May 4, 2021
May the Fourth Be With You!
It's one of the biggest Star Wars days in recent memory, with the success of The Mandalorian and the promise of even more stories from the galaxy on Disney Plus. When this date rolls around each year, I fire up my 4Ks (formerly Blu-rays, formerly DVDs, formerly multiple incarnations on VHS) and I revisit the Star Wars Radio Dramas.
Yes. Star Wars on the radio. As a kid who was both discovering the world of old time radio and a rabid Star Wars fan, these shows were like manna from heaven when I first heard them in 1995. I first learned of them in a retrospective article in the glossy quarterly magazine published by the Lucasfilm Fan Club (I was a card carrying member ), and when they appeared in a catalog close to my birthday, it was the only thing I wanted. My parents got me cassette collections of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, and I couldn’t tell you how many times I ran through those combined 23 episodes through middle and high school.
The radio adaptation of Star Wars aired in between the theatrical releases of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Coming to the airwaves at a time when American radio drama was all but extinct, this joint production of NPR and the BBC dramatized the first film in the Star Wars trilogy as a thirteen-part series. Not only did it feature several cast members recreating their roles - Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker and Anthony Daniels as C-3PO - but it also featured the classic sounds of the film (Chewbaca’s roar, R2-D2′s blips and beeps, the hum of TIE Fighters streaking through space) and John Williams’ fantastic score.
Science fiction author Brian Daley expanded upon the film script - the plot of the movie proper doesn’t kick in until Episode 3 of the radio series. Episode 1 focuses on Luke Skywalker’s life on Tatooine as he watches the stars and dreams of life beyond the farm. Years before scenes were added in the Star Wars Special Edition, Brian Daley added scenes between Luke and his best friend Biggs Darklighter, an Imperial cadet who confides in Luke that he intends to join the rebellion against the Empire. These early scenes give their reunion later in the story more weight as they take part in the mission to destroy the Death Star.
Episode 2 is all about Princess Leia. It establishes her espionage bona fides before she ever comes into possession of the plans for the Death Star. She uses an Imperial officer’s leering advances to her advantage and gets him to reveal the secrets of the Empire’s ultimate weapon.
It isn’t just Luke and Leia who get additional shading. In another move that preceded the Special Edition, Daley adds a scene with Han Solo and a Tatooine mob boss in the hangar of the Millennium Falcon. It isn’t Jabba the Hutt but it plays almost exactly the same - and frankly, it plays better than the scene with a young Harrison Ford and a crudely rendered Jabba. Daley wrote three Han Solo novels, and he plugged in perfectly to the seedier side of the galaxy far, far away.
It’s scenes like these that give the new actors a chance to put their own spin on the characters, an easier task when they don’t have to say the iconic lines of the film. Ann Sachs does a great job as Leia, and Perry King is charmingly roguish as Han Solo. And in a particularly inspired bit of casting, Brock Peters - miles from Tom Robinson - plays the dastardly Darth Vader.
The Empire Strikes Back followed two years later with the whole cast returning plus Billy Dee Williams recreating his screen role of Lando Calrissian and John Lithgow taking the role of Yoda. He’s terrific - Lithgow doesn’t do a straight impression of Frank Oz, but he captures the character and injects him with additional shading.
There’s less original material here - perhaps a testament to the wonderful screenplay penned by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan? - but Brian Daley adds a nice prologue that finds a Rebel convoy cut to shreds by a TIE Fighter ambush. It helps to set the scene for the darker second act of the trilogy. The ten-part series is wonderful, and while some additional “new” scenes might have been nice to include, you really can’t go wrong with the story presented.
Plans for a Return of the Jedi radio drama fell through and the final chapter wasn’t released until 1996, and even then it was produced by Highbridge Audio and not broadcast on NPR. This may adhere the closest to the film story, save for a nice scene where Luke Skywalker constructs his new lightsaber. Most of the cast is back, but Mark Hamill was sadly absent (though he was enjoying a second career as a voice actor - the farm boy from Tatooine was the Clown Prince of Crime in Batman: The Animated Series). Joshua Fardon does a fine job as Luke, but it would have been a treat to hear Hamill revisit his iconic role thirteen years later. John Lithgow comes back as Yoda, and Ed Asner growls his way through a performance as Jabba the Hutt.
This six-part show suffers a bit in comparison to the first two chapters (as does the movie itself), but it’s still engrossing entertainment with all of the music and magic of Star Wars.
I’ve been revisiting the series and it’s as much fun as it was when I first heard it as a kid. The entire trilogy is available in a great CD collection from Higbridge Audio. If you’re a fan of audio drama and/or a Star Wars fan, or if you are looking for a gateway to introduce someone to radio theater, check these shows out and take a trip to a galaxy far, far away.