A Tale of Two Bothans: Interpreting Star Wars Aliens

In comics and books, depictions of aliens often evolved with artistic interpretation.

”Many Bothans died to bring us this information.” — Mon Mothma

Some species within the Star Wars Legends material have changed considerably over time. One obvious reason for this is the lack of a visual representation in the original source. When a species is mentioned or described in a novel, the actual physical appearance may be open to interpretation. And although they are sometimes described in detail, sources that eventually portray them are usually not directly guided by the original author’s views. As such, they may vary from source to source. A good example of this variation is the krayt dragon, who changes significantly between different books. Most of the interpretations do not even match the only visible clue there is: the krayt dragon skull that’s seen in the Dune Sea scenes of Episode IV.

How Many Bothans?

Similarly, no one knew what a Bothan looked like when Mon Mothma mentioned them in Episode VI back in 1983. They would go largely unexplored until Timothy Zahn described them in his 1991 novel Heir to the Empire as being covered with a fine cream-colored fur. A year later, the Bothans would get their first ever image, in the Heir to the Empire Sourcebook. They looked somewhat human, but with quite a lot of hair. This image was not the most detailed one, but later books by West End Games fleshed out this look. Images of Bothan characters appeared in numerous sources, such as Wanted by Cracken in 1993, Cracken’s Rebel Operatives in 1994, and the 1996 Adventure Journal #10. The interpretation is often the same, a humanoid being, with a flat, broad nose, pointy ears and mane-like fur. From time to time the Bothans would almost resemble something from the early Planets of the Apes films. The comic adaptation of Shadows of the Empire also followed this look.

Tale of Two Bothan Header

But it all changed in 1997, when the X-Wing: Rogue Squadron comics started including Bothans in the story. In these comics, the Bothans would get the long-snouted look that most people today are familiar with. This interpretation also made it into the comic adaptations of the Thrawn trilogy (although those adaptations would often go their own way, as seen later in this article), and would become the mainstream physical appearance of the Bothans. With the release of the videogame Rebellion in 1998, players met the early human-like Bothans once more, but most sources after that date neglected this look. The Essential Guide to Planets and Moons and the Customizable Card Game from 1998 both sought to find a balance between the two, with the latter giving a photo-realistic interpretation.

In 2003, the MMORPG Star Wars Galaxies would take the animal look to an extreme, creating a Bothan that was almost an anthropomorphic dog. This canine influence would linger around and form the Bothans as we know them today. Sometimes art depicting the Bothans would deviate a bit, adding some caprine, equine or macropodine influences, but the mainstream Bothan would usually look roughly similar. All traces of the early Bothans vanished, save for the pointy ears. Sourcebooks by Wizards of the Coast and Del Rey would continue to include the canine Bothans, such as Chris Trevas’s depiction in the New Essential Guide to Alien Species. Fantasy Flight Games settled on “pointy-eared dog” as well, adding the Bothan to the Edge of the Empire and Age of Rebellion series, even featuring one on the cover of Operation: Shadowpoint. The latest incarnation of the Bothan can be found in the MMORPG The Old Republic, where a Bothan character by the name of Admiral Bey’wan Aygo is included in the 2014 Galactic Starfighter update. While still a pointy-eared animal, the snout is significantly shortened, but this may have been due to facial animation restrictions.

With the introduction of the concept “half-Bothan” in the 2012 Essential Guide to Warfare another chapter in the Bothan tale was opened. The term is used to describe the species of Valenthyne Farfalla, a faun-like character from the Jedi vs. Sith comics. The choice for this name was based on the fact that the Bothans were “confusing and inconsistent”, and “the most prominent near-human equine species.” It might open up some explanation for the conflicting depictions of Bothans, although it’s never specified which half of Farfalla was Bothan, or how half-Bothans were related to Bothans at all.

Changing Waylanders

Psadans are one of two indigenous species of Wayland. First mentioned in Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, they were not encountered until their appearance in The Last Command. Here they were described as being “head taller than the Noghri […] and maybe a head shorter than Han [Solo]” and “covered with lumpy plates,” making them look like “walking rock piles.” Heir to the Empire Sourcebook, published in 1992 by West End Games, provided a physical description, but didn’t feature any images. As these sources suggest, Psadans look like bipeds covered in stone-like plates, and are depicted as such in The Essential Guide to Planets and Moons, published in 1998. The image included on the Wayland page showed much resemblance with the Vaathkree, another species from the Thrawn trilogy. Just three months before the release of this Essential Guide, the fifth issue of the comic adaptation of The Last Command was published by Dark Horse, the issue that featured the scenes on Wayland. It gave a completely different interpretation of the Psadans. Blue-colored, heavyset aliens, with an armor of plates rather than a skin of plates. It was this interpretation that was eventually chosen for later sources, such as the Essential Guide to Alien Species in 2001 and the Ultimate Alien Anthology in 2003. The Psadans were not seen often, but one was featured in issue 65 of the Republic comic series by Dark Horse. In this issue we met Looie, a Psadan who had two floppy ears instead of horns, but otherwise remained true to the image from the Essential Guide to Alien Species.

Tale of Two Wayland

The other native species of the Wayland, the Myneyrshi, also had their first appearance in The Last Command, which described them as “nearly as tall as Chewbacca, with four arms each and a shiny, bluish-crystal skin.” The Last Command Sourcebook by West End Games in 1994 actually included a picture, but as it was placed with the Mount Tantiss entry rather than in the Aliens chapter (which doesn’t mention either species from Wayland since they were already included in the Heir to the Empire Sourcebook), it is often overlooked. The Essential Guide to Planets and Moons actually followed this look, being a shiny four-armed species with a tapir-like snout. The comic adaptation of The Last Command deviated, giving the Myneyrshi a tan skin, and angular faces with a broad mouth and no nose. Contrary to the Psadans, later sources actually followed the look of The Essential Guide to Planets and Moons rather than the one from the comic. R.K. Post fleshed out the appearance in Essential Guide to Alien Species. The Myneyrshi appeared in several comics, including Legacy issue 43 in 2009.

Novel Incarnations

Also from Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy are the Bimm, who were described as “half-furred creatures”. While initial interpretations gave them an appearance that was similar to a short, bearded human, later sources provided a more alien look. As with the Waylanders, the 1995 comic version took on its own view, making them non-human, floppy-eared creatures. Daniel Wallace resolved this particular case in 1998, making both interpretations correct. According to The Essential Guide to Planets and Moons there are two distinct species living on Bimmisaari, both referring to themselves as Bimm.

Tale of Two Rishii

Yet another of Zahn’s creations, the Rishii were first referred to in the 1992 novel Dark Force Rising, which only described them as an avian species native to Rishi. The physical description in the subsequently released Dark Force Rising Sourcebook was brief, but the entry did include a image by Mike Vilardi. The image was clearly inspired by owls. The hands, which the Rishii have in addition to their wings, were featured as three fingers that protrude from the second joint of the wing. Alien Encounters, published by West End Games in 1998 also featured the Rishii, and stayed true to the established look. It added the tufts of feathers that are often referred to as (but are in fact not) ears in owls. With the release of the 2001 Essential Guide to Alien Species, we were introduced to a entirely different interpretation of this avian species, with an image that looked more like a bird of prey, such as an eagle. The hands were now placed on the distal end of each wing, making it look more like feathered arms. Ramón K. Pérez’s visualization of the species in the 2009 free comic Gauntlet of Death went back to the owl-like interpretation of West End Games. The hands, however, were now placed on separate arms that jutted out from one of the joints of the wing. The latest incarnation of the Rishii can be found in the Shadow of Revan expansion of The Old Republic released in 2014, which allows players to explore the planet Rishi. While the overall body shape of the Rishii in the MMORPG was very much similar to the Essential Guide to Alien Species, the face was again changed to be more of an average between the extremes. While it is certainly no bird of prey anymore, the strigiform influences were toned down a bit as well.

Tale of Two Tissshar

The Tiss’shar were first encountered in Brain Daley’s 1979 novel Han Solo at Stars’ End, although not yet named as a species. The character Uul-Rha-Shan was described as a “reptile, whose bright green scales were marked with diamond patterns of red and white”, with “big black, emotionless eyes” and “fangs and a restless pink tongue”. Alfredo Alcala drew this reptile in the comic adaptation of the novel in 1981, giving him a long-snouted, almost amphibian look. The species would get its name in Han Solo and the Corporate Sector Sourcebook in 1993, with an image by Mike Vilardi. This bipedal, slender therapod would become the standard, as West End Games would use it in several other sourcebooks as well, such as the 1995 Galaxy Guide 12. In 2003, Wizards of the Coast included the Tiss’shar in the Ultimate Alien Anthology, giving the species more angular features (and a serious workout). It also introduced the notion of six subspecies, although the difference between the subspecies is only in patterns of the scales, and therefore does not account for the different looks in the past and future. In 2005, Joe Corroney drew the Tiss’shar antagonists of Empire issue 31. He would deviate from the established look of the RPG sourcebooks and provide an appearance much more like the classic interpretation of Velociraptor. The variety between the different Tiss’shar featured in the comic was also quite large, suggesting more than six subspecies. The 2009 Essential Atlas went back to the established look, with an image of Uul-Rha-Shan by Chris Trevas that may very well have been inspired by the Komodo dragon.

Tale of Two Mrlssi

Another interesting example of how a species can change is the Mrlssi (or Mrlssti) from planet Mrlsst. This species of flightless avians were first encountered in the X-Wing: Rogue Squadron story arc The Phantom Affair in 1996. And while there is some confusion by the different spelling adopted in different sources (Mrlssti/Mrlssi), the overall look of the species was never taken into question, due to its first appearance being a comic. The only thing that may have been confusing was the existence of the Mrissi from planet Mrisst (note the “i” instead of the “l”). These flightless birds were originally mentioned in Zahn’s The Last Command in 1993. They were depicted in Alien Encounters in 1998, alongside the Mrlssi, confirming these two as separate species, despite their similarities. R.K. Post drew a Mrlssi for the Essential Guide to Alien Species in 2001, which remained mostly true to the comic look, although he put the eyes in the front of the head rather than on the sides (which may seem trivial, but is a huge difference in a biological sense). Roughly six months later, the Alien Anthology by Wizards of the Coast was published. The image provided with the Mrlssi entry in this book was still a flightless avian, but couldn’t have been more different from the Mrlssi in the comic. The confusion with different spelling and the existence of two different scholarly bird species may have been the cause of the change. Other sources after this book, however, such as the Ultimate Alien Anthology in 2003 and the 2010 Galaxy of Intrigue have copied the look, establishing a new physiology for the Mrlssi.

There are countless other examples of these kinds of changes throughout the former Expanded Universe. Of course, subtle differences can always be marked down as natural variation, subspecies, hybrid species, or sexual dimorphism (like the Devaronians), but certainly does not explain all we see. Look through a couple of books and you can see how the Noghri, the Barabels or the Selonians have evolved. Compare the Ukians or Cathar in different sources. Notice how the Herglic sometimes looks more like a mountain than an anthropomorphic cetacean. Or how about the Angels from Iego in Geonosis and the Outer Rim Worlds versus their depiction in The Clone Wars television series? And who knows what might change in the future.

Kevin Beentjes (Wild Whiphid) is a molecular biologist working at the Dutch natural history museum. He is an editor for TeeKay-421, an administrator for Yodapedia, and fascinated with the myriad of alien life forms, in that galaxy far, far away.