Monday 9 November 2015

Star Wars

Over on File770, there's been some discussion about the way the SF community responded to Star Wars when it came out in 1977:

Personally, I loved Star Wars with every beat of my heart and still do. What's often forgotten is that, over in the UK, we didn't get the film until early in 1978. I saw it on my twelth birthday, in Swansea, and I can still recollect pretty much every detail of both the film and the drive to and from it along the M4, past the alien nightscape of Port Talbot. I remember sitting in the back of the car and hearing Kate Bush on the radio - "Wuthering Heights" had been released in January of that year, and had hit the number one spot by the time my birthday rolled around. I hadn't seen a picture of Kate Bush at that point, but - even at twelve - I was mesmerised by her voice, and in my imagination she looked exactly like Princess Leia, down to the ear-muff hairdo.

I already knew about Princess Leia, though, because - even though the film hadn't come out - we'd been tormented by an incredibly long build-up. My first hint of the film had come a year earlier, I guess, when a brief clip had been played on one of the news programmes. It was a space battle scene but beyond that it didn't leave a huge mark on me. Some while later, my frend Stephen turned up with a glossy magazine, one of those Sunday supplement giveaway things, which had a colour spread about this new film that was taking America by the storm. The main picture was of an X-wing being shot at by a TIE-fighter, and I immediately knew it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen. The spaceships looked like the kinds of craft you'd seen in Space: 1999, but sleeker and even more dirtied-down. Real, basically, if such a thing were possible. And the rest of the article showed some of the characters, such as Darth Vader, Han Solo and so on. What struck me most forcibly, though, were the Stormtroopers. I didn't know what they were, except they looked like evil incarnate, with those skull-like helmets and their pristine white armour. There was something about that glossy white armour which made them about as terrifying as it was possible to imagine. I remember staring at them, trying to work out if they were robots or cyborgs or what. All I knew was that they were scary. From that point on, Star Wars had gone from something I was mildly interested in, to a burning, single-minded obsession. I had to know more. And I would.

Through that summer, I collected complete sets of both the blue and red-bordered bubble-gum cards. In that autumn, as I started at The Big School (Pencoed Comprehensive, where I still help out with creative writing workshops) I got hold of George Lucas's novel of the film. Yes, it was amazing, wasn't it, that George Lucas had not only found time to make this film, but also scribble down a novelisation of it? It was only later that Alan Dean Foster was credited, but not on my edition. It was a shiny paperback with a yellow cover and a set of colour photos stitched into the middle. It was a holy relic, as far as I was concerned, and when I accidentally dented one of the corners, I felt as if my world had ended. I also got the 7" disco-funk version of the Star Wars music:

Which was only the third record I'd ever bought, after the Jaws theme and Queen's We Are The Champions.

By early 1978, clips of the film had appeared on television many times and bits and pieces of additional merchandising were starting to appear. Stephen had the Marvel comics Star Wars editions, and we looked through them after school, gleaning clues. Slowly we were piecing together something of the experience to come. Nothing, though, could serve as adequate preparation for the film itself. From the beginning, it was different. There was the familiar 20th Century Fox intro, but - astonishingly - the music had an additional flourish, one that I'd never heard before, and all because Lucas had insisted on using the Alfred Newman fanfare:

Of the film itself, there isn't much to say that hasn't been said a million times before. The ships, the speed, the colour, the spectacle - it was all bigger, louder, faster, than anything I'd seen before. One thing sticks in my mind, though. No one had prepared us for the doors! The doors on the Death Star, the Falcon etc - they closed so quickly! For some reason that had never come across in any of the TV clips and yet it seemed so important to the texture of the film, adding a real sense of menace. You didn't want to be stuck under those doors when they came rocketing down.

I didn't have any Star Wars toys as such, but the day after I did what we all did in the seventies: I made it up out of Lego. I made Lego X-wings, Lego Tie-Fighters, and even arranged some boxes to create a makeshift "Trench" to send them shooting down. Later I would get more ambitious and make Lego Imperial Cruisers and even a Lego Millennium Falcon, complete with a row of white bricks at the back to simulate the exhaust glow. It was fantastic.

I saw Star Wars one more time, and then that was it - the long, long wait for the sequel. I didn't stop being obsessed with Star Wars. I read "Splinter of the Mind's Eye", Alan Dean Foster's sequel, imagining - as I think did a lot of us - that this was what the next film was going to be about, and in truth found it a bit boring and bewildering. It was with some relief that hints began to surface that the next film wasn't going to be like that at all. There were huge walking machines in it, and a battle on an ice planet. Great! When "The Empire Strikes Back" came out in 1980, I went to see it, again in Swansea, once with my family and the second time on the train with a friend. I thought it was brilliant, but it left me with a strange melancholic feeling at the end. I was 14 by then, and starting to read "proper" grown-up science fiction, but I could still enjoy Star Wars perfectly well on its own terms. By the time the next film came out, in 1983, I was seventeen, old enough to go to pubs, trying to write my own stuff. It was a different time, and although I enjoyed the speeder bikes and space battles, the magic wasn't quite there for me any more. But I still retained a basic affection for the films and their characters, and years later, almost by an effort of will, I forced myself to find some meagre crumbs of enjoyment in the rightly derided prequels. I'm still a Star Wars fan, you see. It doesn't bother me in the slightest that Star Wars isn't really science fiction, in the sense that we usually prefer to see it. Worrying about that is like worrying about whether ice cream is pudding. It is what it is - good in parts, silly in others, occasionally great and wonderful, and in that respect my view of it isn't hasn't shifted all that radically in nearly forty years. Give me a huge spaceship cruising in from upper screen right, give me that bass rumble, give me a tiny ship trying to outrun the larger one ... and I'm sold.

Oh, and I still like Kate Bush.


  1. You captured the feeling of that time pretty well. I suspect that no matter how good the new set of movies, they'll never resonate with us the same as the originals due to the fact that we'll never be 8 -12 again...

  2. I saw the film in Ireland, it must have been 1978 too. It was in a fantastic amphitheatre of a cinema called the Ambassador at the top of Dublin's O'Connell Street. I must have been only seven, though it feels fresher than that.

    Though the story was burnt into my consciousness (thanks Joseph Campbell) I do not recall the details of watching the film well (the Millennium Falcon Tie fighter battle maybe) but I do remember leaving the cinema. The Ambassador was quite steeply sloped and for a seven year old the stairs themselves felt like an adventure, the bottom row of seats (where I sat, eyesight being poor) seemed to drop precipitously behind me and I swear I felt the floor vibrate with the same bass thrum that accompanied the appearance of the Star Destroyer at the start of the film.

    I felt like I was myself leaving a spaceship. I climbed and did not want to stop climbing. It was magical the spell it cast has lasted to this day.

    A different child left that cinema than went in. I loved space, I loved spaceships and I knew rebel scum were usually the good guys.

    And of course that people with posh English accents who were not Alec Guinness were Imperials.

  3. I can well remember the build up to the film coming out - it seemed like they showed that same clip of the escape from the Death Star on Tiswas every week for about a year! ( It probably wasn't that long... ) As Brian says above, with the advent of the JJ Abrams reboot, we'll probably never recapture that original feeling, being all grown up and "adult" now... but it's got to be worth a try :-)

  4. I have some doubt about my own claim to have collected the bubble gum cards in 1977 - would it have been more likely to have been the summer *after* the release of the film, I wonder? The cards were released in 1977 but must have remained widely available long after.

    One thing I did forget to mention was that, when I saw Star Wars for the first time, they were selling souvenir booklets in the cinema, similar to the ones you get when you go to a play or musical. I got one but I must have lost it years ago.

  5. The fact the stormtroopers wore white emphasized the Empire thought of itself as the "good guys" and the rebels were truly rebel scum. Grand Moff Tarkin and those types were the face of the Empire, while Darth Vader worked behind the scenes like Dick Cheney because any subjects of the Empire would wonder, "Why is this evil guy so powerful? He's not what we stand for!"

    Plus the whole redemption of Han, i.e. shooting first and then becoming the ultimate good guy saving the day. Luke treading towards the dark side, and possibly crossing over much to Yoda's frustration.

    The prequels were a betrayal, then Lucas spit in fandom's face saying "It's a series for children". Not kids, but children. Snivelling, sticky-pawed brats screaming because Spongebob isn't in the film.

    I hope The Force Awakens delivers. Otherwise it'll be "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."

  6. Being born in 1980 meant I missed this early wonder of seeing them. However, due to the time it took for movies to be shown on one TV back in those days, I discovered it one Christmas as a wide-eyed child. I was mesmerized and from that moment on I was Luke Skywalker, battling the evil empire. Like alot of small boys, I got too ambitious whilst running on an icy playground and fell over, knocking myself out. An overnight stay in the hospital led to the chance to watch a video (we didn't have one back then) and, I along with the other children got to watch "Empire Strikes Back". That reveal with Vader and Luke, shocked me to the core. How could Luke be related to the most evil man in the Universe!? "Return of the Jedi" followed a couple of years later - although I think it was another Christmas premier, I can't quite remember. Now, I sit here, as a father to a two year old, counting down the years till my own boy is old enough to watch them (I was around five if my mum is remembering right). Naturally I will watch the original trilogy with him first so he can also have that same wide eyed joy I also had. I also don't want Jar Jar to put him off it we watch them in chronological order.....

  7. I want the big alien ship, that was and still is an awesome sight. :)

    I never forget the stick I got from my family for crying when Han was carbonised in Empire.

  8. We were given the choice of seeing Star Wars and some other crappy movie. My sisters deciding vote meant crappy movie. Didn't see Star Wars until my 20's! Mainly out of spite!