Harrison FordMark HamillCarrie FisherHarvey Korman
The Star Wars Holiday Special
Medium: TV
Year: 1978
Director: Steve Binder
Writer: Mitzie Welch
Keywords: SF, musical
Country: USA
Actor: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, James Earl Jones, Bea Arthur, Art Carney, Diahann Carroll, The Jefferson Starship, Harvey Korman, Mickey Morton, Paul Gale, Patty Maloney, Jack Rader, Stephanie Stromer, Michael Potter, Wazzan Troupe, Yuichi Sugiyama, Mum Brothers, Claude Woolman, Lev Mailer, John McLaughlin
Format: 97 minutes, or two hours if you include the commercials
Series: << Star Wars >>
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0193524/
Website category: SF
Review date: 22 October 2009
I quite enjoyed that. Yes, you read that right.
I believe it's not permitted to enjoy The Star Wars Holiday Special, that unloved monster of infamy that has inspired magnificent internet trashings. I read its imdb reviews recently and almost laughed myself into a hernia. For those who haven't heard about this, it's a movie-length TV special supposedly set in the Star Wars universe that's actually a loose framework for songs, sketches and celebrity cameos from Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur. The only vaguely popular bit is a ten-minute animated segment starring Boba Fett before we meet him in The Empire Strikes Back and personally I thought that was poor. Presumably it's liked for coming closer to people's expectations of Star Wars and admittedly it's hard to tell a decent story in ten minutes, but even so I was underwhelmed. At least Bea Arthur (for example) is successfully being Bea Arthur.
I see I've started on the cartoon. It's hard to judge the visuals on my 20th generation sub-VHS quality picture, but I've been led to believe that these ten minutes look better than average for 1970s US TV animation. I'll have to take that on trust. Admittedly it's by Nelvana Studios, who can't have done anything too unforgivable because they'd go on in 1985 to produce "Droids" and "Ewoks". What's good is that they've got the original actors to do the voices and are using the real sound effects. It looks okay, but R2D2 appears to be made of rubber, C3PO blinks, Leia has huge girly eyes and Han Solo has a face like a horse.
What I'm less keen on is the storyline. Boba Fett befriends Luke Skywalker, but he must be evil because he's having videophone chats with Darth Vader. R2D2 listens in on the transmission and tells the others, whereupon they mention it to Fett and he goes away. The end.
No, really. That's the plot. In fairness this probably worked better in 1978 when no one had seen Boba Fett before, but these days we're way ahead and are tapping our toes waiting for the big reveal. It was seeing him working for the Empire and trying to kill our heroes in Episodes II-III and V-VI that gave it away, not to mention all Imperial stormtroopers being clones of Fett's daddy. Besides, there's a continuity issue here. Shouldn't R2D2 have remembered that name and battle armour from when he used to hang out with Ewan McGregor? The Jedi only wiped C3PO's memory, didn't they? There's an upside, but it's that on two occasions someone gratuitously shoots something. Nope, I wasn't too impressed by Boba Fett's animated debut.
What other Star Wars stuff is here? That's apparently the spectacular badness, after all. As a variety show it's acceptable... not particularly good, but not deserving the kind of hysteria you'll readily find online. The regulars all appear except for Alec Guinness, who dodged a bullet there. Unfortunately the budget can only stretch to a few minutes for each of them, so everyone gets a quick cameo or two before showing up for a sing-song at the end. I couldn't see it on my umpteenth-generation copy, but apparently Mark Hamill is wearing thick make-up because of a near-fatal car accident and reconstructive surgery. It's been said that he looks like a drag queen. However even to me Carrie Fisher was visibly spaced out from all the drugs she used to take in those days, while I'd have loved to get a clearer view of Harrison Ford's mortification.
Fisher eventually sings a song to the Star Wars theme tune. There's also a bit where Han Solo doesn't shoot an Imperial stormtrooper because this is a TV show, but instead lets him crash through some banisters. "It's okay, he's gone!"
We shouldn't give too much attention to the Star Wars regulars though, since we don't spend much time with them. Far more prominent are the Wookies. Chewbacca's trying to get back to Kashyyyk in order to be with his family for Life Day, you see. There's his wife Malla, his son Lumpy and his father Itchy. Where's Scratchy? These three furballs are the framing story and I'm sure you've already spotted the potential problem. A family of Wookies, speaking Wookie. This could have made the special as unwatchable as everyone says it is already, yet after about ten seconds you forget you can't understand them. Body language tells you everything you need to know, almost Chewbacca comes home in the end and suddenly it all turns back into walking carpets barking and gurgling at each other. That's an hour and a half of clear communication through mime in full body suits. I was impressed. Admittedly there will often be humans around to do the talking for them, but only once (from Mark Hamill) do we fall into full-blown Lassie mode. "What's that you say? The twins are trapped in the abandoned well?" These Wookies even have character, which is more than you can say for any other Wookies except Chewie (c.f. Revenge of the Sith), with Itchy for instance having a face like a squashed frog. Meanwhile Lumpy is fat, retarded and ugly, but at least that means you'll remember him.
Famously Itchy watches porn. You might be imagining some kind of furry alien freakshow, but it's worse than that. The deviant likes watching humans! What a sicko. However since this is US TV, the "porn" is more akin to those Japanese video girls who talk to you from your TV screen in order to let you pretend you have a girlfriend. She then sings, because she's Diahann Carroll.
Even the Wookies aren't the stars of the show, though, being just the framing story. The further you get away from Star Wars in this holiday special, the nearer you get to anything important. Could that be a life lesson? What we've really come to see are 1970s TV celebrities! These can be broadly divided into two categories: (a) actually quite good, and (b) not of the slightest interest, but that doesn't matter too much because you'll have drifted off to thinking about your plans for the weekend or why William Shatner never did anything like this. The musical numbers are of type (b). Diahann Carroll isn't bad, but Jefferson Starship are like watching the lights go past while driving at 3am along a motorway.
What I quite liked was the comedy, although "comedy" is a generous word. You'll certainly never be in any danger of laughing, but it's gentle and amiable enough to be mildly diverting. What these sections have going for them is surrealism, in that it's just plain weird to see these B-list stars goofing around in Star Wars. My favourite was the cooking show, in which Harvey Korman shows us how to cook Bantha rump with lots of fictional ingredients and turns out to be an alien with four arms. Yes, that's the joke. It's so weird and lame that I couldn't look away. Art Carney does nothing at great length, but I found him charming anyway. Bea Arthur makes for a barmaid with personality at the Mos Eisley cantina and has to deal with a customer who thinks he's in love with her and drinks through the top of his head. I enjoyed all that. Of course there are less successful bits, such as Harvey Korman's turn as a malfunctioning robot and Bea Arthur singing, but even these can have moments of malfunctioning inspiration. I never knew the giant rat from The Talons of Weng-Chiang was also in the Star Wars universe, or was that really a hamster? Apparently it was originally made for something called The Food of the Gods (1976).
The end of the show is a particular highlight. Everyone comes together and pretends not to be embarrassed, I started laughing for no reason while Carrie Fisher was "singing" and the Wookies all put on red robes and troop off to worship the sun or something.
The Star Wars Holiday Special is one of those things that have to watched. You expect to hate it, but it's legendary. It has to be done. Personally I found it fascinating, like an exercise in absurdism. As a variety show it's obviously weak, but somehow its very misfires combine with the elderly charm of its celebrities to create something unique with what's by now an overly familiar Star Wars universe. It's worth the price of entrance just to go from a proper scene on the Millennium Falcon to a cheesy voice explaining to us that Mark Hamill is Luke Skywalker. Plus of course every so often they'll have something genuinely (albeit mildly) cool, like the circus performers on the holo-table. George Lucas hates this thing passionately. Can't blame him, really.