Welcome to another edition of the new weekly opinion column, EU Action/Reaction! Each week, I tackle a specific Star Wars EU event that has garnered a significant reaction from Star Wars fans and offer my own view to further the discussion. Once you read the article, feel free to leave a comment or hop on the forums and offer your own point of view! Also, please remember that these are just my personal opinions, not that of EUCantina as a whole.
For this week, I’m introducing a special edition of EU Action/Reaction that I lovingly refer to as an “annual edition.” I will be releasing annual editions four times a year, to coincide with the changing of the seasons. These jumbo-sized columns focus on a major element that spans every segment of the EU. Often, I have noticed, these elements are where the bulk of extremely divergent and strong fan opinions surround themselves. I don’t expect to change any minds with these columns, but I do hope to offer an informed viewpoint and continue healthy discussion.
This week, I’ll be discussing death in the Star Wars EU. Oh, and I suppose now is a good time to mention that spoilers lie within.
In life, there is nothing more final than death. The same is true of the Star Wars EU. It means that the story potential of a character has come to an end. Even if stories are uncovered later that tell earlier adventures of the character, readers will inevitably remember the death and view the stories through a bittersweet lens. These character deaths are the one universal thing that all Star Wars EU fans have in common. Whether you read the books or comics, play the video games or watch the television show, every fan has had a beloved character that has died. Sometimes, these deaths are done very artfully and the character is done great justice in their final moments. Other times, the deaths are hollow and represent the ultimate price of failed storytelling. But like everything in the EU, there are fairly few deaths that fans can universally claim are good or bad. It is all very subjective, and that is because we all grieve differently. Some of us can look at a character and take solace in the span of their entire existence, and others can have too tight an emotional hold on a character.
Death in the Star Wars EU is one of the most controversial topics that fans discuss today. I want to take that discussion to the next level. So think back on the deaths you’ve experienced in the EU. Think of the deaths that still anger or frustrate you. Think of the deaths that you found to be fitting. Even think of the deaths that give you a small smile of satisfaction. Now hold these feelings close as you read this column, and prepare for me to provide you with either some cathartic words or more fuel for your fire.
The Birth of the “Major” Death
Although they seem to be quite mainstream now, the EU didn’t always have a major death with each new book or comic arc. In fact, when major deaths first began to be incorporated in stories, they often ended up being unsatisfactory. I suppose we can blame Dark Empire II for what would eventually (and sadly) become a large part of the EU – wondering which major character would be killed off next. In the first issue of Dark Empire II, Maximilian Veers became the first film character with a speaking role to be killed in the EU. Fans will remember Veers as the Imperial commander leading the Imperial assault on Hoth in an AT-AT. What fans are less likely to know is that his character suffered terribly in the EU, losing his legs during the Battle of Hoth and being confined to a hoverchair for the rest of his life. In Dark Empire II, he is assigned to lead a suicide mission and dies. Despite being, to me, the most memorable Imperial commander in the films, the EU really crushed any potential he had. Not only that, but he went out with a sad whimper rather than a bang. Sound like the criticism of more recent deaths in the EU? Well, it should. The death of Maximilian Veers was only the beginning.
Almost a year later, in 1995, fans got the first major death of one of the good guys: Crix Madine.
This happened in Kevin J. Anderson’s Darksaber, and it was another pointless death. Crix Madine, who had a small role in Return of the Jedi, was probably one of the few Rebel leaders seen on film that just never really took off in the EU. While counterparts like Mon Mothma and Admiral Ackbar flourished, Madine showed up in only a handful of books. Of course, it didn’t help that Star Wars fans were getting a bit jaded with the EU entries at the time. Kevin J. Anderson has said that a film character death was needed to convince fans that the stories didn’t always end happily for the heroes. While he wanted to kill off Lando (what a disaster that could have been!), he was told to use a more minor character. Crix Madine, a brief film character with a languishing presence in the EU, ended up being the perfect target. Nowadays, the idea that a major character death is needed to remind the reader of how high the stakes are is ridiculed fairly often. Rightfully so, in a way. There are many ways to raise the stakes… but a major death is one way to do that. I don’t really fault Anderson for killing off Madine. The character was a logical one to put to death, even if other authors could have done his character justice. Where I fault Anderson is with giving Madine a terrible death scene. He is captured by Durga the Hutt while on a reconnaissance mission to find Durga’s superweapon (the titular Darksaber) and after some tough guy talk and taunting the enemy, he is shot through the heart by the Hutt. Although Madine was able to relay the location of the Darksaber to the Republic fleet, the Darksaber actually fails to work and gets crushed by two asteroids. Madine ends up playing no real important role in defeating the villains, and his death really came across as meaningless. Sure, fans felt the impact of a character death… but the meaning behind it was cheap.
The Villains We Love to Hate
Even though Star Wars is really known for its Sith villains, it has had more than its fair share of Force-less baddies. By and large, they also get some of the best deaths too. I like to think it’s because they offer up a kind of evil that can be far removed from what the Sith hope to accomplish whenever they show up. The motivations of these characters are often different too, sometimes even to the point of being something sympathetic that the reader can connect with. There is probably no “regular” villain more famous in Star Wars than Grand Admiral Thrawn, a tactical genius that almost brought the New Republic to its knees. He may have shared the bad guy spotlight with Joruus C’baoth, an insane cloned Jedi, but the contrast between the two characters was nicely done throughout the books. C’baoth was a character that could stand up to Luke Skywalker and have a great battle. Thrawn… well, not so much. He was a great thinker, sure, but he wasn’t going to stand a chance against a Jedi. Still, he was a bad guy and we all knew he was going to bite the dust by the end of the trilogy.
He does, and in the most brilliant way for him to go out possible. It happens during the Battle of Bilbringi, when his Noghri bodyguard, Rukh, learns that Thrawn was responsible for the oppression of the Noghri on Honoghr. Rukh creeps behind Thrawn while he sits in his command chair, and stabs him from behind through the chest. Thrawn’s dying words? “But… it was so artistically done.” And really, it was. Not only does the line play into Thrawn’s love of art and its use in exploiting his enemies, but it’s almost as if Timothy Zahn stepped into the story and bragged to us that we wouldn’t see it coming. It was such a perfect death for Thrawn, and even today it stands as one of the single best deaths in the EU, for its poignant emotion and its ability to surprise the reader.
A similar character, to me, was that of Nil Spaar – the Yevetha antagonist in the Black Fleet Crisis trilogy. He had a pretty interesting background too, having led a successful rebellion after the Battle of Endor that ended the Imperial enslavement of the Yevetha. The problem with Spaar, sadly, was that he was a pretty bad guy. With the Imperials now serving as slaves, he prepared the Yevetha to take over the Koornacht Cluster and attempted to create diplomatic turmoil for the New Republic to keep them from realizing his goals. The New Republic didn’t, of course, and war broke out between the two sides. Spaar was a bad dude, and was an extreme racist to boot. He even captured Han Solo and transmitted footage of his personal beating of everyone’s favorite smuggler. Clearly, we were being set up for a great demise for this evil character. The story didn’t disappoint either. As the Yevetha prepared for a major battle, the Imperial slaves rebelled and seized control of Spaar’s ship – mimicking Spaar’s own rise to power. The Imperials stuffed Spaar into an escape pod, and then launched it while the ship was in hyperpsace. Lacking a hyperdrive, the escape pod would be unable to escape from hyperspace… dooming Spaar to spend his last moments trapped forever. I found it to be an incredibly satisfying death, even if the reader never actually sees him die. Not only does the villain meet his end, but it happens at the hand of someone we never expected. I think that’s what made Bantam villain deaths exciting. We knew that the heroes would be victorious, we just didn’t know how. When a surprise comes from left field, and is done in such a way that it doesn’t seem random or forced, it really makes the book shine that much brighter.
But Bantam doesn’t have all the great deaths of non-Force users. Let’s turn our galactic calendars back to the Clone Wars, shall we? It seems weird to even bring up the Clone Wars. Some of the most memorable villains in that time period never die, escaping death over and over to the point where it’s just not even enjoyable. After all, how many times can Count Dooku lose major battles and still make the Confederacy appealing to independent systems? How many times can Asajj Ventress and General Grievous suffer defeat before the audience loses interest in the perpetual losers? But in recent days, I feel like fans have forgotten one character who was once a prominent Clone Wars villain. He was a bounty hunter that was over 2,000 years old, appearing in both comics and the first Clone Wars television show. Yes, I’m talking about Durge. He was a great character, probably because he had a real mouth on him (though his television appearance would have you believe he was mute). He was a guy that just couldn’t seem to die either, regrowing limbs and even pulling his body together after being blown up from the inside by Obi-Wan Kenobi. He did meet his end, though, in the brilliant comic miniseries Obsession. Durge ambushes Obi-Wan and Anakin, and after briefly knocking Obi-Wan out the fight, turns his attention on the Chosen One. Anakin more than holds his own, though, using Durge’s own explosives against him and seriously injuring the bounty hunter. While injured, Anakin uses the Force to persuade Durge to get into an escape pod. He then guides the escape pod into a nearby star, killing Durge once and for all. As far as deaths go, I suppose it did seem a little anticlimactic. Durge didn’t get one final snappy one-liner, and it really seemed like his inclusion in the series was so that he could be killed off before the start of Revenge of the Sith. But the death still worked really well for me. Not only did it showcase Anakin making the conscious decision to kill a weakened opponent rather than taking him alive or leaving the bounty hunter to fend for himself, but it also showed that the villains of the Clone Wars aren’t invincible.
Let’s not give all the credit to just Bantam and Dark Horse, though. Del Rey has had more than its fair share of fantastic death scenes, and Borsk Fey’lya’s death is probably one of the best. Not just from Del Rey, but when looking at the Star Wars EU as a whole. First introduced as a slimy politician in The Thrawn Trilogy, Borsk was a true character that readers loved to hate. He wasn’t a conventional villain, but his constant political scheming constantly put him on the opposite side of our heroes. In many ways, he was a classic politician: spineless and close-minded, but nevertheless with a powerful charisma about him. Rather surprisingly, he wasn’t killed off. Borsk ended up being a constant presence all throughout the New Republic era and well into the New Jedi Order era. By the time of the Yuuzhan Vong invasion, Borsk’s political machinations had succeeded in him being elected as Chief of State of the New Republic. Of course, Borsk’s years of tormenting readers finally caught up with him as he spent half of the New Jedi Order trying to negotiate with the Yuuzhan Vong and blaming the Jedi for he continued invasion. It was both wonderful to read Borsk finally get what he deserved, but painful to also see the impact that his failures had on countless other characters. This was a character that became one of the most despised characters in the EU… but then Star By Star was released.
In that behemoth of a book, Borsk realizes that the Jedi Order is the only hope for the New Republic. His political posturing comes too late, though, and the Yuuzhan Vong successfully invade Coruscant. It is at this point that Borsk comes to the conclusion that he has finally, and completely, lost everything – his government, his power and his people. In a final act of defiance, he attaches a bomb to a heart monitor and surrenders to the Yuuzhan Vong. The Yuuzhan Vong kill Borsk, and the bomb destroys not only most of the Imperial Palace and its data towers, but also more than 25 thousand Yuuzhan Vong warriors. Borsk goes out in a blaze of glory, dealing a huge blow to the enemy. I found it hard to accept, at first. Not that the act wasn’t believable, but because I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of seeing Borsk Fey’lya redeem himself. Even today, fans still can’t agree on whether or not his final moments redeemed him. But what cannot be denied is that he died a pretty awesome death, and when push came to shove, Borsk went out like a hero – not a villain.
Still, not every “regular” villain gets a great death. Of all the things that Legacy of the Force bungled, and it bungled a lot, the lame death of Thrackan Sal-Solo probably doesn’t even come up in conversation among fans still livid at the series. Personally, I’ve never liked Thrackan’s character. I thought he was beyond cruel in The Paradise Snare, especially for being a part of Han’s family. His later appearances in the Corellian Trilogy and the New Jedi Order, cemented my opinion that the guy was a complete buffoon. But somehow, through it all, he constantly bounced back from trouble. To me, it was just completely unrealistic given his constant portrayal as an oaf. Thankfully, we were spared any prolonged appearances throughout the series as Thrackan was killed in the second book, Bloodlines. Like the scumbag he was, Thrackan put a huge bounty on the Solo family members. When Han Solo, Boba Fett and Mirta Gev finally confront him, the man becomes little more than a talking plot point, giving the heroes (and readers) information that could only be gained from his character. After he finishes, Mirta Gev kills him. Boba Fett and Han take the opportunity to pump a few extra shots in Thrackan’s corpse. I mean… what a terrible way to go. Sure, Thrackan’s inclusion in the series was simply a plot device and allowed him to (finally!) be killed off. But he was just an awful character, and the death he got was too quick, too easy. This was the guy who once led the Peace Brigade! He should have been torn to pieces by an angry mob or something, giving the reader the satisfaction of knowing that such a terrible character got a real painful death.
Send in the Clones
In the EU, clones represent an interesting twist on death that we don’t normally think about. Look at The Clone Wars. Each episode has clones of Jango Fett dying left and right. Sure, we can get attached to characters that are highlighted, like Rex or Alpha, but does a death have less impact overall if the character is a clone? I think that, in the case of the clones, those that are specifically focused on tend to gain a persona that is different from the bland clones that really just serve as cannon fodder. In a way, the clones of the prequel timeline are almost the exception to the clone rule. It’s no secret that cloning has been around in the Star Wars EU almost since the very beginning, but the portrayal of clones was very different.
The most infamous cloning story in the EU, easily, is Dark Empire. It involves the return of Palpatine, this time in a cloned body. Right off the bat, I hated this idea. Sure, the story works from a technical point of view… but it also negates the sacrifice of Darth Vader and the accomplishments of Return of the Jedi. Palpatine’s death was perfect in the film, and I thought it was pretty clear from the start that he whatever death he would eventually get in the EU would not surpass his original death. As intriguing as the ideas of degenerating cloned bodies and spiritual transferal were, Palpatine’s mere presence stole the spotlight from advancing the ideas even further. He goes out with a real whimper too. The mastermind behind the fall of the Republic and decimation of the Jedi Order winds up shot in the back by Han Solo. But even then, Palpatine isn’t dead. His spirit rushes to take over the body of Anakin Solo, only to be intercepted by Empatojayos Brand (basically, a random Jedi whose sole existence was to die) and bound to the dying Jedi’s life force. Of course, Empire’s End (where the death takes place) was supposed to be a six-part miniseries and wound up being only two parts instead – leading to a rushed storyline that needed to end with the death of Palpatine. It would seem that everyone’s favorite emperor was thwarted twice, both by real life and in the story. Unlike the usual character death gimmick, Palpatine’s death was actually the product of another gimmick: the return of a character believed to have been dead. It was a sloppy ending, and a terribly disappointing finish to one of the most monumental figures in the Star Wars universe.
Fans of the EU should be able to conjure up memories of another character who has died more than once, thanks to clones. Of course, I’m talking about Galen Marek. More fondly referred to as Starkiller, from The Force Unleashed, he is somewhat of an enigma at this moment. In The Force Unleashed, Darth Vader betrays his young apprentice in front of Emperor Palpatine, stabbing him with a lightsaber and Force throwing him into space. By all accounts, he should have been dead and unable to be revived. It is never explained in the video game or the novel, aside from knowing that Starkiller’s body was retrieved by a probe droid and that Vader mentions that he “salvaged” his body so that he could be “rebuilt.” Still, the novelization does seem to hint that following Vader’s betrayal, the Starkiller who wakes up is a clone. It isn’t spelled out, but the hints are there – as all of his scars are suddenly gone. There is nothing to suggest that he had limbs replaced with cybernetics (surely he would notice if that were the case?), and fan speculation came to the conclusion that Starkiller had been cloned with his memories intact. Cloning aside, though, Starkiller remained the same exact character he was before his apparent death. I actually thought he got a pretty good death, all things considered. I didn’t care much for his beating the stuffing out of Darth Vader, but I chalk it up to wanting the video game players to feel like they are really cool and can give the villains a run for their money. In the end, he saved the day and sacrificed himself for the good of the Rebellion. I was satisfied, and ready to move on… and was pretty shocked when The Force Unleashed II was announced. Now, cloning is right at the forefront of the discussion. It is unknown how this will play into his portrayal, or how his revival will affect his death scene – but I feel like I’ve been cheated. Starkiller wasn’t a great new character, but I thought he accomplished what he existed to do – to make the audience feel like they could really unleash the Force in crazy new ways. Now he’s back, and there is a bigger focus on who he is and his memories – something that I just didn’t buy in the first story. Still, I look forward to seeing what Starkiller’s presence adds to the cloning debate. Will he be the same character, or come into his own as more nuanced version of his character in the first installment? We’ll find out next month.