Doctor Aphra: Explaining Star Wars' biggest off-screen star
Star Wars' best bad girl is strictly comics-only... for now.
One of the great joys of Star Wars is that you never really know who among the galaxy’s thousands of unique characters is going to be its next star. Like classic short story collections such as Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina or From a Certain Point of View, it could be one of those weird looking aliens at the bar where Obi-Wan cut off a guy’s arm. It could be that one cool looking dude with the jetpack and the rocket launcher who a blind Han Solo knocked into a pit by accident. It could even be some guy who died before the original movie even started, whose existence is barely suggested by the opening crawl. Part of the fun of identifying where Star Wars could expand next is trying to pick out which of its many stars has the most interesting story to tell. And among Star Wars fans, at least over the past 7 years or so, one of our favorite subjects to consider has been an impish little miscreant by the name of Doctor Aphra.
You won’t find Doctor Aphra in any Star Wars movie or TV show – not even for a single frame. That one dude in Empire Strikes Back who runs out of Cloud City with an ice cream maker technically has more cinematic bona fides. But in Star Wars’ wider publishing landscape of the past decade, there are few more compelling characters with more story to tell.
Before we get into who Aphra is, and before you even ask it, we’ll answer your first question: she’s a doctor in archaeology. Don’t ask her for a prescription, she’s not that kind of doctor. Mostly droids take care of that in the Star Wars galaxy, anyway. Considering that civilization in Star Wars appears to be mostly salvage-based, that sort of work is particularly important, and in high demand by people in power. But it’s not Aphra’s doctorate that makes her so endearing: it’s her unbridled enthusiasm for the things that should be terrifying, and her tendency to plunge into danger before scrambling away from the metaphorical giant boulder pursuing her around every corner – and how every single terrible situation she finds herself in, more or less, is entirely her fault. Let’s get to know the hot mess that is Chelli Lona Aphra.
The Vader Problem
Doctor Aphra began as an elegant solution to a tricky narrative problem. In 2015, with Star Wars fandom boiling to a fever pitch in anticipation of The Force Awakens, Marvel Comics released a brand new line of Star Wars comics which would take place entirely within Disney’s new streamlined continuity, pared down from the cruft of the former 'Expanded Universe' to the films, the Clone Wars television series, and any new material released after the Disney acquisition. As part of the line, Kieron Gillen was assigned to Darth Vader: a book about a character largely defined by his ominous, stoic presence and terrifying cold rage. All elements which make him one of the greatest villains of all time, but… not necessarily great protagonist material.
To tell a Darth Vader story, what you really need is someone a little more relatable, a little more human, for Vader’s enormous presence to play off. You’ve gotta give Batman a Robin, so to speak. But who would be the kind of person that an audience could root for while working with an organization intentionally coded after real world fascism? How could any lovable character survive the literally suffocating presence of Darth Vader for longer than their first inevitable blunder or show of conscience? What kind of maniac would even put themselves in the situation of becoming Darth Vader’s Buddy Cop?
Gillen’s answer, as told in interviews and in the collected Darth Vader Vol. 2: an inverted Indiana Jones, debuting in 2015's Darth Vader #3.
Doctor Aphra is Star Wars' reverse Indiana Jones
Perhaps what makes Vader and Aphra such a good match is that they’re both creatures of obsession. Darth Vader’s obsession is with what was taken from him, what he failed to protect, and earning the place at the center of the galaxy he was always told he was destined for. Aphra’s obsession is with things. Pointy things. Explodey things. Cruel and horrible things. If it’s something that can really hurt someone, something nobody should have, Doctor Aphra wants it. Why? Who can say. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism related to her trauma from growing up in a fractured and constantly endangered home. That’s not for us to say, even it we did just say it. But at any rate, with her background in techno-archaeology, she’s exactly the person you would need to unlock the ancient weapons of the past if you happen to be an embarrassed lapdog to the Emperor whose very expensive Death Star base just happened to blow up on your watch.
The other important thing Aphra is, after a salvager of dangerous things, is a survivor. She will compromise every principle, leave everyone and everything she cares about behind, if it means living another day. And so, when Vader picks Aphra up to help rebuild his damaged reputation in the Empire, Aphra does whatever she can to keep her delicate neck an inch out of reach from the Sith Lord’s ruby lightsaber.
By the end of Gillen’s two years on Darth Vader, Aphra had earned both an unlikely escape and her own ongoing series also by Gillen, further exploring her own chaotic misadventures unlocking superweapons, trying to strike a balance between getting rich and staying alive, and consistently alienating an expanding supporting cast – such as a few key love interests, the charmingly homicidal Triple Zero and BT-1, and a black-furred Wookiee bounty hunter known and feared throughout the galaxy as the notorious Black Krrsantan. If you’ve seen The Book of Boba Fett on Disney+, then you’ve already met.
Currently, Aphra is starring in her second ongoing series by Alyssa Wong with artist Minkyu Jung, currently set in the year between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Will she survive the end of the war? We wouldn’t bet against her. Doctor Aphra is the ultimate survivor. All we know for sure is that she’s going to cause a lot of collateral damage along the way.
The loves of Doctor Aphra
All right, let’s talk about it: Chelli Lona Aphra is gay as hell. The only thing that rivals her attraction to dangerous tech and dangerous droids is dangerous women. There have been queer characters in Star Wars before, but none whose queerness has been so central to their expression and identity as the protagonist of their own story quite like Aphra before. Any story that really gets into who Doctor Aphra is will be, by definition, a queer narrative. Historically, that’s something which Star Wars’ comics and novels have been a lot more free to explore than we’ve seen in films and television, with even the barest gestures towards cinematic representation cut for international markets.
Aphra’s had many flirtations, dalliances, and problematic crushes over the years from her time at university to bumping up against major crime rings in the Galactic Civil War, but so far two great love interests: one, the smuggler Sana Starros, an ex-beau she happens to share with one Han Solo; the other, the now-reformed Imperial officer Magna Tolvan, who chased Aphra through her first ongoing series like Javert pursuing Jean Valjean. In reckless pursuit of her target which, over time, slowly burned from frustration to romance, it was Tolvan who first gave voice to how we all truly feel about our horrible goblin child:
Coming Soon to Disney+?
So what’s next for Doctor Aphra? As the first original character outside of the films to support her own title since the Disney Star Wars era, it’s not too difficult to speculate that some folks at Lucas are interested in exploring her further. It’s clear that Marvel, at least, believes in the character. She’s had two ongoing comic series, an audiobook adaptation of her original Darth Vader arc, and several action figures.
But is she really popular enough to make the jump to a wider audience? The last time Diamond Comic Distributors made Marvel’s sales figures public, back in March 2022, indicated that the latest issues of Aphra were selling under 40 thousand copies monthly. In comparison, analytics company Samba TV reported that about 1.5 million people watched the Book of Boba Fett season finale with her boy Krrsantan. But that might not mean as much as you’d think. Everyone who’s gotten to know Aphra has been charmed by her roguish, Wariolike manic obsession with the dangerous and valuable. It may just be a matter of getting her in front of the right audience.
And, you know. If Disney is willing to promote an explicitly, openly gay Star Wars character to their general international viewing public. We’re hopeful, but… well, consider us pleasantly surprised if they go for it.
The Queer history of Star Wars: A comprehensive timeline.