Remembering Droids: The First Star Wars Animated Series

Feature Stephen Harber
3/1/2016 at 9:06AM

We scan our memory banks for information on the Droids animated series, a missing yet essential chapter in Star Wars history.

Droids is a tragically forgotten piece of Star Wars culture. Taking into account that the show has basically been disowned, in part because it’s incredibly dated, this cartoon about two droids wandering around desert planets getting into trouble isn’t likely to get the acclaim it deserves anytime soon. Which is funny. Droids happens to be an influential relic from the younger days of a rapidly growing multimedia franchise that didn’t know what to do with itself.

The fingerprints of this obscure Saturday morning cartoon can be seen in just about everything that followed it, from the novels to the Dark Horse comics, to the prequels and The Force Awakens. Droids isn’t just an animated series that caters to a younger crowd, it’s actually a gateway drug that intiated its audience into the upper echelons of the Star Wars expanded universe. It’s about time humanoids and automatons alike started treating it that way.

A long time ago (1985) in a galaxy that…kind of looked like this one, actually, the Star Wars universe was not yet the enormous place overpopulated with oddly named yet marketable creatures that it is today. Back in those days, the SW experience consisted of the original trilogy films, the toyline, the Marvel comics, a few forgettable tie-in books with awesome looking covers, and that one nutty Christmas special. If you wanted to fully immerse yourself in the Star Wars experience, all you needed were a few tiny action figures, your memories of what happened on the big screen, and those gratuitous clips of TIE fighter battles spliced into the occasional episode of Muppet Babies. Remember those?

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Return of the Jedi had already come and gone, and Kenner needed a way to continue making money off of the Star Wars brand. The Power of the Force toyline was a quick cash grab that consisted of already released action figures repackaged with gold coins, and that just wasn't fun. Since there wouldn’t be another feature film to fuel merchandise for another fifteen years, something had to be done to make sure the most profitable media franchise ever stayed profitable for everyone involved. Lucasfilm also needed to keep that easy cash flow going, so what was the win-win here?

A Saturday morning cartoon about Star Wars, of course. And it was about damn time. Enter Droids, the animated series chronicling the galactic misadventures of everyone’s favorite artificially intelligent comic relief characters: C-3PO and R2-D2. George Lucas had been developing this show with animation studio Nelvana for a couple years now - along with a sister show, Ewoks - to air on the ABC network. After working on the cartoon short from the notorious holiday special (which introduced us to Boba Fett), Lucas knew he wanted to work with the company again to keep feeding his multi-million dollar baby that was once just a kooky avant garde film. And so, with ideas of how to construct a universe zooming around in his head like so many X-Wings rushing to poorly guarded exhaust ports, he did.

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But after spending less than a decade caught up in the whirlwind of creating a pop culture revolution, Lucas wasn’t keen on his involvement with the series being too “hands on.” Ready to work on other projects like Willow and Labyrinth, he was willing to let others tell new stories about our beloved talking tin cans. Thus, Lucas recruited the likes of Paul Dini, Ken Stephenson, Raymond Jafelice, and Peter Sauder to find creative direction for the first two animated Star Wars series ever.

Although nowhere near as grandiose as today’s animated Star Wars epics like Clone Wars or Rebels, Droids is fairly high concept for an ‘80s cartoon. Perhaps not as much as its syndicated contemporaries of the time, like Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors or even Thundercats, but when compared to the rest of the shows from its sleepy programming block (like reruns of Looney Tunes, Superfriends and The Littles), Droids was ambitious.

The fundamental concept of the series affected its formula, themes, stories, tone, everything. Because Artoo and Threepio would spend their time wandering around the galaxy in search of new “masters” who have their own quests to undertake, there’s no consistent status quo. This is nothing to bat an eye at these days, but in the simpler time that was the 1980s cartoon golden age, it was jarring. Most of the cartoons from that era had cute good guys arguing with grumpy bad guys against a neon-colored backdrop. (Sorry, Ewoks…) Droids, however, was the antidote to this. 

What about Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie? Sorry, clone cadets. Those crazy kids weren’t invited to this party. Droids takes place in the years between Episode III and IV, the “Rise of the Empire” era - or it’s supposed to anyway. As it’s not canon anymore (thanks to Darth Mouse), I don’t know what to make of it. Fortunately enough, Anthony Daniels agreed to return and lend his vocal chords to the soundscape of the cartoon, alongside a theme song by The Police’s Stewart Copeland that was set the tone of the series quite well, despite its contemporary sound.

So what if the show had to fill a Skywalker shaped void every so often? It was still fascinating to see what crazy stuff RD-D2 and C-3PO got into next. Droids was designed to be an adventure serial in the purest sense of the term, and the show finally gave fans the freedom to explore the Star Wars universe after spending years imagining what the rest of it looked like.

And yet, despite having a lot of very exciting concepts going for it, the actual experience of watching Droids was frequently more monotonous and oddly sad than I expected. I mean, watching C-3PO be whored out during a slave auction and later forced to clean up bantha sh*t while everyone else is asleep isn’t the most uplifting material to eat your Corn Pops to.

It could have been a lot worse, though. Artoo and Threepio actually did manage to find employment by quite a few generous masters over the show’s run, even if they weren’t what we would call “memorable” or “of importance” - or hell, even “three dimensional.” Each one of them gives us good vibes, but that doesn’t stop them from being knock-off versions of better characters from the Original Trilogy. Sure, they look different in visual design, but they share the same gallantly rebellious streak that it’s hard not to draw comparisons. There was at least one moment in each of the thirteen episodes in which I stopped and thought,”Uh huh, great, but how friggin’ awesome would it be if Luke and Leia were here instead of Bekky Tooshbottom and Wenis Lampo?”

Okay, so those aren't actual character names from Droids. No, the real ones were much more forgettable than that. Trust me. But they were nice people who always treated their slaves...uh , I mean, robots...er, I mean, droids well.

Also, each “master” had their quests, too, which motivated them enough to have character arcs of their very own. Gasp! That’s nothing short of a miracle for the very sugary, very un-serialized climate of mid-’80s Saturday morning TV.

Droids covered a ton of ground for a TV show that ran for only one brief season of just thirteen episodes. By the time I finished watching all of it, I felt as if I had watched the equivalent of maybe double that - in a good way. Its singular season is broken up into three major story arcs or “cycles” that center on three separate groups of masters. Each cycle is made up of three to four different standalone episodes that are chapters in their respective storylines. Whew. Need a minute?

Let's talk about each of these story cycles one by one.

THE FIRST STORY ARC (Episodes 1-4)

The initial story cycle of Droids kicks off at a strong pace, burning through the first four episodes in no time. Our little orphan droids get adopted by a couple of speeder bike racers named Jord Dusat and Thall Joben on a desert planet. The gang later joins forces with a Rebel Spy named Kea Moll (aka diet Princess Leia) to stop the evil Fromm gang from using a weapons satellite called the Trigon One. After they prevent the evildoers from...whatever they were going to do with that, our temporary team of heroes wind up being targeted by Boba Fett in a high stakes speeder race, thanks to the relentlessness of those pesky Fromms. (Damn you, Tiggy Fromm!)

First of all, speeder bikes? How RotJ is that? Second of all, desert planet? This is basically remaking A New Hope before The Force Awakens did. Well, not exactly. The conflict that plays out between the, um, speed biker gang and the Fromms may have dire consequences for the galaxy, but it’s nothing as impactful as blowing up five planets. Since this story arc introduced smaller scale storytelling in the Star Wars universe, it was now okay for all characters to act more like humans and less like archetypal embodiments of cosmic forces. Or something.

Let’s talk about those Fromms. As Star Wars bad guys go, the Fromm gang is more on the Jabba the Hutt end of the spectrum than the imposing Empire side. In other words, they're not that threatening. The leader Tiggy (or Tig, as he prefers to be called) is on the whiny side. And he has daddy issues. But these traits are what made him so unique when compared with the rest of the Droids rogue gallery, and might be why he still has weird fan art made about him to this day.

As heroes go, Thall Joban and Jord Dusat are nice dudes. They’re the kind of peripheral characters who seem intriguing when you catch a glance of them walking around in the background of a scene on Tatooine or something. But when you actually spend time with them? Not as interesting as you’d hoped they’d be. Indeed, they take both the droids and us on an decent adventure that feels Star Wars-y enough, but there's an aggravating vacuum where their personalities should be. Yes, they’ve got character traits and edgy hair styles and a landspeeder mysteriously named The White Witch. But what do they have inside? What defines Thall Joban? How is he different from everyone else in Star Wars? Why is he someone we can trust? We don’t really know, as he and his colleagues suffer from classic Saturday morning superficiality syndrome. But that comes with the territory here. 

THE SECOND STORY ARC (Episodes 5-9)

In the second story cycle, C-3PO and R2-D2 are rescued along with a mysterious android from a slave auction on Tyne’s Horky (yes, another desert planet with another f**ked up name) by a young miner named Jann Tosh. After taking them back home and introducing them to his Yosemite Sam-in-space uncle Putch Gundarian, Tosh and the boys are shocked to discover that the nameless android is in fact Mon Jalupa, the missing prince of Tammuz-an in disguise. This revelation sets off a chain of events that take up the next five consecutive episodes, each one expanding the Star Wars universe significantly more than the last. Talk about world building. I can’t imagine how kids felt back when this was airing.

This follow-up arc improved greatly on the last. The first cycle is a classic in its own right, but the second is more engaging to watch as its plot kept evolving, and the stakes kept getting higher. Plus, it involved the Rebellion, and we're all familiar with that crowd. It conjured up the same New Hope iconography, again much like The Force Awakens, to good effect.

Speaking of which, this cycle also has something else in common with Episode VII: its main villain basically has the same name as Kylo Ren except for one tiny letter. 

KYBO REN.

Look, Kybo Ren and Kylo Ren are nothing alike whatsoever. I’m not suggesting that they share any characteristics - at all. They’re like granny smith apples and blood oranges: you can’t compare them, they taste so different, and one is more plump and juicy than the other. I'm just asking, why are their names so similar?

Was J.J. Abrams sitting around in the writer’s retreat at Skywalker Ranch, being all, “Nah, forget about calling him Jedi Killer. Let's name him after that one fat guy from Droids. You know who I'm talking about. The Genghis Kahn looking one. Remember him? I loved that show, man. Can you make him look like Darth Revan, though? Knights of the Old Republic was so dope. Thanks.”

Either way, Kybo Ren (or Gir Kybo Ren-Cha) was a space pirate that, like the Fromm gang before him, was made from the same villainous yet slimey cloth as Jabba the Hutt. He’s another one of those dastardly underworld criminals with no redeeming value whatsoever, yet plenty of resources at his disposal. On paper he sounds bad to the bone, but in action? He’s basically the type of silly bad guy you’d see on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. As such, I had a hard time taking the overweight stereotypical Asian man with the ridiculous Fu Manchu moustache seriously. His pirate crew? Sad to say, I don’t remember them much, despite having just marathoned this show recently. Hmm. That says a lot.

As “masters” go, Jann Tosh was pretty decent, as was Jessica Meade, the adventurous freighter pilot who has my vote for weirdest Star Wars name ever. She was basically a cross between Han Solo and Princess Leia. Meanwhile, Jann was somewhere in the middle of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker. That's the only way to accurately describe these characters, since 1.) we couldn’t focus on them for long and 2.) they’re ‘80s cartoons, so they’re not that captivating. One defining characteristic of Jann that I can be certain of, is that he didn’t like wearing any undershirts.

THE THIRD STORY ARC (Episodes 10-13)

The third and final story cycle just might be Droids’ best. It introduced us to the droids’ favorite master of all time: Mungo Baobab. I think it’s because he has the most fun name to say out of anyone on the show. I mean, it’s fun to say even in your own head. Repeat it to yourself for 30 seconds. I dare you not to smile.

Mungo is a galaxy class merchant whose family runs the infamous Baobab Merchant Fleet. Throughout the final four episodes of the series, Mungo drags Artoo and Threepio along with him on his quest to find a trade route to the Roon System in order to acquire more Roonstones, which apparently were hot sh*t. Also, doesn't he kind of look like Jesus to you? 

After successfully traversing the Cloak of the Sith and outsmarting the Empire’s troops, Mungo was able to find passage to the Roon System with R2-D2 and C-3PO’s help. But once there, his search for the source of the Roonstones was constantly interrupted by General Koong and his Storm Troopers. As he continued his borderline obsessive search for the Roonstones, Mungo questions whether or not his treasure hunt is really even worth it, making important realizations about what truly matters in life in the process. (Or something.)

The final chapter of the show was the most ambitious of all, outdoing even the ambitious scope of Jann’s arc managed to accomplish. This is the point where the show came to life and started hitting its stride. If Droids had continued on for a second season, surely it wouldn’t have been a bad idea if Mr. Baobab stuck around for at least another arc or two. As a protagonist, Mungo’s character served as the nice grounding presence the show needed, a real swashbuckler. He was a high ranking businessman whose code of honor and civic responsibility didn’t clash with his adventurous spirit, and felt more like leader you could look up to than the younger misfits from before. Bottom line here is, Mungo Baobab had his sh*t together.

Another reason why this last story cycle was so great? It had a villain with a familiar face: the Empire itself. General Koong is the best bad guy out of the whole series, period. If Ranier Wolfcastle and Dolph Lundgren had a lovechild that suffered third degree burns and was given cyborg reconstitution to survive, I figure he’d look a lot like Koong. How can you go wrong with a villain like him? I know his Storm Troopers used laser rods instead of guns to blast our heroes, but that’s nothing big. Blame ABC’s Standards & Practices for that, not Lucasfilm.

THE TV SPECIAL

After the thirteenth and final episode aired in November of 1985, the Droids saga was suddenly over. There was an hour-long animated special called “The Great Heep” which was supposed to air for the holidays a month later in December, but for some curious reason, it was pushed back until June of the following year. When it did finally air in the summer of ‘86, it got the lowest ratings of that week, not to mention the lowest ratings out of any TV special that aired that season. Ouch.

This decision fries my circuitboards. “The Great Heep” is probably the best segment that came out of the Droids television series for a couple reasons. One, its extended running time gives it the luxury of moving along at a much less stilted pace. You don’t get bored and nothing feels rushed like it did week-to-week. The second is that "Heep" focuses directly on droid culture. In every single episode of the show, Artoo and Threepio are doing what they do best - tagging along with humans and doing cute stuff to provide comic relief amongst all the hard sci-fi action that’s going on around them. In “Heep”, they get to interact with other droids more than they usually do, which is something I wish we got to see in the episodes proper. (It was called Droids, was it not?)

In the special, R2-D2 and C-3PO travel to a planet called Biitu to rendezvous with Mungo, but they don’t know that he’s been imprisoned by a gigantic droid who goes by the name of The Great Heep. Heep also captures the two droids and forces C-3PO to be part of his, um, lube crew while pampering Artoo by putting the little cutie in his droid harem. There, Artoo meets KT-10, his first and only love interest (okay, so that may be debatable.) But that’s what Heep does to all of the R2 units before he eats them to survive…

This special hits emotional beats that any self-respecting animated feature film would, including splitting up our heroes and giving us a fake-out death moment. Why was this special never given a wide home video release in the U.S., Lucasfilm?! Seriously, it’s like they think it’s as bad as the Holiday Special or something. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. I mean, yeah, it is kind of weird in that it introduces us to the concept of Droid harems, and that Fidge kid and his pet Chubb were kind of annoying. But come on! There are way worse things that have been released under the Star Wars brand since then and you know it.

THE COMICS

While Droids was trying to force kids to appreciate its lofty quirks on the airwaves with perpetual reruns, the series branched out into other forms of media. From ‘86-87, Star Comics (the shortlived Marvel imprint that published mostly cartoon tie-ins for a younger audience) ran a monthly series based on Droids. Because it was built on the same premise as the TV show, there were no set “masters” featured throughout its entire run. Each issue revolved around Artoo and Threepio being tossed around between little cartoony brats and aliens that were very un-Star Wars like in appearance. Marvel pulled some crazy sh*t during their original Star Wars run, but at least they ran wild with creative freedom. Droids was based on an animated TV series with a very distinct visual style that wasn’t seen in the panels of the comics whatsoever. It was like the droids were stuck in some demented cartoon candy land and could never escape their cutesy tormentors, which winds up being more unintentionally disturbing than the show ever was.

At one point, there was an Ewoks crossover published, and no, it’s definitely not canon. I haven’t seen any of the Ewoks series at this point, so I can’t confirm that it’s in line with the tone or spirit of that series at all. What I can tell you, however, is that its plot is pretty friggin’ bizarre.

Artoo and Threepio find themselves on a diplomatic mission to the planet Sooma, which appears to be populated by bad guys ripped straight out of an old Hanna-Barbera cartoon. There they get tricked into delivering an incredibly irritating amphibious child named Prince Plooz back to his home planet when they get attacked by his father’s space fleet. As they try to escape using the hyperdrive, they inadvertently blast themselves into a hole in space and somehow end up 100 years into the future (?) on Endor, searching for the little brat who jumped out in an escape pod. Of course they run into those fuzzy wuzzy little indigenous teddy bears, who think Plooz is something called a Star Child. Nothing really exciting happens save for a ginormous boulder that almost fall on our heroes, which R2-D2 stopped somehow. It's not important.

For the final three issues, Star Comics got all greedy and released an adaptation of A New Hope from the point of view of the titular droids. (Yes, you know I had to sneak that phrase in again.) There’s not much to report from this retelling except that there are completely dumb cutesy moments that were shoehorned into the story for no reason at all except because it would be “cute.” Case in point: did you know that after they landed on Tatooine, the droids immediately ran into an underground kingdom of mole creatures? Well, according to issue six, they did. Outside of that...uh...they didn’t do much else except get into trouble with Stormtroopers. By the time the final issue rolls around, you’re pretty much just reading yet another comic adaptation of Episode IV, with hardly any extra details added. Gotta admit, those covers looked sweet anyway.

THE TOYS

The Droids toyline was a godsend for Kenner...or so it seemed. When most of the new merchandise didn't sell as well as they'd hoped, a few of the action figures you see above were held back for a second wave that never actually got released. Mungo Baobab is on that list, as is General Koong. Sadly, '80s kids everywhere were deprived of having an action figure of Space Jesus or Cyber Dolph Lundgren to call their own. This was an injustice to nobody at the time, but it makes the most obsessive collectors of today shed a tear.

And who the Force is this "Pilot" dude? Unless I'm missing something, he was not in the show. According to this video, he may have been lifted from their other toyline, just like the A-Wing itself. Speaking of the A-Wing: that's most certainly the centerpiece here, as it made electronic noises, and kids love those. It was met the general expectation of a Star Wars toy, unlike the cartoony action figures that didn't match the Star Wars brand (at the time.) 

The C-3PO and R2-D2 figures were repaints from previous Star Wars toy collections, so they weren't anything people wanted at the time. Nowadays, you'll find Droids R2-D2s figurines going for $500 and up on eBay. Even the Boba Fetts - that are also still in their packaging and much cooler - go for way less. What gives?

Now that I’ve blasted through the entirety of the Droids animated series as an adult, I think what I can say I appreciate the most about the show is its visual style. Droids was the kid-friendly answer to Heavy Metal magazine. Even if it settled for being cutesy at times, it still maintained a strong cyberpunk aesthetic, which elevated the program from being “just another Saturday morning cartoon” to being a fantasy sci-fi trip that anyone who liked Star Wars could enjoy. This is something else that made Droids feel so ahead of its time. It wasn’t just there to be cute and fuzzy like its sister show. It was an ambitious creative laboratory in which Lucas and his team practiced world building.

But let’s be honest: back in 1985, cute and fuzzy is what sold toys to kids and got them to tune in. That could be why Droids didn’t last as long as Ewoks did. Ewoks was emotional and cuddly, and spoke directly to that Smurf-y demographic, which was huge at the time. Droids was complex and clinical, much like the Prequel Trilogy would be years later. But at least it had a beating heart.

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