To most Star Wars fans, the Dark Times refers to the years between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope when the Empire was ascendant and strengthened its grip on the universe, and powerul Sith like Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader hunted down the last of the Jedi. It was a period of hopelessness when the balance of the Force tipped toward the Dark Side and the fire of the Jedi was snuffed out… or so many thought.
However, to older fans the Dark Times also refers to those lean years of fandom between 1984 and 1991 when there was little in the way of Star Wars merchandise, and almost no hope of any more Star Wars films. It appeared that Star Wars had run its course and creator George Lucas was satisfied in pursuing other interests. The general public appeared to have moved on to other film and TV franchises, but comic, book, and toy sales suggested that Star Wars was simply a slumbering giant that just needed a jolt to awaken.
The fine folks at Full of Sith released the latest episode of their podcast featuring guest Pablo Hidalgo, Star Wars superfan and member of the Lucasfilm Star Wars Story Group. Pablo and the gang talked about their own experiences during the Dark Times, and what got them through those lean years and how their fandom was affected. One common thread that emerged was this sense of being an outsider during that time; that society had some how “forgotten” Star Wars and was beginning to view loyal fans as strange, somewhat eccentric oddballs. Show host Bryan Young even recounted his days in high school being teased for his fandom.
It was a great show, and a fantastic conversation, but something just didn’t click with me. I’d never experienced anything like that. Most of my friends still threw out an obscure Star Wars reference here or there, and many of us still engaged in intense geek conversations. Even in my days in college I was still meeting a lot of fans my age who were more than happy to talk about Star Wars, and I never really experienced any mocking or derision from people who were not fans. Sure, Star Wars was out of the mainstream, and most of my fandom was relegated to countless session of West End Games’ Star Wars Roleplaying Game, but my experiences during the Dark Times certainly weren’t negative.
I thought about it for a while. Why were my experiences different than the hosts of the show, or Pablo’s? Then it dawned on me; it was my age, and the era of the Star Wars phenomenon I grew up in.
I was nine in Summer 1977. I was there when America went Star Wars mad for a good two years from 1977-1978. Star Wars was everywhere.. It was regularly referenced on weekly variety shows like Donnie and Marie and Hee Haw, and other TV shows. You could find kids wearing buttons emblazoned with the words “May the Force Be With You,” on school playgrounds without fear of them being labelled as nerds. Meco Star Wars was a hit on radio and a regular feature of “fast skate” sessions at Skateland and other roller rinks across the country. Star Wars even became a part of my Sunday school teacher’s lesson plan as he looked for thematic ties between Star Wars and the Bible.
Certainly you still find many of these things today, but it is nowhere near as pervasive and all consuming in the culture. The nation was gripped by a mania that did not relent. However,by the time The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were released most of that mania was already petering out. Star Wars was no longer this cultural touchstone that the entire country shared for a brief moment like Star Wars. It was now a part of pop culture; the Star Wars fever broke. While the movie lines were still long and the toys still sold well, Star Wars was all but a memory for the average movie goer only a year after Jedi’s premiere. Star Wars had officially passed from pop culture phenomenon to a passing fad, and like most fads (e.g., Hula Hoop, Pet Rock, etc.) there’s a certain amount of derision from people who were caught up in it after it fades.
However, for those Younglings who first experienced Star Wars in Summer of ’77, Star Wars was something much more than a fad, or passing pop culture fancy. For us, Star Wars was as much a part of myth as were stories of Hercules’ labors, or the adventures of Sinbad, Robin Hood, King Arthur, and Superman. We shared a common bond and language that was not broken with the passage of time. I could still talk Star Wars with the friends I grew up with even into the late 80s, and even people in my generation who were only casual fans would smile when I would make the occasional obscure Star Wars reference. For us, Star Wars was not dead, it was simply on hold.
A change is coming…
Summer of 1983 was over, and the Star Wars Trilogy had concluded. There were rumors that George Lucas would eventually tell Episodes I-III, or that he would return to the adventures of Luke Skywalker some time in the future. But for now Star Wars fans would have to content themselves with episodes of the Ewoks and Droids cartoons. Thanksgiving of 1984 also saw the release of the first Ewok movie, The Caravan of Courage… and that’s when the naysayers, and Lucas critics started coming out of the woodwork…
Suddenly, Star Wars was being criticized for being “too kiddie” and that Lucas was “only interested in selling toys.” Fans were now suggesting that Lucas was a sellout and only interested in money to further his filmmaking ambitions. Target number one was the Ewoks, those loveable, but vicious little furballs from Jedi. Ewoks were equated to stuffed teddy bears, and were now a symbol that somehow Lucas had “lost it” and had ruined Star Wars.
Let me take a quick step back for a minute and recount my first experiences with Ewoks, and Return of the Jedi.
It was May 1983, and I had a big problem. Gerard Catholic High School had the temerity to actually schedule final exams the week of Jedi’s release! There was simply no way my parents were going to allow me to go to the big midnight showing at the Kachina Theater in Scottsdale; I would need to come up with an alternate plan.
A group of us decided we would try to make the noon showing at Fiesta Mall’s AMC theater in Mesa. While the plan worked for most of my friends who only had a single exam that day, it created a logistical issue for me as I had a second exam at 10. So I did what any other dedicated Star Wars fan would do… I crammed like mad. Fortunately the exam was in US/Arizona History, a class I was already acing. I took my seat promptly at 10, and furiously worked my way through the 100 multiple choice questions and minimum 3 paragraph essay on the Cold War… I completed the test in record time (25 minutes), quickly scurried out the exit, got in my buddy’s car and we drove like furies to the theater.
I absolutely loved Return of the Jedi. I hissed that vile gangster, Jabba the Hutt, thrilled to the speeder bike chase and the fight at the Pit of Carkoon, mourned the loss of Yoda, and cheered Luke’s triumph over the Emperor. It was a big, bold, adventure with dramatic themes and terrific action… and I loved, yes loved, those fierce little furball warriors, the Ewoks.
So color me surprised when not more than a year or two later I’m listening to “fans” hammer the movie, and claim that Lucas was nothing more than a hack director who got lucky with the first film, and his absence was the real reason that Empire was so good. The only good films were the first two “mature” films and Jedi was nothing more than kids stuff. Even more shocking, I suddenly found myself agreeing with these people, and dismissing Jedi as a bad film that was not worthy of the name Star Wars… As I worked my way through college getting a little bit older, and a little more cynical along the way, I found that I was becoming that most loathsome of creatures… a hipster.
Despite this new found attitude I was still “into” Star Wars to a degree. I still kept up with the latest Star Wars news through the Official Star Wars Fan Club, which I was a member of; anxiously awaiting each new issue of Bantha Tracks, and later the Lucasfilm Fan Club Magazine, for even a whisper of Star Wars rumors. I even secretly watched and recorded Ewoks: The Battle For Endor, and found myself enjoying it. I played and GM’d in weekly Star Wars Roleplaying Game sessions, creating new stories and new characters to adventure with across the galaxy, fighting the forces of the dreaded Empire. There was a battle going on inside of me between the innocent, young fan I was in 1977, and the new, cynical hipster fan I was becoming, and that innocent fan was slowly losing the battle.
Fortunately something stopped me…
Redemption and Enlightenment…
I’ll never forget the moment that my fandom was saved and I stopped being that angry, bitter fan, and rekindled that youthful passion I had for Star Wars . It was 1989, and I was getting ready to finish moving out of my Mom’s home. I needed to move a number of things into storage, including my Star Wars toy collection I kept at my Grandmother’s house. I had begun packing up some of my loose figures and play sets when I picked up my Landspeeder, that I would keep in its box for safekeeping. I looked at the box, fondly recalling the first time I opened it, took the speeder out, and scooted it on the floor of my kitchen. Then I looked at the words printed on the right corner of the box:
“Ages 5 and up”
What?!?!? Wait, Star Wars is for kids?
I had kept Star Wars locked away in a time capsule in my mind. Star Wars was preserved for me in some cynical twisted sense of nostalgia that was married with my evolving tastes as an adult. Somehow I had lost sight that while I was getting older, Star Wars was not. I was changing, and had lost a lot much of the innocence of that 9 year old boy who had first discovered this universe. I had forgotten that it was THAT kid that fell in love with Star Wars. George Lucas made Star Wars for THAT nine year old kid, not for the 22 year old who was clutching this box wondering how he had gotten to this point in his life, still contemplating his future.
I realized that Star Wars wasn’t the problem, George Lucas wasn’t the problem; my cynicism and my inability to to separate my worldview as a nine year old and as a twenty-two year old were the problem. I needed to let go and just enjoy the ride. Stop over analyzing things and just approach the films with a youthful exuberance… find that inner child that still longed to escape to that far away galaxy and embrace it.
I have carried that attitude since that day I rediscovered my fandom, and what’s even better is that for the past 15 years or so I’ve been able to enjoy my kids’ experience with Star Wars, and have gotten to see the Saga in a whole new light as I watched it through their eyes. So I don’t get worked up about the comic antics of Jar Jar Binks; my kids loved him. He was no more silly than some of C-3POs prissy histrionics, or R2s prat falls, or the belch jokes from Empire and Jedi. I take it all in stride now…
Star Wars is epic story telling with weighty themes, but it is also filled with moments of whimsy. While there are certainly darker moments that may appeal to older audiences those same moments speak to the fears and concerns of children. What if I make a bad decision? How do I know good from bad? What is my destiny? While I may be an older fan now, when I finally came to the realization that I was a fan of a series of children’s movies I became a much happier fan.
So, I’d like to thank the crew at Full of Sith for their thoughtful discussion. It really brought back a lot of memories, and rekindled memories about what made me the fan I am today. Hopefully this entry gives my readers a better understanding of how I approach Star Wars as a fan. There’s a reason I decided to call my blog One Saga, and that was to cement the idea that I view all of Star Wars as one giant tapestry that is part of George’s universe, but he has allowed fans and professionals to add to that tapestry and expand the richness of the Star Wars experience. Call it the optimist in me, but I hope one day we can move beyond the labels of OT-fan, PT-fan, or EU-fan, and can simply be known as Star Wars fans.
May the Force Be With You