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Friday, 12 January 2018

The world before Star Wars: Six things that suddenly went out of fashion for children of the 1970s 

From The Six Million Dollar Man to TV westerns,
a lot of children's obsessions were to be
eclipsed the arrival of Star Wars

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there lived people who had never heard of Star Wars. Today, Episode Nothing looks at some of the pop culture obsessions of the 1970s that suddenly seemed less important once the adventures of Luke Skywalker came along.   

In the mid-1970s, those who read film magazines might have known that the director of American Graffiti was making a science fiction movie in London, called either The Star Wars or The Adventure of Luke Starkiller. But most of us had no idea what was about to hit our planet.  

Of course, children of the 1970s had plenty of pop culture to enjoy, and it wouldn't all disappear when Star Wars came along. But for children who were suddenly Star Wars-obsessed, none of it would seem quite as important any more.  

Looking back at the entertainment that used to transfix me, and millions of other youngsters, before Star Wars, I can't help feeling that it had a lot in common with Woody the cowboy doll in Toy Story, who was displaced in his owner's affections when Buzz Lightyear the space ranger came along.  

Here are a few things which suddenly seemed a bit less important in a post-Star Wars universe.  

1. Westerns 

Lone Ranger toys of the 1970s. 

The heyday of the movie western may have been over by the 1970s, but the genre was still very popular with children, thanks to television.  

Cancelled western series such as
The Virginian were still popular on TV
A number of the most popular western series were cancelled in the "rural purge" of the early 1970s, as American TV sought to appeal to a more urban demographic.  Gunsmoke, The Virginian and Bonanza were all gunned down by the executives. But we continued to enjoy the existing episodes. We also had the 1971-73 series Alias Smith and Jones exploited the box office success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969. 

In the UK, much older shows such as Champion the Wonder Horse and Casey Jones were still showing, as were the colour episodes of The Lone Ranger. In fact, Clayton Moore's masked man was still popular enough to spawn some magnificent action figures in the 1970s. I loved mine, but they didn't quite get the same attention once Star Wars was released and Han Solo became everybody’s favourite gunslinger. 

2. Starsky & Hutch 

Starsky & Hutch was the TV series
everyone seemed to be talking about

Younger readers may not appreciate how enormously popular Starsky & Hutch was. For at least a couple of seasons, everybody seemed to be talking about it. People loved the chemistry of Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul as the cop buddies. They loved the action, the car chases, the wisecracks and the doomed romances that seemed to befall the cops with alarming frequency.

The show was heavily merchandised. There were fan clubs, poster magazines and at least two toy versions of that red Ford Gran Torino with the white stripe. The tabloids wrote about the show all the time, and David Soul’s career as a singer gave the show even more visibility. But while the show continued until 1979, it never seemed quite as important once the buddy relationship of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo had entered our lives, and the Torino had been displaced by the Millennium Falcon.   

3. Planet of the Apes

Planet of the Apes toys predated Star Wars figures.

People say, quite rightly, that Star Wars was merchandised in a way no other single film ever had been. But we had seen something similar with Planet of the Apes

The TV cast of Planet of the Apes
Apes was a fully-fledged franchise – a cycle of films followed by a live action TV series and an animated series. It was a much gloomier kind of science fiction than Star Wars, featuring the collapse of human civilisation, nuclear holocaust, slavery and the end of the world. But that didn’t stop kids of the 1970s cheerfully devouring anything with the Apes name on it, including Marvel comic books, annuals, action figures with their own tree fortress, a board game and more. 

I suspect everyone who loved the Ape series back then still feels affection for it. But at the time, our attention switched pretty dramatically to Star Wars. George Lucas’s film also had an ape-like creature in it, of course. It also had the destruction of a world, but didn’t let that event get in the way of a happy ending. 

4. Nostalgia for the 1950s

The Cunningham family and
the Fonz in Happy Days

Nostalgia for the 1970s has been a phenomenon for quite a while now. But people forget that back in the 70s, a lot of people were very nostalgic for the more innocent time of the 1950s and early 60s. 

George Lucas did a lot to fuel this nostalgia boom when he made his hugely successful American Graffiti (1973). It was set in 1962, just before the more innocent teenage culture of the late 50s gave way to the social upheavals of the 60s. 

The 1950s-set stage musical Grease pre-dated Graffiti, as did the pilot episode for the TV show Happy Days. When Graffiti became a hit, with Happy Days lead Ron Howard in the central role, ABC went back to that 50s-set pilot and commissioned a series. By 1976, Happy Days was the number one show on American TV. With Henry Winkler as the Fonz now at its core, the show spawned huge amounts of merchandise and two spin-off series, Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy.

The nostalgia for the 1950s continued after the release of Star Wars, with Grease turned into a hugely successful film and inspiring a host of cheap movies with old records for a soundtrack. But in a post-Star Wars world, Fonzie was no longer the coolest guy in the universe – Han Solo was. 

5. World War II 

In the UK, comics like these replayed World War II 

Thirty years after its end, the Second World War loomed large in the lives of a generation who were too young to have lived through it. Not only were war movies on TV all the time, but they were still a big part of the offering at cinemas at the time Star Wars came out. A Bridge Too Far, Cross of Iron and The Eagle Has Landed were all among the major releases from that time.

Kids read WWII comics (the ones in which German tank crews cried “Himmel! Englander!” before perishing in an explosion). They assembled aircraft and battleships from Airfix kits. Perhaps more significantly, many of us recreated the war daily in the playground. Then, from the time Star Wars was released, we were no longer Germans vs Allies – we were Empire vs Rebels. The real heroism that was part of living memory was suddenly eclipsed by imaginary heroism of the interstellar kind. 

6. The science fiction TV shows of the 1970s

A scene from Gerry Anderson's Space: 1999

Star Wars did not quite arrive into a world where people were unused to science fiction. It’s just that we hadn’t seen any science fiction quite as wildly imaginative as this before.

On television, The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman were enormously popular – and they spawned action figures and other merchandising. But they were pretty much earth-bound action shows, with the bionic element coming into play at intervals. (Lindsay Wagner’s Bionic Woman did face the Fembots, but that was as science fictionish as those shows got.)

We also had David McCallum as The Invisible Man and Ben Murphy as The Gemini Man, both pretty short lived. Britain had Doctor Who, which still drew enormous ratings and was probably at its creative peak despite its often meagre production values. But the only person really offering spaceships and aliens to an international audience was the UK’s Gerry Anderson, who had switched from puppetry to the short-lived live action series Project UFO and Space: 1999. Otherwise, the only thing that came close to the richness of Star Wars was Star Trek, long since cancelled but still popular in reruns. We wanted science fiction that came with big budgets and space battles – but TV was never really able to deliver. 

(Read here to find out what Gerry Anderson thought of Star Wars, and how Space: 1999 gave George Lucas an expensive problem.)

How Star Wars blended many different kinds of entertainment

Han Solo was Star Wars' equivalent
of a Wild West gunslinger

All the above entertainment was largely elbowed out of the limelight by the success of Star Wars. But it strikes me that Star Wars had something in common with all of the things on the list. 

  • You can certainly see the influence of westerns in George Lucas’s film – from Han Solo’s costume to the burning homestead with its echo of The Searchers.
  • The wise-cracking buddy relationship between Starsky and Hutch is a lot like Luke and Han’s friendship.
  • Planet of the Apes may be a very different kind of science fiction from Star Wars, but it showed its studio, 20th Century-Fox, that big, imaginative SF could attract a keen following. 
  • The hankering for a simpler era runs through Star Wars – albeit that it mainly looks back to the swashbuckling serials of the 1930s rather than to the 1950.
  • There is plenty of World War Two imagery in Lucas’s film, not least in the Rebellion’s attack on the Death Star – a sequence that owes a great deal to films such as The Dam Busters. 
  • The live action TV shows of Gerry Anderson offered a smaller-scale version of the outer space action that George Lucas would deliver on a grand scale. 
In many ways, the elements of all these stories that excited us were present in Star Wars. George Lucas drew on all these traditions when he fashioned an irresistibly appealing story of his own.

What obsessions were eclipsed when 
Star Wars came into your life? I'd love to hear about it. Please do comment below.


John White said...

I agree with all of that, Darren.

It's uncanny how you've basically just re-told my childhood. I was mad into ALL of that stuff—plus: Action Man. Don't forget him!

That 6 Million Dollar Man toy was an absolute must-have—and his nemesis 'Maskatron'. I remember longingly looking through the toy sections of catalogues at them, and the Lone Ranger, Evel Knievel, Apes, Action Man, etc etc.

Most of those shows look a bit cheap and very formulaic by today's standards, but we were flooded with shows that stimulated our imaginations back then.


Seeing_I said...

1950's nostalgia seemed to have been born with the performance of "Sha Na Na" at Woodstock in 1969 and seemed to hit a high point with the release of "Back to the Future" in 1985. Then the nostalgia wave seemed to shift to the 1960s.

Darren Slade said...

Great comment. I hadn't thought about Woodstock as the start of that nostalgia boom.

I remember when the year 1960 arrived in Happy Days, it seemed the show wouldn't be the same. Except that it was, of course.

Nathan Fleischman said...

It could be that the reason the Star Wars eclipsed all of these was because it had a lot in common with what came before.