Tag Archive for Fleeing The End

Fleeing the End: Looking for Lost Magic

I recently read the first trade collection of the Brian Wood Star Wars series and… well, it didn’t go well and this was some time before the very recent controversy over Wood’s interactions with female comics professionals. But it also got me thinking as to why I’m still looking at items in the Expanded Universe at all. It’s fair to say that I’ve become more disillusioned with Star Wars over the last decade due to a combination of corporate decisions and dismissal of it from one G. Lucas who’s nevertheless happy to profit from it.

Reading the new comic, however, brought a new aspect to the fore that I’d been unaware of, or perhaps trying really hard not to notice – and that’s the sense that the magic has gone. People go to the films, they see works like Star Wars that take them away to another world, another time but it’s only for a couple of hours. What if you could stay longer? What if there were more stories? What if you didn’t have to let that magical experience fade away? Enter the Expanded Universe.

So what did Wood’s Star Wars do that was so offensive? It went and stomped all over the Classic Star Wars run by Goodwin and Williamson, oh it wasn’t intentional, it was a side-effect! It wasn’t personal, it was just business, you understand? Oh, I understand all right and I’m flogging the book in response at a very competitive rate! Just business you understand?
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The End of Illusions: Part 2: Big Three? We Don’t Need No Big Three!

Some riffs just can’t be avoided and the title’s one of them. My experience with the Big 3 can be considered to be a 3-phase one. Phase 1 was Bantam’s run that, along with Dark Horse Comics, got me interested in the EU in the early 1990s, around 1992. Phase 2 was the NJO / Prequel era of 1999-2006 and phase 3 is very minor due to a sense of despair at the late era direction favoured by Del Rey.

(That as fine an editor as Lester Del Rey’s name should become a kind of curse-word for SW fans is a sad outcome whichever way you slice it.)

I returned to SW in 1992, watched the films again, this time in Widescreen – yes, once upon a time that was something special – and was hooked. But where now? Zahn’s Thrawn books, only 2 of them, beckoned, as did Dark Empire and the rest was history. Bantam’s run was, by its nature, experimental – they had an unexpected universe they didn’t know what to do with so they experimented. Some of it worked, some of it did not, the former was raised up and the latter quietly forgotten.

Leia’s arc of rebuilding the Republic, dealing with numerous political hurdles, succeeding Mon Mothma and then making peace with a reformed Empire that she once despised was a triumph. Han’s arc was patchier, but his turn as General Solo in Allston’s X-Wing books was a high point, Zahn and Stackpole generally used the character effectively too. Where there is a void is once the kids are born! If Leia is too busy rebuilding the Republic then Han should have stepped in, I don’t see any reason for him not to except that children and their upbringing was perceived – and perhaps still is – as a woman’s job and men should not butt into that!

Why is this a big deal? One of the more rubbish plots in the later NJO had Jaina Solo, in a fit of teenager attitude, lay into Leia for not being around when she was younger. This never worked for me. The reason was simple. As a kid, my Dad was out at evening meetings a lot, the job demanded it – my Mum ensured my sisters and I knew why it was so. My parents had their own arrangement, my Dad looked after the bills, my Mum looked after us and it worked for them. Due to that, I had no reason to really resent him for being absent in that respect. I was old and smart enough to understand. Therefore, the notion that Jaina would not have been looked after, either by babysitters or Han, did not work. Plus, if she’s supposed to be smart, she’s smart enough to know why too. It would have been very satisfying for Leia to snap back she didn’t have to be, Han was! The only way Han and Leia’s marriage could work with two strong individuals is to divide up who’s doing what – Leia goes out for the career, Han is more free-wheeling but more in charge on the domestic front. Alas, the EU, at this early stage, lacked the courage to take this radical step. In many ways it’s understandable, but still a missed opportunity.

Luke’s arc of rebuilding the Jedi was not all that well-planned out, but, nonetheless, worked out well as the new Jedi play a key role in extinguishing the flames of the Caamas crisis depicted in the Hand of Thrawn books. It also, with reference to my fellow conspirator Lucas’s article on Jedi, Sith and Tunnel Vision, had Luke pull a blinder of a move. With the bulk of the information on the Jedi destroyed, Luke revives an ancient Jedi tradition he learns of from a rare Jedi holocron. In this tradition, one Master trained several students and often on a world where the Master had defeated and contained the dark side, with those places serving as testing grounds for apprentices.

1999 saw the start of the New Jedi Order project and it’s an undertaking that, even in hindsight, I can’t help but see as a missed opportunity. For all its successes, it still has a vast amount of untapped potential that it failed to tap due to squandering time on needless other plot strands. In some respects, the moves made for NJO were subsequently used again but with far less success for the Legacy of the Force and Fate of the Jedi series. For me where it went wrong was in seeking to emulate Babylon 5’s 5-year TV arc in book form. It was also, despite setting them up as a truly terrifying adversary that was far beyond the ability of the Jedi alone to defeat, far too protective of its villains, the Yuuzhan Vong. Cue the Republic that Leia had restored to working order demonstrating suicidal incompetence to the point of being utterly destroyed, then the same plot that required the heroes to be ineffective for 2 years, permitted them to be effective for 2 years and win. In the end the only thing that really made NJO work for me was the utterly unexpected success that was its finale, The Unifying Force. It did what all strong conclusions do – finished well but in doing so raised up its predecessor volumes as well. I’m never going to be a big fan of it, but the success of the finale and how well it used Luke, Han and Leia along with other, newer characters cannot be denied.

Onto phase 3 then and here all those flaws that blighted NJO, yet were held back enough to prevent them taking over, are permitted to bloom in all their poisonous glory. After reading the Dark Nest trilogy, one of the most blatant set-up series I’ve ever read, my interest in the big 3 was severely reduced. The first Legacy of the Force book went and destroyed it completely within the specific era. I simply could not credit or buy into the events and characterisations being depicted.

So the end of the line? Not quite. There have been a handful of earlier set books over the last 6 years. There were 2 books by Zahn, but while sold as being Luke, Han and Leia I don’t consider them to be so, they’re more supporting cast. No, the big release for the trio in recent years has to be 2009’s Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor by Matthew Stover. It’s a masterclass in how to do a complete story, without giving any character in a large cast short shrift and convince the reader that, all appearances to the contrary, their heroes are in real jeopardy! Sadly, there has been no further Stover Star Wars books.

So what does it boil down to? The characters need to develop without leaving their essential aspects behind. Luke as a Jedi who won’t surrender to the dark works fine, as does Leia as the one politician you can actually believe in, with Han as the ultimate wild card agent. There have been attempts in recent years to move them away from this, to making Leia a Jedi (she was already as of 1992 but that got forgot!) and Luke more of a manager but neither has really worked for me. That and the amount of time that has passed – around 40 years!

The End of Illusions: Part 1: Not Really Liking the Big Three All That Much!

Credit for sparking this one goes to fellow conspirator here Lisa Schap, but she’s unaware of what she started! Do I like Star Wars because of the characters of Luke, Han and Leia or is it more than that? Do I even need the big 3 as they’re called at all?

In a way the OT succeeds where the PT mostly does not in running at a pace that sweeps the audience along. The result of this is that their attention is kept at all times and they do not notice the weaknesses. Those weaknesses being the characters! I’m fascinated to see what happens after ROTJ because, at that point, the characters work for me, but why do they not before? Because Solo’s the cocky bastard type I tend to dislike on general principle despite the considerable charm Ford’s portrayal gives him. Organa is, in a lot of ways, your standard aristocratic type and a ‘for the cause!’ evangelist. Don’t really like evangelists either. And Skywalker? He’s the fish out of water and in over his head who eventually wises up, but he is a bit of whinger in the OT.

But to be fair, these are their starting points! The whole idea of a character development arc is precisely that – so where do they go and what changes? It should also be mentioned at this point the OT, to a degree, delights in throwing gender stereotypes into a blender and generously splattering them!

Leia is the one who thinks she knows all she needs to, her foil is Han who also thinks the same way – in hindsight, of course they were on collision course! Luke is the one who’s far more aware than both of what he doesn’t know and needs to, give the kid some credit – he’s a fast learner. Until writing this I had not considered Han and Leia as being opposite mirror images, but it’s an interesting picture – Han teaches Leia that she can have some things for herself, that it’s OK to not share them with the world, while Leia brings Han into accepting the fight for the galaxy. And Luke? His arc is one of ascension, to gaining the knowledge and confidence he needs to be doing what is expected of him.

Back to those gender stereotypes in the blender! By rights, Han should be insufferably cocky, Luke too incompetent and Leia too cold and arrogant an aristocrat. There’s times when that happens, but the OT ensures it’s isolated incidents, mostly within ANH. Instead it tends to invert a few things – Leia’s the one who tends to keep her emotions under control, where Luke doesn’t and nor is she content to sit back and be rescued – instead in ANH the terms of rescuer and rescued flip around frequently between the characters. Now it doesn’t seem all that big a deal but it was cutting edge for 1977. Later ROTJ fanned the flames of controversy with Leia’s treatment by Jabba, which remains a hotly contested debate topic: Was Leia badly treated in character terms or not? For me, there is the little matter that she strangles the fat bastard that says not.

By the end of the OT, they’re all in different places and I want to see where they go from here in contrast to the films where I do want to see changes because, all in all, don’t like them all that much! Then again, if the screenplays are known to have weaknesses, then it’s also known to be in the characters – oh and let’s not forget the dialogue! Sometimes you need a better pair of hands to go to work. In the shape of Good win and Williamson on their Classic Star Wars run and Perry’s Shadows of the Empire, there are two excellent works that I’m inclined to say handle the characters better than the films. They can examine them more closely and bring their out better aspects more effectively.

Of the trio, Luke is likely the one I like most because he’s less out-right cocky, but inclined to do some really stupid stuff if he but thought about what he was doing – case in point, the Battle of Yavin! Fly around a moon-sized battlestation that’s going to annihilate a planet, then go into a narrow trench and hit this one small spot? But that’s also what makes SW what it is, people doing insane things and getting away with it! Outwardly confident characters who think they know it all? Nah, just not drawn to, I need to see some flaws and them then being aware of them, if only so they can turn them to their advantage.

The Emperor and his second Death Star are toast, Vader’s dead too, what happens now? Can you really consider the story over? Why would you not want to see Leia as the politician she’s said to be? Why shouldn’t we see her build a new government to take over from the Empire? That was the point of the rebellion. Equally, the Jedi knights, how is Luke to revive that idea? And Han? Han gets to stay the smartarse he always was, but not an insufferable loner who thinks he needs no one.

Part 2 will look at where they get taken, what has worked and has not and if these characters are needed for an Expanded Universe at all!

Character Shields & Chronology: To The End!

TheWolf

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!

Fleeing The End….

That’s why. That’s why most of us end up being drawn to the Star Wars Expanded Universe. When the words “ The End” come up, we do not wish to be the end. That cannot be it? Surely there must be more to it? Surely there must be further adventures? The EU allows us to sidestep that double-edged, bittersweet sense that the best endings have. That the story is over, that it has come to a resounding conclusion and there will be no more. You want more? Find yourself a new story then.

Instead the EU allows us to have our cake and eat it, that brilliant series of films – I’m referring to the Original Trilogy here by the by – is only the start! There’s far more to come. Yet in doing this, a continuing tension is set up within the material because in defying the end, it denies itself an ending. The EU will continue forever, that’s the idea. Stop the train because you want to get off? Sorry, you’ll have to jump, there’s the door, good luck!

Does the EU need an end? Ah, yes. Yes it does, at least in part. The problem is in how to do it in such a way as to carry the fanbase with it. It just so happens that, right now, a book is indeed, by all the accounts I can find, about to attempt the retirement of Luke, Han and Leia. It is going to be fascinating as to whether that actually takes or not. My suspicion is that it won’t, despite it being needed for the characters. As the EU has galloped heedlessly through time like a rampant TARDIS, so have the character aged – the books have covered about 4 decades, but there’s nowhere near the character changes you’d expect in a person across such a span of time.

Why? Because of the nature of the EU – it exists to re-kindle that spirit you felt when watching the movies and that necessitates a certain set of characters, outlooks, events and style for a story. For those who dislike a story, it’s dismissed as rehash, for those who like it, it’s an inspired re-invention. Despite the genre flexibility – which the Cry Havac columns are exploring under the banner of Star Wars and Genre – there are still these essential limits to the stories that can be told. Repetition is wanted but it blocks development and change and any sense of planning for an ending.

My own EU interest is certainly on the wane. It’s been that way for a good few years – but it’s only recently that I’ve realised the importance of endings for a story. Reading Magician’s End by Raymond Feist snapped the last pieces into focus. There, the ending is sharp but also fitting. It’s been well prepared for, but remains surprising in how it unfurls. After reading it, you don’t want more stories because they would spoil what has just been done. In a way that happened with the EU more than once. The saying is: Leave the audience wanting more. It says nothing about giving them more and there’s a lot of good reasons for that.

I don’t have much in the way of plans for this column, but for right now? Considering the EU from a more terminal perspective will be the focus of the next few, unless I see something I really have to write about….

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