By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 28, 2016
I came down with a cold last week, meaning that for a few days, it was difficult for me to concentrate on anything, or even to extract myself from bed. Once I started recovering, on Friday, I was in desperate need of mindless entertainment. (A bout with illness two winters ago, in 2014, led me to discover two smartphone games, Dumb Ways to Die and Smash Hit.)
That was one reason why I watched 1978’s infamous Star Wars Holiday Special on Friday. There were a few others. One is that after seeing The Force Awakens earlier this month, I’ve been on a bit of a nostalgia trip for Star Wars, to the extent that I’ve watched a variety of short YouTube films on different Star Wars video games (mainly the past two versions of Battlefront and various editions of Rogue Squadron). Another reason is that one of the podcasts I enjoy, How Did This Get Made?, did an episode on The Star Wars Holiday Special late last year.
In addition, I had a very vague memory of seeing a snippet of the CBS special when it originally aired, and I recalled having enjoyed that bit. Finally, The Star Wars Holiday Special contains the debut of one of the franchise’s most beloved characters, the menacing bounty hunter Boba Fett, and I confess to being curious about his premier.
Frankly, just about every bad thing I can remember hearing about The Star Wars Holiday Special is true: It is poorly written, badly acted and shoddily produced. After watching it the other day, I couldn’t tell you what audience the makers were trying to reach or to please, and honestly, I doubt they could have told you that either while they were filming the thing.
The main action (if it can be called that) of the show is set in the treetop home of Chewbacca’s wife, father and young son on their native planet of Kashyyyk. It is Life Day, a major Wookiee holiday, and the trio are anxiously awaiting the return of their beloved man-ape(-and-hints-of-dog) creature.
We get a few snippets of Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and his buddy, smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford), aboard the Millennium Falcon as they attempt to maneuver past Imperial ships on their way back to the jungle planet. These incorporate special-effects and model shots from the original Star Wars as well as excerpts from the movie’s John Williams score. The reused music holds up tremendously well; the special’s original instrumental music, by comparison, feels thin and uninspired.
But most of the special is taken up by scenes of wife Malla, dad Itchy and son Lumpy interacting with one another, with friendly human trader Saun Dann (Art Carney) and with a quartet of hostile Imperial occupation personnel who are searching for signs of Rebel Alliance affiliation or activity.
Although the Wookiees are the main characters, they have no dialogue as such, instead communicating verbally with their species’ typical assortment of grunts, barks and howls. As Wookiee speech — like that of droids — never gets any subtitles in any Star Wars production that I’m aware of, the audience must rely upon the context of the scene, the actors’ physical movements and the reactions and interpolations of the human characters to understand just what the main characters are saying.
So far, so shaky; the opening 10 minutes or so in which the three Wookiees irritably interact with one another is tolerable, if not particularly promising. The special’s makers spend most of the rest of the running time playing to their strengths and aptitudes. Unfortunately, those have absolutely nothing to do with any of the aspects of Star Wars that made the original film and its progeny immense successes.
Binder worked extensively in TV both before and after helming The Star Wars Holiday Special; eventually, he came to specialize in productions devoted to music or ice skating (or, on occasion, both of those things). The writers generally share a television background: Proft has also written a number of comedy movies (Proft); Ripps has written several sitcoms; Vilanch has served on the writing staff of seemingly dozens of awards shows; Warren has an eclectic mix of awards shows, comedy specials and TV movies to his credit; and Welch is a writer and composer who has contributed to the scripts of numerous music-oriented TV specials.
And so The Star Wars Holiday Special has legendary singer-actress Diahann Carroll perform a sort-of-decent song called “This Minute Now”; a Grace Slick-less version of Jefferson Starship play a pretty awful song; and future Golden Girl Bea Arthur sing the (potentially Cabaret-influenced?) song “Good Night, But Not Goodbye” while portraying the proprietor of a seedy Tattooine bar. Also, in perhaps the lowest moment of the special, Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) sings the simply wretched song “A Day to Celebrate,” sullying Williams’s immortal main Star Wars theme, to which the lyrics are set.
Arthur’s song is framed, interestingly, as a live and unedited video feed that the Imperial regime requires residents of Kashyyyk to watch, perhaps on the theory that it would make viewers feel more fortunate about their lives by comparison. But most of the other musical numbers are crammed into the program with conspicuously less finesse. The Jefferson Starship performance is a holographic projection displayed on Saun Dann’s Life day gift to Malla, which a suspicious Imperial officer demands to inspect.
Meanwhile, Carroll appears as part of the trader’s gift to Itchy, a private virtual-reality program (although it’s commonly described as a hologram) that is clearly meant to be softcore pornography. Her segment is particularly creepy, not through any fault of Carroll’s but because Itchy is enjoying the VR session using a set in the family’s living room, and because the program seems to inflame the white-haired Wookiee with lust.
Fisher’s song comes when — spoiler alert! — all of the main Star Wars heroes somehow gather together for a Life Day celebration, even though they were implied to be on other planets, and even though, as Organa acknowledges, Life Day is not a holiday that she would normally celebrate. (Perhaps the gathering is in some kind of virtual-reality space.) Incidentally, Fisher’s voice is excellent; the song’s melody and lyrics are most unfortunate.
This isn’t Organa’s first appearance in the special: Earlier in the proceedings, the Wookiees have called her (accompanied by the droid C-3PO, played as usual by Anthony Daniels) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, accompanied by the droid R2-D2, played as usual by Kenny Baker) to inquire after Chewbacca’s whereabouts. These sequences are pretty lame, although I think their very mundanity may have helped to convince my very young self that the characters of Star Wars were real people.
I referred earlier to the shoddy production values of The Star Wars Holiday Special, and a part of the videophone conversation with Organa really demonstrates that. When Malla’s call goes through, Fisher stands up from her seat and takes a few steps. She stumbles and nearly falls during this movement. It’s baffling to me that this take got used in a finished TV show.
The Star Wars Holiday Special has two other bits worth mentioning. One is possibly the show’s low point, excepting “A Day to Celebrate” — a would-be comedic instructional video featuring Harvey Korman as some kind of humanoid robot (I think) who keeps on malfunctioning. (Lumpy watches this film while trying to assemble his gift from Saun Dann.)
The other bit, which Lumpy watches while Imperials search the family home, is the show’s highlight — although even here, there’s something to complain about. The Imperials, again, are looking for signs of ties to the Rebellion, and in order to keep Lumpy quiet while his home is being turned upside down, he’s given a portable device on which to watch a cartoon.
That much makes sense. The problem is that Lumpy is sitting in the middle of the family room, mere steps from representatives of a hostile occupation force, watching a cartoon that explicitly links his father to the Rebel Alliance.
The cartoon itself is nothing special, but in being mildly enjoyable, it reaches a level of mediocrity that the rest of the special misses by a wide mark. Framed as a log recording by an officer of the Rebel Alliance, it depicts an episode in which Solo and Chewbacca are overdue on a mission aboard the Falcon. When the ship appears, it flies wildly (for no reason that’s ever established). Skywalker jumps into a Y-wing starfighter with R2-D2 and C-3PO and tracks the freighter to a rough landing on a strange water world. After Skywalker crashes, he and the droids encounter Boba Fett, an armored, quixotic figure riding some kind of sea monster, which he treats shabbily.
Fett offers to lead them to the Falcon, but once the group reaches it, Skywalker faints. He’s fallen prey to the same kind of sleeping sickness that is afflicting Solo. (Why Solo’s illness might have prevented Chewbacca from landing at the rebel base is unclear.) Fett offers to go to a nearby settlement to obtain a serum. A suspicious Chewbacca demands to come along, but at the city, Fett slips away and contacts the evil Imperial minion Darth Vader to let him know that he has made contact with the rebels.
For some reason — again, it’s never explained why — R2-D2 and C-3PO intercept this transmission from their spot aboard the Falcon. When the bounty hunter and the Wookiee return to the ship, Fett successfully administers the antidote. The revived humans offer to lead their new friend back to the rebel base before C-3PO clumsily lets them know that Fett is up to no good. (Why did Fett jet away rather than at least try to shoot the rebels? That, too, is unclear.)
Anyway, ladies and gentlemen, that is The Star Wars Holiday Special in all its sappy, stupid non-glory. If you ever have occasion to think about this show in the future, just be glad that it is a backwater of the franchise, rather than a dead end.