Thursday, December 17, 2015

Star Wars and Me

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away...

It was the summer of 1977 and I was twelve years old living in a small town in western New York. On that fateful day, the much younger next door neighbor kid Teddy came up to the group of us who were hanging out playing and excitedly said, "I just saw the coolest movie! There were space ships, and robots, and this guy got his arm sliced off by a laser sword!"

Now, I was already familiar with science fiction by this point. I watched a lot of reruns of Star Trek and Lost In Space on the UHF channel 29 that came out of Buffalo. In 1971, I had seen Escape From the Planet of the Apes, followed by Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes in the next two years after. And just the previous summer I had seen Logan's Run, with all of its rather adult themes and likely my first glimpse of nudity on film. Thus was the way of things growing up in the days before the movie ratings system took hold. There was no attempt by society to limit our experiences; if you had the money and the local theater owner would sell you a ticket, you were in.

When Teddy suggested we all go see this movie (in part so he could see it again), many of us agreed. So we headed the Cine movie theater, less than a mile down the road from where we lived, along with his mother to go check out this Star Wars.

Sitting in that darkened theater, with the opening notes of a soon to be familiar John Williams' fanfare filling the room, the rather cool scrawling of words appeared on the screen to set the stage for the upcoming adventure. As a kid, I thought that was kind of cool; later I'd learn it was done with words on glass sheet. You have to love the early days of practical special effects that today can easily be done with some computer code. But what really had me hooked and blown away was the star destroyer that would come on the screen in pursuit of the smaller fleeing rebel vessel. Holy cow! How big was that ship? It seemed like it went on forever! Now that was really cool! It showed that this was a story featuring things bigger than we ever could have imagined. Those next two hours would introduce characters and a universe that would stay with me for the rest of my life.

This was the first movie I saw more than once in a theater (hey, it ran for weeks in town so why not go a second time...).

This was one of the first movies whose novelization I would pick up (a paperback I still have on my bookshelf today). After all, everything from the movie and some other stuff that didn't make it as well were on those pages.

Though it was pricey (as a double album), I got the original Star Wars soundtrack that featured the incredible John Williams score. I was also rather fond of the "Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band" tune by the disco band Meco.

I then discovered the comic book adaptation, put out by Marvel Comics, on a local newsstand. I missed the single six issues of it but did find a larger treasury edition that told the entire story in one volume. Serialized comic stories also showed up in Marvel's Pizzazz magazine that fall (the first time Luke and company would visit an ice planet - but not Hoth). And in January of 1978, issue seven of the comic appeared which was the start of new stories that went beyond the film (the first arc was about Han Solo and Chewbacca). This title quickly went on to my "must buy" list.

In March of 1978, a new and original Star Wars universe novel showed up at the Book Nook. Splinter of the Mind's Eye by Alan Dean Foster (who also penned the first film's novelization) told an adventure of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, and a new encounter with Darth Vader. This paperback also still resides on my bookshelf today.

Christmas of 1978 brought us the infamous Star Wars Christmas Special, a two-hour musical adventure extravaganza that gave us our first glimpse of a bounty hunter named Boba Fett. Did I watch it? of course! This wouldn't be the only time Star Wars would come to the small screen though. On my birthday in 1980, a cool and unexpected present happened when Luke, R2-D2, C-3PO and Chewbacca all made guest appearances on a season four episode of The Mupper Show, of which I was a devoted regular watcher.

And just a few months later, in May of 1980, we would see the whole cast back on the big screen in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back which is one of the high points to date (in my opinion) of the film franchise. With this movie, the cast of characters would expand and I would add figures like Lando Calrissian, Boba Fett and Yoda (ah, there was that Muppet connection - now it made sense) as well as the Empire's Hoth Ice Base and a Tauntaun figure to my collection of Hasbro Star Wars toys (which included nearly all of the original film's cast plus a land-speeder and a Millennium Falcon).

Of course, three years later, we would get Star Wars: Return of the Jedi to complete the original film trilogy. By this point, I was a senior in high school and just about to graduate and move on to a new chapter in my life. It was rather fitting to see the grand adventure of these heroes I had grown up with come to a conclusion as well.

The original Marvel comic series would continue on for another four years or so after Jedi. I would pick up issues here and there, but not nearly as regularly as I had done during the fevered frenzy of the first six years of the franchise. Dark Horse Comics published a five volume omnibus of reprints of the original Marvel run a number of years back (when they still had the license to produce content - which they did from 1991 to 2014) so I picked those up to have a full run of the comics I had long since sold.

The 1990's brought new Star Wars novels to bookstores. From The Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn (91, 92 and 93) to The Jedi Academy Trilogy by Kevin J. Anderson (1994), I was very excited to start reading all new novels featuring familiar characters. Over the course of the last quarter of a century, numerous officially sanctioned novels have been written which take place in the expanded universe that cover the years before and after the films. Most are considered now as non-canon and have started to appear in new printings under the "Legends" banner.

At the time Star Wars came back to us (as it had begun) with new films, I was already married and a father. My son was four years old when Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released in 1999. This was followed by Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones in 2002 and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith in 2005. While I appreciated that we were getting some official back story and was impressed by the visual effects that were now possible thanks to advances in film-making technology, I did not feel the same energy and suspense that the first three films provided me. Story-wise, we already knew the fates of Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, R2-D2, C-3PO, Yoda and Palpatine. It all felts as if there was a lot of "going through the motions". Admittedly, I do not feel that much contempt for the character of Jar-Jar Binks (he works for me and this CGI performance was much more animated than some of the rest of the acting in these three films).

Some of the more recent tie-ins that I have enjoyed are the Lego Star Wars games. This was a fun way to revisit the six original films, in a cute way, to solve puzzles and accomplish objectives (all the while gathering enough Lego studs to unlock characters and vehicles).

And just this May the 4th, I picked up a bundle of classic Star Wars computer games on Steam for a big bargain sale. The fun thing about the Jedi Knight and the Battlefront series is that these games allow me to put myself directly into the universe, allowing for an interactive experience that cannot be delivered by straight literary narratives.

And this brings us current to the coming of Star Wars: The Force Awakens this weekend. The energy and anticipation is different and more akin to those I felt for the original films. Here we'll be getting the official cinematic returns of old friends as well as the introduction of the next generation. I am very excited to see what will come both in this film and the many that are planned to follow in the coming years.

May the Force be with you.


HERC said...

Though I am a year younger than you, I saw Star Wars at the only theater we had in town, a two screener. Well, that's not true, there was a large one screen theater on base where I spent many Saturday mornings scarfing down Sweet Tarts and watching childish fare like Digby and Superbug. But off-base, in the small village of Rantoul, Illinois, there was Wings Theater, a small buliding just off the main street in town. Prety sure Dad took us as a family the second or third week it was playing. In addition to his Air Force duties during the week, he took a part time job managing Judy's, a Wendy's knock-off from the late Seventies and early Eighties on nights and weekends. Took us once as a family though he and I went back and saw it at least twice more during the film's incredible year long run at Wings. Other movies would come and go in theater 2 but theater 1 was all about Star Wars for more than a year as I remember it.

The two characters I liked were Han and C3PO so while friends were busy trying to get every figure they could, I concentrated on those two and had them within a few months after Christmas. Is my memory failing me again or were there no Star Wars toys until Christmas 1977? I wanna say it was all about the Micronauts for us back then. Still have the first issue of their Marvel comic but no Micronauts themselves.

I also bought the first dozen or so issues of Marvel's comic adaption, two giant sized treasury editions as well as all the issues of Pizzazz. Never really got much else into the Star Wars universe beyond the films.

Like you, one of my favorite movies of all time is Empire Strikes Back. I have it on three different VHS tapes and now eight discs, includling both DVD and blu-ray. Have the other movies on a few different formats and versions but not nearly as much as Empire. My wife owns episodes 1-3 on disc. They do nothing for me.

Now that Di$ney has co-opted three of my favorite things from growing up - The Muppets, Marvel and Star Wars - I am tempering my expectations. Somehow, someway, they will ruin my memories or at least tarnish them though I must say, The Muppets show on ABC is really, surpirsingly good and I was genuinely happy when it was recently renewed for a second season.

Hope you love the new movie. As for me, I might see it this weekend - despite all the hype and hoopla, none of the more than twenty local screens showing the film in three different versions have sold out a single showing according to Fandango, I just checked. Or I might wait until after Christmas when the kids are back in school, it will still be there. Less that a year from now I could watch it in the comfort of my own home. Not like back in 1977.

Martin Maenza said...

Herc, I am not sure about the toy debut. It likely was Christmas before the first wave of figures hit the stores. I am sure I got into collecting them heavily in early 1978.

I never had any Micronauts toys but I did read the comic book (my first issue was number 2 or 3).

Like you, I owned the original trilogy on VHS tape, and then again with all six on DVD (yes, I am a completest). Bought them all again last year on Blu-Ray.

Glad to hear the Muppets are returning for season 2. I am enjoying the new show.

I have to say that so far, for me, Disney is batting .1000 when it comes to Marvel properties and the Muppets. The only thing that would make me happier would be if they would finally release the last few seasons of the Muppet Show on DVD.