How did Luke come to know Biggs? How did Leia get the Death Star plans? What happened to her in her cell after Darth Vader came in with the interrogation droid? How did Luke become a Commander? These questions, which have been asked by many fans, are answered in the original radio dramatizations of the Star Wars Trilogy. Since some readers may be considering the purchase of one of the dramas or possibly the whole set, I will endeavor to give details of all the dramas. Please note that this is an in-depth review of all three dramas and is therefore somewhat more lengthy than many reviews you will encounter. If you would prefer a shorter review please feel free to scroll to the next review. I will start with the original Star Wars drama from 1981...
In 1981, the Star Wars radio drama was released. Many people were skeptical about the success of a completely sound-based Star Wars universe because Star Wars is a highly visual world that is based largely on visual special effects. They wondered how Star Wars could be experienced without the stunning special effects of the movies. Though the drama does lack visual effects, the sound effects from Ben Burtt and the wonderful score from John Williams provide a fabulous listening experience. Many of the characters from the movies have been replaced with substitutes. Mark Hamill takes on the role of Luke Skywalker and Anthony Daniels provides the voice of C-3PO. Although the substitutes take some getting used to, over all they make better representations of the characters than the movie actors do. Perry King provides a humorous Han Solo. Although his voice is gravelly, he seems to be the kind of guy who could be Han Solo. His wise mouth and humor enhance his image. Ann Sachs takes on the role of Princess Leia. Although she lacks the cold voice of Carrie Fisher, she displays more emotion. To illustrate my point, Carrie Fisher showed little audible horror when her planet and people were destroyed. Ann Sachs provides a more realistic outpouring of sorrow and grief as she screams and cries out as her planet is savagely blown into space dust. She also displays a great deal of emotion in the scene where Darth Vader is interrogating her in her cell. This scene was not in the movies. Though the scene is not for the squeamish, it does illustrate Vader's cruelty and utter lack of caring. His heartless mental attack and Leia's screams of anguish and pain serve to drive home the sheer evil of Darth Vader and the Empire. Brock Peters plays Darth Vader. Although he can not replace James Earl Jones, he has a deep booming voice that can turn from calm to anger in an instant. He also displays emotion more effectively than James Earl Jones. For example, in the freezing pit of Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back, he expresses glee, anger, pleading, and pain. It is obvious from his increasing tone, pitch and volume that he is becoming angry with Luke. Mark Hamill is irreplaceable as Luke Skywalker. He is the perfect Luke. No one can be Luke, not even a substitute. His cockiness at the beginning of the play when he races Fixer turns to fear and anger as he meets Ben and finds that the Imperial troupes have slaughtered his aunt and uncle. He eventually gives way to despair as Ben is killed, but he soon is filled with elation as he destroys TIE Fighters as the Millennium Falcon attempts to escape from the Death Star. He and he only could be Luke. Bernard Behrens plays Ben Kenobi. He does a wonderful job, especially in the scene where he and Vader fight. Anthony Daniels and Anthony Daniels only could play C-3PO. He does a stupendous job of enhancing the personality of C-3PO in this drama. We find out how he and R2-D2 met and how their relationship came into being. Anthony Daniels as C-3PO and the electronic R2-D2 have a deeper friendship than is apparent in the movies. Their quarrels are often humorous. The special effects in the drama are absolutely staggering. Many of the sounds from the movies, and many more not found in the movies have been included. Despite the early time of its release, the original drama is in full surround sound. Unlike in the movies, the characters are also in full stereo. In the movies, the characters occupy the center channel while sounds occupy the side channels. However, in the radio dramas the characters, music and sound all are stereo. You can hear them moving in different directions. In the movies, it is apparent what they are doing by looking at them. With radio there is no visual. Therefore, there must be some way of letting the audience know what is going on. Since there is no narration besides that found in the beginning and end, the characters must let the audience know what is happening. In many radio plays, this can be quite annoying. However, Brian Daley has cunningly written the script to make the descriptions realistic. Here is an example. "Han, Storm trooper to your left!" Blast! "Aaargh!" Storm trooper falls. "Got em!" Although the drama is not perfect, I would highly recommend it due to its staggeringly advanced nature. I would expect something of this magnitude and nature to have been made nowadays. I can hardly imagine how such a monumental task was under taken without most of the computer and digitalized technology of today. Over all, it is a stupendous performance. It spans thirteen episodes, each approximately a half hour for an overall running time of six and a half hours.
The Empire Strikes Back radio drama is another delight. The cast remains the same. Billy Dee Williams plays Lando just as he does in the movies. Paul Hecht plays the Emperor. He does a passable imitation of the emperor's voice, though it could be more sibilant. John Lithgow does a great job as Yoda. Although Frank Ozz is still the only true Yoda, John Lithgow's imitation is pretty good. This production features a huge number of sound effects not found in any of the movies. Those that are found in the movies have been used to their fullest extent. This drama, like the first, is also in full surround sound. The music, just like in the first, is absolutely stunning. Mark Hamill puts on another phenomenal performance of Luke Skywalker. When he is attacked, he screams in fright and pain. He coolly kills the wampa and escapes. He attempts to walk through a blizzard back to base. His performance there is wonderful as he strives to overcome hypothermia and the desire to lie down. He actually seems to be freezing and shaking with cold. His greatest achievement comes when he acts with Brock Peters in the scene on Cloud City. He meets Vader with cocky confidence. Vader overcomes him and eventually he lets out an agonized scream of pain as his hand is cut from his body. He seems to be in terrible pain as he learns that Vader is his father. He eventually falls onto a weather vane. His desperate cries for Ben and Leia are heart-wrenching. As always, the other members of the cast have made this play a distinct pleasure. There are a wide variety of new characters and actors. They all have done a wonderful job. Over all, I would highly recommend this dramatization as well, especially if it is combined with the first radio play. The show has ten episodes, each running for about a half hour for an overall running time of about five hours. It's a superb listening experience.
The period after the Empire Strikes Back radio drama was a dark time for Public Radio. Due to circumstances not related to the plays mentioned here, funding of Public Radio was greatly lowered. No more dramas were produced for many years. Finally funds were increased in the nineties. HighBridge Audio released the first two dramas on tape and CD in 1993. Their great success led to the decision to finally make Return of the Jedi. The production team for the original dramas was brought together again and the actors who had starred in the previous dramas were called back to play in this new drama. Unfortunately, Mark Hamill does not play Luke and Billy Dee Williams does not play Lando, but substitutes have replaced them. The new Luke is more serious, but he still serves as a passable Luke. The new Lando also makes a passable imitation of Billy Dee Williams. As always, the music and sound effects are stunning again and in full surround sound. The performances of the actors are wonderful. Paul Hecht again plays the emperor. His voice, though lacking in the sibilant hiss of Ian McDiarmid does have a distinctly evil quality. John Lithgo's performance as Yoda however was a bit of a disappointment. Although he is great in The Empire Strikes Back, he sounds a great deal more human in Return of the Jedi. His death scene is moving though. There is one major flaw in this radio drama. The first two plays had ten to thirteen episodes, which allowed for a great deal of character and story expansion. However, Return of the Jedi only has six. Some of the scenes, such as the destruction of the shield generator, the Rebel fleet's jump into hyperspace, the crash of the Super Star Destroyer Executor and the bulk of the battles had to be abridged. This drama, although not as fulfilling as the previous two, is still a wonderful addition to the trilogy. It has six episodes, each about a half hour long with a total running time of three hours. I would most certainly recommend it for people who like swift entertainment instead of the slow but thorough plodding of the first two plays.
To conclude, I think personally that all three of the above mentioned dramas are astounding. I would recommend purchasing them all. There is a boxed set with all three dramas available for sale. However, another option is the Limited Collector's edition, which features some extras, such as deleted scenes, promotional spots by many of the actors, music, interviews with the cast, and a section that features the Speeder Bike scene without music or sound so we can see how it sounds as it is performed by the actors in the studio. This set also features the "get well" card that was made for Brian Daley just after the last recording session of Return of the Jedi. Although this set is the most expensive, it is much more extensive and provides some interesting little tidbits not found in the regular editions. I would highly recommend any of these sets.