Star Wars was first screened on May 25, 1977, although, as was common in those days, it was many, many months before everybody got to see it. I turned six that December. I still hadn’t seen it, though of course I’d heard about it. Everybody at school claimed to have seen it, or to have a cousin who had seen it, but got all the details of the plot wrong. We had bubble gum cards and coloring books and other legitimate merchandising long before anybody in the suburbs of Atlanta really saw the movie.
The reason I know I hadn’t seen it by my birthday was simple: I got my first three Star Wars toys at my birthday party and none of my friends had any idea who the characters were. But rest assured that the Sand Person and the Death Squad Commander had all kinds of exciting adventures in their Land Speeder on the den floor until I got some action dolls of characters with names for Christmas.
Knockoff toys showed up by the truckload almost instantly. Old Captain Action figures were repurposed, swords were made from glow-in-the-dark plastic, and there were wind-up cute robots on every desk in every school. As far as cash-ins go, the space age had begun. The movies weren’t far behind.
Regular readers know that most Sunday mornings, we watch a movie together. Beginning June 11, we’ll be watching eight of the most blatant of the $tar War$ Ca$h-Ins, in what I believe is the order they were released. This won’t quite be a comprehensive study of the form, but I think we’ll have a lot of fun. Here’s a short introduction detailing a few high points, or low, about what we have already seen, won’t be seeing, or will watch a little later down the road.
September 1977: Space Academy
We’ve already watched this series. Filmation’s Saturday morning show Space Academy was already in pre-production with a number of plot elements and archetypes that predated Star Wars. It’s more like Trek than Wars, but the visuals, corridors, and space combat scenes are clearly influenced by Wars, and then there’s Peepo, television’s first cute R2-D2 rip-off.
December 1977: The War in Space
This dopey movie falls victim to this blog’s “pay for play” rule. I’ve never owned a copy, and it’s out of print and stupidly expensive, but it’s such a turkey I wouldn’t ask any of my mates, who’ve been making fun of it for twenty-five years, for a copy anyway. Nevertheless, it seems to be the first Wars cash-in to make it into theaters, even beating the original to screens in Japan. The story goes that Toho sent director Jun Fukuda and a big crew to California so they could see this allegedly game-changing movie that everybody in the special effects business was raving about. They were already at work on a sequel to the sci-fi film Atragon and changed course at breakneck speed to beat the American film into Japanese theaters. The result is a barely-coherent mess with some nice visuals, a Chewbacca clone, and a hilarious Darth Vader clone from the spherical star cluster which you Earthlings call Misty-13. That’s where they all live. Their world is far from here. They can go all over the immensity of the galactic system. It was released in America with a dub job so incompetent that it seems like an act of petty revenge. Go about eight and a half minutes into that link up above and marvel at the marbles in that guy’s mouth.
March 1978: The Return of Captain Nemo
Burgess Meredith has a strange alien henchman and silent golden robot allies to stage shootouts in the Death Star corridors of his submarine, and only Captain Nemo, freed from cryogenic slumber, can stop him! This TV series would have looked very different had its designer never seen Star Wars. Read all about it here.
April 1978: Fugitive Alien
The Japanese TV series Star Wolf had more than one influence on its look and feel, but its spaceships and bad guy came straight from the Lucas playbook. It was repackaged for American television as a compilation movie in the mid-eighties and people have giggled about it ever since. Read all about it here.
April 1978: Message From Space
This film went straight to the original source material that Star Wars cashed in on in the first place. It’s a delightful and fun take on The Hidden Fortress, only with cute robots, Vader villains, princesses, giant warships, and cocky young pilots diving through big metal trenches. Read all about it here.
July 1978: Battlestar Galactica
It was a ratings flop after the first couple of weeks, but this well-remembered adventure series was so close in look and feel to Star Wars that 20th Century Fox took its producers to court over it. A re-edited version of the original three-hour adventure actually preceded the show to screens in several countries, and you can read all about it here.
September 1978: Jason of Star Command
We’ve already watched this series. Jason was actually an incredibly egregious and blatant cash-in, but it was done with such good humor that it was hard to object or take too seriously. Plus, Sid Haig. I really enjoyed how, in response to George Lucas explaining that his film was an homage to the cliffhanging serials of the 1930s, Filmation said “Yeah, we remember those, too,” and made the first season a sixteen-chapter serial just like Flash Gordon and his ilk. Then the next season, Filmation got the rights to Flash Gordon itself and made a sixteen-chapter cartoon out of it.
March 1979: Starcrash
Caroline Munro saved the universe from the evil Count Zarth Arn by using a fourth-dimensional attack in this deeply dopey movie that also featured Christopher Plummer, David Hasselhoff, and the voice of Hamilton Camp as the obligatory robot. Read all about it here.
May 1979: The Shape of Things to Come
H.G. Wells really didn’t have as much to do with this movie as the producers would like you to think, but this space epic has some mean robots, a great villain in Jack Palance, and one genuinely creepy and somewhat out of place sequence in a Canadian forest. Read all about it here.
September 1979: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century
We’re going to skip over good ol’ Buck for the time being as we have lots of other shows and movies to watch, but the first season is waiting patiently on my shelf to show my son when he’s just a little bit older.
December 1979: The Black Hole
Disney jumped on the bandwagon with some fantastic set design, great special effects, wonderful robots, and they’re all utterly ruined by one of the worst screenplays of any of these silly movies. Read all about it here.
September 1980: Battle Beyond the Stars
Finally, there’s Roger Corman’s homage to an homage to an homage, one of the most expensive movies this veteran producers ever made and you can still see every corner that he cut. George Peppard is incredibly amusing, lots of bad guy spaceships blow up real good, and if you watch when your parents aren’t home to correct you, you can learn lots of 20th Century swear words. Read all about it here.
There were certainly other clones and cash-ins after this Roger Corman epic, but that pretty much covers the basics, and cheesy sci-fi eventually stopped being quite so blatant. For example, December 1980’s Flash Gordon wouldn’t have been made had Star Wars not been a hit, but it’s really its own thing, with Ming the Merciless reminding audiences he was the chief cosmic baddie long before Darth Vader. Another example: In 1981, comedian Rich Little starred in a family sitcom pilot – it wasn’t picked up – called Nuts and Bolts which would have been unremarkable were it not for the co-stars. Nuts and Bolts were cute robots like R2-D2 and C-3PO.
Similarly, Star Wars‘ miniature work started influencing the BBC’s visual effects unit, most obviously in the opening shot of the Doctor Who serial “The Invasion of Time” in February 1978, and the series Blake’s 7, which was launched right around then, but we have to draw a line somewhere. In much the same way that discussing every spy movie is going to hit a wall where you’re discussing the movies that wanted to be James Bond on one side and the movies that were influenced by or were a reaction to Bond on the other, you have to stop somewhere.
One final note about cash-ins: one of my pals suggested we watch 1982’s The Man Who Saved the World – better known as “Turkish Star Wars” – and I’m tempted. Last year, Ed Glaser of Neon Harbor tracked down what is likely the last remaining 35mm print of this film and hopes to one day restore and release it. Yes, tempted is the right word. Drop us a line if you do, would you, Ed?
Image credits: Plaid Stallions, Flickr.