Star Wars Episode IX: The Last Command

I was quite eager to see The Force Awakens last week, and was also a bit apprehensive. I had a sense that it would be derivative, that it would try to hard to have an “edge,” and that potential interesting conflicts would be avoiding to protect the “sanctity” of the Main Trio. And all these fears I had about The Force Awakens came true in some form or another in Star Wars: The Last Command, the finale to Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy. We’ve covered Thrawn twice before, now let’s look at how it all ends.

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It ends with tiny X-wings toys for Han and Leia’s twins. Merry belated Christmas!

 

My chief problem with The Force Awakens was that they took the quick and easy route by just ripping of A New Hope. You’ve got your new desert planet, your new protagonist in Stormtrooper outfit, your new galactic superweapon, and all the same old shit. The Last Command ripped off Return of the Jedi, and I think it suffered for it. Not that that’s all, or even most, of this novel. After Thrawn re-asserts authority with two of the coolest strategic maneuvers ever (both original highlights in the book), the heroes set in motion plans of their own. For example, breaking Mara Jade out of Republic holding, Jade the former Imperial assassin who may or may not want to kill Luke Skywalker. Another original example concerns them untangling the mesh of deception fracturing the Republic’s greatest ally, the smuggler alliance. But, in the end, the bulk of the action takes place on a forest planet, where a small band of heroes sneak about, make friends with an alien tribe, and try to smash the key base of the Empire that will enable the destruction of the Republic if left unchecked. Throw in some climactic lightsaber duels and an attempted Dark Side seduction, and you’ve got your story already finished for you in 1983. Admittedly, I’m painting with a broad brush: the details and relationships do separate this book from ROTJ. The climactic battle with a crazy Dark Sider and the final scene with Thrawn himself do separate this book from its influence. Yet Heir to the Empire and Dark Force Rising weren’t shackled to A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back like this one, and still managed to tell good stories. Basically, if the callbacks in The Force Awakens bothered you, then the callbacks in The Last Command will bother you too.

 

The Force Awakens could’ve also reached for a darker “edge” that it doesn’t earn (and my brother would argue that it does, what with the First Order’s violence and everything). The Last Command also does that. Remember that scene in Empire where Luke confronts the cave in Dagobah? Zahn really thinks of that as a big moment, because it gets referenced a lot here, about how Luke needs to “confront his past.” But as I’ve said when discussing Return of the Jedi, Luke’s dark side isn’t that visible. Mara Jade has a great dark past— the Emperor sent her a final psychic message (YOU WILL KILL LUKE SKYWALKER) that keeps spamming in her head, even as she tries to maintain good relations with the Republic. Those moments have a spark of intensity to them. But even as Luke (in the more literal sense than you think) confronts his past, we’re wondering what justifies such a character-focused look at an everyman protagonist. Luke’s not beneath this role, he’s just too good for it.

 

In fact, characters that can be described as “too good,” would summarize my main issue with this book. No one falls for anyone’s BS in this story. I guess that statement’s kind of true for this trilogy in general, but it’s really apparent here. Thrawn in The Last Command displays some of the coolest and most clever strategies ever, and every time a plan of his gets enacted, the New Republic smells a womp rat nearly immediately. Han, Leia, and Luke attempt some strikes against the rising Empire remnants, but Thrawn always figures out their plans just in time (and you thought Rey was a Mary Sue). And any attempts to get the main heroes to turn on each other always fall flat, ‘cause the heroes are just with it, ya know? I do get the overall effect Zahn was going for: we’re watching a tennis match, the game-winning ball always moving between halves of the court. Each opposing drive gets countered, and the side to fail a counter will get destroyed. And yet, in practice, doing this type of twist over and over again undermines dramatic irony.

 

Dramatic Irony, for the unaware, is when the audience knows something that the characters in a work of art don’t. Star Wars books and movies, in their current form, can set this up well. Like the movies, the book takes on a third person omniscient narrator, moving from meetings between heroes to meetings between villains, only keeping the thoughts of Thrawn away from the audience. We see Thrawn explain his latest evil plan, and then we see the Republic react to the plan in motion. Wouldn’t it be more involving if we saw the plan for the first time at the same time as the heroes? Or, even better, that the heroes sometimes go to the sign promising free kittys and end up in a pit of Nexus, just as we saw Thrawn plan? You know, some actual consequences once in a while? Instead, the book does all the work for us. We’re not screaming “No! Don’t do it, Leia!” because Leia will never do it. For a set of thrillers that rely on tension, this is a serious flaw.

 

I think I got it all out of my system. Now I’m going to tell you why you should buy and read this trilogy anyways.

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I think I figured out how they brainstormed Kylo Ren’s lightsaber…

First off, there are some great positives. It’s got that Star Wars kinetic energy. Thrawn is still awesome. It introduces cool new characters and worlds, and possesses a keen imagination. It proves that you can do politics in the Star Wars universe.

 

Second, it’s good to see how far we’ve come. I’ve grown to accept that this trilogy won’t be filmed, no matter how much I wanted it to be (and ranting on its flaws certainly helped quell that desire). Star Wars changed in between Heir to the Empire and The Force Awakens, and that’s ok. Before the Expanded Universe got declared non-canon, a lot of elements from them made it into the prequels, including the role of the Jedi and the planet Coruscant. That ended up restricting, I think, what the prequels became. It’s important for the new films to break out of the shadow of the old books. The Thrawn Trilogy, even if it’s declared non-canon, can just be an interlude adventure after ROTJ, like I think it was meant to be.

 

And finally, Star Wars is more than its flaws. I can pick apart all these movies or books, but the fact remains that why stories matter— their core— is sometimes separate from plotholes and personal preferences. Yeah, the fanboys may bitch, but we ‘ll all keep coming back like there’s a ‘free kittys’ sign there. And loving something, even as you pick it apart, shows how strong you love can remain despite misgivings. I love The Thrawn Trilogy and I love Star Wars. Zahn’s work kicked off the Expanded Universe, a messy, crazy expansion that people still hold onto even as the whole thing gets demoted to mere “Legends.” Just like the franchise it came from, The Thrawn Trilogy is too big to be constrained only in pages. Flaws in art will always exist, as long as we keep loving things in spite of what we nitpick.

Star Wars Episode VIII: Dark Force Rising

Superpowers exist in the Star Wars universe. If you remember Grand Admiral Thrawn from last time, his superpower is super-racism.

Yes, it shocked me to find out about that as well. But when you read events in The Thrawn Trilogy where Thrawn says “Oh the Pxyxlxnsx species won’t do three-point-turns in space because they psychologically can’t handle it,” it’s easy to imagine a political candidate working out how to appeal to minority voters in the same vein. Or Rommel invading Egypt with an army of locusts in order to expose a perceived psychological weakpoint. This is the easy trap to fall into when you’re writing alien species, where every single member of your warrior race is strong, headstrong, sings work songs, and have long dongs. Everyone’s the same, and there’s no way that can be real. It makes me wonder about the Vulcans that are our equivalent to punk anarchists or DJs or something.

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Thrawn’s so tiny! How cute!

Anyways, welcome back to our retrospective on Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy, in particular the second book in the cycle. This book’s title: Dark Force Rising. And let me leap back to the first book to elaborate on a point I smacked on that post like a “100% organic reflection! Honest!” sticker. I talked about why the Star Wars movies outgrew Heir to the Empire, but didn’t elaborate on what grew to what. So let’s go back to 1983 and ask people what Star Wars is. They’d say it’s an adventure tale, an action serial, a rip-roaring good time with enough philosophy and emotion to separate it from other action movies. That’s what the series was at the time. But in 2005, people would describe the entirety of Star Wars as a saga, an epic mythology, a operatic tale that cycles themes, quotes, and ideas. Star Wars 4-6 is like Flash Gordon; Star Wars 1-6 is like Greek Mythology (and not just because both the prequels and Zeus fucked mortals up). Star Wars 4-6 is a three-part episode of ‘Batman: The Animated Series,’ while Star Wars 1-6 is The Dark Knight Trilogy. Now imagine if they made another movie in the Dark Knight movieverse where Batman just defeats a guy. It may be a cool guy, and it may be a fun time, but it wouldn’t justify three movies worth of buildup and the ruination of a finished character arc. Star Wars 4-6 is a three-part TV episode, Star Wars 1-6 is an epic movie series, Star Wars 1-6 plus the Thrawn Trilogy is an epic movie series followed by a TV episode with TV-like stakes and arcs. The Thrawn trilogy was once just a continuation of a serial- compared to the mass the Star Wars movies evolved into both in scope and in popular consciousness, the Thrawn Trilogy is not a big enough, or worthy, follow-up.

This is a roundabout way of saying that the stakes in Dark Force Rising are too small and no one cares. The subplots- one with an ambitious Rebel leader arresting Akbar with a false accusation of treason, another one we’ll discuss later- are interesting. The main plot is a MacGuffin hunt, a search for a lost fleet of technologically-advanced-yet-strategically-iffy warships. They say whomever gets to the warships first, New Republic or Empire Remnants, will turn the tide of the war. “Watch us raise the stakes while we postpone the question of whether the stakes’ll be raised!” We went from moon that can blow up planets, to shocking revelations, to shocking revelations and a moon that can blow up planets, to a really cool bad guy, and arrive now at a scavenger hunt. Boy, isn’t that a ramp? Maybe this kind of smaller conflict is for the best, so we don’t have the ridiculous lightsaber escalation that occurred in the prequels. But this threat should pump fear in my bloodstream, and it’s not. One reason concerns the minimalist, imagery-deprived prose of author Zahn, which moves along action without letting time for describing scope or magnitude.

The other reason deals with Thrawn. Thrawn, bless his heart, loses so much. The fandom considers him such a badass that they forget how bad he is at chasing ass. He always is a pinch away from catching a hero or outwitting a member of The Holy Trio before Thrawn’s prey zips away. The Grand Admiral captures one character in this book, and guess what? Luke and Mara (Mara’s a former Imperial assassin) bust said character out of a Star Destroyer prison block in a series of lucky escapes and coincidences that are a blast to read and are also a moment to consider how many scented meditation candles Thrawn must now buy so he can stay calm this time. And even when (SPOILERS COMING CROSS YOUR LEGS) Thrawn takes most of the Dark Force fleet at the end, the worry is dampened by Thrawn’s previous failures (TERROR LEVEL LOWERED, SPOILERS GONE). Luke had some lucky escapes in the past, but even then he lost a mentor, and hand, or a father, you know, something actually devastating.

The highlight of this book comes from the meeting of Joruus and Luke. The Imperials spread rumors of a rediscovered Jedi Master throughout the galaxy. That way, when Luke hears Joruus’ voice in his head asking him to resume his training on Joruus’ planet, Luke doesn’t suspect the Imperial trap Joruus has been setting. Joruus now has the opportunity to turn Luke to the Dark Side while pretending to be a Light-Sider. The two Jedi- one good, one evil and bonkers- meet on Jormark, Joruus’ planet of choice. This meeting precedes a tense encounter (another highlight in the book) where Luke and Joruus are asked to mediate a complicated spat between two cheated individuals. Something similar happened to Luke earlier in the book, on a different planet. When Luke was by himself judging a dispute, he listened to both sides, deliberated, then reached a compromised-but-fair decision. Joruus, in a near-identical situation on Jormark, invades the mind of one of the participants and uses that information to Force-lightening the bollocks off of the one he thinks is responsible. Before this event, the Jormark story arc was a dark mirror to Yoda training Luke, with a Dark Side master in place of a Light one. This scene, in particular, mirrors the dispute from earlier in the book, and moves Luke from thinking “he’s a weird guy, but I need guidance,” to “maybe this Jedi Master isn’t so masterful.” This is a good way of sequalizing- build on what was before, twisting it until it’s beyond a repeat. There’s a lot of sympathy for Luke combined with dramatic tension over Joruus’ Imperial motivations and Joruus’ crazy-based motivations.

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I meant to get a picture of Joruus, but I think I accidentally traveled to the future and pinched a drawing of Alan Moore instead.

Only Joruus C’Boath is not insane. Not really. Even though everyone says he is. He’s just power hungry, desperate to bring his warped Jedi-on-top-of-food-chain-by-messing-with-Muggle-brains philosophy into dominant Imperial Goals. And that’s the problem with this character, this book, and the entire trilogy- nothing’s expanded on. The prose is business-oriented, getting us to the next scene with minimal time setting the previous scene or developing moments. I’d do the same, I imagine, if I was to write a follow-up to 3 action movies that kept the pace going and I already had a universe developed for me. The prose is cut down in service of… of what, the high stakes? The best parts in this book are character-driven subplots, not the endlessly repeating space battles or the repetitive Thrawn failures. This book would’ve been fine at 50 pages longer- it’s overall the slowest section of The Thrawn Trilogy, and the pacing should serve the content.

Am I focusing on the negative because I automatically like books with Star Wars in the title, and I’m only waking up to that now? Not according to the many Expanded Universe novels I gave away to my library while keeping these three books for re-reading many years later. Worlds change. Mine does on a weekly basis, and my views on this book change from chapter to chapter. Check out the series not just for what it is, but what can be built off of it- and what things looked like in a franchise while it was still expanding.

NEXT TIME: The Last Command! Can I nurture my love for this Trilogy while more weeds spring up?

Star Wars Episode VII: Heir to the Empire

I put Star Wars posters in my apartment, placed Star Wars Battlefront in my PS2, and wrote three Star Wars reviews on this blog already, yet I didn’t spin circles like an Ewok on a speeder bike when Disney announced Episode VII. Much like how I feel about ‘Toy Story 3’ right now, the end of the original trilogy wrapped all matters up in a little box so nice that any attempts to take a jackhammer to the box sound ill-advised at best. Plus, for the longest time, fans like me had Episodes VII, VIII, and IX in the form of Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy. I enjoyed that cycle- Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command– so much that the announcement that this trilogy is now non-canon sent my inner nerd into a bloodthirsty rage that took several chocolate bars and a viewing of this article to quench. I loved the Thrawn trilogy. I still love it now, even in the midst of rereading and wound-picking it. Should J.J. Abrams just have made Heir to the Empire his Episode VII, or was it best to strike in a new direction even if that direction leads to thorns and a bear?

Pictured: Rejected from Episode VII for being TOO AWESOME.
Pictured: Rejected from Episode VII for being TOO AWESOME.

Most of my affection for this trilogy comes from Thrawn himself, that blue-skinned Grand Admiral who returns from his assignment in the Outer Rims to marshal what’s left of the Empire five years after ‘Return of the Jedi’. Thrawn as a character is easy to explain: he’s Sherlock Homes as a warlord. It just sounds cool, doesn’t it? In the first chapter of the book, Thrawn’s capital ship is attacked and outnumbered four to one. So Thrawn learns who’s in command of this enemy battalion, analyzes the commander’s species, and uses that alien race’s psychological blind spots to decimate the enemy forces. How’d he learn about aliens so thoroughly? In part by studying their artwork. I know, right? That’s actually what he was doing before he was attacked, browsing his own personal art gallery. It’s like if Roger Ebert conquered Germany by studying Uwe Boll films.

I still marvel at what a cool spin this is as a character and antagonist. But. Over the past year, I’ve read the majority of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and I can now spot a poorer imitation even if he paints his skin blue. The audience has little choice but to trust Thrawn’s genius in the first chapter because he’s dealing with an unknown alien by utilizing war tactics that aren’t well described. Like Captain Pellaeon, the Watson in our equation, the audience can only shrug its shoulders and say, “I guess he’s pretty smart.” Arthur Conan Doyle, even when talking about customs and ideas unfamiliar to a 21st century reader, still walked through every blood-soaked step to show Holmes was a genius instead of a telepathic genius. And I don’t think Thrawn’s meant to be a telepath. Throughout the book, we’re treated to examples of Thrawn’s intelligence that aren’t as well explained as Holmes’ moments of brilliance. How does he know what Han, Luke, and Leia are planning, and how to thwart them? We get vague answers, logical while not satisfying to someone who knows the real Holmes or is reading these books for a third time like me. We’re in new places in the universe, yes, but all that Zahn needs to do is what he did for Thrawn: remix something familiar so that we can follow Thrawn’s train of thought. There’s a difference between a mysterious character (what Zahn wanted Thrawn to be) versus a character that’s just cheating (what could have happened to Thrawn).

Don’t think these nitpicks ruin Thrawn as a character; he’s still great enough that I want him to be the true villain in ‘The Force Awakens.’ He’s calm, diplomatic, constantly scheming, and learns from his mistakes without killing subordinates all the time. He only does it once, after a careful scan of the situation to find out who’s really at fault. Best of all, Thrawn gets in the audience’s good graces by receiving a tough test right away. The Grand Admiral picks up some ysalamiri, creatures that create a bubble of anti-Force, so he can talk to insane dark Jedi clone Joruus C’Baoth without the lunatic force-pushing Thrawn’s red eyes into his throat. C’Baoth will help the Empire if Thrawn gives him Luke and Leia to mold into dark apprentices. But it’s a dangerous game, keeping Joruus sedate while the original trio keeps escaping traps and sensible thoughts keep eluding C’Baoth. Zahn established Thrawn’s character in a jiffy- he uses logic to manipulate and play off of others. Easy to grasp. Now Thrawn’s tested by a character who doesn’t operate under logic. We understand Thrawn, so we root for him as he pushes his abilities to the limit. Given this conflict, and how the first chapter of the book focuses on an Empire victory achieved by one of the coolest Star Wars characters ever, I imagine people reading this book without seeing the movies could mistake Thrawn for the protagonist.

This is still a Leia-Han-Luke tale, for the record. The three are entangled with the politics of the New Republic, their run-ins with kidnappers and Imperials arguably a welcome escape from the murky, treacherous ocean that is governance. It’s an adventure story, but with heavy doses of political thriller added on like snow tires. Han struggles to unite the smugglers he left behind with the new government he helps run, Leia balances never-ending diplomacy missions with pregnancy and constant kidnapping attempts, and Luke’s just trying to find his role as the last sane Jedi alive. In comes a mysterious Grand Admiral to complicate matters, stealing mining equipment and engaging in bizarre hit-and-run attacks, working towards an unknown, nefarious end. There’s the old high-fun sense of adventure here mixed in with enough backstabbings, deals, power plays and politics to keep the series from becoming a retread of the originals. Where the prequels tried to mix swashbuckling with committees, this trilogy succeeds at doing so by letting politics inform the adventure, instead of each aspect taking turns to talk.

But Zahn doesn’t evolve the concept at hand beyond a mixing of tropes. Remember the anti-Force creatures I mentioned before, the ysalamiri? Our heroes end up on a planet full of them. Now isn’t this a great opportunity. We’ve seen a universe with the Force, and all-encompassing field that not even non-believers can escape from. How do the players of that universe operate without the Force? If the Force has a will, does a planet without the Force become more anarchic? Do the residents of said planet feel empty and dead inside? How does a society separated from the rest of the universe in a symbolic sense operate? I wish I knew. There are some tense adventures to be had here, especially for Luke, as the Jedi Knight must survive without the Force or his lightsaber here. Yet people double-deal, plot, and shoot here the same way they double-deal, plot, and shoot on other planets. Ysalamiri are a cool concept, but a concept not used to its full potential. This isn’t a deep or insightful book, so the trio doesn’t need to do much soul-searching. Perhaps just an aside mention that the absence of the Force almost caused Leia to fall for an obvious trap of some kind, perhaps a mug of hot chocolate on top of a bear trap.

Look out! He's going to hit you with Force Finger Lights!
Look out! He’s going to hit you with Force Finger Lights!

All joking aside- should this have been our Episode VII movie? As much as I love these books- and recommend them as a fun, light read for Star Wars fans- I think the saga may have outgrown them. Published in 1991, Heir to the Empire was such a big hit that it started a whole line of Expanded Universe novels, to the point where Michael Kaminski’s book ‘The Secret History of Star Wars’ credits Zahn’s trilogy as a factor convincing Lucas to make the prequels. Interest in Star Wars might have died out without these books. And Zahn’s work led to the saga evolving into something much different from what he created. The Holy Trilogy acted as a tribute to the action serials of the past, so this book trilogy followed suit. Then came the prequels. Taken as a whole nowadays, the Star Wars story is a mythic saga like the Ring cycle. Each trilogy had some old characters, but mostly new faces and archetypes. So now the door’s open for some new people in ‘The Force Awakens,’ instead of rehashing old inner conflicts (and as an aside, I hope those people in the trailer are just borrowing Stormtrooper gear and red lightsabers, cause we’ve tread that ground enough already). Writers need to understand the environment they’re writing in as much as the thing they’re writing about. Remember, the best part of the Thrawn trilogy is Thrawn himself, a new (if not necessarily original) character in a world created by a great (if not necessarily original) film. Wouldn’t you like to see characters like Space Othello or Space Christopher Columbus play around in such a rich universe? The Thrawn Trilogy is comfort food to me- fun, engrossing, maybe not satisfying as a full meal. So yes, Heir to the Empire is not a good fit for Episode VII, and it’s another thing you can blame on the goddamn prequels. And you can blame the goddamn prequels on ‘Heir to the Empire.’

NEXT REVIEW: The second book in the Thrawn Trilogy, Dark Force Rising! How well written is this series anyways?