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.
A False Hope
There is nothing crueler than false hope, so it’s fitting that The Star Wars Holiday Special actually seems pretty cool for its first 60 seconds. Aboard the Millennium falcon, Han Solo and Chewbacca are running an Imperial blockade to get Chewie home in time for something called “Life Day.” With Imperial star destroyers in hot pursuit, Han begins the jump to hyperspace…
…and reveals that Star Wars faster-than-light travel actually uses the same technology as Event Horizon, as we accelerate at the speed of light directly into Hell.
Now begin the opening credits, introducing us to our all-star cast. There’s Mark Hamill wearing an absurd amount of makeup, probably to obscure the effects of facial injuries he’d suffered in a car accident the year before. There’s Harrison Ford, with an intense “Oh for God’s sake, now what?” expression. And then there’s Carrie Fisher, very clearly high as a kite, with the blank glassy-eyed stare of a woman whose soul has wandered away from her body and is now puking into the sink of a nearby public restroom. It’s like a prelude to a symphony, with the composer establishing the motifs – pain, damage, contempt, bewilderment, and the final descent into merciful unknowing oblivion – that will be recurring throughout the larger work. They’re followed by C-3PO, Chewbacca, R2-D2, and reused footage of Darth Vader, all of whom retain far more dignity by dint of not having visible human faces.
Next come the actual stars – Chewbacca’s horrible, horrible family. You didn’t think this was about the beloved characters from the movie, did you? First is Chewbacca’s wife Malla, who’s basically Chewbacca with lipstick and an apron. The unpleasantness is kicked up several notches by Chewie’s grizzled old father Itchy, a shaggy, sour-faced creature who looks like the fruit of a drunken union between the Abominable Snowman and Popeye.
And then, last and least, is the closest thing The Star Wars Holiday Special has to a main character: Chewbacca’s son Lumpy.
Lumpy is a testament to the effectiveness of old-fashioned practical special effects. It would not be until 2005’s Son of the Mask that CGI would finally catch up and produce a character that so quickly filled me with such visceral, overwhelming revulsion. Most of the other things that suck about the Holiday Special, I can grit my teeth through. Lumpy made me want to set the television on fire. That this repulsive homunculus was clearly meant to be cute and heartwarming only adds insult to injury.
Finally, there are the Special’s guest stars. Bea Arthur! Art Carney! Diahann Carroll! The Jefferson Starship! Harvey Korman! Let’s be charitable and just assume they all really, really needed the money for cocaine.
The scene switches to Chewbacca’s house on Kashyyyk (pronounced “Kazook” here), where Chewbacca’s family nervously awaits his return. Or so we must infer, since for long swathes of the entire Special the only “dialogue” is Wookies screaming at each other. Unsubtitled. Including the first nine minutes and seven seconds after the intro.
Yes, I timed it.
After several minutes of godawful noise, Lumpy sits down in front of a holographic display to watch some tiny 3-D acrobats cavorting. It’s dull, but since nothing in it sounds like cattle being torn limb from limb by angry wasps the size of a man’s fist it comes as a welcome respite.
As I said, The Star Wars Holiday Special is basically a variety show, in the tradition of Ed Sullivan or Sonny and Cher. This is how all of the “variety” segments are framed – as stuff the characters watch on television, or on holographic displays, or via virtual reality sex helmet or whatever.
We’ll get to the virtual reality sex helmet in a little bit. Unfortunately.
The Nightmare Continues
We then cut to… Oh, who cares? The plot is just a razor-thin pretext for cramming a terrible variety show into the Star Wars universe. Suffice to say that Darth Vader orders a search of Kashyyyk for Rebel sympathizers, and Imperial soldiers show up at Chewbacca’s house. A local human merchant and secret Rebel Alliance supporter played by Art Carney of The Honeymooners – who’d won the Academy Award for Best Actor just four years earlier, poor guy – tries to distract them from discovering evidence of the family’s ties to the Rebellion. Hijinks ensue, horrible comedy skits and musical numbers are shoehorned in, the stars from the movie make appearances that are somehow too brief and not brief enough, and eventually Chewbacca returns to his family in time for Life Day.
Along the way, we’re subjected to “entertainment” like:
An elderly Wookie writhing in orgasmic ecstasy! I hate myself for writing that, but I knew when I agreed to this that I’d have to do things I wasn’t proud of.
Visiting the house, Art Carney presents Itchy with a virtual reality helmet, accompanied by a program he describes simply as, “Wow. “Itchy dons the helmet and, after some surreal imagery, is greeted by a pink-haired human woman played by singer/actress Diahann Carroll. It’s surprisingly risque, with her telling Itchy in a sultry voice that “I am your fantasy” and “I am your pleasure” and moaning suggestively while commenting on how “excited” Itchy is. It’s sort of what I imagine watching late-night television ads for phone sex lines would be like if you were on drugs. This is all punctuated by repeated cuts back to Itchy’s face, who’s clearly very… well, excited.
Then Carroll sings something that sounds like a rejected James Bond theme in the Special’s first musical number, leaving the viewer to contemplate why an old Wookie’s “fantasy” is a human woman whispering sweet nothings to him. Or just who the hell the target audience for this is supposed to be. Or whether there’s enough booze in the house to obliterate all memory of the past hour before the image of Itchy’s O-face is branded into their mind forever.
There isn’t, by way. Not in your house, not in any liquor store, not on this planet.
The comedic talents of Harvey Korman wasted not once, not twice, but thrice! Poor Harvey Korman (of The Carol Burnett Show and Blazing Saddles fame) plays three different characters here. We first see him in drag as a four armed cooking show host, then as a Mos Eisley cantina patron who consumes drinks by pouring them into the top of his head while hitting on Bea Arthur, and finally as a malfunctioning cyborg host in an instructional video. The cooking show host is probably the most painfully unfunny, though it’s a close call.
Han “Mick Jagger” Solo
Hideous animation! One of the better parts of the Special is a short cartoon starring the main cast of the movie. It’s most notable for being the debut of bounty hunter Boba Fett, seen here working for Darth Vader to capture the heroes. Boba Fett had a larger role in early drafts of the story for The Empire Strikes Back than he did in the final film, and Lucas wasted no time hyping up the character to build anticipation.
He’s pretty cool here – more so than in the movies, actually, where his chief achievements would be being a reasonably competent tracker and losing a fight with a blind man – and the story is OK, but a lot of the art and animation is just jaw-droppingly hideous. Literally jaw-dropping in the case of poor Han Solo, who looks like Mick Jagger after his face was partially melted off by the Ark of the Covenant.
Technically, this segment does not depict the first time the heroes of Star Wars encounter Boba Fett because, like most of the Holiday Special, it’s a piece of in-universe media watched by a member of Chewbacca’s family – in this case Lumpy, no doubt drawn to its animation style out of a desperate desire to find something in the universe as hideous as he is.
This raises some interesting questions, if you stop and give it more thought than the creators did. Who made this cartoon? Is it Rebel Alliance propaganda? Is it based on a real event? Did the characters do their own voices, or are those voice actors? Are there Luke Skywalker tie-in action figures inside the Star Wars universe, too? Does Boba Fett get royalties for use of his name and likeness? If not, did he sue the producers or just kill them? And so forth.
JEFFERSON STARSHIP! They show up in holographic form to perform their song “Light the Sky on Fire.” The song got a promotional single release that boasted “As Seen and Heard On The Star Wars Holiday Special” on the cover, which I’m guessing was the first and last time anyone applied that description to something they were trying to promote.
Something That Actually isn’t repulsive
Singing barmaid Bea Arthur! This is actually the best part of the Special, with Maude’s Bea Arthur as a bartender at the Mos Eisley cantina seen in the movie. Lots of aliens from the movie make their return, and Arthur sings a song to the tune of the famous cantina theme.
Several things lift this segment above the others. It actually has a direct connection to, y’know, the whole “Star Wars” thing. It’s framing as part of an Imperial propaganda broadcast depicting actual footage of “Life on Tatooine, brought to viewers everywhere in the hope that our own lives might be uplifted by the comparison” is the only moment of actual wit in the entire Holiday Special. And the song ain’t bad.
It would have benefited from less of Harvey Korman putting the moves on Bea and pouring drinks into the top of his skull, but you can’t have everything. And by this point, I could certainly sympathize with the desire to pour alcohol directly onto your brain.
It’s Over. Thank The Force, It’s Over.
After what seems like an eternity, Han and Chewbacca arrive to save the day in the closest thing we get to an action scene. Reunited, Chewbacca and his family pick up glowing snow globes that make them travel to another dimension, or astral project, or just start hallucinating, because suddenly they’re standing in outer space wearing red robes. They join a long procession of similarly attired Wookies walking into a white light, in a scene that seems less “holiday cheer” and more “cult mass suicide.” Then they’re in a foggy chamber filled with berobed Wookies, as well as Luke, Han, Leia, and the droids; Apparently Chewbacca was allowed to bring them to the Wookie afterlife on a guest pass.
Looking more coked up than ever, Princess Leia gives a brief speech about Life Day before singing a song kinda sorta but not really based on the tune of the Star Wars theme. She certainly doesn’t have the charisma of a Bea Arthur, and her glassy-eyed thousand yard stare doesn’t help. Chewbacca has flashbacks to the events of the movie, seemingly for no other reason than to mock us with reminders of what we haven’t been seeing this whole time. Cut to Chewbacca’s family back in their house, and then, at long last, it’s over.
But the memories, of course, will never be over. You’ve gazed into the abyss, and now Lumpy gazes into you.