Aside from the presence of the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, most of the unrest in the Star Wars universe is generally attributed to the 1997 re-release of the altered versions of the original trilogy, the subsequent revisions made to the original trilogy, and the release of the “prequels” that followed. Stories created for comic books, cartoons, role-playing games, video games, and the expanded universe materials further divided the fans who defend the detriments or benefits of these revisions, adaptations, and expansions. For me, the Star Wars canon begins with the movie Star Wars, as it was released in 1977, before Episode IV or A New Hope suffixes were appended to the title. It extends on through the comic books produced by Marvel Comics from 1977 to 1986 and ends with the Kenner action figures released from 1978 to 1985.
Growing up, I learned the names of the minor background characters in the Star Wars movies from what was printed on the cards that the action figures were packaged on. There, I discovered that the alien creature that Obi Wan Kenobi dismembers in the Mos Eisley cantina was named Walrus Man. This name combined with his flipper-like feet suggested that the creature was more walrus than man. The name, as I recall it, is confirmed in the movie E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. While giving E.T. a tour of his room, Elliot shows the alien a few of his Star Wars action figures, referring to them by name, “This is Hammerhead. You see this is Walrus Man. And then this is Snaggletooth.” Little did I know then that one day in the future, Walrus Man would be given a new name.
In 1995, Kenner began to re-release Star Wars: The Power of the Force action figures. I approached this reawakened merchandising beast with excitement and trepidation. Could these new, more detailed, modern figures measure up to the standard of the original toys which I loved in spite of their simplicity? The original action figures were crude representations of the characters from the films, and I think it was this crudeness that allowed kids to rely on imaginations to gain access to the world of Star Wars within themselves. However, when it came to some of my favorite alien creatures, I was dismayed to see that their names had been changed. This new version of Walrus Man did look more like the belligerent beast from the movie and less like a scuba diver with a butt for a chin, but his name had been changed to Ponda Baba! Later I’d come to learn the backstory of the alien formerly known as Walrus Man in the book, Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina, an anthology of short character studies of the background creatures in one of my favorite scenes from Star Wars. In this book, I’d find that more of my favorite characters would be answering to new names. Hammerhead would henceforth be referred to as Momaw Nadon, and Snaggletooth as Zutton each with a backstory that didn’t match the ones that had been living in my head since childhood. While I acknowledge the more accurate likenesses to their movie counterparts, I am not a fan of the new action figures. Similarly, despite being entertained by Tales of the Mos Eisley Cantina, It didn’t really feel like Star Wars to me. Instead it felt more like a generic sci-fi anthology that was given a hasty new coat of paint to pass it off as something from the Star Wars galaxy.
Ultimately, I preferred the campiness of the overly convenient if not unimaginative naming conventions of the Star Wars galaxy. In it existed an overweight X-Wing fighter pilot named Porkins, one alien that looks like a hammerhead shark another that looks like a squid and one that resembles a yak respectively named Hammerhead, Squid Head, and Yak Face. Or consider three-eyed the alien from Jabba’s palace named Ree Yees. I like to imagine George Lucas scribbling an equation on a piece of graph paper. “You start with Three Eyes, see. Then you subtract the T and the H, move the Y one space over to the left and voila! You’ve got yourself an alien name!” These names were good enough for me. They were essentially vague descriptors of the characters allowing them to stand as templates for my imagination. Like a Rorschach test, they reflected what was already in my mind. Retrofitting these characters with new stories and names felt like they were being robbed of the potential for imagination. We were being force fed answers to questions we hadn’t asked.
Maybe it’s simply a product of the rigidity of my obsessive thought process. Admittedly, I do have a resistance to change. It is not lost on me that this is no different than saying something like, “sure I like that band, but only their earlier work”. As pretentious as that might sound, it is often the case for many people. We fall in love at first sight and that first impression is etched into us. Anything that follows is doomed to constant comparisons of what had come before, and rarely stands a chance to match let alone pass its predecessor. Growing up I relied on pop culture fictions like Star Wars as a means of escape from unsavory environments. It could be that I processed changes or shifts to these mythologies as an insult to the comforts I found within them. I should try not to take these changes personally. The only constant is change. I might find that my old friend is hanging with a new crowd, and perhaps he’s embarrassed all that I know of his past. Nonetheless, he’ll always be Walrus Man to me.
Yes. I agree with this whole-heartedly. There was a period in my teens when I was starving for more Star Wars content and ate up all the little expanded universe details and new names with a spoon. But I quickly grew tired of the specificity and delving into every specific character in the movies. I like the idea of Hammerhead as an example of an entire race/breed of hammerhead aliens. I don’t need to know where the one in the cantina scene went to middle school or need him closely tied to the story of Luke, Leia, or Han.
I love picturing Hammerhead in middle school. I picture him as a smart kid who got bad marks because he just didn’t apply himself.