A Long Time Ago: Adam Christopher on Star Wars in the 1980s


Photo by Gabriel Petry on Unsplash

I’m just the right age where I can quite correctly say that I grew up with Star Wars. Actually, it’s more than that – growing up in the 1980s, two things defined my entire childhood: Doctor Who, and Star Wars… and Star Wars had all the toys.

“A New Hope” was the first movie I ever saw, although I have to admit that it didn’t make much of an impression. Mind you, I was only six months old. But this was 1978, not 1977 – I grew up in New Zealand and in those days, New Zealand was a long way from anywhere and often things ran to a different schedule. “Star Wars” debuted in the United States on May 25, 1977; New Zealanders had to wait until Christmas that year for it. I was born in February 1978, and my inaugural cinematic experience – thanks to my sci-fi loving dad, and for anyone who was in that theatre in New Lynn nearly forty years ago, please accept my belated apologies for any disturbance I may have caused! – was during the school holiday re-release of “A New Hope,” which places it around August that year.

After that, hazy memories emerge. “Return of the Jedi” is no problem – Civic Theatre, Auckland, 1984, with my best friend Andrew, and we had an epic lightsabre battle all the way back to the car. “The Empire Strikes Back” is fuzzier. I almost recall seeing it on release, although my clearest recollection of a movie theatre experience is from much later, probably 1986-ish, when it shown in the War Memorial Hall just up the street from our house as a fundraiser for the local Boy Scouts. On that occasion, the film was projected from behind the screen so everything was a mirror image, but that didn’t bother me too much.

Because by that point, it’s safe to say I was obsessed. And again, I have my dad to thank for this.

My dad was an executive for an advertising agency, and this meant a lot of business trips to Japan and Taiwan. Now, remember this is the old days and things were different then – including, apparently, the luggage allowance for business-class travel. Because over the course of several trips, my dad brought back (literally) suitcases full of Star Wars toys. He also let me unpack them. I remember approaching this task like an archaeologist, carefully peeling back layers of business shirts and socks to reveal the instantly recognisable forms of action figures in their blister packs. After some trips, bigger prizes were unearthed – large boxes, placed squarely centre, packed around with clothes for maximum protection. An X-Wing. A Snow Speeder. And then, one day, the biggest prize of them all, an AT-AT, unboxed as there was no way it would fit in the case otherwise. Some of these toys wouldn’t hit New Zealand shelves for years.

I was lucky and my childhood was privileged. Trust me, I get it.

But Star Wars wasn’t just about toys. I was a geeky kid who loved science fiction. Thanks to New Zealand being a little behind the times, I grew up in the 1980s watching 1970s “Doctor Who.” And I grew up watching the original Star Wars trilogy, over and over and over again.

And over. And over. And over again. Thanks to another stroke of luck.

We lived near a video store.

It’s hard to describe an Eighties childhood to those who didn’t experience it themselves (I’m sure every generation says that). But looking back, it seemed like just the right time to be a geeky kid. Geek culture and a new sense of imagination was finding its way into Hollywood movies, and this intersected with technology perfectly as the home video market suddenly took off. My age group is, quite rightly, called the “Star Wars generation” – people born between 1977 and 1983; younger than Gen X, older than Millennials, the last group who remember life before the internet.

The existence of the video store is, I think, key to the experience of that generation. Because the video store wasn’t just a handy thing to have. The video store was important.

The video store was everything.

It started innocently enough. My dad would take me down there on a Friday night and we’d pick up a couple of tapes for the weekend. Mostly new releases – stuff I’d seen at the movies and knew I liked but didn’t really remember (hey, I was, like, 8!). Our store had a whole set of Transformers and GI Joe which I rapidly consumed, fed up with waiting a whole week between individual episodes shown as part of Saturday morning cartoons.

And, of course, they had Star Wars, all three of them. They soon became a regular part of my weekly video selection. After a while, they were the only things I chose. Eventually, the Friday night trips down to the store actually came to an end; my dad, surrendering to the inevitable, would stop by and pick up the three tapes on his way home from work. I didn’t even have to ask.

Anything for a quiet life.

Time passed. I grew up. Other interests came and went but the ones that were the literal foundation of my childhood stayed right where they were. Okay, so I stopped playing with the toys (and I’m sure I’m not the only person of my age who periodically feels just a little bit queasy when they remember how their toy collections gradually vanished over the course of a few well-intended garage sales), but I never stopped watching the movies. And nineteen years after my first cinematic outing, I stood in line for two hours to get tickets to the 20th anniversary special edition of “A New Hope.”

I was blown away all over again, only this time, I remembered the experience.