Cartoon Spinoffs: Droids

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There’s this notion that Star Wars was born in 1977 and has been incredibly popular with everyone ever since, but it’s not true. Kids like me, who were still properly obsessed with SW into the late 80s, were derided as being weird for still liking that old (!) children’s movie, and back then, the word ‘nerd’ still carried weight, as a wholly pejorative term, said only in a mocking, Mr. Bean voice. Now, everyone’s a self-proclaimed nerd or geek, because they too, like movies that make a billion dollars. But Star Wars didn’t move beyond the preserve of these first nerds until the release of the ’97 special editions with the Gameboy-quality Jabba and backgrounds packed with comedy CG Jawas falling face-first into bantha turds.

I don’t want to come across all ‘I liked it before it was cool!’ because nobody gives a shit, but it’s relevant when recalling how precious little onscreen action there was for SW fans to cling onto back then. Beyond well-worn VHS of the three movies, in the dark period between ROTJ and the 90’s revival, all we had were a handful of weird spin-offs, each slightly-off brand, like something you’d find on a market stall beside RobertCop figures and ‘Bulk Bogan’ wrestlers moulded in purple plastic. As the most kid-marketable characters, the Ewoks had a pair of abysmal live-action movies — finally bringing Wilford Brimley into the Star Wars universe — and a cartoon. This was paired with another spin-off in 1985, as ABC’s The Ewoks and Droids Adventure Hour; the latter starring the franchise’s other most demographic-pleasing act, that filthy box-droid who waddles around going “GONK!” No, don’t be silly; starring, of course, R2D2 and C-3PO.

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The animation of both Droids and Ewoks was handled by Canadian company Nelvana, who’d been hired by George Lucas after their work on the animated sections in the wretched Star Wars Holiday Special. Lucas was hands-on during pre-production, aiming for a high-quality in storytelling and voice acting, which saw the casting of Anthony Daniels. Initially sceptical, Daniels would often rewrite Threepio’s dialogue as he saw fit, but as a show focussing on entirely new characters, was the only returning cast member. With both series, each 22-minute episode was estimated to cost somewhere between $500,000 and $600,000, and of all people, Stewart Copeland of The Police was drafted in to compose a theme. Copeland’s Trouble Again is an oddly mature effort, considering the young target audience, but an era-perfect buddy pic theme, albeit punctuated by the boops and laser blasts of the footage it plays over.

Droids, or to give it its full title, Droids: The Adventures of R2-D2 and C-3PO, is classically of the official-bootleg era; a warped version that plays like Star Wars as described to you by someone who saw thirty seconds of it while falling down a cinema staircase. In the least, it’s set in the same universe, and takes elements familiar from the movies. In this case, one specific element; any moment C-3PO fell over like a clumsy golden prick. The comparison of the droids to a space Laurel and Hardy is pushed to its limits by the show, which shifts genres to outright slapstick, and in the process, turns Threepio into a metal Frank Spencer.

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Set 4 years after the prequel trilogy, and 15 years before A New Hope, first episode, The White Witch, opens on the familiar sight of C-3PO wandering lost in the desert, moaning and complaining like a right fucking nob-ache. Similarly, there’s the comforting return of all the familiar SFX from the movies, from ship noises and laser blasts to the tweeps and beeps of R2, who’s cutely credited as ‘himself’. Following on from events in ROTS, the pair hooked up with a new master who turned out to be a smuggler, and they got tossed from the ship when the cops caught him. Now lost, Threepio comes across what he believes is the remains of his old sidekick, dissolved by a corrosive acid storm, and gives a eulogy to “a true prince among droids… a dear, dear friend.” Of course, R2 pops up from the sand, unharmed, allowing C-3PO to exclaim “R2D2!” which happens a lot, with his full name constantly being said, so the kids can never forget that he’s in it; the mascot they’re all watching for, like Slimer in The Real Ghostbusters. In fact, though being a direct quote from A New Hope makes it hard to verify through Googling, I’m sure I remember as a kid that “R2D2, where are you?” was used heavily in the Droids‘ advertising.

After more trudging and bickering through endless desert — you know, like in Star Wars?! — The pair get picked up by a couple of passing humans in landspeeders. As this is wacky 80’s SW, one’s got half his head completely shaved, with a red ponytail mullet on the other side, while his pal’s got the regular Brian Knobbs mullet-mohawk. A pair of professional racers, they adopt the droids, despite C-3PO’s grovelling subservience being a hundred times worse than in the movies. He repeatedly carps on about needing “a master” in a way that plays as gross here in the oversexualised 21st century, seeming like he gets fin-dommed over Twitter and has said the phrase “choke me, daddy” in each of his six million languages. The new masters introduce themselves as Thall Joben and Jord Dusat. Man, Star Wars expanded universe names are the dirt worst.

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Here’s a game. I’ll list a bunch of names, and you guess which are real characters from Droids, and which I’ve made up.

Mungo Baobab

Admiral Terrinald Screed

Uncle Gundy

Vlix Oncard

Kybo Ren

Greej

Mon Julpa

Zebulon Dak

Coby

Fidge

Jimmy Penisbreath

Apart from the last one (until Disney steals it for Episode IX), they’re all real; even Kybo Ren, though here he’s some racially-questionable Genghis Khan-looking guy with a Fu Manchu. Anyway, the droids and their new masters hoon around on speeders, while being watched from afar by a mysterious woman. Noticeably Rey-ish as a lone survivor on a desert planet, she saves them from big blue balls that give chase when they enter a restricted zone, and quickly becomes part of the gang, revealing her name to be Kea Moll. Incidentally, she’s got a normal haircut, but with a blond mohawk balanced on top of it, presumably so’s not to be condemned to whatever’s the space equivalent of the social leper colony 90’s British schoolboys were sent to for not having hair curtains.

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While joyriding their speeder, the titular White Witch, they accidentally discover the hidden base of Tig Fromm, a frog-like gangster. Tig’s the son to a galactic godfather, and continuing the franchise’s obsession with giant super-weapons, he’s developing a killer satellite named Trigon One. Worried Threepio and his mates will grass on their secret base, the baddies kidnap Jord, leaving his pals to rescue him. Sneaking through service tunnels, Thall casually takes out a lightsaber — left in the glove box by some guy he did some work for, who never returned — and cuts his way through. Take note, everyone who whined at Finn using a lightsaber; this guy is literally a mechanic who found one when a Jedi took his speeder in for an MOT.

Tig’s obsessed with building robots, and his base is filled with dumb droids for them to fight off. That skinny Nosferatu droid from Jabba’s Palace, who was burning the robot’s feet, would be salivating at so many potential torture victims. About that; the screams from that little robot indicate that droids have pain receptors in their feet for some reason? Seeing as they spend all day waddling about, working, why would you build in potential for foot-ache, and them complaining “master, I’m tiiired…” like a little kid who wants carrying? Except, it’s even worse, because the shuffling units generally can’t speak, leaving them just thinking how much agony they’re in, with no way to express it or to beg for mercy. The concept of wasting all those resources on ensuring robots can feel pain is a frequent concern when watching this show, as C-3PO is constantly rubbing his head whenever he bumps it, which is all the time.

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Regarding Threepio’s clumsiness; you know when they take a character trait and go wild with it, like how Joey from Friends went from a regular dumb-dumb to someone who seemed like he was being fatally poisoned by a faulty boiler? Not only does Droids dial C-3PO’s trademark fussiness up to 11, anxiety-ridden and perpetually shrieking in terror, but he’s the clumsiest being in the entire universe, and that’s including Grimsdale-3, the planet populated entirely by genetic clones of Norman Wisdom. Under a litany of boinging/crashing sounds, he’s eternally falling over or getting thrown out of frame, his legs poking out of trash piles, and flailing like an upturned turtle, before staggering around with a bucket stuck on his head. The kind of slapstick Daniels’ real-life costume, which didn’t let him have a piss, wouldn’t allow for, Threepio can’t even ride in speeders properly, always hanging over the edge, or with his head jammed in the seat after falling in it as it speeds away. In one scene, he squats on the end of the speeder as it races off like he’s riding a Sybian.

There’s also a lot of scenes where he’s effetely waving his arse around, like an animal in heat, as though he doesn’t know what he’s doing. “Ooh, my shoelace is undone. I’ll just bend over and tie it up; I do hope my little shorts don’t expose my sexy butt, that’d be sooo embarrassing…”

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After a battle with Tig’s robot insects, and the casual name-dropping of Jabba the Hutt, the gang rescue Jord and make their escape, and the episode ends with Threepio bragging he’s got great balance before fucking falling over again. Surprisingly, Droids is not an episodic show, but has actual story arcs, and continues in episode two, Escape into Terror, which opens in space, with the droids fixing the outside of the ship. 3PO’s straddling the hull like a cowgirl, while R2’s got his weird dick thing poked in it, like when he fucks open the bunker door on Endor. Ho-ho, hee-hee, clumsy Threepio warns R2 to make sure he’s properly tethered before floating off himself, and then puts his back out and gets stuck, bent double, forced to back his way around the ship like he’s twerking.

They head off to Kea’s home planet to see her parents, and pick up a new hyperdrive after 3PO let the last one float off into space, and discover Kea’s really a rebel spy, seeking to bring down the Fromms before they launch Trigon One. Checking in at the spaceport, R2 farts on another robot, who fires on them, leaving C-3PO’s face all black with just his eyes showing, like when Elmer Fudd’s given a birthday cake that’s actually a bomb. Incredible what you could get away with in a spaceport before 911. At Kea’s parents, while R2 sticks his dick in the wall again, Threepio’s tasked with vacuuming the arses of giant sand sloths. Of course, the sloth hits him with its tail and he goes flying.

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Kea’s mum tasks the gang with taking down the Fromms, so Threepio warms up with some space kung fu, complete with plinky plonky faux oriental soundtrack. They stowaway on Fromm’s ship, taking everyone back to his base, intending to blow up the satellite, but getting into a fight with more robots, whom R2 sprays with foam, which just looks looks like he’s spaffing on them. They don’t destroy the satellite, but make their escape into space, ending with Threepio trying to karate chop R2D2, and putting his back out again.

Now we skip forwards to episode four, A Race to the Finish, as this one’s got a familiar face in it. Headed to planet Boonta for the big speeder race, the Fromms attack them in a manky old imperial shuttle, causing a crash landing in a junkyard. C-3PO gets all caught up in cables, and is helped down by an elderly cockney robot with a walking stick. Meanwhile, the Fromms are stuck in a Boonta ghetto because of our heroes. Godfather Fromm talks to an unseen figure in the shadows, demanding they bring them to him, and make them pay! “Jabba the Hutt has a reward out for you,” says the voice, but telling Fromm not to worry as he owes him a favour. He then steps into the light, revealing himself to be… Boba Fett.

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Turning down the cockney-bot’s offer to mend the White Witch, C-3PO suggests the garage space of his new chum, fancy robot BL-17, for Jord and Thall to do repairs. Interestingly, R2 wears a welding mask while he’s fixing the ship, like he might damage his retinas. It turns out, fast friends BL-17 and C-3PO were built at the same factory, which is preferable to the prequel trilogy’s ‘Vader built him!’ shite. Like all the other background weirdos, BL-17 has an enormous potted history in the Expanded Universe, where no character can just be an underachieving Regular Joe, and even the Cantina alien that’s a $5 Halloween werewolf mask has a biography packed with thrilling, historically important adventures. The prissy pair get on like a shiny Niles and Frasier, spurning R2D2 as a dummy who can’t hold a proper conversation, before mincing off to run errands together, while sad R2 blows a fart at them.

Quell surprise, BL-17 is really a bad guy, locking Kea inside the garage and flooding it with poisonous gas, making it look like an accident, and leaving R2D2 to save the day. C-3PO berates R2, blaming for the whole thing, and he slinks away like a beaten dog, making sad crying boops, while Threepio praises his new bff, that arsehole BL-17, who’s given them ‘somewhere safe’ to keep the White Witch. It’s there they bump into robo-cockney, who exposes BL as “the lowest form of synthetic life to ever crawl across a planet.” Tossing Danny Dyer-bot into the wall, BL-17 shows his true colours, leaving C-3PO to gasp “What have I done?! What a fool I’ve been, to trust a stranger over R2, my true friend!” But Artoo heroically rushes in, and Threepio shoulder tackles BL-17 to the floor with the “hiii-ya!” noise that you fucking had to use in the 80s when you were hitting someone.

Amid all the chaos, everyone else shows up, including Boba Fett swinging in on a rope, and the White Witch makes its escape to the race, albeit booby-trapped with a Froom thermal detonator, set to explode after ten laps. Fett gives chase on his jetpack, following Thall to the arena race, where speeders whizz round circular tubes, like a big hamster city. Boba Fett shoots Thall’s engine, which R2 puts out with his foamy cum, and another shot knocks the cum loose and the bomb with it, sticking it to Fett’s windscreen. Thall wins the race, and Fett jetpacks clear just as his speeder explodes. The Fromms appear one last time to ruin things, but Boba Fett turns on them, tying them up so’s he can turn them in to Jabba for the bounty.

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Impressed by their victory, an alien called Zebulon Dak offers Thall, Jord and Kea dream jobs at his speeder corp, which they gladly accept. But back in space, as Artoo and Threepio hack the comms to listen in on their mates, they overhear how they turned down the jobs, because Zebulon didn’t want the droids — “You couldn’t find two better friends in the galaxy!” Unusually for the universe’s most bellyaching Little Lord Fauntleroy, the pair make a noble sacrifice for their buddies’ careers, sneaking off to an escape pod right as the ship jumps to hyperspace. “That’s what friends are for,” says Threepio; “we may be surrounded by nothingness, but we do have something, friend.” Surprisingly, that is the end of that story arc, and the last the cartoon sees of Thall, with the droids off to find new masters, and ten more episodes of adventures. Although, as they didn’t leave a goodbye note, and the gang had no idea they’d overheard the conversation, once they realised they were missing (having given up dream jobs because they cared about them so much), they probably spent many years fruitlessly searching the galaxy for the droids, to the great detriment of their own lives.

In all, considering the time period and obviously young target market, Droids is a pretty decent offering. Unlike most cartoons of that era, it’s not a vacuous toy advert with about a dozen frames of animation per show, heavy moralising, and an ending gag that shakes everyone’s shoulders up and down. Here we’ve got full story arcs, dramatic tension, and, well, Threepio tripping over his own feet every five seconds. But even its black market feel is charming, like how Daniels’ voice occasionally goes an octave too low and decidedly human, or the way the animation, though not quite as bendy as the Holiday Special, warps the characters into bizarre spectacles as a means to give more expression.

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There’s also a nice selection of robot insults; always the best part of any show with a metal sidekick. See, Dr. Smith in Lost in Space. Those thrown around here include “greasebucket,” “mechanical maniacs,” “shiny pants,” “chrome dome,” and in something Johnny 5 may have taken inspiration from, “your maker was a trash compactor!” I’ve always been tempted to get a Roomba, purely so I’ve reason to bark “you bucket of infernal bolts!” and not be deemed a madman. I’m also a big fan of those ‘this is space/the future!’ signifiers, like Aunt Beru’s blue milk, or as used by the cockney robot in Droids, the phrase “…any day of the millennium” rather than ‘week’. Now we’re into Prestige TV era, it’s doubtful Disney’s upcoming The Mandalorian will give much opportunity for mockery like the 80’s efforts. More’s the pity. What better way to welcome Star Wars to the Golden Age of Television than with weekly scenes of Werner Herzog slipping on space-banana peels and emerging from a pile of trash with a saucepan stuck on his head? May the Crushing Existential Horror of Existence be with you!

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~ by Stuart on February 27, 2019.

2 Responses to “Cartoon Spinoffs: Droids”

  1. […] tackling one half of the Ewoks and Droids Adventure Hour, with the pleasantly not-that-bad Droids, I figured I should sit through the other show. It’s telling that, as Star Wars crazed as I […]

  2. […] entries in this series — Droids — […]

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