Sunday, February 3, 2019

Star Wars and the Question of Canon 5: The Dark Forces/Jedi Knight Series.

It's interesting to consider the nature of spinoffs in relation to canonical texts.  The rule of thumb seems to be that they always stand in the shadow of either a parent franchise, or else a more  polished, well regarded text.  Still, history does contain a few examples where spinoffs managed to stand on their own.  The two best examples are still Huckleberry Finn and Lord of the Rings.  While it might not be possible for the stories centered around Kyle Katarn to ever eclipse the original trilogy, it would be a mistake to call his fictional exploits a failure.  I'd like to spend some time exploring some of the reasons why a character from a different medium offers some of the best follow-up material to the original Star Wars films.


The figure of Katarn got his start as the player character in a video game developed by LucasArts.  Dark Forces was released in the early winter of 1995.  The player takes on the role of a mercenary named Kyle Katarn, a new character developed specifically for the game.  We learn very little of this individual's background from the original first-person-shooter.  As portrayed in the arcade missions, the figure of Katarn is little more than a cipher for the perspective of the gamer.  In this regard, his beginnings share a surprising similarity with the more familiar personality of Nintendo's Mario.  Much like everyone;s favorite plumber, Kyle started out as just a random creation of convenience.  Also like Mario, Kyle's personality and back story would grow in the telling. 

By the release of the last game featuring Kyle as a playable character in 2001, his popularity among the fans had skyrocketed to the point were he was being called the Chuck Norris of Star Wars.  He had gone from being a cutout cipher to a full fledged character, complete with backstory, motivation, a lightsaber, and a narrative arc with a neat beginning and end.  The behind the scenes creative process for this development is so simple it can almost be diagrammed.  Take the personality of Han Solo, add in the Force powers of Luke Skywalker, and you have the beginnings of our main protagonist.  All that remains is to find out if this figure has anything worth telling.  The curious part is that an actual story began to unfold somewhere in the middle of it all.  If Katarn is an invented fictional creation, then perhaps he's also a textbook example of how far invention can go when Inspiration catches up and takes control of the wheel.

At some point, either Kyle's popularity was high enough to demand it, or else the developers were starting to get a clear enough picture of who the character was that a trilogy of short novels was commissioned, written by William C. Dietz and published in February of 1997.  In March of that same year, John Whitman took Dietz's books and transferred them to the airwaves in the form of a series of three, full-cast radio plays: Soldier for the Empire, Rebel Agent, and Jedi Knight.  It is the writing of these audio dramas I want to examine, along with the story of Jedi Outcast, the third video game in the Dark Forces series that closes the narrative arc of Kyle Katarn.

The Radio Plays.

It all starts in the last place you would expect to find the hero a Star Wars tale, with Kyle as young officer-in-training at the Imperial academy.  The setting and characters that surround Kyle are interesting in that we've met them before.  Dietz and Whitman have made the fitting choice to portray Kyle's basic training college as an outer space upgrade and combination of all the 80s underdog films, complete with over the top jocks for bullies and a vibe that wouldn't have been out of place in a John Hughes film, if the director of The Breakfast Club decided to team up with James Cameron for a Sci-Fi project.  Kyle's rival, Nathan, for instance, in addition to carrying upper class echoes of Johnny Lawrence and Stan Gable, also contains just a bit of James Woods's character from Scarface.  In other words, Nathan isn't just a one note acknowledgment of all the jocks and bullies that have come before him, he also contains echoes of the kind of individual all those guys could have become.  The irony is if Nathan ever had the chance to turn into a galactic version of George Sheffield, a lot of the wind would get taken out of his sails real fast.

Meanwhile, for a guy training to be a leader of storm troopers, Kyle finds he has a hard time fitting the standard profile.  For one thing, on his first mission as a squad leader, he finds himself willing to tend to injured rebels.  It doesn't help that another rebel, a girl by the name of Jan Orrs, manages to catch his attention in the most ironic, yet natural way, either.

Complicating matters further is the fact that Kyle's dad, Morgan Katarn, is as much a rebel operative as Jan.  As if our hero didn't have enough on his plate, his old man is the target of an Imperial manhunt.  What makes this particular hunt notable is that the Empire has seen fit to send an individual named Jerec after him.  The funny thing about Jerec is that although he appears to  be blind (indeed, he seems to have empty sockets where his eyes should be), the man has an uncanny knack for not only knowing when someone is approaching, he can even manage to know that person's name sometimes, even if they've never met before.  It comes with the territory if you're Force sensitive.

Jerec's reasons for hunting down Morgan Katarn are also more complex than they seem.  It turns out Morgan is just like Jerec, except on the opposite side of the coin.  It's also an apparent case of like father like son, as sometimes Kyle finds himself relying on the same intuitions and hunches to get him out of trouble.  These hunches are also part of the reason for Kyle's sense of creeping alienation between himself and the Imperials.  Kyle's dad also carries a secret that Jerec wants.  When Morgan won't give it to him, the Dark Jedi obliges by giving the "knight who never was" a spectacular view of things by placing the old man's severed head on top of a spike.  He helps to create another rebel in the process when Kyle finds out about the crime and deserts the Empire to become a freelance soldier of fortune.  Only problem is Jerec is still out there somewhere, and he has just as much unfinished business with Kyle as the young mercenary has with him.

A Tale told with Literacy and Confidence.

Trying to make a follow-up to one of the most successful franchises in cinematic history was going to be a challenge, no matter how skilled or talented the chosen artist turned out to be.  There would always be room for trepidation both behind the scenes and in the aisles, for the audience always has a share in the doubts and misgivings that are part and parcel of this kind of project.  This apprehension of will or won't the story come off is palpable for the first opening moments as the story is set into action.  Since we're are a dealing with a radio drama, actual narration has to take the place of the usual opening text crawl.  The good news is things start going uphill fast after those first initial moments of uncertainty as we're launched unprepared into the middle a guerilla fight between rebels and an Imperial battalion.

With just a few deft touches, Dietz and Whitman introduce us to the new figure of Kyle's dad, while re-introducing the audience to the same conflict from the first film.  I'd almost have to recommend Soldier of the Empire as the best example possible of how to do a prequel right.  The key here is that the narrative of Soldier take place just before the events of A New Hope.  In introducing the world to Kyle Katarn, audiences also meet a man who goes on to steal the Death Star plans for the Rebel Alliance.

The theft of the Death Star plans turn out to be another example of the skills with which Dietz and Whitman play their cards.  They are a part of the plot, and that's all.  The maguffin for ANH takes up no more than just the second half of only the first installment of Kyle's story.  And even there it is still not the main focus.  Dietz keeps the focus of his story less on a plot point, and instead chooses to zero in square on Kyle and the changes he is forced to undergo.  In this regard, the battle station schematics turn out to be little more than just one achievement to be reached.  They are not even the most important goal as far as the character is concerned.

It is possible some in the audience will be less than thrilled with the way Dietz handles this plot point.  I suppose it comes down to whether or not a story dealing with how the Death Star plans were stolen are an absolute dramatic necessity.  For my part, it's pretty clear that they were a maguffin in the 77 film, and not even a pivotal one, based on the direction the other films went in.  There was little call to base an entire trilogy around them in the way Tolkien had to for a single piece of jewelry.  For that reason the plans are just a plot device with little dramatic potential in an of themselves.  This is something Whitman and Dietz are aware of, as the schematics are incidental, and whose relevance depends on, the development of the main character.  In fact, sending Kyle to steal the plans seems less like something done for the sake of finding the weakness hidden inside a weapon, and more on finding out whether the new recruit can be trusted or not.  His trajectory does depend on the plans being there for him to steal.  However, their plot function vanishes once Kyle has them, and then it is time to move on to the real challenges.  For what it's worth. these challenges offer more dramatic potential than just a space station whose sole purpose is that of a background threat.  The main challenge for Kyle in Dietz's trilogy  comes in the form of the Dark Jedi, Jerec.

The figure of Jerec is interesting.  As a villain his personality is less Faust and more like that of Captain Hook.  He is an intelligent, and calculating conniver, and yet he doesn't have any of the fripperies or bravado of his Neverland counterpart.  Perhaps it's best to think of Jerec as Hook with the volume turned down to an ascetic level.  That said, the J.M. Barrie character does have an interesting parallel with his outer space opposite in that both suffer from handicaps.  In Jerec's case it's the lack of eyes and sight, rather than a single hand that is his defining physical trait.  I have no way of knowing if Dietz and Whitman were inspired by Capt. Hook.  However, they have succeeded in giving their villain a distinct personality from the ones who've come before.  For that reason I think it can be counted as a successful artistic accomplishment.

Another interesting facet of Jerec is that his portrayal is once more different from the other villains by the fact that there's a kind of leech-like quality to his nature.  If the Emperor from the OT was this sort of Machiavellian manipulator, Jerec comes off as a kind of psychic vampire by contrast.  The best implication I can find in all this is that the best EU writers are the ones who can find ways of exploring the more darker aspects of life.  In the OT we are presented with a classical, Faustian will to power.  With Thrawn you get this sense of alienation and inability to participate in any meaningful way with life.  Jerec seems to be about the kind of sociopathy that can't exist on its own, and instead has to rely on the metaphorical blood of others.  So this is why I say there's this interesting, almost-vampire like quality to the character.  It's all in the way he manipulates the Force by stealing from the energy of others without their really being aware of it.  It is this same parasitical plot element that provides the key to the resolution of Kyle's conflict with the villain.  Once Katarn learns to stop giving his opponent the kind of ammunition he relies on to survive, Jerec finds that he's not just powerless, he's also not very handy in a lightsaber duel.  I can't tell whether or not the writers used Dracula as a template for the first villain Kyle Katarn faces, however it's hard not to be reminded of that book and character, at least on a thematic level.

In all of this Dietz and Whitman display a sure and confident hand in the way they steer and guide the material.  Part of their strengths as storytellers is the high amount of quiet literacy they put into the work.  Both men leave the impression of being dedicated bookish authors.  How they display their sophistication in the finished product is just right in that it never gets in the way of the main story.  It does, however, provide a clever added layer of intertextuality to the proceedings that knowledgeable fans will appreciate due to both writers going the extra mile.

One moment of genuine intertextual allusion I wasn't expecting was the insertion of a parody limerick which is based off an actual, real life British nursery rhyme known as The Grand Old Duke of York.  I think it used to be a sort of barrack ballad, the kind of in-joke shared between the sort of Royal Army platoons that Rudyard Kipling made famous.  It's a surprise that can jump out at the listener if they're paying attention.  Perhaps it's a minor moment in a much bigger canvas, however it's a clear sign, if one were needed, that Dietz and Whitman know the kind of literary traditions they're working with in the script.

I'm also curious as to how big a fan of Westerns both writers are?  In particular I'm curious if either man grew up watching 50s era TV shows like Death Valley Days, or Have Gun, Will Travel.  This also goes for how big a pair of Old Time Radio fans are they?  I ask these questions because the audio drama is able to recall something of the TV shows and OTR serials of a bygone age.The sequences featuring Morgan Katarn, Kyle's father, are very reminiscent of the kind of radio theater you were likely to get during the early 30s and late 50s.  It reads like a literal riff on the idea of a wagon train to the stars.  I suppose it makes sense enough if given a bit of thought.  If you strip away the Sci-Fi veneer from the whole proceedings, what you get from the story, (with its groups farmsteaders holding a contentious town hall meeting while trying to survive in the wilderness) is a frontier drama set sometime in the old west.  In other words, we are dealing with at least one of the main tropes that acted as an inspiration for Lucas in the first place.  It's easy to imagine such a script being produced for such OTR shows like Dimension X or Beyond Tomorrow.  In particular, it is interesting to listen to a 50s genre offering known as The Martian Death March before launching in Whitman and Dietz's radio play.  It almost  sounds like a story set in the same universe.  In that regard, Dark Forces is a return to form in the best sense of the word.  This is not the end of Kyle's story, though.  That is what happens next.

Some Preliminary Considerations.  

It has to be remembered that Kyle Katarn got his start as just a player character in a video game.  I bring this point up because of a question.  Does a video game count as a story?  I suppose there was a time when the answer would have to be no.  When they were first created, video games presented little more than a challenge to be bested.  Whether or not it is the first arcade program to feature a story, Super Mario Bros. is the one that comes to mind as a good example of the writer's craft being utilized for a new medium in its early stages.  However, even for the first Mario game, the story served as more of a backdrop for the game-play itself.  In this arrangement, the writing is secondary and less essentials than the game mechanics.  It is possible that a lot of the professional gamers out there would view this as the standard norm to which games must, or ought to conform.  I can recall one online critic who listed two types of gamers, those who were skill and action based, and those who felt that the story within the game should be considered as something of value.

My own experience has been less than ideal, as I'm not any kind of video game enthusiast.  The best I can offer is an observation based on my own limited experience.  As far as I can tell, it seems like game developers these days are faced with a choice.  They either create a game that is traditional in being action/mechanic based, or else they can create one that is more focused on telling an actual story.  What I've noticed is that if a developer commits to trying to base a game around an actual narrative structure, then the more story you try to fit in, the more the game-play winds up taking a backseat.  The best example of this comes from the company Tell-Tale Games.  Their games are based around traditional narrative writing to such an extent that the final product always comes off more like an actual movie that the viewer has to help move along, rather than something from an arcade.

I can't say which type of game is ideal.  As far as I can tell, Star Wars: Jedi Outcast falls somewhere in the middle of all this.  There is a coherent narrative thread at the heart of the program, yet there is also enough game-play so that anyone who wants can just ignore the story altogether.  For my purposes, I'll have to focus on the writing at the expense of the mechanics.  There are three reasons for this.  First, I wasn't lying when I said I was a gaming outsider.  The second is because, taken in isolation, the game's plot does actually fit the traditional storytelling parameters in bringing Kyle's arc to a close.  The third reason is that the game was designed as a sequel to the events told by Dietz and Whitman.  For these reasons the reader can expect me to limit myself to the quality and thematics of the game's writing.  I'm afraid those looking for an in-depth and knowledgeable look into it's game play and control mechanics will have to look elsewhere.  With these caveats in mind, let's dive in. 

Jedi Outcast.

After the events of the Dark Forces trilogy, Kyle has decided not to pick up a lightsaber ever again.  Unlike Luke, Kyle's brush with the dark side has left him wary of anything to do with the Force.  Instead, the simple life of a galactic mercenary seems to fit him a lot more.  The problem is what he discovers while out on what sounds like a routine scouting assignment.  Transmissions from a supposedly abandoned Imperial outpost make reference to "the Valley of the Jedi", a location known only to Kyle and his partner, Jan.  A little snooping reveals that the remnant of the Empire is conducting a nasty series of experiments.  They are looking to create the ultimate soldier, one with an actual ability to tap into the Force.

Putting a stop to this operation should be a breeze.  Maybe it could have been a simple open-and-shut case if a Dark Jedi named Desann hadn't shown up.  In short order this stranger proceeds to give the out-of-shape Kyle the thrashing of his life, then makes him suffer through the apparent execution of Jan, the one person he cares about the most.  I won't give away too many plot details, except to say the narrative heads off into what sounds like the typical tragic revenge plot that soon grows more complex as Kyle moves ever closer to his target.  The question is what will happen to Kyle one he catches up with Desann.

Going strictly by the writing, the story is pretty solid.  The plot itself is more intricate and layered like a nesting doll.  It is more or less a sort of detective story which Kyle is forced to try and solve as he goes along.  This is due to each difficulty he encounters being more than they seem.  This will be a continuous element of the plot from beginning to end.  A simple investigation of an Imperial outpost leads to an exploration of a mine run on slave labor.  This exploration causes events which turn the focus of the drama into what appears to be a Death Wish style revenge story.  This path of vengeance seems like it is going in a certain direction that will play out to the end, only for it to be subverted into something different.  Despite the constant shift in narrative direction, it is surprising how well the story as a whole manages to hold together.

The criticisms I have for it are more in the way of open questions.  Most of these questions are riffs on a single theme: does the writing deliver enough information to make it a complete story, or should just a bit more be added?  It's a question that's difficult to answer.  On one hand, the audience/player is given all the necessary information to understand the story and the current level the game is playing on.  At the same time, there are moments where I wondered if certain additional bits of dialogue or something like it might help.  One instance of what I'm talking about comes when Kyle runs into Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams).  After a brief catching up with the old pirate, both of you team up together on a stealth getaway mission that requires you to split up again in order to handle two halves of a single operation in getting a ship ready for takeoff.  It's straightforward as far as video games go, and there's nothing out of the ordinary in the way the game handles the situation.  Approaching it from a writing standpoint, however, I just can't help wondering if maybe it makes more sense to have the same type of dramatic set-up as the Death Star scenes in ANH, where we were constantly shifting focus from one group of heroes to another as they tried to make their way off the station.  All it would take to apply this method to Outcast is to intercut between Lando and Kyle as they go about taking care of business.

I also wonder if a similar writing logic could apply to a moment later in the game, where Kyle gets to fight alongside Luke Skywalker.  After a brief moment of awesomeness, the two once again split up to cover more ground.  I'm of three minds about this plot development.  I wonder if the same ideas about how to handle part of Lando's scenes should be applied to those with Luke, where the writing switches back and forth between Kyle and Luke as they make their way through hostile territory.  This idea has the bonus of added dramatic tension as it can help establish that both of them are being stalked by Desaan.  Such a reveal would help ratchet up the dramatic tension, leaving everyone on the edge of their seats, just waiting for the bad guy to pop out of the shadows and attack our heroes.

There is also a penultimate boss battle that I don't object to.  I just wonder if a better lead up would have been to have Kyle finding ways of sealing this other villain off from any possible help or reinforcements.  Such a move would force this Imperial admiral to stand and face Kyle on his own, when he could just as easily run and live to fight another day.  By having Kyle act in a way that was clever enough to cut off the admiral's exists, it again helps ratchet up tension, and can even give a secondary villain a certain amount of gravitas by showing the audience that he knows he is probably not going to walk away from what amounts to his last battle.

On the whole, these all amount to minor nitpicks.  The story in the game as is tends to be pretty solid by and large.  It is definitely one of the few times where it felt like an actual Star Wars experience.  It seemed as if the game had really managed to place you in the middle of the Far Away galaxy, and the whole look and vibe of the place always came off as just so.  It was the same secondary world you remembered from the OT, and it was like visiting an old familiar stomping ground.  That was just one example of what made the game a success.  The other is what happens when you catch up with a few familiar faces.

In some ways, I want to say that the DF/JK series is as close to an ideal way of doing a sequel series based on a different character.  The writers are forced to go off in a different direction from the main trilogy and its characters, yet it does so in a way that doesn't damage the narrative continuity of what's come before.  In both Forces, Knight, and Outcast, the trajectory of Kyle's narrative arc weaves him in and out of the path of the OT trio.  However, when the plot reaches a moment where the hero encounters Luke and Co., it can always be said to come off well on a dramatic level because in each encounter you can tell that the OT trio that Kyle meets up with at odd moments are definitely the heroes of the Battle of Endor.  Leia is still a diplomat, yet she displays little hints and glimmers of the same talent as her brother.  Han is still a guy who considers himself a hotshot pilot yet we're also shown that he cares about his newfound family, and Han and Leia's chemistry is also there, and they still play well off each other.  The best example however has to be the interactions the player has with Luke in Outcast.

I've expressed before my firm belief that the original Star Wars trilogy is a limited-run series.  It is the type of multi-part narrative that demands more than one installment to tell it's story.  However, I do not believe it can survive as a limitless serial where the tales can be stretched seemingly forever, like in a DC or Marvel comic.  A character like Spiderman can go through the ages with little in the way of wear and tear.  Someone like Han, however, can only go so far before devolving into a form of uninteresting parody, at best.  This is what makes Outcast's presentation of Luke stand out so well.  We are basically allowed to drop in on him, at one point, and have a brief moment of catching up after a long time away.

The setting in which this happens is the new Jedi Academy.  The player is dropped off at the front door, and has to make his way up to Luke's chambers somewhere at the top floor.  However, the player has the option of browsing around the facility on the way up.  The game shows you little scenes and vignettes of students and trainees being put through their paces, complete with mock saber fights in a style somewhat reminiscent of martial arts.  What we are presented with in these brief moments, and the player's interactions with Luke are perhaps the best way possible for handling the main character of the OT once his story has run its course.  I said elsewhere that the Jedi Academy was the point at which Luke's trajectory pretty much comes to a complete stop.  The reason why is because once he sets up shop and establishes himself as the new teacher his arc has gone as far as it can.  Beyond that point, there's just not much left for that character to do.  The writing will have gone as far as it can in his case.  Once the hero reaches his goal, that's all she wrote.  It's simple Writing 101; the way the great majority of stories operate. 

In terms of sequels, I think the spinoff cameo is the best way to go because it allows the audience to catch up with the favorite characters in a way that doesn't feel forced or shoehorned into a plot that has little to no use for them.  Instead, we get to catch a brief glimpse of how they've got on since the conclusion of their story.  This is done in a way that is satisfying in two senses.  On the one hand, we get to join our favorite character for one more adventure.  On the other hand, the writing acknowledges that the narrative arc of the OT characters is still over and done with, yet it neither denies the narrative events that have come before, nor does it negate any accomplishments that have come before.  To sum up, I'd have to call the story of Kyle Katarn a success.  That just leaves the question of why the story works as well as it does.  What are the themes and ideas that drive this particular engine? 

Conclusion: Hope, Nihilism, and Questions of Identity.  

I wonder how many people can remember what it was like before Star Wars came along.  These days it's easy to take the films for granted as something that was just of always there; as if they were something decreed by fate.  It says a lot about how deep the the OT has burrowed into our collective cultural psyche that even people who've never seen any of the films might still be able to go around with random references and sayings from the material still floating around somewhere in their heads.  That, I believe, is a good index of the level of achievement and impact the films have made.  The problem is there's always the possibility that if familiarity doesn't breed contempt it can still lead to forgetfulness.  People still use phrases like "All's well that ends well", or "As you like it," but do we still know that they were given to us by Shakespeare?  Star Wars hasn't reached that level of forgetfulness yet, however the history of the kind of cinema that came before it is starting to become a lost memory, even for those who might have been the original witnesses to the whole phenomenon.

I don't know whether you could call it a changing of the guard, though it was a shift of sorts in the zeitgeist.  Before Star Wars there was the New Wave, and the Wave was big, the Wave encompassed just about all that was worth talking about if you were a major cinephile back in the 50s all the way to the mid 1970s.  It started with guys like Francois Truffaut and Fellini.  These were just guys who were inspired by the likes of Orson Welles, Howard Hawkes,  Alfred Hitchcock,  and John Ford.  They invented a lot of the filming techniques that are ubiquitous in movies now.  At least, I assume they are.  I don't know how the post-millennial generation can emulate what it has never seen or known.  So it could be the impact from these old gone filmmakers is on the way out.  If so, it's all the more important to record what they left behind.   

They are treated as legends now by those who can remember, though when you get right down to it, the truth is pretty simple.  These were just guys who were in love with the art of filmmaking and wanted to share that passion with the world.  The result of that passion was films like Breathless, The 400 Blows, 8 1/2, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  It was never the intent of any of these artists to spread any kind of message of cynicism as they set out on their individual and intertwining voyages.  The problem was what happens when the turmoil of the political life of nations reaches the big screen, as it always does every now and then.  In the case of the New Wave and the directors associated with it sooner or later they found themselves involved with the worldwide upheaval of the 60s.  In retrospect, it's difficult to see how they could have avoided it.  It was an era for taking a stand and holding one's ground.  In that regard, it's no surprise that a lot of the New Wave artists found their films reflecting on screen a lot of the turmoil that was happening out in the streets.  This engagement lead to a note of cynical distrust as the figures of those in the highest seats of power began to abuse their authority for illegitimate ends.

In some ways, Star Wars can be seen as kind of part and parcel with this whole cultural revolution.  In that sense it's perhaps a mistake to just label it as one of the first blockbusters when it's message has a lot more to do with what folk like Haskell Wexler and Roger Corman were showing trying to accomplish with movies like Medium Cool, The Trip, or The IntruderWhat made ANH stand out was the way it took all the storytelling traditions that had come before and found ways to make them relevant again for a contemporary audience.  This didn't involve any real modification of that tradition.  It was more a case of individual talent finding the right words to express a lot of older truths.  Perhaps the real irony is how Lucas and Kurtz were able to accomplish their goals by taking all the ideas that resonated with audiences at the time and channel them into a more optimistic course.

I think the reason the Katarn series is able to work as well as it does is because a similar thematic strategy is at work in the narrative.  A moment ago I brought up Sergio Leone's most famous spaghetti western.  I'd like to focus not on the main character of that film, so much as the type of character Eastwood portrays.  I think it's significant in that Kyle is pretty much in the same mold.  The kind of figure portrayed in both the Leone film and the EU series is most often known as the anti-hero.

This particular archetype is unique in that it seems to be very much a modern phenomena.  In other words, while it is possible that characters like Lancelot and King Arthur can have anti-heroic attributes in their makeup, by and large, the way both are written, not just by Malory, but even modern oriented writers like Howard Pyle, depicts them as essentially noble individuals in service to a higher ideal and calling.  An excellent contrast to this traditional portrayal is a film that utilizes these very same Arthurian themes and inverts them.  The group of mates in Edgar Wright's The World's End are, in essence, Arthur and his knights after everything has somehow gone wrong for each and every one of them.  In particular, Gary, the film's protagonist is perhaps the best 21st century example of an anti-hero archetype.  He has the kingly elements of a natural born leader in him, yet all he wants is to drink and waste time.  On top of that, there is a self-destructive streak in his nature.  Gary is, by all measures of commonsense, a loser.  What makes TWE work, however, is that it doesn't just leave Gary as a dropout.  Instead, over the course of the film, Gary is forced to confront his own failings in such a way that by the end, he really is a kind of second Arthur.  This is something the main character acknowledges in the film's closing line as wields what is, for all intents and purposes, Excalibur: "They call me the King".

While Kyle Katarn is a vastly different character than Gary, there is a thematic similarity as far as both are anti-heroes who have their defining characters traits subverted into something else.  When we first meet Kyle he is far from a starry-eyed idealist like Luke.  Instead, what we're treated to is a battle hardened military graduate for whom the romance of war has pretty much disappeared and its causing him to become alienated from his fellow officers.  When discovers what the Empire has done to his dad, Kyle's sense of trust is at an all time low.  It is from this point on that the character establishes himself as a rebel without a cause in space.  In doing this, the character fits himself into the same anti-establishment role that used to be filled by Eastwood's Spaghetti Western outlaw.  With it comes the cynical distrust that marked the anti-hero as a nihilist figure during the heyday of the 70s New Wave.

It is the remnants of this New Wave cynicism that the Dark Forces/Jedi Knight trilogy tackles head on.  In the process it manages to take the intertwined tropes of artful narrative cynicism, along with the anti-hero so often associated with it, and turn both on their heads.  If that sounds like an oxymoron then it helps to remember the franchise was able to pull off just such a feat way back after the filming of TESB, when Mark Hamill appeared on an episode of Jim Henson's The Muppet Show.  In that installment, the SW characters took over the tropes of anarchic satire that Henson was famous for, and made them serve a series of narrative-thematic goals that were old school Romantic in nature.  It turns out Whitman and Dietz are able to pull off the same trick twice with the story and figure of Katarn.

What each of Kyle's authors has accomplished then is to take the standard post-60s anti-hero and turn him into a Jedi.  The idea is so incompatible with the normal genre categories we've since grown used to that when an author like Dietz pulls off this narrative trompe l'oeil he does at least manage to shake the postmodern cage in his own quiet way.  If the original film was, in part, a counter attack against the prevailing defeatist zeitgeist of the 70s, then the Katarn saga is perhaps the first time the franchise ever tried to tackle the whole way of thinking in a direct manner.  I'd argue that it's method of approach was subversive enough that the artists involved were able to get away with their scheme right under the noses of most readers.  It is this covert form of examination and transformation that I believe to be one of the two main themes underlying Kyle's story.

The final theme has more to do with questions of identity.  From the very start Kyle is concerned with the question of just exactly where he belongs.  This isn't about ideals and dreams of bigger things.  Instead its more about the search for what kind of values define just who he is as an individual.  The more he keeps searching for an identity, the more Kyle begins to seem most like himself the moment he decides to pick up a lightsaber.  It is the themes of what makes an individual life matter that I think best accounts for the success of Dark Forces, Jedi Knight, and Jedi Outcast.  In that sense all of Kyle's stories fit in well with the kind of secondary world George Lucas helped to create.  It is what makes them a series of narratives well worth digging up and discovering for the first time, or else re-discovering why they worked in the first place.


  1. (1) "the Chuck Norris of Star Wars" -- Walker, Space Ranger!

    (2) I know nothing about Kyle Katarn, but I'd already heard of him beefore reading this, despite having totally removed myself from EU exploration well before he was introduced. So in and of itself, that tells me a lot about his popularity.

    (3) "The funny thing about Jerec is that although he appears to be blind (indeed, he seems to have empty sockets where his eyes should be), the man has an uncanny knack for not only knowing when someone is approaching, he can even manage to know that person's name sometimes, even if they've never met before. It comes with the territory if you're Force sensitive." -- This reminds me of a plot point from the second and third Dune novels by Frank Herbert. Not saying anyone lifted it from Herbert, though; and even if they did, that's a cool use of Force sensitivity.

    (4) "I suppose it comes down to whether or not a story dealing with how the Death Star plans were stolen are an absolute dramatic necessity. For my part, it's pretty clear that they were a maguffin in the 77 film, and not even a pivotal one, based on the direction the other films went in." -- Agreed. It's enough to suggest that what happened was story-worthy in its own right, but there was no need ever to actually present it. (That said, I like "Rogue One.")

    (5) "The sequences featuring Morgan Katarn, Kyle's father, are very reminiscent of the kind of radio theater you were likely to get during the early 30s and late 50s." -- Very interesting! And it seems like good fodder for a Star Wars story, too -- since this is roughly the same era as the serials from which Lucas derived so much inspiration.

    (6) "Does a video game count as a story?" -- My late friend Trey Sterling was obsessed with this question, and had plans to do some serious writing on the subject. He felt the answer was yes; a qualified yes, of course, but definitively a yes. I'm inclined to agree. (Though, like you, I'm no gamer.) The earliest examples are quite primitive, of course, but that was probably true of a lot of early storytelling within a specific medium.

    (7) "In terms of sequels, I think the spinoff cameo is the best way to go because it allows the audience to catch up with the favorite characters in a way that doesn't feel forced or shoehorned into a plot that has little to no use for them. Instead, we get to catch a brief glimpse of how they've got on since the conclusion of their story." -- Cameos like this are both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because hey, more Luke Skywalker; not a bad thing. A curse because they almost always end up shrinking the universe in which the story is set. If I can zip over to a different sci-fi franchise, the current Star Trek series is doing a big Spock plotline. And, like, aren't there other characters in the Star Trek universe? Do we have to bring Spock into things? In a sense, bringing Luke in for a cameo is like that; but it's more of a minor wink and nod than anything else, so more permissible, as I see it.

    (8) "I wonder how many people can remember what it was like before Star Wars came along." -- Fewer every year. I'm not one of them; I was two-almost-three when the first movie came out, so I can only remember a world of Chewbaccas and droids.

    (9) "In some ways, Star Wars can be seen as kind of part and parcel with this whole cultural revolution." -- Great points on this subject. This is an aspect of Star Wars's development (and its reception, likely) that is overlooked. In some ways, it ended the experimental/rebellious era; but if so, it was accidental.

    1. (1) Here's the thing. Even if I'm not sure people would swallow the idea of a "Star Wars" character, much less a story set in the same universe being done in the style of one of those cheap, 80s era, Arnie/Stallone knock-offs, part of me can't help thinking, "Yeah, that maybe fits this character".

      I say this based on the fact that as I was writing this post, at one point a song by Mark Knopfler's lesser known brother Dave popped into my head:

      (2) Between them, Kyle, Mara Jade, and Thrawn seem to be the biggest names as far as the EU is concerned.

      (3) I'm afraid I've never read past the first novel. That said, I'm not even surprised that Lucas and the gang might lift certain elements from Herbert.

      (5) There is a sort of faux-trailer for an old Sci-Fi radio show that gives a good idea of the elements Dietz and Whitman might have taken inspiration from. It helps to keep in mind that this show was originally broadcast during the 50s, which means pretty much all the titans of the genre (Vonnegut, Bradbury, Clifford Simak, Heinlein, Ted Sturgeon, Asimov, PKD) were busy writing the most important work, and sometimes the show featured in the trailer would adapt from them. So it gives a pretty good overview of the content and identity the genre had way back when.

      (7) One funny as hell as aspect I didn't mention in the review (because not all that important) is that Thrawn makes a very brief cameo himself (the good news is it's brief and it is set prior to the events of the Zahn trilogy). What's funny is that it took several replays to figure out, but Thrawn in "Soldier for the Empire" is played by Tim Russell. For those who don't tune in to NPR, Tim Russell was pretty much the second star on "A Prairie Home Companion", next to Garrison Keillor.

      Russell does multi-voice work for both the first and second installment of the Katarn series. I didn't recognize him first as Thrawn, but when he appears later on as a random tech guy, the voice clicked and I realized who he was, and I couldn't stop laughing. I mean that in a good way (the script is thankfully free of any Jar-Jar type antics). It's just a bit of unexpected, yet neat surprise that manages not to ruin anything, and instead give it a nice, knowing edge.

      It's also good to know that the cast and crew of an NPR program that gears itself toward sophisticated, "book people" tastes also happen to be "SW" fans. That's got to be like the best endorsement the series ever had!

      (9) I think what's happened is that the whole experimental scene has gone underground, rather than disappeared. It seems like everything is strictly art-house circuit for that kind of film these days. Still, it would be nice to see other critics acknowledge the continuity that the OT has with the other work that was going on back then.