Playpen

Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.

at 22:13 on 16-02-2016, Janne Kirjasniemi
Happy late birthday greetings Ichneumon!

Another belated point, Daniel(damn, stay away for a week and things keep on happening and people writing):
I was not specifically thinking of a Gnostic view. I actually find it even more interesting that you put Christianity into the same category as Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism here, since unlike the latter two, Christianity does not posit a dualist cosmology.

Yes, that was careless of me. And also, gnosticism and dualism are not mutually exclusive. The source of my mistake is, as it often is, to focus on how things seem on the practical level as opposed to how things are explained theologically, or cosmologically. So even if christianity is not dualistic, the view of Christianity as being about the war between heaven and hell is very tenacious and very common in culture popular and otherwise and also in history, when one thinks how the everyday business of religion has proceeded. Which might be a way to see the Star Wars cosmology. The proper way to see the force is as some sort of benign force that one is in balance with, which is some sort of pop-taoism. And the dark side is using the force as a shortcut to reach goals, which leads one away from the balance and proper knowledge of the force. In action it comes out as dualism, but really is about gnosis of the force, life and everything. I think this holds even with the term Dark side, as any side away from the light in this instance is a dark side.

I too agree on the general feeling of futility in the new film, which might have affected my opinions and which was enforced by how the plot was so derivative and even the look of the film emulated something decades old. But to each his own. And why was Leia not a jedi? It seems they were dead set on providing some sort of status quo from the ROTJ. And somehow it was just very sad to see Solo in his old years scampering about doing the same sort of nonsense he was doing before he joined the rebellion.
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at 22:00 on 15-02-2016, Robinson L
Chiming in to say a (very belated by this point) happy birthday, Ichneumon.


On The Force Awakens, excellent points from both Jamie and Shim.

However, from my readings and other discussions - I also wasn't born in the 70s to be able to provide an eye-witness account - while there might have been a sense that social movements and international political tensions were building towards some climactic "end-point," they likely expected it to be ruinous rather than triumphant. By '77, it was clear that the social movements of the 60s and 70s hadn't totally remade society the way many people thought they would, and in the US, scandals like Watergate and the debacle in Vietnam must have still been fresh in people's minds. Perhaps by now, on the international scene, it was also clear that formal decolonization didn't spell the end of major troubles for Africa, Asia, and Latin America. I think it was Bruce Bethke (in Star Wars on Trial) who noted that popular cinema of the time was pretty cynical, filled with anti-heroes little better than the villains, and basically (though he didn't put it in so many words) a precursor to contemporary grimdark aesthetic.

From what I gather, the original Star Wars was a stark and deliberate contrast to popular media of its era. Part of what made it revolutionary was its clearly demarcated heroes and villains, and its unflinchingly and unapologetically optimistic spirit. (Though, arguably, this optimistic spirit and uncomplicated approach to good and evil may have facilitated the rise of neoliberalism under Thatcher, Reagan, and their ilk.)

Whereas The Force Awakens, as both Jamie and Shim elucidate, is much more a reflection of the sensibilities of its era - which, as I've said, seem in some respects to be a throwback to pre-Star Wars 70s cinema. If you think about it, the genre currently dominating box offices is superhero movies, which have a reputation for being ethically simple (or, less charitably, simplistic) and optimistic to a rather juvenile degree - just like the original Star Wars. But if you look closely, a lot of these superhero movies wallow in moral complexity, and not only contain a good whack of "dark" material, but have a pretty bleak undercurrent to them where each victory is only temporary, and while it prevents greater tragedy (this time), ends as often as not with the world and the heroes a little bit worse off than they were to begin with. (Actually, it reminds me of how I once heard Lovecraft-inspired RPGs described, if the player characters manage to win.)

So in that sense, I guess the bleakness of Force Awakens makes for some good social commentary - as you've both eloquently attested - but I'm not sure it's in the best traditions of the saga.

Shim: I think he's supposedly running to the rebellion, but isn't that just because there's nowhere else for a runaway to go?

Yes, it's made perfectly clear in the movie that Finn only tells Rey he wants to rendezvous with the Resistance; I think he intends to see BB-8s information safely shepherded to them, but beyond that his intention is to flee and not to fight. Until, of course, he has his big dramatic turn after the battle at Maz Kanata's.

Luke is excited by shit that is going on right now, and you get the impression that if the droids hadn't crossed paths with him he'd have tried to get offworld and join the Rebellion one way or another eventually. (This is made explicit in some of the deleted scenes where Biggs is talking about how he and some of his fellow students at the pilot academy intend to go join the Alliance.)

I think it's made explicit in the film itself (or maybe just in the post-special edition releases, it's been too long since I've seen the pre-SE version) when Luke and Biggs bump into each other on their way to their X-wings on their way to Yavin, and Luke says: "I told you I'd find my way to the Rebellion someday," to which Biggs responds: "I never doubted you." Or something to that effect.


On an almost entirely unrelated note to all of this, a chance perusal of a recent issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction last week has introduced me to the awesomeness which is Science Fiction author and reviewer Chris Moriarty. Here's the passage which had me hooked:

Now I pride myself on being an open-minded person. But the English spent 800 years kicking the holy living crap out of my family in Ireland. And then they drafted their potato-eating arses and shipped them over to Calcutta to kick the holy living crap out of the other half of my family. So if, in 2015, you are going to sell me a "global" anthology composed exclusively of white writers from former British colonies—then you know what? I want my damn flying car, and I want it now!*

*Okay, I am being flippant. But seriously. Even Star Trek in 1966 understood that you need a few non-white faces on your starship crew if you don't want the rest of the world to laugh at you.

And then there's this passage, describing the future imagined in the anthology which inspired the above tirade:

It is the future of middle-age policy wonks and tech mandarins. And it embodies the same deeply disempowering assumption that "we"—we the code jockeys, we the technorati—will not survive unless we cast our lot with the corporate elites instead of with the great, unwired mass of humanity. We may rail against the machine in the privacy of our home. We may go on paleo diets or take Marie Antoinette-style datastream holidays. But in the end we know that our only chance at keeping our DNA in the gene pool is to follow the profits into orbit.

And lest I give the impression that Moriarty is a mostly negative reviewer, I should point out that the above comprises more than 80% of the critical writing I've seen from them so far (I still haven't worked out Moriarty's gender for sure, and I'm trying not to make assumptions). Here's a positive passage from elsewhere in the article:

We have indeed come a long way from the days when James Tiptree, Jr. was dismissed by hard sf fans because her work was "too political." This change arrived, as all real change does, through a combination of hard pushing from the periphery and slow evolution from the interior. But I think it really has arrived. Over the course of the past five years or so, Aliette de Bodard and Vandana Singh (more on her later) have both joined the standard list of go-to writers for hard sf anthologies. And both of them write from a post-colonial perspective that combines hard science with even harder politics.

(I should also point out that the early columns I've read from Moriarty - about half of what's available on the MF&SF site so far - aren't nearly as political as this one, either, which perhaps explains why I'm not as excited by them. Still, Moriarty's critical insight and ability to express enthusiasm and to a certain extent inspire it in readers - or at least this reader - is present in each and every column.)
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at 18:29 on 15-02-2016, James D
Yeah, I think that made Finn the most relatable of the heroes - he's primarily motivated by self-preservation after he sees firsthand that the First Order ideal is just a big crock of shit. He doesn't care about protecting the innocent, he doesn't try to save any of the villagers getting massacred, he just panics like any young soldier might during his first combat, and is presented with an opportunity to desert before his misgivings can be brainwashed away by his superiors. After that he just wants to escape the terrible punishment coming his way, and it's only after quite a while that he actually starts to think about putting himself in danger to help other people.

His terror at the prospect of being caught by the First Order and unwillingness to think of confronting them made their threat seem a lot more real, and made his gradual turn to selfless hero seem much more realistic. Han Solo's similar transformation in IV seems much more abrupt and "Hollywood" in contrast, occurring exactly when the narrative needs it to and with no insight into the inner conflict. He's perfectly willing to abandon the Rebellion at first, and later turns up seemingly just for the hell of it.
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at 00:31 on 15-02-2016, Arthur B
I think Finn is actively running away for the first half of the movie, but then there's that crucial turn in his character when the First Order attack the castle and he ends up coming back to try and help out and then ends up going to Starkiller Base with Han in order to help Rey. His arc in the movie is actually pretty satisfying, in that he goes from a Stormtrooper with a glimmer of conscience to a runaway claiming to be a Resistance fighter for kudos to an actual hero of the Resistance lying in stasis waiting for destiny to activate him again.

Bur your general point about the original trilogy characters having mostly chosen their side quite firmly does hold true. Contrast Luke getting excited when C-3PO mentions knowing stuff about the Rebellion to Rey getting excited about the Jedi; whereas Rey is energised by legends about do-gooding space knights from times past, Luke is excited by shit that is going on right now, and you get the impression that if the droids hadn't crossed paths with him he'd have tried to get offworld and join the Rebellion one way or another eventually. (This is made explicit in some of the deleted scenes where Biggs is talking about how he and some of his fellow students at the pilot academy intend to go join the Alliance.)
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at 23:45 on 14-02-2016, Shim
Yes, happy belated birthday.

Jamie, that's a really interesting take on it, and I tend to agree with it.

I might actually go further on one point (EDIT: and I will do so at enormous length).

In the original trilogy, I think everyone other than Luke had actively chosen their path. Han and Chewie were career smugglers, Leia was a dutiful princess and (although we have little information) apparently committed to the Rebellion, as were the droids. Obi-Wan had been in limbo, or perhaps biding his time, but with Luke's arrival he sprang into action like someone who knows what he's doing. Luke very soon committed to the Rebellion without any of the regretful whining of most fantasy farmboy heroes. Darth Vader is a consumate professional, and even the Skywalker parents have things in hand. Luke himself seems happy enough to become a womprat-shooting farmboy.

In The Force Awakens, that doesn't seem to be true any more. Finn shows no sign of having wanted to be a soldier and escapes as soon as possible, always running away rather than towards and pretending to have purpose when he has none. I think he's supposedly running to the rebellion, but isn't that just because there's nowhere else for a runaway to go? Rey was stranded on her planet and is some kind of bonded worker; she's good at what she does, but she had no choice. I think you could create another parallel with the audience here about lack of meaningful life choices.

Ren is trying to be a Sith, but it feels to me like he drifted into it through angry flailing and very poor choice of role models, and is now frantically struggling to make a go of it because he's already turned his back on everything else. Maybe he's not just torn about the correct path to follow, but stuck in an existential crisis. This is a far cry from the Emperor and Darth Vader and their firm commitment to evil rule.

Poe is presumably the exception, but we see so little of him it's hard to tell.

Meanwhile, Han's return to smuggling comes across as a bit of a midlife crisis and he struggles to handle the competition even before his Big Moment. Leia is as competent as ever, but everything she's ever worked for personally or professionally has crumbled into ruin. Luke lost four fathers, a mother and a hand in a quest for personal meaning and the greater good, felt the weight of the universe on his shoulders, brought down the greatest evil ever known, and then his brave new world burned to the ground around him.

I will pretentiously argue that these parallel the older relatives of a lot of younger people. Forces beyond their control, and decisions taken en masse, mean the security they worked for (jobs, pensions, savings) has proven hollow, and they're left worrying about the future rather than anticipating or enjoying the comfortable old age they were led to expect. They see their own children working lousy jobs for poor pay and struggling to afford the rent, and we've still got wars and dictators all over the place. Progress made in reducing inequality is being rolled back rapidly by governments who apparently don't care about it.

Luke could rely on the wisdom of Obi-Wan and of Yoda, as well as the greater life experience of Han and Leia; even when his mentors died, they continued to guide him. Everyone his own age was an ally. There's probably some kind of Darth Vader metaphor you could work in as well.

Finn and Rey mostly fend for themselves in a hostile world, and though their elders are technically on their side, there's little the Rebellion can do in the face of an oppressive system. Maz Kanata is a supportive stranger, who does them a small favour but is completely powerless when things go wrong. Worse yet, they're faced with Kylo Ren, who actively opposes them because their modest ambitions conflict with his own pathetic dreams of winning respect the only way the galaxy seems to understand it - sheer power.

I think one of the things that seems pathetic about Ren is actually that same-generation thing. Ignoring the family heritage, he seems like he should be a natural ally of Rey and Finn, striving together for a better world, but he's sold out to the older failed generation and their failed philosophies.
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at 18:58 on 13-02-2016, Jamie Johnston
Happy birthday Ichneumon! (Better late than never, I hope.)

And hopping in (also a bit late) to the conversation about The force awakens: I confess my memory of the original trilogy is hazy, but mulling it over I feel like the lack of historical 'progress' may be quite appropriate given the real-world context.

My recollection of A new hope is that there's a sort of atmosphere of Epic Things in the offing. Luke wants adventures and has a sense of Destiny. Leia is already fundamentally enmeshed in this epoch-making galactic struggle. Han is minding his own business but still on a fairly big scale, wheeling and dealing all over the place. And in the real world it's the late 70s, with a corresponding general sense (and I wasn't alive so I'm going on received opinion here) that history was travelling in a certain direction, that various social movements and international political tensions were building towards some sort of climactic 'end-point'.

Now here we are in the mid-2010s and I think to a lot of people in the audience, especially young people, history and the state of the world feel a lot more like what we see in The force awakens. The big hopes of the later twentieth century have not really been realized. A lot of the time it seems like the same wars and the same social conflicts are happening again and again and it's hard to see the future as anything but a slow downward spiral. Previous generations over-promised and under-delivered.

And what strikes me about our heroes (and to some extent our villain) in The force awakens is that their starting-points and their dreams are more modest than their 1977 counterparts. Finn starts as a footsoldier and sanitation worker and his ambition is to get away and have a quiet life. Rey lives from hand to mouth and basically wants to eat, tinker with machines, and see her family again. Poe is a well-respected pilot but still fundamentally a guy doing his job, and doesn't seem to have any particular drive to do anything else. Ren is a big fish but in a much smaller pond than either his parents or his grandfather, and he seems to be entirely motivated by personal inadequacy and interpersonal anger rather than ideology or a desire to achieve any particular political goal. In short, they're a pretty good reflection of a lot of people their age in the audience.

(Also note that they have much less support from their elders. Rey's parents are permanently absent and she's completely alone until she meets Han, who, let's be honest, is no Obi-Wan in terms of mentoring and guidance; Finn literally has no parents at all; Poe is older and in a slightly different position, and for all we know he may have a supportive family in the background somewhere, but they have no impact on the film at all. So even if we're prepared to cut Luke and Leia's generation some slack in terms of their large-scale political achievements, the world of the film as a whole is clearly one in which the older generation has abandoned the younger one to its fate and only enters their lives in order to ask them for help.)

So I think I'm agreeing with Alasdair that the film is pretty bleak and seems to promise no triumphant ending, and that it doesn't feel likely that our heroes will surpass the previous generation and achieve a lasting galactic golden age. But to me that seems right and appropriate. No doubt the current trilogy will have a happy ending but I'll be quite disappointed, to be honest, if it's the same kind of happy ending as Return of the Jedi because that wouldn't feel true to the times we live in.
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at 22:59 on 12-02-2016, Ichneumon
So it's my birthday today.

Not exactly breaking news or of much relevance to this train of discussion but officially adding another year to the tally is a bit of an event.
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at 20:00 on 11-02-2016, Robinson L
Yeah, the other person I've talked in depth with about Legacy felt basically the same: big yawn for protagonist and yet another boring Sith reiteration, but really interested by the Fel Empire, Imperial Knights, and Galactic Alliance Remnant, at least in theory. I guess I wasn't so invested in the idea to carry me through, but definitely the best parts of that series - the times when it was genuinely good, or at least within the horizon of genuinely good - featured them prominently.

I did not read FotJ, though I did read the first half or so of LotF before swearing off in disgust. LotF did feel like a sign that it was time for the EU to be put out of its misery.

What a coincidence, this was exactly my reaction.

I did read Crucible, the Denning-penned sequel to Fate of the Jedi out of morbid curiosity, and because my library had it available on audio rather than having to read the damn thing through with my eyeballs. The story was actually okay, occasionally even entertaining, and with a couple genuinely nice touches, but ultimately disposable. Also, with all the crap the Jedi Order went through with Sith and the Dark Side in recent years, Luke Skywalker has apparently warped into a full on Knight Templar, and the other Jedi are all going along with it. Which is probably a reasonable deconstructive point, but perhaps not one that Star Wars should be making. Also, I never once got the impression from the text that I was supposed to view Luke's and the other Jedi's blatantly draconian training regime as questionable, let alone unconscionable.

I think I'm a little more forgiving of New Jedi Order than you - bar two or three repulsive major plot points - but I don't think it at all lived up to its potential. And if we could preserve the New Republic era canon and jettison the Legacy era, I wouldn't be too broken up to see NJO thrown over the side along with the latter.
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at 03:34 on 11-02-2016, Daniel F
But part of the excitement for me in those books was also on the cosmological scale, and the - incorrect - sense I got that Sauron's acquisition of the ring could mean indefinite victory on his part, not a potentially vast but inherently finite victory. It may be a tertiary source of tension for me, but it's not irrelevant. I guess it's a case of varying mileage.

Fair enough.

Definitely varying mileage, here. Specifically, about it being sufficiently different. For me, the fact that it was the exact same set up as the original trilogy with the exact same enemies nuances was too much, no matter how much creativity they put into the details. I appreciated some of the stuff Legacy was doing (insufferable protagonist and questionable wardrobe choices for the female Sith aside), but the premise infuriated me from start to finish.

The problem I had with Legacy, actually, was that I quite liked a few bits of the setting and hated others, and the parts I hated were the parts the authors seemed to want to focus on. I had very little interest in the protagonist or in yet another Sith resurgence, but I remember quite liking the Fel Empire, the Imperial Knights, and the Galactic Alliance remnants. The Imperial Knights in particular struck me as interesting, since moving Jedi from itinerant warrior-monks to knights specifically sworn to an autocratic government felt like something new and something fairly believable in light of the Prequel Trilogy, which did emphasise Jedi as agents of the law working to defend a corrupt government. As early as ANH they were calling Jedi 'knights', but the idea of feudal service was never really attached to that. So I was interested in that, and especially in the idea of the Imperial Knights in contrast to surviving Jedi. The Sith were their usual boring selves, but it's quite hard to do something new with Jedi or with Force-users in general. I always liked it when they gave it a go.

Anyway: I did not read FotJ, though I did read the first half or so of LotF before swearing off in disgust. LotF did feel like a sign that it was time for the EU to be put out of its misery. As for others... I agree that Survivor's Quest was excellent, and as for the Yuuzhan Vong, I think I like the idea behind them much more than I like the execution. I respect the NJO for having the guts to try to throw something new into an increasingly stale EU, I thought the Yuuzhan Vong had some potential, and there were a few good books and good moments concerning them, but as a complete package, the NJO is disappointing. So I wouldn't fight that hard to keep it.
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at 00:36 on 10-02-2016, Robinson L
Arthur: Just because peace is fragile and rarely lasts doesn't mean it is worthless.

Yeah, I agree with that, but in a fictional sense, and specifically the fictional sense of the Star Wars universe, I feel like it's not enough. I keep coming back to something Dan H said way back in his "Acts of Sacrifice" article, about how, basically, the bar for meaningful sacrifice for fictional characters is much higher than for real people. The victories of the original trilogy protagonists would be a worthy accomplishment for any real group of freedom fighters, but for fictional heroes - especially in a story as epic as Star Wars - I'd like the lasting effects of their victory to be a bit more epic as well.

(Interestingly enough, relevant to the Tolkien discussion, I recently listened to a podcast where they were talking about this aspect of The Force Awakens, and somebody brought up how, apparently, Tolkien at one point started writing a sequel to Lord of the Rings starring Aragorn's son, but he abandoned it because he couldn't bear the idea of everything going so bad again so soon after Sauron's defeat.)

<blockqoute>Daniel F: I'm not sure I agree about a stronger good power removing all tension.
I never said it removed all tension. I said it "lessoned the power." Yes, my main concern about the Lord of the Rings is the fate of the protagonists and their societies in the immediate future and the next few generations. But part of the excitement for me in those books was also on the cosmological scale, and the - incorrect - sense I got that Sauron's acquisition of the ring could mean indefinite victory on his part, not a potentially vast but inherently finite victory. It may be a tertiary source of tension for me, but it's not irrelevant. I guess it's a case of varying mileage.

Legacy was bleak in its own way, but it was different enough that it wasn't totally intolerable.

Definitely varying mileage, here. Specifically, about it being sufficiently different. For me, the fact that it was the exact same set up as the original trilogy with the exact same enemies nuances was too much, no matter how much creativity they put into the details. I appreciated some of the stuff Legacy was doing (insufferable protagonist and questionable wardrobe choices for the female Sith aside), but the premise infuriated me from start to finish.

Even if I wasn't put off by the Legacy comics, though, the place where all my favorite Expanded Universe and Original Trilogy characters ended up in Legacy of the Force, Fate of the Jedi (so I heard, I could never stomach to read them), and Crucible makes their fate in The Force Awakens look like an unending beach vacation by comparison, so I'm still going to side with the latter if it's a choice between that and the old Expanded Universe.

I agree about the diminishing threats in the pre-New Jedi Order books. I initially welcomed the Yuuzhan Vong as a creative new threat that wasn't tied to the previous villains. I have sufficient issues with the latter half of that series that I'm okay with having it wiped out as well. Ending at Vision of the Future would also lose us the enjoyable but not essential Survivor's Quest, and in hindsight, would probably have been for the best.
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at 07:07 on 09-02-2016, Daniel F
I hope that now they've planted their flag, so to speak, they'll feel more free to explore new territory with Episodes VIII and IX, and open up more creative space.

I've heard that theory as well, and I certainly hope that's the case. But I guess we'll see.

Then, too, in terms of fiction, it makes more sense dramatically speaking if good and evil are about equally matched, so there's a real contest between the two....
On the other hand, if we take a strict dualistic/Manichaean outlook, it means none of the victories our heroes win will ever have any permanence or finality, because evil will always rise up again to muck things up for everybody. In the long view, there's no room for progress or improvement, just a boot intermittently stamping and not stamping on a man's face, forever.

In that case you can at least draw a line between absolute dualism (the good and evil power are perfectly matched, for all eternity) and mitigated dualism (the evil power will eventually lose, but it's strong enough to put up a decent fight in the mean-time).

I'm not sure I agree about a stronger good power removing all tension. It removes tension on the cosmic time-scale, but I doubt that anyone really reads a story or a film on the cosmic time-scale. We don't become invested in the ultimate fate of the fictional universe, but rather in the immediate travails of characters. In LotR, it may well be true that Iluvatar will win in the end, but we are not emotionally invested in Iluvatar as such. Within the framework of the story it is entirely possible that Sauron will triumph and usher in ten thousand years of darkness and slavery. The distant victory of Iluvatar is a framing eschatological hope, not an event in the plot that might negate its drama.

This is why, as an Expanded Universe fan, I actually welcome The Force Awakens. Bleak as it is, the alternatively future we had on offer previously was even bleaker.

Even there, while I agree that Legacy had its fair share of flaws, I at least appreciated that Legacy seemed to be trying to do something different. The abstract idea that there will be wars and struggles and political feuds after the OT ends doesn't negate a sense of accomplishment, for me: that's just part of the endless turn of history. What would negate a sense of accomplishment for me is the post-OT material is all the same wars and feuds. Legacy was bleak in its own way, but it was different enough that it wasn't totally intolerable.

Though I think you're absolutely correct about the late EU. The early EU was fine, though perhaps the stakes seemed lower after a dozen different books of mop-up operations against the fragments of the Empire. But by the time of LotF and FotJ, it's very hard to feel invested in it. The repetition feels perfunctory and soulless. It is fear of a similarly perfunctory atmosphere, I suppose, that has kept me away from TFA.

I suppose I always liked the idea that the EU ought to have ended with Vision of the Future. That does lose us the NJO (which for the most part is not worth mourning, but there was always the excellent Traitor...), but it feels like a natural conclusion to the post-OT EU, with a positive, progressive look towards the future.
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at 22:43 on 08-02-2016, Arthur B
I don't think the original trilogy generation are shown to have accomplished nothing. Things may have gotten dark, especially once Kylo started wearing a bucket on his head because he thought it was t0t35 k3w1, but they managed to win a few decades of peace for those who lived within the section of space outside of the First Order's sphere of influence, and that ain't nothing. Just because peace is fragile and rarely lasts doesn't mean it is worthless.
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at 22:00 on 08-02-2016, Robinson L
Daniel F: PT ... opened up a massive profusion of EU and other supporting material, some of which was quite good ... A bad pass at something new still creates this new playground for subsequent authors to use, whereas from all I've heard, TFA is a slavish (if competent and slick) imitation of the OT. It's hard to imagine that creating a space for new creative works as effectively as the PT did.

I think Force Awakens was the new Star Wars team's way of saying "we're going back to our roots with this new trilogy and this new continuity." They wanted to assuage fans who felt burned by the prequel trilogy or were skeptical about the new creative direction, while simultaneously presenting something which will both appeal to new fans and give them a sense of what the saga's all about. It's a really delicate balancing at to perform, and of course they didn't manage it perfectly, but I think what they did accomplish is still damn impressive.

I hope that now they've planted their flag, so to speak, they'll feel more free to explore new territory with Episodes VIII and IX, and open up more creative space.


my suspicion (not stemming just from this, of course!) is that much of mainstream Western culture has implicitly Manichaean moral priors. See also pop culture Satan as the ruler of Hell.

Yeah, I'll go along with that. So much that it's easy to read a lot of good vs. evil stories and rhetoric as Manichaean/dualistic if one isn't very careful.

Then, too, in terms of fiction, it makes more sense dramatically speaking if good and evil are about equally matched, so there's a real contest between the two. As someone who grew up on The Lord of the Rings, I find it loses a bit of its power when you realize that in Tolkien's cosmology, evil is always inherently self-defeating, and so even if the quest of the ring had ended in total failure, Sauron would have fallen eventually and everything would be set right somehow.

On the other hand, if we take a strict dualistic/Manichaean outlook, it means none of the victories our heroes win will ever have any permanence or finality, because evil will always rise up again to muck things up for everybody. In the long view, there's no room for progress or improvement, just a boot intermittently stamping and not stamping on a man's face, forever. In which case, who cares if the heroes win today - we all know they're only going to lose again tomorrow or the next day. Same with if the villains win, for that matter.

Alasdair: Rather than signalling the eucatastrophic ending to the series, TFA seems to suggest that the destruction of the second Death Star, the death of Palpatine, and the redemption of Anakin Skywalker...meant nothing.

In a nutshell: this. Perhaps the reason you doubt Rey, Finn, Poe, and even Kylo Ren will manage to accomplish what their predecessors failed (a lasting victory), is that The Force Awakens implicitly suggests an unending cycle, so why should their victory be any less ephemeral than the original trilogy heroes'? (Then again, perhaps finding a way to break the cycle is what Luke's been investigating all this time, and that's what the plot of VIII and IX will be all about. Interesting idea, but I somehow doubt it, and even if it does play out that way, it still massively detracts from the accomplishments of the original trilogy, and even the prequel trilogy, especially Anakin's redemption.)

On the other hand, to your point Alasdair, I come at The Force Awakens as a fan of the old Star Wars Expanded Universe (indeed, I read the first Zahn trilogy before I even saw the movies). You'd think I would hate that the Disney continuity nuked all those stories I grew up on, but I didn't for reasons I'll come to presently.

Anyway, one thing I appreciated about the early Expanded Universe was the way it showed that the galaxy post-original trilogy was still far from perfect, with many threats and dangers for the heroes and the New Republic, without detracting from the victories of the films. The Empire was crippled, and its attempts to regain galactic dominance were always beaten back. The Sith were gone, and the villainous Force users were less powerful underlings who survived Vader's and the Emperor's deaths, and hotshot upstarts. Enemies, in other words, came in two basic flavors: weaker - but still dangerous - versions of what the heroes had already defeated, and complete newcomers to the scene.

But then came the late-stage Expanded Universe, where they had Leia and Han's son turn into a Sith, kill Luke's wife, and generally muck things up before getting offed by his own sister (character consistency? Fuck that, we've got an existing story to recycle as slavishly and melodramatically as possible). Then there were the Legacy comics, which blatantly pressed the galaxy's reset button so they could put things in the exact same place they were at the beginning of A New Hope (if you thought the reset button in Force Awakens was bad, trust me, this was worse). Once again, fascist empire ruling the galaxy with a Sith Emperor at its head, forces of good reduced to ragtag groups of insurgents, and fate of the galaxy resting in the hands of a straight white blond guy whose only qualification is being a direct descendant of Anakin and Luke Skywalker (and who, in terms of likability, makes you pine for Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen at their very worst).

Mind you, those comics told some halfway decent stories, but the extent to which they went out of their way to drive home the point that nothing ultimately has changed or ever will was even more nauseating than the series protagonist. At the end of the series, the Sith Empire has been overthrown and the galaxy is ruled by a Republic of sorts (though with unelected officials), but the surviving Sith have gone back into hiding to rebuild their forces and one day take over the galaxy, just as they did in the prequel trilogy and in the lead-up to Legacy. (The Legacy sequel series - which concluded in August 2014, after the Expanded Universe had already been officially branded non-canon - had the Sith all wiped out, but with the implication "well, maybe they're still out there, somewhere ...")

This is why, as an Expanded Universe fan, I actually welcome The Force Awakens. Bleak as it is, the alternatively future we had on offer previously was even bleaker. With The Force Awakens, so far, we can at least still hold out hope for a lasting victory in the end, and that maybe the next two episodes will reveal that accomplishments of the previous trilogies did matter to some extent. Small hope, perhaps, but when your previous "canonical" answer was "no, no chance whatsoever," this still counts as an improvement.


I found I liked Kylo Ren the most ... Honestly, he resonated with me more than most of the actual protagonists did.

Fair enough. There's nothing wrong with the character of Kylo Ren on paper (except for being Han and Leia's son, ugh), I just can't take Adam Driver seriously in the role. But if he works for you, I'm glad.


Phasma got dumped in a trash compactor, but we should know by now that those things are eminently escapable.

Only if you've got a sympathetic droid along to help you out, surely? If you watch A New Hope again, I'm pretty sure you'll find that trash compactor was the second most dangerous situation the heroes face, losing out only to the climactic Death Star battle (or third if you count Obi-Wan's duel with Vader). I think Phasma can come back, and I certainly hope she does, but lets not kid ourselves - the mere fact of getting herself out of the compactor should be enough to establish her as a force to be reckoned with.
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at 22:12 on 06-02-2016, Arthur B
Coda: I was miffed about how, after being hyped up in the merchandising and ad copy, Captain Phasma barely appeared in the movie, and ended up getting upstaged by a dude with a police baton. Bad form, Abrams.

Phasma was hyped as being the new Boba Fett, and pretty much ended up following the Boba Fett playbook to that extent.

Though it's worth noting that what we saw here was an origin story for most of the characters that then ended up having the returning old timers get more screen time in rewrites, which I'm fine with since the main beneficiary of that was Han Solo who isn't exactly going to be a major presence going forwards.

Phasma got dumped in a trash compactor, but we should know by now that those things are eminently escapable. She's also got ample reason to go gunning after Finn now. Hopefully, that means she's going to be a way bigger deal in the next movie.
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at 21:37 on 06-02-2016, Alasdair Czyrnyj
Speaking for myself, when I saw TFA, I was mostly struck by how, well, bleak the movie was. There's this subtext to the film about how all the happily-ever-afters promised at the end of Return of the Jedi have ended in failure. I mean, it's thirty years on since the Battle of Endor, and it's still Rebellion versus Empire with different names. Most everyone from the original trilogy is still doing the same jobs they were doing thirty years before, while all their hopes for the future have failed: Han and Leia's marriage dissolved, their son Ben fell into darkness, and Luke retreated from the world after his nascent new Jedi Order was slaughtered. The fact that Leia is running a "Resistance" in First Order-held systems rather than, say, bringing the hammer down with a New Republican carrier battle group suggests that the New Republic doesn't want to confront the First Order directly in spite of the threat it poses, which implies that this New Republic is filled with the same problems of decadence (in the Barzunian sense of a society which has goals but no clear idea how to accomplish them) that killed the Republic in the prequels. There's also other little bits of visual symbolism that build on this pessimistic feeling, like how Rey is introduced living in the ruins of war machines from the first trilogy, or how her planet of Jakku seems to be a version of Tatooine where everyone has given up. (I mean, Tatooine was always skuzzy in both trilogies, but the Skywalkers were modestly comfortable as moisture farmers, Mos Eisley was a well-used spaceport, and the Hutts did quite well for themselves. On Jakku it seems like the only economic activity is salvage.) Rather than signalling the eucatastrophic ending to the series, TFA seems to suggest that the destruction of the second Death Star, the death of Palpatine, and the redemption of Anakin Skywalker...meant nothing.

I think the idea of this new trilogy is that this new generation will make things right, but after watching TFA I found that I could not believe that Rey, Finn, and Poe are the ones who will do it. The sad thing is, I don't really have a precise explanation why I think this. Maybe the fact that TFA's pessimistic reiteration of ANH makes me think this trilogy is set in a world that can only ever end in failure. Maybe the movie spends a lot of time depicting the transfer of totems of adulthood from one generation to the next while not asking if there is still anything of substance behind those totems (seriously, am I the only one that thought that having the movie end with Rey flying the Millenium Falcon with Chewbacca, R2-D2, and the lightsaber Luke lost at the end of ESB was a little much?). Maybe I'm reacting to Abrams' weakness with characterization or his tendency to copy the form of older franchises while neglecting the substance. Maybe it's all of this.

All I can say is that, in light of all this, I found I liked Kylo Ren the most. Yes, he is a piece of shit, and yes, every likes to make fun of his emo-ness, but I found something honest about his weakness. With his clumsy attempts to emulate Darth Vader, his rages, and his insecurity, he was admitting that something had gone wrong with the world, and that he was desperately looking for something to provide him with some sort of stability. Honestly, he resonated with me more than most of the actual protagonists did.

There is one thing I did like about TFA: the implication that the C3PO we see in the film
is actually V3-N03, a medical droid rebuilt in Threepio's image to spread the legend of Big Bot while the real Threepio is off building Outer Rim Heaven.


Coda: I was miffed about how, after being hyped up in the merchandising and ad copy, Captain Phasma barely appeared in the movie, and ended up getting upstaged by a dude with a police baton. Bad form, Abrams.
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at 01:05 on 06-02-2016, Daniel F
Which I understood in a sort of Gnostic way. There is the good or the right way in the centre, which is known both intellectually and emotionally and then there is distance from it. The dualistic view is hobbled somewhat in that the Star Wars universe doesn't seem to have two different forces as in a christian, zarathustrian or manicheist dualistic way, rather there is two different approaches of which the other is clearly presented as good.

I was not specifically thinking of a Gnostic view. I actually find it even more interesting that you put Christianity into the same category as Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism here, since unlike the latter two, Christianity does not posit a dualist cosmology. On the Dark Side, I was actually thinking along somewhat Augustinian lines: you have goodness, which you can identify with the Force (as Augustine identified it with God), and then you understand evil as distance from or rebellion against it. In this view the Dark Side is not the yang to the Light Side's yin, but rather the Dark Side is any emotional state that stands between the practitioner and the goal of appreciating the will of the Force. I can't help but think it significant that the primary face of the Dark Side, in the Star Wars OT, is redeemed in the end, particularly through the protagonist's denial that he can be utterly evil. I note also the regular metaphor of the Dark Side as something that clouds or obscures, as if to imply that its function is to prevent someone coming to a true understanding of the Force.

On Manichaeism and pop culture, I couldn't help but also think of The Lord of the Rings here. It's another text with a very clear moral framing, but if anything, an even more explicitly non-dualist theology. LotR just doesn't work if you think that evil is in any way equal or opposite to good; evil only makes sense as a destructive rebellion against cosmic goodness. Morality is monistic. Yet I seem to recall when the Jackson films were released, multiple reviewers talking about LotR as a good-versus-evil story in a very Manichaean way.

So my suspicion (not stemming just from this, of course!) is that much of mainstream Western culture has implicitly Manichaean moral priors. See also pop culture Satan as the ruler of Hell.

Anyway, coming back to Star Wars, my experience is that different works of Star Wars media jump between dualistic and monistic views of the Force. Even a title like, say, Jedi vs. Sith imposes a dualistic view, or you can consider something like KotOR's morality system. Moral dualism clearly has an appeal. But I am not sold on the idea that OT itself implies that view.

I'm certainly not suggesting that the OT has a particularly subtle moral philosophy, or even that it's all that coherent. But I have doubts about straightforwardly reading it as dualist/Manichaean.

I guess that even with significant problems, the prequel trilogy did try to do something completely different. Which is not altogether an original thought. That it failed to do that, at least in my opinion (there was a bit too much nonsensical stuff there), leaves still space to admit that at least Lucas didn't just replicate the earlier films.

I can be free to admit that TFA might be a better film, while also respecting the PT more for what it tried to achieve, I guess. But one also has to avoid judging the PT too harshly in retrospect: it had significant flaws, but it also opened up a massive profusion of EU and other supporting material, some of which was quite good. The PT films might not have good movies, but if you'll pardon something controversial, I can't help but wonder if they were/are better for the long-term health of the Star Wars franchise than TFA and its sequels will be. A bad pass at something new still creates this new playground for subsequent authors to use, whereas from all I've heard, TFA is a slavish (if competent and slick) imitation of the OT. It's hard to imagine that creating a space for new creative works as effectively as the PT did.
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at 21:46 on 05-02-2016, Janne Kirjasniemi
I guess that even with significant problems, the prequel trilogy did try to do something completely different. Which is not altogether an original thought. That it failed to do that, at least in my opinion (there was a bit too much nonsensical stuff there), leaves still space to admit that at least Lucas didn't just replicate the earlier films.
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at 20:30 on 05-02-2016, Robinson L
Janne: I guess it is a testament to the franchise's power, that although I was not really expecting anything special, except a good adventure from the new movie, I have still somehow managed to be disappointed that it was not as good as it could be expected to be, in an utopistic view.

Yeah, despite largely enjoying the movie, I was rather disappointed by the ending when I first saw it, and found myself thinking "is that it?" Then it occurred to me that actually, while less than what I would've hoped, it's probably a little bit better than we had any reasonable right to expect.

Granted, that's dependent upon your enjoying the film approximately as much as I did.

What the difference really is that for some, the movie worked well enough and plucked the right strings, intellectual and emotional, to make it fit with everything else. To others, like me, the strings plucked were not all the right ones, causing emotional disconnect, which leads to nitpickiness and starting to see the strings, that is the construction of the plot too closely. So what for others is a reasonable enough development felt to me to be there to underline a characters awesomeness too strongly and to be plot convenient. Neither I feel, and I do think feel is the correct expression, is wrong exactly

I completely agree with this, although at the risk of opening up a completely other can of worms, I might make a similar argument in regards to the prequel trilogy. *ducks behind a large rock*

Re: Gnostic interpretation
Ah, I see. I still think the "Dark Side" terminology in the original trilogy kind of cut against that interpretation, but I guess it's an interesting concept.
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at 08:14 on 05-02-2016, Janne Kirjasniemi
I guess it is a testament to the franchise's power, that although I was not really expecting anything special, except a good adventure from the new movie, I have still somehow managed to be disappointed that it was not as good as it could be expected to be, in an utopistic view. But that's emotions for you, I guess.

Arthur:
A deep, rich, complex theology is hardly what the series to date has led me to expect.


Yes, I understand that, but like with most fan discussions of large franchises (or religions I guess) that hardly stops the theological debate from happening. But I guess what it boils down to: yes, your and Michal's take on it is a perfectly possible way to see it and it can even be seen to conform to a certain view of the preceding mythos. But equally, I'm not convinced that my interpretation is obviously wrong, at least completely. What the difference really is that for some, the movie worked well enough and plucked the right strings, intellectual and emotional, to make it fit with everything else. To others, like me, the strings plucked were not all the right ones, causing emotional disconnect, which leads to nitpickiness and starting to see the strings, that is the construction of the plot too closely. So what for others is a reasonable enough development felt to me to be there to underline a characters awesomeness too strongly and to be plot convenient. Neither I feel, and I do think feel is the correct expression, is wrong exactly and still, I am not at all sorry that I saw the movie, it was fine. But a final nitpick on this: what about Leia? Wasn't she supposed to be "strong in the force" as well (although Darth, as was his first name in the New Hope, did not see it, but then, it's hardly the only thing that shifted later). So why wasn't she a jedi then, only her son? She never struck me as someone who didn't believe in herself enough? What's that about?

Robinson: I took it from Daniel's post:

It's really quite bizarre. If you just go from the OT and PT, there is no such as the Light Side. There is only the Force, in a vaguely monistic way that waffles its way in between the Brahman and Abraham's God. Per the films only, Star Wars' morality is not actually dualistic. There is only the Force/life/goodness/whatever, and evil is to defect from it. The closest you get to any idea of a 'light side' is in the occasional somewhat confused quote from Luke, e.g. "How am I to tell the good side from the bad?"


Which I understood in a sort of Gnostic way. There is the good or the right way in the centre, which is known both intellectually and emotionally and then there is distance from it. The dualistic view is hobbled somewhat in that the Star Wars universe doesn't seem to have two different forces as in a christian, zarathustrian or manicheist dualistic way, rather there is two different approaches of which the other is clearly presented as good.
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at 22:30 on 04-02-2016, Robinson L
Janne: The dichotomy between light and dark is a simplistic thing and it is a shame that it came out that way. Approaching it from a gnostic view point is actually much better, especially with the added sort of pop or fantasy culture mysticism and orientalism put on top of it.

I'm not sure what it would mean to approach it from a gnostic viewpoint - can you expound?

The interpretation which always appealed to me, the most retains the Light Side/Dark Side dualism, with Light being equated with selflessness, serenity, etc., and dark being equated with selfishness, aggression, etc., but which holds that the two are, in fact, ethically neutral on their own, that an excess of either is cause for concern, and that what's needed is for a person to seek a balance between the two. The lamentably short-lived Dawn of the Jedi comics explored this concept nicely.

Unfortunately, there's very little interpretive space within the movies to support this reading.

Fishing in the Mud: I would like to say that this Kylo Ren is so laughable that I can't find him scary, but I honestly can't say that. He hits just the right note of nerdboy sociopath convinced that feminism has ruined his life.

Well, I think that's what he ought to do. It didn't work for me, or any of my sisters, but I'm glad it came through for someone.

Arthur: if someone is going to be mostly reactive in the party I'd rather it be a droid than Finn or Rey, both of whom won me over massively.

Same here, which is probably why I enjoyed the movie so much, overall, despite the various issues. It set out to be a fun adventure, and in that regard it succeeded overwhelmingly for me.

That's an excellent defense of Rey's use of her Force powers, Arthur - I especially agree with you about the interrogation scene (and yeah, why do I keep forgetting about Kylo Ren's bowcaster injury when I think about that duel?). It all still feels a little too easy for me in spots - and unlike Luke in Empire Rey ultimately succeeds, which may be why I find it harder to swallow - but the movie has done such a good job of making me want Rey to beat Kylo Ren at his own mind trick game, or free herself by bamboozling a stormtrooper, or take Kylo Ren to pieces with her lightsaber, that I don't really care if it's plausible or not.
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at 22:20 on 04-02-2016, Arthur B
I'd say that the Force is more about believing in yourself than exclusively consisting of believing in yourself - it's not that you get all these special new capabilities just by believing in them, it's more that you had them all along but you couldn't use them because you didn't believe, if you see what I mean.

But either way, I'm kind of on Michal on this one. Also, what could the Force possibly be which wouldn't be disappointing at this stage?

A deep, rich, complex theology is hardly what the series to date has led me to expect. It is probably too late to add one in, and if they did that it would be kind of tonally inconsistent even if they managed to make it fit the facts. So a simple explanation is what is called for, and if that doesn't satisfy you, then I dunno what to say except that if you were hoping for something a bit more baroque and erudite you're looking in the wrong universe.
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at 21:07 on 04-02-2016, Michal
And if the force is meant to be just believing in yourself, it is not very interesting in my opinion and rather disappointing.

Which means that's probably *exactly* what George Lucas had in mind.
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at 19:53 on 04-02-2016, Janne Kirjasniemi
Well, why not. If we allow all the what ifs then why not. But surely you must admit that that does take a lot of explaining things just so. Which I guess is possible, since we saw it in the film. Still doesn't explain how Rey did stuff she didn't know were a possibility, which seemed there to just underline Rey's capabilities. But of course it could be explained that she just figured it out, since Ren had just used the force to try and invade her mind and she just inferred.

But is such perfect control of one's mind without any previous experience or knowledge that the force works in this fashion really such a credible thing and not cutting corners? If the force works by just one's trust in what is possible to do with the force, that would still require some knowledge. And if the force is meant to be just believing in yourself, it is not very interesting in my opinion and rather disappointing. But I guess it is not unprecedented. But Yoda's cryptic statement could easily be seen as just the sort of thing any pop-zen master says to the pupil in order to demonstrate their own mastery. It doesn't actually need to mean that the whole measure of the skill in question is belief and no experience or practice is required.

But I guess the explanation for Ren's cock-up is alright. I still can't really say that I liked it much. That whole planet business was a bit of a let down, to be honest. Among others. Isn't it kind of proof of a problem in plotting, when it requires a short essay with refernces to how the earlier mythos might support it to explain it? But fun though, like being in a theological dispute.
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at 15:39 on 04-02-2016, Arthur B
Why does everyone forget that Ren had been shot in the gut with Chewbacca's bowcaster, which is demonstrated to us over and over and over again as being one of the most powerful projectile weapons in the movie, and has keep hitting himself in his wound in order to even keep conscious (endorphins being a wonderful thing for that purpose) when he is having the fight?

Why don't people complain about Luke holding out as long as he does in his duel against Vader in Empire Strikes Back, when Vader has a decades-long head start in saber training and Force use and Luke's training is woefully incomplete? Sure, Luke doesn't have a good time in that fight, but by rights Vader should have had him disarmed in seconds.

Also, it's not like Rey spontaneously activates a mind probe without prompting or any experience in Force-based telepathy. First there is the interrogation sequence, where it seemed clear enough to me from their emoting that Ren started out with the mind probe, Rey put up a wall of resistance as an instinctive response, then she found that she could use that wall to push Ren out of her mind, then she found she could push a little further into Ren himself. It's only later that she tries to apply that to the stormtrooper, and it's established early on that she is a fangirl of the old legends of the Jedi and Luke Skywalker so presumably she's as familiar with the concept of the Jedi mind trick as any of us are.

Consider this: maybe Force training is not and never has been about developing Force abilities like they are teachable skills. Let's entertain the notion the training is instead a matter of overcoming the doubts and ingrained assumptions that stop you using these abilities in the first place.

Luke never had any "shoot very accurately without using a targeting computer" Force training - Obi-Wan just told him he could do it if he tried, and he believed Obi-Wan and he did it. Yoda seriously thought that Luke, despite the early stage of his training, might in fact be able to lift his X-Wing out of the swamp by using the Force - Luke fails because he doubts himself and Yoda succeeds because Yoda has absolute faith in his own ability to do it.

This is why both Obi-Wan and the Jedi Academy use the bucket-on-the-head method of teaching people to use their Force senses. It's not about learning to use a sense that has atrophied and needs training and work to make it function - it's about overcoming the assumption which you have worked with since birth that your physical senses are the only ones you have. Once you believe you can block the little zappy droid's zaps with your lightsaber without seeing it, then you will be able to do it; if you don't believe you can do it, you never will.

And that is why Rey is able to hold her own against Ren in a lightsaber duel, and overcome his telepathic probe, and use a force ability she has not been specifically taught. When it comes to the crunch, Rey is able to act without doubt, whilst Ren is full of doubts.

We have been told this quite specifically by Yoda. "Do, or do not. There is no try."

Taken in this light, a heap of stuff makes perfect sense. The Force is basically all about "believing in yourself", a value which may be hokey and sentimental but is also 100% Hollywood right down to the core. This is consistent whatever your status; more or less all the significant Dark Side Force users we have ever encountered believe implacably that they have the power to enact their iron will. Kylo Ren is the major exception, which is what makes his inherent doofiness a necessary and important part of his character; it is explicitly stated in the film that he needs to do something to lay his doubts to rest definitively if he is ever going to progress.
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