The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

By now, you’ve probably heard plenty about how George Lucas has sold LucasFilm (and subsequently Star Wars) to Disney, and that Disney now plans to make three new Star Wars movies. Do we hope or do we fear? Many fans are making dire predictions about what Disney will do to the series, but the new trilogy might just turn out fine. George Lucas will not be making them, but he has developed the storyline, and will serve as a consultant. The trilogy might be better off with scripts that are not written by Lucas (who is not known for being a good writer of dialogue), and the movies could be made well by different directors (for example, Irvin Kershner did an excellent job of directing The Empire Strikes Back in 1980).

But there is also speculation that Disney has other Star Wars-related plans as well, including a TV series. (Disney also owns ABC). Now that may not be a good thing. Why do I say that? Because this idea brings back memories of the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special from 1978.

For those who are unfamiliar with that two-hour TV special, The Star Wars Holiday Special aired on CBS only once, on November 17th, 1978, and it has never been released on home video. For that reason, the special has acquired a certain “underground” mystique among Star Wars fanatics. Did you ever see the video for Weird Al Yankovic’s “White and Nerdy”? In one scene, Al’s nerdy character purchases a bootleg VHS copy of the show in a shady street deal, and is visibly overjoyed about having scored the rarity.

The show has a deservedly bad reputation, and has even been described by some as one of the worst moments in television history. George Lucas had little input in the making of it. The producers of the show had previously worked on TV variety shows such as The Carol Burnett Show, and the special was done in the style of those ‘70’s variety shows, with a thin plot serving to string together a series of comedy bits and musical numbers.

The story, such as it is, goes like this: Chewbacca is trying to go home to his family to celebrate a holiday called Life Day, but he and Han Solo, while flying in the Millennium Falcon, are being pursued by Imperial ships (the use of footage from the original 1977 Star Wars film makes this possible). Meanwhile, Chewie’s home on the planet Kashyyyk has been invaded by Imperial officers and stormtroopers to set a trap for the Wookiee. The bulk of the screen time is given to Chewbacca’s family, as we see his Wookiee wife, son, and father in an endless series of cornball comedic situations. All of their lines are spoken (or growled) in the Wookiee language. (Chewie had a family life? This concept seems even more absurd now that we have seen the whole six-part film saga). Chewie’s son was named Lumpy and his father was named Itchy, names which sound more suitable for Snow White’s dwarves than for Star Wars Wookiees. Oh, how I hope Disney does not do similar things!

Most of the principal cast members of the original Star Wars trilogy (i.e. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, the voice of James Earl Jones) appear too briefly in cameos as their usual characters. Most of them look properly embarrassed to be involved in this mess, although Harrison Ford is fun to watch as Han Solo -- even in scenes where we are asked to believe that the smuggler is sensitive.

A few well-known comic performers appear in the special, in ‘70’s variety show fashion. Art Carney was saddled with an unfunny role as a human friend of the Wookiee family; this character was apparently intended to resemble his Ed Norton character from The Honeymooners. Harvey Korman plays three goofy roles: he appears in drag as a TV chef with four arms, and also appears as a malfunctioning droid in an instructional video, and as a cantina patron who drinks through a hole on the top of his head. (Yep. That’s what I said). Bea Arthur portrays a Mos Eisley Cantina barmaid who sings a song called “Goodnight But Not Goodbye” while interacting with the bizarre creatures in the bar. Her bit is more inspired than most other parts of the program, but it still strains the viewer’s patience.

One slightly disconcerting sequence apparently depicts Chewbacca’s father watching some sort of space-age porn, featuring Diahann Carroll as a singing holographic fantasy girl; that discomfiting sight resembles a parody of an opening credits sequence for a James Bond movie. Another musical interlude is provided by the rock band Jefferson Starship (get the joke?), who are shown in a music video performing their song “Light The Sky On Fire”. The song is agreeably lively, but it just doesn’t belong in this setting, despite the visual of Marty Balin singing into a lightsaber-like microphone.

A much-ridiculed musical contribution comes at the end from Carrie Fisher. In a scene depicting a Life Day ceremony, Fisher (as Princess Leia) sings a song for the fictional holiday, to the tune of John Williams’ music score for the films. (Who says Leia wouldn’t fit in with other Disney princesses?) It’s a laughably silly and schmaltzy finale. But, to be fair, Fisher’s singing voice is actually not bad. Maybe she learned a little about the craft from her parents.

There is one saving grace to be found within the special: a ten-minute animated sequence created by Nelvana, which introduced the bounty hunter Boba Fett. This animated short recently turned up as a special feature in the recent Star Wars Blu-Ray release of Episode V. This show predated The Empire Strikes Back, and even the first distribution of the Boba Fett action figure. Its plot finds the principal Star Wars heroes (voiced by the corresponding actors) landing on a water planet in the midst of a search for a talisman, and encountering the mysterious Boba Fett, who pretends to be a helpful friend. Han Solo and Luke Skywalker both fall ill from a sleeping virus, and Boba Fett says he knows where to find a cure. Little do the rebels know that Boba is in cahoots with Darth Vader. This cartoon short is a bona fide cult classic, stuffed inside of a turkey. It’s one of the very few moments that make The Star Wars Holiday Special slightly – but only slightly – better than its rock-bottom reputation.