In the year of our lord 2019, there are many, many more hours of Star Wars cartoons than there are stories produced in live action. With a total of 207 episodes between The Clone Wars, Rebels, and Resistance, that’s a little over 100 hours of canonical Star Wars stories before we even touch the ten feature films, and for a lot of kids, these animated serials were their initial point of entry into this larger world. But back in 1985, that wasn’t the case. There were the three Star Wars films, a recent TV movie starring the Ewoks, and the vague promise that maybe someday George Lucas would pay off the weird numbering convention of these movies that started with The Empire Strikes Back. And then in September of 1985, almost a year after The Ewok Adventure, we got our first episodic Star Wars tales in a back-to-back pairing of Saturday morning cartoons: Ewoks and Star Wars: Droids.
Like the rest of the Star Wars television productions of that era, Lucas wasn’t directly involved with either of these series – instead he came up with the basic conceits and handed them off to the teams tasked with overseeing the day-to-day production. In this case, that team was Nelvana, the Canadian animation house that had already had some success producing cartoons based on Strawberry Shortcake, the Care Bears, as well as the short Boba Fett sequence from the Star Wars Holiday Special. That said, there was a desire from Lucas to make these series stand apart from other cartoons of the era with more attention payed to quality of both story and animation. In turn, each pair of episodes cost upwards of $500,000 which was hugely expensive for television animation at that time. Even so, the quality, frankly, isn’t great, though it is markedly better than what, say, Filmation was doing at the same time. I probably enjoy Star Trek: The Animated Series better than either of these shows, but no one’s going to accuse it of looking better.
As for the focus on story, there’s really not much to write home about here. Ewoks is your pretty standard Saturday morning cartoon fare focussing on a group of young Ewoks led by Wicket W. Warrick and following their antics as they interact with the various denizens of the forest moon of Endor. Like the Ewok movies, there’s a distinct effort made to do something that feels different from the main Star Wars films. Unlike Droids, Star Wars isn’t included in the title, and it takes until the second season before even George Lucas gets a “based on characters created by” credit during the theme song. There’s no real serialization to this series, but as much as there is continuity, it broadly follows the Ewoks trying to defend their status of protectors of the forest moon from villainous creatures like Morag – a witch who has an ancient rivalry with the Ewok tribe – and the Duloks, these weird, swamp-dwelling Grinch things that want to steal power from the Ewoks.
The main MacGuffin that all of these conflicts tend to revolve around is the Sunstar-Shadowstone, a magical rock that (among other things) controls and maintains the climate on the forest moon. But ultimately maybe only half of the series’ episodes are actually about this conflict; instead, we get stories where the Wicket and his friends get into some sort of trouble, have to find a way to overcome it, and learn some sort of broad moral lesson along the way. I keenly recognize that I am not even close to the intended for this show (a grown-adult watching digitized versions of cruddy VHS bootlegs probably wasn’t the target demo), but even acknowledging that, I found so much of this show to just be irritating and boring. The wacky designs of the various oddball inhabitants of Endor is occasionally fun, but the characters are flat and virtually indistinguishable and the conflicts are all the same tropes you see in kids animation over and over again. It reminds me of nothing more than an extremely rough, early precursor to Strange Magic, and the actual, final version of Strange Magic isn’t that great to begin with.
Perhaps the saddest irony is that the far less technically ambitious second season ends up working a lot better. The quality of the character designs and animation noticeably declines between seasons, episodes are generally split into a pair of fifteen minute stories rather than occupying the full half-hour, and the characters devolve into stock archetypes, but all of this weirdly makes it more watchable. Trimming the fat off of the stories to get them down to fifteen minutes means the tired stories at least move along at a breezy clip, and even though the characters are thinly sketched and mostly annoying, at least relying on broad caricature gives them all distinct identities. Wicket’s foolhardy and headstrong, Kneesaa is sweet and empathetic, Teebo is timid and lovelorn, and Latara is shallow and materialistic. That’s not great, but at least I can tell them apart which I absolutely couldn’t do in Season One!
Perhaps the most frustrating thing, though, is that after 25 episodes that establish a unique identity for the show separate from the larger Star Wars iconography, all that iconography comes crashing into the series finale with a story about the Empire arriving on Endor in an effort to steal the Sunstar. In a show that previously bore very little resemblance to Lucas’ space opera epics, suddenly there are Star Destroyers and stormtroopers and droids. And, I’m not gonna lie, that’s all the stuff that specifically tickles my nostalgia, but it feels like a betrayal to shoehorn all of that into a show that never had any interest in it right at the last minute; not unlike the final episode of Star Trek: Enterprise trotting out the cast of TNG in a desperate bit of fan service. Ewoks is not my jam, but for anyone whose jam it might have been, I hate that the finale of their show decided to pander to me rather than pay off on the style and tone of what came before.
Droids on the other hand is very much a Star Wars show. It has all the iconography, it has Anthony Daniels, it even has “Star Wars” in the title, but what’s interesting and unique about it is that aesthetically it’s a pretty wild departure from everything that had come before. We have this very locked-in idea of what constitutes the Star Wars “look” that’s largely defined by the design work done by Ralph McQuarrie, Colin Cantwell, and Alex Tavoularis on the original film. But for Droids, the principle, overriding influence is the work of Mœbius.
Like Ewoks the actual animation itself is pretty poor, but the design of the show is so much more visually rich and interesting that it makes up for the general cruddiness of what even the best of mid-‘80s television animation had to offer. Also, by nature of the show’s structure, there’s more opportunity to explore different worlds and see this aesthetic used to realize varying locales and species. That structure, by the way, is oddly similar to the one that would be employed by The Clone Wars some two decades later. The fourteen episode run of the series is divided up into three clearly defined story arcs that span four or five episodes each. Set in the then-vague and undefined time before the original film, the show follows R2-D2 and C-3PO as they find themselves in the service of a new master, get caught up in some sort of adventure fighting pirates, bounty hunters, or the Empire itself, and then are forced to part ways with their master so that the cycle can begin again for the next four episodes.
It’s also worth mentioning that nearly half the show’s episodes have writing or story credits by Ben Burtt – the “voice” of Artoo himself. Between Ben Burtt , Anthony Daniels, and Joe Johnston (who also co-wrote one episode of the show), there’s a pretty remarkable degree of Star Wars pedigree on this series, especially when compared to Ewoks which has basically none. Lucas may not have been involved in any real way, but this is perhaps the greatest number of actual Star Wars alum to work on a non-feature film project up until The Clone Wars in 2008.
That, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. By any reasonable metric it probably isn’t – it’s just as dopey and shoddily produced as any other Saturday morning cartoon of that era – but it’s kind of rad all the same. And of course I’m biased; this show is specifically playing all the beats I’m personally invested in, but that’s baked into the essence of this series in a way it wasn’t for Ewoks. It also helps a lot that Artoo and Threepio were already clearly defined characters prior to this series giving them permission to stay true to who those characters are instead of needing to resort to stock archetypes like they eventually had to for the Ewok characters.
Even before this was officially excised from the canon, it was clear that the prequel movies rendered this story obsolete, but it’s interesting how much of this show has bled into the mainline continuity. There’s a speeder race in an early episode of Droids called the “Boonta” race – a precursor to the Boonta Eve Classic podrace in The Phantom Menace, and the big bad of one of the story arcs is Kybo Ren, a pirate whose name bears a striking resemblance to one Ben Solo.
What’s ultimately most interesting about these shows is that they at once mark Lucasfilm’s first foray into episodic storytelling for Star Wars as well as the last gasp of Star Wars as a continuing pop cultural force until the release of The Phantom Menace a full thirteen years later. Sure, it’d only be a few years before Timothy Zahn kicked off the Expanded Universe in earnest with Heir to the Empire, but the Star Wars novels were the domain of hardcore dweebs who hadn’t moved on. The rest of the world had.
We’re living in a world now where new Star Wars movies and TV series have been produced continually for the past twenty years and will likely continue to be produced until the heat death of the universe, but when “Party Ewok” and “Malani the Warrior” aired on December 13, 1986, that was the end. George Lucas promised he’d get back to Star Wars “eventually” but he was busy making Indiana Jones and Willow and Radioland Murders. I do sometimes wonder how things would have looked had this been the end of Star Wars, if Lucas never got around to making the prequels. In the coming weeks I’m sure we’ll unpack both the ways I at once dislike and have also come to appreciate the Star Wars prequels, but as I really examine Lucas’s career, it feels more and more clear to me that some part of him never wanted to come back to Star Wars. I obviously can’t know for sure, maybe he was jazzed to return to a galaxy far, far away, but I can’t get past the tragic idea that the man who made American Graffiti wasted the final decade of his career making movies he maybe didn’t even want to make out of a misplaced sense of obligation only to wind up being reviled for it. I don’t wish the prequels didn’t exist, but I do wish they hadn’t marked the end point in the career of one of the oddest, most interesting auteurs of the late 20th century.
This took a weirdly dark turn at the end for an article that’s supposed to be about silly Saturday morning cartoons, but this was the last point that Star Wars was just a series of three films instead of a massive corporate institution, and it’s hard not to spin that thought out into alternate realities. This was the last time Star Wars had the liberty to be both a fairy tale about teddy bears living in treehouses and a sci-fi buddy comedy about two robots bouncing from master to master and getting involved in misadventures along the way. After this, everything changed.
Starting in 2019, I’m going to be watching every canonical Star Wars movie and TV episode in chronological order leading up to the release of Episode IX. As a bonus, I’m also watching some of the non-canon pieces of Star Wars apocrypha in the waning weeks of 2018. Follow along with…