Star Wars Radio Drama December 23, 2015 | By and

Audiologue Roundtable: The Star Wars Radio Drama

On Thursday, December 17th, 2015, Audiologue contributors Nick Wade and Eric McDaniel sat down to discuss the 1981 Star Wars Radio drama in anticipation of the release of the new movie. The conversation took place on Slack, and this is a lightly edited version of the transcript.


Eric: So Nick, how are you feeling right now?

Nick: I’m feeling too many emotions to describe them all, but mostly excited. It’s like Christmas, but after Christmas went on a long hiatus and Krampus had a turn for a while.

Eric:  I know all of us here at Audiologue have been going through various rituals to prepare for The Force Awakens release tonight, but you and I have had the special privilege of revisiting the 1981 Star Wars radio drama, which neither of us had heard before.

We’ll dive into the specifics of all five hours (!) of the special in a second, but I wanted to lead by noting a bit about its history for those of our readers who might not be familiar and/or too young to remember its initial release.

Back in the 80s, George Lucas was kind enough to release the necessary Star Wars properties to NPR for the creation of this radio drama. It was massively popular and aired in 13 parts over the course of weeks. It also brought hundreds of thousands of listeners to public radio for the first time ever, and caused a sustained increase in audience for these stations—which is cool for the public media nerd inside me.

Nick: I’ve seen every episode [each of the movies] more times than I’m willing to admit (The tally for A New Hope is well over 50 times), but I had never even heard of the radio drama until a few months ago.

Eric: Anyway, off of the soapbox… what did you think?

Nick: ​It was different!

Eric:  Uh oh. Different doesn’t sound super positive, we’re not talking new trilogy ‘different’ here, are we?

Nick: No definitely not! The medium change means some things work better than others. Overall, it was still very good. It’s difficult when you’re comparing any production to Star Wars.

Eric: Right, right. Well let’s start off with the strongest parts—the things we liked. As the more casual fan between us, it was exciting to see all of the new (to me) material, like all of the extra stuff in the opening showing Luke with his peers on Tatooine. Maybe I have a bit of a bad memory, but it did seem like there was a good bit of additional substance compared to the first film.

Nick: Yes I enjoyed that as well! Nearly all of the material with Luke before the droids show up on Tatooine was new and it changes how we view his character a little bit.

In the movie, we know Luke is a dreamer that looks to the stars to escape his boring lot in life, but we don’t necessarily see how lonely and isolated he feels on Tatooine like we do in the radio drama. Uncle Owen references Luke “wasting time with his friends later” when Luke complains that he was planning on visiting some friends at Toshi Station to “pick up some power converters”—which we as the audience assume take to be the equivalent of go hang out at the mall, and you imagine Luke has  relatively stable group of friends that he relates to.

But we learn he’s much more of an outsider. He only relates to the equivalent of the local football star, Biggs Darklighter, that somehow also got an academic scholarship and is somehow the nicest and best guy in town.

Eric: I can totally relate.

Nick: … They don’t just want to escape. ​They want to do something that matters.

Eric: I thought the meet-up with Biggs was particularly enlightening for me. It helped to clarify why he would run-off with Town Weirdo Ben Kenobi, and be inclined to join the Rebel Alliance. That was helpful for my understanding, but you can see why it might have been trimmed from the movie itself, because it is just that: back story. Not directly relevant to the main arc of the film, not to mention the trilogy.

Nick: Yes—exactly.

Eric: That said, the dialogue surrounding the Landspeeder race between Marty McFly and Biff—uh, I mean Luke and … The Fixer? Was that his name? was a little bit clunky.

It felt like I was watching a bad stage rendition of West Side Story (something, I have to admit, I have firsthand experience with).

Nick: Yes the parts they added, especially there weren’t the best in the history of screenwriting, ​at least for that scene. ​However, it did make me realize and feel like these were a bunch of rural farm kids, ​which really is the vibe Lucas was going for with Luke, in my interpretation. ​He’s a simple and very humble farm boy.

​…just, in space.

Eric: That definitely seems right—a farm kid who in essence inherits that fate of the galaxy from a nearly extinct, 1000-generation line of noble warriors for peace and justice.

​And it might just because I have more experience with writing (a good bit) than with musical composition (none whatsoever), but the bad dialogue moments in that early scene in particular really helped me realize how outclassed ​some of the writing was by John Williams’s score.

Nick: I could write essays on the impact of John William’s score

Eric:  This drama has the same music, not to mention sound design elements, from the film, and god, spread over five hours it continues to be breathtaking work

Nick: The flexibility of the score, without diminishing the weight it brings, is truly impressive. It’s rare that you feel that it’s out of place—​sometimes it’s used a crutch, maybe, but never out of place.

Eric: I totally agree. Some other of my thoughts on the actual sound design elements, there are some things about the Star Wars sounds that I just didn’t realize how iconic they had become. And I know there is a lot to consider when thinking about the Star Wars legacy, but it says a lot the most film’s most famous line—“Luke, *breath* I am your father”—is never actually said at all, while Vader’s breathing and the sound of the lightsabers are absolutely imprinted in my mind forever.

As though my brain has allocated them physical space. It hadn’t occurred to me just how much I would be excited to hear them on the radio. They almost work even better here somehow.

Nick: The audio element is the single most underrated part of Star Wars, the film. And that’s part of the reason why this translates so well. ​In movies, we definitely focus on the visual first; audio is seen as somehow being secondary. ​But the best filmmakers realize that you need both. And Lucas knocked it out of the park.

​That was just one area where the films really were revolutionary.

Eric: Absolutely. Even late-game swapping the voice of the OG Darth Vader for James Earl Jones was a masterstroke.

Nick: Yeah poor David Prowse didn’t know that was going to happen.

Eric: Which brings us to the voice acting here… We did get some of the original cast returning… Mark Hamill as Luke, of course.

Nick: And he does a solid job. Since he’s played the film character, they allowed him the luxury of delivering his lines in the same way he did in the film.

Eric: Anthony Daniels as C3PO

Nick:  I think C3PO gets a little more air time in this, and he gets a little more grating for me. He means well but boy does he like to talk. Anthony Daniels still does an excellent job delivering though, and I think that’s what they wanted out of the character.

Eric: I liked him actually, but I can understand why you can say that. As a kid, I obviously identified way more with Luke, but here C3PO does become really compelling as the man who was just doing his job and gets sucked into this wild ride.

Nick: Yes, and it’s important to note that R2D2 has never had his memory wiped (most likely) but C3PO really doesn’t remember too much from his past. He is much more focused on his task at hand. It is easier to see how he is shaped as a character and empathize a little more—​I agree on that.

Eric: But, now onto some of the weaker voices, because there was definitely some of that.

They bring on Perry King as Han Solo, who I think does just fine, really the best he could do—”almost Harrison Ford”—and Bernard Behrens as Obi-Wan. ​Both were some of the stronger new entries IMO.

Nick: Yeah, Perry King feels like he’s got that cowboy vibe out of him. ​And Obi-Wan was good as well. They definitely did not detract from the story. ​Though, back to my point about the varied line delivery, I think they suffered at times by being forced to sound different

​Which Hamill didn’t have to deal with. ​They also most likely did not have freedom to improvise in the same way as you would on a movie set, or if you’re a voice actor with significant star power.

Eric:  That is definitely true. There is such a thing as too different, which I think we found out with Brock Peters as Lord Darth Vader. That, for me, was actually painful to listen to. I know JEJ is a hard act to live up to, but for goodness sake.

Nick: Yeah, again I agree there. ​Makes you appreciate James Earl Jones even more. ​But he wasn’t the worst for me.

Princess Leia pretty much had her whole character changed just because of the voice acting. There’s several portions where she just, I don’t know, whimpers? Like a helpless princess.

​The best part about Princess Leia, is that she doesn’t act like a princess. She feels so weak in the radio drama.

​The Death Star trench run had me cringing.

Eric: During her first interrogation by Vader, I was on the Metro and had to turn down my headphones so people didn’t get the wrong idea about what I was listening to. Whimpering is exactly the right way to describe it.

Nick: Oh dear. And in that scene it almost is ok, she is being tortured after all. ​But it’s as if she never leaves that state for the rest of her time speaking. ​And to continue on Leia and how they changed the character, the back story about her potential suitor was not where I would’ve gone. ​She should’ve been doing senator stuff and leading—instead she is basically paraded around as a trophy to be won.

Eric: Right, that was weird.

​Stray thought on the cast: I’d like the people to know ​that this adaptation has the one and only John Dukakis, son of presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, as ‘Rebel.’ John, as I’m sure we all know, when on to manage Boyz II Men and New Kids on the Block.

​But enough about that. Any other thoughts you’d like to share about the film before we go?

Nick: Editing, including being able to have your actors change the lines as they deliver them, is a powerful thing. ​I imagine this radio drama had more constraints than a blockbuster movie with recording and number of takes. ​The overall story and tale still holds up well. ​It made me feel the same emotions as watching the film

Eric:  All in all, I’d say we recommend it?

Nick: Yes, I would recommend it. But feel free to skip through any of the Leia backstory. ​Consider it the unwanted prequel part of this.

Eric: Too soon.

I think this is a must-listen for extreme radio fans who are casually interested in radio, and a suggested listen for any committed Star Wars fan who is casually interested in radio.

Nick: Couldn’t agree more!

Eric:  And the good news is, Nick, that there are *two* more installments. After getting through this one, are you still interested in doing a series on the next two?

Nick: Sounds great!

Eric: Great, then I will see you soon! Enjoy the movie tonight buddy, and I’ll talk to you soon.

The radio drama is available for purchase on iTunes and Amazon, and rumor has it that someone has uploaded it on YouTube as well.

About the Author

Eric McDaniel is the founder of Audiologue, where he covers 99% Invisible. Right now, his favorite shows are Mystery Show and Cortex. Find him on Twitter @ericmmcd, or by email at eric@audiologue.xyz.

Nick Wade is a founding writer at Audiologue, where he writes about The Sporkful and Stuff  You Should Know. You can find him at nick@audiologue.xyz.

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  • Will Wright says:

    To: Nick Wade and Eric McDaniel.
    I find it hard to believe that in this day and age – there are fans of Star Wars who have still not ever heard of the Radio Drama’s. I was lucky enough to have been at the right to be able to enjoy these
    ( I was 13) when Empire 1st aired on NPR.
    We even now have a Facebook Fan Page for the Radio Drama’s. Come join us. https://www.facebook.com/StarWarsRadioSeries/