How the Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) Nearly Destroyed The World’s Most Popular Film Franchise in Its Infancy

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We’re living in a pretty incredible time to be a Star Wars nerd right now. In the past year, we’ve seen two of the franchise’s best entries, The Force Awakens & Rogue One, bring its battered ghost back to the heights of its Empire Strikes Back & New Hope pinnacle. Now that enough time has passed and most of the bitter taste has been washed away, we’re collectively forgetting the nightmare regime of young Anakin & Jar Jar stepping on the throat of the world’s most popular film franchise, threatening to exterminate Star Wars forever into a CG oblivion. Jar Jar & Hayden Christensen weren’t the first threat to Star Wars‘s legacy, though. Nor were they the worst. A year after the unfathomably popular premiere of the franchise in A New Hope and two years before its sole masterpiece in Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars sank far lower than any line readings of “Meesa people gonna die?” or CG Hayden Christensen force-ghosts ever brought it. The Star Wars Holiday Special is the darkest chapter in the Star Wars saga, a 90min eternity of embarrassment & shame for a series that might not have survived it in the age of internet chatrooms or, even more recently, turbulent Twitter storms. The Star Wars Holiday Special luckily flew under the radar, surviving only as a ghost on the world’s least-watched VHS cassettes instead of being consistently torn apart in a public forum. If released in a more modern era, it might’ve been a death blow.

A variety show holiday special in the vein of a Bing Crosby or a Pee-wee’s Playhouse seasonal broadcast, this fanboy nightmare centers on the inane & vaguely defined Wookie celebration of Life Day. Along with Bea Arthur, Art Carney, Jefferson Starship, and a few other stray celebrities most children wouldn’t give two shits about, not even in the late 70s, most of the original Star Wars crew makes an appearance here. Mark Hamill & Carrie Fisher get off light, appearing only in brief video conference scenes, never having to appear on set in their respective Skywalker roles. David Prowse & James Earl Jones escape even more responsibility for this crime against decency, as Darth Vader’s brief scenes are mere overdubs of clips from A New Hope. It’s truly Harrison Ford & Peter Mayhew who suffer the biggest loss of dignity here. The entire special’s narrative is structured around Han Solo helping Chewbacca avoid Imperial capture on his path home to his Wookie family in time for their all-important Life Day celebration. That’s right; Chewbacca has a non-canonical family created just for this prestigious holiday special. His father Itchy, his son Lumpy, and his wife Malla are no doubt the three most ill-conceived and poorly designed characters of a franchise that, again, was also responsible for Jar Jar Binks. Most of The Star Wars Holiday Special features Chewbacca’s ugly, shrill, unlikable family as they hang out in their mat painting treehouse condo, whining, roaring, and grumbling until their hirsute paterfamilias arrives. It’s borderline unwatchable, even with the occasional respite of a Han Solo line reading or a half-cooked comedy sketch from Mel Brooks collaborator Harvey Korman. It’s probably not fair to pick on the quality of 1970s children’s media from this decades-late hindsight, but this truly is one of the most unpleasant and, frankly, boring 90min stretches of sci-fi media I’ve ever endured. I’m honestly surprised Star Wars escaped it unscathed.

Not every moment in the special is agony. There’s a Heavy Metal-style animation sequence that’s an especially welcome moment of competence & effortless cool, one that serves as the first introduction of space mercenary Boba Fett as a character. Given my own nature as a gleeful garbage-gobbling goon, I also found some occasional touches of worthwhile camp hiding amidst the shrill Wookie whines. A bartending Bea Arthur sings a Kurt Weill number to a cantina full of unruly customers at closing time because she’s being shut down by the series’ de facto Space Nazis. Itchy, everyone’s favorite Wookie grandpa, has dirty video conference phone sex with Diahann Carroll in the same living room where his daughter in law is preparing a traditional Life Day meal. I also got the strange feeling that several characters were flirting with Chewbacca’s wife Malla and, although admittedly hideous, there’s something truly amusing about the look of his own son Lumpy. It’s better experienced in still images rather than in actually watching the special, but I’m just glad I how have something besides the Baby Grinch to post pictures of during my Yuletide shitposting.

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However, nothing in The Star Wars Holiday Special is excitingly campy enough to make up for the fact that overall the film feels like watching human muppet Bruce Villach, one of the special’s credited writers, narrate a 90min YouTube supercut of goats screaming. The special manages to reach a rare kind of awful that’s both boring and abrasive. It offers so little reward for the great leaps of faith it requires to stomach it’s incessant Wookie whines & stale comedy routines that I’m honestly shocked the Star Wars franchise survived it intact. This was a time before the series’ home video availability, so besides story records & tie-in picture books, The Star Wars Holiday Special was the first way you could take George Lucas’s populist classic home with you. The Empire Strikes Back eventually destroyed any lingering resentment this television broadcast could’ve generated, but if something this awful were released in the same intense scrutiny era of Jar Jar Binks’s moment in the flamewar sun, it might not have bounced back so quickly. As you’re preparing to celebrate yet another Life Day with your family this year, consider taking some time out of your holiday to revisit the beloved institution of Star Wars‘s creative lowpoint, or at least as much of it as you can stand. It might bring you nothing but pain & regret, but it’ll at least make you more appreciative of the heights the series has returned to in its post-Disney buyout era. You might even learn to cut Jar Jar some slack now that he’s got Lumpy & Itchy to compete with as the franchise’s ultimate lowpoint in terms of taste & annoyance.

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-Brandon Ledet

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