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cultural vandal | by maryann johanson

The Star Wars Holiday Special (review)

Deck the Halls with Force-ful Folly

Here’s what you have to do in order to survive The Star Wars Holiday Special: Don’t watch it. If you must, then 1) Have alcohol or some other inebriating substance close to hand — a rock to bang against your skull will do in a pinch. And 2) Remember that your tender 10-year-old self probably witnessed this atrocity the one time it aired on TV to unsuspecting, nay, eager audiences, and suffered such psychological trauma that your brain blocked off the memory in order to spare you further harm; know that you may suddenly experience violent flashbacks to Christmas 1978 as that mental wound is viciously reopened.
This entertainment travesty could well be a public-service announcement about how cashing-in movie tie-ins can go horribly wrong. “Here is 1970s variety-show kitsch. Here is 1970s variety-show kitsch done up Star Wars style. Any questions?” Many questions come to mind, of course, starting with “Who thought this was a good idea, and how was he punished?”, continuing on to “Oh dear god in heaven, did no one think of the children?”, and concluding with “Why can’t I tear my aghast gaze away?”

How appallingly wrongheaded an idea this “holiday special” was is rather neatly summed up by the opening credits, which start out appropriately enough by running down the “regular” cast — “Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia,” and so on — but then move on to the “guest stars,” and by “move on” I mean “proceed to pierce sensitive young minds with a hot poker of cognitive ruin,” and by “guest stars” I mean Bea Arthur, Art Carney, Diahann Carroll, the Jefferson Starship, and Harvey Korman. I wish I could say I was making that up, but I’m very sorry to report that this is why you’ve been roused from fitful sleep drenched in sweat all these long years in the midst of distressing nightmares in which Princess Leia in her metal bikini is yodeling to Tim Conway on The Carol Burnett Show.

It’s all such an absurdly, perfectly twisted parody of 1970s pop culture that if The Star Wars Holiday Special did not exist, someone would have had to invent it and consequently be sued by Lucas. Not for copyright infringement — Lucas smiles benignly on fan films, apparently, as long as no one is making any money off them — but for defamation of character. Because this is all so iniquitous that for some wag to imply even as a joke that a fellow human being might have in all seriousness put forth such a monstrosity would be an insult of the level that could only be met by a duel at dawn.

But Lucas did, in fact, actually let loose this monstrosity on the world, and hence — being unable to sue the universe for slander since the universe has truth on its side — now pretty much simply denies its existence. (One can imagine Lucas practicing his Jedi mind tricks: “This isn’t the holiday special you’re looking for. You don’t need to see this bootleg VHS.”) Of course, I cannot reveal how a copy of The Star Wars Holiday Special came into my hands, because then I’d have to kill you — or more probably, George Lucas would have to kill you. And on the advice of counsel I can say nothing at all about the rumors that copies can be quite easily conjured up via the magical incantation of the words “e” and “bay.”

Some superdorky completist fans believe that they do, in fact, need to see this, because it features the first appearance anywhere by Boba Fett, who shows up in a cartoon interlude of what is unfortunately a mostly live-action endeavor. The interlude is notable for reasons other than the bounty hunter’s debut, including its quite-dreadful animation and vaguely Yellow Submarineesque imagery, some of which features Boba Fett riding a dinosaur. Also, the cartoon also has lines like “Boba, you’re a hero and a faithful friend,” uttered by Luke, who, as well all know, later will feed this pal of his to the ravenous bugblatter beast of Tatooine.

Very much more unpleasant, however, is the context in which this cartoon appears: it is viewed on a little computer thingie by Lumpy, Chewbacca’s son, which means that Lumpy is watching a fictional story — or at least a dramatization of true events — about real people in his world. Which prompts all sorts of questions, like Are the rebels media stars in this faraway galaxy? Is this why Imperial stormtroopers and officers burst into Chewbacca’s home on Life Day, the most sacred day in the Wookiee calendar, and destroy Lumpy’s stuffed Bantha (yes, this all really happens), out of sheer jealousy because they’re just not getting the talk-show appearances and book contracts the sexier rebels are?

The whole sorry “story” of The Star Wars Holiday Special revolves around Wookiees and the deplorable state of their media culture, actually. Maybe it’s cuz it’s a big day of celebration — Chewie is rushing home to be with his family on Life Day, whatever that is — that everyone seems to spend so much time here watching some kind of mass media (like how we traditionalists spend Thanksgiving watching King Kong and Mighty Joe Young movies). It’s the quality of what they’re watching that gives one pause. Lumpy watches not only the Boba Fett documentary/cartoon but also some bad holographic Cirque du Soleil performances. His mother, Chewie’s wife, Mala, watches a cooking show featuring Harvey Korman in drag preparing “the tenderest cut of the Bantha, the loin” and moaning “Beat beat beat stir whip! Beat beat beat stir whip!” in another one of those moments you’ll suddenly recognize from your disturbing and deep-rooted night terrors. Chewie’s father, Itchy, in one of the most disquieting bits of visual “entertainment” I’ve ever seen, sits under what looks like a dome hairdryer and watches Diahann Carroll in what appears to be a TV psychic infomercial and/or a shampoo ad. And then she starts singing and Itchy — who is a skeevy little Wookiee at the best of times — gets all horny for her. I gotta tell ya, it’s some of the creepiest shit I’ve ever seen. No wonder we Xers are all such a mess — they let us watch this as kids. No, worse: we were programmed to let that shoot right into our collective subconscious. There we were, sitting in front of the boob tube in our Luke Skywalker jammies, all receptive and open and trusting and accepting, and then a hairy little ape-creature was getting turned on by a human woman. I think it’s safe to say that we were all forever scarred psychically by that.

And that’s before all the fascist intimidation and racial condescension got mixed in with the holiday cheer! You know, the soldiers come in and toss the Chewbacca house, but thank the Maker friend-of-the-family Art Carney is present so he can invite the Imperial pigs to make themselves at home while he whips them up something to eat in the kitchen, even though, heh, you know how awful Wookiee food is! (“Why all the long hairy faces?” Carney wants to know. It’s like a minstrel show, with all the hackneyed Wookiee jokes — this galaxy ain’t so far far away after all.)

Did I mention that lending credence to the vaudeville atmosphere is the fact that Mark Hamill is inexplicably wearing so much eyeliner that your eyes tear up in sympathy? Did I mention that Bea Arthur plays a cantina bartender and that just when you did not think this disaster could get any more horrifying, she breaks out in a song that’s like Les Misérables‘ “Master of the House,” only hideously evil? Did I mention that even that cannot prepare you for Princess Leia singing the traditional Life Day carol?

If there’s a single greatest testament the power of Star Wars, it’s that we all still went to see The Empire Strikes Back a mere two years after undergoing the ordeal of the Holiday Special. Maybe George Lucas can do Jedi mind tricks after all.

MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb
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