The Star Wars Holiday Special : A Cultural Artifact

They tried to hide it. Subdue it. But it’s always been out there lurking like a Darqathian Snarebeast! Back in the 70’s Star Wars was licensed for a TV special and the results must be seen to be believed. Join us as we take a look at the Special they tried to forget.

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In 1978 the rights for Star Wars was leased out to Winters Hollywood Entertainment Holdings Corporation to put together a Christmas (or holiday) Special capitalising on the the increasing popularity of Star Wars : A New Hope

The Star Wars Holiday Special begins with the best of intentions. It sets up the plot (from a poor recreation of the Millenium Falcons cockpit) and as disjointed as it may feel – manages to stick with it throughout its batshit duration:

Chewbacca needs to get home to his family (Father ‘Itchy’, Wife ‘Malla’ and son ‘Lumpy’) for the Life Day celebrations on Kashyyk – a festive holiday where the inhabitants of the Wookie homeworld give thanks for Life and ummmmm, trees? During their journey Chewie and Han are harassed by Imperial agents who also harass his waiting family.

The special centres mainly around the Wookie’s family with members of the main cast making an appearance and some of the costumes even look like they’ve come straight from the first film. It’s worth remembering that the franchise was becoming very hot property when this special aired in 1978.

Harrison Ford is the only cast member not to have a glazed expression on their face – with Mark Hamil barely recognisable (presumably the caked layers of makeup were to cover the injuries he sustained in the automobile accident) and Carrie Fisher displaying what can only be described as a 12 Parsec stare.

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My main gripes are canonical. From 1978 to 2014 SWHS was considered canon or at least designated “S canon” – a status which appears to be official lore until another official canon event supercedes it. Or as the Wikipedia entry on the topic states :

This was clarified in 2007 by Leland Chee, who maintains Lucasfilm’s internal continuity database called “the Holocron”. According to Chee, the Holocron contained at least 28 entries about The Star Wars Holiday Special by that point. These placed all elements referred to in other works, such as Life Day and Chewbacca’s family members, in the C-canon. He stated that elements not subsequently referred to were given the lower rank of S-canon.

I’m assuming this was pitched to television executives (if at all) as a “variety performance show” with the Star Wars franchise making up the overall theme. There has been much talk over the years about how savvy George Lucas was when it came to licensing of merchandise for his franchise. But even he notes that this was not a good move on his part. stating that :

“The special from 1978 really didn’t have much to do with us, you know. I can’t remember what network it was on, but it was a thing that they did. We kind of let them do it. It was done by… I can’t even remember who the group was, but they were variety TV guys. We let them use the characters and stuff and that probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but you learn from those experiences.”

No sir, my fan-boy griping exists in the form of a question : When did Chewbacca have time to start a family? The guy has been off at war. I’m aware i’m mixing canons but as Solo informed us Chewies a ripe age, so are we supposed to believe he met Malla and began Wookie courtship and then got Wookie married and had a Wookie baby…..? Or is it more likely these poor wretches that appear as his father, wife and son were merely conjured into existences to make a quick buck, and then were cast aside after they had served their purpose?

What we got was (what i believe to be) the fevered nightmare hallucinations of a hybernation-sickened Han Solo whilst he was encased in Carbonite. (even though SWHS takes place between Episodes IV and V……Yes. Yes Reddit, I meant in flashback……ugh take a day off)

In present day it is impossible to find a “proper” copy of the special. Never actually having an official release – it is distributed between fans at conventions, videotaped and duplicated from the original airings, with varying degrees of quality available. We can only speculate that George Lucas used his tremendous wealth and resources to track down and destroy every master copy with a hammer. It does however exist on Youtube as a testament to a simpler age. Before the dark times. Before ‘Solo’.

This has led to fantastic fan-made box covers :

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Despite the slow pacing (and colossal runtime of nearly 2 hours with ad breaks) the special doesn’t stop for a moment to let the viewer catch their breath or analyse the validity of this acid trip. It’s too late – you’re already strapped in and the clamps and matchsticks are holding your eyes firmly open, whilst C3PO dutifully administers the eye drops.

The performance aspect of the special is reminiscent of Pans people and their interpretation of Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’.

There is certainly an element of self awareness during sequences such as the “whip stir” cookery scene. Thematically the references are rooted firmly within the universe (Bantha surprise for instance). However scenes like Chewies-Grandfather-indulging-in-some-questionable-VR do seem a little out of place.

Musically it harkens back to motifs established by John Williams score from ‘A New Hope‘ with elements being camped up for suspenseful stings. The music however does seem to meander through certain scenes like a drunk game-show host at a funeral. And then Jefferson Starship show up with all the necessity of the Foo Fighters disrupting a scene in a Muppets film. As vivid a picture as that might paint for you, it’s worth noting that the Imperial Officer who viewed JS appeared to be a fan. However this raises many questions about the 70s prog rock bands existence “a long time ago in a galaxy far far away”.

 

Aside from the poor set and lighting, the Han and Chewie scenes feel almost canonical. The SWHS shifts from coherent space action, to balls-tripping interpretive dance sequences, musical numbers, reused Episode IV footage and Wookie grunting without any real direction outside of the Life Day premise.

Lets talk about Boba Fett. The galaxy’s favourite bounty hunter makes his first appearance (riding on the back of a freaking Dinosaur) when he helps Luke and Chewbacca on the red ocean planet of Panna as part of a secret plot to capture them. I’m not sure anyone back then was prepared for the Fett or his subsequent legacy in the franchise and the hearts of the fans.

Bea Arthur serving booze to the patrons of the Cantina Bar is a million light years away from her sting on Golden Girls yet is heartwarming nonetheless. Despite every effort of the writers to present it as an awkward romance scene. This scene really typifies the Special for me : The skits are instantly forgettable but entirely mentally scarring.

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Looking back on it 40 years later : This is a cultural artifact of a much beloved franchise from a very different time. Sure it’s a horrible watered-down facsimile of what we all know and love (my recent commentary on modern ‘Star Wars‘ sums this up) but how is that so different from what we’ve come to regard as modern Star Wars? Personally I observe it the same way I observe the likes of ‘The Last Jedi‘ or ‘Solo‘ – this isn’t ‘Star Wars‘ – more like fan-made films that tribute what George Lucas’ created all those years ago.

Sure its a shoddy attempt to cash in on 1978 ‘Star Wars‘. A cheap product pushed on the masses under the guise of something greater. A disingenuous stab at art that wears the skin of an enjoyable franchise. But that’s enough about ‘The Last Jedi‘. It’s worth watching if only to see how far we’ve come as a species.

You can watch the madness here :

 

 

 

 

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