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?
George 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 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.
What 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.