I'm about to do something that has become a rather unpopular thing on the internet -- especially among liberal and progressive-minded people such as myself. I'm about to explain why I consider Rey to have been a "Mary Sue" in Star Wars: the Force Awakens.

I'm not doing this because I want to hate on the movies for the sake of hating them. I'm also not trying to hate on Daisy Ridley, and Daisy, if you read this, I want you to know that I think you did a fantastic job with the material that was given to you. I'm being critical because I want the movies to be better than they are. I have very high standards and expectations when it comes to Star Wars, and I feel that Disney's efforts so far have been sub-par. So much so that I often find myself using phrases like ... sigh ... "to the prequels' credit". I hate having to say that. It makes my skin crawl every time. I'm at a point, however, in which I find myself pointing out merits in the prequels as a point of contrast against flaws that I perceive in Disney's Star Wars films, as if one set isn't better or worse than the other; but rather, that they are just ... different.

I don't hate Rey. I am critical because I want these characters to be better.

So even though this is kind of old news that's been beaten to death for over two years, let's talk about Rey for a moment. And regardless of which side of this issue you fall on, I hope that you read the following with an open mind. And if you disagree, then that's fine. I'm not going to fight you over it.

"Mary Sue" is a subjective qualifier

Let's start with some background. The definition that I use for a Mary Sue is:

A fictional character (often appearing in fan fiction) who is primarily a vehicle for wish-fullfillment (usually being a self-insert stand-in for the author), and who is unjustifiably-competent in multiple fields -- if not everything.

Typically, these characters are good at everything they do. They get along with other established characters exceedingly well (sometimes even being romantically pursued by one or more of the canonical characters). They have few (if any) flaws. They are an idealized character who is essentially a "perfect" character within the fiction. They are also -- pretty much by definition -- characters who are added to a fictional setting long after its initial establishment.

The term "Mary Sue" is derived
from Star Trek fan fiction.

The term originated in Star Trek fan fiction, having been coined in 1973 after the publication of a parody story "A Trekkie's Tale" in the fan magazine Menagerie. This particular story (written by Paula Smith) was about a 15-year-old female character named Mary Sue, and it satirized the unrealistic nature of many characters in other fan fiction stories. Lieutenant Sue was the youngest Lieutenant in Starfleet and was an expert in virtually everything she did. She was "the best and the brightest" of Starfleet.

First off, I want to get one thing straight: whether or not a character is a "Mary Sue" is a subjective opinion. Whether or not any individual reader or viewer considers a given character as a "Mary Sue" is going to depend greatly upon where that individual draws the line between "justifiably-competent" and "unjustifiably-competent". That line will vary from person to person, and from fictional universe to fictional universe. I draw that line at a much different place for Star Wars than I do for Star Trek. In addition, this line is not always a hard or clear-cut line. It might be very fuzzy. The fuzziness of the line will also vary from person-to-person and from fictional-universe-to-fictional-universe. It's all on a continuum. Even within a single fictional universe, one character may be " more Mary Sue-ish" than another character.

Identifying a character as a Mary Sue also does not necessarily mean that the work of fiction (or even the character) is inherently bad.

[More]

The Last Jedi poster

If there was one thing that was going to completely derail this movie for me, it was going to be its tone. The cockpit furby in the trailer was completely off-putting for me, and the actual movie begins with a dumb joke that makes one of the movie's key villains look like a complete dolt. Maybe that's the point, but the joke fell completely flat, pulled me out of the movie, and the movie had to do a lot of work from then on in order to pull me back in.

Fortunately, it eventually did pull me back in and held me throughout. I was totally on-board with the direction Rian Johnson took Luke Skywalker, and the parts of the movie that take place on the island were the definite highlights for me. Tone was still an issue though. There's a lot of attempts at humor that fall flat on their face. About the only jokes that worked for me were Luke tickling Rey's hand with the leaf and Luke chucking the lightsaber over his shoulder (apparently in the same place he chucked his X-Wing and all his other unwanted garbage).

Obviously, this movie takes a lot of its thematic and tone queues from The Empire Strikes Back. It's the middle movie in a trilogy that's [assumedly] not going to end with the main character murdering all the other good guys in cold blood and turning into a bad guy, so it has to be dark and brooding. The juvenile humor (along with the cartoonish action) just completely doesn't work in a movie that takes itself as seriously as this one does.

Those bad jokes and occasional cartoonish action sequences are surrounded by a movie that actually does have a lot of meta-thematic weight to it and tries very hard to push the Star Wars universe in a new and interesting direction. This isn't the fan service vehicle that The Force Awakens and Rogue One were. This is an actual movie with something to actually say about movies and fan communities. It doesn't hit quite as hard as Black Mirror's recent evisceration of fan entitlement via a Star Trek parody, but it comes close. As much as The Force Awakens delighted audiences with its whole-hearted embrace of nostalgia and fan service, The Last Jedi works very hard to actively disappoint fans. As the trailers promise, "this does not end the way you think", and from here on out, it's SPOILER TIME:

The Last Jedi goes out of its way to disappoint, regardless of what fan theory(ies) you subscribed to.
[More]

Star Wars X-Wing miniatures game

There's two versions of this game available now. The original one was released back in 2012 and was based on the original Star Wars trilogy. With the release of The Force Awakens in 2015, Fantasy Flight released a variant core set based on the new movie. The variant set includes miniatures based on the new Resistance X-Wings and First Order TIE Fighters, as well as some revised rules.

I haven't played the variant set with the revised rules, so this review will focus on the original release of the game. My understanding is that the rule changes in the updated version do not alter mechanics, but rather it makes some clarifications for some circumstantial edge cases. If I ever do get a chance to play the revised rules, and find that they substantially alter the game, then I'll either write a separate review of that, or I'll add to this review (depending on how extensive the changes are).

I've had this game for a few years, but didn't play much of it over that time period. Lately, however, my girlfriend and I have gotten really into it -- trying to play a game every weekend or two -- and have been buying lots of expansion ships. So I decided that it was time for me to finally get around to reviewing the game.

Miniature games are a dangerous thing to get into. The core set for X-Wing contains only three ships: a single X-Wing and two TIE Fighters. Without expansions, this leaves the game with relatively little replay value, as there's only so much you can do with such a small roster of ships. There's a handful of pre-made mission scenarios and character cards that can add a bit more variety. The ships themselves are very high quality models - nearly collectible-quality models. Screw having a box, when you're not playing the game, you can display these miniatures on a shelf or in a curio cabinet somewhere! Other components in the set have good production value, which is one of the trademarks of Fantasy Flight games.

Star Wars X-Wing - play area
The game has no board, but is played on any 3'x3' playing surface. Fantasy Flight does sell optional play mats.

Since this is a miniatures game, there is no actual game board. Instead, you'll need a 3 foot by 3 foot playing surface for the play area, plus some extra room for ship cards and components. Fantasy Flight sells play mats with various patterns, along with numerous other accessories. You can also get away with a solid black sheet of 3'x3' felt or cloth from your local craft store, or a bigger sheet if you want larger play areas (you can fold a sheet of cloth to any size you need). In lieu of such a play surface, the game box includes a set of 4 cardboard "corners" that you can use to delineate the borders of the play area. The play area can also be decorated with asteroids or other cardboard obstacles that come packaged in the game.

Plastic dogfights

The game itself is a four-phase process. In the first phase (Planning Phase), each player secretly selects a maneuver for each of their ships using a cardboard dial. This maneuver will determine the ship's movement during the following phase.

Star Wars X-Wing - maneuver
The maneuver templates make ship
movement simple and intuitive.

The second phase is the Activation Phase, in which each ship executes its planned movement. Each ship has a pilot assigned to it, which has a skill level on that pilot's card. Ships are moved ("activated") one at a time in ascending pilot order (lowest skill pilot goes first). The ship's chosen maneuver is revealed, and ship movement is handled by slotting a cardboard maneuver template into the front of the ship's base, picking up the ship, and finally slotting the back of its base at the far end of the maneuver template. In general, movement is a pretty easy mechanic to execute.

It gets a little more complicated if there's overlap between objects in the play area. In the event of a collision, the ship moves as far along its maneuver template as possible before it collides with the other ship or obstacle...

[More]
Star Wars the Force Awakens - title

So where do I start ...?

... With the Mary Sue-ish protagonist?

... Or the McGuffin plot device?

... Or the uncomfortably rushed pacing?

... Or that the uncomfortably-rushed plot was a complete rehash of the first movie's plot, starting with hiding a secret document inside a droid and culminating in a trench run to blow up yet another Death Star?

... Or how about the other fan-service?

... Or the shallow character arcs?

... Or the completely throw-away characters like Phasma?

... How about the weak, forgettable original score?

... Or even how the lack of the 20th Century Fox fanfare made the title crawl feel weird?

Yeah, I came out of the movie with a very sunken, disappointed feeling. Heck, at first, I wasn't even sure if what I had just seen was even better than the prequels. But I'll give The Force Awakens some credit and say that it is better than the prequels. Despite Rey coming off as a Mary Sue, and despite that all the other characters have arcs that are completed within the first ten minutes of the movie (if an arc exists at all), the characters and performances are much better than what we got in the prequels. I thought that the friendliness and camaraderie between the heroes felt a bit forced, but that was partly the result of the rapid pacing of the movie. The Millenium Falcon seems to warp back and forth across the galaxy three times over the course of the movie, and hyperspace seems to allow virtually instantaneous transit now (another problem that Abrams carried over from Star Trek). Is travel instantaneous, or did these characters spend days or weeks bunking on the Falcon?

Star Wars the Force Awakens - running from TIE assault
Rey feels like a Mary Sue character who fulfills a multi-film development arc in the span of a few minutes.

Rey is a Mary Sue character whose entire development occurs in the couple minutes that she's strapped into an interrogation chair; although I loved the witty subversion of the "damsel in distress" trope in the beginning of the film: "Stop holding my hand, I know how to run!". LoL. Fin's arc is basically complete within the first ten minutes of the movie. Kylo Ren has a shallow arc that is left unresolved so that it can be further explored in the subsequent films (I'm assuming he's probably going to have a redemption arc similar to Vader's in Return of the Jedi). Han and Leia don't have arcs, as they just have backstory. All their character development happened off-screen in the thirty intervening years. And I'm OK with that. I didn't expect Han and Leia's relationship to work out anyway. They had nothing in common except the fight against the empire. Once that was over, Leia was likely to go back to being a diplomat or politician, and Han would have to turn his back on the life of crime and mercenary work that he's good at in order to find a respectable job and avoid being a source of scandal and controversy. That wasn't going to happen!

So all the backstory made sense to me, and was all pretty much what I expected. That is, until the political situation came up... So there's another republic now (makes sense), and that republic is the dominant governing power in the galaxy, right? And then there's this small, Cult of Darth Vader that calls itself the First Order. The First Order isn't the empire (or even the remnants of the empire), but they use the empire's stormtrooper armor, TIE Fighters, and Star Destroyers out of reverence for Vader. And they hold no actual power or influence, right? They don't even recruit soldiers from the general galactic population. They either kidnap children, or grow them in test tubes to be raised to fight as stormtroopers (and maybe even as officers, as suggested by the youthful General Hux). The only sympathy or cooperation that they receive is from fear and intimidation, which for some reason, the republic is either unwilling or incapable of doing anything about?

And then there's this resistance that Leia is supposedly in charge of, and that everyone in the galaxy seems to know about. What are they resisting? They're not resisting the republic. They seem to be resisting the First Order, and that they are sanctioned by the republic but not an official part of the republic. Well why not? Why are they still a small, ragtag group of former rebels that are apparently hiding away in secret bases? Why isn't the "resistance" just the republic's army or some sort of special operations unit? I'm sure that this sort of stuff will be explained (and hopefully make more sense) in the follow-up movies (or maybe it's already been explained in official books or whatever), but that doesn't change the fact that it made no sense in this movie. It's just another example of J.J. Abrams seeming to have no comprehension of the size and scale of the universes that he's working in.

Star Wars the Force Awakens - X-wings incoming
The political situation is very poorly explained. Who are the "Resistance",
what are they resisting, and why aren't they part of the new republic's official military?

The overall plot works well enough for the first two-thirds of the movie. [More]

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