When it came to critquing Star Wars, Carl Sagan was ahead of his time. During one of the many visits the astrophysicist made to The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in the 1970s and ’80s, the host asked his guest to weigh in on the epic sci-fi movie that had swept the nation. In the clip above from 1978 (re-discovered via Reddit), Sagan, a professor of astronomy and space sciences at Cornell University, lamented that Star Wars did not take greater care with the science in its science fiction (while acknowledging “the 11-year-old in me” loved it). The issues he identified almost 40 years ago are ones that fans still harp on today. For example, Sagan may have been the first to publicly point out that parsecs (as in Han Solo’s line, “You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon? It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs”) measure distance, not time. “It’s like saying from here to San Diego is 30 miles an hour. It just doesn’t mean anything,” Sagan told Carson.
He was also bothered by the fact that Chewbacca isn’t awarded with a medal in the final scene, saying the decision reeked of anti-alien discrimination. (In the ensuing decades, both the issue of the Kessel Run distance and Chewbacca’s medal have been raised frequently enough that Lucasfilm has developed explanations to appease fans.)
But Sagan’s biggest complaint is that the Star Wars galaxy, ostensibly “far, far away,” is populated by human beings — and not very diverse ones at that. “It’s extremely unlikely that there would be creatures as similar to us [in a different galaxy] as the dominant ones in Star Wars,” says Sagan. “And they’re all white… not even all the colors represented on the Earth are present, much less greens and blues and purples and oranges.” When Carson points out the presence of far-out creatures, presumably speaking about the Cantina scene, Sagan counters that none of those creatures gets to be a hero. “Everybody in charge of the galaxy,” he points out, “seemed to look like us.” And of course, nearly 40 years later, diversity is one of the biggest issues being addressed by the new crop of Star Wars films.
Sagan, who died in 2006, achieved lasting pop-culture fame in 1980 with the landmark PBS series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. The book Carson mentions in Sagan’s introduction, The Dragons of Eden, would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for 1978. And the tradition of popular scientists critiquing the Star Wars universe lives on to the present day, most notably with Neil deGrasse Tyson, who tweeted his thoughts on The Force Awakens in December 2015.
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