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The Nostalgic Attic: The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

7 December 2014

The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

"Would you look at Lumpy! He's sure grown, huh? And I think his voice is changing."

The buzz for Star Wars in '78 must have still been quite high; no doubt it was still showing in theatres, with kids desperate to catch another glimpse of that George Lucas magic in the days before VHS players allowed them to rent the film or own it for themselves. Then what better way to capitalise on the films success? A TV special, of course. Airing just in time for Thanksgiving, it seemed like not only the perfect way to sell TV advert space, but to reinforce the brand in the young viewers minds. Irregardless of intentions, something went drastically wrong somewhere, and the 'Holiday Special' has gone down in film history as one of the biggest missteps for a well-loved franchise. But is it really that bad? Does it deserve the endless ridicule it gets?

Things kick off in an exciting enough manner; we are greeted with the sight of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca on board the Millenium Falcon, en route to Chewie's home planet for the annual celebration of 'Life Day'. they are attacked by some Star Destroyer's, and make a leap to hyperspace to avoid them. Meanwhile, on the Wookiee planet of Kashyyyk, Chewie's wife, Malla, is worried the big hairy fella isn't going to come home on time. their son, Lumpy, is a bit concerned, especially when the Imperials show up looking for rebels. The Imperials harass everyone, including local trader, Saun Dann (Art Carney), who is actually a close friend with the wookies. They'll need to work together to warn the Falcon of the Imperial presence on the planet, but will it be enough to ensure Han and Chewie make it? Will Life Day be ruined completely?

That's the basic rundown on the story, or what little there is of it, anyway. The thin plot is broken up by variety show-style segments, in which we get some songs, an animated segment, and a glimpse into what is happening throughout the galaxy. There are several cameos by the likes of Harvey Korman (in three roles, no less) and Bea Arthur to pad things out, and of course, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher reprise their roles as Luke and Leia, even if they don't get much screen time. This lack of screen time is only one of the major issues with the Holiday Special; why would kids in '78 want to watch a Star Wars film that only had a few minutes worth of Luke, Leia, Han and Chewbacca? Who made the decision to focus on a bunch of malformed muppets in the guise of Chewie's family?

After that semi-exciting opening minute on board the Falcon, we are then treated to what feels like an eternity in the Wookiee house; creatures that shuffle around, grunting and bellowing at each other with no spoken dialogue to be heard. We see mama trying to cook (while watching one of Harvey Korman's dreadful cameos as a TV chef with four arms), we see Lumpy watching a dull performance-art hologram, and Itchy decides to strap himself into a 'Fantasy Machine' for a wank to the sounds of Diahann Carroll singing some space soul-disco. It's painful stuff, and the scenes with human characters such as Suan Dann seem padded to the point of collapse, offering nothing exciting or even funny for the kids (and their families) that chose to tune in on a Friday night.

Things do finally get a bit interesting when the Imperials invade Chewie's home and begin destroying Lumpy's toys (that cuddly Bantha teddy gets a real hiding), and then Lumpy watches a cartoon of his fathers adventures which is actually the highlight of the whole thing. In this animated segment we get to meet Boba Fett for the first time, and it's the only section that features anything that resembles the excitement that the kids would have been expecting. After that, it's back to the variety show settings again, and we see a Jefferson Starship performance (which is kinda cool) and then a dreadful extended scene in the cantina with Bea Arthur as a grumpy bartender, and Harvey Korman as an amorous alien who drinks through a hole in his head. The whole film is wrapped up with a song led by a dead-eyed Carrie Fisher before it gives an enthusiastic montage of footage from the actual film to remind kids why they actually liked Star Wars in the first place.

Apparently it was a struggle getting the original cast to participate in this, and you can tell. Screen time amounts to several minutes for each actor, with Carrie Fisher only showing up for the climax. The script is terrible, with some awful dialogue that even Harrison Ford struggles with it. Shots seem to linger far too long in every scene, making moments that are supposed to be sweet seem vaguely creepy (how long do Han and Chewbacca's wife, Malla, gaze at each other? Are they having an affair?) and the whole film seems to have lacked any sense of direction as scenes start out slowly and just sort of tail off with no real climax to them. Unsurprisingly, the director, David Acomba, left the project early on and was replaced by Steve Binder.

The film lacks any real action or special effects, which is a pity as Battlestar Galactica would show us soon after how good space opera could be on the small screen. The creature effects aren't nearly as detailed or lively as the film, which is no surprise, but why itchy looks so disturbing is just another item on the long list of decision-making errors made by the producers.

What sums up the Holiday Special best is the closing montage; not only does it serve to finally show footage of the film that kids were probably aching to see again, but it builds up excitement in the viewer before launching directly into an advert for the Star Wars toy range. The toys look incredibly detailed and vivid, and I was reaching for my wallet to buy them before reminding myself it was a toy advert from the 70's. It would have been a powerful marketing tool, and no doubt contributed to helping sell out the toys that Christmas. It's a pity the rest of the film wasn't given such careful thought; what you have here is a two-hour car crash that Lucas rightfully spent time and money trying to buy up the copies to ensure it never saw the light again. Who knows, maybe Disney will have a sense of humour and finally include it on a future release disc, but I doubt it's the kind of thing that will be looked back at fondly by those who saw it on the first run.

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At 7 December 2014 at 06:06 , Blogger Wes M said...

John if I'm ever quizzed on the Star Wars Horror Special this post will be my go-to-guy to refresh my memory, because it is far too painful to ever see again. Everyone will see this for different reasons - Star Wars devotees who insist on seeing everything will seek this out, or curious onlookers like me who must storm the citadels of received wisdom and apply a calm, measured approach to the so-called unwatchables. Well, I've been calm and measured and the Holiday Special really is a catastrophe for all concerned. This is the sharp edge of exploitation and CBS who probably couldn't see past the advertisers lining up for airtime like audiences lined up around the block for the film, got what they deserved. I'd like to think that Lucas learned something valuable after whoring out his creative vision to people who didn't care or understand, but I remember being deeply disappointed when I saw The Ewok Adventure in the mid-80's, something I would consider another Star Wars mishap. And now that the Holiday Special is back in unofficial circulation, I must assume it is persona non grata among staff at Lucasfilm. Someday we will see the return of the original versions of Star Wars I've no doubt, but I'm positive this one will forever languish at the bottom of the Death Star's trash compactor.

At 7 December 2014 at 06:14 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

I'm the same, Wes, being a big fan of Star Wars meant I couldn't stay away, but like yourself, I tend to have a strong stomach for garbage - and this one gets one hell of a beating most of the time. In a way, it probably still worked out well for CBS, as no doubt they still raked in the revenue from the adverts, though they seemingly did the wise thing and never ran it again afterwards.

It really is as cynical as it gets, but gives a good insight into what George was to primarily get interested in later on in the series (i.e, money). The Ewok films definitely are in the same boat, but at least they manage some reasonable level of production value for their humble TV origins. As bad as this is, I think those involved need to have a sense of humour about it - hey, they fucked up, but I mean, WHAT a fuck up! Now that's what I call going out in style...

At 8 December 2014 at 07:41 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

I have to tell you guys - I've gotten ahold of a copy of this on DVD-R and yes, it's awful now that I've seen it again. But back in the day - this was an INCREDIBLE thing for kids like me - barely into double digits - and playing Star Wars on the playground at school every day. There was no home video, and there were precisely two Star Wars books - the novelization and Splinter in the Mind's Eye. There was the Marvel comic - the only source of new Star Wars you could get. So here comes NEW Star Wars - to be aired on TV - this was a Holy Grail TV moment for us. I was glued to the set - though I will also admit to getting a little bored with the Wookiee family and starting to play with my Star Wars figures and missing part of the cartoon. But I saw all of the rest of it - and to my young mind it was cool. There were all my favorite Star Wars people - at least briefly - and back then I couldn't tell how much makeup Luke was wearing; how bored Han was; or how drunk or stoned Leia was.

Now it is painful to see - but I'm glad I have a copy. I tortured some bratty Star Wars loving nephews with it a couple of years ago - promising them Star Wars I guaranteed they'd never seen before - and delivering on that promise to their utter boredom for the entire running time.

At 8 December 2014 at 12:48 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Craig, delighted to hear you saw it on its initial run, though I had figured this would have been a MAJOR event for any kid who was a fan back in the day. It really was a different time, myself and subsequent generations have had it fairly easy with the endless possibilities for re-watching our favourites so soon after release on home video.

I remember seeing the Ewok films when they got released, which I absolutely loved. Despite how bad they are, I still cherish the memories of being sick one evening, and my dad coming home with the new release of The Ewok Adventure on tape for me to watch. I'm sure it was the same for yourself with The Holiday Special, as I too was horrified when I re-watched the Ewok films several years ago and saw how badly they'd aged. That's for a different post, though!

I think this one is definitely worth having in a collection - as you said, you never know when you might need to punish a niece or nephew again!


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