Friday, May 25, 2007

Star Wars and Me.

Thirty years ago today, while I had just mastered solid food and was embarking on the tricky business of learning to walk, a tiny little independent movie was released in a small number of cinemas in the USA. It was distruibuted by 20th Century Fox, who were the only studio willing to distribute what seemed to everyone else to be an obvious turkey.

At that point in time the movie in question was simply titles "Star Wars", and had yet to gain it's subtitle of "Episode IV: A New Hope", and while I was far too young to go to the cinema to see it (being still in nappies), when it finally made it to this side of the Atlantic (early in 1978, I believe) it captured the imagination of a generation of children - my sister's generation. I think she only got to see the film at the cinema once, but she read the novel and the Marvel UK reprint of the comic book adaptation and commiteed them to memory. She was, in her school playground, THE Star Wars expert. She knew EVERYTHING.

Now, my big sister is fab, and I've always wanted to be just like her (apart from the whole having breasts and being a girl part) and so it's no great shock that I inherited her reverence of Star Wars. In 1980 a sequel was released, The Empire Strikes Back, and despite turning four in the year of its release, I can still recall being taken to the cinema to see it. I don't recall actually watching it as I fell asleep (hey, I was, like, three!), all I remember is a lot of white and then...a lot of black as I was asleep. Ah well...

Despite being a girl, my sister had, I seem to recall, built up a collection of Star wars toys, and as she grew older and moved onto being interested in Tears for Fears, dressing as a "futurist" and sitting in her room being miserable about the boy of the week, these were passed on to me, and I still vividly recall the birthday that I received the Millennium Falcon on, and the Christmas that saw the Empire strike back (sorry) with their very own AT-AT. I remember sending off for the accessory kit which meant that my Luke Skywalker figure could finally use a grappling line to attack the AT-AT, and receiving Nein-Numb through the post. (Oh, and I...ahem...inherited my sister's copies of the novelisation of A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back and Splinter of the Mind's Eye - she's welcome to try and retrieve these from my cold, dead hands someday...).

And I recall being in a small newsagent/post office kind of shop and seeing a paperback version of the comic book adaptation of the new film, just two weeks before its release. I couldn't resist, and begged my mum to buy it for me, thus ruining every surprise that Return of the Jedi had in store for me, but I didn't care - this was MY Star wars film, that I could finally see on the big screen. I was seven years old, and Star Wars was my world. I think that I got to go and see it for my birthday, with my best friend from down the road. It was about the same time we moved to our new house.

My father must have drawn some kind of short straw, because I clearly remember him taking me to see BOTH Ewok films at the cinema. I can't think what he did to deserve this. Presumably my mother had to endure some kind of shopping trip with my sisters (I have two, the other one never really caught the Star Wars bug like we did).

Something interesting happened shortly after this, the video rental revolution. The release of the Star Wars trilogy to rent on video helped to spur this on, and the release of the Empire Strikes Back to rent, just happened to coincide with my being off school for a week, aged 8, while I recovered from, ahem, a popular Jewish operation. The store said that my mum was the second person to rent ESB, she'd had to put her name down on a waiting list. I'd seen A New Hope on TV, of course, and Jedi at the cinema the year before...but now I could finally hear those chilling words "No, Luke....I am your father..."

Gradually the toys started to disappear from the shelves...but I still loved Star Wars. I joined the Fan Club, and devoured every issue of Bantha Tracks, hoping for news of the rumoured Sequels and Prequels (this was looong before we had the internet to discuss such things). I begged my parents to buy me a replica Luke Skywalker Dagobah fatigues jacket...they did...I looked so cool in that....heh...

Then the films were released to own on VHS, and my mum ordered them specially from the video store for my Christmas present, all three films (looking back, that can't have been cheap...thanks mum and dad!), unfortunately only A New Hope arrived in time for Christmas day, and it had no sound! I don't remember being too disappointed though - I knew that i was going to own all three films and could watch them as much as I wanted.

And then came the dark times...the fan club had to close down because there simply wasn't enough interest in Star Wars to keep it going. They promised to let me know when and if it started up again (they didn't). It's strange, most histories of the last thirty years of Star Wars seem to forget this time existed. I always get frustrated when I hear some celeb saying how they've ALWAYS loved Star Wars and have ALWAYS been a huge fan. But there was a time when no-one, save us faithful few, loved Star Wars. It was old news, forgotten, people simply moved on. I picked up the Han Solo trilogy of novels for next to nothing at a car boot sale, but there was nothing new coming out.

Then Star Wars started to come back. Again, most histories of Star Wars go a little wrong here too, as they cite Timothy Zahn's excellent trilogy of Star Wars novels as being what resurrected Star Wars, but it started before that. To my recollection, there were two things that seriously brought about the rebirth of Star Wars, one was the advent of "Widescreen" and the re-release of the original trilogy in this new format (again, another Christmas present from my mother, and, again, only A New Hope on Christmas Day...but the joy of watching the WHOLE trilogy, with nothing shaved off the sides - it was like watching all three films for the first time again - even if we did onyl have a tiny 15" TV to watch them on at the time!). The second thing that resurrected Star Wars, in my view, was the West End Games roleplaying game. OK, so I had no-one to play it with, but I devoure dthe rule book and the source books, immersing myself in my favourite fictional universe. Oh, and, in the back of the roleplaying game rule book - there was an application form to join the NEW fan club...

And so I was introduced to the joys of Star Wars Insider, and the catalogue that filled its centre pages. Oh, and for some reason, my dad had forgotten to give me any pocket money for, like, a year, and so owed me big time...and there, in the catalogue, was a shiny Don Post replica Darth Vader helmet. If only Tony had nominated me for a "You Look Like a Dark Lord of the Sith" award...

It's hard to get everything in chronological order, but, at some point, LucasArts brought out two of the greatest PC games ever....X-Wing and Dark Forces (OK, Dark Forces wasn't one of the greatest games ever, but its sequel, Jedi Knight, was). I fully emersed myself in these digital version of that galaxy far, far away...but there was one thing I steadfastly resisted - those darn Timothy Zahn novels. They weren't by Lucas, they weren' canon, and I didn't want to read them (feel free to imagine me huffing and crossing my arms here).

Then, when I was eighteen, I was called up to do jury duty, and rightly anticipating a lot of sitting around and waiting, I decided to buy a book to occupy my time...and....yes...I caved and bought Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn. Roughly 100 books later, and my bookshelf is groaning under the weight of my Star Wars novel collection. It's had it's high point and lowpoints, and I'm still trying to regain my enthusiasm for the series in the wake of the disappointing New Jedi Order, but it's certainly help keep my love of the Saga alive.

This is going on a bit, isn't it? Suffice it to say that Star Wars was back, and following the success of the Expanded Universe, the roleplaying game, and the rerelease of Star Wars in Widescreen on VHS, Lucas decided to rerelease the trilogy in 1997 on the big screen for teh series' 20th anniversary. Somewhat controversially, he used the assocaited restoration project to return to the movies and, in his view, finish what he'd begun. Advances in sfx in the ensuing twenty years meant that scenes and effects that were well beyond the technology available to him in 1977 could now be fully realised according to his original vision. Now, arguments about who shot first aside, I personally loved the '97 special editions, although I'm less sure about some of the changes made to the recent DVD releases.

Little did we know at the time, but the work on the special editions was just a warm up for the big event - Lucas was finally ready to take the plunge and make a film that had to live up to over twenty years worth of fan expectations, a film that needed to surpass the dreams and imaginings of millions of people who were now well into adulthood, and had spent their life wondering about thing only hinted at in the original trilogy. The clone wars. The Dark Lords of the Sith. Could Lucas possibly make a film that could satisfy these people. Of course not...that would have been on a par with producing documentary footage that prooved that Father Christmas was alive and well and living at the North Pole with a small army of elves. The Phantom Menace could do nothing but disappoint. Despite breathtaking ligthsaber fights, and one of the most spectacular action sequences in movie history - the podrace - we simply weren't eight anymore.

That's not to say that Lucas doesn't take any of the blame - perhaps bringing some other people in to help with the script would have helped him see that Jar Jar Binks was...ah...possibly annoying...and that the Neimodians seemed to be a little too Japanese for modern sensitivities. But, nevertheless, this was Star Wars, and I'm still reserving judgement on all of the prequels until I've lived with them for at least a decade.

Attack of the Clones was a step in the right direction - although no-one was buying the "chemistry" between Anakin and Padme...and Revenge of the Sith perhaps saw the series return to, at the very least, Return of the Jedi levels. But for me, the feel of the original series has been more kept alive in the expanded universe. I have more of a fondness for the likes of Mara Jade, Kyle Katarn and Corran Horn than I do for Qui Gon jinn, Padme Amidala and Mace Windu.

So...Star Wars is thirty. Thank you George Lucas, for firing my imagination for three decades. Without Star Wars there'd be no Battlestar Galactica, no Star Trek Movies...Next Generation, DS9, Voyager or Enterprise, there'd be no Firefly or Serenity...there'd be no Spaceballs, Hardware Wars, Revelations or Threads of Destiny...and...of course...there'd be no Slam Ridley.

There are rumours of a new film, set in the time of the Knights of the Old Republic, but I don't believe a word of it. Rather, Star Wars is set to return to the place where it's enjoyed the most the form of videos and dvds...Star Wars is coming to television, in the form of a live action series, and a CGI series. We can only hope that Lucas will solely function as executive producer on these and, like the expanded universe, hand the reigns over to a new generation of writers, who have a real feel for what Star Wars IS, rather than what he always wanted it to be. Less Jedi....more scruffy looking nerf-herders and their beaten up tramp freighters that have got it where it counts...


The Expanded Universe Blog said...

What a remarkable post. Thanks for sharing your Star Wars memories with us.

DJ said...

I salute you!

I do have to differ though, on your interpretation of the resurrection of SW. I DO believe it was the Zahn novels that re-energized things. The reason I say that is because it wasn't just Lucas rehashing things[the SE's were good mind you, but still, same old, same old] but a continuation. The "The Rest of the Story" type thing :-)

Either way. Nice post!