Elen sila lumenn omentielvo!

Sunday, April 29, 2012


YAHHHH? What on Earth is that?

Well, it's a rough transliteration of the final death shriek of Red Leader at the Battle of Yavin in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. He's just led an unsuccessful attack run on the two-meter-wide thermal exhaust port, failing to get his proton torpedoes to go down the shaft to the reactor ("Negative! It didn't go it. Just impacted on the surface."). He orders Red Five (Luke) to gather the remaining pilots (Wedge and Biggs) for one last shot at the exhaust port, before his ship is struck by blaster fire from Darth Vader's TIE Fighter. Red Leader's ship sinks toward the surface of the Death Star, and just before he goes up in a ball of flames, he screams, "YAAAHHHHH!".

So what are we on about here? Acts of self-sacrifice or going-bravely-into-the-night in fantasy and science fiction.

Few things in fiction are more inspiring, frankly, than some person choosing, with their full faculties about them, to undertake an action or series of actions that will result in their deaths but will also result in someone else's survival. In fact, it's not even in fiction that this is inspiring, because such actions are typically seen as among the very highest things one can do, and it's the act of self-sacrifice that makes the Jesus story what it is. Noble acts of self-sacrifice, and their cousins – bravery in the face of certain death – stir our emotions like nothing else. It's the soldier who throws himself onto the grenade that's about to explode; it's the person who gives up their seat in the lifeboat for someone else as the ship sinks.

It's the man who, bearing an extremely close resemblance to a man who has been falsely imprisoned and sentenced to death, conspires to take his place in prison so that the convicted might rightly go free.

It's the woman who offers her seat on the last helicopter to the deep underground shelter, as the asteroid nears its humanity-killing collision with Earth, to a desperate woman and her child who weren't originally offered spots in the survival lottery.

It's the First Officer who knows that his starship will be destroyed if he doesn't brave the lethal radiation of the engine chamber and personally mix the matter and antimatter by hand to make the final warp jump to safety possible.

It's the woman superhero who has realized that her powers are out of control and that she will soon forever lose her command over them, to the ill of all, unless she gives up her own life.

It's the musicians who, knowing that their escape from the sinking ship is impossible, decide to do what they do best as the waters near: keep playing.

It's the patriot who, with his head in the noose, states quite clearly that he wishes he could live, just so that he might do it all again.

It's the freedom fighter on his execution table, refusing to pledge fealty to the despotic King against whom he has struggled for years, just to get the execution over with.

Self-sacrifice and courage in the face of certain death are impulses cut from the same cloth, and when such a moment is captured well in a story, it's always a moment of power and high emotion. It need not even involve death, really; the final scene of Casablanca is pure self-sacrifice, all the way; Rick is choosing to go to a concentration camp so that Ilsa and Victor can go free. (He can't foresee that it doesn't quite work out that way, thanks to the ever-unknowable convictions of Captain Louis Renault.)

Having a character make a choice that brings about doom for themselves, no matter what form that doom might take, so that someone else might prosper, is about the most fool-proof way I can think of to make a character into a hero. You can have a flawed hero, as much as you want, but a true hero, deeply flawed or not, will make that choice each time.

Above I allude to Spock's self-sacrifice in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The rest of the crew reciprocates with acts of self-sacrifice in the next film, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, so that Spock might live. Their sacrifices are real and painful. Near the end of the film, when Kirk and crew have brought Spock back to Vulcan so that his katra (his living essence, just go with it) can be reintroduced to his regenerated body (again, just go with it), they are waiting to see how it went. Sarek (Spock's father) comes to Kirk, and this exchange takes place:

SAREK: Kirk, I thank you. What you have done--

KIRK: What I have done...I had to do.

SAREK: But at what cost? Your ship. Your son.

[Kirk's son, David Marcus, had been killed in the course of the film, and Kirk had to put the beloved Enterprise on self-destruct to defeat some Klingons.]

KIRK: If I hadn't tried, the cost would have been my soul.

Trek III is often derided, and yes, it has its flaws, but it also has this amazingly succinct and wonderful statement of what heroism is all about. And for a virtual meditation on the entire theme of self-sacrifice, Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry fills the bill, with so many such acts -- including a good number in the last hundred pages -- that the trilogy can, for some (myself included), be emotionally overwhelming in spots.

In the end, these kinds of scenes and characters make us ask, does it matter how one falls down? And the answer, as given in The Lion in Winter, is simply this:

Wow, one letter left!


Roger Owen Green said...

possibly YOUR best yet in the alphabetical series. You'll note that I linked to the whole thing in my post today.

Jason said...

I'm apparently in the minority in that I think I think Star Trek III is very nearly the equal of ST II. It doesn't have the epic tone of the earlier film (partly due to its much lower budget, I think) but it is arguably closer in spirit to the original TV series than any of the other films, at least as far as the interpersonal stuff between our main cast. There are so many great exchanges in this one... I especially love the bit between Bones and Kirk in the elevator as they're springing the good doctor: "You're taking me to the promised land?" (referring to the code language Kirk had just used over his communicator). "What're friends for?"

One final self-sacrifice scene that always chokes me up -- as ridiculous as the film is -- comes from the 1980 version of Flash Gordon, when Flash tells Vultan he's going to ride the crippled war rocket down into Ming's palace, ensuring that the palace's lightning field will be destroyed so the Hawkmen can attack. Flash's explanation is the most concise and eloquent of any of the speeches that usually accompany these things:

Vultan: It's suicide, Flash!

Flash: No, a rational transaction: one life for billions.

And then as Vultan is leaving...

Flash: Tell Dale I know it would've been good.

Vultan: That must be some planet you come from.

Flash: Not too bad...

Of course, Flash survives the crash, but he's willing to go down with the ship in the name of a bigger cause...