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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Static Thoughts - History of Star Wars on TV

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Today marks the premiere of the 3rd season of Disney’s CGI Star Wars series Rebels.  To mark this particular occasion, and because I want more Star Wars related content on this site, I’ve elected to celebrate with a look back at Star Wars’ history on TV.  A lot of this is forgotten now because of the strange way in which modern audiences remember geek phenomena but Star Wars actually has a very eclectic history in the realm of television going all the way back to the franchise earliest days and leading up to the present.  The series has been adapted through 2D animation, CGI, live action, and even stop motion in its 30 plus years of television adaptation.  Obviously, that’s a lot to cover so let’s dive in. 

The Holiday Special is honestly one of the only Star Wars television installments of the original series era remembered by pop culture at large, mainly because of how terrible it is.  The very idea of a Star Wars Holiday special is pretty ludicrous for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that it was meant to cash-in on Christmas and such even though none of the Star Wars characters would even know what Christmas is. 

The way they get around that, incidentally, is to have the entire special be about “life day,” a nonsense Wookie holiday.  If you’re wondering why they’d base an entire TV special that boasted the cast of Star Wars and the premiere of Boba Fett about a Wookie holiday it’s because the special doesn’t actually star Luke or Han or Leia.  Instead, the Star Wars Holiday Special is actually about Chewbacca’s family of wookies killing time on life day as they wait for Chewbacca to come home for the holiday. 

It’s an amazingly cheap cash-in, especially because the Wookie family aren’t dubbed or subtitled or anything so all their dialogue is Wookie screaming.  The family scenes are basically a framing device for a number of bizarre and annoying shorts, with maybe 5 minutes of footage from the Star Wars stars they press-ganged into service for the special.  

The only thing of real note about this special is that, as I mentioned, it introduced Boba Fett during one of its many shorts- a poorly illustrated animated sequence in which Fett goes after the heroes.  This would actually end up a core moment for the franchise in the decade to come when Star Wars went animated but we’re not quite there yet.

Now we’ve pretty much entered the memory hole, the collection of Star Wars TV paraphernalia that geek culture has collectively turned its back on due to it re-enforcing stuff we hate about our favorite media franchise.  This actually happens a lot with older geek properties, especially regarding television entries and doubly so for TV movies like these two.  

A big reason the Adam West Batman show remained so thoroughly on the margins of geek culture for so long was that its vision of Batman as the campy crusader clashed with the more serious and faux-adult version of the character comic fans preferred to promote. 

In the case of Caravan of Courage and Battle for Endor, what’s kept them so isolated from the franchise can be summed up in 1 word: Ewoks.  It’s easy to forget this now, but when the original trilogy first came out, the Ewoks were basically the worst thing ever to happen to Star Wars, made worse when it came out the original plan had been for Endor to be a Wookie planet.  

Producing TV specials out of the most hated part of the original work was probably always going to consign them to the dustbin of history, though it definitely helped that the Ewoks were the most merchandisable thing to come out of the original trilogy.

As for the actual plot, this is the most divorced from the film saga the Star Wars TV offerings ever got, with the only returning character being Wicket, the Ewok leader.  The specials are ultimately harmless and skew decidedly younger, though it’s interesting to see someone take a stab at Star Wars with none of the usual paraphernalia like Jedi or Storm Troopers.  

The only really notable canon entry here is that it’s revealed the Ewoks can totally speak the common galactic tongue, which certainly makes that one scene where they try t eat the heroes in Return of the Jedi a lot more distressing. 

So, as it turns out, George Lucas was in no way finished with the Ewoks.  In 1985 he decided the teddy bear picnic that took down the empire deserved their own TV show, mainly in response to the extremely similar Adventures of the Gummi Bears show that Disney produced around the same time.  Both of those series drew most of their inspiration from the original Smurfs animated series, which started in 1981 and popularized the mystic woodland critters animation format. 

Speaking of which, that’s one of the stranger elements of the Ewoks cartoon- magic is a major component of the series structure.  I know that magic has always technically existed in the Star Wars universe as the force is basically magic but there’s a big difference between the philosophical eastern mysticism of the Force and the various spells and magic of Star Wars: Ewoks.  

I don’t really recommend the show overall as it’s decidedly low budget and the storytelling skews very young but it’s a peculiar pop cultural artifact if you’re ever curious as to what Star Wars was really like back in the ‘80s. 

This was a sister show produced alongside Ewoks and is by far the better remembered of the two options, even though neither one is considered all that integral to the Star Wars canon.  Droids was a prequel show, even though it debuted in 1985 it was set in a time before A New Hope, a decision which was pretty much based entirely around avoiding getting original trilogy voice actors of any kind. 

Droids definitely skewed older than Ewoks but it’s hardly “adult” by any means.  Most cartoons from the ‘80s really don’t hold up all that well when held to modern standards, with once unassailable classics like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or He-Man now seeming dated and empty, and Droids is no exception.  The series’ unique draws were that it featured Anthony Daniels as the voice of C-3PO, meaning Daniels has played this character in every adaptation and was the primary breeding ground for Boba Fett.  

Seriously, if you ever wondered what else Boba did in the official Star Wars multi-media library aside from “fall into Sarlak pit” this show is the answer.  Granted, that answer is “screw about with a pair of droids on the combat level of Laurel and Hardy” but at least it’s AN answer. 

Now we’re getting into the modern era of Star Wars TV, with the 2D Clone Wars show that was released in the wake of Attack of the Clones.  Lasting 25 episodes from 2003 to 2005, the 2D Clone Wars show was lost in the shuffle at the time owing to its short format (the first 2 seasons feature 3 minute episodes) and the fact that it came out right after Attack of the Clones, and we all decided to write-off this entire era of Star Wars.  Nowadays a lot of Star Wars fans count the 2D show as the best thing to come out of the prequel era, even though it’s been more or less overshadowed by its CG successor. 

As for the 2D show, it’s easy to see now why it’s become so beloved as it does include some of the most impressive elements of the prequel era.  Granted, I think a lot of that comes from the fact this is the least original thing in the prequel era IE it’s mostly just an excuse to have established characters do awesome action stuff, but the action is still good.  Genndy Tartakovsky, a guy who’s done a ton of animation work for Cartoon Network, produced the series and he does some great work.  

Tartakosvsky’s the man who gave us Samurai Jack, which is easily the closest counterpoint in original animation to the series so if you ever wanted to see that style applied to the Star Wars universe this is the series for you. 

By comparison to its 2D predecessor, the CGI Clone Wars show is considered to be less impressive by a lot of hardcore Star Wars fans even though it’s unequivocally the bigger success.  Actually, Star Wars owes a massive debt to the CGI Clone Wars show in that it’s pretty much THE reason a whole new generation of kids got into Star Wars in the first place. 

Unlike the 2D version, the CGI show is a lot more character driven with more elaborate storytelling that involved a lot of new characters like Ahsoka, Anakin’s apprentice, Darth Maul, General Grievous, and various clone troopers.  Additionally, this is the series where Lucas ended up rubbing up against a lot of established Star Wars EU canon, retconning established stuff about the Sith or the Mandalorians that alienated a lot of the older fans even as the series blazed a new path with its characters and prequel elements. 

The series enjoyed a respectable six seasons that touched on everything from the schemes of the Sith, the bounty hunter community of the Star Wars universe, a more diplomatic and cerebral plot, long-form multi-episode storytelling, and even covered Order 66 and other elements of the Revenge of the Sith era.  Even though the series had a lot of peaks and valleys regarding quality, it still featured some of the best Star Wars stories of the 2000s and 2010s. 

Now we’re getting into the realm of canceled projects, specifically, a pair of proposed Star Wars TV shows that were going to happen before the Disney deal sent them off to the scrap yard.  Detours was a project that emerged out of the major ratings success of the Robot Chicken Star Wars Specials and, as such, was to be headed by Robot Chicken creators Seth Green and Matthew Senreich.  

It was intended as a comedy Star Wars show, situated in the realm of self-parody with a CG Looney Tunes style animation effect.  The series was announced in 2012 and Green claims to have completed nearly 40 episodes before Lucas postponed things indefinitely in 2013. 

While I am disappointed by the series cancelation I can’t say Lucas was necessarily wrong to do so.  As much as I love the idea of a Star Wars animated parody, it’d be a hard thing for a lot of fans to swallow, especially in the post-Prequels/pre-Disney era when your average Star Wars fan was still extremely self-conscious about the series being considered bad, dated, or a joke.  

Nowadays Star Wars fans are a bit more forgiving, but this was around the same era when everyone got incensed over Star Wars Kinect featuring Han Solo dancing to Jason Derulo’s “Riding Solo;” it was a different time.  

This was the final and most disappointing canceled project of the pre-Disney era for Star Wars.  Underworld was going to be a live action Star Wars show about the criminal element of the galaxy far, far away.  First announced in 2005, the series was to be set after Revenge of the Sith and before A New Hope, the favorite era for Star Wars TV. 

It was going to be placed in the lower levels of Coruscant, the big Senate planet from the prequel films, making the title both figurative and literal.  The criminal focus would’ve been a cool lens to view the Imperial reign through, to the point that elements of that idea have now seeped into Rogue One. 

The series spent about 5 years in development hell as Lucas fought budgetary limitations on how it would be produced, before getting shelved in 2010 till the Disney buy-out in 2012.  It’s a real shame this one never materialized as it sounds a lot like the kind of change-up in style and genre that Star Wars so needed in the mid 2000s.  

According to Lucas, it was going to be more dramatic and character oriented rather than the action-adventure focus, even describing the unproduced series as something close to a ‘40s Noir.  It was also rumored to have included the origin of Emperor Palpatine.  However, given that a lot of the best elements of this idea are already filtering into Rogue One maybe there’s hope yet, at the very least I’d expect to see some of the unused characters or designs show up in the young Han Solo movie sooner or later.  

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