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Star Wars and Genre: The Crime Story

Jabba the Hutt, Star Wars’ original gangster

The criminal underworld is a rich part of Star Wars’ tapestry. Han Solo was one of the three main characters of the original trilogy, and supporting characters like Lando Calrissian, Boba Fett, and Jabba the Hutt abounded. Our introduction to the “wretched hive of scum and villainy” was one of the most memorable moments of A New Hope, and Return of the Jedi spent its opening act in Jabba’s palace. Smugglers, crime lords, bounty hunters, pirates, and grifters all play major roles in many Expanded Universe stories. This is fairly natural, as crime stories are a major part of modern fiction in general. The number of popular movies, TV shows, and books about crooks is massive, reflecting the tremendous storytelling potential of criminality, which comes prepackaged with loads of the element most key to storytelling: conflict.

The greatest gangster epic of all time

Not every story featuring criminals or crime is what I would count as a crime story. Crime fiction focuses on the stories of the criminals — unlike, say, mysteries, which tell the stories of the people investigating the crimes. It can come in many forms. The great “gangster movies” of cinema — The Godfather and its sequels, Goodfellas, Once Upon a Time in America, Casino — have associated the genre with stories of the rise and fall of organized crime figures (and primed audiences to expect Robert De Niro to play a major role). A very different type of crime fiction is the heist story, following crooks who execute a complex plan to make a major theft. Many films noir documented an individual — crook, innocent, or investigator — caught up in a web of crime that threatens to consume him. Think Out of the Past, Double Indemnity, Night and the City, and The Killers. The varieties of crime story are even more numerous than the varieties of crime.

As might be expected of a franchise with such a large share of criminals among its cast, Star Wars features a reasonable number of crime stories. The recent Scoundrels is a high-profile example of a heist story, and I could stand to see several more such capers from Han, Lando, or the other scoundrels of the setting. The Ahakista Gambit is an overlooked entry in the same subgenre, and similar caper elements can be found in almost any story involving the execution of an elaborate plan, the Knights of the Old Republic comic series being a good example thereof. In its depiction of an underworld broker caught in a nightmarish scenario as a result of a bad deal, Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter has a great deal in common with the film noir style cited above. The Han Solo Trilogy does not engage in particularly heavy use of crime story tropes, but it is certainly the story of Han Solo’s criminal career.

The cantina scene was such an iconic introduction of the fringe that it got its own short story anthology

Far more stories make heavy use of “the fringe,” the Star Wars underworld, in a way that brings criminals and crime-story elements into play without revolving the entire story around crime. The pirate Nym plays a lead role in the Starfighter games. Talon Karrde’s smuggling and information brokering storylines play a significant role in the Thrawn trilogy and The Hand of Thrawn Duology. Scourge explores the Hutt crime syndicates, Darksaber uses a Hutt kingpin as a major villain opposing the New Republic, the comic Darth Maul sets the Sith Lord against the gangsters of Black Sun, and Shadows of the Empire plunges the heroes deep into the criminal underworld to face the galaxy’s biggest crime lord, Prince Xizor. The fringe was central to West End Games’ roleplaying game, which envisioned players acting out their own underworld stories, and it is reassuring to see the fringe again taking a leading role in Fantasy Flight Games’ RPG. Of the many genres I intend to tackle, the crime story is certainly one of the best-represented in the EU, with numerous stories revolving around criminal endeavors.

Booster Terrik is a badass. Write me more stories about Booster Terrik.

Yet for all the presence of the underworld in the Expanded Universe, it could still stand to show off a greater diversity of crime stories and to focus more on stories about crime, rather than about petty criminals who get caught up in bigger Empire-and-Rebellion plots. We get some smuggler stories featuring Han or others, but efforts to make a major storyline, something on the level of a novel or comic arc, out of Han’s criminal exploits have been relatively lacking. A story about one of Lando’s grand con games wouldn’t be amiss, but Lando stories are depressingly rare to begin with, and those that do feature him have tended to look elsewhere for their material. Efforts to get a fringe-set game off the ground at LucasArts have come to nothing, most recently with the cancellation of 1313. The rise and fall of crime kingpin Jorj Car’das, together with the rise of Talon Karrde as his successor, cries out for “gangster movie” treatment in a novel or two. Star Wars has many bounty hunters who could hold down a gritty novel about tracking down dangerous criminals. A war between crime syndicates could provide a fertile setting for storytelling. Everyone likes pirates, and a pirate crew could make interesting protagonists. The proliferation of fringe supporting characters in his circle — Karrde, Booster Terrik, Droma — and the breadth of enemies in his past offer many avenues for a story about an older Han (and Lando) being dragged back into the fringe for a bar-brawling, cargo-smuggling, con-playing, card-sharking adventure in the classic “one last job” tradition.

Scoundrels was great, and it featured Lando, two related qualities. Feature Lando more, EU.

The underworld has gotten a lot of mileage as a key Star Wars element, and is among the genres most exploited in the Expanded Universe. EU storytellers could still stand to do more, however, as many potential angles for crime fiction remain underused. Hopefully, with Scoundrels and Scourge leading the way in the recent embrace of standalone stories and genre exploration, that will change.

The Future of the Female Star Wars Fan

Sitting in the movie theater in May 2005, I was convinced that was the last time I would ever see new Star Wars live action material on the big screen.  George Lucas was clear that Star Wars was about Anakin Skywalker’s story and thus it was over for him as far as movies were concerned. After leaving the theater I admit to being disappointed for a variety of reasons. The biggest one was the way Padmé was written in the movie and how a strong female character was replaced with someone unrecognizable. Don’t get me wrong, I adored the movie and the action and I classify it as one of my favorites from the series, but it could have been hands down my favorite had Padmé’s storyline been handled a bit differently.

Fast forward to 2012 and the announcement that Disney is buying Star Wars. The news could not have been better for the female Star Wars fan. Over the past few years Disney has been on a woman empowerment kick with their movies. As a nanny I am subjected to seeing Disney movies rather frequently and sometimes repeatedly. For those who haven’t seen some of these movies I would look at the following: Rapunzel in Rapunzel, who throughout most of her journey is the one getting the man out of trouble, The Princess and the Frog which saw Tiana embarking on a journey to save Prince Naveen, and most recently Brave which featured a princess who refuses to be a prize to be won and goes on an adventure with her own skills and bravery. This trend of the Disney princess being more than a damsel in distress is surely going to be carried over into Star Wars.

The current information that we have about Episode VII casting suggests that we will see some strong females.

“Late-teen female, independent, good sense of humour, fit.”

“A second young female, also late teens, tough, smart and fit.”

The words “independent” and “tough” are what I like to see when discussions are centering on female choices for a character and I believe these are the types of characters that Disney has been most interested in portraying. These characters might not be the main cast. I get that but I’m hopeful that female fans could finally be getting the story they have been after for a long time.

One can’t discuss Episode VII without also discussing the important figures we already know about who will influence the story and direction of the film. J.J. Abrams has experience in strong female leads. His series Alias, starring Jennifer Garner as a female spy who uses brains and brawn to take down an international spy agency ran for 5 seasons. His series Felicity, which ran for 4 seasons, starring Keri Russell, chronicled the journey of a young woman coming into her own. Both showcase Abrams’ ability to create and use strong females in successful stories.

Michael Arndt’s involvement is also a hopeful sign for female fans looking for a strong heroine. He penned Catching Fire, the sequel to The Hunger Games, a story about a strong heroine who believes she is sacrificing herself for her younger sister. In the book by Suzanne Collins, Katniss is written as an unlikeable heroine who believes she can do anything to save someone who is a better person than she is. Katniss drags this person through seemingly impossible situations and is the ultimate survivor. I am optimistic that Arndt will take what he learned from working with Katniss and apply some of that to the females in Episode VII; though I am reserving judgment on Arndt until November when I can see for myself how he handles Katniss and her story.

George Lucas is the third person directly impacting the story for Episode VII and I consider him a bit of a loose cannon. He favors male-centric stories (Star Wars and Indiana Jones are examples) but he has created a strong female character before in Princess Leia. Yes she had to be rescued at one point (what Princess hasn’t?) but it was because of her strength of character and her determination to do what is right even at the risk of personal harm that put her into that spot in the first place. Princess Leia paved the way for the female heroes of today.  We see Leia constantly putting herself in danger and using her brains as well as strength to get herself out of danger. She fired blasters, ran with the troops on the front lines during the Battle of Endor and knowingly entered the lair of Jabba the Hutt to rescue her scoundrel.

As a female fan I want to see a heroine that I can point to and say to my niece, “See, you don’t need a prince to come rescue you.  You can be strong and do it yourself!” I am optimistic that the stars have aligned and Star Wars Episode VII is going to give me that. Look for a revisit of this topic in November after I get to see how Arndt handles Catching Fire.

D-Day, an’ Everything After – The Story of Eleven-ThirtyEight

One of my earliest memories of Star Wars fandom is the day Attack of the Clones was announced.

Not the film itself, which was obviously a given, but the title. It was August 7, 2001—I had been posting on the Literature section of TheForce.net’s Jedi Council Forums for a couple years at that point, in addition to running my own low-rent fansite dedicated to the New Jedi Order novel series, but before that day I had never ventured into the more, let’s say, mainstream waters of the movies-only section. I knew enough to know that most people, even many of those you might call superfans, were at best only dimly aware of the novels and comics of the Expanded Universe, and many were downright hostile to them.

At best, they saw the EU as silly, or crass; at worst, they saw it as illicit, as glorified fan fiction. Even those who were reasonable enough to believe that the Empire wouldn’t simply have given up after the Battle of Endor felt that the real story ended at Return of the Jedi—anything else was beside the point. And besides which, Star Wars was George Lucas’ story. Even if he grudgingly accepted the existence of tie-in material continuing his story, it still wasn’t his story, so it didn’t really count, when you thought about it.

aotc-posterAnyway, back on that day in the summer of 2001, I tiptoed into the movie forums to see what people were saying about Attack of the Clones. Some of you are probably too young to remember a time when Episode II was just “Episode II”. Suffice it to say, Attack of the Clones was not what people were expecting. Ewan McGregor was caught reacting to the title on camera, while doing press for Moulin Rouge, and he and Nicole Kidman were visibly flabbergasted. The reaction at the Jedi Council Forums, meanwhile, was somewhat less good-humored. I happened to have the day off from school, and I pretty much spent the entire day staving off a riot from bitter, betrayed fans—and these were people who’d already weathered The Phantom Menace.

It’s not that I thought it was an awesome title or anything; I just didn’t think we should’ve expected anything else from the man behind The Empire Strikes Back and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and if there’s one thing that pushes my buttons, it’s unreasonable complaints. Love it or hate it, Lucas has a shtick and he sticks to it—and I’ll never understand why anyone who isn’t at peace with that would want to waste their time with him.

Which brings me to D-Day. The “D”, of course, stands for “Disney”.

Much hay has been made (at least if you’re reading the sites I’m reading) of the Disney sale presaging the obliteration of the Expanded Universe. And certainly, no one in their right mind could ever have believed Disney would voluntarily shackle themselves to adaptations of 20-year-old tie-in material—though some were happy to insinuate that we did. The best we could, and still can, hope for in terms of preserving the existing canon is that the jainafiguresequel trilogy jumps clear past the bulk of the EU into 50 ABY or so, and maybe—maybe—sticks Jaina Solo or Ben Skywalker into the slot of “next generation character” that we all know very well is coming.

Of course, Ben would be hard (though not impossible) to use without explaining his mother Mara Jade, which means explaining Emperor’s Hands, and possibly Thrawn, and well…you can see why that probably isn’t going to happen.

But I don’t see that as the death of the Expanded Universe—I see it as a new beginning. Remember those movie fans I mentioned? The ones who thought Lucas’ story was the only story, and that it ended at Jedi? Well, Episode VII breaks both of those rules. Jaina or no Jaina, from here on out, it’s all the Expanded Universe.

That’s what I’ve come to learn in the twelve years (Christ, I’m old) since I logged into TFN to stand between AotC and a bloodthirsty mob—deep down, we’re all here for the same reasons. The Unofficial New Jedi Order Homepage begat TFN Books begat a blog at Starwars.com back when Starwars.com had blogs, and what I know now is that Star Wars fans are like the three blind men who place their hands on an elephant and describe three different creatures depending on what they’re touching, when the reality is all those things and more. Star Wars wouldn’t be the phenomenon it is if that weren’t the case.

Over the nine months or so since D-Day, what I’ve witnessed to a large extent is that the most vocal fans have divided into two main groups—those who worship the ground Lucasfilm walks on (or would, if it had feet), and those who believe the whole thing is going to hell (or worse, being maliciously driven in that direction).

With the help of some of the smartest internet beings I know, my goal is for Eleven-ThirtyEight to be the bridge between those two camps. Passionate, but not sycophantic. Pragmatic, but not cynical. Intelligent, but not haughty. Well, maybe a smidge haughty.

And above all, genuinely excited to see what comes next.

The restoration of the Republic and the “Glorious Cause” – Five things we need to see in the Sequel Trilogy

Declaration

The Old Republic was the Republic of legend, greater than distance or time. No need to note where it was or whence it came, only to know that… it was the Republic.

The prologue to the novelization of A New Hope, drafted by George Lucas himself and ghostwritten by Alan Dean Foster, opens with this powerful statement of the Galactic Republic. For over 25,000 years, the Republic, under the wise rule of the Galactic Senate and the protection of the Jedi Order, expanded galactic civilization and pushed outwards. In the Original Trilogy, the Republic has been dead for nearly two decades, replaced by the Galactic Empire and ruled by a Sith Lord. As Grand Moff Tarkin pointed out, with the dissolution of the Senate, the “last vestiges of the Old Republic” were swept away. Yet, despite the seemingly invincible forces of the Empire and the grip Emperor Palpatine had on the galaxy, there were those that fought to restore freedom to the galaxy. They joined together, beings from countless worlds and species, to form an alliance.

The Alliance to Restore the Republic.

Casual fans know this group as the Rebel Alliance or Rebellion, but that name is itself their charter, to defeat the Empire and resurrect the Republic. In the three movies that compose the Original Trilogy, we see our Rebel heroes destroy the first Death Star, barely escape from the Battle of Hoth, and then go all or nothing at the climactic Battle of Endor. By the end of Return of the Jedi, the second Death Star is destroyed, the Emperor killed, the pride of the Imperial Starfleet is defeated, and Anakin Skywalker redeemed. The movie ends, amid the Rebel victory and countless celebrations across the galaxy, on the precipice of a new era. The Rebels, however, cannot rest on their laurels. Their hard work is just starting. To truly achieve their charter, they must restore the best of the old and forge something altogether new.

new Republic. Read More

Character Shields & Chronology: To The End!

My fellow contributor Lucas made this comment, in part, on the Fleeing the End piece:

We’ve got over forty years now to tell stories about them going forward, and that time hasn’t been used up yet.

I may have misread his comment but do we have 40 years to tell stories of Luke, Han and Leia? I’m not so sure.

Over the last few years a viewpoint has arisen that argues that the only stories that matter in a franchise universe like Star Wars are those that occupy the furthest chronological point. The reasoning for this is that if there are no stories set after it then no character can be deemed safe. It’s the “character X is in the next episode so why worry” viewpoint, but it goes a step further and posits that this is a problem in need of solution. Is it?

This diagnosis rests upon the need for the characters to be in constant peril of death. The “character shield” of being in the next story is not in place so all bets are off. One problem I have with this notion is that, if a major character is going to die, it is unlikely to be a surprise. That development will be marketed to the max! The last big surprise death was probably Anakin Solo in Star By Star, but after that the fans got wise to the trick and by the time the Sacrifice book came out, bets were for Mara Jade to die. Those bets would have paid out. If Lucasfilm ever decide to kill off Luke, Leia or Han – you’ll know about it months before the book or film or comic – could it be? Who knows? – comes out.

It cuts both ways too. When the comic Legacy series started in 2006, it ended up kicking off a huge amount of controversy over its time jump of around a century. The creative team greatly indulged the “character shield” concept by leaving what happened in the interim unknown. The back-story goes to around 10 years before at most, leaving what should have been a more than adequate gap. Not so! Legacy got blasted for not going far enough ahead and for not using popular successor characters. Yet had they done that they would have also been hit because we would then know character X lived long enough to spawn and procreate!

As the latest Star Wars book, Crucible, looks to attempt the retirement of Luke, Han and Leia, I wonder if that can truly take? Because if it does, then that means the further adventures of these characters will have to be set at an earlier chronological point. There have been but a handful of these books – Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor in 2009/10 and Tatooine Ghost in 2003/4. The focus has been on blasting through the years – twenty, thirty, forty years after the films!

At present Dark Horse Comics are indeed attempting new stories set in the film era with Darth Vader and the Empire running the galaxy. Yet one criticism made at an early point is there is no suspense because the characters are known to survive. One answer to this is new characters should be developed, the trick being to make those new characters of interest sufficient for the audience to invest in and follow. But here that fatal jeopardy requirement rears its head, as if a character is developed only to be killed off, the audience can decide to be more cautious with its investments! The effect of subjecting characters to fatal jeopardy at all times can reduce them to pieces on a game-board, while always moving the timeline forward with abandon.

Solutions? Well, one is that authors are more creative in how they draw their audience into a story, with the aim being to so transfix their attention they never consider the temporal setting! In this respect, both books cited above can be said to have done this. Yet, the viewpoint, if held, is one that’s resistant to being so drawn in. In a way it could be termed post-modern as the reader is deliberately placing their self outside of the story while criticising it. The problem I have with this is that it is highly destructive. Without abandoning character shields and chronology blinkers to a degree, we cannot have an end point for characters while enjoying new, earlier adventures.

Key questions to ask, in searching for alternative avenues to pursue are:

  • Is the future of the expanded universe more important than the worlds and characters that make it what it is?
  • Is plot and jeopardy more important than characters?
  • Can you have fates worse than death in a story?

For all that chronology and continuity can enhance and raise a series up, they can also be lead weights if taken too far and the character shields outlook, applied as far as it has been, for me, represents that step too far. What is the future for Star Wars stories if character shields and continuity are indulged at the expense of all else? Bleaker than the deserts of Tatooine!