I’ve had to do more driving than usual lately, so I’ve been on the lookout for good listening material to keep my mind occupied while going back and forth along scenic Interstate 5. So far, my weapon of choice has been podcasts (my latest favorite is the incomparable Citation Needed), but something I’d always been curious about was the radio dramatization of Star Wars that NPR produced in the early 80s. I love CBS Mystery Theater-type audio entertainment and, of course, Star Wars, and I kept seeing information from the radio version used to answer long-standing fan questions, so it seemed like a good thing to dive into. I wasn’t disappointed.
The first thing you might notice is that it’s long–6 1/2 hours in thirteen parts, to be precise, counting interstitial material like recaps and end credits. Since the original movie is only a bit over two hours, this long-format approach allows for nearly every scene from the movie to be expanded with additional dialogue and characterization. It takes three episodes, an hour and a half of runtime, before the action even catches up to the beginning of the film. A deleted scene with Luke and his friends makes up the first episode, while the next two are about Princess Leia learning about the Death Star and setting in motion her attempt to get the plans to “General Kenobi” on Tatooine.
The expanded script allows for a lot more character motivation to shine through, and integrates nearly flawlessly with the original lines. C-3PO’s opening line “Did you hear that? They’ve shut down the main reactor” now fits in with action from the previous few minutes, and Captain Antilles, the Rebel who gets physically strangled by Vader, has an expanded role as well. Biggs’ death (er, spoilers) is significantly more meaningful when presented in the context of his and Luke’s friendship, and Luke’s joy at meeting him again on Yavin 4. There are now scenes for many previously offscreen moments, like Obi-Wan and Luke haggling to sell the landspeeder, Obi-Wan teaching Luke about the Force on the Millennium Falcon before Han walks in, Vader’s interrogation of Leia on board the Death Star, and more.
Remarkably, the additional details fit very well with the later-established Expanded Universe (now “Legends“) and even prequel-based continuity. There are even little continuity fixes, like Luke now saying “This R5 unit has a bad motivator!” because, technically, it’s an R5 rather than R2 unit. The only glaring discrepancy I noticed was that Obi-Wan describes Vader as being “one of” his pupils, but it’s not too hard to retcon given that he was lying in that conversation anyway. I suspect that the writers of the radio drama benefited a lot from writing after The Empire Strikes Back came out, which gave more of a sense of how things worked in the galaxy, what the Emperor was like, and just how accurate Obi-Wan’s story to Luke about what happened to his father was. In fact, there’s a second scene (set on the Falcon) where Luke asks again about his father, and Obi-Wan says there will be time for all that later, even just a few lines after talking about how spacers play holochess to while away the endless hours in hyperspace. (Sort of hilariously, after Luke reacts to seeing the full hologram of Leia by remarking that “she’s beautiful”, Obi-Wan responds by agreeing, which is… odd in light of Return of the Jedi‘s revelations.)
I really enjoyed the voice acting as well. In what might be his first of many voice roles, Mark Hamill returns as Luke, along with Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, lending an air of auditory legitimacy to the production. The rest of the cast plays their parts well, and there’s a certain classic, campy sensibility in the dialogue. It would be easy to just deliver the lines exactly as in the movie (i.e., the versions you hear in your head when you read lines like “what have you done with those plans” or “aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”) but instead they’re given a fresh take. If you know the lines to an unhealthy degree like me, you may be bothered by minor things like Greedo’s lines being out of order, but most won’t notice.
I highly recommend listening to this if you’re even a little bit of a Star Wars fan, and I’m personally looking forward to listening to the adaptations of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.