A long time ago in a world far, far different from our world today, there was more than music and talk on the radio. There were dramatic adventures; soap operas, science fiction, westerns, mysteries and more. The shows had a full cast of actors, sound effects, and background music—basically, the equivalent of a TV show or movie, but without the picture. These shows faded away, and were almost forgotten, until for a brief time, the power of Star Wars brought them back to life. First the Original Trilogy and then adventures from the Expanded Universe were brought to life in audio format, and fans had a chance to experience the adventures of Star Wars in a whole new setting.
Back in the 80s and 90s, as a Coast Guard Reserve officer, I did a lot of driving around southern New England on weekends, at all hours of the day and night. And late one Saturday night while driving home from Boston, I was surfing around the radio dial, trying to find something to listen to that would keep me awake on the drive home. Suddenly, I was listening to a Star Wars movie—The Empire Strikes Back, to be specific. After all, that was Mark Hamill’s voice I was hearing. At first, I thought I had somehow tuned into a TV station that was running the movie. But no, the dial confirmed that I was listening to WGBH, the local NPR station. And as I listened, I realized that this was not a movie soundtrack, this was something prepared specifically for radio. And the script, the sound, the acting; everything was simply superb. In the space of a single episode, I was hooked.
Back in those pre-Internet days, there were more opportunities for geeks like me to be surprised by something new. While we had magazines, newsletters, and fanzines, information on the latest SF books, movies, and other projects were scarcer than they are in these modern days of websites, blogs and newsfeeds, where every detail of every new project is hashed out in detail throughout the development process. You never knew when you would discover a new movie, book, or other delight. And after hearing this new radio play, I did what one did in those days when they were looking for something—I headed for the local superstore. Those were also the days when stores competed over customers by showing who could put the most inventory on their shelves. And sure enough, there were two boxed sets of cassettes on the shelves, thirteen half-hour episodes of the first dramatization, simply titled Star Wars, and ten half-hour episodes of The Empire Strikes Back. I bought them both, and over the next few years, I wore those tapes out. Not only did I play them on my long drives, but I listened to them while finishing the basement, working around the house, doing paperwork. I missed more than one highway exit because I was lost in another world. After a while, the radio versions of the saga were more familiar to me than the versions in any other format.
The NPR Radio Serials: New Hope and Empire
Star Wars came to the radio in 1981. George Lucas made the whole endeavor possible by donating the radio rights to NPR station KUSC-FM. And Star Wars, modeled as it was on the old radio serials, proved to be perfect for the format. The project got a great script from the late Brian Daley, excellent direction from John Madden, and top notch treatment from Tom Voegeli, the sound mixer and producer, who had full access to the original sound effects and musical score. Mark Hamill reprised his role as Luke Skywalker, and Anthony Daniels took another turn as C-3PO, with both of them doing a great job of voice acting (in fact, this was the start of a new career for Hamill, who has done quite a bit of voice work over the years). Bernard Behrens was Obi-Wan, Perry King was Han Solo, and Brock Peters was Darth Vader, and all succeeded admirably in filling the shoes of the movie actors. Of particular note was Ann Sachs, who did excellent work as Leia, and was aided by the expanded script, which gave the character a lot more agency. And there were also a number of noted actors who had smaller roles or cameos in the production (Adam Arkin, David Paymer, David Alan Grier, etc.)
The longer length of the radio drama allowed Daley to flesh the story out quite a bit. The story starts with a full episode on Tatooine that takes place before the events of the movie, and the audience gets to listen in as Luke hangs out with the gang at the power station, races his rival through Beggar’s Canyon in a sky hopper, and meets with his old friend Biggs, who has returned on shore leave to tell Luke about his plans to join the Rebellion. Listeners then follow Leia for another full episode also set before the movie, as she risks Imperial blockades to run supplies to the Rebels, and visits her father on Alderaan, where they deal with a nosy Imperial officer. Even the more familiar parts of the tale are laced with new details; for example, the sound of the TIE fighters during the space battles is explained when Han tells Luke that his radar system is linked to audio synthesizers to help him hear threats coming in from outside his field of vision, making them sound like they are right in the compartment with him. There is a long scene dramatizing Leia’s torture by Darth Vader, which is very gripping, but may be a bit too intense for some listeners. The improbability of a civilian farm boy flying an advanced fighter is explained in a long scene in which Biggs uses flight simulators to bring Luke’s skills up to speed and test his aptitude. In the end, the initial Star Wars serial was a big success for NPR, and they soon began work on the next installment.
The Empire Strikes Back aired on NPR in 1983. A bit shorter than the first movie’s treatment, it added less new material, although there is a heartbreaking scene of a Rebel convoy on its way to Hoth attempting to escape from an Imperial attack. The listeners also get to hear Han and Luke’s conversations during the long night when they are trapped in a tent on Hoth, awaiting rescue. Hamill and Daniels returned from the first series, along with most of the rest of the cast. Billy Dee Williams was aboard to reprise his movie role, and delightfully, the gifted comedic actor John Lithgow joined the cast in the role of Yoda, giving a joyful and spirited reading of the role. The sound quality and editing are equal to the original, and NPR had another success on its hands.
One hard-to-find spinoff of this effort was a Daley-scripted adventure called Rebel Mission to Ord Mantell. But this adventure never appeared on radio, instead being released on LP by Buena Vista Records. For reasons that are not entirely clear (some blame it on NPR budget cuts), Return of the Jedi was not adapted by NPR. But this was not the end of Star Wars Audio Dramas…
The Non-Radio Audios
The success of the full cast NPR audio adventures inspired other ventures that appeared throughout the 1990s. Time Warner Audio Publishing partnered with Dark Horse Comics to give some of their Star Wars comics the audio treatment. John Whitman wrote the scripts, which adapted the material from the comics. The first was Dark Empire, an excellent limited-run comic that put Dark Horse’s Star Wars comics on the map. The sound and music mixing was not quite as precise as the NPR dramas, and some of the acting less accomplished, but the result was a good, solid effort that is fun to listen to. This was followed by Dark Empire II. The third installment of the Dark Empire trilogy, Empire’s End, was released only as an extra in a boxed set that collected the first two installments.
The Tales of the Jedi series, set in the days of the Old Republic, produced two audio installments: Tales of the Jedi, and Dark Lords of the Sith. These are a bit more pulpy than the other audio dramas, and both are fun adventures, but the story ends on a cliffhanger, and was never continued.
The jewel of the Time Warner audios was the Dark Forces trilogy. In 1997 and 1998, Dark Horse produced three hardback graphic novels (Soldier of the Empire, Rebel Agent, and Jedi Knight), based on a popular Star Wars video game, and written by the prolific military SF writer William C. Dietz. Each volume was illustrated by paintings from a different SF artist. The audio dramas were produced by Tom Voegeli Productions, and Mr. Voegeli brought the same high quality and attention to detail to this project that he brought to the NPR radio adventures. The trilogy followed the adventures of Kyle Katarn, a young man who attended the Imperial Academy, but later joins the Rebellion, discovers a connection to the Force and becomes a Jedi Knight. In 1999, Mr. Voegeli produced another adaptation of a Dark Horse comic, Crimson Empire, which was another high quality effort, but unfortunately the last of the Time Warner Star Wars audios.
Also in the mid-90s, Bantam/Doubleday Dell Audio Publishing produced two audio adventures based on tales from Star Wars short story anthologies: Nightlily: A Lover’s Tale, and We Don’t Do Weddings: The Band’s Tale. There were many other Star Wars audios over the years, but the bulk of them have been readings of the books. Some of those had sound effects and music, but they were not full cast dramas. As far as I know, the only other full cast efforts were children’s tales and foreign language projects.
The Trilogy is Completed
In 1996, long after many fans had given up on ever hearing the final installment of the audio trilogy, HighBridge Audio, the company that had produced the tape and CD versions of the first two NPR Star Wars dramas, revived the effort to record Return of the Jedi. Despite the long passage of time, they were able to bring back most of the original crew—both behind-the-scenes talent like John Madden and Tom Voegeli, and the original acting crew. The exceptions, unfortunately, were Mark Hamill and Billy Dee Williams. While Joshua Fardon and Arye Gross did a good acting job as Luke and Lando, the difference in the quality of their voices is a bit jarring. As with the previous installments, there were a number of prominent actors who wanted to be part of the Star Wars saga: John Lithgow reprised his delightful turn as Yoda. Ed Begley, Jr, voiced Boba Fett, Ed Asner voiced Jabba the Hutt, and David Birney voiced Anakin Skywalker.
The final installment fills only six half-hour episodes, which meant there is a lot less original material than in the previous dramas, although the tale starts off with a new scene showing Luke Skywalker assembling a new lightsaber on Tatooine. And later an extra character, a dancer named Arica who bonds with C-3PO, appears in Jabba’s palace—I later learned that this character was a nod to a tale by Timothy Zahn, who had his character Mara Jade infiltrate Jabba’s dancers in an attempt to assassinate Luke Skywalker. Overall, while fans might have wished for more original content and more episodes in the adaptation, it was also gratifying just to have the entire trilogy complete in audio drama format.
For whatever reason, perhaps the decline of CD sales, or the downturn of the economy, or both, there were no Star Wars audio dramas produced after the turn of the century. HighBridge Audio still has the NPR trilogy available on CD, and has licensed and brought out on CD a number of the Time Warner audios, including the Dark Forces trilogy—and they are still worth a listen. If you’ve never experienced a fully produced full cast audio drama, you don’t know what you are missing. So go out and give them a try. As producer John Madden has said, “You may think you’ve seen the movie; wait till you hear it.”
Top image from the poster for the Star Wars NPR Radio Adaptation, art by Celia Strain.
Alan Brown is a long time fan of both Star Wars and audio dramas.