Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Dune 2021 review

Dune is here.

The new movie is a beautifully realized adaptation of an intensely weird book. I'm a late comer to Dune, having read the original novel last year at the urging of a friend. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It's dense and strange and just throws you into the deep end of the pool. Dune does not hold your hand; it simply starts throwing terms like "Bene Gesserit," "Kwisatz Haderach," "sietch," and "stillsuit" at you and expects you to catch up.

I really liked it. I haven't read any of the sequels, but I probably will. I may even re-read the original.

The new movie, out in theaters and HBO Max (to the director's chagrin) at the time of this writing, boasts a stellar cast, excellent cinematography, and stunning visuals. It attempts to streamline the plot, as movie adaptations often do, and the film suffers a bit in character work as a result. That said, it's amazing how much of Dune (the title card says Dune: Part One and Dune: Part Two got the green light on the day of this writing) the movie managed to pack into its 2 hours and 35 minutes. 

Some characters and subplots are omitted or disappear entirely. Gone is some of the political intrigue. Important characters like Gurney Halleck and Thufir Hawat aren't necessarily major players here. We don't learn about mentats or delve too much into the Imperium and its emperor. Dr. Yueh, another critical character, also loses out a bit. A little more development with him would ground his eventual actions.

But these are fairly standard sacrifices of adapting a novel to the big screen. Movies don't let you get into the heads of characters; they must tell their stories in broad strokes and often without much nuance. Some things are inevitably lost in translation, and I believe Denis Villeneuve did an excellent job of distilling the book into its essential elements.

I was extremely relieved to learn we're getting a second movie (due October 2023), as the first one ends with so much unresolved. Some viewers will find it jarring when the credits roll. They'll lament the lack of screen time for Zendaya's Chani. Even the antagonists, the Harkonnens, don't get a whole lot of development.

Dune certainly isn't perfect, as I've made it clear. It is, however, a stunning achievement that manages to find a little heart among the heady concepts and themes. And Duncan Idaho fought like a demon.

Find a spoiler-filled podcast below:

The Matt Adams Podcast - Denis V's Dune: The Anne and Matt Spoilercast Spectacular

Friday, January 1, 2021

Studicus Selects 2020

Once, long ago, I posted on the internet as Studicus, an in-joke nickname related to a skit from high school. When I first started blogging, I called my year-end entries "Studicus Selects." The tradition has continued since 2005...although I skipped 2006 for some unknown reason.

You'll find past entries here (scroll down for the 2020 picks):

Studicus Selects 2019

I don't have to tell you that 2020 was different. You know it. You lived it. The idea of "normal" went completely out the window in the early months. We had to work from home. Kids went to school from home. The simple act of going to the store became considerably less simple. Carryout and delivery meals replaced going to a restaurant.

When I headed out the door, my usual mental check--keys, wallet, phone--suddenly became keys, wallet, phone and mask.

The coronavirus pandemic has held us in its grip since the very beginning and changed the fundamental nature of socializing across the globe. You can't escape it. Not in Indianapolis. Not in Williamsburg. 

Still, the first couple months were somewhat normal. I eventually adjusted to the "new normal," which is kind of like the old normal but a lot more boring and isolated. 

In an abnormal year, it's nice to have some sense of normality. 

It's in that spirit that I present this year's "Studicus Selects."

Best Unexpected Self-home Delivery, Couch Category. We loved our old sectional, which came from Anne's house after her parents replaced their downstairs sectional and gave us their old one. However, after several years, it was starting to wear out.

The fabric on the armrests had ripped, the stuffing was showing from multiple cushions, and there was a noticeable sag in the middle of one end. We looked around for a new one--in actual stores because COVID-19 hadn't made it to Indiana yet--and found one at Bob's Furniture on the south side.

We ordered the couch and had it delivered on Saturday, February 22.

What an experience that was!

I suggested that the moving crew bring it in through the garage because there's more room to maneuver there than the front door. They kept trying to angle the thing through the doorway--and it wasn't working.

After like two attempts, one of the guys told us the couch wouldn't fit and we'd have to have it returned to the store and order a new one that fit.

We had, obviously, already moved the old couch out and had nothing in our living room. I made a suggestion: take the door from the garage off its hinges and bring the couch straight through the doorway. I measured; it would fit.

The guy was skeptical of this and basically said it wasn't worth trying. I told him we should give it a shot; his coworker agreed with me and said we should try it before giving up. 

I picked up one end of the couch and the coworker picked up the other. We got it through with a little finesse. 

That's right. I moved my own couch into the house. 

The crew had endured a tough delivery before coming to our house, so they arrived in a not-so-great mood. However, I think you should probably try just about everything before telling a customer they'll have to send their couch back and order another one.


We keep a cover on the couch now, but this is what it looks like in its natural state.

Best Public Event, Pre-pandemic Category. Anne and I went to Disney on Ice at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on January 22. 

Do I remember much of the show?

Not really.

However, I do remember watching something in a crowd and going out in public without having to wear a mask, so I'll call that a win.

We've seen Disney on Ice several times over the past few years, but they all kind of blend together. Was there a magic carpet ride? Did they sing "Be Our Guest?" Was there a Moana segment?

Honestly, I can't remember.

Not a single person in this picture is wearing a mask!

Best New Addition, Family Category. We added a niece this year, the adorable Josie.

We haven't gotten to see her in person yet (thanks, pandemic), but we've gotten to see plenty of pictures and videos. Video calls have also helped a lot!

She's the daughter of my brother-in-law Matt and sister-in-law Leah. Such a precious little thing! We can't wait to meet her and watch her grow over the years. 

Distance is tough--the pandemic makes it worse--but we'll meet her before she learns to drive. Anne calls her "Little Squish," and I think it's just adorable.

Just a really great family!

We're as enchanted by her as she is by the Christmas tree!
Strangest documentary that tried to heal a fractured nation, Netflix category. Hey, remember Tiger King?

The Netflix documentary premiered as the pandemic was just starting in the U.S. It became, for about a month or so, a national obsession as people learned about Joe Exotic, Joe Exotic's insane music videos, Joe Exotic's many tattoos, Joe Exotic's husbands, Joe Exotic's financial troubles, Joe Exotic's presidential run, and Joe Exotic's passionate hatred of one Carole Baskin.

I still can't believe this was a thing that happened. 

What are your thoughts on Carole Baskin? Righteous animal rights crusader? Conspiratorial gold digger? 


Most Surreal Sight, Personal Shopping Experience. In the early days of the pandemic, you couldn't buy anything. Need paper towels? Toilet paper? Disinfecting wipes? Frozen pizzas? Meat?

It was incredible. I almost made a list of eight stores in my area so I could drive to each one and see what they had in stock. A lot of communities did similar things in Facebook groups or neighborhood apps. 

Finding toilet paper in those days was like finding a PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X right now. I feared, at one point, we would have to barter toilet paper for food or other supplies. That didn't come to pass.

But, man, going to Target was weird. I snapped a couple pictures from the Southport Target on March 22 after finding the aisles cleaned out.

The paper goods aisle--cleaned out

Not much going on here in the frozen goods section because everyone dined on frozen pizza!

If you found wipes or toilet paper in those days, you really did feel like you'd won the lottery. But if you came across a bounty of such items, it didn't matter--stores limited you to one item per transaction.

How it feels to find the last container of Clorox wipes at the store...

Unexpected Money, El Presidente Stimulus Category. When the pandemic runs its course (and with these vaccines on the way, I believe it will), we should all get t-shirts saying, "I survived the pandemic and all I got was this lousy $1,200 check."

Snark aside, these did help a lot of people. It would've been nice for those same people to get a second check much earlier, but hey, another $600 is on the way.

I enjoyed the letter we received from the president, which explained the reason for the payment accompanied with the same letter translated en espaƱol from "Presidente" Trump. 

We used some of the money to upgrade our cell phones and pay off the rest of my student loan.

Signature or cardiogram? You decide

Our Year at the Movies, Truncated Theatrical Engagements Category. Typically, the Studicus Selects columns have a ton of movie recaps because Anne and I go to the theater a lot. 

However, we haven't been to the movies since March. A look back at our ticket history on the AMC Theatres app shows seven visits to the theater from January 1, 2020, through March 8, 2020.

Here's what we saw:

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. I really liked it. I saw it on January 1 and January 19 after catching multiple showings in 2019. My review.

Knives Out. An entertaining murder mystery from "the guy who ruined Star Wars." Really enjoyed this one! Still, Anne and I refer to the director as "Master of Subversion Rian Johnson." We saw this on January 11.

Frozen 2. Snow. Singing. Olaf. You know what you're getting from a Frozen movie. We saw this on January 14.

Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey (I'm not using the ridiculous full title). A pretty fun romp in the DC Universe. High-quality action. Good use of Ewan McGregor. Anne sat this one out...it was a Matt and Krildog joint venture on February 8.

1917. An incredibly conceived and shot war movie. Really feel like Sam Mendes deserved the Best Director Oscar for this one. We saw this on February 9.

Call of the Wild. Harrison Ford is a grumpy old man with a CG dog. I read the book after seeing the movie. I found the ending incredibly touching. It underperformed at the box office, but you can find it on HBO Max. We saw this on March 8 with Anne's dad....and we haven't been back to AMC since.

Our Year in Streaming, Streaming-Palooza Category. Anne and I saw our parents and friends only a few times this year. We sat out Thanksgiving and bought meals from Denny's. 

As a result, we watched the vast majority of our entertainment at home in 2020. 

Here are a few highlights:

Unsolved Mysteries. The show got a Netflix reboot (good first half, so-so second half) that's more in the true crime podcast vein than the original show. The reboot got us interested in the original show, and we streamed several seasons of Robert Stack's Unsolved Mysteries before taking a little break.

The Boys. Hyper-violent, crude, and uncomfortably hilarious and poignant, this is a solid effort on Amazon Prime. Due to the nature of the show, I can't really recommend it for the squeamish or anyone who loves the superhero genre so much that they can't make fun of it. Definitely TV MA here.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark. This is a good series from HBO on the search for the infamous Golden State Killer. It's well done, for the most part, but sometimes the show felt like it was focused more on Michelle McNamara as opposed to the quest to find the killer. Still a good watch.

McMillions. We really enjoyed this HBO doc on a scheme to disrupt and profit from the famous McDonald's Monopoly promotion. It's engaging and will keep you guessing about how a security guard managed to rig the game to benefit friends and family.

His Dark Materials. I liked the first season, but I've felt like season 2 has been more engaging for me. It's probably because I understand the world better after the first season. As of this writing, we haven't watched the finale yet.

The Last Dance. This ESPN miniseries chronicles the rise of the Chicago Bulls and their two three-peats. It's absolutely spectacular. Even Anne, who likes sports but isn't exactly a huge sports fan, found it thoroughly captivating.

Peyton's Places. I've always loved Peyton Manning. However, we don't have ESPN Plus, so we couldn't watch his show. When the pandemic hit and sports were canceled for a bit, ESPN aired the show and we set a series recording. Like football? Like Peyton? It's great stuff.

Schitt's Creek. The show launched a million memes and gifs, but it's genuinely funny and, at times, touching. Early on, the main characters have dinner with some old friends who tear down the town--and Johnny Rose takes offense. It's a great moment. 

Picard. Patrick Stewart is back as Jean-Luc Picard. A few TNG favorites return. The plot involves Data and AI. It's pretty twisty. I'll never complain about seeing more of one of my favorite characters.

Onward. While this came out before the pandemic, Disney sent it to VOD early after it was clear movie theaters would have to close down. A very enjoyable story about a pair of brothers in a fantasy-inspired world.

Trolls: World Tour. Another Trolls movie. It went straight to VOD because of the pandemic. I remember nothing about it other than having to pay money to watch it.

Jumanji: The Next Level. I really enjoyed the first one; we didn't see the second one in theaters and finally snagged the digital version when it was on sale. Thoroughly entertaining, if predictable. Seeing The Rock portray Danny DeVito is pretty good stuff.

Bill & Ted Face the Music. Another movie pushed directly to digital because of the pandemic, this is a fun and heartfelt third movie in the Bill & Ted series. The guys are older but no less entertaining. Wyld Stallyns rule!

Mulan. We paid the "Disney tax" to watch this early on Disney+. Somehow, it's simultaneously the same yet completely different from the original movie. The stuntwork is pretty good and I like the cast. Miss the songs, though. Glad Ming-Na Wen had a cameo.

The Trial of the Chicago 7. An excellent look into a fascinating case. Great acting and casting in this one. Will probably track down a book about the case because it was so interesting.

Howard. A look at the life of Howard Ashman, the man responsible for writing the lyrics to some of Disney's greatest movie songs. He was passionate and driven, even to the end while dying from AIDS at age 40.

Totally Under Control. Did the U.S. mismanage the pandemic? Um, yeah. This documentary premiered on VOD before being made available on Hulu. It'll tick you off.

Athlete A. It's amazing the lengths USA Gymnastics went to in order to protect people who should've been exposed long ago. You can't help but feel for the brave athletes who stepped forward and finally got someone to listen.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. This was a thoroughly ridiculous movie. Somehow, Will Farrell and Rachel McAdams made it work. The elves went too far, indeed. Play "Jaja Ding Dong!"

The Old Guard. An unexpectedly solid action movie from Netflix starring Charlize Theron that follows the adventures of a group of long-lived soldiers who've influenced world events for hundreds of years. Some really good action scenes in this one.

Enola Holmes. A diverting mystery featuring the teen sister of Sherlock Holmes. Good casting with Millie Bobby Brown and Henry Cavill. Really dug the music.

Soul. Another winner from Disney-Pixar. Sort of a mashup of Heaven Can Wait and Inside Out. Great animation and a heartfelt story with good performances all around.

Wonder Woman 1984. I love Chris Pine. I love Gal Gadot. I didn't love the movie. Felt like Pedro Pascal needed to be dialed down from 11 to about 8.5. Couldn't care less about Barbara Minerva. Not nearly as good as the first, unfortunately, making it a letdown for me. 

Most Out of It Dog, Howard Surgery Category. Poor Howard had to have several teeth pulled earlier this year. It's part of being half-chihuahua--they tend to have problems with their teeth. He was at the vet's office almost all day.

While they were finishing up his surgery, a car crashed into a pole and the power went out at the facility. The vet had to wrap things up early and leave one tooth unpulled because they couldn't see well enough to do it in the dark.

When we finally picked Howie up after 10 p.m. that day, the poor guy was out of it! It took a few days of medicine and recovery before he was acting like his usual self.

Please give me all the cuddles, Mommy!

What day is it? Who are these people? How do I tell them I have no inner monologue?
Best Dressed Dog, Howard Category. Howard's wardrobe has expanded over the last year. Here are some of his best looks...

It's very hard to get a good picture of him in a bandana, so this will have to do

The classic blue "Adidog" sweatsuit keeps his tummy warm

It's just Howard in a harness, you know, behind the wheel at the Dairy Queen drive-thru

This is the green Adidog sweatsuit, the second of three

I call this the "Hamburglar" outfit

"Lumberjack chic"

The "Bert and Ernie" look

The third Adidog sweatsuit is yellow

Howard's Santa outfit, which he wore precisely long enough for me to snap a few pictures
Best Willy photos, Willy Category. Our turtle, Willy, needed a procedure this year as well. His upper dental plate was growing out of control, so we had to take him to a specialist to have it ground down. 

For a time, we noticed Willy's mouth was almost always open. Now we know why: the dental plate had grown to the point that he couldn't close his mouth! The vet worried that, if it continued to grow unchecked, he wouldn't be able to chew his food.

Some Willy photos:

"I am ready for my closeup"

Willy on a walkabout outside; we let him romp when we can

Basking turtle!

You can see his mouth is a bit open here

More basking turtle!

We call this "full tuck"--and it's hard to snap a picture of him because he usually wakes up before you can get one

Willy loves being held!

Sometimes it looks like he just doesn't want anyone to bother him!

Out of the tank on a walkabout in the house
One of the great all-time Willy photos!
Best Looks of the Year, Lenny Category. Lenny, our little leopard gecko, is the recluse of the group. Howard's always around the house. Willy's tank is in the living room and he gets visited often. Lenny, on the other hand, is active at night and sleeps during the day.

It's harder to get pictures of him, but we've managed...

Lenny on his moist hide

"Does this look heroic enough, Dad?"

"This isn't really my good side, but I'll let you take the picture"

Lenny likes to squeeze himself in the strangest places sometimes

"Listen, can I get a drink of water without having my picture taken?"

He looks like he's surveying enemy forces in this one...

Lenny gets out a couple times a week and likes to find a warm, safe spot

He looks pretty content in this one!
Late Christmas Gift, Kind of, Home Arcade Category. I grew up in the '80s and '90s. Arcades were a big thing back in those days, and I've always wanted my own arcade machine. The Arcade 1Up machines are really cool, but I don't like the fact that they're limited in the number of games they play.

I had my sights set on the Legends Ultimate from AtGames. To be clear, AtGames hasn't had the best reputation when it comes to video game emulation. Some of their products, especially their earlier Sega Genesis clone systems, were less than fantastic.

However, they've made a concentrated effort to improve their products, and the Legends Ultimate is a great machine. Last Christmas, I requested gift cards from Walmart because Walmart and Sam's Club are two of the few retailers who sell the product.

For a time, they were hard to get! I kept stock alerts and they kept selling out before I could get one. The pandemic, obviously, didn't help with production. In September, the machine was in and out of stock and I finally got one at Sam's Club, using some of the gift cards from Christmas to buy one.

There was one little hitch: I mistyped the address, which I didn't notice until I received the shipping email. When I tried to get that changed, Sam's Club told me to contact UPS to change it; UPS said they couldn't change the address without authorization from Sam's Club; Sam's Club said they couldn't change the shipping address without authorization from me via UPS...anyway, I ended up having to cancel the order but managed to secure another. It's...um...prominent in the man cave, to say the least.

Maybe one day I'll actually be able to have people over to play it! Some of my top games: Captain America and the Avengers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game, NBA Jam, BurgerTime, Frogger, and WWF Wrestlefest.

The machine comes pre-loaded with about 300 games. The best thing, however, is that you can add your own games. You just, um, have to know where to look, you know?

A look at the control deck, with has two joysticks with six-button layouts, a pair of spinners, and a trackball that's great for bowling games

It's got a light-up marquee, which is a nice touch
Best Practical Purchase, Dryer Category. We've had our dryer since we got married. Our washer and dryer were wedding gifts from Anne's parents. We got married in 2006, so we got more than a decade out of each. We bought a new washer in 2019 and the dryer finally called it quits this year.

I ordered a new one from Best Buy--the Whirlpool model that pairs with the washing machine we purchased last year.

Because things just can't go right--think of the couch delivery or the Sam's Club address story shared earlier--the delivery guys arrived, hauled off the old dryer, and then noticed that the new one was broken. The front panel of the new machine was coming off and the seals were broken.

We had to refuse delivery; when we called Best Buy support, we were advised that we wouldn't be able to get a new dryer until late December 2020 or late January 2021 (we ordered the dryer in October, so you can see the problem here).

I dropped by the local Best Buy and asked them about that; the manager there told me that was "stupid" and the model was in stock. She couldn't figure out why they said we couldn't get one until December. I ordered a second one, and it arrived at home a few days later. This one was completely intact and we love it.

Sometimes big purchases are fun...like an arcade machine...and sometimes they're just practical...like a dryer
Unexpected Early Christmas Gift, Xbox Series X Category. Typically speaking, I avoid buying new video game consoles when they launch. There are several reasons for this. First, if you give it a few months, the prices will come down. Second, availability isn't fantastic. Third, launch game lineups can be on the thin side. Fourth, it takes developers time before they learn to get the most out of a machine. Fifth, sometimes the new systems don't come with pack-in games.

For example, the Xbox One came out in 2013 and cost $500. You got the system, Kinect, and the controller. That was it.

I bought my Xbox One in 2015. It was $340 and came with two Tomb Raider games, Assassin's Creed Unity, and a $60 digital code for the Xbox store.

So when the Xbox Series X | S and PlayStation 5 came out, I figured I'd wait to buy one. There would be better deals, the launch lineups were flimsy, and they were impossible to buy. 

People were having such problems getting the new consoles that I wondered if I could get one. I paid attention to different drop dates and times and tried to get one when Best Buy announced they'd have some in stock. I logged on, confident I had zero chance of getting an Xbox Series X because of demand and scalpers, and tried to get one.

Suddenly, I had one added to my cart. Then I received an email from Best Buy with a confirmation number to verify the purchase. After I added that, the website asked me to select a store for pickup. I selected the Greenwood store. 

I finalized my order.

I received an email confirming my order. I didn't believe any of this was real. I figured the order would be canceled--that happened to people frequently because demand for the systems has been high--but it was real. I picked it up from Best Buy in November.

Listen, I'm not complaining. I'm happy to have the Xbox Series X! It's just that I didn't really think I'd be able to buy one, given all the problems people have had. It's a great system; the games load super-fast and I'm playing so much Assassin's Creed Odyssey right now.

Microsoft did a nice job with packaging

Best Buy was an absolute madhouse on pickup day, but we got it!

I used a gift card to buy this 2018 game and I absolutely love it!
Writing Year in Review. To be honest, writing kind of went by the wayside this year. I worked from home a lot and it was a very stressful year that made it difficult to get into the routine of writing. I wrote a book this year, which is great, but I usually write a couple novels a year and try to write every day. That didn't happen in 2020.

As I mentioned, I did write a novel, Also Starring Brock Calhoun As Himself. The original draft came in at about 113,000 words and I edited it down to 94,000.

It's about a burned-out actor who has to team up with the characters he played in the movies to save the universe.

Here's the summary:

No one thought Brock Calhoun’s three-decade run at the box office would ever end.

Until it did. 

The roles dried up. Sure-fire hits flopped. His wife left him for an underwear model. 

Now in forced retirement, he hits the convention circuit in a desperate attempt to relive his glory days. He counts his little dog Angie as his only true friend.

When costumed intruders break into his home, Brock mistakes them for overenthusiastic cosplayers from one of his blockbusters. In truth, they’re trained killers sent by Dr. Thelonius Rickard, a movie-villain-made-flesh determined to make Brock pay for the cinematic sins of one of his iconic characters.

But action heroes from Brock’s extensive filmography arrive just in time. These fictional characters now exist in the real world, too—and they need help from the man whose face they share.

With loyal Angie in tow, Brock will traverse cinematic worlds made real—from the windswept plains of the Realm of the Blood Sword to the rainbow-colored Land of Candy and Sugar—in a race against Rickard, a beguiling rogue whose obsession with the actor will either grant him control over reality or prove his undoing.

With the fate of the universe and his Hollywood legacy at stake, Brock must become the ultimate leading man—no script, no stuntman, and no reshoots allowed.

I like the book. But then again, I wrote it.

I worked on some editing for other projects. The only other real writing I did was a short story called Gary, the Sith Eternal, which is about a guy stuck on the Sith planet from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Speaking of Star Wars...

Biggest Emotional Moment, The Mandalorian. I didn't include The Mandalorian in my streaming section for a good reason--I wanted to write a little more about it. The first season was fantastic, and the second season was great as well. 

For season 2, I really liked the premiere episode, "The Marshal." Other favorites were "The Jedi" and "The Tragedy."

But I really want to talk about "The Rescue," the season two finale.

I've come to terms with the sequel trilogy and The Last Jedi. Some love it, some hate it...there's little middle ground about that movie. The sequel trilogy robbed me of two things: the chance to see Han, Leia, and Luke together again and the chance to see Luke Skywalker, fully powered Jedi Master.

Luke's moment at the end of The Last Jedi was great; I'm not disputing that at all. But we have never gotten to see him do this:

"I'm Luke Skywalker. I'm here to rescue you."
Things were looking grim for Mando, Grogu, and the rest of the team. Dark Troopers (again, I can't believe I'm getting to write about this) were pounding on the doors and ready to kill everyone.

An X-Wing arrived.

The green lightsaber.

The hilt. The gloved hand.

I couldn't believe what I was seeing. It would make sense for Luke to show up and answer Grogu's call from earlier. 

I just didn't think it would happen.

But there he was.

The music was fantastic. The buildup was tremendous. We got to see Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight, absolutely wreck shop.

He stood patiently outside the door after cutting through those Dark Troopers, signaling that he was no threat to the people inside.

Mando opened the door. The hooded figured tucked away his lightsaber and then...

"They're not saying 'boo,' they're saying LUUUUUUUUUKE!"
I was 6 years old again. Or maybe 10 years old. Or maybe 18. Or 30--I'm a lifelong Star Wars fan.

Thank you, Jon Favreau, Dave Filoni, and all those who've made The Mandalorian so great.

"Talent without training is nothing."

"I will give my life to protect the Child."

Here's to a better 2021 for everyone.


Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Gary, the Sith Eternal: A Star Wars Story

Gary’s life flashed before his eyes approximately a thousand times a day.

Such was life on Exegol.

He’d started his day as he always had, donning heavy robes that never came clean. The planet produced a maddening amount of dust; it got in everything. His robes ended up encrusted in dry filth no matter how many times he washed them. At first, he felt like dust covered his entire body.

He’d stopped itching about a decade ago.

That’s why he found it mildly alarming that he felt the urge to scratch the back of his neck.

Breakfast consisted of hard bread incapable of satisfying his hunger and old wine incapable of quenching his thirst.

He’d gotten used to that, too.

To be a Sith Eternal meant to be in a state of constant discomfort and misery.

It would lead to great rewards, he’d often heard.

His friends—well, with thousands upon thousands of Sith Eternals conjuring unthinkable things on Exegol, “friends” was a relative term—believed wholeheartedly in the Resurrection. They believed, through Sith Magic (totally not The Force but totally The Force), Consciousness Transference (totally not a brain computer but totally a brain computer), and Vessel Reconfiguration (totally not cloning but totally cloning), they could bring back a being of supreme power.

They could have picked any great Sith from history—a Darth Revan, a Darth Plagueis, a Darth Vader, a Darth Tenebrous—but instead they’d decided to bring back Darth Sidious because he had the foresight to implement a “contingency” plan after his death. What great Sith Lord didn’t have a contingency plan? The whole point of the order was to cheat death.

Sidious, the mortal also known as Palpatine, had more vanity than all the other Sith Masters combined. He deluded himself into believing he was all the Sith—and that was before his death at the hands of his own apprentice. It took months for a probe from the Emperor to find its way to Exegol to break the news of his defeat and carry word of his contingency plan.

Gary, one of the Sith Eternals who’d activated the probe’s message, walked away unimpressed. In life, Palpatine stayed in touch with the powers-that-be in the Unknown Regions. In death, he conjured a grand plan of dubious quality that felt very familiar.

Rule by oppression.

Overwhelming military might.

Planet killers.

Those were his favorite tools, and they’d all been destroyed. Two Death Stars. Two! And the Starkiller—just a bigger one!

Palpatine somehow felt that creating even more planet killers would lead him to ultimate victory. And so the Sith Eternals bought into his plan, putting their shipyards to work and training legions of Sith Troopers who would obey his every command.

Gary could’ve joined the Sith Trooper Legion, accepted a position as a fleet officer, or worked in the shipyards. He decided instead to don the robes of a Sith Eternal Adept and learn the ways of Sith Magic.

He expected a quiet life of reflection as he and his fellow Adepts dug through vast storehouses of Sith artifacts and textbooks filled with arcane Sith knowledge. He anticipated, perhaps, assembling his own Sith lightsaber.

But lightsabers required kyber crystals and planet-killing cannons required even larger kyber crystals, so Gary and his fellow Adepts could not create lightsabers. One day, one of the elders presented them with battle axes and maces; Adept Caro-Sio lost his arm in the free-for-all. Prayer and meditation followed. Then, more violence. Adept Caro-Sio lost a leg. Prayer and meditation. Another arm. More prayer. More meditation. They threw Adept Caro-Sio’s body into the abyss, for what good was a limbless Sith Eternal?

In the days that followed, Gary still heard Adept Caro-Sio’s screams when Exegol’s static-electric storms peaked. His masters told him this was an impossibility, but Gary knew the difference between the wind and a scream. Perhaps the abyss did not run as deep as he and the others thought; perhaps Adept Caro-Sio lay just feet below as he called for help or revenge. A few days later, the screaming stopped. His masters told him it had never been there in the first place.

Gary knew better.

Sith Eternals tossed aside the Rule of Two, and as a result, they had a Rule of None, aimless in the darkness.

He’d toiled with his brethren for decades now, amassing a fleet of impressive size and power. Children born into the Sith Trooper Legion now wore full armor and carried the weapons of warriors. They mined enough kyber in the Unknown Regions to power each Xyston-class Star Destroyer with an axial superlaser capable of destroying an entire planet—as long as the untested cannons didn’t misfire and incinerate their own ships. They could not test them in Exegol’s unstable atmosphere, for if they did, they risked interfering with the Resurrection.

As Gary studied and his knowledge in Sith Magic grew, he understood a few things. First of all, his chosen name was extraordinarily dull. Many of his contemporaries—again, he hesitated to call anyone a friend—had extravagant names with multiple syllables, apostrophes, hyphens, and diphthongs. He was just…Gary. The simplicity of the name kept him grounded as others aspired to loftier heights.

Secondly, he felt the pull of something else, something unexplainable. Whereas darkness and chaos enveloped Exegol, Gary felt touched by light. This was an impossibility, the Sith teachings said, as darkness consumed light. Darkness dominated. Sith dominated. Sith ruled. The Sith Eternal would envelop the universe in darkness and chaos, swallowing up all light and hope.

This was the way. Their way. His way.

Yet, as Gary sat among his fellow Sith Eternal Adepts and considered the nature of what they’d accomplished through sheer will (and the countless resources left behind on Exegol by the Sith masters who preceded them), he wondered if they were truly unstoppable. Their plan hinged on the resurrection of Emperor Palpatine, and things weren’t going so well. First of all, the skilled Sith Eternal Mages failed to guide his Force presence back to the new clone body. Mage Obra-Skai insisted they could do it. Then again, Obra-Skai had once been Gary’s roommate and "knew with conviction” that the distant Galactic Empire would reign for a thousand generations as the old Jedi had once ruled.

The Galactic Empire lasted about two decades.

As they struggled to guide Palpatine’s spirit back to his new body, the Sith Eternal Mages communed with the dead emperor and forged a contingency plan to rule in his place. Gary didn’t understand the First Order or how it was all that different from the Empire that crumbled under Palpatine’s leadership, but he understood the need for a new figurehead. Debate raged for months on the new entity’s name and genetic makeup; eventually the Sith Eternal Mages dubbed the being “Snoke” and utilized the only genetic material they could actually get to work.

And, well, “work” was a bit of a stretch. The being came out more than seven feet tall and consistently looked like someone beat him with an ugly stick infused with Sith Magic. He lumbered around on legs that barely worked and ate with rotted teeth. Sometimes his fingers fell off. A gash consistently formed on his forehead no matter how carefully the Sith Eternal Mages managed the cloning process. They eventually fitted him with a gold robe embedded with genetic stabilizers to keep him from falling apart.

Still, despite the problems with Snoke, he was an impressive achievement, a being who manipulated Sith Magic and felt a strong connection with the Force. He had a commanding presence but commanded in seclusion because his decaying body threatened to give out at a moment’s notice.

Mage Obra-Skai kept Snokes on reserve and sent them to First Order headquarters under the escort of Praetorian Guards to make sure he stayed in power. Snoke had the ability to transfer his spirit from one body to the next, a skill Obra-Skai insisted Palpatine also possessed.

Snoke felt when his body would give out and would begin the transference incantations.

Unfortunately, he could not resurrect himself once bisected by a lightsaber he never saw coming.

A stunning collapse.

Mage Obra-Skai redoubled his efforts to bring Palpatine back in the flesh. Yes, the Emperor commanded through what remained of his spirit. Yes, the Emperor dictated much from the grave—the First Order, the rise of Kylo Ren and the fall of Ben Solo, the isolation of Skywalker, preparations for the Final Order—but all would be meaningless unless the Emperor’s powerful spirit inhabited a new body.

Obra-Skai made much progress until a key part of his genetic manipulation machine imploded. It took weeks to repair. Obra-Skai turned to Gary, his former roommate, to weld the final, delicate pieces back in place.

They’d come a long way from assembling bunk beds in their college days.

Once the machine came back to life, Gary felt the mood of the entire planet lift. It came as an overwhelming tidal wave of confidence and raised hopes once Obra-Skai produced a suitable clone body for Palpatine. It had many of the same problems as Snoke’s bodies—decay and degradation—but Palpatine’s will was strong. There were problems: the Emperor’s eyes did not work, some of his fingers didn’t fully develop, and he couldn’t walk without support.

Still, for a man who died thirty years ago, he was a hydraulic-support-walking miracle of Sith Magic and ingenuity.

He was also prone to self-delusion, such as the first time he decided to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and ended up on the floor sans clothes.

Exegol had no moons.

It had a very pale one that night.

Despite the setbacks, Palpatine’s mind was as nimble and manipulative as ever. He pitted Sith Eternal Adepts against one another in combat, bringing spectacle to a people used to waiting long periods for anything to happen. He relentlessly drilled Sith Fleet Officers in training simulations and practiced a form of Battle Meditation he claimed would improve the efficacy of Sith Forces in battle (simulations showed a point-five-percent increase in Sith proficiency under Battle Meditation, a trend Gary attributed to the fact that Sith personnel were simply trying to impress the Emperor).

The Emperor frequently cursed the Skywalker line without outwardly recognizing the irony that his plan depended entirely on the loyalty of the last remaining Skywalker. From the grave, Palpatine had carefully cultivated the boy’s dark side energy, tapping into the doubt and fear buried deep within. The Emperor saw it as his way of exacting final revenge on the galaxy, the Skywalkers, and the Jedi.

But Gary, who felt a little tug of light, felt Ben Solo within it. No matter how much the boy tried to bury his true nature in blood and fire, as much as he tried to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, the blood of Anakin and Luke Skywalker surged through his veins, as did the blood of the Princess of Alderaan. He was the son of a Skywalker. No one could be as much of a Skywalker as Ben Solo, who rejected his heritage to take the name Kylo Ren.

It could not last.

Gary never voiced these concerns to anyone, for he could only remember the screams of Adept Caro-Sio and had no desire to learn if the bottomless “abyss” wasn’t nearly as bottomless as everyone thought. After all, dust tended to obscure most everything on Exegol, making it difficult to see the true depths of its various abysses.

On the rare occasions in which Palpatine asked his followers for advice, he tended to receive only affirmation of the brilliance of his plan and its design. No one pointed out that his secret fleet of Star Destroyers was essentially trapped because of the planet’s difficult-to-navigate atmosphere. He planned to make a dramatic show of raising the ships from the depths when Ben Solo arrived.

Would it not be better, Gary wondered, to prepare the fleet for battle and guide it out of the unnavigable atmosphere? Would it not be better, he mused, for the Emperor to send his planet-killing ships out into the galaxy to destroy worlds instead of threatening them and giving other systems the chance to prepare or fight back? Would it not be better, he pondered, to send an overwhelming force of Sith Eternal Adepts to find “the Scavenger” and bring her back to face the Emperor?

Then again, these ideas sprang from a mind more rational than the Emperor’s.

Palpatine loved his grand machinations. He prided himself in being six moves ahead without realizing that the current move was failing, rendering the next five moot if he didn’t call for a course correction. He never imagined Darth Vader would find his own humanity and throw him down a reactor shaft to protect his son. That ended Palpatine’s plan for ultimate conquest; goodbye, new, powerful apprentice. Goodbye, Death Star II. Goodbye, galaxy.

Gary and the other Sith Eternals waited for the return, for Emperor Palpatine to rise from his grave and lead them to greatness.

For now, though, they would have to hook him up to a machine.

The decaying body of a clone infused with Sith Magic is stubborn.

It does not walk like a normal human body.

It does not function like a normal human body.

That is because it is not a normal human body.

The Emperor could not accept his physical limitations. He no longer tried to live life as a normal being, for he knew he was no normal being. He was power incarnate, Sith Eternal, overlord of legions of loyal followers who waited decades for his return.

Curiosity sometimes overwhelmed Palpatine, who was eager to understand the new politics of the post-Galactic Civil War era. He could see the macro and micro view of everything in ways no other being could. His orders turned the old Jedi world of Ilum into the Starkiller and used it to destroy the Republic. The fanatical First Order rose out of the imperfection of the Galactic Empire at Palpatine’s posthumous behest. Snoke, no matter how broken his corporeal being was, became a figurehead of mysticism and chaos.

Palpatine delighted in these machinations.

He did not, however, delight in the use of the machines that brought him renewed life.

Obra-Skai stirred Gary from sleep one night and escorted him to the Resurrection Chamber. Palpatine, confident in the permanence of his being, unhooked many of the life-giving tubes that sustained his existence. On the way, Obra-Skai informed Gary that the Emperor believed his Force powers had progressed to a point at which he could walk freely on Exegol without the need for “accursed machines.”

For a few minutes, Obra-Skai said, it seemed to work. Palpatine walked without encumbrance in the Resurrection Chamber and shot lightning from his fingertips as a test. He drank water without having it go straight through him, which had been a problem since the merging of his Force energy with the clone body.

But as Gary followed Obra-Skai into the Resurrection Chamber, he saw only the Emperor’s crumpled form on the ground. His breathing was sporadic.

He needed his machines.

Why, Gary wondered, hadn’t Obra-Skai and the other Sith Eternal Mages attended to the Emperor?

Soon enough, he discovered the grim answer: cloaks of Sith Eternal Mages lay on the ground, their bodies gone.

A vision—a call through the Force—hit Gary with the crushing force of a vibroblade.

Palpatine fed on Sith Eternals, especially those with exceptional skill in the dark side—and Sith Eternal Mages were among the most powerful in their order.

Gary was among the most talented in the ranks of Sith Eternal Adepts.

He scratched the back of his neck, a nervous habit exorcised long ago through purification rituals and pure apathy.

“I turned to you because of your skill with machinery,” Obra-Skai said, his voice solemn and unreal. “And also because the other Sith Mages are no more.”

Gary swallowed.

His throat was sandpaper. “What do you require of me?” Gary asked, his voice a mere whisper as the foreboding crackle of static electricity filled the air.

“Our master needs his machine to live,” Obra-Skai said. “We must reconnect him.”

“Surely there are other Mages or Adepts who are more qualified for this work,” Gary said.

“Perhaps,” Obra-Skai conceded. “But none I trust so much as you.” Obra-Skai’s pale face—all Sith Eternal faces were pale—betrayed only the slightest hints of emotion—a microscopic amount of desperation. Also, perhaps, a microscopic amount of sincerity.

Gary decided he would help.

He leaned down next to the Emperor’s body. Exegol didn’t have a smell, really, which made the rot of the Emperor’s decaying flesh all that more unique. He would’ve found it offensive under other circumstances. In this moment, it had novelty.

“It’s treason, then?” Palpatine hissed, barely audible. “Lord Vader, can you hear me? So be it, Jedi. An entire legion of my best troops awaits them. We have a new enemy, Luke Skywalker. I’m afraid the deflector shield will be quite operational when your friends arrive. We will be watching your career with great interest. Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise? Moonglow is a perfect complement to tonight’s dinner.”

Palpatine’s mind, it appeared, was in multiple places at once.

“Leave us. Do it! Strike me down with all of your hatred and your journey toward the dark side will be complete! Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen. The son of Skywalker must not become a Jedi. Your feeble skills are no match for the power of the dark side. Execute Order Sixty-Six.”

With Obra-Skai’s help, Gary hefted the Emperor’s body from the ground.

“I…I can’t hold it any longer. I will create a Grand Army of the Republic to counter the increasing threats of the Separatists. Wipe them out. All of them. I’m sending my apprentice, Darth Maul, to join you. When my new apprentice, Darth Vader, arrives, he will take care of you. Soon the rebellion will be crushed, and young Skywalker will be one of us. Your hate has made you powerful. Now, fulfill your destiny and take your father's place at my side!”

Still, the Emperor kept babbling. He spoke of plans, plots, Skywalkers, betrayals. He cursed a son Gary never knew existed and decried the progeny he called only the “Scavenger.” The Emperor’s presence intrigued Gary all the more. According to his heightened state of delusion, Palpatine had living offspring. She could be quite powerful, given her bloodlines. Gary closed his eyes and reached out.

A ray of light.

The Emperor grasped his arm. “She must return! She must come here! But first, I need the last Skywalker. I must have him here. Son of darkness. Heir to Lord Vader!” Gary and Obra-Skai pleaded with the Emperor to calm down. His fingers, never fully formed, pulsed with weak Force lightning. “He draws closer from Mustafar! Act quickly!” Palpatine shrieked. His body spasmed.

Obra-Skai’s grim look spoke volumes. If they didn’t hurry, they would lose the Emperor at a critical juncture. Kylo Ren approached, and with him, the hope Sith Eternals clung to for generation upon blighted generation. Everything they’d worked for would be for naught—the new fleet, the Sith Troopers, the Sith Eternal Adepts and Mages. He thought, oddly enough, of Adept Caro-Sio. Gary remembered him fondly.

Had he been a friend?

He had no friends on Exegol, not even Obra-Skai.

Gary and Obra-Skai lifted the Emperor into position on the machine. By this point, the delusions had subsided and Palpatine stayed quiet. He withdrew into himself and tapped into a vast storehouse of Sith Magic to keep his soul bound to his failing clone body. They could try Transference again and guide the Emperor’s spirit to a new clone body—they kept plenty of extras stored next to the spare Snokes—but that would derail the timeline. Ren would arrive soon to take the Emperor’s bait and serve as his puppet.

Doubts again crept into Gary’s mind.

Skywalkers tended to betray Palpatine.

Would this boy be any different?

The Emperor seemed to think so.

Then again, the Emperor also seemed to think world-killing weapons were unstoppable.

Gary willed the thoughts away and set about reconnecting the tubes that would keep the Emperor’s failing body alive. They provided nourishment, blood, and medications. A catheter meant the Emperor never had to worry about getting up in the middle of the night (and ensured that Exegol remained moonless). The tubes regulated blood pressure, aided his breathing, and kept his heart pumping. Connections to his decaying brain stem—smart nanomachines guided the tubes to the delicate location—allowed the Emperor to will the machine to move wherever he chose.

Palpatine’s pale eyes shot open. “Young fool. Only now, at the end, do you understand!”

“Please remain still, my master,” Obra-Skai said.

The Emperor laughed, a cackling, self-satisfied laugh that reached the planet’s core and beyond. “I AM the Senate! Unlimited power!”

Gary finished his connections and double-checked his work. Obra-Skai did the same.

“Prepare to reactivate the device,” Obra-Skai said. “I will stay near our master.” Gary hesitated for a moment. “Go. Now!”

Obra-Skai’s command spurred Gary to action. He found the control panel, ensured power was flowing steadily to the machine, and triple-checked the toggle switches. When he was certain he’d entered the correct settings, he threw the switch. Bright blue lightning surged from the top of the device into the Emperor’s body.

Palpatine’s scream also reached the planet’s core and beyond.

Puffs of smoke surrounded the Emperor’s body. He spasmed momentarily and then looked at his malformed hands. “Good. Good! Mage Obra-Skai, I thank you for your service.” Palpatine reached out; a tidal wave of pale white energy poured forth from Obra-Skai’s body into the Emperor’s. The Sith Mage’s cloak fell to the ground.

Gary never had the chance to say goodbye to his former roommate.

Palpatine willed the machine to turn him toward Gary. “Sith Eternal Adept Gary, I understand I have you to thank for my resurrection.”

Gary’s throat was drier than normal. He scratched the back of his neck. “Doing only as you bid, my master.”

Palpatine closed his eyes. “I feel something from you… something I can’t quite grasp.” He paused for a beat. “The Force is strong in you, Gary, the dark side especially. Are you a true Sith?”

“I have studied the ways of the Sith, my emperor.”

“And what do you think of my plan?”

Gary bowed his head. “Flawless, my liege.” If the Emperor looked for a lie—if he suspected one of his true believers would mislead him—he would’ve latched onto the doubts in Gary’s mind.

But supreme overconfidence was Palpatine’s strength. “Excellent. Put the fleet commanders on standby.”

Gary kneeled. “Yes, my master.”

“And Gary, tell them to take no action to impede Kylo Ren.”

Gary nodded and found the nearest communications panel. The Sith Troopers and fleet commanders had waited years for their chance. Now, Palpatine would put them under the command of a Skywalker. He sent the orders, faded into the background, and waited. Observers relayed word that Kylo Ren had landed—and he appeared angry.

A perfect tourist for Exegol.

“At last. Snoke has trained you well,” Palpatine said.

“I killed Snoke. I’ll kill you,” the petulant Skywalker offspring replied.

“My boy, I made Snoke,” the Emperor taunted.

Altogether, not exactly accurate, Gary opined. While Snoke had been Palpatine’s idea, his actual creation came at the hands of Sith Eternal Mages. But who really wanted to take credit for the creation of a being with so many problems? Who wanted people to think they’d created a being so powerful that he didn’t see that his own apprentice planned to kill him?

That was kind of Palpatine’s thing, Gary thought.

“I have been every voice you have ever heard inside your head.” Palpatine’s voice went from his own to Snoke’s to Darth Vader’s.

Gary found that pretty damn impressive.

“The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural,” Palpatine said.

Gary had heard the Emperor say that before. Given their current location and predicament, he couldn’t argue. He milled about with the other Sith Eternal Adepts. All were assured that Kylo Ren brought darkness to Exegol.

Gary believed he brought light.

Would the Emperor see it?

Given past history, Gary didn’t think so. It meant he and the other Sith Eternals would suffer in the end.

Then again, such was life on Exegol.