Review – An Archaeologist Doing What She Does Best in Sarah Kuhn’s Doctor Aphra: A Star Wars Audiobook Original
Chelli Lona Aphra made her first appearance in Kieron Gillen’s Darth Vader comic series, the third issue released all the way back in 2015. Being in the orbit of Darth Vader makes anyone’s longevity in Star Wars questionable but as the series continued on it was clear Doctor Aphra was not only a brilliant, capable archaeologist – she’s a survivor. Based on several issues of both Marvel’s Darth Vader and Star Wars, Kuhn has created an exciting, touching, and sometimes hilarious audio-drama. Author Sarah Kuhn and a wonderful cast brought the character to life and filled in some time gaps, adding some significant story to Doctor Aphra and those around her. SPOILERS AHEAD….
Although Doctor Aphra has been around the last five years, jumping between several Star Wars comic series (including two of her own), you can dive straight into this story knowing nothing about her. How? Well, author Sarah Kuhn takes us back to the very beginning and also does a tremendous job of weaving in the characters history revealed in later issues unrelated to this story. Doctor Aphra serves as narrator to her own history and Emily Woo Zeller’s performance is delightful. I’ve been a big Aphra fan for a while and once I finished I felt completely reacquainted with the character and wanted more, even though there are plenty of stories which move past those contained in this audio drama. I’m adding this preface for people reading who may think “But I’ve already read these stories!“. Not like this. And there are plenty of moments Kuhn included which were not in the comics and will certainly change the way you look at Chelli Lona Aphra. For the better, in my opinion.
The story opens as Doctor Aphra is making her way toward this fateful encounter, which will forever change both her and the Dark Lord of the Sith. Just after escaping what could’ve been a show stopping encounter with Maz Kanata herself, Aphra moves to infiltrate a quarantined facility filled containing some of the worst technological nightmares in the galaxy. Only that’s not how Aphra sees it, as she believes these are works of art which should be free to perform their functions as weapons amongst the raging war in the stars. Aphra is specifically looking for the Triple Zero-matrix and is successful in obtaining it, when Darth Vader appears, demanding her service.
This takes place shortly after the destruction of the first Death Star. This embarrassing and huge defeat is blamed almost solely on Darth Vader by Emperor Palpatine. Vader isn’t necessarily relegated, but the Emperor has elevated other officers (Remember Tagge from A New Hope?) and has commissioned an army of lightsaber wielding cyborgs to be built. Very little of that makes its way into this audiobook but what is clear is that Darth Vader is through having his face rubbed in failure and is determined to build a droid army of his own to overthrow the Emperor.
If you want to build a droid army there’s no better place to start than an abandoned droid factory on Mustafar. Though we don’t get as much insight about the conflict simmering within Darth Vader, Aphra is able to sense moments when the dark lord encounters places or people connected to Anakin Skywalker. We know where Vader is headed in the grand arc, but much of what Gillen wrote in his Darth Vader series involved how this spark of light grew within the darkness. Kuhn does an excellent job of paralleling Vader’s introspection in Aphra as she recalls memories of her own youth, both absent parents and lost love.
What we knew of Aphra’s past has gone from very broad strokes to finer details – and Kuhn adds some very specific ones regarding her first love. Before she was one of the galaxy’s most formidable archaeologists, Chelli Lona Aphra spent her days studying at the University of Bar’leth – the university one wants to attend to get the best training in that field. At this point, Chelli had essentially lost both of her parents. After their separation, due to her father’s obsession hunting down artifacts related obscure sect of Jedi, her mother took her to live on a remote planet but was eventually killed by raiders. Chelli’s father disappeared down the path he followed searching to know more about the mysterious splinter group of Jedi. Though Aphra doesn’t consciously acknowledge the trauma or abandonment in the beginning, the performance by Emily Woo Zeller allows us to know there are hints of it there. As Vader is confronted with his past, so is Aphra, and you can feel both of their facades rattled anytime it appears. While Vader wears a literal mask, Doctor Aphra is the mask Chelli Lona Aphra wears, with the right amount of snark and disregard for caution. Both of them determined to ignore the past and press on in the dark tasks which will further strengthen their emotional armor, it’s only a matter of time before the grief catches up.
Another aspect of Aphra’s past is her first love, that being Sana Starros. Sana, initially introduced in Star Wars #6 by Jason Aaron, attended the University of Bar’leth and caught the eye of young Chelli. The exploration of the eventual romance between Chelli and Sana is one of the highlights in this story. In the comics, a romantic past between them was established but never detailed or elaborated on. In this audio drama we get the whole messy story and it is good. I’m so happy Kuhn took the time to explore this. It would be hard in the comics, as both have moved on and there is another person who Aphra has become romantically entangled with (I won’t reveal because you should read it). Where Vader has memories of his first love coming back to him, pushing his moral compass, Aphra has hers as well. Sana is also one of my favorite characters from the Marvel books, not included nearly enough, so it’s great to hear her voice with a prominent place in the story.
Vader and Aphra eventually pivot from building a droid army as the dark lord becomes more intrigued in tracking down the young rebel who destroyed the Death Star. We experience the journey of discovering who Luke is through the eyes of Aphra, which is another perspective detour from Gillen’s writing to Kuhn’s. After returning to Tatooine with Vader to investigate the ruins of the Lars homestead (No, Aphra didn’t sled down into them) and Obi-Wan’s abandoned residence, Boba Fett informs her and Vader of Luke’s last name. In both the comic and audio drama, this moment changes everything.
Vader doesn’t give anything away to Aphra about his relation to Luke, instead sending her to track down the mortician who prepared Padmé for her funeral. With the assistance of her handy murder droids, Triple Zero and Beetee, Aphra gets the answers the mortician knew Padmé had given birth, but only to a son, as Leia still remains “safely anonymous”. There’s also a subplot where Aphra double crosses a group of bounty hunters, only to take the credits to a person called The Ante to find Luke Skywalker’s location. This takes Darth Vader and Doctor Aphra to Vrogas Vas.
Between the two Marvel series Darth Vader and Star Wars, an event called “Vader Down” unfolded but Kuhn doesn’t spend a lot of time going over the peripheral, again focusing on how Aphra experiences this. Aphra’s goal is to help an increasingly obsessed Vader capture Luke but she ends up getting captured herself and that’s where Aphra’s story takes a turn back toward Sana.
Aphra is taken to a Rebel prison called Sunspot Prison where she’s reunited with Sana. Neither of them are exactly thrilled with the reunion or the circumstances. My favorite moment in the book actually occurs during Aphra’s transport to Sunspot Prison, where she realizes how much she really cared for Sana while she’s recounting the day she left. The memories stir a sadness inside her and regret turns to tears. We actually hear Chelli Lona Aphra breakthrough, hoping someday Sana knows how much she cared for her. It’s beautifully written and performed, there were definitely tears in my eyes while listening to this. Nicole Lewis also gives a great performance as Sana Starros. The cast is great, but Emily Woo Zeller and Nicole Lewis certainly shine bright in every scene they’re paired.
Sunspot Prison is located at the edge of a star, making it’s environment extreme and hard for the Empire to locate. Shortly after Aphra is taken into custody, a group of Rebellion extremists led by former Rebel spy Eneb Ray infiltrate the prison, determined to execute the Imperial prisoners and their sympathizers. Aphra, Sana, and Leia must work together to stop him. Leia’s determined not to let him channel his brutal intentions on the prisoners in custody. At multiple points, Aphra and Sana have each other’s life in their hands and each protects the other. Eventually, Aphra is knocked, or rather, kicked unconscious and thrown into an escape pod by Sana. Aphra’s once again drifting through the void, though it’s short-lived because no one gets out of Darth Vader’s orbit unless he lets you – or worse.
Aphra’s murder-droid duo, who I haven’t mentioned until now, eventually catch up with her and fulfill their programming to bring her to Darth Vader. Triple-Zero, the protocol droid pictured above whose been taken over by the programming matrix Aphra stole in the beginning, and Beetee the deadly astromech, are both with her almost the entire time. In the comics, these two really got on my nerves, only because I wanted more of Aphra’s story. Here in the audiobook they are wonderful and provide a lot of the comic relief, albeit very dark. Sean Kenin gives a great performance as Triple-Zero. The two droids are programmed for destruction and aren’t shy about getting in on the action. They deliver an unconscious Aphra to the newly constructed Executor.
When Aphra awakens, she finds her way into the throne room of Emperor Palpatine. And no, this isn’t her being escorted into the throne room by Vader or some guards. Doctor Aphra just casually strolls in, offering to give up information about what Vader has been up to. It’s worth noting that Aphra tells Sheev everything with a huge omission – she doesn’t tell him anything about Luke Skywalker. When Vader arrives, Palpatine offers him praise instead of scorn, proud his apprentice is plotting as all the best Sith should. Palpatine is the absolute worst.
Aphra’s fate is left to Vader and it’s an especially disturbing scene. I remember feeling chilled to the bone the first time I read this in the comic. Kuhn put an interesting spin on this which makes it a bit more palatable, adding Aphra actually planned for this in one of many back-up plans. Once she’s retrieved by her crew, droids included, she realizes she’s free of Darth Vader. The galaxy is wide open and Doctor Aphra heads right back out there.
By the end of the story I felt like I knew Chelli Lona Aphra much better. The person behind the facade is coming through. I love that she’s so real, trying to sort through all the various messes in life while also just trying to get by. Her ambitions are high but Chelli Lona Aphra helps keep Doctor Aphra from seeing some of her worst intentions through. The moral compass is always spinning for Doctor Aphra but that’s not important. It spins for all our heroes it’s just that Aphra tends to realize when it is, assessing all possibilities. She’s brilliant, courageous, and as much of a rogue as any character in the galaxy far, far away. If you’ve never experienced any of her stories I couldn’t imagine a better way than through Kuhn’s writing and the cast’s lively performances.
Also, there’s plenty I left out of this review. Other big name characters pop-up as well as many favorites for long time readers of the comics featuring Doctor Aphra. It seems the future of Star Wars is wide open at the moment. This is a welcome injection to the stories we already have and I predict many fans will love this as much as I did. As we’ve seen with other characters, fans have the power to propel them to animation or even live-action. Some of us have said it for years but especially now I don’t feel like we are far off from seeing Aphra appear on the screen.
It should also be noted for the first time Doctor Aphra is being written by women. While Sarah Kuhn steered this ship and writer Alyssa Wong helms the newest Marvel series which resumes this week. Kuhn brought a much welcomed feminine touch to Aphra, refreshing and adding much life. There is so much to look forward to for Aphra fans. And if you like what you hear, you’re going to have a lot of fun catching up, because her story continues. And the possibility of more stories from Sarah Kuhn is exciting enough. I’ve had a mental checklist of things I hoped to see in Doctor Aphra’s larger story. Many of those were checked with this audio drama and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to check the rest.
Special thanks to Random House Audio for the advanced copy used in this review.