The Influence of Star Wars in the late 1970s

Sunday , 11, February 2018 18 Comments

The release last month of the latest Star Wars has generated ranging opinions. I have not seen the movie nor the other two Disney movies. I have lost interest in seeing new movies and pulled the plug on cable last year.

I have been watching reruns of Battlestar Galactica on MeTV Saturday nights. I watched the series when it first showed in 1978. It made me think of the influence of Star Wars in the late 1970s on popular culture.

Science fiction movies in the 1970s up until Star Wars were generally future dystopias: Soylent Green, Silent Running, Logan’s Run, you were going to get a whole bunch of downer watching these films. Star Trek was on syndication at this time. Most areas had it on at 5:00 P.M. or 7:00 P.M.

I got into watching Star Trek in 1976 when it was on at 5:00 P.M. I wanted big space battles. With Star Trek, you did not get much of it. The show was overlong at one hour for the plots provided. It was talky and increasingly preachy. “Balance of Terror” is probably the classic space battle episode with “The Enterprise Incident” (the only good episode of Season 3) an #2.

I wish I had known about Poul Anderson, Gordon R. Dickson, Jerry Pournelle, and H. Beam Piper at this time. I knew about Clark, Asimov, and Heinlein but seemed to read way more Edgar Rice Burroughs than anyone else at that time.

I had bought some media magazine in Spring 1977 with an emphasis on science fiction and saw it mention an upcoming movie called Star Wars. Just by the title, it sounded interesting.

It was late June or early July when I first saw it. It was everything that I had wanted with Star Trek but never had. It stared out with action and it ended with action. The talk talk was mercifully short and to the point.

Lucas reached into medieval legend and classic fiction with Luke Skywalker as the Arthurian king in hiding, the Merlin like mentor, the damsel in distress, the rogue sidekick, and a thoroughly evil villain.

Han Solo– The loveable rogue or rather a rascal who will do the right thing in a pinch. Harrison Ford created a new type of action character. He wasn’t as worn and hard-boiled as Charles Bronson or James Coburn of fifteen years before. He had the late 70s disco era hair when lengths were again receding. You do find Han Solo type characters in the pages of science fiction. C. L. Moore’s “Northwest Smith” and Leigh Brackett’s various hard-boiled characters have been mentioned as possible influences. Pick up any issue of Planet Stories and you will see the type. No one ever mentions Zenith Rand, Planet Vigilante from Mystery Adventures Magazine.

Since Star Wars was made in the 1970s, it has a denim and leather look to it instead of the metallic glitter costumes that predominated in the old serials. It also might be the first case that I can think of melding of the western genre with space opera in appearance. I don’t remember the low slung blaster pistols in science fiction shows or film before this.

I saw the movie three times that summer. I also bought the novelization because I wanted more. I could not wait until the next movie. Little did I know the time span between movies.

The following year, my brother and I watched Battlestar Galactica every Sunday night. The Star Wars influence was all over it. The Cylon Centurions looked like stiffer Imperial Storm Troopers. The colonial Vipers looked liked it came off the same production lines as the X-wing fighters. The colonial warriors wore buff colored uniforms that looked liked Han Solo’s outfit given a military do over. The warriors also wore their good sized blasters in low slung holsters. The show had its cheesy moments but there was heroism and an evil enemy. Starbuck is heavily modeled on Han Solo. I have read that Glen Larson came up with the idea of Battlestar Galactica ten years earlier. Had the show been made around 1972, it would have looked very different.

Flash Gordon was brought back in Fall 1979 as a Saturday morning cartoon. I watched that also. It looked pretty darn good. The robot minions of Ming the Merciless again owed their look to Imperial Storm Troopers.

NBC also brought back Buck Rogers in the 25th Century as a T.V. series. Gone was the future race war of the original story with guerrilla warfare against an oriental conqueror. This was disco era space opera with the feathered hair, spandex outfits, and heavy bass beat music in the party scenes. Again, the starfighter has a pedigree from Star Wars. There was also the obligatory cute robot with Twiggy (voiced by Mel Blanc).

For some reason, I missed Star Crash at the time. I did catch Battle Beyond the Stars on T.V. either in 1981 or 1982. Battle Beyond the Stars came out in 1980 and I missed it. I have a soft spot for the movie with Robert Vaugn and George Peppard (as Space Cowboy). Roger Corman got a lot out of this low budget movie that reused the plot from The Seven Samurai. It is a glorious piece of trash.

The whole Star Wars imitation era seemed to come to an end interestingly about the time that The Empire Strikes Back. I had already moved on having discovered J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard..

Was there a Star Wars boom for space opera paperbacks? I just don’t remember there being one. Michael Whelan was producing very cool covers but I don’t remember seeing lots of space armadas on covers. I do remember in 1979, there seemed to be lots of barbarians. That brings me to the last and one of the most strange of Star Wars shows.

Thundarr the Barbarian was obviously the result of a brain storm session where some producer wanted to cross Conan the Barbarian with Star Wars. I was just talking to someone a couple weeks ago about the show and how he had to watch it every week. Thundarr came out in 1980. Two years before the Conan the Barbarian movie. The Conan comic books were popular at the time. You had a barbarian with a light saber type weapon (a sun sword), a wookie like side kick (Ookla the Mok), and a princess sidekick. Episode titles titles are very pulp sounding such as “Raiders of the Abyss,” “Stalker from the Stars,” “Den of the Sleeping Demon.” Roy Thomas, fresh from leaving Marvel Comics, wrote eight of the episodes.

There was a live action Flash Gordon that came out at the end of 1980. It was pretty bad and barely remembered today.

As I have written before, 1980 was a barrier where much about old science fiction did not make it across. Even Star Wars was different in 1980. I had almost lost interest by 1983 with the third movie. Let us not forget, for a period of 1977-1980, there was a renaissance of space opera in the cinema.



  • Zane Duke says:

    “There was a live action Flash Gordon that came out at the end of 1980. It was pretty bad and barely remembered today.”

    Surely you jest!

    “Klytus, I’m bored…” only Max von Sydow could have played Ming the Merciless.

  • Nathan says:

    This surge was strong enough for Canada and the CIA to use the idea of filming Zelazney’s “Lord of Light” on location to smuggle six diplomats out of Iran.

    I’d love to see a screen version of Lord of Light, but it would probably be the most scrutinized film shoot ever.

  • Ben says:

    I couldn’t get through the first 20 minutes of “The Force Awakens”… The Last… gah… That they turned Luke into a whiny old man sucking the teats of some kind of elephant seal versus the expanded universe version…don’t want to get started.

    Simply put – there is NO Star Wars anymore. It’s just “Product” owned and coveted by Disney and more “Product” is made but the uniqueness, the soul is gone.

    George Lucas sold out.

    Now, there’s this writer named Burroughs – not the one you mentioned – he said (paraphrasing) “If the powers that be give you an offer to sell out, sell out, but make it a very VERY big price…”

    Judge not a man until you’ve been standing in his shoes. After a decade of making the prequels the media trained the Gen Xers to hate with a passion $500 million should have seemed like a relief. And $500 million – that’s what I might sell out my stuff for – rather a private island with micro nation status and some international agreements that let me do lots of illegal stuff there, starting at growing Weed, LSD and hosting illegal dog fights. Then like $100 million in various assets and a retired but good condition shipping boat with some work done inside to keep it floating and make it a luxurious floating mansion…

    However, there’s a cool early issue in the “Spawn” series that was brilliant. Todd McFarlane put a “Special Place in Hell” for creators who sold out their creations. And, while I doubt there’s any source in the Good Book to confirm, the image of them standing helpless and masked while the powers that be do anything and everything with what you’ve put your heart and soul into…

    I mean – I’d be eager to hear the SJW’s freak out and heads go explodey over the stuff on my island – so I’d turn on the news… But I’d see commercials… “New Movie (my characters, won’t pander here) meets the TeleTubbies for Loving Consensual relations…” and go “Aaaaaiiieerrggggggg!!!!”

    I think Lucas thought “I can retire rich but still have pocket change to make a dozen THX1138s which due to my name will sell super well and make me legend, and even a home computer can do what I could dream of back when… They’ll be remembered forever, even if they flop…” but then the wreckage of Star Wars is probably a savage drain.

    Star Wars was meant to be a return to the classic “Space Opera” of the earlier decades and was very good at it. He was more inspired by the Campbell Mythology stuff, very popular to college educated people at the times. That’s what led to too many Hero’s Journey for a while, though a good ride.

  • Andy says:

    A correction: Space Cowboy in BBtS was played by George Peppard, not James Coburn.

    Flash Gordon actually has quite a cult following, if only because of the classic Queen soundtrack (e.g., whenever Eric “Splash” Gordon makes a 3 pointer in Houston, the PA blares “SPLASH! AAAAA-ahhhh!!!”). I’ve always liked it in the same way that I like the Adam West Batman (both were written by Lorenzo Semple) – adults recognize it as farce, but to little kids it’s pure adventure. Flash Gordon to me is a companion to Batman and also to the movie Danger Diabolik.

    • Morgan says:

      Argh! I was thinking about George Peppard and James Coburn who was asked to play the Peppard part in THE A-TEAM first. The two will ever be conflated in my brain. I thoroughly hated the Queen song “Flash.” Heard it way too much on the radio in January 1981. I was not a Queen fan to begin with. There is a good Flash Gordon movie that could have been made. I am not holding my breath in the modern era.

      • Andy says:

        Yeah, the window for a truly faithful Flash Gordon movie has closed. There were some rumors a few years ago but it was always clear that Hollywood was going make Flash go through the usual reluctant hero story, with a lot of “we’re not so different, you and I” stuff between him and Ming.

  • MegaBusterShepard says:

    I remember Thundarr quite well. While it is true the fantastical pulp ethos faded in written sff it lived on in the saturday morning cartoon well into the mid 2000’s.

    Hanna Barbara and Ruby Spears ran a goldmine of science fantasy television shows that were very much evocative of Howard, Brackett and Burroughs. Bravestarr, Pirates of Dark Water, Silverhawks they’re all great fun.

  • deuce says:

    The Micronauts series from Marvel showed as obvious a debt to Star Wars as Battlestar Galactica. The first couple years of the comic was pretty high grade space opera. Good stuff.

  • Cro-Magnon Man says:

    To my mind one of the most glorious absurdities of the original SW lies in the fact that no one stops to consider how fast this Death Star thing can actually travel. I mean, if it can travel at light speed then by rights it should turn up at the rebel base right after the MF gets there. And if it cant then why worry about the damn thing as it’ll take hundreds of thousands of years to get anywhere. Lucas obviously couldn’t find the issue of Planet Stories that would have equipped him to explain the conundrum.

    A few additional thoughts: the Norman Spinrad ST episode “The Doomsday Machine” is a great spece battle story, even if it is against a mile long tree trunk (that destroys whole planets – fancy that). Plays even better with the upgraded effects.

    Thanks to Brian Blessed Flash Gordon will always be….ALIVE!!!!

    You didn’t mention The Black Hole; product of the time when a floundering Disney was content to jump on passing bandwagons instead of simply buying the entire procession.

    • Terry Sanders says:

      Ahn but the MF could travel *point five factors BEYOND lightspeed*! The deathstar was a lumbering thing…

    • A. Nonymous says:

      It’s something called “mass shadow,” not named as such but briefly alluded to by Han Solo when the crew of the Millennium Falcon is fleeing Tatooine, and later explained at length in the supplementary materials. Basically, large objects in real-space (planets, stars, etc) can interfere with travel through hyperspace when within a certain range (and vice-versa to some extent), so a vessel of the Death Star’s mass is forced to jump just to the edge of the Yavin system and then proceed from that point onwards using its real-space propulsion, rather than being able to just jump directly into orbit of Yavin IV and commence spinning up the super laser. That’s how I remember it, anyway…

  • deuce says:

    Erin Grey in BUCK ROGERS was teh hotness.

  • Cro-Magnon Man says:

    True Deuce, she was. But Pam Hensley was surely a walking magma chamber. And looked even better in Matt Houston. Anyone out there remember that one.

  • Please give us your valuable comment

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *