Monday, December 31, 2018

The Star Wars Holiday Special

by G. Jack Urso 

The Star Wars Holiday Special's, first, and only, broadcast on November 17, 1978, on CBS, is an infamous entry in the Star Wars canon. The plot centers around Han Solo getting his faithful Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca back to his home planet Kashyyyk for the Life Day celebration. Of course, Imperial troops are after them and the bulk of the story shifts between the search for the two rebels and small vignettes of everyday life on the Wookie home planet. Widely regarded as an embarrassing flop, the show has nonetheless acquired a cult following. Two segments and the complete program are provided below from the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.

Various problems quickly emerge. First, the special is modeled as a variety show — a then-popular format near the end of its lifetime on American TV. Layered with songs, dance, humorous sketches, and not-so-witty one-liners, the result feels like your grandparents' version of Star Wars. The special effects typify late 70s video and computer technology. Blue screen chroma key effects are rather obvious. Instead of custom-built futuristic-looking computer housings, off-the-shelf systems are used, like repurposed commercial desktop computers, or cassette tape players disguised as data playback decks, with a little electronic flash to jazz it up, resulting in very cheap-looking stage props.
The special features several set pieces, including Harvey Korman in two short segments where he plays an alien chef and a malfunctioning robot. The alien chef bit is the better of the two items, showcasing Korman’s knack for accents and broad comedy; however, the malfunctioning robot bit is just painfully slow and unfunny. On a side note, famed fashion designer Bob Mackie, who previously worked with Korman on The Carol Burnett Show, did the costumes for the special. Ralph McQuarrie, tasked with making the preliminary concept drawings for Star Wars, did the illustrations. Also, James Earl Jones gets his first on-screen credit as the voice of Darth Vader.

Diahann Carroll sings "This Minute Now" to Chewbacca’s father, Itchy, in a virtual reality set-up (who seems to be enjoying it just a little too much). The Jefferson Starship shows up as a hologram performing “Light the Sky on Fire,” which, notably, is Marty Balin's last recorded performance with the group until 1993, having departed the band in October 1978 (see clip below). Bea Arthur (Maude, The Golden Girls) plays a bartender at the Mos Eisley Cantina, trading banal dialogue with an enamored alien barfly played by Harvey Korman before closing out the segment with an entirely forgettable song. Carrie Fisher solves the age-old question of “Are there lyrics to the Star Wars theme?” and immediately makes us regret the answer. To her credit, however, the young Fisher has a surprisingly pleasant singing voice, apparently having inherited the vocal cords of her parents, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher.

Other segments include holographic circus acrobats played by the Wazzan Troupe Dancers and Art Carney fumbling about trying to put Imperial troops off the scent of Han and Chewy. Bruce Vilanch, one of the writers, in a December 2008 Vanity Fair article, noted that Lucas insisted that no subtitles be used with the Wookies, which meant that someone who spoke English had to be around in every scene in order to repeat what the Wookies said in their own language. This slowed down the action and dumbed-down the story, as if that were even possible.

Of course, the stand-out segment is the animated sequence introducing Boba Fett to the Stars Wars universe (see below). The impact was immediate and fans couldn’t get enough of the grim, mysterious, cunning bounty hunter. While Darth Vader is a great villain, he’s the sort of character you save for the epic showdown. Fett fills in the space in-between, providing a sense of danger and threat to the protagonists without overusing the primary antagonist.

George Lucas, whose participation in the production was minimal, was so embarrassed by the final result that he disowned the program and once famously said that if he could destroy every copy, he would. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your opinion, fans who videotaped the program on early VCRs preserved the show and shared bootlegs at conventions, where I first came across it in 1992 after having seen it on TV during its only broadcast in 1978. Despite all that, and probably a little to Lucas’ chagrin, the program has secured such a unique place in the hearts of Star Wars fans that it is considered a canonical work.

For me, The Star Wars Holiday Special holds a nostalgic place. It aired exactly two weeks before my mother moved us out of the family home after the divorce from my father. In her rush to move, and recognizing the realities of going from a house to a small apartment, she left almost all of my toys behind, including my precious Stars Wars figures, as well as many other relics of my childhood. In that sense, our experiences can raise a simple piece of overblown pop culture ephemera, such as The Star Wars Holiday Special, into something a little more significant than if judged on its artistic merits alone.
From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube Channel: