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.
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.
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.