Thursday, May 11, 2023

Let's celebrate the 40th anniversary of Return of the Jedi!

It's hard to believe Return of the Jedi came out 40 years ago!

The movie opened on May 25, 1983. It's the third and final movie in the original trilogy. I still remember seeing it as a kid. The movie ran for a long time and got a rerelease in 1984, so that may have been when I saw it. Seriously, I was not very old, but I still remember the rancor and the big space battle at the end.

Jedi is my favorite Star Wars movie. I once argued with a middle school teacher about it being the best of the Star Wars movies. He was convinced that honor belonged to The Empire Strikes Back, and while 13-year-old me disagreed, 42-year-old me can at least see where he was coming from. "Favorite" doesn't always mean "best," and people can certainly make an argument that the original Star Wars (or A New Hope, if you prefer) is the best of the three. 

A couple stories about the movie. First of all, we didn't own a copy of it for a long time. I remember a Friday pizza night when my family went to the video store to rent a movie and came out with Return of the Jedi even though we'd already watched it several times. I'm pretty sure this whole thing exhausted my mom, who was probably thinking NOT AGAIN when her sons plucked Jedi off the shelf.

Yes, Mom, we wanted to see it again. Because it is the best Star Wars movie.

Or at least our favorite.

The movie premiered on a local network affiliate some years later. My brother was having eye surgery in Indianapolis at the time, and my parents were away to be with him, so I was with my grandmother for the weekend. I was all amped up to see the movie, but more importantly, I had a fresh VHS tape in my grandmother's VCR so I could record it and watch it over and over (so long, video rental fees!). 

Disaster struck. 

I hit record, but the VCR didn't respond. As I freaked out, my grandmother finally called my uncle, who calmly informed us that you had to hold down the record and play buttons at the same time in order to get her VCR to tape something. We missed the opening crawl and Vader's arrival on the second Death Star. My taped-off-TV version of Jedi started with with Threepio and Artoo walking to Jabba's palace.

I finally got proper home releases of all three movies for Christmas in 1991 or 1992. The "uncut" version of Jedi finally had the opening crawl and Vader's arrival ("Perhaps I can find new ways to motivate them"). It was also missing awkward splices from skipped commercials (the old pause-record method), station logos, and the "edited for television" disclaimers.

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the other Star Wars movies, Del Rey released anthologies featuring forty stories, one to commemorate each year since release. The A New Hope version came out in 2017, while the Empire version came out in 2020.

This year, it's Return of the Jedi's turn.

I would love to say I have a story in the anthology, but I don't have that kind of clout or renown. Still, I decided to write a few stories of my own. These are pure fanfiction, nothing more. While I keep up on Star Wars, I've not read every comic and novel in the Disney era. Thus, I chucked out Star Wars canon. A few things are nods to the old Legends continuity.

Will the stories conflict with something established elsewhere? Probably. Do I care? Not one bit.

I had several ideas! Probably not enough to write 40 individual stories, but you never know. I finally settled on writing six of them...since Return of the Jedi is Episode VI. 

Here are the summaries:

A Whole Case of Trouble.
Lando Calrissian, working deep undercover in Jabba's palace to lay the groundwork for Han Solo's rescue, encounters a stylish spacer with a big problem and a rare, expensive case of liquor.

Many Bothans Lived.
A Bothan spymaster's network uncovers plans for a new Death Star, setting off a calamitous series of events.

Terror Bears.
 An elite group of stormtroopers, cut off from Imperial forces during the Battle of Endor, tries to outwit fearsome jungle warriors with grisly results.

The Fall of Palpatine.
As he plummets toward apparent oblivion, Emperor Palpatine reflects on his failed plot to destroy the Rebel Alliance once and for all with a daring gambit above the forest moon of Endor.

TurncoatAn Imperial spy embedded within a Rebel squadron loathes everything about her wingmen until the Empire reveals its true nature.

An Older Code. An Imperial technician on the Executor recognizes a shuttle carrying an older code, a clear violation of protocol. Why does no one seem to care? Didn't they finish the Imperial-mandated security training?

Commentary: An Older Code

This is commentary for An Older Code.

This story is inspired by a pivotal scene in Return of the Jedi in which Darth Vader allows a shuttle carrying a technical crew for the forest moon to land even though it's carrying an older code.

I understand why this happens. Vader senses Luke aboard the shuttle and lets it pass because he’s more interested in turning Luke to the Dark Side than adhering to protocols.

I always wondered what other personnel aboard the Executor thought about this. Admiral Piett was going to let the shuttle pass even though it had an “older code.” That sounds risky given the strategic importance of the forest moon and the Death Star II project. How did rank-and-file personnel react?

The story set out to explore what Piett meant by “an older code,” why such a code would exist, and what policies would be in place to handle the situation we see in Return of the Jedi.

If the Imperial tech has a name in canon, I couldn’t find it. I used the decidedly Star Wars-sounding name Zarn Kellam. He’s a relatively low-ranking tech on the bridge of the Executor.

How intolerable must it have been to serve in the Empire? In addition to the Empire’s general soul-crushing nature, Zarn deals with “corporate” annoyances as well. In this story, he has to attend, via remote, an IT training seminar. Anyone who’s ever worked in a corporate environment has to empathize with the poor guy.

The security virtual meeting is basically anti-spam training for Imperial officers. It’s a reminder that Imperial workstations are reserved for Imperial business, lest any employees download TikTok on their consoles.

It is quite big of the Empire to grant, with “supreme generosity,” some downtime for its beleaguered servants. Note how the position of IT security head has changed multiple times in the span of a few years. Again, for anyone with experience with a corporation, this is commonplace. People change jobs and titles all the time and there’s always someone new in charge of something.

Spam in the Star Wars universe has to exist, right? “VaderCreds” is totally a riff on crypto. Sorry, crypto bros.

You can absolutely feel the weariness in Zarn when presented with a list of Executor officers who failed to pass their security training. It’s up to him to make sure they take it again and pass. Among the ship’s officers, he finds only Piett tolerable.

But the security training also includes a major change in Imperial policy: the Empire is accelerating its timetable for the expiration of the “master code.”

In my version of the Star Wars universe, the master code is distributed fleetwide every few months so ships can “prove” they’re part of the Imperial fleet. With a recent uptick in Rebel activity, Imperial High Command is concerned Rebels may try to steal ships in order to infiltrate Imperial space—the Moddell Sector in particular.

This change in policy is important, and Zarn believes his commanders need to follow it. Zarn doesn’t sound like a particularly dedicated Imperial, but he does believe in following the rules, if just because it will keep Imperial High Command off his back.

I wanted Zarn to have at least one friend on the ship. The brief interaction between the security training and the pivotal Tydirium scene is designed to give Zarn a little more personality.  It also shows us that four of his superiors are lazy and stupid. While Zarn holds Piett in somewhat high esteem, he doesn’t have much use for the other officers. He and his friend believe the officers should be held to higher standards.

Would the Empire care if you lost your life savings in a VaderCreds scam? As Zarn tells his friend, they absolutely wouldn’t care as long as you showed up for your next shift.

Zarn is likely joking about his friend asking an “ISB question,” but there’s probably some paranoia involved here. The Imperial Security Bureau is basically the gestapo of the Galactic Empire, with agents who observe and report on dissident behavior.

His friend’s story isn’t apocryphal at all. It’s literally what happens in the first Star Wars movie. General Tagge voiced his concerns about the rising threat of the Rebellion. Those concerns were summarily dismissed by Admiral Motti. Who blew up the Death Star? The Rebels. Who was right? Tagge.

The “Bantha” app is basically a Star Wars version of Discord I made up. Imperial personnel aren’t supposed to use it, as it’s on a long list of “banned apps.” Zarn’s friend makes the wrong read here, though, and believes the Empire is preparing to attack the Rebel fleet. Instead, the Imperials will hang back and let the Rebels come to them.

Zarn and his friend are both clearly worn down by the Galactic Civil War and Imperial culture in general. They hope an end to the war—one that’s coming soon—will mean they can take a trip somewhere or get a different job. I guess that would make them casual fascists?

We saw Felucia, of course, in Revenge of the Sith. I’m not sure it’s a place you’d want to visit, but it does have some beautiful flora.

Zarn is excited by the idea of doing something different with his life. Reminder: the Executor explodes during the Battle of Endor.

Back on the bridge, Zarn checks the energy shield integrity and notes a technical crew boosted the “output of their prefab bunker.” This is a direct reference to intel from “Many Bothans Lived.”

Ugh. Small talk with the admiral. At least Piett is personable, I guess?

It’s funny to think of an Imperial admiral getting a performance review, isn’t it? Did he have to rank himself on a five-point scale? Did his evaluation lead to a pay increase? Did he have to create vague “goals” for the upcoming year?

You can tell Piett is amused by the security training and doesn’t consider it very important. However, for Zarn’s sake, he’ll commit to finish it despite being in the middle of a war. Heck, maybe he can convince the deadbeat officers to take care of their stuff.

The rest of the scene plays out like it does in the movie, with the Tydirium arriving and requesting deactivation of the deflector shield.

Zarn notes that the pilot sounds “bored.” It’s a reference to Harrison Ford, who may not have given Jedi his most inspired Han Solo performance. I’ve never had a problem with it, but some fans believe he didn’t bring his “A” game to ROTJ and didn’t want to be in the movie. Legend says he wanted Solo killed off.

Zarn immediately notices the older code. New protocols mean the Executor should stop and detain the passengers for questioning. The rules do have a little wiggle room allowing fleet commanders “limited discretion” under extenuating circumstances, but the shuttle doesn’t appear to be in distress or anything like that.

Vaguely worded policy FOR THE WIN!

I feel like “more than two dozen people” would be larger than a typical technical support crew, but Piett knows his stuff. Poor Zarn finds himself quoting the Imperial IT flunky from earlier.

What does a dark wind feel like? Darth Vader. What does Darth Vader feel like? A dark wind. Is this a strained analogy? Absolutely.

This is Zarn’s moment of truth. When Vader shows interest in the shuttle, Zarn is certain the Dark Lord will vindicate him. Surely, he’ll follow the “stop and detain” order. He’s the last line of defense against a violation of Imperial policy! After all, Piett was about to clear the shuttle, even though it transmitted an “older code” that’s a clear violation of protocol.

Zarn’s faith goes unrewarded. Vader lets the shuttle pass.

Zarn is a mystifying mixture of fear and outrage. Vader can feel it. This author readily admits the brief scene between Vader and Zarn is an indulgence. Most of these stories don’t include interactions with main characters, although I suppose Zarn also directly interacts with Han Solo via the comm.

Zarn wants to report Vader. He wants to report Piett. They didn’t follow the rules. Protocols and policies keep the Empire safe!

But Zarn initially backs down. He even feels like he’s being Force-choked, although that’s all in his head. Vader would Force-choke an admiral for dropping out of lightspeed too close to a system, but he wouldn’t necessarily bother with a lowly technician who was trying to do the right thing, especially since Vader’s thoughts are centered on Luke and the Rebel incursion.

To Zarn’s surprise—and because Vader was in a good mood that day—Vader encourages him to file a report.

When his shift is over, Zarn is determined to write up a report detailing how Piett and Vader violated Imperial policy. The poor guy only has time to get a sandwich from the “fast-serve kiosk. 

He even quotes Vader in the report, writing that “while no man is above the rules, sometimes there are more important things than protocol.”

I imagine, years down the road, some archivist coming across a report from before the Battle of Endor in which Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, completely ignored Imperial protocol. This revelation would appear in a book about the Galactic Empire and spawn dozens of news articles.

“Even in his downtime, Zarn Kellam served the Empire.” Kind of sad, isn’t it? Work-life balance clearly isn’t an Imperial priority.

Poor Zarn doesn’t even see the notification that Piett finished his security training.

Commentary: A Whole Case of Trouble

This is commentary for “A Whole Case of Trouble.

This is the first story I wrote when I decided to dip my toes into the ROTJ fanfiction pool. It’s the only one featuring a main player in the Star Wars universe as the POV character. Some of the other stories mention characters like Darth Vader, Han Solo, Luke, and Leia, but they primarily focus on side characters.

This filename for this one is simply “Lando story.” It’s one of two in which the filename doesn’t match the final title; “The Fall of Palpatine” was originally titled “As I Have Foreseen It.”

In my version of events, Lando has been embedded as a guard in Jabba’s Palace for a few months. I make no real determination of a timeline here, and again, I’m sure this conflicts with newly released canonical material in one way or another.

I like the idea of Boba Fett knowing Lando was disguised as a guard and doing absolutely nothing about it. He’s more interested in collecting credits from Jabba and waiting to see what happens when Solo’s friends inevitably try to rescue him, which is infinitely more fun than simply turning him in.

Plus, as Lando tells us, the overconfident Fett would likely get a much higher bounty for the whole Rebellion Collectors Set. Reminder: the “galaxy’s greatest bounty hunter” is defeated by a man who can’t see.

Yes, Lando, there are rookie Jedi. They’re called “padawans,” although we didn’t find this out until 1999, 16 years after Return of the Jedi came out.

Lando assumed the identity of Tamtel Skreej while masquerading as one of Jabba’s guards. There’s not a ton of material surrounding this character.

I distinctly remember a Quarren being featured on the card art for Luke Skywalker’s ROTJ action figure. Is Oz the same guy? It doesn’t matter all that much. The implication in the story is that Oz is serving Jabba as part of some indentured servitude arrangement. He wants to get out.

“Some poor spacer who dumped a shipment of spice during a delivery” could also describe Han Solo, who later becomes a “coffee table” at Jabba’s Palace.

Lando digs the spacer's jacket. For a man who appreciates high fashion and the finer things in life, living for a few months at Jabba’s grimy, dingy palace among Jabba’s grimy, dingy minions is rough.

Who was Jabba’s last protocol droid? How long had the Hutt been without one? Those questions went unanswered for years, although a one-shot comic gives the droid a name and a background. His name is Eightyem and he ends up accidentally betraying Jabba at the behest of a rogue, leading to his disintegration. At least that’s what the summary I read told me.

I had originally written the part for a blue protocol droid with a female voice. But the comic’s release in late March led me to make a change to line things up with the current canon. I’m not obsessed with aligning these stories with canon, but if I can add a touch here or there, I will.

How many recreational substances is Jabba taking? Imagine how much stuff a creature Jabba’s size and weight had to take to stay high—and how much he’d really have to consume to sustain his drugged-out existence.

I guess I’ve imagined Jabba’s Palace as kind of an opium den.

It’s absurd how awful things are at Jabba’s Palace. Lando shares the story of another rogue who ran afoul of the Hutt and paid back his debt, only for Jabba’s minions to kill him because they liked his boots. He wonders if the stylish spacer will suffer a similar fate.

I use three asterisks (***) to denote a section break in manuscripts. My ROTJ stories use the Imperial logo or Rebel Alliance symbol, depending on the affiliation of the narrator. For “A Whole Case of Trouble,” I used Colt 45 cans. I’ll get to that in a bit.

This section opens with Lando reflecting on the betrayal at Bespin. I know people get angry at Lando for betraying Han, and I understand that, but there were millions of people in Cloud City. When the Empire showed up unannounced, he didn’t have much choice. I think, in the back of his mind, he always thought he’d figure out how to talk his way out of it. But there’s no talking your way out of it when Vader’s involved.

Vader would indeed know “all too well when a gambler was bluffing.”

Can you imagine ever getting a good night’s sleep after encountering Darth Freaking Vader? Wouldn’t you constantly feel like you were short of breath—that an invisible hand was squeezing your throat?

“He’s so spiced up, he thinks the Galactic Senate’s still in session” went through a few different iterations to note the passage of time in the Star Wars universe.

  • “He’s so spiced up, he thinks Valorum’s still chancellor.”
  • “He’s so spiced up, he thinks Alderaan’s still running tours.”
  • “He’s so spiced up, he thinks Tarkin’s still a grand moff.”
  • “He’s so spiced up, he thinks the Republic’s still in charge.”

Some of them felt a little too forced or specific coming from a common spacer. I finally settled on the Galactic Senate one. 

Given the vigor with which bounty hunters pursued Han Solo, the spacer’s probably right about her inability to simply disappear.

Twinburst Ale is supposed to be a pricey liquor in the Star Wars universe catering to high-class customers with expensive taste. Lando liked the stuff so much that he bought a stake in the company. In recent months, the Empire banned the ale and branded Lando a traitor. The Empire claims it destroyed every bottle, but given the vastness of the universe, it feels like a few cases slipped through the cracks.

The spacer plans to extort Lando for the credits she needs to pay off Jabba.

How did she know Lando’s identity? I left this ambiguous in earlier versions of the story. She recognized something about Lando when meeting him in the palace. That’s fine. It works.

But while reading through the story again, I thought maybe something needed to trigger that recognition. I added an interaction and a few lines of dialogue, with the key phrase being “works every time.”

His use of the phrase made her recall an ad for Twinburst Ale in which Lando uttered the same words. A little on the nose, perhaps, but I felt like the story needed something here.

Just imagine Baron Administrator Lando Calrissian, replete in one of his many dashing outfits, hanging out with some beautiful women in Cloud City to advertise an alcoholic beverage. Class, sophistication, it’s the Lando Calrissian—and Billy Dee Williams—way.

The whole idea for the ale, and the commercial, stemmed from the famous Colt 45 ads featuring one Billy Dee Williams, who often said “works every time.” It’s also the reason for the unique section breaks in this story.

We next go to a scene featuring Lando and Oz, who are playing what is essentially Star Wars Racer in what passes as the lounge area. I initially made this a skiff racing game before changing it to podracing instead. Given the Boonta Eve Classic and all that, there’s no harm in a prequel reference. Plus, I’m not sure how fast those skiffs from Return of the Jedi actually go. Pods look like they’re a lot faster.

Another prequel reference: Geonosis. I don’t recall a podracing level being set there, but the catacombs and such would make for some interesting scenery.

Poodoo. Indeed.

I have no memory of Quarren drinking beer, but they’d have their own mass-market brand, right, kind of like the Bud Light of Quarren? Nice of Lando to hand his friend one of them, even if it “smelled like a sea breeze carried on winds near a noxious factory.”

And here’s another complication for Lando: one of Jabba’s guards, Gronko, runs a customs scam. Having gotten aboard the spacer’s ship, he’s seen the Twinburst Ale and knows selling it could be lucrative. This really puts Lando in a bind. As he notes, if Gronko steals the ale, the spacer can’t sell it to Lando and she’ll likely make her only remaining play by giving Lando up.

A quick aside here on the Han Solo rescue. What was the plan, exactly? Obviously, it’s important for Han’s friends to infiltrate the palace. Luke gives Artoo his lightsaber as his ace in the hole. Lando’s on standby to keep an eye on things. Leia and Chewie get there to break Han out. Luke, I guess, is there as a Plan B. When he’s unable to bargain with Jabba, what did he plan to do?

Surely, the plan didn’t call for Luke to land in the rancor pit or for Jabba to throw some of the group into the Sarlacc pit just so Luke could get his lightsaber and save everyone.

My view is that Leia and Chewie were the first phase of the rescue and Luke was the backup plan. Everything that happens after Luke shows up is improvisation. It all works out—just try not to think too hard about it.

The tasteful spacer has an awesome Nubian freighter. Goodness, a lot of prequel stuff in this story. Didn’t realize it until this commentary.

Stang! One of my all-time favorite made-up curse words. I remember this from some Star Wars comics and novels. Couldn’t resist using it here. For a college project, I once portrayed a sportscaster named “Stang Kittridge” for a segment on Star Wars sports, which included events like tauntaun racing and the Endor Olympics.

Observant readers would probably see where this was going when Lando mentioned Gronko was a Clawdite, a shapeshifting species first seen in Attack of the Clones (again with the prequels!). Gronko posed as the spacer to fool her copilot in a bid to steal the Twinburst Ale.

Then, Lando and the spacer turn the tables on Gronko, with the spacer announcing herself as customs. Gronko doesn’t last long; serves him right for stealing the jacket.

By the way, the spacer was jobbing Lando the whole time. He’s a little off his game after the whole Bespin thing. She planned to take Lando’s credits and keep the ale the whole time.

The “my fence seems confident” line is a reference to Ocean’s Eleven. The spacer isn’t moving Incan matrimonial headmasks, however.

“Yours, Tendra.” The stylish spacer is Tendra Risant. In Legends continuity, she and Lando get married. She’s been erased in the new canon. I’ve restored her in my version of Star Wars continuity, although the two meet under significantly different circumstances than they do in the novels. It’s really just meant to be a fun Easter egg for fans who may have remembered the character.

Lando really is a softy, giving that bottle of Twinburst Ale to Oz so he can finally get off-world. Good dude, that Lando.

We come back to Fett at the end of the story. This time, Lando acknowledges the bounty hunter by raising his glass. He knows the droids will soon arrive and they’ll finally have a chance to save Han.