TRANSMISSIONS FROM A GALAXY FAR, FAR, AWAY:

EPISODE IX

This is the ninth column in a weekly series from The Rock Father James Zahn. Check back Fridays for the latest in what’s happening in the galaxy far, far away, or read them all here. 

Living and working on the edge of toys and pop culture, I always hear the rumblings and theories about why things are the way they are, and how things have changed over the years—from play patterns to sales numbers. One debate that comes up constantly pertains to who actually buys Star Wars action figures (kids or collectors) and how those sales stack up to those of when my generation were kids. Frankly, there is no comparison and you can’t quantify any of it against what happened 40 years ago. There’s a very simple, constantly overlooked reason as to why—and it’s not “because kids play with tablets.” The reason why Star Wars toys—specifically the Kenner Star Wars collection—were such a phenomenon the first time around is because those toys were the only tangible way to live the adventures of Star Wars outside of a movie theater. Imagination was king.

The original Star Wars Trilogy was released just far enough in front of the proliferation and affordability of VHS that most families were only able to experience the original films while sitting in a theater. There were three years between the films, and the original Star Wars (later re-titled A New Hope) didn’t even hit then-expensive options like pay-per-view or HBO until 1983. In fact, the 1977 film didn’t air on basic television until CBS showed it in 1984—a full seven years after its release. An introduction by Mark Hamill is now charming in discussing a fandom that at the time was less than a decade old.

Now, a blockbuster film like The Last Jedi can hit theaters in December, be on home video by April, and pop up on Netflix by July. The bottom line is that movies today are available pretty much anywhere at anytime, and back in the day that just wasn’t even close to being an option. We weren’t inundated by a countless barrage of entertainment franchises competing for attention and dollars. The driving force of Star Wars was the cinematic adventures, as the ancillary properties like comics, books and games were a much smaller affair that wasn’t considered to be an essential part of the “canon” in the way many modern equivalents are. And, for some families, the first exposure to the Saga wasn’t even through the films, but through the serialized radio dramas.

When a kid walked into a toy store or toy department, what they would find were tools for adventure that they didn’t have anywhere else. Countless shelves and pegs loaded with the latest characters, vehicles, and playsets, with new tales just waiting to be told. If you wanted to live the adventure of Han Solo and Chewbacca, you couldn’t whip out a phone to play a round of Force Arena or Galaxy of Heroes… and there was no Battlefront with realistic graphics and immersive digital worlds. You’d reach for your Darth Vader carrying case, open it up, choose some figures and start populating the Falcon for the next mission.

During that original era, I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ farm outside of Crete, Illinois—a piece of land labeled as Park Forest South, and later renamed as University Park. My cousins and I would find unlimited adventure in the sprawling farmhouse and in the fields beyond (sadly, it’s all a subdivision now). Each of us would bring a selection of Kenner Star Wars figures from our own collections, and together we would travel wherever our imaginations would take us.

On one afternoon, Chewbacca had an unusually perilous adventure. We played in an unfinished bedroom upstairs, eventually making our way downstairs, using the long wooden bannister as an escape chute. Chewie, who my cousin Bobby was known to say was “chewy” (while doing a mock-eating move), had made it down the stairs, but was nowhere to be found. Seeing where the other figures had landed, I immediately noticed that the grate for the air duct on the wall was missing. It was a sizable hole, and had Chewie bounced into it, I assumed the only way he could’ve gone was down… down into the massive, wood-burning furnace in the cavernous basement below.

The furnace was terrifying. I’d been downstairs with my grandfather and had seen him “feed” it fresh wood, and the glimpses that I’d seen inside it looked like Hell on Earth—a raging inferno contained in a metal square. It was the type of apparatus from which horror movies are inspired, and for what seemed like a long time, I was convinced that the mighty Chewbacca had bounced on the living room carpet, into the duct, and slid like Boba Fett down the steep walls of the Pit of Carkoon—but instead of having a fighting chance against the all-powerful Sarlaac, he met his death by fire.

Chewbacca, as it turned out, was just fine. He had, indeed, hit the carpet and bounced—but it was the other direction, and he’d landed underneath my grandpa’s La-Z-Boy. Chewie had survived to see many future adventures, while I, as a child, experienced my first lesson in thoroughly looking for a missing toy instead of skipping into immediate panic mode—something my wife and I witness often as parents. And sometimes, I just like to pretend that I’m still just that little boy sending those figures off on adventures…

FURTHER TRANSMISSIONS FROM ACROSS THE GALAXY

  • The Star Wars Fan Awards are back! But it’s a different story this time around. Started as a way to pay tribute to the talented filmmakers behind a host of “fan films” over the years, fan creativity has evolved and so have the awards. Videos are still a big part, but additional categories will honor digital artists, toyographers and much, much more. Get official details here.
  • Is that old smoothie really, really coming back for Episode IX? Fans want Billy Dee Williams to return as Lando Calrissian for J.J. Abrams’ conclusion to the Sequel Trilogy, and with rumors that filming is starting in late summer, a recent cancellation at a fan convention has the rumor mill swirling even further.
  • On the Episode IX note, looks like filming will return to Cardington Sheds, where Rebel bases for A New Hope and Rogue One have both been staged. The reports were broken by Trevor Monk, who’s been right about that location before. Beware that an image floating around depicting a “IX” banner at the Sheds is a fake.
  • The Dark Side of fandom is not a new thing. With all the rumblings of how some bad apples have tainted the fun that should be Star Wars, this week, actor Ahmed Best revealed that the backlash from his performance as Jar Jar Binks was so bad in 1999, he almost chose to end his life. With the 20th anniversary of The Phantom Menace approaching next year, expect his story to be told.