Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Jedi Inflation, Time Travel and Doublethink

There's a contradiction at the heart of the expanding Star Wars universe. Let's call it Jedi Inflation. On the one hand, we have the movies, which are governed by the idea that the Jedi are wiped out. Indeed, in A New Hope, both Tarkin and Obiwan call the Jedi "extinct" and "all but extinct". This sad fact intensifies the drama of Luke Skywalker's emergence. He is, as Yoda calls him in Return of the Jedi, "the last of the Jedi". This is central to the story. Everything depends on Luke because without him, the flame of the Jedi is forever extinguished.

Davith Elso from Imperial Assault

On the other hand, there are the licensed games like Imperial Assault or the excellent TV show, Star Wars Rebels (all of which are overseen by the same "story group" at Disney and follow basic rules of canonicity). They portray roughly the same time period as the original trilogy of movies. And yet in them, other Jedi have survived to battle the Empire. So we have Kanan Jarrus, Ezra Bridger and Ahsoka Tano (in Rebels) or Diala Passil and Davith Elso (in Imperial Assault). These Jedi are not hidden away: the Rebels Alliance is aware of them, and so are the Imperial authorities. They are part of the Rebellion. And they leave me with the impression that the galaxy is crawling with Jedi.

I don't see this tension being resolved any time soon. The Force Awakens continues the story of the Jedi as a vanished tradition. That movie suggests that Luke alone attempted to rebuild the Jedi Order, and when that ended in tragedy and Luke disappeared, all trace of the Jedi seemed to vanish with him. What happened to characters like Ezra (or less official ones, like Davith from Imperial Assault) is unclear.

The reasons for Jedi inflation are so obvious that they barely need to be stated. Jedi fascinate us. They virtually define the Star Wars universe. Fans want to identify with Jedi heroes, and since there isn't enough Skywalker to go around, new characters must be invented. 

But, at the same time, their expanding number dilutes precisely the thing that makes the Jedi into the Jedi. They are rare, special and exclusive. But it's not mere rarity that makes the Jedi so gripping. More importantly, the Jedi are living anachronisms. Obiwan, Luke and even Vader are relics from a vanished age. Their clothes, manners, and beliefs are out of place in the contemporary world and hearken back to a dim past: A past when swords were used instead of blasters, and when magic was more powerful than technology. To meet a Jedi is truly to meet a species that was supposed to have gone extinct a long time ago.

My favourite encapsulation of the idea that Jedi are time travelers from the past occurs during A New Hope. This is when Admiral Motti (foolishly) upbraids Vader for failing to recapture the stolen plans to the Death Star:
Don't try to frighten us with your sorcerer's ways, Lord Vader. Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes, or given you clairvoyance enough to find the Rebel's hidden fort...
This sense that they're lost, even in their own fantasy world, is what gives the Jedi a grip on our imagination. Portraying too many Jedi breaks that spell of anachronism. Indeed, I think that's one of the reasons why the Prequel Trilogy fell flat on its face -- it never found a way to construct a universe that both multiplied the number of the Jedi and maintained their aura of being out-of-place and out-of-time.

It seems that the current Star Wars canon tries to square this circle by an adroit act of doublethink. It pretends that there is simply no contradiction between the solitary Jedi of the movies versus the Jedi inflation in other media. It's not a terrible approach -- at least it helps to preserve the impression in the movies that the Jedi are a vanished and legendary tradition (certainly, The Force Awakens emphasized this point over and over again -- for instance, by communicating early that Rey and Finn barely believe in the Jedi). But at the same time, we still get lots of interesting if peripheral Jedi characters in shows, games and novels. Jedi inflation? There's no Jedi inflation. These are not the droids you're looking for.

But doublethink isn't a sustainable practice. Sooner or later, the cognitive dissonance will drive you crazy. In the case of Star Wars, a failure to resolve this tension threatens to divide the Star Wars universe in two -- a cinematic half, where Luke Skywalker was the last bearer of the Jedi's flame -- and a fan-friendly half, where plucky Jedi survivors fight the good fight, but never meet up with Luke.

My own view is that a little bit of Jedi inflation is a good thing. It helps to balance another central tension within the Star Wars universe -- the tension between Star Wars as a vast, open-ended story, filled with hundreds or thousands of vibrant characters -- and, on the other hand, Star Wars as a claustrophobic family drama, where the Skywalkers are messianic figures and their story is at the center of the entire galaxy. By throwing in a few other Jedi, the fans are reminded that the Star Wars universe is too big for anyone to fully comprehend. Even Yoda can err, like when he called Luke the last of the Jedi.

What do you think?

* * *

My other mini-essays on Star Wars include:

- The influence of Star Wars on Warhammer 40K Rogue Trader
- The stench of Zen Buddhism in The Force Awakens
- Why did Obi-wan hesitate before allowing Vader to strike him down?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Unseen Battletech Miniatures III

The strangest and most beautiful Unseen Mechs of Battletech are those inspired by the aliens of Macross and Robotech. I speak, of course, about the Marauder and the Ostscout, which are pictured above. In Macross, the Marauder was originally called the Glaug Officer's Battle Pod, while the Ostscout was the Regult Battle Pod

Packaging for kits #1 and #2 of 1/320 scale Macross Models
Studio Nue, the creative shop behind Macross/Robotech, outdid themselves with these designs -- they are works of art in and of themselves. Everything about them seems authentically alien: their lack of right angles, their backward knee joints, the stamen-shaped limbs, the insectoid carapace, and -- of course -- the single eye in the middle of their chests. They look like the bastard children of a lobster and an orchid.

I was picky when casting around for miniatures to represent these mechs. Ral Partha's metal Marauder is a bad rendition: clunky, unstable and ill-proportioned. And the Ostscout presents even greater problems. When the Regult Pod was translated from Macross to Battletech, it was modified to add arms and a head. These changes anthropomorphized the Ostscout and ruined the extraterrestrial aesthetic. Boo on that, I say. I wanted the original design. But where to get it at the correct scale for Battletech?

As I mentioned last week, I finally found some hard plastic Macross models produced in Japan during the 1980's in 1/320 scale -- just about perfect for Battletech (which is usually between 1/285 and 1/300 scale). The models came in long sprues with 4 mechs per sprue. (The packaging for each of these sprues is pictured to the left). Although the plastic doesn't capture a lot of detail, the figures did have the right Macross feel. After a few minor alterations (like adding antennae and accentuating the central eye), they seemed like the best Battle Pods that I could find.

So here's my Unseen MAD-3R "Marauder":

MAD-3R Marauder Painted Unseen Miniature

MAD-3R Marauder Painted Unseen Miniature Battletech

And here's the Unseen OTT-7J "Ostscout":

OTT-7J Ostscout Painted Unseen Miniature

Unfortunately, most of the other models from these old sprues didn't work out as well. Last week I showed off my converted LAM Phoenix Hawk, which is an OK miniature if a little chunky. But even chunkier is the regular Unseen PXH-1 "Phoenix Hawk":

PXH-1 Phoenix Hawk Painted Unseen Miniature

By way of contrast, below is a closely related miniature from Ral Partha: the metal miniature for the Unseen WSP-1A "Wasp" (The Wasp and the Phoenix Hawk are based off of various iterations of Macross' Valkyrie Variable Fighter). This is a beautiful model: detailed, well-posed and elegant. It perfectly captures the lithe power of the Valkyrie.

WSP-1A Wasp Painted Unseen Miniature

And here's its companion, the Unseen STG-3R "Stinger" by Ral Partha. The Stinger is another Valkyrie variant. Both these figures required very little modification on my part -- I simply added the antennae/gun ports that crown their heads (they are fashioned from thin copper wire). I love the folded wings behind their backs -- they really accentuate the hornet-like aspect of their designs.

STG-3R Stinger Painted Unseen Miniature

And to round out my collection of Unseen Battletech miniatures, here's the the LGB-7Q "Longbow". This long-range missile platform was also lifted from Macross -- it's the Destroid Phalanx that premiered in Super Dimension Fortress Macross Episode #27. I slightly converted this Ral Partha model, replacing the original head with a more anime-looking one from my Macross plastic sprues. This is another jolie-laide design: the barrel arms and the tiny pea-head should make it stupid looking, but instead it projects power and menace. I love it!

LGB-7Q Longbow Painted Unseen Miniature

My previous posts of Unseen Mechs are here and here. Well, thanks for stopping by and making these Unseen miniatures slightly less unseen!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Unseen Battletech Miniatures II

The RFL-3N "Rifleman" exemplifies everything that I love and hate about the game of Battletech. It's a great looking Mech, and it boasts four deadly guns. The problem? If you fire all four guns at the same time, the Rifleman will overheat, causing its reactor to shut down and perhaps detonating its own highly explosive ammunition. A better name for the Rifleman would be the Murder/Suicide.

The idea that super-powered death machines are constantly fighting their own thermal output is a big part of the fun of Battletech. Heat management adds a whole new dimension to the "maneuver-and-fire" that's at the heart of most wargames. And it's not so far from reality. From the earliest siege cannons to modern machine guns, the buildup of heat bedevils all gunners; a red hot weapon loses accuracy, becomes too hot to hold and ultimately will melt or explode.

RFL-3N Rifleman Painted Unseen Miniature

Battletech is by no means a perfect game. It is slow, requires a lot of book-keeping and has an infuriating approach to weapon ranges (in the game, even "long range" missiles can only fire a few hundred meters. In real life, such missiles would fire for 10, 100 or 1000 kilometers). 

Nevertheless, I stand in awe of Battletech as a game. That's because -- like a shark or the recipe for KFC --  it is remarkable for how little it has changed since it's inception.

A basic game of Battletech is fought today with essentially the same rules as a game from 1986. The most important alteration of nuts-and-bolts rules that I can detect is a tweak in calculating how to determine hit location when only the top half of a mech is visible to the attacker. In other words, small beer. Contrast this with Warhammer Fantasy Battle, which has rebooted its rules system 9 times in the same period of time, with each revision changing core elements in the game.

Of course, that's not to say that Battletech hasn't changed. But FASA (and its heirs) found a way of adding to the richness of the game without replacing what had come before. They created a need for new Battletech products by developing the history of the Battletech universe as time passed in the real world. And as events progressed in the Battletech universe, the level of technology changed. So, although you can still play with the humble RFL-3N Rifleman, there are now rules for technologically superior upgrades, including the Clan's Mad Dog or Rifleman IIC. It's a smart approach, that can please both nostalgia fiends (like myself) and normal people.

What do you think? Does Battletech still hold up? While you mull over that question, here are some more from my collection of Unseen Battletech miniatures.

The TDR-5D "Thunderbolt":

TDR-5D Thunderbolt Painted Unseen Miniature

The SHD-2H "Shadowhawk":

SHD-2H Shadowhawk Painted Unseen Miniature

The GRF-1N "Griffin":

GRF-1N Griffin Painted Unseen Miniature

And my favourite, the SCP-1N "Scorpion". I've painted this one to look like a WWII Panzer. House Kurita Uber Alles!

SCP-1N Scorpion Painted Unseen Miniature

Thanks for stopping by!

Friday, September 2, 2016

Unseen Battletech Miniatures

The release of the Robotech cartoon series in 1984 was a turning point in my childhood. Up to that point, I had assumed that there was only a certain amount of coolness in the world. Mullets were cool. Dinobots were very cool. Could there be anything more? However, when Robotech appeared om TV that first Saturday morning, a limit that I hadn't even perceived was at once disclosed and discarded. If there were actual adult people in Japan who had dedicated themselves to breaking down the walls of imagination by animating giant robots of undreamed beauty, then... then... the world has no limts. Coolness is an infinite resource.

The box cover for Battletech 2nd ed.
The heady promise of Robotech has -- more or less -- been honoured by my subsequent life. After all, I discovered pork buns, sex and Warhammer. But I digress from my point. Did I have a point? The point is that Robotech was and is extremely cool.

Also released in 1984 was Battletech, "a game of armored combat" by FASA corporation. Battletech has become one of the most storied franchises in the gaming world, surviving and thriving for 30 years. But it's true genius was to be the first to make a game out of the giant robots from Robotech (and other Japanese anime like Fang of the Sun Dougram and Crusher Joe). Without these Japanese designs, it's hard to imagine Battletech's existence, let alone its great success. Indeed, the initial boxed set consisted entirely of mechs lifted from anime. FASA would quickly start to develop its own homemade mechs, but they couldn't approach the beauty, originality and verve of the original Japanese designs.

The problem, as anyone familiar with Battletech knows, is that it was not clear that FASA had purchased the rights to the iconic Japanese designs. The upshot of a long, boring and secretive legal battle was that FASA retained the rights to the names of its mechs but gave up the rights to their images. It's like George Lucas losing the rights to Darth Vader's helmet or Stormtrooper armour. The heart of the Battletech brand was gone. In an unusually poetic phrasing, these lost designs became known as the "unseen mechs".

So, for example, below we have the WHM-6R "Warhammer", which occupied the cover of the 1st (1984), 2nd (1985) and 3rd (1992) editions of Battletech. This mech was patterned off of the Macross "Destroid Tomahawk". What a strange and awkward design! Just look at the the reptilian face, the huge under-slung guns, or the search light and missile pod sprouting from its shoulders like amputated wings. On its own, each element is quite ugly -- and yet the whole comes together to create a masterpiece. That's the genius of the Macross/Robotech design team, Studio Nue.

WHM-6R "Warhammer Painted Unseen Miniature

Well, Battletech eventually adapted to the loss of the Unseen Mechs. But grognards like me have trouble moving on. And so when I decided to start painting Battletech miniatures, I found myself in familiar territory: obsessing about long out-of-production miniatures. Now most of my collection comes from Ral Partha's early Battltech range. However, in order to get proper miniatures for some rarer mechs, I had to dig deeper, finding original Super Dimension Fortress Macross plastic models in 1/320 scale from the mid-1980's. I don't believe that these plastic models had ever been released in North America.

PHX-HK2 "Phoenix Hawk" LAM Painted Unseen Miniature

Above and below we have two different versions of the PHX-HK2 "Phoenix Hawk" LAM ("Land Air Mech"). This mech was inspired by the most iconic of all Robotech designs, the VF-1 "Valkyrie", which was itself the product of a nearly accidental combination of a robot's legs and a fighter jet in Studio Nue.

The top Phoenix Hawk is a plastic Japanese Macross model that I converted so that it looked like it was in the middle of a rapid emergency landing. The jets of flame were created by stiffening sponge with white glue, shaping it into cones and painting them to look like fiery smoke. 

Ral Partha's PHX-HK2 "Phoenix Hawk" LAM Unseen Miniature

The second Phoenix Hawk is a Ral Partha model made from white metal. I decided to let my freak flag fly and paint him in a non-traditional colour scheme of blue, purple and screaming orange. Tasteful, no. But hopefully memorable.

So welcome to the first in a series of posts about Battletech, Unseen Miniatures, and other goodness. I hope they can add to the world's infinite fund of coolness.