Only in the 70s Christmas Bonanza: The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)
For the final Torment of this year – and to celebrate that most merry of seasons – I took it upon myself to suffer through one of the worst pieces of shit that’s ever been produced in the name of a beloved franchise. Ladies and gentlemen, we at SCM wish you all a Merry Christmas, and sincerely hope you don’t watch The Star Wars Holiday Special.
IN TIME, all foul things come forth. For those wounded Star Wars fans who already suffered the ignominy of the prequels, there was an unseen – indeed, phantom – menace, lurking in the galaxy’s shadows. Previously the stuff of whispered urban legends, The Star Wars Holiday Special, screened for television in 1978 and still officially unreleased, was only widely distributed in the advent of VHS and, especially, the internet.
George Lucas, auteur that he is, was once quoted as saying, “If I could track down every copy and smash it with a sledgehammer, I would.” This is the man who inflicted Jar-Jar Binks on the world and feels no shame for it; this is the same man that wants to eradicate the existence of the Holiday Special. Just think about that. If you thought Attack of the Clones was the lowest point of the filmed Star Wars universe (and you definitely did), the Holiday Special is there to slice your hands off and toss them into the Sarlaac.
The Holiday Special is rancid, let’s not mince words. It is abominable, putrid garbage. It is the worst of television and the worst of Star Wars. If the Holiday Special was a Jedi, its midichlorian count would range in the negative. The Force is flaccid in this one. The Holiday Special is the two-hour long sound of millions of fans crying out in fear and suddenly being silenced. The Holiday Special is the fear that leads to anger that leads to hate that leads, inexorably, to suffering.
Suffering, indeed, is what the Holiday Special does best. Its plot, if you could call it that, revolves around Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) trying to make it back to Chewie’s home planet of Kashyyyk (or “Kazook”) in time for the celebration of Life Day with the Wookie’s family; his wife Malla, his father Itchy, and his son Lumpy. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) also, randomly, show up via space-Skype to wish a Happy Life Day to all.
No one comes off well. Hamill, having only just suffered a motorcycle accident, is caked in layers of make-up to half-heartedly conceal this fact and ends up looking like a mutant Oompa Loompa with eyeliner. Ford is shamefaced, manning the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon from an office computer chair, sounding even less enthused than his infamous Blade Runner voiceover. Fisher, meanwhile, is quite clearly high off her tits, smiling vacantly like a goon as she sings – SINGS – a Life Day carol to the Star Wars theme.
Beyond the requisite cameos, approximately 75% of film is, bafflingly, dedicated to Chewie’s family conversing, endlessly and loudly, amongst themselves. Without subtitles. Yeah. It’s just as confusing and ear-shredding as it sounds. The rest of the special showcases several incongruent variety sections, including (but not limited to): Harvey Korman as an insane, four-armed cook; Harvey Korman as an insane, malfunctioning robot, and Harvey Korman as an insane alcoholic in Bea Arthur’s Tatooine cantina.
Jefferson Starship themselves perform ‘Light the Sky on Fire’. There are numerous non-sequitur holographic dance sequences, culminating in a silver-wigged Diahann Carroll beckoning Itchy to “experience” her. These sequences are all, somehow, thrown like Lynchian garnish over the central plot without rhyme or reason.
Malla (Mickey Morton) switches on a screen and there’s Harvey Korman, bug-eyed over a vat of “cooking”. Itchy (Paul Gale) puts his Oculus Rift on and there’s Diahann Carroll singing, ostensibly, at his crotch. Lumpy (Patty Maloney) flicks a switch and he’s watching a cartoon about some of his father’s previous exploits. How? Roll with it.
This ten-minute animated segment remains the only officially-released part of the Holiday Special and the only thing that receives any real praise. Famous for the first appearance of inexplicable fan-favourite Boba Fett (Don Francks), the cartoon follows the Millennium Falcon crashing on the water planet of Panna. With Luke and Han contracting a mysterious virus, Chewie must team up with Fett to find a cure.
The cartoon is, really, not as good as its reputation suggests, but it’s Spirited Away compared to the rest of the drek in the special. The characters’ eyes are bulging out of their oddly-shaded skulls (Han’s face is ravishingly equine), the animation itself is haphazard at best and, strangest of all, C-3PO’s arms are fully articulated.
Fett’s entrance straddling a plesiosaur is impressive, and Franck’s voice performance lends him dark menace. He’s certainly the best part of a sequence that, despite its flaws, comes the closest to feeling like actual Star Wars.
And then we have to come home to Kazook, and a strange ritual involving Wookies wearing red robes. Then Princess Leia, saucer-eyed, sings a song about the joys of Life Day and misses the high note in the process. That’s about par for the course, really.
If nothing else, the Holiday Special acts as an intriguing time capsule for 1978, and not just for the weird variety acts. Several versions of the special include commercials from the original broadcast, including one for Dallas, another for The Wild Geese and a newsbreak featuring Brezhnev testing a neutron bomb. Though perhaps culturally lost on an audience outside America, it’s nonetheless fascinating to watch these adverts from a distance of 35+ years and see that, really, nothing has changed.
Things have changed for Star Wars, certainly. The sequels came, the prequels went, and the ghost of Christmas future looms with The Force Awakens. In much-maligned Uncle George’s defence, at least he had no significant, hands-on involvement with The Star Wars Holiday Special… except for the fact he demanded the focus on Chewie’s family. Hmm.
Regardless, Nathan Rabin’s suggestion that the special was written and directed by “a sentient bag of cocaine” seems the aptest description of all. It’s a fucking trainwreck and rather mesmerising in its surreal, labyrinthine madness.
Happy Life Day, one and all, and Merry Christmas.