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Teenagers in Space

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Posted on Aug 16, 2013
University of Massachusetts Press

By Tom Engehardt, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

Since Kenner could not produce the figures quickly enough for the 1977 Christmas season, Loomis offered an “Early Bird Certificate Package”—essentially an empty box—that promised the child the first four figures when produced. The result was toy history. In 1978, Kenner sold over 26 million figures; by 1985, 250 million. All 111 figures and other Star Wars paraphernalia, ranging from lunch boxes and watches to video games, would ring up $2.5 billion in sales.

By the early 1980s, children’s TV had become a Star Wars-like battle zone. Outnumbered rebels daily transformed themselves from teenagers into mighty robots “loved by good, feared by evil” (Voltron) or “heroic teams of armed machines” (M.A.S.K.) in order to fight Lotar and his evil, blue-faced father from Planet Doom (Voltron), General Spidrax, master of the Dark Domain’s mighty armies (Sectaurs), or the evil red-eyed Darkseid of the Planet Apokolips (Superfriends).

Future war would be a machine-versus-machine affair, a bloodless matter of special effects, in the revamped war story designed for childhood consumption. In popular cartoons like Transformers, where good “Autobots” fought evil “Decepticons,” Japanese-animated machines transformed themselves from mundane vehicles into futuristic weapons systems. At the same time, proliferating teams of action figures, Star Wars-size and linked to such shows, were transported into millions of homes where new-style war scenarios could be played out.

In those years, Star Wars-like themes also began to penetrate the world of adult entertainment. Starting in 1983 with the surprise movie hit Uncommon Valor, right-wing revenge fantasies like Missing-in-Action (1984) returned American guerrillas to “Vietnam” to rescue captive pilots from jungle prisons and bog Communists down here on Earth. In a subset of these—Red Dawn (1984) and the TV miniseries Amerika (1987) are prime examples—the action took place in a future, conquered United States where home-grown guerrillas fought to liberate the country from Soviet imperial occupation. Meanwhile, melds of technology and humanity ranging from Robocop to Arnold Schwarzenegger began to proliferate on adult screens. In 1985-1986, two major hits featured man-as-machine fusions. As Rambo, Sylvester Stallone was a “pure fighting machine,” with muscles and weaponry to prove it; while in Top Gun, Tom Cruise played a “maverick” on a motorcycle who was transformed from hot dog to top dog by fusing with his navy jet as he soared to victory over the evil empire’s aggressor machines, Libyan MIGs.

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War Games in the Adult World

It took some time for political leaders to catch up with George Lucas’s battle scenarios. In the years when he was producing Star Wars, America’s post-Vietnam presidents were having a woeful time organizing any narrative at all. In the real world, there seemed to be no Lucas-like outer space into which to escape the deconstruction job Vietnam had done to the war story. The military was in shambles; the public, according to pollsters, had become resistant to American troops being sent into battle anywhere; and past enemies were now negotiating partners in a new “détente.”

Gerald Ford, inheriting a collapsed presidency from Richard Nixon, attempted only once to display American military resolve. In May 1975, a month after Saigon fell, Cambodian Khmer Rouge rebels captured an American merchant ship, the Mayaguez. Ford ordered the bombing of the Cambodian port city of Kampong Son and sent in the Marines. They promptly stormed an island on which the Mayaguez crew was not being held, hours after ship and crew had been released, and fought a pointless, bitter battle, suffering 41 dead. The event seemed to mock American prowess, confirming that rescue, like victory, had slipped from its grasp.

Jimmy Carter, elected president in 1976, had an even more woeful time of it. Facing what he termed a Vietnam-induced “national malaise,” he proposed briefly that Americans engage in “the moral equivalent of war” by mobilizing and sacrificing on the home front to achieve energy independence from the OPEC oil cartel. The public, deep in a peacetime recession, responded without enthusiasm.

In 1979, in a defining moment of his presidency, Carter watched helplessly as young Islamic followers of the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini took 52 Americans captive in the U.S. embassy in Teheran and held them for 444 days. In April 1980, “Desert One,” a military raid the president ordered to rescue the captives, failed dismally in the Iranian desert, and the president was forced to live out his term against a televised backdrop of unending captivity and humiliation that seemed to highlight American impotence.

Only with the presidency of Ronald Reagan did a Lucas-like reconstitution of the war story truly begin at the governmental level. The new president defined the Soviet Union in Star Wars-like terms as an “evil empire,” while the Army began advertising for recruits on TV by displaying spacy weaponry and extolling the pleasures of being “out there” in search of “the bad guys.” In Nicaragua, Angola, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the Reagan administration managed to portray the forces it supported as outnumbered “freedom fighters” struggling to roll back an overwhelming tide of imperial evil. This time, we would do the hitting and running, and yet we—or our surrogates—would retain the high-tech weaponry: mines for their harbors and Stinger missiles for their helicopters.

Meanwhile, planners discovered in an intervention in Grenada that, with the right media controls in place and speed, you could produce the equivalent of an outer space war fantasy here on Earth. No wonder that a group of junior officers at the Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth responsible for aspects of the ground campaign used against Iraq in 1991 would be nicknamed the Jedi Knights.

2. The Second Coming of G.I. Joe

The reversals of history first introduced in Star Wars were picked up by a fast-developing toy business in the 1980s. Every “action figure” set would now be a Star Wars knock-off, and each toy company faced Lucas’s problem. In post-Vietnam war-space, how would a child left alone in a room with generic figures know what to play? Star Wars had offered a movie universe for its toys to share, but a toy on its own needed another kind of help.


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