Monday, February 23, 2015


To put it simply: I liked Michelangelo because the obsession and extreme torsion of his figures was so obviously derived from that of Jack Kirby.
        Geoff Dyer "Comics in a Man's Life"

The Venus books were the best: honestly life-changing. Who could resist a book called Pirates of Venus? Corum is better than Elric or Hawkmoon. Venus came before Corum, but was Mars before or after Tatooine? And where did the Shire fit in? Wagner stole the idea of the broken sword from Tolkien, certainly, but did Narsil and Sting come before or after lightsabers?

Before there was Star Wars, there was Planet of the Apes. Before there was Planet of the Apes there was very probably something else. It might, god forgive us, have been the Wombles. (The Wombles were big. Really big. The Wombles were bigger than Harry Potter.)

There was a competition in the Daily Mirror to win a real Planet of the Apes mask, not available in the shops. I desperately wanted to win it. I don't know why I want to be an ape so badly. Possibly I just liked Roddy McDowell's persona? He appears as a villain in one of the Adam West Batmans. "Galen without his makeup" evoked the kind of confused awe normally reserved for Barbary Coast and T.J Hooker.

But mostly Planet of the Apes was a spectacle. Apes riding horses, leather tunics, and lots of cowboys and Indians action. It was a Western, but a Western where you were on the side of the poor humans, confined to their reservations by the oppressive colonial monkeys.

There was a comic. It was a very accurate adaptation of the movie, only they weren't allowed to use Charlton Heston's face. One of the characters said "bloody" and someone takes their clothes off and you see their bum. It was the most grown up thing I had ever read.

I went back and watched the movie again recently but they'd changed everything: added lots of stuff about Darwin and the Scopes monkey trial and a running misanthropic sub-text about anything being better than the human race. That never used to be there. It was all just monkeys with rifles.

Why did the world go Womble-mad? Someone had done something very clever with the design, of course. (Ivor Wood, his name was, who isn't nearly as famous as Oliver Postgate but was probably more popular with actual children.) Rat faces with furry manes. And the idea that that they lived in a real place but were very timid but if you were lucky you might possible spot one is very appealing at a particular age.

There was no preachy subtext. They weren't "recycling". (This was before The Environment.) They were just cuddly scavengers. You never see them but they grab things that you leave behind and make good use of them. Big furry tooth fairies.

There were Womble toys but I didn't want to have a Womble. I don't think I even wanted to be a Womble. I suppose possibly I would like to have met a Womble, or glimpsed one from a distance on Wimbledon Common. But basically, I was just excited by Wombledom. The burrow made of papier mache, the stylized "W", Bernard Cribbens' wonderful voice, the friendly folk rock theme song with the whimsical intro.

Wombles, nineteen seventy three. Planet of the Apes, nineteen seventy four. Star Wars, nineteen seventy eight.

Facts are troublesome. My friend Flash has a vivid memory of seeing the first run of Star Wars, at the Dominion Tottenham Court Road wondering how it could be "Episode IV" and if he had missed something. He knows this to be chronologically impossible: but this doesn't make the memory any less vivid. The BBC showed the whole of Flash Gordon in December 1976 (over the Christmas holiday); followed by Flash Gordon's Trip To Mars in June and Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe the following Christmas. Star Wars was released in the USA in May '77, but no-one in the UK saw it until 1978.

It premiered at Christmas, and there was still a concept of "first run" cinemas where a film ran in one prestige location in London for some weeks, and was only subsequently released to local cinemas. All through 1978, you emerged from Tottenham Court Road tube station to see a huge 3D rendition of the poster above the Dominion cinema. Ben Elton's We Will Rock You has been showing there for the past 12 years. I still walk past it and think of it as The Star Wars Cinema. I didn't see Star Wars there, but my friend Shaun has a grown up cousin who took us to see Battlestar Galactica.

So, thanks to the BBC, every little English boy who saw Star Wars in the spring of 1978, was as familiar with the thirty eight year old movie serial that Lucas was doing a homage to as their father's were. More so. Daddy pointed out it would have been a very lucky boy in 1936 who managed to go to the same cinema 15 weeks in a row.

I saw Star Wars a dozen times in the summer of 1978, and more times than I can count since — 30 or 40 more viewings, I suppose, at least one a year. There are people who don't understand why anyone would watch any film more than once. You already know how it is going to end. Most people who actually like movies think that this attitude has got it backwards. You only enjoy a film on the second viewing; you have to know "how it's going to end" before you can watch it properly. You can't pay attention to the symbolism while you are on the edge of your seat to find out who Rosebud is.

Jonathan says that the hype around big movies nowadays is so vast that he can only really watch them the second time round: the first time, you are so caught up in The Event, desperate to know which rumours were true and which rumours were not true and whether or not there's a post-cred to actually have a good time.

I hope he is wrong. If he is not wrong, then I would need to go and see Desolation of Smaug again, and I am not sure I could survive that.

But to see the same film a dozen time in one summer holiday. That takes a special kind of Crazy.

I once remarked to the editor of Sci-Fi Now that the point of Star Wars is that so much is implied and so little is said so that you seem to be seeing this vast universe out of the corner of your eye. He is kind enough to have implied that this is one of the wisest remarks ever made: at any rate one of the wisest remarks ever made about Star Wars, or at rate one of the wisest remarks ever made about Star Wars by me. But I do think this goes a long way to explain why we watched it so many times. To see the aliens in the Cantina again; to get a proper look at the lightsaber; to memorize the controls on an X-Wing. Watching it over and over to see all the stuff that wasn't actually there.

Everything else followed from that: Star Wars blueprints; attempts to construct life-sized X-Wings out of carboard boxes and lightsabers out of tomato canes. Because when Luke handles the-lightsaber-that-was-his-fathers for the first time, we wanted to reach out, through the screen, and grab it, and keep it forever. Not the lightsaber itself. That moment.

It's a feeling I've never had for anything else. I didn't want to be a Jedi Knight, necessarily; or an X-Wing pilot; or even to be friends with Luke and Han. I just wanted to be there. On the other side of the screen. Inside.

Which is why everything since 1977 has been such a let-down. Walkers and Snowspeeders and Jedi Fighters are all very well, but I want squads of X-Wings and a single blue lightsaber. We've been back to Tatooine, but it's not the Tatooine of our childhood. 

Planet of the Apes had sequels. We can chant their names: Beneath, Escape, Conquest, Battle. But it is fairly obvious that no-one actually wanted to make them. The second film was a 70s Logan's Run dystopia; they added a few grudging apes and then killed Charltan Heston and blew everything up. B movies, C movies, Z movies. The TV series I quite liked was the very last echo of something which had once been quite a good idea. That was how it worked in those days: you expected the sequel to be cheaper and less spectacular than the original. Each Star Wars movie was newer and bigger and louder and more serious than the one before, and in the end they drowned out Star Wars altogether.

Here is a scene from one of the sequels to Star Wars:

"Everything okay back there, Artoo" he called into his pickup. A cheerful beep from the stubby droid locked in position behind the cockpit assured Luke that it was. The destination was the fourth planet out from this star...."

This is from Splinter of the Minds Eye, published only a couple of months after Star Wars hit the UK, and a full two years before Empire Strikes Back. It sends shivers down my spine in a way that Empire Strikes Back never did. I like Emprie Strike Back very much. But this isn't Luke riding a snowbird in Friggia, years after the movie we loved. This is like picking up the thread, seconds or minutes after we dropped it. Luke and Artoo, where they ought to be, in an X-Wing.

So, that's my theory.

We don't want to go back to 1978 and see Star Wars again for the first time. We don't want to experience the sense of wonder we felt when the first Star Destroyer flew over our heads. We want to go back to the moment just after Star Wars finished: when the main march has played and the names of the technical crew are scolling and Grandad is making for the Gents.

A time when Luke and Leia were living in a tree house on the 4th Moon of Yavin and Han and Chewie paid them visits in the Millennium Falcon and there were many, many battles with the Empire still to come. A long time ago. A time that never was. A time we sometimes think we can see out of the corner of our eye.