If not for one quirk, “Star Wars: Droids” would be a curiosity at best, a lesser piece of detritus in the Star Wars merchandising canon. Excised from the saga’s continuity even before Lucasfilm’s sale to Disney, “Droids” was produced in 1985 by animator Nelvana, the same company that brought us the “Ewoks” series and the animated segments of “The Star Wars Holiday Special.” While “Droids” shares with its Nelvana brethren the dubious distinction of never getting a full release on DVD or VHS, it lacks the cult hate-watching infamy of the special and the slight sheen of respectability brought to “Ewoks” by the involvement of a young Paul Dini. Saddled with chintzy synth music, non-Star Wars specific plots and animators who didn’t trust their ability to convey robotic emotion without slapping facial expressions on C-3PO, in another world, “Droids” would simply be a dumb collection of 13 episodes (and a TV movie) only sought out by the most dedicated of franchise fans.
However, there’s one catch: whether unknowingly or not, the second and third generations of Star Wars movies have been recycling plot and character elements from “Droids” for years – often in strangely specific ways.
This sense of deja vu begins in the very first episode, which introduces us to C-3PO’s and R2-D2’s new masters: a duo of speeder racers named Jord Dusat and Thall Joben, as well as a Rebel spy named Kea Moll. The show functioned as a mini-anthology much in the way “The Clone Wars” would more than 20 years later, with the droids we know and love from the films spending a few episodes with each master before moving on to new ownership and a new story.
Jord and Thall aren’t very “Star Wars,” with their asymmetrical mohawks and chunky ponytails signifying the kind of futuristic cool found in ’80s cartoons and nowhere else. However, they’re entering their speeder, “The White Witch,” in a very familiar sounding event: the Boonta Race, which is just an “Eve” away from the moniker of the event Anakin would heroically win 14 years later in “The Phantom Menace.” The race is even commentated by an odd couple alien duo, albeit one not joined at the torso like Fodesinbeed.
There are certainly creative connections between the Star Wars films and the Nelvana shows. George Lucas was reportedly involved enough in “Droids” to dictate its anthological setup, and renowned sound designer Ben Burtt was story editor throughout the series (as well as the writer for a few episodes and the movie, “The Great Heep”). Still, there’s a curious amount of prequel ephemera that first popped up half-baked in “Droids,” from this prototypical Dexter Jettster….
… to this bulky version of General Grievous’s wheelbike…
… both in the same episode, “The Lost Prince.” While not all of the references are as direct, the entire series seems retroactively bathed in a low-stakes haze of future film clairvoyance, from name-dropped planets to the introduction of droid starfighters to R2-D2’s emergence as an omnipotent trickster god. He doesn’t have jet packs in the show, but he might as well.
Oh, and there’s one other crazy thing about “Droids”: There’s a recurring bad guy named Kybo Ren.
That seems… really weird, right? Burtt was still doing sound design for “The Force Awakens,” but naming your main bad guy after a tubby Genghis Khan lookalike can’t have been intentional, can it? I mean, that kind of stuff leads to all sorts of out-there fan theories, like maybe those two are related or something – a theory I just made up but then Googled, and yeah, that was a thing people were thinking before Episode VII came out last year.
If it seems like I’m not digging much into the substance of “Droids,” that’s because there’s little substance to be found. The plots are typical C-grade fantasy cartoon stuff, the jokes are hacky and frequently rely on physical comedy like R2-D2 dancing – I imagine Anthony Daniels, who gamely showed up to voice 3-CPO, grimacing through his recording sessions – and, most notably, the animation is ugly as the day is long, as anyone who has seen any bit of this show or “The Holiday Special” can tell you. Frames are skipped, movement is implied rather than shown whenever possible, and the character acting is stilted and unconvincing. As previously mentioned, animators decided that C-3PO needed eyebrows and moving pupils to portray emotion (and at times, when they were really cheating, the faintest hint of a moving mouth) and whenever R2-D2 is required to perform a pratfall or celebratory jig, he is animated as bobbing up and down on his torso; in other words, his supposedly metal cylinder becomes as malleable as a gymnast.
As a result, the most notable elements of “Droids” are strange little moments, like the fact that the mobster alien from the first arc is doing a straight-up Nixon impression or the mystery of whether Kea’s scout wardrobe matching Rey’s is a coincidence or another subtle nod. The series finally begins to take a more recognizable shape toward the end, as Burtt takes on script duties for the final episodes and the movie, focusing on the droids and their trader master taking on a cyborg Imperial and his giant power-sucking robot – a monster with a keen resemblance to the trash compactor at the end of “The Brave Little Toaster.” Even the sight gags get a little better; Burtt knows R2-D2 well enough to intuit that there’s something inherently funny about watching the astromech fall in love with a pink counterpart as they relax in a droid spa.
However, all improvement is relative. “Droids” begins as one of the first truly bad extensions of the Star Wars brand; it ends little better, with its biggest selling point foisted upon it from later entries in the canon. If not for the oddities of wondering if “wait, is that really that guy’s name?” there would be little to recommend the series at all.