Darth Maul and the Hollowness of Death

Entertainment Weekly recently posted an exclusive video that announced the return of Darth Maul to the Star Wars universe.  For those who either missed or refused to watch the prequels, Maul was a Sith Lord—the same kind of baddie as Darth Vader—who used a double-bladed lightsaber.  His first on-screen appearance was in The Phantom Menace in 1999.

In that film, a three-way lightsaber duel ended with Qui-Gon Jinn impaled through the chest and Darth Maul toppling into a deep shaft, deftly cleft in twain by the blade of Obi-Wan Kenobi.  Last January, viewers of the cartoon series Star Wars: The Clone Wars were introduced to Maul’s brother Savage Oppress (pronounced in typical Star Wars ­style as sah-VAHJ OH-press), who was a proposed apprentice to help Count Dooku overthrow his master and take control of the Dark Side of the Force.  At the end of that trilogy of episodes, viewers were told that Darth Maul was out there in the incredibly vague somewhere in the galaxy, and Oppress had to go find him.

So, apparently this means that Darth Maul does indeed live and, by some miracle, survived being cut in half by a lightsaber and falling several stories.  Insert exasperated sigh here.

Supervising director Dave Filoni told Entertainment Weekly that it makes sense in terms of Star Wars lore:

Fans will note that there is precedent for this kind of resurrection. “The Dark Side of the Force is the pathway to many abilities some consider to be…unnatural,” Darth Sidious says in Revenge of the Sith. Sidious and his master found a way to use the Force to cheat death—that’s how he was able to keep Vader alive after that little swan dive into a lava field. Couldn’t Maul have picked up on some of that too? Says Filoni, “He’s suffered through a lot to keep himself alive and implemented the training of his master to do so.”

There’s also significant financial interest for Lucasfilm in this move.  The episode(s) pertaining to Darth Maul will be aired in early 2012, and, by a cosmic coincidence I’m sure, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in 3-D is premiering February 10, 2012.  It goes without saying that I’m annoyed by publicity stunts written into entertainment to drive interest in a related property.  Anyone else remember the martial arts episode of Star Trek: Voyager called “Tsunkatse”?  WWE Wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a guest star, and both WWE and Voyager were on UPN.

This entire mess—and yes, I’m calling it a mess—brings Star Wars into the realm of pointless character resurrections to drive sales.  It also revives the eternal frustrations I have with Star Wars fandom.  Since Maul was by far one of the coolest and most bad-ass characters in the prequel trilogy, the news that he would return to the franchise was understandably received with fan praise.  At the same time, others started to look at how this affects the overall quality of the franchise and aired their opinions.  In response to critical fans, some blogs, including Star Wars Underworld, questioned the “fandom” of people with differing opinions.  While I appreciate a discussion on how they plan to resurrect a character and do it well, it’s certainly not the first time that the Star Wars social media sphere has played the card of questioning how someone can be a fan of something while being critical: the hosts of The ForceCast did it numerous times before I stopped listening to the podcast back in May.

While other subsets of science-fiction and fantasy fandom can somewhat easily accept both positive and negative criticism toward the franchise of their choice, some Star Wars fans tend to follow the line of reasoning that if “you’re not with with us, you’re against us.”  It’s all fun and games until you disagree with Uncle George and refuse to drink the blue milk, and I’ve already seen backlash from refusing to buy the Star Wars Blu-Rays and my decision not to support the 3-D re-releases.  Having intelligent discussions about the positives and negatives of a franchise is one thing, but I cannot support attacking each other for having differing opinions.

The bigger problem I have with this is an issue that has plagued comic book franchises for decades, and that is in the pointless death and resurrection of characters.  In real life, religious beliefs aside, death is pretty permanent.  In storytelling, death is a result of failure, the completion of a heroic journey, or the motivation to start that journey.  In a smaller subset, that death results in a significant change of character dynamics—such as regenerations in Doctor Who, or the evolution of Gandalf in Lord of the Rings or Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars—but those deaths still carry the impact of the end of a journey and how it affects the characters around them.

Simply put, to reverse a death negates that impact and cheapens the victory for the winners.

In The Phantom Menace, Darth Maul’s death marked two important character changes:  First, it displayed Obi-Wan Kenobi’s maturity and readiness to be promoted from apprentice to Jedi Knight; second, it marked the beginnings of Anakin’s destined path.  The death of Darth Maul was a very important turning point for the Jedi themselves, as they discover that the Sith had indeed returned.

While I look forward to finding out how Filoni and company accomplish this feat, I am very skeptical about the Star Wars franchise as a whole at this point.  If Filoni proves me wrong and does this well, I will be quite amazed.  On the other hand, if this turns into yet another cheap comic book return—Superman wasn’t dead, after all, he was just resting—to sell tickets to yet another release of the Star Wars movies, then I’m done with The Clone Wars.  I have supported the show since it was announced, but for me, it would be that damaging, and since George Lucas has final approval on the show, the blame would lie solely with him.

Come 2012, we shall see.

My Thoughts on Lost

One of the American television shows that I heard a ton about but never had time to watch was Lost.  My wife borrowed the season sets from her brother, but only made it as far as season three before life took over.  During that time where we weren’t watching, fan groups and some of my trusted friends were still abuzz about the series, so when the complete series boxset came available after the series finale in 2010, I knew that it was a series that I had to invest in.

For those who don’t know about Lost, this post will involve spoilers.  If you intend on watching the show and want to experience it without knowing what’s coming, you probably want to stop reading and come back afterward.



What is Lost?
Lost was billed as a drama series, and ran on the ABC network from September 22, 2004 to May 23, 2010 over six seasons.  The show is centered on the survivors of the crash of Oceanic 815, a commercial passenger jet traveling between Sydney, Australia and Los Angeles, California.  The crash occurred on a mysterious, unnamed tropical island somewhere in the South Pacific Ocean.  The show was told in episodes that primarily focused on the events on the island, with secondary stories that amplified events in the life of the central character for each episode.  Lost was the brainchild of Jeffrey Lieber, J. J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, and Carlton Cuse.

When I say that Lost was a drama series, that classification is a very generic brush stroke to apply.  On its face, Lost was a character drama, but once I got invested, it was apparent that the show was part-drama, part-science fiction, part-fantasy, part-supernatural, part-hero quest, and part-mythological.  The blessing and the curse of the show was that the mythos brought up a plethora of questions that spanned all six seasons before being answered.  It was both frustrating and intriguing, and that was what I loved about it.

The frustration was amplified by the broad spectrum of cast members.  In the show, of the 324 people on Oceanic 815, 70 people and one dog survived, spread across three sections of the plane.  Season one focused on the survivors of the middle section, predominantly Doctor Jack Shephard, fugitive Kate Austen, con-man James “Sawyer” Ford, heroin-addict rock star Charlie Pace, former Iraqi soldier Sayid Jarrah, paraplegic John Locke, lottery winner Hugo “Hurley” Reyes, construction worker Michael Dawson and his son Walt, Korean couple Sun-Hwa and Jin-Soo Kwon, fueding siblings Boone Carlyle and Shannon Rutherford, and Claire Littleton, who is eight months pregnant.  As the show went on, some characters died, others were introduced—especially after the discovery of the tail section and the people who were on the island before the crash—and links between all of the characters are established from their lives before the show.

What starts as a simple show about people stranded on a desert island starts getting into the science fiction within the first few episodes with the introduction of a monster made entirely of smoke.  Characters also start seeing visions of dead friends and relatives, and eventually discover a mysterious hatch in the middle of the jungle.  Also woven throughout events of the show and the characters lives before the island are The Numbers:  4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42.

As the show went on, we discovered that the survivors were not alone.  First, there is the hostile seemingly primitive group known as The Others.  Second, there are the remnants of the mysterious Dharma Initiative.  Finally, there are the almost otherworldly inhabitants who have a greater purpose on the island.

Why I liked Lost
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a sucker for epic mythology.  Lost had that in spades.

One of the major complaints I heard about the show was that it was a victim of meandering stories that eventually headed in a somewhat decent conclusion, and I think that was a benefit to watching this on the DVDs.  Watching without the waiting between seasons or over writers’ strikes helped me to see this more as a mini-series rather than a six-season series.

Seasons one, two, and three of the show were standard American seasons with 25, 24, and 23 episodes, respectively.  Season four was supposed to have 16 episodes before the Writers Guild of America went on strike, and eventually ended up with 14.  Season five went with 17 episodes, and season six ended the show with 18.  The latter three seasons capitalized on the fact that the showrunners limited themselves to six seasons, particularly after the storylines started to wallow in stagnation in the third season.  The ratings show how the show started to suffer in season three.

Lost had an overarching mythology that, once it finally got assembled, really kept me rolling.  All the talk of The Numbers and Jacob and The Man in Black really came to a head for me with the eighth episode of the last season, when the show finally explained why everything was so important.  Sure, The Numbers were retconned in to correspond with the remaining survivors of Oceanic 815 who were potential candidates to replace Jacob, the guardian of the island and protector of the world, but I didn’t care because it made sense to me.  Jacob was a man who was forced into a sacred role and immortality without a choice, and a mistake he made in the nascent days of his role unleashed a great evil that had one goal:  to take over the world.  To get there, the evil Man in Black has to kill his brother, which he cannot do directly.  The rest of it, from the button that has to be pushed every 108 minutes to prevent the destruction of the island to the quest to control the energy at the heart of the island speaks to me as the folly of man.

While a great deal of the show’s events relied on destiny and fate, that’s what myths depend on as well.  Epic fantasy and science fiction, driven by powers outside the control on man, be it God, the Force, or whatever you want to call it, depends greatly on the possibility that certain things are destined to occur.  In Lost, the candidates were destined to arrive and be tested on the island, and they were selected not because they were strong or smart, but because they were flawed.  Only a flawed person, one who recognized and was willing to improve their shortcomings, could fill the role of protecting the island.  More so, Jacob wanted his successor to choose to be the protector, not be pushed into it.  Jack chose to take the responsibility directly, and Hurley chose indirectly by his continuous empathy and caring for his fellow survivors.  Jack continually jockeyed for the leadership position with Sawyer and Locke, but everybody truly loved Hurley, and relied on him for support.

Religion and faith also played a major role from day one in the show, and I had no problem with the final resolution of the “sideways” storyline being nothing more than a waiting room for the Oceanic survivors before moving on to whatever lies beyond this life.  Simply put, it was a method for each person to resolve any unfinished emotional business in their lives and remember the most important thing they did in the living world.  Watching all of these people, who had fought each other while struggling to survive, come together with a common goal in mind moved me, and I thought the intent was beautiful.

But the thing that moved me even more was the poetic ending for Jack.  He ended his journey exactly where he started it, and I bawled like a baby when he collapsed on the ground and Vincent—the dog who always had a knack for progressing the storyline when it needed a motivational kick—laid down next to Jack to ensure his last moments were not spent alone.  I’m getting weepy even now as I put these words to the page.  When a television show or a movie has the power to move me to tears, it takes a special place in my life.  I can count on one hand the media that has accomplished that.

That was the effect that Lost had on me.  It wasn’t just a drama series about survivors on an island with sci-fi and fantasy elements tossed in.  When I partake of any story, but in particular science fiction, I look for how it applies to the human condition.  Science fiction has always been an examination of the human condition by use of metaphor, and Lost did that.  Each character was three-dimensional in my eyes, and character motivations were, for the most part, genuine.  What solidified the characters for me was not only that genuine flavor, but the fact that they could evolve in believable ways as the plot progressed.

I know that the writing wasn’t always stable, and that there were problems with retroactively adding new characters into old situations as if they’d always been there, but for me, what I gained from experiencing the series far outweighs those minor quibbles.
Lost is a series I will go back to again in its entirety, and is a series that I feel has made a profound impact on my life.


Ratings graphic sourced from Wikipedia, © www.mysona.dk.  Image is used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike Unported 3.0 License.
Lost title card image is copyright ABC, intended for use under terms of Fair Use for review of the series.

Phoenix Rising: In Which Tee and Pip Are My First Steampunk

Imagine the gritty world of Blade Runner, with all of its fantasy and science and punk vision of society. Now change the setting from a future Los Angeles to Victorian-era England.  Now take the replicants and hovercars and weaponry and imagine if they were all powered by pressurized steam instead of electrons.

That’s the way I’ve been able to understand the subgenre of steampunk.

I’ve been curious for some time about the allure of this science-fiction/fantasy subgenre, from buzzing on the internet to the plethora of costumes at events like Dragon*Con. When authors and podcasting giants Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris released their new novel, Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences: Phoenix Rising, I decided to take the plunge into the world of cogs, corsets, and airships.

The story itself is rather simple and linear, but that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s quite refreshing for what is essentially a spy novel, complete with action, suspense, and a hearty degree of intellect. Modern espionage tales try to layer double-crosses and intrigue to the point that all those plot twists shroud the very essence of the plot. I never felt that Phoenix Rising was trying to mislead me or confuse me at any point.

The tale focuses on our two heroes, Wellington Books and Eliza Braun, both secret agents in a clandestine branch of the Monarchy that investigates the peculiar, be it the occult or the supernatural. I thought of it as Indiana Jones and the Torchwood Institute combined with Her Majesty’s Secret Service from the James Bond series.

Agent Books is the embodiment of Q, a master of gadgets and gizmos, working as a librarian—pardon me, Archivist—in the bowels of the Ministry. Agent Books doesn’t seek action or adventure because he finds it in the case files he meticulously organizes like clockwork, nine to five, Monday through Friday. He’s prim and proper head-to-toe, armed with a dry wit, and sips a lot of tea. On the surface, Wellington Books is a rather boring guy.

Books is balanced with the spirited Agent Braun from New Zealand, who is the James Bond of the story. Quite honestly, she starts the story as more of a Daniel Craig than a Sean Connery. She goes into action like she’s a one woman wrecking crew, armed to the teeth while wearing a bulletproof corset, and takes no prisoners. She loves her drinks and loves her job, but she’s scarred by the loss of her former partner and her methods get her in trouble with her boss.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the Crown’s fate rests in the hands of a renegade and a librarian.

The story revolves around a secret society that threatens the sanctity of the Empire. Eliza has firsthand knowledge of the case because it was what drove her former partner—with whom she was incredibly close—to become a permanent resident in the local asylum. After her scolding for the events of the first chapter, she’s relegated to the less action-packed Archives to learn about the other side of the Ministry from Agent Books. While there, she discovers that the case that claimed her partner is still unsolved and that both she and Books are linked to the happenings. The plot elegantly progresses from there.

The story shifts into high gear from the very beginning and stays there for 400 pages. Tee and Pip swap chapters, bouncing points-of-view from Books to Braun while including very deep character development and growth. The story is also presented in more of the proper British English format, keeping the U in “flavour” and really immersing readers in the Victorian setting. It also keeps the reader in the same mindset as the protagonists, discovering each clue as they do. The only breaks from that formula are the short chapters that expand on the antagonists and their shadowy machinations. These interludes also lay down hints and threads for potential sequels, which are rumored to be in production now.

For my first foray into steampunk, I’m very impressed. I’ll definitely be picking up the sequels as they arrive.

Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences: Phoenix Rising is available in bookstores everywhere in both physical and digital formats. This review is based on a personally-purchased copy.

Star Wars Fandom and The ForceCast

The debate over the Star Wars Expanded Universe is a tale of us versus them that’s been raging for some time, but only recently has it exploded within fandom. The Expanded Universe (EU) matters greatly to me for reasons I’ve previously discussed, but in particular because the novels were my major gateway into Star Wars fandom. Unfortunately, that segment of my fandom has fallen under attack from people I trusted.

The ForceCast has become the podcast where there is no fan left behind unless they disagree with your particular version of fandom, in which case they will publicly mock and shame you on their program.

That’s why I have no choice but to stop listening.

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The Glory of Being a Nerd

Last week, podcaster and Chicago radio producer Jimmy Mac covered the topic of being called a nerd on The ForceCast. His position was that the term nerd is derogatory and shouldn’t be used to describe fans of Star Wars. I couldn’t disagree more.

The crowd at Wikipedia have defined “nerd” as “a term that refers to a social perception of a person who avidly pursues intellectual activities, technical or scientific endeavors, esoteric knowledge, or other obscure interests, rather than engaging in more social or conventional activities.” That got me thinking. Based on that, why shouldn’t we embrace the term nerd?

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Religion in Science-Fiction

Tiffany Vogt at Airlock Alpha recently asked, “Is Religion Killing Good Sci-Fi Shows?”  In her article, she uses three recent series – Lost, Caprica, and the Battlestar Galactica reboot – to prove her point. Now, before I go too much further, I have to admit that I haven’t watched Lost beyond the first season, although I do have the complete series set waiting on me to dive in. I also haven’t had the chance to watch Caprica beyond the pilot, although I do hear mixed reviews from friends.

But, from my experiences with Battlestar Galactica, from the 1979 and recent versions, along with entertainment like Quantum Leap, the Stargate franchise, Star Wars, and Star Trek, I have to argue no. The first thing we have to do is eliminate the “us vs. them” concept of religion and science-fiction. The important part isn’t the gadgets or technology, it’s the story. That’s what religion is based on, isn’t it? Read any holy text and you’ll find it chock full of parables with a lesson attached, much like Aesop’s Fables. Even the trope of preachers delivering the typical fire and brimstone sermon focuses on telling a tale and learning a lesson from it.

So what is science-fiction? It’s the same thing: A story with an embedded lesson or speculation on a topic with a setting different than ours. Star Wars has a mythic story arc based around the Hero’s Journey with a focus on the mystical Force, which may or may not be religious in nature. Did the element of the Force ruin Star Wars? No, it didn’t, and most detractors argue that the series wasn’t harmed until 1999 when George Lucas tried to put a scientific spin on it.

Here comes the counter-argument: Star Wars didn’t tell a story without the Force and then tack it on at the end as a convenient way out of the plot. Fine. What about Quantum Leap?

Quantum Leap tackled this overall concept by changing the setting every episode for five years, while skirting the core issue of whether it was God, Fate, Time, or a botched science experiment that was responsible for bouncing Sam back and forth within his lifetime. The only real matter was that Sam was putting right what once went wrong, and the concept of potential religious ties came second. It only really came to a head in the finale when Sam came face-to-face with what may or may not have been God, who told him the truth about his Leaping. What that a cop-out? I don’t think so at all. First, it was supposed to be a turning point for the series, leading to a sixth season with harder trials for Sam without a guide. Second, as a finale, it works because Sam finally confronts what’s been happening over the last five years and grows from the experience. He gained the confidence to take on the extra challenge that lay ahead of him, whether we saw it on screen or not.

Battlestar Galactica in its original form made no claims to be anything but a show based on religion. Every episode made reference to gods and faith; entire episodes were based around the Colonials battling an incarnation of the Devil and interacting with Beings of Light with god-like powers. The quest for Earth was based on divine prophecies and guided by the Lords of Kobol. The reboot may have been rooted deeper in scientific storytelling, but it did not refute the genesis of the story. Characters on both sides of the conflict prayed to deities and talked about faith. Roslin had drug-induced hallucinations that showed the Colonials and Cylons the path to Earth, and even if the quest was undertaken as a hollow pursuit, it became a voyage of exploration for the psyches of each character. Some characters gave up along the way, some tried to use failures and setbacks as tools for personal gain, and some, like Admiral Adama, discovered potentials that they did not know existed. Even the concept of “what has happened before will happen again” is based in mythological roots of destiny and fate that reach back beyond the religions of Ancient Greece.

Star Trek, which has always shunned religion, even took a stab at religion in a seven-year arc with Deep Space Nine, which I argue is the best of the franchise. I can’t forget the religious threads of Babylon 5, either, but having only seen the series once, I can’t comfortably explore that territory.

I think that most modern views on science fiction are built around the staples of Trek and Stargate, which have inflicted considerable and irrefutable damage with numerous stories of persons with godlike powers who are evil or corrupted, and I believe that to be one of the longest tentpoles in the “us vs them” philosophy.

Religion is, at its base, a mythology. Faith is man-made creation, built around believing in that mythology and adapting it to everyday life. Science-fiction, part of the larger genre of speculative fiction, is a mythology, whether it tells of trips through a portal that takes you to a different planet or a quest based on faith. I can’t speak for Lost, but Galactica has always been an exploration of the human condition through the strength of faith, and I don’t believe that following that exploration to Ronald Moore’s conclusion ruined the journey.

We’re not talking about proving the existence of God here, but rather the basis of sci-fi which was exploring new fantastic frontiers with the power of human ingenuity. I, for one, want to see more science-fiction that goes back to the human condition, which includes faith and religion. Removing faith and religion only serves to strip an aspect from humanity that feeds into everyday decisions, and an exploration of that result ignores crucial motivations. Faith and religion need to be a core element in explorations of human nature because they are a core element in each man, woman, and child, even if they don’t believe in a higher power.

We can’t ignore the science in science-fiction, that’s true, but not every human being is motivated purely by science, and I refuse to believe that the answers to the speculation will all immediately come from science. The religious belief that Earth was the center of the universe motivated scientists to prove it otherwise. The same stands true in part for scientists seeking life on other planets or exploring the mysteries of evolution. Religion and faith are powerful motivators and cannot be ignored or cast aside.

Books like Contact, a well-regarded science-fiction story written by a scientist, have made me realize that neither brute force method of science or religion have all the answers to the questions about humanity. I believe that an exploration based in logical reasoning with an open mind and a faith that not all the mysteries have readily observable answers will reveal more than either approach would by itself. After all, theological exploration by the main character in Carl Sagan’s only fictional work didn’t destroy the story. It made the story complete.

They’re Conspiring, Aren’t They?

I swear that author Keith R. A. DeCandido and his fellow Star Trek authors are conspiring against me.  A long time ago, I used to collect a great deal of genre goods, including action figures, video games, music, and books.  It’s to the point now that I’m paring down my collections.  Part of that is finally reading those books and casting out the ones I don’t enjoy or will likely never read again.  Don’t worry, Keith, I haven’t jettisoned one of yours yet.

So, what does he do?  Over Labor Day, whilst I’m away, he publishes a post on his LiveJournal account by fellow writer David Ward explaining how Star Trek: Vanguard is one of the best Trek series in a long while, including mention that it’s more gritty and realistic than the rest of the franchise’s novels.

I already had the post-Nemesis books in the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager series to look for.  Now I have another series to read as well.  Insert overly-hyperbolic but no less dramatic sigh here.

No, in all seriousness, thank you for continuing to add some much needed depth to the Trek tie-in novels.  There are some true jewels in the ranks, but a lot of your predecessors didn’t quite speak to me in the same language as the on-screen characters.  If we’re getting some great work — as I’m sure we are — then I may have no choice but to tune back in for the continuing adventures.