Saturday morning animation in 1985 was a kaleidoscope of candy-coated rainbows and saccharine sweetness designed to be as inoffensive as possible. Shows such as The Smurfs, Muppet Babies, The Wuzzles, Snorks, Disney's Adventures of the Gummi Bears, and Alvin and the Chipmunks were riding high.
It was in this animated landscape — dominated by an abundance of cuteness and blatant merchandising tie-ins — that Star Wars made its first appearance as a TV series. Two half-hour shows, Star Wars: Droids: The Adventures of R2-D2 and C-3PO and Star Wars: Ewoks, formed the heart of ABC's lineup in the fall of 1985, but it was… different.
Sure, Star Wars was suddenly part of our Saturday morning routine, which was amazing, no doubt. We could watch C-3PO on TV while wearing our X-Wing PJs and eating a bowl of C-3PO's cereal! How cool was that?
But for the most part, Droids was not the Star Wars we knew. It was something new. And it certainly didn't look like Muppet Babies.
Droids grew out of the best part of The Star Wars Holiday Special. It's widely accepted that the 1978 holiday special is a nigh-unwatchable nadir of television history. Nevertheless, that special did grace us with two wonderful things in one segment: the first appearance of Boba Fett and the first time Star Wars had been animated.
Nelvana Studios was hired to produce the Boba Fett segment based on the success of their 1976 animated special A Cosmic Christmas. Star Wars creator George Lucas loved what he saw, hired Nelvana for the Boba Fett segment, and later brought the studio back when he wanted to branch out into Saturday morning television. Nelvana was thus entrusted to produce and animate both the Droids and Ewoks series.
The theme song was intended to make an impression right out of the gate. Nelvana and Lucasfilm made the decision to have celebrity musicians write and perform the themes for both shows. The Droids theme, "Trouble Again," is performed by The Police drummer Stewart Copeland. The song channels The Police in all the right ways, and a lot of people make the understandable (but incorrect) assumption that it's Sting they hear singing about Star Wars robots.
C-3PO and R2-D2 are the only regular cast members from the films. Anthony Daniels returns as the voice of Threepio, though it wasn't always going to be that way; Daniels wasn't originally on board with Droids, citing his dislike for animation. The show's opening credits claim "R2-D2 as himself," which is just delightful.
Droids did its best to fit into the established timeframe of the films. Though the prequel trilogy wasn't even a twinkle in Lucas's eye at the time, Droids takes place between Episodes III and IV, which means that Droids was a precursor, in a sense, to Star Wars Rebels.
Over the course of its 13 episodes, the droids fall into the possession of several different owners (Thall Joben, Jann Tosh, Mungo Baobab), and the season is broken down into three distinct arcs to indicate each separate owner. Obsessive Star Wars fans have done their best to explain away the potential continuity error of Threepio's declaration in A New Hope — "Our last master was Captain Antilles" — by claiming that the droids were accidentally separated from Antilles during the events of the animated series.
Still, it's not entirely canon. Even without reopening the Star Wars Legends versus canon debate, the very first episode of the series sees a decidedly non-Jedi Thall Joben whip out and use a lightsaber. And that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to inconsistencies and contradictions with Star Wars in other media.
The show broke new ground but had a limited life. Droids debuted on ABC on September 7, 1985, as part of The ABC Saturday Sneak Peek and Fun Fit Test with Tony Danza, C-3PO, and R2-D2. That special also featured Olympian (and '80s icon) Mary Lou Retton, who teaches gymnastics to Danza and the droids. No, I'm not kidding.
The show formed half of the Ewoks and Droids Adventure Hour, and it was the first time Star Wars had appeared in animated form. In a very real sense, Droids pioneered the way for The Clone Wars, Star Wars Rebels, Forces of Destiny, and Star Wars Blips.
The show never got a second season since it was incredibly expensive to produce. Each hour-long episode (between Droids and Ewoks) reportedly cost between $500,000–$600,000, a small fortune in 1985. Droids was also remarkably intensive for the animators. The average animated show of the time had between 8,000-10,000 cels per half-hour episode. Some Droids episodes had upwards of 24,000 cels. All told, the show lasted 13 episodes (plus an hour-long TV movie).
Animators on the show had a lot of difficulties getting the character designs correct. The show was animated in Korea (by Hanho Heung-Up Co.) and despite the higher budget for the time, animating the many humanoid aliens proved to be surprisingly difficult. Nelvana co-founder Clive Smith went to Korea for two weeks to help the animators — he ended up staying for eight months.
The writers were incredibly limited in what they could show on screen. Guns couldn't look like blasters, fires could only be started by magical creatures, characters weren't allowed to punch or hit one another, and they certainly couldn't strike anyone else on the head (they could only push and shove). Hilariously, characters were even required to wear seatbelts when riding in a landspeeder!
At the time, Daniels remarked, "Some of the things that are objectionable are so curious. For instance, you can't put a custard pie in my face because of what they call 'imitative behavior.' They don't want children saying, 'Oh, we saw it on the cartoon, we thought it was OK.'" He also quipped, "You can barely use three-letter words, let alone four-letter ones."
The show has some surprising parallels with later films. In Droids Episode 4, "A Race to the Finish," the droids find themselves on the planet Boonta for a speeder racing event — the Boonta Race. The podrace in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was called the Boonta Eve Classic. One of the show's protagonists was a space pirate named Kybo Ren, which is literally one letter away from everyone's favorite emo Vader wannabe from the latest Star Wars trilogy, Kylo Ren. Jann Tosh's wheel bike bears a stark resemblance to the vehicle used by General Grievous in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. And Rebel spy Kea Moll has a very distinct Rey feel to her.
The show had an impressive stable of writers. Ben Burtt, the Academy Award-winning sound designer who was integral to both the original and prequel trilogies, not only designed the sound effects for the show but also was involved in the story department! Legendary Batman: The Animated Series writer Paul Dini wrote an episode. Veteran animation writer Michael Reaves — who turned in the script for Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, dozens of episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, and Gargoyles — wrote an episode. Droids also has the honor of being the sole writing credit for Joe Johnston, director of Jumanji, The Rocketeer, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, and Captain America: The First Avenger.
Despite its limited run on TV, the show spawned a tie-in comic book series. Published under Marvel's Star Comics imprint for kids, the series only lasted eight issues but still managed a crossover with the Ewoks tie-in series! It's also notable for the work of legendary comic book artist John Romita, who penciled four issues and was the cover artist for issue #5. An argument could even be made that the show (and tie-in comics) were the impetus for later droids-centric comics and storytelling from Dark Horse Comics.
Kenner produced a lineup of action figures and toys for the show (obviously). Twelve figures and four ships/accessories were widely released in stores. Only two of the figures (Boba Fett and A-Wing Pilot) were repackaged figures from the main Star Wars line. The rest, including both C-3PO and R2-D2, were brand-new sculpts. Many of these toys are now incredibly expensive and hard to find. Even though Kenner canceled the product line after the first wave, several figures were in prototype (or further along) by that time. The Vlix figure is one of the most expensive vintage Star Wars action figures on the market today; the value of a carded Vlix figure is estimated at about $6,000 (or $1,200 loose).
The entire series has never been released on home video. Several episodes found their way onto VHS back in the day, and an edited compilation of episodes was released on DVD in 2004, which cobbled together eight episodes into two full-length movies. As one of the very few Star Wars properties never given a proper modern release, its absence is heartbreaking. Official releases of Droids, Ewoks, and The Star Wars Holiday Special are really the only pieces of the galaxy far far away we can't have in our libraries. Come on, even the two live-action Ewoks movies got a DVD release!