While the debates among the Star Wars faithful rage on — about how each film should be ranked, which events are canon, or who shot whom and when — one simple truth remains. However high its highs, however great its triumphs, a franchise as long-lived and wide-ranging as Star Wars will inevitably produce a serious amount of utter crap.
Most of that crap can be laughed off or outright forgotten. Over the years, Star Wars has dipped into television, novels, comic books, toys, games, and every spin-off and merchandising opportunity imaginable, but most of it’s been tangential to the cornerstones of the franchise. Ephemeral stories and characters, dreamed up by creators far removed from former franchise czar George Lucas, who may or may not have been paying attention to one another’s work, can be readily discarded or disregarded.
But The Star Wars Holiday Special, released 40 years ago this month, cannot be dismissed so easily. Despite the minimal involvement of George Lucas, despite its minor-at-best plot relevance to the series, and despite, you know, being a thoroughly awful piece of entertainment, the special has become an indelible part of Star Wars lore. And as the franchise’s original misstep, coming only 18 months after A New Hope, it is destined to live in disco ball-tinged infamy as long as Star Wars persists.
The special gave us the first onscreen glimpse of the franchise’s vaunted “Extended Universe” with a pioneering expansion of the galaxy far far away. It can boast the first appearance of Boba Fett (as designed by future Captain America: The First Avenger director Joe Johnston). And most importantly, it has the imprimatur of legitimacy that comes from nearly all of the major players from Episode IV reprising their roles.
It’s hard to believe, but true. The presence of the headlining stars of the franchise, there to celebrate “Life Day” on Chewbacca’s home planet, makes it much tougher to cast aside this barrage of holiday-themed insanity. As tempting as it is to write off the special’s bizarre psychedelic detours and hacky comedy throwbacks, the audience still finds itself face to VHS-degraded face with Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford, in all their phoning-it-in glory, there to remind you that, like it or not, this really is Star Wars, and you’re just going to have to deal with it.
But however much the stars, the fans, and George Lucas himself might like to disown The Star Wars Holiday Special, it does offer a handful of redeeming moments, however few and far between they may be.
The highlight of the piece (to the extent something so dim can be said to cast any light at all) is Bea Arthur’s soft-warbled number, “Goodnight, But Not Goodbye”. Set at the famed cantina on Tatooine, the song (written by Ken and Mitzie Welch, parents of folksinger Gillian Welch) doesn’t exactly fit with the tone of A New Hope, but still manages a certain campy-but-sincere quality all its own. The piece is a Cabaret-meets-Cheers tune that the future Golden Girls star sells like a champ. Arthur wanders around the room, gamely cavorting with her patrons, and almost convinces you that she genuinely harbors some mild bit of affection for these rubber-masked aliens. The song doesn’t really work in the context of Star Wars — though the way it integrates the cantina theme deserves some recognition — but Arthur embraces the sugary kitsch of it all and delivers one of the special’s few winning segments.
The other saving grace within this pile of dreck, and indeed the only part of the special that Lucasfilm has ever officially released, is the animated segment at the halfway mark. George Lucas hired a Toronto company called Nelvana to animate a 10-minute Star Wars short for the special, and the results impressed him enough that he hired the company to tackle two future Star Wars animated shows: the Ewoks and Droids series.
The brief cartoon yarn does feel the most Star Wars-y of anything in the special, with a space-bound adventure, a shocking twist, and a new planet bustling with unusual alien life. But even this segment, entitled “The Faithful Wookiee”, leaves plenty to be desired. The designs and movements of the characters are downright bizarre, prompting the audience to wonder whether the animators had ever actually seen A New Hope. Luke himself looks like an escaped mental patient who just came back from a makeover while Han’s nose is longer than his blaster. C-3PO bobs along on his coils in a way never seen before or since, and R2-D2 bends and wobbles like he was made in a droid-shaped jello mold. While Boba Fett’s debut is memorable, the segment as a whole comes off like the fever dream of someone who caught the second reel of A New Hope at a bar one night.
Still, the special has other minor merits. As weird as it is to include a scene of Chewbacca’s elderly father watching a suggestive holographic video, Diahann Carroll sings the hell out of “This Minute Now”, a song that nevertheless scans more like a forgotten Bond theme than a part of the Star Wars universe. There’s a mildly redeeming sweetness to the way local trader Saun Dann (Art Carney) offers his affections to Chewie’s family once they’re able to celebrate Life Day in peace. And while it gives the special itself no greater credit, the 1970s commercials included in most bootleg versions of the film are endlessly fascinating as a time capsule of American culture and commerce.
But otherwise, The Star Wars Holiday Special is an onslaught of the predominantly dull, the overwhelmingly chintzy, and the occasionally bizarre. The “used future” aesthetic of A New Hope gives way to the special’s peculiar strain of psychedelia, from a parade of Seussian acrobats to the acid trip background of Carroll’s musical number to a lite brite-tinged performance from Jefferson Starship. And the production’s hideous Wookiee costumes, designed by famed special effects whiz Stan Winston, look like they were spray-painted and reused by future Solo director Ron Howard in his live action How the Grinch Stole Christmas movie.
The special is almost impressive in how many different, mildly avant-garde things it tries while managing to fail at pretty much all of them. The long stretches containing nothing but unsubtitled Wookiee growls quickly become exhausting. The broad attempts at comedy (most of them from Harvey Korman, donning a variety of costumes) are tepid and full of awkward dead spots. And the ending, which features a line of Wookiees walking into the sun and emerging into a community theater production of Eyes Wide Shut (with all of A New Hope’s main characters magically present for unspecified reasons) is the cherry on top of the perpetually bewildering cake.
Still, The Star Wars Holiday Special lives on in the hearts and minds of die-hard fans, even if we’re not exactly clamoring for another celebration of Life Day. It serves as a reminder that even in the earliest days of Star Wars, George Lucas and company were willing to put their good names on a steaming pile of bantha fodder.
The special itself may come off like an insane combination of space opera and variety show. But it’s also a monument to the fact that Lucas’ spin-off empire, which spanned both decades and mediums, started off with a stumble that makes The Phantom Menace look like The Empire Strikes Back. For all the rancor that persists to this very day about the purity of the franchise, what childhoods might have been ruined, and whose legacy is being trampled on, the first thing Star Wars fans saw after A New Hope confirmed that this franchise was never going to be a bed of roses. And yet the holiday special is still undeniably Star Wars, with all the greatness, terribleness, and downright strangeness that title would conjure up over the next 40 years.