I was four years old. I spent a week excited for the appearance of Star Wars on TV. The original film, Star Wars, had been out of the Winchester Drive-in for about four months and we had been it dozens of times during its more-than-year-long run.
There was no home video at the time, and when something left the theatres, you didn’t see it again until it hit the revival houses. And thus, I was so psyched that I was getting more Star Wars just in time for Christmas. That night, I snuggled on the floor underneath my race car blanket and watched, wide-eyed as I was given my dreams: Wookiees, and Droids, and Han, and Holograms, and Spaceships, and Singing, and most of all, STAR WARS!!!! I went to sleep that night dreaming of all the wonderful things I had seen, knowing that this was the best it would ever get. That night, I was sure I had seen perfection.
I had seen the Star Wars Holiday Special.
You’ve heard the jokes, the claims that it was the worst thing even put to film (or tape, as it has a definite AMPEX video feel) and that there are no redeeming values to it. Those jerks who push that garbage are, no doubt, wrong. It was magic, not only to this 45-year old, but to anyone who understands wonder.
You see, I have two four year olds now, Benji and JohnPaul, and they’ve only experienced small glimpses of the Star Wars. They’ve seen maybe an hour of the actual films, and they’ve read the books and seen a couple of the cartoons. I figured it was a good time to introduce them to what magic is, and we turned on the Star Wars Holiday Special. There are about a half-dozen versions on YouTube, probably not taken down because to do so would be to admit that it exists. I fired it up one evening and we settled in.
JohnPaul was amazed that we got Han and the Millennium Falcon, and that they were having problems. We kept watching through the credits, with each name bringing me more joy. Almost every co-star in the thing is dead – Diahann Carol, Harvey Corman, Art Carney, Bea Arthur, half of Jefferson Starship, Carrie Fisher, all gone. Sigh. After a few minutes on Kashyyyk, JohnPaul was bored and Benji was busy playing military helicopter.
JohnPaul, though, did find love for the Wookiees, especially “Grumpy Grandpa” as he called Itchy, Chewbacca’s papa. He kinda got into Lumpy, Chewie’s son, too, but not nearly as much.
The opening of the special promised something amazing – Chewbacca’s homeworld. If you loved Chewie like I did, this idea was forged within the excite. Getting to see Chewie’s family was incredible, and made me so happy. When we arrive at Casa de Wookiee Grande, we’re presented with a five minute scene where everyone speaks in Wookiee, that series of screeches, grunts, yelps, and growls. It’s a weird thing, because if you’re not used to deciphering broad movements, you could easily be lost. As a kid, it didn’t matter, because these were WOOKIEES!!!!! Now, after decades of watching silent and foreign films, I know how to decrypt physical movement as language, and I can easily follow it along.
This is often pointed to as one of the greatest failings of the Star Wars Holiday Special, which to me is stupid. They play it really broad, which allows you to follow and play along, but it takes a viewer who understands physical language, and for 1970s tv, that was expecting a lot from the audience.
After that, we’re given a series of video phone calls. It looks like Malla, Chewbacca’s wife, was using a modified TRS-8 Model 3, though I’m not sure that had been released yet. She talks to Luke, who looks so young! She calls in to Art Carney at a trader’s post on Kashyyyk. He’s so good at making less-than-stellar material into something watchable. He may have acquired that when working
on The Honeymooners when Jackie Gleason would forget his lines, or simply go off-script. Of course, Carney once showed up so drunk that Jackie had to do the episode entirely in asking Art yes-no questions. It’s a skill…
That’s when the Special gets, well, special. You see, there was a language to Holiday specials in those days. You had a series of guests, and they each had a role to play, usually feeling crowbarred in tighter than the last box in a hastily-packed moving van. If you want to get an idea of what these were like, all you have to do is watch Stephen Colbert lovingly, and accurately, lampoon the genre in his 2008 Christmas Special. There are songs, there are skits, there’s a story that serves as a scaffolding so weak it should collapse under the weight of Topo Gigio. That is all 100% present in the Star Wars Holiday Special, with the songs by Diahann Carol and Jefferson Starship feeling particularly out of place, but also being GREAT! Seriously, this is one of my five favorite Jefferson
Airplane/Starship/Dirigible/Hand glider songs. It actually rocks! Bea Arthur and Carrie Fisher both give us good little songs, far more traditional, and they’re both delivered with an amazing amount of heart, which is crazy in the case of Fisher who was coked out of her mind.
The story is thin, but that’s by design, and perhaps the greatest sin the Star Wars Holiday Special committed was being a holiday special. The world that had been established by Star Wars was entirely dependent on wonder, on being something that had never been seen before (or at least feeling like something that had never been seen before) and the holiday special format was entirely of the ‘seen it’ variety. That may be why the best segment, and the only one that people seem to actually remember, was the animated section.
Created by Nelvana in their first work set in the Star Wars universe, the animated portion of the Star Wars Holiday Special is a wonder. The animation style is a bit rough, influenced by Ralph Bakshi, and not unlike the film Wizards. In it, we’re introduced to the character that probably has the most bro-love of any in the universe; Boba Fett. He joins up with, and inevitably betrays, the Star Wars gang in a wonderful segment that on its own is a fantastic expression of where a completely unbound Star Wars could go in 1978. Divorced from the Special, it is a marvel, and within it, to 4 year old Chris Garcia, is was so cool! I had it on a video with a ton of Star Wars outtakes, bought at a Timecon in the late 1980s, and watched the hell out of it.
To understand the failure of the Special, you have to understand that Star Wars has always been sacred. The fanbase hasalways felt they had an ownership, a set of expectations, and when
that fanbase, and especially the male fanbase, feels that the vision they have has been violated, they have turned vicious. It was as true in 1978 as it was in 2018. The role that Star Wars played in the culture of 1978 cannot be over-stated. It was everywhere, and even today when it is everywhere again, it is far more diffuse. Back then it was concentrated, pure, undistilled. You had the movie, you had the toys, and you had appearances in other shows, like The Muppet Show, but you didn’t have multiple properties fighting it out. You had Star Wars, and that was more than enough wonder for a generation. The Star Wars Holiday Special didn’t serve that fanbase; it served the older viewers who loved the Holiday Special concept, and it especially served a four year California kid who just wanted to know more about the Wookiees.
The family, though, either didn’t want it, or in the case of my loving and patient wife, hated it like the neckbeards hated Rey.
No bother, says I, for there’s still some magic left in Life Day