Rebels’ Thrawn: Turning Genius into Competency

At this point, I feel my appreciation of Timothy Zahn’s Grand Admiral Thrawn is well documented. The villain first appeared in the Star Wars universe as the direct follow-up to Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. The success of Thrawn came from the fact that he met two conditions: 1) He had very different character traits from Vader or Palpatine. 2) He came off as no less dangerous.

Thrawn is a villain without the Force. Indeed, physically, he is not intimidating. He can fight – sure, but against a jedi it would not be a contest. Thrawn’s weapon is his intellect. He can stand in a room with Luke Skywalker and Luke will be unable to touch him, because Thrawn has calculated every scenario and anticipated every plan. The Grand Admiral’s own designs have layers upon layers upon layers of intricacy. Simply put: Thrawn has no intellectual equivalent.

Thrawn outsmarting jedi
From a graphic novel adaptation of Heir to the Empire. Thrawn’s research leads him to a way to disrupt the Force.

At least, that is how he was in the Heir to the Empire trilogy – the novels that sparked the Star Wars expanded universe (long before Disney or the prequels). Author Timothy Zahn crafted compelling new characters (Grand Admiral Thrawn and Mara Jade) that breathed life back into the Star Wars fandom. About 24 years later, Disney is rebooting the Star Wars expanded universe – hoping to capture the brilliance while whittling out the…well the not-great ideas.

I was overjoyed to hear that Grand Admiral Thrawn was to be made officially canon in Star Wars Rebels. After seeing season three (Thrawn’s introduction) however, I have doubts that the show writers are up to the task of capturing what made Thrawn compelling.

Thrawn in Rebels

Grand Admiral Thrawn is assigned into Rebels after the unexplained departure of Darth Vader (he is hunting the rebels until he isn’t). For much of season three, Thrawn is present but passive. He observes but rarely acts. When he interacts with the rebels, one of two things happens. Thrawn “lets them go” or he turns over their handling to a subordinate…who promptly fails, allowing the rebels to escape. Neither of these courses of action paint Thrawn as a genius.

Plans without Payoff

The former could have done so with appropriate payoff. Early on in the season, Thrawn captures a family heirloom of Hera’s and seems very intent on learning about her family and culture. Later on, Thrawn lets Commander Sato escape after learning the extent to which the man values family.

The problem here is that neither of these developments are revisited in season three. Thrawn never utilizes his knowledge of Hera’s family to out-think her and never manipulates Sato’s dedication to family. Nope, instead he just finally figures out where the rebel base is and attacks it. That’s it. For a master of planning, Thrawn is incredibly simple.

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Given Commander Sato’s death at the end of season three, it is very unlikely that Thrawn’s information gathering will ever be worth it.

So…why does Thrawn let them escape? It comes off as masked incompetence rather than cleverness. Thrawn is merely spinning his failures to sound more positive. “I didn’t let them get away… I wanted this! Yeah, yeah that’s it!”

In addition, a subplot of season three centers around Agent Kallus, an imperial agent turned rebel spy. While Thrawn learns of Kallus’ true loyalties fairly quickly, he does nothing to use this information to his advantage. This despite a scene where Thrawn says he will do exactly that. I believe the line is “Agent Kallus will have far more use as a rebel spy” or something like that. But nothing comes of it in terms of payoff – Thrawn never feeds Kallus false information and Kallus eventually leaves to join the rebels. In literary terms, this is loading a gun without ever firing it. What was the point?

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I also find it hard to believe that Thrawn, who meticulously studies art, would not immediately notice a removed planet in a map he had been researching.

The “Stupid Watson” Syndrome

I credit pointing out the “Stupid Watson” syndrome to author and cartoonist, Kate Beaton. In the early Sherlock Holmes movies of the 20th century, Watson is re-imagined from a clever doctor to a bumbling sidekick with juvenile-or-senile levels of intellect. While it’s good for a chuckle, it raises a question: “Why does Holmes hang out with this guy? Isn’t this creating more work for him?”

Stupid Watson syndrome

The answer is that it was lazy writing. Rather than make Holmes look like the genuine genius he is, they paired him with a moron to amplify his competence and make even mundane actions look intelligent. In Rebels, the show writers did a similar thing with Thrawn.

Thrawn continually hands off command to people who promptly screw up – much as Sherlock Holmes in the old movies continually gave Watson tasks, which he promptly screwed up. The problem here is that the genius stops looking smart when he repeatedly places idiots in charge.

It also is uncharacteristic of a mastermind. In the season three finale, Thrawn begins by overseeing command of the bombardment of the rebel base. He then hands off that command to go down to the surface so that he can accept the rebel surrender. For a macro-manager, this is an odd choice. Why abandon the position of control? It also gives the writers an easy way out. Thrawn didn’t lose the battle – Governor Price did. This isn’t Price’s first failure so why – with the situation so crucial – does Thrawn again give her command?

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Only fools keep around other fools whom they can pass the blame onto.

It would be one thing if this new Thrawn was supposed to be different from the original, but Disney has taken pains – including bringing back Timothy Zahn to write a new origin story – to recapture Thrawn’s evil genius. They want the compelling character who gave birth to the expanded universe. Unfortunately, at least in season three, Rebels writers have not been up to the task of writing genius. The Thrawn in Rebels is so far only a pale shadow of his literary predecessor – he is nowhere near as interesting and less than half as threatening. Let us hope they can turn it around in season four.

Dear Hollywood: Please do Something with Dino-Riders

Let me tell you about Dino-Riders. It is f*cking amazing.

There are dinosaurs with freaking laser beams attached to their heads. I’m not lying. Produced in 1988, Dino-Riders was a TV show that (exactly like Transformers) existed to sell toys. What kind of toys exactly? Have a look:

Literally dinosaurs with laser beams attached to their heads. You see that it was no exaggeration.
Literally dinosaurs with laser beams attached to their heads. You see that it was no exaggeration.

Oh and in case you’re wondering what the heck is riding the dinosaurs? Let me tell you:

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So the basic premise is this: good-guy humans and bad-guy aliens end up back in time (or on some other planet – who cares?) with dinosaurs. They attach weapons to those dinosaurs and proceed to beat the crap out of each other. This makes the ridiculousness of Jurassic World look like a serious drama.

It is smart: absolutely not. Well, I shouldn’t say that with such certainty. I only ever watched two episodes of the show as a kid a long time ago… but I remember nothing about it besides “good guy is good, bad guy is bad – DINOSAURS.” Yet what needs brains to make a lot of money.

Did Jurassic World make any sense?

It did not.

Jurassic World‘s worldwide gross was $1,668,805,942. So either people reeeaaallly love Chris Pratt, or audiences want fun dinosaur action! Pixar’s upcoming film, the Good Dinosaur, may help prove which factor one way or the other.

Really, ever since Transformers emerged as a blockbuster juggernaut (again – points for movies that make no sense), Dino-Riders should have been a no-brainer. Well, I’m happy to report that Hollywood might have finally realized what they’re sitting on.

According to an article that broke last month, toy giant Mattel and unknown Solipsist Film (they seem to be a new company, there is very little on them; their website has nothing) are teaming up to bring Dino-Riders to the big screen.

Will it materialize? It had better. Seriously Hollywood – this is a franchise with mindless dinosaur and alien action that is from the 1980s. It has cash cow written all over it.

Oh and apparently there is a video game? It looks fan made. People can also just play Ark: Survival Evolved, which is practically the Dino-Riders game.

"Why am I so bad at being good?": the Encouraging Wisdom of Zuko

As the world ticks by another March 31st and I celebrate a special birthday, I will take the time to ask a deep-sounding and important question: how does one be a good person? There are so many complications to this question that make it nearly impossible to answer. The largest and most immediate may be “what is my definition of good?” Indeed, ‘good‘ is not a static word in the English language. Nearly any act, from saving a kitten to taking a life can be viewed as ‘good.’ So, where to start? Also, doesn’t this post have something to do with Avatar: the Last Airbender?

Yes, and there is a reason for starting the post with such a board question. As I have mentioned in past character analysis, the best art includes characters that can teach real life lessons. My post on Iroh focused on how he dealt with tragedy, my post on Azula discussed how the tragedy of her life came about and could have been avoided. Well, if we’re talking Fire Nation complexity, we gotta talk Zuko.

Zuko, for those out the who don’t know, is the Fire Nation (bad guy) banished prince. He was meant to be the next Fire Lord before speaking out of turn cost him his home and his title. He was cast out to wander the world in search of the Avatar with only one ship of men and his uncle (Iroh) to help him. Another way to describe Zuko would to be to liken him to Hamlet. I’m basically saying that he has daddy issues and difficulty making up his mind. Also, not the most cheerful guy to be around:

Typical Zuko response.
Typical Zuko response.

At the beginning of the series, Zuko is an antagonist. He chases the Avatar with single-minded focus. After all, according to his father, capturing the Avatar is the only way to restore his honor and the only thing that will allow him to return home. Wow, right? He must have done something really bad to get banished in the first place, right?

Turns out the only thing Zuko did was speak out of turn… and in protest of some troops being sent on a suicide mission. As a result, this happened:

Yeah: holy sh*t. Zuko’s own father burned half of his face off… just for speaking out of turn. This gives you an idea as to what kind of childhood Zuko led. He wasn’t raised by loving parents, he did not have a stable environment in which to grow, he did not have many friends or allies who believed in him. In short, Zuko did not come from the house where most storybook heroes are raised.

Zuko did have a happy childhood with his mom... until she was exiled.
Zuko did have a happy childhood with his mom… until she was exiled.

We all like to think that we’re good people on our own, but the proven fact remains that environment is crucial in child development. It can be an unsettling question to ask: “If I were raised by serial killers, would I view killing as wrong?” Well, Zuko was raised by a killer. Ozai (Zuko’s dear old daddy) essentially arranged the death of his father to further his own politcal career. I’m going to guess that morality talks were not an often occurrence in Zuko’s childhood.

As such, is it such a wonder that he began the series as a ‘villain’? No, the incredible achievement comes in his being a protagonist by series’ end. Of all the characters who transform throughout the series, there is none who grows as much as Zuko. The more incredible fact is that Zuko accomplishes this transformation largely on his own. Yes, Iroh is a powerful positive force for change, but he never forces Zuko to do anything.

There, that’s as forceful as Iroh ever is. Zuko does not rely on his uncle to question him. He is a constant judge of his own emotions and actions. After every major action, there is a reflection. This is one of Zuko’s most positive qualities as it allows him to learn and grow through everything he does.

“Zuko: For so long I thought that if my dad accepted me, I'd be happy. I'm back home now, my dad talks to me. Ha! He even thinks I'm a hero. Everything should be perfect, right? I should be happy now, but I'm not. I'm angrier than ever and I don't know why! Azula: There's a simple question you need to answer, then. Who are you angry at? Zuko: No one. I'm just angry. Mai: Yeah, who are you angry at, Zuko? Zuko: Everyone. I don't know. Azula: Is it Dad? Zuko: No, no. Ty Lee: Your uncle? Azula: Me? Zuko: No, no, n-no, no! Mai: Then who? Who are you angry at? Azula: Answer the question, Zuko. Ty Lee: Talk to us. Mai: Come on, answer the question. Azula: Come on, answer it. Zuko: I'm angry at myself!”
“For so long I thought that if my dad accepted me, I’d be happy. I’m back home now, my dad talks to me. Ha! He even thinks I’m a hero. Everything should be perfect, right? I should be happy now, but I’m not. I’m angrier than ever and I don’t know why!… I’m angry at myself!”

This awareness, this willingness to look inward and critique is so important for growth. For contrast, Azula never reevaluated her actions. Everything she did was right because… she did it. No one can ever be perfect so it is important to be able to look back and admit mistakes. Yet Zuko’s greatest ability is not his awareness, but his determination to continue to improve himself.

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Let’s go back to the serial killer scenario. Even if you still found killing to be wrong, would you ever realize your family was in the wrong? More than that, would you ever act to stop them? Zuko does. He turns on his family, he turns on his father; the man who was pinnacle of authority.

Damn, that takes courage. A large detail not to ignore is that Zuko never distances himself from his family. Yes, he believes the Avatar should kill his father, and he does label his father “a monster,” but Zuko still calls the man ‘father.’ He never separates himself from the people who were so cruel to him. Is there a level of forgiveness there? Probably not, but it is good to see that no sense of superiority comes with Zuko’s change. He is never so high on himself to think he is perfect.

It could be argued that Aang was great because of his childhood and being raised by the Air Nomads. Katara may have found a lot of her strength and caring from her mother. Toph may even be her contradictory self only to spite her parents. Zuko… Zuko is the man he is because that is the man he chose to be, regardless of the negative and positive forces in his life.

Katara mocks but that is actually really impressive.

When asking how to be a ‘good’ person, that might be the answer. Look at all the forces in your life, and then be the force you want to be, since it is always possible.

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