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.

You don't need to tell us how the force works
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.

EmpokNor

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.

Julian Bashir
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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

 

4thrz

 

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.

Tie Defender
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.
Peace on Lothal
A free Lothal in the series finale.
Qui-Gon's death
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.

Trolley Problem
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.

Shirt is Forked Up
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.

Eleanor-Loves-Chidi
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

Star-Wars-The-Last-Jedi-Canto-Bight-Casino-City

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.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

For everyone who hated The Force Awakens for pandering too much and playing it too safe, you’ll enjoy the boldness of The Last Jedi.  It avoids all three of the mistakes I warned of in my follow up article on The Force Awakens. More than that, it matures and deepens the mythos of Star Wars in a way that only Knights of the Republic 2 has dared to, and while I feel it shies away from some its boldest ideas (to its detriment), The Last Jedi also takes Star Wars in an exciting new direction. It’s that boldness that I think has given rise to blacklash against it. I wasn’t able to see it the first day in theaters and so before going in, despite my attempts to avoid spoilers, I heard some of the concerns being voiced by others.

Some I agree with. There were some pacing problems, a few odd cuts, and some scenes that I thought were unnecessary. However, the majority of concerns I would strongly disagree with, but that will be its own article. Today I’m going to talk about how awesome this movie is and my hopes that future Star Wars movies will build upon the foundation that The Last Jedi has laid.

 

SPOIlERS: PROCEEDING PAST THIS POINT WILL RUIN THE MAJOR PLOT POINTS OF THE MOVIE.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

A Storytelling Review

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The Force Awakens has its share of problems, there’s no arguing that. The biggest one for me was the detour to the “Casino Planet” that I felt was unnecessary and out of place, but I’ll be doing another article to focus on those problems. These problems were far outweighed by the positives of The Force Awakens and deepens not only the story of Rey and Kylo Ren, but also the setting of Star Wars itself.

Battles have become more complex with the introduction of electronic warfare systems such as the resistance’s cloaking field and the First Order’s hyperspace tracking. It also introduces, through story points and dialogue, a strategic element to the warfare that’s never been shown before. The one good thing about the Casino scenes was the reveal of rich arms dealers selling weapons to both sides, introducing a moral ambiguity sorely lacking from Star Wars. (I’d watch a spinoff movie of Benicio Del Torro’s thief character sooner than I’d watch one about a “young” Luke.)

Yes there are problems, but they seem so minor compared to the creativity and boldness that was on display with this film. The Last Jedi features the richest and most eloquent storytelling than any other Star Wars movie to date. And here’s why:

It Takes Star Wars in a Bold New Direction

That's not Snow

I loved Rogue One in large part because of the romantic, noble deaths of the titular team of spies and saboteurs that stole the Death Star plans. At the beginning of The Last Jedi I was treated to a small taste of that as a squadron of bombers is all but wiped out during an attack on a First Order Dreadnought. A female bomber, having just released her payload, silently rubs a medallion (the twin of which is held by her twin sister Rose who is introduced later) as the bombs she releases consumes her.  It’s filmed in exactly the same way all the heroic deaths in Rogue One were filmed. And yet instead of framing them as a noble sacrifice in pursuit of a higher cause, it uses those deaths to ask a question I never expected from a Star Wars movie:

Why? What’s the purpose of this?

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Did all these people have to die here?

Critics of Rogue One correctly pointed out that there were probably easier, less bloody ways to obtain the Death Star plans. It was plan born out of desperation, hastily slapped together at the last minute by people who didn’t want to wait to carefully plan an attack. A glorious, but ulimately too costly, a victory…like the one Poe Dameron launches.

When the fleet escapes Leia admits that the pilots who died destroying the Dreadnought were heroes, but she does not celebrate Poe Dameron’s daring, instead she reprimands and demotes him. Dozens of lives were lost and valuable strategic resources squandered to take down a single Imperial ship. A victory, yes, but an empty and ultimately meaningless one. Admittedly had Poe not destroyed the Dreadnought it probably would have followed them through hyperspace and been able to destroy the rebel fleet. But here’s why that doesn’t matter:

Poe didn’t blow up the Dreadnought because he was thinking ahead. He didn’t know the First Order could track them. This wasn’t a brilliant strategic move by a commander thinking two moves ahead of his opponent. It was the reckless act of someone who simply wanted to hurt the Empire, he wanted to be a hero, to gloriously triumph over a hated enemy.

At what cost
But at what cost?

I’m sure the First Order has plenty of Dreadnoughts to take the place of the one lost, the rebels didn’t have anything to replace those bomber losses. Leia needs Poe to start thinking strategically, instead of purely tactically. More importantly, she needs Poe to understand that victory over the First Order will never come if no one is alive to see it. This is a message further reinforced by Finn’s run at the siege cannon.

Just like Poe, Finn is ready to sacrifice his life in a glorious, but ultimately meaningless attack on the cannon. Best case scenario he destroys the cannon and he delays the breaching of the door for a few hours while they wear away at it with conventional weapons. Worst case scenario the cannon goes off and incinerates him. Either way the resistance would lose a valuable strategic resource: a man with insider knowledge of the First Order, who knows by heart the layout of their installations and Star Destroyers, who has already used that knowledge twice to infiltrate highly defended areas.

Living to fight another day can be just as valuable, if not more so, than a dramatic last stand. What this kind of thinking does for Star Wars is that it encourages the audience to think of the extras, the background characters, as actual people. To consider the lives being lost, adding a whole new sense of gravity to the battles.

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How many thousands died in this shot?

In many ways this is reinforced by the fact that The Last Jedi says goodbye to not a beloved character, but also the comfortable old thinking of previous Star Wars movies.

It Pays Homage to Star Wars While Also Saying Goodbye

 

“That Force does not belong to the Jedi. To say that if the Jedi die, the Light dies is vanity. Do you sense that?” – Luke to Rey

Luke’s withering criticism of the Jedi was a long time coming, and it was good to hear it. My only problem was that it didn’t go far enough, I would have loved to have heard Luke’s thoughts on Jedi tearing children away from their families to indoctrinate them into their religion. At times it seemed Luke was channelling Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic 2 and his speech about balance had me nodding along in agreement.

To think of Star Wars without Jedi and Sith would have been unthinkable before. Now? Now I can’t wait to see what comes of this. Can you imagine the possibilities? Force wielders not adhering to one extreme or the other, but instead trying to find balance between light and dark. That paves the way for richer, more vibrant storytelling, which is why the The Last Jedi has such amazing characters.

 

The Characters Are Rich and Complex

I’ve talked about plot vs character driven stories before, once even using The Terminator franchise to illustrate the difference. This is quite possibly the first character driven story of the Star Wars canon. That doesn’t make the other Star Wars movies bad obviously, plot driven stories can be incredibly fun as evidenced by Star  Wars being amazing. However they’ve all, The Force Awakens and Rogue One included, been dominated by their plots. Blow up the Death Star, save Han and Leia from Darth Vader, blow up the Death Star again.

The Last Jedi is a story whose plot is controlled by the actions of its characters; the characters are more complex, sympathetic, and relatable than any that have come before. Let’s start with the one we we’re all eager to see: Luke Skywalker.

The Last Jedi reveals that Luke is a deeply troubled person, tossing away the lightsaber the moment its handed to him by Rey. I’ll admit, this shocked me, as well it should have. This is Luke Skywalker, the man who almost single-handedly took down the Empire and saved Darth Vader. I couldn’t square in my mind the image of my childhood hero with the man that I saw before me.

At least not at first.

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What happened Luke?

Fortunately Luke tells us exactly what happened to him, and not just by telling his story. Mark Hamill’s performance is impeccable in this and everything from the way her carries himself to the sadness lurking behind his eyes reveals his story.

Again the story challenges the audience:

“How did you think this was going to go? Why do you think I came to an unfindable planet?” – Luke Skywalker to Rey (paraphrased, I don’t remember the line exactly.)

As shocking as his rejection of the Jedi is, it shouldn’t have been shocking at all. Luke is right, why did we assume he had some good and noble reason to hide from the galaxy? Of course he came here to die, like a sick animal wandering off into the forest. And faced with his past, I can’t say I blamed him. Luke tried to train his nephew; a nephew named Ben after the Ben Kenobi that started Luke’s training; Leia and Han’s only child.

And he failed. Completely, and utterly.

When Luke first tells his story he lies and says Ben attacked him first, and it’s that lie that speaks volumes. To have Luke, the most naive and trustworthy character of the old trilogy lie to Rey and the audience was a bold move; a brilliant move, because it’s in that lie that I understood the shame, and the fear, that drove Luke. Here he was, faced with what he thought was a second Darth Vader, a new emperor in the making.

How many times has the hypothetical “would you kill Hitler if you could travel back in time?” been posited? Well here was Luke, who thought he was face to face with such a choice. And for a moment, Luke Skywalker, the Jedi Master, The Legend, thought he could see the future and in his arrogance he thought he could stop the horror before it began. So he ignited his lightsaber.

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Monsters aren’t born in a vacuum.

It was that moment of arrogance and fear that killed Ben Solo and created Kylo Ren. It’s that arrogance, an arrogance he blames (correctly or not) on the Jedi teachings, that fills Luke with so much anger. The arrogance that he thought he knew everything, that he could see the future, to see every end. The arrogance that robbed Ben Solo of the freedom to choose. The reveal of this sequence of events not only made Luke the most complex, most human, as we’ve ever seen him but also deepened our understanding of Ben Solo AKA Kylo Ren.

In my review of The Force Awakens, I talked about how much I liked that Kylo Ren was more a confused child than a badass Darth Vader lite. My appreciation for Kylo Ren’s character has only deepened with the reveal of his past. We already knew that Kylo had troubles with his father Han and now we know even more about his relationship with Luke.

“You’ve been looking for your parents everywhere! First in Han Solo and now in Luke Skywalker!” – Ben Solo/Kylo Ren to Rey

This line reveals so much about Ben/Kylo that it’s a brilliant piece of writing, because it reveals that he was looking for exactly the same thing. He was already having problems with his father Han, and so it stands to reason that he would see Luke, his uncle, mentor, and master as the next best thing. Young Ben, confronted with power beyond his imagination and still struggling to understand them and conflicted about his relationship with his parents sought refuge with someone he thought would understand him: the legendary Luke Skywalker.

Then one day he wakes up to find his uncle, a man he loves and looks up to, the one man he thought might understand him, standing over him with a lightsaber intent on killing him. My hat’s off to Adam Driver because looking into his eyes I could see the hurt, the confusion, the fear that Ben felt in that moment. I understood Kylo Ren’s journey in that moment. So Kylo lashed out in anger and fear, before Luke could explain, and after he’d burned Luke’s temple to the ground and slaughtered its students… he felt it was too late to come home.

And in the wings waited Snoke, a man who promised him the belonging, the acceptance, that he’d been searching for his whole life.

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The powerful always prey on the vulnerable and confused.

With all this knowledge of Ben’s character, I understood his plea to Rey to let the past die, because it’s the past that haunts him. Ben wants to go home, but he’s too afraid to. He thinks he’s done too much wrong and he’s probably right, so he wants to kill the past because he thinks that’s his only option. If he can kill his past, he can stop being the monster, he can stop being the man who killed his own father. He can be who he wants to be, the person that Rey still senses deep inside him… the boy who dreamed of being a hero. Like all of us though, he doesn’t want to be alone, so he reaches out to Rey; a person who thinks understands him.

Rey the Jedi

Yet Rey didn’t understand because, despite both feeling abandoned by their parents, Rey chose a different path. Sold by her parents to be a slave she could have given into hate and resentment, but instead she chose to hope. She hoped that her parents had abandoned her for a reason and that they would come back for her. Those hopes are brutally dashed in The Last Jedi, and yet Rey only emerges stronger for it.

“It offered something you needed.” Luke Skywalker to Rey about the cavern beneath the island.

Easily one of the boldest scenes in the film, Rey’s journey under the island is one of the best scenes of the film. Subtlety has never been Star Wars’ strongest talent, but The Last Jedi shows us just how elegant a tool subtlety is, it makes me sorry that they included Rey narrating the scene because I don’t think it needed it at all. Rey needs to know who her parents were, it’s been a constant thought in the back of her head, holding her back. And sensing this, the Force shows her who they were:

Nothing more than shadow upon glass. Two people that briefly merged to create her and then sold her to a slaver. Then the mirror shows her the only thing that really matters:

Her. Her life, her journey, the woman she became despite her abandonment. The only thing that brought her to that cave was her, not because mystical parents that bestowed her with great powers, but because of her resolve and her spirit.

Rey doesn’t understand what the mirror is showing her, at first, but it’s that resolve and that spirit that allows her to reject Kylo Ren’s offer.

Finn and Rey
That and her love for her friends.

The mirror shows her a very selfish view of herself, which is what you’d expect from something of the Dark Side, because it ignores the help she had from her friends. But in a way that’s exactly what Rey needed to see, and when it’s balanced against her natural selflessness and generosity of spirit, being selfish isn’t such a bad thing. In this case it gives her the strength to do what was previously unthinkable: leave behind Luke Skywalker and save the galaxy herself.

Seeing Luke Skywalker reject the Jedi and everything they stand for would break most people, hell just look at how many fans are angry because of how Luke is portrayed, but Rey doesn’t despair. She’s hands herself over to Kylo Ren because she thinks she can save him, despite the danger to herself, despite Luke telling her not to. In the face of that kind of resolve… who could possibly stand in her way?

She’s Rey: a greater Jedi than even Luke Skywalker.

“It is up to us to pass along to those who will surpass us. That is a master’s burden.”

– Yoda to Luke

 

 

 

 

 

 

Star Trek Discovery: I Still Don’t Know What’s Happening

Before starting, I want to take a few moments to reach out to a reader of mine. I have no idea who this person is, I’ve never met them and never talked to them, but they’ve been a loyal reader for years. Thanks to WordPress’s statistics I can see who visits me from various countries, and while I’m sure it’s not 100% accurate thanks to VPNs and such, it’s been interesting to see where my readers are.

One of my readers is in Puerto Rico, and every time I publish a new article, my stat board shows me this:

Puerto Rico reader

Unfortunately I haven’t seen that little flag pop up in quite some time, which isn’t surprising considering that Puerto Rico still doesn’t have power in the wake of hurricane Maria. However, when Puerto Rico gets back on its feet, I want that reader to know I was thinking of them. If you’re reading this in a few months, drop me a comment, let me know you’re okay.

And for the rest of you, I’d hope you donate whatever you can to https://hispanicfederation.org/donate and I’ll be donating last month’s Patreon contributions plus a little of my own money. You’ll be helping Puerto Rico and me, because I use my reader numbers to calculate my worth as a human being and I don’t think my self-esteem can take the hit of losing a loyal reader.

Okay, enough sappy stuff. Let’s talk about the other natural disaster to hit America… Star Trek Discovery.

Discovery Star Trek
Seriously, what’s wrong with you Star Trek, get your shit together.

The first episode (or first two episodes I guess) wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. Despite not a god damn thing making any sense, I had hope that perhaps it would get better. Maybe it was the optimism that Star Trek brings out in me, or the fact I love Jason Isaac’s work and thought perhaps his role as captain could help the show find its feet. Or maybe I just wanted this show to work, that I miss having a weekly Star Trek show to watch. Whatever the reason, despite my misgivings, I had hope.

The third episode of Star Trek: Discovery destroyed that hope. This episode had so many fundamental failures in writing, directing, acting, special effects, and cinematography that it should be taught in film schools as an example of what not to do. None of the characters are relatable, or even remotely likable. The plot continues to contradict itself from minute to minute which makes it impossible to characterize anyone because nothing makes any sense. I could talk about how this doesn’t resemble Star Trek in the slightest, but that point feels moot because I feel like this show fails at the basic level of even being entertaining.

And the strangest thing of all? People like it. Not just reviewers, but close friends of mine who love Star Trek just as much as I do. Am I not seeing something? Allow me to lay out my concerns and perhaps someone can tell me where I’m going wrong.

Star Trek: Discovery

I Still Don’t Know What’s Happening

Discovery Star Trek

The third episode of Star Trek: Discovery fails in so many fundamental ways it’s almost mind-boggling. I still don’t have a character to root for because Michael is a blank cipher with no characteristics. Every character we meet, save for one, is a depressed asshole not worth knowing. Then there’s the plot, which is still constantly contradicting itself to the point where I don’t even know what way is up anymore.

Once again I was left confused about many of the shows most basic elements, such as:

Why is the War Michael’s Fault?

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Everyone blames Michael Burnham for the war with the Klingons and yet this contradicts everything we saw in the premier. Yes, Michael commits mutiny and was planning to fire on the Klingons which would have caused a war, no doubt about it. But here’s the thing: her plan fails. Being the colossal failure that she is, she couldn’t even Vulcan nerve pinch her Captain right, so the captain stops her from following through on her plan. It’s in fact the Klingons that fire first in the engagement and thus the Klingons that actually start the war. I mean if you want to get really pedantic I guess you can kind of blame her for killing the Klingon warrior on Kahless Beacon (I still have no idea what is), but even then he’s the one who swung the blade first, and killing him was mostly accidental. Michael killing T’Kuvma obviously didn’t help matters, but it’s grossly unfair to lay all the blame on Michael.

At first I thought maybe this was going to be some kind of misunderstanding. Under the circumstances I could see low ranking officers and crew hearing about a mutiny on a ship just moments prior to a war breaking out and rushing to conclusions. People link together completely unrelated items all the time just because the pieces look like they might fit together.

Yet when Michael meets First Officer Saru who witnessed the whole thing go down, he also blames her for the captain’s death. I’m sorry Saru, but that whole plan to capture T’Kuvma was your idiot captain’s idea. She was dead the moment she decided to launch a pointless retaliatory strike rather than simply living to fight another day. Don’t go blaming Michael for the captain trying to take on a Klingon in hand-to-hand combat.

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Don’t invade Russia in winter, don’t fight a land war in China, and don’t get into hand-to-hand combat with a species that still uses melee weapons.

Michael’s apparent guilt over starting this war is fundamental to her character and yet it also makes no sense because it obviously wasn’t her fault. I’m beginning to suspect that the original script did in fact have her start the war with the Klingons but was changed for some reason late in the game. Her character’s misery and near suicidal levels of recklessness would actually make sense in that context.

If it had been her fault then I would be fascinated to see how she copes with the guilt and I would want to watch her redeem herself, but that’s not what the show gave us. Instead I have no idea what the show is trying to tell me because she seems to accept responsibility for starting the war… but because she didn’t start it, this all seems like she has a weird guilt complex and probably needs to see a therapist.

I hope at some point she is forced to see the ship’s counselor, because then at least we might get some insight into who the hell this person is…

Who is Michael Burnham?

Michael Burnham

The worst part of the show so far has been just how little its main character has been characterized. I have no idea who Michael is. Who is she? What does she want? What makes her tick? And most importantly, why should I care what happens to her?

Michael was raised by Vulcans after her parents were killed and went to the Vulcan science academy… and that’s all we know about her. I literally have no idea what motivates her to act the way she does. Sometimes she’s a depressed suicidal woman who accepts her punishment and sometimes she’s an angry woman who starts brawls in the mess hall. Sometimes she’ll act like a total ass to her new roommate, and sometimes she’ll be nice to her. She doesn’t want to take an assignment and then asks a million questions about the assignment.

I have no idea who this woman is and thus have no frame of reference for when she swings from one extreme to another. No matter what the show or who the character is, I should have some idea of what motivates them. The fact that I don’t know what Michael wants after three episodes of watching her is bad. This is made worse by the fact she acts Vulcan, and not even Spock style Vulcan where there’s charm beneath the stoic exterior, but just cold and aloof to the point where I’m not sure I even want to know her.

The face of adventure
This is the closest I came to actually caring about her.

There are a few seconds when she sadly lies in bed that I felt like I could finally relate with her, because who among us hasn’t lain in bed and thought about our mistakes. Yet because starting the war and her captain’s death aren’t her fault the whole scene falls flat. If the show wants to succeed though, it needs more scenes like this one, where she actually emotes a little and gives the audience a chance to know her.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Michael is probably our best bet for a likable character on this show too, because everyone else we’ve met has been a huge asshole.

Why is Everyone Terrible?

Discovery Crew
The worst group of people to ever plague the stars, one of whom is already a corpse.

People have been telling me they enjoy the “dark and gritty” feeling of Star Trek: Discovery. I have not, and not because it’s not Star Trekky, because Deep Space 9 went to some dark places. I’m not enjoying it because it’s a Zack Snyder style dark and gritty: everything sucks and everyone is miserable. No one smiles, no one laughs, there’s not a single ounce of fun to be had in this whole show.

“It’s a war, that’s realistic!” I hear someone, who is probably Zack Snyder in disguise, say.

No. No, it’s really not. Even in the darkest times, especially in the darkest times, people still need to laugh and love and appreciate life. Even Band of Brothers occasionally stopped to show the soldiers laughing and having fun in the midst of unspeakable horror. Bob Hope built a career of making soldiers laugh during some of humanity’s most destructive conflicts. Realism aside though, everything being terrible just makes for a boring show.

As dark as JJ Abrams new Star Trek films are, which include crashing a spaceship into a city which probably kills tens of thousands, they’re also fun. It’s why my reviews of the JJ Abrams Star Treks have been more positive, because even though its not a Trek I recognize, I was still thoroughly entertained. There’s not a single character in JJ Abrams Star Trek that I don’t like.

Which brings me to the terrible cast of characters in Star Trek Discovery. Michael is already on shaky ground with her suicidal levels of angst and now piled on top of that are some of the most unlikable people I’ve ever seen. There’s the gruff security officer who fits the “abusive prison guard” trope to a fucking T, the judgmental Saru, the weird proto-Borg lady that won’t give Michael the time of day, and my personal (un)favorite:

Punchy McPunchface.png
I give you Punchable McPunchface III, esquire.

He’s one of the headliners so he’s obviously going to be a central character, and yet he’s introduced in such a way as to make him intensely unlikable. He’s rude, condescending, and needlessly hostile. They don’t even give him a Sherlock Holmes style charm to counterbalance it, he’s just awful all the way around. In the  stupid scene where Punchface McPunchable shows up, he asks Michael why’s she there, and when she replies she was assigned there, he asks:

“Who gave you an assignment? Only I give assignments.”

Then he brushes what I can only assume is the 24th Century equivalent of cocaine off his shoulder and asks if she’s the one Lorca sent. So wait, back up a second, why did you ask if you were expecting her? Then he accuses her of making things difficult. No, I’m sorry Punchy McPunchface, you made things difficult by being an intolerable douchebag of awfulness instead of just telling her what to do so we could all move on with our lives.

This is followed up by an incredibly bizarre moment when Michael stands there examining the code Punchface gave her and her roommate walks away and evaporates before our very eyes. I think this was meant to convey the passing of time, but the way it was done made it incredibly disconcerting. I didn’t even understand what was supposed to be happening until another pair of men enter the room and evaporate as well. I mean this was such a fundamental failure of directing and cinematography that I actually noticed it. This is coming from someone who didn’t even notice all the bad directing in the prequel trilogy of Star Wars until the Red Letter Media review pointed it out, so if I’m noticing problems like that, then they’re pretty damn huge. But back on point:

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Hey look, an actual smile.

I had high hopes for Captain Lorca because I love Jason Isaacs, he’s an incredible actor that I thought might help Star Trek: Discovery find its feet. I genuinely enjoyed his introduction because he delivered some flare and humor to what had so far been a monotone episode of misery. And then the fortune cookies arrived…

Captain Lorca offers her a fortune cookie, saying it was an old family business… I’m sorry but what was? Making fortune cookies? Or did they run a Chinese restaurant? And then he describes how they went out of business when “want and poverty” vanished… and he sounds so god damn resentful about it. Humanity has finally advanced to the point where no one has to starve to death and no one lives on the streets, and yet he sounds angry about it. Why? Is he really so selfish to think that the advancement of mankind isn’t worth his family’s fortune cookie business going under? Why they thought this was appropriate thing to make the captain say, I’ll never know, because like most of the dialogue it does nothing positive for the show.

The only character I like is Michael’s roommate Cadet Tilly, because she’s the only one who has smiled and laughed in this whole miserable parade of awfulness. And yet she’s also presented to the audience as the resident idiot because she’s happy and bubbly. She’s also the only character that shows any kind of growth, who admits to distancing herself from Michael for fear of her career and apologizing after realizing that’s a shitty thing to do.

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It’s pretty sad that the bravest crewman on the USS Discovery is a cadet…

It was because of her bubbly nature that I thought she was going to die in the next section because…

Why Am I Watching the sequel to Event Horizon?

Actually that does Event Horizon a disservice because that’s a genuinely good movie, whereas Star Trek: Discovery‘s foray into scifi horror is just one giant horror trope after another.

Mutilated bodies? Check.

A door that keeps opening and closing? Check.

Character sees a monster in the dark and doesn’t tell the rest of the group? Check.

A stranger tries to warn them about the danger and dies? Check.

A nameless red shirt gets eaten? God damn check.

You want to add some more gore to Star Trek I say go for it. I always thought Deep Space 9 could have grounded some its action more solidly had we seen up close and personal what a Jem’Hadar weapon blast does to the human body. But if you’re going to add gore, at least have a point to it. These scenes had only one objective: to shock the audience. It doesn’t advance the story, or add any gravitas to the situation. It’s there for the same reason there’s gore in slasher and monster movies, because audiences like to see limp bloody corpses.

Horror Trek
I have to admit though, I do love that this Star Trek has a decent makeup budget this time.

There was a moment where I actually thought this episode would so something interesting and its when they meet a Klingon survivor who tries to tell them to shut up. This was a perfect setup for having our characters cooperate with the Klingons. Given the closely grouped Klingon bodies, they were probably ambushed by the monster, with only this sole survivor left. Yet Klingons are hunters, whose native world is filled with deadly predators, and thus the perfect candidate for hunting down the monster. Meanwhile the Starfleet personnel know the terrain and could offer the manpower needed to bring it down. Thus taking the first step in forging new relations with the…

Or just have the Klingon get eaten. Whichever I guess.

The absolute worst part of this scene though is Michael’s utterly disinterested run from the alien monster. I guess its because she acts Vulcan, but she never once seems afraid. I talked about how a character’s fear of death, a fundamental fear shared by all, can add solid stakes to a scene in my review of Fury RoadIf Michael isn’t afraid of dying, why should I be afraid of her dying?

She begins reciting Alice in Wonderland and again I understand what they’re going for, that Michael is using that to conquer her fear. Unfortunately because they forgot to show us Michael being afraid at all, it’s just a weird moment in a weird show as she literally conquers nothing. Honestly at this point, I was rooting for the monster.

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Yeah go ahead, Kitty, eat them up. God knows you’ve earned it. Also if you can’t see shit in this picture, don’t blame me, I didn’t do the lighting for this show.

So with whatever magical doohickeys they needed safely stashed away, the crew returns home…

And promptly blows the shit out of the Glen, which brings up, yet again…

Why Does the Plot Keep Contradicting Itself?

If Star Trek: Discovery ever gets hauled into a police station for unacceptable levels of badness, it’ll be instantly convicted because it just can’t keep its story straight for more than five minutes. At the beginning some nameless prisoner wonders why a brand new starship is so far from the frontlines, but then a short shuttle ride seems to take them directly to the wreck of the Glen which was on the Klingon border. And if that’s true, why send a helpless shuttle to find it when for all you know, it was Klingon ambush that disabled it. And if the Glen was working on top secret research identical to the Discovery’s, why was it near the Klingon Border at all? If it hadn’t been for the giant fungus monster all that classified research would have ended up in the hands of the Klingons.

So nice job, idiots.

Destroying the Glen is also completely bonkers, why would you destroy a perfectly good starship? Michael and the rest of the crew weren’t wearing biohazard suits so obviously they’re not afraid of infection. They successfully captured the fungus monster, so safety isn’t a concern. The only thing wrong with the ship is that its filled with gross bodies, but as unpleasant as that is, I’m sure you can find someone to clean up. Why was this ship salvageable? As the audience we absolutely need to know that.

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What a waste.

This is followed by Captain Lorca making himself an even bigger asshole than I already know him to be, by saying:

“Sad to see a ship like that go…” – Abusive Prison Guard AKA Chief of Security

“It’s just a ship…” – Captain Lorca

Uh, no it isn’t because the entire crew died with it. His callous disregard for the lives of his fellow officers and crew is absolutely his worst moment in the show, and this is his first episode. This is preceded by Captain Lorca recruiting Michael to his crew, which begs the question: how the hell does that work?

Captain Lorca claims he has broad discretionary powers, which that combined with his disregard for human life makes him scary, but really? You don’t think Starfleet is going to have a few objections to rehiring Starfleet’s first mutineer that they sentenced to life in prison? If Lorca is just sticking it to the man then have him say that, don’t hide it behind euphemisms like “discretion”, because honestly it would actually give me a reason to like him, which is badly needed.

And just last week the show presented Starfleet as an Orwellian nightmare with summary judgments. So which is it? Is Starfleet a centralized authoritarian regime? Or one that’s willing to let its Captain’s exercise individuality? Because I assure you, those two options are mutually exclusive.

Starfleet 1984
This doesn’t look like a flexible, freedom-oriented group of people…

In the interest of fairness, I do want to end on a positive note.

Lorca’s Monologue

Lorca's Monologue
The man is a fine actor, I just wish Discovery would give him better material.

When Lorca takes Michael to the engineering bay and shows her the spore drive, he gives a succinct, yet moving speech. Visiting far away places and meeting new civilizations… almost as if they were explorers of some kind instead of soldiers. This is as close to liking Lorca as I got in this episode, because it made me feel like perhaps this show wouldn’t be a constant parade of death and misery. That maybe, deep down somewhere, there was still a little bit of Star Trek optimism left in its withered heart.

Yet of course that was immediately undermined by Lorca examining his new pet fungus monster and walking away looking like a crazed serial killer.

Crazy Lorca
This is not the look of a mentally well person…

Given Jason Isaac’s penchant for villainous roles, I’m sure Captain Lorca is going to end up turning evil(er) at some point. He’ll probably try to use the spores as a biological weapon exactly like Michael said he would.

I’ll keep watching to see how the show develops, but unlike everyone else it seems, I see no potential here anymore. Where can the show go from here? Everyone is already miserable and everybody hates everyone, so what’s going to happen when the war starts heating up? They’ll remain exactly as hateful and miserable as they are now, and that’ll be boring.

Yet I’ll keep watching, because I really hope I’m wrong. I want to be wrong about this show. I love Star Trek, I want there to always be a Star Trek show on the air. But this is just so bad on so many fundamental levels that I just can’t see it surviving, especially behind a $10 paywall. I guess we’ll see.

Star Trek Discovery: Wait… What’s Happening?

So Star Trek: Discovery has finally come out and I’m happy to report that it was not the disaster I was expecting. After years of production problems, ousted showrunners, and what is probably the fatal flaw of appearing on a CBS streaming program, I was expecting a complete mess that would totally unwatchable. In fact my expectations were so low that I ended up enjoying the premier way more than I thought I would.

[I stand by this Tweet, however. Seriously, fire the Phaser sound effects guy.]

Unfortunately there was still enough mess that I was left confused as to what was happening most of the time. I want to emphasize that I’ll continue to watch, it wasn’t so bad that I’m going to abandon it. Every Star Trek series has had a pretty awful opening episode. I adore Star Trek: The Next Generation, but the premier, Encounter at Farpoint, is about 10 minutes of story stretched into a grueling 90-minute exercise in boredom.

That doesn’t mean I’m not going to ask questions about Star Trek: Discovery‘s confusing premier.

Star Trek: Discovery

Wait… What’s Happening?

Discovery Star Trek

There were several things that Star Trek: Discovery introduced that I liked, that put a new spin on old themes. Character’s motivations seemed more complex and the Klingon political scene felt more nuanced. Yet only moments after these new elements were introduced they were seemingly contradicted by something completely different. In the end, Star Trek: Discovery’s premier had me asking too many questions.

Questions like:

What’s the Timeline?

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Wait… when are we? Oh, Sunday? Well that clears everything up.

I’m not referring to whether this is the JJ-verse or old universe Trek, though based on the visuals I’m guessing this is JJ-verse. However if this show is going to succeed it needs to know when stuff has happened and is happening. For instance when Michael tells the captain that she saw Klingons, the captain points out that no one has seen a Klingon in over 100 years. That scene comes only moments after a flashback sequence in which we find out that Michael’s parents were killed by Klingons… so is Michael supposed to be over a century old? Or do her parents just not count as anyone? Or did they technically not see the Klingons because they didn’t live to tell the tale?

Then there’s what Sarek describes as a “terror bombing” at the Vulcan school she was at, so again, when was that exactly? It sure didn’t look like it was a century ago.

This paradox is only compounded by the fact that Michael seems to have a lot of insider information about the Klingon Empire. When the other Klingon ships arrive Michael points out that there are twenty four of them, representing the Great Houses of High Council, and speculates that someone is trying to unite the Empire again.

How does she know that? We as the audience knows she’s correct because we’ve been seeing the Klingon side, but she hasn’t. More to the point, if it’s been 100 years since anyone has seen the Empire, how does she know it’s not already united? Kahless the 2nd might have already been born and united the Empire for all she knows. Hell, maybe they underwent a societal shift and now the Empire is an entirely agrarian society. In terms of cultural evolution, a century is a hell of a long time.

Kahless1
I’m sorry, but T’Kuvma has got nothing on Kahless 2.

To be fair there’s a lot of contradicting information in Star Trek canon, but those mistakes came after decades of movies and television episodes spanning dozens of different writers and directors. Star Trek: Discovery contradicting its own backstory in the first half-hour of its premier is utterly unacceptable. This is something that should have been caught and removed because it’s utterly unneeded in the plot. Why did it have to be a century, you could have said 20 years and avoided this whole paradox.

Yet I’m not so hung up on timeline details that I couldn’t have still enjoyed the show. Unfortunately the only thing that clashes worse than the timeline is the character’s actions and motivations…

Who Are These People, and Why Are They Acting This Way?

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I believe you mean the House of Moogie, the mother of the House of Quark.

At the beginning of the confrontation with the Klingons Michael suggests a first strike on the flagship, claiming that it’s the only way to avoid a war. To which I have only one response:

What? 

Forgive me, but how does that make any god damn sense? Launching an unprovoked assault is the title of the first chapter in So You Want to Start a War. What makes her think that the Klingons, who thrive on conflict, would back down because you blew up one ship? That’s throwing down the gauntlet in front of warrior race that loves fighting, there’s only one way that was going to go. Thanks to some clumsy exposition earlier, Michael tries to justify this by saying the Vulcans did it successfully.

However, if the Vulcans did it, then why are we not still at peace with the Klingons? Are they not part of the Federation yet? Or are they all extinct now? I’m seriously asking because, again, I have no idea what timeline this is.

Despite my confusion I was okay with this at first because I thought the show was going in the direction of Michael being blinded by hate. Which I guess they kind of ended up doing, but they also don’t want to fully commit to it. Later when the captain confronts Michael about her treason, she laments that she wasn’t able to bring Michael out of her Vulcan shell of logic. Which, again, makes no sense because if anything it seemed like Michael’s mutiny was a knee-jerk emotional reaction. If she’d stuck to cold Vulcan logic, I feel like this whole scenario would have gone much differently.

All According to PLan.png
All according to plan… apparently.

Perhaps this would have made sense and been a pivotal moment in the character’s arc… had we been given a chance to find out who the hell Michael is. Yet all we know of her is that she’s close with her captain and was raised by Vulcans. Yet both these characteristics are betrayed when she launches a mutiny against her captain, and without more knowledge of the character to justify this action, it comes off as the hysteric response of a maniac. Michael has been a first officer for 7 years, if she’s going to betray everything she’s ever believed in, we damn sure better understand why.

Of course no one else’s actions make much sense either. At first I liked T’Kuvma’s motivations because a fear of losing their culture felt justifiable and relatable. The Federation is wonderful, but you can’t deny there’s a certain homogeneity to it. All Starfleet ships share similar designs and bear human names, they all wear the same uniform, and they all live under a single governing body. In the face of that, I can see T’Kuvma fearing that the culture of his people would be subsumed by the Federation.

Unfortunately Star Trek Discovery does nothing with this. T’Kuvma’s plan makes no sense and the Klingon high council siding with him makes even less sense.

T’Kuvma lights his beacon of Kahless, whatever the hell that is, and the High Council arrives. He gives them a quick speech about how the Federation wants to destroy Klingon culture, and one of the Klingons says she’ll hear more… but then T’Kuvma never actually says more. He does nothing to convince them that the Federation is a threat. He then waits for the Federation to hail them and when the captain says they come in peace, all the Klingons suddenly agree to attack.

Okay...but why
I’m not saying that’s not true, but you’re going to have to give me a little more to go on than that.

Why? What is it about Starfleet’s proclamation of peace that threatens the Klingons so much? If it had been an invitation to a treaty of nonagression and friendship then I could see it, because at least that would have fed into the Klingons fear of losing themselves. I’m not saying there’s not a case to be made that “we come in peace” would anger the Klingons, but it was Discovery‘s to make that case. And it didn’t. Making a case for Klingons to resort to violence is literally the easiest problem you will ever have to tackle in Star Trek… and they somehow failed.

So given all these wild swings from one extreme to another it’s almost fitting that the finale features a very confusing, and honestly, ill-conceived plan. The captain, her ship disabled and most of her crew injured or dead, decides to take one last shot at attacking the Klingon flagship. Despite quoting The Art of War it’s clear that the captain, and the writers, either didn’t fully read it or didn’t understand it.

“Do not swallow bait offered by the enemy. Do not interfere with an army that is returning home.” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The Klingons are collecting their dead and ambushing an army at this point has been, historically, a huge dick move. Even humanity’s most vicious wars viewed this as grossly dishonorable (though that didn’t stop us from doing it constantly), and I can only imagine how the honor-bound Klingons are going to react to this. That alone will only escalate the conflict, yet the captain also seems to forget all the wounded and helpless Starfleet personnel floating helplessly in their escape pods and damaged ships. If something had gone wrong, she was putting all of their lives at risk to satisfy her pride. She’s human though, so let’s assume she’s not thinking straight.

After reverting back to Vulcan logic, Michael correctly points out that killing T’Kuvma would only make him a martyr and suggests capturing him. Now this was a good idea that was completely botched in its execution. Attacking a physically stronger opponent on his home ground with exhausted and injured personnel is pretty much the exact opposite of Sun Tzu’s teachings. Their shields were down, did it not occur to anyone to just beam the handful of Klingon survivors onto their ship? Even assuming they don’t have the TNG ability to disable weapons in transport, you could still have surrounded them with a dozen phaser-stun wielding officers.

Kill Shot
Wait, wasn’t this the exact opposite what we wanted?

Whatever though, they wanted a tense hand-to-hand battle, fine, but then Michael abandons the plan she had only moments earlier and kills T’Kuvma. I get what they were going for, that Michael loses her temper in the face of her captain’s death, I get it. However the way its filmed it doesn’t make a lot of sense because even I barely had time to acknowledge the death blow, and from the entry wound (pictured above) she was directly behind him. How does she even see the killing blow? And if she thinks her captain is immediate danger, which is believable, why switch to kill mode? Seems like Stun knocked them Klingons out much faster.

Honestly though, the worst part is the final few moments. Now mutiny is a huge deal, as is attacking a superior officer, but life in prison? Really? In the Federation that famously has no capital punishment? I mean they didn’t even sentence Michael Eddington to that and he was a full-blown terrorist who killed people. Worse than that, is the bizarre dystopian tribunal that sentences her. I’m okay taking Star Trek to darker places, Deep Space 9 did it successfully, but not that dark. I mean, overreact much, Starfleet?

Starfleet 1984.png
Starfleet: As Envisioned by George Orwell.

Again, just like the “100 years since we’ve seen a Klingon”, this piece of dialogue does absolutely nothing positive for the story and could have been easily changed. Sentence her to 30 years, or 40, anything short of a life sentence that we normally reserve for actual murderers.

Still despite all these problems, there is one very important question that Star Trek: Discovery actually answered rather than raised.

 

The Why of the Universal Translator

A point in Star Trek: Discovery‘s favor, except not really, is that it’s an excellent example of why Star Trek canon includes a universal translator: yes, it’s unrealistic, but the alternative is having an actor’s performance crippled by speaking gibberish. Between the gibberish language and the just stupid amounts of dental prosthetics being used, watching those actors struggle with the dialogue was painful to watch. I felt sorry for Chris Obi, who played the Klingon leader T’Kuvma, because he’s a fine actor but I could feel his frustration in those scenes. Trying to spit out the already guttural Klingon language out from between that many false teeth must have been maddening.

Had they just allowed their Klingons to speak English we could have had much better performances, as evidenced by T’Kuvma’s brief stint in English as he gloats over his victory. His charisma and intimidation values shoot up significantly when he doesn’t sound like he suffers from a speech impediment.

WTF Mouth.png
Seriously, makeup department, let’s remember these guys have to actually be able to speak with this crap in their mouths.

So next time someone you know sarcastically says “Oh, how convenient that all those aliens speak English!” like he’s being clever, show him this episode of Star Trek: Discovery. I guarantee they’ll never ask that question again.

And seriously, make-up guys, tone it down a few notches next time. Sheesh.