Secrets behind the long lost 'Star Wars' Saturday morning cartoon shows 'Droids' and 'Ewoks' revealed

·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
The short-lived animated shows <em>Droids</em> and <em>Ewoks</em> brought the <em>Star Wars</em> galaxy to television in the 1980s. (Photo: LucasFilm / Courtesy Everett Collection)
The short-lived animated shows Droids and Ewoks brought the Star Wars galaxy to television in the 1980s. (Photo: LucasFilm / Courtesy Everett Collection)

[Editor’s note: A previous version of this story was published on Dec. 18, 2015.]

Thirty-five years ago, the Star Wars franchise had already conquered the multiplex and turned its attention to television. In the wake of 1983’s original trilogy-capping Return of the Jedi, George Lucas found a home for his far, far away galaxy on ABC. (Today, of course, both Star Wars and ABC are owned by the Walt Disney Company.) In November 1984, the network aired the made-for-TV movie The Ewok Adventure, also known as Caravan of Courage, which took place on Endor in between the events of The Empire Strikes Back and Jedi. The following year, ABC premiered three new small-screen Star Wars adventures: an Ewok Adventure sequel called The Battle for Endor and two Saturday morning animated shows that served as prequels — but not those prequels — to the original trilogy: Droids and Ewoks.

Star Wars had attempted to find success on television before, of course, in the form of the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, a doomed variety program that Lucas promptly disowned. The creator paid closer attention to these new TV productions, particularly the animated series. Droids would follow everyone’s favorite robot twosome, C-3PO (voiced, as always, by Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2, on their various adventures before the events of A New Hope. Ewoks, meanwhile, unfolded years before Luke and Leia showed up and enlisted the forest moon’s furry citizens to help blow up the second Death Star.

Both Droids and Ewoks premiered as part of ABC’s Saturday morning lineup on Sept. 7, 1985, but neither proved popular enough to carry the Star Wars torch forward. Droids lasted a single season, while Ewoks eked out a two-year run. Today, they’re both out of print — not to mention out of official galactic continuity. But the two shows did launch some notable careers, including Paul Dini, who was a key figure in the Ewoks writers’ room before going on to become one of the Emmy-winning creative forces behind some of TV’s all-time greatest animated series, including Batman: The Animated Series and Batman Beyond. He also eventually found his way back to Star Wars decades later, contributing several scripts to Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which just concluded its final season on Disney+.

Yahoo TV spoke with Dini in 2015 about launching the earliest Star Wars cartoon series, which characters that could (and couldn’t) appear on Ewoks and Droids, and the Ewok cameo he wanted to include in the Clone Wars animated series.

Yahoo Entertainment: Ewoks is among your earliest writing credits on an animated series. Was it always a dream of yours to write for Star Wars ?
Paul Dini:
Oh, of course. I loved Star Wars; I saw the first movie when I was 18, and was a huge geek from that moment on. It was a great time to be at Lucasfilm in the mid-’80s; besides Star Wars, there was Indiana Jones and other tremendous movies being made. And [Pixar founder] John Lasseter was in the next building over animating blobs and squiggles and stuff. I would go over there and watch what he was doing, and knew it would be huge someday.

They were very generous with the artwork and props; you could check out early Ralph McQuarrie Star Wars concept paintings [from the archives] and display them in your office. I also had the Mummy case from Raiders of the Lost Ark outside my office, and the fertility idol as a paperweight on my desk. And being entrusted with the next phase of Star Wars was terrific. It was a challenge to go in and say, “Let’s make it the best show we can and give it its own energy and mythology.”

What was the guiding idea behind Star Wars’s next phase at that point?
George was coming off Return of the Jedi and had basically said he was done with Star Wars because he wanted to make different types of films. But they wanted to keep Star Wars alive in different forms through licensing, publishing and animation. Back then, Saturday morning television was really the only game in town for animation, so he [struck a deal] with ABC for two shows: Droids and Ewoks.

The series would be set in the Star Wars universe, but didn’t really have to tie into the main story. So there’d be no Luke, no Leia and no Empire to speak of. I think George looked at Droids as being the series that would interest older boys, and Ewoks was going to appeal to younger kids. He didn’t want to do basic Saturday morning stories, but at that point, nobody had really come along that could challenge what was being done in animated storytelling. It would be about another 10 years before that happened.  

The cartoon cast of <em>Ewoks</em>, which ran from 1985 to 1986 on ABC. (Photo: YouTube)
The cartoon cast of Ewoks, which ran from 1985 to 1986 on ABC. (Photo: YouTube)

Did you have a choice of which show you wanted to work on, or were you assigned to Ewoks?
They were more interested in me for Ewoks and I was as well. I felt it was a better fit for me, because the stories were about family and sibling rivalry and being the littlest one in a group of older warriors. It was the kind of family soap opera that George is fond of referring to Star Wars as being. Droids didn’t have those elements; it was focused on the two droids, C-3PO and R2-D2, and only one of them really talks! It’s a Laurel and Hardy team, but Threepio had to do all the interpretation for Artoo, and since it was a show that centered heavily around Artoo, the animation and the pantomime had to be really top notch. You can do something like it today with Wall-E, but we were 20 years away from that.

Aside from not being able to use characters from the original trilogy, were you mostly given the creative freedom to tell your own stories? In many ways, Ewoks plays more like fantasy than science fiction.
We had the freedom and support of George and Lucasfilm to take the Ewoks and develop them into something else, and not adhere to what they were in the movies. Because how could we do that? All the dialogue would have to be subtitled! In my first meeting with George, we talked about the comics we liked as kids — things like the Carl Barks’s Uncle Scrooge comics and Peanuts and Pogo. One of the things we kept coming back to was that the Ewoks would have a sense of community and continuity. That was also around the time that George was heavily into fantasy. He was working on Willow and Labyrinth, so he was looking at a lot of inspirations for those two movies. I had also seen early Hayao Miyazaki movies like Castle in the Sky around that time and loved them.

George had a very good friend who worked on Ewoks with us named Bob Carrau. He had a vivid imagination and he and George talked about things that he’d like to put in the show. There were certain creatures that they used in Caravan of Courage that we could use. And Joe Johnston had created these creatures called Duloks for a Return of the Jedi spinoff story, which gave us a great group of villains to use. In the mid-‘80s, the characters were mainly dormant, so the attitude [at Lucasfilm] was almost, “If you want to do something with them, great! We don’t want to do Luke, Leia and Han, but if you want to do any of the others, that’s fine with us because we basically want to keep these characters alive in some form.”  

You did eventually sneak the Empire into one of the final episodes, “Battle for the Sunstar.” Would you have done more of that had the series continued?  
We were coming to the end of our order and knew we probably wouldn’t be back, so we said, “Let’s do one with the Empire in it,” and George was willing to go along with it. Had we done more [episodes], I think there might have been more of that. I would have loved to have brought Luke or Leia in. Leia seemed to have a great rapport with the Ewoks in Jedi, so if we could have had a couple of Luke and Leia stories on Endor, that would have been awesome. And Darth Vader would have been great to use as well.

Ewoks at least lasted two seasons, whereas Droids only ran for 13 episodes.
I think Ewoks fit the paradigm of what ABC was looking for as a Saturday morning cartoon. The characters were softer and more child-appealing. Droids was also more of hard sell because of what George wanted the show to be. He really wanted Artoo and Threepio to be vagabonds going from master to master, just trying to find their place in the universe.  

C-3PO and R2-D2 headlined the <em>Star Wars</em> cartoon series <em>Droids</em>, which ran from 1985 to 1986 on ABC. (Photo: YouTube)
C-3PO and R2-D2 headlined the Star Wars cartoon series Droids, which ran from 1985 to 1986 on ABC. (Photo: YouTube)

Prior to the jettisoning of the Expanded Universe, did Lucasfilm consider Ewoks to be part of Star Wars canon?
If the show had run a few more years, then definitely. As it is, I think it’s remembered as a fond experiment of that time. There were some elements of their world that made it into other books and things, but other than that, I don’t think it endured. The shows were good for their time, and took some chances creatively and artistically, but if you put them alongside something like The Clone Wars, they kind of pale in comparison.

You contributed several scripts to The Clone Wars during that cartoon’s run. How did the experience differ from Ewoks?
Ironically, I wound up working more with George on Clone Wars; apparently, he was in the writers’ room a lot there. He was available during Ewoks if we needed to run ideas by him, but his time was more limited. With The Clone Wars, he loved getting in and working on individual episodes, making them the mini-movies he’d always wanted to do about the Star Wars universe. Also, the restrictions were off. With Ewoks, we always had to dance around the violence issues of Saturday morning TV. On Clone Wars, we’d be thinking about how to solve the problem of a villain holding Obi-Wan’s old love at gunpoint, and George would just say, “Anakin comes up from behind and runs a lightsaber through him.” And we’d be like, “Yeah, let’s do that!” [Laughs] Ewoks and Droids were much softer because that’s what the time and the network demanded.

At the time and still today, the Ewoks are reviled by a certain segment of Star Wars fandom. Was part of the fun of doing an Ewoks show trying to prove that these characters could be really interesting?
Yeah, I think there was a chance to take them and make them into something else. When I was working on Clone Wars, I remember having this idea that you’d have Ahsoka and Anakin looking for a rogue bounty hunter to take them someplace. They go into this bar and they’re looking for the toughest guy. They see this huge mountain of a creature stand up and confront them and he points over his shoulder and sitting there is an Ewok just sharpening a spear. Like, “That’s the guy you want.” [Laughs] Just really get into them and make them a little badass; like, this Ewok got off planet somehow and he’s making his way as a bounty hunter. I remember trying to pitch some element of that during Clone Wars, but I think they wanted to keep them based on Endor. They kind are what they are: surrogates for innocent people.  

Droids and Ewoks are currently unavailable to stream, but episodes can be found on YouTube.

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