Sunday, May 4, 2014

May the 4th: The Holiday Special

(Originally Written for Jedi News)

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…


Episode ???


Starring Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, 

Harrison Ford as Han Solo, and Carrie Fisher

as Princess Leia.

With Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, Peter Mayhew as

Chewbacca, R2-D2 as R2-D2, and James Earl Jones

as the voice of Darth Vader.

Introducing Chewbacca’s Family: His wife, Malla;

His father, Itchy; His son, Lumpy.

With special guest stars: Beatrice Arthur, Art Carney,

 Diahann Carrol, The Jefferson Starship, Harvey Korman,

and an animated Star Wars story on the Star Wars

Holiday Special…

In 1978, after the screaming success of A New Hope (then simply the first and only Star Wars), someone got the idea to make a TV special around Christmastime. Who exactly had the idea has been disputed for years. This should tell you something.

George Lucas granted the writers a general story outline and then stayed out of the way to see what the creative team could do with it. The directing duties ended up changing hands due to infighting. This should tell you something else.

The show aired once and has since only survived by bootleg copies taped from TV sets. George Lucas himself has gone on record saying he wishes he could find every last copy and burn it.

I’ve got a BAD feeling about this…

"Fasten your seatbelts..."

This special is pretty much the dictionary definition of the word “infamous,” and I’ll be honest; this is one of the ones I was looking the least forward to viewing and reviewing. Even though I’ve never seen it, its ungodly reputation precedes it.

But is it truly as bad as they say?

Frankly, it never is. Though parts of it do come close in this case.

See, the fundamental flaw of the piece is that rather than give us simply a new adventure, it quickly becomes apparent that this special is actually a classic 70’s cheesy variety show. Which is all well and good, except that the segments seem to come almost out of nowhere and don’t seem to fit the atmosphere of the framing story, which is at least attempting to be a Star Wars story.

Oh, that’s right. I have to explain the framing story because for some odd reason this special has no opening crawl. Just a cold open and the announcement of the cast that I wrote in the crawl’s place above.

Well, the framing story is as follows: the Wookiee holiday Life Day is fast approaching (as there is no such thing as Christmas a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away). Han Solo is trying to get Chewbacca back to his family on Kashyyyk for the celebration. However, the Empire is closing in on both fronts and making life difficult for the Wookiees.

"*Grandfather, tell me of the time you starred in 'Congo.'*"

So the majority of the special is spent with Malla, Itchy, and Lumpy. Those last two are rather unfortunate names, and I’m told that the Expanded Universe writers who used the characters in later material gave them extended names in an attempt to salvage their dignity. Also, it’s a good 15 minutes between Han’s lines in the cold open and the appearance of another English-speaking character. During this interval, we get our establishing sequence with the Wookiees who speak unsubtitled Shyriiwook. This is an…odd choice, and likely what started to turn viewers away.

Honestly, though, it doesn’t bother me, because of what is my first overwhelmingly positive point in this special: the actors behind Malla, Itchy, and Lumpy are really, really good. They get across so much with just their body language and their telling looks. Not to mention the fact that the animatronics/costumes, courtesy of Stan Winston no less, are also surprisingly well-done and believable for the time period.

"*You put that cookie back. Those are for guests.*"

Plus, there’s the little fact that this is the first appearance of Kashyyyk itself in media, and it would not reappear on film until over 25 years later in Revenge of the Sith – and its appearance there was based on Lucas and Ralph McQuarrie’s designs for this special.

So then the special is basically the Wookiees waiting for Chewbacca, and having to fend off an Imperial inspection while trying to contact both familiar and unfamiliar faces. Of these, it’s really Art Carney who is the best as a lovable trader named Saun Dann. While at first it seems incredible that the original cast of the film reappears, it’s a little jarring. First of all, Han Solo is uncharacteristically serious through the whole thing. Ford pulls it off, but it’s out of character. Thank goodness Mark Hamill is right back into classic Luke Skywalker mode…

"Life in plastic...not so fantastic."

…except holy bantha beaks. This was right after Mark’s unfortunate car accident and subsequent facial reconstruction. Explained away in Empire Strikes Back with a Wampa claw to the face, poor Mark looks like a reanimated Ken doll here. While, like I said, he’s the same old Luke in voice and mannerisms, this look is supremely distracting.

And then there’s Carrie Fisher, who was…

"I know that dude..."

…let’s just say “impaired” through her two appearances. This, by the way, is by Carrie’s own admission, if it wasn’t obvious from watching her.

The other skits come in and out while the family is waiting, and sometimes used as a distraction for the Imperial Officers that come calling. So I think it’s only fair to judge each segment individually.

The first is a series of acrobats that Lumpy watches through a holotable.

"*Dance for me, strange creatures.*"

It’s a nice performance, but it leaves us asking…well…why?

After this is a cooking show that Malla watches that is populated by the first of this special’s three Wacky Harvey Korman characters, Chef Gormaanda. Now, I love Harvey Korman, and I get the joke here, but for some reason I find it goes on just a bit too long with a minor payoff at best.


Then there’s Diahann Carrol’s segment, which has perhaps the most disturbing lead-in imaginable: Saun sets Itchy up with some virtual-reality erotica. I’m not kidding, it’s pretty blatant.

"And I do mean 'WOW'!"

And the resulting musical number is not my style, though I suppose there’s nothing really wrong with it other than it’s kind of slow.

"Just what I always wanted."

The next variety segment is a performance by Jefferson Starship which…again, this is completely subjective, but I’m not a huge fan. Plus I have to admit tilting my head at the general atmosphere of the segment, especially the “microphones.”

"Seriously, can we even show this on network television?!"

I bet you’ve all been waiting for me to get to the next part, which is the animated segment. It’s a cute little serial story starring Mark, Harrison, Carrie, and Anthony. However, what distracted me is that it’s clear whoever animated it is a huge Ralph Bakshi fan, since a lot of the creature design seems like it came right out of his adaptation of Heavy Metal. But you guys don’t care about that; you want to know how I felt when I saw this sucker:

"I'm looking for a well-endowed woman riding a pterosaur."

Yes, this is the legendary first appearance of Boba Fett, and I can see why Lucas brought him in for Empire and Jedi. Funnily enough, when I watch Boba here with his subtle disarming kindness and his soft accented voice, he reminds me more of Jango Fett than the Boba we’d see just a few short years later.

Then there’s an instructional video for Lumpy’s new toy starring Harvey Korman, and I feel the same way about that skit as I do about the Gormaanda sketch.

But Harvey redeems himself in the next sketch opposite Bea Arthur and the Cantina crew. It was surprisingly heartwarming, and I found Arthur’s character Ackmena – the Cantina bartender – extremely engaging. Arguably, this is the best non-story segment in the special. Even the musical number didn’t seem so out-of-place.

"Come back soon. I'll be waiting."

And that’s really the secret to enjoying this special. As a whole, it’s a giant mess, and I can’t blame Lucas for being ashamed of letting it happen. However, there are enough really good ideas and performances that, if you give each piece a chance, you’ll find something worthwhile. If you’re a Star Wars fan, at least.

Next week, we find out what happens when George Lucas has even more influence in a Television project…


  1. Yeah, I just remember most of it being unimaginably dull, if never outright awful. Though I remember not being as huge on the animated portion as much as other people were (and the phrase "whoever animated it is a huge Ralph Bakshi fan" fills me with a unique sort of terror), but then little of it's really remained in my memory since watching it.

    But yeah, from memory "cheesy 70s variety show" seems to sum it up pretty well. One wonders what would've happened had they roped in Burnett as well with Korman (answer: it probably would've been ludicrously fantastic).

    1. Not a particular fan of Bakshi? I can't say I blame you - he's a fantastic animator, but his style and subject matter can be an acquired taste, and sometimes I think he goes overboard just for the sake of it. Though I still appreciate his work.

      But yeah, like I said, while the Special as a whole is a mess, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I found to like about it. Not enough for me to ever watch it again, but...

    2. It's his animation that turns me off, actually- I find his designs lackluster, his direction awkward and claustrophobic, and his actual animation messy and rather cartoonish in a bad way. His LOTR holds the dubious honor of being my least favorite animated film purely because of how it looks (since the script itself is actually pretty solid).