ntroducing a brand new medium into the Star Wars Canon is a gamble. When Cavan Scott’s Dooku: Jedi Lost broke ground last year as the first offering in the world of Star Wars Canon audio dramas, nobody could have guessed how the experiment would end.
Fortunately, the product was compelling, the fan reaction was enthusiastic, and the folks at Penguin Random House Audio heard the call for more.
But what would happen with the second entry in this brave new arena? While Dooku was undeniable in its quality, the possibility existed that fans merely enjoyed the novelty of something new. The second official Star Wars Canon audio drama would not be afforded that luxury.
It would have to stand on its own.
But haven’t you heard? Chelli Lona Aphra always finds her door.
Doctor Aphra: An Audiobook Original picks up the audio drama baton in brilliant fashion by presenting a story that is simultaneously familiar and unique, hilarious and sobering, and mercilessly entertaining from start to finish.
Fans of Aphra’s initial appearances in the pages of Darth Vader will instantly find the plot of Aphra’s audio debut quite familiar as it is literally lifted from those very stories. Rather than presenting an entirely original plotline, Sarah Kuhn was given the task of adapting those first few volumes where we meet the infamous archaeologist into this new format.
However, for the purposes of this review, we will be addressing the plot as its own entity in order to be as objective as possible.
That being said...this story grips you from the very first minute. Kuhn’s adaptation adopts a dual storytelling technique that treats Aphra both as storyteller and story subject. She spends the project recording a verbal diary of sorts about her adventures (not dissimilar to the Calrissian Chronicles from Solo: A Star Wars Story), and because of this, we as an audience are led by a frankly unreliable narrator.
Throughout the tale, Aphra freely peppers in commentary about her encounters with Darth Vader, Sana Starros, and the lovable murder-duo of 0-0-0 and BT-1, and because she is in charge of this train, you can never be completely sure she’s telling the truth.
And that concept is absolutely thrilling.
This storytelling mechanism allows fans of the comic stories to experience these events in an entirely new light due to Aphra’s rather specific version of the truth. Whereas Gillen and Larroca’s Vader comic highlighted the introduction of the Doctor through the eyes of our favorite dark lord, Aphra’s narration gives us a much different outlook at the events that were portrayed.
We delve further into this psychological narrative as we enter events during and after the famed Vader Down comic event that combined both Darth Vader and mainline Star Wars stories, and using Aphra as the glue to connect all of the disparate threads was a stroke of genius from Kuhn.
Without exposing too many spoilers, Doctor Aphra takes a number of twists that range from the viciously kinetic to the emotionally serene, and the end result presents not only a cohesive, exciting tale about a galaxy far, far away, but also a fulfilling character study on a protagonist that couldn’t be more likeable if she tried.
Ever since her initial appearance in Darth Vader #3, Doctor Aphra’s charisma has been undeniable. Instantly a fan favorite, Aphra’s brassy wit and inescapable charm that makes the love child of Han Solo and Indiana Jones (...it works) catapulted her into her own series that continued her adventures with her own name emblazoned across the cover.
But how would such a meticulous wit transfer to an auditory medium? Funny you should ask, because the answer is brilliantly.
Portrayed by the magnificent Emily Woo Zeller, Aphra commands your attention from the first line that escapes her lips. Instantaneously, her descriptions of thrilling heroics and near-death escapades draw you in, and you can’t help but trust her even when she says you shouldn’t. Fortunately, this bond between narrator and listener is established early, because Zeller’s work as Aphra composes roughly 80% of the project. While a lesser character or actress could make such a heavy workload tiresome or monotonous, the combination of Zeller’s performance, Kuhn’s writing, and Aphra’s inherent likability keep the story moving at a marvelous pace.
You’re on her side every step of the way. Even when she’s making choices that would make you tear your hair out.
On occasion, Aphra’s tendency to veer toward the silly and sarcastic can threaten to stretch the limits of believability -- especially when talking back to the wonderfully menacing Lord Vader -- but the consistency of the writing allows us to follow her train of thought nonetheless.
There are a number of additional standouts throughout the zany cadre of characters in Aphra, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the glorious murderbot of 0-0-0. This protocol droid with the soul of a sadist lights up every scene in which he appears to a disturbing extent.
On the comic page, the idea of a homicidal C-3PO was always going to be hilarious, but to recreate his likability and legitimately disturbing quirkiness without the visual crutch speaks volumes to the comedic skill of Kuhn’s pen and adaptability and execution of actor Sean Kenin.
Finally, the character that impacted me the most after my completion of the audio drama was none other than Sana Starros. Kuhn’s depiction of the relationship between Starros and Aphra was at once light, volatile, intimate, and harrowing.
Essentially, it was a real relationship.
Aphra’s continuous need to find her way back to Sana was a thread that I never expected to be concocted in this particular story, and at the risk of spoiling too much about the format of the project, it became my favorite part by the end. The hurdles that these two women go through while circling each others’ orbits can definitely be seen in the comics on which this audio drama is based, but the power of hearing a woman in Star Wars describe the beauty of another in an unquestionably romantic way cannot be overstated.
Within this story of heists, betrayals, shootouts, and mystery lies the star-crossed queer love story of two women of color, and it’s a marvelous addition to a galaxy far, far away.
The question of originality in adaptation can be a sticky road to navigate. While we can applaud a creator’s ability to enhance the work in ways specific to their chosen medium, can we truly acknowledge their full ability in the context of another writer’s story.
Yes. Yes we can. And yes we shall.
Sarah Kuhn’s decision to lay the majority of the storytelling responsibility on Aphra’s shoulders could have been disastrous. Star Wars books that employ first person narration have not been universally loved in years past, but within the confines of an audio drama, it is a decision that not only enhances the project but defines it.
Furthermore, the depiction of Aphra as unreliable to not only to her peers but also her listeners could have created a narrative that cycled between inconstancy and insanity, but Kuhn’s deft approach instead presents something unique, clean, and wholly separate from the fantastic comics that came before.
Within the confines of a preexisting story, Kuhn harnesses the power of a burgeoning medium in Star Wars Canon to expand the thoughts of Aphra, the frustrations of Vader, the sentimentality of Sana, and ferocity of 0-0-0. As a whole, the originality of this work lies within the risks it takes to honor the projects that came before it - while hopefully confirming the need for an entire line of Star Wars audio dramas in the very near future.
When writing a character whose lines tend to sway more comedic than not, it can be difficult to maintain a sense of stakes and purpose throughout their trials. A witty quip can diffuse the intensity of a ticking bomb, a tepid chuckle can deflate the romantic intensity of a first kiss, and a sly one-liner can make you forget you’re speaking to the most feared being in the galaxy.
While Aphra’s sense of comedic timing is never in question throughout this story, Sarah Kuhn’s deft creation of her narration never lets her off the hook when it comes to the gravity of her predicaments. Aphra’s narration is perhaps the prime example of this, because as her listeners, we are witnesses to every stumble she makes in her attempt to maintain a blithe facade.
It’s these small snippets of vulnerability that humanize Aphra beautifully and allow us to root for her even when her mischievous nature gets her into more and more trouble. At times, you can’t help but feel like your best friend is telling you all about the wild nights she had way back when, and though you disapprove of a number of methods she employed, you smile nonetheless.
All of these character beats, of course, would mean nothing if it weren’t for the hand that wrote them, and for that, Sarah Kuhn deserves our praise, respect, and several more Star Wars contracts thank you very much. While some of the dialogue is transferred directly from the pages of Kieron Gillen’s (the writer not the Guardian of the Galaxy) comic series, the vast majority of this story erupted directly from Kuhn’s mind.
A story featuring the first-person narration of a character who fancies hyperbolic silliness sounds like a worrisome trap for any writer, but Kuhn’s ability to mold her source material into an engaging protagonist cannot be overstated.
Add to that some breakneck pacing that would make Rae Carson blush, and believe me when I say that we’re welcoming one of the next great Star Wars writers in Sarah Kuhn.
I have not laughed this much reading a Star Wars book in years.
So let’s start there.
Fans of Aphra from her numerous comic book adventures know that to call her a loose chaotic cannon may be, in fact, understating it. Aphra’s tenacity and explosiveness are in no way muted in this audio adventure, and the cast of characters surrounding her rise to the occasion marvelously.
The writing, acting, editing, and production all work together so seamlessly throughout this audio production that I found myself earnestly questioning why it’s taken this long for the Canon to catch up with other IPs like Doctor Who in their wholehearted embrace of the audio drama.
For years, fans of the Canon have extolled the virtue of Star Wars audiobooks, because they make you feel as though you’re listening to a rather lengthy Star Wars movie. Aphra does you one better by supplying a full cast and a rather excessive amount of laughs to that format, and the result allowed me to barrel through this tale in one solid sitting.
Aside from the thrilling nature of the audio drama medium, Doctor Aphra maintains its entertaining nature by varying the pacing of its scenes. Have you been stuck in the middle of a firefight for a while? Here’s an intimate revelation from Aphra. Has there been a lot of dialogue back and forth? Here’s a look in her mind as she hatches the next phase of her plan.
Aphra puts you on a roller coaster that refuses to stop until you’ve reached the satisfying conclusion, and thanks to that writing variety and the truly superb casting of the whole ensemble, you’re sure to find thrills in your headphones that you haven’t experienced since your last trip to the theater.
While a singular narrator can create a full cast of characters in an audiobook through mastery of vocal tone, speed, pitch, and more, there’s really nothing like a fully cast audio drama to transport you entirely to another universe. The crew of Aphra take to their roles brilliantly, and while a few of the legacy folks may initially turn a few heads as their interpretations differ ever so slightly from the originals, the spirit of every character cannot be denied.
The star of the show in this regard is undeniably Emily Woo Zeller. As previously stated, the lion’s share of the vocal workload lies within Zeller’s performance as Chelli Lona Aphra, and she rises to the occasion masterfully. Regardless of your opinion of Aphra in her original comic form, you can’t help but be swept away by Zeller’s charismatic delivery of Aphra’s narration. At times, some of her choices may appear to stretch the bonds of believability with their range and expression, but given the reality of the character, you’ll find yourself immediately thinking “Nope...that’s just Aphra.”
Joining Zeller in this hall of fame group are many familiar voices including the audiobook legends Marc Thompson (Darth Vader) and Jonathan Davis (Boba Fett) as well as a number of actors from the much lauded Dooku: Jedi Lost like Sean Kenin (0-0-0), Euan Morton (Emperor Palpatine) and Carol Monda (Maz Kanata). Add to this grouping the incredible Sean Patrick Hopkins (Luke Skywalker), Nicole Lewis (Sana Starros), and the queen herself Catherine Taber (Leia Organa), and you couldn’t put together a finer crew if you tried.
The cast handles the humor, thrills, and somber nature of Aphra with grace and dexterity, and I’ll join all of you in crossing my fingers as we hope for them to appear in a number of Star Wars audio dramas down the road.
The first step into a larger world can be scary. You don’t know what people will think, and those expectations can create a sense of excitement but also a trap of fear.
Dooku: Jedi Lost stepped off the cliff last year to see if they could fly, and this summer, Doctor Aphra is soaring amongst the clouds and having the time of her life.
Projects like Doctor Aphra infuse us with the promise of the future of the Star Wars Canon. A promise of taking risks, incorporating diverse characters, and telling stories in every kind of medium you can imagine.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that the good Doctor has plenty more stories to tell us, and I, for one, can’t wait to hear them.
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