The 12 Days of Star Wars: NPR Radio Drama

National Public Radio (NPR) gets a bit of a bad rap from the intelligentsia. Described by some commentators as a a liberal echo-chamber, it has its fair share of dissenters. Regardless of your views on the quality of its programming, it’s hard to deny the impact it had on re-invigorating the medium and contributing the podcast boom of the last decade. The magical world of podcasting has ensured that people around the world can enjoy the likes of “Car Talk”, “Planet Money”, “Serial” and “This American Life”. Before that NPR featured a series of radio plays based on a little known film series by a cult independent director. In 1981, NPR released the first in what would be a trilogy of serialised radio plays based on Star Wars.

That NPR would seek to capitalise on the Star Wars mania that defined the later 70s and early 80s is hardly surprising. Everyone wanted to get their hands on the franchise, it was, and still is, one of the most lucrative merchandising licences of all time. The series was adapted by Brian Daley and was created with Lucas’ full involvement. Before the dark times, before Lucasfilm empire had fully emerged, a young Lucas donated the rights to NPR and allowed them to use the films’ music and sound effects without charge.

It’s worth noting that these radio plays emerged in a time where the VHS market was still relatively new. Tapes were prohibitively expensive and it would be years before fans could own the entire Original Trilogy on home video. So, in many respects, these radio plays, much like the Marvel comic series, were a way for fans to re-experience the story of Star Wars without having to put themselves  As such they play an important role in the history of the franchise.
The first series, based on A New Hope, was released in 1981, a full year before the film would be available on VHS. Comprised of thirteen, half-hour episodes the radio play expanded on the events seen in the film. Many of the infamous Anchorhead deleted-scenes were included in this adaption. Indeed, the elusive Biggs Darklighter is introduced in the very first episode and his role as an older brother figure to Luke examined. His appearance during the Battle of Yavin, makes for much more sense in this context. He’s not just some randomer Luke happens to know, but the inspiration for the young Skywalker becoming a pilot in the first place. Early in the series we are also given a more extensive look at Leia’s background. An entire episode set on Alderaan, allowing us to get a feel of what life of the supposed utopia was like. Her relationship with her father is explored, particularly as it relates to her role in the Rebel Alliance. Consequently, the destruction of the Alderaan is all the more tragic as the personal stakes for Leia are all the more clear. It gives the destruction of a plant and the genocide of its people the weight that it deserves and that the film version merely glances over. There is also an interesting subplot relating to Grand Moff Tarkin and the potential for using the Death Star as a political tool to usurp the Emperor. No doubt I hear some readers cry out that such tactics reek of what they saw as the worst elements of the Prequels. Indeed, people often disregard the political aspects of the Star Wars franchise, but the realpolitik of intergalactic conflict is a fascinating subject and an opportunity to appreciate one’s favourite films on a whole deeper level.

Most of the film’s cast were unavailable with Harrison Ford filming Indiana Jones during production, but shockingly, Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniel reprised their roles as Luke Skywalker and C-3PO respectively. It seems from early in his career Hamill had an affinity for voice-acting, a talent that would see him secure the role of The Joker a decade later. The actors playing the other principal roles all do fine jobs at portraying the characters, imitating their film counterparts, but also giving their own unique interpretation of the characters.

Director John Madden, not the John Madden you are thinking of, noted following their release, “[a]nyone who’s ever listened to radio drama will testify to the fact that a play you hear will (remain) in your mind – twelve years later you’ll remember it vividly. And the reason you’ll remember it vividly is because you’ve done the work… it lives in your imagination“. Despite the films being underestimated by its detractors as unintelligent action movies, the radio drama provided that the spectacle of Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic was not the series sole selling point. At its core, Star Wars is about the characters and their journey of self-discovery. Regardless of the medium, we find ourselves drawn to their continued adventures. They have established themselves as the enduring literary figures of our  time.

1983, the same year that Return of the Jedi hit theaters, saw Star Wars return to NPR with its ten-part adaption of The Empire Strikes back. Again, the series added in a number of extended scenes, but stuck to the film’s narrative much closer than the original radio play. Luke’s training with Yoda is significantly examined and provides us with more insights into the teaching of the Grand Master of the Jedi Order. If you felt that the Millenium Falcon’s escape sequence was somewhat drawn out in the film version then the radio play will do nothing to change your mind. Interestingly, the duel between Vader and Luke in Cloud City ends with the young Jedi noting he’d rather die than join the Dark Lord of the Sith. Thus putting to rest, the oft debated intention of Luke’s decision to jump at end of that film. Billy-Dee Williams returns  as Lando Calrissian, something he would do again for the Dark Empire audio drama, various episodes of Robot Chicken and The Lego Movie.

After more than a ten-year gap in production caused in part due to Congressional cuts in public broadcasting expenditure, NPR concluded the trilogy with a six-part Return of the Jedi adaptation in 1996. Neither Mark Hamill nor Billy-Dee Williams returned, with Joshua Fardon and Arye Gross taking over their respective roles. Indeed, Anthony Daniels, as ever the loyal and grateful actor that he is, remains the last man standing out of the actors that crossed over from the film to the radio. The reduced length gave the serie’s less wriggle room with regards to expanded scenes. The infamous lost scene of Luke constructing his new lightsaber was restored along with some added interactions between Boba Fett and Han Solo. The hiatus in production of the series also allowed for the incorporation of a number of Expanded Universe concepts with Mara Jade and Shadows of the Empire material being referenced throughout the piece.

NPR’s trilogy of Star Wars radio dramas are an absolute treat for fans. They expand the movies, re-insert famous lost scenes, inform the characters and contribute to the already extensive world-building that had come before. Star Wars has proven to be a fertile ground for audio dramatisations. Dark Forces, Tales of the Jedi and Dark Empire have all inspired their own audio drama and have been the subject of Humble Book Bundles. Indeed, in an unprecedented move, the entire German dub cast for the Prequel trilogy recorded a dramatisation of James Luceno’s Labyrinth of Evil, a novel which was at the time considered the official prequel to Revenge of the Sith, So when you are hitting the gym as part of your New Years resolutions why not load up the NPR’s Star Wars and experience the adventure in a whole new light.

Join us tomorrow as we take a look at the greatest lightsaber battles the franchise has to offer. In the meantime, check out yesterday’s article on the Clone Wars micro-series.

Gary Moloney
Gary Moloney
Some would say that he is a mine of information, too bad most of it is useless. You can read his own comic work over on Follow him on Twitter @m_gearoid.