Movies and TV
How Star Wars Ruined Christmas, and Vice Versa

John Markley | 15 Dec 2015 18:00
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The Star Wars Holiday Special is not merely a made-for-TV Star Wars tie-in broadcast on CBS in 1978. It is a nightmare come to life, where things you dimly remember from the waking world are twisted into grotesque parodies of themselves amidst a torrent of horrifying, incomprehensible sensory impressions that defy reason and yet seem to follow their own alien logic.

It appeared on American television only once, on November 17th, 1978. It was broadcast in other countries over the next few years, likewise appearing only once in each. It's only available for viewing today because of fans who taped it on their VCRs. George Lucas, who became a billionaire by basically inventing modern merchandising and allowing the Star Wars brand to be used to shill almost any type of consumer product imaginable, has adamantly refused to authorize any home video release. In fact, he hates it so much, he's supposedly said that if could, he'd hunt down and destroy every copy in existence with a sledgehammer. Which is precisely what his restless shade will be damned to spend aeons doing, if there's any justice.

As with any disaster, the obvious question is, "How did this happen?"

Creating a Monster

The release of Star Wars in 1977 shattered box office records and spawned a merchandising bonanza. A sequel was already in the works, but bringing it to the theaters would take years. George Lucas and his partners needed a way to further profit from Star Wars' tremendous popularity while the getting was good and keep the fires of fandom fueled until the sequel arrived. There are only so many times even an ardent fan will pay for tickets to the same movie, after all.

Just as importantly, there were only so many characters in the movie to be turned into action figures or other licensed bric-a-brac. The demand for Star Wars action figures was so hot that, during 1977 holiday season, licensee Kenner actually tried to sell an empty box that came with vouchers entitling the bearer to action figures at some future date. But the source material would quickly become exhausted. By 1978 Kenner had already been reduced to making action figures of such memorable characters as "Snaggletooth," "Hammerhead," and that crappy red droid that broke down and caught on fire when the Jawas tried to sell it to Uncle Owen. Fresh blood was needed.

So the CBS network approached George Lucas with an idea that seemed to solve all of these problems: a television special! And not just any television special, but a full-blown two-hour variety show combining the original Star Wars cast with big-time celebrities who could bring in a whole new audience who hadn't seen the film.

Somewhere between that idea and its final execution, things took a wrong turn into a nightmarish realm of incomprehensible alien screaming, horrendous variety segments, hideous animation, and graphic depictions of Chewbacca's elderly father writhing and moaning while virtual reality pornography is beamed directly into his brain.

George Lucas bears the lion's share of the blame. His direct involvement was limited to a meeting with some of the writers to discuss the storyline, but that story's central problem - that it focus on a family of Wookies, who can't speak in any comprehensible human language - was his idea. The writers, expected to fill two hours of television with characters incapable of dialogue, resorted to increasing the number of variety segments to fill time. That meant they had to scrape closer and closer to the bottom of the barrel to fill up those slots, and when your best segment revolves around the musical stylings of Bea Arthur, that's asking for trouble.

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