Echo Base… I’ve Got Something!

Below the frozen surface of Hoth, General Rieekan addresses the Rebel ranks. The subject is Echo Base. But he’s not talking about surprise Imperial invasions or Wampa attacks. Instead he’s discussing the Echo Base Facebook group – a growing alliance of Star Wars toys enthusiasts. Despite the cold, the battle-weary commander hands the briefing over to the group’s founder Adam Pemberton for details.

A long time ago in a childhood far, far away, Star Wars toys ruled the universe.

They were the rocket fuel that fired the hyperdrives of our young imaginations.

Who doesn’t remember re-staging the Death Star assault with Tie fighters and X-Wings in the backyards or bedrooms?

Today, this passion still inspires fans to collect the toys. Look online and you’ll find a community of collectors spanning the globe. “It’s mostly 40-something, follically challenged males with facial hair,” jokes Adam to Rebel Briefing.

Ether-Regions of the Force

It can be argued that Star Wars collectors fall into two groups – those kids who had the wisdom to keep their toys, and those whose collections disappeared into the ether-regions of the Force. “I kept mine, and even as a 16-year-old I still liked them from a collector’s point of view,” Adam says.

At the beginning his goal was to grow his collection. But with no collecting community to speak of at the time, he ingenuously offered to buy his friend’s toys. These were supplemented with visits to toy fairs.

Then, in the early 90s, Adam reached a critical juncture in his career – he sold his entire collection on eBay. It’s a decision he still regrets today.

Fortunately, he bought some 12-inch Gentle Giant figures online as a homage to the toys he sold. To his surprise, one came with a vintage Kenner IG-88 as a freebie. “It broke my brain a bit. It felt like the beginning of a new chapter, so I began collecting vintage toys again, especially IG-88 figures.”

It Began with Jedi

Adam’s collecting journey began with Return of the Jedi – it was the first film he saw at the cinema. “The great thing about this era was that all the toys were available, albeit in Jedi packaging. For me, there was no waiting between movies for new items.”

Decades later he joined Facebook where he found fellow fans. He also discovered the Vintage Star Wars Action Figure Group and Rebel Scum websites.

Soon he was buying toys from as far afield as the United States and Canada.

Because of the expensive postage costs, he wondered if there was a place online where collectors could buy and sell Star Wars toys in the UK.

A web search showed little and soon Echo Base was launched. “It began with a gang of my Star Wars friends, plus contacts I made on eBay and through social media.”

That was five years ago.

Today Echo Base boasts 14,000 members. And that’s just for the Vintage group where fans can buy and sell classic toys sold between 1977 and 1988.

This was followed in 2016 by the Modern group where you’ll discover another 7,000 members trading toys from the prequels to the sequels.

The Droids You’re Looking For

So, how does it work?

Let’s say you want a vintage droid figure from A New Hope (ANH). You may be looking for a mint R5-D4 figure on card, a loose Gonk Droid in good condition, or an R2-D2 variant (more on variants later).

Your first step is to join Echo Base.

Once accepted you are free to post what toy you need – in this case on the Vintage page.

Chances are strong that a fellow collector will have the droids you’re looking for and will be happy to sell.

The same rules apply if you want to sell your own toys – you simply post on the relevant page. A Qui-Gon Jinn figure, for example, should be sold on the Modern group.

To prove ownership, every toy must include a photo with the seller’s name and date written on a piece of paper. Private Messaging is also banned without posting on the original sales thread first. When done, you’re free to make contact with address and payment details (using PayPal).

“The rules prevent scamming,” Adam explains. “Unlike other sales platforms, Echo Base allows collectors to sell, buy and trade Star Wars toys safe in the knowledge that reproductions and shady dealings are few and far between. There’s also the added bonus of paying no fees – we don’t make any profit from Echo Base.”

Echo Base Live

In 2016 Adam made the jump from cyberspace to real space with Echo Base Live.

The free fan event at the Kingfisher, Redditch, showcases a cargo hold of vintage and modern Star Wars collectables. You will find everything from carded and loose figures, ships and vehicles, to art and books. All budgets are catered for.

With two events a year, more than 2000 eager fans marched through the blast doors in April to spend their hard-earned Republic credits. “It’s great that people can chat on Facebook, but it’s better when everybody gets together at Echo Base Live. Fans love rummaging and picking things up at the different tables.”

Autograph hunters are catered for too with actors signing names and sharing stories. Caroline Blakiston (Mon Mothma from Return of the Jedi), Tim Rose (Admiral Ackbar), Mike Quinn (Nieein Nunb), Michael Culver (Captain Needa) and Jack McKenzie (Cal Alder) appeared at the October 5th event.

Adam also encourages you to bring toys from home to the free evaluation service – you may be surprised what they are worth.

Most important, Echo Base Live is a fundraiser for charity. Proceeds from raffles and official Echo Base merchandise including mugs, action figure guides and posters go to local causes including the Ronald McDonald Children’s House.

“It’s hard to organise but great fun,” Adam says. “It’s been a great success, especially with fans from other Facebook groups attending. I enjoy seeing younger collectors coming along, and I’ve noticed more female fans joining too, which is fantastic. We should remember that this new generation of collectors are the the ones who will keep our hobby alive. I like to think Echo Base Live helps promote this.”

Vintage Variants

There are many reasons why fans collect Star Wars toys. Some collect for nostalgia, some for fun and, some for investment.

If you were an 8-year-old in 1978 and lucky to still own the figures and ships from that period, you are fortunate.

But, for people starting again from scratch, they often begin with loose vintage figures before moving on to vehicles. “It becomes about what to collect next, and buying variant figures has become popular.”

All figures – especially those from Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back – have variations ranging from the obvious to the minor. This is the result of toys being produced in different countries and factories. Mexican figures, for example, differ from those made in North America or Europe.

The classic example is the famous Jawa figure with the vinyl or cloth cape.

Vintage Luke from ANH is another toy with different variations – you’ll find him with blonde or brown hair, plus different lightsaber types. His trousers can range from dark brown to cream in colour.

Obi-Wan also shares Luke’s hair issues – you’ll find old Ben with grey or white hair.

“Variants are a fun way to expand your collection. Take IG-88, the figure that set me on my journey to Echo Base. You’ll find a ton of different forms for that toy; many of which I have. For me, chasing down and buying variations of the assassin droid is great fun. You can find all types of variants on Echo Base and live events.”

Expanded Galaxy

Unlike the icy Rebel fortress on Hoth, there are no plans to abandon Echo Base anytime soon. In fact, it continues to grow.

With outposts in the United States, Australia, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, the project keeps Adam and his team of administrators busy.

He’s under no illusion that Echo Base will allow him to retire early (he’s not in it for the money). Like many fans, Star Wars toys remind him of a special bygone era – the fun and nostalgia of playing with them as a kid. “Men especially are terrible for buying things that made them happy as a child. People simply want that joy back in their lives. Yes you can invest in stocks, shares or saving accounts, but they don’t bring the same joy of being able to display and enjoy your collection. This is much more fun.”

Suddenly, General Rieekan ends the briefing. There are reports that Captain Solo and Commander Skywalker are missing. With temperatures dropping, Tauntauns freezing and Wampas prowling the first marker, Adam is ordered to his snowspeeder to join the rescue mission.

Follow Rebel Briefing on Facebook @RebelBriefing or Twitter @RBriefing

The Phantom Menace at 20

WARNING: If you who hate The Phantom Menace with the fury of a supernova, this is not the article you are looking for.

It’s hard to believe The Phantom Menace turns 20 today. The years have flown by like a quick lap of the Boonta Eve podrace.

Two decades on, it still remains divisive. But, with The Last Jedi now the punching bag of the Star Wars universe, The Phantom Menace can breathe a sigh of relief that it’s no longer the most hated film of the franchise.

So, on its 20th anniversary, maybe today’s the day to talk about its legacy.

Yes, it has flaws. It can be argued the movie is the product of a ring rusty filmmaker who hadn’t written and directed for 22 years.

You can, of course, find plenty of criticism and vitriol online if that’s your thing – enough to fill the hold of a certain Corellian freighter in fact – but I’d rather focus on what the movie gave us rather than what it didn’t.

A Different Beast

Anticipation for The Phantom Menace was 16 years in the making. Crushed under a tidal wave of hype and expectation, its fall was inevitable.

For many, it was a different beast to the one they expected. Fans were angered by the slow and deliberate story. Instead of civil war, we got trade disputes and dry politics instead of balls to the wall action.

Controversially, George Lucas started the prequel trilogy with the story of a nine-year-old boy.

And Midi-chlorians? Let’s not go there.

The thing is, we were given the singular vision of an independent filmmaker famous for preserving his creative freedom to tell the stories he wants. Remember, it was Lucas’ dogged determination that got Episode IV: A New Hope made way back in 1977.

The Phantom Menace was a similar vision – a movie free of meddling studio execs insisting on something safe and familiar (probably a carbon copy of A New Hope). Lucas gave viewers his personal vision for Episode 1, made the way he wanted it. In modern Hollywood, this should be applauded.

World Building

Lucas’ vision, imagination and world building in The Phantom Menace are magnificent. It’s still a bold, innovative and visually stunning movie.

Stylistically and tonally, it’s deliberately different to the original trilogy (OT). Design director, Doug Chiang, describes it as being “richer and more like a period piece, since it was the history leading up to A New Hope.”

Unlike the straight-forward narrative and military/industrial style of the OT, the film gave us a somewhat wider, complex and nuanced story.

Design wise, the renaissance architecture of Naboo is rich and glorious – you can almost feel the Mediterranean-like sunshine and vibrant culture.

The art nouveau-inspired Gungan underwater city is beautiful and alien, in contrast to Coruscant, with its cosmopolitan skyscrapers and urban crawl.

We shouldn’t forget the sleek aesthetics of the Naboo starfighters or the Nubian royal starship, either.

We visited Tatooine again – led down the backstreets of Mos Espa and invited into the homes and workplaces of its denizens.

Nor should we forget the exhilarating and reverberating visuals and sounds of the pod race as it screamed across the desert landscape.

Then there’s the movie’s rich costume design, suggesting a society more sophisticated than the one seen in the OT. Queen Amidala, her Orient inspired outfits and makeup, coming to life on the screen.

Darth Maul, also, with his gothic black robes, devil horns and red and black tattoos, evokes images of Japanese demons, while Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan’s Jedi remind us of Samurai.

Importantly, the production design and set pieces (the pod race and climactic lightsaber battle) are visually stunning – they serve the story, not the other way round.

Duel of the Fates

Gluing it all together is John Williams’ epic score.

The ominous, choral-led Duel of the Fates theme underpinning what is by far the saga’s best lightsaber battle; The fight between Maul, Kenobi and Jinn.

It’s a spiritual movie, too. Anakin Skywalker is the chosen one – prophesied to bring balance to the Force. Episode 1 foreshadows his fall from grace when he later betrays his loved ones and brothers in arms.

Carrying out the devil’s work is Darth Maul, his demon-like appearance again referencing the movie’s spiritual subtext. Even the title, The Phantom Menace, suggest higher powers at play.

Which brings us to Senator Palpatine – the real Phantom Menace.

The two-faced, calculating and Machiavellian politician is a different kind of antagonist. He’s a master manipulator and conspirator. Yes we suspect (know) his secret Sith identity, and we enjoy this knowledge at the expense of the Jedi Counsel and Galactic Senate. Despite his appearance, Palpatine is the movie’s strongest villain.

A Second Chance

The battle for the heart and soul of The Phantom Menace has been fought along two demographic fractures – Generation X and The Millennials.

Fans who grew up in the 1970s and 80s will probably always hate the movie. Their disappointment is real and ubiquitous – they are not for turning.

But, the ill-will towards Episode 1 has mellowed over time with a shift in how it is viewed.

For older fanboys, arguments about the film’s evils are now said and done. They have moved on, with many choosing to forget and ignore the movie (and prequels) entirely.

The others grew up.

Rightly or wrongly, George Lucas made The Phantom Menace for children – a new generation superseding those of the 70s and 80s.

When released, Episode 1 was probably the first experience of Star Wars these millennial kids had. Like the older fans of the OT, their childhood was shaped by the saga, but this time with heroes like Anakin and Padme (and dare I say it, Jar Jar Binks), not Luke, Leia or Han.

These younglings would eventually have access to six era-jumping movies and a new plethora of toys, comics and video games. Now in their 20s and 30s (some now with children of their own) these girls and boys can nostalgically look back and celebrate a childhood enriched by Star Wars, starting with The Phantom Menace.

A Warm, Fuzzy Feeling

Thinking back to the early summer of 1999 brings back happy memories. The world was saturated with Episode 1. From posters to Pepsi cans – the hype and excitement was unreal.

Fan fever was stoked with the release of the first trailer in November ‘98 when it burst on to the net. There were news reports of fans buying cinema tickets to see Meet Joe Black, just so they could watch the trailer then leaving the theatre before the film began.

Many fans were still buzzing after the re-release of the original trilogy in their special edition formats. The promise of a new adventure was overwhelming – The Phantom Menace could not come soon enough.

The best memories were seeing the trailer for the first time. It was recorded on VHS; every image and word dissected by me and my friends.

The soundtrack never left the CD player.

Who could forget also the awesome teaser poster of Anakin on Tatooine casting an ominous shadow of Darth Vader?

Variety magazine boasted Annie Leibovitz’s on set photos plus George Lucas’ first Episode 1 interview.

My family – mum, dad and brother – enjoyed an evening out on premiere day. It was a special occasion for everyone.

It didn’t matter that The Phantom Menace didn’t entirely meet expectations, it was Star Wars. The Force was back on the big screen.

Despite having issues with the movie (I still hate those battles droids), I get a warm, fuzzy, nostalgic feeling every time I think back to the summer of 1999.

Nostalgia plays a big part of why people love Star Wars – the happy memories. They go together like Chewie and Han.

A Certain Point of View

With the release of The Force Awakens, some fans (me included) have revisited Episode 1.

Watching it again with fresh eyes, it’s possible to rethink the legacy of The Phantom Menace.

This is helped by much in-depth analysis of the prequels online, specifically its defences. For those interested, you can unpack near academic levels of pro arguments. One of these is Ring Theory.

Put simply, it postulates the idea of George Lucas likening the saga to poetry. As he said in the excellent ‘The Beginning’ documentary “it’s like poetry, they rhyme. Every stanza should rhyme with the last one.”

Going further, Ring Theory argues the prequels echo their corresponding original trilogy counterparts – in the case of The Phantom Menace, Anakin destroys the droid control ship the same way Luke does with the Death Star. The key difference with the prequels being that the Dark Side wins.

You can find many intelligent and passionate defences of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith at your fingertips. All offer a fresh and thought-provoking rethink of the films.

Best of these is The Prequels Strike Back documentary, should you be open to watching it. Remember; it all depends on a certain point of view.

The Clone Wars animated series can also take credit for breathing new life into Episode 1. It brilliantly fleshes out the prequel era, helping fans old and new in their acceptance of a story controversially told by George Lucas 20 years ago.

Acceptance

One of the most famous prequel bashers to rethink The Phantom Menace movie is Simon Pegg.

Calling the movie “a boring, turgid, confused mess,” he recently made a big u-turn in his acceptance of Episode 1 and George Lucas.

“For all the complaining that I’d done,” he says, “there was something amazing about his imagination. I do feel like his voice is missing from the current ones.”

Pegg’s contrition highlights the retro tone of The Force Awakens under Disney, and how different it is to the first prequel movie.

Love or hate The Phantom Menace, Mr Lucas reinforces a point made above: “My previous Star Wars films involved constant innovation. I worked very hard to make them completely different, with different planets, with different spaceships – to make it new.”

Episode 1: The Phantom Menace gave new depth to the Star Wars universe. It looked and felt different. It passed the torch to a new generation of fans, without whom there’d probably be no new movies to make and stories to tell.

The cycle will start again with young fans of the sequel trilogy.

At the very least, its legacy gives fans a great excuse to debate, discuss and dissect our favourite galaxy far, far away.

Happy anniversary.

Anthony Murphy – Editor, Rebel Briefing

Follow Rebel Briefing on Facebook @RebelBriefing or Twitter @RBriefing

Bad Guys Doing Good

A head and shoulders profile of a 501st UK Garrison Stormtrooper standing against a Henry Allen Trust charity flag.

Rebel Briefing wouldn’t usually initiate contact with agents of the Empire, but we did. Our brave Rebel operative, under armed guard and surrounded by Stormtroopers, sat down with the Commanding Officer of the 501st UK Garrison to gather vital intel about the group. Here is part 1 of our official report. No Bothans died to bring you this information.

Stormtroopers are a taciturn bunch, but nothing could be further from the truth when talking to Gary Hailes. Taking a break from his frontline duties, he boasted to Rebel Briefing that the 501st Legion “are the good guys.”

While this could be dismissed as Imperial propaganda, there’s an element of truth to his claim.

If you’re not familiar with the 501st, of which the UK Garrison (UKG) is a part, it is the largest costuming group in the world. It is made up entirely of volunteers and boasts 14,000 active members from more than 60 countries. You may recognise the Legion from San Diego Comic Con, MCM London Comic Con, film premieres and Star Wars Celebration to name a few.

Founded by South Carolina resident Albin Johnson in 1997, the 501st spreads the magic of Star Wars through its screen accurate Stormtrooper costumes. It also has a grander, philanthropic mission, being dedicated to many charitable causes. It is credited with raising millions for charity, particularly those involving children living with illness. It is Lucasfilm’s preferred Imperial costuming organisation.

In 2004, and with Lucasfilm’s blessing, author Timothy Zahn honoured the 501st by incorporating it into his novel, Survivor’s Quest. Since then it has been included in video games, the Clone Wars animated series and many other Star Wars stories and merchandise.

The Legion is nicknamed ‘Vader’s Fist’ because of his exclusive use of the unit. See those clone troopers backing up Darth Vader as he sacks the Jedi Temple in Revenge of the Sith, yep, that’s the nascent 501st.

But, shouldn’t these accolades fly in the face of everything we know about the evil Empire? Well, it depends on a certain point of view and who you talk to. For instance, while many of us were opening our presents on Christmas morning, Gary and members of the UKG were driving to Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire. Their mission? To bring some festive joy to the lives of sick children spending Christmas in hospital.

Still, why would someone want to become a Stormtrooper when they could be anything else in the Star Wars universe – a hotshot X-wing pilot, Rebel commando, Jedi Knight, or even a rogue smuggler with a Wookie sidekick?

“I’d been into costumes for a while and I knew of the 501st,” says Gary. “I decided I was going to build a Stormtrooper uniform and the UK Garrison seemed the obvious place to go.”

Joining the Ranks

You cannot mind trick your way into the UKG. First you need a big passion for Star Wars and for helping others. Secondly, you need to own a professional-quality costume celebrating Star Wars ‘Dark Side’ characters.

While famous for its Stormtroopers, the Garrison welcomes other Imperial ranks such as TIE fighter pilots, Royal Guards, Biker Scouts, Snowtroopers, Sith Lords, clone troopers and bounty hunters.

You should also note that the UKG, as with all 501st global Garrisons (local units in each country are called Garrisons), is very fussy about the accuracy of its costumes. Raw recruits must adhere to strict, minute details to ensure that their outfits are screen accurate.

“Accuracy and attention to detail is what we look for,” explains Gary. “Some people may argue that it doesn’t matter if something is not completely accurate. To us it does matter – buttons should be the right size, lenses for helmets the right type, and belts the correct thickness. Armour colour should be exact. Blu-ray has had a big impact on costuming in recent years, meaning people can now study costumes in great detail. It’s about making your outfit look like what’s on screen.”

Once accepted into the Legion, you are given a unique identification number. This follows the tradition of the Stormtrooper character TK-421, mentioned in A New Hope. Gary’s is TK-2739.

A Force for Good

Charity work is a big priority for the UKG, indeed the whole 501st. Because of this, it proudly refers to itself as “Bad Guys Doing Good.”

The Garrison does not charge appearance fees for attending and supporting fundraising and charity events. For corporate, marketing or promotional functions, it welcomes donations which go into their collective pot. These are distributed to the UK charities it directly supports including The Royal British Legion, MediCinema, The Henry Allen Trust, Mitchell’s Miracles, and the Oxford Children’s Hospital.

The UKG has also granted many wishes for children on behalf of the Make-A-Wish Foundation (UK) and has a close relationship with Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. 100 percent of the money raised gets shared between the organisations. In recent years the Garrison has raised over £336,000 for worthwhile causes.

“Being part of the UKG is fun but hard work,” Gary says. “Ultimately it’s fun. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t do it. The upside is that we raise a lot of cash for charity. On Christmas Day me and two other guys woke up at silly o’clock and drove to Milton Keynes. We live nowhere near there. We travelled to the hospital and spent the morning giving presents to children. It’s an amazing feeling, and that’s why we do it.”

Gary recalls one visit when a three-year-old patient, Tia, screamed and ran away from the Stormtroopers as they invaded the hospital ward. Finally, she started talking to the troops. By the end of the visit Tia was holding Gary’s hand and telling the nurses she didn’t want them to leave.

With its penchant for Star Wars villainy, the real-world mission of the Garrison is to help local communities. Its goal is to brighten the lives of the less fortunate and highlight good causes both locally and globally.

Despite the ideological differences between the Alliance and Empire, Rebel Briefing can only applaud and celebrate this excellent work.

Serving the Empire

So, if serving with the Empire is still your ambition, how do you begin building your Stormtrooper armour?

Gary says that costumes are usually hand-assembled. He describes them as being like giant Airfix model kits which, like the original armour in A New Hope, are made up of different pieces of plastic.

When he bought his kit 10 years ago, it turned up in a big, brown box full of different pieces that needed cutting and trimming. At first the small and different parts meant nothing to the rookie trooper; it was just a question of getting out his Stanley knife, glue and tools and getting into it. The armour – which is vacuformed ABS plastic – needed to be cut, sanded, and attached to and around a black undersuit.

While this may seem as complicated as reading the Death Star plans, you will be glad to know that there’s a lot of support to help you assemble your outfit. And this is where the club mentality of the UK Garrison comes to the fore.

“I could not have completed my costume without the help of the UKG,” says Gary. “A member sent me a text message inviting me over to their house one Sunday. She said to bring my incomplete armour, explaining that members of the group would be there to help me get started. And that’s what I did – I got there at 10.30am and left several hours later with my uniform nearly complete. The rest I finished at home.”

Gary warns that it is easy to be conned by people taking advantage of the enthusiasm and naivety of beginners. The danger is you can spend a lot of money on something which is not worth much.

“We don’t want you getting ripped off, so come to us and we’ll steer you in the right direction,” he advises. “We will help you build your armour, advise you on the how, why, when and what for. As a club that’s something I am very proud of; we try to help people out.”

Suiting Up

There are essentially two kinds of Stormtrooper armour available on the market – fan sculpted costumes and those made by a Cheshire-based company called RS Prop Masters.

Licensed outfits are available, which are usually used for fancy dress. “These are not practical for our needs and requirements,” Gary says. “They are not what we call ‘trooper worn’. I probably suit up 80 times a year, and commercially available armour is not something you can use on multiple occasions.”

This is interesting when you consider that the original Stormtrooper costumes were made for one film, A New Hope. To save cash, the same outfits were reused for The Empire Strikes Back. While that armour was made to look good, it was not sturdy or rigid. He explains that Legion suits are thicker and hard-wearing. “We put them together so that they are practical to wear. It’s interesting to watch Rogue One and see how the filmmakers have adapted the armour to be more wearable. They obviously learned mistakes from the original films, and I suspect they have used ideas from the 501st. I notice how flexible they are, being easy to walk, run and sit in.”

Costume Drama

“I am Darth Vader,” booms a voice suddenly from the shadows.

Startled, our agent notices the presence of a tall figure dressed in black watching the interrogation. The mere mention of the Dark Lord’s name triggers a feeling of dread in the room. But, just like everything related to the UKG, appearances can be deceiving.

Garrison member Mark Brooks steps into view. “Well… I am a Darth Vader,” he says with a smile. “We actually have several, but we only let one out at a time because they are trouble.”

Like Luke Skywalker and his height issues, Mark is actually too tall to be a Stormtrooper. At six-two, his impressive frame makes him a natural fit to play the Sith Lord. “I had a Stormtrooper outfit which was not up to muster, so I sold it on eBay. Because of my height people suggested that I play Darth Vader instead.”

Mark now enjoys scaring children for fun. A good day for him is counting how many kids he makes cry. The more he reduces to tears, the better day he has.

He recalls appearing at a Christmas grotto called ‘Dark Santa’. The idea was, instead of visiting Father Christmas, you go into the grotto and meet Darth Vader.

“Because of the long day there were two of us playing Vader, each taking a turn to meet the children. The other Darth spent two hours meeting the kids, and it was all laughter and smiles. I was in there for 10 seconds and the first child who approached me was reduced to tears. I thought yep, he’s not supposed to be lovable or approachable. Vader, if you go back to prequels, is a baby killer; he murders the Younglings at the Jedi Temple. He’s not nice, and the idea is that if you put the suit on you have to be him. I’m not going to give people high fives. Darth Vader doesn’t high five.”

Just when you could be forgiven for thinking that UKG members are scum and villainy for scaring children, Gary defends Mark with cold, Tarkin-like logic.

“It’s not just the accuracy of the costumes that’s important. We try to create an experience. If you see Mark, he’s Vader. He’s not some guy who’s takes his helmet off and asks ‘are you OK?’ and then has a cup of tea with you. When he’s out there, he’s the real deal. Personally, as soon as my Stormtrooper helmet goes on, then I’m not me. I am quite dull in real life, and the characters are much cooler than me. It’s great to be someone else for a while.”

Mark adds: “Other than Finn, what does a Stormtrooper look like without its helmet on?” Our agent considers Jango Fett’s progenitor of the clone army for a moment before dismissing it. There is silence.

“That’s my point,” he continues. “We’ve never seen a Stormtrooper without its helmet on. One of the things the UKG prides itself on is our ‘lids on’ policy. When our members are in front of the public, you are that character. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Stormtrooper, Biker Scout, Sith Lord or a bounty hunter – when you are in the public eye, you are that character. You embody it and you do the things that character does.

“It’s only behind closed doors that we remove our helmets to get some fresh air. We try to maintain that sense of mystery – nobody knows who we are because we’re supposed to be anonymous. It’s one of the many things I love about being in the Garrison.”

Suddenly there is an announcement over the comms systems alerting the room of a disturbance up on Cell Block 1138. Gary looks at Mark, who offers to deal with the unfolding chaos.

As his large frame leaves the room, our agent feels sorry for the jokers causing mayhem up on the detention block.

For more on life in the UK Garrison, be sure to check out part two of Rebel Briefing’s intel mission…

Above image – courtesy of the 501st UK Garrison

Follow Rebel Briefing on Facebook @RebelBriefing or Twitter @RBriefing.

Bad Guys Doing Good pt.2

Stormtroopers are a taciturn bunch, but nothing could be further from the truth when talking to Gary Hailes. The Commanding Officer of the 501st UK Garrison takes another break from his day to day duties with the Empire to share a little more of what life is like in a galaxy a little closer to home. Here is part 2 of Rebel Briefing’s official report…

With more than 500 volunteers in the ranks, UKG members are expected to appear at least once a year in their costume to be granted “active member” status. Like other large organisations, it is made up of people from all walks of life. Each has their own reason and motive for pulling on their ‘bucket’ (helmet) and trooping across the UK.

Male, female, scientist to binman, there’s not a profession, gender, class, colour or creed that is not represented in the Legion. For members it is a hobby not a job, and nobody gets paid. The costumes are paid for out of their own pockets and can run into thousands of pounds. A Darth Vader costume can cost up to £3,000, while Gary’s armour was more than £1,000.

A lot of work goes into building every outfit – more than 25 hours for a classic Stormtrooper uniform and much more for other costumes including Vader’s.

It is like a big golf club. Not only do members help each other – a TIE fighter pilot fitted Gary’s back door and is now helping to build another’s kitchen – they also socialise together. The ranks are filled with people living in the north of Scotland down to Land’s End.

They usually meet in their geographic regions, but once or twice a year they get together en masse. Last year they met at Birmingham Comic Con. Star Wars Celebration is also a popular place to meet.

Movie Stars

Star Wars has always had a special relationship with the United Kingdom. Not only was the original trilogy filmed at Elstree Studios, The Phantom Menace was shot at Leavesden and the new trilogy at Pinewood. Lucasfilm has always relied on the skills and talents of the British film industry’s actors, film crews, model makers and technicians to shape our favourite galaxy far, far away.

In 2015 the UK Garrison became part of this tradition when six of its members appeared in The Force Awakens.

Apparently, JJ Abrams is a big fan of the 501st, and because of its close links with Lucasfilm, an idea was floated to have a couple of Garrison people appear as Stormtroopers.

“Mary Franklin, who was senior events lead at Lucasfilm, came to England to spend a day with us at London Comic Con,” says Gary. “She visited our stand and met some people. We didn’t know it at the time, but she was selecting guys to be in the film. I was never intended to appear, so I asked if I could act as liaison. I also drove people to and from the studio. By a quirk of fate I managed to get in front of the cameras as a Stormtrooper. It’s hard to tell which shots I’m in, though.

“It was fantastic, but hard work. We arrived at Pinewood at 5.30am and spent the day working on set. We didn’t leave until gone 9pm. We had tons of stuff to do, mainly Stormtrooper shots. I was impressed with JJ Abrams. He’s a hands-on guy; very friendly and ordinary. I love passion, and I believe that most people in the Legion are very passionate about what we do. JJ is just like that, a very passionate guy.”

Gary describes being on set as incredible. The down side was having to sign a non-disclosure agreement with Disney. The contract was so tight that the budding movie stars were only released after the film came out on Blu-ray.

Doing the Job

Having led the UKG for eight years, the demand on Gary’s time is immense. As Commanding Officer, he is the chief administrator and policy maker for every event that occurs within the Garrison’s borders. There is never a moment when he’s not on his phone updating or sharing Legion information.

For the last two years he has served as Legion Executive Officer of the global 501st – basically the organisation’s second in command. This is in addition to his UKG duties.

“I am lucky that I work freelance, which gives me a lot of flexibility to do my duty. For the UKG, I spend a lot of time ensuring things are done, passing information along and making sure things are up to speed. Today, for example, I was out on a troop at a hospital in Oxford. Now I’m speaking, reluctantly, to you Rebels. Afterwards I will workout before getting back to business. Luckily I have great people who support me including our events team, PR team and Finance Officer, who I’m constantly in touch with. My emails are constant and come in from around the world.”

Because of his position in the 501st, the UKG carries a big voice on the international scene.

“The Garrison is a big club, which is part of a bigger organisation. But we are loud, and we have our reputation for accuracy. We’ve been part of the 501st for 18 years. The Legion is now in its 21st year, so we joined early on. We were one of the first non-American groups to join.”

As Legion executive officer, he is friends with founder Albin Johnson, who he first met at Dragon Con 10 years ago. “We hung out together in the US and have stayed friends ever since. I worked under him when he was running the 501st. Albin’s an interesting, friendly and humble guy. He’s been over to the UK to troop with us several times.”

Duty, Honour, Empire

Gary’s motivations are bound in his duty, honour and service to the Empire. A massive Star Wars fan, his love and passion for the UKG and 501st is huge. He takes his role seriously because, as he says, he has to.

“It doesn’t matter that I’m not paid – people have a right to expect you to do what you say you will do. That’s a commitment. Over the years it just snowballed and evolved to become a massive, massive part of my life. Most importantly, we are normal people doing a normal hobby. We have a lot of fun.

“Some people like to tease, but I reply ‘yeah, I helped raise £50,000 for charity last year, what did you do?’ They then immediately ask how they can get involved. It’s brilliant, because when they do, it proves to me that everybody has a Stormtrooper inside them.”

Then pointing to the door, Gary signals that our time is up. His Stormtroopers hustle our agent towards the exit with the words “Rebel scum” hanging in the air.

Happy to be alive, there is a quick rendezvous with the Tantive IV, which is waiting in a docking bay. Before making the jump to lightspeed the vital intel is beamed to our Bothan friends at Rebel Briefing.

Editor’s note: 

Rebel Briefing would like to thank Ginny Tait for helping to organise our ‘sit down’ with the UKG. Thanks also to Mark Brooks for his contributions. Most of all, thanks to Gary Hailes for agreeing to talk to us. See, it wasn’t a Rebel trap!

You can find more information about the UK Garrison by visiting www.ukgarrison.co.uk

The 501st Legion homepage can be found at www.501st.com

For details about the charities supported by the UKG, visit The Royal British Legion, MediCinema, The Henry Allen Trust, Mitchell’s Miracles, the Oxford Children’s Hospital, and Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Above image – courtesy of the 501st UK Garrison

Follow Rebel Briefing on Facebook @RebelBriefing or Twitter @RBriefing.

The Last Jedi: A Game Changer

Luke Skywalker - The Last Jedi2

Major spoilers ahead: The following is Rebel Briefing’s analysis of The Last Jedi. If you haven’t seen the film, jump to lightspeed and come back later.

Is The Last Jedi strong in the Force? It’s hard to say, but whether you love or hate the film, it’s certainly a game changer.

Not everything works in Episode 8. The film is too long and sags during the Canto Bight scenes. Del Toro’s character DJ felt pedestrian and didn’t leave a strong impression. The feeling is that Finn’s talents could have been better used elsewhere.

Leia’s spacewalk was ridiculous and on par with the prequel’s more ludicrous moments. Although a great general and warrior, her powers always felt intuitive and emotional rather than physical. There was never a suggestion in the movies that she was Force-trained. To suddenly have Leia do something so extreme and physical (Force-wise) felt out of place. Surely there was another more subtle yet powerful way to illustrate Leia’s connection to the Force?

The First Order’s pursuit of the Resistance was, arguably, lifted from the Battlestar Galactica playbook. The introduction of Vice Admiral Holdo (another new character who comes to a quick end) wasn’t needed as other players deserved more screen time. A conflict between Leia and Poe, hinted at with that slap, would have given these scenes a tougher edge.

Killing new(ish) characters brings us to Supreme Leader Snoke. The jury is still out on this one as his presence, plotting and manipulative nature felt visceral and genuinely sinister. In the film’s defence, his death allowed Ben Solo (Kylo Ren) to ascend to power. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the final chapter as Ben is now the undisputed antagonist of the sequels.

Bad Boy, Ben

Speaking of Ben, how far does one have to go before being considered a bad seed? Killing his dad probably sealed the deal, right? Don’t forget that he also ordered the murder of the villagers in the opening scenes of The Force Awakens. Ben had the chance to atone for his crimes after killing Snoke, and despite Rey’s pleas, decided to continue his pursuit of power. Considering her goodness and kindness, would Ben power-share with Rey in the future, and what path would he lead her down? There appears to be nothing democratic or pluralistic about Ben – he is the opposite of his parents and his rule will undoubtedly be absolute, authoritative and bloody. As a consequence, we saw Rey literally close the door on him… despite her vision of his possible future.

Peace and Purpose

It was heartbreaking to watch Luke slip his mortal coil and become one with the Force. Luke was the hero and beating heart of the original films. His radical change of character, his cynicism and the sense of defeat he now carries, flies in the face of everything we know about him. We saw him grow from a callow and impatient young man to daring rebel leader and then wise and noble Jedi Knight. It was Luke’s compassion and love for his father that saved them both from damnation. It makes no sense why he would want to kill the young Solo, without first, at least trying to reach out to him and make him see the light.

Remember, though, Luke’s decision to kill Ben was supported by Leia. For a mother to decide that her child should die is momentous. If they could agree that Ben should perish, then shouldn’t we accept that these two noble characters with their connection to the Force know and understand more than we do? Although not well written, this brings a new perspective to Luke’s decision and sheds a little light on his decision. It’s possible Luke believed without doubt that Ben is inherently evil and needed to die, especially now he has consolidated his power over The First Order.

New Horizons

A world without Luke Skywalker is a bitter pill to swallow. The only crumb of comfort fans can take, and this is debatable for many; is that Luke’s sacrifice saved the last embers of The Resistance and, more importantly, Rey. Most significantly, his death reinforces his legend and will inspire future generations in the struggle against evil.

Luke’s passing, in the long run, will save the franchise from predictability and drive the films into new territory.  Don’t shoot first, but shouldn’t director Rian Johnson, from a certain point of view, deserve credit for what he tried to do with The Last Jedi? Luke’s warning that “this is not going to go the way you think” was our first clue that the film would turn recurring Star Wars narrative tropes on their heads.

Whatever JJ Abrams decides to do with the final chapter the hope is he will not redeem Ben Solo, if his soul is saved and he is granted atonement for his sins, then Star Wars risks becoming clichéd. We’ve already seen a member of the Skywalker family (Anakin) succumb to the Dark Side only to be saved. If he is redeemed it would be a case of ‘haven’t we’ve seen this before?’ It would also undermine Luke’s view that Ben is, despite his conflict; truly evil. Fans should see him pay for his crimes and die unredeemed. It would send a strong message that wickedness and the pursuit of power comes at a cost to one’s soul and destroys the people who love you. His demise would also strengthen Luke’s legend as the only Skywalker to confront and reject the Dark Side.

Despite George Lucas’ suggestion that the films (or stanzas) should rhyme like poetry, Star Wars needs to break free from these variations of the same themes and motifs and reach out to explore new ideas. The Last Jedi, triggered by Luke’s death, feels like the start of this process. Although not a perfect film, hopefully Abrams can build on Johnson’s efforts and propel the saga into a wider universe – a future which belongs to Rey, Finn, Poe and others. As Luke drew his last breath and looked to the horizon at the double suns (beautifully bookending his heroes journey) perhaps he was already seeing and contemplating these new, uncharted waters. Only time, and the Force, will tell.

A New Golden Age for Star Wars fans

Star Wars 1977

Image: starwars.com

Star Wars fans are enjoying a new golden age. During the 70s and 80s Star Wars, like the Force, was everywhere – it surrounded us, penetrated us and bound our galaxy together. Then, after Jedi finished its cinematic run in 1983, nothing… the galaxy fell silent and the franchise entered its first dark age.

Yes, in the early post-Jedi days there were the Ewok movies Caravan of Courage and The Battle for Endor to tide us over. And yes there were the animated shows Ewoks and Droids. But it wasn’t the same. Star Wars was chugging along on nothing but simple nostalgia.

Despite George Lucas’ insistence that he had no desire to return to the saga after finishing Jedi, Lucasfilm, sensing a disturbance in the Force, soon began brainstorming new ways of resurrecting the fading franchise.

The first major step was to release Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire novel in 1991 as part of the Thrawn Trilogy of books. Set five years after Return of the Jedi, it reached No1 on the New York Times Best Sellers list. Zahn’s trilogy went on to sell 15 million copies. This climaxed with the release of Shadows of the Empire in 1996. The multimedia event, dubbed ‘a film without a film’, treated fans to a new novel, comic books, soundtrack, trading cards, video game and action figures.

Both projects proved to Lucas that there was still a big appetite for his galaxy far, far away. It also proved there was a new generation of fans hungry for fresh stories and merchandise. These were dutifully delivered via Expanded Universe. The galaxy, though, was about to get much bigger.

Having retitled Star Wars as Episode IV: A New Hope – followed by Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi – fan demand for episodes I, II and III became a deafening roar. Now happy to oblige, Lucas once again turned his attention to the universe he abandoned in 1983.

The Second Golden Age

Enter the Star Wars Special Editions, which ushered in, from a certain point of view, the franchise’s second golden age.

Hitting cinemas in 1997 to mark the 20th anniversary of A New Hope, Lucas’ aim was to build on the enduring popularity of Star Wars. He not only wanted to renew the films in the minds of older fans, but connect with a younger generation of followers. The filmmaker also had another motive.

Having begun writing Episode 1 in 1994, Lucas and Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) required a canvas to test the special-effects needed to bring the prequels to life. The original films were just the ticket. Taking advantage of the breakthroughs in SFX technology, ILM went back to complete the trilogy the way Lucas always intended – he claimed A New Hope fell short of his ideal creative vision because of the compromises made due to time and money. What followed was a full-scale restoration project incorporating new visual effects and an enhanced digital sound mix across the entire original trilogy.

They were a huge success, going straight to number one on their opening weekends, earning $138, $68 and $45 million respectively. By the end of 1997, A New Hope was the eighth highest grossing film of the year. As for attracting new fans; the Special Editions were a triumph as newcomers enjoyed the remixed sound, crisp visuals and improved SFX for the first time.

Not all the changes in the Special Editions were well received. For diehard fans, the digital polish, additions and many controversial changes (‘Han shot first’) sullied the films, inciting considerable criticism of Lucas. What they did do, however, was revive the ailing franchise and serve as an essential springboard for the long-awaited prequels.

With production on the new trilogy in full flow, the release of Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 1999 ushered in a new, lucrative expansion of the franchise not seen since the release of A New Hope. This latest epoch boasted brand new films, soundtracks, toys, books, comics and animated TV shows. Star Wars was again at the heart of popular culture, inspiring countless magazine articles, blogs, podcasts, fan websites, costuming groups (the 501st Legion), fan-made films (Troops) and films about fans (Fanboys). Whether you loved or hated the prequels, the second golden age was now in full swing.

All was not well in the kingdom of fandom, though. After the hysteria and hype, criticisms of the Lucas scripted and directed prequels quickly began to sour the relationship between the maker and fans. Despite finding a new generation of followers, Lucasfilm could not silence the anger of older, hard-core fans who hated the films, particularly the goofy, kid friendly tone and over reliance on CGI. The relationship between Lucas and fandom, already strained from the changes made in the Special Editions, was coming to an end. ‘Lucas Bashing’ across the internet quickly became the norm as a million voices cried out in pain. It was to signal a harsh finish to the second golden age.

As the end credits rolled on Revenge of the Sith in 2005, the saga was put into cold storage. Once again the Star Wars universe began to contract and Lucas, fed-up with the online abuse, announced that there were to be no more films… ever.

For the best part of a decade fans laboured under the fact that there would be no more silver screen adventures from that galaxy far, far away. Then, out of the blue on the day before Halloween in 2012, came the shock announcement that George Lucas had sold Lucasfilm to Disney for $4.05bn. The creator, embracing retirement, said it “was time to pass Star Wars on to a new generation of film-makers.”

Enter the House of Mouse

Since the acquisition of Lucasfilm by Disney a new, third, golden age has dawned. Despite early scepticism and uncertainty, loyal followers of the Force have been treated to two new films, with many more on the way. The first two movies of the Disney era – Episode VII: The Force Awakens and the spin off movie Rogue One – were, for the most part, critical and box office smashes. Both were praised for bringing the saga back to its roots, relying less on CGI and returning to practical and traditional effects. They also brought back a sense of fun and adventure.

The franchise also continues to thrive on TV with the animated show Rebels, while the Expanded Universe, now known as Star Wars Legends, has been retconned. Looking to the horizon, a Han Solo film is in the works (due May 2018) and Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is in cinemas now. J.J. Abrams will also return to round out the sequel trilogy with Episode IX in 2019. And if that’s not enough to keep you busy, there’s a Ben Kenobi movie in development as well as Rian Johnson’s recently announced new film trilogy. Oh, and there’s a live action TV show to come, too. In short, Star Wars has been given a new lease of life under House Mouse. All that is required is to sit back and enjoy this period as the franchise settles into a new golden age.