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

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

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When I found out last year that there were going to be 6 new Star Wars films — not just the new trilogy, but three stand-alone films as well — I was skeptical. As excited as I was about the final trilogy, the in-between films sounded like nothing more than a money grab. But after seeing Rogue One, the second entry in the reboot, I’m pretty sold.

Before watching The Force Awakens last year, I kind of lost myself in fan theories and had fun with the idea of Jar Jar Binks coming back as the ultimate big baddy, but for Rogue One I went in blind. After all, chronologically it happens in between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. People who are even slightly familiar with Star Wars know how this plays out, but it turns out there were a few twists and turns I didn’t expect. Rogue One frames the rest of the series in a much darker light. It brings a revived urgency and anxiety to the franchise, which I hope was probably there when Star Wars was first released in 1977. It manages to make the Death Star not just an impractical super weapon and the Empire a floundering bureaucracy that can’t teach its Stormtroopers how to aim. No, the Empire is a real frightening threat. Despite Disney’s CEO insisting that this is not a political movie, there’s quite a bit of war imagery and themes that are being presented in a time when the threat of fascism seems to loom. I mean, the movie itself is about a rebellion. The notion that it’s not political is naive and out of touch. But I guess you should never count on a multimillion dollar mega corporation to stand by the radical media that they inadvertently release

Rogue One follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) of the Rebel Alliance. They form a group of misfit rebels with Andor’s brutally honest droid sidekick K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a blind force warrior Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), his big gun toting conterpart Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), and a defecting Imperial shuttle pilot named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). Together they work against the Empire to smuggle the plans of the the Death Star to the Alliance. One big problem I had, though, was that the characters are not as developed as they should be. I keep hearing people say that it’s a lack of screen time, but in the case of Jyn I really think that they had ample opportunity to present her as more than just another brunette leading lady with good aim and an uncanny ability to scale vertical surfaces. I also thought that Cassian could have been a much more interesting character. As he is, I don’t really buy the vague romance that he and Jyn are supposed to have by the end of the movie. Though with Star Wars, it’s usually the minor roles that win hearts. Chirrut and Baze are a great pair, and K-2SO is a real pal. I’d like to have had more from Riz Ahmed’s character, instead of shoving him to the background and referring to him as “the shuttle pilot” half the movie, though.

What the movie gets right, it gets really right. The villains are scary. Somehow Rogue One was able to present a fresh introduction to Darth Vader, which is great because this is the first time we’re seeing Vader as Vader, really doing his thing, since Return of the Jedi thirty-three years ago. He is used sparingly and masterfully, and is truly terrifying and cruel. It’s so great to hear James Earl Jones’s voice coming out of that mask again. The gestures were spot on, right down to that iconic Vader finger wag. This is not the “NOOOOO!” moment of the prequels. This is true Vader. Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin also gets resurrected as a total computer recreation. Despite the general mixed response, I found to it be extremely impressive and convincing.

It’s also a pretty movie. It really captures the look and feel of a Star Wars movie. There’s hazy shots of star ships gliding across horizons at sunset and far off planets in the distance. One of the locations in particular really stands out. There’s a moon called Jedha, with a city and a temple that we’re to assume belonged at one point in time to the Jedi. There’s an aerial shot of the landscape featuring a giant, ancient Jedi statue on it’s side in the sand that, nerdily enough, reminded me of The Gates of Argonath, the great statues of kings on the river Anduin in Lord of the Rings. There’s some really cool costumes too: floor length bright red robes in the cities, Chirrut’s semi monk style clothing, and some retro helmets made a comeback.

In the day and age of reboots and series revivals Star Wars has taken the lead for quality. The two newest movies have proven that the old “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” attitude works out and has even redeemed a franchise so nearly killed by its own creator. Rogue One was far from being the nostalgia fueled money grab I expected, and actually left me feeling some complex things.

-Alli Hobbs