Thursday, May 19, 2011

The True Identity of Darth Vader

Being a Star Wars fan, I give the various issues brought up in the movies a lot more thought than most people. Why? Because I find them interesting. One such 'issue' is the subject of Darth Vader's true identity and just who knew about it- both during and after the movies.

It seems to me that during the time of the movies, only a few people knew who Darth Vader truly was:

The Emperor knew, of course, because he was there during Vader's 'birth'.

Obi Wan and Yoda obviously figured out who Vader was. But I don't think either of them told anyone. I suspect that Kenobi did tell Luke's aunt and uncle, however. The whole "He's too much like his father/That's what I'm afraid of" dialogue could very well have been in reference to this. It would also seem like a prudent thing to do if Kenobi wanted to impress upon them how important it was to keep a low profile. But then again, if he did know, why didn't he change Luke's last name... This all plays back into my thoughts about Ben planning to tell Luke about his heritage at a very specific time (perhaps even AFTER he had killed Vader).

Bail Organa may have suspected the truth about Vader, but it doesn't seem that he had any contact with people who knew the truth. He adopted Leia and parted from Yoda and Kenobi before 'Vader' became publicly known. Based on the events of Episode IV, it seems that Organa and Kenobi had no contact during all the years that Leia was growing up. It is possible that Bail intended to tell Leia of her true heritage at some point, but if he did, then he put it off too long. Besides, how do you tell someone you love that their REAL father might be a monster.

Artoo Deetoo may have had some idea of the true identity of Vader. He was pretty clever and, unlike Threepio, never had his memory wiped. Even so, he never had any direct contact with Vader and so had no chance to prove or disprove any suspicions he may have had.

Outside of these people, it seems that nobody else in the Galaxy knew Vader's true identity. He must have just suddenly 'appeared' as a servant to the Emperor, slowly gaining recognition in his new identity.

This changes when Vader reveals his relationship to Luke in the Empire Strikes Back. But it seems that Luke tells no-one of this dark secret. At first he may have done so out of disbelief- he thought Vader was trying to trick him. Later, however, he seemed to have done so out of caution and perhaps even fear. When people find out your father is a monster responsible for the deaths of millions across the galaxy they're liable to have some strong reactions. Indeed, when Luke finally does tell Leia in Return of the Jedi, you can see the horror on her face- and the pity she feels towards Luke. The horror only deepens when Luke reveals that Leia too is the child of Anakin/Vader.

Where things really get interesting, however, is AFTER the movies. In the 'expanded universe', the whole issue seems to have been glossed over or ignored. The only mention I recall of it is when the Noghri somehow recognize Leia's relationship to Vader via her scent. Other than that, it just doesn't seem to come up much. This I find very odd, especially with Luke and Leia taking such prominent positions in the New Republic. In my mind, there are only two options for what is going on here:

Option A: Luke and Leia have kept their relationship to Vader a secret. Nobody outside their close circle of friends knows the truth. Thus, most people just see them as the descendents of the Jedi Hero Anakin Skywalker, who died tragically (but obscurely) in the turmoil of the end of the Clone Wars.

Option B: Luke and Leia have revealed their secret to the Galaxy at large- that Vader was the corrupted (and then redeemed) Anakin Skywalker and that they are both his children.

Both options seem problematic to me. In option A, both Luke and Leia are harboring a 'dark secret'. This would have to be very stressful for both of them. For Luke, as a Jedi master, this could be damaging of his ability to teach or indeed continue his own learning. In my opinion, being a Jedi is about being honest and open- about confronting problems rather than avoiding them. By keeping this secret, Luke would always have to hold some part of himself back- and would always have a nagging fear of the truth coming out. For both Luke and Leia, this secret would be a political time bomb just waiting to go off. If they hid the fact they were Vader's children and it came out some other way it would look like a conspiracy and could cause the public to doubt them, despite their obvious heroics during the rebellion.

If Option B is true, then the Galaxy (as depicted in various novels) has been incredibly understanding of Luke and Leia’s heritage- to the point where even political enemies don’t seem to use it against them. I find this a little difficult to believe. A guy like Borsk Fey’lya, for instance, seems to be the type who’d exploit that particular ‘weakness’. And yet he doesn’t do anything of the sort- and Leia actually becomes Chancellor of the New Republic without the whole issue of her father ever coming up.

All that having been said, however, I tend to lean towards Option B as being the case. To me, it seems to be the most logical. As far as that being a political weakness is concerned, Leia has a huge trump card to play: The fact that her adopted homeworld was destroyed by the Empire. This, in addition to her well-documented role in the victory of the Rebel Alliance would make her rather bullet-proof when it came to attacks regarding her parentage. She may be a blood relative of Vader, but she has proven where her loyalties lie. The same can apply to Luke- considering his own role in the downfall of Vader and the Emperor. There is also the fact that the Rebellion WAS a civil war. I doubt if Luke and Leia are alone in having parents or other relatives who were on the ‘other side’. Yes, their particular parent may have done much more harm than the typical Imperial Officer, but overall, their situation was probably quite common.

So, in my Star Wars universe at least the ‘cat is out of the bag’ in regards to the identity of Anakin Skywalker as Vader. While he is probably reviled by many (and rightly so), his story was not hidden from the public. It serves as both a cautionary tale and perhaps a source of hope that even the most evil might find enlightenment and do what is right when it counts.

Monday, May 16, 2011

1984: Film’s Best Year Ever

Okay, maybe that’s claiming a bit much- I mean, for every awesome movie that came out in 1984 there was a real stinker to balance it out. Even so, the number of awesomely great and awesomely bad movies in 1984 was extraordinary- at least from the point of view of a child of the 80’s. Just compiling the information for this post, I was amazed at how many movies came out in this year, let alone the fact that so many of them struck my fancy. In fact, quite a few of these helped shape my ‘psyche’ (for good or ill) and had a huge impact on my imagination.

In 1984 I was thirteen years old and living in my home town of Eagle Butte in the midst of South Dakota. Considering how remote the town was, movies always arrived there months after their release elsewhere. So it was that I mostly went to movies when we traveled to one of the bigger towns (Pierre- 1.5 hours away or Rapid City, 3.5 hours away) or went away (to Michigan) on Summer break. Truth be told, however, I probably saw most of the movies on this list the following year, after they came out on video and HBO. In 1984, both cable TV and VHS were VERY new to Eagle Butte- but both became wildly popular (especially with me). This is all just so you can see that movies were a ‘big deal’ with me, even after the introduction of HBO (or perhaps even moreso because of it).

So, without further ado, I’ll delve into the movies and maybe comment here or there about them- especially about how they affected my imagination (and through that, my gaming in general and my Star Wars gaming in particular).


ACTION/ADVENTURE FILMS

Beverly Hills Cop
This was the epitome of cool in its day and helped define a ‘buddy’ cop movie for me (even if it was three cops instead of the usual two). It also showed me that action movies could have comic elements in them without defusing the adrenaline burst. In fact, for me, they enhanced it. I mean, one minute you’re laughing, the next you’re in a gunfight. Each seems to play off the others and I always like to include comedy in my own adventures, especially during action scenes.

City Heat
Maybe not the best movie, but at the time I loved the whole ‘Gangbusters’ 1920’s feel- plus, I like Clint Eastwood (even if I don’t much care for Burt Reynolds).

Cloak & Dagger
Of course I loved this movie. I mean, the hero was a kid close to my own age who was into playing video games and roleplaying games. In fact, they even opened the movie with a ‘table-top’ session complete with miniatures. I do remember being a bit confused by this movie, though. On the one hand, the premise seemed pretty light-hearted (a kid and his wacky spy imaginary friend). But on the other, people were actually getting killed in the movie and there were insinuations that the kid was actually mentally disturbed. So, yeah…weird.

Dune
This movie was a lot weirder and grosser than it had to be. And for some reason, they added a bunch of non-canon material to an already complex story. Even so, the whole concept of noble houses vying for control within a galaxy spanning empire has stuck with me. In fact, I would credit this movie with giving me a basis for my concept of the BattleTech universe (with its warring noble houses). And this in turn is great for running ‘noble’ adventures in a Star Wars universe (say the Tapani sector, for instance). Great imagery and fodder for adventures.

Firestarter
Kind of creepy, but perhaps one of the better Stephen King movies out there. A great exploration into the whole idea of fugitive ‘mutant/mentalists’ hunted by the government. This is one of those movies I refer back to mentally when I play games like ‘Dark Conspiracy’ or any other dark future/supernatural game.

Greystoke
For its time, it had some great visuals and makeup work for the apes. But overall, this movie was just too ‘moody’ for me. I wanted more adventure and less dreariness. Apart from Disney, I have yet to see a really good Tarzan movie.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Pure awesome. What more needs to be said? Pulp adventure that could EASILY be translated into a sci-fi/Star Wars genre.

The Karate Kid
“Sweep the Leg”. Heh. This actually inspired a friend of mine (Sharon) to get into Martial Arts. She became a nationally ranked fighter who made it to the Olympic tryouts. How’s THAT for inspirational.

Missing In Action
About as cheesy as you can get. But what do you expect from Chuck Norris. Even so, not a bad idea for the basis of a Star Wars adventure about ‘going behind enemy lines’ to rescue POWs.

Red Dawn
My older sister was seriously scared by this movie. I was skeptical that ANYTHING like this could really happen. But even so, the IDEA was a powerful one, especially to people who were the age of the people in the movie. What would YOU do? Become a ‘Wolverine’?

Romancing the Stone
This movie surprised me. A great mix of action and comedy (and of course romance). Would be a great adventure to game, too.

Sheena
Ahem. Yes. Well. I was 13. So of course I remember this movie. Zebra-horses and all.

Streets of Fire
Talk about an oddball movie. This one looked like it was set in the 50’s, but had modern musical elements and an almost ‘Roadwarrior’ vibe at times (biker gangs, etc.). Yeah. Weird, but I have to admit liking some of the songs from it.

Sword of the Valiant
The only reason I remember this movie at all is because of how incredibly dorky the leading man’s haircut was. Seriously. Look it up sometime.

Tank
I like James Garner. I like Tanks. This movie had both. It also had the old “good guy takes on the corrupt sheriff” plot. Only this time, he did it in a Tank.


SCIENCE FICTION FILMS

2010
I enjoyed this a LOT more than 2001. It had great special effects, a much more comprehensible story and characters I actually got to know/like. I actually felt sorry for HAL at the end of the film. They released an adventure module based on this movie (and for 2001) for the Star Frontiers game. It didn’t seem like a great fit for the system but it was neat to see all the background information on the ships and people.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai
I didn’t know whether to put this under comedy or Sci-Fi because it was both- but even more than that, it was just plain weird. But weird in a way I loved (and continue to love). A true ‘cult classic’, Buckaroo Banzai introduced me to the idea of a ‘super-scientist/adventurer’ team before I’d even heard of ‘Doc Savage’. I LOVED the (copyright infringing) inclusion of Banzai in the BattlTech universe and I could easily see a team of oddball geniuses like this making an appearance in a Star Wars setting, too.

Dreamscape
I’m ashamed to say this movie actually scared me. Ashamed because looking back on it the ‘snake man’ that terrorized me was really cheesy. It has a GREAT concept, however- the idea of an assassin working through dreams and people working to stop him. I have yet to use this idea, but I’d love to work it in somehow.

The Last Starfighter
I just got the anniversary edition of this a while ago. In fact, it is what inspired me to make this post. This was the first movie to include really ground-breaking computer visual effects (blowing Tron away in my opinion).

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds
I don’t like most anime. And looking back I’m not sure I can say I really ‘liked’ this one either. But like a lot of anime films, this one had some really impressive and memorable visions. The aerial dogfights and flying scenes were awesome and the image of swarms of gigantic insects plowing over a radioactive plain is a memorable one.

The Philadelphia Experiment
A bit of a throw-away movie, but I like the time travel concepts involved.

Repo Man
This was a weird one alright. A car with an alien artifact in the trunk that disintegrated anyone who disturbed it. That plus Emilio Estevez. Weird.

Runaway
Future-cop Tom Sellek vs. Killer robots- including a ‘robot bullet’ that chased down its target. Unfortunately, the bullets were incredibly slow. Even so, I still like the concept and the little “bug-like” robot assassins are a great idea for any sci-fi game.

Starman
Not much to say on this. Was interesting enough, but not one of my favorites


Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
Following on the heels of Star Trek II, this movie had a LOT to live up to. It didn’t. I personally didn’t like the fact the killed off Kirk’s son. The death of the Enterprise was memorable, but not nearly as heart-wrenching as the death of Spock in the previous film.

Supergirl
Wow. What a complete stinker. Bad acting. Incomprehensible script. Just. Wow.

The Terminator
I was blown away by this movie. It was action-packed and frightening (especially in the world of the 80’s, with nuclear Armageddon seeming so close). The ending was melancholy, what with the heroine not preventing doomsday, but simply running to survive it. Kind of bleak. But I loved it anyway. James Cameron is the man.

The Warrior and the Sorceress
This movie is probably only memorable to anyone because the scantily clad barbarian woman on the cover of the VHS box had four breasts. Truth be told, I don’t remember much about this movie, or if it even HAD the aforementioned woman in it.It did have David Caradine, but seriously, that isn’t much of a draw for me.


COMEDY FILMS

All of Me
What can you say. Steve Martin is a funny guy. He was funny in this.

Bachelor Party
This is what I’d call a ‘typical’ 80’s comedy. Raunchy with lots of nudity (i.e. boobs). Even so, this one had a little more going for it than the average movie of its type- i.e. it was actually funny in some parts. Who’d have though Tom Hanks would turn into a big, serious actor though, huh?

Cannonball Run II
The original Cannonball Run was pretty terrible. But at least it had the benefit of being (somewhat) original. This? This was just terrible. The idea, however, could be fun. Imagine a ralley race of misfit spacer/smugglers running a gauntlet of Imperial patrols and space pirates in order to win a prize sponsored by an eccentric crimelord (to say nothing of the bragging rights). Could be fun.

Electric Dreams
A charming little movie with a classic 80’s soundtrack. I like it for sentimental reasons.

Ghostbusters
One of THE defining movies of my life. Ghostbusters was an AWESOME blend of comedy and scares. I don’t think a week of my life goes by without me using some kind of quote from or reference to this film. Oh, and it was with the official game adaptation of Ghostbusters that my beloved D6 system first appeared in a recognizable form. Sweet.

Gremlins
Another mix of laughs and frights. It was entertaining and at the time, I liked Phoebe Cates. This would make a fun adventure for a ‘horror’ RPG.

Johnny Dangerously
I liked this movie. Funny and quotable. VERY quotable (“The .88 magnum. It shoots through schools.”)

The Muppets Take Manhattan
Truth be told, I don’t remember this movie much. But I DO love the muppets.

Police Academy
Yes. It was terrible. Yes. I hated Steve Gutenberg and his smarmy smirk. No. I didn’t really like this movie. But there were a few laughs to be found.

Revenge of the Nerds
Another exemplar of the 80’s comedy movie- i.e. lots of gratuitous nudity. But like Bachelor Party, this was probably one of the better films of the genre (which isn’t saying much, I know).

Sixteen Candles
Another defining movie of my life- and probably the lives of every other kid around my age in the 80’s. I must have seen this film about a hundred times.

Splash
A charming and fun little movie. Who’d have though Tom Hanks would turn into a big, serious actor though, huh?

This is Spinal Tap
It goes to 11. It really does. This quirky ‘mockumentary’ was like nothing I’d ever seen. Original and hilarious.

Top Secret!
I loved, loved, loved this movie. Completely silly. I mean, it had an old-time western saloon brawl.. only underwater. And that was one of the more realistic scenes.


DRAMATIC FILMS

Overall, I am not much for ‘dramatic’ movies. I mean, I will occasionally find one I like, but if I had my ‘druthers’, almost any other genre would do. So I probably won’t have much to say about most of the following films. But that doesn’t stop me from marveling at how many acclaimed films of this type came out within the span of one year.

Against All Odds
I thought actress Rachel Ward was gorgeous. She is in this movie.

Amadeus
Funny and tragic. Actually saw this in the theatre and liked it.

The Bounty
Meh.

The Cotton Club
Heard it was great. Never really saw the whole thing in one sitting.

Country
Critically acclaimed. Never saw it all.

The Killing Fields
Critically acclaimed. Never saw it all.

The Natural
Critically acclaimed. Never saw it all.

Once Upon a Time in America
Critically acclaimed. Never saw it all.

Places in the Heart
Critically acclaimed. Never saw it all.

The River
Critically acclaimed. Never saw it all.

Teachers
Actually saw this one. Liked it at the time- probably moreso for the music than the actual story.


MUSICAL FILMS

Breakin
Okay, it’s a dance film, not a ‘musical’, but close enough. I remember how wildly possibly break dancing was at this time. I also remember how BAD these kind of exploitation movies were. Even so, this one is just a pale shadow of its successor- a true 80’s classic: Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo.

Footloose
Again, its more of a dance film, but what I remember most about footloose are the songs it popularized and the videos of those songs. One of the most listened to albums of that year by me.

Purple Rain
Wow. I hate Prince- or the artist formerly known as him. This movie was ridiculous and pretentious to the extreme. Thus it was perfect for Prince. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this movie in one sitting. I couldn’t stomach it (or the music), but whether I liked him or not, he was a HUGE star at the time.

Rhinestone
Dolly Parton and Sylvester Stalone sing. Painful. Just painful.


HORROR FILMS

C.H.U.D.
Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers. I’ve never seen this movie in its entirety, but the name stuck with me. Seriously, it is so ridiculous- but evidently it is very memorable.

Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter
SPOILER: No, it wasn’t.

A Nightmare on Elm Street
This scared the absolute crap out of me. I don’t much care for horror movies, but this one stood apart from the others due to the particularly horrific way in which the bad guy killed you- where you could do NOTHING to protect yourself. Yeeesh. Would be a good mash-up with a “Dreamscape” style adventure- a psychopathic killer on the loose in people’s subconscious.

Night of the Comet
An odd mixup of 80’s teen music and zombie apocalypse. Strangely enough, this was probably the first zombie movie I’d actually seen. Wasn’t until later that I delved into the whole ‘Night of the Living Dead’ thing.


And this isn’t even ALL the movies that came out that year, just the ones I remember most keenly (even if for some it was just the title I remembered). So yeah, I have yet to see a year like 1984 and I doubt I ever will. Was fun to think back on it, though I didn’t realize just what an exceptional (and often goofy) time it was.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

May the Fourth Be With You!



Yeah, I know that movie wasn't officially released until May 25th, 1977, but... May the Fourth just has a nice ring to it. In fact, it almost kind of sounds like May the For- HEY! I got the joke!

Man, its hard to believe that Star Wars is going to be 34 years old. It seems like just yesterday it was learning to walk. And now look at it! All grown up and living in its parents basement, playing the Force Unleashed 2. Sniff. But seriously, its been a great 34 years, all told. I can't imagine what my life would have been like without Star Wars. And yes, I know that sounds weird and (to some) pathetic, but it's true. The Star Wars movies have been life-long companions, and through them (and the games they've spawned) I have met some of the best friends in my life.

Though I may occasionally grumble at some of the decisions made with the franchise, I will always be grateful to George Lucas and his team for their imagination, their creativity and their perseverance in bringing the first movie to the screen some 34 years ago. I may be hopelessly optimistic, but I still believe there is a lot to look forward to in the Star Wars franchise.

May the Fourth be with you, indeed.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Character Flaws

It is said that a hallmark of a ‘good character’ in a book/movie/game is that he/she has flaws. I agree with this wholeheartedly. Any character who is good at everything and never makes mistakes is ultimately boring and annoying. I think a vast number of ‘Mary Sue’ characters fall into this camp. Oh, sure, they might have a ‘flaw’ but it is typically something forgivable like “They just care too damn much!” or are “so good hearted that they overlook the flaws in others”. If the flaw is yet another thing to look up to then it really isn’t a flaw. No, I’m talking about REAL flaws that actually limit a character or even cause them to (gasp) make mistakes or act irrationally.

You need look no further than the heroes of the Star Wars universe to see that they are flawed and that it is those flaws that make them all the more interesting.

Luke
He is impetuous and impatient- both of these are serious flaws when it comes to being a Jedi. Looking at the behavior of his father, you see that he comes by these flaws honestly. In The Empire Strikes Back we see these flaws very clearly on display during his training with Yoda. He is frustrated that the lessons are not coming easily to him. Frustrated that it is taking so much time. He runs off half-cocked and nearly gets himself killed. Luke also seems to have a bit of a temper- as witnessed in his final duel with Vader. He CAN be goaded into taking rash action. Thankfully, Luke is able to battle these flaws- and indeed, that is the central message of the movies. Luke succeeds in setting aside his bad emotions when it counts most, unlike his father. He doesn’t allow his flaws to master him.

Leia
She is likewise impetuous (but less so than either Luke or Han), but also haughty. She may not be a typically ‘stuck up’ noblewoman, but she has an ‘attitude’ and isn’t afraid of throwing it around. To me, it seems to be a defense mechanism of sorts. She is obviously a very caring and dedicated person, but at the same time, she seems to hold herself apart from others- this is especially apparent in The Empire Strikes back. She hides behind a mask of cool ‘professionalism’ (and insults) to keep herself from getting too close to Han Solo, whom she obviously has feelings for. I see this attitude as one of self-denial. She sees what she’s doing as too important to allow her personal feelings to ‘get in the way’. In fact, it isn’t much of a stretch to guess that she is (intentionally or not) martyring herself to ‘the cause’. The loss of her family and entire planet had to have had a HUGE impact on her psyche. Thus, she is dedicated to the point where her own life begins to mean less and less. And that isn’t healthy. While this flaw may seem more ‘noble’ (and less ‘flaw-like’) than those of Luke’s it is still something Leia must overcome- she must come to grips with her loss and allow herself to feel again- to care about some-ONE, not just about a cause. She must allow herself to have a life, even if she is guilty that the people of Alderaan lost theirs.

Han
He is arrogant, overconfident and self-centered. These traits make him a very interesting character- though especially frustrating to ‘dedicated’ people like Leia. Han’s Mercenary streak is, however, a fa├žade. This is quickly proved in the first movie and continues to be disproved in the others. Much like Leia, Han Solo has been ‘hurt’ in his past and puts forth an attitude of casual indifference in an attempt to shield himself from further hurt. His dream of becoming a fighter pilot was dashed, and so he now pretends that things ‘don't matter’, because he doesn’t want anything to matter enough to hurt him if he lost it. Again, like Leia, Han has to overcome this fear of loss and be willing to commit himself to something bigger than himself- in this case it is both ‘the cause’ of the Rebellion and his love of Leia.

So right there, you see what I’m talking about. None of these characters are perfect, and it is those imperfections that make them interesting. That having been said, I feel that a lot of characterization- particularly in recent decades, has swung much too far into the ‘flawed’ end of the spectrum. You look at comics, TV series and movies and you find characters who aren’t ‘accentuated’ by their flaws. They are defined by them. In short, I think there is a trend to ‘go too far’, in the flaws category. And this is (in my opinion) just as dangerous as a lack of flaws.

I blame a lot of this trend on comics and the seeming need of many writers to turn everything ‘gritty and dark’- likely in an effort to make comics seem more real. But I would argue that by turning every ‘hero’ into an ‘anti-hero’, you are making something just as ‘unreal’ as a world with squeaky clean characters. For an example of this, look at just about anything Frank Miller produces. There are NO good people in any of his stories. The ‘heroes’ are mostly socipathic jerks (Batman), the women are whores (take your pick), normal people are completely self-centered and moronic. NOBODY has any redeeming qualities. Or rather, not enough to outweigh the overwhelming ‘grit’ of everyone else. Yes, there are jerks galore in the real world. There are even some evil people. But it has been my experience that quite a few people are nice. And a surprising number are even reasonably well-balanced.

Is it too much to want to have a character you can actually like? Looking at most recent dramatic TV shows, the answer seems to be yes. Take the show ‘Rescue Me’ for instance. I wanted to like this show. I enjoyed the humor of the first few episodes- I even enjoyed the drama. But very quickly, every character in the show descended into the ‘gritty’ realm of being a complete jerk. Pretty soon I couldn’t like or even relate to any of them.

It was much the same for the Battlestar Galactica series. One by one, all the characters I liked ‘let me down’ for one reason or another- and then continued to do so. After a time, it just felt to me like the writers were doing so just for the sake of generating drama. But to me it felt forced. Yes, I understand characters can change, especially under dire circumstances. But is it too much to hope that some ‘core’ of a character can continue throughout a series? That the person you grew to like at the beginning can retain some element of that and not just slowly descent into a morass of (dramatic) crap? To me, a character retaining some of their ‘essence’ is much more realistic than someone who’s actions change at the whim of whatever script is being produced that week. I will say, however, that one character in BSG did NOT let me down- at least not until the final episode. Commander Adama was awesome- and a rock. In fact, he was a showcase for what I am talking about. His attitudes towards cylons changed radically throughout the show- from mortal enemies to (ultimately) allies and even friends. But that never changed WHO HE WAS. He always retained that ‘core’. Contrast that with Chief Tyrol. He began as a very solidly grounded guy- a hard-working ‘everyman’, but by the end of the series, he was a violently impulsive jerk. Yes, I realize he went through quite a bit, but there was so little left of that original person that he didn’t even LOOK the same at the end.

In any case, I’m rambling now (or ranting), so I’ll stop and summarize.

Character flaws are great. They are great in movies, books and games. Every character should have one (or more)- and probably will, even if the PLAYER doesn’t realize it. Flawless characters are dull and uninteresting. But at the same time, it is possible to go too far and turn a character into a completely unsympathetic jerk by playing him too dark and gritty. So develop those flaws, just don’t overdo them.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Descent into Nostalgia, Part Deux



After School Cartoons were a ‘constant’ in my growing up- and another ‘tradition’ that has fallen to the wayside in the on-demand world of modern entertainment. Again, don’t get me wrong. I LOVE the accessibility of modern entertainment. This post isn’t the lament the way society has changed. Rather, it is to celebrate the unique perspective my generation had on cartoon entertainment.

Much like Saturday Morning cartoons, after school shows were something to look forward to. In the earliest days (the late 70’s, early 80’s), most of these cartoons consisted of re-runs of looney toons. These were awesome, of course, but in the early 80’s, a whole slew of purpose-made after-school cartoons emerged. Admittedly, most of these shows were little more than half-hour long animated commercials, but that didn’t stop them from being a lot of fun. So, without further ado, here is my (relatively) short list of after-school cartoons. As with all things on this blog, I will endeavor to relate the cartoons to Star Wars in some way (for indeed they did give me quite a few gaming ideas over the year).


He-Man and the Masters of the Universe

Another in a long line of Filmation-Brand animated series. By the time this one rolled around, I was getting pretty sick of the same canned ‘rotoscope’ animations, the same sound-effects and the stilted public service announcement message crammed into the end of each episode. The stories and characters were simplistic at best and downright goofy at worst. Don’t even get me started on Prince Adam and his pink outfit. Seriously? Seriously?! The toys associated with this show also never really appealed to me. They were all just a bit too goofy for me- and their odd size (much larger than contemporary action figures) made them seem more like...well, dolls.

All that having been said, there was and is something appealing about the WORLD of He-Man- a gonzo combination of magic and science. You have guys with laser guns fighting barbarians riding giant sabre-toothed cats. THAT part I always liked. I could see a whole mini-campaign in Star Wars set on a world like Eternia- just replace ‘Magic’ with The Force and there you go. Though, you’d have to do away with the whole ‘magic transformation thing with He-Man himself- but I don’t have a problem with that. Never liked that whole concept. Skeletor would make a pretty good Dark Force user type, the Sorceress would be a good Light Side user. Yep, lots of potential- say a world far out in the ‘unknown regions’ or even isolated in a densely packed and unexplored star cluster. All the ‘high-tech’ of the Eternians would work just fine- I mean, they had never developed starflight in the show, either.

Oh, and I would also lump She-Ra into this discussion- it was the same show for the most part, only with more toys that had hair you could brush. Err.. Not that I ever did. Ahem.. right. So. Moving on!


Thundercats

The animation on this series was just plain awesome. It was the kind of ‘anime’ I like- lots of dynamic movement and action with characters who have ‘normal’ proportions for the most part and who don’t suddenly get all ‘cartoony’ for ‘comic’ effect. I’m sure some folks would argue it isn’t ‘anime’ at all, but whatever. It was certainly NOT traditional western animation. As with Masters of the Universe, I never got into the toys associated with the series, just the Cartoon itself. Heck, I watched re-runs into my teens.

While the storylines in Thundercats could occasionally be just as goofy as anything He-Man might throw at you, the appeal of the visual style was undeniable. So what if it had ‘Snarf’ when all the other characters just looked so cool. I mean, who didn’t think Panthro was a badass? Who didn’t think Cheetara was hot? Just me? Oh, well.. moving on again.

As with He-Man, the “Third Earth” of the Thundercats could easily exist in a Star Wars setting- home of a species of exiled feline-humanoids battling against what amounts to a group of mutant space-pirates. What really sets the setting apart from Masters of the Universe is the fact that, at some point at least, both the Thundercats and their mutant enemies had space travel. The easiest way to explain this is to have both mutant and thundercat species ‘trapped’ on the planet, having crashed there years ago. There would be a number of native species (though I would just as soon the ‘Ro-Bears’ didn’t exist, bleh). Mum-Raa could easily be the lich-like remains of an evil Force user who at one point nearly destroyed the planet. He could be awakened by the arrival of new species on his world and seek to rise to power once more. Again, lots of fodder there for a mini campaign, with heroes stumbling upon the world and resolving to aid the Thundercats in their struggle.


GI Joe

When I think after-school cartoons, this is what first comes to my mind. GI JOE- A Real American Hero. I already mentioned the blatant commercialism involved in all these series, but GI Joe was really a showcase of that- and it actually worked on me. I owned quite a few figures and vehicles in my day. It helped a lot in my mind that they were the same scale as Star Wars figures. Thus, they weren’t ‘another line’ of toys, they were toys that expanded my current collection. The bases I built out in the yard quickly became a mish-mash of Star Wars and GI Joe, with a fair amount of Fisher Price “Adventure People” thrown in for good measure.

But I digress. The GI Joe Cartoon itself was pretty darn hokey when you get right down to it. I mean here were all these lasers flying all over the place. Missiles blowing up planes. Bombs destroying entire bases- and nobody ever got hurt or killed? Yep, well. Whatever. The point was- it HAD lasers, and jets, and tanks and all kinds of other cool stuff going on. It was enough for me at least to set aside all the silly elements and just enjoy some action (even if it was ‘kiddified’ action. Also, the public service announcement portion of the show was just that- a separate little message tacked onto the end of the cartoon. This meant that the cartoon episodes themselves could be about pretty much ANYTHING. They didn't’ have to have an overriding ‘message’ to them- unlike He-Man (for instance) where the whole episode was geared around teaching a particular life lesson. To me, it made the shows more entertaining and less stilted.

While I say that I enjoyed the gunfights and vehicles in this show, it was really the characters who I enjoyed the most. That’s what set GI Joe apart from other shows of its ilk- instead of a steady cast of 4-6 ‘regulars’, they had an ever-expanding supporting cast. And from this cast, they would switch focus every few episodes to a new group. Duke, Scarlett, Lady Jaye, Flint, Shipwreck, Snake-Eyes, Roadblock- heck, even a lot of the supporting characters got their chance to shine. Of course, some of that I could have done without. Alpine and Bazooka, for instance. This ‘comic’ duo was just downright annoying. I mean, seriously- how stupid WAS Bazooka. Yeesh. Thankfully, annoyances like that were overshadowed by characters I DID like. Flint was my favorite Joe guy (followed closely by Snake Eyes- who was MUCH cooler in the comics than the TV show) and Lady Jaye was by far the most awesome female Joe.

The Villains of GI Joe were quite memorable as well- though portrayed (ultimately) as idiots. Still, they all had interesting ‘hooks’- and would make great NPC villains in most games. You had the stereotypical megalomaniacal Cobra Commander; the plotting Destro with his distinctive iron-mask; the femme-fatale Baroness; the chameleon-like Zartan; and so on into the even more silly Tomax and Xamot and the incredibly silly “Dr. Mindbender” and “Serpentor”.

And then you have the stories. As mentioned above, GI Joe stories were universally goofy, but wow did they cover a lot of ground. Many were simply ‘Cobra’s Super-Weapon of the week’, but there were some truly bizarre ones mixed in there as well- like the time Lady Jaye was tricked into visiting the Scottish estate of her remote family- only to discover that she was actually related to Destro and that HIS part of the family evidently worshipped Cthulu in their basement. Yeah. Look that one up. Oh, and the time where some of the Joes got sent into an alternate future where Cobra had won- and eventually decided to STAY in that dimension to help (this was how they ‘weeded out’ a lot of the old/original joes in favor of the new/flashy ones). And who can forget the multi-episode ‘epics’ that usually revolved around some ‘artifact’ that is in several pieces and both Joes and Cobra have to race to find them all. I have used this particular structure in more than one of my own adventures.

As you can see from all of the gushing above, I was a fan of the show. Indeed, I have used names and even characterizations from it in various RPGs. One of my favorite sub-hobbies is ‘translating’ the JOE team into various settings/game systems. GI Joe in Twilight 2000? Yep. Done it. GI Joe in Battletech? Yep. GI Joe in Dark Conspiracy? Yep. GI Joe in Star Wars? Yep, done that, too. They exist as a ‘cell’ of the Rebel alliance, an elite, self-contained unit with their own distinctive vehicles and equipment. Likewise, the villains of the series could fit in QUITE well in a Star Wars setting, even if a “Cobra” organization doesn’t exist. Destro the Arms Dealer works great- even better with the Baroness as his agent. Zartan could be a REAL shapeshifter and Serpentor…well, he’s still kind of goofy, but I think you get the point.

So yeah. Yo Joe!


Transformers

I’m tempted to lump this in with GI Joe, as the cartoons were produced simultaneously by the same companies. They share a lot of similarities in their structure (lots of characters, gonzo storylines, etc.). I was never into the Transformers as toys, but I did enjoy the cartoons well enough. Oddly enough, they seemed to be set in an ‘alternate future’ Earth- and equally odd was the fact that despite all the horrific combats going on, most episodes had little or no involvement with the government/military forces of humanity. The Autobots were almost ALWAYS the ‘only’ response to Decepticon aggression. Very odd.

After a couple years, the focus of the stories seemed to shift from earth to other planets, what with the addition of the world-devouring Unicron in ‘Transformers The Movie’. Indeed, this movie (despite being incredibly hokey) was quite memorable. First of all, it had that awesome song (“You’ve got the Touch!”), then it had characters die. And I mean a LOT of characters. Seriously, I think they killed every single original autobot. THAT was certainly memorable in a day and age where NOBODY every got hurt in cartoons. But more interesting to geeks like me was the after-school episode in which the Decepticons hire a human ‘strategic advisor’ to help them in their battles with the Autobots. This advisor (portrayed as an ancient man in a mask who speaks with a lisping accent), is revealed at the end of the episode to be none-other than Cobra Commander, himself. So it seems that the Autobots were actually set in the same universe as the Joes. Neat, huh? Well, I think so, anyway.

In any case, I find the Transformers to be a lot less…transformable into a Star Wars setting than any of the other cartoons mentioned in this post. I suppose you could have a race of sentient machines (droids), but it just wouldn’t be all that extraordinary. And if you had them ‘transform’ into various things it would just seem…hokey to me. Even so, thinking back on it I would have to say that a Unicron-like planet-devouring machine would be an AWESOME superweapon to use in a Star Wars campaign- though I’d steer away from it being a ‘current’ invention (as it would rather upstage the Death Star). Rather, I’d see it as an ancient machine built by a long-dead (or lost) race. Perhaps it wanders into the known galaxy. The Empire tries to sieze it for their own use. The Rebellion tries to destroy it (or at the very least prevent the Empire from getting it). Yeah, that does have possibilities.

I’ll stop there. I could reminisce for hours on this kind of stuff, but I think I’ve said the core of what I wanted. As goofy as cartoons of the day were, they left me with some great ideas and inspiration for my own imagination and gaming.