The Dark Tower Book 1: The Gunslinger

Overview

This year I made a commitment to pick a fantasy series and read my way through to the end. I would like to do this every year in my attempt to fill the hole left by the currently unfinished Song of Ice and Fire. The only criterion for this goal is that 1) the series must be finished (the main series, not peripheral stories), and 2) it must be a series I have never finished reading. There are quite a few fantasy series that I have started but not finished, for one reason or another (lack of time, apathy, the series was on-going). So, I decided that the inaugural series would be Stephen King’s The Dark Tower.

I have read the first three books in this series (The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, and The Waste Lands) before. In fact, the first time I read them, book four (The Wizard and Glass) had just come out. I tried again a few years later, and stalled out after book three once again. I have always enjoyed The Dark Tower in concept, but not always in execution. But these previous readings had occurred at very different times in my life when I have had very different tastes. The major difference between then and now is that I have come to have great respect for Stephen King as a writer. I do hope to complete my King Reads King goal to read (if not read AND write about) every Stephen King book. In my time working through his bibliography, I have loved Salem’s Lot and The Shining; I have immensely enjoyed 11/22/63 and much of The Stand. And there are a few books that I thought were middling or in the fine-but-not-for-me category. Admittedly, I haven’t read very far in his oeuvre yet. But, it seemed time for The Dark Tower, and I looked forward to seeing how I felt about the book this time. The Gunslinger is a collection of short stories about Roland Deschain’s pursuit of The Man in Black. Roland is a gunslinger, a type of knight in this world that has moved on and may very well be dying. The Man in Black is an evil wizard, and Roland pursues him much as Harmonica Man pursued Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West. But, when this inevitable meeting finally happens, Roland discovers a bigger, deeper mystery that will shape his destiny. In the past, I haven’t enjoyed every story in this collection. They seemed to decrease as they went along, for my younger self. But again, I have grown to appreciate King more, and I eagerly anticipated my reaction as I once more entered Mid-World and Roland’s dying world.

Personal Enjoyment: 4

I can’t tell you how many times I almost gave up reading this book. Interestingly, “The Slow Mutants” and “The Gunslinger and the Man in Black” were my favorite chapters in this read through. In the past, they were my last on my ranking of the chapters. My interest in the stories seemed strongly connected to how much The Man in Black appeared. I found him far more interesting than Roland or Jake. His control and manipulation of Roland was far more interesting than Roland’s need for revenge. My wife challenged me to at the very least get through book four this time. But I wasn’t sure I could get through this one. I did, however, and I enjoyed the final story so much that I was looking forward to The Drawing of the Three, so kudos to King for turning things around in the end. But the stories in this book would, I think, look great on film (if done well), so maybe the upcoming movie will work better for me. Oddly, in the past I would have said this was my favorite of the Dark Tower books. I’m not sure that bodes well for the rest of this journey, but we shall see. For the time being, I am staying with this journey.

Characters:  7

I’m not going high on this one because there are few characters, and they aren’t quite up to King’s standards. None of the characters in this story are typical for him, though. He’s taking a risk and stretching himself, which I can’t fault him for. But, as stated before, I didn’t connect to any of the leads outside of the Man in Black. He was the most interesting to me. But, as I recall, Roland will get more character to play off of in the next book, and all of them fit more firmly into King’s wheelhouse. I’m holding out hope that I just started in a lull or in the wrong mood.

Story:  7

I’m giving this a seven because, while it isn’t bad, it doesn’t currently do much. As stated before, this is a typical Western revenge story with some setting twists thrown in. And these twists are interesting. But King walks a precarious line here between Western and fantasy. The first story falls firmly in Western, but starting with “The Way Station” it starts to meander into fantasy. This meandering wasn’t quite what I was going for, despite knowing it was coming. I think the cowboy-confronting-his-nemesis trope broke apart because of that meandering, and the genre mixing loses a bit of focus. Roland becomes less a gunslinger than just a man from an elite order than uses guns. The story moves from Western to post-apocalyptic, even though it is the apocalypse of a world similar to, but not quite, ours. It doesn’t quite work for me in this read through.

Setting: 8

I’m almost surprised by the higher score here, but despite the unfocused genre bending, King builds his world well. It is intriguing, especially as Roland wanders through the remains of what was. The flashbacks don’t quite work for me, because I imagine European-based high fantasy with gunslingers, but I totally buy the image of a gunslinger walking through an apocalyptic wasteland. It fits because of the desolation of both the West and the apocalypse. Fantasy is often less desolate (though, as with G. R. R. Martin, it can be bleak). But empty landscapes where, after days of seeing no one, you see a stranger on the horizon, and you don’t know if this person is friendly or not, naturally falls into both Western and apocalypse. It is the breakdown of social order; it is the rule of the gun in a world of limited resources. It is heat and sand and mirage. As I recall from previous readings, The Waste Lands leans heavily on this, and I think it could potentially work better for me. But the places where we moved from Western to Fantasy just didn’t work for me this time. But the ground work is set, and I think King can (and does) build upon what he set up here.

Vision: 7

What was it trying to do?

I think The Gunslinger was trying to pay homage to Westerns (specifically those by Leone) while delving into fantasy and horror to put a new twist on the genre.

Was it successful in doing it?

Not for me, no. Again, Western + apocalypse works for me. Western + high fantasy, not so much.

Was this worth doing?

Absolutely, yes.

To Sum Up

The Gunslinger was an ambitious start. I’m not sure I think the younger Stephen King was up to the challenge quite yet, nor do I think the ideas had solidly manifested by this point. I think this story took greater form as time went on, and I would argue this point because he was compelled to lightly update the book to match where the series eventually went. There are certainly good ideas here, and there are some very good passages. But each time I visit this book, I like it less and less. But I look forward to The Drawing of the Three, oddly, because I think King stuck the landing with The Gunslinger. He ended the book on a high note that made me want to read more, and in the end, that is a type of success.

Final Rating: 6.6/10

Star Wars: Tarkin

Overview

Tarkin is written by James Luceno, an author who has written quite a few Star Wars novels in the latter half of the Legends era. I’ve only read one other of his Star Wars novels: Cloak of Deception. I thought his portrayal of Palpatine’s political machinations was fascinating, but I didn’t engage much with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan’s mission to take out a pirate organization. I was eager to see how Luceno approached the new canon. I know his books are very popular among fans, and having a Legends author in the fold lends some strong credibility and acceptance to the new canon.

star-wars-tarkin-cover
The cover for Star Wars: Tarkin

Character:   8

The leads were excellent. First up is, obviously, Wilhuff Tarkin, the Moff who appeared in one Star Wars movie, yet had enough authority to give Vader commands. Luceno does a good job of exploring Tarkin’s past and how it shaped him, not just military events but family ideology. Tarkin is an unpleasant character in A New Hope. He is cold and unflappable. Luceno provides a background that makes that coldness believable. I completely buy that the man in this novel is the same as the man in A New Hope. Likewise, Darth Vader is an interesting character, though he seems to be in a type of transition. He is used to working alone to get things done, but that isn’t how an Empire works. From a certain point of view, this novel is also about providing Vader with an equal, not in the Force but in ruthless competency. This is a tall challenge, since the Force is undeniably powerful and can dominate just about anyone. For Tarkin, however, the Force is just a tool that some people have access to and others do not. He isn’t in awe of the Force. He has seen how the Force doesn’t automatically make Jedi better than others. He has personally proven that drive and determination more than make up for the Force in some circumstances.

The lead characters are rounded out by Emperor Palpatine, who is putting both Tarkin and Vader to the test to root out power-hungry Imperials who are overstepping their bounds, and Teller, leader of a band of resistance fighters. Teller and his crew were, to me, the weakest of the cast. I rarely remembered who was who and never much cared reading about them.

Story: 8

Tarkin begins with an attack on one of the outposts that Moff Tarkin oversees, and his success in repelling the attack leads him to consult on what might be the beginning of a resistance movement. Tarkin and Vader are sent by Palpatine to investigate intelligence to that effect. Vader initially resents having a partner, but the two grow to respect one another’s abilities. The situation is made worse, however, as Tarkin’s private ship, the Carrion Spike, is stolen by the resistance group. Being a top-of-the-line ship, the Spike is extremely valuable for guerilla attacks. Tarkin and Vader must get the ship back and cut the resistance movement off before it grows.

The “present day” narrative is intercut with scenes from Tarkin’s youth when he learned his family’s legacy, the path to gaining respect despite being from the Outer Rim, how to survive in the wild and to hunt dangerous predators. Luceno fleshes out Tarkin’s character so thoroughly that he is a completely believable villain shaped by the influences of his life. While it is occasionally nice to see villains with redeeming qualities, in the case of Tarkin, his life led him to be so single-minded that if you don’t share his ideology, you are insignificant and weak. Props to Luceno for making this work. My only real complaint about the story is the occasional dry bits with the resistance group. I also felt that at times the plot was not complex enough for the page count. If I had engaged more with all the characters, however, I doubt I would have felt this way.

Vision: 9

What was it trying to do?

Help us understand Tarkin and to show the working relationship of Tarkin and Vader, as well as why Tarkin was valuable to the Empire

Was it successful in doing it?

Without a doubt, it was successful.

Relevance to Canon?

This novel certainly adds depth to Tarkin’s character, and I think it even adds to A New Hope. And when Tarkin showed up on Rebels not long after this novel was published, there was added weight.

Personal Enjoyment: 7

I never got tired of reading it, but I didn’t often think “Oh, I should read Tarkin!” As mentioned earlier, the scenes with the resistance fighters didn’t do much for me. I enjoyed the conversations between Vader and Tarkin, I enjoyed young Tarkin’s trials on Belderone, and I enjoyed Palpatine’s attempts to root out deception among his inner circle. While this comprised the majority of the novel, the sections with the resistance and some of Tarkin’s early military victories weren’t to my tastes. And I’ll admit, I generally don’t care for space battles on the page. Only a handful of Star Wars authors have been able to keep me engaged during space battles (Zahn, Stackpole, Allston). Luceno is not currently on that list. That said, however, the lead character is where this book shines, and it is worth the read if you are interested in what made this particular man.

Style/Craft: 8

Luceno’s style is strong, but there are quite a few places where it is also dry. There are pages and pages of space battle tactics and espionage. Some writers make these elements work for me, and I’m sad to say Luceno isn’t one of them. However, this doesn’t mean he is a poor writer. Far from it. His prose is strong and effective. He has a distinct style, but based on the two novels I’ve read, that style doesn’t seem to have much room for humor. Granted, I wouldn’t expect much humor from Tarkin, so I don’t hold that against him here, but I’m curious to see how he handles characters who are more sarcastic or light, a Han Solo or Lando Calrissian, or how he handles C-3PO and R2-D2’s banter. Most of his novels, however, seem to deal with darker fare, so I’ll keep that in mind as I investigate him further. I admit that I am intrigued, and one day I hope to read more of his Legends work.

Final Rating: 8/10

Star Wars: A New Dawn

Overview

Star Wars: A New Dawn is the first novel released in the new Star Wars canon. When Disney acquired the Star Wars property, they decided to wipe the canon clean, leaving just the movies and the Clone Wars animated series. All the novels, comics, and video games were officially relegated to a “Legends” status. These were never officially a part of the Star Wars canon, but they existed in an “as good as” state. However, in an effort to streamline the continuity, Disney instituted the Star Wars Story Group, which now oversees all story content, from movies and television to novels and comics. Everything novel written since Star Wars: New Dawn is now canon

A New Dawn is written by John Jackson Miller, who wrote the Obi Wan novel and the Knights of the Old Republic comic, both of which are now part of the Legends continuity. A New Dawn tells the story of how Kenan and Hera, two characters from the Rebels animated series, first met. When I read the novel, I had not yet seen Rebels, so I went in to the story without any knowledge of who these two characters were.

star-wars-A-New-Dawn-cover
Star Wars: A New Dawn cover

Character: 7

This is a bit retrospect, but now that I’ve seen Rebels, I think Hera and Kenan were handled well. Since this takes place prior to that series, Kenan is a quite rough around the edges and trying to lay low since he was being trained as a Jedi before Order 66. He tries to avoid using the Force, but his Jedi training tugs at him. It is hard to lay low when your previous ideology (one that you have to hide out of necessity) compels you to fight injustice and help those in need. He is initially drawn to Hera because she is attractive. Hera eventually sees Kenan’s potential as a fighter, but she is resistant to his advances. She has a mission, and Hera is focused. Having seen the first season of Rebels, this fits quite well. These are the early days of the Rebel Alliance . . . so early that there really isn’t an alliance per se. There are disorganized resistance groups, one of which Hera is connected to, but we get few details beyond that.

There are two villains in the story: Captain Sloane, an Imperial captain who hopes to command her own Star Destroyer, and Count Vidian, an efficiency specialist who is ambitious and willing to do whatever it takes to make his rivals for the Emperor’s favor look bad—even if that means sacrificing human lives. Sloane is an interesting character. She gets her promotion after Vidian kills her commanding officer, but she then has to walk a dangerous path as Vidian is unpredictable and prone to outbursts. As for Vidian, I didn’t care for him as a villain. He seemed too stock for me, lacking nuance or any potentially redeeming characteristics. I suppose you could say, “Hey, this is Star Wars. It usually deals in black and white. It’s space opera, and you want nuance?” But this is also a novel, and it gives writers the opportunity to delve deeper into character and motivation. Vidian is just your typical evil character. He has no regard for human life, which in itself could be interesting if more was made of it and how he came to view life this way. He is part machine and he is prone to outbursts. Sounds familiar.

The cast is rounded out with Skelly, a miner turned terrorist, and Zaluna, an Imperial intelligence operative who monitors recordings and transmissions. They work well enough.

Story: 7

The story was a fairly typical Star Wars type story: rag-tag band of rebels, some less eager than others, who team up to take down the Empire. Though, in this case, it is just one Imperial operation run by a cybernetic madman. There are some stabs at social commentary, but the novel seems mainly focused on setting up Rebels (which had not debuted at publication), portraying the early days of the Empire when it is still consolidating and building power, and showing the infancy of the rebellion.

Vision: 8

What was it trying to do?

Again, set up Rebels, portray the rising power of the Empire and the early days of the rebellion. There’s not really much more than this.

Was it successful in doing it?

All-in-all, yes. We see the competition between power-players in the Empire. We see the desperation of ordinary people on the ground and the determination of people who would likely be instrumental in starting the Rebel Alliance.

Relevance to New Canon?

This novel fills in some of the time between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. You don’t need the story to enjoy the existing Star Wars movies, nor do you really need it to enjoy Rebels. I don’t think my understanding of any of the characters was affected by anything in this novel.

Personal Enjoyment: 6

My favorite part of the novel is after Kenan, Hera, Skelly, and Zaluna capture a transport bus. Zaluna realizes they need to deactivate the surveillance equipment in the bus. When questioned why a bus would have such equipment, Zaluna says that it wasn’t initially for spycraft. It was installed for advertising purposes, analyzing workers and what they liked to eat and drink, which would in turn be used to personalize advertising. When the business folded and the Empire rose, the equipment was put to different uses. I thought this was a clever bit of commentary given the constant monitoring that occurs online and the algorithms that track our online viewing and purchases to customize ads. The infrastructure is there.

Other than this section, however, I never really lost myself in the book. I was rarely engaged. I enjoyed Kenan but wasn’t very interested when he was not part of the narrative. I think I would have enjoyed this story as a comic book, but as a novel it was largely a miss for me. I don’t think it was a waste of time and money, but it isn’t one I will revisit unless I do a canon read-through, which I may well be nerdy enough to do one day.

Style/Craft: 8

As stated before, I think this would have been an excellent story for a comic book. I think some of the characterization would have worked better in comic form. (Not that comics need lack character depth; sometimes the art makes up for what the words don’t convey.) As a novel, it is fine. Jackson’s prose is good for the story he is telling, but I think I would have liked something a bit more gripping. Or a different medium entirely.

Final Rating: 7.2/10

Star Wars Canon Thoughts and Rambles

When Disney announced that the Star Wars Expanded Universe had been rebranded as the Legends line and that a new, official Star Wars canon would replace it, I was a bit sad but overall, I was excited. While the Expanded Universe held a lot of great memories for me, it was never officially canon, and I was excited to see what a streamlined, considered canon would look like. I remember the early days of the EU, when Timothy Zahn had completed his trilogy, Dark Horse comics had Dark Empire and Tales of the Jedi under their belt, and new novels were being announced (Truce at Bakura and The Courtship of Princess Leia). But the EU was being created one piece at a time. There were early continuity issues with Dark Empire and Heir to the Empire. Both were great stories, but Heir showed the New Republic established on Coruscant and Leia was pregnant with twins while Dark Empire showed the Battle of Coruscant and Leia pregnant with a third Solo child. The workaround was the DE took place after the Thrawn Trilogy, after the Empire attempted to retake Coruscant, but this never seemed that satisfying to me. It was obvious that DE was intended to be the continuation from Return of the Jedi, but Heir beat it to release, and both happened to be good enough that whoever decides things wanted both of them to be in continuity. And they deserved it, but there were definitely bumps to smooth out. And Kevin J. Anderson seemed very interested in attempting to do so, weaving as many continuity references into his work as he could.

In the lead up to the prequels, however, the quality of Star Wars stories varied greatly (for me), and there was quite a bit of uncertainty about how the prequels would affect the EU. George Lucas could do whatever he wanted with his creation, and if he wrote something that contradicted the EU, his vision stood (though how to reconcile his contradictions with himself is still a bit of an issue). A systematic categorization system was eventually developed by fans. This system involved multiple layers of canonicity, and it was quite complex and existed before the term “head canon” came into play. There were general attempts to create a comprehensive EU, but there wasn’t really an overriding vision until pretty late in the game, at which point we got the New Jedi Order, Legacy of the Force, and Fate of the Jedi. Dark Horse Comics had their own successful run at the time with Knights of the Old Republic, Dark Times, and Legacy. In general, the novels and comics didn’t attempt to cross-pollinate creatively, and they usually focused on their own mini-eras. This could still lead to contradiction, but by focusing on specific time periods, they didn’t need to worry too much about stepping on each others’ toes in a continuity sense.

I had pretty much stopped following Star Wars at that point. The prequels devastated my already waning interest. I dipped back in on occasion and was generally satisfied with what I read, though there were as many misses as there were hits. And any time Timothy Zahn wrote something, I had to read it.

All this to say, I sympathize with and completely understand why Disney would wipe the slate clean. As much as I would like Zahn’s work to stay firmly in continuity, the EU audience is still technically niche. For the most part, we will follow Star Wars in whatever form we get it. And speaking personally, I’m a huge fan of Doctor Who, so continuity issues are irritating but they don’t break the experience for me. But the idea of having an official canon that weaves through movies, TV, comics, and books is kind of exciting. My only real concern is that this official status puts more weight on individual pieces. Before, a boring or disliked book could be ignored because it wasn’t technically official. Now, it is official, whether we like it or not. And every work feels, to me, like it needs to contribute something worthy to the canon. There is a feeling that each work now has to justify its own existence because of its elevated, canonical status.

That’s how it feels, at any rate. In reality, it doesn’t really matter that much. There are good stories and there are bad stories and there are stories that fall all over the spectrum inbetween. Despite official canon, we can still pick and choose our head canon (even across the official and Legends lines, though there will now definitely be contradictions). And despite an official canon, I’m still very interested in reading through the Legends line. In fact, knowing that the Legends line has a definitive ending is encouraging. It is like knowing you can get a complete run of a comic series.

I had been thinking about blogging through the Legends line. I’ve also thought about blogging through the new canon line. In reality, I may do both, but not with any regular pace. Life and work are extremely busy right now, and sometimes I can’t stand to be in front of a computer screen for reading/writing purposes when I get home. And with the way finances are at the moment (good, but recovering from my last couple of semesters of college), I won’t be keeping up with Star Wars canonical books and comics as they come out. I prefer Star Wars books in paperback for some reason, and comics are beyond my budget at the moment. But hopefully I’ll be able to catch up to the SW canon paperbacks soon. I’ve actually read New Dawn, Tarkin, and Heir to the Jedi. The urge to blog about them continues to nag at the fringes of my mind. Now that I’ve come up with a new review format, the chances of me taking the time to move forward on this project are more likely. I need this creative outlet. So if you are willing to read, I’ll work on finding the time and mental energy to write.

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

This review contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The overview is largely spoiler-free if you have been following the general media surrounding the movie, but the section where I start breaking down specific aspects of the film (character, story, vision, personal enjoyment, and style) I go into spoiler heavy territory.

swtfa poster

Overview

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the seventh movie in the main Star Wars saga. It takes place 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi and introduces us to new characters who become our entry point to reconnecting with the characters from the original Star Wars trilogy as well as giving us glimpses into what has happened since we last saw those characters.

Sadly, they did not live happily ever after. The Empire was not completely defeated at the Battle of Endor, and the Imperial remnant has come together as a unified group called The First Order. They are led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the latter is a dark figure who can use the Force and wields a lightsaber.

Our heroes are the newly introduced Rey, a young scavenger from the desert planet Jakku; Fin, an ex-First Order Stormtrooper; Poe, a cocky but gifted Resistance pilot; and many of the characters we know and love from the original trilogy.

The Force Awakens is the first Star Wars film released under Disney, who acquired the rights from George Lucas for a hefty $4 billion. And so far, this purchase is paying off quite well. As of this morning (Sunday), The Force Awakens is sitting at a weekend gross of over $230 million. It’s likely that it will remain in the number one slot at the box office through the next three weeks. I wouldn’t be surprised if it hits six weeks. This film was highly anticipated, and it has already been received well by Star Wars fans and general audiences alike.

I would have loved to watch the movie a second time before this review. General impressions are usually not indicative of where I will eventually fall with regard to a movie. Some films I’ve loved on my first viewing but grew to dislike with each subsequent view. Others took years before I grew fond of them because something kept bringing me back, and I had to keep watching to figure out just what it was that caught me. The Force Awakens is somewhere in the middle for me. It was a great ride and a compelling watch, but I had an inkling of disappointment, and in the end, the movie left me slightly unsatisfied, though still excited to see the next chapter. With The Force Awakens, J. J. Abrams has put all the pieces into play, setting up Rian Johnson to deliver what I hope will be a big, visionary, and original episode VIII.

Below is a new review system (for me) in which I break down various aspects of the movie. I hope to continue refining this system as I write more posts (if and when my work schedule allows it).

Rey-BB8

Character                10/10

This is where The Force Awakens really shines. At no point did I get bored with any of the new characters. This was even more their story than it was the story of the original trilogy characters. It is through Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren that we start to see the legacy the original trilogy characters left the galaxy with. And that legacy is still a very uncertain one. Each character is well-written and performed. In fact, I don’t know that Star Wars has ever been as consistently well-acted as it is in this movie. Everyone takes it seriously, and everyone delivers.

Story                         8/10

This is where The Force Awakens struggles. (though “struggles” is a misleading word. I’ll try to come up with a better one.) While the story is actually good, its problem is that we’ve seen large chunks of the story before. In many ways, TFA is a reboot/remix. This movie isn’t mere homage to A New Hope; it is full-on retelling. The visual style and pace are modern, but the overall story is the same. TFA actually reminded me a lot of NBC’s Hannibal, a strange comparison, I know, but bear with me. Hannibal took the already-adapted and familiar stories of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels, and recast the story beats and events in very different contexts. So while the overall story was the same, you never quite knew how the pieces would be used or where they would appear. Hannibal played on your expectation of the familiar and gave you something new.

The Force Awakens doesn’t quite do this, except in small ways: going to Starkiller Base to shut down the shield generator (Return of the Jedi), Starkiller Base is an ice planet (The Empire Strikes Back). Those moments were somewhat clever and fun. But where The Force Awakens isn’t so original is its almost beat-for-beat recreation of A New Hope. The story starts on a desert planet, a crucial secret is hidden in a droid, a young hero/skilled pilot who longs for something more encounters a legendary hero from another era who helps her take steps into a larger world, the legendary hero confronts a haunting failure from his past—which ends in the legendary hero’s death, a planet-killing base has to be destroyed before it reaches the rebel base on the jungle planet. I don’t think this recreation would be so disappointing to me if it wasn’t for Return of the Jedi, which resorted the same Death Star threat. The specific details of Starkiller Base don’t really matter in this case. It is the same old threat, trotted out yet again.

The story shines, however, when it recasts the context (such as the shield generator parallel above, or the stormtrooper going undercover as a Resistance fighter) or outright does new things: Finn’s crisis of conscience, Finn and Poe’s escape, Poe getting the star map, Han and Chewie’s latest smuggling scheme, Kylo Ren’s . . . everything. But even when the story was going places we had already seen, we were accompanied by characters who were a lot of fun, and I want to see them again.

star-wars-force-awakens-character-posters

Vision           9/10

What was it trying to do?

On some level, it was trying to relaunch the Star Wars franchise under the Disney brand, and to exhibit comfort that it was not the Star Wars prequels. But more than that, it was a movie that sought to continue the Star Wars story of galactic conflict, the quest for freedom against oppression, and the story of the Skywalker family.

Was it successful in doing it?

Absolutely.

Was it worth doing?

This is harder to quantify. Star Wars was not a dead franchise. However, the prequels were divisive, and they caused a major hit to the storytelling credibility of the franchise. While there are good things in the prequels and each of them gives us something new that expands the Star Wars universe, the movies are average at best. While The Force Awakens doesn’t expand the universe much, it is a much stronger movie than any of the prequels, and it accomplished exactly what Abrams and Disney set out to do: it revitalized an already strong franchise by forging a new direction and vision.

Personal Enjoyment       8/10

There were many parts of the movie that I enjoyed: from the opening sequence with Poe’s capture, to the escape from the Star Destroyer, to catching back up with Han and Chewie. I enjoyed all the new characters, thought Maz Canata is an interesting new character that I want to see more of, and want to know what happened with Luke, Kylo Ren, and Snoke. There are plenty of intriguing possibilities moving forward for this story, and I look forward to seeing them. The only detraction I have is the rehashes mentioned above. In many ways, TFA is a remake/remix of A New Hope, though with some new bits added on. But it is also a remake with style and enthusiasm. It works, but I would have liked to see something different.

And I admit that, in spite of it being the right storytelling choice, I am having trouble forgiving this movie for what it did to Han. But that may just be me and my own personal father issues. Apparently I connected with Han in this movie in the same way Rey did. Her pain was my pain, though I saw the death coming. I hoped it wouldn’t happen, but knew it would because it fit the story.

But that doesn’t mean I liked it.

Style/Craft              9/10

A friend described J. J. Abrams as a Xerox director: He can successfully emulate style. We’ve seen this in Super 8 and his two Star Trek movies. Thus, he was a good choice for replicating the style and feel of A New Hope for a new generation (and to reignite the imaginations of the old). In spite of this emulation, Abrams still added quite a few shots to the Star Wars bag of tricks, shots that were new and interesting. The tension as Poe’s blaster bolt hung in the air was extremely unnerving. The effect was perfect and the sound design with the hot crackle was masterful, and to end the scene with an overhead shot that resolved the blaster bolt was a great choice. This entire scene was like listening to a piece of music that swooped close to resolving, but always flowed back out to add more tension. Likewise, I loved seeing Kylo Ren pull the Imperial officer across the screen to lock his hand around his throat. It showed the visceral anger and petulance of Ren. He has great power and is prone to sudden outbursts. He is unpredictable. Vader was the picture of calm restraint next to Ren. But that also gives the impression that Ren is more conflicted, less resigned to his fate as he struggles to find his path, which at the moment is the Dark Side. I want this man’s story. I want to know what happened to bring him to this point.

The shot of Leia and Rey after the Starkiller Base battle, with the two women in grief on one side of the frame and the celebration on the other, is beautiful. In the midst of victory is great sorrow over those who were lost. It is one of the single most heart-wrenching shots in the saga.

And finally, the final shot of the film, the camera spinning around Rey and Luke from above as we move away from this story for a time . . . there is no shot quite like this in Star Wars. It is a new technique for the trilogy. And while so much of this film was a rehash, ending with this technique signals, to me, that we are now moving into something new. It’s like Abrams is saying “You haven’t seen a shot quite like this before. And as we move on to the next film, you are going to see new things.” I look forward to it.

Final Rating: 8.8/10

Over the Edge of the Wild

Here is a .gif that sums up how I feel 2014 ended:

jackIt was a good year, but about half of it was incredibly difficult. The last few months involved balancing two writing/reading intensive classes while working a 30 hour per week job that was also writing intensive. As I mentioned in a previous post, I will be working full-time this year, which means more work and responsibility and, consequently, more money. This is good.

But I still have two more classes before I graduate, and both are 500-level classes. Both look to be writing and reading intensive again. I need both to graduate. And so, I’m looking at about 16 weeks of very little free time. This could be bad if I don’t enjoy the classes.

While I know intellectually that I will come through this fine and I will do as good as I can under the circumstances, I am anxious in a way I haven’t been since I returned to school two and a half years ago. The end of 2014 rattled me hard. I doubt myself in ways that I haven’t in a very long time. I am in too many new circumstances and I don’t have enough experience navigating them to feel confident in myself.

Today I watched The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Extended Edition with my wife and one of my sisters-in-law. This was the first time watching the movie since I saw the theatrical edition when it first came out. The first time I saw the movie (on New Year’s Eve), I was excited for the great adventure the new year would bring. Today, I felt drawn to the difficult journey and the unlikeliness of success. Characters pursuing a goal with everything against them, some unaware of their chances, others fully aware but moving forward with hope.

I have a good idea of what is ahead. I don’t know if I have much hope, however. And while I find great comfort and strength in how the film portrays Thorin in that movie, I know how his story ends (From the book, at least. I have yet to see The Battle of The Five Armies, though I assume his fate is the same. No spoilers, please.)

This is, in part, why I am going against my usual trend and am looking ahead to 2015 now. In the past, I have preferred to do such reflection on my birthday. However, tomorrow starts my 16-week journey, so it feels appropriate. I want to look back after graduation and see where I was. Hopefully doing this will give me some encouragement and help me enter the next phase of my life.

So, call them resolutions, goals, dreams, or whatever. This is what I want to do in the coming year.

  1. I have a job, so I don’t need to worry so much about getting straight A’s this semester. Last semester ended that streak anyway. While I would still love to accomplish this, the amount of work required and the amount of time I actually have may not be conducive to this. So I will be content with passing and graduating.
  2. Since I watched An Unexpected Journey Extended Edition the day before this journey begins, I think it would be appropriate to watch the extended edition of The Desolation of Smaug at the half-way point (Spring Break) and The Battle of The Five Armies at the end, so after graduation.
  3. In conjunction with these, I would like to save up for and purchase better movie-watching technology for our space. At the moment, we have a large TV in the corner, and we have to move couches or chairs to watch things. There is a lot of furniture arrangement when we have guests for viewing parties. In truth, I would love to have more viewing parties, but I haven’t felt that our space really suited such activities. I would like to work toward that. So, the saving would be for flat screen television appropriate for our space and maybe a bit up an upgrade to the sound system, which is just a fifteen-year old stereo with A/V jacks. I don’t need top of the line, but I would like something bigger and with better sound. I confess that my vision, even with glasses, isn’t what it once was. (I’m thankful that my new job has a vision plan.) It would be great to break in this new set-up after graduation.
  4. At graduation, I don’t want to feel like the previously posted .gif.
  5. As per my usual GoodReads tradition, I want to meet my reading goal for the year. My goal this year is 50 books.
  6. I want to feel depressed less.
  7. From June until the end of the year, I want to update this blog at least once a week.
  8. After graduation, I want to give serious thought to what the next phase of my life should look like. While I understand that we have less control over this than we sometimes think, I know from past experience that it would be very easy for me to settle in to a pattern of working to earn money for escapism. I don’t want my life to be lived as endless escape, constantly ignoring the world in order to retreat into my own mind. I’m a writer, so there will need to be some amount of internal world-building and dialoging, but it must be held in balance and not be pursued at the expense of living a life that give me fulfilment. At the moment, I don’t know what that looks like. I think I’ve been avoiding the question, but after graduation, I need to give this serious thought.
  9. I want to find a group of people who will play table-top RPGs with me. Again, by necessity this should probably start after I graduate, but I have an intense longing to play The One Ring, Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, or any number of games by Pelgrane Press. This may require me pursuing relationships outside my normal circle, and possibly stepping out on my own into uncomfortable spaces.

Some of these are pretty heavy goals, I know. Some of them, I don’t even know where to start. Although, voicing them is a start. Putting them into writing is the first step. I don’t know where this year will lead, and I don’t know if I will meet these goals. Neither do I expect them to be quick or easy. But I think they are worth pursuing.

If I have time, I will try to keep you informed about how things are going and about whatever else may be on my mind.

Having been inspired by the works of Tolkien, I will end with two of his quotes:

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

“Home is behind, the world ahead,
And there are many paths to tread
Through shadows to the edge of night,
Until the stars are all alight.
Then world behind and home ahead,
We’ll wander back and home to bed.
Mist and twilight, cloud and shade,
Away shall fade! Away shall fade!”

New Look for a New Phase

Since I completed the classic Doctor Who project I have been tinkering and revamping the site. While I plan on continuing my Doctor Who focus by reading through The New Adventures, listening to Big Finish productions, and working my way toward the 2005 series, I will be widening the focus a bit. I want this site to be more representative of me as a writer and a critic and not just me as a Doctor Who fan. Yes, the Doctor Who content will continue (as is implied by the current header), but I want to keep my attention fresh and sharp. I tend to burn out when I focus on one thing to the exclusion of others. It is part of the curse of having an INTP personality type.

The obvious changes are the appearance and the use of a static front page. I want the front page to direct readers to work that I am proud of rather than whatever the current blog post is, which may or may not be my best writing. No one nails it every writing session, and sometimes I need to produce content as a cleansing ritual.

Over the next few weeks I will be updating the site’s menu system and individual web pages. I am eager for thoughts, suggestions, and general feedback if you feel so compelled.

The summer looks like a great time for writing. A new adventure awaits.

Introduction of 5 Episode Evaluations: A New Blog Series

I was super excited about having time off from class. First, school being out is always a great thing. This semester had been particularly trying for me. I started the semester with four classes, three of which were 500-level classes. It was fairly late in the semester when I realized I needed to drop one of these classes because I couldn’t keep up with the work. Better late than never, although I spent the rest of the semester trying to regain my footing and emotional energy. So I need this month off. I need to recharge and rest, to read and write.

Second, this is an ideal opportunity to knock out quite a few Doctor Who episodes. At least, I thought it would. I’ve been cracking along at a nice pace, picking up DVDs from the library or watching episodes on Hulu or through iTunes. But I ran into a problem: I cannot find a copy of Revelation of the Daleks. The local library doesn’t have it. iTunes doesn’t have it. Hulu doesn’t have it. Since I am trying to pursue this journey through legal means all that is left is to track down a copy of the DVD and purchase it. I’m happy to do this, but a Doctor Who DVD doesn’t fit into the budget at the moment. I’m a bit disappointed because I was hoping to finish Colin Baker’s era before the end of the month. We’ll get there eventually, though.

Since I don’t want to stop writing, I’m going to debut a new series on Friday. The series is called 5 Episode Evaluation (5EE). Whenever I watch a new series (or a new-to-me series) I try to give it five episodes to win me over, ideally the first five episodes in the series. Based on these five episodes, I think I can get a feel for what the series is trying to do and whether or not I want to stick with it. If a show doesn’t survive my 5EE, that doesn’t mean it is a bad show, it just means it doesn’t appeal to me. It doesn’t provide me with enough motivation to make the time to watch it. I also feel compelled to acknowledge that not all shows hit their stride in the first five episodes. I gave up on Babylon 5 nearly 20 years ago because I couldn’t get hooked in those first five episodes. Some years later, I caught repeats of season four on the Sci-Fi channel and was hooked. Sometimes shows change, for the better or for the worse. Sometimes they had the change planned all along, as was the case with Babylon 5.

5EE is just my perspective on a show. It doesn’t say anything other than what I thought while watching it and where my thoughts lead as I analyzed it. It also gives me an opportunity to cover more than just Doctor Who, which is something I hope to do more of when I finally get to the end of this long journey I have been on. I already have a number of shows lined up for 5EE, but I am open to suggestions. What shows do you want me to evaluate? Leave your recommendations in the comments.

And tomorrow will be 5EE: Almost Human. See you then.

Doctor Who – The Visitation

Doctor Who Story 119 – The Visitation

Written by

Eric Saward

What’s It About?

The Doctor fails to return Teagan to London by materializing about three hundred years too early. They encounter Richard Mace, a former actor turned highwayman, and a mysterious, abandoned manor house.

I like long walks
The Doctor threatens a Tereleptil as Mace and an android look on.
Source: The AV Club

Davison era seems to be the conflict between two visions: Bidmead and Saward. Bidmead attempted to redefine Doctor Who, to bring it in to a new era by re-inventing it. Saward looked back to what worked in the past and attempted to duplicate it. “The Visitation,” then, is about as influenced by classic Doctor Who as you can get . . . or more specifically, Robert Holmesian Doctor Who. In some ways, “The Visitation” owes much of its story to “The Time Warrior” (alien crash lands in Medeival England). Even Richard Mace is a character who could have been written by Holmes. All he needs is his double-act.

Apart from its formula, the major problem with this story, which is indicative of the problem with many of the stories in this era, is that there are too many companions. There just isn’t much for Adric and Nyssa to do, thus Adric runs from location to location, gets captured, and gets away. He doesn’t add anything to the plot. Likewise, Nyssa spends most of her time in the TARDIS, preparing a security set-up for break-in that occurs in part four, a break-in that really could have been prevented and wasn’t necessary. Especially when there is a whole village of plague-paranoid villagers who are not under Tereleptil control, Adric and Nyssa’s uselessness to the plot seems glaring. And when these characters (and, let’s be honest, Teagan) are held in comparison to Mace, the deficiencies are made more glaring. The guest cast is more compelling than the main cast, barring Peter Davison. This is frustrating because under Bidmead, these characters were given a great deal of potential. Even their circumstances for being with the Doctor (an orphan from another dimension, the last survivor of Traken who had her parents destroyed by the Master, a reluctant participant whose aunt was murdered by the Master) are compelling enough to give us interesting characters. Unfortunately, the show is still fairly plot-driven, and character development isn’t emphasized. And yet, Saward was aware of this on some level. Teagan and Nyssa share a tender moment as Teagan prepares (she thinks) to leave the TARDIS for good. I don’t say this often, but this story could have benefited from being longer, so long as we got more character moments and we were able to explore the fears of the townspeople. This story had enough pieces to work with, it just never put them all together. And just like the ending, this entire story is rushed, focusing on the more formulaic alien-invasion story rather than the real drama that was just underneath the script.

If nothing else, “The Visitation” is immensely watchable, but it truly isn’t anything groundbreaking despite having enough elements to be a great story.

My Rating

3/5