With the holidays over, let’s ease back into the reviews. Two and a half years ago, Lost In Translation covered the audio drama adaptation of Star Wars. NPR and LucasFilm teamed up two more times, bringing The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi to radio. Today, we’ll examine the radio adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back.
When Star Wars was released in 1977, it could stand alone. The plot was resolved, though there were a few plot lines still left dangling. The end was satisfying, with the Empire’s planet-killing super-weapon destroyed. Sure, the Empire wasn’t completely defeated, but the Rebellion had struck a major blow against it.
In 1980, The Empire Strikes Back came out. The Rebellion was on the run. The base on the fourth moon of Yavin was known, thanks to Vader escaping after the Death Star’s destruction. The Empire is busy looking for the Rebel Alliance’s headquarters, sending out probe droids to planets in the Outer Regions, a sparsely populated part of the Galaxy Far Far Away that includes Tattooine. The Rebels have started making a new HQ on Hoth, a frozen planet with its own problems like hostile local lifeforms. Then the Imperial probe droid arrives.
The movie can be broken down into X main parts. The first is on Hoth, ending with the Rebel Alliance fleeing the planet with Empire in pursuit. The characters split up. Luke heads to Dagobah to learn from Yoda, a little green Muppet of great wisdom. Leia, Han, and Chewbacca are chased by Vader, through a dense asteroid belt. While Han, Leia, and Chewbacca try to figure out what’s wrong with the Falcon’s hyperdrive, Luke begins his training. Through shenanigans, the Falcon loses the Imperial pursuit and flies sublight to Cloud City on Bespin, where Han knows the Baron-Administrator, Lando Calrissian.
However, thanks to Boba Fett knowing the same shenanigan that Han used, Vader is alerted to where the Falcon is. Leia, Han, and Chewbacca are taken prisoner to be held to draw Luke out. On Dagobah, Luke’s training is intense as he has to unlearn his bad habits and relearn using the Force. A trip through a tree filled with the Dark Side of the Force warns that Luke may become his worst enemy, replacing Vader. However, he feels the pain of his friends and leaves to Bespin.
On Bespin, Han is handed over to Fett, Leia and Chewbacca make their escape, and Lando shows whose side he really is on. Luke arrives to have a lightsabre fight with Vader, who is trying to turn him to the Dark Side. The major revelation – Vader is Luke’s father – comes out, and Luke sees that there is a way out that doesn’t involve becoming Vader’s apprentice. He lets himself fall through Bespin’s ventilation system. Leia picks him up and the Falcon returns to the Rebel Fleet.
Empire ends with Han in carbonite in the hands of a bounty hunter, Luke missing a hand, the Rebellion on the run without a home. The movie is very much the middle of a trilogy, with the heroes on the edge of disaster, despite the previous win. The movie is also very tight in its plot. Luke has his training and Han and Leia are pursued by the Empire. The film keeps things personal for the characters. There is no massive climactic space battle. The final action scene is the heroes trying to escape.
The audio adaptation brings back Brian Daley to write the script, and the same cast for the returning characters. Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels again reprise their roles as Luke and 3P0, respectively, and Billy Dee Williams joins the cast to play Lando again. Ann Sachs, Bernard Behrens, Perry King, and Brock Peters are back, and are joined by new cast members John Lithgow as Yoda, Peter Miachel Goetz as Admiral Ozzel, Gordon Gould as General Veers, Nicholas Kepros as Captain Needa, David Rache as Admiral Piett, Don Scardino as Wedge, and Alan Rosenberg as Boba Fett. The cast is interesting, almost an alternate universe dream cast for the film. John Lithgow at times sounds more like Cookie Monster, another of Frank Oz’s characters, than Yoda when being playful, but takes on the wisdom of the ages when Yoda turns serious.
The radio play starts earlier than the film, with the ambush of a Rebel convoy protected by Renegade Flight by the Empire, ending with the complete destruction of all fighters and freighters in the convoy. There’s more depth given to the Imperial officers, including Needa wishing to see some action before the Galactic Civil War is over and a rivalry between Ozzel and Piett. The format does require dialogue to paint the scene. The use of the Force gets narrated by the user. Luke calls his lightsabre to him, and Vader explains that he his channeling his anger when he chokes. Luke destroying an AT-AT single-handed was done through the point-of-view of the Command Centre.
Not all actions were explicitly narrated. Some were handled through an off-comment. One that worked well came from an interchange between the Deck Officer at Echo Base and Han when the latter was trying to find out if Luke had returned despite having 3P0 nattering about the Falcon‘s hyperdrive.
Deck Officer: “Why are you holding your hand over the protocol droid’s mouth?”
Han: “He’s got a cough.”
3P0: muffled complaints
With Luke’s training, Yoda is giving instructions on what to do, which is what is seen in the movie. The sound effects are straight from LucasFilm, with Ben Burtt supervising. Music is John Williams, and like the movie, the soundtrack is part of the storytelling of the audio drama.
Casting is again important. The non-film cast members may not sound exact, but they do have the proper delivery. What helps here is that the cast is familiar with playing the characters already and that they have the movie to work from. Han isn’t as flamboyant this time around, but he is still ready to go off to do what needs to be done, whether it’s paying off Jabba or escaping TIE fighters. Ann Sachs has Leia’s leadership; nothing is going to get in her way if she can help it. Brock Peters brings a new dimension to Vader. Lithgow does sound like Frank Oz, even if he’s not quite on point with Yoda. The character, though, can go from frivolous and curious to serious within the span of a few lines, and Lithgow can keep up with the change.
What does help with the adaptation is that the movie is personal. The plot hangs on the characters. There isn’t much room to branch off, unlike R2 and 3P0’s escapades while waiting for Luke and Ben at the Mos Eisley cantina. There still is added depth, like the Piett-Ozzel rivalry, but that comes from needing dialogue to carry the scene instead of visuals.
The radio adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back puts in an effort to recreate the movie into a medium that lacks the visual spectacle expected from Star Wars. This effort pays off as the radio play still keeps things tight and tense to the end, even when the ending is known.
Lost in Translation continues its look at fanworks with “Kenobi: A Star Wars Fan Film”, directed by Jason Satterlund, story by Rob Harmon, and screenplay by James Costa & Jason Satterlund and Rob Harmon. This production had some money behind it, not only for effects but for location shots. Have a watch; it’s only seventeen minutes.
The short takes place a few years after Revenge of the Sith on Tattooine. Obi-Wan is in transition from being Ewan MacGregor to being Alec Guiness. The seventeen minutes packs a lot of information, all through body language of the leads. Knowledge of the movies both before and after the fan film adds to the depth. The costumes and hairstyles match what has been seen in Star Wars. Costa as Ben has the looks to show that Obi-Wan is aging.
I mentioned above that the production had some money behind it. The creators ran an IndieGoGo campaign. As a result, the creators were able to do some filming in Morocco to capture the right sort of desert needed; in the movies, the Lars farmstead was filmed in Tunisia to the further east. The music was performed by the Budapest Scoring Orchestra, who have appeared in a number of movies and video games. And to sweeten the pot, the creators got James Arnold Taylor, the voice of Obi-Wan in the Star Wars: The Clone Wars, to portray Captain Leegus. The funding also allowed for drone shots and 3D printing of props.
The effort put into the fan film pays off. Keeping a young Luke safe means sacrifice for Obi-Wan, one that he isn’t sure he can make when the film starts. The mood is maintained through the actors, through the camera angles, and through the music, with tension being underlaid until everything explodes into action. Pacing matters in a shorter work, and the pacing in “Kenobi” never lags.
“Kenobi” demonstrates what is possible with today’s technological infrastructure. It’s not just having blockbuster quality video camers at consumer-friendly prices. It’s the social networks that come along with Internet-as-a-utility. IndieGoGo allows creators to have fans directly fund works, with word of mouth spread through the likes of Twitter and Facebook, and the final result on YouTube. Even twenty years ago, this would not be as easy to do. Today, the infrastructure that allows creative types and audiences to meet allows for fan works not considered in the past.
The look at fan adaptations continues with T7 Production’s “Darth Maul: Apprentice”, a Star Wars fan film. T7 is a pair of German filmmakers whose goal is to bring Hollywood-level of production quality to German movie making.
“Darth Maul: Apprentice” features Maul as he makes the transistion from apprentice to Sith and Darth Sidious’ right-hand being. The final test, four Jedi Knights and a Padawan. The fan film doesn’t contradict Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. It gives an insight on how Sidious trains his minions.
T7’s goal is front and centre in the film. The choreography is top notch. The fight ebbs and flows providing the characters and the audience a chance to breathe and to ramp up the tension. The camera angles build the scene up, giving the audience a good idea of what’s happening and what is around.
The fan film is heavy on action, but uses the action to develop Maul, showing him becoming Sith. The Jedi are fodder, there for him to hate. The one moment where he makes the key decision is done without word, just facial expression, adding to Maul’s mystique. In The Phantom Menace, Maul runs on hate; here, he’s just getting fueled up.
The music by Vincent Lee adds to the action, adding crescendo where needed and fading to keep the tension. Before the final battle, the music takes cues from Westerns as two gunslingers face off before drawing their guns. The music is something that would be expected from The Mandalorian.
“Darth Maul: Apprentice” shows what a small team can do with today’s video equipment with a bit of effort. While T7 is using high end, today’s dedicated video equipment can produce professional quality works. Even today’s smartphones can take videos that only bulky, expensive professional equipment could do just decades ago. For the amateur and the budding professional, video creation is within reasonable budgets. Drones can take shots that once could only be done by helicopters, with more finesse available given the skill of the drone pilot. Today’s filmmakers have an edge previous generations didn’t have – the silicon chip – allowing for skilled amateurs to create works that would have made professionals in the past jealous.
Fanfilms have been around for a while. The Internet has made it easier for audiences to find them. Prior, tapes needed to be circulated and copied, with screenings done at conventions and club gatherings. Today, well, YouTube exists. It’s easier today to stumble across a fanfilm.
Let’s go back to 1997, twenty years after the release of Star Wars. The Galaxy Far Far Away feels inviting. For the longest time, there wasn’t much done with the setting, not after Return of the Jedi. Fans created droids, built model starships and snubfighters, and dressed in costume. Once home video got inexpensive enough for the masses to own, coupled with editing software, fanfilms started to take off. This is where the fanfilm “Troops” comes in. Created by Kevin Rubio, “Troops” crosses Star Wars with the popular reality series Cops. Have a watch.
Lost in Translation has covered Star Wars many times, the latest being The Mandalorian. Cops got touched upon briefly during a discussion of Machinima. To expand, if one hasn’t seen an episode of Cops, the series was built around the idea of having a camera crew ride along with an officer or deputy of the featured police department. The only dialogue comes from the officer, talking about how he or she became an officer and notes about where the filming is taking place. The series is still running, now on the Paramount Network, and has clips on YouTube.
Rubio’s “Troops” follows stormtroopers on Tatooine following up on calls that tie into events of Star Wars. A Grand Theft Droid call leads to the destruction of a Jawa sandcrawler, but the droid is safely recovered, if a little far from home. A domestic dispute call that goes tragic after a farm couple get into argument about why their nephew ran away from home. And even a disturbing the peace call from the Mos Eisley cantina to start the end credits. This is Star Wars, behind the scenes and a few paces behind what Luke does on screen.
The filming, though, follows the style of Cops. The camera is handheld, isn’t steady, and has to keep up with the troopers. The cameraman remains silent, letting the troopers provide the narration and dialogue. The camera is there in the action as an observer, getting close to the stormtroopers. The segments are introduced by the callouts from dispatch. The troopers themselves have accents that come out of the TV series.
Star Wars has opened itself to a wide range of storytelling techniques. The original movie takes its queues from The Hidden Fortress and The Dam Busters. Other entries have taken inspiration from a wide range, including spaghetti westerns with ronin influences. Slipping in Cops, especially on Tattooine, isn’t out of the realm of possibilities. Kevin Rubio added a dash of humour while the characters treated the situation seriously. The result is a fanfilm that still stands up over time.
Lost in Translation has looked at fan works in the past. When reviewing a fan work, the quality isn’t as important as the understanding of the source works. Crossovers add a wrinkle, as two or more sources are being brought together and something has to give to make the story interesting. Crossing four or more sources is a challenge to have everyone involved have a role while keeping each source unique. Along comes “Galactic Battles”. It’s easier to watch it than to read a synopsis, so go ahead an watch the short film. Keep watching past the credits.
“Galactic Battles” brings together four separate sources, two film series – Star Wars and the JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot – and two video game series – Halo and Mass Effect. Each of the settings is obvious. The main setting, from Halo, gets the narrator explaining the newfound peace, thanks to the Master Chief. The Normandy from Mass Effect and the Enterprise from Star Trek have appropriate lighting, complete with lens flares for the latter. The Millennial Falcon gets the Star Wars wipes at the beginning and end of the ship’s appearance.
The creators did their homework. They are well aware of the details of each setting. The music blends the themes of all the sources, melding them as the camera switches view. The controls for each ship are unique and recognizable. The costumes are appropriate. Bonus points for having Garrus, one of the aliens, specifically, a Turian, from the Mass Effect series. The Master Chief’s armour is well done, too. Everyone is recognizable, from red, gold, and blue uniforms on the Enterprise to Joker and his baseball cap from Mass Effect.
The little details matter. The circle wipe when Star Wars first appears, how Shepard enters and leaves a scene, the lens flares on the Enterprise‘s bridge, the view from the Master Chief’s HUD, all add to the feel of the sources. Getting Mark Meer, who played the male Shepard in Mass Effect to reprise his role also helped. Details can make or break a major studio’s adaptation. With fan works, they are necessary, and “Galactic Battles” delivers.
The short is a visual masterpiece. Jupiter hanging in space as the battle rages on provides colour to what would normally be just black space and metal ships. The special effects, sound as well as visual, matches each setting’s contribution. Phasers sound like phasers, not like TIE fighter lasers or Reaper cutting torches. There’s care taken to make sure each element looks and sounds appropriate, even in the post-credits sequence.
The key issue with making a crossover meant to appeal to fans each original source is making sure characters from each one has a hand in solving the problem. With “Galactic Battles”, the solution starts with Spock, but Shepard, Master Chief, and Han all have a role to play in putting the solution in action. The breakneck pace doesn’t let up as they put the daring plan into action.
“Galactic Battles” is a fun fan short to watch. It handles each original source well, keeping the little details that define the originals.
And for those interested, there is a behind the scenes look to “Galactic Battles”, showing what it took to make the short.
Last week, Lost in Translation used The Mandalorian as an example of a streaming service adapting a work instead of doing something original for the headline. This week, The Mandalorian gets a closer look.
Created by Jon Favreau and produced by Favreau and Dave Filoni, The Mandaloran became the headliner for Disney+, Disney’s streaming service. While Disney has a huge back catalogue that could be used as hooks into the service, the company went with a new Star Wars series, building from the audience attention on the most recent films in the franchise. The Mandalorian is a space spaghetti western with a strong samurai/ronin influence about a Bounty Hunter With No Name, played by Pedro Pascal, who winds up breaking the bounty hunter code when he decides to not turn over a young target to the Imperial client (Warner Herzog) who set the bounty.
The eight 45-minute episodes build up to a climax that may be one of the best episodes of television, bringing together several plot lines introduced over the course of the season. While episodic, each episode builds on what happened before, invoking several western tropes and modifying them for the Star Wars setting. Every character has an arc, from the Mandalorian’s with the young charge he protected to Nick Nolte’s Ugnaught to Gina Carano’s ex-Rebel soldier.
Visually, the series looks like it should be on the silver screen instead of on even a wide-screen TV. The effects are what people expect out of Star Wars, with a mix of wonder, adventure, and lived in. But the series didn’t stop on the surface. Filoni and Favreau dig into an element of the Galaxy Far, Far Away, the Mandalorians, and pull together from previous works, including the animated series Filoni worked on, to show who and what they are.
If some of the episodes seem familiar, it’s because of the influences. As mentioned, The Mandalorian is a space western with samurai influence. Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, as seen in A Fistful of Dollars is an obvious source, but so are Have Gun Will Travel and Lone Wolf and Cub. The first season can be seen as an extended homage to The Seven Samurai by way of The Magnificent Seven as the people the Mandalorian helps come back to help him, including a reprogrammed IG-11 (voiced by Taiki Waititi).
Even the space spaghetti western with a dash of samurai films is just another layer to the series. The original /Star Wars/ took some of its cues from Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, so the samurai element was always there in one form or another, particularly when the Jedi are considered. What makes The Mandalorian its own work, albeit an adaptation, is how it builds off the Star Wars mythos. Elements may come from westerns or samurai films, but the heart still lies in Star Wars even as the series expands that setting. The time after the fall of the Empire could be seen as the period following the American Civil War, but the details and dynamics between the two eras are different.
The Mandalorian takes a look at the fall out from the Empire’s fall, as warlords try to maintain what control they have, former Rebels try to figure out what to do now that the goal they’ve been fighting for has been achieved and now have to integrate back into galactic society, and former Imperial slaves come to terms with how they helped, even against their will, an oppressive regime. Even on the fringes of the galaxy, lives matter, actions matter, and motives matter. The Mandalorian has difficult choices to make, even with a code of honour to guide him. Choosing to save a youngling has consequences that may shake the New Republic.
The series is very much a story in the /Star Wars/ setting, even with the trappings. Star Wars does allow for a great range of stories, from warrior monks trying to cope after becoming leaders of soldiers to a young farmboy becoming a galactic hero to the scruffiest of nerfherders showing that he has a heart of gold. The Mandalorian easily stands beside such stories, with an emotional impact that makes the series memorable.
Star Wars is huge. It began as a massive blockbuster that broke box office records and became a massive franchise. Now in the hands of Disney, the Star Wars franchise has a number of tie-ins and spin-offs, including games of all sorts, novels, animated series, and, now, spin-off movies. The spin-offs are a way to keep the Star Wars name in theatres, with each one coming about a year after the major releases like The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. The spin-offs fill in gaps in the storyline and keeps people talking about the franchise. Let’s take a look at the most recent spin-off, Solo: A Star Wars Story.
Solo delves into the history of the franchise’s favourite scruffy nerfherder, Han. A few points, though. Han wasn’t the first character to appear in a tie-in novel – that honour belongs to Luke and Leia in Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye in 1978 – but Brian Daley featured him and Chewbacca in a trilogy of novels beginning in 1979: Han Solo at Stars’ End, Han Solo’s Revenge, and Han Solo and the Lost Legacy. The three books were later collected as The Han Solo Adventures and were referenced by AC Crispin in The Han Solo Trilogy. The Daley books were the source of the Z-95 Headhunter, first appearing in Stars’ End and then returning in the X-Wing series of video games and in the CGI series The Clone Wars. Of the main characters of the series, Han has had the most done with his background in the Expanded Universe.
The big problem is that there is so much written about Han that a movie risks contradicting what has come before. Canon in Star Wars comes in a hierarchy, with the movies being primary, the animated series coming next, then the tie-in works third. However, West End Games’ RPG tends to be referenced for terms and equipment, so the hierarchy can be fluid. Daley’s works have been around for almost the length of the franchise, a background influence on subsequent work. It’s a tough line for Solo to follow.
As for the movie, Solo is one part coming of age, one part gangster flick, one part Western, one part pulp, one part heist movie, one part origins story, and all space opera. The movie shows Han crawling out of the dregs of Corellia, meeting Chewbacca, meeting Lando, and getting the Millennium Falcon. The seeds of what Han will become in the original trilogy are planted, showing why he got involved with a senile old man, a farm boy, and two droids trying to escape Tatooine. One of the highlights of the film is showing how Han made the Kessel Run in under twelve parsecs, and why a unit of length is used instead of a unit of time.
The casting is one of the movie’s strengths. Alden Ehrenreich has the difficult job of being a young Harrison Ford, but pulls off not just the looks but the mannerisms, while still being young and not quite cynical yet. Joonas Suotame plays Chewie, Han’s partner after being rescued from Imperial enslavement. Donald Glover becomes Lando Calrissian, channelling Billy Dee Williams and dominating any scene he’s in. New characters include Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Han’s mentor; Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), Han’s love; L3 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), Lando’s first mate and droids’ rights activist; and Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), head of the Crimson Dawn crime ring. Everyone named there has a story arc, some successful, others not.
The strong cast leads into one of the movie’s problems. Han gets overshadowed at times in his own story. The story is still his, but it’s not until midway through the film that Han starts to stand out. Lando in particular tends to take over scenes, thanks to both the nature of the character and to Donald Glover’s portrayal. The interplay between Lando and L3 deserves its own feature, movie or TV series, with Glover and Waller-Bridge reprising the characters. This is of no fault on the part of Ehrenreich; Lando is almost the opposite of Han, suave and sophistcated. A film should make audiences want to see more of a character, but not instead of what’s being shown.
Solo also came out at a time when diversity awareness in movies is acute. Star Wars has had issues with reflecting the audience. In 1977, a sausage fest was understandable and excusable for being an artifact of the times. Today, though, audiences are more aware of diversity. The more recent films in the franchise are showing a greater range, including more women and persons of colour both in lead roles and in the background, moving away from the only woman in the film being a princess. Solo, though, is about a white man at a time when films like Black Panther, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel are breaking records. This isn’t to say Leia and Rey are slouches. They aren’t. Leia took over her own rescue and Rey is creating her own path in becoming a Jedi. It’s more timing working against Solo. If the movie had been Calrissian instead with the same cast, it’d avoid the backlash and counter-backlash.
The biggest problem Solo has is that it is a good popcorn movie. There’s some insight to the character, but it’s not deep. The movie doesn’t go from action piece to action piece. It’s well written, well directed, well acted. It is a solid film. Many studios would be happy if their movies held together as well as Solo. But with Star Wars, solid isn’t enough. Star Wars has always been about the amazing, and Solo just falls short. Expectations weren’t managed, but doing so with the Star Wars franchise is impossible. Fans are expecting mind-blowing, and Solo wasn’t quite there. The movie is worth seeing, but expectations need to be adjusted.
Star Wars has been covered three times already here at Lost in Translation. The first time was for the prequel/reboot, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace; covering how the film brought back the Galaxy Far, Far Away. The second time was for the CG animated series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, showed how the TV show strengthened Star Wars: Episode II – The Attack of the Clones by filling in details between that film and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. The third time was for the pilot for Star Wars: Rebels, “Spark of Rebellion”, showed the potential of the recent TV series. What’s left with Star Wars?
Richard Toscan, in an attempt to revive radio drama in the US, worked at getting several works produced at KUSC, the University of Southern California’s campus radio station. One of Toscan’s students suggested adapting Star Wars as an episodic series, a natural fit given that similar serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers inspired the film and were themselves adapted as radio serials. Getting the clearances to produce such a series, though, looked expensive. However, George Lucas had gone to USC, so the rights to produce the radio series was sold to KUSC and National Public Radio (NPR) for one dollar. Lucas also made the music by John Williams and the sound design by Ben Burtt available to the production. That just left paying for the script, the actors, and the studio.
NPR turned to the one radio network with extensive experience in radio dramas, the BBC, for assistance. In return for the British rights to the series, the BBC provided the budget needed to get the production done. The adaptation was written by Brian Daley, a science fiction author who had written the earliest of the expanded universe novels, The Han Solo Adventures (Han Solo at Star’s End, Han Solo’s Revenge, Han Solo and the Lost Legacy). Daley worked from early drafts of Lucas’ scripts for Star Wars, adding material as needed to fill in the thirteen episode run, for almost six hours of radio drama.
Casting became a problem. While Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels returned as Luke Skywalker and C-3P0, respectively, the rest of the cast wasn’t. Harrison Ford was busy with Raiders of the Lost Ark. The new cast included Ann Sachs as Princess Leia, Bernard Behrens as Obi-Wan Kenobi, Perry King as Han Solo, Keene Curtis as Governor Tarkin, and Brock Peters as Darth Vader.
The debut of the series in March of 1981 saw NPR’s audience increase to three-quarters of a million new listeners, with the number of young adults and teenagers increasing four-fold. With Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back having been in theatres the previous summer, fans were looking for more Star Wars. How well did the radio drama adapt the first film?
A series, whether on TV, on radio, or even as a B-reel serial, still runs longer than most films. The Star Wars radio drama is no exception; it ran for just under six hours over thirteen episodes, about three times longer than the movie. Radio also can’t rely on visual effects to show what’s happening. Given that Star Wars pushed the limits on what can be done with special effects, the radio drama would have a steep task in front of it.
As mentioned above, Brian Daley used early drafts of the film’s script while writing his own. He expanded details from the movie. Episode 1 starts with Luke hanging with his friends, racing with them, including through Begger’s Canyon. The audience meets Biggs Darklighter, voiced by Kale Browne, and hears his plan to jump ship to join the Rebellion. Episode 2 begins with Princess Leia on Ralentiir, using her consular ship, the Tantive IV, to smuggle goods needed by the Rebellion. It’s where she learns about the Death Star and runs into Darth Vader for the first time. Leia convinced her father to let her take the Tantive IV to intercept the plans for the Death Star at Toprawa. The space battle between the Tantive IV and the Star Destroyer that begins the movie begins in Episode 3 as Leia arrives at Tatooine to find Obi-Wan Kenobi.
After Episode 3, the drama follows the action in the movie. Dialogue gets changed or added to help describe the setting and the action. Scenes get added to provide depth and motivation. Han has a rougher edge than he does in the movie, but there’s still a heart of gold. At the same time, some relationships are shown just as quick on radio as in film; C-3P0 and R2-D2’s friendship comes out in their first two minutes of air time in Episode 3. Vader benefits from the medium; it is difficult to loom and menace through sheer height on radio. Instead, Vader comes across more as a fallen paladin, philosophical and a believer in his version of the Force, thanks to added dialogue.
Sound effects carry most of the battle scenes. There’s no way to show a flight of X-Wings diving down to the Death Star’s trench, nor is there a way to show a lightsaber other than dialogue and sound effects. The production had full access to the sounds from the movie, but it still fell on to the actors to convey a sense of determination and wonder as needed. Luke’s training on the trip to the former Alderaan had Ben coaching him at each step. For added fun, the scene with Greedo threatening Han could not have subtitles, so there was no attempt to translate “Oota goota, Solo?” into English. Han understood Greedo, so the audience had to work out what the Rodian said from the reactions, like, “Tell Jabba I’ve got his money.” And Han shot first.
The climatic battle to destroy the Death Star took up most of the last episode. While the snubfighter battle was a visual feast, the chatter between pilots gave the drama a way to show what was happening without video. The first half of the battle was presented as Leia and the Rebellion command staff on the jungle moon of Yavin listened to the pilots’ chatter, unable to do anything when Vader came out in his prototype ship. The last half of the battle was from Luke’s perspective starting just before his run through the trench.
Is it possible to have Star Wars without the visuals? Yes, as the radio drama demonstrated. The drama was Star Wars and provided depth that the movie couldn’t. The drama was successful, leading to Empire being adapted two years later. The adaptation of Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi was delayed until 1996 and released on CD due to disagreements, mainly financial. The radio plays carried the feel of the movies while expanding on what was shown.
A few weeks back, Lost in Translation looked at adaptations of tabletop RPGs. While there haven’t been many RPGs adapted to other media, the reverse is far more likely. Many popular franchises have been adapted for gaming, from Star Trek to Supernatural. The result is a licensed property created by game designers who are also fans. With The Force Awakens turning into a powerhouse beyond expectations, now is as good a time as any to look at the Star Wars roleplaying games past and present.
Role-playing in an established universe is more than just letting the players take the roles of existing characters. With a setting as vast as the Galaxy Far, Far Away, there’s room for any number of characters, from scruffy rogues to naive farmboys to dashing conmen to dangerous bounty hunters. Adding to the complexity, Jedi and Sith lurk, depending on the era. The goal of the games is to provide an experience that would fit in the Star Wars setting but still giving players the flexibility to play what they want. There have been three published RPGs for /Star Wars/, detailed below.
Star Wars: The Role-Playing Game, West End Games
The first Star Wars RPG, released in 1987, used WEG’s Ghostbusters: The Role-Playing Game‘s core mechanic, modified for the new setting. Determining success or failure was based on rolling a number of six-sided* dice based on the rating of a character’s skill, with a differently coloured die designated the wild die. The wild die could allow for amazing successes or crushing failures, depending on its value. Players could use character points to add dice to the roll. To account for the Force in Star Wars, players also had Force points. Spending a Force point allowed players to double the number of dice they could roll for a skill, allowing feats such as firing a proton torpedo into a two metre exhaust port without the aid of a targeting computer.
Because it was released three years after Return of the Jedi, there was little information about Jedi, beyond that they were rare after the Emperor destroyed the Order. At the time, Star Wars wasn’t the big franchise that it is now. The Expanded Universe consisted of the Han Solo and Lando Calrissian trilogies; Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire would be published in 1991, a year before the RPG’s second edition. Jedi were limited to what was shown on screen and what the WEG writers could extrapolate and get approved by Lucasfilm. However, the more earthier characters, like Han, were supported, with all starships, from starfighters to Star Destroyers, being written up. The Revised and Expanded edition, released in 1996, became the definitive version of the RPG.
The game played fast; the mechanics loose enough to let players swoop through space in a transport modified for smuggling while out running a flight of TIE fighters and maintain the feel of the Galaxy Far, Far Away. WEG’s RPG still has an impact even today; Dave Filoni, showrunner for both CGI-animated series, The Clone Wars and Rebels has stated in commentary that he and his crew have refered to WEG’s Imperial Sourcebook and Star Wars Sourcebook for details on vehicles and droids used in the series.
WEG lost the license in 1999 after having to declare bankruptcy when its parent company, West End Shoes, drained the game publisher to stay afloat. Speculation on the Internet on who would get the license next grew as the prequel movies were announced.
Star Wars Roleplaying Game, Wizards of the Coast
Wizards of the Coast, who also owned Dungeons & Dragons, picked up the license in 2000, a year after The Phantom Menace was released. Wizards used a modified version of the d20 System, as used in D&D 3rd edition. The result was a class-based system that covered not just the original trilogy, like WEG’s game had, but also the prequels and the Expanded Universe. A second edition was released in 2002, a year before D&D 3.5, cleaning up some problematic rules. The Saga edition came out in 2007, streamlining the d20 system more to keep the gameplay flowing.
As mentioned, the d20 System is class-based, meaning that every character falls into one of a number of character classes that define their abilities. Instead of using the D&D classes like Fighter and Wizard, the d20 Star Wars games used classes like Scoundrel, Fringer, and Jedi. The result was playable, but the sweet spot was between levels 7 and 12, where characters had the skills needed to pull off difficult but in-setting plausible stunts without becoming impossible to challenge without throwing a Star Destroyer at them. Thanks to the prequels and the Expanded Universe, Jedi had more options than in WEG’s RPG. Sourcebooks detailed the different eras of the Galaxy Far, Far Away, giving gamemasters (GMs) and players flexibility in play styles.
Wizards let the license lapse in 2010, after not just a large number of detailed sourcebooks but also a miniatures game that could tie into the RPG or be played as a stand-alone.
Edge of the Empire, Age of Rebellion, and Force and Destiny, Fantasy Flight Games
Fantasy Flight Games picked up the Star Wars license with an eye to create both a miniatures and a role-playing game. The first of the RPGs, Edge of the Empire, came out in 2013, followed by Age of Rebellion in 2014 and Force and Destiny in 2015. Each of the games, while using the same mechanics, have a different focus. Edge deals with characters on the edge of polite society; smugglers, bounty hunters, colonists. Rebellion allows for characters in the Rebel Alliance, fighting against the Galactic Empire’s evil. Force focuses on Jedi and other Force-sensitives. The three games are set during the original trilogy, but can be adapted, with work, to other eras.
The FFG games need to use specialty dice marked for use in play. It is possible to use regular dice** and convert the numbers to the special markings, but it is easier with the specialty dice. The dice provide for more than just success and failure; they also add advantages and threats. A failure could come with an advantage and success could come with complications. Scenes from the movies, like Han stepping on a twig when right behind a stormtrooper in Return of the Jedi, can come from the mechanic, ensuring that the feel of the movies is kept.
Each game moves the timeline through the movies. Edge is set shortly after the destruction of the Death Star in A New Hope. Rebellion is set just after the events in The Empire Strikes Back. Force is set after Return of the Jedi. However, players and GMs aren’t limited to those eras. /Force/ can easily be used for a group of Jedi padawans during the prequel era. All three could be used for a campaign set during The Force Awakens. Work would need to be done, such as re-skinning existing vehicles for the new ones seen in the new movie, but the amount of work needed is minimal.
Each of the above games had a different approach to the Galaxy Far, Far Away. While each one had some areas that needed work, overall, the games remained faithful to the source. Players could feel like they were part of Star Wars, which is the most important part of adapting to a game.
* Role-playing games use more regular polyhedrons than just the standard cube dice.
** Regular meaning six-, eight-, and twelve-sided, as used in other games such as D&D.
With Star Wars: The Force Awakens coming out later this month, it’s a good time to look at another adaptation in preparation. Today, it’s a look at the pilot episode of the CG-animated Star Wars Rebels.
Several months ago, Lost in Translation reviewed Star Wars: The Clone Wars, covering the issues that come up when adapting from film to television. In brief, the difference is time available, pacing due to commercials, and budget. The Clone Wars, though, filled in details between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, strengthening the latter through giving spotlight time to characters that get brief moments during Order 66.
The pilot episode of Star Wars Rebels, “Spark of Rebellion”, introduces new characters to the setting. The Galaxy Far Far Away is huge, capable of containing a large number interesting folk. It starts with Ezra, a young boy living outside the capital city of Lothal, watching as a Star Destroyer comes in over the city as “The Imperial March” plays.in the background. Ezra heads into Capital City to see what is happening and runs across Imperial officers bullying a simple fruit peddler. After a bit of sleight of hand to gain a communicator, Ezra redirects the Imperials with a false call for backup. He keeps watch, and notices several shady figures passing along silent communications. He also senses something about one of them.
The shady miscreants, Kanan, Zeb, and Sabine, are after a number of crates the Imperials have. hooked up to speeder bikes. Sabine, wearing colourful Mandalorian-style armour, creates a distraction through an explosion. While the would-be thieves deal with the stormtroopers guarding the bikes, Ezra slips in and steals one of the speeders himself. Thus begins a chase involving Ezra, Kana in pursuit, and the Imperials chasing both. The Imperials play their trump card and bring in a TIE fighter. Kanan has his own trump, Ghost, piloted by the Twi’lek, Hera, and maintained by the astromech C1-10PR, or Chopper. Ghost takes out the lone TIE, but four more have caught up. Ezra grabs his crate and leaps to the cargo ramp, a leap that should have been impossible.
Ezra gets a quick breather and discovers that the crate he brought on board is filled with blaster rifles. The TIEs don’t give up, and chase Ghost up to orbit. `Kanan takes one turret to discourage pursuit. Ezra, placed into a storage locker by Zeb for safe keeping, gets into Ghost‘s ventilation system and falls into the second turret. The kid’s first time off-world and into space is marred when he sees two of the TIEs attacking. Sabine arrives to take over the turret, and clears a path to let the ship enter hyperspace.
With time finally to rest, the crew comes to a decision about Ezra. They can’t take him back home just yet; their timetable is too short to allow for that. Instead, they take him to a location on Lothal known as Tarkintown, named after Governor Tarkin and populated by people displaced by the Imperial war machine. One crate, the one Ezra tried to keep, is filled with blasters to be sold to raise credits for the Ghost‘s operation. The rest contain food that is given freely to the residents of Tarkintown. Confused, Ezra returns to the ship. Elsewhere, Kanan and Hera make a deal with a middleman, who offers information about the location of Wookiee prisoners being transferred to become slaves.
Back on Ghost, Ezra gets another odd feeling, drawing him into Kanan’s cabin. Ezra searches the room, finding a lightsabre and a holocron. Kanan appears and relieves Ezra of the lightsabre, but appears to miss the holocron. With the prisoner transfer, there’s no time to return Ezra to his home. Ghost lifts off to intercept the transport ship.
Getting close to the transport is simple enough. Hera name drops Governor Tarkin, which is enough for the transport to call off its TIEs and allow Ghost to dock to transfer another Wookiee. Kanan, Sabine, Zeb, and Chopper head to the airlock to meet the stormtroopers waiting. The attempt to pass Zeb off as a rare hairless Wookiee goes as well as expected, leading to Zeb decking both stormtroopers. The group splits off in pairs, with Kanan and Zeb going to free the Wookiees and Sabine going with Chopper to handle the technical side.
In Ghost‘s cockpit, Hera loses contact with Kanan. The transport is jamming the signal, letting Hera deduce that the information was faked and the entire situation is a trap. Ezra gets a bad feeling moments before an Imperial Star Destroyer appears from hyperspace. Hera and Ezra argue about staying and telling the others about the trap; Ezra is far too used to being on his own and not sticking his neck out, but he does go. He finds Kanan just before the cell door is opened; on the other side, stormtroopers await. They hear the conversation and burst out.
Kanan’s plan included contingencies in case of stormtrooper pursuit. He orders Sabine to turn off the gravity in the transport. Kanan and Zeb take advantage and flee, dragging Ezra along as the stormtroopers and the Star Destroyer’s commander float helplessly. They don’t have much time; the Imperials recover quick enough, but Kanan knows when the gravity is returning and is ready to run when it does. The two groups reunite and race back to Ghost with the Imperials close behind. Ezra falls behind and is taken prisoner by the commander. Not knowing that the kid isn’t on board, Hera undocks and makes the jump to hyperspace. Kanan takes stock. He feels that Ghost has to go back to rescue Ezra, having been responsible for the kid getting involved in the first place.
On the Star Destroyer, the Imperials take most of Ezra’s belongings, but miss the holocron. The Star Destroyer’s commander introduces himself as Imperial Security Bureau Agent Kallus, who is after Kanan’s group because of their effectiveness. Resigned, Ezra takes a look at the device and is able to open it. The holocron begins to play a message from Obi-Wan Kenobi. Buoyed a bit, Ezra comes up with a plan to escape. The first part involves luring the guards into the cell, done with some acting. The second part involves recovering his belongings and hiding inside the ship. He grabs a helmet to listen to the comms chatter. Ezra hears news of Ghost returning, and does what he can to distract the stormtroopers.
Kanan, Zeb, and Sabine head off Ghost to find Ezra, only for him to be waiting for them. Kallus arrives with his troopers, but Kanan’s people escape, this time with Ezra. On board, Ezra informs the Ghost‘s crew of where the Wookiees are going; he overheard the captain of the transport mention Kessel. Kanan orders Ghost to Kessel. Kallus, though, shows that he’s deserving of a Star Destroyer and realizes that he was overheard by the kid, and heads to Kessel as well.
On the spice moon of Kessel, Kanan leads a daring breakout, distracting the stormtroopers guarding the Wookiees long enough for Ezra to sneak past and free them from their shackles. However, TIE fighters appear behind the landed Ghost. Hera and Chopper need to take off to deal with the TIEs, leaving Kanan and his people and the Wookiees on the ground. Kallus appears and orders his stormtroopers to fire. Kanan realizes the best move is the 22-Pickup. The goal, get the Wookiees into a cargo container while keeping the stormtroopers attention on himself. To do this, he walks out into the barrage of blaster fire and draws his lightsabre.
Meanwhile, Ezra realizes that one Wookiee won’t go unless his young son returns. Ezra runs after the young Wookiee, who is already being chased by a stormtrooper. The Wookiee runs to the end of a docking platform with nowhere to go but into the pit. Ezra leaps over the stormtrooper and hits him with his laser slingshot. The stormtrooper falls over the railing with a Wilhelm scream. Kallus, though, saw Ezra and followed. The ISB agent sees an unusual opportunity, killing a Jedi and his apprentice. Kanan arrives in the nick of time, riding on the hull of Ghost to pick up Ezra and the Wookiee.
The Wookiees are freed and given a ride home. Ghost returns to Lothal and the abandoned tower that serves as Ezra’s home. Ezra lifts Kanan’s lightsabre again and leaves. Up in his home, he looks around at the various souvenirs he has taken. Kanan appears behind him to explain the Force and gives Ezra a choice; either add the lightsabre to the other items to gather dust, or to join the crew of Ghost and learn to use the Force and become a Jedi. When Ezra turns around, Kanan has disappeared.
On Ghost, Kanan meditates while listening to Obi-Wan’s message, the warning sent during Revenge of the Sith to avoid the Jedi Temple. Ezra walks in and returns the lightsabre, joining the crew. On board the Star Destroyer, Kallus reports his findings to an Imperial Inquisitioner, who is most interested that a Jedi has been found.
Expecting one episode, the pilot episode at that, to be able to do what the entire Clone Wars series did is unreasonable. In television, the pilot episode exists to set up the series, including introducing characters, show the possible situations the characters get involved in, and set the tone. The key here is to see how much Star Wars Rebels holds up to expectations. To this end, the pilot pulls in elements already familiar to Star Wars fans. The music used shows inspiration from A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Unlike Clone Wars, where the music had a martial tone, Rebels uses the more hopeful themes from A New Hope. The speeder bike chase used music from the similar scene on Endor in Return of the Jedi.
The characters pull their weight, as well. Ezra becomes a hero despite himself, setting up a Hero’s Journey arc. Kanan has a roguish streak in him, but is still a mentor figure. He and Hera get along like a married couple; bickering but without heat and around for each other. The dialogue would fit in A New Hope without difficulty. Sabine, despite the Mandalorian armour, isn’t dour. Instead, she has the heart of an artist, albeit one whose medium is explosions. Even the holographic Obi-Wan is shown as between his appearance during Clone Wars and Alex Guiness, with James Arnold Taylor returning for the role. The eye to detail is there.
One detail I noticed was with Ezra. His character design and his character arc is similar to the title character in Disney’s Aladdin. Given that Rebels is also a Disney production, the similarity may be deliberate. Ezra, though, doesn’t have a wish-granting genie to help him mature. Instead, he has one of the last Jedi. The shorthand, though, for people who make the connection help with understanding Ezra’s character.
Star Wars Rebels has the potential to strengthen A New Hope much like Clone Wars did with Revenge of the Sith. The feel of “Spark of Rebellion” had the right touch; humour, a dangerous threat, and villains with great potential for evil. The pilot has laid down the map for the series, and it should feel very much like A New Hope.