Carl Sagan Tells Johnny Carson What’s Wrong with Star Wars: “They’re All White” & There’s a “Large Amount of Human Chauvinism in It” (1978)

Is Star Wars sci­ence fic­tion or fan­ta­sy? Dif­fer­ent fans make dif­fer­ent argu­ments, some even opt­ing for a third way, claim­ing that the ever-mul­ti­ply­ing sto­ries of its ever-expand­ing fic­tion­al uni­verse belong to nei­ther genre. Back in 1978, the year after the release of the orig­i­nal Star Wars film (which no one then called “A New Hope,” let alone “Episode Four”), the ques­tion was approached by no less a pop­u­lar sci­en­tif­ic per­son­al­i­ty than Carl Sagan. It hap­pened on nation­al tele­vi­sion, as the astronomer, cos­mol­o­gist, writer, and tele­vi­sion host in his own right sat oppo­site John­ny Car­son. “The eleven-year-old in me loved them,” Sagan says in the clip above of Star WarsClose Encoun­ters of the Third Kind, and oth­er then-recent space-themed block­busters. “But they could’ve made a bet­ter effort to do things right.”

Every­one remem­bers how Star Wars sets its stage: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” But right there, Sagan has a prob­lem. Despite its remote­ness from us, this galaxy hap­pens also to be pop­u­lat­ed by human beings, “the result of a unique evo­lu­tion­ary sequence, based upon so many indi­vid­u­al­ly unlike­ly, ran­dom events on the Earth.”

So Homo sapi­ens could­n’t have evolved on any oth­er plan­et, Car­son asks, let alone one in anoth­er galaxy? “It’s extreme­ly unlike­ly that there would be crea­tures as sim­i­lar to us as the dom­i­nant ones in Star Wars.” He goes on to make a more spe­cif­ic cri­tique, one pub­li­cized again in recent years as ahead of its time: “They’re all white.” That is, in the skins of most of the movie’s char­ac­ters, “not even the oth­er col­ors rep­re­sent­ed on the Earth are present, much less greens and blues and pur­ples and oranges.”

Car­son responds, as any­one would, by bring­ing up Star Warscan­ti­na scene, with its rogue’s gallery of var­i­ous­ly non-humanoid habitués. “But none of them seemed to be in charge of the galaxy,” Sagan points out. “Every­body in charge of the galaxy seemed to look like us. I thought there was a large amount of human chau­vin­ism in it.” That no medal is bestowed upon Chew­bac­ca, despite his hero­ics, Sagan declares an exam­ple of “anti-Wook­iee dis­crim­i­na­tion” — with tongue in cheek, grant­ed, but point­ing up how much more inter­est­ing sci­ence fic­tion could be if it relied a lit­tle less on human con­ven­tions and drew a lit­tle more from sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­er­ies. Not that Star Wars is nec­es­sar­i­ly sci­ence fic­tion. “It was a shootout, was­n’t it?” Car­son asks. “A West­ern in out­er space.” John­ny nev­er did hes­i­tate to call ’em as he saw ’em.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Fans Recon­struct Authen­tic Ver­sion of Star Wars, As It Was Shown in The­aters in 1977

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

Carl Sagan Pre­dicts the Decline of Amer­i­ca: Unable to Know “What’s True,” We Will Slide, “With­out Notic­ing, Back into Super­sti­tion & Dark­ness” (1995)

Carl Sagan on the Impor­tance of Choos­ing Wise­ly What You Read (Even If You Read a Book a Week)

Blade Run­ner: The Pil­lar of Sci-Fi Cin­e­ma that Siskel, Ebert, and Stu­dio Execs Orig­i­nal­ly Hat­ed

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

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Comments (13)
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  • BB says:

    Poor Sagan, he did­n’t under­stand they weren’t human beings, they were beings who look liked we do. Those in charge of the galaxy were white because it was a dic­ta­tor­ship, and the rest of the being were all kind of col­ors. Poor Sagan, he did­n’t get it was fic­tion. Poor Sagan.

  • Pizza-the-hut says:

    Carl was woke before it was cool. Too bad his log­ic was flawed, where are the lgbtqi­achrhdss­fg++ and trans-alien space char­ac­ters? Ask­ing for a friend…

  • Ham Salad says:


    Who’s to say that we weren’t mod­eled or genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied by an alien species? Did­n’t Carl Sagan get that going through his brain or was he so arro­gant and ego­cen­tric that the uni­verse revolves around just the earth and the human species is only unique in itself with­out any inter­fer­ence.

  • SenseiThroatPunch says:

    I did­n’t real­ize that there were such incred­i­bly woke fools back then!
    Too bad abor­tions can’t be made retroac­tive!

  • jerseycityjoan says:

    I knew Sagan was smart but I did­n’t real­ize how much he noticed. Good for him.

    I wish he had talked more like this.

  • Daniel Walker says:

    Way to con­strue the words of a dead man. Who knows if he would have changed his mind in the future. Way to dis­re­spect the mem­o­ry of one of the world’s great­est thinkers and teach­ers. I hope you are ashamed of your­selves.

  • Darryl says:

    If you are upset about some­thing some­one said in the past maybe you need a well­ness check.

  • Jerry Mcfarland says:

    Race again. Will it ever stop? All amer­i­cans right?

  • Jeff says:

    Are you fn kid­ding me fn race bait­ing on one of the great­est movie sagas of all times sick just sick

  • Jack Mayhoffer says:

    Darth Vad­er and Lan­do, both pret­ty pow­er­ful.

  • Wilst says:

    One guess what eth­nic group Carl Sagan was a mem­ber of.

  • Joe says:

    Wow… the time it took to read this dri­v­el is time I’ll nev­er get back of my life… what a waste of writ­ing. Who gives a con­de­scend­ing crap about what Sagan thought of Star Wars? NO ONE… it is a fic­tion­al movie. Not a his­tor­i­cal review. The writer here real­ly needs to get a life.

  • nilmicheart says:

    Wow did that trig­ger a bunch of right-woke and gate-keep­ing incels.

    Must have skipped the school days when the teacher talked about meta­physics and social con­structs.

    White-washed and mytho­log­i­cal will do instead.

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