Growing Up a Star Wars Nerd
I was born the year that Return of the Jedi hit theaters, so I wasn’t one of the fortunate fans to see the original trilogy on the big screen. In fact, I think my first experience with the films was seeing R2-D2 and C-3PO on Sesame Street. The first time I remember actually seeing the films, I was about four or five years old and we were down in San Francisco visiting some of Mom’s cousins, and they were watching The Empire Strikes Back. I got sent to bed not long after the snow battle, but I remember that I thought the speeders were pretty cool. And I honestly remember thinking that the AT-AT walkers were giant animals. I also have vague memories about seeing part of A New Hope at about the same time. It was during the Sand People attack, and I remember recognizing R2 and 3PO from having seen them on Sesame Street. I also had cousins who owned some of the action figures and t-shirts and posters and such, so I had a vague familiarity with the series from even that early age.
I think I was in about the third or fourth grade when I finally saw one of the films in its entirety. The Empire Strikes Back was on TV, and I was interested enough to insist the folks let me and my brothers stay up late to watch it. (It must have been a Saturday night if they let us stay up past 9:00.) We’ve been fans ever since. It wasn’t long after that the folks rented the trilogy for us—and we wanted to rent it pretty much every time we went to the video rental place after that. They finally had to just buy us the series so that we could rent something else when we went. I’m pretty sure we wore out those three VHS tapes. We also built starships out of Legos and even had an Imperial Walker made from Wonder Blocks*. It helped that I found friends at school who were also into science fiction. We were moderate outcasts, though I don’t remember thinking about it that way at the time. And I think the level of outcast depended on which clique you asked.
When Timothy Zahn released Heir to the Empire in 1991, it was kind of a big deal for me. I’d read the novelized versions of the movie trilogy, which were suitably epic, and Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (which had nothing going for it beyond that hit had Luke, Leia, and Vader in it), but Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy upped the stakes for every Star Wars story that came after. It essentially redefined my perception of the universe that Lucas created. All of the original heroes were involved, as well as new heroes (Mara Jade!) and even a few of the previously unsung heroes from the films (Wedge Antilles). And just as key, it introduced a new set of villains worthy of the Galactic Empire—most notably Grand Admiral Thrawn** who is still my favorite Star Wars villain. It was huge in scale and didn’t limit itself to the scope and settings from the movies. On top of being true to the characters and setting, it included every element that made the movies great: exotic locations, gunfights, lightsaber duels, and battles between fleets of massive spaceships. To date, I’ve yet to find a Star Wars story that’s as amazingly well-done as the Thrawn trilogy—including Zahn’s later novels.
The release of the Star Wars Special Edition films in 1997 was a big deal for my brothers and me. Finally we had the chance to see it on the big screen, in full cinematic glory. And we loved it. The folks wouldn’t take us to see it opening week, since they don’t like crowds at all, but we still enjoyed finally getting to see our favorite movies on the big screen. And for the most part, we even enjoyed the changes Lucas made. Showing the space battles with updated special effects only made them cooler for us kids, and I liked how they opened up cloud city to show the sky outside (it felt less sterile and claustrophobic in my view). Adding the scene with Jabba the Hutt to A New Hope added more to Han’s character, and I didn’t really mind the musical scene they added to Jabba’s palace. Though, even then I’ll admit that I thought having Greedo shoot first felt a little weird.***
But the main thing that the Star Wars Special Edition films did was revitalize the marketing side of the Star Wars universe. For the first time my brothers and I were able to buy action figures, as we’d been slightly too young when they came out the first time. The folks got us pretty much the whole initial set—including two Stormtroopers, since you can never have too many of those. And we collected numerous others in the years to follow. We also got our first t-shirts with Yoda or Darth Vader or Chewbacca on them. I even got a baseball cap with R2-D2’s picture on it. I still have the thing; it’s faded and falling apart, but I still have it. We also got games like Star Wars Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit (which was way too easy, in our house the one who lost was the first to get some asinine question, like to name the actor who played General Dodonna’s aide). We also spent several hundred dollars collecting cards from Decipher’s Star Wars CCG, and I think we still have them someplace. And we bought and played to death a number of the Star Wars computer games from Lucas Arts. I doubt any of this would have come about had Lucas not released the special edition movies when he did.
I was in high school when Phantom Menace came out. I’ll come out and say it: I don’t hate the prequel trilogy. I don’t think they’re as well-written or as entertaining as the original films, but I don’t feel they lack redeeming qualities. I know this will come across as blasphemy to most purists. Sure, Jar-Jar got tiresome quickly and Medichlorians are kind of a stupid concept. But the Trade Federation Droid army was pretty cool. As were the clone troopers. And we got to see the Jedi at their finest. There was adventure and suspense, as well as the first racing scene in the series (which was structured fairly closely to the chariot race in Ben Hur, watch it on Youtube some time). And like the original trilogy, the prequels included epic battles on the ground and in space. Plus Natalie Portman provided crush-fodder for those of us male fans who were young enough to be Carrie Fisher’s kids.
No, I don’t hate the prequels. But I don’t think they hold up against the original trilogy. The original films were cinematic masterpieces that made movie history when they came out. They combined themes and motifs from westerns, fantasies, Arthurian legends, World War II films, Civil and Revolutionary War movies, and countless other classical and contemporary stories into a science fiction universe. The prequels did none of this.
If you asked me what I loved best about the Star Wars universe, I’d say, hands down, the hardware. The Force was kind of a neat concept before the Medi-whatzits came along, the characters were relatable and likeable, and the galactic politics and struggle for freedom were all among the qualities that made the films great, I’ll agree. But it was the hardware that interested me most. The lightsaber is still an interesting concept to me, and an R2 unit would be the ultimate Christmas present. It was the weapons and battles that captivated me as a kid. The opening scene of A New Hope really sets the tone for what I love best about the series, the running battle between the Rebel blockade runner and the Imperial Star Destroyer couldn’t have been a more effective teaser for what’s to come. Blasters, X-Wings and TIE Fighters, the Millennium Falcon, AT-AT walkers, Star Destroyers: there was something about the war machinery that I never tired of in the series. (And it’s one of the redeeming qualities about the prequels.)
I haven’t watched the films in several years nor collected any of the novels in slightly longer. I went as a Jedi for Halloween a few years ago, and even wore my costume to work in the BSU Writing Center and to class that evening. (My favorite adviser asked if I was an Old Testament prophet.) Occasionally when I’m feeling nostalgic I’ll play Star Wars Battlefront or Knights of the Old Republic or even fire up Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds. I keep meaning to sit down and see if I can get X-Wing to run on Windows 7 (or that Lucas Arts will release it on Steam).
I don’t follow Star Wars as closely as I used to. I think the mediocrity of the prequels and the many poorly written novels and comics did a lot to temper my interest. I think it was killing off Chewbacca in R.A. Salvatore’s Vector Prime that really wrecked my interest in the novels. And I hear that they’ve killed off various other of my favorite characters since then. One of the troubles with the massive popularity of the Star Wars universe is that a lot of people want to add their own stories to it and/or capitalize on the popularity. With this, a lot of really bad stuff gets muddied in with the good. As a conscientious fan, it got to be genuinely tiring keeping up with all of it as well as sort the good from the bad. It was a combination of this and finding new interests during and after college that gradually caused my interest to taper. I still love the films and follow the universe at a distance, but it’s been a long time since it held that youthful fascination that it did when I was growing up. Hopefully I can someday create a similar fascination in kids of my own. (Episode IV always comes first, though—it’s just good parenting.)
As sort of a tribute while I was writing this blog entry, I started a Pandora station dedicated to John Williams. So far I’ve heard a number of his film scores, as well as Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Trek I, Forrest Gump, and an orchestral version of The Legend of Zelda. It seems I’ve created a station of soundtracks. Not that this is unexpected or undesired. (Some of these songs are over 10 minutes long!) I find it mildly hilarious that I’ve heard the theme from Star Wars at least six times.
*Wonder Blocks were hollow plastic blocks with two nubs on top that fit together like Legos, but were bigger and lacked sharp edges. I think they were a Discovery Toys product.
**I’m not into cosplay—I don’t really even dress up for Halloween all that often. But if I picked a character to go to a con as, I’d totally try to find a way to be Grand Admiral Thrawn.
***I’m of two minds on Lucas’s constant alterations of his films. On the one hand, it is his creation, he can do what he wants with it. In an interview for the Star Wars Special Edition, Lucas once stated that “films are never finished, they’re simply abandoned” and that he really wanted to “go back and finish them.” I get that, and I respect it. I can think of any number of drawings I’ve done or any number of papers I’ve written where I desperately wanted to go back in and redo various details. As an artist it’s hard not to be my own worst critic. But on the other hand, there’s an adage in the artist world that you’re not supposed to change your work once you’ve signed your name to it. I feel like he’s wrecking a lot of his artistic integrity with his constant decision to go back in and change things. It’s not as necessary as he thinks it is, and what’s worse, I feel it’s off-putting to many of his fans.