A Look at Star Wars: The Radio Drama

When Star Wars premiered in May 1977, audiences were amazed by the amazing visual effects created by the technical wizards of Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic. And make no mistake, those of us who were sitting in theaters with our popcorn and soft drinks handy and our imaginations working on overtime still can remember the impact of the famous opening, from that silent pause that accompanies the a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… card….that wonderful blast of John Williams’ Main Title that underscores the “It is a period of civil war…” crawl…and, most spectacularly, the awesome sight of that huge Imperial Star Destroyer as it pursues Princess Leia’s blockade runner over the desert world of Tatooine. Considering the many sequences that depict spacecraft or other vehicles that required miniatures and computer controlled camera work, it’s not surprising that Star Wars and its sequels are thought of as mainly visual experiences.

Thus it’s not surprising that when National Public Radio and Lucasfilm collaborated on Star Wars: The Radio Drama there was a skeptical reaction to the project. How can they portray the Star Wars characters and situations – especially the space battles and lightsaber duel – by using voices, sound effects and music alone? Won’t that entail an intrusive narrator describing things we saw in the movie? Who would play the characters? Will it work?

Fortunately, Star Wars creator George Lucas had insisted that the film’s then-groundbreaking visuals be accompanied not only by Ben Burtt’s incredibly versatile library of “organic” sound effects that lent the imaginary galaxy and its civilizations a sense of realism, but a musical score in the style of the 19th Century’s Romantic Era composed by John Williams. If the right writer were found and if an experienced cast and director hired, the existing Star Wars screenplay could be expanded to create a 13-part radio drama.

Star Wars: The Original Radio Drama seemed like someone’s quixotic quest, but when the late novelist Brian Daley (Han Solo at Star’s End) and director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) signed on (as well as Star Wars cast members Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels), what was to many a “damned fool’s idealistic crusade” became an exciting listening experience that not only took listeners to that long-gone pre-TV era when radio was king, but also revisited and enriched the story of the struggle between the evil Galactic Empire and the small band of Rebels that have united to challenge the Emperor’s tyrannical rule.

Basing much of the 13-part Radio Drama on material excised from Lucas’ fourth revised draft and blending in bits of backstory culled from unpublished outlines as well as references to his own Han Solo novels, Daley not only recreates the events depicted in Star Wars: A New Hope, but adds depth and detail by starting the narrative slightly before the film’s actual beginning scenes. Thus we get revealing glimpses at Luke Skywalker’s life on Tatooine – working on his Uncle Owen’s moisture farm, dreaming of entering the Imperial Space Academy, and racing his skyhopper in the dangerous stretches of Beggar’s Canyon – and Princess Leia’s first involvement in the Rebellion and life in the Royal Palace of Alderaan.

I stumbled onto the Radio Drama’s original 1981 broadcast one weekend while I was searching for a classical music station and tuned in to WLRN 91.3 FM, the Miami National Public Radio affiliate. When I heard “National Public Radio presents NPR Playhouse,” I almost turned the dial, thinking it would be a boring play or soap opera, but when the announcer added, “Star Wars, based on characters and situations created by George Lucas,” I froze in midstep, sat down, and listened. I’d already missed Episode One, “A Wind to Shake the Stars,” but since it was only the second show, I caught on pretty quickly and marveled at how good the script was and how well the voices and sound effects worked to create the Star Wars universe without any visuals. And, being the fan that I was – and still am – I tuned in every weekend faithfully, making sure my homework and chores were done so I could just relax and lose myself for a half-hour in the adventures of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Obi-Wan Kenobi, R2-D2, and C-3PO as they challenge Darth Vader, hordes of Imperial stormtroopers, and the dreaded planet-killing battle station, the Death Star.

The scripts don’t rely greatly on an off-screen narrator; Ken Hiller only gives a short intro akin to the visual opening crawl to help set up the Episode, letting the action and the characters do the rest of the hard work. (He also has a short end-of-chapter epilog in each Episode.) I expected a lot of unnatural description from the characters to paint word pictures, but luckily that’s kept to a bare minimum and the performances flow naturally, especially once we are out of the expository material and into Star Wars’ better-known scenes.

I especially appreciate how the casting and production coordinator, Mel Sahr, was able to get Hamill and Daniels aboard this risky endeavor. Hamill’s performance as Luke – using his voice alone – is equal to or even better than his work in the Original Trilogy films, while it’s hard to imagine anyone but Anthony Daniels to play the overly anxious protocol droid that charmed audiences while annoying Han Solo.

Of the replacement players, Ann Sachs, Perry King, Bernard Behrens, and Brock Peters did a remarkable job stepping into roles created by other actors whose every nuance was all-too-familiar to audiences. Sachs is a very convincing Leia Organa, while King, who actually tried out for the film role of Han Solo, really comes close to making audiences forget that Harrison Ford beat him during the casting “cattle calls” in 1975. (Not only does he seem to be saying to Lucas, See? I could have done this just as good as the other guy!, but Daley seems to have written some of the better scenes for the Corellian smuggler. Bernard “Bunny” Behrens steps into the role of the legendary Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi as if the Jedi robe had been made for him, and Brock Peters exudes an aura of evil-laced power as Lord Darth Vader. (The scene that delves into the interrogation of Princess Leia is a particularly interesting one, as Vader uses the dark side of the Force to try to pry information from the captured Rebel leader. Interestingly, one of the ploys Vader uses is to tell Leia he’s her father, something that must have made Lucas smile behind his beard, even though Vader was supposedly “impersonating” Bail Organa through a Sith mind trick….not realizing he was, indeed, speaking the literal truth….)

Daley sticks closely to Lucas’ screenplay and material that appeared in both Alan Dean Foster’s novelization and the Marvel Comics adaptation, and foreshadows some of the revisions later made by Lucas for the 1997 Special Edition re-release of A New Hope. Not knowing how Lucas was going to have Jabba the Hutt portrayed, Daley did alter the Han Solo/Jabba confrontation by substituting a thuggish middleman named “Heater” (Joel Brooks) as a stand-in for the vile slug-like gangster.

Although members of the film’s major cast had expressed interest – some of it understandably proprietary – in reprising their roles, only Mark Hamill (Luke) and Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) were available. Substituting for Harrison Ford (Han), Carrie Fisher (Leia), Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi), and James Earl Jones (Darth Vader) were Perry King, Ann Sachs, Bernard Behrens, and Brock Peters. At first, the listener tries to figure out why the characters sound slightly odd, but then the ear gets used to the new voices and the story carries one along effortlessly, a sure sign that Daley, director Madden, sound mixer Tom Voegeli, and the cast did their work well.

Highbridge Audio has released this exciting audio adventure in both compact disc and audiocassette formats, both attractively packaged in a black box adorned with a flying X-Wing and a 3-D rendition of the Star Wars, and each CD or cassette contains two half-hour episodes (except for the final CD, which contains Episode 13: Force and Counterforce by itself. The CD Edition comes in two oversized multi-CD jewel cases, each with the same cover art as the slipcover but with the Episode list on the reverse side. A small booklet with stills from the film, a cast list, and a brief “making-of essay” is enclosed in Jewel Case One.

Episode List
Jewel Case One: Episodes One Through Eight

CD 1: Episode One: A Wind to Shake the Stars
Episode Two: Points of Origin

CD 2: Episode Three: Black Knight, White Princess, and Pawns
Episode Four: While Giants Mark Time

CD 3: Episode Five: Jedi That Was, Jedi To Be
Episode Six: The Millennium Falcon Deal

CD 4: Episode Seven: The Han Solo Solution
Episode Eight: Death Star’s Transit

Jewel Case Two: Episodes Nine Through Thirteen

CD 1: Episode Nine: Rogues, Rebels, and Robots
Episode Ten: The Luke Skywalker Initiative

CD 2: Episode Eleven: The Jedi Nexus
Episode Twelve: The Case for Rebellion

CD 3: Episode Thirteen: Force and Counterforce

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