Monday, July 28, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Human Torch

(or, "Yes, The Human Torch Actually Had A Series")

Well, sort of. Back in the early days of the Fantastic Four, he shared the book 'Strange Tales' with Doctor Strange. It's actually a pretty sensible decision at first look; he was a character with name recognition, at least in theory (kids might have found old Golden Age comics with the original Human Torch, or at the very least heard about him from older siblings or parents), he was a member of the extremely-popular Fantastic Four, and he was a teenage superhero in an era where that was just becoming a popular sub-genre (as seen by his rivalry with Spider-Man in this era, something developed in both the FF and Spider-Man.) But for some reason, the Human Torch has never worked well as a solo character.

Some of it, of course, is due to elements of the storytelling engine that...well, let's just say they could probably be done better with another try. The Human Torch's original rogues gallery included the Wizard, Paste-Pot Pete (later known as the Trapster, but let's face it, he never did get over that name), the Beetle, the Plantman, the Eel...all he needs is the Leap-Frog, Solarr, and Toomazooma the Living Totem, and he can win Lame Supervillain Bingo.

He had other handicaps as well. The storytelling engine of the Fantastic Four never seemed to mesh well with that of a solo book for any of its members--they had public identities, lived in the Baxter Building, and they generally functioned as each other's supporting cast. That makes it difficult to really develop an independent book (there's an amusing moment, early on in the 'Essential Human Torch', where the other members of the team gently explain to Johnny that he doesn't need to conceal his secret identity from the people of Glenville--they all know who he is, they just figured he wanted a little privacy.) The Torch does have a girlfriend in Dorrie Evans, but for the most part, the other members of the FF are his supporting cast...in particular, Ben Grimm, the ever-lovin' blue-eyed Thing.

Which brings us to the really insurmountable problem with a "Human Torch" series, the one that's kept Johnny Storm from really ever managing to sustain a book after being bumped out of 'Strange Tales' in favor of Nick Fury and his agents of SHIELD. He's just not a very good choice as a protagonist. He's got no particular hooks or angles to his personality--he's a hotshot kid who's into cars and girls and fights crime. Not a whole lot there to generate drama, or excitement, or, well...stories. The Thing, by contrast, has an interesting and dynamic hook as a "misunderstood monster", a sharp contrast between his smart-aleck exterior and his inner pain, and a much more interesting girlfriend to boot. (Which may be why 'Marvel Two-In-One' lasted 100 issues.) Johnny's a great supporting character, a perfect foil for Ben and Reed and Sue, but isolate him from the rest of the FF, and he just doesn't work. Not every supporting character can be a lead role, and there's no better proof of that than the Human Torch.

(Well, except maybe Reed or Sue. Nobody's even tried giving them their own series.)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Under the Hood: Star Wars, Episode Five

This one actually changed in my head as I was planning to write it down, to be honest (he says as he continues his tale of how to rework the scripts of the six Star Wars films into a more consistent epic.) Originally, it was going to be a case of, "Don't change a thing," like Episode Four, but there's something that's nagged me about this movie ever since I saw the prequels, and that's Yoda. Because the whole point of the series is that Yoda is wrong. His philosophy is ultimately sterile, with no room for love or redemption. He's not the Wise Old Mentor, he's stern and unbending and ultimately, Luke proves him wrong by redeeming Anakin with the same love that Yoda insists is selfish and destructive. And that doesn't come across as well as it could, because Yoda's so awesome and well-done as the Wise Old Mentor that we just naturally want to believe him. (Look at all the Expanded Universe material. Everything from the RPG to the post-Star Wars novels uses Yoda's portrayal of a Manichean struggle between the Light and Dark Sides, not Luke's ability to love and fear and hate and grieve. Luke is balanced, that's what the prophecy that Lucas never really explained very well is all about.)

So the change that brings all that into sharp relief? When Vader lands his ship on Hoth, Luke is still there, moving from his snowspeeder to his X-Wing. The hangar is blocked off by an ice fall, and while he's using the Force to clear it, he tells Luke, "Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father, did he?"

Changes the film a bit, doesn't it? Suddenly, Luke isn't just a passive student accepting Yoda's philosphy, he's wondering why his father can't be saved. He isn't just blindly refusing to listen when Yoda tells him to abandon his friends, he's telling Yoda that the empty, sterile philosophy of placing a higher value on causes than on people is as wrong as Vader's desire for total control. His fight with Vader takes on a whole new dimension, as he tries to find a spark of good in his father while defending himself and instead ends up injured, weakened, clinging to the edge of the abyss in Bespin as Vader tells him that his only options are to give into his rage and fight, join Vader as his new apprentice, or be destroyed. And instead of simply falling, Luke's last gesture takes on a whole different meaning as he chooses to fall, rather than fight his father.

It does ruin the cliffhanger, of course, but by this point, anyone who's watched the films 1-6 knows that Vader is Luke's father anyway. (Just witness the torturous reworking of the scene between Vader and the Emperor in the DVD edition of the film, where Vader and the Emperor both try to avoid saying what they both know: "Oh, by the way, Luke's your kid!") Might as well let that bit go and try for the extra tension in the Dagobah scenes.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Rampaging Hulk

(or "Rejecting The Continuity Implant")

When Doug Moench took on the assignment of creating a new, stand-alone Hulk title (created due to the popularity of the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno TV show), he made something of an unusual choice. Not so much his decision to give the Hulk a supporting cast that consisted of Rick Jones and an alien "techno-artist" named Bereet with a transdimensional bag containing dozens of nifty gadgets, or his decision to set up a group of marauding aliens called the Krylorians as the Hulk's principal antagonists for the series...although those were somewhat unusual choices, as well. No, the really odd decision was to set the whole series in between the Hulk's original comic book series (which ran six issues, back in the early 1960s) and Avengers #1.

Series like this crop up from time to time. These "continuity implant" series (like 'Untold Tales of Spider-Man', 'X-Men: The Hidden Years', 'X-Men: First Class', et cetera et cetera) attempt to use a particular era of a comic book's history to tell all-new tales. Obviously, this is of particular relevance to this column because the writers of continuity implant series generally choose their era (whether consciously or not) based on its storytelling engine. The team dynamic of a particular period appeals to them, or they decide that the supporting cast was better before half of them got killed off in the 1990s, or they prefer not to deal with the consequences of a particular dramatic shake-up in the book's status quo. So they go back, they pick the storytelling engine that works best, and they fire it up all over again.

And for some series, that works. Doctor Who has actually made something of a habit of this, publishing over 100 novels and 25 short story collections set in between other televised stories. But Doctor Who has much looser continuity than Marvel, and that's where the problem sets in. Because Marvel has, arguably, made a selling point out of their adherence to continuity. Actions have consequences, events in one book reverberate into another, the status quo changes based on characters' actions, and we're told that missing one book will mean we might miss a life-changing event. (Whether that's true or not is an entirely different story.)

This demanding continuity has its consequences, and one of them is to train the audience to see stories that don't alter continuity as being "undesirable." 'Rampaging Hulk' readers look at the series and say, "Nothing's going to change there, nothing important can ever happen, because it's frozen in the past! We know the Hulk's not going to find a cure, we know Rick Jones isn't going to die, we know the Krylorians are going to be overthrown, so why should we care?" Doug Moench might say you should care because they're good stories, he might even point out that it's not likely that the Hulk will find a cure in the present day series...but generations of comics readers raised to expect "impact" as one of the primary attractions of a given comic book issue don't listen.

Further, continuity implant series run another risk, one exemplified best in the grand finale to the Krylorian storyline--the Hulk teams up with Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man, and the Wasp to finish off the Krylorian forces. "But all this is set before Avengers #1!" the fan cries out. "Surely you can't expect me to believe that the whole Avengers line-up met twice before they decided to form a team! And why is the Hulk talking so dumb? Back in this era, he was intelligent but brutish, and..." In a fictional universe with tight continuity as a selling point, errors in that tight continuity irritate fans, simply because they've been promised (implicitly or explicitly) that they won't see them. A company that promises tight continuity has to deliver, and continuity implants have a hard time doing that, just because writers are as human as everyone else.

In the end, due to all those factors, 'Rampaging Hulk' turned into just another stand-alone series, and eventually the adventures of the Hulk, Rick Jones and Bereet were retconned away. Because the creators of the Marvel universe, the larger storytelling engine that all the other books are just a part of, set up certain conditions for these books to adhere to. And that made series like 'Rampaging Hulk' (and 'Untold Tales of Spider-Man', and 'X-Men: The Hidden Years', and other series that died too young) a bit of a hard sell for its target audience.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Under the Hood: Star Wars, Episode Four

Alright, maybe it's my inner child speaking, but the movie is nearly perfect as is. The only things I'd change, script-wise, in all of 'Star Wars: A New Hope', involve Greedo and Obi-Wan.

No, no, not the "Han shot first" thing. That's a given. But that scene could stand to make it clearer that Greedo is acting on a private grudge and exceeding the orders Jabba gave him, and that Jabba's still got some mercy left in him. Otherwise Han has no motive to flee the Battle of Yavin--why would he go back to Jabba if he's been explicitly told, "It's too late [to give him the money]." Plus, it makes the scene with Jabba less redundant--if you leave that scene out, Han should just stay the hell away. If you leave it in with both scenes as scripted, you're being told twice in ten minutes that Jabba's pissed, and that Han needs to get back in his good books. The Greedo scene is all about Han's willingness to play dirty if he has to in order to win the fight, nothing more. (Which is why it's even dumber to make Greedo shoot first.)

The other thing I'd change? The fight scene between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader now looks radically out of place next to the elaborate, choreographed sequences of the other movies. Every other film, Jedi are hyper-acrobatic wuxia masters who dazzle us with epic fight sequences...in Episode Four, it's two guys anemically clashing sabers together. Sure, they're both well past their prime, but...it could use work.

Other than that, every frame is perfect.

Wild Speculation

The dramatic conclusion to 'Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog' will involve Doctor Horrible gaining ultimate power, becoming a dark and vengeful god with power over space and time itself. He realizes that he is destined to travel back and found the Evil League of Evil, announcing to the defeated Captain Hammer, "I am the Bad Horse. I create myself."

(Sorry. I just had to post that during the one day it was actually funny to anyone at all.)

Monday, July 14, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Shazam!

(or "It's Alive! It's ALIVE!")

From one Captain Marvel to another, we now look in on the original CM, whose publication history has been a bit...spotty. How spotty? The company that owns him doesn't have the trademark to his name, that's how spotty. (DC generally markets his various series using the word 'Shazam!' somewhere in the title to let fans know who he is.) Captain Marvel has gone through a lot of dormant periods in his sixty-nine-year history as he journeyed through legal disputes, multiple publishers, and various creative hands--'Showcase Presents Shazam!' collects his second major run, from the 1970s, when DC first acquired the license to the character.

Well, actually, to the whole storytelling engine, because CM's got a doozy. There's a whole package that comes with the Big Red Cheese, and although it's really more aimed at kids than adults, it's probably one of the best juvenile-fiction storytelling engines out there. First, he's got one of the best origins in comics. It's so steeped in myth it's practically primal; young Billy Batson finds a mystic hall where his subway station should be, and an elderly wizard grants him the best attributes of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury, entrusting the innocent child with the safety of the human race.

Then, it's got one of the great mad scientists of the genre, Doctor Sivana, acting as the primary villain. Crazy, cantankerous, and filled with berserk glee in a way Luthor was always a bit too pompous to show, he takes a wild delight in trying to do horrible things. Couple that with some good B-listers (Mr. Mind, Ibac, Black Adam), and you've got a lot of storytelling potential. (At this point, I'd just like to remind everyone that the target audience for these comics is kids. Anyone complaining that Mr. Mind is "silly" might just want to go take a smoke break until next week, OK?)

Add to that Captain Marvel Junior, Mary Marvel, and Talky Tawny for a supporting cast (OK, even a kid-lit enthusiast like me can't get behind some of the other Marvels they introduced later on), and Fawcett City as a setting, and you've got plenty of material for stories. Unfortunately for DC, you've also got an twenty-year gap between the last publication of the series and your attempt to revive it.

This is actually a pretty common event nowadays; with the popularity of DVDs, trade paperbacks, and other archival materials, lots of series come up for revival after some gap or another. (Think 'Buffy', 'Doctor Who', 'Battlestar Galactica', 'Futurama', 'Ghostbusters', 'Indiana Jones'...the list goes on and on and on.) So the question becomes, "How do you handle the storytelling engine when you're reviving a dormant series?"

The approach that DC took in the 1970s was to treat the gap as a real event in the fictional universe, explain what happened during that time, and deal with the changes it made. In the case of the 70s Captain Marvel, it's done with as little actual change as possible; a concoction of "Suspendium", created by Doctor Sivana as a weapon against Captain Marvel, freezes Marvel, Sivana, and all of Fawcett City for twenty solid years. They recover, more or less unaware of the passage of time, and resume their normal lives. (This would be the same route as series like 'Futurama' took; minimize the disruption, and get back to telling stories. Other series have more dramatic changes; the 'Angel: After the Fall' comic, for example, has Los Angeles plummeting into Hell.)

Later, after the revived 'Shazam' proved unpopular, DC used 'Crisis on Infinite Earths' as an opportunity to rebuild the storytelling engine from the ground up, starting from the beginning and jettisoning elements they didn't like. This "reboot" approach is far more common in comics than other media (having been popularized by 'Crisis', actually) but does come up from time to time elsewhere. ('Battlestar Galactica', anyone? Please, anyone? We're practically giving it away!)

The present approach to reviving Captain Marvel from another long period of dormancy (although he's remained active as a supporting character in the DC Universe since his series was canceled in 1999) seems to be a mix of both approaches. In the mainstream DC line, they're reviving the character through a mini-series that puts Captain Marvel and his supporting cast through a series of changes, resulting in a darker, "edgier" character that (DC hopes) will appeal more to today's comic readers. At the same time, DC's putting out several out-of-continuity "reboot" mini-series, featuring high-profile talent like Jeff Smith and Mike Kunkel, that appeal more to the character's kid-lit roots. Only time will tell if this new trick will succeed...or if we'll be looking at another Captain Marvel revival, somewhere down the line.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Under the Hood: Star Wars, Episode Three

Don't worry, the post about Doctor Who didn't replace this week's entry, it just added to it. I will continue with my quest to rework the Star Wars saga from the script up, in preparation for the inevitable cash-in remakes engineered by George Lucas' family once he dies! Whenever that might be, of course. Look, I'm not suggesting by any means that my readers should go kill George Lucas. And certainly not by using the swift, undetectable poison known as curare!

...but I'm rambling. Let's open this up, shall we?

At the start of 'Revenge of the Sith', Coruscant is now a much darker place. The Clone Wars have splintered the Republic, with the Separatist forces fighting a guerilla war against the powerful Republic Army. Chancellor Palpatine has been given virtually unlimited power to bring the Republic back together again, and the Senate is now stripped of much of its authority. Every day, Palpatine gives speeches from an undisclosed location (with the civil war going on, he's been targeted for assassination dozens of times) warning of the need for vigilance and unity among the peoples of the Republic.

Obi-Wan, as one of the dwindling numbers of Jedi, is working with the Republic Army to help root out traitors at home, under the command of an ambitious young Captain Tarkin. Tarkin has sent him after Senator Bail Organa, an Alderaanian who has been discovered to be secretly aiding the Separatists. But when Obi-Wan surprises the Senator at his apartments, Bail insists he has been framed. He doesn't want independence for Alderaan, he merely wants to end this war. Palpatine has gone too far, his zeal conceals a secret lust for power, and he's willing to go to any lengths to eliminate all challenges to his authority.

Even the Jedi, once the peacekeepers of the Republic, are now just one more obstacle to Palpatine's quest for absolute power...and he's eliminating them, silently and subtly. Jedi-led units have been sent into the worst of the fighting, they have taken the greatest casualties, and now only a few remain. By continuing to fight Palpatine's usurpation of power, Organa is a threat, and Tarkin hopes to curry favor with Palpatine by getting rid of him. Troubled by these words, and recognizing the truth of them, Obi-Wan decides to look the other way and allow Organa to escape, giving him time enough to prove his innocence.

Meanwhile, off near the Outer Rim, Palpatine personally directs the final assault on the secret Mandalorian clone factories from his personal command ship (the "undisclosed location" mentioned above.) His trusted general, Anakin Skywalker, leads the ground forces in a grim and bloody battle to take the cloneworld despite the hordes of Mandalorian soldiers pouring from the factories. In a final desperate tactic to hold the cloneworld, the Mandalorians send out wave after wave of unarmed clones as fast as the factories can crank them out, hoping to overwhelm the Republic's forces through sheer weight of numbers. But Anakin reaches the command center and shuts off the flow of clones, personally capturing the clonemasters and delivering them to Chancellor Palpatine.

The Chancellor returns to Coruscant in triumph, holding a victory celebration in which he announces the end of major military operations in the Clone Wars. The back of the Separatists have been broken, he announces. No longer can they hope to achieve a military victory. But this is not truly the end. The forces that seek to splinter the Great Republic will now attempt to achieve victory through subterfuge, treachery, and stealth. Now, the duty of the Republic must be to root out the traitors within. Now, the trusted few who have proven their loyalty (he here gestures to Anakin, standing at his right hand) will help to find these traitors, root them out, and destroy them. And they will be helped by the new Army of the Republic, the incorruptible army, the army that knows nothing but loyalty! With those words, ships land, and seemingly endless platoons of clone soldiers march out from them, all wearing white armor. The cloneworld's location remains a secret, but now a Republic state secret. And the clones have been reprogrammed to serve the Republic. (They've also been more or less lobotomized to ensure loyalty. The Mandalorian elite troopers are no more.)

Returning home to his wife, Queen Amidala, Anakin announces his big news. He's been promoted to Grand General! The Chancellor will be placing the occupied Separatist planets under the direct control of Republic governors, called "Moffs"--purely as a temporary measure, of course, until things return to normal. He doesn't understand why Amidala seems so upset about it all. She should be happy! She's expecting, he's rising in the Republic hierarchy, why can't she understand? Amidala tries to explain her fears of the death of freedom, but all Anakin can think of is that she's starting to sound like one of "them". Has she been speaking with Obi-Wan? She shouldn't associate with him. Palpatine has shown him evidence, proof of corruption within the heart of the Jedi order. Obi-Wan's behavior has been most suspicious. He may be a traitor. She shouldn't trust him.

Amidala tries to defend their old friend, which just drives Anakin to greater anger. Why would she possibly sympathize with a traitor to the Republic? Did she not understand the sacrifices Anakin has made for her, for the Republic itself? She's starting to sound like a traitor herself. What has she been doing these last eight months since he was last on Coruscant on leave? Has she been corrupted by Obi-Wan, perhaps gotten too close to him? How close? He's always known that she almost chose Obi-Wan over him, perhaps while he was off saving the galaxy, she's been cozying up to her old boyfriend! How does he even really know the baby is his? Perhaps she's a traitor and a whore both! The words spill into actions, as Anakin strikes his wife. Shocked with himself and with the welling fury that months and years of war have stoked, Anakin flees for guidance.

Anakin heads to Yoda, but ashamed of his actions, he discusses the events only in vague and hypothetical terms. Yoda, an unflinching absolutist, presents things in clear terms. The Light Side is harmony, the Dark Side is evil and chaos. Once you tread the path of the Dark Side, forever will it dominate your destiny. Anger and hatred cannot be contained, cannot be channeled. They must never be allowed to take root, or they will consume you. Needless to say, this is advice that seems to suggest to Anakin that he's already beyond hope. Thanking Yoda, he goes to his other spiritual mentor, Chancellor Palpatine, for guidance.

Meanwhile, Obi-Wan returns to his quarters, his mind troubled. The war has ended, but why then does the darkness seem to be encircling the Jedi order worse than ever? He wishes his old friend and former padawan was there to talk to. His relationship with Anakin may have become strained over the course of the war, but he knows that deep down, his old friend understands him. That's when he hears a knock at the door, and answers it to see a heavily-pregnant Amidala standing in the rain, a swelling bruise on her cheek, tears streaming down her face.

They talk, and Obi-Wan agrees that Anakin needs help and understanding, not confrontation. Many people have been changed by the worse in the war, but peace might bring healing. They just need to--Obi-Wan breaks off his speech, his Jedi senses suggesting something wrong. He races back to the outer room of his quarters, and sees that the door has been forced. Someone is in his quarters. Amidala worries that it might be Anakin--in his current mental state, if he sees the two of them together, he might reach a disastrously wrong conclusion. As the tension builds, Obi-Wan searches his apartments, and finds...

Count Dooku, also known as Darth Tyrannus, Leader of the Separatist Movement and Public Enemy Number One. Obi-Wan draws his lightsaber, but Dooku is there to talk. He explains the full truth--some time ago, after his retirement (and just after the events of Episode One), he met Chancellor Palpatine, and discovered that he was actually one of a secret order known as the Sith. These Sith were once Jedi, but they gave themselves wholly over to the Dark Side of the Force, and learned true greatness from it. True strength must always come from anger. True power comes from our fear, our hatred. Without it, we will always be pale shadows of those who possess it. The Sith spread like a virus before the Jedi decided, long long ago, to dispassionately exterminate them.

Ever since, the remaining Sith have operated in secret. A Sith only takes one apprentice at a time, teaching him until the apprentice has gained the skill to murder the master...or until they fail. Failure has only one punishment for a Sith apprentice. This cannibalistic duo has existed in secret for thousands of years, honing their skills, biding their time, master killing apprentice or apprentice killing master, waiting for their chance to gain the power to exterminate the Jedi order. Waiting for their revenge. Dooku learned from Palpatine, or as he is secretly known, Darth Sidious. He became his apprentice, and the two of them planned to foment a war that would allow them to consolidate the entire power of the Republic under one man, all the better to wipe out the Jedi with.

But now, Dooku has realized that he has been outgamed. His forces have been defeated, as they had planned all along (who else could have leaked the location of the cloneworld to the Republic Army?)...but he has become the public face of the Separatist Movement, the disposable scapegoat for all the crimes of the war. Worse still, he knows too much about Palpatine's manipulations. Palpatine has to kill him, Dooku realizes that now. Sidious has chosen a new apprentice, a new vessel for the Sith. One who has grown powerful with hatred over the course of the war, one whom Sidious has groomed to stand at his right hand. Amidala asks who it is, but she already knows the answer in her heart...

And that's when Anakin arrives in person, having been warned by Palpatine that his friends and lovers are traitors to the cause. He'd come to give them one final chance to deny it, but seeing Obi-Wan and Amidala together, and together with the head of the Separatists, well...that's enough to spark his fury. He duels with Obi-Wan, who's unwilling to truly fight his old friend. Dooku doesn't mind, though, kicking Anakin's ass and preparing to kill him before Obi-Wan and Amidala demand he be spared. They decide to flee Coruscant, instead, heading for the Outer Rim where Obi-Wan can lose pursuit among the sparsely-settled planets beyond the Republic.

On regaining consciousness, Anakin returns to Palpatine to admit his failure. Palpatine understands, though. He was duped by trust, kindness, love...the fool's emotions. Emotions he has grown beyond, emotions he must purge. Palpatine can help. He knows the truth of the Dark Side, has known it all along and was merely waiting for Anakin to advance far enough along the path to be able to see it. He will show Anakin the path of the Sith...and together, they will destroy all the traitors to the Republic. They will crush the disloyal Jedi, Darth Sidious...and Darth Vader.

Vader and Palpatine march on the Jedi temple, an army of stormtroopers at their back. They demand that the Jedi give up all the traitors, or be considered enemies of the state in their entirety. Yoda scoffs at the demand, sensing anger, hatred, greed...the Dark Side no longer concealed in their enemies, but open and unbound. He denounces Palpatine as the true evil at the heart of the Republic. Hearing that is enough for Vader--denouncing the Chancellor? Treachery! A massive battle breaks out, and Yoda orders all Jedi to flee as best they can. In the fray, most Jedi are killed, and the survivors routed--Yoda remains as the last defender of the temple, and he and Palpatine do battle with lightsabers, telekinesis, force lightning, the whole works. Yoda even seems to be winning, until Palpatine pulls out his trump card. The planet Kashyyyk. Occupied by a full garrison of Republic clone troops...with orders to kill every inhabitant, should the Chancellor die. Palpatine offers Yoda a bargain. He may live, as may the wookies of Kashyyyk...but he must go into exile. The moment he is heard from again, anywhere in the Republic, a world dies. Saddened and shamed, Yoda must nonetheless acquiesce.

Finally, Darth Sidious strides into the Jedi temple, the revenge of the Sith complete. "Long have we waited for this day," he says to Vader. "Your triumph can never be complete," Qui-Gon Jinn says, his spirit form appearing along with those of all the deceased Jedi. "Our flesh may have perished, but a true Jedi is more than mere flesh. We are spirit, eternal. You cannot destroy that." Sidious smiles. "You don't know the power of the Dark Side," he says, and red force lighting boils from his fingertips, annhilating the souls of the Jedi, their ancient wisdom and timeless knowledge. Even the spirits of the Jedi perish, this dark day.

Obi-Wan feels this agony even from light-years away, and knows that Sidious and Vader will come for them. They've been moving slowly, carefully, trying to avoid the well-traveled spacelanes to keep free of Republic entanglements, but there's one last checkpoint that will be difficult to avoid; the primordial world of Mustafar, whose geothermal energy is converted into fuel for thousands of starships. They will have to pass through there before they can get to the Outer Rim.

In a tense sequence, Obi-Wan and Dooku leave to get supplies and equipment after concealing their ship in a crater on the far side of a lava sea. They dodge patrols, use Jedi powers to cloud the weak minds of the stormtroopers, and barely get what they need without being discovered...but on their return, Vader and Sidious await them on the bridge over the lava sea that leads back to their ship. The final battle of the Clone Wars begins.

Dooku takes on Palpatine, Anakin fights Obi-Wan. Both masters fight their own apprentices, and both lose. Dooku is no match for the greatest master of the Dark Side the Sith has ever known, and although he is skilled and powerful, Sidious is clearly toying with him, mocking him. Anakin fights with fury and rage, and Obi-Wan can't help but see his own failures as a teacher when he looks at the twisted hatred on his former friend's face...but when Amidala arrives to see what's become of the others, Anakin is tempted with one last chance to turn to the Light.

But no. It's too late for him now. Yoda was right. There is no redemption. He turns on Obi-Wan with savage fury, destroying his lightsaber, forcing him to the very edge of the rock bridge over a sea of lava. Obi-Wan asks one final time, is there nothing left of his friend? Anakin snarls out, "Anakin Skywalker is dead." "I know," Obi-Wan says. "And I'm sorry." And with that, he gestures, pulling a geyser of lava up from below with his telekinesis and splashing it into Vader's face. Vader screams and drops his lightsaber, staggers backwards, and a force push sends him hurtling back into the lava. Amidala collapses in shock and sorrow...and perhaps something else?

Obi-Wan turns to help Dooku, but he's clearly beyond help. He's on his last legs, barely alive, but determined to gain a final pyrrhic victory. He grabs Palpatine and sends them both on a suicidal plunge into the lava below. The Sith seem, at last, to be gone. Obi-Wan races to Amidala's side, and there, at the scene of the death of her husband, she gives birth to her children--the second one surprising everyone. (Hey, it happens sometimes. Doctors can make mistakes.) Obi-Wan takes Anakin's lightsaber, and the four of them depart.

And Palpatine rises up from the lava below, holding it back with nothing but the power of the Force. He carries Vader's burnt and blackened body in his arms, walking out of the lava, the stress aging him with every moment, but refusing to give in to death. After all, he has an Empire to run...

But Amidala and Obi-Wan escape. They decide to split the children up--Bail Organa, now exonerated, agrees to hide Amidala and Leia with him; he will raise Leia as his own daughter, and hide Amidala in the guise of his governess. Obi-Wan takes Luke out to the Outer Rim, to be raised by an old friend of his, Owen Lars, on the desolate planet of Tatooine. Anakin Skywalker might remember that planet, might even look for his son there. But Anakin Skywalker is dead now. Only Darth Vader remains.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Liveblogging: Journey's End

OK, so as a particular favor to my girlfriend, who wants to hear my reactions to 'Journey's End' as they happen, I'll be doing my best to blog while watching the season finale to Doctor Who. This is by way of particular warnings to everyone who hasn't seen it yet, but wants to. Spoilers may very well abound, and I have absolutely no idea how to do that clever thing that lets you hide posts. So, um, I'm just going to yammer for a bit here, so at the very least you have this paragraph as warning and can avert your eyes as you scroll down to this week's storytelling engines post.

So, one last paragraph of yammering, mainly about how much I'm glad that Russell T Davies is done as showrunner. It's not that I haven't deeply enjoyed his run, but the law of diminishing returns seemed to have been setting in lately (in particular his finale to Season Three, which I was generally not fond of.) The wonderful thing about Doctor Who, though, is that when the law of diminishing returns begins to set in for an actor, a writer, a producer...the show renews itself through change. "Regeneration" is an absolutely brilliant concept, the heart of the series, and it's time for the Steven Moffat era to begin. "Change, my dear, and it seems not a moment too soon!"

OK, yammering over. 'Stolen Earth' is still running at the moment, and I'm still fairly not fond of the Shadow Proclamation. I thought they would be more majestic, like a parliament of the Eternals who regulated the Time War...finding out that they're just the guys in charge of the space rhinos is a bit underwhelming. (Albinos running space rhinos...there's a filk in that, but I'm not the man to write it.) I suppose I should write my guesses as to what's going to happen here, but really, I try not to guess these things. Inevitably, I come up with an idea that I think would be cool, and then I'm disappointed that they don't do it. Sometimes I do get bursts of, "Oh! 4022 saved...to the hard drive!" and I'm happy to be right...(I figure that if you're willing to be spoiled on 'Journey's End', 'Forest of the Dead' shouldn't bother you...) In general, though, I don't obsess over it all.

Woot! Shaun's mum! (Sorry, that's my instinctive reaction whenever Penelope Wilton shows up on this series. She was wonderful in 'Shaun of the Dead'.) The "Yes, I know who you are" joke has, though, been officially run into the ground. I notice as the episode plays out that everyone seems to have been watching the DVDs of the series; Sarah Jane knows that the Doctor deposed Harriet Jones, Jack Harkness knows Sarah Jane's adventures, the only person not filled in on every episode is Rose, and she's been in another universe.

I still think the "Davros! But...you're dead!" moment doesn't work very well, because we, the audience, don't find out he was supposed to be dead until after we find out he's not. They should have mentioned in one of the previous seven Dalek episodes that Davros died in the Time Wars. As it is, the shock value is a bit reduced (although it's nice to see Davros again. It's especially nice to see Sarah Jane's reaction; as one of the only people present at the genesis of the Daleks (or, more particularly, the "Genesis of the Daleks"), she and the Doctor alone know what evil he represents.) (Oh, and the Davros makeup is spectacular.)

Just about done now, the Doctor's just being shot...now. And he's regenerating...now. And here...we...go.

Love that Lis Sladen gets credits billing as a companion. Very cool. Mickey! Mick-mick-mickity-mick-mickey! And Jackie! Yay! (Where's Pete?) Um...the regeneration cheat was pretty spectacularly lame. He decided not to? Ugh. Daleks looking up...always a source of unintentional hilarity. What does the Osterhagen Key do? It loves you! Aww, how sweet! Ooh, Daleks speaking German!

"You were brilliant. And you were brilliant. And you were a bit of a ham, and I'm glad they stuck you on Torchwood." Yes, pleading with the Daleks for mercy generally works so well... David Tennant is offically totally awesome! "You're naked!" "Oh, yes!" Oh, and there's Jack, dying again. He must enjoy extreme sports a lot.

David Tennant absolutely carries this series. Seriously, there is not a single scene that he can't rescue, absolutely not a one. Not fond of the "generating out of the hand" thing, but Tennant sells it. (Grr, could people not have long scenes in Germans with no subtitles?) Oh, sorry none of this is timecoded, but I have barely enough attention to write and watch at once, looking at the time is too much extra work.

Geez, Jack's really having a bad day. Shot, incinerated, and the episode's not even half over (probably.) Ah, as usual, Davros can't resist making Daleks that proceed to betray him. Look up "failsafe", Davros. It'll blow your freaking mind. Wouldn't Rose have seen everything Kan saw, when she looked into the Vortex too? She must have, if she left the "Bad Wolf" message for him all over everything.

"I'm so sorry," a verbal tic I'm now getting heartily sick of. Yes, that does seem like something Davros would do now that I've seen the whole sequence. (I thought it was a bit out of character when I saw just the trailer.) Um...when exactly did Mickey and Jack, um...meet? They're acting like buddies, but...

Okay, the Osterhagen Key is officially a STUPID idea. Really, really stupid. Because yes, there's no way that three people could get ahold of these keys and hold the entire world for nuclear ransom... Oh, the reunion between Davros and Sarah Jane is officially brilliant!!! Strictly speaking, Davros' argument is mere sophistry. Those people all made their own choices, the Doctor's not morally culpable for the actions of every person he meets. Just because he feels bad about their deaths doesn't mean it's his fault.

Why bother with a countdown to the destruction of all existence? (When Davros started laughing, I half expected him to say, "Kidding! Oh, God, Doctor, if you could only see the look on your face! Like I'd destroy all reality just to prove a point...")

The heck?

No, seriously, the heck?

OK, so Donna's part Time Lord and I get that bit, but...why do the Daleks have anti-Dalek systems and neutralizers and everything on their own ship? Honestly, why? Le sigh. I like Donna even less as a Time Lady... Ooh, crazy human Doctor has the cojones to do what full Doctor doesn't. (Again, though, why do the Daleks keep something around that can destroy every single Dalek? Honestly, why?) Davros got awfully self-righteous there at the end, for someone prepared to wipe out all existence from existence.

Oh, and there's K-9. They're really pulling out all the fanservice stops, aren't they? Jackie should get more screen time, dangit. (And I still want to see Pete.) Remarkably gentle ride, for the towing of an entire planet at super-light speeds. (And is it worth complaining that next season, there will still be people who don't believe in aliens?)

This, I think, is what I'm most happy to be rid of. The self-congratulatory tone of the Doctor's triumphs under Davies. It's not just that everyone wins, it's the sort of "woo-hoo, look at us, aren't we brilliant, we saved the world!" bits that get right up my left nostril.

Okay, I missed something...why is the Doctor returning Rose to the parallel universe? Sort of being a tit, isn't he? Okay, they're explaining it, still think it's a bit of a plot kludge to get Rose back out of the series. (I still think "that sentence" ends, "...traveling in the TARDIS made you sterile...sorry.") OK, time for Donna to keel over dead, right? Half Time Lady, half human, all not in the series next year...

So, um...doesn't this mean the ersatz Doctor is going to babble all freaky and then drop dead, right in front of Rose? (And one last, "I'm so sorry," thanks so much...) Ehhh...kind of a cop-out, really. I think the death would have worked better. And let's face it, it's not like Ten can really even get any more emo at this point. Ah, Bernard Cribbins...good to the last moment, really.

Teaser trailer's nice. And let's bid a fond farewell to RTD, and a fond hello to Steven Moffat!

Storytelling Engines: Captain Marvel

(or "Winding It Up Until It Breaks")

The storytelling engine for the classic 60s comic 'Captain Marvel' is surprisingly complex and adult for what's supposedly a kids' comic; even though Marvel was already experimenting with blurring the line between its target audiences, writing comics for more mature readers, 'Captain Marvel' takes the notion further than it usually goes. The "hero", Captain Mar-Vell, is actually a spy for the Kree Empire. He's merely pretending to be a super-hero (as well as a rocket scientist for the government in his secret identity), while he evaluates Earth's threat potential as a preparation to possibly wiping the planet out. He struggles with the complex triple life, trying to deal with his growing attachment to the human race and his loyalties to his own species. And to top it all off, his commanding officer has fallen in love with his girlfriend and is doing everything he can to get Mar-Vell killed. (Oh, yes, and his girlfriend is jealous of a human woman who seems a little too attached to "Captain Marvel".)

This is the sort of material that you could imagine John le Carre or Ian Fleming handling (albeit without the space aliens.) It's tense, filled with moral ambiguity, and features a protagonist who's decidedly not your average square-jawed hero. (Within two issues, he's stolen the identity of a dead man and erased the memory of the one person who could expose his deception.) But in a way, it's almost too exciting; the very tension that powers the drama renders it unsuitable for a long-term storytelling engine.

That's because tension is difficult to sustain over long periods of time. Tension forms from the expectation that something important is about to happen; the longer things go without changing, the harder it is to sustain that expectation. (Hitchcock once described tension as "two men in a room, with a bomb about to go off in five minutes." One would imagine it'd be hard to sustain the tension if the bomb kept getting set back.) Every time Mar-Vell escapes another one of his commander Yon-Rogg's death-traps, it becomes harder to worry about the next one. Every time Mar-Vell avoids treason charges, it becomes harder for the writer to find a way for him to avoid them next time. With each new plot development, it becomes more difficult to sustain the status quo. Every story ratchets up the tension, but it also places stress on the storytelling engine, like winding up a watch until it breaks.

Sure enough, by issue #11, writer Arnold Drake is forced to take a total change in direction. And what a change it is...suddenly, Captain Marvel is the servant of the mysterious cosmic entity known only as Zo, and is sent by Zo to destroy the Kree Empire. This storytelling engine proves to be even less sustainable, and Roy Thomas steps in to put the series on track with a more sedate status quo (one that seems to be a bit of an homage to the original Captain Marvel, Billy Batson, with Rick Jones trading places with Mar-Vell via the plot device of the "nega-bands.") A bit more conventional than the original, edgy tales? Sure, but there's something to be said for an engine that lasts.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Under the Hood: Star Wars, Episode Two

So where were we? Ah, yes. 'Attack of the Clones'. The one title that everyone really hates. Everyone wanted this one to be called 'The Clone Wars', but it doesn't really sound as "Saturday morning serial" as the other five films. Even so, it's a title that doesn't suck, which puts it head and shoulders above the one Lucas used.

We pick up the action a few years after the events of 'The Phantom Menace', on Coruscant. Queen Amidala has come to the Republic's heart to try to find some way out of what seems to be a brewing civil war; although their attempt to seize Naboo failed, the Trade Federation continues to foment unrest throughout the Republic. Although the Queen doesn't want to see chaos spread, she also believes that Chancellor Palpatine's heavy-handed methods are making the situation worse. She's hoping to speak privately to him, and convince him to find common cause with the Separatists.

Her attempt fails almost before it's begun, as her ship is destroyed by a Separatist bomb just moments after she leaves it. Even here, on the Republic homeworld, Separatist threats lurk. The Jedi assign her two old friends to protect her, Obi-Wan Kenobi and his padawan, Anakin Skywalker, both recently returned from an extended peacekeeping mission on the Outer Rim of the galaxy. But Amidala is shocked to find that during the period she's been separated from her friends, Obi-Wan's relationship with Anakin has deteriorated. Obi-Wan is scarcely older than his student, and Anakin has proved to be powerful in the ways of the Force. Anakin challenges his mentor's every decision, and Obi-Wan over-exerts his authority in an attempt to get his student to listen. And far from smoothing things over, Amidala's return makes things worse...Anakin seems to remember all too well that he had a friendly rivalry with Obi-Wan over her affections.

Despite this, the two work together elegantly to stop another attack on her life, this one from an assassin equipped with strange weaponry. He fails in the attempt, but ominously, he manages to hold off two well-trained Jedi and make his escape using a jetpack device unknown to the Republic before now. This new development prompts Chancellor Palpatine to postpone his meeting with the Queen; two attempts on her life in as many days makes it clear that Coruscant is not safe for her. He confers with the Jedi Council, and they agree to send Amidala into hiding, with Anakin as her bodyguard, while Obi-Wan (as the more experienced of the two) tracks down these killers and ensures the Queen's safety on a more permanent level.

Obi-Wan takes the clues (a tiny dart left by the mysterious assailant, and his description of the attacker) to the Jedi Archives, but finds nothing. To all the recorded histories of the Jedi, it is as if the attacker never existed. Frustrated, he turns to the Jedi Spirit Halls, where the Jedi whose physical forms have died rest in spiritual form, dispensing advice to the living Jedi. Sure enough, his old mentor, Qui-Gon Jinn, recognizes the dart as an artifact of the legendary Mandalorian technocrats, a species from the Outer Rim who are experts in every kind of science. But Qui-Gon is puzzled...the Mandalorians have been reclusive for some time, but the Archive should have records of them. It doesn't seem possible, but the Jedi Archives might have been tampered with. This revelation unsettles Obi-Wan more than any mystery assassin could as he sets off for Mandalor.

Meanwhile, Anakin takes Amidala off to the more obscure parts of the Republic. But the assassin follows them everywhere--Anakin does battle with him on the forest world of Yavin, and finds that this mysterious "Boba Fett" is the equal of a Jedi in combat. Anakin hadn't even imagined this to be possible; the Jedi are supposed to be warriors without compare, the elite defence forces of the Republic. A lone Jedi is as great a threat as a company of soldiers...but Boba Fett is as great a threat as a Jedi.

Obi-Wan arrives at Mandalor to find it the center of a convocation of Separatist forces. Pretty much every known Separatist planet has representatives here; Obi-Wan even spots some aliens he had no idea were preparing to defect. Clearly, the Mandalorians are a major part of the conspiracy against the Republic. Obi-Wan sends a signal back to Coruscant, then goes to investigate further. He soon finds that he's not alone; he senses the presence of a familiar Jedi, the aged (but spry) Count...oh, does he have to be called "Dooku"? It really sounds like a Muppet of some sort. Perhaps "Doku", or "Doka." (As with "Jar Jar", we'll stick with the movie name to avoid confusion for now.) In any event, his mentor's mentor, Qui-Gon's teacher. Dooku also discovered the Mandalorians' involvement, and came to this planet to find out what the Mandalorians are providing the Separatists. He may be old, but an old Jedi is a Jedi nonetheless.

Anakin and Amidala have fled further out from Boba Fett's pursuit, out near the Outer Rim (where Anakin and Obi-Wan have just spent the last few years, learning the territory almost as well as a native.) Despite the danger, or perhaps because of it, the two are drawn together and Amidala admits that she missed him more than she's been willing to say. He suggests that maybe, when the danger is over, they could have a real relationship, as man and woman instead of Queen and Jedi...but Amidala doubts it would ever happen. She cannot stop being a queen (because they're not elected...) and his commitment to the Jedi order is not lightly broken. Anakin refuses to give up his dreams, but the conversation remains unfinished as they pick up a signal from a Republic ship, a rarity in this sector of space. The transmission was intended for Coruscant, but it has been partially blocked, its signal strength reduced to the point where it could never have reached the Republic homeworld. (Yeah, one guess as to who it's from. Look one paragraph up.)

Obi-Wan and Dooku continue searching for the Mandalorians' secret, and they find it. Oh, wow do they find it...an entire army of clones, produced on a secret clone factory elsewhere in the Outer Rim, and all equipped with Mandalorian weaponry. Turns out Boba Fett is just the most accomplished Mandalorian warrior, not the only one by far. Obi-Wan tells Dooku that they need to find the location of the Mandalorian cloneworld, or the Republic may be in dire peril. Dooku spins, placing his lightsaber against Obi-Wan's throat. "I know exactly where it is," he says.

Now a captive, Obi-Wan rails against Dooku's betrayal. Dooku explains that the Republic has grown corrupt, that sinister forces have gained play even in its very heart. He believes that Obi-Wan can help, though. If Obi-Wan agrees to become his apprentice, to learn new, secret techniques that Dooku has mastered, perhaps they can together rebuild the Republic as something worth fighting for. Obi-Wan refuses, but Dooku points out that he has nothing but time to consider the offer, now.

Things more or less follow the original movie from here. Anakin and Amidala go to rescue Obi-Wan, and get in over their heads. (No giant Roman gladiatorial arena, though. Just an increasingly desperate series of battles, as Amidala finds out that she's a target due to her symbolic value as Queen of Naboo, where the civil war first began.) Anakin reveals that he called for reinforcements before going to help Obi-Wan, and Jedi show up to save the day. Then the Jedi get in over their heads, and the entire Republic army shows up to save the day. Dooku escapes after a battle with Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Yoda (yes, I'm keeping the Yoda battle; I'm a huge Hong Kong movie fan, and the whole "old master looks frail and feeble but seriously kicks ass" trope is one of my favorites.) The Republic wins a battle, but much of the Separatist army manages to retreat, and no prisoners seem to know the location of the secret cloneworld. The Clone Wars begin.

And back on Coruscant, Dooku lands a secret craft in the heart of the Republic. He confers with Darth Sidious, who calls him "Darth Tyrannus" and compares notes with him on their plan to create a civil war in the Republic. "Soon, the Jedi will fall..." Sidious notes, taking off his hood, "and the dominion of the Sith will be complete." And Dooku smiles as he and Chancellor Palpatine part ways to plot the downfall of a Republic.