Celebrating Star Wars: ‘The Star Wars Holiday Special’ Is A Necessary Evil
As we approach the end of the Skywalker saga with Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, we here at Full Circle agreed it was time to take a look back. Every day until The Rise of Skywalker‘s release, we’ll be discussing every single theatrical project in the Star Wars franchise, in canonical order. However, we have decided to make one exception to this rule. Because now, it is time to discuss the project that tarnished Star Wars more than the Special Editions: The Star Wars Holiday Special.
Here’s a fun little exercise: imagine yourself in 1978, before Star Wars became one of the biggest franchises ever. Forget about all the sequels, prequels, and spin-offs that arrived in the wake of 1977’s Star Wars. At this moment, the only thing that defines Star Wars as a concept is one single record-breaking sci-fi movie. With that comes one big question: how do you follow through with the franchise potential that it establishes? Plans for a theatrical sequel are in motion, but that would not come out for another few years. This brings up the other dilemma: what can you do to quickly satisfy audiences craving for more Star Wars content?
For director Steve Binder, the answers to those questions involve creating a variety special with Star Wars characters. This idea is not inherently bad, as the film contains plenty of diverse worlds and personalities. Additionally, the holiday in question offers the opportunity to learn more about the iconic Wookiees. It was clear that after the introduction of Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), we would dive deeper into his species and the planet of Kashyyyk. In this respect, the special serves as a piece of world-building, which was a valuable thing Star Wars had to offer.
Too bad, then, that The Star Wars Holiday Special does not prioritize its world-building in the slightest. In fact, calling it a variety special is describing it politely. It is true that this special contains many elements such as sketch comedy, musical numbers, and even an animated segment. But it never manages to come together because these bits are wretched on their own terms. If that was not enough, they are also shockingly inept as components that expand the world of Star Wars. If you told me you got a good grasp on what Life Day was by watching this, I would call you a liar.
The problems with The Star Wars Holiday Special are nearly infinite. But the one that appears first is its time with Chewie’s family. Given that this family is the one concept straight from George Lucas, it had the potential to provide unique details about the Wookiees. After all, one of Lucas’s greatest strengths is making fantastical ideas into real and compelling ones. But you would not know that if you watched the scenes with Itchy (Paul Gale), Malla (Mickey Morton), and Lumpy (Patty Maloney). The dysfunctional family feels no different from a family you would see on a low-grade soap opera, with their expressions being too broad to feel genuine. Nowhere will you find the kind of casual charm that Chewie had in any of his family members.
If only being bland was the only issue with how it depicts Chewie’s family. In addition to Chewie being inherently likable, the other crucial aspect of his appeal is in his interactions with people like Han Solo (Harrison Ford). To the special’s credit, the opening scene consists of Han and Chewie continuing their strong banter. It is so strong, in fact, that we don’t even need subtitles to know what is in Chewie’s mind. By contrast, this family has no relatable character on which to easily connect. Watching their scenes, I never found a family member that I wanted to engage with on an emotional level. Every grunt they make comes off as unexpressive, and it does not help that their faces are incredibly stiff. As a result, the lack of subtitles becomes an active irritation instead of a mild quirk.
But worst of all is how the special uses its world for the most nonsensical sketches to ever grace television. None of the family members come out unscathed from its feeble attempts to entertain the audience. First, we see Lumpy watch an overlong, chintzy dance number that bears no connection to Life Day whatsoever. Not long after, we see Malla make a meal with the help of Chef Gormaanda (Harvey Korman). Apparently, the chef’s instructions of stirring and whipping and beating qualify as comedy. While this scene only lasts for a few minutes, the repetition of the steps makes it feel like a whole hour.
Unfortunately, it saves the most dire segment for last, as we see Itchy enjoy a psychedelic gift from Saun Dann (Art Carney). This leads us to a five-minute experience featuring the aforementioned Wookiee porn. It is here where the talented Diahann Carroll tries and fails to muscle through sexualized lines like “oh, we are excited, aren’t we” and “I am your experience”. Making matters worse is the subsequent musical number that strives for intimacy, but ends up being uncomfortably grandiose instead. To put it mildly, it is a sequence of cringe that represents the true nadir of all Star Wars content.
Still, this soul-sucking variety act gives its new characters something to do. As it turns out, this is a lot more than one can say about the principal characters. In the case of Han, his minimal screen-time and Binder’s unfocused direction restrict him from having any personality. In every other scene, he is one step away from dozing off right there on set! Leia (Carrie Fisher) does not fare much better either, as she matched Han’s disengaged expressions more often than not. Lastly, if you thought Luke (Mark Hamill) was insufferably peppy in Star Wars, his brief interactions with the Wookiees emphasize that issue to new heights.
By the time it gets to the animated segment, it honestly feels like seeing a pond in the middle of a desert. Sure, the character designs are deformed beyond belief, with Han looking more like an abstract art piece than a human. And like every other sequence, it does little to expand on the significance of Life Day. But this deformed aesthetic at least gives it a more memorable style than anything else in the 97-minute runtime. Not to mention, this marks the introduction of the now-iconic bounty hunter Boba Fett. In just one scene, he effortlessly sells the idea of bounty hunters in space. Decades later, it is great to see newer Star Wars properties like The Mandalorian expand on this concept.
What makes The Star Wars Holiday Special feel like a missed opportunity is that it does present a much better premise. Near the end of the special, we get to revisit the Mos Eisley cantina from the first movie. What made that cantina so notable in the movie was that it housed a diverse set of creatures and personalities. Thankfully, the same thing applies here. As we see the various inhabitants celebrate their last moments before the cantina shuts down, it is hard not to connect emotionally to their situation. Top that off with the presence of Bea Arthur, the only cast member to come out unscathed by the material, and you get a segment that is actually somewhat tolerable. It is just a shame that the folks in the cantina are the least of its priorities.
In every other facet, this special warrants many of its scathing critiques. But after thinking about its impact on the series as a whole, I cannot help but appreciate it as a historical event. In the following years, franchise regulars have done whatever they can to ignore it. At best, people like Lucas and Ford treat this as something that should not have been made. At worst, they treat this as something that does not even exist. In both cases, I could not disagree more with such a mentality.
Simply put, The Star Wars Holiday Special is the kind of disaster that deserves at least some respect. Without this special, future projects would be more likely to plunge into unspeakably bad territory. Even the prequels knew better than to spend five minutes on something like Wookiee porn. It is a calamitous spectacle like no other, and I cannot help but be grateful for every second of it. – Mark Tan
The Star Wars Holiday Special is available on Digital HD.
The special stars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman, Art Carney, and Diahann Carroll.