The Dark Times…
To younger Star Wars fans (and by younger I mean under 30 years old) they may not understand this Star Wars slang term that has a double meaning for canon and for fandom.
In canon its’ referred to as the period from the end of the clone wars and the formation of the Galactic Empire on Empire day through the Imperial era of galactic history. In fandom it doesn’t cover as much time but it isn’t as concrete in the dates and events of when it started or stopped.
After speaking to a great number of other Star Wars fans the general consensus is that the dark times for Star Wars fandom was roughly from 1983 to 1995. I personally consider it 1986 to 1991 but as I’m consistently told I’m quite anal about everything.
So let us go back to the days of teased hair metal bands and parachute pants. Of rolled up sports coat sleeves and cartoons to sell toys. The nineteen eighties. A place in history many consider radical, awesome and even funky funky fresh. However for those of us enthralled with the galactic opera that was Star Wars this was anything but.
The great trilogy of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Princess Leia and Han Solo had come to an end. Some consider the last installment the weakest of the three but as we all expected the good guys to win it wasn’t entirely surprising. For many it was a poignant ending to the great space saga and its story had been told and was finished. For others (like myself) we craved the galaxy far far away. We started getting the shakes for more empire, rebellion any and everything Luke and Han, Vader or Leia. You also have to understand that in those days there was no internet, there was no connection for information aside from the nightly news or the morning (and in those days evening) newspapers. So any information from Lucasfilm or old George himself was only given by the most insider magazines and niche newspaper articles.
Now some backstory for what was happening. Lucas being a businessman as well as a film maker had made the choice to keep the reveal of the Ewoks hidden until the movie was released. With Return of the Jedi the introduction of the Ewoks made some (and some will say many) fans upset that these small cute teddy bears are what defeated an elite imperial legion. While it garnered the ire of many of the older fans with the unneeded cuteness of these creatures it seemed small children were enamored with these teddy bears… errr Ewoks. So with the main saga ended Lucas was still reaping the profits from the toy license as well as tons of other merchandising contracts. They wanted to continue the roll of the franchise.
CBS still apologizing for the awfulness that was the 1978 Star Wars: Holiday Special decided to push the boulder that was the Star Wars franchise further with the first of a pair of Ewok movies.
On November 25, 1984 Ewoks: The Caravan of Courage aired on ABC. I won’t go into it but it had none of the films cast except Warwick Davis returning as Wicket. I’ll just say some loved it some hated it but if you don’t mind the Ewoks, cheesy TV movie special effects and more of the backstory/world building of Endor then by all means find it on YouTube and have a watch.
Almost a year to the day a second Ewok movie was released by ABC as well, Ewoks: The Battle for Endor released to better critical praise and in my personal opinion was much better then the first. Again I wont go into it I’ll just say I liked that it made Charal the basis if not straight up from Dathomir as a night-sister.
This ended Star Wars characters in a film form forever… ahem.
Earlier that same year a pair of animated cartoons had started to air, Star Wars : Droids The adventures of C-3PO and R2-D2 and Star Wars: Ewoks. The shows were obviously geared towards kids. Droids lasted a single season Ewoks was able to pull two before shuttering its doors. So in December of 1986 was the last of Star Wars the masses in fandom were able to consume. This was the start of the Dark Times…
The news was little to nothing… the merchandise was still there. Kenner literally made 250 million+ action figures, sets, vehicles. Not to mention the plethora of other merchandise that had flooded markets for the previous 8-9 years. Kids had grown older and back then when you hit 13 or 14 you were expected to GIVE UP these “childish things” others gave them up freely finding the warm touch of the opposite sex (or same whatever your choice is) and decided getting laid was more important (pfff).
I can remember thinking about Star Wars as I watched other cartoons, GiJoe, ThunderCats, He-Man, etc. Plenty of other stuff to keep my space interest but nothing held up to the actual comic book on film in a saga form.
I kept most of my original Kenner figures they had went through so many, many campaigns. Occasionally I’d hold them and reminisce about the days out on the playground with my friends trading figures, setting up battles, comparing who’s were coolest. But those days were gone, never to return… or so we thought.
Occasionally ABC or one of the other networks would re-air Return of the Jedi, or the second of the pair of Ewok movies. Those evenings or usually Saturday afternoons after the cartoons were the stray bits of nostalgia I’d learn to whore myself for in years to come.
Now again the internet was basically non-existent in the early 90’s. There was only small forum boards and you had to remember the entire URL address to get to find something and there were NO search engines AT ALL. Just misspelling or typoing the URL meant you’d get the broken link error and never to know what happened. Some claim that some magazines had picked up that Bantam was writing a Lucasfilm story but I never saw it so I won’t go into it.
To the masses Star Wars ended in 1983 seven years earlier and wasn’t going to return.
I remember in 1991 seeing the weird blue cover of a strange white clad imperial officer next to Luke Skywalker, Leia and Hans faces and an old guy in the background with shooting finger lasers. I was in middle school, (junior high to others) and reading a novel took a while back then for me.
Back then I actually hadn’t understood the book was a rebooting until later. I had remembered Star Wars had books and comics but I assumed they continued like the old RPG books did. I was big into gaming back then table top to a point (see D&D and HeroQuest) but more into consoles. I actually didn’t read it until a little later after reading about some new admiral that was winning against the heroes? pfff.
So when I finally got to reading Heir to the Empire I was like wow, it’s like D&D fantasy mixed with Star Wars. Back then I was slow on the uptake that Star Wars was space fantasy…
I blame Star Trek for being so popular back then. I read a few chapters and really got into it. To a point where I found what were left of my old beater figures and put them up on a shelf… sadly none of them would stand on their own without GiJoe figure stands or falling half over because all their joints were so loose they couldn’t stay straight up anymore.
When I finished the book, I thought wow. That was awesome but no one really died. I put it back down and thought about my figures more then the fact that Star Wars had technically returned… I did however over the next several months slowly save money and hit the comic book shop every few weeks to pick up better versions of the action figures, still keeping my originals of course but they were so faded and chewed up they weren’t quite up to shelf standing quality.
Over the next few years more Star Wars novels came out, Dark Force Rising and the Last Command. It took me a while to get to read them both, eventually more books had started to come out to. By 1994 I was in High school and had caught up on most of the Star Wars novels and had read in some Star Wars magazines (I had found out the Lucasfilm one became the Star Wars Insider to go with my fave game TIE FIGHTER!). The slow trickle of books and magazines really hadn’t made a huge impact in the Fandom as much as it would today you understand. Star Trek was still huge in sci-fi fandom and had like two or three shows by the end of the 90’s.
But in 1994 I read Jedi Search, and later that year I found out this great thing… books on tape! So I put in this archaic item called a cassette tape into its now extinct counterpart the tape deck and listened to Kevin J Anderson do the dialogue and narration from his Star Wars novel… and he did it poorly! Yay! It was crude and pretty pathetic back then if you asked any of the cool kids but for us Star Wars geeks and nerds it was all we had. Sometimes we couldn’t even admit to it for fear of ridicule or possible nerd on nerd violence with the Trekkies. The resurgence as most of us that lived through it call it were some of the darkest days… before the dawn.
Also in 1994 George Lucas made an announcement he was going to start writing a prequel trilogy. A what? A pre-what? We were oddstruck. What the hell is a pre-quel? Not surprisingly in a world of the 90’s filled with high dollar action flicks like the Die-Hard films or the more thought provoking films like Se7en and or anything else that had Morgan Freeman in it because he was in everything… that’s right… Sam Jackson wasn’t in everything yet. Most of us had hopes but knew that a movie script can be killed and/or never see the light of day that wouldn’t happen until 1998 or 1999 which was years away… I’d be out of highschool by then, would I still love Star Wars as much as I did now as I sat in my room listening to the audio tape of Dark Empire while placing my vintage action figures around old beater playsets and vehicles like scenes from the movie?… Yea probably, but again it was so far off we only had the books and comics to help us through those dark days.
By 1995 though we had more and more books and in different parts of the overall timeline. Luke and the heroes continued their adventures setting up a school for Jedi and such while in the comics Wedge Antilles and Rogue Squadron were faithfully fighting the Empire in the Rogue Squadron comics later that year we also got a comic adaption to the entire Thrawn trilogy that started with the Heir to the Empire comics! Soon more novels would start coming quicker following both sets in the timelines.
There was a Star Wars video game I could remember that was really good. Dark Forces. Man I played that game so damn much.
For the first time in years people started to talk Star Wars again. Remembering tales of 12-15 years prior seeing Empire or Jedi. Talking toys or other novels or comics released back then. Yes it was still a far cry from seeing Star Wars again on film but while the Star Wars fandom spark wasn’t there yet we could see it smoldering.
1995 also saw the release of something that had been rumored about but until then hadn’t been widely known. Star Wars action figures were being released by then Kenner’s division of Hasrbo (Hasbro bought them in the early 90’s). Basing all the figures from the original trilogy and making a plethora of figures and vehicles that were direct off the original molds from the 70’s and 80’s and all new figures and vehicles we’d never seen made as toys before. Now.. the spark was seen ready to catch fire.
In 1996 the first real Star Wars that caught peoples attention wasn’t so much Prequel episode hype. It was a project Lucasfilm created one that actually got talked about in magazines and on television. Shadows of the Empire.
It was basically the marketing experiment precursor to how the Phantom Menace would be marketed and it helped. Shadows was a good story but not a great story mind you but it had a good cast of the original trilogy characters except for Han who was frozen in carbonite. Taking place between Empire and Jedi. It had a novel, a comic adaption, a soundtrack, a video game, action figures and much more.
By this time from reading magazines listen to entertainment TV (yes we did that back then) or just word of mouth from the comics shops, we had heard that in 1997 Lucas was re-releasing the trilogy again with new features and added scenes…
Stop. wait… what.
I remember going to the theater to see it in the theater though I remember snow for some reason I thought they released them in the summer. Anywho the theater was packed and we sat and watched A New Hope again. Television crews sat outside the cineplex’s asking why we’d go see a 20 year old movie and onlookers explained it was because they loved it. People cosplayed to the opening. This was my first time seeing cosplay to a theater and not at a comic convention. The fandom’s spark had reignited and was catching fire.
The next year we saw more and more hype build for this yet to be released Earth changing movie, this touchstone of human civilization that will forever be part of the human story. Poets will one day write of how George Lucas saved the way movies are made and the way stories are told, coming back from exile, (not really he made plenty of films) like Napoleon returning to France to start a new global campaign and the soldiers who were tasked with arresting him fell to their knees and wept because they knew he was the one who would bring good plot and stories back to the world stage (aka the cinema) again…
We know how it went for both…
In 1998 it was a hype year, more novels were being released the Special editions were enjoyed by new Star Wars fans and the toys and merchandising made it feel like the 80’s again. The feel good times we were having were just rolling along we knew the movie would be out in May of next year and everyone in the media jumped on board for the wait. The Rogue Squadron part of the franchise had been doing well enough to get it’s own Nintendo 64 video game and it was just a small brick in the wall of hype that was being built.
In May of 1999 something electric happened. Something wonderful something so breathtaking it made you sit back and take note about the whole human race that maybe, just maybe from the highest of the high ups in social and economical development to the lowest of the low in the poorest and forgotten places that we could all come together to celebrate Star Wars…
Then The Phantom Menace released…
For the first time in 16 years Star Wars had returned and the supposed Dark Times were over. I had believed them over well before 1999. Well before people became jaded and cruel. Before anyone had heard of someone named JarJar or worried about the taxation of the trade routes. I believe that Star Wars for the more knowledgeable fans had already been back for quite some time.
The next 6 years would be what many consider a Dark time as well. I don’t, I just see it as a continuation of something George was doing. The tale of the times in Star Wars Fandom after 2005 through the Clone Wars, now that’s a tale I’d like to hear.