The Star Wars is a fascinating premise with unique historical value and gorgeous art, but at the end of the day, it’s just another Phantom Menace.
If you’ve ever argued that the original Star Wars trilogy is superior to the Special Editions, you might be surprised to learn that George Lucas was changing things long before it stopped being clear whether or not Han shot first.
It wasn’t until the second draft that the film we know as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope took shape. Lucas’ original 1974 draft, titled The Star Wars, was radically different from the film that ultimately changed the world, featuring characters and events that barely resembled their iconic counterparts. That first script was therefore buried in Lucasfilm’s archives, abandoned to be occasionally discussed on internet forums, while certain elements from it eventually made their way into the prequel trilogy.
Dark Horse Comics’ The Star Wars is Jonathan Rinzler and Mike Mayhew’s adaptation of that original script, borrowing from unused concept designs so fans can see the tale that might have been. Starting out as an 8-issue mini series, the entire tale is being collected into a pretty trade paperback due in shops July 23. The final result is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s absolutely fascinating to see one of the biggest franchises in pop culture come to life as it was originally planned. But as you read through, the unmistakable conclusion is that there was a reason this version of the story was ultimately shelved: It’s not really that good. In fact, for once you might actually find yourself thanking the Force that George Lucas changed something about Star Wars.
The Star Wars is set in a very different galaxy then the one we recognize from the films. The Jedi Knights were once loyal bodyguards for the Emperor but, following a coup, have been forced into hiding from deadly Sith assassins. On the distant world Aquilae, Jedi General Luke Skywalker is readying the first true defense against the new Empire’s expansion when an old friend emerges from hiding. The fellow Jedi entrusts his eldest son, Annikin Starkiller, into Skywalker’s care mere moments before the Empire unveils a massive moon-sized space station as part of its offensive. With Aquilae’s defenses broken, Skywalker and Starkiller must flee with the planet’s rightful heir, Princess Leia, as the Sith prince Valorum gives chase.
As the original trilogy is embedded in our cultural DNA, reading the book is a strange experience. Familiar names and locations now have entirely new contexts that clash with you expect from a Star Wars tale. The peaceful planet Alderaan is now the Imperial capital. Darth Vader is a military commander with facial scars and no connection to the Force. Han Solo is still a charming rogue, but looks like the Swamp Thing instead of Harrison Ford.
Oh, and R2-D2 can talk. Which is immensely unfortunate, because you’ll wish someone would shut him up as soon as he starts. Not only does the charm of his character evaporate once you actually read his dialogue, you’ll also discover he’s as cowardly as Threepio and takes no initiative that a human hadn’t programmed into him. Outside of his visual design there’s little to distinguish him from his droid partner, since most of the time they’re both bickering like an old married couple.
That being said… remember when Threepio gave R2 a small frustrated kick on Tatooine? Replace that with Threepio picking R2 up and literally hurling him across the sand. Sure, it’s not exactly in character, but it’s hard not to laugh at the ridiculous image.
Sadly, the rest of the plot really doesn’t make up for these individual moments. Despite only being 180 pages, it feels far longer, and not in a deeply-immersed-edge-of-your-seat kind of way. The Star Wars packs in an entire trilogy’s worth of locations between its covers, including a moon, a city world, deserts, jungles, and back again. The intention was clearly to portray a massive universe, but cramming everything into a single story means the reader has nothing to focus on. Episode IV absolutely benefitted from trimming its range down to a few remote worlds.
The overstuffed story would be forgivable, however, if the characters were actually interesting or charming, but they’re not. The protagonists are heroes only by virtue of happening to be the underdogs, and have little else to offer. Character behavior and dialogue relate only to what’s happening in the immediate scene; deeper motivations or personality quirks that elevate them beyond pulpy sci-fi tropes are set aside. Given that The Star Wars was directly inspired by pulp serials like Flash Gordon, perhaps this was understandable. But knowing for a fact that later drafts elevated Star Wars beyond its inspiration makes this version a disappointment by comparison.
Take Annikin, the closest we have to a central character. The most The Star Wars bothers with developing Annikin is showing that he’s a Jedi Apprentice and immediately putting him through the typical “this is what happens to the hero” plot points. He lacks discipline and is insubordinate to General Skywalker, but constantly proves himself on the battlefield. When Annikin does lose a conflict and ends up captured, it’s usually so he can dramatically escape in a later scene, making you wonder how he got captured in the first place. When someone close to him dies, (or announces that they’re dying), he mourns about it for a panel, then forgets about it and never mentions them again. And in one of his first meetings with Princess Leia, he ends up punching her in the face, which of course means they’ll spontaneously fall in love despite an utter lack of chemistry. The prequel trilogy’s romance between Anakin and Padme makes more sense than that pairing.
On the positive side, the artwork is fantastic. The Star Wars creative team put a lot of effort into designing a book that could fit visually in the Expanded Universe, albeit a parallel version of it. Familiar ship and costume designs appear throughout the story, but in different contexts that will feel new even to long-time fans. There’s even a subtle in-joke in which the art team made General Skywalker look unmistakably like (a much more fit) George Lucas. The art ably conveys the visual spectacle Lucas intended for his masterpiece from the very first draft, with multiple space battles dwarfing the scope of those from the initial trilogy.
The Star Wars also has merits as a quasi-historical document. Notes and sketches in the back of the book reference character, ship, and environment designs based on unused content from Lucasfilm’s archives. Not only does this give a better idea of where Star Wars began, readers can personally track alterations from this story to the finished film if they so choose. It can be a little tricky to tell exactly what content comes from George Lucas or The Star Wars‘ creative team; for example, Darth Vader wasn’t supposed to have his iconic helmet, so glimpses of it are added as a courtesy. But even those elements serve to remind readers that a very different story might have unfolded.
It’s clear that The Star Wars had in it the seeds for perhaps the greatest science-fiction franchise of all time. Alas, in its earliest form, that franchise was an average space opera that did little to elevate itself from its pulp origins. From a historical perspective, The Star Wars is an absolutely fascinating look at where characters, concepts, and even iconic lines of dialogue came from. But George Lucas definitely needed time to refine these concepts; film history is better because he had it.
Bottom Line: If The Star Wars was the movie we’d got in 1977, it might have been a sci-fi classic on par with Flash Gordon. But compared to the Star Wars we actually got, this story is a slog, lacking the charm and personality that made its characters household names. Only the art and Dark Horse’s presentation rescue it from mediocrity.
Recommendation: History buffs and curious fans will love The Star Wars the same way archaeologists love artifacts. But if you’re looking for a solid story, you’d be better off trying elsewhere in the Expanded Universe.[rating=2.5]
The Star Wars collected trade paperback hits stores July 23, 2014.