Monthly Archives: May 2020

Judge Dredd Snapshots: Christmas Comes to Des O’Connor Block (prog 144)

It’s from Judge Dredd! He’s going to forget about all that killin’! He says I can murder anyone I like! Whoopee!

Hunk Smythe

Script: John Wagner; Artist: Mike McMahon; Letters: Tom Frame

Plot summary

Dredd is alerted to huge traffic jams outside of the Des O’Connor apartment block. Investigating it appears that all of the residents have been sent presents, and that the couriers have been ordered to dress up in Christmas regalia, despite it not being Christmas. It emerges that Barney, the City Hall Computer, has malfunctioned and in a misguided attempt to make all of the residents of Des O’Connor Block happy, is giving them all what they want. Attempts to shut down Barney fail, but ultimately the computer realises that he has ended up making people more unhappy than before and so he shuts down.

Commentary

The first two episodes I covered in this series are fairly atypical for Judge Dredd, not merely because they were written by Pat Mills, but also because one was part of a so-called “epic” story while the other explores Dredd’s backstory. This episode, by contrast, is much more focused on Mega City One life, and Dredd takes more of a backseat. Unusually perhaps, this is true in the case of most Dredd strips.

The more common episode has some crime committed, the situation escalates, and Dredd sort of turns up at the end to sort it out (normally with a bit of violence thrown in). This episode follows that basic structure, although it is unusual because it doesn’t actually get resolved by Dredd either shooting anyone or beating them up (although he gets to do that as well!). Instead, the story ultimately sorts itself out as Barney discovers that he has made a grave error of judgement.

Barney originally appears in “Father Earth” (progs 122-125), but stories about robots and computers going haywire go back as far as “Krong” (prog 5) and is a central part of the strip’s first multi-part storyline “Robot Wars” (progs 10-17). It’s a theme that John Wagner would return to again and again, arguably most significantly with the introduction of robot judges in “Mechanismo” (Megazine 2.12–17) – a plot element that has been returned to repeatedly over the last 25 years.

This is also one of the first stories to feature the idea of the city block, or “block” as they are more conventionally known. Although the idea that everyone lived in massive skyscrapers is a concept that is established on the first page of the very first episode “Judge Whitey” (prog 2), it was only really with “City Block” (prog 117-118) that the strip began to explore what every day life for the citizens of Mega City One was really like and look at blocks as a sociological perspective. “City Block” is also where the convention that most buildings are named after famous people from the 20th Century was established, normally for humourous or ironic effect. It also quickly became a norm for blocks to be named after British celebrities that very few Americans would have ever heard of – Des O’Connor being a case in point!

It is also significant to see how Mike McMahon’s artwork here has evolved compared to “The Return of Rico“. That in itself is already significantly different to his early work when he essentially copied Dredd creator Carlos Ezquerra’s style (to Ezquerra’s chagrin), but by the time we get to Des O’Connor Block, McMahon has settled into the style he is perhaps most famous for, the cartoonish, gangly Dredd with massive boots. He’d continue to adopt this style for a year or so, but his style continued to evolve. He only draws occasionally for the strip now, but when he does his style is far more abstract to the point of being almost cubist in style.

Trivia

  • If you don’t know, Des O’Connor was a light entertainer who was a staple part of British television from the 1960s-2000s.
  • Although this story is not set at Christmas, it did in fact appear in an issue of 2000AD that was published around Christmastime (it has a cover date of 22 December, which at the time meant that it was due to be withdrawn from sale on that date). This is a minor break from the tradition in the Judge Dredd strip that stories typically take place 122 years after publication (making this episode set in 2101 AD and the current date in the strip being 2142).

Judge Dredd Snapshots: The Cursed Earth Part 5 – The Mutie Mountains (prog 65)

No! No! Not… the teeth!

Mutant Brotherhood goon

Script: Pat Mills; Artist: Brian Bolland; Letters: Tom Frame

Plot summary

As part of their mercy mission crossing the Cursed Earth to save Mega City Two from the deadly 2T(fru)T virus, Dredd’s crew reach Mount Rushmore (which has been relocated to be closer to Mega City One). There they discover that an extra head has been carved on the iconic monument, that of the head of the Mutant Brotherhood Brother Morgar. The Mutant Brotherhood attacks Dredd’s party and captures two of his fellow judges, but Dredd manages to outmaneuvre them and threatens to blow up Morgar’s sculture unless he frees the judges. The judges are freed, but the Mutant Brotherhood live to pursue the crew…

Commentary

By the time “The Cursed Earth” started in 2000AD (progs 61-85), Dredd’s popularity had been come firmly established sufficiently that he replaced Dan Dare as the leading strip in 2000AD. At the time, 2000AD was predominantly black and white with the exception of the cover and centre pages. Becoming the lead strip meant that each episode would lead with a colour splash page, and this chapter includes one of the most iconic examples of this.

The art is by Brian Bolland, although most “Cursed Earth” episodes were illustrated by Mike McMahon. Bolland is known as one of the most iconic Dredd artists and it is easy to see why – although at this stage his art is still developing and we are yet to see him at his height. This is a good example of the sort of project Bolland was given at the time; an opportunity for his imagination to run riot with all sorts of different character designs.

“The Cursed Earth” is the first so-called “mega epic” in the strip’s history, although it is predated by the much shorter “Robot Wars” (progs 10-17) and the Luna-1 cycle (progs 42-58), which is more a series of interconnected stories. Taking place almost immediately after Luna-1, it means that for almost the entirety of Dredd’s second year of publication, the action takes place outside of Mega City One.

The idea that Mega City One bordered on an irradiated wasteland inhabited by mutants was established as far back as “The Brotherhood of Darkness” (prog 4), and the Brotherhood of Mutants and Brotherhood of Darkness share a number of similarities – indeed both seem to have their roots in “The Family” which appears in the Charlton Heston “kill all hippies” film The Omega Man (1971) – itself an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (1954). That said, the overall plot of The Cursed Earth is acknowledged to be strongly influenced by the novel Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny (1967) and its film adaptation (1977).

This episode makes extensive use of the all terrain vehicle which features in “The Cursed Earth”. The Judge Dredd strip, especially in the early days, commonly featured exciting new technology. The Land Raider is a bit unique however in that it is actually a tie in with a range of Matchbox toys which were launching at the time called Adventure 2000. This episode is the first to properly show the vehicle in action as it seperates its two sections and the rear section scales the face of Abraham Lincoln (damaging his nose in the process).

This is another strip by Pat Mills, and it is interesting to see how Dredd is presented in this arc. Early Dredd strips see the main character as quite unapolegetically violent and cruel, whereas here he is presented as much more just and merciful. Indeed, the action revolves around the fact that they are attempting to avoid a confrontation with the mutants. He comes across as a veritable bleeding heart liberal in this episode in his attitude towards mutants, refusing to kill them even after they capture two of his fellow judges (a fact which comes back to bite them in the bum in the very next episode).

Overall, Mills tended to humanise Dredd as much as possible in all of his early strips. The characterisation of Dredd has varied greatly over the years as different writers have tackled him, but for the most part the main writer John Wagner adopts a somewhat less sadistic version in future strips than he did in the earlier strips, suggesting that Mills influenced him somewhat in this respect. Indeed, “Origins” (progs 1505-1519, 1529-1535), which is a sequel of sorts to “The Cursed Earth” sees Dredd start along a path in which he becomes advocate for mutant rights, a plot point which goes on to dominate the strip for the following three years.

A final point, since this is the first time he has cropped up, about Tom Frame. Frame would end up becoming the main letterist for Judge Dredd and his tight, efficient script ended up becoming a part of the strip’s personality itself.

Trivia

  • Yes, that is indeed a carving of President Carter on the left of Mount Rushmore. Anachronistic pop cultural references played for laughs are a very common trope in Judge Dredd.
  • Dredd’s main companion throughout this run is Spikes Harvey Rotten, an outlaw punk biker who orignally appears in “Mega City 5000” (progs 40-41). Notably his character design is completely different in that story, resembling a Hell’s Angel than a punk. I’m guessing original artist Bill Ward didn’t have a clue who Johnny Rotten was, and missed the reference.
  • The appearance of a can of Heinz baked beans is only the first branded item we see in “The Cursed Earth” – indeed the story famously features two arcs – “Burger Wars” (progs 71-73) and “Soul Food” (progs 77-78) – which for many years were banned from being reprinted for fear of the various trademark holders suing them. Those episodes were scripted by John Wagner and Chris Lowder respectively, and not Pat Mills.
Rico Dredd

Judge Dredd Snapshots: The Return of Rico (Prog 30)

He-he ain’t heavy – he’s my brother!

Judge Dredd

Script: Pat Mills; Artist: Mike McMahon; Letters: Tony Jacob

Plot summary

A mysterious figure arrives as the Kennedy Space Port and tries to make contact with Joe Dredd, claiming to also be called Judge Dredd. Dredd immediately realises that Rico has returned. He returns to his apartment to find Rico waiting for him, having shut off the oxygen and heating. It is revealed that Rico and Joe are both clones who were inducted to the Academy of Law from birth. Rico ultimately graduated top of the class, with Joe a close second. But Rico ends up being corrupt and, after killing a man, Joe arrests him. Rico is sentenced to 20 years on the Penal Colony of Titan, from where he has just returned. He reveals that in order to survive the harsh climate on Titan, his body has been adapted and horrifically disfigured. He proposes a shootout to the death, but Joe is too quick for him and Rico is killed.

Commentary

Although I have selected this episode at random, I couldn’t have picked a better one to start with! During the first year, the lore surrounding Judge Dredd, not to mention the creative teams, underwent a lot of revision. Although it is now seen as a fairly core part of the strip, this is actually the first time it is established that Dredd is in fact a clone.

Indeed, it is an idea that doesn’t get explored very much for a long time. Rico doesn’t come up again until nearly two years later when it is revealed he has a daughter (“Vienna”, prog 116), and it isn’t even established that he is a clone of Judge Fargo, the founder of the judge system, until 1984’s “Dredd Angel” (progs 377-383) – although I believe it was mentioned in a timeline that was published in an annual before then. After that, however, this aspect gradually became more of an established part of the lore, and eventually a younger clone of Dredd would adopt the name “Rico” in “Blood Cadets” (1186-1188), a story which contains a partial flashback to this one. This Judge has not turned out to be corrupt.

Possibly Rico’s most famous appearance was as the main antagonist in the 1995 Judge Dredd motion picture. In this case he is presented as being genetically identical, and even has the same fingerprints, but is played by the Armand Assante as opposed to Sylvester Stallone who was in the lead role.

The other concept introduced in this story is the idea of the Penal Colony on Titan where corrupt judges are sent. This would go on to become a central feature in “Inferno” by Grant Morrison, Mark Millar and Carlos Ezquerra (progs 842-853) and later still in “Titan” by Rob Williams and Henry Flint (progs 1862-1869).

It is worth noting that this episode is written by Pat Mills. Pat Mills is the founding editor of 2000AD, but the main Judge Dredd writer at the time (and for most of the strip’s history) was creator John Wagner. In fact, the sum total of Judge Dredd strips written by Pat Mills is very small – essentially it comprises this and “The Cursed Earth” (progs 61-85), but his influence during the strip’s early development is hard to under-estimate. Pat Mills would go back to revisit this story in 1995, with “Flashback 2099: The Return of Rico” (progs 950-952). This is essentially the same story, padded out. I have to say I think it is the inferior of the two tellings, as the original is a masterpiece in efficient storytelling. The remake includes lots of ellipses about how the judicial system is essentially fascist which, firstly, we sort of knew without having it spelt out, and secondly, doesn’t really justify Rico committing extortion and murder – so it’s hard to see what point is being made.

More typically for this era, it it illustrated by Mike McMahon. McMahon became the default Dredd artist following creator Carlos Ezquerra’s departure citing creative differences. This is still very early McMahon, at a time when he was essentially hired because of his ability to replicate Ezquerra’s art style. McMahon’s style would develop significantly over the following years, and this isn’t rendered in the “big boots” style that became his trademark, but it still has some incredibly dynamic figure work. No-one has ever managed to draw a better Rico than the on page 5. It’s also worth noting that during this period, Dredd’s uniform was still undergoing a fair bit of revision; this strip still has him drawn with the “rounded visor” style of the early days. Eventually McMahon would go on to develop the more angular version of the helmet that is more familiar during the “Luna-1” cycle of stories (progs 42-58, wherein Dredd is made temporary “Judge Marshall” of a lunar outpost) and other artists would go on to adopt this style.

Trivia

  • The “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” quote is of course a reference to the Hollies’ pop song from 1969.
  • One curiosity is that at one point Rico overwhelms Maria, Dredd’s housekeeper, and ties her up in the apartment, only to go on to remove all the oxygen from the apartment. How she survives is not clear – although she does appear on the last page (and in subsequent stories). Dredd’s servodroid Walter the Wobot does not appear in this episode – presumably he’s out shopping.
  • You actually see Joe and Rico Dredd’s unmasked faces as young men in a couple of frames, albeit as long shots. The tradition of never showing Dredd’s face actually began as far back as prog 8 when Dredd’s face is “censored” – apparently because it was too ghastly to show to readers.
Judge Dredd

Judge Dredd Snapshots

It’s been a while since I wrote anything 2000AD related on this blog, and I’ve been getting back into it recently, so I thought I’d start a new blog series and see how far I get.

The idea of this project is to take a random single Judge Dredd episode from each year and write about it, with a view to exploring a bit of the strips’ history and how it has developed over the years. As it will be random, sometimes I’ll be reviewing two stories that are fairly close together and at other times they’ll be quite far apart. I’ll obviously be missing a lot out, not least of all the various specials and the Judge Dredd Megazine, but I’ll try to give context where appropriate.

We’ll see how far I get! I have a tendency to not finish projects such as these, and even just one post per year of Dredd still amounts to 43 posts and counting. But hopefully I can have some fun with it.

Babu Frik

Why the Rise of Skywalker broke me

So, four months on, it would appear that I’m still not over the Rise of Skywalker.

(Spoilers ahead, obviously. But if you haven’t seen it by now, do you really care at this stage?)

So, first of all, I should say what kind of Star Wars fan I am. I was two when the original film came out, but because my parents were kind of nerds, I was almost weaned on it and Spielberg’s early blockbusters. I had some of the Kenner toys (although not as many as my friends), obviously. Aside from reading the Dark Empire comic and its follow ups (quite liked the first at the time, although it hasn’t dated well – hated the rest), I never really bothered with the Expanded Universe stuff, which I generally considered to be hackneyed trash (an opinion I still broadly hold having read some of the “classics”). Didn’t think much of the Special Editions. Don’t rate the Prequels, although I was never one of those “these films simply don’t exist” people. Liked the Tartakovsky Clone Wars. Was slow to warm up to Filoni’s The Clone Wars, but when I did at around season three, I fell for it hard, and there for Rebels. I was going through some stuff when the Disney era of Star Wars media began and, as such, consumed most of the early comics and novels, although I’ve fallen off the wagon over the past couple of years. Broadly liked The Force Awakens and Rogue One and while I don’t think Solo was great, I can name many many worse films that have a better reputation.

Oh, and, most defining of all (it would appear), I’m very much Team The Last Jedi. Not because I think it’s a perfect film; I’ve watched it several times and could spend many hours pointing out all of the bits that don’t work for me. But when it does work, it’s wonderful. I guess I’ll get more into that later.

I’m a fan who considers this to be a film franchise first, a TV franchise second, and I can take or leave most other things (with the exception of the tabletop game X-Wing, which I’m a little obsessed with).

So, back to the Rise of Skywalker. By now this has been a very widely dissected film – and I’m by no means the only person who didn’t like it. I think my position is probably best summarised as being somewhere between these two video essays:

I don’t have an awful lot else to add to those essays. I do take issue with the argument often stated in various parts of the internet that the films should have been “planned” better. The original trilogy wasn’t planned at all, and the Prequels were presumably better planned than any other films in the franchise, but it didn’t make them any better. The first two Sequel films actually complement each other well; the problem is that while Rian Johnson very much took a “yes, and” approach to The Last Jedi, Abrams is clearly a much less generous collaborator. As Patrick Willems said in a previous video, Abrams is someone known for starting series not for ending them – and that ended up being a major problem.

I also wonder to what extent Lucasfilm had actually planned for this film, which ended up getting trashed at a fairly late stage. I got the Art of the Rise of Skywalker a few weeks ago and it is notable that not a single piece of pre-production art of Palpatine exists in it (as opposed to this mysterious Oracle), and only one image of the Sith planet Exegol. Given that this book was mysteriously delayed for four months, they had time to insert this art if it existed.

Similarly, if you read the Aftermath novels it’s established that part of the Emperor’s Grand Design in the event of his death was to have a loyal cadre of Imperials go off to find a mystery place somewhere in the Unknown Regions that he had identified and build the First Order. You can still see the skeleton of that idea in Rise, but it ultimately contradicts this. For one thing, how did they get there if they didn’t have either of the Wayfinders? Secondly, why are the First Order and the Final Order different things? It’s all such a mess.

And then there’s Snoke. The most baffling thing for me is why Snoke just got casually dismissed as a clone instead of being something interesting – the idea was he was always intended to be little more than a head in a jar seems unlikely. People have picked up on how Rise seems to trash so much of The Last Jedi but there’s a lot set up in The Force Awakens which is treated with similar disdain. It’s such a depressing experience. This for me is a far more egregious contradiction than the “Rey nobody” twist in Last Jedi that upset so many people.

Interesting Failures

Of course, to be a Star Wars fan is to live in disappointment. Return of the Jedi was fairly critically panned at the time, and while I think I was too young to see it then, it certainly feels like a step down from the first two now. I had spent much of my early life looking forward to nine Star Wars films, which I imagined would be coming out like clockwork, every three years, from 1986 to 2001 and, well, that didn’t happen. In fact for a long time it didn’t look like it was going to happen at all. What we did get were the Special Editions which did some frankly horrible things to some of my favourite bits of the original trilogy. And when we finally did get episodes 1 to 3, it’s fair to say that they weren’t rapturously welcomed by those of us who had spent the best part of 20 years waiting for them.

But at the same time, people have short memories. People forget that Return of the Jedi was panned, and even the Prequel loathing has softened over time. And I guess you can shrug and dismiss the Rise of Skywalker hatred as just part of the same cycle. For me it’s different though.

You see, for all of Return of the Jedi‘s flaws, it does ultimately satisfyingly complete the story started in A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. It is harder to defend the Prequels, which are objectively bad movies, but they are at least interesting failures, with interesting things to say. I’d rather watch films like that – the Matrix sequels also fit into this category – than safe cash grab sequels.

That are the Prequels about? It is admittedly sometimes hard to see through the terrible dialogue and garish CGI, but ultimately the story they tell are about how civilisations fall: it isn’t because a cackling villain turns up and ruins everything, it’s because the institutions designed to stand as a defense against tyranny (in the case of the Prequels, the Republic and the Jedi Order) grow complacent and lose their sense of purpose. And yeah, Palpatine has to come along to push it over, but the edifice was already crumbling before he came along.

That, to me, feels incredibly relevant right now – as it did back in the early 2000s when we were fighting a stupid preventable war like the one that informed Lucas when he set out to make the original films (Vietnam).

I kind of hate the fact that the themes of the Prequels resonate as strongly for me as they do, because I so dearly want them to be part of much better films. Fortunately I now have the Clone Wars to tell that story far more dramatically and entertainingly. But I give Lucas credit for trying to say something complex and nuanced in a film about space wizards.

But what does Abrams have to say? I know exactly what Lucas is saying in both his trilogies; and it’s clear what Johnson is saying in The Last Jedi, but ultimately in the Abrams films, it’s just stuff… that happens. I can give him a pass for The Force Awakens, which is just setting up the trilogy and is entertaining enough, but how do you set about finishing a epic a series as the Skywalker Saga without having anything to say?

Nostalgia and World Building

The biggest fundamental problem with Abrams’s films is that they are rooted in nostalgia at the expense of everything else. With The Force Awakens, that is understandable: the anger which certain parts of the fandom felt towards the Prequels is pretty hard to ignore. The Force Awakens was a useful reset button which should have given Lucasfilm the creative space to go in new directions with the franchise. That certainly seemed to be the plan with The Last Jedi – of course for a lot of fans that was a step too far. And that’s a hard schism to bridge: ultimately for a lot of people, all they wanted was more of the same and a film that took took the same material and ultimately asked different questions was just not on their checklist at all. It’s understandable why Lucasfilm got frit over the outrage over it and decided to make something that was comfortable, but given how many TLJ haters who seem as disappointed with it as the TLJ fans, I think that was the wrong call.

In retrospect, we’d have probably had better films if the anger over the Prequels had been a little more restrained. By the time Disney bought Lucasfilm and announced a new film series in 2012, it had just become a “known” fact that the Prequels were an unmitigated disaster and that the Sequel trilogy should be nothing like them. People like Simon Pegg had popularised the notion that they were unspeakable.

I especially remember this video, by a copywriter called Prescott Harvey, which came out in advance of The Force Awakens. It is an open letter to JJ Abrams and, at the time, was accompanied by a petition which thousands of people signed:

Post-gamergate and The Last Jedi nerdrage, I find this film a little uncomfortable to watch. The entitlement feels eerily famliar. That bit when his voice rises to almost a shouting pitch about how Star Wars must never be cute (which, even ignoring Return of the Jedi, dismisses much of the appeal of R2-D2, the jawas, Yoda and the ugnaughts in the first two films and seems to ignore the fact that there is significantly more graphic violence in the Prequels than the original trilogy), sounds like the archetype of every angry white nerd throwing his toys out of his pram we’ve heard ad nauseum in the years since.

And yes, superficially, there’s nothing too much to disagree with in this video: it does a fairly good job at encapsulating what the Original Trilogy was in essence. The problem is the suggestion that Star Wars shouldn’t strive to be anything more than that, that it should be kept in a safe little box. The logic is that Lucas tried to mix things up in the Prequels, they weren’t good, so that shows you shouldn’t mess with a winning formula. But the bad things about the Prequels wasn’t their ambition, it was their execution. And pushing so hard for future filmmakers to impose limitations like that was always going to be a monkey’s paw.

Prescott Harvey got the filmmaker he could only have dreamed of in the form of JJ Abrams. His previous film Super 8 seems to exist purely to make you think that Steven Spielberg made a horror film at around the same time he was making Close Encounters and Poltergeist (it was an entirely forgettable affair and I can pretty much guarantee you that everything memorable you think happened in it was actually a bit you remember from Stranger Things). His Star Trek films are basically an exercise in mashing up all the cool bits Abrams remembered from the Star Trek films he grew up with, mashed together (he just about pulled it off in his first film but, echoing Star Wars, came horribly unstuck in his messy second effort).

What is remarkable about both Abrams films is quite how pathologically they copy the Original Trilogy. It isn’t enough to have space ships that look like the TIE Fighters and X-Wings of old, they had to have actual TIE Fighters and X-Wings. The Empire and Rebellion were replicated as close as possible as they could be. And of course we had to have yet another Death Star.

And much of this was at the expense of world building and even the impact of the Original Trilogy. The sacrifice of the Rebellion over the course of those films has now been revealed to have achieve almost nothing; not even the Emperor actually died. In the years since The Force Awakens, Lucasfilm has authorised several novels, comics and even a TV show (The Resistance) to flesh out the Star Wars galaxy as it existed at the start of Episode VII, but even having read much of this it still feels pretty hollow.

Much of this replication can be excused away by the argument that, as George Lucas himself put it “Star Wars rhymes“. But rhyming isn’t the same thing as repetition, and that doesn’t mean that things that have dramatic justification in the originals have to happen in the Sequels simply because. So many of the beats in The Rise of Skywalker feel like characters going through the motions and beats of another film rather than getting there by themselves. Perhaps the most egregious is the notion that Rey is somehow conflicted about possibly, maybe, turning to the Dark Side when she is only ever presented as being repelled by the idea. We have the throne room sequence in Return of the Jedi replicated but she’s never actually tempted in the agonising way that Luke is; at worst she appears to briefly flirt with the idea of sacrificing herself to save her friends. Contrast that with the throne room scene in The Last Jedi which clearly echoes similar scenes in past films including Return of the Jedi, but doesn’t simply regurtitate past dramatic beats and comes at the climax of a film that has spent much of its time getting you to that point.

And in order to disguise how slavish this all is, they mask it by making everything bigger. It was bad in The Force Awakens when Starkiller Base could not only blow up planets, but multiple ones at once from across the galaxy. Where do you go from there? Well, you simply give every single Star Destroyer (which look identical to the original Star Destroyers but are now canonically bigger) a planet destroying ray gun. But all the bigger stuff does is serve to make everything feel more hollow, especially when you’ve done so little work fleshing out the galaxy which is now apparently under threat.

Retcons and Cash-ins

Admittedly, it has taken me a while to warm up to the Prequels, and a large part of that was The Clone Wars, which has spent much of the past 12 years clarifying and expanding on the material that was in the Prequel trilogy. We’re already seeing that with Rise of Skywalker with the publication of its novelisation which seems to have been written specifically to smooth over many of the film’s cracks. So it is that we now know that Palpatine didn’t have a son so much as a renegade “failed” clone, and that Rey and Ben Solo’s kiss was strictly platonic.

But this is where we come to the worst aspect of Star Wars fandom and how it has intersected with Disney corporatism; the need to explain everything. Star Wars has always had this. Its pretty harmless when it boils down to anthologies about every single background character ever, such as Tales from Mos Eisley Cantina, but there’s always been a tendency to take this too far. So it is that we have Skippy the Jedi Droid, and the explanation that there is a reason why some of the garbage spotting in the scene in Empire Strikes Back looks vaguely like the robot IG-88 who popped up in the bounty hunter scene a few minutes earlier (Boba Felt killed him! Oh, and there’s four of him. Oh, and he ended up merging with the Death Star shortly before it blew up in Return of the Jedi).

We don’t need any of this stuff, and much of the time it cheapens the original stories, relegating them to trivia. And while I am a big fan of The Clone Wars, which is in some respects a massive retcon, it’s not a good thing that the show had to do as much heavy lifting as it did; the Prequels should have done that in the first place.

But while this has been a part of Star Wars for as long as Obi-Wan Kenobi started wittering on about “a certain point of view” in Return of the Jedi, it has become a mania in the modern Disney corporation, filling its live action adaptation of their classic animated films with retcons intended to “fix” the original (I recommend a couple of videos by Lindsey Ellis for more on this). It’s no surprise that the first two standalone Star Wars films which came out, Rogue One and Solo, both ostensibly exist to “fix” and “explain” bits of the original films.

And that’s only one half of it. I think I liked Rogue One a lot more than some people because I’d read Catalyst first, which is entirely about Galen Erso. So I understood him, Jyn and Saw Garerra’s characters a lot better going in than most people did. But you shouldn’t have to read a book to properly enjoy a film. Yet this is now a feature. Starkiller Base made no sense to you in the Force Awakens? If you buy the Force Awakens Visual Dictionary it will helpfully explain how that works. Indeed, if you buy the Rise of Skywalker Visual Dictionary, it will tell you that it was built out of the planet Ilum, which appears in the Clone Wars.

We’ve reached a point now where shoddy explanations and poor characterisation no longer feel like a bug in the new Star Wars films, but a feature. Most people just want the big explosions and if you want the films to make sense, why there is helpfully a whole range of books out there to make it all make sense in your head. And, presumably, eventually a spin off TV show which will do all the heavy lifting for you.

There comes a point where this stops feeling like spin off merchandise and starts to feel like a confidence trick. It seems to all but encourage lazy writing; the worse the film turns out to be the more books get to come out to “fix” it. This seems to be what “plot hole culture” seems to have been leading up to, and it feels deeply cynical and dispiriting.

I should emphasise that I’m not puritanical about all this. I don’t expect a company like Disney to be making films for the sake of the art, just as Lucas wasn’t. Indeed, it’s actually a little weird to me that Disney has eschewed Lucas’s tendency to fill his films with kewl new spaceships that the fans will want to rush out and buy. But that would mean producing something novel rather than focusing exclusively on nostalgia by making everything look and feel like the films they grew up watching.

Ultimately no amount of retroactive fixes can make a film devoid of substance a good film. And this is ultimately the difference between the Prequels being redeemed by later media and the Rise of Skywalker receiving similar treatment. No amount of retconning can avoid the fact that that film ultimately has nothing to say.

A New Hope?

So my dislike of Rise of Skywalker is not just rooted in the film itself, but in the corporate culture in which it developed and how its rooted in an obsession that sees Star Wars in terms of nostalgia and facts but is less interested in things like theme and meaning.

But it isn’t despair that kills you, it’s the hope. And there is a part of me that is still rooting for the franchise. I quite liked the Mandalorian, although it was pretty unchallenging. And while the recent “Final Season” of the Clone Wars was, for the most part, fairly solid but run of the mill, its final arc, which echoes the events in Revenge of the Sith, is emotionally shredding.

And while I definitely get the impression that The Rise of Skywalker is the film that the producers ultimately set out to make, as something of a Lucasfilm-watcher, I do get the impression that the studio was concerned that it was going to be a bit of critical flop.

For one thing, Disney decided not to market it in its own right but as part of a season of Star Wars alongside the new video game Jedi: Fallen Order and the Mandalorian. The Mandalorian was particularly interesting because it meant releasing a show which had a massive spoiler in it that had been kept secret before airing, but at a time when they couldn’t launch Disney Plus across Europe – meaning that a very large market didn’t legally have access to the show. That always felt like a weird decision to me, but it did mean that thousands of people were ecstatically tweeting about The Child/Baby Yoda instead of expressing their concerns about the upcoming film. I think it paid off for them, but I doubt they’d have done it if they truly believed that The Rise of Skywalker could have stood on its own feet.

The other thing that reassures me that that they are taking their time not to rush into any more films, having axed the Weiss and Benioff series – which had lots of alarm bells wringing – and not yet having axed the promised Rian Johnson series – which will be alarming to some but very reassuring to others (especially after his triumphant return to the big screen with Knives Out). Indeed, taking their time is something I wish they’d done with the Sequel Trilogy. I can’t help but feel we’d have ended up with a stronger Episode Nine, irrespective of curveballs such as Carrie Fisher’s tragic death, we’d had the traditional three year wait between films (meaning that Episode IX would be due for release in 2021) rather than two.

UPDATE: I’m similarly encouraged by today’s announcement that Taiki Waititi will be directing a new Star Wars film.

Hopefully the departure of Bob Iger from Disney means that the corporation as a whole becomes less obsessed with this idea of making sequels and remakes as a way to retcon existing properties. And, ultimately, finishing off the Skywalker Saga always was going to be a far harder task than making tangential Star Wars films in the future. It’s just such a shame they dropped the ball so badly with this one.