10 Ways NPR’s Star Wars Was Better Than The Movies

This guest post comes from local Star Wars fanatic Luke LoPresto.  He was saying nice things about the NPR 
Star Wars radio drama on Facebook, and, as a big fan of radio drama myself, I asked if he’d write up something for De Civitate.  He did!


At first blush, it doesn’t seem like there’s any good reason to listen to NPR’s 1981-1996 radio adaptations of Star Wars. Take away all the groundbreaking visual effects, iconic actors, and revolutionary design, and it sounds like all you have left is the dialogue — not exactly Star Wars‘ strongest point. But with Brian Daley’s writing and John Williams’s legendary soundtrack backing it up, you actually get something well worth listening to! Here’s ten reasons why you should pick up NPR’s Star Wars radio plays:

10. The Lost Biggs Scenes

These deleted scenes are some of the most well-known, giving the audience a look at Luke Skywalker’s life on Tatooine before a pair of robots came into his life. They also establish Luke’s friendship with fellow pilot Biggs Darklighter, who is defecting from the Empire and will later fight in the assault on the Death Star. In the movie, Biggs gets about two lines of dialogue and an out-of-place moment when Luke mourns Biggs’ death, like they were BFFs. Well, that’s because they were.

However, this sequence, which takes up the first episode of the radio drama, does suggest quite a backstory. Biggs mentions that he’s still first mate on an Imperial starship, having not yet joined the rebellion. The plot of the entire movie probably takes place over no more than a few days, yet in that time Biggs managed to jump ship, find his way to the rebellion, and become a member of Red Squadron in barely more time than Luke did! Not impossible, but still seems improbable…

9. “Low is your ceiling…”

Luke delivers this line upon bumping his head inside Yoda’s hut, unconsciously mirroring Yoda’s famous speech pattern. Nothing really significant about it; I just think it’s funny.

8. Arica

In Jabba the Hutt’s palace, an added scene brings C-3PO into contact with a dancer named Arica. To casual fans, this is little more than filler that provides a less-awkward means for characters to narrate events. To die-hard Expanded Universe fans, however, this is the closest one of their favorite non-film characters will get to the movies, for “Arica” is merely an alias for…Mara Jade.

First introduced in Timothy Zahn’s 1991 novel Heir To The Empire, Mara Jade was once a Force-wielding assassin, answerable directly to the Emperor. There it was revealed that she went undercover at Jabba’s palace on a (failed) mission to assassinate Luke Skywalker. Luke would eventually help her move past her dark past, eventually (highlight for spoilers!) marrying her.

The great thing about this scene is Mara’s friendly demeanor. Most depictions of her past indicate that she’s not evil, merely misguided, working for an evil master. Her polite banter with C-3PO, of all people, one of the most chronically abused characters in the franchise, helps to humanize her. She’s an assassin, but she’s just one step away from redemption. And really, redemption is what Star Wars is all about.

7. Stranded on Hoth

In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke loses consciousness / slips into delirium when Han Solo finds him in the frozen wastes on Hoth. It’s implied he stays that way until he wakes up in a bacta tank and a diaper back in Echo Base. The radio drama adds a tense conversation inside the temporary shelter (so presumably Luke isn’t still in that tauntaun carcass) between Han and a lucid Luke as they discuss their odds of survival. It serves little purpose other than to provide some characterization, but remember that after Echo Base, these two friends won’t speak again until Jabba’s Palace, halfway into the next movie, so the opportunity to develop this interpersonal relationship is welcome.

6. The Battle of Derra IV

Before the proper plot of Empire Strikes Back gets underway, the radio series first depicts a space battle at Derra IV, wherein an entire Rebel convoy and its escort squadron is wiped out by and Imperial ambush. Now the Rebels have taken heavy losses in the movies, at Yavin, Hoth and Endor, but they still managed to either get the job done or at least escape relatively intact. Here, there’s none of that. It’s a total defeat for the Rebels and sets the tone for the darkest entry in the trilogy. An effective scene I would’ve loved to see onscreen (seriously, how hard would it have been to create 2 minutes of new space battle footage for the Blu-Ray?)

5. Perry King as Han Solo

Now put that gun down for a moment and hear me out.

There is no doubt that Harrison Ford has been, and always shall be, Han Solo. But the voice actor for the character, Perry King, brings a different take to the character. He talks much more like the scoundrel Han Solo is supposed to be: a sleazy faux-“smooth-talk” voice akin to that of a used-car salesman. I won’t try to assert that it’s better than Harrison Ford’s performance, rather that it’s simply a… differing interpretation that’s worth listening to. Definitely sounds like a guy who would shoot first.

4. Say No to “NOOOOOOOO!”

The changes Lucas has made to the six movies over the years have been met with largely negative feedback. Greedo shooting first, giant dinosaurs in Mos Eisley, different music in Jabba’s palace, replacing Sebastian Shaw with Hayden Christensen, the list goes on. Though that last might be explained by the fact that Disney doesn’t own the film rights to the X-Men. (At least that’s what I gather from a quick Google search.)

The 2011 Blu-Ray releases take Vader’s big NO from Revenge of the Sith, one of the most mocked moments in that movie, and dub it over his turning against the Emperor in Return of the Jedi. It was at this point that fans became convinced Lucas was just trying to mess with them.

Because it is a radio drama, the NPR version has to include some kind of dialogue at this moment, or the listener won’t know that the Emperor has been picked up and tossed down a shaft.  Their version, however, is much more interesting than Lucas’s revision:

Palpatine: Put me down!
Vader: I will put you down. Down the reactor shaft! Down to your death!
Palpatine: I am your master!
Vader: Darth Vader’s master, BUT NOT ANAKIN SKYWALKER’S!

Hammy? Yes. But, dang, it’s still epic. Brock Peters chews the scenery so hard as Vader (in a radio show, no less!) that he could probably have destroyed the Death Star himself if he’d kept it up.

Despite the fact that both characters are voiced by different actors, Lucas should’ve dubbed this exchange into the Blu-Ray. Because when your dialog is clunky, sometimes the best solution is to just roll with it and ham it up.

3. The Trials of Princess Leia

Remember how the destruction of Alderaan hung over Leia like a dark cloud for the rest of the trilogy? No? That’s because she brings it up exactly once after the fact in the whole series (actually, she didn’t bring it up, a Rebel general did). Having your whole world, your whole life up to this point, literally burned to ashes is going to change a person. Especially after enduring torture at the hands of Space Nazis. Yet Leia seems altogether unaffected by any of this in the films.

Brian Daley’s writing and Ann Sachs’s portrayal of the character in the radio drama work wonders to fix this, with a rather uncomfortable sequence depicting Leia’s interrogation by Vader, including a bit where he uses mind control drugs to attempt to trick her into thinking he is her father (remember this was broadcast before Return of the Jedi showed us that Darth Vader actually is her father). And her anguished cries at Alderaan’s destruction work far better than in the movie, which is more concerned with Obi-Wan’s trauma at the event than Leia’s!

2. The Case for Rebellion

The penultimate episode of the A New Hope adaptation, titled “The Case for Rebellion”, features a lengthy argument in which Luke tries to convince Han not to abandon the Rebellion, while Han tries to convince Luke to do the opposite. It’s an interesting look into the characters’ opposing personalities, and gives Han’s surprise rescue of Luke at the climax of the Death Star assualt more of an impact.

Prior to this the episode also features a scene where Solo demands payment from a Rebel general for delivering the princess. When the general protests that they don’t have any currency, Han demands to be paid from their stockpiles of precious metals, in other words, he’s gouging vital resources from the Alliance’s supplies. Again, this scene gives more payoff to Han’s character development, and Perry King’s portrayal really helps make Han unlikeable in this episode. Which is, of course, the entire point.

1. Operation Skyhook

It may be surprising to discover, on listening to the adaptation of A New Hope, that the opening scene of Star Wars, where Leia’s consular ship is pursued by Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer, does not happen until the middle of the third episode of the radio series. The entire first episode is devoted to the “lost Biggs scenes”, while the second and half of the third are focused on how Leia came into possession of the Death Star plans. These scenes add a lot because not only do we get to see Leia acting as a solo protagonist, we actually get to “see” Alderaan.

The theft of the Death Star plans has long fascinated the Star Wars fandom, but this was the first depiction. Undoubtedly at least part of this will be overridden by the upcoming Rogue One film, but I hold out hope that this depiction will in some way be homaged in the new movie.

You can find NPR’s complete Star Wars trilogy on Amazon, currently a bargain at $60 for the set.  Luke LoPresto blogs at Mirum Planetarum.

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