The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Monday, June 13, 2005

Critique of Shadows of the Empire

SotE was by Star Wars standards a failure. I feel that if a story is to be part of a saga, it should enhance the saga, not compete with it. SotE represents a detour from the Star Wars saga as defined in the trilogy (plus TPM, for that matter).

I have to get the good out of the way first. Both the book and (after some Empire Strikes Back overlap) the game start off OK, with a nice conflict between Boba and the Falcon team. It's also nice to visit the scrapyards of Ord Mantell, finally; and to see the new canyon planet of Gail. I further think a lot of the SotE soundtrack. Joel McNeely is a worthy padawan to John Williams. Actually I think JW should have lifted JM's Coruscant theme for TPM. (TPM already had a soundtrack better than 4/5 of the remaining overall epic.)

Now, the bad...

First, the two major new characters - Dash Rendar and Xizor - are redundant:

  • Dash Rendar is just Han Solo resurrected from the opening scenes of "A New Hope"... prior to the Special Edition. (As if Lando couldn't occupy that niche equally well.) Rendar has no role outside SotE, making his status as stopgap and lame clone too obvious for disbelief suspension. He also bears a moniker that is almost as ridiculous as "Han Solo".
  • Xizor has the opposite problem; he's new, interesting, and a total distraction from the established cast. We already have Darth Vader as the Emperor's right arm. Why another one?

Second, the established characters Vader and Palpatine are showing their hands before their time. At this point in the saga, Episodes IV and V have established a military empire in which the Sith role remains ambiguous. In ANH, the Senate and/or Rebellion (through Leia) still thinks that Tarkin is the one "holding Vader's leash". The Emperor's sole action, behind the stage, is to close down the Senate - but even that requires only an address to a legislature, well within the capabilities of a figurehead monarch (especially given [a] ANH's antecedents in Japanese cinema and [b] Palpatine's origins as Senate Chancellor). It is in TESB that we find that Vader takes his orders from the Emperor - and still in secret! (Episode III changes matters, slightly; but Palpatine had feigned weakness before, and now has a scarred visage and 18 years to retreat behind the cloak by the time of IV.)

  • ANH and TESB both had Vader wreak more and more havoc in the course of his service to the Empire. When Vader claimed to be Luke's father, it was at that time an open question whether Vader was telling the truth. Even if he was, it was not to repent of his own evil but to drag Luke into it. The opening salvoes of RotJ do not have Vader committing new crimes of his own, but he has assumed full responsibility for carrying out the Emperor's. Vader's reform is supposed to develop over the course of RotJ. SotE the book spoilt all that. It opened a window into Vader's mind. That is precisely what his mask in the films is supposed to prevent. It also comes dangerously close to tipping the viewer toward sympathy ahead of time.
  • The Emperor has his own progress to make in the story. Since he has no humanity in him, his progress is into something more basic: visibility. He continues to reveal himself progressively after the holograph in TESB. In RotJ, he is first heralded by Vader, then arrives entirely encloaked, and finally reveals his awful visage to Luke. (Yes, the striptease was intentional.) The book and comic describe the Emperor's visage at the start. This is premature. As with TPM, we shouldn't be seeing the Emperor outside a hologram.

Before SotE came out, the SW audience could run through IV and V and arrive at VI with these questions: whether Vader was Luke's father; whether that implied that Vader was redeemable, or, if Vader was lying, what was his real motive; and what is the true nature of the Emperor.

Stylistically, too, SotE is out of place. The climax of the events between TESB and RotJ already exists - in the beginning of RotJ itself. The raid on Jabba's palace is not about the Empire or the Rebellion. It is about Luke's next-to-final exam as a Jedi, in which he must clear accounts by rescuing Han. Luke should be struggling with his (albeit indirect) guilt in bringing Han to that pass. He should be learning subterfuge. Instead Luke just bums around Tatooine and waits for Xizor and Vader to invite him to Coruscant. And why not? Dash Rendar is doing his job for him.

The subplot about the Death Star plans is also ill-placed. RotJ works perfectly well with Bothans - and the new Death Star plans - somewhere off in the sidelines without Luke's involvement. Maybe Lando Calrissian and the Falcon helped. Doesn't matter. The Bothan quest for the DS2 plans and the Skywalker quest for Han are VERY unlikely to intersect. This plotline belongs off mainline SW (that is, the Skywalker saga) and into supplemental fiction. LucasArts could even have sold an extra book and comic off it. Hell, it could have been the plot of a separate SotE game, sparing us that useless Rendar. Not to mention that the fate of the Bothans in this story arc elicits slightly less surprise than the fate of Kenny in a South Park episode.

And SotE presaged a trap of TPM: that it does not justify locations that don't matter to the track of the story; Tatooine in TPM's case and, given that Jabba does not leave his sandy lair, Coruscant in SotE's. SotE's book even flits to Rodia, which I can only assume refers to a deleted level of the game.

"Cloak of Deception", by way of contrast, also attempts to set the scene of a SW movie, in this case TPM. But it does a better job. Instead of distracting from the coming attractions with competing heroes, villains, and plot arcs, it sets the scene in such a way that TPM would naturally follow. (A more analogous pre-TPM analogue to SotE would be "Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter", which introduces a fourth leading Neimoidian - breaking the Rule of Three - and many more characters, purely as straw men for Maul. Instead of setting the scene, it shakes it. - But it too is superior to SotE, at the least in that it does not damage the stage on the way through; and is better planned and written to boot.)

Ultimately, SotE had a responsibility to preserve the audience's reception of RotJ. It did not live up to it. SotE is pointless after the failed rescue attempt at Gail.

The game's hopefully cheap enough by now that you can buy it for the opening salvos alone. Its book, like TPM's book, is shackled to the design of the plot; and as with TPM's book, the plot kills it. The trade paperback comic is, eh, a comic. But the soundtrack is still better than 4/6 or even 5/6 of the overall thing so maybe you could get that.

posted by Zimri on 18:35 | link | 0 comments

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