Monday, May 31, 2010

30 Years of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK - part 31

For Memorial Day, I decided to pay tribute to the Imperial officers who died apologizing to Darth Vader. My memory always suggests that The Empire Strikes Back was littered with the corpses of Imperial officers Force strangled by Vader all through the movie as they fail to meet his strict standards. In fact, Vader only kills two men in this movie, an incredibly small body count for a movie villain.

The first offender:

Admiral Ozzel.

His offense? Bringing the Imperial fleet out out of hyperspace too soon and alerting the hidden rebels to their presence allowing them to raise their planetary shields and begin to evacuate their base.

His excuse? He thought it was best to surprise them. I'm not so sure how suddenly appearing too far away from the planet is a better surprise than suddenly appearing right on top of them, and obviously, neither was Vader.

End result? Vader Force chokes him from afar and promotes Captain Piett to Admiral.

Born Donald Marriott Perkins, actor, Michael Sheard (1938-2005) who played Admiral Ozzel had a long, full acting carrer which began in the early 1960s. He was considered for the role of Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark, a role which went to his friend Ronald Lacey. He would make it into the Indiana Jones series though. Over his career, Sheard played Adolph Hitler five times, including in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He played Heinrich Himmler three times.

The second offender:

Captain Needa.

His offense? Letting the Millenium Falcon escape after it reemerged from the asteroid field in the Hoth system.

His excuse? None. He took it like a man and went to apologize to Darth Vader personally.

End result? Vader Force chokes him to death personally and accepts his apology.

Born in 1938, Michael Culver contiunes his long, busy career in mostly British film and television.

The one who got away:

Admiral Piett.

His offense? Letting the Millenium Falcon escape when it took off from Bespin after having assured Darth Vader that the Falcon's hyperdrive was deactivated.

His excuse? None given. Given that his promotion to Admiral came after witnessing Darth Vader Force strangle the previous Admiral, he knows what's coming.

End result? Vader turns and walks away, leaving Piett to serve another day. In fact he serves quite a few, only meeting his demise during the battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi when a battle damaged A-Wing fighter crashes into the bridge of Darth Vader's super star destroyer the Executor, killing the command crew and causing the enormous command ship to collide with the second death star.

Born in 1937, Kenneth Colley has also had a lucrative acting career going back to the early 1960s. He is the only actor to play an Imperial officer in more than one Star Wars movie, and also portrayed Jesus in The Life of Brian.

I certainly hope you've enjoyed this month long celebration of thirty years of The Empire Strikes Back. While there may be less to celebrate, no doubt I'll have something in three years for Return of the Jedi.


Sunday, May 30, 2010

30 Years of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK - part 30

As we head towards the conclusion of The Empire Strikes Back 30th Anniversary celebration I decided to post a bunch of ephemera I've saved over the years beginning with these two note pads. The Yoda one is a pretty common image of the popular character. I was excited when I found the other one though. A big fan of the cantina aliens from the prior movie, I was surprised to see that there were some in The Empire Strikes Back, though of course you couldn't actually see them in the movie, as Cloud City wound up being a pretty much humans only kind of place with the exception of the pig faced ugnaughts.
The short one is a snivvian (at the time we would recognized it as "Snaggletooth" because of the action figure) with new hands and a new costume. The taller one is a hare mouse also with new hands and costume. Full shots of this posed image reveal the snivvian to be wearing dainty women's ballet slipper type shoes, leading me to believe that this pair was never meant to be seen in full. 

Below are two complete Kenner booklets (click on the images for a larger view) which were inserted into the packaging of the action figure vehicles and playsets and designed to make you drool over the Star Wars toys you didn't own yet. I spent a lot of time looking through these little booklets. I was very fond of the micro collection which did not last long. Aside from the later addition of a Millennium Falcon, this subset of Star Wars toys never went any further. I'd guess that high pricing on these expensive toys which were not to scale with the popular 3 3/4" action figure line led to its demise. It may also explain why I have all of the Bespin playsets (and some others) but never received the awesome AT-AT for my action figures. 

Below are a couple pages plus the cover from a third booklet. 

Like Boba Fett before him, fellow bounty hunter Bossk initially appeared as a free action figure you could mail away for by sending proof of purchase seals from other Star Wars action figures. He was available before The Empire Strikes Back reached theaters and when he arrived in the mail, he came with this tidbit of biographical information. 


Saturday, May 29, 2010

30 Years of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK - part 29

One of the coolest new things brought to the screen in The Empire Strikes Back were the Imperial Walkers, now known as the AT-ATs (All Terrain Armored Transports). These gigantic walking tanks deployed on Hoth were like lumbering animals. They were also, in retrospect incredibly slow, inefficient, and revealed a serious logistic flaw on screen, but visually, they were amazing. Like the dogfight sequences between the X-Wing Fighters and the TIE Fighters over the Death Star in the original film the ground battle on Hoth in Empire was spectacular.

There was also some controversy regarding the walkers around the time the film came out. It seems the design was based on (some so too much so) a four-legged, gyro balanced walking cargo transport vehicle designed by Syd Mead for U.S. Steel in the 1960s. Mead's Walker was based on elephant anatomy down to foot pads that expanded when pressed down and contracted when raised in order to keep the feet from getting stuck in mud or snow. The feet could also be rotated and locked to form wheels for rolling over smooth terrain. Mead also created a similar vehicle for use on the moon.

I'm not sure how the whole controversy panned out. I do know that AT-AT designer Joe Johnston has acknowledged the Mead painting as what inspired his own design.

There were prior versions of the walker that didn't walk. One was a giant treaded ground tank. Another rolled on sets of huge wheels.

While not used in The Empire Strikes Back, this wheeled version found it's way, intact, into Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith as the HAVw (Heavy Assualt Vehicle wheeled) A6 Juggernaut, also known as the Turbo Tank. It can be seen several times during the battles on the Wookiee homeworld, Kashyyyk.

Back to the AT-ATs. Were these vehicles the best design to bring to an ice planet? They move slowly. They're legs are close to the body and don't really splay out much for added stability when needed, and to distribute the vehicles weight over what could be treacherous "ground" beneath them. Any air pockets in the ice they're walking over could land one deep in a crevasse. Again, they are also really slow. Wouldn't a hovering vehicle, similar to a landspeeder, work better? 

While the blasters on the snowspeeders weren't strong enough to penetrate the armor of the walkers, would torpedoes have been able to do the trick? Probably. If the Rebels had mounted missile launchers on their snowspeeders, the battle would have been over much faster and the Empire would have lost. Of course, the movie shows that while the armor may be too tough to penetrate while the walkers are walking, knock one down and it takes only a couple of shots with those same blasters to blow one up.

The real answer to the Imperial Walker problem on Hoth came from a cartoon that was published in Starlog magazine shortly after TESB was released. I couldn't locate it in time for this post (it may have accompanied David Gerrold's regular column). In the cartoon, the Millennium Falcon is used to bump the walkers from the side, breaking their knee joints and causing them to tip over sideways. If you had several walkers lined up, you could tip them like dominoes. 


Friday, May 28, 2010

30 Years of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK - part 28

So you've seen the movie, you've read the novelization by Don Glut, you've read the comic book adaptation published by Marvel, now what do you do? Three years is a long wait until the, as yet, unnamed next installment of the nine movie series.

Yes, there was a syndicated Star Wars newspaper comic strip and Marvel's monthly comic book series, but what if you wanted more? Well, you'd have to wait until after Return of the Jedi. But you wouldn't have to wait long, and at that time it was impossible to imagine how long you'd have to wait before the next Star Wars movie.

Relief came in the form of Lando Calrissian. One of the most layered characters introduced in The Empire Strikes Back was the administrator of Cloud City as played by Billy Dee Williams. This dashing figure initially comes off as all charm, but then turns against his friends, then comes to their aid turning against the Imperial forces which have taken occupation of his mining colony. Before we meet him, we learn that there may be bad blood between Lando and Han Solo and Chewbacca, but we don't know why. In an announcement that's just as surprising as Darth Vader's revelation to Luke, we learn that han and Chewie's beloved Millennium Falcon wasn't always theirs, that han had won it from Lando in a game of cards.

Lando was also the perfect character to launch a series of novels that would expand the Star Wars universe and feed some of that need for new material while waiting for the next movie. In 1979 Del Rey books published a successful trilogy written by Brian Daley of adventures starring Han Solo and Chewbacca set before the time depicted in Star Wars (episode IV - A New Hope). Restricted to not being allowed to publish sequel novels, and having to focus on stories that might have occurred before the movies sets its own limitations. Luke's out unless you think there could be some exciting tales to tell about moisture farming. Leia's political career might be fascinating, but not if you're a twelve year old kid looking for action stories. Darth Vader would be out since George Lucas has already announced he's saving that story for the prequel trilogy. R2-D2 and C-3PO would get their pre-Star Wars stories, but mainly in the comic strip and much later in the Droids cartoon series on tv. That leaves Lando.

Han and Chewie were perfect the first time around because they had been from one side of the galaxy to the other and seen a lot of strange things, they also had a day job that didn't turn out so well with Jabba the Hutt. Right off the bat you have established back story to work with. Same thing with Lando. We know he used to own the Millennium Falcon and had a checkered past that intersected with Han and Chewie's. There's a lot of material between his days as a con man and being the respectable businessman he was.

In 1983, (actually after the release of Return of the Jedi) Del Rey released a trilogy of novels written by L. Neil Smith which focused on Lando Calrissian in the years before Star Wars (episode IV: A New Hope).

Little did anyone know at the time, but these would also be the last Star Wars novels for a long time. It wouldn't be until Timothy Zahn's novel Heir to the Empire was published in 1991that any new Star Wars material would arrive. Until then, Star Wars was pretty much an extinct property. The success of Zahn's novel (and the two others that made up what's called the Thrawn Trilogy) exceeded everyone's expectations and breathed new life into the franchise leading the way to dozens more novels, comic book series published by Dark Horse comics, the modern line of action figures, the special edition theatrical releases of the original trilogy, and yes, finally, the prequel films.

The three Lando Calrissian novels are part of the earliest entries in what was to become known as the expanded universe. In the novels to come, Lando would become an important player in the batlles against the remains of the Empire, the building of the New Republic, and many other adventures, often as the go to guy for new technology and weapons. He remained a dashing scoundrel and a legitimate businessman throughout. While this entry may be more appropriate for a celebration of Return of the Jedi, I've included it in the celebration of the movie which gave us Lando in the first place.


Thursday, May 27, 2010

30 Years of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK - part 27

 Three years ago to the day, as part of my month long celebration of the 30th Anniversary of Star Wars, I posted an article from Women's Day magazine about the coolest action figure playset that you could build yourself.  I also promised that three years later I would post the follow up article on the Women's Day playsets inspired by The Empire Strikes Back. Here we are in the future I predicted and I'm keeping that promise.

From the November 25, 1980 Women's Day:

Unlike the Star Wars inspired playset from three years earlier, these are actually manageable on a minimal budget.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

In Comic Book Stores Today

It's a double dose of "The Hangman" today. In THE WEB #9, the Hangman comes face to face with Dead Hand Legendre and makes some discoveries about the source of his powers. Art by Tom Derenick and Bill Sienkiewicz, Guy Major on colors,Travis Lanham on letters, and Rachel Gluckstern editing the whole thing.

Then, the Hangman joins forces with the other Red Circle characters, the Web, Inferno, the Shield, and the Comet in an action packed epic that will mark their future and the DC Universe as well. THE MIGHTY CRUSADERS also guest stars over thirty of DCs greatest villains, and several of its heroes. 
Written by Brandon Jerwa, Eric Trautmann, Matthew Sturges, and myself. Art by Javi Pina. Cover by Stanley "Artgerm" Lau. 

Both titles are published by DC Comics. 

30 Years of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK - part 26

The Christmas of 1977, seven months after Star Wars opened, was devoid of any Star Wars toys for the young fan wanting to recreate their favorite scenes or pit the characters in their own expanded universe adventures. Not so Christmas 1980, when there were quite a number of toys to choose from including many from the previous film. Showing how much the toy market has changed since, that would be unheard of now. In spite of many "peg warmers" (unpopular, or overproduced or overstocked characters which keep the pegs in the toy aisles full and unavailable for newer toys) modern action figure lines, such as Star Wars churn out waves of fresh product every six weeks or so. This means that if you don't buy an action figure shortly after its initial release you're likely to miss out on it altogether (unless you turn to ebay). So, as I well know, parents of Star Wars fans today have to shop throughout the year, not just the weeks before birthdays and holidays if they hope to keep their young fans happy. These parents also have to keep their fingers crossed that their young fans will still be young fans when the gifts are handed out many months later. 

Another big change you'll notice is the prices. The above images are pages from the Sears 1981 Catalog of Toys (for Christmas 1980) and the Sears Wish Book from a year later (I'm guessing since there's no date to be found). When I showed this to my son, he couldn't believe it. Fifteen action figures for $30.00!

The AT-AT, Slave I, Rebel Transport and Darth vader's TIE Fighter were toys I never wound up with, but I did love the Star Wars micro collection, and also received those circled Universal monster toys. 

According to Star Wars toy retailer Brian's Toys

The AT-AT would now set you back between $225.00 -$400.00

Darth Vader's TIE Fighter is in the $150.00 - $200.00 range

The Rebel Transport also runs between $150.00 - $200.00

Individual loose action figures go for less than $10.00 to less than $30.00 for the most part.

Carded, they're a whole different story. Most of The Empire Strikes Back action figures range in price from between $50.00 - $150.00 with some going for far above that amount. 

That cardboard Cloud City playset with the 4 action figures (which I do have in excellent condition no less) now sells for about $450.00. The Imperial Attack Base about $100.00.

Keep this in mind when the new AT-AT hits stores in August. While $100.00 may seem steep for a new toy, the new AT-AT stands roughly three-feet tall and has more features than you can shake a lightsaber at.