Monday, December 19, 2022

I've Never Seen Star Wars

Tuesday 27 December 1978: Star Wars opens in the UK. 

Monday 2nd Jan 1978: The BBC transmits the first episode of a new TV show. It is about a group of rebels, resisting and trying to overthrow an evil empire. I'm sorry: an evil Federation. There are ray guns and robots and pursuit ships and a hidden computer at the center of the universe. And there's a villain with a disfigured face and black mask and a bionic hand who says things like "I am your death!" at the good guy. Terry Nation swore that when he created Blake's 7, he hadn't seen Star Wars. And indeed, the tone could hardly have been more different. It went out at 7pm on Monday nights, a slot otherwise occupied by Angels (a medical soap) and The Rockford Files (a detective show). The adult slot meant that it came in for quite a lot of ridicule: thanks to Terry Wogan and Rowan Atkinson, Blake's 7 is a by-word for "terrible TV" in some circles to this day. Nation's previous series, Survivors, about a pandemic wiping out 99% of the population of England, was very dark, very adult, and shown after the kids had gone to bed. The crew of Blake's 7 are unambiguously terrorists. Good guys die with some regularity. The first episode shows the hero being brainwashed and framed for pedophilia. And yet: watch Travis's big fascist boots march into Servalan's office and try not to think of Darth Vader.

We sometimes call naughty children "menaces". And "menace" rhymes with Dennis. So there is no reason on earth that an English cartoonist and an American cartoonist should not have independently created a character called Dennis the Menace. What is slightly surprising is that they both did so in March 1961. 

There is no reason on earth why a very well established British TV writer and a hot young US film director should not have independently come up with the idea of a space-opera series in which the Empire were the baddies and the Rebels were the goodies. There is equally no reason why Terry Nation could not have heard someone talking in a bar about a new American movie and found himself musing about what he would do with a similar premise.

But perhaps it was Steam Engine Time. Perhaps society had grown tired of Captain Kirk and Dan Dare patronising everyone; perhaps we no longer imagined Space as the continuation of the British Commonwealth by other means. George Lucas started Star Wars with Vietnam in his mind, and Terry Nation's thoughts were never far away from World War II. Perhaps it was just the right time to tell stories about rebellions. If it hadn't been Star Wars and Blake's 7 it would have been something else.

April 1978: The legendary Steve Gerber dropped a two-issue Star Wars parody into his Cerebus-inspiring Howard the Duck comic-book series. Howard is pulled out of the main storyline into what looks a little like a dream sequence, making one suspect that Marvel had demanded or advised that Gerber incorporate the parody. The bad guy wants to fill the universe with bland shopping centres. He is completely without humour, and Howard has to learn to channel "The Farce" to defeat him. (The baddies are overcome by "their inability to accept the ultimate ridiculousness of themselves and the cosmos.") He befriends two robots, one of whom (2-2-2-2, or TuTu, for short) looks like a trash-can. He borrows a spaceship called the Epoch Weasel, and destroys the evil Emporium with double-entry bookkeeping. The first episode is called Star Waargh; the second, May The Farce Be With You. (A sequel, back in naturalistic mode, is more promisingly called "The Night After You Saved The Universe".)

Steve Gerber was incapable of being unfunny; and the speech beginning  “Within hours, as bees reckon time, we shall bulldoze the universe and build on its ruins a shopping centre unrivalled in its crassness” made me laugh out loud. But it is striking that he has nothing whatsoever to say about Star Wars. A few issues previously, when Howard the Duck learns the ancient art of Quack-Fu, Gerber makes serious points about cultural appropriation and the sanitisation of violence. But when he looks at Star Wars, he sees only trash-can and gas-masks. 

Saturday 8th July, 1978:  Two second division comedians, Syd Little and Eddie Large, do a turn on BBC variety show called Seaside Special, alongside the Brotherhood of Man, Sacha Distell and Schwaddywaddy. (The show happens in a tent. By the seaside. In the summer.) 

Syd and Eddie's act consists of a nerdy little man trying to sing a song or give a talk, and a silly fat man interrupting him with corny jokes and bad impressions. This is what passed for entertainment before YouTube. In this particular skit, poor Syd was trying to tell the audience about a new film called Star Wars; while Eddie appears dressed in a dustbin, and then with a bucket on his head. At one point he appeared wielding one of those off-brand lightsabers you could buy in toy shops.

"It is called a Force Wand."


"Wait til you see where I am going to force it."

A representative cross-section of Seaside Special viewers around the age of twelve disapproved of the skit. Supersonic Syd described Star Wars as a film about "a big planet that wants to destroy a little planet", and claimed that Artoo Deetoo was the true star. The sample was offended. They were daring to to parody the sacred text, but they had obviously never seen it. 

Monday 23rd October 1978: The penultimate Season of the Tomorrow People. Human beings are being eaten by alien life-forms disguised as anoraks. Or possibly a cursed drum was calling an alien Hitler back to earth. Recollections, as the Queen said, may vary. But there must have been some special reason that a middle-class geek was watching ITV. 

The advert break includes a now legendary advertisement for Trebor Refreshers. Trebor Refreshers are little sherbet candies, a bit like love-hearts, but without the love. I think you can still get them. The advert featured an elderly actor (Derek Farr) doing what was, in fairness, a pitch-perfect impersonation of Alec Guiness. He tells a young lad that "the time has come for you to learn about...the Fizz." He hands the younger actor a tube of sweeties, which ignite into a light sabre, or possibly even a Fizz Beam. "When will I get a chance to use it?" asks the young initiate, whereupon a heavy-breathing silhouetted bad-guy appears, also with a glowing swordy thing. "Now would seem as good a time as any." End of advert.

Fair play to which ever creative spotted that a tube of sweets feels quite satisfying in a kid's hand, and tried to set up a subconscious connection between the sweeties and the iconic weapon. Or perhaps they just wanted an excuse to use "May The Fizz be With You" as a slogan. They normally went with The Fizz That Gives You Whizz which we assume was not one of Salman's. Badges with the slogan May The Fizz Be With You are now sought after collectors items. 

A representative cross-section of eleven year olds who had been annoyed by Little and Large approved of the Trebor advert, to the extent of supplying Refreshers to meetings of the East Barnet Lower School Jedi Knights Club. It had a quality that I can only describe as Jedi Vibes. Someone had watched Star Wars, and spotted one of the things which was awesome about it, and gently turned it into a joke which the fans could share. 

The advert appears to take place in some kind of Temple; and the Obi-Wan figure is on a throne. This is how I still imagine Real Jedi to be. I am still vaguely disappointed that neither The Phantom Menace nor The High Republic capture the magic of the Trebor Refreshers advertisements.

What do you see when you see Star Wars? Rebels fighting fascists? Silly shiny robots with silly shiny names? Dustbins and buckets? Or a vaguely eastern confection of mentors, mysticism and shadows?

The Chrome? Or the Fizz?

Dec 1977: Star Wars
Sep 1978: First Issue of Micronauts
Nov 1978: Lord of the Rings
Dec 1978: Superman: The Movie
Apr 1979: Battlestar Galactica 
July 1979: Arabian Adventure
Sep 1979: Alien
Dec 1979:  Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Aug 1980: Buck Rogers 
Dec 1980: Hawk the Slayer
Feb 1981:  Battle Beyond the Stars
Apr 1981: Excalibur
Jun 1981: Dragonslayer
Jul 1981: Clash of Titans 
Apr 1982: Conan the Barbarian
Aug 1982: Beastmaster
June 1982: Blade Runner
July 1982: Tron
Dec 1982 Dark Crystal
June 1983: Return of the Jedi
May 1984: Final Bill Mantlo issue of Micronauts

In that great blank space between Star Wars and the Empire Strikes Back, many things were offered as The Next Star Wars. None of them were. I recall a very dated attempt to revive the Sinbad/Arabian Nights genre optimistically writing "Like Star Wars, but with Flying Carpets" across the posters. Things like Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture had been in production for years, but still seemed to be riding the Star Wars wave. The Black Hole and Buck Rogers were clearly created partially with Star Wars in mind. Close Encounters of the Third Kind arrived in the UK before Star Wars, and are somehow part of the same moment. People at the time talked about Star-Wars-and-Close-Encounters-Of-The-Third-Kind as if they were a thing, which makes about as much sense as talking about Casablanca-and-Bambi. I suppose to a muggle, they were equally part of that crazy impenetrable thing called science friction. 

I remember a school-friend's very rich elder brother took us all to see Battlestar Galactica in a big London cinema. I dutifully enjoyed the little red space-ships and shiny bad guys, but even then I knew that little red space ships and shiny bad guys weren't what Star Wars was about. (The ultra-low-wave surround sound gimmick, which was supposed to make the theatre physically shake, was distinctly underwhelming.) The Black Hole had spaceships and a cute robot and went mystical at the end, but was merely boring. Buck Rogers had space ships and a cute robot but was mostly silly. 2001: A Space Odyssey got a big screen re-release. That had space ships, mysticism and classical music, but on the whole I preferred the original Jack Kirby version (//Irony//) When Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers emerged on UK TV, I couldn't quite be bothered to watch them. 

Hollywood did, eventually, try to get beneath the chrome and serve up some fizz: but they largely identified "fizz" with the Hero's journey. There was a glut of fantasy quest movies; some very good; some very not good. Swords and shards glinted. Prophets prophesied and chosen ones got chosen. Dark Lords fell like nine-pins. There were princesses, comical companions, clockwork owls and English actors who's shoulders had been tapped by the Queen. Star Wars is a myth set in space, they said, so let's go one better and sell the punters a myth not set in space. 

And indeed, Star Wars with no space ships is a much better proposition than space ships with no Star Wars. It is much more a fantasy story which happens to be set in space than a space-story which happens to have fantasy elements. But it turns out that, without the chrome, the fizz goes flat pretty quickly. The biggest lie that Joseph Campbell sold the world is that the Hero's Journey has power in and of itself, as opposed to being a hook on which a powerful story can sometimes be hung. And the joke is that Lucas himself moved on: when the Empire Strikes Back arrived, the one thing it did not do is serve up the magic of Star Wars all over again. A good movie? Definitely. A better movie than Star Wars? Very many people think so. But I have never been quite convinced that it fizzed. 

Still, we were young and computer games hadn't quite been invented and we were only just getting into Dungeons & Dragons and we would take what we could get. If there's a sword and a mentor and a quest and a dragon, we'll throw ourselves at it wholeheartedly for ninety minutes, and build a better film in our head for the next few years. C.S Lewis said that on first looking into Homer's Homer he was thrilled because it reminded him of Matthew Arnold's Sohrab and Rustum. I think the reason I adored Boorman's Excalibur; and the Arthur stories more generally was that Arthur's sword (like Narsil and even Nothung) reminded me of Force Beams and Trebor Refreshers. 


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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Andrew Ducker said...

But how does Flash Gordon play into all of this?

Andrew Rilstone said...

Flash Gordon was an obvious influence on Lucas. The later instalments of Micronauts imagined Homeworld as a kind of Mongo, with multiple sub worlds populated by desert, forest, ice and aquatic beings. We may get there eventually.

If we are talking about chrome and fizz then I think the whole "planetary romance" vibe that Raymond got from Borroughs is a precursor to Lucas's space fantasy. But "they happen to use ray guns and swords" is not as cool
as "the high tech weapon which is also a sword"