Rogue Fun: Doctor Aphra Will Steal Your Heart, Your Stuff and Your Girl

Liv

Did I ask for a crazy, highly morally grey space archaeologist in my Star Wars? No. But when Doctor Chelli Lona Aphra burst onto the scene in the third issue of Kieron Gillen’s comic run of Darth Vader, she satisfied a craving I didn’t even know I had. In a universe that often depicts epic battles between absolute light and dark, Aphra with her scoundrel’s antics and comparatively smaller scale plotlines stands out in all the best ways. She does not fit neatly into any category, but defies the shackles of stereotypical characterization that anyone who wants a clean, easily definable character to work with or read about would put upon her. This means following along on her unpredictable misadventures never gets boring.

While the classic Campbell monomyth1 certainly is important to Star Wars, historically as well as in recent additions to the canon, the galaxy far, far away has more than enough room to accommodate wildcards. Last December, watching the Disney Investor Day stream that would announce a plethora of new and upcoming Star Wars projects, I really thought the time had come for my beloved Doctor Aphra to make her silver screen debut. Well, all right, I hoped. If 2020 has taught me anything, it is to keep my expectations low. Yet, as Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo reminds us in The Last Jedi, “Hope is like the sun. If you only believe in it when you see it, you’ll never make it through the night.”

Well, I believe the time is right, the stars are all aligned – during this exciting period in Star Wars, as Rogue Squadron is getting the movie treatment and Hayden Christensen is returning to reprise his role as Anakin in the long-awaited Obi-Wan series… in this moment, when it feels like anything could happen… this is the perfect opportunity to let Aphra take the leap from page to screen.

Without further ado, allow me to cite a few reasons why Aphra would make a great addition to (or main character of) any upcoming live-action Star Wars tv show or movie. There will be mild spoilers, though nothing that should lessen your enjoyment of the comics when you read them. Yes, I said when, not if, because if you still have not let Doctor Aphra steal your heart, it is high time. Let her sweep you off your feet. She will be gentle. Mostly.

Space Archaeology

Karen Fukuhara – my dream choice for live action Aphra! – as Doctor Aphra, excited to find a Sith holocron in some forgotten ruin or another. Art by Petra Brandström click through for full resolution. (commissions open – find her here!)

“You know what I’ve always wanted to see?”
“No. Thrill me. What?”
“Everything.”
2

Doctor Aphra is a rogue space archaeologist. Let me run that by you again – a Star Wars character who is an archaeologist, which already is different and cool, but also, remember, her workplace is SPACE. First of all, how vast is space? Incomprehensibly so! How many artifacts of unknown origins are out there just waiting for someone crazy enough to try to find them? How many ancient sources of awesome, terrible power lie forgotten and forsaken in the Outer Rim and beyond? Who knows! The possibilities are literally endless. Could Aphra stumble upon the Dagger of Mortis? Why not! Or she could tag along with a certain Beskar-clad crew to Mandalore, a planet ravaged by wars and strife over the course of centuries of conflict, and uncover parts of Mandalorian culture that may have previously been lost to time…

Apart from just being a really cool concept and springboard to explore the galaxy as we know it in the present canon, space archaeology can also help tie the different eras together and add to the lore in a meaningful way. I know that not all of the Sith Lords that were buried on Korriban/Moraband are technically canon anymore, but by the Maker, I want Aphra digging around their ancient tombs in the Valley of the Dark Lords. I want her to discover the remains of the Star Forge – if Darth Revan can slip back into canon, there is no reason why that cannot be re-canonized, too. Speaking of objects of power, there must be holocrons aplenty for her to dig up in Sith and Jedi ruins alike – just thinking about how much forsaken history lies within them sends chills down my lore-thirsty spine.

A show featuring Aphra can easily become a vessel through which elements of Legends can be brought back into canon, and personally, that thought excites me greatly. If you are one of the fans who relished in seeing Grand Admiral Mitth’raw’nuruodo return to canon in Rebels, or you are still holding out hope that Mara Jade can exist in this new timeline, you should be excited, too.

Friends in All the Wrong Places

A split panel from the Screaming Citadel comic, wherein Aphra is convincing Luke to join her on a mission. Luke, looking hesitant, says “I’m not sure…” Meanwhile, Aphra has her arm around his shoulders and says “C’mon. Are you out, farmboy? Or are you in, Jedi Knight?”

Aphra convincing a hesitant Luke to team up with her in Screaming Citadel, ill. Marco Checchetto.

“She liked to describe herself as a rogue archaeologist. Others tended to describe her as a weapons dealer. After spending the best years of her twenties doing so, she couldn’t in good faith argue that hard against that.”3

As a morally flexible individual, who rarely lets pesky laws and regulations stand in the way of her ambition, Aphra has connections throughout the underworld. While many Star Wars projects set in and around the underworld have been canceled, such as 1313 and Project Ragtag (RIP), with the new Boba Fett series expected to arrive on Disney+ in December 2021, I see more scum and villainy in our future. The Mandalorian has already dipped its bounty hunting toes into the outlaw muck, of course, but there is so much more to explore! There are undoubtedly a lot of fun and exciting stories that can be told within an underworld context, and Aphra certainly has the reach and versatility needed to front them.

However, the underworld and its denizens is not the limit of her social circle of friends, enemies, and frenemies. The fact that she is very much out for herself, and not interested in upholding any sort of lofty ideals nor doctrines of evil, nor beholden to any dogmatic code, means she can work with any faction as she sees fit. Her past associates range from Jedi (goodest boi Luke Skywalker, of all people!) to Sith Lords (Daddy… sorry, Darth Vader) via the likes of the Droid Gotra. Oh, and her ex just happens to be Sana Starros, one-time pretend wife of Han Solo… it is safe to say that the “good” Doc has connections to both our main cast of heroes from the Original Trilogy and to more obscure, less explored gangs and networks all over the galaxy. Thrilling, as far as the potential of future guest stars in her continued adventures go. I haven’t even mentioned the fact that she is often accompanied by dark and twisted mirror versions of Threepio and Artoo, Triple-Zero and BT-1, but I will just say that fans of HK-47 from the Knights of the Old Republic games in particular will certainly delight in getting to know them.

Timeline-wise, she was born in 24 BBY, and features in comics from around 0 BBY (Darth Vader #3) to between 3-4 BBY (as of now in the current run of Doctor Aphra), which, as noted above, makes her a contemporary of many of our most beloved characters in the canon. Aphra can run jobs for the benefit or to the detriment of those characters, which can take her all the way from the Core to the Outer Rim. She is well-educated as well as streetsmart, and well used to dealing with the seedier clientele that the galaxy might throw her way. In short, find me a character who is more versatile when it comes to places where they can appear in canon without sticking out like a sore thumb. Go on, I will wait.

We Need More Asians in Space

Doctor Aphra striking a cool pose, chin up, hands on her hips, looking cocky. Behind her, the droids Triple-Zero and BT-1 stand in front of a large and looming image of Darth Vader.

Darth Vader #3 cover art by Adi Granov.

“You can’t overstate the importance of representation. That’s one of the many things that makes her a modern kind of Star Wars character.”4

So many fans have spoken out about the importance of Rose Tico in The Last Jedi – an Asian character with agency, strength, compassion and courage. When The Rise of Skywalker rolled around, and it turned out Rose’s character had been sorely sidelined, many fans were legitimately upset and disappointed. It came across to many as Star Wars kowtowing to the demands of the toxic, racist part of the fandom: the very people who bullied Kelly Marie Tran off social media. Although that may not have been the writer’s, producers’ or director’s intent, drastically reducing the role of a character of color left a bitter taste in the mouths of many fans. I know I, for one, was incredibly upset. Rather than speaking over voices of color on this issue, however, I want to direct you to this article by our guest writer Stephanie L. for more in-depth discourse on the subject of Asian erasure.

The Rise of Skywalker has been out for more than a year at this point, and the only way we can go from here is forward, with a solemn pledge: we can—and must—do better. Star Wars can do better. Not only is the time past due to include more people of color in Star Wars, but it is definitely time to honor George Lucas’ penchant for Asian cinema by including more actual Asians on screen. Not as tokens, not as extras, not exotified or sexualized, but as fully realized, complex characters, like Rose Tico before them.5 And while I hope shows like The Mandalorian and Rangers of the New Republic will give more screen time to Paul Sun-Hyung Lee’s delightful Captain Carson Teva, letting him play a significant role in the stories told, I also want Doctor Aphra to show up and wreak some havoc. Talk about a multi-faceted, complicated and wonderfully riotous character for an Asian actor to play. Speaking of, I certainly would not be mad if Karen Fukuhara wanted to don the iconic goggles and aviator cap… I mean, just look at the first image of this article. She would be pure perfection.

Like Kieron Gillen very accurately points out in the quote at the beginning of this section, you absolutely cannot overstate the importance of representation. The fact that the current run of Doctor Aphra comics is being written by an Asian American author – Alyssa Wong – means we are getting more representation in the writers’ room, as well, and Wong, an award-winning author, should absolutely be a part of any future adaptation of Aphra. Not only is she great at what she does, but she cares deeply about the character, something that is apparent not only through the way she writes her, but the way she speaks on the character and her importance:

“I love writing complicated, morally-gray characters, and the fact that Aphra is a queer Asian woman is both icing on the cake and a great honor. To go from seeing no Star Wars characters like me, to writing a Star Wars comic series with a lead who shares several facets of my identity has been wild. It’s the mirror moment–not because I am Aphra or any other character, but because her existence means there’s room in comics for stories like mine. Everyone should have that feeling.”6

Representation matters, and visibility matters, especially as we are seeing further escalation of the violence being leveled against the Asian community today. While putting more Asian characters, actors and creators at the forefront of our biggest media franchises is of course not a catch-all solution for these issues, inclusion is something we must always strive toward. I feel like both Star Wars as a franchise and Disney as a company are getting better at looking around the room and seeing who is not there.7 Hopefully, that is the direction they will choose to keep going in.

With that said, Disney, if you are reading this: make the television or movie adaptation of Doctor Aphra Asian-led in every aspect.

The Abyss Gazes Back

Triple-Zero has his hand on Aphra’s head; she is crying and screaming out in agony. The droid says, “Oh, do stop blubbing. It’s no pleasure torturing people who’re already miserable. And you’ve no one to blame but yourself. Always alone, always bloody-handed--but always alive!”

Triple-Zero laying some harsh truths on Aphra, Doctor Aphra #25, ill. Kev Walker

The problem is not that you are immoral, doctor. The problem – the reason that you are doomed to repeat the same errors until your end – is that you are a disaster.”8

Aside from her archeological acumen, Aphra knows weapons and droids, which makes her a valuable addition to any faction or team. In fact, it is her technical ability, proven through her customization of Separatist droidekas, that first draws Darth Vader’s attention and sees her enlisted in his employ for a time. Furthermore, she is chaotic and unpredictable enough that she will use her skill to activate ancient weapons of mass destruction because she can, because it suits her, or because feels like it, and most of the time she has the know-how to leverage those decisions to her favor. That chaos, this tendency toward destruction, is something that propels her character forward, for better or (mostly) for worse, and it is innate to her.

Reading about Aphra, I always get the feeling that she could – and would – lie and cheat her way out of almost any situation. She is not dangerous because of her upper body strength. Instead, she relies mostly on cunning and manipulation to get her way. She is, more or less, a self-aware sociopath – she realizes who she is and how her behavior impacts others, but that does not stop her; “I’m not sick! I just… I get things wrong. I’m selfish. I… I use people. But…I don’t expect to sleep well. Ever.”9

Unlike many other sociopaths in fiction – Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock being a prime example – the way Aphra treats people, the way her personality drives her to act callously and selfishly, thereby hurting those around her, actually impacts her in a very real way. Heartbreaking though the consequences of her actions may be to us, the readers who despite everything she does cannot help but love her, the outcome of her decisions is rarely unjust. The consequences make the stakes significantly higher for Aphra. Even still, she does not stop.

I really appreciate the fact that Aphra is so morally bankrupt, while rarely crossing over completely to the definite dark side. Always, she is on the edge, teetering, gazing lovingly into that abyss, but never truly taking the plunge.

Much of my appreciation stems from the lack of other such characters in Star Wars. There are a few, but they tend to skew pretty heavily toward one side over the other, and they often end up redeemed through ultimately choosing a side. More common is the narrative of the character that starts out on the perceived ”wrong” side, and then runs like a Tooka in heat to the opposite side, burning all bridges behind them as they go. Iden Versio of Star Wars Battlefront II is one such example, Migs Mayfeld of The Mandalorian is another, more recent one – and Mayfeld even ended up burning not only the bridges, but the entire Imperial refinery, as it were.

Aphra does not have that same narrative arc. She starts out as a fairly corrupt character, and does not substantially improve upon her morals during her journey. She has softer, more empathic moments, and she is not wholly uncaring about others – well, at least not when it comes to the few people she really cares for. But for a character who starts her journey more than happy to work for Darth Vader, even fangirling over him a little, the difference between that Aphra and the one we see later starring in her own series is not that monumental. This makes her infinitely more interesting to me.

Aphra has her struggles, she suffers, she is not unfeeling, and yet, in so many ways, she is a mostly unrepentant monster – but a monster one cannot help but love and root for, in the end. Star Wars needs more of this: moral ambiguity, realistic (if bleak) depictions of mental health issues, and main characters with other narrative arcs than unavoidable redemption.

Be Gay, Do Crime

Four squares of a comic panel. In the first, Aphra is looking contrite, head down. She says, “I wasn’t going to come back.” Aphra’s ex-girlfriend, Sana Starros, leans forward in the next square to kiss her on the cheek, saying, “But you did.” In the third square, Aphra looks away and says, “Where did it go wrong with us?”, and Sana closes out the panel with her last square, looking a bit sad, answering her, “We met.”

Doctor Aphra and Sana Starros have a complicated past, as seen in Screaming Citadel, ill. Andrea Broccardo.

“If you were a blaster, I would’ve known how to deal with you. Blasters I know.”10

Aphra is a confirmed lesbian character. Already, this unfortunately makes her unusual – we are not exactly spoiled when it comes to LGBTQIA+ representation. Aside from just being unambiguously and unapologetically out, which is nice on its own, she is even allowed to share a same-sex kiss in visual Star Wars media, and that is (again, unfortunately) extremely rare. If it seems like I am cheering for literal crumbs from the table of Star Wars romance, I absolutely am.

It is relatively easy today to write an LGBTQIA+ character into the canon novels, and we have seen several nice additions to queer Star Wars literary canon the last few years – Sinjir Rath Velus, Vi Moradi, Taka Jamoreesa and Eleodie Maracavanya among them. But when J.J. Abrams announced that there would at long last be proper on-screen representation in The Rise of Skywalker11, it amounted to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kiss that even ended up getting cut from theatrical releases in several countries.12 I will not harp on about disappointments in this piece, because I want to keep it light. Though as a queer Star Wars fan, I have to say that my disappointment was deep, and the betrayal of being queerbaited yet again, this time by my favorite franchise, did hurt quite a bit.

In Aphra, we have a queer character who is neither fetishized nor desexualized. She gets to express attraction, and act upon it, without her passion being seen through a decidedly lascivious male gaze; it is a shame that this should even have to be pointed out, but here we are.

Aphra as a character is also, as previously stated, planted firmly in the morally murky gray side of the pool without being portrayed as a straight-up villain. Now, does the fact that she is somewhat of a ruthless sociopath make her a good role model, or the perfect representation for any LGBTQIA+ fan? Of course not. But as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, I personally want to see myself represented in all sorts of different characters, in every part of the galaxy – we should not have to be confined to any one area, where it is convenient for us to appear at just the right moment to represent diversity, and then discarded just as easily to make room for another straight cis character. We are everywhere, all over the spectrum, in real life – complex, flawed, beautiful, disastrous, chaotic, brilliant and wonderfully human. Aphra may not represent all of us, but she definitely brings diversity on more than one front.

To quote my friend and fellow Starduster Nessa in their amazing piece about the importance of representation in Star Wars: “We’re not trying to change Star Wars–we’re just trying to be part of it. (…) We want to be in the Rebellion, the Resistance, the Senate, the Temple, the city, the town, the settlement, the Galaxy–we want to be part of the rich and beautiful story that is Star Wars, right alongside everyone else.”

Again, is Aphra perfect? Not by any means. But as the first gay character who got to have a big ol’ gay kiss in visual Star Wars canon, and the main character of a comic that won the GLAAD Award for Outstanding Comic Book in 2020, it is only right that Aphra be awarded the honor of becoming Star Wars’ first on-screen gay main character.

Imperial Inspector Magna Tolvan and Aphra kissing amid literal sparks flying.

Imperial Inspector Magna Tolvan and Aphra kissing in Doctor Aphra #16, ill. Emilio Laiso.

And there you have it – a few reasons why Aphra should be a shoe-in to appear in live-action sooner rather than later. There are so many more that I could list, but as different characters speak to us in different ways, you may find when you get to know Aphra that she appeals to other parts of your heart entirely. Regardless, I do not know a single person who has been let down by Doctor Aphra after giving her a chance to charm them. She may not be a lesbian icon to you, she may not be your Asian representation, but she is a hell of a good time, and I cannot wait to see her spring to life on the big or small screen.


[1] Wikipedia. 2021. “Hero’s journey.” Last modified Jan 20, 2021.             https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero%27s_journey

[2] Simon Spurrier, Doctor Aphra #40

[3] Kieron Gillen, ‘The Trigger’, in Elizabeth Schaefer (ed.), Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View, New York: Del Rey, 2017. pg 260.

[4] Kieron Gillen in an interview with Bria LaVorgna, “Doctor Aphra Creator Kieron Gillen, Co-Writer Si Spurrier Discuss What’s Next For the Fan Favorite Rogue”. StarWars.com, April 26, 2018. https://www.starwars.com/news/doctor-aphra-creator-kieron-gillen-co-writer-si-spurrier-discuss-whats-next-for-the-fan-favorite-rogue

[5] Although I chose to focus on Rose here, of course there are more examples of Asian representation in live action Star Wars. Keith Chow of The Nerds of Color has written a nice round-up: “Go Asians: A History of AAPI Representation in ‘Star Wars’”, https://thenerdsofcolor.org/2018/05/10/go-asians-a-history-of-aapi-representation-in-star-wars/

[6] Alyssa Wong, “‘Marvel’s Voices’: Alyssa Wong on Asian Americans and Finding the ‘Mirror Moment’ in Media”. Marvel, Jan 29, 2021.

[7] helenalovier, Twitter. “For @themandalorian, they hired an actual Deaf actor to play one of the Tusken raiders and help create Tusken Sign Language. They did this bc a hearing person who knew ASL suggested it. It’s our responsibility, when we’re in the room, to look around and see who’s missing.” Oct 31, 2020, 1:25 AM. https://twitter.com/helenalovier/status/1322333869601939458

[8] Simon Spurrier, Doctor Aphra #30

[9] Kieron Gillen & Simon Spurrier, Doctor Aphra #19

[10] Kieron Gillen & Simon Spurrier, Doctor Aphra #19

[11] Adam B. Vary, “‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’: Finn and Poe Aren’t Boyfriends, but J.J. Abrams Hints at LGBTQ Representation”. Variety, Dec 3, 2019. https://variety.com/2019/film/news/star-wars-finn-poe-not-boyfriends-lgbtq-representation-1203423286/

[12] Tom Fitzsimons, “Fleeting lesbian kiss in ‘Star Wars’ cut from Singapore, Dubai releases”. NBC News, Dec 26, 2019. https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/fleeting-lesbian-kiss-star-wars-cut-singapore-dubai-releases-n1107516