Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Clone Wars: Friends and Enemies

With last week’s episode, “Deception,” providing some of the most entertaining stories in Season Four of The Clone Wars, I had high hopes for this week’s “Friends and Enemies.” The episode begins fast, with a nice blend of dialogue and action as the disguised Obi-Wan and his bounty hunter confederates crash into a swamp to hide their ship. Cad Bane has returned in full force and is a very distinctive character: his liquid-sounding voice and air of menace set him apart both from sniveling Moralo Eval and the more measured “Rako Hardeen.” The bright blue of Obi-Wan’s eyes contrasts the alien faces nicely, reminding the viewer that along with being the only human, he is the real protagonist in this mission.

The crash landing on Nal Hutta reminded me of two scenes in the movies. The landscape was green and misty, with flying reptiles batting against the forward viewports of the ship, evoking Luke’s arrival on Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back. In another quick shot the detail that was put into the ship tearing apart reminded me of the wreck of the Invisible Hand in Revenge of the Sith. And Cad Bane continues to be creepy even when we can only see his hand rising up out of the wreckage.

The Expanded Universe has shown Nal Hutta before, both in videogames such as The Old Republic and The Force Unleashed and in last season’s episode “Hunt for Ziro.” The yellow-green, murky color scheme is the same throughout. “Friends and Enemies” introduces us to a visually distinct city with signposts and structures made of gnarled tree roots. The crowd scenes were especially fun in this episode, with a mix of beings and speeders that make the galaxy seem a lot more alive than it did in the first two seasons. My one question about the establishing shots of the city was this: if this is Nal Hutta, where are all the Hutts? We get at least one of the big aliens crawling along in the background, but otherwise it seems like the city is largely populated by off-worlders. It does makes sense, though, that the bounty hunters would go to a place with a diverse population if they wanted to blend in.

The first appearance of “local security” is more subtle than usual for TCW, showing not telling the danger the bounty hunters could be in if they get caught.  The opening of “Slaves of the Republic,” for exampled, used dialogue that I thought was a bit unnecessary to provide the information that an image of the backs of some intimidating guards does in “Friends and Enemies.”

A pawn shop full of clothing, armor, and weapons provides some nice clutter and Easter eggs – I particularly liked the cameo by a certain fedora – as well as the episode’s secondary female character, a Twi’lek assistant. At first it seems like she’s who’s pretty much there to look shocked when Cad Bane threatens her employer, but she has a moment of fierceness when Obi-Wan offers some credits for compensation as she slaps the data stick away. The one thing that jarred me in that scene was the name of the Rodian shopkeeper. I wasn’t sure I heard “Pablo” correctly until I saw it written out. While the shout-out to Pablo Hidalgo make sense, the names are usually given a bit more of a Star Wars flavor, such as turning Tina Mills into Mon Cal senator Meena Tills, see in the opening episodes of Season Four.

The bounty hunter trio moves from the pawn shop to a place where they hope to buy a ship. I liked the Bith salesman’s breathy language. It’s reminiscent of Geonosian or the background babble in Chalmun’s cantina, and is not so loud or so silly as to take over the scene. The Twi’lek shows up again when Obi-Wan is kicked off the ship by Cad Bane. Her side of the story is told entirely through body language and untranslated speech, but we can see that she’s protective of the shopkeeper.  She’s also distinguished from other Twi’leks we saw in the crowd scenes by her more conservative clothing.

Whatever her story is, she certainly counts as a female character who moves the plot along in a unique way. It’s not often that we see criminals in the Star Wars universe taken down by the civilians that they hurt – and it’s ironic here that Obi-Wan, the Jedi who’s been trying to cover the damages of the people he’s been forced to interact with during the last two episodes, is the one who gets the blunt end of that seemingly heroic act. It’s almost as if the good guys are tripping over each other in their efforts to be good. The local authorities, though, are the Hutts, which means that their justice gives the viewer yet another scene of Obi-Wan getting beaten up.

That dark scene transitions to the crimson light of Chancellor Palpatine’s office. I just recently watched Revenge of the Sith, so it was especially nice to see a scene that shows the trust between Anakin and Palpatine. The Chancellor tells him, “It is possible that [the Council] do not trust your feelings,” gradually sowing the seeds of Anakin’s dislike for his bosses. Anakin, though, is all feelings, openly calling Obi-Wan his “best friend.” Palpatine uses this, encouraging Anakin to follow his emotions and then going against the Council’s wishes by telling Anakin where the bounty hunter trio was last seen. This is a nice example of Palpatine’s penchant for using his power to “make it legal” to the benefit of subordinates whose loyalty he hopes to maintain. It’s an effective scene that accomplishes many goals: showing Palpatine’s conniving ways, Anakin’s emotional turmoil, and the friendship between the two of them.

Back on Nal Hutta, Obi-Wan escapes his captors with some neat, quiet use of the Force. No sooner could you say “Obi-Wan’s drinking on the job again” than Cad Bane nearly strangles him. After a tense negotiation, the three of them are, as Evalo says, friends, and take off in the ship paid for by the Jedi.

Ahsoka’s appearance comes halfway through the episode and starts off another discussion of trust – Anakin tells her that the Chancellor tipped him off, but only when they arrive on the planet’s surface. She seems to accept this with less consternation than usual.

The bar scene they enter is lively, featuring both Twi’leks dancing on tables and a trio of inebriated aliens (“I love you, guys!”). Anakin darkens the mood fast, performing a double-throat choke on the Ithorian bartender to find out where his quarry went.

As an aside, the stars are especially pretty in this episode: not the original trilogy smattering, but a thick, middle-of-nowhere field of stars. It’s cool to see the out-of-the-way places the characters end up, including a rainbow-lit waystation that reminded me of the ship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. 

Ahsoka is her usual calm, knowledgeable self, maintaining that she’d recognize Cad Bane from his hat anywhere. She pilots while Anakin takes the fight to the prow of Bane’s shoe-shaped ship. Although we’ve seen the main three in action a lot of times before in The Clone Wars, the moving battlefield and the presence of Obi-Wan in disguise as Rako Hardeen make this fight unique. As in “Deception,” the camera works well to make the fight intense. It has an emotional side too: I was tensely waiting for when Obi-Wan and Anakin would have their encounter, and whether Anakin would figure out the ruse.
No one’s holding back in this fight. Obi-Wan very convincingly pummels Anakin in the face in a vicious fight that mostly takes place on the ground, and it had me wondering whether Obi-Wan really had some leftover anger to take out on his headstrong apprentice. The fight ends in a headlock with both of the Jedi crammed up close against the foreground of the scene. Obi-Wan whispers, “Don’t follow me,” just before Anakin passes out, but the Chosen One seems to already have realized something. The shot of Anakin’s eyes going wide was great, both mirroring the focus on “Hardeen’s” eyes in the first scene and making me wonder whether his Master had actually been powerful enough to mind-trick him. I’m still not sure if he did or not, but when he wakes up Anakin has an inkling that Obi-Wan is still alive.

Ahsoka has some cool scenes with her two lightsabers flaring through the foggy air, and the banter between her and Cad Bane reminded me of the flirtatiousness between Obi-Wan and Asajj Ventress. It’s not to my taste to add that element to the antagonism, but along with her driving the bounty hunters away it might be another sign of Ahsoka maturing and being recognized by their enemies as a threat distinct from Anakin. This might come back to haunt her later, if future episodes pit Anakin against  ”Hardeen” and Ahsoka against Bane for maximum emotional content in the fights.

This episode lets the heroes get just nearly close enough to capturing the bounty hunters and finding out about Obi-Wan but not any closer to saving the Chancellor, leading up to what looks like it will be an exciting finale. Given the depth of his grief at the funeral in the last episode, Anakin seems surprisingly grumpy about his intuition that Obi-Wan is still alive – although some of that probably comes because he was just knocked out.

This may be a middle episode in a long four-part arc, but we do get something of a climactic battle. The episode proceeded nice and evenly, with the good balance of conversation and action that we saw in “Deception.” I liked the inclusion of the scenes from the Council’s point of view, showing what Mace and Yoda thought of the situation. The ending is glum, with Anakin leaning on Ahsoka in the murk.

Next week we get Obi-Wan and a lineup of bounty hunters joining Count Dooku in a fight club on Serenno. “Friends and Enemies” made an organic-feeling plot out of the concepts of “Deception” and is still leaving the viewer waiting for a reconciliation between Obi-Wan and Anakin. I give this episode a 7/10.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Mass Effect 3 Costume Changes

I am so excited for Mass Effect 3. BioWare's Mass Effect 2, released in 2010, captured my imagination in ways that few games since Knights of the Old Republic had. Although the core ideas were Star Wars-esque (space battles plus an energy force that granted magical powers), Mass Effect had a distinct visual style, fully-realized characters, dynamic action, and fascinating aliens. The third game, set to be released on March 6 of this year, looks like it will deliver great new characters along with new planets and bigger battles. As a writer, it's the characters that interest me the most.

A lot of exciting information has come out already. I'm happy with what they've shown of the new squad mate, James Vega, so far. A scene recently released to GameTrailers shows off both the way Shepard can interact wth him (fistsfights! awesome!) and a hint at troubles he might have had in the past. It looks like he has a solid backstory and will be a reliable person for Shepard to have around in trying times. New costume images have been released for one of my favorite ME2 characters, Jack, as well for as ME1 squad mates Ashley, Kaidan, and Liara. I'm not happy with the direction the story seems to be taking Joker, but at this point most major plot points are only rumor. We'll have to wait another few months to really find out what happens.

However, we've got some final costume designs to look at, and there has been a lot of talk among fans and developers about what the costume changes mean to the characters who wear them. The one that concerns me the most is Jack.

Even before my male Shepard romanced her I thought her backstory and attitude was interesting. A foul-mouthed, nearly half-naked woman doesn't seem like the usual fare for your pretty conservative host here, but I think Jack's costume choice pointedly reflects the way she sees herself in the same way that her language reflects her tough background. She's covered in tattoos that show her past events and gang loyalties as well as just being what she does when she's bored. Although her ME2 costume bothered me at first, the more my Shepard talked to her the more I thought that Jack wasn't wearing her minimalist clothing to show off her body, but rather, to show off her tattoos. She's all about playing tough, and the markings were a way for her to show that toughness without saying a word. Her shaved head and piercings serve the same purpose. She's not trying to show off to be flirtatious: unlike Miranda, she doesn't see her body as powerful in that way. If she engages in a physical relationship with Shepard before working through her emotional issues she becomes withdrawn and angry toward him. Because of this I don't see the causal romance option as something designed to cater solely to a male audience: it's an important part of her characterization. She's experienced with people seeing her body as something to acquire, but that doesn't help her see herself in a healthy light. Therefore, in her mind, she replaces her body with the tattoos. Showing them off isn't a way for her to get romantic attention: instead, it's the bright colors that warn when an animal is poisonous. She hides behind the tattoos, and as you progress with her dialogue options through the game, especially as a male Shepard, you get to see her come out from behind that shell.

I realize that this is just a fan theory. Mass Effect 3's art director, Derek Watts, has this to say about her  new costume: "Maybe she’s softened up a bit. You can only stay punk rock for so long, you know. Even Johnny Rotten eventually goes, ‘I’ve got to do something different.’ She’d get tired of walking around completely naked and she’d probably grow her hair out, but she’s still Jack and still kinda punk...". "Got tired of walking around completely naked" doesn't exactly encompass what I wrote above. However, I've grown attached to Jack over the last few years and wanted to explain what exactly I think would be consistent with her character in ME3.

This is the concept art that got me thinking.

Keep in mind that the image above is not confirmed to be the final design: there are other possible costumes for Jack floating around out there, varying from more to less revealing. Yes, I usually like conservative clothing. Yes, having problems with franchise costumes is nearly one of my pastimes. But I think I've got something to back me up here. Because if Jack in ME2 was showing off her tattoos, not her body, then the kinder, gentler Jack in ME3 would probably be functioning on some psychological level under the same idea. I don't like that the costume above shows off her chest and stomach, because the Jack who I interacted with didn't seem to be emphasizing those body parts. She wasn't about emphasis at all, but rather about a whole picture. She sees herself as work of art, and the fact that that work was the product of fear and a lashing out against her life circumstances makes it extra interesting.

So my plea to BioWare is this: for Jack's changed costume, don't give her a bikini. Dress her in something that's going to reflect her personal views on herself: creatively minimal clothing if she wants to continue to show off the tattoos, or a less revealing costume if she wants to hide the signs of her past. Having her in something in-between takes away a very little bit of the uniqueness that drew me to her in the second game.

Of course, what really matters is what the character does and says. Clothing is not the be-all and end-all of characterization. I look forward to seeing how Jack interacts with Shepards of both genders.

Clone Wars: Deception

Moralo Eval, proud owner of the most transparently symbolic name since Miraj Scintel, has not previously appeared on The Clone Wars. His introduction in last week’s episode, “Deception,” immediately gives the viewer the feeling they’ve come into the adventure in the middle. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: the opening scenes of A New Hope employ exactly the same in media res technique. The new character also serves to expand the Star Wars universe; I’ve commented before about how the over-use of characters and locations makes the EU seem unrealistically small and interconnected. By starting out with an unknown factor, however, my viewing of the episode would have to gain an emotional hook. To my great amusement, it did.

The trailer clip for “Deception” showed a funeral, and it takes the episode some time to get to that affecting scene. The introduction of the Big Three of the Clone Wars (Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Ahsoka) is good, with some dialogue clearly showing Anakin’s dislike of the Council and Obi-Wan’s more accepting manner. A lot can be conveyed in two lines if they’re two good lines. When the camera pans out, we get a great view of the city and an Attack of the Clones style assassin. It’s another fine example of how to keep the Star Wars feel and give the viewer new information – in this case, that the Jedi are in danger.'

The next line of dialogue isn’t so effective. Ahsoka’s remark “Would you rather they call you in to train younglings?” and Anakin’s sarcastic retort “Are you crazy?” do show that the Chosen One and his protégé have achieved a similar level of comfort and banter as the older two Jedi have. These lines would have worked better for me, though, if it had been clearer whether it’s Ahsoka self-deprecatingly referring to herself as a youngling (but her voice isn’t directed far enough in one way or another to be clear whether she’s being sarcastic), or simply drawing attention to her presence (“well, the Council did assign me to you, so that’s one thing they did right that you should be grateful for”), or actually referring to a specific past experience.

A nice use of the camera near the beginning of the episode shows Anakin and Obi-Wan running parallel to one another, seeming to symbolize the parallel paths that their lives have taken so far. The music and the quick cuts in the rooftop chase scene, as well as Obi-Wan’s fantastically sad expressions, were just nearly exciting enough to convince me not to pause the episode to check whether that was indeed an Aurebesh-language Star Tours ad in the background. (It was.)

The animators and choreographers deserve huge kudos for this episode, from the camera lingering on Anakin’s flapping coattails before he left it behind in a rapid Force leap to his flailing arms as he tried to bat away the smoke from a grenade. I loved the latter gesture particularly because it looked ineffective and therefore spoke of Anakin’s emotions: he knows he’s not going to wave off the smoke with his sleeves alone, but when you’re a hot-headed man who’s just heard your mentor get shot, you’re going to want to gesture. His anger carries the next scene as the Jedi react to Obi-Wan’s (false) death. I loved the furrows and shadows on his face that hint forward to his Episode III self as well as portraying the grief and age of a mourning man. Ahsoka’s wide-eyed, about-to-cry expression just after Obi-Wan’s death was also wonderful and subtle. More kudos to the writers for not adding any dialogue. That’s another great example of this episode’s storytelling being unusually efficient. Where we might have gotten a dramatic “he’s dead” to reinforce the moment, the script lets the viewer figure it out by visual cues. The man responsible is Brent Friedman, a writer and organizer of franchises whose credits include God of War and Command & Conquer. He has also been employed as a creative consultant by 343 Studios, current owner of Halo. Dear Dave Filoni, please give more work to this man. Love, Megan.

On the other hand, the episode isn’t perfect, and I had some problems with the feasibility of the Jedi plot that enables the whole episode. The big question I had was why and how did all of the Jedi except the Council believe that Obi-Wan was dead? Both, though, are discussed briefly. The dialogue explains the why with the necessity of the ploy being realistic: the criminal underworld keeps tabs on the Jedi and could discover a subterfuge. Mace Windu notes that Anakin’s reaction “sold” the appearance of death. The how is harder. While The Clone Wars tends to undervalue the telepathic nature of the Force – perhaps to avoid having characters use non-verbal communication that could be confusing to the viewer, or to avoid Jedi solving problems too easily – Darth Plagueis has recently shown that a body’s midi-chlorians leave it at death, and an observant Jedi or Sith around the dying person can tell when the Force has gone out of them. Even without that recent bit of lore, could Obi-Wan really keep this deception out of his Master-Padawan bond without the Chosen One noticing? Mace does allude to that concern, so maybe it will be an issue in future episodes of this arc.

There’s not a lot of interesting stuff happening with the female characters. Ahsoka is present at the start, but the prison where most of the action takes place is male-only. This is realistic, though, so it’s hard to complain. The other female character who gets a speaking role is a simpering humanoid at a bar who mutters, seemingly to herself, what may be either the funniest or the worst Star Wars pickup line in history: “I’d like to check his midi-chlorian count.” “Deception” isn’t passing the Bechdel Test any time soon, but Mr. Friedman’s quality writing allows this episode to just plain make a lot more sense than many of the others. Plans are explained, characters are shown having emotional reactions to things, and short scenes make the episode feel longer than half an hour instead of like a long story packed into too short a time.

Obi-Wan undergoes what looks like a painful face-reconstruction surgery that also gives him the pale skin and tattoos of the sniper he’s supposed to emulate. I didn’t know they had that in the Star Wars universe. I wonder if this is used among the civilians, as well. The vocal emulator is a similarly unpleasant bit of technology.

In the prison we get the return of a Karkodon, the shark-like species from the season opener. While I still think the name is silly, seeing one besides Riff Tamson solidifies their place in the galaxy. More importantly, hello Cad Bane! The Duros bounty hunter shows off his high fees and standards before Obi-Wan gets kicked out of the cell. Also appearing is Obi-Wan’s code name: Ben. Although I still want to know why he picked it, that’s wonderful to hear.

This episode has the details I’ve been missing in The Clone Wars. Witness Obi-Wan running his hands over his scalp to feel his shaved head, or the way Moralo offers an alliance by advising the disguised Obi-Wan on how to make his prison food taste better. Moralo’s “Try the sauce” is never mentioned again, is never a plot point: it’s just a way to make it plain that Moralo wants an alliance without coming right out and saying it. It also adds that one, inessential, homey fact: Star Wars prisons provide sauce.

Next on the list of “oh look, it’s that guy” appearances are Boba Fett and Bossk. Boba, voiced again by Daniel Logan, has a military haircut and a vendetta. He’s angry at the supposed sniper for stealing the bounty on Obi-Wan, and of course the viewer who’s been following the saga also knows that the sniper would have stolen Boba’s revenge against the Jedi for the death of his father. Bossk will later become Boba’s rival, a fact established before the prequels were released. Briefly, though, he’s the Mandalorian’s ally. He’s Obi-Wan’s too, as he sets off the prison riot that lets Obi-Wan, Moralo, and Cad Bane escape. The three previously established bounty hunters also aren’t just there to be references to their previous adventures. Associating Moralo Eval, a new character and unknown factor, with bad guys we love to hate gives him more clout and more narrative authority in the story. If Moralo can lead Cad Bane around, he must be one tough fellow.

The escape also reminds us that Cad Bane is tough with or without a blaster, as well as his penchant for snapping at his teammates. Obi-Wan gets a nice moment of moral decision when he’s supposed to shoot a guard, but it doesn’t last long. Obi-Wan, unlike Anakin, doesn’t have to think hard about whether or not to take a life – Cad Bane does the killing for him.

“Deception” was a dark episode, and while I do tend to like those, it isn’t a guarantee of quality. Dark themes tend to provide good atmosphere, though, and “Deception” has lots of it, from the bronze and yellow tones of Coruscant to the lines on Anakin’s face at the funeral and Obi-Wan’s defeated posture in the Council chamber. There are a surprising number of bodies, from a prisoner Obi-Wan shares a coffin with to the occasional clone guard. Mr. Friedman knows how to put obstacles in the hero’s way that provide fun adventure and move the plot forward instead of feeling like a substitute for it. I would like to see more Anakin and Ahsoka to disprove the theory that The Clone Wars’ cast is too large to give equal time to everybody if the episodes were all sequential. I have faith that Mr. Friedman and Dave Filoni could do it in this four-part arc, and faith in The Clone Wars has been hard to come by for me lately.

If for every “Water War” and “A Friend In Need” we get a “Carnage of Krell” or “Deception,” I’d mark Season Four down as the best so far.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Blog of Dr. John H. Watson: BBC Sherlock and Fandom

There is a 221B Baker Street somewhere in New Jersey. I saw it once: it was a narrow road with a signpost of some kind. Maybe there were Christmas lights: it might have been Christmas. My mother drove me past in an outing that may also have included her childhood home. (She introduced me to Sherlock as well as to hobbits, although she never became as concerned with their lore as I do.) I’m probably fifteen minutes from this 221B now and have no idea where it is. It is perhaps that house and that lane that ensured Sherlock Holmes and John Watson stayed in my memory, lurking, as I grew up, like the scene with the torture droids in Return of the Jedi: Holmes and Watson occupied a semi-real space in my mental topography, rarely mentioned and rarely noticed. I knew New Jersey was not London but I also knew that for someone to occupy that address they must have wished to inhabit a fictional space. So, like the Platform 9 /34  set up for Harry Potter fans in Kings Cross Station, the local 221B seems to exist in a place half-real and half-imagined.

    Therefore, watching the recent BBC Sherlock television series was a bit like returning home. Of course, I realized, a part of me had always wanted to live in the living room of 221B. (Why the living room? Why the couch? Perhaps because I have lived on a lot of couches this year. Perhaps, though, it was because that I imagined myself a perpetual apprentice to Sherlock Holmes in the same way that I would later imagine myself apprenticed to Luke Skywalker.)

    I watched the series with my good friend who happens to be an ardent shipper, and while she was picking up on every line that indicated the characters’ sexuality I tried to figure out why I was so opposed to the idea. I do not write slash fiction myself but spend a good deal of time with those that do. But I opposed it for Holmes and Watson, particularly the former, on a different sort of level. I think the reason why comes back to that childhood perception of the two. While my friend wanted to learn what they thought of each other, what I wanted to learn was how the characters saw the world. I was returned to the mindset that I could become a student of the deductive reasoning that made Holmes so genius and so lofty. I could change the way I saw. Both characters seemed asexual to me because I was attracted to at least one of their minds.

    My friend and I drove away into the post-snow January night and I thought about the “new” features of Holmes: his interest in technology, his fascination with skulls, his mental maps of London. I thought about what I could write about the 221B living room. Names repeated in my head as I thought about how the television series House is loosely based on Sherlock Holmes and its dynamic between two strong but damaged men. The names have rhythm: Holmes and Watson, House and Wilson, HolmesandWatson.

    Life and writing and fan fiction are all about people expressing to other people how they see the world. Whether they see their favorite characters interacting in new ways or whether they see a hospital instead of London, it’s all about alternate worlds and which writer is best suited to convey each one. In this way, all literature is the same. Fan fiction becomes legitimized when thought about this way because it serves the same purpose that any story does. It reveals the personal vision, the inner world, of the writer. In the loose sense of the word, the BBC’s Sherlock is alternate universe fan fiction. Fan writers can learn about staying reverent and true to the original canon while taking it in new and exciting directions from the way Sherlock introduces and uses classic characters. Exactly what lessons about writing can be gleaned from the first episode may be a post for another time. This post is primarily to say that, although I’m not sure I’ve found a new fandom myself (Sherlock has both too few fantasy elements and too few women), I understand why it’s gained such a large following. It is a well-crafted and enthusiastic show that should serve to prove that derivative works can have a strong and lucrative presence in mainstream media. The fact that it has a fandom of its own is icing on the cake.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Star Wars: Darth Plagueis

    Near the beginning of Darth Plagueis, after a dramatic and pleasantly unsettling opening as Darth Sidious surveys all that he will soon lord over, we get a nice quiet moment in a dynamic book. Young Palpatine, who forswore his first name as an unwanted sign of his family allegiance, doesn’t know what he’s doing after university and wishes the winters were milder. He reveals this while walking with the Sith of the title, who will launch both of them into a galactic conspiracy to ensure their rule. Palpatine is likewise not particularly friendly when he is introduced, but he’s very human. College-age Palpatine is a hot-headed but directionless kid who manages to hide his Force-sensitivity from Plagueis (and the reader). Like Anakin (and George Lucas), he’s a race-car driver. It’s the human elements of this archetypal character that kept me reading Darth Plageuis, as well as the way James Luceno ties together a history of the Republic’s decline now more than ten years in the making.

    James Luceno is known for extensive knowledge of the Star Wars universe, which he does indeed have: lists of people and places guarantee that Plagueis is probably not a good introduction to the expanded universe, but for me it provided great atmosphere and the occasional thrill of glee as I recognized a name. (Oh hi Alexi Garyn!) There’s just something so Star Wars-y about the lists, with their clear, regular vowels and the occasional interjection of a proper noun or a crazy x to remind us that this is a science-fiction universe that borrows and embraces all corners as well as inventing a ton of its own. When I read Plagueis I was looking for a book I could get lost in, and I definitely did get lost in it. It reminded me of my old days of fandom when I would look joyfully at maps of the Star Wars galaxy and try to figure out how long it took to get from one place to another.

    Here too Plagueis was a nostalgic experience for me. I used to love writing about Darth Maul and Darth Sidious, and this novel gives us more of both of them. As previously mentioned, Plagueis gets to tie together a lot of loose ends from other materials, and it’s fun to see stories like Darth Maul: Shadowhunter from the perspective of the Master instead of the apprentice.

     Another reviewer said that Plagueis didn’t try to justify the Sith, and it doesn’t. The lesson of classic Star Wars is that morality is black and white. Other EU material like Knights of the Old Republic and the Revenge of the Sith novel try to see the justifiable thoughts in characters who make dark side decisions. Darth Plagueis, though, is just quietly, determinedly selfish and vicious, and the tone of the novel leaves it up to the reader to judge the morality of his decisions.
    James Luceno does a great job pulling in just about all of the loose threads from the prequels, explaining where Sidious and Plagueis got the ideas for the Jedi Purge, the clone army, and the Chosen One in a deft weave of politics. Everything comes together at the end, forming a sort of mystery story where the reader already knows the ending, but not the middle. We know the events of the prequel films, but this book fleshes out why they took place, and as a tie-in to the upcoming theatrical re-release of The Phantom Menace it is a nice introduction to the movie. Picking out which decisions and conversations lead to which events we’ve seen in the movies and books before became more fun as the ending sped up. Sometimes the book suffers from homage syndrome, where everything has to take place in a location that appeared in the movies. Aren’t there any other lake houses on Naboo? But Luceno does get points for one character flat-out not knowing what sort of place Tatooine is.

    Sidious is the focus of the book by default, knowing as we do that he will become the iconic Emperor in the original trilogy and the scheming politician Palpatine in the prequels. His story is bookended by his Master, Plagueis, and his apprentice, Darth Maul.  The finding of Darth Maul is one of the most peaceful scenes in the book - he is pretty much handed over to Palpatine, by a (human?) mother who doesn’t want both of her sons to be under the sway of the Nightsisters. This, and the new explanation for his tattoos, is markedly unexciting compared to the previous fanon (Maul getting stolen, Jedi-style, from a typical Zabrak family) and canon (his painful tattooing ceremony) and may be the only part of his new history that I resoundingly dislike.

    Plagueis is introduced by killing his own master, Tenebrous, an event also chronicled in Matthew Stover’s excellent story The Tenebrous Way. That story, as well as the Star Wars saga in general, tells of the fall of the Sith, and in Stover’s and Luceno’s hands that fall begins to gain the feel of a tragedy.

    Both Tenebrous and Plagueis sought to escape the cycle of Sith Masters felled by their apprentices, but by the end of the novel Luceno has very convincingly explained how they could fail to defeat their conniving proteges.  As orchestrator of plenty of tragedy himself, Darth Sidious may seem to be fully explained in this novel, but the things he hides from both his Master and the reader show that he is the most insidious of them all. (Using a droid as a point of view character facilitates this in Plagueis’s case as well.) While all of the three Sith have their own opinions on the nature of the Force (the way Plagueis talks about the dark side almost as if talking about a person or a deity is particularly interesting), Palpatine’s commitment to what Plagueis calls the “mundane” world ultimately guarantees his success. Of course, years later Luke Skywalker will cause the revenge of the Sith and their quest for immortality to come to nought, so Darth Plagueis serves to illuminate the original trilogy as well.

    Overall, this was a very enjoyable book. I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who doesn’t like Star Wars books in general: if you don’t have a prior attachment to Sidious, Maul, or the huge universe they inhabit the pace of the book is probably going to feel a bit flat. But it was just plain entertaining, which is more than I can say about some Star Wars material. It was what I needed, an immersive book to get one through January.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Clone Wars: A Friend In Need

With impressive credentials for the creative team charged with this week’s episode of The Clone Wars, I had high expectations. Director Dave Filoni has helmed Lucas Animation’s foray into animation and worked on shaping Ahsoka Tano into a Jedi hero relatable for children. Head writer Christian Taylor, known for his work on Lost, penned this interlude meant to highlight the female Padawan’s development. Filoni and Taylor have overseen a show in which fans eagerly await what happens to Ahsoka, since she’s one of the few characters whose fate is uncertain. As a female viewer who really, really wants to be able to identify with Ahsoka, I hoped to see this pair work some of their storytelling magic. What we were given instead was an episode that relied on standard tropes and production tricks to move Ahsoka’s arc forward.

I’m currently reading Darth Plagueis, and the first scene of “A Friend In Need” reminded me favorably of the Republic/Trade Federation negotiations in that book. They’re a bit muddled, but it’s nice to see familiar faces – the duchess on her throne, Ahsoka acting in Anakin’s stead as Padme’s Jedi guard.

And then it’s meaningful stare time as Lux and Ahsoka linger over the word “friend”. If quavering, big-eyed fawning could kill, well, most of the cast of Twilight would be dead right now, but never mind. Lux gets dragged off for speaking out against Count Dooku.

The Count’s voice actor gets points for the combination of menace and absolute inability to care that he injects into “I do a lot of things, and choose to remember them in order of importance.” It’s creepy, considering that he’s talking about murdering Lux’s mother.

Ahsoka is definitely strong in this episode, and if you’re looking for female empowerment then she does bust her (male) friend out of the Separatist base pretty much single-handedly. Her moves were cool, and there were some nice glass shattering effects from the animators. The episode does a good job of showing she has gained more fighting skills over the four seasons.

Lux’s characterization is decent, at least as far as his motive is concerned: feeling betrayed by the Republic, he’s going to try to avenge his mother however he can. This leads us back to the Death Watch, last seen in Season Two when we were introduced to Duchess Satine. Their inclusion was incredibly polarizing for the fans of Karen Traviss’ Mandalorians, and bringing Death Watch back makes sense in-universe but almost guarantees that the disenfranchised audience won’t be coming back any time soon.

Other fans, though, have been giddy at the prospect of Katee Sackhoff voicing the Mandalorian warrior Bo-Katan. We know that Dave Filoni altered her introduction slightly, to change her pose from one hand on her hip to a more warrior-like introduction with her hands at her sides. This told me that he wanted her to have less of a sashay and more of a grounded stance, and I was curious to see how this translated to her character. While not familiar with Sackhoff’s other high-profile geek culture role in Battlestar Galactica, her voice is a nice change from the usual The Clone Wars mix of accents and breathiness, and reminded me favorably of Jennifer Hale’s Commander Shepard in Mass Effect. The hand-on-hip, and sashay, comes back a couple shots later, though, and Bo-Katan assesses Ahsoka in pretty much the same way as the slaver queen did an episode ago. I had been excited about the possibilities presented by a female Mandalorian. She is practically a non-entity, however, with about three lines in total.

Death Watch leader Pre Vizsla is back, with more attitude and less hair. One of his first lines – “Tell your woman to leave us” – concretes my dislike both for him and for the dialogue. Also, even though Lux and Ahsoka are somewhere around fifteen or sixteen, no one seems to think it’s unusual that they’re “betrothed.” Ahsoka gets what is presumably her first kiss in this episode, but the scene shifts immediately to Lux and his plans instead of Ahsoka’s emotions. Despite the supposed focus on Ahsoka’s feelings toward Lux, it’s an oddly emotionless episode. Whenever they discuss their relationship it’s in the context of the Republic/Separatist struggle, which certainly makes sense for a Jedi and her client, but there’s no undertone of good chemistry between them, or even much of the more likely teenage awkwardness. The romance element is largely ignored except for the diversionary kiss and the goggle-eyes in the first scene. The writing fails to achieve any balance between the characters’ emotional state and the fight they’re in, instead sidelining the former so that more screen time could be given to the Artoo-saves-the-day plotline.

This episode is best described as “sort of silly with some fun action scenes and fire.” Up next week: someone appears to have died!

Thanks to Fangirl for helping out with this post.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Win a ThunderCats T-Shirt

To help promote the ThunderCats facebook page, I've teamed up with the ThunderCats promotional team and offer you the chance to win a t-shirt!

It looks like this.
What you need to do is be the first person to comment with the answer to the following Moderately Difficult ThunderCats Trivia Question:

What is the name of the sword created by the Drifter? 

This contest is open until somebody wins it. I'll get in touch with the winner afterward to make arrangements.  Good luck!

Brought to you by Cartoon Network and the ThunderCats Mane Frame Application.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Clone Wars: Slaves of the Republic

    The latest three Clone Wars episodes have been based loosely on a comic series called Slaves of the Republic. I’m not familiar with the comic at all, so did a little research when I knew I’d be writing a blog entry for the Clone Wars adaptation. The basic plot is the same: Anakin and Ahsoka go under cover as a trader and a slave respectively, and saves the captured Togruta. The character designs for the Togruta leader and the Zygerrian characters are pretty much the same in both, with the show exactly replicating some of the comic panels. Both the book and the show intend to serve mostly as adventure stories and will be judged, independently, as such.

    This has been an eagerly anticipated arc, with fanboys (and girls) across the internet clamoring to see the characters pushed to their limits and, well, degraded. Ahsoka’s slave costume in the show is more elegant and slightly less revealing than its comics counterpart, but it still made me a little uncomfortable to see a character who’s supposed to be fourteen or so shown off like that. On the other hand we have some serious Anakin angst, and Obi-Wan getting chained to a plinth and whipped, which sounds like high-school fan fiction material gone public.

    The three episodes ("Kidnapped", "Slaves of the Republic", and "Escape from Kadavo") are chronologically contingent but move from location to location. "Kidnapped" is devoted to finding out that a large population of peaceful Togrutas have been captured and where they’ve been taken, which means that the next episode, "Slaves of the Republic", has to pack a lot of story into half an hour.  The third episode, "Escape from Kadavo", is another set-piece action episode that adds some new characters and brings others to the end of their emotional arcs. 
    The animation on the whole is gorgeous in these episodes: the stylistic choices are still a little jarring for me when applied to humans, but clones, landscapes, and the many different ages, genders, and colors of Togruta look great on a big screen. We  also get to see a wide selection of aliens, including Hutts and Talz.
     Kidnapped focuses primarily as introduction to the main story, and therefore feels a bit long. An extended action sequence shows off the choreography that Clone Wars admittedly does very well: Anakin and Ahsoka’s jumps and flips are cool. They’re set against Obi-Wan being intentionally not cool, stalling for time by getting beaten up by a very hateable Zygerrian. The wolflike bad guy’s motive is pretty much “our planet’s economy is fueled by slavery so let’s keep slavery.” The real enemy, if we’re talking moral lessons, is dispassion toward people and love of money.  "Kidnapped" could stand on its own as a pretty unremarkable villain-of-the-week episode.

    "Slaves of the Republic" shows more attempts at illuminating character through situation. The dialogue ranges from silly (“Tell that to my whip!”) to entertaining (Ahsoka: “Remind me why I’m playing the part of the slave?” Anakin: “I tried it once. I wasn’t any good at it.”) The koan for "Slaves of the Republic", the second episode, is “those who enslave others inevitably become slaves themselves”, which is referenced again in "Escape from Kadavo". It would have been nice if that had been the koan for the first episode to provide a sense of completion, but since the queen does not appear in the first episode, it does make some sense this way. The antagonist’s name is Miraj Scintel (a.k.a. mirage scintillate a.k.a. false beauty, anyone?) She’s the queen of the slavers, so naturally keeps her own unwilling servants. Her appearance is creepy-looking, with her horn/ear/hair and black-rimmed eyes, but she’s definitely got a standard of beauty and her greatest weakness seems to be the pride that Anakin’s flattery gets going. Although Anakin isn’t a slave in name, she’s clearly manipulating him and ready to sentence him to death.   

    Anakin’s attractiveness is as assumed as Ahsoka’s has been in this, and past episodes. He gains the favor of the queen (who is an equal opportunity subjugator, also having female servants) apparently by the force of his blue eyes. The queen is definitely creepy, mixing a Jabba the Hutt vibe with the pinched elegance Mina Bonteri had. Anakin hams it up, presumably knowing how slavers talk from experience, and charms her with flattery and tales of his own fighting prowess.  

    The episode does follow two distinct female characters, Ahsoka and Miraj. When the latter proposes that Anakin stay loyal to her, his reply is “[Our relationship is] nothing. You have all the power.” As a married person, he presumably knows that both partners need to be equal. She is an honest monster, and the episode ends with him maybe thinking about joining her. She’s definitely a strong female character, but also a villain whose main motive doesn’t necessarily stem from femaleness, so I give her points for equality there. She becomes a pawn for Sidious, but then, so does everyone.

    Ahsoka in this episode is pretty much in-character as fearless, feisty, and slightly annoying. The problem I have with her slave outfit is compounded by the fact that the reveal for the queen is the reveal for the audience: we too are supposed to be waiting eagerly to see what Ahsoka’s wearing, and therefore are set up to be as much perpetrators of exploitation as the characters are. Ahsoka refuses to play her role quietly and gets chided for backtalk. There’s an absolute ton in this episode about the uses and perceptions of beauty and how it can be used and misused.

    (I’ve written before about how I want to see Ahsoka show some lack of confidence  in order for her to be more relatable and have more depth. I’m not sure that it’s wrong that in the same vein I wanted to see her react somehow to the queen praising her.  Is it wrong that I think Ahsoka should be proud of her beauty only when it’s mentioned because she’s being seen as an object of slavery? Maybe that would be okay if it was the only time in which she was perceived as attractive and her lack of confidence was an issue before, but judging by Lex Bonteri and her own actions it’s not. She shouldn’t be okay with becoming a slave just because it flatters her: that’s exactly what’s happening to the Zygerrian queen.)

    Ultimately, the flattery that matters to the queen is not about beauty but power. She is flattered by Dooku in that he backs her up with the power of the Seperatists. On the other hand she holds a double standard and sees the Jedi as weak for the way they have “forsaken their ideals and become a slave to the Republic.”

    The episode is either food for thought or such a confusing mish-mash of ideas and themes that I can’t pick a clear one out. Oh, Clone Wars. It’s a dark episode: we get Anakin Force-choking a queen strong enough to tell him to stop “misbehaving”, and we get all of the characters forced into situations they don’t want to be in but can’t escape. Anakin isn’t literally chained, but he can’t leave the oddly friendly company of the queen without Ahsoka and Obi-Wan suffering for it. Miraj handing Anakin the means to kill her only emphasizes how much he can’t. Obi-Wan is in a similar position: too important to be killed, Togrutas suffer instead if he acts up. Miraj says that commitment is a form of slavery, and for part of the episode, it seems to be. (My confusion over Miraj’s motive and perspective might be based on her voice acting or direction: no matter what she’s saying it’s in the same smooth tone that Clone Wars females tend to adopt, so that it’s hard to tell what she derides and what she respects. Although, as someone both enslaving and attracted to Anakin, maybe she doesn’t see a need to differentiate between the two.) Here’s another case of where I’m not sure whether there’s a lot going on under the surface or if the show just isn’t written very well enough for there to be something obviously sensible going on on the surface.

    There’s a lot here that could lead to Anakin’s fall to the dark side, the most obvious being the Force-choke. I’ve compared his time in slavery to his fall before, and the Zygerrians’ slaves could be treated similarly to the clones in that story. The episode ends with all of Our Heroes captured. In Empire Strikes Back fashion, their fate is uncertain.

    "Escape from Kadavo" begins very dark, with Obi-Wan in slavery in a setting that reminded me of the spice mines of Kessel. It’s a chilling idea, a sort of alternate look at classic characters that is what I’ve always wanted out of Clone Wars: it was interesting to see how Obi-Wan deals with having to call someone else Master, and to see what Anakin did and might have gone through as a child if he hadn’t been rescued. (Rex gets similar treatment.) The dialogue is filled with cackling, Flash Gordon-type excessiveness.  Miraj uses the word “compliant’ to describe what Obi-Wan will become shortly before a nice conversation with Dooku in which she refuses to apply it to herself. She’s become attached to Anakin, either because he’s a symbol of her power or because his eyes are just that blue.              

    Ahsoka gets rescued by Anakin, and later shows off her own skills with a hero catch when the Togruta are falling to their deaths. She’s been more annoying.

    Miraj’s eventual defeat reminds me of Darth Vader’s at the the end of Return of the Jedi; both that a third person is involved, and that her redemption comes very late. It’s interesting to think that Anakin would probably never notice the parallel. In this way, the queen very much reminded me of a classic villain.

    "Escape from Kadavo" was entertaining. This was a fun episode, with lots of Jedi jumping, alien atmosphere in the Zygerrian city, and clones and Plo showing off.  It’s nice to explore new corners of the Star Wars universe once a week. Of the Slaves of the Republic arc, the middle episode both had the most going on and was the most muddled. (While I’m being positive, I love that the episodes are up on starwars.com shortly after they air.) The Zygerria arc has something for everyone, whether you’re in it for action or drama, Anakin, Ahsoka, Obi-Wan, or Rex. It also has everything that should be expected from Clone Wars: cliche or overdramatic dialogue, plot holes, and logically shaky politics. "Escape from Kadavo" was my favorite out of the three episodes. Overall, I give them a 5/10 and think that the anticipation was the most amusing part.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Star Wars: Shadow Games

As a fan of Michael Reaves, I have been looking forward to his latest standalone novel for quite some time. Hearing that it involved a dour Nautolan teras kasi master/pilot didn't dampen my enthusiasm. During my reading of Shadow Games I also ventured out into the real universe a little bit and got in touch with the founder of Fangirlblog. I've been reading their stuff for about half a year now. While I may not agree with all of the sentiments that tend to be repeated there, Tricia and her contributing reviewers are excellent writers, and the site is a great place for Star Wars news and reviews with a female slant. I'm proud - actually, I'm so goggled that anyone reading this vaguely professional-sounding entry should imagine a low, constant squee'ing sound going on behind it - to announce that my Clone Wars reviews will in the future be hosted there as well as on this site.

That will also be the location of my review of Shadow Games, which talks about damsels in distress, entertainment about entertainers, and surprisingly few Nautolans. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Thundercats Recap

Welcome to the New Year. The first couple days of 2012 have been learning experiences for me already, and 2011 went out with some awesome opportunities that readers of my blog should hear about shortly. I realize I've been lax with posts, and that's for two big reasons: 1.) both Clone Wars and Thundercats have been on winter hiatus, and 2.) it's easier to be scathing than positive. While my review of the recent Clone Wars arc will come with the release of the wrap-up episode at the end of this week, I thought I'd fill in with what Thundercats has been up to.

The last episode I reviewed was the fantastic "The Duelist and the Drifter", and since then, we've had a mixed bag with general positive results. "Berbils" and "The Forest of Magi Oar" were pretty much "cute monster of the week" episodes, while "Sight Beyond Sight", "Into the Astral Plane", and "Between Brothers" deepened the characters.

Thundercats is very much a boys' show, primarily focusing on a child learning how to use his father's magic sword to win a girl's heart and save the universe. Star Wars could be explained in the same, simplistic terms. "Sight Beyond Sight" pretty much covered those bases, and also introduced a recurring monastery of elephant anthros. Their imposing size and terrible memory make them unique characters, and their home feels safe enough that it being threatened in the two latest episodes is legitimately frightening. The way the twins get attached to the place and react accordingly works very well.

"Into the Astral Plane" and "Between Brothers" have been plot-heavy and very entertaining, exploring the rivalry between Lion-O and Tigra, as well as between Panthro and Grune. The latter two have been the most interesting to me, not only because the character designs are cool and I always like the older, quiet, warrior type, but because of the way they're contrasted with Lion-O and Tygra. The brothers' friendship is an enforced one, coming from growing up in the same castle and always knowing one another. Panthro and Grune chose their friendship in later life and suffered through things together, but ended up on vastly different paths.

"Between Brothers" wasn't afraid to pull any punches. Although it had its so-lofty-it's-silly moments, cliches which are perhaps fitting for the original show's tone, Thundercats showed main characters being selfish and angry, and others losing limbs, giving it a dark edge of importance that makes it all more fun and more real. I really look forward to the ramifications of the mid-season finale when the show returns.  I trust that I'll have to practice writing down some positive opinions.