In Praise of The Ominous Star Wars Holiday Special

I grew up watching an old VHS of _Star Wars_ every Christmas time. But no one ever showed me the holiday special. And that's exactly how George Lucas, Harrison Ford, director Steve Binder, and nearly everyone involved with the November 197...

Dec 25 2010, 9:22pm

I grew up watching an old VHS of Star Wars every Christmas time. But no one ever showed me the holiday special.

And that’s exactly how George Lucas, Harrison Ford, director Steve Binder, and nearly everyone involved with the November 1978 television event apparently wanted it.

The first official spin-off of the film, the special was tied together by a storyline about Chewbacca and Han Solo visiting Kashyyyk, Chewbacca’s home planet, to celebrate something called “Life Day.” Along the way, they must cope with a blockade of the planet by the Galactic Empire, who are searching for members of the Rebel Alliance on the planet.

But while It introduced new aspects of the Star Wars universe, including three members of Chewbacca’s family – his father Attichitcuk, his wife Mallatobuck, and his son Lumpawarrump – and the cult-fave character of bounty hunter Boba Fett, the whole thing amounts to a bizarre and awkward variety show.

Interspersed throughout are musical numbers, celebrity cameos, and other variety-show acts, featuring 1970s talents like Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur. Tucked somewhere inside is a circus-style acrobatics routine that includes uneven bars and juggling. Jefferson Starship even appears, during an Imperial raid, as a band in a hologram. I won’t even try to explain why.

Jefferson Starship, “Light the Sky on Fire”

For some, the result was the lowest moment in holiday special history. David Hofstede, author of What Were They Thinking?: The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History, ranked the holiday special at number one, calling it “the worst two hours of television ever.” Shepard Smith, Fox News Channel anchor, calls it a “’70s train wreck, combining the worst of Star Wars with the utter worst of variety television.” When in 2006 Conan O’Brian spent a few minutes prodding Harrison Ford about the special, the actor feigned ignorance, and for a moment looked like he would get violent.

It’s still not clear how or why the insanely-protective Lucas signed off on the project, but he clearly has no plans to revisit it in a special edition. “If I had the time and a sledgehammer,” he reportedly said at a fan convention, “I would track down every copy of that show and smash it.”

The animated segment introducing Boba Fett, thought to be the show’s only highlight

Only a Jedi mind trick could make the world forget about this. Fortunately for Lucas, 1978 was still Internet-free. The film aired only once, on November 17, 1978 on CBS from 8:00 pm to 10:00 pm. For decades, eager fans could only indulge their sick curiosity by getting hold of VHS bootlegs. These remain the only extant versions of the show. One first generation recording from Des Moines, Iowa’s KCCI, is available on many BitTorrent websites; another recording from then-CBS affiliate WMAR-TV in Baltimore, Maryland was posted on Google Video, featuring the original commercials. (It’s posted above.)

As disturbing as it is, the whole episode makes sense in retrospect. Though a fiercely meticulous genius, Lucas has also shown himself to be a stellar and dangerous opportunist, by expanding his universe with atrocious sequels that look now mostly like excuses for merchandise and video games (or augmented reality apps or Adidas commercials) that are just as bad.

The cost – besides millions of dollars that are easily recouped – is nothing less than the death of our high-flying fantasies. Occasionally we may revive them by popping in an old VHS, but mostly those intergalactic fantasies are now only touchstones for an ironic nostalgia, fodder for fantastic tributes and remixes that often land on the receiving end of lawsuits from Lucasfilm, Inc.

Seen like that, the holiday special is an early document of failure, a lesson that no universe is safe from the laws of entropy, and a movie so terribly bad that it’s good. Maybe.

At least one participant still takes pleasure from the whole experience – the one who managed to turn the dark parts of her life into a hilarious nightclub routine. In exchange for recording DVD commentary for the Star Wars films, Carrie Fisher demanded that Lucas give her a copy. She told David Carr that she wanted it "so that I could, you know, have something for parties … when I wanted everyone to leave."

Princess Leia sings “Happy Life Day”

If you really want to nerd out, see the Wikipedia entry about it

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