Angels of Death Origins: Kill Command

Episode 1

settings scifi warhammer

The Angels of Death series on Warhammer TV is one of my favourite Warhammer shows. The Origins series provides, as its subtitle implies, prequels to the original story. The first episode, Kill Command provides the history of how Solken came to be in command of the Sword of Baal. This is my review of the episode, and it does contain spoilers.

I like the Blood Angels as a space marine chapter (the Flesh Tearers specifically, for possibly obvious name-related reasons), and Shipmistress Livia Solken is one of my favourite characters in this show. Solken is easy to appreciate, and also dangerous enough to warrant appreciation no matter how you feel about her. On one hand, Solken is a fiercely determined captain with super cool black-mask eye makeup, unshakable resolve, and a cool Imperial Naval uniform.

Picture of Shipmistress Livia Solken

On the other hand, she exists in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. That means she's a total religious and militaristic fanatic. In the Warhammer universe, though, those are good qualities to have, and I'd definitely want her on my side in a tabletop battle. Over the course of the first series, we didn't get a lot of time with Shipmistress Solken, and yet her character still stood out against the rest of the cast. By the end of the series, we knew enough about Solken to know what to expect from a prequel, and her Origins episode doesn't disappoint or betray her established character.

Kill Command opens after a catastrophic battle has left Sword of Baal crippled. Most of its bridge crew is dead, and only Livia Solken along with the Master of Ordinance and Constance, the Master of Augurs, remain. After making the executive decision to not remove the debris that has literally impaled her, for fear of bleeding out, Solken decides to assume command of the vessel. The Master of Ordinance protests based on time of service (he and Livia are equal in rank, but he's been aboard longer), and then explains that there's no use in staying to fight because firing weapons now would overheat and destroy their own gunnery deck.

Solken, practically growling with conviction, explains that it's not their duty to run from a fight. After all, Sanguinius didn't run from his fate (and he even had forewarning of his death). She says "Only those absent the darkness of despair can be permitted to sail in the black of the Void" and then shoots the Master of Ordinance, dead with a single shot.

And that's how Livia Solken became Shipmistress.

Brutality or nobility

It's hard to tell brutality from nobility in the Warhammer 40k universe, because in the wargame there's no difference. These animated shows are tabletop wargames come to life, so in the fiction there's functionally no difference as long as it's the protagonist. In this context, Shipmistress Livia Solken is the protagonist, and she's flat out unquestionably amazing.

Once she's assumed command, she must appease the machine spirit of the Sword of Baal. This is a procedure meant for a tech-priest of Mars, from the Adeptus Mechanicus, but there isn't one available so Livia decides to just do it herself. She must commune with the machine spirit to appease it, so that it'll respond to her commands and take vengeance upon the Aeldari that hurt it. Her promise? "I'm going to hurt you. But it is as a flesh wound compared to the scar I'm about to inflict upon my soul. In the name of vengeance, it must be done."

They don't call her "Shipmistress" for nothing.

The scar upon her soul is something I'll leave for you to discover, and it's worth watching. This is a dark episode (hey, it's Warhammer 40,000), but it's a good one.

Life and death on a battleship

Solken is the captain of a battleship, and this isn't Star Trek. This episode takes place entirely on battleships like the Sword of Baal, and mostly in CIC. But this is Warhammer, and there's an abundance of nuance to something even as simple as the helm or the captain's throne. The post-industrial Gothic cathedral that serves as the interiours of the ship is stunning, and the characters populating them drive the story in this one. The stage is a battlefield, but the story is about human resilience, at least by the twisted standards of Warhammer. You might even call it "uplifting".

You shouldn't call it uplifting, because actually it's the most terrifying psychological horror imaginable. A ship full of zealots willing to sacrifice themselves and others in the name of xenophobic slaughter performed in the name of a fascist overlord isn't uplifting. But in context of Warhammer, that's actually a comforting and inspiring tale of faith in the human spirit, and Shipmistress Livia Solken is the obstinately reverent exemplar. Translate this to the tabletop and it makes more sense. If you're playing Aeldari, this story is sad and full of atrocities. If you're playing forces of the Imperium, the same story is an uplifting tale because you win. As in real life, history is written by the victors, and this episode is the history of an Imperial Naval battle that went well for the Imperium of Man.

Most of what Solken does in this episode, I'd have likely guessed she'd do, were I given a multiple choice quiz. I like that because I felt like I knew her going into this episode and didn't want to be disappointed. This isn't a Boba Fett moment, where you discover that the image you had of a character was illusory.

But that doesn't mean the episode is predictable. There are some good surprises. Solken communes with a machine spirit and emerges triumphant. She truly does revere Sanguinius, which I didn't know. I didn't know how she felt about the Astartes at all, in fact, aside from respecting them for their formal nobility and running their carpool. It was nice to gain insight into her worldview (sick and twisted by the lens of Warhammer though it may be).

What didn't work in this episode, maybe more than others, was body animation. I guess the animators must have put the bulk of the work into facial animation, because most of that looks amazing. But the bodies just didn't get animated. People move as if they have only a swivel in their hip and no movement whatsoever in their torso. The poor Master of Augurs stands around like a puppet, her arms crook and motionless.

Puppets that forgot to get animated.

Everybody does this, and it can be painful to watch. I suspect that an episode entirely about humans probably came as a surprise to the production studio, though. Surely the original scope of work was 90% space marine animation, whose ceramite armour doesn't have a full range of motion. There's no nuance to space marine armour. Switching gears for one episode to a cast that's 98% human and 2% Aeldari must have taxed the animators, and maybe even strained the tools they were using. I can only assume that their models by default are rigged for space marine movement. Really really expressive faces and only the most basic movements everywhere else. At least in a hand-drawn show like Hammer and Bolter, directors can use clever cheats to save animators from long hours, but it's harder to cheat the cinéma vérité style of Angels of Death.

I can't imagine these shows have much of a budget, though, and the quality they do achieve is impressive. The facial animation is sometimes impossibly good. And anyway, what the animation lacks is made up for by character development, story, and that unbelievably good Jonathan Hartman score.

This episode is one of my favourites of the series, I think, and it solidifies Shipmistress Livia Solken as one of my favourite Warhammer 40K characters. Well worth watching.

Close-up of Shipmistress Livia Solken

All images in this post copyright Games Workshop.

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