The 12 Days of Christmas Episodes, TV

The 12 Days of Christmas Episodes Day 7 – The Star Wars Holiday Special

In honor of today’s big event, I’m covering a Christmas episode I’ve wanted to do for years. That’s right, it’s the Star Wars Holiday Special. It’s been disavowed by George Lucas, panned by critics, and isn’t officially available in any form. (*cough* YouTube *cough*) It is crazy, and to do it proper justice, I’m forsaking the usual 12 Days format and going Full Recap.

The Star Wars Holiday Special

Original airdate: November 17, 1978

Here’s the first amazing thing about this special. Harrison Ford is in it. He’s in the very first scene! And right away, it looks like they didn’t have access to official props and costumes, because Han Solo seems to be wearing a dress shirt. (It gets worse – when we see her, Leia’s signature buns look like novelty headphones.) Han and Chewbacca are being pursued by Star Destroyers as they try to get to Chewbacca’s home planet for “Life Day”.

Let me just say this. Harrison Ford is great. The guy shaped my childhood. But sometimes you can tell when he just doesn’t care. Here? He just doesn’t care. And he’s right not to, don’t get me wrong.

Cut to Chewie’s home planet where he has a wife(!) named Malla, a son(!!) named Lumpy, and a dad named Itchy. You know how Chewbacca’s costume is kind of perfect? These are not. These are TV versions. Itchy especially doesn’t even read as a Wookiee – he has too much visible face. He looks more like a nightmare from Harry and the Hendersons. They live in a tree house that has appliances and kitchen counters. They growl at one another, and maybe Lumpy is getting yelled at? Also, Malla is wearing an apron. We’re in a special kind of hell, people.

Lumpy walks on the railing of the tree house, which looks dangerous and also couldn’t make it more clear that he’s wearing furry pants. Malla and Itchy look at a picture of Cherwbacca, and that gets weirder the more you think about it. Is there any indication that photography exists in this universe? Or books? Or anything beyond a rudimentary commerce that consists of paying off crime lords with an unspecified currency? It’s weird, because for all that Star Wars is a part of our lives, the universe has no definition beyond the parts that involve fighting Darth Vader. I think that’s why tie-ins seem so strange – in order to tell a story that isn’t about fighting Darth Vader, you have to bring in these new elements that are inherently out-of-place.

It doesn’t make this good, you understand. It just accentuates the weirdness that’s already in place.

Lumpy comes back in, so the rail-walking meant nothing. Everybody growls at one another and makes big gestures, and it’s interminable. They watch a table hologram of people in leotards doing somersaults. Lumpy is super into this, and I like to imagine that everybody in 1978 immediately know who these performers were because they were huge at the time. It’s not impossible. I mean, Mumenschanz was a thing.

Anyway, Lumpy is delighted. Malla makes him wash the dishes and then she turns on what could not looked more like a TRS-80. It is definitely a prop from Radio Shack. A screen informs her “YOU HAVE REACHED TRAFFIC CONTROL”, which might be the only instance of written language in the Star Wars canon. (Yes, I’m counting this as canon.) And it’s English, so everybody else can suck it. She is informed that there are no starships in the area. Then they turn on a different screen to talk to Luke Skywalker, who’s all “Hey, it’s Chewbacca’s family” like this happens every day. For the purposes of this scene, Luke speaks Wookiee.

They tell Luke (who’s wearing a costume that is one step above Ben Cooper) that Chewbacca isn’t there, but Luke assures him that he’s never missed a Life Day yet. How many Life Days have happened since they met? Like, one? Luke coaxes a smile out of Malla in what will definitely not be the creepiest thing we’re going to see tonight. With that, we’re fourteen minutes in and eleven of those minutes have been untranslated growls and juggling.

Then Malla does something on her computer that lets her watch video feed of an Imperial solder harassing a shopkeeper (Art Carney). I don’t know. I’m also not sure I’ve ever seen this Imperial costume before, but that’s the least of our worries. Carney manages to convey to Malla that Chewbacca is on his way by speaking in code. The Imperial is maybe the worst actor I’ve ever seen, and I am familiar with both The Room and the work of Mischa Barton. A “comedy” “bit” follows wherein Carney tricks the Imperial into taking a personal grooming device.

Darth Vader! This is clearly not the real Vader costume, nor is it David Prowse wearing it. Vader here is a little on the short side. There’s even a forced perspective where he’s always closer to the camera than whoever he’s talking to, and even then he’s the same height they are. Nothing happens in this scene.

Remember, this was 1978. Sequels were not a given and spoilers were virtually non-existent. Star Wars ends with Darth Vader spinning out into the void of space in an inoperable TIE fighter. This right here is the first official confirmation that he survived the first movie.

Back on the Wookiee planet (Yes, I know it’s Kashyyyk, but they haven’t identified it yet. It’s also not named in any of the original movies, so why do we all know that?), Malla turns on a TV(!) to watch a cooking show hosted by Harvey Korman (!!) in drag (!!!) . Also, it totally reads as blackface, but I’ll write that off to terrible video quality.

Harvey’s cooking “Bantha Surprise”. (“Hey, what’s a Star Wars animal? We need a name for this bit!”) It goes on forever, and the joke is that Malla can’t keep up because the chef has four arms. That’s actually not a bad joke if they were to do it in thirty seconds, but this goes on for days. (I’m willing to bet this bit is the inspiration for Elzar on Futurama.)

Hey, it’s Han and Chewie again! We get some reused TIE Fighter footage and close-up reaction shots. There’s a problem and Han has to operate the guns manually! And because nobody involved cares, the TIE Fighters are seen flying away from the Falcon and still firing their weapons in the opposite direction.

The Empire declares martial law on Planet Wookiee and the guy in the announcement says “further note” instead of “further notice”. (“Hey, he blew the line. Do you want to do another take?” *sound of cocaine being snorted* “Nah, it’s fine.”) Also, he speaks the name of the planet and clearly says “Kazook”. Your Expanded Universe novels are incorrect! Art Carney comes to the Chewbacca family home with Life Day presents.

Lumpy goes up to the attic to open his present and it seems to be maybe a LEGO set? The terrible video quality is not doing me any favors. Malla gets something that looks like a sewing machine and it seems like that’s what this special would give her. And for Itchy, it’s some kind of VR chair. Art Carney sounds like the dirtiest old man as he explains it’s a “Wow. If you know what I mean.” Itchy tries it out, and first there’s a solid minute of video effects and tiny people swimming. Then a voice says “I know you’re searching for me”. And then we see Diahann Carroll in a purple wig, flirt-talking to Itchy. “I can feel my creation. I’m getting your message.” Occasionally it cuts to show Itchy in the chair, writhing in ecstasy. This is happening. This was on TV. George Lucas, director of American Graffiti, was totally fine with this being part of his universe.

Oh no. “My. We are excited, aren’t we?” No. No. No. No. No. She promises him a “good time”. He keeps rewinding the part where she says “I find you adorable”. She claims that she’s Itchy’s fantasy and invites him to experience her. Itchy’s fantasy is a human woman? I came up with a funny joke for what that’s called, but since it’s a play on a racist phrase, I’m not going to use it. The hologram starts to sing, which thankfully means that we’re briefly free of suggestions that Chewbacca’s dad is masturbating.

This VR porno scene eats up nearly seven minutes of screen time. And yet, it feels so much longer.

Cut to Leia and C-3PO. Characters we like! This should be OK, right? 3PO calls Malla on the video screen because apparently he’s Leia’s secretary now. I’m not going to keep harping on this because this is right about when her actual drug problems began and that’s not funny, but Carrie Fisher could not possibly be more checked out here. Anyway, she asks to speak to Han and Chewie, who, of course, aren’t there. Leia would prefer to speak to a human because she’s racist, so Art Carney comes over. Why wouldn’t she want to communicate possibly sensitive Rebellion information to the guy who runs the thrift store? Leia asks him to “take care of my friends until their leader returns”.

So, she wants this dude she doesn’t know to take care of people who seem quite capable on their own? Also, “their leader”? Is Chewbacca the leader of his family? Or is he actually the President of Kazook and nobody ever mentioned it?

Leia says she’ll call back. Cut to Han and Chewie bearing down on Kazook. There’s a lot of Imperial traffic, and we’ll take his word for it because they don’t show us. They have to land on “the north side”. Of the planet? That’s awfully vague. Han allows that it’ll be “a long walk”. Yes, the other side of a planet can be quite a hike. The Chewbacca family hears a ship and runs to the door. Stormtroopers! An Imperial Officer asks about the other Wookiee who lives there, and Art Carney explains that Malla had a fight with her husband and he stormed out. It seems that they don’t know this is Chewbacca’s family or even that they know who Chewbacca is. Just a house-to-house gunpoint census.

Eventually, we learn that what I thought was a sewing machine is yet another type of hologram projector. Art Carney shows it to an Imperial (presumably receiving the directors note “Stretch this out for as long as possible”. And so an Imperial soldier watches a purple-backlit performance by Jefferson Starship. They are not playing a hit. It’s also a nice reminder that when This is Spinal Tap came out a couple of years later, it was entirely possible that people wouldn’t know it was a parody right away.

As the song plays into its fifth minute, I do a little research. The actual movie Star Wars is 121 minutes long. This special is 120 minutes. Yes, there are commercials, but the fact is that this was half of the Star Wars material that existed for a couple of years. Also, that Jefferson Starship song was longer than the trash compactor scene in the movie.

Eventually, the Imperials send Art Carney away. But who’s going to fill time now? They continue searching the house, and the Wookiees get upset about searching the attic. While he frets, Lumpy sits down at yet another view screen to watch a cartoon. only it’s a cartoon about people he knows and the search for Han and Chewbacca (but not the current search for Han and Chewbacca). I don’t understand what it is that he’s supposed to be watching in his world, because it can’t be the thing that we’re watching.

This scene often gets credited as being the only good part of the special, and has even shown up on the Blu Rays of the original trilogy. Well, it’s not good. There’s sort of a Heavy Metal style to the animation that’s appealing, but it’s written and animated by people who somehow never saw Star Wars. You know how C-3PO was always extending his neck in the movie, right? Anyway, there’s a magical talisman and Boba Fett (in his first appearance) fake befriends Luke to find Han and the talisman and the only way it could feel less like Star Wars is, well, if it were the rest of the special. It’s really bad, and now I have to wonder if there’s a cartoon about Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars Universe, and how it gets away with being openly critical of the Empire. And you know Boba Fett didn’t sign off on his likeness.


Also, we’ve established that Chewbacca’s family has a table that projects holograms, a screen that relays news and traffic reports, a secret communication screen, a TV in the kitchen, Itchy’s VR masturbation gear, the box that projects Jefferson Starship performances, and another TV that Lumpy uses to watch licensed cartoons about people he knows. How many entertainment devices do they have? They had too many screens before that was a thing people said.

Lumpy quickly switches the TV to videogame mode when the Imperial soldier thinks something might be up. Stormtroopers ransack Lumpy’s room, even tearing the head off a stuffed Bantha, to no avail. Man, the people of Kazook are really into the wildlife of Tattooine. The Commander tells Lumpy to clean his room, and he’s sad to see that they broke all his stuff. He covers the ruined Bantha with a blanket and gives it a kiss, and it’s actually the first nice moment in this whole darn thing.

Next thing you know, Lumpy’s watching another freaking screen. It’s an instructional video for his Life Day gift, which is a radio transmitter he can build himself, because he might as well be exactly like every kid in the Seventies. Harvey Korman (again) plays the robot who gives instructions. He malfunctions repeatedly because comedy. It will not surprise you that this bit also goes on forever. When we reach the end of time, there’s going to be this pileup of sketches from the Star Wars Holiday Special that are still going.

Also? If you’re going to keep cutting to Wookiee faces for reaction shots, they should maybe be capable of showing an emotion.

In the living room(?), one of the many viewscreens activates with a message that’s required viewing by all Imperial forces. Wait. I should be past the point of questioning logic, but the Empire transmits this to every private home or business in the galaxy in the hopes that Imperial soldiers will be there to watch it? And then the video says that they’re showing an unedited feed which ruins the purposes of propaganda. I’m overthinking this, since it’s really just the world’s worst segue to get us to the Mos Eisley Cantina for another bit. F’igrin Dan and the Modal Nodes are playing! Cheap versions of aliens you sort of remember in the background of the movie are there! Bea Arthur is the bartender! Harvey Korman appears once again playing a customer smitten with Bea. Also there’s a hole in the top of his head into which he pours liquid.

If you grew up with the original Kenner action figures, you’ll probably notice that Hammerhead, Greedo, Walrusman, and Snaggletooth are all here. Yes, I know they have other names, but that’s what they called the toys. Also, other than Greedo, none of them have names that are ever spoken in any movie so take your Pondo Baba and Momaw Nadon and shove ’em.

I have no idea why the Empire is forcing soldiers to watch Harvey Korman flirt with Bea Arthur. And this really bends reality – the video is interrupted by an Imperial announcement, but the same announcement starts playing in Mos Eisley. So somehow they were watching a live feed from a bar (with multiple camera angles), which was then interrupted. In the Cantina, was the video from the Cantina also playing? It would seem that it was. Anyway, the Empire establishes a curfew on Tatooine. And maybe Kazook? Guys, I’ve completely lost track of what’s happening here. Anyway, Bea Arthur tries to shut down the bar, but people keep coming in and nobody wants to leave. She agrees to another round and then she starts to sing. Yeah, you weren’t counting on that, were you?

This segment is a nice reminder that, in 1978, alcoholism was mostly hilarious. It’s funny when people are too drunk to stand! Also, the song runs a full five minutes. Were there only three commercial breaks in this whole thing?

Cut back to Kazook, where the Imperials were watching this entire thing! Why was it necessary for them to see that? Why was it necessary for us to see that? Anyway, they suddenly get a message on their… walkie talkies(?) repeating “Return to base”, and it’s actually Lumpy broadcasting a message on the radio he built. They follow orders, except for one Stormtrooper who stays behind. There was no ambiguity in that order! The Stormtrooper soon hears the radio broadcast coming from upstairs and discovers Lumpy’s subterfuge.

I know this is terrible, but I am really emotionally connected to Lumpy for no good reason. The Stormtrooper chases Lumpy out of the house just as Chewbacca and Han show up! Han knocks his gun away and the trooper falls over the railing, accompanied by an actual Wilhelm Scream. Okay, points for that one. Chewie reunites with his family and Han says hello before leaving to check on his ship. Even 1978 Harrison Ford had better things to do than hang around. Next up, several minutes of close-up Wookiee reaction shots even through the masks don’t allow for expression.

There’s a knock at the door – it turns out to be Art Carney coming back. Then a message comes over one of the six thousand viewscreens. They’re looking for the one missing Stormtrooper and instruct him to turn on his commlink. So a Stormtrooper goes missing and they interrupt every TV show in the universe to call him home? The Empire wastes a lot of resources. Art Carney calls the Empire (and they know him by name) to say that the Stormtrooper robbed the house and left. Well, why wouldn’t they take Art Carney’s word for it? Crisis averted!

Art Carney says “May the Force be with you” and leaves, and it’s super jarring to hear it in that context. The Wookiees but on robes and hold up snowglobes, and then there’s a line of people wearing robes and walking into a bright light. Because cocaine. Cut to a whole mess of Wookiees outside at the base of a tree, all holding snowglobes. Also, C-3PO and R2-D2 are there. Why not?

Han, Leia, and Luke show up for what, for all we know, is a sacred Wookiee ceremony forbidden to be shared with outsiders. C-3PO bemoans the fact that he’s not alive, Han talks about how much he loves Chewbacca’s family. Leia makes a speech about how they’re really all the same, which is maybe too little too late with respect to Chewbacca getting snubbed for a medal. And then Princess Leia sings a song about Life Day, which is something you rarely see royals do. It gradually starts to turn into a variation on the Star Wars theme and Carrie Fisher whiffs a high note so badly that there’s only one excuse as to why they didn’t to a second take. *sound of snorting cocaine*

Oh, Leia also creepily strokes Chewbacca the whole time with his wife standing right there. Then it cuts to a montage of scenes from the actual movie, presumably to remind people why they ever liked it. Cut to Chewbacca and his family back at home, holding hands and…. bowing their heads in prayer?

Mercifully that’s the end. And thanks to the credits, we now know that this was co-written by awards show goblin Bruce Vilanch, which explains like 90% of what we just saw.

I am so, so sorry.

Holiday Cheer-O-Meter – There’s a lot to say here. I don’t even know where to begin. When you get down to it, it’s just one of those crazy seventies Christmas specials. It’s a fascinating time capsule, really. It’s from a time when Star Wars wasn’t a giant franchise and a beloved classic. It was a successful movie and so it went into the same pop-culture blender that everything did back then. For all intents and purposes, it was no different than Starsky & Hutch or Barbara Mandrell. It was just a thing that people watched. And so it turns into a special where people who maybe saw Star Wars once while high finally get to use the all-purpose space jokes that they’d been holding onto.

It’s bad. And it’s bad for the same reason that a lot of Star Wars material is bad – it’s made by people who didn’t understand what people like about Star Wars. Yes, George Lucas eventually became one of those people. And truth be told, this is actually kinda fun to watch. It’s weird and incompetent, but at its most boring, it’s still not as bad as a Galactic Senate scene. I’m going to remember this special more than I’m going to remember anything in Phantom Menace. (No idea what happened in that movie amymore. I half-remember some scenes because of the LEGO videogame.) I don’t even want to say it’s entertaining, but once it starts, you’re going to watch it.

But that has nothing to do with its level of holiday cheer. It takes a hit for being terrible and for focusing on a fictional holiday that isn’t explained at all. But let’s be honest, a big part of holiday cheer is nostalgia. Not to go all Don Draper here, but a lot of what we love about the holidays is what we loved when we were kids. When I think of Christmas, the first thing I picture is everybody gathering at my grandparents’ house. (And at the time, we were literally neighbors so it wasn’t even that the trip was a big deal.) We did presents on Christmas Eve, then on Christmas we’d have a big lunch as a family and just make a day of it I think about reading books off my grandpa’s shelf and everybody eating leftovers from lunch on buns and calling it dinner while we watched the news and Christmas specials and it was the one time a year I had unlimited access to Coke. (Not the same kind that clearly motivated this entire enterprise.) That’s never going to happen again. My dad left without a forwarding address, my grandparents have passed away. Without kids of my own, I’m probably never going to have a big Christmas again.

But even though I probably didn’t see this as a kid (I would have been three), it feels like something that was part of those Christmas celebrations. There’s something that made me feel warm. On the other hand, even forgiving the fact that it isn’t good, the Holiday Special was clearly made by people who thought Star Wars was kind of dumb, and that cynicism is impossible to overlook. Splitting the difference, I’m going to give it a 5.

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