Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Geek Memories: Star Wars!


starwars_poster4Well, I'm going to be feeling real foolish if December comes, and the new Star Wars movie ends up being delayed for whatever reason... but the heck with it, I'm writing this in August, and I have a production schedule to keep up!

Star Wars is an integral part of my life, and has been since 1977. I've written before (like here) about it, but since the new movie is coming out this month, I thought I'd revisit it, just for old times' sake.

I'd been a science fiction fan for about as long as I can remember, much as I've been a fan of comics. Some of my earliest childhood memories relate to wanting to see SF TV shows that were currently running (such as Land of the Giants, for example) that my parents decided, for whatever reason, wasn't appropriate for me. Other than on Saturday morning TV and what movies and TV shows were run on the local syndicated station (Channel 11, now known as KSTW, but I seem to recall it had different call letters when I was a kid), my elementary school years mostly had science fiction exposure in books, such as Space Cat and its sequels, or other books from the local library and school library.

I didn't get to watch Star Trek until it was in syndication five nights a week; as I believe I've written before, when my mom saw her first episode of Trek, it was "Man Trap" with the salt vampire, and she figured it was going to be another "monster-of-the-week" show like she perceived Outer Limits to be, and therefore we didn't watch it on NBC. I think even before Trek, I was treated to watching Thunderbirds, the Gerry Anderson marionette SF show, which was being shown at 7:00 pm Monday through Friday on the local NBC affiliate.

Anyway, I digress but slightly. Star Trek was what really got me into science fiction big-time, and by junior high school, I was very much into it... I'd bought and read the James Blish books (mostly adaptations of the episodes in short story form, aside from the original Spock Must Die!), had T-shirts, models, and a smattering of toys... but I wasn't connecting with other Star Trek fans until I went to my first-ever convention, which was held by the Puget Sound Star Trekkers, which had the end result of my joining their Tacoma, Washington group (which I've written about more extensively elsewhere).

It was through this group that I first heard of Star Wars. PSST was either gone or fading away, and our club had aligned itself with the Northwest Science Fiction Society (sort of), which, among other things, organizes the annual Norwescon (which I've also written about before). Somehow, NWSFS (pronounced "Nizz-Fizz" for short) had contacted the theater in Seattle that was debuting Star Wars, and arranged for advance ticket sales that would let our massive group be the first in the theater.

marvel_04_78_01I don't recall seeing the trailer for Star Wars before this, and had only heard some peripheral things about it. I probably saw at least one article in Starlog before the movie came out that didn't stay with me, so I went in with a completely open mind, and no expectations.

As I've said here before, I was completely blown away by it. From the opening blare of trumpets from John Williamson's score to the award ceremony at the end of the movie, I was hooked as I could be! I had to see it again, and I would... at least ten times altogether, including one day a group of us went back to the same theater to watch it twice in a row, some months later. I remember going to a theater in Tacoma to see Star Wars on the one-year anniversary of its original release... and it had never stopped being shown in theaters that whole year!

Think about that for a few minutes. Even the most popular blockbuster movies these days don't stay in the theaters for more than a few months at best! I suspect it's because these days, before a movie even gets into the theaters, the DVD release is already scheduled, and production is underway on that, so they can't keep it in the theaters if you can buy it for home viewing.

I don't remember the last time I saw the original version of Star Wars in the theater, but I suspect that it had to be when my buddy Jim Cobb (you may have heard of him, he was a writer of several successful novels, and passed away about a year ago) was the manager of the Lakewood Theater, which no longer exists, but was a smaller theater that would usually show movies that weren't in general release. This was where I saw Creature From the Black Lagoon and It Came From Outer Space in 3-D, the original King Kong for the first time, Wizards, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and several other movies, many of which are cult classics.

Anyway, they were showing Star Wars one summer when my cousin Lisa and her family were visiting from St. Paul, Minnesota, and I learned that she had never seen Star Wars! Oh, she and a friend of hers had bought tickets for it, but then snuck into the screen showing Saturday Night Fever instead (what kind of priorities did she have? Oh, that's right, she was a teenage girl). I made a call to Jim, and he okayed us going to see it for free... and even opened up the balcony just for our little group! It was a different perspective looking "down" at the screen, especially that first shot with the Star Destroyer!

We all know these days about how Kenner got caught with their pants down on the whole Star Wars toys thing... they couldn't gear up for production fast enough to get toys on the shelves for that first Christmas after the release of the movie (something nobody's ever failed to do since then... in fact, toys based on a movie are often out a month or more ahead of the movie's release, sometimes spoiling elements of the plot), so all they had for sale was an "Early Bird" kit, which was basically an envelope with a form you could mail off to receive the first set of figures when they were finally made. I didn't go for this at all... although when that first wave did make it into the stores finally, I did buy the initial set (and lost them over the years). I had Luke, Leia, Obi-Wan, Vader, Han, Chewie, 3PO, and R2-D2... I don't remember if a stormtrooper was part of the first set or not. I didn't play with them... although they did come out of the package.


Later, I'd get a smattering of other Star Wars toys here and there... a metal die-cast TIE Fighter purchased at Penney's (back when they had a toy department during Christmas time), the Millennium Falcon model kit produced by MPC (that original kit had a set of lights to simulate the engine glow, but I had to modify it myself... I didn't like that you had to basically open the model up to turn the lights on or off, so I bought an external switch and wired that in). Actually, that's probably about it. 

For a time, a friend and I were busy producing unauthorized Darth Vader pendants, created by tracing a photo of Vader's head into Shrinky Dinks sheets and baking them, and then putting them on strings. We mostly sold these to members of the SF club for a buck each. 

My favorite character at the time was Han Solo, who I saw as the unsung hero of the movie. Sure, Luke was the one who blew up the Death Star, but if it weren't for Solo's showing up at the last second and blowing up the TIE fighters on his tail (and sending Vader spinning into space), Luke wouldn't have had his shot! I had a white shirt and black pants, so with the addition of a vest my mom made and a pair of boots, I had a Han Solo outfit I wore to a few functions (this would be my first cosplay at all), mostly smaller conventions, although I did wear it to that anniversary of Star Wars in the theaters. Looking back on it now, it was way off in more ways than one... but as a kid, it was perfect for me, even with the Ricochet Racer toy I painted black to use as a blaster (it looked more like a Stormtrooper blaster than Solo's gun, so I just said he hung onto it after escaping the Death Star).

My brother Jeff was just as much into Star Wars as I was... he even went so far as to make a homemade Darth Vader costume, with a surplus Army helmet as the base for the helmet, and a homemade lightsaber he made with a flashlight and a plastic golf club protector (they were white tubes placed in a golf bag that the handles fit in... we knew about those because our dad golfed and had them). 

I never bought the original Star Wars comics from Marvel, but when they were reprinted in tabloid format, I did get them and read them, as well as the novelization by "George Lucas" (which I later learned was ghost written by Alan Dean Foster... apparently there was a first printing of this novel that was published prior to the movie, in which Luke's last name was Starkiller, and is probably pretty valuable these days). I bought magazines galore about Star Wars, including a one-shot published by Warren that claimed the droids were actual robots! Of course, we know that in some shots, R2-D2 was a remote-controlled robot that barely behaved itself, but in most shots, it was Kenny Baker inside controlling it. 

empirestrikesback_poster6I had ideas for other Star Wars things I wanted to do... such as making a two-person Bantha costume that would have a Tusken Raider riding it, which could be controlled via rods... but I didn't get to any of those at all. 

By the time The Empire Strikes Back came out, I was more than ready for it, and saw it opening day, naturally! I didn't see it in the theaters nearly as much as the original... probably only four or five times. In the interim, I had seen a TV special on the making of the first movie, and would watch the one about the making of ESB. Of course, I saw The Star Wars Holiday Special that came out the Christmas before ESB, which was the first introduction to Boba Fett to fans, and I was less than impressed with that! I also have fond memories of seeing Mark Hamill and the droids appear on The Muppet Show, with an extended segment with Hamill playing Luke Skywalker (with Miss Piggy as Princess Leia, and Gonzo as Vader).

I still wasn't buying the Marvel Star Wars comic on any kind of regular basis, but I was a faithful reader of the comic strip in the newspaper, first drawn by the legendary Russ Manning, and later by the just as legendary Al Williamson, with Archie Goodwin writing most of them. Truth be told, Star Wars was just too big a concept for newspaper comics!

By the time Return of the Jedi came out, I was in the Navy, going to journalism school in Indianapolis, and a buddy and I went to see it, although I'd spoiled myself on a few things by reading the novelization the night before. I remember feeling disappointed by it for the most part, especially with the introduction of the Ewoks (I never have seen the Ewok TV movies, nor did I see their animated cartoon -- or Droids for that matter). If I'd only known then about Jar Jar Binks, I would've thought better of them!

I'd started buying Marvel's Star Wars comic by this time, and continued to do so until its cancellation. I'd also bought the original novels Splinter of the Mind's Eye, as well as Brian Daley's Han Solo books, just to get some new Star Wars in my life... I had no idea how long the dry spell would end up being after this!

Let's step back a little bit... because Star Wars had an impact beyond the movies, TV specials, books, toys and so forth. It affected pop culture in ways that didn't say "Star Wars" on them!

Ideal's "Knight of Darkness"
Of course, what comes immediately to mind are the imitations or things "inspired" by Star Wars. One of the most popular of these was Battlestar Galactica, which had many elements that were familiar from the movies... a less popular one was the low-budget Battle Beyond the Stars. Even toys were copying Star Wars... Tomland reissued some of their monster action figures as "Star Raiders," while Ideal recycled their Captain Action body with a new head and costume as the Lord of Darkness or something like that. Frankly, I'm amazed that I haven't come across any AHI toys that copied the look or feel of Star Wars, but it's likely they were making plenty of money from their Batman, Spider-Man, Star Trek, and other licensed lines (plus their other lines that were knock-offs from lines they didn't have licenses to do). Even the later Buck Rogers in the 25th Century owed its very existence to Star Wars.

One thing those movies did show was that there was money to be made from science fiction, or anything looking like science fiction... Paramount, which had been developing a revival of Star Trek for television, decided to switch gears and go for a big-budget Star Trek movie, instead. I'm pretty sure that Star Wars also helped lead the way for other SF movies, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There are probably other shows and movies I'm forgetting that owed their existence to Star Wars. Ah, yes, I'd imagine Ark II, Space Academy, and Jason of Star Command owe a lot to it.

Tomland's "Star Raiders" were repackaged from earlier monster figures.
Even long after the initial trilogy came out, it was easy to see how Star Wars had pervaded pop culture... the early days of home computers had their fair share of games that were inspired by SW, and I recall that sound clips from the movies were popular among owners of Apple computers (at one of my employers, I'd set up the Mac so it would start up with a picture of Vader and the sound bite, "There is no escape... don't make me destroy you!" from The Empire Strikes Back). You could find references to the characters, spaceships, and so on pretty much everywhere you went. 

Battlestar Galactica surely owes its existence to
Star Wars' success!
It was with a lot of excitement that I read the news that Lucas was going to be releasing the original trilogy with updated special effects, and I and my first wife saw all three "Special Edition" releases in the theaters. We enjoyed seeing these again on the big screen, but a lot of the stuff that was added tended to be more of a distraction than anything else (an exception was the appearance of Jabba the Hutt in the first movie, which had been cut from the original release). Instead of simply enjoying watching the trilogy on the big screen, I found myself looking for what was added or inserted. 

After that, the hype began for the prequels. Lucas had been quoted in interviews before that he saw Star Wars as a nine-film saga, with the original trilogy being the middle part... but once the prequels started being hyped, he denied ever saying such a thing, instead claiming he only wanted to do the prequels. My understanding is that he took greater control over them than he had on Empire and Jedi.

The Phantom Menace, of course, was Episode I... and honestly, I was less than impressed. As if Jar Jar Binks wasn't bad enough, there was the whole Midi-Cloridans (or whatever the hell they were called) being used as a test to see if someone was connected enough with the Force to be a Jedi. 

Another toy that was definitely inspired from Star Wars... it even vaguely resembles
an X-Wing, but with the cockpit pushed forward... there's even what looks like
an R2 unit in the same location!
I didn't buy it, and neither did the fans of the original trilogy. That, plus Anakin being the creator of C-3PO??? And never once realizing that the droid that Chewbacca had on Bespin was the same droid he invented? Was this model so well-done that he was copied by all the others of his kind that we saw in the movies? 

Honestly, the best part of The Phantom Menace was how attractive Queen Amidala was, and not in her royal robes, either. Anakin was annoying as hell, Jar Jar was annoying as hell, and I was annoyed as hell. I watched it twice in the theaters to give it a proper chance, but it was very meh.

I had higher hopes for Episode II, but that proved to be disappointing for me as well. Honestly, when Episode III came out, I felt that was what the prequels should have been, more or less, but expanded into three movies. The end sequence, where we see the fast forward of Anakin becoming Vader, and leading up to the start of construction on the Death Star... that could've easily been a prequel all on its own, or even two!

Honestly, I think a lot of the problem here was the wait between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace. So much time had gone by that fans of the original trilogy had their own ideas as to what they expected from the prequels, and nobody was likely to be pleased. My son, Tristan, prefers the prequels to the original trilogy (one Halloween, he got a Jedi Knight outfit to wear, and said he was dressed as Anakin, completely ignoring that he becomes the villain).

I have higher hopes for this new sequel, Episode VII... after all, we have most of the original cast involved (I know we'll see Han, Chewie, Leia, Luke, and the droids, but I haven't heard that Lando will be there at all), although I'd imagine that they will more or less be around to pass the torch on to the new core group of characters. We've seen a lot of stories that take place after Jedi, both in novels and in the comics, but who knows how much of that will turn out to be canon?

Still, no matter how good or bad this movie is, there's always the original trilogy to go back to. Those three films will always be Star Wars to me, despite their flaws. They had a heart to them, a sense of adventure, a way that drew you in to them that made you care about this group of characters who had no connection to your reality at all. They became friends of a sort, people that you felt you knew and cared about. It will be great to see them again after all this time, no matter what age has done to them in the meantime.

Now, if you'll pardon me, I think I need to start looking for tickets to the premiere showing!

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