Rounding out the trilogy of Star Wars radio dramas is Return of the Jedi, released in 1996, over ten years after both the film itself and the previous radio drama in the series, The Empire Strikes Back.
The largest departure from the other two radio adaptations is that Mark Hamill doesn’t return to reprise his role as Luke, although Joshua Fardon, the replacement actor, does a decent job. Most of the other actors reprise their roles from the other radio dramas, except for Billy Dee Williams as Lando. Somehow, the actor who plays the Emperor manages to make him even more hammy and scenery-chewing than in the film; this is a good thing.
ROTJ:TRD is also remarkably short; it has just six half-hour episodes, for three hours of total runtime, compared to 6 1/2 and 5 for ANH:TRD and TESB:TRD, respectively. I can only recall a handful of added scenes, although those that were there were generally good–there’s a scene between Han, Leia, and Lando as the Falcon leaves Tatooine, for instance, that adds some camaraderie and character interaction to the main characters’ reunion. Other scenes improved somewhat in the move to audio; characters explaining things to a blinded Han Solo made the exposition seem more natural, and C-3PO’s recounting of the events of the Star Wars trilogy to the Ewoks takes on meta-level significance when presented as part of an audio-only production.
References to the Expanded Universe are surprisingly numerous, particularly to Shadows of the Empire. SOTE was a multimedia marketing initiative that Lucas Licensing was doing around this time, telling a story (I say “a” story rather than “the” story, since, in my opinion, little of it seems to follow directly from the plots of the films) between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, a time period previously only explored by the quasi-canon Marvel comics. The Nintendo 64 game is probably the best-known part of the campaign, but there were also a novel, a comic, and even a soundtrack for the novel that told different aspects of the story. As a result, the ROTJ radio drama reflects this and includes a scene from the novel (Luke making his second lightsaber) and some references to other events (Han is incredulous that they let C-3PO fly the Falcon on “Corus-cant” [the radio drama’s pronunciation]). Mara Jade also makes a surreptitious appearance as a dancer in Jabba’s Palace, as established in the Thrawn trilogy of novels. Overall, the references are nice easter eggs that wouldn’t detract from the casual listener’s experience or even probably be noticed, although I did notice at least one odd continuity issue–the narrator refers to “decades” of conflict between the Rebellion and the Empire, when it’s probably more like one decade max, even according to the material available at the time.
I did, however, miss some of the expanded interactions between characters like Vader and Imperial officers, or among the rebels, as was found in the other two adaptations. In fact, it seems like Vader’s hardly in this one, showing up only for his movie scenes where he tells officers about the Emperor in a couple short lines (as well as, of course, his role at the Emperor’s side). I suspect that much of the reason for this version’s shorter length is that Return of the Jedi uses even more visual exposition than The Empire Strikes Back, shortening much of the audible interaction. According to Wookieepedia, there were also some funding issues that led to the delay of the creation of the radio drama, which may also have limited the scope and ambition of the project. The ultimate effect of all this, though, is to leave the final chapter of the saga (well, final at the time) slightly underwhelming.
Despite these issues, ROTJ:TRD is worth listening to and rounds out the original trilogy radio dramas with a relative sense of grace.