Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Star Wars Holiday Special: A Review

THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL

The Citizen Kane of Star Wars...

November 17, 1978 is a date that will live in infamy among Star Wars devotees.  I suspect that even the Mandalorian Mercs, who are of the mind that even Episodes I, II, and III are things of beauty, might look askance at The Star Wars Holiday Special.

Actually, I have proof of this.  At the Sun City Sci-Fi Convention 2013, I approached one of these young men dressed as Boba Fett and asked him about the SWHS.  He just hung his head and shook it, a look of pain in his face.  I nearly made him cry.  Here he was, enjoying his outing in cosplay when I come along and ask him THE Question: "What about the Holiday Special?"

The SWHS is held to be one of if not the worst moment in television history, a major debacle that has forever tainted the reputation of the George Lucas-created universe.  The debut and farewell to the SWHS so horrified the world that it has never been rebroadcast or officially released on DVD (apart from a well-regarded animation sequence).  However, on this the 35th Anniversary of The Star Wars Holiday Special (whose name alone shows how misguided the whole thing was) we pause to remember what David Hofstede, author of What Were They Thinking?: The 100 Dumbest Moments in Television History, called "The Worst Two Hours Of Television Ever", earning it the Number 1 Spot on his list.

I don't know if I can give a plot summation because the story is so bizarre and obscenely long, but here goes.  Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) HAS to get back home to Kashyyyk to celebrate Life Day (though exactly WHAT Life Day was or WHY it was important is never explained).  Taking him home is his lifelong friend Han Solo (Harrison Ford).  No easy task given the Empire is after them.

Waiting for them is Chuy's (1) family: his wife Mala, his father Itchy, and his son Lumpy.  I am NOT making those names up: that is how they are introduced in the opening credits.  While they wait for Chewie to show, they do what has to be done: clean the house, throw the trash, make dinner, and entertain themselves by watching what I think was called a 'third-rate Cirque de Soleil show' projected by machine.

Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) calls asking to speak to Han or Chewie, and later on Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is contacted for information about Han and Chewie's whereabouts.  It is only hoped that they can make it in time for Life Day.  Help comes in the way of Saun Dann (Art Carney), a local tradesman who comes bearing gifts, including what appears to be a hairdryer where Itchy can watch what can only be called "Wookie Porn".  It is The Mind Evaporator (a name to be played with), a machine that brings a fantasy woman into his mind, and this woman (Emmy nominee Diahann Carroll)(2), coos such lines as "My voice is for you alone.  I exist for you.  I am in your mind, as you create me.  Oh, YES, I can feel my creation.  I'm getting YOUR message; are you getting mine?" (Boy did we EVER)!  Adding more sexual overtones, she continues, "Oh, OH, we are excited, aren't we?  Just relax, relax.  Now, we can have a good time, can't we?" 

Nothing suggestive in all this, right?


Anyone know where I can get some Wookie Porn?
Putting the coda on what I dub the Kashyyyk Erotique number is when Carroll whispers to us, "I'll tell you a secret.  I find you adorable," something which so excites Itchy that he hits the machine, causing her to repeat "I find you adorable." She goes on to deliver perhaps the most suggestive lines ever to be connected to the Star Wars myth: "I don't need to ask how you find me.  You see, I am your fantasy.  I am your experience, so experience me. I am your pleasure, so enjoy me." 


WOW, and this was a FAMILY-geared special!

Finally, she sings the first of four musical numbers, This Minute Now.

Things are rolling along when Stormtroopers, searching for Han and Chewie, burst into the Baca home.  To placate them, Dann shows one of them a large 3-D-like screen, where one Stormtrooper is entertained by The Jefferson Starship playing Light the Sky on Fire.  That seemed to do the trick for one of them, but the others aren't so easily impressed.  They look around the house, hoping to find Rebel information, so Lumpy does the logical thing: watch a cartoon about his father's exploits against the Empire!


What a sorry debut for an Icon...
This animated sequence is of an adventure Luke, Han, Chewbacca and the droids have against a sinister and mysterious figure, a bounty hunter named Boba Fett.  Fett has laid a trap for them but they manage to outwit the bounty hunter, who swears revenge.

Cartoon over, Lumpy goes up and works on a voice manipulator to outwit the Stormtroopers.  For reasons known only to the Empire regular broadcasts are interrupted and everyone is forced to watch some sort of instructional video from Tatooine, which is now under curfew.  We go to the Mos Eisley Cantina, where bar owner Ackmena (Bea Arthur) politely brushes off the amorous advances of Krelman (Harvey Korman, making his THIRD appearance on the show) (3) when she learns of the curfew.  Having to force all the customers out, she gives everything one last drink on the house and sings them off with Goodnight, But Not Goodbye.  

The voice manipulator works up to a point, but one of the Stormtroopers realizes he was tricked.  Fortunately, Han and Chewie arrive just in time to get rid of said Stormtrooper.  Dann deceives the Imperial Forces by saying the Stormtrooper deserted, and now we get on to the Life Day celebrations.  The Baca clan magically don red robes and all the Wookie-Ookies join together with candles.  Luke, R2-D2 and C-3PO and Leia arrive in time too (with the latter, in the words of Hofstede, looking like she's just arrived from a three-day visit to the Planet Happy Dust), just in time for Leia to "sign" us a song, apparently some sort of Life Day Theme set to the music of the Star Wars theme. 

Side note: if Luke, Leia, and the droids managed to get to the Life Day celebrations rather easily, why didn't Han and Chewbacca just go with them?

End of Special...and End of Nightmare.



At a certain point during the "Kashyyyk Erotique" sequence, I could have sworn that Diahann Carroll actually looked frightened, as if pleading with us, 'Help, I'm trapped in Wookie Porn and I just realized what I'm involved in".   Truth be told, "Diahann Carroll in Wookie Porn" is one of the saner moments of The Star Wars Holiday Special, and that is saying a lot.

Almost everything in The Star Wars Holiday Special was embarrassingly bad, starting with the bizarre idea to focus things on Chewbacca's family.  We start the special with around ten minutes of Wookie dialogue with no subtitles.  Endless grunting from beings we neither know or care about, given idiotic names that almost appear to mock the original.

Then there's the odd mix of Star Wars with variety show performances.  The musical numbers and the acrobatics are more appropriate for The Ed Sullivan Show, and people watching the Star Wars Holiday Special may scratch their heads wondering what Diahann Carroll, Bea Arthur, and most bizarrely The Jefferson Starship were doing in the world of Star Wars.   Putting 'big names' within the Star Wars universe dates the special and takes one out of any hope of putting things within context.  How can you take this seriously when you have Maude/Dorothy Zbornak running the Mos Eisley Cantina? 


The musical numbers didn't work, especially Fisher's truly bizarre closing number.  I keep getting told it's set to the Star Wars theme, but having heard it multiple times I don't even hear a melody, let alone the Star Wars melody.  Fisher's mother, Debbie Reynolds, CAN sing.  Fisher cannot, and the tune is so off-key and perplexing one wonders why no one actually stopped her, or at very least dub her voice.

Where else did the Star Wars Holiday Special go wrong?  Well, let's start with the Wookies, particularly Lumpy.  I imagine the goal was to make them cute, but Lumpy in particular looks frightening (and with simply awful make-up work).  The story (such as it is) is idiotic (Life Day?  What's Life Day, and why should we care?), the comedy routines insufferably bad (Korman, a gifted comic, made his three appearances all awful, and as a digression, why did he have to show up three times?), and some of the scenes were more horrifying than amusing.  Korman, again, is at the center of this.  In his third appearance, he drinks his liquor from a hole at the top of his head!  If I were a child watching this, I would find this more traumatic than hilarious.  His second appearance as a monotone robot was just so boring, and his first as a cross-dressing cooking enthusiast was in terms bizarre and sad.

Long, boring, unfunny bits.  Musical numbers that make no sense (and one of them appearing to come from a 70's idea of a porn musical), bad performances from most of the cast and a plot that wastes two hours damns The Star Wars Holiday Special.  However, in fairness there are two moments that have some redeeming value.

Putting aside the lunacy of the setting, Goodnight, But Not Goodbye is actually a good song.  Arthur makes it a sad lament, showing that the Broadway veteran could handle material so beneath her.  If it were in any other setting, Goodnight, But Not Goodbye would be a more memorable song.

The highlight is the animated sequence that introduces Boba Fett.  While the animation is not the greatest, at least the story HAS something to do with Star Wars (since seeing an old Wookie get sexually aroused is not what I think would make Darth Vader tremble).  IF The Star Wars Holiday Special had been completely about an adventure involving the characters (not a silly story about Wookies in Christmas Pageant robes being serenaded by Princess Leia), it would have launched what could have been more expansive Star Wars mythology.

Obi-Wan Kenobi:
My Hero, My Role Model

This lesson was learned many years later, when the animated Star Wars: Clone Wars and a follow-up, Star Wars: The Clone Wars both added to the overall Star Wars mythology (though their Canon status is a subject for debate) and were well-received by both critics and fans (not to mention having much better animation). 

Now with Disney owning the rights to Star Wars, could we hope that at long last, the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special will be released officially on DVD?  I don't see why not.  Disney if nothing else loves milking its properties for every cent they can earn, so why not give in to temptation and deliver us the Holiday Special.  It's never been released becauce Lucas (a man not averse to making a quick buck from the diminishing returns of his work) is simply too embarrassed to acknowledge its existence.  I have long argued that it should be released, along with a couple of special features: one called What Went Wrong, detailing how something as simple as a Star Wars television program could have veered so wildly out of control, as well as where the cast and crew 'recall' the rise and spectacular fall of The Star Wars Holiday Special.

The second one would be called simply, I'm Sorry, where George Lucas must atone for his sins.  Looking straight in the camera, Lucas simply says, "I'm Sorry."

The best summation for The Star Wars Holiday Special is what Captain Peacock (Frank Thornton) of Are You Being Served? said when Mr. Rumbold (Nicholas Smith) is asked to wear a toupee for a potential commercial, then have his ears taped back to prevent them from sticking out.  "We've seemed to have gone from the grotesque to the bizarre," Peacock intones. 

The Star Wars Holiday Special: From the Grotesque to the Bizarre...

1/10


1).  While I know it's "Chewie" when speaking of Chewbacca, I'd thought I'd have a little fun with the old story about how he's really Hispanic.  The story is that his real name is Jesus Baca.  A nickname for Jesus?  Chuy, as in Chuy Baca.

2.) Carroll's nomination came for her work in the series Julia, where she starred in the first television program where the lead African-American character was a professional rather than domestic (playing a widowed nurse).  Carroll became the first African-American to receive an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.  Since her nomination in 1969, the number of African-American women who have won Emmys for Leading Actress in either a Comedy or Drama have been...one: Isabelle Sanford as Lead Actress in a Comedy for The Jeffersons.

As of today, not counting Specials, Miniseries, or Guest Actress in a Comedy or Drama, five African-American woman have won for Supporting Actress: Gail Fisher for Mannix, Alfre Woodard for Hill Street Blues, Madge Sinclair for Gabriel's Fire, Mary Alice for I'll Fly Away, and Jackee Harry for 227.  Harry is as of today the only African-American woman to win for a Comedy Series, the rest of the winners being in the Drama category. 

3.) Korman played a four-armed Julia Child-like chef on Wookie TV giving Malla instructions on making something called 'Bantha Surprise' and the robot giving instructions to Lumpy on how to put together the voice manipulator. 

George Lucas' "Lumpy" of Coal for Christmas...

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