Before the Star Wars Expanded Universe was really a thing – which to my reckoning means before the publication of Heir to the Empire in 1991 – there were only a few stories here and there that allowed fans like myself to enjoy the continued adventures of Han, Luke, Leia and the rest of the characters we’d grown to know and love.
One of my earliest exposures to stories beyond the movies was the audio drama Rebel Mission to Ord Mantell. Where have you heard that name before? Even if you’re not familiar with this story you may recognize it from a throwaway line in The Empire Strikes Back, when Han references an encounter with a bounty hunter there as the rationale behind why he needs to leave the Rebels and find a way to pay back Jabba the Hutt.
“Well, the bounty hunter we ran into on Ord Mantell changed my mind.”
The story takes place before Empire as Han and Luke fly X-Wings as they scout a jungle planet, ostensibly as part of a mission to find a new rebel base after being chased from Yavin IV in the wake of the Death Star’s destruction. What they’re really trying to do is through the Empire off their scent, turning their direction to other jungle planets and not to ice planets such as Hoth. But that’s just the setup, the real mission begins later when the whole gang of our favorite characters embarks on a mission to Ord Mantell to link up with Phodrus, a rebel agent, as part of the plan to gain funds for the Alliance. There are…complications (aren’t there always with these three?) meaning Han winds up at the wrong end of a blaster and C-3PO winds up flying the Millennium Falcon.
Rebel Mission to Ord Mantell was written by Brian Daley, who also wrote the script for the Star Wars NPR radio drama, the Han Solo trilogy of books that included Han Solo at Stars End and much more. And the fact that it was released as an audio drama on cassette meant that, in 1983 and for years after that, you could take the story with you as long as you had enough batteries in your Walkman or had access to your boombox. In a world before ubiquitous and easily portable media, it was one of the best ways to take Star Wars with you while you were working in your grandparent’s backyard on a Saturday afternoon, not that I have any personal experience with that exact scenario.
It’s the best kind of expanded Star Wars story. It takes a small detail from what we already know and provides a backstory to flesh that out with more detail. Not only that, but it puts the characters in situations that are unfamiliar and unusual. As mentioned above, 3PO gets a chance to fly the Falcon. And Han flies an X-Wing, which my eight year old imagination had a field day visualizing, considering how ingrained the image of him behind the controls of the Falcon had become at that point.
What’s also notable is that this was a “smaller” scale story that didn’t directly involve the fight against the Empire. Sure, the whole purpose of the Rebellion is to resist the Empire’s iron-gloved rule and funding those operations is why Han, Leia and Luke need to get the money that’s been promised to them. But while a few Stormtroopers and Tie Fighters are referenced as being in pursuit at various times and we hear a couple of blaster shootouts, the traditional bad guys don’t really make a substantive appearance. This isn’t about the fight against Darth Vader and his forces, it’s about the everyday maintenance and management of that fight and the actions necessary to keep it moving forward.
The same year you were saving up to buy Rebel Mission to Ord Mantell at the local K-Mart or Crown Books, Return of the Jedi hit theaters. But with the exception of the “Droids” and “Ewoks” cartoons and the two Ewoks TV movies, additional Star Wars stories would be few and far between for the next 16 years. Until that Walkman finally gave up the ghost and you were tired of buying 12 D batteries for your boombox, though, you could enjoy the sound of Luke and company navigating the treacherous world of bounty hunters and information networks being pumped directly into your ears and your imagination. If you missed out you can listen to the whole 30 minute adventure at TheForce.net.