Sunday, November 17, 2013

Star Wars Holiday Special

Premiered November 17, 1978.
Tonight is the 35th anniversary of the 1st and ONLY showing of The Star Wars Holiday Special on CBS.  Unlike all the Star Wars movies, the holiday special didn't have an opening crawl...until now!  Please watch the video below:
(EDIT:Linked video has been removed from, sorry-J.A.)

Chewbacca () and Han Solo () are trying to get back to Chewie's home planet, Kashyyyk.  It's time for wookiees to celebrate Life Day, a festival that celebrates all the forms of life on their planet.  Chewbacca's wife Malla (), son Lumpy (), and father Itchy () are eagerly awaiting his arrival.

Mala & Lumpy.
Han and Chewie are delayed when Imperial Tie Fighters and Star Destroyers divert them from their course, causing Malla to worry that her husband won't make it home for the holiday.  She contacts Chewbacca's friends, Luke Skywalker (), Princess Leia (), C-3PO () and R2-D2 (), but none of them has seen Chewie either.

Lumpy watches a holographic acrobat.
On Kashyyyk, the family is having problems of their own.  The local Imperial troops pay a visit to their house and keep them under surveillance.  Storm troopers and commanders ransack the wookiees' home, looking for ties to the Rebellion, wrecking Lumpy's toys in the process.

An imperial guard () visits Saun Dann's trading post.
Chewie's family receives help in the form of a local trader named Saun Dann (), who helps them conceal contraband and distract the Imperials.

Plus, we get to see what television shows are like in the Star Wars universe!

J.A. Morris says:

In 1978, I was 7 and I was an absolute Star Wars fanatic!  I had action figures, t-shirts, comic books, beach towels, you name it, I had it (or wanted it)!  I remember how excited I was when I heard about this special and I recall watching it like it was yesterday. Think about it, Star Wars...on your house...for free!   I went to my best friend's house to watch it.  I should have known it was going to be disappointing when the opening credits introduced "R2-D2 as...R2-D2!"

After a cold opening that features Han and Chewbacca, we go to the wookiees' living room.  Malla, Itchy and Lumpy engage in a conversation in their language of grunts, growls and mumbles...for a solid 5 minutes...without subtitles.

This is followed by a holographic program featuring acrobats that Lumpy watches ... which also seems to go on forever.

Art Carney, Bea Arthur and Harvey Korman are among my favorite comic actors.  But they just don't belong in Star Wars.  It feels weird to hear "Ed Norton" refer to himself as "a friend of the Rebellion and a member of the Alliance."

Bea Arthur is just a few months removed from the last episode of Maude.  So her sketch basically feels like "Maude Findlay takes over the Mos Eisley Cantina."  Watching "Maude" interact with the cantina aliens just feels wrong.

Ackmena (Bea Arthur) tends bar at the cantina, while Krelman (Harvey Korman) checks her out.
Korman deserves some kudos for playing 3 different characters.  The 7 year old version of me laughed at his performance as Gormaanda, a 4-armed alien version of Julia Child, making a dish called "Bantha Surprise."  In fact, my friends & I quoted this character ("Stir, stir...whip, whip,stir!") for months after the special.

But the worst parts of this show are the "serious" musical numbers.  Diahann Carroll appears in what is essentially a soft core porn flick for Itchy's entertainment. Carroll, a very talented performer, gets to tell a wookiee that she's his "fantasy."   Look at this quote from Caroll's character Mermeia, directed at Itchy:
"I am your fantasy.  I am your experience.  So experience me.  I am your pleasure.  So enjoy me."

Ugh, what were they thinking?!  As a kid, this (fortunately) went over my head.  I just found it boring, which is the word that best describes this special in general.

Diahann Carroll as Mermeia.
Jefferson Starship's performance isn't much better.  I was never a huge fan, but their music was sort of omnipresent in the 70s/early 80s.  Their appearance here is a low point for the group (until they morphed into Starship and recorded "We Built This City"), "Light The Sky On Fire" is a forgettable song.  I've heard their performance described as "Spinal Tap-esque" and that's an accurate description.

Jefferson Starship performs "Light The Sky On Fire".
The "real" Star Wars actors don't bring much to the table either.  Harrison Ford comes off better than the rest.  We get some glimpses of Han's rogueish charm and humor. And Peter Mayhew emerges with most of his dignity intact. However, Mark Hamill barely looks like himself in the special.  Rumor has it that his face was plastered with make-up to obscure the damage done in a car accident.

Sadly, Carrie Fisher fares the worst of all.  I don't know if Fisher's (well-documented) use of drugs affected her performance, but she has a glazed-over, dazed look every time she's onscreen.  Her singing voice isn't as bad as you might think, but the song "A Day To Celebrate" isn't good.

When I watched this back in '78, my friend's father came downstairs and asked us "how was it?"  We looked at each other and rather sheepishly told him "it was good, really good."  We knew we were lying, but if we said otherwise, our love for everything Star Wars would've been mocked incessantly from then on.

Han Solo tangles with a Storm Trooper.
But it's not all bad.

About halfway through, Lumpy watches a cartoon that features all the Star Wars characters voiced by their live-action counterparts.  It features the first appearance of Boba Fett, and some cool caricatures of the actors.  But,when the cartoon ends, you're back on Kashyyyk.

Wookiees celebrate Life Day.
And we also get to see some outtakes of Star Wars.  The scenes of Tatooine and Darth Vader's brief appearance were taken from unused scenes from the movie, probably the first time SW outtakes were shown in public.

George Lucas has disowned this special, but this is not the only appearance of Chewbacca's family. A year later, they appeared in a book called The Star Wars Wookiee Storybook. That makes me think Lucas had other plans involving these wookiees, until the failure of this special.

Did you own this book when you were a kid?  I still have my copy.
J.A. Morris' rating:
I don't know how to rate The Star Wars Holiday Special.  The best thing I can say is that it's better than The Phantom Menace.  If you consider yourself a fan of Star Wars, you should probably watch this at least once...and then forget it exists.   This is normally where I'd post some sort of holiday ratings icon, but I think this image showing the destruction of Alderaan sums up my views on this special:

RigbyMel says:

I was not subjected to The Star Wars Holiday Special as a child.   I only recently sat down to watch the whole thing and I think it is a shame that something that had so much potential to be cool (or at least amusing) fails on so many levels.   I'd say that it should be buried in a sarlacc pit to be digested for 1000 years, but I fear it would give the sarlacc indigestion.   I'd also like to say that it's so bad it's kind of good, but it just isn't.

As J.A. Morris says,  there is some good talent on tap here but their skills are utterly wasted.  The special is alternately boring and disturbing.   The animated sequence with Boba Fett and the fun cartoony versions of our friends from the Rebellion is ok, but not enough to make this mess very worth while.    I can only recommend this for hard-core Star Wars completeists with an hour and a half to waste.

If you're looking for Star Wars holiday fun,  I recommend checking out Christmas In The Stars,  a Star Wars Christmas record that was originally released in 1980 (and which my brothers and I enjoyed greatly as kids) and was re-released on CD in 1994.  

Christmas In The Stars album cover
It is cheesy as all get out but, unlike The Star Wars Holiday Special is often amusing.    Moreover, it contains vocal performances by a young Jon Bon Jovi (who appears as a backup singer credited as Jon Bongiovi), which has to be worth something (not necessarily something good, but something.)

It also contains the periennial holiday classic song "What Can You Get A Wookiee For Christmas When He Already Owns A Comb?"  which is not to be missed.     Check it out:

That being said, I agree with J.A. Morris's exploding Alderaan rating for The Star Wars Holiday Special on the grounds that it might make your head explode in a similar fashion.


bga said...

The record album is far more appealing than the video special.

Mark Alfred Elliott said...

I know I'm late to the party, but great review, y'all!

The way I recall this Very Important TV Event in 1978 is that, for some reason--possibly just a 9-year-old spacing out--I tuned in late. I knew which channel it was supposed to be on, but when I went to that channel, it wasn't Star Wars at all. It was some kind of dance program that looked more like the then-current "Shields and Yarnell" variety show than anything Star Wars. I kept flipping channels, frustrated, desperate. Occasionally in those days, networks or local stations would change the schedule without notice, so I may have even watched part of another program, believing that the SW special just wasn't on.

Of course, when I checked again a few minutes later, there were the Wookies in their living room, acting like pretty much every other sitcom family, only in a language no one could understand.

It turned out that the weird dance program was the grandpa wookie's "entertainment". Then here came Harvey Korman, with whom I was very familiar, having been a longtime devotee of "The Carol Burnett Show". What the hell was going on? Eventually, there were droids and disappointingly brief cameos by Luke, Han, and Chewie. Then a very weird cartoon with some kind of Japanese superhero on a dinosaur.

The future of Star Wars looked pretty grim at that point.

RigbyMel said...

Thanks for sharing your memories of seeing this, Mark! It truly is a bizarre bit of television.