been able to break through. I’m hardly alone in this, Ernest Hemingway once said that:

There’s nothing to writing, all you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

And bleeding sucks.

Nowadays I use my work schedule as an excuse as to why I don’t write. I work 56 hours a week, sometimes more, of course I don’t write who has time? The honest truth is that I do have time, I could spare at least an hour or two a day to writing instead of watching Netflix at the end of the day. I just need to buckle down and do it.

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As amazing as my adventure in Europe was, it was also quite expensive. So on my return I started looking for some extra money to hold myself over. I had some in an old paypal account, a deposit from Patreon and after seeing that, decided to check my old Patreon page. Now honestly I haven’t looked at my Patreon account in years. Why? I figured no one would actually be paying me. I barely update this blog, I don’t have any talent as writer, you pick the excuse I probably told it to myself.

What I saw on my Patreon page almost made me cry. There was close to $300.00 stashed away in that account. It made me both incredibly happy and made me feel awful, because I didn’t earn that money. I didn’t maintain my blog, I ignored all the amazing people who donated it, didn’t do anything I said I would do. Yet I’m so incredibly grateful for everyone who chose to donate, because…my words fail me. I cannot express how grateful I am.

I need to start updating this blog more often, and I think perhaps its time to stop trying to force myself to do reviews just because that what was what was popular. Maybe I need to do what I’ve always wanted to do: post stories, about my life, fiction I’ve written, articles on writing. I’ll still do reviews when the mood strikes me, and I actually have time to play games and watch movies again, but now I think it’s time to switch focus.

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I need to start posting more creative works, and slowly but surely this wall around my writing will come down. And when that happens…

Well who knows what might happen?

Phantom of the Opera

So while I’m trying to get back into writing regularly, I figured I’d take my blog back to its roots and do a review of a stage production. Funnily enough it was my review of a local show, Aeterno Elementum, that first got people reading my blog. Prior to that, I had 3 readers: My mom, dad, and best friend. It was the success of this review, of an amazing show that I really hope comes back soon, that made me feel like I could actually write well and encouraged me to continue writing this blog.

So in the spirit of that feeling, let me talk about my time with The Phantom of the Opera. My first experience with this story came watching the movie version, which I loved. Nearly a decade after its release though, my mom took me to see it on stage, insisting that it was something that had to be experienced. It turned out to be let down, while still fun to watch, it just didn’t move me emotionally. Still though, it’s one my mom’s favorite shows and so when it returned to Seattle this month, I decided to buy us tickets to go see it.

And it was outstanding. The performances were out of this world, the emotion that the actors poured into it was at times almost overwhelming. The Phantom in particular, played by Quentin Oliver Lee,  was amazing and gave such a nuanced performance that it gave me a deeper understanding of the character.

What I want to focus on though, is the stage direction: how the show was put together. Because while all the dialogue and songs were virtually identical to previous shows, how it was presented completely changed the context.

Note: I’ll be using pictures from the film in this post, because obviously I can’t capture screen shots from a play. 

The Phantom of the Opera

A Storytelling Review

Phantom of the Opera

First of all it should be said that my only knowledge of this play comes from having seen this production only once on stage, and then of course my viewings of the film. So when I’m pointing the differences in presentation, that’s where I’m coming from, just in case as you’re reading you suddenly think “hasn’t it always been like that?” It may very well have been, but I’ve never experienced it like this.

What’s truly remarkable is that this wasn’t a radically different show than the others I’d seen, I’d say 99% of this show played out exactly as I knew it would. That 1%, however, changed everything. First of all, let me talk about Christine’s unmasking of the Phantom.

Previous versions I’ve seen have always shown Christine ripping the Phantom’s mask off, which always seemed like a dick move on Christine’s part. I mean, come on Christine, he’s obviously uncomfortable about something behind that mask, why would you just rip it off? It is especially galling that, after ripping off the mask, that she acts horrified by what she sees. Like what were you expecting Christine? Did you think he was wearing the mask because he was just too handsome? Not only does this make Christine seem like kind of a terrible person, it also casts the Phantom in a more sympathetic light.

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Seriously, what the hell Christine?

How would any of us feel if something we tried to keep private and hidden were suddenly and violently exposed? We’d all be angry under those circumstances.

In this version, however, while Christine is sleeping, the Phantom removes his mask and washes the warped flesh of his face with a wash cloth. His back is facing her, so Christine isn’t totally innocent in this, and the way she creeps up on him makes it clear that she wants to see his face. However, that kind of curiosity is understandable, and the way she does it is far less cruel. She walks up behind him and gently places a hand on his shoulder, startling him and making him look over his shoulder at her, which of course reveals his face to her.

This changes the emotional context of the scene, because instead of his anger coming across as a justified reaction to a cruel act, we see his rage is coming from a much darker place. The Phantom is caught in a moment of vulnerability, and the Phantom is furious because she’s behaved unexpectedly, she’s failed to live up to his expectations.

The Phantom has been watching, and loving, Christine from a far for a long time. Finally, after months or possibly years of teaching her, he makes his move: an incredibly romantic serenading of the love of his life. Even better, she seems to accept him, and for a few precious moments there he thinks that this woman could come to love him. For a man who has lived such a profoundly lonely existence, this is probably the happiest day of his life.

And then it’s all reduced to ashes after she sees his face. She sees the shock, horror, and fear on her face, and all his dreams turn to dust. The Phantom loses both his masks in this scene, the physical one that hides his face, and the emotional one that protects him. His cool confidence, his aloofness, and even his seductive qualities are all a mask he’d spent years perfecting for this exact moment.

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Lighting all those candles alone must have taken hours…

His rage at it all falling apart made me realize something about the Phantom; his “love” for Christine is coming from a profoundly selfish place. He built Christine up in his head, he fell in love with the idea of her, and more importantly he fell in love with how Christine made him feel. And when she fails to live up to his expectations, fails to act as he imagined she would act, he loses control and he lashes out violently.

This particular show isn’t afraid to show what a dark and twisted creature the Phantom is. The violence of his reaction to Christine in this show, at one point grabbing her by the hair to force her to look into his face, truly revealed the depths of his madness. It’s refreshing to see a show that’s not afraid to full embrace the darkness of its characters. The Phantom is, of course, a tragic and romantic figure that’s easy to sympathize with, but it also does a disservice to the character, and the story, to not show him as violent and cruel as well. After all it’s that contradiction of the Phantom being both a romantic artist, and a vicious monster, that creates the drama.

By embracing both aspects of the Phantom to their fullest extent, it made me truly feel for the Phantom and elevated the emotional resonance of the story. In fact all the characters felt so much stronger, and more real, in this production. For instance I’ve always felt Christine was too subdued given the horrific events unfolding around her. In this production, Christine had a fire to her that I’d never seen before.

At one point in the play, Carlotta accuses Christine of working with the Phantom to advance her own career. Christine, without missing a beat, replies with a powerful “How dare you!” that surprised both Carlotta and myself. Later, during the song “Point of No Return,” Christine truly throws herself into the role the Phantom wrote for her, to the point where I almost believed she was going to choose the Phantom over Raoul. Of course the real pay off for having such strong characters comes at the end.

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At the end, as the Phantom tells Christine to love him or let Raoul die, as they’re screaming/singing at each other, Christine grabs his music and starts tearing it apart. Again, this is a small change and yet it makes the ending so much more compelling. Christine is angry at the Phantom, she wants to hurt him and she knows exactly how to do it: by destroying the only thing that’s ever brought him peace. The Phantom falls to his knees, desperately grabbing up all the fragments of his music, at one point almost crawling off the stage to grab a sheet that had fallen off.

This change, the viciousness with which Christine attacks what is most precious to the Phantom, adds a new dimension to the ending. As touching as it is that Christine chooses to show compassion in the face of cruelty, how she reaches that decision has never really been clear to me in previous shows. What goes through her mind between screaming “I hate you” and choosing to kiss him? With her shredding his music though, it paints a clearer picture.

Pitiful creature of darkness, what kind of life have you known? – Christine to the Phantom

Christine, in shredding his music, begins to understand what kind of life he’s known. She’s suffered from the Phantom for only a relatively short time, but even in that short time, her first instinct was to repay cruelty with cruelty. It’s in that act of cruelty she realizes she’s doing exactly what the Phantom is doing. The Phantom, having suffered a lifetime of abuse and loneliness, has become as hateful and venomous as the world that shunned him. It was in that desire for revenge, to hurt others the way he’d been hurt, that warped his soul. It’s in that moment she realizes she can’t change him by hurting him, because pain will just continue to feed off itself. Perhaps compassion, however, can beget compassion.

And so comes the famous ending, where once again, a small change made it infinitely more powerful.

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Every other version of Phantom of the Opera that I’ve seen, Christine kisses the Phantom at the end, a long prolonged kiss that ends when the music does signalling his surrender. Christine kisses the Phantom in this version as well, but it’s much shorter, and it was what happened after the kiss that actually moved me to tears:

She hugged him.

She throws her arms around him and hugs him as tightly as she can. And the Phantom doesn’t know what to do, he literally can’t comprehend what she’s doing and he throws his arms wide and almost tries to pull himself away as if afraid she’s attacking. It’s a heartbreaking flourish to his performance because it reveals that the Phantom has been alone so long, gone so long without any affection, that a simple hug is completely alien to him. And as he finally surrenders to it and hugs her back, you can see it’s the hug that finally breaks him, that melts through the cruel shell that he’d protected himself with for so long.

As someone who hated physical contact for a long time, and still isn’t entirely comfortable with it, I can attest to the power of a simple hug. A hug from a good friend can wash away stress and sadness in way nothing else can, so seeing him surrender to a hug? That… that moved me to tears, because I might have easily ended up like the Phantom at one point in my life. Once upon a time, I was so depressed and isolated that I hated the world. Were it not for several good friends who, like Christine, showed compassion (and gave a lot of hugs) my life might have turned out quite differently.

It’s my favorite kind of story: one that reminds me of how lucky I’ve been.

Mythology Creep

I’m now officially over working 6 days a week. At first it was kind of exhilarating, and as I wrote before, added momentum to my life that translated into writing more.

Now it’s just exhausting, and each week gets harder. I haven’t even played a video game in I don’t know how long, which might not be a bad thing considering the quality of games out there right now, but I really want to try out Pillars of Eternity 2. Last movie I found time for was Solo which was a full two months ago, which doesn’t even feel like that long ago because time has turned into an indistinguishable blur.

So instead of reviews, I’m just going to ramble on about writing stuff that fascinates me.

Stuff like:

Mythology Creep

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I’m glad you asked kid, because I’m rant about it for the next 1400 words.

Writing is essentially lying, and just like lying, you have to keep the lie straight if you want to be believed. Mythology creep is what happens when your lie gets too outrageous.

I ran a mile yesterday.

I ran a mile yesterday in 15 minutes.

I ran two miles yesterday in 10 minutes while wearing a 50-pound backpack.

I ran two miles yesterday while wearing a 50-pound backpack and I ran faster than anyone ever has.

That’s mythology creep in a nutshell, the lie gets bigger and more outrageous with every telling, until eventually it’s just not believable anymore. This is typically a problem that pops up in stories written by multiple people. Sometimes it’s an honest mistake, like a game of telephone, where a writer simply doesn’t remember how the event was originally written. Most of the time though, it’s a deliberate choice, and often one made with the best of intentions. They want to “add to the history” or “elaborate on past events”, which are both phrases I’m sure you’ve seen thrown around by creators of prequels and origin stories.

The most famous example of this is, of course, the Midichlorians from The Phantom Menace. George Lucas wanted to elaborate more on the force, to add to the mythos, and in doing so destroyed everything that was great about it. Reducing the mystical Force, described with such simplistic beauty by Alec Guinness, and turning into some weird kind of bacterial infection was just bizarre.

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You don’t need to tell us how the force works. Move along.

Another example you might be familiar with: Cerberus from the Mass Effect series. Cerberus as presented in the original Mass Effect was a radical terrorist organization dedicated to furthering humanity’s interests at any cost. While obviously well-funded and aided by elements inside the government and military, they were a relatively small organization. By Mass Effect 3 Cerberus was a massive conglomerate with its own formidable military, both willing and able to strike hardened military targets in alien space. It unfortunately grew out of proportion to the kind of story they were telling.

Star Trek is the story I want to focus on though. Star Trek remains one of my all-time favorite show, but they also have some of the worst cases of mythology creep in the business, so I’m going to pick on them for this article.

One of my favorite episodes in The Next Generation is “The Final Mission,”  Wesley Crusher’s last episode as a regular cast member. He and Captain Picard end up stranded on a desert planet where Picard is gravely injured. Picard, believing that he will likely die before help arrives, tells Wesley about Boothby, a man he met at Starfleet Academy. When Wesley asks what subject Boothby teaches, Picard just smiles and tells Wesley that Boothby is the groundskeeper at Starfleet Academy, a man that Picard came to befriend and who obviously meant a great deal to him.

To most, a groundskeeper is invisible, part of the very landscape they’re tending. For Captain Picard to befriend this man meant that he went out of his way to do it and that said something special about Captain Picard’s character. It was also a great moment between Picard and Wesley, as Picard tries to share with Wesley something beautiful from his life in what Picard believes are his final hours.

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Unfortunately Voyager then rolled up and ruined everything. Boothby was turned into the mascot of Starfleet Academy with Boothby giving Captain Janeway flowers for her room and teaching Chakotay how to box. One wonders when he ever had time to actually get any gardening done when he apparently mentoring every single officer in the academy.

Another big one that always bothered me was the Battle of Setlik 3; a raid by the Cardassians against a Federation civilian outpost. This is a key battle in Chief O’Brien’s life, because it was the first time he’d ever killed a man. Now when the Chief originally tells the story, to a Cardassian visiting the Enterprise, Setlik 3 is a tiny skirmish. He describes a “squad of Cardassians” attacking a small Federation Outpost. It’s only significance was to Chief O’Brien himself, because the trauma of being forced to kill someone forever changed him. Chief O’Brien describing his experiences on Setlik 3 to a Cardassian, years later, is one of my favorite scenes and Colm Meaney’s delivery is haunting.

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“It’s not you I hate Cardassian; I hate what I became, because of you.”

However in the season 5 episode of Deep Space 9, “Empok Nor”, Garak describes the battle of Setlik 3 like this:

“We all know your distinguished war record; how you led two dozen men against the Barrica encampment and took out an entire regiment of Cardassians.” – Garak to Miles O’Brien

Now I have no idea how many soldiers are in a Cardassian regiment, but in human armies a regiment can range from between 2000 and 5000 soldiers. Now my problem isn’t so much the odds against Chief O’Brien, there are historical precedents for small groups being able to rout or capture much larger forces. No, my problem is that this completely changes the story of Chief O’Brien, and not for the better.

The Battle of Setlik 3 from The Next Generation gave us the story of a young Miles O’Brien struggling to save a family, of a young kid terrified of swatting a misquito suddenly being forced to kill someone. It was a story of vulnerability, opening up to a hated enemy to tell them exactly why he hates them. It also revealed profound elements of O’Brien’s character, that beneath his easy-going demeanor, the man suffered from such overwhelming guilt that had turned into an intense hatred for the people who had forced him into killing. It was a deeply personal story that enriched the character.

Meanwhile the Battle of Setlik 3 from Deep Space 9 gives us Chief O’Brien the Hero. A larger than life character who almost single-handedly defeated an entire Cardassian Regiment and saved the entire colony from destruction. It places Chief O’Brien in the pantheon of great conqueror-heroes like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Yet at the same time it doesn’t tell us anything about his character, which makes it an inferior story. Maybe, if we learned more about how that scared young kid who was horrified at killing a single person, went on to kill or capture thousands, it might have deepened the story.

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As it is though, it’s throwaway line from Garak in order to reinforce Chief O’Brien as a badass, which was completely unnecessary because the audience already knew that. It turned a complex, three-dimensional character into a caricature.

The absolute worst example of this mythology creep is with Dr. Julian Bashir from Deep Space 9 when they reveal that he’s actually genetically engineered. Now as with most Star Trek characters, Julian was almost supernaturally intelligent character but in no way was it necessary to make him genetically engineered. Making him genetically engineered in and of itself wasn’t the problem, the problem was the profound changes it made to the character virtually overnight. Before this episode, Julian was this fun, outgoing guy who had an insatiable scientific curiousity and a love of conversation.

He also had his faults, he could be intrusive and a bit of a loudmouth. His vast knowledge sometimes made him come across as arrogant and aloof. He also made mistakes, missing a question on his final exam meant he didn’t make Valedictorian. Despite being highly intelligent and successful, his failure to make valedictorian was a failure Dr. Bashir couldn’t come to grips with. It was something that spoke to a deeper insecurity, the fear that he never really measured up, that he was never good enough. That made him relatable, and thus a stronger character.

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Easily one of the strongest and well-rounded characters in Star Trek.

But then a few seasons later, when it’s later revealed that he’s genetically engineered this whole storyline is retroactively damaged. He didn’t make a mistake on his final exam, he actively held himself back so as not to draw attention. His weekly dart games with Miles, and the charming back-and-forth between the two, was based on lies as Dr. Bahsir was intentionally losing.

And that’s the biggest problem with mythology creep, the retroactive damage it does to the much better stories that came before. It often ends making the story worse, it can cheapen and degrade the very stories that inspired someone to try expand on them. That’s not always the case of course, some prequels and origin stories are amazing. Star Wars Rebels did a great job adding to the Star Wars canon without undermining the stories that take place after. Similarly, I thought Star Wars: Rogue One was great as well.

I’d love to point out a Star Trek prequel that did this well, but, so far neither Enterprise nor Discovery have succeeded in this regard. I still need to do a proper review of Star Trek: Discovery but I have no idea when I’ll find the time to do that.

All That Matters is the Ending: Solo

Solo is a fun watch, it has a lot of laughs, and some great performances; especially from Donald Glover, who sounded so much like Billy Dee Williams that at first I thought they got him to dub over Donald Glover’s lines. Yet it was also an intensely disappointing film for me, not because it was a bad film, but because it came so close to being truly great that it just broke my heart that it didn’t get there. Had a little more time been spent on the story, and on building up the relationships between characters, this might have been my favorite Star Wars film of all time.

Now this is a negative review of the film, but it’s also meant to be constructive, as I hope all my reviews are. I’ve been hearing some distressing things about fans harassing actors, writers, and other creators of Star Wars because they’re unhappy with one element or another. While I’d hope all my readers are upstanding citizens of the human race, I do not want to see anyone using my reviews as an excuse to attack, harass, or threaten any of the creators of Solo.  If you do, I will be very upset, and as someone who is big and hairy enough to be mistaken for a Wookie, I may very well rip your arms out of your sockets if you upset me.

As a good friend of mine says: “Don’t be a dick.” 

Now, sit back, relax, and read my thoughts on why Solo missed out on being a truly epic film.

All That Matters is the Ending:

Solo

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This film reminds me a little of Battlestar Galacticain that Solo somehow ends up being less than the sum of its parts. It has great performances, stunning scenes, and certain parts have some terrific writing. Yet it never reaches its full potential. I kept waiting for a scene that would make me cry, or give me a warm fuzzy feeling like hugging a Wookie, or make me laugh so hard my sides would ache.

Yet it never managed to, as Han would put it, “punch it” and instead just coasts along on its Star Wars laurels. It never pushes the envelope, never takes a risk, and thus never truly soars. To use a metaphor from The Good Place, if I were ever condemned to The Medium Place, the only Star Wars film available would be Solo.

So why is it such a medium film? Well:

3. Not Enough Focus on the Details

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Much like this picture, the story is foggy and unfocused.

Solo has a great premise: showing us Han’s life on Corellia, how Chewie and Han became friends, and the beginning of Han’s career as a smuggler. There’s a strong plot to keep the story moving: the heist of Hyperfuel for Dryden Vos. And of course there’s such a great cast of characters to play off each other. Yet Solo never delves below the surface, it introduces characters, ideas, and settings but never truly explores them.

We start on Corellia, but the story is in such a rush to get where it’s going that it glosses over the most important parts. For instance apparently Han pulls a brilliant (or possibly just foolhardy) bait-and-switch, and narrowly escapes a gang with some refined Hyperfuel. Yet instead of showing us how he pulled off this scam, and thus giving his character some credibility as a con artist and criminal, it skips that part and starts with his escape. The film does this again and again.

Han’s time with the Imperial Navy; Qi’ra’s dark history with the Crimson Dawn; Chewie’s life as a slave; Lando’s life as a smuggler and gambler.

All of these elements are introduced, and then quickly abandoned as the plot rushes to its next story point. The plot is in such a rush to get where it’s going, that it glosses over important elements of its own story, especially during the Kessel Run.

Alien monster
Nice monster but… what was the point?

People have speculated on the exact nature of the “The Kessel Run” since Han Solo first mentioned it in A New Hope. Yet the version we see on screen is so haphazardly presented that it doesn’t feel like the amazing accomplishment that it should. L3-37 pilots the Falcon through the Maelstrom so easily she’s obviously bored doing it, and if there are markers lighting the way then why is making the Kessel Run such a big deal?

The worst part is the actual heist on Kessel itself. Not only did I not understand the plan, I felt like the characters didn’t even have a plan. I mean aside from Qi’ra pretending to be a slaver to get their foot in the door, the rest of the heist seems to consist of “start shooting and hope for the best”. Yet just before it starts Beckett tells Han to stick to the plan and not to improvise, but if anything it seemed like the entire team was improvising the entire time.

I mean it would be one thing if the team had gone in with a plan and then it all went to hell and they were forced to improvise, but it’s quite another to attempt to pull off this ambitious heist with no plan whatsoever. The fact that the characters succeed through dumb luck rather than careful planing undermines their credibility as skilled thieves and con artists.

Without seeing the finer points of these events, and the planning involved, we never get to see how Han learns to be a outlaw. Solo is in such a rush to tell its story that it misses the finer details, and loses all the subtle nuances that make stories truly come alive. It’s this lack of nuance that leads to:

2. The Characters Never Come Alive

Han and Chewie
The film needed more moments like this.

The biggest misstep Solo makes is in ignoring its characters in favor of a breakneck pace of plot development.

Going back to the Kessel Run: Chewie finds his family, or tribe, or maybe just fellow Wookies (the film fails to make clear what exactly is happening there.) Based on his goodbye with the other Wookie, I’m assuming it was family, but who knows. At the end though, Chewie chooses to go back to help Han and abandons his people to do it.

But why?

I never felt like Chewie and Han’s relationship was given enough time to grow,  and definitely not enough to justify that kind of loyalty. This scene might have made more sense had Han actually helped Chewie free the Wookies. Instead Han essentially abandons the big guy, just tosses him a weapon and says good luck. That was the most disappointing moment in this whole Kessel sequence, because if Han couldn’t be bothered to help free Chewie’s family… then why does Chewie feel such loyalty toward him? Why do all the Wookies come back to help him carry the fuel when he didn’t lift a finger to help their escape?

Han and Chewie are such an iconic pair and yet the film spends precious little time actually developing their relationship. Or actively sabotaging it.

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Hey Chewie, remember when I tried to abandon you and your family in the worst place in the galaxy?

Instead the film takes the relationship for granted. “You know these guys are best friends in Star Wars right? Well it was always like that!” The film seems to tell us. In fact it takes every relationship and every character for granted.

Han for instance: “Best Pilot in the Galaxy” he boasts. Yet the movie skips over his entire career in the Imperial Navy and we never even get to see the moment he first learns to fly a ship or even his first trip into space. Pivotal moments in the life of a young man who dreamed of flying. More to the point, we don’t get to see how young Han reacts to the strict discipline of a military institution. Yes, a rebellious young man like Han is going to hate the military, but how he rebels is an important part of his story. Again, without the details, there is no story.

Worse still is Han’s relationship with Beckett.

Solo and Beckett
You’d think Han Solo’s relationship with his mentor would warrant more than just a smattering of dialogue.

Han Solo tries to convince Beckett to take him on his crew after their battle, and when that fails tries to blackmail him by threatening to turn Beckett into the authorities. Beckett then expertly turns this around on Han and has him arrested as a deserter. This is an important scene because the way Beckett coolly tells the ranking officer that they’ve apprehended a deserter, is the same cool confidence that Harrison Ford embodied as Han Solo. This, I thought, is where Han Solo learned how to play the game. Beckett is the mentor that taught Solo how to survive. That’s the story Solo tries to tell, but because again, it didn’t actually focus on their relationship, it fails to tell it well.

Beckett never teaches Han anything, the one piece of wisdom he imparts of not trusting anyone, Han dismisses as a lonely way of living. Nor do we see Han observe how Beckett works and try to emulate him. It felt like watching The Sting but with 90% of Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s scenes cut, leaving us with just the barest whiff of a relationship. And unfortunately it’s this lack of development between Beckett and Solo that leads to the ending feeling so flat.

1. The Ending is Unearned

Solo

At the end of the film, when Han turns the tables on Beckett, he tells him:

was paying attention – Han Solo to Beckett

Unfortunately the film never shows us Solo paying attention or learning anything at all, and thus this whole scene falls flat. Eventually conning the conman doesn’t work unless we see Han Solo become a con man himself. Regardless of the fact Han has lived a rough life on Corellia, the character we meet in this film is actually very naive. And that’s fine, seeing how Solo learned how to turn a trick and stay alive was a big part of the appeal of this film, but not only does it not show us that, it actually shows us the opposite.

Han fails in his every attempt to con the people around him. First he fails trying to intimidate Beckett. Then he tries to bluff his way through a conversation with Qi’ra, acting like he’s a big shot, and fails to convince her. He tries to beat Lando at cards, and ends up being hustled himself. This scene really damages his credibility as an outlaw. Han grew up on the streets of Corellia running scams but it never occurs to him that maybe an infamous card shark who is known to risk his ship on wagers, might just be cheating?

Lando
Does this look like the face of a liar? The answer is obviously yes.

When Enfys Nest corners them, he tries to bluff his way past them too, and again he fails spectacularly. It would be one thing if we’d see him learn something, anything, from all these failures, but we never see him try new strategies or change his approach at all.

He’s consistently and repeatedly outplayed by everyone around him. Yet in the end, the movie expects us to believe that this kid manages to outplay not only Beckett, his mentor and a man with decades of experience, but also Dryden Vos, a ruthless criminal kingpin that even Beckett is afraid of? No, the story simply doesn’t earn that kind of ending.

Toward’s the end of the film Qi’ra calls him the good guy and Han responds:

I’m an Outlaw!

Lando-Calrissian-playing-sabacc-in-Solo-A-Star-Wars-Story.jpg
Says the kid who couldn’t see this scam coming from a mile away.

To which the entire audience laughed, but the fact the line is so funny is the core of the problem. For this ending to work, at this point in the film Han needed to have been established as someone who can come across as an outlaw, even if we all know he’s the good guy. If he can’t even sell that one line, the simple declaration that he’s an outlaw, then I literally can’t believe that he’d be able to outplay both Beckett and Dryden Voss. I also can’t believe that he would shoot his mentor through the heart.

This wasn’t in the middle of a battle in the heat of the moment, this was a cold and ruthless move. This should have been the emotional climax of Han’s story arc, where the naive kid we met at the start of the film becomes the cynical and jaded outlaw that does what he has to to survive. I wanted to be moved when Han shot Beckett. I really did, I wanted this film to be that good. However Han never earns this moment; nothing about the affable and ultimately harmless Han that I’d been watching for the entire film gave me any indication he was capable of this kind of ruthlessness.

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The kid we meet in Solo never becomes the man who shoots Greedo first.

Perhaps Disney didn’t want to show how Han Solo became the cynical smuggler in a single film and wants to draw it out over a trilogy. Fair enough, but if that’s the case, then this was the wrong story to be telling.

This could have been fixed by changing the ending, of course. As it is, aside from Han shooting his mentor through the heart, this is as close to a “happily ever after” as we were ever going to get from a Han Solo film. Instead it should have embraced the darkness of the world it was showing. This Star Wars showed us the ugly side of this universe, where there are no Jedi to hide the poverty and suffering. This is the world so devoid of mercy and compassion that it made Han think The Force was “superstitious nonsense.”

In fact the cold, matter-of-fact way in which Beckett’s entire crew dies (including his girlfriend) made me think this was the way the story was originally heading. That was only reinforced by the rather haunting way L3-37 dies later on in the film.

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A brief aside: Did anyone else think it was kind of disturbing that the droid who wanted nothing more than equal rights and free will ends up being permanently enslaved in the Falcon?

Instead of Han’s plan succeeding, despite having failed to distinguished himself as a conman for virtually the entire movie, show his plan failing utterly. Show us Qi’ra being gutted by Dryden Voss, and the resistance fighters being cut to pieces by his ruthless mercenaries. Show us this as the moment when Han Solo realized the world he was living in: a brutal and unforgiving one. Give us the moment where all his youthful enthusiasm, the same trait that he finds so repulsive in Luke’s character, is viciously murdered by the circumstances of his life.

Imagine how much more poignant that would have been when taken in a larger context of the original trilogy. For instance, when Han Solo listens dismissively to the briefing for the attack on the Death Star, we could see this scene from a new perspective. Suddenly he’s not just dismissive because of the odds stacked against the Rebels, but because it sounds like the brash optimistic plan he once had… the one that got everyone killed.

The Han Solo we meet in A New Hope regards Luke as an idealistic, naive kid and Solo shows us that Han started off in much the same way. What the film should have showed is how life on Corellia, and later as a deserter and outlaw, ground Han down and hardened him into the cynical smuggler that Harrison Ford embodied. Instead it shows us Han succeeding through odds so incredible he probably deserves a lightsaber of his own. So what was it in his life that turned Han from the affable kid in Solo to the world-weary smuggler? Why doesn’t he fly off with Enfys Nest at the end, what is it about their struggle he doesn’t sympathize with if everything worked out just fine for them?

Enfys Nest
Though I do hope to see Enfys Nest again, I think she probably has a fascinating story.

Solo needed to bridge the gap between the young Han we meet in the film and the jaded Han Solo we meet in A New Hope. Or at the very least, lay the foundation for that story for it to continue into another film. Yet it didn’t do either of those things. Instead it asked us to believe that the young Han Solo is exactly the same as the Han Solo that Luke meets in Mos Eisley, even though the film shows him constantly failing to live up to that reputation. That was too much to ask of the audience, or at least too much to ask of me.

Here’s hoping that Han Solo film will finally introduce us to Han Solo.

The Homeworld Series

Everything is changing and I suppose that’s life: change. For the past few months I’ve been working 6 days a week at my job, which has been rewarding but exhausting. I’m also going to dance classes three days a week after work, and on Friday nights I play Dungeons and Dragons with some great friends of mine (which I need to write a post about, because it’s amazing.) And I’m in the home stretch of finishing the second-draft of my first book (well, first book written to completion anyway). Strangely enough, despite being so busy, I’ve never been writing more consistently than I have now.

When I was totally unemployed with tons of free time I barely wrote anything aside from the occasional post here. Now with so much going on my in my life, I feel like there’s a momentum to everything I do. The constant challenges of my work, learning to dance, and the remarkable storytelling I take part in every Friday at D&D have sharpened my focus on writing. I feel like I’ve done more writing these past few weeks than I have in years. If I could have been writing like this years ago, I could have finished this book far sooner.

All that being said, my time to play video games and watch all the shows and movies I need to has been considerably cut down. God of War, the remake of a favorite game of mine, has come out but I still don’t own a Playstation 4. The irony is that even though I can now afford to buy one, I still don’t know when I’d find the time to play it. The new Pillars of Eternity comes out next month, and I’m incredibly excited to play that. Even though I hated the ending of the first one, I loved the potential I saw for the setting they created. Plus I said in my review that I wished I could be a sailor in the game, and now the sequel is going to let us sail a ship, so I’m sold.

But again, with only an hour or two of free time every day, who knows how long that will take to finish. I love writing this blog though, and I love writing about games. So until my work starts hiring more people and I’m not covering every shift, I think I’ll try writing about old games. Ones that have stuck in my mind so clearly, that I don’t need to replay them to write a review of them.

So let’s talk about Homeworld. The late 90’s were truly the golden age of science fiction gaming, most of the titles released in that period have yet to be equaled even today.  1999 was an especially good year, since it saw the release of two of my all time favorite games: Freespace 2 and Homeworld. I’ll be talking about Freespace 2 in the next article, but right now I want to talk about Homeworld. The first to prove that even a Real-Time-Strategy game could tell an emotional story.

Homeworld

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Homeworld is undoubtedly a masterpiece, and not just because it innovated true 3D warfare and introduced all kinds of game mechanics that are still in use today, but because it told a truly moving story about finding home. What’s even more remarkable is that the majority of Homeworld’s story is told through its gameplay, its art direction, its music, and most importantly, the performance of its voice actors.

For the uninitiated, Homeworld told the story of how the Kushan return to their original Homeworld, but then you might have guessed that from the title. After discovering an ancient ship in the deserts of Kharak, the planet they’re living on, they discover the “guide-stone” that reveals that they are not indigenous to Kharak and that their original home is actually halfway across the galaxy. So they set off to find it.

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In one of the coolest ships ever.

That alone was enough to hook me on the story, and yet that wasn’t enough for Relic, who decided to up the ante. After a brief tutorial, the Mothership tests its new Hyperdrive and rendezvous with a support ship that’s been using conventional engines to travel to the outskirts of the system. Unfortunately the Mothership arrives to find the support ship destroyed by strange aliens. The Mothership and its complement of fighters easily dispatch what they assume is the first wave of an invasion and return home to fortify their world.

Only to find it burning.

When Karen says “Kharak is burning, everything’s gone,” it definitely hits you right in the feels, but I think the most masterful line is the one spoken by the strategic officer:

Kharak is being consumed by a firestorm, the scaffold has been destroyed, all orbital facilities destroyed, significant debris ring in low Kharak orbit. Receiving no communication from anywhere in the system… not even beacons.

I absolutely love this line because it says so much about the character of a man whose name we never even learn. Everything this man has known, his family, his home, and most of his civilization has been reduced to ashes. Yet in the face of this horrific event the man falls back on his training and immediately begins giving you a strategic analysis of the situation.

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Not even beacons…

Yet it’s those last three words that hit hardest, because the actor’s voice wavers just ever so slightly. The gravity of the situation begins to dawn on him and he struggles to maintain his composure. It’s a brilliant reading of a terrific script that knows to convey profound emotion. The dialogue adds so much depth and drama to the story, such as in the next sequence when they interrogate the Taiidan captain.

The subject did not survive interrogation.

This is a gold mine of emotion and adds to the pervading sense of tragedy that these early missions create. The makers of Homeworld could have taken the easy way out and made the Kushan a saintlike race so that we continue to sympathize with them. Having the Taiidan captain die during interrogation might have alienated us from the Kushan, but the information is conveyed in such a way that it only deepened my connection them, because now I could empathize with them. Yes, it sucks Kharak was destroyed, but since I’ve never seen Earth destroyed before my very eyes, I had no emotional foundation to draw from.

Earth being burned.jpg
Correction: I’ve never seen Earth destroyed that quickly before my very eyes.

The fact the Taiidan captain dies while being tortured shows just how angry the Kushan are, and I could relate to that because it made me realize that’s exactly how I’d be feeling in their shoes. Torturing a man to death is a reprehensible crime, an atrocity, and yet in this circumstance their crime is understandable. Yet the matter-of-fact way that the Taiidan’s death is relayed tells us that his death brought no satisfaction, did nothing to ease their pain.

There is so little dialogue in this game that if I wrote it all down I wonder if it would even break two thousand words, and yet that dialogue tells volumes. And what its dialogue could not tell, its music told instead. Homeworld features one of the most truly beautiful soundtracks in gaming history, and in many ways the Battlestar Galactica remake took a lot of notes from Homeworld. From the rapid drumbeat that heralded the arrival of the Turanic raider to the haunting sadness of the chorus as Kharak burns, the music always drew you into the emotion of the scenes.

Of course one of the most revolutionary ways Homeworld told its story, was in its gameplay. The Mothership is alone with no support and no reinforcements, trying to survive in a hostile universe it doesn’t fully understand, and I could feel that while I was playing. After every level I greedily sucked up every natural resource because I never had enough to build everything I needed. I cautiously probed enemy defenses when I could, feinting and flanking the Taiidan rather than risk a frontal attack. I felt a pang of regret for every ship I lost because it meant one less ship to retake my homeworld with. One of my favorite tactics was stealing my enemy’s ships using salvage corvettes and by the final mission to retake my Homeworld I had a hodgepodge fleet of ships from every race I’d encountered.

This is the core of what made the story of Homeworld feel so authentic. Even with all its wonderful dialogue, music, and art direction, Homeworld would have felt hollow if the gameplay hadn’t reflected the story’s reality. If it had played like all the other RTS games at the time, pumping out a nigh endless stream of units, I would no longer have felt the struggle of the Kushan.

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Pfft, you call that a fleet?

I know this for a fact because that’s exactly how I felt playing the Remastered edition of Homeworld. It looks much prettier, but with Homeworld 2’s questionable mechanics, much of the struggle that was such a defining point of the original game is lost. If you’ve never played Homeworld before, I highly recommend you play the Classic version before trying the remastered version.

And speaking of classic games…

Homeworld: Cataclysm

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To my knowledge, Homeworld: Cataclysm is the only example of a Real-Time-Strategy/Horror game (or at least the only one that succeeded in horrifying me). Horror often relies on making the audience feel afraid for their own life, but how can you do that in an RTS when you’re perspective is one of an overseer not directly involved in the story. As the player, we’re never in danger while playing an RTS. Again the answer is in how the script is written, how the actors deliver it, and how the story is reflected in the gameplay.

The story of Cataclysm is set some years after the Mothership returns to Hiigara, and instead of leading the last of your people to salvation, the player is tasked with helping a bunch of miners try to survive another day.  After an introductory mission against Imperial Taiidan forces, the miners aboard the Kun-Laan, the mothership in Catacylsm, finds a strange beacon in space. This beacon proves to be a carrier for a horrific space-borne plague that becomes known as The Beast.

One of the most unnerving cutscenes is the one where an engineer gives you a briefing on the Beast. The actor really sells it here, and you can practically hear him wipe the terror sweat from his brow as he haltingly describes the horror of the Beast’s abilities. It’s truly a skin-crawling moment in the game that drives home the horror this particular space zombie.

Again, this is reflected in the gameplay as well. Watching an entire strike force of fighters and corvettes being turned against me was truly horrifying, especially when accompanied by the screams of the pilots as they’re infected. For the first few missions, until you come up with a defense against the infection beam, all you can do is desperately run from The Beast.

The horror element does wear off as the game progresses, but this also serves the narrative the game is telling. The first mission with your mining ship, the Kuun-Lan, is to help fend off a raid by Imperial Taiidan forces. When you arrive, this is what the commander says:

We’ll send everything we’ve got, but be advised this is a mining vessel. It would be best if we don’t have to move directly into the main battle.

This is perfectly reasonable, as the Kuun-Lan is a gigantic floating target with only the most rudimentary of defenses. However, 15 missions later, after building a fleet and installing a massive siege cannon on the Kuun-Lan, this is how the commander speaks when he arrives to save Republic Taiidan forces:

Try to hang on Republican fleet! This is the Kith Somtaaw Warship Kuun-Lan, we’ll send reinforcements while you regroup.

Battle-hardened and armed with weapons specifically designed to kill The Beast, Kuun-Lan dives headlong into the conflict without hesitation. It was a confidence that perfectly matched the bold tactics needed to win the battle. And it was the perfect ending to the story of how a bunch of marginalized miners saved the galaxy from destruction.

 

Homeworld 2

So after two amazing games the wheels came off this franchise like some kind of wheeled… mothership that… lost its… wheels? Damn, I swore I had something for this.

Deserts of Kharak Mothership.jpg
Ah, there it is.

To this day I still don’t understand how a company that told such well written stories ended up with such a jumbled and confused story for its long anticipated sequel. The story of Homeworld 2 is so strangely disjointed and badly written that I can’t even think of a way to write a decent synopsis, which is why I’ll just post the crappy synopsis Relic wrote for it:

Long ago you returned from exile, but now fate will not be so kind. Your enemies thirst for victory. Your struggle is only just begun. […]

That’s the blurb from the back of the Homeworld 2 box and it should have set off red flags immediately, because this blurb doesn’t actually say anything about the story.  I can’t say I blame the writer of the blurb either, because even I can’t figure out how to describe this story.

The trouble starts with the opening monologue; it begins by telling us of the three mystical hyperspace cores. Now I don’t have a problem with retroactively adding more mystical elements to the Homeworld universe because the original game had its own aura of mysticism throughout. However, Homeworld 2 doesn’t create the lore necessary to make us care about these mystical elements. Not to mention it contradicts itself almost immediately by saying the second core is discovered on Kharak. Well, no it can’t have been, because the Hiigarans took it with them when they fled their homeworld. You could say it was rediscovered, but that obviously wasn’t the original discovery.

The bigger problem though, comes a few sentences later.

This is the end time. We know this, because the Third Core has been found. Under the dark influence of this core, the Taiidan have risen under a new leader, a Vaygr Warlord named Makaan. He calls himself the Sajuuk-Khan: The Chosen One.

Makaan.jpg
What am I looking at here? Is he just a head on life-support like Futurama?

So, what’s a Vaygr? Is that a different kind of species? Why are the Taiidan following him? Why is the third core a dark influence, is it like some kind of Sith holocron type deal? Why is he called the chosen one?

We do learn the answer to some of these questions, but often the answers come too late for us to care or raise even more questions. Eventually two or three missions before the end of the game Makaan calls the Vaygr “warriors of the outer reaches” but by that time I was long past caring. It also still doesn’t answer why the Taiidan follow him. What happened to the Taiidan Republic?

We do find out that the old Kith clans worshipped Sajuuk as a god. However why do the Vaygr share the same belief? Could it be that the Vaygr are also Hiigaran, much like the denizens of the Gardens of Kadesh in the first Homeworld? Is so, that would have been a good story. Unfortunately no one ever says so.

 

Then there’s a lot of talk about the Great Progenitors? Who the hell were they? And, which I found much more fascinating, what destroyed them? Who knows, because the game sure as hell doesn’t.

Keeper
Also, introducing a bullshit invulnerable enemy is just bad game design.

When I first met the Great Harborship of Bentus, Karen S’jet called it the last of the Bentusi. But the game never explains what happened to the rest of them, did they all leave during the events of Cataclysm? Did the Vaygr hunt them down? If so, why?

So many questions left unanswered meant the game didn’t end up saying anything about its story, its characters, or about the lore of Homeworld.

The saddest part is that at the end of the game, after all this mystical build up, Sajuuk is just some derelict ship floating dead in space. It doesn’t even look that impressive, it’s about the same size as the Mothership if not smaller, and looks like a malnourished Gooey Duck. It has a more powerful cannon than the dreadnought, but you only get to use it for one mission before the credits roll.

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The whole premise of Homeworld 2 is built on some prophesy or some such that’s never elaborated on and thus made the whole story suck., however Homeworld 2 did end up prophesying something successfully. It prophesied the rise of multiplayer games with tacked-on single player campaigns. Homeworld came out in the Golden Age of 1999, but by 2003 when Homeworld 2 was released and internet connections were growing faster and faster, multiplayer games were becoming more popular. So Relic sacrificed its story, wasted all the magnificent world-building from the first two games, in order to try and make more money with its multiplayer component.

And nearly 20 years later, we’ve arrived where we’re at today: with only a smattering of worthwhile single-player games being released every year, buried beneath a mountain of multiplayer-driven garbage. Maybe one day we’ll get a Homeworld 3 that will pretend Homeworld 2 never happened, but will it tell a story worth the telling?

Somehow, I doubt it.

 

Star Wars Rebels Perfected the Lightsaber Duel

Let’s talk about lightsaber fights.

One of the big problems with the Star Wars prequels was the lightsaber duels. I’ll be the first to admit that the choreography for those fights was amazingly complex and, most of the time, looked great. However that complexity was a double-edged sword; it was often so complex, and so fast, that it felt like the actors were struggling to keep up with the movements. The lightsabers sometimes barely even made contact before they were rushing into the next movement. Compare that to the final battle between Luke and Darth Vader, where you can feel the anger in Luke’s blows as he just wails on Darth Vader like a maniac.

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You could feel the emotion in each blow of Luke’s lightsaber and that’s what helped carry the scene. Revenge of the SIth had a few moments where you could feel the emotion of the battle, such as when Anakin chokes Obi-wan, but for every moment like that you had ten ridiculous moments like this:

 

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Star Wars Rebels helped rehabilitate lightsaber duels, and it did so by working its way through a lot of the bad habits the Prequels set into motion. For instance I hated the Inquisitor’s lightsaber, turning such a cool weapon into a glorified fan blade not only looked ridiculous, but again also robbed fights of their emotional storytelling. The helicopter escapes were especially stupid. However you can also see that the Inquisitor’s lightsaber was just a natural extension of the increasingly gimmicky fights that plagued the Prequel trilogy. To a certain extent even the new trilogy still suffers from this, as demonstrated by Kylo Ren’s bizarre cross guard.

Star Wars Rebels moved past this bad habit of adding more elaborate moves and exotic weapons by remembering that these battles are supposed to tell a story. When they started focusing on that, they perfected the lightsaber duel.

 

How Star Wars Rebels Perfected the Lightsaber Duel

 

The lightsaber fights in season 1 of Rebels weren’t bad by any means, but it’s not until the close of season 2 that Star Wars Rebels hits its stride. The ridiculous Inquisitors are dispatched permanently by someone who finally knows how to use a lightsaber properly, and then of course there’s the duel between Ahsoka and Darth Vader. This was the first fight in Rebels that actually gave me goosebumps.

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Actually landing a blow against Vader? That’s some impressive skill right there.

There were a few moments I could have done without, such as Ahsoka turning her back to Vader to block an attack which didn’t seem to be an advantageous move on her part. However, this is the scene where Star Wars Rebels hit a new level of storytelling. Just as Ezra is older when we meet him again in Season 3, so too was the storytelling more mature and nuanced.

The next great lightsaber fight wasn’t even a fight at all, but sparring practice between Kanan and Sabine as he trains her to use the Darksaber. Sabine is holding herself back, and not because she’s afraid of hurting Kanan, but because she’s afraid of confronting the painful emotions she’s kept buried. Those emotions, her fear and anger, are exposed not just through the impassioned monologue she gives but also in how she fights.

Her thrusts are clumsy and savage, allowing Kanan to easily deflect and evade them. Her fear and frustration make her an easy opponent, and Kanan even turns off his lightsaber, simply shoving her away. However as she grows angrier, she becomes more focused, she attacks faster and with purpose. And finally she even manages to gain the upper hand.

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Easily one of my favorite scenes in the series.

This scene is great because it helps tell the story of Sabine, deepening our understanding of her character and propelling her story forward. That’s what a good fight scene does: whether its a full fledged battle, a tiny skirmish, or just a duel between two people, it’s important that it propel the story forward. If all a battle does is look good, then it has failed. Which is why so many prequel fights fell flat, but Star War Rebels has one of the best duels in Star Wars history: the final fight between Obi-wan Kenobi and Darth Maul.

The duel between Obi-Wan and Maul is the perfect counter-point to the insane lightsaber ballet between Anakin and Obi-Wan in Episode 3. This fight lasts less than 30 seconds and yet it’s easily one of the best storytelling moments in the entire Star Wars canon. From the opening standoff to the final moments, everything tells a story.

One of the best parts is at the beginning, in the moment that Obi-wan decides he has to kill Maul: when Maul realizes he’s there to protect someone. Up until that moment, Obi-wan might have tried to reason with Maul or simply disarm him, but that knowledge made Maul too dangerous to allow to live.

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Deep down, I think he knew this was how it had to end.

Maul killed his master, Qui-gon, and then he killed Countess Setine, the woman he loved. Yet even in the face of all of that, despite having every reason and justification to hate Maul… he doesn’t. He can’t bring himself to hate this man, because standing right in front of him is the evidence of what that hate would bring: nothing but pain and loneliness. He doesn’t hate Maul, he pities him.

“If you define yourself by your power to take life, your desire to dominate, to possess, then you have nothing.”  – Obi-wan to Maul

I want to take a moment and praise this smack-talk from Obi-wan here. Notoriously quick with a verbal barb in Star Wars Clone Wars, it was great to see this evolution of his humor and wit, and it meshes perfectly with the kind of dialogue Alec Guinness delivered in A New Hope. It’s a perfect blend of wisdom and cutting insult.

Basically Obi-wan is saying “You’ve dedicated your life to gaining the power to destroy others, but now you’ve come to kill an old hermit…and you’re not even going to be able to do that. You truly have nothing.” It’s no wonder Maul gets so pissed off.

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Battles don’t have to be long to be amazing and in fact the brief nature of this fight itself only heightens the emotional impact of the scene. The calm and resolute Obi-Wan versus an angry and broken Maul was brilliant because it juxtaposed their two philosophies so well.

Obi-wan and Maul had a lot in common, they were both old men who had seen their worlds destroyed by the Sith. Maul had been corrupted, used, and then discarded by his Sith masters. Obi-wan watched the Sith turn his best friend into a monster, and then had to watch that monster destroy everyone and everything he loved. Yet they both handled these tragedies differently.

Obi-wan chose a thankless life of loneliness and anonymity, he gave up everything for the slim hope of seeing Luke become a Jedi and redeeming all of them. Maul chose revenge, to destroy everyone and everything that he felt had wronged him, to burn the world down around him if necessary. This is reflected in their fighting style.

Maul launches an angry, reckless attack. He puts all his hate and anger into every blow. But Obi-wan calmly deflects Maul’s attacks, absorbing the blows and letting Maul’s anger burn itself out against his blade. Obi-wan’s patience and deliberate defense allow him to quickly strike a killing blow against Maul after he leaves himself vulnerable.

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He blocks twice and then finishes Maul. Sublime.

Obi-wan would have been totally justified letting Maul land face first in the dirt and leaving his body to rot. Yet instead he holds his old nemesis in his arms, and even gives him a measure of peace in the knowledge of Luke’s existence. Maul lived a life of profound loneliness, marred by pain and loss. Thanks to Obi-wan’s compassion though Maul, in his final moments, was no longer alone.

More than anything else that’s why this scene is such a perfect example of a lightsaber duel: it told an emotionally rich story in such a pitch perfect way that, instead of feeling smug satisfaction at this old villains death, I felt a profound fulfillment at the knowledge that Maul found his peace. This less than 5-minute long scene brings closure to the long story of Obi-wan and Maul, it heightens our understanding of both characters, and gave us a profoundly emotional ending to an old saga.

And that’s why this was the perfect duel.

Maul finds Peace

Star Wars Rebels

Star Wars Rebels came to an end a few weeks ago, and so I wanted to write about how amazing this show was. If you haven’t seen it, you absolutely need to, and here’s why:

3 Reasons Why You Should Watch Star Wars Rebels

The Characters

The Specter Team

Like any good story Star Wars Rebels finds its greatest strength in the characters it brings to life. The members of Specter team are just as memorable and lovable as any of the characters from the film; from Jedi Knight Kanan Jarrus right down to Chopper, my absolute favorite droid of all time (and my second-favorite AP-5).

The nature of Rebels 20-minute episodes means that a lot of the characterization comes hard and fast, and yes, sometimes that makes it feel unearned. I thought Ezra’s flirtation with the Dark Side should have been more of a slow-burn, rather than being explored and then immediately wrapped up in the Season 3 premier. However, by and large, Rebels succeeds in creating some of the most complex and lovable characters that Star Wars has ever seen.

We got to see Hera Syndulla confront her father, and in one incredibly memorable scene, reassume her Twi’lek accent as she passionately makes her case for joining the Rebellion. I also loved Zeb’s arc of coming to peace with the destruction of his homeworld, even helping the survivors find their original homeworld. Sebine confronting her past while training with the Dark Saber was an incredibly emotional episode. Then there was the incredibly poignant final lesson that Kanan teaches Ezra: that it’s important to make peace with the fact that people die, and while we can mourn for them, it’s important to let them go. A lesson that Darth Vader didn’t learn until the very end.

 

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Grief, and how we deal with it, has been a central theme in most Star Wars stories and Star Wars Rebels handled that theme beautifully. Yet perhaps my favorite character arc of the series was that of Kallus, the Imperial Agent who tracks the Rebels in seasons 1 and 2.

Kallus has some of the most subtle and deep characterization of the series. On my first viewing of Star Wars Rebels I thought Kallus’ conversion from Imperial hardliner to Rebel spy was a little quick. But on subsequent viewings I caught all the subtle changes in Kallus’s personality and environment that, almost inevitably, led him to betray the Empire. You can see his shock at seeing two imperial officers murdered by the Inquisitor in season 1; his growing respect for Zeb as a warrior; his chafing against the constant ridicule and chastisement he receives from his superiors; and finally he begins to take smug satisfaction from seeing the Rebels succeeding against his fellow officers (most notably at Ezra destroying the Interdictor cruiser).

All the groundwork for his betrayal was laid by the Empire’s treatment of Kallus and when Zeb shows him genuine compassion and understanding, he sees the Empire as it truly is: an organization that breeds fear, mistrust, and isolation to control not only its subjects but it’s own military. Kallus arriving back on his Star Destroyer, with no one to greet him and no one to care that he’s injured, and sitting alone in his quarters is one the most powerful scenes in the show.

My only disappointment with the characters is how so many of the main cast end up being some form of royalty. Zeb turns out to be the leader his people’s honor guard, Hera is the daughter of a famous resistance fighter, and Sebine is the daughter of a ruling clan on Mandalore. Part of the appeal of Rebels, for me at least, was seeing how ordinary people were driven to rebel against the oppressive rule of the Empire. That is undermined when the ordinary people end up being from famous lineages, and it just reinforces Star Wars somewhat worrying fixation on the idea that exceptional people come from exceptional bloodlines. Still, I’m at least glad that neither Kanan nor Ezra ended up having a famous Jedi ancestor.

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I’m also a little disappointed that Kallus didn’t get to play a larger role in the final season.

 

 

The Enriching of Star Wars Canon

Do You know What I've Become
“Do you know what I’ve become?” – Anakin to Ahsoka

Star Wars Rebels not only adds its own stories to the Star Wars universe, but  also helps to deepen those already told. For instance, consider this line from Princess Leia:

“The more you tighten your grip, the more systems will slip through your fingers.” – Princess Leia to Grand Moff Tarkin.

In Star Wars Rebels we watch the Empire tighten its grip, and as Leia says, the rebellion that grows in response. At the start of the series, the titular rebels are basically a bunch of thieves and arsonists, a minor nuisance to the Empire. Yet as the Empire employs increasingly brutal tactics in their attempts to suppress the small band of rebels, more people begin joining. What begins as a minor imperial garrison becomes a major imperial occupation as multiple Star Destroyers are brought in, slowly choking the planet as the Empire struggles to maintain control. Meanwhile the Rebellion grows from scattered bands of resistance to a unified revolutionary movement.

I never read much of the Extended Universe, but one of the book series I absolutely loved was Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy. I was only 3 when these books were published, but I fell in love with Thrawn while playing Tie-Fighter as a kid, so when I saw a whole trilogy about Thrawn in a used book store I immediately made my parents buy them for me. So suffice to say I was impressed by how on point Rebels depiction of Grand Admiral Thrawn was. Everything from his shrewd tactical and strategic acumen to his love of art,  and using that art to understand his enemies, was translated brilliantly to this show.

And of course, as a huge fan of Tie Fighter, I was totally enraptured by the Tie Defender. The construction of the Tie Defender, and the technological arms race that ensues, was pretty much the entire plot of Tie Defender, so I was giddy to see it return.

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Hello my old friend, it’s good to see you again. Now can we PLEASE get another Tie Fighter game?

However the most important way that Star Wars Rebels enriches the canon is that it gives us some much needed closure to Clone Wars. I was a huge fan of  that show, and I desperately needed some closure after its run was cut short. We got to see Ahsoka confront her old master, and friend, Anakin.

Season 4 of Clone Wars:

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“I don’t know who to trust!” – Ahsoka

“I’d never let anyone you hurt you Ahsoka…never.” – Anakin

Season 2 of Rebels:

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“I won’t leave you. Not this time.” – Ahsoka

“Then you will die.” – Darth Vader

We were reunited with Rex and a couple of his clone friends, and in the epilogue were even treated to the fact that Rex fought at Endor, meaning he lived long enough to see the death of the Empire that betrayed him. We even got to see an end to Darth Maul’s story.

I admit I was never a huge fan of Darth Maul, especially in Clones Wars when he just kept coming back over and over again. However his final end at the hands of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the incredible duel they have, made it all worthwhile. Especially the final moments, when Kenobi shows Darth Maul compassion and kindness even in the face of the enemy that killed his master.

Adding to the legacy of Obi-wan Kenobi, the greatest Jedi in Star Wars, is no easy feat. Yet Star Wars Rebels did it, and it’s those kinds of incredible details that make it a show worth watching.

 

The Attention to Detail

The absolute best part of Star Wars Rebels is its amazing attention to detail, the writers of this series take the principle of Chekov’s Gun to heart. If something is introduced in Star Wars Rebels, you can bet that it’ll be important to the story later on. This might not seem like a big deal, but when a story focuses on the small details it makes the entire world come alive. Attention to detail can mean the difference between a world feeling real, and a world that feels completely hollow.

Ezra steals Kanan’s Jedi holocron in the very first episode, and in most shows that would be the end of it, a plot device to be discarded afterward. However, the holocron continues to play an important role in the show well into the third season. Later, in Season 2, Ezra recovers a Sith holocron, but this isn’t simply a McGuffin to be used to unlock the Sith Temple, as it also becomes an important temptation to the Dark side that Ezra must resist. And finally, both Holocrons are used in a ritual by Darth Maul to locate Obi-wan Kenobi. Everything flows from one element to another, weaving together these details into single story.

Meanwhile story elements are foreshadowed so masterfully, and so far in advance that it’s kind of shocking. For instance in season 2, Minister Tua wants to defect from the Empire and offers secret information in exchange for her safety. “The Emperor has plans for Lothal.” And yet it’s not until season 4, only a few episodes from the ending, that it’s revealed that the Emperor is excavating the Jedi temple in hopes of unlocking a portal in time and space.

And Grand Admiral Thrawn? He was told how he would be defeated by the Bendu in season 3.

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“I see your defeat, like many arms surrounding you in a cold embrace…” – The Bendu to Thrawn

And while normally I focus on the writing, I want to take a moment to acknowledge the amazing artists behind this shows who included so many details that helped bring the world to life.

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Ezra’s vision of Lothal in season 2.
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A free Lothal in the series finale.
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I love the excellent paralleling of this scene…
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With Obi-wan holding Darth Maul, the man cradling the enemy who killed his master.

Then there was Kanan and Dume the Lothwolf…

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The emblem on Kanan’s pauldron…
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Can be seen on Dume the Lothwolf in season 4.

The art, the music, everything helped bring this show to life. Even the Purrgil, which at first seem like a Deus Ex Machina at the end, were foreshadowed in the earlier seasons.

The Purgil ask for Ezra’s help in season 2, and when I first saw it I assume that request for help was just to regain access to the crater, but what if it’s more than that? What if the Purgil needed help for something else? Perhaps that’s why Ezra said he had to see it through to the end, because he promised to help the Purgil. And perhaps he needed his family to follow him so that he could do just that.

“Let us help you.” – Ezra to the Purrgil

Star Wars Rebels paid off, not only because it succeeded in telling an outstanding story, but because it helps setup its next story.

“When you get back, come and find me.” – Ezra Bridger to Ahsoka Tano.

Like the conversation with the Purgil, taken at face value Ezra is just telling Ahsoka to find him on Lothal. But Star Wars Rebels showed us that their writing can never be taken at face value. Their writing is like The Force itself, deeper than what can be seen on the surface, and more powerful than you can possibly imagine.

Whether or not Disney has the wisdom to greenlight a search for Ezra, I look forward to seeing whatever project comes next from this amazing team.

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I’m going to miss all of them.

The Goodness of the Good Place

The second season of The Good Place has come to an end and I want to, no I need, to write about how amazing this show is. Despite being only two seasons long so far The Good Place has become one of my absolute favorite shows and one that I know I’m going to watch over and over again until the day I die and probably go the The Bad Place. Most of my review will be spoiler heavy, like most of my reviews, but I want to start with a small non-spoiler review first:

The Good Place will make you feel amazing.

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It is, it really is.

It’s one of those shows that’s not just well written; it’s not just enjoyable; it’s good for the soul. It’s about people, and how even the worst of us can become better people, no matter how old and set in our ways we may be. Even in its darkest moments it will make you smile and leave a lingering sense of warmth and happiness long after you’ve watched it. It truly is one of the most remarkable shows I’ve ever watched.

You know that feeling you get when you see a picture of two otters holding hands? That’s how you’ll feel watching The Good Place.

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It’s like this, but somehow, even more amazing.

So what specifically makes The Good Place so good? Well I’m glad you asked.

The Goodness of The Good Place

A Storytelling Review

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I honestly have no idea how The Good Place came into existence. I mean imagine this pitch:

A woman dies and goes to heaven by mistake, but tries to fit in by taking ethics lessons from a professor of ethics and moral philosophy.

A show about ethics and moral philosophy? Marketed at the notoriously short attention spanned audience of television viewers? How did any shortsighted executive okay this? I would put it down to Fremulon probably having a better pitch than me (I’m notoriously bad at that) and the fact that they’ve had such a long history of amazing  shows.

Fremulon is the production company behind Parks and RecreationBrooklyn Nine-Nine, and now The Good Place which were/are absolutely amazing shows. Which makes me suspect that Michael Schur may be some kind of advanced alien life form come here to evolve humanity by giving us amazing television shows about how amazing humanity could be. You know, if we like, tried a little harder.

In the words of Eleanor, to our whole species, well:

Ya Basic

It’s A Story About People Improving

Eleanor is a self-centered and toxic person who, like most selfish people, doesn’t even realize how awful she is. When she arrives in The Good Place she doesn’t even realize she’s not supposed to be there until she sees the memories of the person who is supposed to be there. Stuck in a place where she doesn’t belong she turns to Chidi Anagonye, a professor of ethics and moral philosophy, to teach her to be a better person and earn her place.

The first season of The Good Place has so much potential and material that most  shows would have stretched it out over their entire run, milked it absolutely dry, but not this show. No, they keep the story going at a brisk pace, never allowing themselves to drag things out for the sake of padding the story. Every episode, every line of dialogue, and, somehow, even every joke propels the story forward. It’s a remarkable feat of just brilliant writing.

The reason the story of The Good Place never gets bogged down in its plot is because it’s an entirely character driven story. The entire plot is driven by the character’s actions and reactions to other character’s actions. From Michael’s elaborate deception to Chidi deciding to teach Eleanor ethics, every action has made the story move forward. Which makes perfect sense because The Good Place is a story about how people change, and it relies on the strength of its characters.

The best characters are the ones that change and evolve during the story, and the brilliance of The Good Place is that the characters are guaranteed to change because that’s the whole point of the show. The first season I watched Eleanor go from a profoundly selfish and destructive person to a self-aware and compassionate human being. And in the second season I watched Michael turn from evil demon determined to torture Eleanor and friends for all eternity to sacrificing himself to save them.

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Take that you stupid philosophical thought experiment!

I will admit The Good Place isn’t perfect in this regard, Jason Mendoza is made out to be too stupid to improve as a person. Jason is great for comic relief, but it doesn’t feel like there’s anywhere to go with such a profoundly stupid character. Tahani also hasn’t made much progress in the past two seasons. She’s had some moments, my favorite being her confronting her parents in this latest season, but overall hasn’t enjoyed the same growth as Chidi, Eleanor, and Michael. Still we’re only in season 2 and given the quality of the rest of the writing, I have faith that The Good Place will address these problems in future seasons.

I also have absolutely no idea what future seasons of The Good Place will bring because I can’t predict what crazy direction it will go next.

The Good Place is Never Predictable

This is the Bad Place

At the conclusion of the first season Eleanor figures out that they’re all really in The Bad Place. I admit, I suspected that something wasn’t right when Eleanor arrived. The unfair grading system used by the afterlife; the amount of things going wrong that Michael couldn’t explain; all the frozen yogurt that’s just ice cream but worse; it all pointed to something being terribly wrong.  By the end I was convinced, but I never expected them to reveal that in their first season! Most shows would have stretched that out over the entire run, or at least the first two or three seasons. The Good Place doesn’t waste time though, and more importantly, doesn’t cripple its character development by making the characters run through this hamster wheel of repetition that most shows do.

After Eleanor finds out his plan Michael decides to restart the experiment and literally resets the characters. They forget everything they’ve learned, all the wonderful character development that had made The Good Place such a treat to watch was gone in a moment. On the one hand, I loved this twist and how much sense it made, but on the other I was afraid it had blown all its good ideas in a single season.

Michael from the Good Place
I really feel like I should.

One of the traps that TV shows often fall into is resetting their story after each season only to repeat the same character arc each time. Years ago in a review of Breaking Bad I wrote about how House did this with its main character after a season of profound character development. The final season of House was a mess as a result of this reset, and after the first season of The Good Place I was afraid they were making the same mistake.

I’ve never been more wrong.

Instead Michael’s reset pushed the story forward in new and totally unexpected ways.The reset itself is dealt with in the first episode as Michael hilariously goes through 800+ variations of his neighborhood, but the characters always figure out they’re in the bad place, including, in what is without a doubt Michael’s worst failure, Jason. When one of Michael’s fellow demons blackmails him, threatening to tell Michael’s boss about his failures, the story takes on a whole new dimension as Michael allies himself with the very people he’s supposed to torture.

There were various ways for the story to progress, but I wouldn’t have anticipated this because it was such a risk. After all the obvious love and talent that went into designing The Good Place‘s set, they literally burn it all to the ground in order to move the story forward.

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Making the Good Place has to rate at least +1000000 points.

Yet the move in location was in keeping with the character’s actions. The Good Place manages to feel completely unpredictable while still feeling organic because every twist is a result of a character’s actions. So when Eleanor and her friends are sneaking through The Bad Place its a natural progression of events. Well, as natural as can be in a show set in the afterlife. In fact the main twist of the first season, that they’re actually in the bad place, comes about as a response to Chidi’s actions. Never in a thousand years, and I mean that quite literally, would Michael have assumed that Chidi’s lessons would actually work.

His entire reality is founded on the principle that people don’t change, that we can’t become better people. The fact that Eleanor learns from Chidi and eventually turns herself into Michael, volunteering to go to the bad place, is what upends his entire plan. It’s easily one of the most beautiful messages in The Good Place, it’s never too late to become a better person. It’s also this realization that drives Michael’s actions in the the second season, he’s seen that people can become better. The afterlife, The Good Place and the Bad Place, are all built on a faulty premise. This is the core argument of his case to the judge for allowing Eleanor and her friends to go to The Good Place.

Her rebuttal of course is… so what? Eleanor only began to improve as a person because she was terrified of going to The Bad Place. If the only reason you’re a good person is because you’re afraid of cosmic consequences… are you really a good person?

It’s So Good That You Don’t Realize It’s…Educational

Ethics 101

I took a philosophy class in college once and it was one of the most challenging and dense subjects I’ve ever encountered. Yet somehow The Good Place has taken this incredibly complex subject and made it accessible. Not just accessible, but hilariously entertaining. I didn’t even realize how much I was learning from The Good Place until I was watching it again to write this article. I didn’t even know who Emmanuel Kant was before (my class didn’t get beyond the basics) and now I want to go out and read his book.

Watching The Good Place the first time I didn’t even realize how much time is spent on just discussing philosophy. Chidi literally lectures on this subject multiple times, but it’s written in such a clever and entertaining way that I never realized they were lectures.  Like all the best teachers, The Good Place makes it so fun to learn that you don’t even realize you’re doing it. More than just teaching you the basics though, it also teaches you how to apply it.

It encourages you stop and think about your own actions and motivations. Am I really a good person? Or do I just pretend to be because I’m afraid some kind of cosmic karma system is grading me?

Ramsay Bolton Snow
Would I turn into Ramsey Bolton if I got even the tiniest taste of power?

Do people become bad because of how people perceive them? Or is that how they’re perceived because they do bad things?

A existentialist philosopher named Jean Paul Sartre wrote a play called No Exit about what is essentially the same premise as the first season of The Good Place. Three people end up in Hell, arguing among themselves as to why they arrived there and waiting for the torturer to arrive. At the close of the play, when they realize no one is coming to torture them because they themselves are doing it by simply being there together, one of the characters remarks:

Hell is other people.

– Jean Paul Sartre, No Exit

You’ve probably heard or seen this phrase a lot, it’s his most quotable line. It’s also his most misunderstood, it doesn’t mean that just being around people is hell (though for introverts like me it sometimes is) but that how people perceive us and the way that makes us feel can be hell. If you’re stuck in a room with someone who thinks you’re worthless, who hates you, who feels you’re a disappointment, or any of the petty judgments we make about people (often complete strangers)… you can’t help but take those observations onto yourself. Suddenly you feel that’s exactly what you are and that is indeed Hell.

Yet the other side of that coin, and the one The Good Place is exploring, is that heaven is other people too. When you’re around people that support you, believe in you, and love you… that’s heaven. For those who have been exceptionally lucky, we have special people in our lives that make us strive to be better people, for me it’s my best friend Hali, and for Eleanor it’s Chidi.

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Though truth be told, I was hoping their relationship would remain platonic, if only because I think we need more stories where (straight) men can be just friends with women without any sexual element.

We think of heaven, or The Good Place, as a place where we no longer have to work at being good. It’s our earned reward, we can relax now, but I think if there is a heaven… we will always have to work at becoming better. Nothing happens in a vacuum, even a star doesn’t shine until crushing gravitational forces have caused it to begin fusing its constituent elements. That’s what The Good Place encourages us to find, our drive to improve and grow as people.

I could go on and on about this show, but really the thing I keep coming back to is this: The Good Place just makes you feel good. It’s all at once whimsical, heartfelt, educational, well written, charming, and original. Yet the most valuable thing of all is just how much a positive impact is has on me personally, and hopefully many others. I smile from the beginning of The Good Place until the very end and leaves me feeling so good I sometimes wonder if The Good Place has addictive qualities.

Who cares though, because if I’m going to be addicted to a show, I’m glad it’s The Good Place. 

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Seriously, grind this show up and let me snort that shirt.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Everything (That) is Wrong

I absolutely love The Last Jedi, and it might well become my favorite Star Wars film after Empire Strikes Back. That said I’m not above admitting there were a lot of problems with the film as well and because nitpicking things I love is perversely one of my favorite things, let’s pick these nits.

[Spoilers for the The Last Jedi are ahead, reader beware.]

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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Amazing, Everything You Just Did Is Wrong

There were a lot of legitimate criticisms to level against The Last Jedi, some of this comes down to how JJ Abrams set up his story points in The Force Awakens. There was only so much latitude allowed by how the previous story was setup and I have a feeling that several moments in the film (the Casino Planet in particular) are there specifically to placate Disney’s market research.

 

How does the “War” In “Star Wars” Actually Work?

Tie Fighter Screen

So one of the most interesting responses to my review was someone who didn’t buy the whole “the Rebel cruiser is lighter and faster than us” line from the movie. See it made total sense to me at the time, but when I read that comment I thought about why it made sense to me and what I concluded was this: that’s how it worked in the video gamesTie Fighter, my all time favorite Star Wars game featured both the minimum effective range and variable ship speeds based on size. Meanwhile Autocannons, and their shield bypassing effect, and shields only working against energy weapons was introduced in Star Wars: Empire at War.

However when Disney acquired the Star Wars IP they basically declared everything outside the film universe non-canon so I’m actually working off a faulty premise. Taking just the movies, including the prequels, Star Wars has introduced a lot of seemingly contradictory information about the mechanics of space combat.

So the Resistance Cruiser is able to keep its distance, outside of Snoke’s ship primary batteries, but then why wasn’t Princess Leia’s corvette unable to outrun Vader’s Star Destroyer in a New Hope?

Corvette captured by STar Destroyer
Maybe it has asthma?

Vader’s Star Destroyer destroys the primary reactor on Leia’s blockade runner which allows them to drag it in by the heels, but what about before that? It didn’t seem like they were putting any ground between them and the Star Destroyer even before the engines get knocked out. The Cruiser, larger than the corvette by a wide margin, seems like it should move even slower. Also, even assuming the Snoke’s colossal ship couldn’t catch them, why didn’t the other smaller Star Destroyers in its formation close the gap? Surely if Bigger = Slower then the smaller Star Destroyer escorts should have been able to outpace Snoke’s flagship.

Even ignoring the ship speeds, we see that a mere three close range fighters (albeit one piloted by a dark Jedi), were able to all but cripple the Cruiser. So why did they pull their fighters back instead of launching every single fighter they had? We see literally dozens, if not hundreds, of fighters in the flagship’s hanger later when Finn is about to be executed by Phasma. The Cruiser’s own fighter complement was wiped out and its two escort ships surely couldn’t have provided enough cover to wipe out an entire fleet’s worth of fighters.

Once again though, that tactic didn’t work for the Empire at Endor? And why is that? Why are fighters now able to get passed a large ship’s shields where as before they shrugged off fighter attacks.

Destruction of the Executor
It took concentrated fleet fire and the destruction of a shield generator before the Executor’s hull was penetrated. Why has this changed?

On the subject of Super Star Destroyers the suicide attack by the admiral was made to look way too powerful. It crippled not only Snokes ship but a half dozen other Star Destroyers at the same time. Cinematically this was an amazing scene and hearing the entire audience gasp in the silent aftermath of the collision means it landed perfectly. Narratively, however, this scene is problematic because it raises the question why hasn’t this tactic been used before? The next time the Resistance is fighting off a superior enemy fleet, or god forbid, a 4th Death Star, I’m going to wonder why don’t they just ram into it at lightspeed. In fact I’m already starting to wonder if, instead of starships, it wouldn’t be easier to just strap some hyperdrives on a couple asteroids and use those to wipe out the First Order. In my opinion they should have limited the damage to Snoke’s ship, because then it’s a strategic ship-for-ship trade off and the First Order will have more ships than the Resistance, but if you can wipe out a whole fleet by sacrificing one ship… that seems like a trade always worth making.

Some of these problems could have been explained a way with a little more effort. Hux, in his arrogance, might have wanted to let the Resistance stew rather ending them quickly with a swarm of fighters or sending his escort ships. Yet a lot of this is just due to the fact that I don’t believe Disney’s creative team has actually sat down and figured out the rules for their new franchise. I loved seeing some actual technological advancement in Star Wars after seemingly thousands of years of stagnancy. The introduction of electronic warfare, cloaking fields and what is essentially the Star Wars equivalent of the invention of Radar, is especially exciting.

However, unless they sit down and hammer out at least a basic rule set for how Interstellar warfare works in this world, then it won’t mean squat. New technology in war is a game changer, but if the audience doesn’t know the rules of the game, they’ll never notice it change.

The Casino Planet – And What Could Have Been Done Instead

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Let’s talk about everyone’s least favorite part of the film: Finn and Rose’s journey to the Casino planet. It felt completely out of place, to the point where I wonder if Disney has some kind of “unique world” count it requires for Star Wars movies. Worst than that, it reminds me of a story about dragons I wrote for a creative writing class once. I too had the main characters leave their home in order to find a magic Macguffin, and the biggest complaint everyone raised with it was that they didn’t understand why they had to leave. There easier and more obvious options available to the characters that would have allowed them to stay. So why did they have to leave? Because I wanted them to travel to a cool new location and instead of coming up with a plausible reason, I just got lazy and contrived a flimsy reason for them to leave.

I got the same impression with all the Casino Planet scenes; why did they have to go find this hacker in person? They contacted Maz easily enough, couldn’t she have just passed on his phone number? Or couldn’t we have just called the Casino and paged him? It seemed like there should have been better ways to accomplish this or, failing that, at least pay for the parking ticket and avoid having to smash most of the city. That being said, I did appreciate some of what was introduced during these scenes.

Weapons dealers selling to both sides, morally ambiguous hackers who defy Star War’s “rogues have hearts of gold” trope, and the introduction of electronic warfare. Yet all of these ideas could have been better served had they taken place on the cruiser. Instead of having them fly off to find the hacker, the hacker should have just come to them and with Del Toro’s hacker on board, many of the rough edges around the cruiser storyline could have been smoothed out.

One of the other problems I had with the film was Admiral Holdo’s refusal to just tell Poe what the plan was. Why was she willing to risk mutiny rather than just tell him the plan, just to drive home some kind of point about having faith? That really doesn’t seem like it’s worth the risk. Now if Benicio Del Torro’s hacker was on board, suddenly her reluctance makes sense because she can’t trust him. She allows Poe to pursue this idea, but keeps Poe in the dark as to their escape plans precisely because she doesn’t trust the loyalty of the hacker he’s working with.

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Then when Benicio Del Toro finally betrays the resistance to save his own skin, Admiral Holdo’s caution would have been vindicated, where as now she just seems petty. It wouldn’t have been perfect but overall the story would have been much better served had all the characters remained on the cruiser rather than visiting the Star Wars equivalent of Monte Carlo.

Had the Casino planet been left out there might have been more time to spend on the many overlooked characters.

Secondary Characters Were Ignored

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As I pointed out in my review, Star Wars: The Last Jedi featured some of the most complex characterization we’ve seen from Star Wars. Unfortunately that only extended to the primary characters: Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke. Everyone else was ignored or, as is the case with Finn, left to replay the same character arc as the first movie. Poe got some development but thanks to Admiral Holdo’s weird refusal to reveal her plans, his evolution doesn’t feel organic. Still, at least he got something, unlike poor Rose.

Rose could have been a fascinating character, and while she does have her moments, I feel like so much more could have been done. She gets some characterization with her sister’s death and talking about her home being strip-mined and destroyed. Unfortunately instead of delving deeper into her character, the movie instead wasted its time showing Rose and Finn running around the Casino planet like the freaking Roadrunner. Had Rose been allowed to have a few more lines and less time chasing a nonsensical subplot around the hamster wheel, her kiss with Finn might have been the emotional climax of her character arc rather than just a weird “huh?” moment in the film.

The only characters treated worse than Finn and Rose were the villains. General Hux remains a painful caricature openly flirting with the idea of being a straight up parody. In fact when the captain of the Dreadnought shows up, a man with actual gravitas and presence, I was hoping General Hux would be killed off in exchange for him. Unfortunately it turned out to be the other way around.

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And then of course there’s this ugly bastard.

On the one hand I’m glad “Supreme Leader” Snoke was killed off, he was a boring villain with no personality that was just a blatant attempt by JJ Abrams to recreate the Emperor from the original trilogy. Yet on the other hand I was hoping that, instead of simply killing him, they did something interesting with the character. Reveal to the audience the origin of his wounds, his past, something, anything that might give him some substance. Instead he dies, in an incredibly satisfying way mind you, but it still feels like the easy way out and that more could have been done with the character.

Even worse was the return of Captain Phasma; on the bright side we finally got the boss fight between her and Finn that we’d been waiting for, but it also wasn’t worth dragging down the pace of the narrative just to fit that in. Phasma, despite having armor that is actually capable of resisting laser blasts, is as thin as a cardboard cutout. We know nothing about her or what drives her. Why is she so fiercely loyal to the Empire and why does Finn’s betrayal enrage her so much? Why does she take it personally?

If we’d known the answers to those questions, the final fight between Phasma and Finn might have meant something. Imagine if, as a counterpoint to Rose’s revelation of her tragic past, we find out someone close to Phasma died in a rebel attack? Imagine if her father had been killed on the Death Star, or aboard the Executor during the Battle of Endor. Then we could understand why she was fighting and why she hates Finn so much. Instead what we got was a fight that was just visually interesting and lending nothing to the story at large.

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If only this scene was as narratively climactic as it was visually stunning.

You could swap Phasma for Hux in this scene and, aside from missing out on some cool visuals, nothing would change for the story at large.

And since I couldn’t figure out where else to put this critique: the final scene of The Last Jedi also didn’t quite land with me. A child slave looking like a Dickensian chimney sweep holding a broom handle like a lightsaber wasn’t quite the symbol of hope I think they were hoping it would be. I get what they were going for, that the oppressed like those child slaves, will rise up and take their place in the resistance. Perhaps because the whole casino planet section felt out of place, but it fell flat for me and thus felt like such an odd note to end on.

Speaking of odd notes to end on…

On Luke Skywalker and Ben Solo

There is one criticism I want to tackle that I don’t agree with: that Luke gave up on Kylo Ren. On the surface this criticism makes sense. After all, Luke never gave up on Darth Vader and he was worse by a pretty large margin (we’ve yet to see Kylo Ren murder a subordinate in cold blood) and yet at the end of the film he says he can’t save Kylo Ren. However, you have to pay attention to how he says it and the context in which he says it.

“I have to face [Kylo] and can’t save him.”

 Luke to Leia

Earlier in the film, when Kylo first connects with Rey via the force, he comments that Rey couldn’t be projecting herself because the effort would kill her. Luke, in his final confrontation, is doing exactly that and he’s knows it’s going to kill him. So when he says that he can’t save Kylo, he means he can’t save him. From a certain point of view, what Luke is saying is true.

However, he also tells Leia something else.

“No one is ever truly gone.” 

Luke never gave up on Ben Solo. In a moment of weakness and fear he almost killed his own nephew and it haunted him the rest of his life. The fact that his last words are to remind Ben of his father, and quote Han’s favorite phrase back to him, proves that he still thinks someone can reach him. He just knows it won’t be him.

“This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away…to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing!”

Yoda

It took Luke his whole life, but he finally stopped looking away to the future and focused his mind on what was in front of him.