Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Star Wars Week: The Empire Strikes Back - Radio Drama

In the same year the film trilogy ended (1983), the radio trilogy aired its second part. The radio drama of “The Empire Strikes Back” hit in the spring (not entirely sure of this) right before “Return of the Jedi” completed the saga of Luke Skywalker. Being only ten episodes long rather than the thirteen for the radio version of “Star Wars,” Empire’s radio script kept very close to the original movie. That, in itself, is a good and bad thing.

It’s good in that, in the minds of many, Empire remains the best of all six Star Wars films. Any script that keeps what Leigh Brackett largely wrote is a script worthy of her memory. The bad thing, for intense geeks like me, is many of the little nuances that made the Star Wars radio drama so good aren’t here. That doesn’t mean, however, that there are no gems.

The highlight of the radio version of Empire is the relationship between Luke and Han and it only last a few minutes. In the films, they’re happy “brothers,” joking and laughing, rarely getting on each others’ nerves. That isn’t the case--always--on radio. At the end of Star Wars, after he delivered Leia and the droids to Yavin, Han is adamant about getting paid and getting out of there before the Death Star arrives. He is so mercenary that he takes his payment in precious metals that the Rebels need for repairs. He all but doesn’t care. Luke and Leia both try to persuade him to change his mind, to no obvious avail. It gives much needed depth to Luke’s line of “Well, take care of yourself, Han. I guess that’s what you’re best at anyway.”

In Empire, we get a great scene of Han and Luke together in the emergency shelter, talking about this and that. Perry King reads Han’s lines with an acidness that Harrison Ford doesn’t. Mark Hamill, reprising his role as Luke, gets a chance to stretch here, too. In fact, the two are about to come to blows as Rogue Two finds them the next morning. Interesting material, and just the sort of nuance you’d expect for a five-hour presentation of a two-hour movie.

Anthony Daniels returns and Billy Dee Williams lends his voice to Lando Calrissian. The noted addition to the cast is John Lithgow as Yoda. Yes, you read that correctly. And he did excellent. At times, frankly, he is so close to Frank Oz’s original vocal rendering that you might not be able to tell the difference.

If my favorite episode of “Star Wars” was the one full of intimate moments of Luke’s life before the events on the film started, my favorite episode in Empire is completely the opposite. Episode Four, “Fire and Ice,” dramatizes the invasion of Hoth and the overrunning of the Rebel base. Much of the action takes place in the main base, with only radio transmissions. Reports come in rapid-fire sequence, many speaking over each other. Even though I knew exactly what was going to happen, upon listening to it again, it’s incredibly intense, especially the end as the Imperials invade the base. Having not heard it in nearly thirty years, it’s grip on me surprised me. At the end of the half-hour episode, I didn’t realize I had been gripping my steering wheel as tight as I was.

One thing that always bugged me with the movie was the end of the Hoth battle, after the Falcon blasted off and stormtroopers and Vader was in the base. If you remember the film, once Luke gets to his X-Wing, all the Rebels are acting like they’re at summer camp with no fear of the Imperials at all. Not so on the radio. They have to high tail it out of there, with Imperial blaster fire as incentive. Plus, they have to run the Imperial blockade. Nice touch.

Again, Brock Peters’ interpretation of Darth Vader is an underrated master stroke. Like I wrote in yesterday’s entry on the original Star Wars drama, Peters give voice to Vader’s anger. In the battle on Cloud City, Vader taunts Luke mercilessly. Naturally, with only his voice to do his acting, Peters brings his A Game. In some places, he lowers his voice in an eerie tone that’s almost mesmerizing. At other times, he yells at Luke. Some may think he’s overacting. I’ve never had that feeling. True, he delivers the most important line in the movie as if he’s standing under a stormy, lightening-filled sky, but he’s making a point.

While not as full of neat little tidbits the way the Star Wars radio drama was, Empire’s radio drama is also worth the time and effort.

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