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The Star Wars Holiday Special

In 1977, Star Wars (later retitled "A New Hope") was released. Those who weren't there can hardly imagine the impact. So when a second production came out, everyone was—well, bewildered, actually. Not The Empire Strikes Back, that came later (1980). Before that was the Star Wars Holiday Special, a made-for-TV special in 1978 which is now very hard to get hold of.

Everyone was expecting more Star Wars: the amazing special effects, the mythical elements, the romance... What they got was a Christmas special , with no very remarkable special effects[1] apart from a few clips taken from the film, and a loose story within which there were a lot of random celebrity appearances, songs, etc. Compared to the average Christmas special of this type and period, it really isn't that bad, though it is admittedly quite peculiar in parts. But compared to a ground-breaking film that had blown everyone away, it was a bit of a disappointment, to put it mildly. Looking back now, the comparison is even sharper, both because of the later Star Wars films, and because all the ordinary Christmas specials of the time have long since been forgotten.

According to some sources, George Lucas was worried about whether a sequel (The Empire Strikes Back) would work. Sequels weren't generally very successful in those days—one of many ways in which the film industry of the time was different from now. Financially the high cost of the sequel was causing worries. He wanted to keep Star Wars in popular consciousness. So why not the tried-and-tested Christmas comedy-variety show?

It's really only in hindsight that one can see how completely off-beam this thinking was. As with many things in history, afterwards it seems obvious, but before it happened it wasn't.[2] Star Wars wasn't so much a set of characters as an experience. The Holiday Special doesn't give you that experience.

In a way, watching the Holiday Special is a glimpse of an alternative reality, in which there never was a sequel. In this reality Star Wars stands alone, with a few small spin-offs which are just pleasant reminders. The Holiday Special would still be rather bad, of course, but it would not seem so totally strange.

There is, of course, a website devoted to it. On the home page we find this comment: "The Star Wars Holiday Special aired one time only on November 17, 1978... and it never aired again, some would say for good reason. But people are still talking about it today, and despite its flaws there's a certain charm to it that is certainly a thing of its time. ... And we've continued our celebration of this show."

So, what happens in the special? The story is that Han Solo is bringing Chewie (Chewbacca) home to his family for Life Day, which is the Wookiee[3] "Holidays" holiday. However, the Empire is after them, though we don't see much of this since that would involve expensive special effects. Meanwhile Chewie's family (his wife Malla, his aged father Itchy, and his son Lumpy) are in their tree-house waiting around, getting ready by such exciting space activities as washing dishes and taking out rubbish. For quite a long time, we have domestic scenes like any family at Christmas, except that they're sasquatches grunting incomprehensibly without subtitles. A trader, who is actually with the Rebel Alliance, makes periodic appearances and assists them. Luke and Princess Leia communicate with the Wookiees on view-screen from labs. Imperial stormtroopers come to the Wookiee house searching for rebels, and hang round for some time. They don't quite fit the light tone.[4] The Tattooine cantina makes an appearance too, though it's a bit tamer than the last time we were there. I won't tell you all the exciting details of the plot, so as not to spoil it.

Eventually of course Han and Chewie arrive. There is a Life Day ceremony, and Princess Leia makes a speech how we are all united despite our differences, and sings. It's Carrie Fisher herself singing, incidentally. Leia still has the outfit and hairstyle from the first film, and even if for no other reason, it's worth seeing the Special, if you haven't, just for a last, poignant look at Carrie Fisher as she was in the first film.[5] Carrie Fisher gives the best performance of the Holiday Special; her Life Day number may be a bit unsophisticated but it's on a higher level than the rest.

During all this there are a range of variety acts, some strange, some quite good. Jefferson Starship play a number, which gets the Imperial Guard's finger tapping. The weirdest thing however is a scene in which the trader gives the grandfather a sort of cassette for a device which makes a non-contact neural link and produces some sort of virtual reality in his mind. In this case it produces his fantasy woman, who says she adores him. "I am in your mind, as you create me ... ooh, yes ... I can feel my creation ... I'm getting your message—are you getting mine?" Cut to Itchy wriggling and grunting in the chair, despite the fact that everyone is around. The scene seems to be getting even heavier, but fortunately she starts singing instead. Now, I mean, that's a good SF idea, but surely there's a time and a place? Oh well, I suppose it's the 1970s.

There's also a scene in which we watch a cartoon (that Lumpy is watching) about Chewie's adventures. The general consensus is that it isn't at all bad, and is the only part which really belongs in Star Wars as we know it. It introduced Boba Fett, who is riding a sort of dinosaur on a planet of red sludge. He lets them think he's a friend at first—though there are clues you should have noticed that he is Not A Nice Person. It's definitely worth watching.

So—it has some weird stuff, a few quite good bits, quite a few bad bits, and a lot of Wookiee conversation. If you're a Star Wars fan you have to see it.

Some people really don't like it. (George Lucas is apparently one.) Some people like it in a so-bad-it's-good way. (From what I have read Carrie Fisher may have been in this category.) Some people find it a guilty pleasure. (Very guilty.) And I have to say, many people think it's better than The Last Jedi.

[1] The technical level is comparable to Dr Who of the same period, probably a bit better. [Return]

[2] Well, certainly I didn't need Star Wars to be kept in consciousness, and neither did anyone I knew. [Return]

[3] Apparently that's how you spell it. It isn't in the OED yet though. [Return]

[4] Battles in space are one thing, but the fascists coming into your house, threatening you, and ransacking your child's bedroom, is less fun. [Return]

[5] Perhaps this is especially poignant for those of us who saw her in the original Star Wars when it came out in 1977, the young, beautiful Princess Leia who takes charge of her own rescue. (She does appear in a brief, computer-generated scene at the end of Rogue One, but I'm assuming fans will already have seen that. Perhaps because her image there is computer-generated it somehow lacks the strength and energy of the real Carrie Fisher.) [Return]

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