Nasa / Space optimize

Imagining a world without Star Wars

What if George Lucas never invented Star Wars because he was able to make the science-fiction movie he wanted, instead?

Today is semi-officially Star Wars Day -- May the 4th be with you! -- wherein acolytes of the Jedi franchise revel in the universe George Lucas unleashed upon sci-fi fandom in 1977. But what if George Lucas never invented Star Wars -- because he was able to make the science-fiction movie he wanted, instead?

Flash GordonGeorge Lucas and his producer, Gary Kurtz, originally wanted to do a more modern take on the old Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials from the 1930s. In the world we know, King Features, the owner of the Flash Gordon screen rights, wanted too hefty a sum -- and too much creative oversight -- for Lucas to afford to adapt the character. So Lucas and Kurtz remixed their notes into an original concept and gave us Star Wars. But what if King Features had been more accommodating and Star Wars never happened?

Well, for starters, Flash Gordon might actually be cool, because he almost certainly would have had a lightsaber and flown something like an X-Wing. In this new timeline, Ming the Merciless probably has abilities close to Emperor Palpatine's darkside Force powers, but there aren't Jedi counterparts. The Lionmen of Mongo are the original Wookiees, and there's a fair chance Prince Barin of Arboria and Princess Aura of Mongo bear a great resemblance to Han Solo and Princess Leia, respectively. Whether we can get Hans Zarkov portrayed by Sir Alec Guinness is a subject of great debate.

So what's the Hollywood fallout to a likely blockbuster version of Flash Gordon debuting on May 25, 1977? Let's speculate.

The Queen is dead, but the Princess lives

Suffice it to say, the 1980 version of Flash Gordon never happens, so we don't get an awful movie...or an awesome Queen soundtrack. Worse, Brian Blessed never shouts "Gordon's alive!"

More specifically, we get a 1977 Hollywood that is uncannily similar to modern Tinseltown, in that adapting existing properties (like Flash Gordon) is prized far above and beyond developing original material (like Star Wars). As such, we still get Buck Rogers with Gil Gerrard and Erin Gray, though they are likely fighting for attention with a late 1970s version of A Princess of Mars by Rambo's Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna. John McTiernan (Predator and Die Hard) was set to direct this project, starring Tom Cruise, so it's entirely possible those two stars lead very different careers, and we get a John Carter as kick-butt action hero 30 years earlier, in a movie that's much more successful.

Dune posterDune done right

Where history starts to really go off the rails is with a 1978 project headed by Dino de Laurentiis -- one that probably retains focus and production support thanks to the "adapt the known" impetus from studio heads. The project? Frank Herbert's Dune, as directed by Ridley Scott. The Scott/ di Laurentiis Dune fell apart under competing egos and priorities in our timeline, but in a world without Star Wars, Hollywood will be desperate to get this adaptation right. Screenwriter Dan O'Bannon likely still has a nervous breakdown from the pressure of completing the script, but he also probably gets there sooner, and doesn't write the spinoff screenplay that becomes Alien. Ridley Scott never leaves Dune to direct O'Bannon's Alien and -- as Scott's version of Dune would have been two (or perhaps three) movies -- he's never freed up to direct Blade Runner, either.

Television's Prime Directive Steven Spielberg made Close Encounters of the Third Kind simultaneous to Star Wars (now Flash Gordon), so his history is unchanged in the new continuity. Close Encounters, combined with the success of the Richard Donner Superman in 1978, still inspires The Greatest American Hero on the small screen in 1981. But television isn't immune from the Flash Gordon fallout, as Glen A. Larson's original concept for Battlestar Galactica (designed to be a TV version of Star Wars) is likely never greenlighted. Subsequently, the episode "Experiment in Terra", which sketches out the basic plot concept for a later series from Larson collaborator Donald Bellisario, Quantum Leap, never happens -- so Dr. Sam Beckett never travels back in time. Knight Rider, the sci-fi car chase franchise Larson also adapted (complete with Cylon scanners on the supercar KITT), probably doesn't get approved, either. Above all, the strikingly original V and V: The Final Battle never grace the 1980s airwaves, though the bland Rock Hudson-anchored Martian Chronicles miniseries still happens.

Star Trek Phase IIWhat takes up all that slack in 1980s genre television? Star Trek, but not The Next Generation. 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture was derived from notes from a lost sequel television series, Star Trek: Phase II. In a rush to capitalize on the Flash Gordon nostalgia craze, the alt-history CBS buys Roddenberry's TV concept before Paramount (which was developing the show for its own stillborn TV network) can act to get Star Trek on the big screen. Thus, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and crew are back on TV rather than the movies, perhaps for another 5-7 years, but the Trek franchise never evolves to give us Picard, Sisko, Janeway, or even Archer. Nostalgia, not novelty, rules.

Around the same time, Lucas and Spielberg were collaborating on Raiders of the Lost Ark, another semi-original remix of old serials. While the pair probably still launch the franchise in a non-Jedi world, the vastly different TV landscape means they can get their first choice for the star -- Tom Selleck rather than Harrison Ford -- as Selleck won't be busy filming Magnum PI.

The Final Battle

So, in recap, a world without Star Wars means a world without Blade Runner, Alien (or its sequels), Battlestar Galactica (or its sequels), Quantum Leap, Knight Rider, or any of the Star Trek spinoff series we know and love. In exchange we get a better John Carter and Dune, and a wildly different Indiana Jones. There are no Jedi, there is no Force -- but then Jar Jar Binks and midi-chlorians never arrive to despoil it all.

Is it a better world we live in, or worse, for having Star Wars in it? What other changes would you imagine, had Star Wars never come to pass? We await your pronouncements in the comments section.

May the Force be with you.

About

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

34 comments
wendygoerl
wendygoerl

If Goerge Lucas's seatbelt had worked when he crashed during his racing days, he wouldn't have been thrown clear of the burning wreck and never lived to become a film director. Hard to imagine Hollywood getting any good SF flicks if THAT had happened.

richard.stroud
richard.stroud

As a kid I was a big fan of SW and thus Battlestar. I also love the Flash Gordon that was made with the awesome Queen track. I'm glad things turned out as they did however, I also love the ERB John Carter of Mars books and wish they had been done right 30 years ago also. It would have been rated R. Another great series that has never been made and should have are the Dragon Riders of Pern.

tech_ed
tech_ed

But it *WOULD* be a world with Star Trek, and that would be good!

DT2
DT2

Maybe "Rendezvous with Rama" would have finally been made. Maybe it still will. Hope springs eternal...

wmroc
wmroc

Good. Then Jar-Jar Binks would never have been created. IMO the most ridiculous character in the movies and the only reason I will never buy the Star Wars DVD movies, not one of the 6.

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

I don't see it as derivative of anything Star Wars. And more importantly, JMS's career is pretty much divorced from other Star Wars AND Star Trek show lines. The only Trek crossover I can think of is Walter Koenig, and that would have been late enough in his career that he'd probably have been available post-Trek Phase II.

StephenInScotland
StephenInScotland

One name not mentioned yet. J. Michael Straczynski. Before Babylon 5 all SF shows were run as stand alone episodes. Then Joe Straczynski showed what you can do with arcing plot lines and overnight SF got way better. The point is, even without George Lucas, there were far too many creative forces who loved SF to stop the genre from becoming mainstream.

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

After a long career (illustrious enough to have had knighthood conferred), he realized that posterity was now going to remember him as a space-opera's 'best supporting actor', and not, say, the tortured, driven lead in 'Bridge on the River Kwai'. He felt that (due to the phenomonal impact of 'Star Wars') his defining role, as far as the public was concerned, had come to be one of a 'supporting actor' (like von Sydow after the Bergman roles dried up)....It's all I've ever heard him talk about since Star Wars.

Dknopp
Dknopp

I went to see Star Wars in Denver when I was going to Engineering School. I had been a big SciFi fan for years since I was a little kid reading Danny Dunn and other kid SciFi and then moving on to Asimov, Heinlein, etc. Really the only SCiFi movie I thought was any good before Star Wars was 2001 Space Odyssey, all the rest were just B-rated stuff that came on late night TV ( which I started to like on dvd's later ). So I was not counting on this being any good. But then that big starship came runbling over the top of the screen and all I could say was damnnnnn.....but The Empire Strikes Back is still the best one.

voxwoman
voxwoman

I disagree that the trek movies don't get made, because why wouldn't Paramount want to cash in on the bigger-ticket Trek income? I also disagree that Alien wouldn't get made - it's a "serious" remake of 1974's "Dark Star," after all. Blade Runner was also based on a literary work of the past (like Dune), so I don't see that getting passed by the studios, either. Maybe different directors would have taken the story to film, maybe it would have been more like Dick's original novel (as your revised Dune would have been), but I don't see it not getting made at all. The other thing you've left out is that Harlan Ellison's original script for "I, Robot" would have also been made - Maybe by James Cameron, with Sigourney Weaver playing Susan Calvin. And they would have done decent film versions of "The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress" and "Stranger In A Strange Land" ... at least that's how it would have played out in my alternate universe.

pgit
pgit

I remember seeing a poster in the theater for the upcoming star wars, it was winter, so probably January or February 1977. We were standing in line for whatever unforgettable movie, and I was drawn by that poster. I mentioned to someone "this movie (star wars) is going to be different. It's going to change everything." I don't know what compelled me to say that, I knew nothing of it until I saw that poster. Such is the force of advertising. The best sci fi in the whole star wars franchise is a quick, throw away scene in the first movie, in the huge crawler of the sand people, when the scene pans across the collection of robots they have absconded with. If you have the movie, look at that scene, and pause it to see the variety of the hardware. The suggestion is that people will build robots that resemble themselves. There's a c3po type of robot that looks like a bee, and talks in a buzzing fashion. There's clunky r2-style units, and other unique forms. The one that hit me like a ton of bricks is a humanoid robot that has red chevrons on it's chest. It appears deactivated, but the look on it's "face" is clearly insanity. It's scary, and well done as a prop. There's even a demonstration of a self preservation program in the robots, when the main door opens so the sand people can sell robots, several appear to panic and run from the door. All in all, those few seconds, there are actually 2 brief scenes of these robots, blew me away like no other sci fi before. There was so much to think about; the cultures that would develop such robots, the fact that diverse cultures would separately develop robots of a universally common basic design, that there's a culture of insane people out there that fashioned a familiar face on their robots, a face that would make me drop everything and run like he11 the other way... One question, Jay: would any of this effected the death of Elvis in August 1977?

Dknopp
Dknopp

I remember going to see Flash Gordan at midnight and walking past all the acid stoners waiting to buy tickets - but not able to move, they were so wasted. They loved the movie. Tom Selleck might have made a good Indiana Jones - but I like Harrison Ford in it. Tom Selleck did do that "High Road to China", which seems to be a bit of a knockoff of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom - even though it came out a year earlier, I think somebody got ahold of the plot.

rucb_alum
rucb_alum

Since latching on to movie reference from an half century before are not cool, Tina latches on to the look of 'Alien' instead and becomes a goth girl.

Odipides
Odipides

My favourite line from Flash Gordon is: "Dispatch war rocket Ajax to bring back his body" I still use it when someone's late for a meeting.

db625
db625

It'll never be a movie, it has no p l o t. Nothing actually happens, does it?

db625
db625

I actually found the *clearly* Jewish arche-type shop-owner (the guy with the little flitty wings and hooked nose) even more offensive.

voxwoman
voxwoman

that the original treatment for B5 was shopped to paramount as a new trek series and was thankfully declined.

neil.postlethwaite
neil.postlethwaite

Sorry, but this is bollocks from B5 Fanbois who cannot accept that B5 is the best thing ever. Farscape and Firefly both p155 all over it for originality.

voxwoman
voxwoman

I don't know that Straczynski would have gotten B5 greenlighted at all if things didn't play out the way they did.

xangpow
xangpow

On one side you have this great acting career yet the only thing people will ever remember is a supporting part in some sci-fi movie. On the other hand there are some actors that start as a popular character on some sitcom and spend thier rest of thier career trying to convice people they can do other things besides play that character. So I guess you have to ask yourself would you like to be remembered for playing the "silly" character at the begining or end of your career?

xangpow
xangpow

I dont see why The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine or the other would not be made. If, in this new timeline, they make the original Star Trek and the movies. I dont see WHY they wouldnt make The Next Generation, ect. Could you expand a little more?

Jay Garmon
Jay Garmon

...but so far as Alien goes, O'Bannon's original script concept was actually a retreatment of the old sky-gremlin episode of the Twilight Zone (the one with William Shatner) set on a WWII flying fortress. It was during Dune that O'Bannon tweaked it into a space story. If the original script does get made in the new timeline, it's probably as a historical horror film. Point well taken on Blade Runner, though it almost certainly wouldn't have been called Blade Runner, as the the original story is "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" and is much more of potboiler detective yarn than a nascent postmodern cyberpunk meditation on the nature of sentience and free will. I'll concede that Dick's source likely material gets used in the new universe, but the resulting non-Ridley Scott film would be almost entirely different from Blade Runner. PK Dick's work is loved by Hollywood because Dick is dead and can't put up much fuss, and the material is brief enough to be easily adapted. The former, incidentally, is why a lot of Harlan Ellison material isn't being adapted; they're waiting until Harlan kicks it. Heinlein's works, excepting the juveniles, tend to be long and dense. Starship Troopers is an exception. Though if Ridley Scott pulled off a good Dune, I could definitely see Heinlein's backlog falling into fashion with producers. There's a long alt-history novel here somewhere. Maybe someone goes back in time to "stop" Star Wars and our protagonist must correct history.

xangpow
xangpow

In the book "Tales from Jabba's Palace" there is a story about how a driod takes pleasure (as much pleasure as a driod can get) by causing other driods pain. (As much pain as a driod can feel.) After reading you comment I think you might like that book or at least the story. :)

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

I kind of recall one that looked suspiciously like a little bot built in fixed orbit a few years later.

DT2
DT2

I'd go see it - several times. Just the discovery and exploration aspect is enough of a plot for me. "In the early 2000s, actor Morgan Freeman expressed his desire to produce a film based on Rendezvous with Rama, however the film has been stuck in "development hell" for many years." I guess the only thing holding them back right now is locating a suitable script. Freeman wants to be cast as the commander of Endeavor.

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

Since at least the 1980s, almost *everyone* gets their foot (feet) in the door via TV (typically the sit-com). Some actors really are 'TV-sized' and either stay there, or return after a less-than-stellar venture into the big screen. A list of such TV-sized actors (tried movies but went back to the smaller, busier format) would include James Garner, Charlie Sheen, Paul Reiser, George Kennedy, Alan Alda, and Peter Graves....Others who did the sit-com stint, were seen as 'too big for TV", and never looked back include George Clooney, stand-up's Robin Williams, Tom Hanks, Woody Harrelson, and even Ted Danson. There's also a strong tradition of big-screen personalities taking 'retirement gigs' on TV after long careers in film, as well: Burt Reynolds, Yvonne deCarlo, Jackie Gleason and Lucille Ball---whose gigs turned into second careers!, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Beverly Garland.....

pgit
pgit

What true fan doesn't relish dope-slapping the uninitiated who isn't aware of the actor's vast body of Shakespearian play craft, or his Oscar for a lead in a "classic" nobody remembers? This phenomenon creates a market of underground knowledge, and on the other hand I don't see Guinness refusing any royalty checks.

Jay Garmon
Jay Garmon

...but that the TV series Phase II gets made instead. My point is that by never graduating the original cast to big screen, CBS and Paramount never allow a new cast to appear on television.

wendygoerl
wendygoerl

In the late 70's, Paramount was waffling between making a theatrical release of Star Trek, or a new television series, Star Trek II. The phenomenal success of Star Wars tipped the scales. They took the best of the Star Trek II scripts and made a feature movie out of it. (Later, ST:TNG would use material from the ST II scripts to get them though the writer's strike of 1989)

db625
db625

Shouldn't that be "Do Androids Count Electric Sheep"? Always bugged me.

pgit
pgit

That does look interesting, I'll get my hands on it asap.

pgit
pgit

I'll have to cue up the DVD and warm up the pause button. I hadn't thought of that, but now that you mention it I wonder if there aren't later robots in other venues that were influenced by that scene. (or star wars in general) How could I miss Tom Servo? Tom, Crow and Joel obviated my need of a therapist!