I’ll be counting down the days until I see The Force Awakens with a series of remembrances and observations about the franchise. Today, when Star Wars went away.
If you’re sick of the near constant presence that is Star Wars, even before the new films were announced, you would have loved the late ’80s and early ’90s. The grand saga went on the shelf, George Lucas moved on to other things, and the toys and action figures faded from store shelves. Its box office records had long since been topped by E.T. And while fan affection for the series still lingered, the whole thing faded into the realm of hazy nostalgia rather than being a current thing.
Which seems hard to have happened in only three or four years post-Jedi, but the feel-good ending of Jedi made it easy to call it a wrap on the (then) trilogy. The Empire was defeated, Vader was redeemed, all was right with the galaxy. It made sense to move on. Also, there was a growing sense, after the glow of its release, that Jedi wasn’t really all that good, and if that was the direction future Star Wars films were going to go, maybe it was better that things stopped right there.
Now it’s not like people totally forgot about Star Wars. Nobody was disowning the films or throwing their toys away. But its fandom was in a similar place Star Trek fans were in the early ’70s: devoted, but accepting of the fact that what they had was likely all they were going to have. If anything, I think we may have appreciated Star Wars more back then knowing we weren’t going to be getting any more of it. And, arguably, it felt like Lucas did too; the theatrical editions were easily available on VHS and laser disc, and there was no hint of the strange embarrassment he would later have towards the films that made him famous.
And there were some signs of life during this fallow period. Just not all of them worth remembering. Artoo and Threepio got their own Saturday morning cartoon, as did the Ewoks, but asides from introducing some characters that turned up when the Expanded Universe developed, they didn’t leave much of an impression. The Ewoks also got a couple of TV movies that had a similar impact. But we also got the Star Tours rides at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, which were the first chance for a lot of fans to immerse themselves in the worlds of the films. Another chance came when West End Games published its widely acclaimed Star Wars role-playing game. In addition to letting fans create their own adventures, the various supplements and sourcebooks WEG published would eventually become some of the core canon of the Expanded Universe, and much of that information is still held on to as holy writ to this day.
But really, that was it. For almost eight years after Return of the Jedi, Star Wars was pretty much just another geek property. You could have made a pretty strong case at the time that, with its film series going strong and its new TV series growing into the phenomenon it would become, Star Trek was the healthier and more relevant franchise. Which, given their time in the woods, Trek fans had definitely earned. But for us Star Wars fans, things felt well and truly done.
Which, honestly, may have been for the best. I’ve long said one of Lucas’ biggest mistakes was slapping that “Episode V” onto the opening crawl of The Empire Strikes Back. Without it, you’ve got three parts of the story and that’s it, you’re done. With it, well, that made Star Wars Episode IV. Which meant there were Episodes I, II and III off in the wings. Even when the series seemed abandoned, those assumed episodes before IV were like an unkept promise. If we’d just had three episode-less Star Wars films, Lucas may not have felt the nagging tug of that promise. He may have felt his story done, or at least his part in it, and we either wouldn’t have gotten the prequels at all, or at least gotten a very different version of them.
But as the ’90s dawned, the idea of a prequel trilogy felt as far away as the galaxy in which it would have taken place. And for the most part, we were okay with that. But we had no idea that a new hope was on the horizon. And that the slumbering beast we’d all taken in would soon be awake, and wanting to be fed…
The Twelve Days of Star Wars