Time to talk about the Star Wars TV movie so bad it makes the prequels look good.
Happy Life Day! As we approach the holidays and the end of the “Skywalker Saga” in Episode IX, we figured we’d look back at the bastard child of Lucas and Star Wars – The Star Wars Holiday Special.
Released one year after A New Hope shattered expectations in theaters, the Holiday Special dropped out of hyperspace on CBS. Using a generic, in-universe holiday – Life Day – to cash in on the holiday season, this TV movie went on to become a lump of coal in Lucas’ stocking. We look back to see how bad it really was.
The Saga Continues…
This turkey came out of the oven a week before Thanksgiving in 1978. It showed only once on US television. No VHS or DVD release ever made it to shelves. Lucasfilm buried this special and then buried the shovel. So how, as a kid born in 1979, did I grow up with conflicted memories of this show?
My grandmother taped every single minute of network television between 1978 and roughly 1995. That’s how.*
*VHS Hoarding Strikes Back.
In reality, it was a perfect storm of VHS coincidence. My fraternal grandfather was an electrician, so did repair work on TV’s and the brand new, must have item – VHS players. When a unit was considered too far gone, they were often left with him. He’d eventually get them fixed, and we’d get a refurbished TV or VHS machine in our house.
My maternal grandmother was housebound, so she quickly became the queen of home video recording. We still have thousands of hours of taped television dying a slow death in cardboard boxes in my parent’s home.
The upshot was that we got to see taped movies and shows that would have been prohibitively expensive to buy (or just plain never released) when we were of age. As my uncle had spent a fortune to buy us Star Wars toys, my gram remembered the old taped special to feed our Star Wars mania, and the rest is history.
The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978).
Han Solo and Chewbacca attempt to outrun an Imperial blockade in order to get Chewie home in time for Life Day. On Chewbacca’s home planet, his family scan eagerly for the Millennium Falcon. They reach out to Luke Skywalker and R2-D2, but the pair do not know where they are. A local trader assures them Han and Chewie will be there shortly, and provides presents to the anxious family.
Unfortunately, the Empire has arrived first, and search the house for signs of the rebels. Chewie’s family outsmart them, eventually allowing Han, Chewie, and the rest of the alliance including Princess Leia to join in the Life Day celebration.
What Went Right?
- Some Star Wars Flavor. For all its tonal madness, the Holiday Special does have moments that feel decidedly like proper Star Wars. The first segment where Han and Chewie are being chased by Star Destroyers has the music, sound effects, and snappy dialogue you expect of our two space rogues usual blockade running schemes. It feels familiar…if only because lots of the footage is recycled from A New Hope. A few segments from the movie are re-dubbed to allow Vader a moment of on-screen villainy, as well.
- The Animated Segment Milestones. The animated sequence is largely regarded as the best bit of the special. It was made by the animation studio that would go on to create the Droids and Ewok Adventures animated series for Lucas. You can see a lot of the hyper stylized take on familiar Star Wars characters that would be the calling card of the series. While it does mug Harrison Ford (why is he always squinting, and how come he gets Sylvester Stallone’s jawline!?) it did give us our first on-screen look at Mandalorian bad boy Boba Fett, who would later become an iconic villain in the Star Wars universe.
- Carrie Fisher Has a Beautiful Singing Voice. I’m kinda grasping for a third nice thing to say about the special. The musical numbers in The Star Wars Holiday Special vary from bland and inoffensive, to bizarre, to outright awful. The very final song is a saccharine, “We Are the World”-ish song with generic sentiments of peace and love. It’s not great, but at least Carrie Fisher displays that she has a lovely set of pipes in addition to her other talents.
As nice as her voice, it’s a bit ridiculous that the song is being sung to the tune of the Star Wars theme music…making the rendition hilariously reminiscent of Bill Murray as a schmaltzy lounge singer making up words to the Star Wars theme.
What Went Wrong?
- Ooky Wookiees. The choice to focus the special on the Wookiees is problematic on lots of levels. First, they don’t speak so much as gurgle and howl. One executive criticized them as sounding “like fat people having an orgasm.” Not a great start.
Second, they’re ugly as sin. Chewie’s dad has a hideous underbite. They all have sunken eyes and grotesque facial features. The costumes look like somebody hot-glued wigs onto gorilla suits. Horrendous.
Lastly, they muddle the Star Wars mythos. Chewie is essentially a space pirate, going on questionably legal jaunts with his best bro, Solo. It kinda cramps his style to know that he’s got a family back at home, waiting for him to get home and celebrate a kooky holiday like some hen-pecked, blue-collared dad.
- Mixed Messages. There’s quite a bit in the Star Wars Holiday Special that feels off. I’m not sure if they really had any clue as to who to aim the special at.
There are bits obviously for kids, like the cartoon and the smarmy holiday trappings.Then there are bits that are stodgy and old fashioned, like the tone-deaf comedy bits that feel like rejects from old Cid Ceasar specials.
Finally, you have some just off-color stuff like the cantina sequence and the Mind Evaporator virtual reality system that features a rather breathlessly titillating segment.
- Literally Everything Else. It’s hard to overstate just how much of a mess The Holiday Special is. It’s all over the place in terms of tone, pace, and maturity level. All of the variety show elements feel gormlessly welded together, and of extremely questionable quality. The incessant musical numbers are a horror show. Even subtle elements, like Luke Skywalker’s make-up making him look like Twiggy and David Bowie‘s lovechild, are real head-scratchers. CBS seems to have tossed everything at the wall, and precious little of it stuck.
How Bad Is…The Star Wars Holiday Special?
The Star Wars Holiday Special is mind-bogglingly bad. There’s no amount of nostalgia filter that can make up for all of the inexplicable choices. Attempts to remember this film as so bad it’s good fail upon a second viewing. The variety show aspects are all duds; this film even makes Harvey Korman completely unfunny. You know, the guy who killed it in Mel Brooks’ movies like Blazing Saddles and High Anxiety.
Most of the named cast is wasted in meaningless, bland cameos. At least when Luke Skywalker put in an appearance on The Muppet Show in 1980, he stormed on stage like a pirate ready to single-handedly raid a galleon.
At the end of the day, The Star Wars Holiday Special really earns its title of the shame of the Star Wars series. Not even all the horrendous tweeks Lucas crammed into the remasters can rival it. No amount of pod racing or Jar Jar Binks can unseat it from the throne of shame. As a kid, I remember thinking it was just strange. As an adult, re-watching it was an endurance test of cringe-worthy misfires.