The Original Star Wars Trilogy Adapted into a 14-Hour Radio Drama by NPR (1981-1996)

When it opened in 1977, Star Wars revived the old-fashioned swashbuckling adventure film. Within a few years, National Public Radio made a bet that it could do the same for the radio drama. Though still well within living memory, the "golden age of radio" in America had ended decades earlier, and with it the shows that once filled the airwaves with stories of every kind. Radio dramas seemed extinct, but then, before George Lucas' space opera turned blockbuster, so had movie serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. The episodic nature of such source material resonated with the similarly episodic nature of classic radio drama, and that must have brought within the realm of possibility a bold and near-scandalous proposition: to re-make Star Wars for NPR.

The idea came from a student at the University of California, who suggested it to USC School of the Performing arts dean and radio-drama enthusiast Richard Toscan. There could have been no institution better-placed to take on such a project. Since Toscan had already produced dramas on the school's NPR-affiliated radio station KUSC, he made an ideal collaborator in the network's effort to breathe new life into its dramatic programming.




And as Lucas' alma mater, USC inspired in him a certain generosity: Lucas sold KUSC Star Wars' radio rights, along with use of the film's music and sound effects, for one dollar. Founded just a decade earlier, NPR still lacked the experience and resources to handle such an ambitious project itself, and so entered into a co-production deal with the BBC, which had never let radio drama go into eclipse.




When the Star Wars radio drama was first broadcast in the spring of 1981, fans of the movie would have heard a mixture of the familiar (including the voices of Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker and Anthony Daniels as C-3PO) and the unfamiliar. With science-fiction novelist Brian Daley brought on to add or restore scenes to the script of the original dialogue-light feature film, the story stretches out to thirteen episodes for a total runtime of six hours. The series thus stands as an early example of the expansion of the Star Wars universe that, in all kinds of media, has continued apace ever since. An Empire Strikes Back radio drama followed in 1983, with Return of the Jedi following, after prolonged development challenges, in 1996.

You can hear all fourteen hours of these original Star Wars trilogy radio dramas at the Internet Archive (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi), or on a Youtube playlist with fan edits combining the originally discrete episodes into continuous listening experiences. NPR's gamble on adapting a Hollywood hit paid off: the first Star Wars radio drama drew 750,000 new listeners, many from the youthful demographic the network had hoped to capture. It was the biggest science-fiction event on American radio since Orson Welles scared the country with his adaptation of H.G. Welles' The War of the Worlds more than 40 years earlier — a broadcast produced by John Houseman, who in his capacity as USC's artistic directory in the 1970s, encouraged Toscan to bring radio drama back. In recent years, NPR's audience has continued to age while the Star Wars franchise has in theaters, on television and elsewhere, gone from strength to strength. Has the time come for radio to use the Force once again?

Related Content:

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30 Hours of Doctor Who Audio Dramas Now Free to Stream Online

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Dimension X: The 1950s SciFi Radio Show That Dramatized Stories by Asimov, Bradbury, Vonnegut & More

The Complete Star Wars “Filmumentary”: A 6-Hour, Fan-Made Star Wars Documentary, with Behind-the-Scenes Footage & Commentary

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Hyperland: The “Fantasy Documentary” in Which Douglas Adams and Doctor Who‘s Tom Baker Imagine the World Wide Web (1990)

Thirty years ago, the internet we use today would have looked like science fiction. Now as then, we spend a great deal of time staring at streams of video, but the high-tech 21st century has endowed us with the ability to customize those streams as never before. No longer do we have to settle for traditional television and the tyranny of "what's on"; we can follow our curiosity wherever it leads through vast, ever-expanding realms of image, sound, and text. No less a science-fiction writer than Douglas Adams dreams of just such realms in Hyperland, a 1990 BBC "fantasy documentary" that opens to find him fast asleep amid the mindless sound and fury spouted unceasingly by his television set — so unceasingly, in fact, that it keeps on spouting even when Adams gets up and tosses it into a junkyard.

Amid the scrap heaps Adams meets a ghost of technology's future: his "agent," a digital figure played by Doctor Who star Tom Baker. "I have the honor to provide instant access to every piece of information stored digitally anywhere in the world," says Baker's Virgil to Adams' Dante. "Any picture or film, any sound, any book, any statistic, any fact — any connection between anything you care to think of."




Adams' fans know how much the notion must have appealed to him, unexpected connections between disparate aspects of reality being a running theme in his fiction. It became especially prominent in the Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency Series, whose wide range of references includes Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Kubla Khan — one of the many pieces of information Adams has his agent pull up in Hyperland.

Adams' journey along this proto-Information Superhighway also includes stops at Beethoven's 9th Symphony, Picasso's Guernica, and Kurt Vonnegut's theory of the shape of all stories. Such a pathway will feel familiar to anyone who regularly goes down "rabbit holes" on the internet today, a pursuit — or perhaps compulsion — enabled by hypertext. Already that term sounds old fashioned, but at the dawn of the 1990s actively following "links" from one piece of information, so common now as to require no introduction or explanation, struck many as a mind-bending novelty. Thus the program's segments on the history of the relevant technologies, beginning with U.S. government scientist Vannevar Bush and the theoretical "Memex" system he came up with at the end of World War II — and first described in an Atlantic Monthly article you can, thanks to hypertext, easily read right now.

Though to an extent required to stand for the contemporary viewer, Adams was hardly a technological neophyte. An ardent early adopter, he purchased the very first Apple Macintosh computer ever sold in Europe. "I happen to know you've written interactive fiction yourself," says Baker, referring to the adventure games Adams designed for Infocom, one of them based on his beloved Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy novels. Though Adams' considerable tech savvy makes all this look amusingly prescient, he couldn't have known just then how connected everyone and everything was about to become. "While Douglas was creating Hyperland," says his official web site, "a student at CERN in Switzerland was working on a little hypertext project he called the World Wide Web." And despite his early death, the man who dreamed of an electronic "guidebook" containing and connecting all the knowledge in the universe lived long enough to see that such a thing would one day become a reality.

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Pioneering Sci-Fi Author William Gibson Predicts in 1997 How the Internet Will Change Our World

Sci-Fi Author J.G. Ballard Predicts the Rise of Social Media (1977)

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Star Trek: World-Building Over Generations—Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #42

The world-wide Tribble infestation and Star Trek: Picard dropping make this an apt time to address our most philosophical sci-fi franchise. 44 years of thought experiments (with photon torpedoes!) about what it is to be human should have taught us something, and Brian Hirt, Erica Spyres, and Mark Linsenmayer along with Drew Jackson (Erica's husband) reflect on what makes a Star Trek story, world building over generations in Gene Roddenberry's land, canon you don't remember vs. something that just hasn't been shown on screen, Trek vs. Wars, and step-children like The Orville and Galaxy Quest.

We have gathered a heap of articles for further cogitation:

For some suggested episodes to catch up on, there are lists online recommending those from the original series and from the franchise overall. There are also fan creations like these original series episodes, a Star Trek musical, and of course the Improvised Star Trek podcast. For some relevant words from Rod Roddenberry, check out episode 55 of the Mission Log podcast.

Learn more at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

 

Jules Verne’s Most Famous Books Were Part of a 54-Volume Masterpiece, Featuring 4,000 Illustrations: See Them Online

Not many readers of the 21st century seek out the work of popular writers of the 19th century, but when they do, they often seek out the work of Jules Verne. Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days: fair to say that we all know the titles of these fantastical French tales from the 1860s and 70s, and more than a few of us have actually read them. But how many of us know that they all belong to a single series, the 54-volume Voyages Extraordinaires, that Verne published from 1863 until the end of his life? Verne described the project's goal to an interviewer thus: "to conclude in story form my whole survey of the world’s surface and the heavens."

Verne intended to educate, but at the same time to entertain and even artistically impress: "My object has been to depict the earth, and not the earth alone, but the universe," he said. "And I have tried at the same time to realize a very high ideal of beauty of style." This he accomplished with great success in a time and place without even what we would now consider a fully literate public.




As philosopher Marc Soriano writes of the 1860s when Verne began publishing, "The drive for literacy in France has been underway since the Guizot Law of 1833, but there is still much to do. Any well-advised editor must aid his readers who have not yet achieved a good reading proficiency."

Hence the need for illustrations: beautiful illustrations, scientifically and narratively faithful illustrations, and above all a great many illustrations: over 4,000 of them, by the count of Arthur B. Evans in his essay on the series' artists, "an average of 60+ illustrations per novel, one for every 6-8 pages of text." Still today, "most modern French reprints of the Voyages Extraordinaires continue to feature their original illustrations — recapturing the 'feel' of Verne’s socio-historical milieu and evoking that sense of faraway exoticism and futuristic awe which the original readers once experienced from these texts. And yet, to date, the bulk of Vernian criticism has virtually ignored the crucial role played by these illustrations in Verne’s oeuvre."

Evans identifies four different types of illustrations in the series: "renderings of the protagonists of the story — e.g., portraits like the one of Impey Barbicane in De la terre à la lune"; "panoramic and postcard-like" views of the "exotic locales, unusual sights, and flora and fauna which the heroes encounter during their journey, like the one from Vingt mille lieues sous les mers depicting divers walking on the ocean floor"; "documentational" illustrations like "the map of the Polar regions (hand-drawn by Verne himself) for his 1864 novel Les Voyages et aventures du capitaine Hatteras"; and portayals of "a specific moment of action in the narrative—e.g., the one from Voyage au centre de la terre where Prof. Lidenbrock, Axel, and Hans are suddenly caught in a lightning storm on a subterranean ocean."

Verne and his editor Pierre-Jules Hetzel commissioned these illustrations from no fewer than eight artists, a group including Edouard Riou, Alphonse de Neuville, Emile-Antoine Bayard (previously featured here on Open Culture), and Léon Benett — all well-known artists in late 19th-century France, and made even more so by their work in the Voyages Extraordinaires. You can browse a complete gallery of the series' original illustrations here, and if you like, enrich the experience with this extensive essay by Terry Harpold on "reading" these images in context.

Together with the stories themselves, on the back of which Verne remains the most translated science-fiction author of all time, they allow Harpold to make the credible claim that "the textual-graphic domain constituted by these objects is unmatched in its breadth and variety; no other corpus associated with a single author is comparable." Human knowledge of the universe has widened and deepened since Verne's day, but for sheer intellectual and adventurous wonder about what that universe might contain, has any writer, from any era or land, outdone him since?

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Émile-Antoine Bayard’s Vivid Illustrations of Jules Verne’s Around the Moon: The First Serious Works of Space Art (1870)

Jules Verne Accurately Predicts What the 20th Century Will Look Like in His Lost Novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century (1863)

How French Artists in 1899 Envisioned Life in the Year 2000: Drawing the Future

Hear Rick Wakeman’s Musical Adaptation of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, “One of Prog Rock’s Crowning Achievements”

Petite Planète: Discover Chris Marker’s Influential 1950s Travel Photobook Series

The Art of Sci-Fi Book Covers: From the Fantastical 1920s to the Psychedelic 1960s & Beyond

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

42 Hours of Ambient Sounds from Blade Runner, Alien, Star Trek and Doctor Who Will Help You Relax & Sleep

Back in 2009, the musician who goes by the name "Cheesy Nirvosa" began experimenting with ambient music, before eventually launching a YouTube channel where he "composes longform space and scifi ambience." Or what he otherwise calls "ambient geek sleep aids." Click on the video above, and you can get lulled to sleep listening to the ambient droning sound--get ready Blade Runner fans!-- heard in Rich Deckard's apartment. It runs a good continuous 12 hours.

You're more a Star Trek fan? Ok, try nodding off to the idling engine noise of a ship featured in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Mr. Nirvosa cleaned up a sample from the show and then looped it for 24 hours. That makes for one long sleep.

Or how about 12 hours of ambient engine noise generated by the USCSS Nostromo in Alien?

Finally, and perhaps my favorite, Cheesy created a 12 hour clip of the ambient sounds made by the Tardis, the time machine made famous by the British sci-fi TV show, Doctor Who. But watch out. You might wake up living in a different time and place.

For lots more ambient sci-fi sounds (Star Wars, The Matrix, Battlestar Galactica, etc. ) check out this super long playlist here.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in March 2017.

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A Concise Breakdown of How Time Travel Works in Popular Movies, Books & TV Shows

As least since H.G. Wells' 1895 novel The Time Machine, time travel has been a promising storytelling concept. Alas, it has seldom delivered on that promise: whether their characters jump forward into the future, backward into the past, or both, the past 125 years of time-travel stories have too often suffered from inelegance, inconsistency, and implausibility. Well, of course they're implausible, everyone but Ronald Mallett might say — they're stories about time travel. But fiction only has to work on its own terms, not reality's. The trouble is that the fiction of time travel can all too easily stumble over the potentially infinite convolutions and paradoxes inherent in the subject matter.

In the MinutePhysics video above, Henry Reich sorts out how time-travel stories work (and fail to work) using nothing but markers and paper. For the time-travel enthusiast, the core interest of such fictions isn't so much the spectacle of characters hurtling into the future or past but "the different ways time travel can influence causality, and thus the plot, within the universe of each story." As an example of "100 percent realistic travel" Reich points to Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, in which space travelers at light speed experience only days or months while years pass back on Earth. The same thing happens in Planet of the Apes, whose astronauts return from space thinking they've landed on the wrong planet when they've actually landed in the distant future.




But when we think of time travel per se, we more often think of stories about how actively traveling to the past, say, can change its future — and thus the story's "present." Reich poses two major questions to ask about such stories. The first is "whether or not the time traveler is there when history happens the first time around. Was "the time-traveling version of you always there to begin with?" Or "does the very act of time traveling to the past change what happened and force the universe onto a different trajectory of history from the one you experienced prior to traveling?" The second question is "who has free will when somebody is time traveling" — that is, "whose actions are allowed to move history onto a different trajectory, and whose aren't?"

We can all look into our own pasts for examples of how our favorite time-travel stories have dealt with those questions. Reich cites such well-known time-travelers' tales as A Christmas Carol, Groundhog Day, and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, as well, of course, as Back to the Future, the most popular dramatization of the theoretical changing of historical timelines caused by travel into the past. Rian Johnson's Looper treats that phenomenon more complexly, allowing for more free will and taking into account more of the effects a character in one time period would have on that same character in another. Consulting on that film was Shane Carruth, whose Primer — my own personal favorite time-travel fiction — had already taken time travel "to the extreme, with time travel within time travel within time travel."

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Reich's personal favorite time-travel fiction, exhibits a clarity and consistency uncommon in the genre. J.K. Rowling accomplishes this by following the rule that "while you're experiencing your initial pre-time travel passage through a particular point in history, your time-traveling clone is also already there, doing everything you'll eventually do when you time-travel yourself." This single-time-line version of time travel, in which "you can't change the past because the past already happened," gets around problems that have long bedeviled other time-travel fictions. But it also demonstrates the importance of self-consistency in fiction of all kinds: "In order to care about the characters in a story," Reich says, "we have to believe that actions have consequences." Stories, in other words, must obey their own rules — even, and perhaps especially, stories involving time-traveling child wizards.

Related Content:

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Pretty Much Pop #22 Untangles Time-Travel Scenarios in the Terminator Franchise and Other Media

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #27 Discusses the Impact and Aesthetics of Star Wars

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Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt grasp the low-hanging fruit in pop culture to talk about Star Wars: The unique place that these films have in the brains of people of a certain age, how we grappled with the prequels, and why we feel the need to fill in and argue about the details.

We primarily focus on the two most recent emanations of this beast, The Mandalorian and Rise of Skywalker. We talk alien and droid aesthetics (how much cuteness is too much?), storytelling for kids vs. adults reliving their childhood, pacing, plotting, casting, whether celebrity appearances ruin the Star Wars mood, creation by an auteur vs. a committee, and what we'd like to see next.

We had enough to say about this that we didn't need to draw on online articles, but here's a sampling of what we looked at anyway:

This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. In this case, it's all just more Star Wars talk, covering droid body dysmorphia and humanization, the cycle of embodiment via action figures and re-presentation on the screen, tragedy in Star Wars vs. Watchmen, making up for racism in Star Wars through sympathetic portrayals of Sand Person culture, watching particular scenes many times, clown biker troopers, and more. Don't miss it!

This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

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