There is (I don’t know if you’ve heard) going to be a new Star War. Very violent place, the stars, and thus the need for all sorts of warships and giant destroyers and mega-sized weapons of doom and so forth. People had galaxies to rule, and others had Empires to overthrow: people were busy and for their chores they needed transport. How else could British people commit genocide and be defeated by the spirit of California (as represented by a blond guy and the daughter of movie stars)?
The ships–from the big military stuff to the speeders–were the stars of Star Wars just as much as the actors: we cheered Han and Chewie’s return in the trailer, but also the Falcon’s. There is well-chosen symbolism in the crashed husk of the Star Destroyer that Rey will explore in the new film: not the site of a battle, or a long-lost account of the Galactic Civil War, but one of the iconic wedges of evil pie that first roared overhead almost forty years ago.
I’ve long preached the genius and importance of a guy named Ralph McQuarrie in the Star Wars legend: he designed everything, or so I thought. While McQuarrie did all the costumes and sets and locations and aliens and whatnot, the original design of most of the ships from the OT (Only Trilogy) were done by a guy named Colin Cantwell; go read about him here (and see some cool early-version photos of the X-Wing, Y-Wing, and Death Star, among others).
So, because I feel like it: Thoughts on Star Wars Vehicles. We start with the bad guys and for those of you grousing about how this isn’t about the Dead, then you can join me in listening to 4/2/90 from the Omni in Atlanta, which was released as part of the Spring ’90 set, but is available for free in an acceptable sounding version on the Archive.
(Note: I am not counting animals conscripted into service as vehicles, because the idea of anyone who lived in a universe with repulsorlift technology and–seemingly–free energy hopping on the back of a wild beast is ludicrous. There wasn’t one ship Han could have taken to look for Luke on Hoth? He had to saddle up the space-horse?
Please stop ranting.
Oh, there will be ranting. Don’t interrupt me when I’m in parentheses: that’s my private time.
Listen: no rants, no rambling, and no weird theories.
Endor is actually Middle-Earth of millions of years ago and the Ewoks evolve into Hobbits.
No. Just talk about the ships.
I just don’t understand why you’d ride a giant space-lizard when you belong to a society that has mastered gravity.
Plus: what the fuck kind of lizard allows itself to be ridden? You tried getting on a dewback, that fucker would eat you right up.
Please be as normal as possible.
And end the aside.
Fine, but there will also not be any discussion of the Death Star because–while it holds people and moves and is therefore a vehicle–something as goofy as the Death Star(s) deserves its own post.)
Starting with the granddaddy of ’em all, the classic Star Destroyer. Mean-looking as a drunken stepfather, they looked like WW II battleships dropped from a moderate height: squashed and grey and mean and all bristly with doodads and laser beams and zappity guns. Plus the bridge, with the twin water towers, which were added to the model well before anyone tried to explain what they actually did. Were they communications? Space radar? Why put two spherical ones right next to each other? Put one on top and one on the bottom.
(Already we have come to what for some might be an intractable problem with being a Star Wars fan over the age of seven: none of this bullshit makes a lick of sense. It is a cool-looking morality play for children that did not have a science advisor on the set. Things look the way they do because they looked good onscreen and were symbolically straightforward.
Any fictional universe that relies on the supernatural falls apart with enough scrutiny, but the SWU shatters the second you look at it. Luckily, as Enthusiasts, we can happily allow our love and skepticism to coexist about something if it provides us enough joy.)
Star Destroyers were made by the thousands and were the Imperial Navy’s answer to the aircraft carrier: they carried squadrons of TIE fighters and AT-AT walkers, plus battalions of troops. You’d park a few in orbit above a misbehaving planet, bombard the surface with turbolasers, then drop the walkers on the poor suckers underneath.
The ships required a crew of hundreds and therefore must have included a cafeteria and places to exercise and relax. Traditionally in the Imperial Navy, Thursday is movie night, and it’s Captain’s Choice. No one was more thrilled than Captain Ozzel’s crew when he got choked: all he would play were romantic comedies and everyone was quite sick of Kate Hudson.
“I had an idea for the Star Destroyer for the new movie.”
“We should make it bigger.”
“How much bigger?”
“I’ll call ILM.”
Only seen in Return of the Jedi, this fan-favorite Lambda Shuttle sticks to the basic triangle motif that Lucas and the designers assigned the Empire. It also features another completely useless function: those wings do nothing. Sure, the shuttle goes into atmosphere, but so does the Falcon and TIE fighters and all other sorts of shit without wings.
The possibility does exist that the Empire knew this and just thought it looked bitchin’, or that the shipbuilders were Alliance supporters and deliberately made a ship that was costly and worked poorly to bleed the Empire dry.
James Cameron straight-up stole this ship for Aliens. Just saying.
Also, we are apparently going backwards, so let’s stay on Endor and remember this idiotic thing:
Yes, the All-Terrain Scout Transport (AT-ST) was in a handful of shots in Empire, most people remember it from the ruthless beating it took in Jedi, smashed between logs when it accidentally wandered into a Chuck Jones cartoon, or invaded by death-koalas who–we must assume–later ate the troopers inside.
In this case, though, the AT-ST is the Vince of the situation: no, it didn’t do a very good job, but it wasn’t the right job to be doing. Snow? Sure: take the thing with the giant, flat feet. A forest? YOU HAVE SPEEDERS. Put some damn armor on a speeder. Hell, use a horse: don’t bring this thing into the forest.
I show the toy because it was one of my favorites: all the guns swiveled and so did the head, which would fit either two stormtroopers OR Chewbacca and two Ewoks just like in the movie. You had to put the Ewoks in first and then kinda jam Chewie in there, but that was okay because there was a hatch–again: just like in the movie–for him to stick his head out of.
PLUS, the AT-ST toy did something, which will also be a theme: all the good Star Wars toys did something. Some made noise, and others had clever little parts, but the folks at Kenner (the original, long-time makers of SWU toys) always added something extra that made it better than a regular toy: it was a Star Wars Toy.
Star Wars Toys had their own chest.
Anyway, the AT-ST walked. On the back of its head was a button that made the legs go up and down, and whenever I became agitated as a child, I would press that button and watch the legs go up and down for hours.
That actually explains quite a bit.
It was soothing.
Get on with things.
Kenner did make some duds, though, including this:
I do enjoy how the designer of the helmet thought that regular Stormtrooper helmets provided the wearer with too much peripheral vision, and then rectified the problem.
Speaking of toys, the AT-AT Walker I received for Christmas of 1981 confirmed that my parents loved me and still remains the high point of my life. That and Game 6 of the ’86 World Series. Everything moved: the heavy legs clicked into whatever position the Battle of Tanglewood Drive required that day, and the head swung open so you could sit your AT-AT Driver and Officer (action figures sold separately) in place, plus that flap on the side opened to reveal the head was controlled by a joystick and you could swivel the head and look up at the Snowspeeders coming towards you and–AND–when you pressed a button, the light-up laser cannons under the chin would make noises and glow orange.
And it was massive. Here it is with a dog:
It is at this point that I realize the reason that this has become more about the toys than the in-universe vehicles is that I just had a debate with myself about “Well, maybe the Rebels had some sort of jamming field that disabled repulsor-lift technology and that’s why the Empire had to use Walkers,” and then I remembered, “But the Rebels were using Snowspeeders,” and then I thought, “I should throw myself off the balcony,” and then I did because any explanation–any one at all–to justify the use of these goofy things is revisionist nonsense: they looked cool. Pay no attention to the bearded man behind the plaid curtain.
The TIE Fighters are circles with things on the side that go up and down; X-Wings are long rectangles with things on the side that go perpendicularly. This is because Star Wars is a children’s movie. To consider this ship in any way other than aesthetic and dramatic is ridiculous: it is as aerodynamic as a D’Brickashaw Ferguson, but fragile.
But: it’s beautiful. Simple geometric shapes in the right proportions will take you far in any galaxy, plus they ShhhhWAAAAM’ed overhead with Ben Burtt’s incredible sound effects. (I think they used a lion’s roar for the TIE’s engines, mixed with other stuff.)
It was tough to compete with any child’s love of his X-Wing, but the TIE put up a challenge. Look:
That little handle raised and lowered the TIE Driver (action figure sold separately) and you could fling him out of the cockpit, plus that button behind him made a lovely laser noise when pushed. Also, the wings came popping off to simulate a crash, but they were a pain in the ass to get back on. (The production quality of high-volume plastic bullshit was not as high in the 70’s as it is now.)
There were many TIE Fighters. There was the TIE Interceptor.
In Empire, we saw a brief shot of the TIE Bomber dropping its payload on the asteroid the Falcon was hidden on, and it’s a very cool design:
Which is a feature you would think the Empire would have taken greater advantage of. If it is a war–amongst the stars or down here on Earth–and there is a possibility of having giant robots, you seize that possibility.
“What’s the mission, Sarge?”
“Fly there, bomb the shit out of them, and then–when you run out of bombs–turn into a giant robot and kill the survivors one by one.”
“This is not what I signed up for.”
“Yes, it is. It’s the Galactic Empire. You knew what you were getting into, Jenkins. Our organization is run by evil wizards.
Darth Vader had his own TIE Fighter because how else could you tell who he was during the space battles?