Star Wars is one of those pop culture franchises that, for me, has always been around. My birth was perfectly timed for this; I arrived in the world just a few weeks after Star Wars did – though it didn’t arrive in the UK until I was a little over six months old. Pictured below is the queue around the block (why else do you think they’re called blockbusters?) at Leicester Square in London; still one of my favourite places in the world to watch films.
The first movie I remember seeing at the cinema, however, was The Empire Strikes Back. I still vividly remember seeing Luke, following the Wampa attack, healing in the bacta tank at Echo Base.
Why that particular scene stuck in my mind above all others, I’m not sure – but that’s the one I can see perfectly on the big screen in my mind’s eye. I must note, at this point, that – according to my parents – the first film I actually saw at the cinema was The Muppet Movie, though that event was obviously a little too early for me to remember (perhaps, though, that does explain why Rainbow Connection can bring me to tears of joy almost instantly).
Post-Empire – and pre-Jedi – it wasn’t uncommon for me to go to the birthday parties of my school friends, where we’d just sit and watch Star Wars in its entirety on dodgy VHS copies instead of playing any party games. It wasn’t particularly common to have a VHS machine in those days, but it did seem that everyone I knew had one – and they all had their hands on pirate tapes. Star Wars was endlessly discussed and recreated in the playground and even in class; it was an absolute phenomenon. We all owned the toys and read the books, collected the stickers and even listened to audio versions of the film(s) on cassette.
I remember catching a fleeting moment of Return of the Jedi on a TV show; a very short clip of Luke and Leia on speeder bikes, hurtling through the forest of Endor. It blew my tiny mind.
We endlessly speculated about what could be coming in the final part of the trilogy. We even thought there might be a chance that Leia ended up partnered with Luke, rather than Han – especially given the predicament Han found himself in by Empire’s end.
I recall being extremely jealous that my Uncle had bagged himself a ticket to go and see Jedi at the Dominion theatre on Tottenham Court Road. What an experience that must have been: Return of the Jedi during its first week of release, in Central London on an enormous screen, at a theatre packed full of Star Wars fans who’d waited years to see the trilogy conclude. In case you can’t tell, I’m still a bit envious of that now.
It wasn’t long before I saw Jedi for myself though. I made up for not being able to see it at the cinema; my Dad managed to get it on VHS, through a friend who always seemed to get his hands on illicit tapes. I watched that film an obscene amount of times; knowing how to operate the VHS recorder at the tender age of six, watching Return of the Jedi became part of my morning routine for months. I’m surprised the tape still played after the amount of times it was watched, rewound and watched again.
After Jedi, the mania seemed to die down for most people. Most kids moved on to He-Man and Transformers; I was given a huge bundle of Star Wars toys by a distant relative who’d outgrown them, but the magic did dissipate for a few years. I did catch the two Ewok movies; Caravan of Courage and Battle for Endor, but I have to admit that it was no longer an obsession of mine for some time.
That changed in 1991 when the first new Star Wars fiction – in what felt like forever – was released, this time in the form of a novel: Heir to the Empire. I remember the buzz around it; just knowing that the saga was being continued with our old favourite characters was a really big deal at the time!
It didn’t disappoint. It really did feel like a worthy continuation of the film series and the first trilogy in what was to become an extremely long-running line of books still remains, for me, the high point of the Expanded Universe (as it came to be known).
During this time, it seemed that all we’d ever see of Star Wars was these books, as well as the Dark Horse comics – which were, for the most part, fantastic. I must, at this point, give a shout out to one of the best early examples of post-Jedi comics – Dark Empire.
During this time – the early to late 90s – I must admit I became really obsessed again. Fuelled by a near-constant stream of books and comics – as well as the odd video and computer game, not least of which, for me at least, was the SNES ‘Super’ trilogy (starting with Super Star Wars of course), it seemed that I once again just couldn’t get enough.
Shadows of the Empire was another notable addition to the Expanded Universe. Designed as a ‘movie without a movie’, it was an ambitious multimedia project, with a novel, comic adaptation, a fully orchestrated soundtrack and a video game on the then-new Nintendo 64 console. It was set between Empire and Jedi; with no Han in the picture, the new character of Dash Rendar was instead used as a sort of Han substitute.
Though the N64 game is fondly remembered, it has aged terribly. The less said about the novel, the better.
Which takes us up to the release of the original trilogy Special Editions in the cinema, which – for me – was the first opportunity to see the first movie and Jedi on the big screen. At the time, I recall the additions being really exciting – with the notable exception of Greedo shooting first, of course. I didn’t even mind the CGI additions to the first film – even the Jabba scene – but these effects have aged embarrassingly badly.
Following the Special Editions, I devoured more and more of the Expanded Universe books. That kept me going for the next few years, when the level of excitement raised several million notches with the announcement of the first new Skywalker-saga Star Wars film since 1983: The Phantom Menace.
The prequels probably deserve an article on their own, however. So I’ll sign off on this wonderful day with a phrase familiar to those of us who have always sought to keep the Star Wars flame alive:
May the Force be with you. Always.
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