Last year there were celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the original Star Wars. This year, then, can not pass without a mention of the same anniversary of the lesser-known Star Wars Holiday Special.
For those who don’t know, The Star Wars Holiday Special was a two-hour variety-style show, set in the Star Wars universe and featuring some of the original cast, that aired only once on November 17th, 1978. Reaction to the special was so poor that it was swept under Lucasfilm’s largest rug, never to be seen again and with nary a mention since. In doing so, though, it has become an underground legend that remains a morbidly fascinating cultural artefact to this day.
The special came to life when, in the wake of the success of the first film, George Lucas was approached by CBS about making a Star Wars Thanksgiving TV special. In need of more money to help make the remaining films in the trilogy, Lucas accepted. That was as far as his involvement in The Star Wars Holiday Special went, he had no input after making the deal, and indeed his name does not appear anywhere in the credits.
Creative responsibility for The Star Wars Holiday Special was given over to director Steve Binder (who replaced David Acomba mid-way through production) and a team of writers, none of whom had any involvement in Star Wars before. These included then-Donnie and Marie Show writer Bruce Vilanch and Pat Proft, later writer of Bachelor Party, Police Academy and the Naked Gun trilogy. “(It) didn’t have much to do with us (Lucasfilm),” said Lucas, “We kind of let them do it.”
Left to it, CBS’s crew set about delivering Star Wars’ first foray in TV, and one of its most curious outings.
Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Anthony Daniels all reprise their roles from Star Wars, but their appearances are really no more than cameos. More time is given over to talent of the time: Bea Arthur, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, Jefferson Starship, as well as the real stars of the show, Chewbacca’s family.
One thing The Star Wars Holiday Special is given little credit for is being the first time Star Wars started to build on the foundations laid in the original film. It introduces new worlds, such as the Wookie homeworld of Kazzook (which later became Kashyyyk), where the special largely takes place.
It’s on Kazzook where Chewbacca’s wife Malla, son Lumpy and father, Itchy, are awaiting his return home for Life Day, the most important day on the Wookie calendar. However, he and Han are caught up in a battle with Imperial fighters, leaving the family with an agonizing wait – something viewers found cuts both ways.
Most of the special is in un-subtitled Wookie pantomime. It’s not until ten minutes in when the first human dialogue is spoken, and the only other times we hear spoken English is when the family is visited by human allies, contacted by Luke and Leia, and their home is raided by Stormtroopers.
There are other interruptions to the growling and grumbling when Chewbacca’s family find ways to occupy themselves during their wait-come-home raid. This includes Malla watching a cooking show fronted by Harvey Korman in drag, and Itchy views a somewhat pornographic musical number.
Unquestionably, the best of these sequences is a ten-minute animation featuring Luke and company, all voiced by the original actors. Crash-landing on the planet Panna, they encounter a mysterious character called Boba Fett.
The short is compelling, dramatic and goes to show how well-thought out Star Wars was from the start that, two years before debuting in The Empire Strikes Back, Boba Fett had already been fully realised. The Boba Fett in this cartoon is exactly the same as the live-action fan favourite.
The best bit of the whole two hours, though, is Han’s goodbye to Chewbacca’s family – a genuinely touching moment that adds a lot of depth to Han and his relationship with the Wookies.
Before it ends, The Star Wars Holiday Special fits in one final moment of cringe, when Carrie Fisher warbles an uncomfortable Life Day song, before Chewbacca and the Wookies are allowed to go about their Life Day celebrations (which make you wonder what all the fuss was about).
Even with the return of the key cast and craftspeople – artist Ralph McQuarrie, sound designer Ben Burtt – The Star Wars Holiday Special is visibly on a lesser technical level than the film.
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the quality of a TV special to a mega-budget blockbuster film, but some accusations of cheapness can be justified. For example R2-D2, instead of being played by Kenny Baker, or indeed an actor, was radio-controlled by Lucas’s then-receptionist, Mick Garris (later director of Sleepwalkers and writer of Hocus Pocus).
Those who saw the original broadcast reacted negatively, be they casual or Wars fans, who dispute its place in the Star Wars canon. Among those dissatisfied with the special were those directly involved in the franchise. Lucas allegedly said if he could he would destroy all existing copies. Harrison Ford claims never to have seen it, and Anthony Daniels told Empire “I have a pirate video, but I have to be pretty drunk to watch it.”
So the premiere broadcast would turn out to be its only, as it would never be seen again. While it might not be up to the scratch of its predecessor, the special is not a complete loss. It introduces characters and locations important in the Star Wars universe, and it could also be argued that, with its cast made up of popular media personalities of the time who turn up for a few minutes each, do their shtick and then leave, The Star Wars Holiday Special kind of predicted Rogue One.
The Star Wars Holiday Special has never officially been released, and has survived throughout the years on pirated copies of the original broadcast and today can easily be found online. The Boba Fett cartoon was included as an easter egg on the 2011 Blu-Ray of the original trilogy, but there has never been any intention of making it, as a whole, commercially available.
The strange thing is, given that Star Wars is now owned by a company known for putting out anything they feel would make even a small profit, the day might be coming when The Star Wars Holiday Special could escape its oblivion and everyone would have a chance to see it in all its bizarre glory.
Happy Life Day!