To keep the Star Wars franchise at the forefront of viewers’ minds and to keep the corresponding toys on top of children’s lists to Santa, the Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) was born. Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope (1977) had taken the country by storm, but audiences had to wait until 1980 for the second installment of the saga to hit theaters. The special would bring Star Wars characters to the small screen and be right in time for holiday shopping. Luke Skywalker, C-3PO, Chewbacca, and R2-D2 had already been visiting variety shows to promote Star Wars, so a variety show set in the world of movie would be even better! 1978 was also a big year for holiday specials. Families could tune in to holiday exploits featuring everyone from the Pink Panther to Benji to two different specials from the gang at Sesame Street (1969). If the Star Wars franchise had not become a culturally iconic juggernaut, it may have been as forgettable as The Raggedy Ann and Andy in The Great Santa Claus Caper (1978).

The special follows the events of the original film. Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) are trying to get Chewbacca to his home to celebrate Life Day with his family, wife Malla (Mickey Morton), son Lumpy (Patty Maloney), and father Itchy (Paul Gale), but are being pursued by agents of the Galactic Empire. The special goes back and forth to Chewbacca and Solo, the Wookie home, and different entertainment programs the Wookies are watching on different pieces of technology adding to the variety show element.

The Good

I know, not many people use “good” and this special synonymously, but it does contain some good elements and some moments that are significant to the Star Wars franchise, even if it is debated if it is considered canon. George Lucas had consented to the special, even if his level of involvement is foggy and he has publicly renounced it. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) all reprise their roles from the film. A scene featuring Ackmena (Bea Arthur) running the Mos Eisley Cantina features many of the patrons found in the film including Bom Vimdin, Hem Dazon, and the cantina band, the Modal Nodes. Featuring the original main cast of Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope (1977) and background characters added an authenticity to the special, even if Lucas had to personally ask cast members, remind them of contractual obligations, and bribery; it is rumored that Fisher only agreed to appear if she could sing.

Even though the variety show aspect of the special made no sense plot wise and was the ultimate downfall…er…worst downfall of the production, there were some heavy hitters from the 1970’s that made guest appearances. As I mentioned before, Bea Arthur makes an appearance along with Art Carney and Harvey Korman. Carney and Korman attempt to add some comedic elements, but mostly fall flat. It is not the fault of the actors. They are trying to do the best with what they have been offered which is not much.

Even Korman, a comedic MVP from The Carol Burnett Show (1967), has his hands full playing three different characters. The first time we see Korman is in drag as Chef Gormaanda, a four-armed parody of Julia Child on a cooking show that Malla is trying to follow to cook a Life Day meal, but just cannot keep up with. The chuckles are few, but welcomed. His other two sketches are boring and last way too long.

The special marks the first time we are introduced to Bobo Fett in an animated sequence Lumpy watches on a viewscreen depicting one of Chewbacca and company’s many adventures. Possibly the quality is the fact that it was written by George Lucas. We really get no explanation for the cartoon. Is it a propaganda piece for the children of the members of the Rebel Alliance? Are stories of Chewbacca, Solo, and Skywalker so famous by this point that they are now pop icons within the Star Wars universe? Had the special been more successful, maybe this could have been a subtle pilot to a Saturday Morning cartoon? The cartoon is a brief, but nice return to the special’s target audience, kids. The segment was produced by Nelvana Studios, the same company that would produce Star Wars: Droids (1985) and Ewoks (1985).

The Bad

Lumpy gets some type of plastic card from Itchy and plugs it into some type toy that starts of miniature holographic acrobats and circus performers. This is simply the first of several long, boring, and odd variety acts that fill the special. The music that accompanies the performers is equally nonsensical and sounds musically bumbling.

Harvey Korman appears again, this time as a malfunctioning Amorphian android in an instructional video on a transmitter watched by Lumpy. Once again, the sketch lasts way too long and is not funny. It is just unnecessary filler used to pad the allotted time for special. Whenever the story with the Wookies and the Empire gains a little momentum, a weird sketch or song interrupts and slows down the pacing. It is as if the special was not sure who its audience was. Instead of targeting kids in order to sell more toys, it seems to be aimed at their grandparents.

Thanks to trader and secret friend of the Rebellion Saun Dann (Art Carney), the Wookies have way too many devices that all seem to be some sort of television or have video capabilities. They have a television set in the kitchen, a transmitter that comes with an instructional video, a video music box, a strange 3D viewer that creates your fantasy (more on that later), and a toy that projects hologram performances saved on to a disc. These all seem to be variations of television sets and VCR’s. It is sad and boring that these are as high tech as the Wookie planet is, but what do you expect from a species and race that live in giant tree houses?

If all the songs and sketches that did not involve the main plot were eliminated, we would still be left with a weak special, but at least a show that was cohesive. It would have been a forgettable footnote with poor reviews, but at least it would not have been painful. “Painful” being the best and most polite way to describe sitting through the two hour special. If it must be watched, please fast forward through most of the guest appearances and only watch what you can visually tell is has something to do with Star Wars. I am typically against severely editing material from its originally aired version, but this may be the only way to save the special which has not aired since its debut.

Like any dutiful child of the 1980s, I do love Bea Arthur, even though her Broadway-esque song in the cantina is just more filler, she does a beautiful job showcasing her voice and talent. It does slow down the pacing even though her scene is one of the more plot-related appearances of the special. Personally, it is weird, but epic that a Golden Girl sings in this special. It perfectly sums up how bizarre it is.

The Ugly

The beginning of the special is enough to make even the most curious of fans to turn it off. We have about a minute of Han Solo and Chewbacca in the Millennium Falcon and a standard 1970s opening showcasing the stars of the special which is nostalgic and fun. The next five minutes is excruciating Wookie speak without subtitles. Yes, for five minutes we have Chewbacca’s family interacting through Wookie noises that have been mixed from black bears, grizzly bears, and even the sound of a lion eating a cow’s head! After five minutes of these mixed noises and pantomime, the viewer has no idea what exactly is happening and has also lost interest.

Malla eventually uses a two-way video screen to contact Luke Skywalker and, thanks be to Luke, we learn she is concerned about Chewbacca because he has not made it home for the Life Day celebration. Later, she also contacts Trader Dann who is used for the same device. Luckily for the viewer, both Skywalker and Trader Dann repeat what Malla says when they answer her questions.

Further into the special, Trader Dann brings presents to his favorite Wookies, once again acting as a translator for any viewers who have decided to go down with the sinking ship and for the Storm Troopers and Imperial Guards who invade the home searching for members of the Rebel Alliance.

Trader Dann’s gifts to Malla and Lumpy are innocent enough. They get a video music box (which just happens to play a performance by The Jefferson Starship) and a transmitter respectively. Itchy is gifted with what Trader Dann simply calls the “wow!” The “wow” is some type of virtual reality viewer that creates an interactive image of his fantasy. Itchy’s fantasy just so happens to be Mermeia (Diahann Carroll), a humanoid woman who tells Itchy she is his “fantasy” and she wants him to “enjoy her.” Mermeia also points out that that Itchy is “excited.” The screen cutting back and forth from Mermeia to Itchy, who is using the device in the communal living room during Trader Dann’s visit is incredibly awkward and disturbing. The loosely suggestive and sexual dialogue is ill fitting in a family show that was written to sell toys to children. I can only imagine how disappointed dads must have been to discover there was no life-size Mermeia figure!

Not only must we question what the writers and director were thinking about the Mermeia scene, but we must wonder about Diahann Carroll’s mindset during filming. Aside from Princess Leia, the females of the show exist to cook in preparation for Life Day, perpetuate the male fantasy, and to be ignored or threatened as is the case when the cantina is closed due curfew imposed by the Empire. Carroll’s song “This Minute Now” that followed her softcore Star Wars porn introduction was lackluster and boring. If Itchy was indeed excited, he was not after the song!

By the end of the special, production was running out of time and money. Store bought candles were used and extras wore red robes with Don Post Studios Chewbacca masks. Don Post Studios was the manufacturer behind the William Shatner mask that was altered slightly to become Michael Myers’ mask in Halloween (1978). Chewbacca and an unexplained appearance by C-3PO, R2-D2, Chewbacca, Princess Leia, Han Solo, and Luke Skywalker add to the scene that never really gives us any insight into the Life Day ceremony. During this scene we must suffer through Fisher’s song which is to the tune of the Star Wars main theme, which is boring, but at least Fisher does her best with what she’s got.

“Doing the best with what we got” seems to be the theme of the Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) which was made to sell toys, even though, ironically, it generated no new toys. The special would have been mostly forgotten if the Star Wars saga and franchise was not so vast. In fact, the special has never been commercially released. It only aired once and resurfaced in the 1990s on bootlegged copies that were traded and sold at conventions. Since we live in the age of technology, the entire special is available to view for free on YouTube. Because suing due to copyright infringement would mean that Lucas or Disney would have to claim ownership of the special, it seems that it will be there to stay.

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