A Study in The Force: Star Wars on Television (1978 – 2016)

08 May

Star Wars Television

Star Wars was born at the movies.  It thrived there and when it tried to jump to another medium, it often had a slow start.  I refer to books, video games and, of course, television.  The history of Star Wars on television begins almost as soon as the movies began but it didn’t get good until the prequels.

For its journey to the small screen Star Wars didn’t start off very well.  Its debut on the tube was an inane TV special so awful that is has not only become legendary but it has rolled over into admiration.  “The Star Wars Holiday Special” was a 1978 semi-pseudo variety special that fused together Star Wars with the production values of a bad Saturday Morning kid’s show, and incorporating former sitcom stars desperately in need of work – that being Bea Arthur, Art Carney, Harvey Korman and Diahann Carroll (she absolutely adores you).  For whatever reasons, those actors are in the center here.  Briefly seen around the edges of this mess are the stars of the movie – Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, Boba Fett and R2D2 and C3PO – you know, that actor we WANT to SEE!!

The movie is a Friendship Quilt of horrible scenes.  It’s so bad that it has become something of a legend.  Yet, it’s not something that’s easy to sit through.  It’s bad, really bad, unwatchable bad.  When it tries to funny, it’s painful; when it tries to be touching it’s funny.  When it tries to be entertaining, it’s embarrassing.  The notes are a mixed bag here.  There are ugly Wookiees, glam rock, Wookiee porn, Mark Hamill in guy-liner, and a bizarre moment when Carrie Fisher sings the theme to Star Wars with lyrics.  I realize that Fisher is known for her history with drug abuse, but here she is so glassy-eyed, she looks as if she just climbed out the window at Betty Ford.

This is not the Star Wars universe; it’s a version of the Star Wars universe hammered quickly together by network television to cash in on the brand name.  I wouldn’t want to think of the Star Wars cannon having a scene in which the all-mighty Empire takes time out to shut down the cantina at Mos Eisley.

Yet, the post-Star Wars generation doesn’t realize is where this special came from.  Nobody had any indication that this movie would be a hit, let alone a global phenomenon.  People wanted merchandise; they wanted something, anything with Star Wars attached to it.  This is what the public wanted.  And you know?  I think Star Wars history is more colorful for it.

Nothing would appear on television in a scripted series until after Return of the Jedi.  With Lucas reluctant to get moving on another Star Wars movie, ABC took the reins again and decided on a Saturday morning kid’s show.

Enter: “Droids”, a half-caf prequel to A New Hope that follows the adventures of R2-D2 and C3PO in the years leading up to their fateful meeting with Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker.  This show follows their adventures with four different owners Thall Jobin, Jann Tosh, Mungo Baobab and a self-sustaining droid known as The Great Heep – Oh those Star Wars names!

The series deals in four cycles as the droids are passed from one owner to the next, all of whom apparently live on planets that are deserts.  The missions are at least differentiated – the first deals with the destruction of an all-powerful weapon; the second deals with the droids trying to help a prince reclaim the throne; the third deals with the search for some legendary rune stones and the fourth deals with The Great Heep powering himself by draining astromechs of their power.

The series has its moments but it isn’t very Star Wars.  In fact, it’s made to be very un-Star Wars.  ABC threw out the original ideas by the show’s creators for being “Too Star Wars-y” (that’s an actual quote) and went in a different direction.  That meant very few cameos from existing Star Wars characters and no actual Star Wars music (the music they used is pretty good, it was written by Stewart Copeland, the drummer for The Police).  The result is a mixed bag.  It’s a kid’s show from top to bottom and it’s nice to see R2 and 3PO’s adventures (despite one episode where R2 break-dances!).  It never caught on and only lasted one season.

“Ewoks” had a slightly better response.  Released just a year after “Droids” it lasted two season and followed the adventures of Wicket and his friends before the Rebellion showed up – a time which they could speak perfect English?!  The story dealt with Wicket, Teebo, Princess Kneesaa, Chief Chirpa and the clumsy wizard Latara trying to help protect their village from Morag the Tulga and their rival species The Duloks.  Plus there’s some nonsense about an ancient stone called The Sunstar that can blast light.  There’s magic in this series, not the force, but actual magic.  But it’s the kind of cartoon magic in which the powers are vague and are only used to point and shine bright pretty lights.  This makes you wonder why the Ewoks didn’t use the Sunstar against the Empire.

The series takes place before Return of the Jedi, but it isn’t until the final episode when any real connection is made.  That’s when The Empire becomes interested in getting their hands on the Sunstar.  Why?  Your guess is as good as mine.

On the heels of the two animated series, George Lucas agreed to turn out two TV movies in an effort to overcome the embarrassment of the Holiday Special.  This time he would have complete control.  The result was a pair of TV movies centered on The Ewoks and their associate with the Towani Family.  First was “Caravan of Courage,” the story of how the family got shipwrecked on Endor and had to find each other again.  The second was “Battle for Endor”  a slightly disturbing follow-up that finds the entire Towani family wiped out by a creature called King Terak and forcing the young daughter and Wicket to go on the lam.

Both “Caravan of Courage” and “The Battle for Endor” are the products of their time.  They’re TV movies for kids from top to bottom – though you may be a little disturbed when the family is wiped out.  What surprises me is how cheap the special effects look.  Cheap special effects in a movie personally overseen by George Lucas is something that boggles the mind.

Nothing much happened from there until the prequels.  After the release of Attack of the Clones, a very reluctant, George Lucas allowed animated nuggets to be released to Cartoon Network and produced by “Powerpuff Girls” creator Genndy Tartakovsky.  The nuggets came under the title “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” and lasted two seasons, the first containing 10 episode, each lasting 3 to 5 minutes.  The second season was also 10 episodes but were allowed to run 15 minutes.

The series took place between Episodes II and III and followed the adventures of Obi-Wan and Anakin during The Clone Wars.  What is interesting is that while the characters are a bit more fleshed out, many of the stories feel curtailed, mainly due to the fact that Lucas didn’t want the series to step on the upcoming Revenge of the Sith.  Oddly enough, it keeps with the traditions that the best storytelling in the prequels was done without dialogue.  Many episodes in Season 1 contained scenes without dialogue and the effect was much better.

After Revenge of the Sith came the similarly titled series “The Clone Wars.”  Begun in 2008, it was a half-hour 3D animated series that again followed the adventures of Obi-Wan and Anakin during The Clone Wars.  Each season had a different agenda.  Season 1 dealt with The Empire trying to pull various systems to their cause.  Season 2 introduced the Empire’s employment of bounty hunters (which they would do in Empire).  Season 3 and 4 would deal with the effects of the war on differing planets and the tensions between the Senate and the Jedi Counsel.  Seasons 5 and 6 would deal with the advancement of the Republic and the Separatists as the War draws to a close.

Both of these series (naturally) drew inspiration from the prequels but attempted to right the wrongs and complaints that had plagued Lucas’ trilogy since Phantom Menace.  The dialogue was better, the stories were less predictable and there was a dread of things to come without it feeling so “on the nose.”  The series opened up the world of Star Wars in a way that the movies never could.

Drawing inspiration less from the prequels and more from the original Star Wars trilogy was “Star Wars Rebels,” Disney’s first crack at bringing Star Wars to television (they were distributors for “Clone Wars” but this is their first series as a whole).  The story takes place after the rise of The Empire and follows a rag-tag team of misfits as they outrun the Imperials and try and help The Rebellion.

What this series has that Clone Wars lacked is an agenda dealing with The Force in a way that doesn’t have a ceiling.  In “Clone Wars” we knew that Anakin was headed toward the Dark Side but here he don’t know where the characters are headed.  The Jedi Master Kanan is part of the surviving remnant, one of the only survivors of Order 66 and that anger and resentment are built into his nature.  He struggles with reaching out with his anger over what happened and tries to keep his young charge, Ezra Bridger from doing the same.

The nature of Jedi training here ebbs very close to Yoda training Luke, only it’s the other way around.  This time all the fear and anger are on the master’s side.  Yet, in the last episode, Kanan is blinded and Ezra acquires a Sith holocron that pushes him close to The Dark Side.

Needless to say, Star Wars on television has gotten better.  All along the way it has been kid’s stuff.  “Droids”, “Ewoks”, “Caravan of Courage”, “The Battle for Endor”, “Star Wars: The Clone Wars”, “The Clone Wars” and “Star Wars Rebels” all ebb toward children, but in many ways so does the entire Star Wars trilogy.  It taps into the kid in all of us, that read King Arthur and The Jungle Book and Robin Hood and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  It’s an adventure pure and simple with a massive human element in the center.  What I have seen in the development of Star Wars on television is the development of television itself in the last 40 years.  It got better, it really did, but it had to come a long, long way to get there.

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Posted by on 05/08/2016 in Star Wars week


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