There was a time before Star Wars. I mean, of course there was a time before Star Wars. It’s not like the dinosaurs were thrilling to the exploits of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and their motley crew of outer space revolutionaries.
But the Star Wars franchise is ubiquitous now. Over the last 44 years, the 1977 movie (retroactively renamed Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope, but I’m old so I still just call it Star Wars) has spawned multiple movies, TV shows, books, comic books, video games, toys, T-shirts, breakfast cereals, lunch boxes, sleeping bags, and theme parks. And for people not quite as old as me and the dinosaurs, there wasn’t a time before Star Wars.
There was a time before the first Marvel Avengers movie, too. But there was a growing sense that the movie was inevitable ever since Nick Fury showed up after the Iron Man end credits rolled. Given its modern ubiquity, Star Wars basically came out of nowhere.
Looking back, I think my path to science fiction fandom started with Super Friends (AKA Justice League) cartoons and, possibly, more importantly, The Electric Company. The Electric Company was an educational show that aired on the PBS public television network in the United States in the 1970s. Aside from encouraging kids to read, the show introduced me (and, I assume, many other kids) to Spider-Man — Spidey occasionally appeared on the show thanks to an arrangement between PBS and Marvel Comics. My fascination with Spider-Man and the Super Friends led me to comic books which led me to Star Trek re-runs and other sci-fi and fantasy TV shows and movies.
It’s just there weren’t that many sci-fi and fantasy TV shows and movies before Star Wars, at least not that I could remember. Thankfully, a sci-fi fandom magazine called Starlog premiered about a year before Star Wars took the world by storm. So I took to the early issues of that publication (thanks, archive.org) to get a glimpse of how the pre-Star Wars world looked at the time.
Those early Starlog issues feature (as you might guess based on the magazine’s title) a lot of Star Trek coverage. The original Trek TV series was popular with sci-fi fans at the time — the show had been cancelled by NBC in 1969 but had gone on to syndication where it found a growing audience. There’s also a lot of discussion in those early Starlog issues about Space: 1999, a British-produced show that was playing in syndication in the
States at the time. And the magazine published mail from Star Trek fans complaining that Space: 1999 wasn’t as good as Trek, a reminder that the internet didn’t so much invent quarrelling fan bases as it removed the middle man from the quarrelling.
(For the record, Space: 1999 is one of the best-looking television shows I’ve ever seen, but the characters aren’t nearly as compelling as the ones on Star Trek. But I watched both as a kid because, at the time, any sci-fi on TV was good sci-fi.)
Star Wars gets its first mention in the second issue of Starlog, which would have hit newsstands around September of 1976. A five-paragraph story on Star Wars is featured in the “Log Entries” news roundup section of the magazine. That story notes early excitement for Star Wars (credited only to “some critics”), the budget and shooting locations, director George Lucas’ small (at that time) filmography, and makeup supervisor Stuart Freeborn (who had cred because he’d worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey).
That first Starlog story also mentions that actor Mark Hamill would be appearing in Star Wars as “Luke Starkiller,” so apparently whoever wrote it was working from at least partially outdated information.
The third issue of Starlog mentions Star Wars in a brief news story about Twentieth Century Fox’s planned sci-fi releases for 1977, which also included Damnation Alley and animator Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards. Star Wars also gets a mention in that issue in a story about comic book adaptations of films.
I could go on, but you get the idea — early press on Star Wars wasn’t non-existent, but it was modest.
One of the first proper promotional items released for Star Wars was the novelisation (credited to George Lucas but actually ghostwritten by Alan Dean Foster). It was released six months before the movie’s May 1977 premiere and sold hundreds of thousands of copies in that time. Filmmakers and many film fans are generally spoilers averse these days, but that wasn’t necessarily the case in the 1970s. Compare the Star Wars novelisation’s six-month lead on the film’s release with the novelisation for the Star Wars sequel The Force Awakens. The Force Awakens novelisation wasn’t released until the movie went into wide release on December 18, 2015.
But Star Wars was basically un-spoilable, even for folks who read the novelisation ahead of the movie’s release. Other than 2001, there really weren’t any movies that had a “shot on location in outer space” look. And while 2001 was a quiet, cerebral experience, Star Wars was visceral and loud! These days if you know the plot of an upcoming sci-fi movie, you can probably make a good guess as to what the experience of seeing that movie will be like. But people didn’t have a point of reference for Star Wars until they experienced it for themselves.
Despite all the novelisation sales, Twentieth Century Fox wasn’t particularly confident that Star Wars would be a hit, and cinemas weren’t chomping at the bit to book the movie. Fox ended up demanding that cinemas book Star Wars if they wanted to book The Other Side of Midnight, an anticipated Fox movie based on a best-selling novel. Star Wars wasn’t advertised in the New York Times until May 15, 1977, a mere 10 days before its release.
As you can probably guess with the benefit of hindsight, Twentieth Century Fox’s apprehension was unwarranted, and Star Wars was an immediate hit. Not just a hit, but a world-changing hit. It launched one of the biggest entertainment franchises in the world, a franchise that is bigger today than ever.
Star Wars legitimised sci-fi on screen in a way that hadn’t been done since 2001: A Space Odyssey. It also opened up science fiction for a new, more mainstream audience, showing movie fans who were sceptical about sci-fi that the genre need not be schlocky or dull, that science fiction films could be finely crafted and thrilling. And it showed film financiers that sci-fi flicks could generate piles of money.
The new audiences and new capital unleashed by Star Wars paved the way for many other sci-fi franchises (and would-be franchises) — new franchises like Alien, revived franchises like Star Trek and Flash Gordon (it’s a real shame we only got one Sam J. Jones Flash Gordon movie), and TV franchises like Battlestar Galactica (which in the best franchise tradition got a sequel series and a legacy reboot series).
So if you like Star Wars, or if you like basically any other modern science fiction film or television series, you can thank George Lucas and the rest of the geniuses who made that movie about those revolutionaries in that far, far away galaxy. And if you think there are just too many sci-fi properties to keep up with these days, I guess you can blame the crew and cast of Star Wars. But you shouldn’t do that because, believe me, life was a lot less exciting in those ancient pre-Star Wars times.
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