What a Wookie: Revisiting The Star Wars Holiday Special

Yes, there is something worse than the prequels! Liam revisits 1978 for a telly special so foul even George Lucas hates it. 

For over twenty years, the Star Wars films were guardians of wonder and delight among moviegoers… before the dark times… before the prequels. Now, after ten long years, chosen one J.J. Abrams is ready to restore order to the galaxy and erase the memory of episodes I-III from our databanks once and for all.

It must be how audiences felt in 1980 awaiting the release of The Empire Strikes Back, praying that The Star Wars Holiday Special was just a bad blip on the radar. Yes, a long time ago, before the sequels and the prequels, in a world without CGI, there was arguably the worst Star Wars product ever to be seen by human eyes. The Holiday Special was a now-infamous feature-length TV variety show aired on November 17th, 1978, and it was so bad that it was never repeated again. Even the destroyer of souls, George Lucas, stated that if he had the time, he would track down every last bootleg copy and smash it!

With the whole gang returning, the story revolves around Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) getting back to the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk in time to celebrate “Life Day” with his family. That would be wife Malla (Mickey Morton), son Lumpy (Patty Maloney) and elderly father Itchy (Paul Gale). Chewie and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) are racing to get back for the event, but in typical fashion, they are being pursued by Imperial forces. Meanwhile, Chewie’s wife grows concerned and makes calls to the rebel base where Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and later Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) all state they haven’t seen them since leaving the base, fearing something must have happened to them on the way. Later still, Darth Vader (James Earl Jones) orders his troops to search every household in the galaxy for the rebel fugitives, and Kashyyyk is soon invaded with Imperial Stormtroopers forcing their way into Chewbacca’s family home. Solo and Chewie then escape via hyperspace, returning to Kashyyyk in time to save the day and indulge in the Life Day celebrations, with Luke, Leia, R2-D2, and C-3PO.

The story is broken up to incorporate several sketches, musical performances, variety acts, and a cartoon stretching the running time to a painfully slow one hour and forty minutes. The sketches and variety acts are worked in by using familiar items and places seen in the original 1977 film. Holographic acrobats emanate from a chessboard-type games machine like the one seen on the Millennium Falcon, coupled with creepy carnival music, and with Wookie child Lumpy constantly staring downward, it’s a bit on the weird side like something you might see in the Stephen King miniseries It. The musical interludes by Diahann Carroll and Jefferson Starship are equally weird; they later recorded the classic 1985 hit “We Built This City.” Both provide psychedelic trips, making you wonder what the producers were on to dream up this imagery. In soft focus, Carroll’s performance is borderline pornographic.

A few American television and film celebrities are worked into the proceedings, too. Art Carney plays trader and friend of the Alliance Saun Dann. Beatrice Arthur (The Golden Girls) plays the landlady of the Mos Eisley Cantina. And Harvey Korman (Blazing Saddles) plays a few characters, most notably resembling an alien equivalent of Rusty Lee as an overweight female cookery show host. The performances by our established stars, especially those of Hamill and Fisher, are cringeworthy to say the least. Hamill trying to tempt a smile out of Chewie’s worried wife is all wrong and embarrassing to watch; it actually reminds me of Hayden Christensen’s acting in Attack of the Clones (2002). Fisher tries to keep a straight face and gives it her best shot as Leia, even when bursting into song to everyone’s surprise. Ford and Mayhew have the most screentime and act like the old couple that Han and Chewie always have been. That’s until Ford’s Solo starts hugging and gushes with love for his adoptive Wookie family. Indeed, it is the Wookies that are the main problem. The show is about them but they don’t speak English, and with no subtitles or human co-stars to translate for much of the runtime, we are left to listen to the howling and roaring of three bloody Wookies for large stretches, relying on body language to get the jist.

starwarsholidayspecial1978-2

The Holiday Special does have a few plus points, however. It is an attempt at a Solo/Chewbacca adventure, something I have always wanted to see. If you are able to see past the stock footage shots and cardboard sets, the scenes with Han and Chewie in peril at the controls of the Falcon are actually all pretty good. Ford is a great physical actor and all of his trademark mannerisms are on show here in abundance. There is also the use of previously-unseen footage of Mos Eisley spaceport from the 1977 film, and during the Bea Arthur Cantina musical sketch, we get to see all those alien faces again (and some that were not used in A New Hope). It is also interesting to see how similar the design of the Wookie homeworld is in The Holiday Special to the final realised version of Kashyyyk seen in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). The main saving grace, though, is the nine-minute animated adventure provided by Canadian studio Nelvana, Ltd. The cartoon is completely separate from the main show, involving the Rebels and their search for a mystical talisman. This cartoon is known for being the first official introduction of fan-favorite Boba Fett voiced by Don Francks, and much like he is in The Empire Strikes Back, Fett is an undercover employee of Darth Vader. The animation style is quite unique and not the typical kid-friendly Hannah Barbera or Disney motif, possessing a gritty adult look very much like the 1981 film Heavy Metal. Nelvana went on to produce both Star Wars-related cartoons, Droids and Ewoks, in 1985.

Overall, The Star Wars Holiday Special is pretty damn awful. It fails to be amusing at any stage, the variety acts are boring, the music videos are not appropriate, and the whole thing is overly sentimental! Director Steve Binder and an uncredited David Acomba could have easily shaved thirty-minutes off its ridiculously long running time. That being said, I have actually seen worse! I would rather watch this than the dreadful animated show Droids or the terrible TV films The Caravan of Courage (1984) and The Battle for Endor (1985). In fact, I would seriously rather watch The Holiday Special than sit through The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith again. And for one reason: No Han Solo!

Finally, with The Force Awakens guaranteed to be a huge hit and with Disney now in control of Star Wars, I see an opportunity here for a brand new holiday special. Disney have the channels, the presenters and other assets they can draw upon to create something memorable that can also be used to market 2016’s Star Wars: Rogue One. If done right, a new version would be the must-see TV event of Christmas 2016, making up for the failure of the 1978 original and bringing balance to the Force.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • According to Carrie Fisher, Lucas gave her a copy of the special as a gift for recording the DVD commentary for Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977). She claims that she plays it at parties when she wants her guests to leave.
  • The Cantina sequence took an entire day to shoot. The actors in alien costumes began to pass out due to lack of oxygen. Oxygen tanks were provided for them to use between takes.
    When Harrison Ford was interviewed about Cowboys and Aliens, he admitted that he had not seen it.

Liam Brennan

Film buff, aspiring screenwriter and filmmaker.

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