Many of us are eagerly awaiting the new Rebels series from Dave Filoni and the Lucasfilm team and the surprises that they have in store for fans to enjoy. The wait can be maddening though, and at times like this I often find myself filling the idle time by going back into the history of Star Wars and revisiting some of the old material that once served to expand that galaxy far, far way.
So when the chance came up to take a fresh look at the old animated series Droids, I enthusiastically jumped at it. To be honest, my memories of the show are entwined with building pillow forts and arguing with my sister over cereal prizes, so I was interested to see how much I remembered of the program and how it holds up.
Droids represents an interesting time in Star Wars history. The film trilogy was completed and even though there were rumors of more to come, at the time it was far from certain that we would ever see them realized. The term “EU” was years away from being coined and debated, and apart from the Marvel comics and a handful of novels, compared to today there just wasn’t a whole lot of it. When the show first came out, fans such as myself were just stoked at the chance to have some extra fun.
Even though much of what occurs in the series would no longer be considered “canon” today (a word that I really am not fond of), it can still be used as an interesting window into what was presented as “this is Star Wars” in 1985.
Following the release of Return of the Jedi, George Lucas was interested in expanding Star Wars into areas of media beyond just the theatrical films. A Saturday morning animated series was a perfect fit, as it would provide a vehicle to develop stories beyond the Skywalker Saga as well as being the best way to target the younger fan base, which had already solidly dedicated those particular hours to television viewing. With these two considerations in mind, Lucasfilm decided on two subjects, Droids and Ewoks (we will revisit Ewoks at a later time) to commission as series.
To provide the artwork, Lucas turned to a Canadian studio named Nelvana. In addition to the animated portion of the Holiday Special (sometimes referred to as the good part), Nelvana also worked on the Care Bears and Babar cartoons. If you are familiar with those works, you know what to expect.
Writers of the program were people that were already familiar in the Star Wars family. Fans will recognize names such as Ben Burtt and Joe Johnston appearing in the credits at the start of each episode.
Droids is set prior to the events of Episode IV, but it goes out of its way to fill the program with numerous vehicles and objects familiar to us from the films. B-Wings, A-Wings, and Imperial Shuttles are common methods of transport, and props such as thermal detonators or even lightsabers work their way into the narrative. Once in a while, favorite characters will make a cameo, such as IG-88 or even the Max Rebo band. The locations are also familiar feeling, in fact the first planet they visit is a desert much like Tatooine.
There are concepts that eagle-eyed viewers might recognize as ideas that reappeared in the prequels. For instance, the very first masters that Threepio and Artoo are matched up with turn out to be a street gang that all have podracers – 14 years before they would appear in The Phantom Menace. This same crew later go on to race speeders in the “Boonta Race”, defeating none other than Boba Fett. One of the characters rides around in a one-wheeled cycle that looks just like Greiveous’s from Revenge of the Sith. I was tickled to see a location that looks very much like Dexter’s diner in Attack of the Clones.
Certain nods in the dialogue tie back to the movies, such as Threepio “giving the odds” or casually name-dropping Jabba the Hutt. The characterization of the droids is spot-on the same as the films. In one moment, Threepio has been led to believe that Artoo has met his untimely demise and mourns his little best friend as a “prince among droids”. Then in the next moment when Artoo reappears unharmed (spoilers) he denies the whole thing.
Anthony Daniels is the bright center of this program, and he does a great job. He does so here in a format that often burdens him to be the only speaking role on-screen that can give exposition and advance the plot. This is not to discount Artoo, who is humorously listed in the credits “as Himself”.
The soundtrack to the show is dominated by a synthesizer track that sounds bizarre to modern ears, but was popular at the time as a viable and inexpensive option for television productions. It can get a bit corny and generic, and really betrays that this is a product of the 1980s. The theme song at the start of the show (written by Stuart Copeland of Police fame) drives home that this is a buddy show about best friends. Unfortunately it is similarly very plain and apart from one line about a “brain built by man”, doesn’t feel specific to Star Wars. One has to admit though, it is extremely catchy.
The visual style of Droids is unfortunately the one aspect that most horribly dates it. Lucas had high aspirations, pushing for the quality to be above that of other contemporary shows. He fought for higher, more detailed animation cels and tried to attract above average voice-work. Unfortunately, the studio executives could not quite grasp why anyone would be compelled to throw money and resources at a cartoon and fought back on many of their creative ambitions.
The 80s were a dark time for the animation industry. At the time, cartoons were seen by studio executives as something that was not very profitable as well has having the stigma of being just for kids. The cynical attitude also persisted that children would watch anything you put in front of them. This resulted in a huge emphasis being placed on creating the product as quickly and inexpensively as possible to just get it out the door and precious little on quality. The constraints placed on the animators by the studio executives resulted in a style that defines the era and is commonly described as “cheap looking.”
At the same time, television in general was experiencing unprecedented pressure from watchdog and parental groups, and the studios opted to appease them rather than support their artists. As result, drama and conflict were heavily de-emphasized in favor of humor and conformity. Droids itself fell victim to this pressure.
As a result, there is a lot of corniness that at times feel forced or overly silly. A lot of the comedy involves action and pratfalls on Threepio’s part that would not be possible in the the live action version of the costume, such as being thrown into zero gravity, having his neck stretched out until it is bouncing like a spring, or being kicked across a barn by a giant hairy cow creature. The story will be speeding along and then all of a sudden we take a break to have him walk around with a bucket stuck on his head. It can get frustrating. Actually now that I think about it, tonally it feels very similar to the droids’ adventures on Geonosis in AotC.
Despite the best efforts and intentions of Lucasfilm, they eventually succumbed to the pressures of this atmosphere. As a result Droids never reached it’s full potential, and only lasted one season.
Obviously, animation has come a long way since the eighties. Droids does not hold up favorably when compared side-by-side to the excellent Clone Wars that we have delighted in for the past several years. At times it can honestly be difficult to get through. Yet, t
here are enough little nuggets in there that I think make it worth it to a die-hard fan to go back and take another look at, even for just the fun of it. Artoo and Threepio are that same lovable duo that we know and love from the films. There are little easter-eggs from films made both before and after this series are are fun to spot. And if you have little children of your own in the house, I think they’ll dig it.
Share with us your own thoughts or memories of Droids! Tweet @MakingStarWars or myself @Animal_WC with your thoughts.