If you are a Star Wars fan who is active on social media, odds are someone in your timeline wished you a “Happy Life Day” yesterday. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your point of view) many fans have never experienced the “joy” and “wonder” of The Star Wars Holiday Special where that Wookiee seasonal greeting found its origins. However, say the words “Star Wars Holiday Special” to a fan who has actually seen this obscure piece of Star Wars and television history and reactions will run the gamut of dread, embarrassment, nostalgia, or bewilderment… or a mix of all four.
The Holiday Special only aired once on November 19th, 1978, never to be seen again, forcing fans to track down this little piece of Star Wars curiosity through VHS dupes, DVD copies, or on the internet. For those of us around in 1978, there was a growing anticipation of the show. STAR WARS WAS GOING TO BE ON TV!!!! Commercials announced the air date, and showed brief glimpses of our heroes in a brand new adventure. I was primed and ready to be whisked away to that galaxy far away… I only wish the show had been able to live up to the hype.
Memories, like the corners of my mind… make it stop
I still remember watching the show back in 1978 at my friend Tim’s house. Tim’s dad was an audio and videophile who had this ridiculously massive stereo setup along with a projection screen TV, pirated HBO, and professional radio broadcast equipment in the house. He also had the only VCR in the neighborhood, which at the time was nearly a $1000 investment, something my dad had no interest in. We popped some popcorn, got our sodas and watched… It was Star Warsish; Han Luke, Leia and the gang were all there, but there was just something off about the show. Even at 11 I found The Holiday Special to be less than special… but hey, the Kenner toy commercials were cool.
The Star Wars Holiday Special is one part variety show, one part TV sitcom, on part Christmas special, all dressed up with Star Wars trappings. If this sounds like a mess of an idea to you, you’re right. The premise of the show is simple, Han is trying to get his pal Chewbacca home in time for Christmas… errr… the Wookiee holiday, Life Day. Unfortunately the Imperials stand in the way of Chewie reuniting with his family. Now that could have worked as a general premise if we followed Han and Chewie on their misadventures across the galaxy as they try to beat the clock and make it to the Wookiee homeworld, Kashyyyk, for the traditional Life Day church service. But this show was made on the cheap, and instead of following our heroes in an action packed Star Wars adventure we are stuck on Kashyyk with Chewie’s family while they anxiously await Chewie’s arrival… and wait…. and wait… and wait.
We are introduced to Malla, Chewie’s wife, their son Lumpy, and that irascible old timer, Itchy, Chewie’s father. For nearly 15 minutes we witness Wookiee family drama unfold, all without the benefit of subtitles. Malla cooks dinner, Lumpy is bored, and Itchy is annoyed. It’s fairly easy stuff to follow but ultimately we are left to wonder what the point of this special is; after all, anyone watching the show could find the same gripping drama in their home every Thanksgiving. And ultimately that’s the biggest downfall of the Holiday Special; it’s simply boring.
Tripping… 70s style
Their are certain points in the show where one has to wonder what narcotics or hallucinogens the show’s writers were taking when they wrote this special. In one scene, Itchy is trying to amuse his bored grandson by showing the little Wookiee a video program with some sort of bizarre, Cirque du Soleil show complete with alien dancers and trippy dance numbers. Later we watch a psychedelic performance by Jefferson Starship (minus Grace Slick) in hologram form. But the piece de resistance is an extremely uncomfortable, hyper-sexualized scene involving Itchy watching singer/actress Diahann Carroll singing on a virtual reality device (this family watches an awful lot of TV). The lyric are fairly suggestive for a children’s program, and there is a disturbing “dirty old man” vibe in the sequence. For all intents and purposes Itchy is watching intergalactic porn.
One aspect of the show I’ve never understood fan fascination with is the 10 minute animated segment of the show which introduces the bounty hunter Boba Fett. The Star Wars cartoon is broadcast on a channel that Chewie’s son, Lumpy begins to watch on his portable video screen. The cartoon, like the rest of the special is a hot mess with a mix of highly stylized animation, outlandish story elements, and a very meandering story. Boba Fett is cool, but its really hard to get past the ridiculous plot which requires our heroes to be hung upside down in order to counteract the effects of a sleeping virus. I was already filled with a sleeping virus by the midway point of this “Special,” and no amount of hanging upside down was going to alleviate that.
There are some moments that are fun, or at least mildly entertaining. Most of the laughs are provided by TV funnyman Harvey Korman as a video repairman and as a four armed Juila Child-like alien chef. The Carrol Burnett Show star makes the most out of some fairly painful material. TV’s Maude, Bea Arthur, has a great little guest stint as Ackmena, a bartender at a Cantina. Arthur sings a charming little tune about “last call” at the bar, sung to the tune of the Cantina Band song from A New Hope. These sporadic moments at least keep the show barely watchable, but even their performances can’t save this turkey.
So, if you have managed to make it this far into the show you might as well strap yourself in for the rest of the uneventful ride… because it goes out with a … well, it goes out with something.
Princess Leia didn’t just do that?!?!?!
Finally Han and Chewie show up just in time for Life Day, while thwarting the forces of the Empire who were holding Chewie’s family hostage. Unfortunately, we’ve had to slog through over an hour of bad jokes, lousy songs, scenes only played out with Wookiee grunts and growls, and 70s drug trips before we get to the finale. Luke, Leia, R2-D2, and C-3PO arrive just as the Wookiees gather around the Tree of Life, wearing their “Sunday best” for their traditional Life Day services (looking suspiciously like the Heaven’s Gate cultists minus the Nikes). As a tribute to this moment, Princess Leia sings a Life Day carol, to the strains of the Star Wars Theme. It’s a cringe worthy moment, not because Fisher can’t sing (this is the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher after all), but simply because listening to the Star Wars theme reduced do a little ditty imploring the viewer to, “live, to laugh, to dream, to grow, to trust, to love, to be!” is painfully bad, and a fitting conclusion to the show.
To be fair, there is a certain quaint charm and nostalgia factor revisiting the Star Wars Holiday Special from time to time, especially if you have a copy which still has the commercials. Watching the old International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union commercial with the Look For the Union Label song is a hoot, as is watching the promo clips from CBS’ TV lineup. There are also plenty of great toy commercials from the era, as well ad ads for Hungry Man and MC Donalds. The actors try to make a go of it, and even Harrison Ford appears to be putting in effort on the show, which is surprising considering his disinterested performance in Return of the Jedi. Mark Hammil gives his usual buoyant performance as Luke, and Carrie Fisher tries her best to come across as regal, and commanding.
Most of the blame for this mess of a show is often placed on George Lucas’ shoulders, but there is no evidence he was ever involved in the project beyond approving some of the production artwork created by artists Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie. The Holiday Special was all about promoting the Star Wars band and certainly Lucas deserves some criticism for allowing this project to see the light of day, but the lions share of blame should be squarely placed at the feet of the Fox and CBS executives who actually thought this project was a good idea to begin with. If any Star Wars production or merchandise ever screamed “Cash Grab!” the Star Wars Holiday Special is it.
I showed the special to my kids once… once; just so they can say they saw it. Someone probably should have called Child Protection Services on me… I’m not sure if that was the act of a loving father who wanted to pass on his childhood memories to his kids, or the act of a vengeful man who wanted his kids to endure the same pain he had as a child.
NOTE: One dedicated fan created a two disc DVD set complete with bonus features and with an outstanding dupe of the Special including versions with, and without the commercials. Also included is probably the finest version of the Holiday Special available… the Rifftrax version, complete with classic commentary by MST3K alum, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett. They at least make the show watchable.
May the Force Be With You