Sunday, December 20, 2015

Review: Star Wars The Force Awakens (Spoilers, obviously.)

This post has spoilers.  Seriously, don't read unless you've seen the movie.  

Retro Review: The Thrawn Trilogy Part 3: The Last Command

In a way, The Last Command has it the easiest of the Thrawn trilogy - the entire plot is setup quite nicely by the prior two books.  No new characters of importance are introduced (a few named smugglers would be introduced, but in this book they're basically all interchangeable) and the bad guys' schemes are nearly all perfectly clear from the outset.  Hell, none of the new worlds introduced are of any relevance whatsoever, either.  Contrast this with Return of the Jedi, which has to introduce a new Death Star not seen previously, as well as the new area of Jabba's Palace - Command doesn't need to do this at all - the setup is already complete.

The plot of course is this (think of this as your text scroll):

The New Republic is suddenly on the defensive, due to the actions of the Empire's new commander, Grand Admiral Thrawn.  Having obtained a lost fleet of warships and thousands of cloning cylinders to man them, the Empire launches its new final offensive into Republic territory.  The Grand Admiral comes armed with two special advantages: A cloaking shield and an insane Dark Jedi, Joruus C'baoth, with whom he can take advantage of the shield in previously unthought of ways.  

Meanwhile, Leia Organa Solo is pregnant with Jedi Twins, whom the Empire and the Dark Jedi want to take for their own twisted purposes.  Luke and the Smuggler Chief Talon Karrde independently each attempt to track down where the Empire's new clones are coming from, in order to restore the balance of power.  And recovering from a brush with death on Coruscant is Mara Jade, the woman once known as the Emperor's Hand, who has sworn to kill Luke Skywalker....

This is not of course, to say, that the action of this book is predictable.  The book has interesting subplots involving a spy "network" inside the New Republic headquarters, a fascinating new siege weapon used by Thrawn involving cloaked asteroids, and the smuggler meetups are pretty fun as well.  And again, the characters are terrific - Mara Jade finishes off her arc in this book in such a way as to be satisfying but still allowing her to be used in future Star Wars stories; same with Karrde and even Captain Pellaeon.  Thrawn and C'baoth's downfalls could very easily have been done poorly, as both characters are written as incredibly overpowered (overly omniscient in Thrawn's case) at times, but neither character's defeat requires a Deus Ex Machina.

The book culminates like Return of the Jedi in fact, with a space battle taking place simultaneously with a confrontation with the Dark Jedi.  That said, this isn't a retread.  C'baoth is a Dark Jedi, but his mindwarping modus operandi is not anything like that of the Emperor and the space battle has nothing to do with some planet destroying superweapon.  This is its own epic storyline, and the book succeeds the more for it.

On that last confrontation with C'baoth, I know some people have considered it really cheesy that it involves a clone of Luke named "Luuke" whom he has to battle - particularly the name.  The thing is, that if you ignore the name, the book sets it up so it makes perfect sense, so it's not really a thing.  It is kind of interesting that the book involves the lightsaber that Luke loses at Bespin (and that was originally Anakin's), just as in The Force Awakens (as you all should've seen in the trailer, so that's not a spoiler).  I guess it's a really fertile idea for the lightsaber of Anakin to be passed down - here it's passed down to Mara Jade at the end (although oddly enough, it's basically never mentioned again and it's replaced later in the EU).  

There's so much content here (this is the largest of the three books by about 40 pages) that it's hard to see this being done in one movie, but a split into two ala Harry Potter/Hunger-Games actually would work here really well (figure you'd split right after the Empire's assault on Coruscant, with Coruscant besieged and the main characters having broken out Mara to go after Wayland).  But this book would still be very adaptable to the screen and very enjoyable for the public - no silly political squabbles and slow parts (except I guess the Delta Source subplot, but that's easily excised).

Again, the good guys triumph in epic battles, some of which involve space battle while other parts of which involve blasters, lightsabers and of course force powers.  This is Star Wars at its finest, and easily the most cinematic of the trilogy, with everything following through from start to end.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Retro Review: The Thrawn Trilogy Part 2: Dark Force Rising

Tonight it's time for our second retro review of the original Star Wars sequels, The Thrawn Trilogy - Book 2: Dark Force Rising.  Tomorrow we'll complete this series with a review of The Last Command and a review and analysis of The Force Awakens.  But for now: Dark Force Rising.  

DFR benefits from having the groundwork laid by Heir to the Empire quite a bit - every existing player in the book except 2 (Garm Bel Iblis and Niles Ferrier) are from the prior book, while most of the plot of this book is directly set up by the prior book's cliffhangers as well.  The plot of this book features the following storylines:

1.  Leia goes off to the homeworld of the Noghri, where she tries to make amends for the destruction of their world and to convince them the Empire is simply using them;
2.  Luke heads off to Jomark to meet Joruus C'baoth, where he tries to see if this is a Jedi Master he can learn from, and if not, if he's someone Luke can help.
3.  Mara Jade begins to feel the force return to her and at the same time tries to help Karrde evade Thrawn's grasp, eventually leading to her needing Luke's help to rescue Karrde from Thrawn.
4.  Han and Lando go out to try and find incriminating evidence against Bothan Borsk Fey'yla and to exculpate Admiral Ackbar from the treason charges against him and wind up discovering a forgotten former Rebel General/Senator
5.  The last two plots combine to form the finale, where the main characters attempt to race to a fleet of lost warships which might turn the tide in the battle between the Empire and New Republic.

You'll note that one of those plots, #3, basically has no involvement of our major movie characters whatsoever until the very end (when Luke and Mara team up).  That's the benefit of Heir's setup here - we're interested in both Mara and Karrde's fate from the start, without the need for major characters crossing their paths.  Incidentally, this book would be more logically called "The Force Awakens" for this plotline with Mara than the movie is (more on that tomorrow).  

Most of the rest of these plotlines work as well.  The Noghri plot works really well and is very impactful and Luke's reaction to C'baoth is very believable and really works up how the mad jedi is trying to "train" Luke in a different way than we'd previously seen Vader/Emperor work on turning him to the Dark Side.  

Han and Lando's plotline is a bit more hit or miss.  Garm Bel Iblis would become more of a major character as a master tactician in the Expanded Universe, but here he comes off as whiny - it doesn't help that Mon Mothma's influence really isn't shown that heavily in the movies (one scene in ROTJ!) or Heir. (This problem will extend to The Last Command as well).  The sequence of events that leads them to him is well...very coincidental even for a series such as this, 

And then there's Niles Ferrier, the other major character introduced in this book.  He's just a bad character (along with his Wraith who isn't even named) altogether and basically just a plot device.  So he's a master ship thief but who smokes a distinctive type of Cigar such that Lando and Luke (and presumably others) can identify him basically anywhere by smell?  Really?   Speaking of coincidences, him showing up magically on the next planet Luke and Lando go to a few chapters after meeting them in the opener is something.  Again, he's basically a plot device who leads the characters from point A to point B and this is probably why he'd never be seen in the EU again after The Last Command (yes he dies in that book, but he never appears in books set prior to this trilogy either).  

The other real flaw in the book is the Fey'lya plot is...well, kind of lousy.  A regular flaw of the expanded universe in Star Wars is that non-human races frequently get treated as a group of individuals all of whom share the same traits - in this case, Bothans are treated as sneaky power grubbing aliens.  Fey'lya is the ur-example of that (and alas, he's not alone) and it doesn't help that he's just so comically ineffective at doing anything.  The "speaking into an unexpectedly live mic" strategy that dooms him in the end is cheesy and well, the treason charges of Admiral Ackbar are actually never cleared in this book - it's cleared offpage in between this book and The Last Command (by Talon Karrde's slicer, Ghent).  

Again, these are basically nitpicks.  Most of this book works really well and the finale of the book is definitely earned.  And like Empire, this book functions as a table setter for the trilogy's finale, as the good guys get their butts handed to them and learn the true nature of Thrawn's plan - the Clones.  And the book also sets up Thrawn's fallibility - numerous times he makes the wrong determination from the evidence at hand - due to making false assumptions as part of his thinking process.  And with the Noghri starting to turn against Thrawn, the seeds for the good guys' final triumph are set.  

That said, this would again be really tricky to film.  As I detail above, there are four separate plots going on simultaneously for most of the book, wit the characters all separate in different locations.  In the original trilogy, the split is at most 3-way (ROTJ where Lando is in space, Han & Leia on the planet, Luke on the Death Star), and even there, those plots are related and in the same area.  This split is more like something you'd see on a TV Show, bouncing around between separate plots before everything culminates in the finale.  

On that finale Heir and DFR end with all of their plots converging into a single plotwith seemingly large stakes at risk (of course, Thrawn has basically already won the large stakes before the finale of DFR).  This is of course similar to Eps 4 and 5, which also have all plots converge at the end.  Return of the Jedi does not have all the characters converge in one area at the end, and as we'll see tomorrow, neither does the finale: The Last Command. 

Friday, December 18, 2015

Retro Review: The Thrawn Trilogy Part 1: Heir to the Empire

Disney is releasing their version of Star Wars Episode VII this weekend: Star Wars, The Force Awakens.  I'm excited of course - I've been a star wars fan since elementary school - and have tickets to see it tomorrow.  That said, like a lot of people, I'm a little sad because well - I grew up reading plenty of Star Wars stories set after the original trilogy, some of which I loved (some of which, on the other hand, were garbage).  My online handle actually comes from one of these books (X-Wing: Wraith Squadron to be precise).  With TFA, Disney has declared all of the Expanded Universe non-canon, which is really brutal to those of us who loved these stories.

In fact, three books, and one story really, of the Expanded Universe were often regarded as sort of an unofficial Episodes 7-9: Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy.  These books essentially started the Expanded Universe and were a huge reason why it became a big deal in the first place, introducing several new characters who would make large impacts in the Star Wars world for years.  As these books are being wiped from canon, I feel like it'd be a fun time to actually reread all three books in the trilogy to see how they hold up and what is being lost.  I may also take a quick look at how adaptable these books actually would've been if Disney had decided to go that route.  

Heir to the Empire

Heir to the Empire skips ahead about 5 years after Return of the Jedi, but jumps right in.  The Rebellion has established the New Republic, and while still fighting the Empire, has it seemingly in retreat.  Leia and Han are married and Leia is pregnant with twins - who seem to be force sensitive.  Luke is a lone Jedi still searching for a way to move forward as the first new Jedi.

But even this intro is getting ahead of itself.  You see, Heir doesn't start with the characters we know and love.  Instead, the first chapter dives straight into the new antagonists (starting of course with a ship in space, because every star wars movie needs to do that), a pair leading the Empire on a new surge:  Captain Pellaeon, who serves basically as our Ishmael  for this side of the story and Grand Admiral Thrawn, the new leader of the Empire.  Thrawn is a tactical genius, whose race (he's a blue skinned alien with red eyes) is the only reason he wasn't deployed against the Rebellion in the movies, who often seems able to predict his enemies' every move.  And his enemies....are our heroes.
The intro to Thrawn is brilliant, showing him using knowledge of an alien race to rout them in a space battle and showing his usage of art-study (!) to analyze the behavior of that species.  This could seem awfully cheesy, but it's really not, and Thrawn is compelling from the start.

The first few chapters also introduce us to the second antagonist of the series: an insane dark jedi master named Joruus C'baoth.  Thrawn recruits C'baoth with the promise of providing him Luke, Leia, and Leia's twins to train such that Thrawn can use C'baoth's abilities to help him restore the Empire (this'll be examined more later).   C'baoth is not nearly as compelling as Thrawn because well...insane overpowered bad guys are insane overpowered bad guys.  They're not particularly new.  Still he works in this story - presenting an evil threat to the Empire's new actions that Thrawn doesn't himself.  Think of him as the Emperor of the original trilogy to Thrawn's Vader - Vader was the compelling antagonist of the trilogy, but the Emperor showcased the true evil that the good guys were facing.

Of course, the book also introduces two new protagonist characters who would also have major influences on the Expanded Universe.  First, Talon Karrde - a super smuggler/information broker who has become the big smuggler chief since Jabba the Hutt was killed, who is trying to manage to make a profit without becoming targetted by either the Republic or the Empire.  Again, this could totally not work (and in some later books, Karrde basically does become just like a mary sue plot device type character so it doesn't), but it really works here.

And then there's Mara Jade.  If there's a character that most EU Star Wars fans will miss, it's Mara Jade.  A strong independent woman, who's force sensitive (and formerly worked as the Emperor's special agent himself), smart, and assured of herself, she's basically Zahn's greatest creation by far.  The only woman in the original trilogy is Leia, and while she has some autonomy and badass moments in the series, she spends a good deal of time being rescued.  Not Mara Jade - she's the rescuer, not the rescuee.   TFA is introducing a new female character as one of the main characters, and Jade gives her a lot to live up to.

I'm this far in and I've basically not talked about the plot of the book at all, which is ridiculous.

Honestly, it's less important than the world building that's done here, introducing the various characters as well as various worlds and species that will pay off later:
Wayland - a hidden planet containing the Emperor's storehouse of secret technologies, such as a cloaking shield (and one other little technology hinted at but not explained here)
Myrkr - a planet the Old Republic Jedi avoided because it houses a species called the Ysalimiri, which suppress the force for a small distance around themselves
The Noghri - a species of aliens used as assassins by Thrawn, who regard the late Darth Vader as their savior.
Borsk Fey'yla - a Bothan councilmember of the New Republic plotting to take over power from Admiral Ackbar no matter what it takes.
Coruscant - the capital planet which actually remains canon thanks to the prequels.

These are big concepts, and this book introduces them all!  It's the next two books where the world building pays off.   But despite the climaxes of this book not involving some big epic battle with an epic victory (the two climaxes involve Luke slicing a few pillars with his lightsaber to collapse a building on top of stormtroopers and the good guys destroying 50 of their own ships that were about to be taken over by Thrawn), the book still works well at setting up the threat of Thrawn and C'baoth, while providing multiple great action sequences.  It really feels cinematic.

Which is not to say adapting the book would be easy.  Whereas the original trilogy tended to stay on certain locations for large sequences of time, this book jumps around a LOT - take a look at where the first few chapters take place
Chapter 1: Thrawn in space in a Star Destroyer
Chapter 2: Luke and Leia on Coruscant, Han on Tattooine
Chapter 3: Karrde and Mara on Myrkr
Chapter 4: Thrawn on Wayland

That's 5 different locations in four chapters!  That's kind of hard to do without losing the audience in film, where you don't have internal dialogue to introduce concepts.

That said, again, the book FEELS cinematic.  None of the battles here are large at all, but they feel epic.  And this is only the beginning.

TOMORROW:  We talk about Dark Force Rising, the second book in the trilogy.  Much more focus on the plot of that one actually.  (Oh and I'll have thoughts on TFA myself).