Archive for the ‘Features and opinion’ Category

This is my “definitive” article on Star Wars, the film that made me fall in love with science fiction in the first place. My mum took me to see it in 1978, when I was five. I still vaguely remember the trip. Apparently I talked all the way through. In the weeks before I drew an awful lot of TIE fighters at school, and was very envious of the kids who had seen it the first time around. I got some Star Wars figures before I saw the film. In following years, I built up quite a collection of Star Wars toys, but was forced to sell them after I returned from living in Poland as I was flat broke. This initial handful, however, I kept and passed them on to Benny 35 years later.

This article was originally published as part of Death Ray #21‘s “Time Trap”, which looked at the year 1977.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, science fiction was about to change forever…

In 1977 the most influential science fiction film of all time came to cinemas. George Lucas’ Star Wars has had such a large influence on the genre it is hard to quantify. Naturally, space opera movies became a dime a dozen in the 1980s, but it had effects as diverse as speeding the restructuring of the way Hollywood financed its movies, introducing the ‘worn’ future, heralding breakthroughs in special effects that were to transform cinema, and cementing the idea of the Summer event movie. Some of these seismic shifts stemmed from 1975’s Jaws, the first modern blockbuster, but Star Wars accelerated them.

Lucas conceived of Star Wars sometime round 1971, when he wrote an outline called ‘The Journal of the Whills’. Some of the ideas that were to later feature in the Star Wars movies were present, including the Jedi, but many were not, including the story. The structure of the first trilogy, even the idea that there were to be more movies, was not present initially, and the reconception of Star Wars as but one part of the life story of Anakin Skywalker, fallen Jedi Knight, did not occur until much later (Lucas has often said that he wrote a massive treatment, then decided to concentrate on the first third as it was too big. There is little evidence for this in Lucas’ drafts). This initial treatment, about the son of a famous fighter pilot who is training to be the ‘padawaan’ of Mace Windy, a famed ‘Jedi-Bendu’ was described as too complex to understand, so Lucas started again, this time basing his story on Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. Initially, the Star Wars was little more than an SF remake of Kurosawa’s classic, but over time and four drafts it would move further and further away from it, incorporating elements from more science-fictional sources and fairytale, crucially reintroducing the wizard-like Jedi, whose struggle with their own instincts was to form the thematic core of the entire universe. The final draft, with input from Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, was finished 1 January, 1976. Throughout the writing process the story changed, Luke’s character turned from a 60-year-old general into a dwarf. Right up until filming commenced, Lucas was toying with the idea of making him a woman. Han Solo was supposed to be a green alien with gills, C3PO a car-dealer type… Star Wars was not conceived as a saga, but more as a loosely defined universe inspired by Saturday serials, Japanese cinema and World War II movies, whose story was subject to revision right to the very last minute. There will never be a definitive version. The genesis of the film is steadily sliding into the realms of apocrypha, with the imperfect human memory the main culprit, aided by deliberate misdirection here and there. George Lucas has made many contradictory statements about the conception of the film, while stories from different people involved do not entirely match up. Was Alec Guinness as uncomfortable on set as he always maintained, requesting his own death so he could stop saying such “rubbish lines”, or was the characters’ death down to Lucas, and Guinness mostly happy at work as the director maintains? Was David Prowse dubbed because there were no black characters, as he maintains, or was it because he, like many of the other dubbed actors in the film, sounded too British? This are but a couple of examples of the many stories surrounding the film’s production, alternative versions of which can be found in numerous media.

What is certain is that it could so easily have not happened. Universal and Paramount passed on the film, seeing it as high-risk and high budget. Alan Ladd Jnr at Fox, however, saw promise in Lucas and the concept, and took it on.

The complex production was tense, and for the crew involved, bewildering. Stories about these difficulties include the crew members ridiculing the production, extras whispering ‘wanker’ at Mark Hamill as he walked past the crowd at the medal giving climax, Lucas tearing out his hair at endless British tea breaks, and union interference with the nascent ILM being seen off with a showy display of computer controlled camera work. No-one had ever made a film like this before, and many made fun of the avalanche of outlandish names that accompanied it. ILM were brilliant but disorganised, and spent half their budget on four shots Lucas rejected. The actors complained about the dialogue and about Lucas’ direction (“Faster” and “More intense” were his sole phrases). Lucas argued with cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, who thought the young director was overstepping his bounds in requesting specific shot set ups. Accidents dogged the production – on the first day of shooting in Tatouine, the area of Tunisia standing in for Tatooine, there were the worst torrential downpours in 50 years. Props didn’t work, and Anthony Daniels’ C3PO costume broke and speared his left foot.

Though Star Wars was fairly expensive for its day, Lucas had ambitions much bigger than his budget. Money was tight. He was unhappy with the effects, the costumes and props. Time ran out. Reaching crisis point as shooting fell two weeks behind schedule, Fox gave Lucas an ultimatum: wrap production in a week, or Star Wars will be cancelled. Splitting the crew into three teams, Lucas scraped over the deadline.

Scheduled for release at Christmas of 1976, there were further problems in Star Wars’ post production process. The initial cut was disastrous, prompting Lucas to replace the editor. ILM struggled, Mark Hamill (Luke) was involved in a car crash that made reshoots impossible, while an early screening of the incomplete film to Lucas’ film buddies was unsuccessful with only Stephen Spielberg enjoying the film. The release was postponed until May of the following year.

But it was now that things began to come together. A new edit gave the film its famous pace, Lucas spliced together a load of dogfights from war films to inspire the effects house, while both Ben Burt’s innovative, organic sound design and John Barry’s bombastic martial score, recorded in just 12 days, brought the film to life.

Star Wars‘ final budget was driven from $8 million to $11 million. Lucas was a nervous wreck, suffering from hypertension and exhaustion. He was thus gratified by the response of the Fox brass – they all loved it, and one broke down in tears. The film was a difficult sell to reluctant cinemas. Fox threatened to withhold the more eagerly anticipated movie The Other Side of Midnight if cinemas did not show Lucas’ film.

Star Wars was, as we know, a huge hit, so successful that 20th Century Fox’s share value doubled in weeks. Alone, Star Wars has earned more than $700million dollars in its lifetime. The estimated lifetime takings of the franchise it spawned, merchandising and all, is put at around $20billion.

The cultural impact of Star Wars has been immense, not least in its refocusing of Hollywood on spectacle after a decade of thoughtful, arty films. Some have called this a betrayal, others a re-engagement with the audience. Either way, effects-heavy thrill-rides became the default setting for big-screen success.

The first SF blockbuster’s effect on the genre was complex. It is arguable Star Wars destroyed the credibility of science fiction at a time when it was just becoming an excepted form. Book companies redirected their efforts toward juvenilia, and the more cerebral cinematic SF efforts of the 60s and 70s gave way to numerous Star Wars imitations. Although a wave of great SF films trailed Star Wars’ success, they were outnumbered by cheap, unimaginative copycats. Such movies as Space hunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone did much to earn SF its status as a pariah genre in the 90s. When you hear of critics dismissing SF, it’s not Alien or The Terminator or Mad Max they’re thinking of, but the bad sets, ropey effects and cardboard characters of TV and straight-to-video Star Wars rip-offs. To them, ‘science fiction’ stinks of the unsophisticated mindset of the nursery.

But this was but a reactive dip, one SF has come out of now, in the main, and we can thank Star Wars also for SF’s renaissance, for the creative types who fill our screens and bookshelves with weekly wonders had their minds’ eyes opened wide by Star Wars as children. And that, dear readers, includes your friendly correspondents here at Death Ray.

The Expanded Universe

It wasn’t the films that made Lucas his fortune, but millions upon millions of tiny plastic toys…

When Lucas negotiated with Alan Ladd Jnr. for his fee, he settled on a relatively modest sum of $150,000 in return for 40% of the merchandising rights and rights to any sequels. It is this canny deal that has made Lucas a billionaire, and allowed him to operate largely outside the studio system for much of his career.

At the time, Hollywood made little money from merchandising. The days of themed Happy Meals and action figure toy lines were ushered in by Star Wars. Fox provided little direct marketing support for the film, leaving marketing director Charles Lippincott to find other ways to publicise the movie. He sold the toy rights to Kenner (who invented the three and three-quarter inch action figure size still popular today for the film). Over 300 million of these figures were sold between 1977 and 1984, but Kenner initially under-produced. The toys were so popular that Kenner rapidly ran out of stock round Christmas of ’77, prompting them to fill shops with empty boxes containing a promissory note. The back orders took three months to fulfil.

Lippincott also looked to print media to provide a push to the movie, negotiating a pre-release comic adaptation with Marvel. A novelisation of the film was published under Lucas’ name, although it was actually written by Alan Dean Foster. Titled Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker, it was based on the screenplay and released six months before the film. The book interestingly contains several minor departures from the book, including the cut Tosche station scenes filmed for the movie’s opening, and differences in detail here and there.

But it is the book that followed, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, also by Foster, where things get interesting. This novel was intended to form the basis of a cheap sequel should Star Wars perform poorly. When the film became a smash hit, this idea was dropped. Instead, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, along with Star Wars comic issue 7, formed the basis of Star Wars‘ enormous Expanded Universe.

Many popular SF franchises have Expanded Universes, but Star Wars is among the largest of all, rivalled in scale only by Star Trek‘s. It encompasses books, comics, roleplaying and video games, toys, audio dramas, cartoons, and TV shows, telling stories in the Star Wars universe from 10,000 years in the past until 100 years in the future (Lucas, intending to one day make a prequel trilogy, barred authors from delving into the history of the Empire, Anakin, or Palpatine). Like most such things in the genre, these stories are not considered canon, and yet they have had a profound influence on the film series itself, with many characters and locations working their way into the movie series.

The Star Wars expanded universe is remarkably consistent, although not immune to shifts in the story and retconning. This consistency can be credited to West End Games. Their RPG products, beginning in 1987, were so detailed they were often sent out to other licensees as reference materials, leading to a situation where West End found itself, in later years, producing supplements based on stories which had been generated with the help of their products.

After the release of Return of the Jedi, Star Wars fever abated somewhat, though the Expanded Universe remained a lucrative industry. With the release of Timothy Zahn’s Admiral Thrawn trilogy in 1991, the acquisition of the Star Wars comic book license by Dark Horse and renewed speculation about further films, it really took off, paving the way for the return of the franchise to the big screen.

Did you know?

The 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special was the first televisual outing for the expanded universe. A collection of musical skits, comedy segments and unused footage from Star Wars, it featured all the main cast in a story loosely centred on Chewbacca’s return home for Life Day (Wookie Christmas), and the struggle he and Han Solo have as they try to get back to the Wookie world of Kashyyyk. Through the medium of television watched by Chewie’s son Lumpawarrump, we get a musical interlude from Jefferson Starship, a 10-minute cartoon about one of Chewie’s earlier adventures, as well as cameos from various other Wars’ stars, such as Luke, who is shown having mechanical trouble with his X-Wing fighter. This all takes place as Imperial forces search Chewie’s tree house, so there’s an air of totalitarian absurdity to it.

Aside from the cartoon, which introduced Boba Fett, the Holiday Special is widely disliked by fans and those involved, with Lucas himself being particularly unhappy with the show. (he said once he wished he could hunt down every copy. It has only ever been screened once, and has never been released in any home entertainment format. Bootleg copies, however, can be had for the right price. We’d never condone illegal activity, but it is one of the most deliciously bad pieces of television ever to have been made.

I don’t usually talk about contentious issues here. My one attempt left me quivering with anxiety. In general, I dislike arguing over complicated issues on the internet. The medium encourages foolish hyperbole. It is too swift to force proper reflection, too slow to allow timely reaction, too distancing to facilitate rapport. It makes it too easy to see those who disagree with you as enemies. Misunderstanding, tangential ranting, rage escalation, lack of complexity and outright twattery are the sorry results. And that’s just on my side. I avoid it. If you’re brave enough for it, more power to you.

Actually, the above is fairly contentious. I’ll take my initial statement back.

Never mind all that. Today Scotland is voting on independence and I want to say something, hence the exception.

I hope the Scots don’t go. If the UK breaks up, what does that say? The world’s full of states teetering on the brink of fragmentation, and fragmentation increases the scope for conflict. Britain’s time as a world power will be well and truly over. The split will be acrimonious and cripple both nations for years to come. I like Scotland. I like Scots. I never thought I’d see a time when the island of Great Britain played host to two separate states. It makes me genuinely sad. (more…)

A fantastic book by one of my favourite writers, from Death Ray #19. Read my interview with Le Guin here.

158 x 240

Author: Ursula Le Guin

Publisher: Gollancz


One of the best writers of the age gives us, perhaps, her best book.

It’s not often that you will hear a journalist to admit this but Lavinia is a book I really do not feel appropriately qualified to review. It’s not just that it takes inspiration from one of the great texts of European literature – the Aeneid, by Vergil (or Virgil, if you prefer), which I fear my minor critical skills provide too small a set of cutlery to properly digest, but that it is such a perfectly balanced blend of feeling, metre and storytelling it is hard to describe. (more…)

The best of the supernatural comedy shows popular a few years ago, in my opinion. I really enjoyed Reaper. A review of season 2, from Death Ray #19.

Directors: Stephen Cragg, Ron Underwood, Tom Cherones, Kevin Dowling

Writers: Michele Fazekas, Tara Butters, Craig DiGregorio, Kevin Etten, Chris Dingess

Starring: Bret Harrison, Tyler Labine, Rick Gonzalez, Ray Wise, Missy Peregrym


Being a young man with a crummy job is not much fun, and it’s not made any better by being the son of Satan.

If there ever was a series designed to bait American fundamentalist Christians, it is Reaper, where hero Sam enters a second year of service to the devil, his friend Ben embarks on a romantic affair with a demon, and his other pal Sock continues his quest to live up to every one of the the Seven Deadly Sins.

On the other hand, it could well be employed in some religious school somewhere as a teaching aid. The show’s heavy on the redemption, features a Satan who acknowledges God loves everyone and will ultimately triumph, and its storylines frequently frown at the pleasures of the flesh. Sam is almost saintly. Despite discovering that he is actually the son of Old Nick himself, he seems immune to temptation, and strives to do the right thing while performing his role as bounty hunter for Hell, hunting down the escapee damned. This is almost an advert for American non-conformist church fun.

Reaper is a series about friends and family, it’s kind of cuddly and wholesome underneath the horns and Kevin Smith style slacker attitude. And it’s funny, though of course the Devil gets all the best lines “Satan is attracted to radishes?” he incredulously states at one point, leafing through Sam’s book on demonology, “do they mean sexually? That’s disgusting! Where do they get this stuff?” And Satan also has the best actor, the amazingly smooth Ray Wise. He’s got the devil’s own role, and seems to be enjoying himself immensely.

If anything funnier and slicker than its initial run, Reaper is damnably good telly.

This is a piece on Richard Adam’s Watership Down, first published in Death Ray #19 in 2009.

This tale of fluffy bunnies owes far more to Virgil’s Aeneid than to Beatrix Potter, and is a cornerstone of animal fantasy, argues Guy Haley.

Animal fantasy is a tricky beast. The anthropomorphised animal inhabits a funny little world at the end of the genre branchline, its stations lie on a different route entirely to SF, and at least three stops past fantasy. From a certain point of view, a speaking rat might appear to be firmly in Death Ray‘s stadium of odd little dreams, from the other, maybe not. It’s not the medium in this case, but the message – the stories told by the chatty animals are often a slight things, moralising in the ‘be good to your chums’ mode, aimed at children.

Perhaps that it’s to cover in depth every talking animal, we would fill up the magazine with Mr Toads. It seems safer to exclude them all. So, nearly all of it is fits into our loose genre definition, but we don’t cover it because it is too numerous and ephemeral to said genre. Sounds about right.

But that would be very foolish, and tantamount to the anti-SF snobbery you still see occasionally from mainstream critics. One must never let expediency get in the way of art, let alone preconceptions.

Because a lot of ‘animal fantasy’ is obviously of significant artistic importance. The political allegory of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, for example; we’d be stupid to ignore that. Or for different reasons, the heavily SF tinged Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien.

Perhaps the greatest animal fantasy is Watership Down, published in 1972 by the author Richard Adams. It’s a story of rabbits, but a far cry from the world of Beatrix Potter; an epic quest where a bunch of rabbits flee their warren after the dire visions of a sickly runt named Fiver predict that their home is doomed to be destroyed. After a terrible journey, the rabbits discover a new place for themselves, only to realise they have no females. A request for does from the nearby warren of Efrafa then leads to a bitter war for survival. (more…)

I loved these little featurettes in Death Ray. This one, from #18 published in 2009 just before the Star Trek reboot movie came out, was one of my favourites.

The Enterprise

It’s dinner-plate-and-three-Smartie-tubes shape is the most recognised spaceship silhouette on the small screen. It might have been treated like personal property by its frequently disobedient crew, but boy, what a ship: the USS NCC-1701Enterprise.

Ever since the Royal Navy captured the French sloop L’Enterprise and renamed her HMS Enterprise back in 1705, there’s been a tradition of naming ships so in both the US and British navies (15 to date in Britain, plus four without the ‘HMS’ prefix, and eight in the US). The test shuttle was named Enterprise, Richard Branson is going to call his rich-boy rocket ship Enterprise, and it’s a practise that will be carried far into the future, or so it seems, for Enterprise is the name borne by some of the most famous ships in science fiction. None is more well-known than the NCC-1701 Enterprise, captained by Captain James T. Kirk. For five years this two-fisted Iowan romped about the galaxy, seducing alien princesses, blowing up Klingons and visiting different worlds with his friend, Mr. Polystyrene Rock. Such a good time did Kirk and co have, in fact, that in the Trek universe all the ships subsequently called Enterprise bear the code ‘NCC-1701’ in honour of Kirk’s stalwart vessel. With a new film looming, we too have decided it is about time to provide similar respect. Behold! The original USS Enterprise’s secrets revealed. (more…)