Doctor Aphra and the Poetry of Star Wars

In the remarkable, almost painfully revealing documentary, The Beginning: Making Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace ,* George Lucas appears before his producers, editors and special effects crew at Skywalker Ranch and explains to them that his vision for Episode I: the Phantom Menace is like poetry.

With Anakin kind of duplicating the Luke Skywalker role, but you see the echo of where it’s all gonna go. Instead of destroying the Death Star, he destroys the ship that controls all the robots. Again, it’s like poetry, so that they rhyme. Every stanza kind of rhymes with the last one.

People mock Lucas for this vision of his Star Wars movies working like poetry. I’m not here to mock it, because I see it. This rhyming has not always but often vexed me when I’m trying to enjoy Star Wars stories. In poetry, there is a kind of rhyme called “rime riche,” in which all the syllables of the words rhymed are nearly or completely identical. The cleverness of rime riche is often in finding a word’s homophone to rhyme it with. The absolutely identical form isn’t popular in English-language poetry anymore. More frequently, in English the pleasure of a rhyme is the rhyming of unexpected words and sometimes a rhyme  that is often not immediately noticeable.  But done awkwardly, it sounds like thumping along in a car with a flat tire or a light freighter with hinky hydraulics. You anticipate each bump and shudder, the periodicity of aggravation.

Lucas’ cinematic poetry relies heavily on rime riche. He rhymes the same characters together with each other trying to create resonance. Events, actions and particular lines of dialog recur in different spaces with different characters. Characters have some similarity with characters who have gone before or who we know will appear later. And some people love his poetry. It has been embraced in everything from tv series to games to fanfiction. but I am more of a free verse woman. I am ambivalent about Lucas’ poetry. I don’t feel a flush of pleasure when I hear, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” again.** Sometimes the reference or the poetry overwhelms the story. And the story that is being told, the one unfolding right now, should be primary. But it turns out that like all things genre, it’s how creators use a convention that counts.

In Star Wars: Darth Vader (Marvel, 2015-6) and in now in Star Wars: Doctor Aphra, (Marvel, 2016-7), Kieron Gillen, Salvador Larroca and Kev Walker acknowledge play with this poetry, but make something new, fun and engaging from it. Which is my favorite thing about genre. The books are twisted in the best way–a nice dark mix of horror, heists and doomed adventure. It’s all the parts of space opera that I love. Doctor Aphra first appeared in Gillen and Larroca’s Darth Vader. Since then she has gotten her own series written by Gillen with pencils by Walker, inks by Marc Deering, colors by Antonio Fabela and lettering by Joe Carmagna.

When we first meet Doctor Aphra, “scoundrel” and “rogue archaeologist,” she has infiltrated an Imperial facility to steal a quarantined personality matrix for a droid that was considered to dangerous for use. Aphra sticks the chip into a protocol droid and creates C3P0’s disturbing mirror image, 000, a droid whose interests include torture and collecting humanoid blood. His companion is, BT-1, an assassin droid whose capabilities for doing things like flying ships, opening doors and shutting down all the trash compactors on the detention level have been replaced with guns and missiles.  BT-1 had destroyed its own testing facility before blasting itself into space and refusing to wake up for anyone. Aphra calls them, “Triple Zero” and “Bee Tee.”  And it’s lovely bit of twisted, slanting rhyme form Gillen and Larroca. Who doesn’t love a murderbot reflection of Threepio and Artoo? Their terrifying shenanigans are one of my favorite parts of both Darth Vader and Doctor Aphra.

The galaxy can often feel paradoxically small in Star Wars. I can rationalize that the Empire builds a crappy Death Star because of the general bumblefuckery of authoritarian regimes. I don’t need an explanation beyond the general authoritarian bumblefuckery. And I assume that the entire Imperial economy is based on building Death Stars and Starkiller Bases at this point. But it bothers me sometimes that if seems like the galaxy only has  something like ten people in it and they all know each other. New people need to be eliminated somehow because obviously, everyone would know them and they would have to show up in every subsequent story. This is another downside of the poetic vision—the desire to tie everything together. Everything becomes echoes and resonance supersedes story. Doctor Aphra, while working with the conventions of the Star Wars universe, still manages to feel expansive and filled with places that aren’t Tattooine. Aphra knows Vader, but it feels organic and believable rather than forced and structural. Vader is searching for Luke Skywalker, and it is believable to me that she would encounter Luke and his friends. It works even better for me that once encountering Vader, Aphra spends most of her time trying to get the hell away from the important, galactic events in search of a her next artifact and a nice cocktail.

Doctor Aphra rhymes with Han Solo, but on a slant.  Aphra gets herself into bad situations and trusts herself to figure some way out. She messes with artifacts in abandoned facilities and lost temples she should really leave alone. And she teams up with people who she really shouldn’t—murderbots, bounty hunters, and Darth Vader, though Vader does not give her much of a choice. Aphra dresses a lot like Han and calls Luke, “Kid.” (It gives me fond memories of Doc Shaner’s Dale Arden as Han Solo in Flash Gordon). Like Han, she travels with a Wookiee who is bound by a life debt, although not to her. Black Krrsantan is a bounty hunter and former gladiator. Like Chewbacca, Krrsantan has a life debt, but it is a complicated and kind of perverse–like nearly everything else in Aphra’s life. In some ways, Aphra is the person Han Solo pretends to, but can’t quite be. She has a pleasant manner and seems like a nice person–and I think she means to be–but Aphra will betray you and abandon you on a planet with Darth Vader, Triple Zero and Bee-Tee, or mind control parasites.

While Aphra dresses like Han, her archaeological methods are those of a Indiana Jones. Aphra is remarkably active for an evil scholar. She doesn’t sit in her office wearing a dressing gown reading forbidden grimoires and touring her secret gallery of mind parasites and ancient weapons of mass destruction. She’s in the field, risking everyone’s life and making deals with Vader. Like Jones, Aphra is rarely referred to by her first name.** It’s a something that makes me happy. So often female characters’ first names become their default designation even when they are evil archaeologists with an extensive record of “recovered” and “discovered” artifacts. Like Jones, Aphra’s father is also an archaeologist and he embarrasses her. And she shares Dr. Jones commitment to preserving artifacts and the pursuit of knowledge. Aphra just has a more elastic understanding of what “preservation” means. I guess I’ll bring this back to Star Wars by attributing it all to the overarching poetry of Harrison Ford.

Like Han, Aphra spends more time with Darth Vader than she might like, though she has a better time and even admires Vader. Vader is out of favor with the Emperor and trying to create his own secret resources to protect himself. He decides to recruit Aphra with the not-so-tacit understanding that she will live only so long as she is useful to him. So Aphra tries very hard to be useful. She hands over Triple Zero and Bee Tee asking only that when her time inevitably comes, Vader execute her with his lightsaber. Their adventures are an entertaining mix of derring-do and horror, heists and dread, with Vader supplying no derring-do and plenty of dread.

Like many, if not most, people in the Star Wars universe, Aphra has father issues. Technically, she is the “evil” one in the relationship. But her father is a distant parent who was just too obsessed with his own archaeological work. And I appreciate that his work has nothing to do with killing all the Jedi or designing a Death Star (while secretly building in a flaw). While her father seeks out knowledge about an ancient order, Aphra’s work focuses on ancient weapons and military technology. While Aphra is still capable of choosing not to be what she herself calls “a horrible person,” it’s also easy to see how Aphra became who she is, messy and complicated.

Even Aphra’s secret core of  potential “goodness” is messy and complicated, which is a relief. I appreciate Star Wars overarching message that people can change. It’s not that I don’t believe that Aphra can change; it’s more that I don’t believe redemption is a very Aphra thing. And I think the narrative is much more clever for having Aphra be messy and then having moments where Aphra displays some self-awareness, playing with Star Wars’ redemptive rhyming, but not committing to it. Aphra is a “horrible person,” but when compared with Vader she doesn’t seem that bad. She’s appalled and confounded by the murderousness that so often seems to be around her. it a clever trick, juxtaposing her with the worst people. In comparison, Aphra seems like she might be salvageable. She might be. And Gillen makes us feel for her. At the same time, she is not wrong that she is a “horrible person,” but it’s hard to believe her when she is around people who are much worse.*** I am not sure she can reform in the way that Vader reforms or Grand Admiral Thrawn might. They need to reconnect to their feelings or be given a better argument. Aphra’s horribleness is less a result of disciplined commitment than impulsiveness mixed with a belief that even an Imperial peace is better than war. Aphra can search her feelings all she wants, but it won’t necessarily change her behavior. Aphra is genius who knows she’s a mess and she goes with her gut every time.

*I know a lot of people have seen bits of this in the Red Letter Media review of The Phantom Menace, but I really recommend watching the whole documentary if you are curious about either Star Wars or just people’s creative process. Or watching people try to figure out if they should say something to someone with more power. Also, God, I remember seeing this documentary and I don’t remember where but it was around the time Phantom Menace came out.

**While there have been times I enjoyed hearing it in the movies, reading this list made my heart sink.

***I don’t use Aphra’s personal name at all in this piece. Ha!

**** This is just me thinking about some parallels with Gail Simone’s Secret Six.

 

~~~

Carol Borden something something Kessel run / something something bad feeling about this / something something I know.

This essay was originally published by The Cultural Gutter on Nov. 2, 2017.

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