Category Archives: Original Trilogy EU

How Nick Spends His Free Time…

I find myself of late pondering the nature of villains. To be honest, this line of thought stems mostly from my recent intoxication with Greggory Macguire’s Wicked, both the novel and the musical. I’m sure this makes our very own Rachel ecstatic. Though I’d been meaning to get around to those works, it was her, in her constant role as catalyst for my love of all things musical, that got me off my rump and actually delving into the wonderful works of Oz. While The Wicked Years have brought me close to the world of L. Frank Baum—until now a work I could find little enthusiasm for—my musings ventured beyond the confines of the Emerald City, past the borders of Munchkinland and the Vinkus. This past month of consideration has brought me to several conclusions, few surprising, but none that I had openly considered before.

Obviously, no piece of fiction is complete without a proper antagonist. Often it is the villain of our heroes that most stick within our minds. Why is that? Forced to consider it, I have to say that while we all strive to be the hero—saving the maiden, righting wrongs—do we not, perhaps, relate to those more villainous? Though unconsidered until I was jotting this down, I find myself increasingly convinced. It’s no surprise we have a tendency to see the worst of ourselves. This harsh introspection is a trademark of human character, and our fiction is ever a reflection of ourselves. Furthermore, heroes by nature are larger than life, and those that possess flaws seem flawed in ways we’d almost wish for. Let’s be honest, heroes, as a whole, are a fairly unbelievable lot. Without that constant foil of their dastardly foe, even our favorite protagonists would fall a little flat. Heroic figures are role models, unachievable in their epic proportions, and therefore they are hard to understand and hard for us to relate to.

Consider with me, what makes the best villains you’ve ever seen? Who are they, what do they look like? On the surface, they are either frightening and powerful, else so smooth and cool you may mistake them for an ally to our hero before realization comes crashing down on you. While there are all sorts of effective villains, many of them find their roots in something all too familiar to us. Perhaps it was heartache and love that drove them to criminal behavior, like Mr. Freeze from the Batman franchise, intent upon saving his wife at all costs. The villain may hide behind their pride and virtue, like Judge Frollo from the Hunchback of Notre Dame, using that umbrella to justify his insatiable lust towards a woman and the deeds it drives him to. Maybe an immense ego places them above the reproach of their peers, like Professor James Moriarty from most Sherlock Holmes incarnations. After all, if one has no peers, does that not give them the right to do as they wish? My point, longwinded as it may be, is this; villains resonate within us because we see in them the vices and failings that we deal with in ourselves each and every day. Certainly we also possess the merits of the hero, more than we know, but those are far harder to recognize.  How do you know that you were brave, or noble? Not only are the occasions to showcase those virtues scant at times, but often are so part of our nature that we don’t even realize when we have displayed them.

That all said, we come around to the central theme of this post, which seems to be a continuing examination of what makes Star Wars the cultural phenomena it is. An unintentional turn to my postings, but enjoyable nonetheless. When last I left you, I had examined some of the fights that, to me, had helped to make the franchise stand out. This time around, I will, obviously, look at the villains that challenge our ragtag group of heroes.

I can’t deny that the various antagonists of this universe have been central to the success of the franchise. From the Fetts to the classics—the likes of Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine—the villains have captured the imaginations and support of a large portion of Star Wars’ fandom. Even though, cinematically speaking, the Empire is undoubtedly the “bad guys,” they have a loyal and, might I add, large fan following. Not only do the films present us with compelling figures to lead this tyrannical government, the various mediums within the Expanded Universe have done a wondrous job of introducing members of the Imperial forces that have taken us by storm. The likes of Thrawn, Pellaeon, and Daala joined the Imperial ranks as strong, powerful figures that secured themselves a place in our memories. We as fans found that, despite being cast as undoubtedly evil, we rather liked the Empire.

For all this, however, it all comes back around to the original villains in the films. When A New Hope hit the screens, we had our first look at Darth Vader, a dark, imposing figure that strikes fear into the heart. From the size, to his suit—was he a robot, or was that body armor?—to the brilliant voice of James Earl Jones, he was the perfect villain. We saw him as a highly skilled, merciless adversary. We certainly wanted to hate him. Yet, as we progress through the original trilogy, we come to learn more of his past and, more importantly, his present state. Vader is not evil, that had never been his intent. Instead, we see he is a man who lost everything, including much of his body. His spirit is broken, and he moves throughout the films as a specter of who he could have been.  That changes in The Empire Strikes Back. When he learns that he has a son, more importantly when we learn he is Luke’s father, his first words are, “Come with me. My son, I’m offering you the galaxy.” Paraphrasing, sure, but that’s hardly a selfish sentiment. We see a depth that we thought beyond the man. When he witnesses his son being brutally murdered before his eyes, Vader rises up and destroys his master of decades. That spirit returns, Vader is healed, and it is a glorious redemption. In those last moments we see Vader for who he is, and suddenly the depth of his character becomes a little clearer. It’s subtle, but once built upon by the Expanded Universe and Prequel Trilogy, (Though, I think the character of Anankin Skywalker was criminally mishandled, so much so that it almost ruins the character of Vader for me, but that is a conversation for another day) we see that depth at its fullest and Vader steps forward as, perhaps, one of the best villains in recent history.

Even Vader, however, would not be nearly as effective without Palpatine looming over him. Here we have the classic villainous mastermind. Powerful, cunning, manipulative, you want to hate Palpatine. The Emperor, that classic twisted figure, boils your blood with his self-assured manner. A man that rose to take dominion of the majority of the civilized galaxy with primarily his cunning, he is the ultimate evil, serving to illustrate the merits of the heroes in the film. Add in the more minor villains—Boba Fett, Grand Moff Tarkin with his condescending confidence, even the minor moffs and Jabba the Hutt—and you have a broad spectrum of top notch villains that certainly make the galaxy a far more complicated place for our scrappy little rebellion friends.

The films themselves see phenomenal success in the area of bad guys, but it’s not until we get into the Expanded Universe that Star Wars shines in the field of villainy. With the downfall of the Empire, we see factions and splinter groups cropping up everywhere. A young New Republic struggles to assert dominance. We see the introduction of new villains who, in the end, we’re not sure if they truly are villains. Politicians in the New Republic end up more corrupt than their Imperial counterparts. Every which way we turn, we can’t be sure who to root for and who to boo down. Logic may dictate who the “bad guys” are, but our gut tells us that it’s simply all one big mish-mash, and depending on your point of view, the tag of villain can be thrown all over the place, just as the moniker of hero can. In my opinion, this is when a work transcends a simple story and becomes a living, thriving world. As the reader—or viewer, or player, whichever is applicable—begins to realize that the depth of the universe is such that it is possible to see the merits of any faction, that there are no true good guys or bad guys, they begin to experience it all more personally. It feels more real. When you reach this point, everything is connected and the universe begins to develop such depth that it is easy and, in fact enjoyable, to get lost in the intricacies, to forget for a moment that you’re sitting on Earth, reading a book.

For all the flak I give Star Ward of late, in particular the Expanded Universe, the hodge-podge of ideas, beliefs, styles, and preferences of the various authors, illustrators, designers, etc. have all come together to form a deep, thriving world that’s alive in its own right. These characters and events aren’t just stories told us once upon a time, but people and places that have taken root and live a little bit in each of our hearts and imaginations.  As a collective fan base, we have kept alive the universe we love between the droughts and valleys, waiting patiently for the next movie, the next series, the next video game. While the world is compelling, while the heroes are endearing, it’s the villains that, inevitably, keep us coming back to the Galaxy Far, Far Away.

Regards,

Nick

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Nick Ranks His Favorite Lightsaber Duels, Oh My!

There is nothing more iconic of the Star Wars saga than the lightsaber. A simple statement, hardly surprising, but nonetheless true. Whether in novels, video games, comics, or the films, this piece of technology—and its wielders—stand at the center of revolutions and atrocities alike. They have been used to enforce order and to prolong tyrannical rule. Whether a rite of passage or a symbol of power, lightsabers inspire awe and dread amongst the denizens of the Galaxy Far Far Away. Within the confines of our own galaxy, however, regards towards these awesome weapons tend towards fascination. Since the first snap-hiss heard in Ben Kenobi’s small desert hovel, lightsabers have stirred our curiosity and inspired our sense of wonder. I imagine one would be hard pressed to find a fan of the franchise that didn’t want one.

What is it then that sparks our imaginations when we see these prismatic blades burst to life on screen? The concept is not necessarily original. Blades of pure energy are, while not exactly a staple of science fiction, hardly uncommon, but nowhere else does it leave such a lasting impression as within the Star Wars franchise. My first real post I’d like to start, methinks, on one of my two favorite aspects of the Star Wars universe. Move into this thing slow, as it were. I imagine this won’t be a short one, but few of my musings tend to be.

No doubt lightsabers have moved so fully into our hearts due to the stunning duels present in all of the films. More than simple fight sequences integrated to hold our interest, these battles embody the spirit of the space opera genre. Filled with passion and thrilling sense of danger, these duels provide a dramatic touch to the copious amounts of action within the films that has been integral to defining the core of the Star Wars franchise. Each fight serves a purpose. Often the fate of the galaxy rests on the shoulders of the victor. How would the history of the galaxy have changed if Luke had slain his father aboard Cloud City? If Darth Maul had triumphed over Obi-Wan Kenobi, what then would have become of young Anakin Skywalker? In the end, these duels are so compelling due to this history altering potential, but more importantly, the audience is made so acutely aware of the consequences of the battle. These fight scenes are no longer filler to captivate a bored audience, but essential parts of the story allowing the viewer to immerse themselves more fully into the drama unfolding before them.

So perhaps it is hardly surprising that the duels between Sith and Jedi are my favorite parts of the movies. I’m sure most fans would agree. Still, it is a safe place to begin, and I felt the urge to rank my top five fight scenes in the franchise’s six movies. You may agree or disagree with my choices, and I would love to discuss the merits and flaws of my reasoning below in the comments, if you should feel so inclined. Keep in mind, however, that I am not ranking the fights purely on choreographic merit. I am taking into account anything from the cinematography to the emotions of the scene to the context within the story being told. So, without further ado, we have number:

5 Master Yoda versus Count Dooku – Attack of the Clones (2002)

 

There is a part of me that didn’t want to include this fight on my list. I have my fair share of issues with this movie and these scenes in particular, and maybe someday I’ll go into those in more length (though I doubt you haven’t heard any of my grievances before). Retrospectively I am very uncomfortable with the animated Yoda, part of me ever the traditionalist and therefore longing for the good ole puppet.

That said, there can be no denying the impact of this scene. Sitting in a dark theatre, watching as the cripple Master Yoda, known so long and never seen moving quicker than a hobble, come to the aid of the young Jedi Knights lying defeated at Count Dooku’s feet. Though the Force-off is a bit much for me, and some of the lines are questionable, once the sabers come out it’s impossible to be unimpressed. As the fight spins and twirls across the room, one is left breathless at the feats of acrobatics being displayed. This scene was much-needed character development for the favorite old Jedi Master and helps to reinforce, in part, why this tiny being commands the respect he does. We also see for the first time in cinematic form the acrobatic capabilities of a master of the Force, and animated or no, it is awe inspiring. To me given all it introduces to the franchise, this scene nails the solid fifth slot.

4 Master Obi-Wan Kenobi versus Darth Vader—A New Hope (1977)

 

Who can forget this fight scene? It makes the list for a multitude of reasons, chief amongst them being that it was the first we saw of two lightsabers battling for supremacy. Though unimpressive choreography by standards of the fights to come in the franchise’s lifetime, it still presents an impressive showing. Consider also the mysterious references to a shared past, only lightly touched at this point, and this scene is poignant indeed. It is most set apart, however, by an underlying feeling that, perhaps, they are not trying as hard as they might. Each is calm, collected. While it is undeniable that only one of them will walk away, it seems that neither is trying overtly hard to end the life of their former friend. Context given, of course, by the expansion on their past that the Prequel Trilogy gives, but upon reviewing this scene it’s a fair assumption, I think.

3 Master Obi-Wan Kenobi versus Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader—Revenge of the Sith (2005)

The duel that the entire Prequels were driving towards, that unavoidable confrontation between two friends, slides in at number three. Though I have my qualms with it, largely the poor scripting on some of the lines and Hayden’s delivery (But again, we’ll not derail the discussion too greatly), this scene truly does deserve to be here. In the least, it is the stunning, energetic conclusion to the downfall of Anakin Skywalker. Though I noticed a lot of movements that were clearly gratuitous flair thrown in for no rational reason—fighting fluff—the majority of the duel was fast paced and exciting. The energy of it all was stirring, and the break in the fighting on the river of lava was irritating. That was a compliment. Considering the characters as they had been portrayed to this point, the conclusion was just as it should be. Still, for all its cinematic splendor, I couldn’t think to give it a slot higher than third, and almost didn’t give it that.

2 Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader—The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Second on my list, Luke’s first encounter with the mysterious and evil Darth Vader. Of the Original Trilogy, this is by far, in my opinion, the most energetic fight sequence. We see a brash Luke Skywalker walking into Darth Vader’s trap. Up until  this point, Luke has been seen as a bit of a powerful hero, and it’s not truly until he walks into that room that the audience sees how woefully inadequate the boy is for going up against the skill and experience of someone of Darth Vader’s caliber. Here, we see the man responsible for the decimation of the entire Jedi Order. Here we see the cold, calculated killer, playing with his prey. The fight perfectly reflects this experience gap. Skywalker didn’t stand a chance. Still, the boy has guts, and is able to hold his own, of a sorts. Granted, most of this seems to be without his lightsaber while crawling through catwalks and ductwork, but one uses what one has handy.

All this makes this scene truly superb, but one thing skyrockets it to the number two slot. This is the scene that leads up to the big reveal of Vader’s paternity of Luke Skywalker. Here, Luke’s universe is shattered as he learns the truth that Obi-Wan tried to keep from him.  Still, Vader offers to raise Luke up, to rule the galaxy together. Come now, that’s one swell dad, don’t you think? Especially considering the old cyborg had only known he had a child for a fairly short time. In the end, this fight sequence, to me, is a large part of Empire’s acclaim amongst the fanbase. It was truly a magnificent scene.

1 The Duel of the Fates—The Phantom Menace (1999)

Come now, could there be any doubt? This fight is the pinnacle of lightsaber duels the movies over. All leading up to it were in preparation, and all after only wish they could have succeeded so magnificently. No other fight in the franchise has been named. A large part of this, to be fair, was due to the amazing score written specifically for this duel, only adding to its splendid execution. We see our first saber staff, and the enigmatic Darth Maul made us all rethink our knowledge of lightsabers. The possibilities were amazing, and as a young boy I was captivated, even if I was always the Obi-Wan fan of my siblings.

More than this, of all the fight scenes present in the movies, none matches the Duel of the Fates for sheer perfection of Choreography. This scene was the last, and perhaps first, scene that was designed as nothing more than a true fight to the death. There are no attempts at witty banter, most likely failed. There is no plot exposition. Instead, we are awarded with intensity and ferocity hitherto unseen in Star Wars and, dare I say, never seen again. This fight brings with it an unreached level of—excuse my language—badassery that left none of the combatants looking weak or unskilled. When Qui-Gon Jinn is slain, you don’t think him inferior. You don’t blame him for losing. He gave a hell of a fight, and you couldn’t be prouder. When Maul is at last defeated, there is no denying his skill, nor is Obi-Wan found undeserving of his victory. In the end, when Qui-Gon is dying, and Obi-Wan takes on the young Sith Lord Maul, we see emotion and proficiency of fighting that we don’t see again. I will officially disagree with Drew on one point. I do not think that Obi-Wan’s later duel with Anakin can match this scene. Something indescribable sends this fight rocketing away from the rest, in a league of its own. It is, truly, ranked amongst the best fight scenes I have seen in any genre or medium.

To me, this duel easily deserves the slot of number one. The only qualm I have, throughout the entire scene, is that Maul’s death is just a tad slow, a bit less fluid than it should be. Considering my issues with even the other four on this list, I think that is impressive beyond expression.

Now that that is all done, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Not nearly the bitter old meanie I portrayed in my first posting. Perhaps I was just pulling your leg, and I’m really just a normal Star Wars fan doing an honest review of some of my favorite scenes? Well, to lay fears to rest, be aware that the worst fight scenes will be forthcoming. Some of them will be surprising, I think. I will be far less forgiving.

At any rate, I appreciate you trudging through this. As I said, feel free to comment, though I won’t rise to pointless bickering about opinion. I don’t expect to change your mind, nor desire you to change mine. Another posting will come at some point, I’m sure, so in the meantime, feel free to hit me up with any questions you may have.

Regards,

Nick

Take A Good Look

I scream, you scream, we all scream for lightsabers!

I scream, you scream, we all scream for lightsabers!

Happy Labor Day, readers!  Today, I wanted to look into one of the most fascinating short stories ever to be published in Insider, Karen Traviss’ “A Two Edged Sword,” (mistakenly published in Insider as just “Two Edged Sword”) the follow-up to another Traviss short story entitled “In His Image.”  Both stories were subsequently published as an addendum in Aaron Allston’s Betrayal.  “In His Image” is a story of Sa Cuis, one of Palpatine’s first “hands,” and a particularly loyal one.  Cuis was sent by Palpatine to murder Vader, and although he fails, Vader extracts some of his DNA for future cloning purposes- one of the earliest stories, continuity-wise, which documents an obsession of the new Empire – cloning force users.

Vader is assisted and defended in this story by his loyal lieutenant, Erv Lakeuf, whose DNA is also extracted in the hopes of strengthening Vader’s Fist, the 501st.  We open our story as Sidious and Lakeuf observe Vader training one of the clones of Cuis, which ends abruptly upon Vader’s choosing.  Vader then engages Sidious in conversation, and we get to see some terrific insight into his character, particularly the way in which he holds on to his past.  Vader is shown to be very wary of Sidious in this story, and it is very clear that he keeps the fact that he is being used and abused in the front of his mind, constantly.  However, he also references Padme and Obi-Wan multiple times in this story, most notably when coming to terms with the fact that Sidious had ordered his execution, and likely would again, tapping into the theme that defined Anakin Skywalker: betrayal.  Vader muses “And I trusted you too, Padme. I’m practiced at handling betrayal now.”  Are we then to also assume that Vader sees his actions against his wife as justified?  That he truly believes that she brought Obi-Wan there to kill her, even though her last words to him denied this fact?  Some food for thought.

While Vader clearly has much contempt in his heart for Sidious, this story presents us with an even more interesting relationship, the fatherly one that Vader feels for Lakeuf.  While Lakeuf’s clones are being bossed by Cuis’s in a practice session being viewed by Vader and Sidious, Vader remarks that he feels and understands Lakeuf’s fear, which is that his clones will displease Sidious, and Lakeuf will have to spend another six months away from his wife and family training them.  After considering this, Vader orders that Cuis’ clones holster their lightsabers when training against Lakeuf’s clones, in favor of (non-lethal) metal staffs.  Sidious notices Vader’s behavior, identifies the root of it, and tells Vader that creating this facade of a friendship with lieutenant can be used to his advantage.  Unbeknown to Sidious, Vader appears to have a genuine fondness for his subordinate, especially after Lakeuf tells Sidious (after being prompted) that the reason for his loyalty to the Dark Lord is grounded in their understanding that Vader does not ask the 501st to do anything he would not also do himself.  This has many real world implications, surely- an effective strategy taught to leaders in our own business world is to “get in the trenches” with subordinates, and respect will be earned.  As a result of this show of loyalty, Vader tells Lakeuf to notify his wife that he would be returning home for a visit.  Vader justifies this move to Sidious as “motivation,” but a sense of wanting to live vicariously through Lakeuf is also present, as Vader is aware that he will never be able to enjoy a return to those he loved.

The team of Sidious, Vader, Lakeuf and his men, the clones, and Sheyvan (another hand of the Emperor, and trainer of Cuis’ clones) board a shuttle for the Imperial Center, presumably on Coruscant.  After only a short time in the air, Vader immediately senses treachery, and this is confirmed by his lieutenant, who notifies him that Sheyvan and the clones of Cuis have mobilized, killed all of Lakeuf’s men, and are preparing to kill Sidious and take the ship.  Lakeuf and his colleague, Pepin (named after Dany Pepin, legend of the SW Fan Audio community and creator of Star Wars En Direct) obtain a flamethrower, and cut the power to the ship.  With the assistance of the flamethrower, Vader engages and wipes out the mutineers and their leaders quickly, but Lakeuf suffers serious burns in the fallout, another distinct connection that he would now share with his commander.  Before falling to Vader’s blade, Sheyvan warns the Dark Lord about Sidious: “He will betray you too,” to which Vader utters the line of the story, “Few men will not try to betray me.”

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After learning of his friend’s injuries, Vader cradles- let me repeat that- Vader cradles his lieutenant, and calls for bacta.  In this moment, Vader’s first thoughts go to Obi-Wan, who Vader describes as the “master he trusted,” but one who had abandoned him to die- a bit of a delusional moment, given the actuality of their battle on Mustafar, but one that goes a long way into Vader’s mindset.  He later tells a scarred but healing Lakeuf, “You are too loyal for your own good, Lieutenant” to which Lakeuf replies “That’s my job, my Lord.”  Vader then tells him, “You never disappoint me.” Refreshingly, this feels like it should be an exchange between Anakin and Rex, or Obi-Wan and Cody- there is still a semblance of humanity within the mangled metal that replaced Anakin Skywalker.

We then are taken to a final scene, Vader and Sidious watching troops gather on Coruscant, in a scene that harkens back to the end of Attack of the Clones.  In this instance, however, it is the dialogue that is more important than the imagery.  Vader tells Sidious he does not want Dark Jedi in the Imperial Army, and Sidious seemingly ignores him, instead justifying that they would need to be trained by Vader himself, not a less trustworthy hand.  And right on cue, as Palpatine tells Vader in the most patronizing of manners that “the solution to having to watch your back is to have the enemy watch theirs instead,” Vader delivers just one final thought to Sidious: “I will come for you one day.”  As difficult as it is to acknowledge, especially knowing what he will be capable of down the line, Padme’s dying words are vindicated yet again- Anakin is still there, deep down, in many ways- and as this story shows, he never loses sight of himself.  The tale of Vader is truly a tragedy of staggering proportion.

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