Star Wars is going strong at Disney. Apart from a few bumps in the road (Solo comes to mind), the franchise is getting ready for 2019’s Episode IX. However, there is one forgotten piece of the old canon that won’t be brought back.
This is, of course, the Star Wars Holiday Special.
After the release of A New Hope, George Lucas to expand the franchise even more, and television felt like an ideal choice. However, he would not be hands on with a CBS TV special, since Empire Strikes Back was in the works. The project would thus be left in other hands. Cue the Jaws theme in the background.
Chewbacca and Han are trying to make it home for the all-important Life Day. Back on the Wookie planet Kashyyk, Chewie’s family- father Itchy, wife Malla, and son Lumpy- are awaiting his return. The majority of these scenes are done in pantomime with no subtitles. In the words of writer Bruce Vilanch, the result feels ““like one long episode of Lassie”, and it really shows. The audience receives long sequences of Wookies growling and roaring. Not exactly subtle, right?
Aside from the domestic Wookie plot, the Empire is conducting a search for Rebel spies. All the while, the story jumps from one set piece to another in a disjointed manner. There are a few musical numbers, and some celebrities pop up every now and then. Art Carney plays a supporting role as a friendly trader, although he’s basically doing his Honeymooners shtick. Harvey Korman appears as a multi-limbed chef on an intergalactic cooking show. God knows what Bantha Surprise tastes like.
The Star Wars Holiday Special is unique in getting most of the film’s principal characters to appear. Reportedly, it took some doing to convince them to do the program. Mark Hamill is chipper and buoyant as Luke, but he seems to be wearing a heavy layer of pancake makeup. His struggle with R2D2 on fixing the X-Wing provides a small dose of comedy.
Harrison Ford returns as Han, but he almost seems sheepish at what he’s gotten himself into. During the intro, one can see Ford with an expression of disgust. Another memorable bit has him telling the Wookies they are like family to him. Whereas this could have been sappy, it comes off as unintentionally hilarious.
Carrie Fisher reprises her role as Leia. Towards the end, she even gets to sing an original song set to the tune of the Star Wars theme, intercut with Hamill and Ford looking chagrined. “She was going through her Joni Mitchell period,” Vilnach tells Vanity Fair. “And there was general dismay because this was not what we wanted Princess Leia to be doing.”
The combination of action/adventure with variety show humour is odd, to say the least. While it is amusing to see Jefferson Starship singing about UFOs, the mashing of genres does not work. Nor does the hologram of acrobatic display seem inspiring.
That is not to say it is all bad. We do get a glimpse of what everyday life is like under Imperial control in the Outer Rim Territories. Bea Arthur provides a welcome presence as the bartender in the Cantina sketch. When the Empire issues a curfew on the Mos Eisley establishment, Arthur sings “Goodnight But Not Goodbye” to convince the patrons to leave.
At the time, Arthur was the star of Maude and a frequent participant of variety specials. If anything, her cameo is entertaining to watch. We can even see the Cantina band playing in the background.
Perhaps the most hilarious moment comes when Grandpa Itchy watches a virtual hologram device. In his fantasy, he sees an alluring woman (Diahnann Caroll) who can “feel” her creation. “I’m getting your message,” she says. “Are you getting mine?”
We cut to Itchy shuddering and moaning in his chair. “Oh, we are excited, aren’t we?” the woman asks. “I’ll tell you a secret- I think you’re adorable,” which Itchy keeps rewinding and playing. Talk about getting crap past the radar.
Of all these moments, the special’s biggest moment is the animated Boba Fett segment. Nelvana would provide the animation for the cartoon. In this vignette, the Millennium Falcon crew land on a water planet and encounter a giant monster. After Han and Luke contract a mysterious virus, Chewie teams up with Boba Fett to find the cure.
To be fair, the animation feels rubbery, and Han even looks like Adam Driver. However, this marks the debut of everyone’s favourite bounty hunter to the Star Wars universe. In fact, the segment has seen release before- as a bonus feature on the 2011 Complete Saga Blu-Ray set.
Needless to say, George Lucas does not think too highly of the Holiday Special. He’s on record as infamously wishing he could destroy every copy in existence. The late Carrie Fisher once said she has a bootleg copy that she would play to drive away party guests who wouldn’t leave. In an infamous television interview, Conan O’Brien embarrasses Harrison Ford by playing a clip of Han’s interaction with the Wookies.
If there is any lesson to be learned, it is one should not let too many cooks in the kitchen. Or rather what works on film doesn’t necessarily work on television. Jon Favreau will no doubt do something different with his upcoming Star Wars series.
Fans can only wonder if we’ll ever see an official DVD release. Since Disney is preparing Episode IX and the TV series, it is unlikely they’ll give the Holiday Special any thought. However, it does exist thanks to bootleg versions and the Internet.
Regardless of its status, the Star Wars Holiday Special has its moments of camp and comedy. Sure, it might not be part of the new canon, but the redheaded stepchild of the universe is amusing to watch.