The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) -**

     On November 17th, 1978, CBS network affiliates across the country preempted their regularly scheduled broadcasts of “Wonder Woman” and “The Incredible Hulk” in favor of a special presentation that by any sane reckoning ought to have been the ratings bonanza of the year, if not the decade. Instead, it was a night destined to live in infamy, for what they showed was The Star Wars Holiday Special, two of the most misbegotten hours of television ever to assail the senses of the viewing public. What began as an innocuous exercise in brand-building somehow spun out of control to become something that threatened the newborn Star Wars franchise instead, to the point that George Lucas intervened to prevent it from being ever rebroadcast, or shown at all in most markets overseas. Harrison Ford refuses to talk about it. Mark Hamill claims never to have seen it in its entirety. Carrie Fisher used to use her VHS copy (which she had demanded as part of her payment for recording audio commentaries for the Star Wars “Special Edition” DVDs) to roust malingering party guests from her home. Even more than the giant, green, anthropomorphic bunny from the late-70’s Marvel tie-in comics, the holiday special is the attic baby of the Star Wars family— and the monstrous parent which it resembles too closely to be allowed out in public is the 1970’s TV variety show.

     No, I don’t understand how that happened, either. That is, I can see how the idea would appeal to CBS, since those shows were both overwhelmingly popular at the time and dirt cheap to produce. Also, the variety show was something like the standard model for non-animated holiday specials. If it was 1978, and you weren’t Rankin-Bass, Christmas-themed variety shows were just what you did. But surely it had to be obvious that what worked for Sonny and Cher, Donnie and Marie, or the Captain and Tennille would be a much more difficult fit for Luke, Han, and Leia? Surely everyone at Lucasfilm (if perhaps nobody at CBS) could see that the story George wanted to use as the basis for the holiday special— a Wookie-centric tale about Chewbacca running a gantlet of Imperial blockades and patrols to join his family back home for his people’s most sacred celebration— left no reasonable space for performances by up-and-coming popstars or faded vaudevillians? Inexplicable as it seems, though, Lucas allowed himself to be persuaded to do it the network’s way.

     Well, sort of. Naturally, Lucas himself was too busy doing preproduction work for The Empire Strikes Back to give the holiday special much attention, so he entrusted the project to David Acomba, a friend of his from film school. Acomba correctly perceived that the Star Wars audience was primarily a youth audience, and planned his guest talent accordingly. He recruited the Jefferson Starship and the Electric Light Orchestra to provide musical interludes, Robin Williams to serve as comic relief, and an animation studio called Nelvana to contribute a one-reel cartoon in a hallucinogen-friendly style somewhere between Ralph Bakshi and René Laloux. Unsurprisingly, the network people began griping at once. Furthermore, because Acomba was a nobody from nowhere, while Lucas was otherwise occupied, there was no one on the Lucasfilm side with both the standing and the surplus give-a-fucks to counter that griping. Thus it was that The Star Wars Holiday Special started mutating ever further in the direction of standard TV Christmas fare. ELO got the boot on the grounds that one bunch of dope-smoking rock-and-roll hair-farmers was plenty. Robin Williams was replaced by Harvey Korman (whom we last saw in Americathon, and will see again if I ever get around to Munchies). New writers began to proliferate, led by supreme 70’s television comedy hack Bruce Villanch. And while all that was going on behind his back, Acomba found himself unable to adjust to the kind of hectic shooting schedule that TV productions take for granted. He completed just two segments before crying uncle, one the Jefferson Starship’s performance and the other a return to the Mos Eisley Cantina that took an entire grueling day to shoot, yet still came out looking like last Thursday’s piss. Acomba’s place was taken by Steve Binder, who was much more in tune with the CBS folks anyway. Binder was happy to go full Partridge Family with the show, completing its transformation into something with no natural audience, capable of alienating everyone.

     The very main titles are a bad omen. Although the holiday special uses the same luma key superimposition process as the film to add Suzy Rice’s Star Wars logo to a starfield background, the difference between how the process looks when hastily applied to video versus how it looks when painstakingly applied to celluloid is such that it appears astonishingly cheap and unprofessional here. The same goes for the new rendition of the theme song. A dozen session hands in the CBS sound studio are no substitute whatsoever for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, let me tell you. Finally, the first proper scene completes the unflattering comparison by intercutting special effects footage from Star Wars with new material shot on a version of the Millennium Falcon cockpit set that falls nearer to the Ed Wood end of the spectrum than the Industrial Light and Magic end. This ill-considered collage is supposed to inform us that Han Solo (a visibly humiliated Harrison Ford) and his first mate, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew, who was doubtless never more thankful for that full-body fur suit and head-mask in his life), have left the relative safety of the Rebel Alliance’s current base so that the Wookie may partake of his people’s annual Life Day observances. (Incidentally, I’ve always been a little unsure how to pronounce “Kashyyyk,” the name of the Wookie homeworld, but I would never, ever have guessed “Kazook.”) It’s a big risk they’re taking, but I’m sure Chewie has faced worse for Han’s sake in their time, so what are friends for?

     Next we cut to the treehouse where Chewbacca’s family reside— which is obviously where all the money got spent, as it’s a great set by 70’s TV standards. Awaiting Chewbacca’s arrival are his wife, Mallatobuk (Mickey Morton, of Outlaw Force and The Midnight Hour), their son, Lumpawarrump (Patty Maloney, who played one of the goblins in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark), and Chewie’s grizzled old father, Attichiuk (Paul Gale). Note, however, that none of those full names are ever uttered within the holiday special itself. Instead, the three new Wookies are consistently referred to as “Malla,” “Lumpy,” and “Itchy.” Those who are thinking that has implications for the dignity of the two hours to come (okay— 1:48 minus commercials) are not wrong. Still, at first glance, there’s nothing very remarkable about the Wookies’ introductory scene. What we have here is just a wife and mother trying to render her home presentable to company, and riding herd without much success on a child and an old man who are each as much hindrance as help to the project. But look— and more importantly, listen— more closely. Malla, Lumpy, and Itchy are Wookies, remember. They speak no language discernable by human ears. There are also no subtitles in The Star Wars Holiday Special. And so for eleven incredible minutes, we get nothing but a trio of ambulatory shag carpets bellowing wordlessly to each other. Eleven minutes!

     Eventually, though, Malla starts to worry about her no-show husband. She therefore calls Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on the video phone, interrupting him and R2-D2 (who doesn’t do enough this time around to require any onboard control by Kenny Baker) in the midst of some slapstick spacecraft maintenance task. (In case you’re wondering, the reason why Hamill looks like a young Liberace here is because he’d badly injured himself in an auto wreck a few months before. The repairs to his face weren’t quite finished yet, so the makeup department had to do what they could with what they had.) When Luke has no news to give her, Malla tries Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher and about half a kilo of the most incredible shit you could hope to shoot, smoke, or snort), who requires the assistance of protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) even to figure out what the Wookie is asking her. Leia hasn’t heard from Chewbacca either, so Malla makes a third attempt with Saun Dann (Art Carney, from Firestarter and Ravagers), a human trader who lives on Kashyyyk. (In the treatment from which The Star Wars Holiday Special ultimately derives, the analogous character is called— would you look at that?— Lando Calrissian.) Her televideo call comes in just as Dann is contending with an Imperial gendarme, so the trader is forced to answer Malla in code. At least he’s able to tell her that Chewbacca, when last he heard, was as safe as any hunted fugitive can be, and that he and Han Solo are on their way to Kashyyyk as fast as the Millennium Falcon can carry them.

     A bit later, Dann stops by the Chewbacca family treehouse in person to distribute a round of Life Day gifts. That places him on the scene when an Imperial officer (Jack Rader, of The Blob and Amityville: The Evil Escapes) arrives with a contingent of Stormtroopers, searching house to house for a pair of Rebel agents who are rumored to be in the area. Naturally, they’re talking about Chewie and Han. Dann takes it upon himself to mediate between the patrolmen and the Wookies, trying to seem as cooperative as possible while still misdirecting the soldiers away from any evidence of the family’s Rebel sympathies. In the end, though, it takes the arrival of the fugitives themselves to settle the Stormtroopers’ hash, and the rescue itself puts a hard limit on how long Chewbacca will be able to stay with his family in celebration of the holiday. So wasting no time, the four Wookies all huff their hallucinogenic Life Day orbs, and join the whole rest of Wookiekind in a shared psychedelic pilgrimage to the base of the Tree of Life— where they’re rather surprisingly greeted by Han, Luke, Leia, and the droids. I can only assume that the furless fivesome had access to whatever was in Carrie’s purse to induce the necessary altered state of consciousness. Then Leia sings a profoundly ill-advised song set (sort of) to the tune of John Williams’s main Star Wars theme, Chewbacca has flashbacks to pivotal scenes from the movie, and all the Wookies come down from their collective high.

     Obviously that isn’t a lot of plot for two TV hours (indeed, it was originally written for just one), but that’s where The Star Wars Holiday Special’s variety show elements come in. There are a lot of video monitors in the Chewbacca family treehouse, and just about everyone in the show eventually has occasion to watch something on at least one of them. Whenever that happens, we watch what they’re watching, too. We’re right there with Malla as she seeks guidance in preparing the Life Day feast from a cooking show hosted by a four-armed chef (the aforementioned Harvey Korman, in drag and blackface!) who naturally works much too fast for any two-armed cook to follow. We’re right there with Lumpy as he watches first a performance of holographic acrobatics by the Wazzan Troupe (who would later rebrand themselves as the Cirque du Soleil), then his favorite cartoon show (the aforementioned Nelvana one-reeler, which mind-bogglingly implies that Star Wars is the biggest thing in children’s entertainment in the Star Wars universe, too), and finally the instruction video for assembling his Life Day present from Saun Dann (in which Korman returns as a cyborg with power-core trouble). We’re with an Imperial gendarme as he screens Malla’s video boombox for subversive content by watching the Jefferson Starship (minus Grace Slick, for some reason) sing into what appear to be luminescent pink vibrators. We join the whole cast in watching a reality show about the decadent and degenerate lifestyles one encounters on Tattooine, which bizarrely devolves into a Cabaret-like musical number performed by the barmaid (Bea Arthur, of all people) at the Mos Eisley Cantina. Weirdest of all, we see through Itchy’s eyes as he watches his Life Day present from the trader, a virtual reality soft-porn program in which a sultry mermaid (Diahan Carroll) sings him a personalized torch song. I would love to have been in the writers’ room at the moment when somebody chimed in, “This is all well and good, but you know what The Star Wars Holiday Special really needs? An elderly hairball masturbating to interspecies sex fantasies.” And I’d love even more to have been there at the moment when somebody else replied, “That’s great! Have the script pages on my desk by 5:00 this evening.”

     As you’ve probably intuited by now, my overriding response to The Star Wars Holiday Special was rapidly escalating bafflement over who in the hell CBS, 20th Century Fox, and Lucasfilm Ltd. thought this show was for. The tremendous simultaneous popularity of Star Wars and television variety shows implies that plenty of people were fans of both in 1978, but I can’t picture any of them actually wanting to see the two things combined. Similarly, I’m unable to believe that variety show enthusiasts who came for the Jefferson Starship wanted anything to do with Bea Arthur and Harvey Korman, or vice versa. And if an audience exists anywhere in the universe for geriatric Wookies jerking off, I never want to know about it. Nowhere, however, is The Star Wars Holiday Special more profoundly mismatched with itself than during the cantina number. The premise here is that the bar is being closed down indefinitely by the Imperial authorities, in reprisal for having harbored the captain of a ship later linked to the Rebel attack on the Death Star. Fearing a riot that would surely provoke a massacre, the bartender sings her customers out the door with thinly veiled assurances that although regimes rise and fall, the camaraderie of drunkenness is eternal. It’s the only part of the holiday special that feels securely tied to the story told in the theatrical films, and yet it’s also a scene that would never have occurred in any of them. For this sequence and this sequence only, a good-faith effort was expended to recreate a part of the Star Wars universe with which the audience would already be familiar, but David Acomba’s inexperience with the characteristics and special needs of videotape leaves Mos Eisley looking like a shoddy shadow of its former self. The bar number leans harder than any other moment in the official Star Wars canon into the parallels between the Galactic Empire and Nazi Germany, but it does so by means of a musical theater allusion that few fans of the series would be equipped to catch. Conceptually, materially, and thematically, the whole bit is pitched to the tastes of a viewer who almost certainly never existed, making it a stark microcosm of The Star Wars Holiday Special as a whole.

 

 

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