An Unsatisfying Star Wars Salute to the Beatles

We need to talk about Princess Leia’s Stolen Death Star Plans.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about and haven’t read vearious articles about it (like NPR‘s or Slate‘s), PLSDSP is an album that retells the story of Star Wars using the music of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Lennon-McCartney and Harrison lyrics are rewritten and replaced with lyrics that tell the story of various scenes from the original Star Wars, and the instrumentals are recreated to the point of getting many of the nuances of the original Beatles recording right. PLSDSP is a remarkable salute to Sgt Pepper on the occasion of its 50th-anniversary and Star Wars on the occasion of its 40th. I marvel at the artistry.

But PLSDSP is a tribute to Sgt Pepper that also completely misunderstands Sgt Pepper.

Pepper is often called a “concept album.” Many words have been written, many gallons of ink spilled, many pixels illuminated, over the last fifty years about Pepper as a concept album. The thing is, Pepper isn’t a concept album at all. Except for three songs, out of the thirteen, there’s no common theme, and there’s no narrative throughline at all. Pepper began as an album with a loose theme about Liverpool (hence, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane,” which were released separately), and the released album has a loose concept of a vaudevill troupe (the title track and “With a Little Help From My Friends” and the reprise), but beyond that there’s ten more completely unrelated songs. The Abbey Road medley coheres more than Sgt Pepper.

I’m not saying that Pepper isn’t an amazing, incredible album. It is. (Personally, I put Revolver ahead of it in the Beatles canon, but I see the point of those who put Pepper first.) But it doesn’t tell a story, it’s not built around a central idea, not in the way that, say, The Who’s Tommy was. Hell, The Who Sell Out has more of a central theme and stronger concept (pirate radio) than Sgt Pepper does.

And this is how Princess Leia’s Stolen Death Star Plans misunderstands Sgt Pepper — it rewrites the music to tell a story and frequently trivializes the original music in the process. Casting Darth Vader in Ringo’s cheerful voice is profoundly disturbing, and the tragedy of “She’s Leaving Home” is twisted into a song about a whiny, emo Luke Skywalker. “A Day in the Life of Red Five” seems especially misguided; in telling the story of Luke’s Death Star run, the song is focused on a singular character in a way that the Beatles’ original “A Day in the Life” is not, and in making the “Woke up…” section of the song simply a part of Luke’s story the song loses Paul’s jaunty counterpoint to John’s fatalism. The Star Wars lyrics are frequently tonal mismatches with underlying Beatles music, creating a muddled emotional tableau.

In paying tribute to Sgt Pepper, I feel that the musicians behind PLSDSP bought into the mythology of Sgt Pepper rather than the reality of Pepper. PLSDSP is essentially a well-produced filk album, and the result is a piece of work that is clever but ultimately dissatisfying.

I applaud the musicians for spending the time and energy on this project. It’s very well done. But Princess Leia’s Stolen Death Star Plans doesn’t work for me at all.

The Last Jedi Teaser

The Star Wars: The Last Jedi trailer left me cold.

It’s pretty. It’s well-made. It’s nice to see Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. It’s nice to see Rey swinging a lightsaber.

But there’s no emotion to it. Nothing hooked me. No image made me go, “I have to see that!”

If you loved it, go on loving it. If it made you cry, go on crying. And I’ll be glad to know that the teaser did something for someone.

I only wish it did something for me.

Star Wars Monopoly and the Merchandising of Rey

Over the past twenty-four hours, I’ve seen a number of people, some friends, some not, outraged by Hasbro’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens Monopoly set because it doesn’t include a player token for Rey.

For background on the story, see this article in The Guardian. For an example of the outrage, see this Gizmodo article.

The game includes four player tokens — Finn, Luke Skywalker, Kylo Ren, and Darth Vader. Of these four characters, one doesn’t appear in the film at all, and one is the Plot MacGuffin and a glorified cameo. Four tokens, no Rey, who, as people are pointing out, is the main character in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It would be like making a Lord of the Rings Monopoly set and not including Frodo Baggins.

starwars-monopoly-boxI may be off on detail or two, but that’s the set-up.

There are two reasons why I’m not especially outraged at Rey’s non-presence.

First, a Force Awakens game that includes a Darth Vader token isn’t trying to represent the characters of the film. Unless the token is Extra Crispy Darth Vader, which I doubt very much that it is.

Second, at the time that this game was being developed, approved, and manufactured, Rey was not being put forward by Disney/Lucasfilm as a character of any importance, so Hasbro made the game with the characters they were told were important. (And probably threw in Darth Vader because everyone loves Darth Vader.)

Working behind the scenes, to the extent that I do, Rey simply wasn’t there in the early merchandising materials as an important character. And I need to explain what that means.

Last summer, I had to write about Force Awakens merchandise with nothing to go on for a catalog that we put together at work for Force Friday. I know who Disney/Lucasfilm were putting forward as the important characters in July — Lead Hero, Lead Villain, Alien. There were products that were officially called things like “Lead Hero Action Figure 1” and “Alien Foam Weapon Roleplay.”

Who was Lead Hero? Finn.
Who was Lead Villain? Kylo Ren.
Who was Alien? Chewbacca.

Those are the characters put forward by Disney/Lucasfilm as the film’s important characters.

Imagine writing about those and saying nothing at all. That’s why I get paid the little bucks.

Disney does this all the time. Look at Guardians of the Galaxy. When the film came out, you saw a lot of Star-Lord and Rocket Raccoon merchandise, but almost no Groot merchandise. Why? Because Disney saw Star-Lord and Rocket Raccoon as the film’s important and breakthrough characters and pushed those characters to the licensees. They didn’t push Groot. Then, when Groot exploded, they had to play catch-up. Eventually, there was Groot merchandise, but it took a little time. It was in shops by Christmas, months after the film was in theaters. The wheels of manufacturing don’t turn on a dime.

Hasbro wanted to hit the Christmas market with Star Wars: The Force Awakens merchandise. Hasbro could have had more Monopoly tokens in the box — don’t Monopoly sets traditionally have six? — and included Rey. It’s unfortunate that their Monopoly set doesn’t include Rey, but they were working this summer with the information they had, which I’ve no doubt wasn’t much more than the information I had when I had to write about Alien Foam Weapon Roleplay. (That’s the Chewbacca Wookie Bowcaster, by the way. I couldn’t even mention those three words.) As I said, merchandise has a lead time. These Monopoly sets weren’t made two days after the film came out.

I don’t know if Disney/Lucasfilm thought Rey wasn’t as important as Finn or if they decided to downplay Rey in the licensing so as to hide her role in the film. I don’t know enough to say one way or the other. I prefer to think it’s the latter, but the former is just as valid a possibility.

My hunch is, we will see Rey is more merchandise in the months ahead. The licensees like Hasbro don’t like to leave money on the table. But they also didn’t know they were leaving money on the table by focusing on characters other than Rey, all because Disney/Lucasfilm didn’t tell them to focus on Rey.

If Hasbro were smart, they would set up a program where a buyer of the game could send in the UPC code from the box and a small handling fee to receive a Rey Monopoly token. Or, they could sell an expansion set for the game with more game tokens and more cards for the game. Or, the industrious Monopoly player could use a Disney Infinity figure as their Rey game token.

I’m not defending or excusing Rey’s absence from the Monopoly set. (I honestly don’t have an opinion one way or the other; Monopoly isn’t my thing.) I’m explaining how and why this happened — limited (or constrained) information, long lead times, and hitting market windows. Star Wars: The Force Awakens Monopoly may not be the product aggrieved consumers want, but it’s the product Hasbro could make under the constraints they had to work under.

Who Is Supreme Leader Snoke?

Who is Supreme Leader Snoke?

Radio Times delves into the soundtracks for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Revenge of the Sith, and they notice something interesting. The Force Awakens‘ shadowy villain, Supreme Leader Snoke, has a familiar motif, one that first appeared in Revenge of the Sith.

It’s the motif that plays when Senator Palpatine tells Anakin Skywalker the story of Darth Plagueis, how he was obsessed with immortality and the creation of life. Plagueis was especially interested in the use of midichlorians, and as we know from The Phantom Menace, Anakin seemed to have been created through midichlorians. (My speculations on Anakin’s conception and parentage can be found here.) His mother, Shmi, said he had no father. Is it possible that Plagueis created Anakin Skywalker as an experiment? Or did Plagueis’ (presumed) apprentice, Darth Sidious, create Anakin?

The more I consider this, the more I’m in favor of Plagueis as Supreme Leader Snoke. It makes sense from a narrative point of view.

Yes, Palpatine tells Anakin that Plagueis’ apprentice murdered him in his sleep. That is the way of the Sith, the Apprentice killing the Master and assuming his place. But, would a Dark Side creature who had conquered death have died in his sleep? We have only Palpatine’s word for this.

Plagueis/Snoke would tie the trilogies together — we would have Skywalker family contending against the same evil legacy (Plagueis and his apprentice, Sidious) through the generations. If Plagueis is responsible for the creation of Anakin — either directly or through his apprentice Sidious — then that means that Plagueis will face his reckoning with his “descendants.” The Star Wars becomes the story of two families doing battle for the fate of the galaxy across the generations.

That’s more compelling emotionally and narratively than Snoke as some random darksider.

Unfortunately, Plagueis as Snoke may be so obvious at this point that the filmmakers behind Episodes VIII and IX will swerve into an entirely random — and less satisfying — direction.

Link Round-Up: December 28

I’ve just finished listening to Joel McNeely’s Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire soundtrack.

I bought this when it came out in the spring of 1996. And I have no idea what I did with that CD. So, after seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I found it inexpensively on eBay.

It arrived today.

I can’t get the multimedia features of the disc to work; Windows freaks out. McNeely’s score — the reason I bought the disc — is nice.

I never played the video game for the Nintendo 64, but I did read the novel and the comic book. Since next year is the 20th-anniversary of Shadows, I have this dream that an Expanded Edition of the Shadows novel could be published, this one incorporating the Darth Vader and Boba Fett material that featured solely in the comic book.

Shadows was a weird project — you had to experience it in a bunch of different formats to get the whole story.

Now, for some links I read today:

Link Round-Up: December 20

A couple of links for you kind readers today. Mostly I spent the day baking cookies and finishing the first season of Star Wars Rebels. Which ends, by the way, with a pretty intense three-part story. And the droid, Chopper, remains a psychopathic asshole.

Link Round-Up: December 19

Not a lot of links today.

Let me ruminate on Starkiller Base.

A civilization that can build a Starkiller Base would never need it.

What I mean by this. We’re talking about a work of massive planetary engineering. Assuming an Earth-size planet, the trench alone would be thousands, if not tens of thousands, of miles long. It looked that they cut down into the mantle, if not the core — without triggering massive lava eruptions or rendering the planet uninhabitable.

The resources required to create this were immense. Perhaps it was all done by robots, in which case the resources for the robots had to be harvested, the robots themselves had to be built, etc. I imagine the construction droids on this project might have been Von Neumann Machines; they built copies of themselves using the refuse of the planet’s demolition.

If you can do all that, you don’t need a weapon that can destroy planets. You could build your own instead. You could take apart a solar system and build a Niven Ring, a Dyson Sphere, or an Alderson Disc. You don’t need a Starkiller Base to demonstrate your power; the fact that you can engineer a planet on that scale is a demonstration of your power.

Unless the Republic is capable of an engineering feat on the scale of Starkiller Base, there is no competition; the First Order would simply outclass the Republic, and planet after planet would fall into the First Order’s sphere of influence.

That’s true power.

The weapon itself is superfluous.


Link Round-Up: December 18

Last night, after work, I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens with my coworkers thanks for an end-of-year work function. Here are my non-spoilery thoughts, posted on social media last night and this morning.

First, Facebook:

My non-spoilery reaction to the new Star Wars movie — I was entertained, but it’s best to have tempered expectations. The Force Awakens feels like more of a pastiche of a Star Wars movie (albeit a very well-made one) than something new. I guess that makes it the perfect Star Wars movie for these nostalgia-drenched times, but I want something that feels more original than a Kevin J. Anderson-esque story.

Next up, Twitter:

Let me say that it’s an enjoyable popcorn film, and Harrison Ford is delightful at reprising Han Solo. There are even some unexpected Easter Eggs, like a sequence that reminded me of a similar sequence in an early episode of Star Wars Rebels.

It’s also very much a J.J. Abrams film in that it doesn’t pause for breath and the science, such as it is, is stupid.

Now, onto today’s links.

Link Round-Up: December 17

We start today’s link round-up with something I wrote on Facebook this morning. It relates to two of today’s links, and I’ll link a third article in this:

Christians and Muslims worship the same god.

This isn’t and shouldn’t be a controversial statement. As a matter of history, it’s as much of a fact as the date of the Battle of Hastings.

Yet, for one college professor at Wheaton College, a conservative Christian college in Illinois, this statement was controversial enough that the college suspended her for being in violation of their Statement of Faith and her refusal to say that her belief that Christians and Muslims worship the same god were in conflict with that statement.

It’s an impossible statement to recant. It would be like trying to recant that π is the circumference of a circle divided by its diameter because the Bible says otherwise. That’s a case where the Bible is unambiguously incorrect; the only way one could say that π isn’t what it is is if they willfully ignored plain fact. Recanting that Jehovah and Allah are the same would be to fly in the face of fifteen hundred years of history and theology. She would have to lie.

Historically, until the time of the Protestant Reformation, Islam wasn’t always seen as a separate religion from Christianity as it is today. It was common for Christians to treat Islam (or, at they sometimes referred to it, Mohametanism) as a heretical form of Christianity, one that denied Jesus’ divinity. Muslims believe in Jesus, the Qur’an talks about him and the Virgin Mary both, but they don’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God. Rather, they believe that the early Christian leaders corrupted Christianity and brought in lots of nonsense. Frankly, I’m not sure the Islamic view of Christianity is totally wrong.

The four Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism — all worship the same god, but they think the others have a faulty understanding of their shared god. The Qur’an, for instance, takes pains to say that Muslims should respect “the people of the Book” — Jews and Christians — because they believe in and worship the right god. (I’ve written before that I preferred the Christian heresies to the orthodoxy in the day when I had a theology.)

Christians and Muslims worship the same god, just in different ways and with different understandings. Wheaton College, by suspending a professor for stating an incontrovertible fact, is demonstrating their ignorance.

Now, for the linkage:

And tonight, to my surprise, I’m seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens. There’s a work outing. I hadn’t planned upon seeing it (as I misunderstood the nature of said work outing), but the situation was better explained to me and there was an extra ticket, so tonight I’ll return to that Galaxy Far Far Away.

If there aren’t scene wipes, I’ll be disappointed! :)

Link Round-Up: December 16

Some links for today. We’ll start with Star Wars and go from there.

And for fun, I’ll mention that I’m intrigued to notice that this week there are people reading my blog in China, the Ukraine, Latvia, Brazil, and Malaysia.