Culture

Is the 'Star Wars Holiday Special' Canon? Over George Lucas's Dead Body

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Mark Hamill in the 'Star Wars Holiday Special' YouTube, Lucasfilm

When The Last Jedi opened with more than $220 million in ticket sales, it was further proof that this is Star Wars’s world—we just live in it. But hard as it might be to believe now, there was a time when slapping “Star Wars” on a product didn’t guarantee success.

The most notorious example of a Star Wars cash-in backfiring is the Star Wars Holiday Special. It aired only once, in 1978, and was so face-meltingly bad that it has become a kind of shorthand for milking one good movie for all it’s worth, and then some.

Chewie's son, Lumpy, in the 'Star Wars Holiday Special' Lucasfilm

After the first Star Wars film was released on May 25, 1977, it became a global phenomenon that felt inescapable. Suddenly, the market was flush with Star Wars toys and clothing. The actors appeared on late-night talk shows and magazine covers. There was even an album of disco versions of the soundtrack’s biggest hits. (Disco “Cantina Band” is a highlight.)

The movie remained in theaters for 18 months, and in 1978 marketing executives decided to double down on its popularity as the holiday season approached. Thing is, none of the Star Wars marketing executives had ever seen the movie—at least, that’s what the aimless and bizarre Star Wars Holiday Special might lead you to believe.

Producer Steve Binder told Esquire in 2013, "I was told that the whole point of the television variety special was to reach a national audience and introduce a line of merchandise from Kenner, who Lucas had licensed the Star Wars characters to. By no means were we in production to make another Star Wars feature film. We had neither the script, budget, or the time!" It showed.

Harrison Ford as Han Solo in the 'Star Wars Holiday Special' Lucasfilm, Tumblr

The 98-minute special aired on CBS on November 17, 1978, and anyone who had seen a single scene from Star Wars could tell something went horribly, horribly wrong.

The show is set on Chewbacca’s home planet Kashyyyk (which we’d revisit nearly 30 years later in Revenge of the Sith) as Luke, Han, Leia, C-3PO and R2-D2 help Chewie celebrate Life Day, the Wookies’ winter holiday. Stormtroopers show up and interrogate Chewie’s family, but Han Solo is able to defeat them pretty easily. (He pushes them off a balcony that somehow explodes.) Leia appears alongside C-3PO, who is doing paperwork for a reason that is never explained. And the whole gang gets together at the end to listen to Carrie Fisher warble through a strange, mournful Life Day carol. Along the way, the band of Rebels meet disturbing minor characters no one wanted—Chewie’s horny father, Itchy; his proto-Ewok son, Lumpy; and a salesman named Saun Dann played by Art Carney.

Bea-Arthur--Star-Wars--Song Bea Arthur and a cast of aliens in the holiday special. Wookieepedia

The special is built around plot points set up in the film, but it couldn’t make too much of a stir because sequels. So everything feels inconsequential and strange. Wookies roar at each other (without English subtitles) as they watch cooking shows, self-help instructional videos and randomly-placed concert performances. (Jefferson Starship shows up because it’s a show about space holidays so why not have a band with “starship” in its name?) There are no real segues between scenes, and a constellation of B-list guest stars like Bea Arthur and Harvey Korman putz around the frame, talking about nothing Star Wars related.

And speaking of slumming it: The show also features the original cast members, who clearly didn’t read their contracts. Mark Hamill wears heavy eyeliner as Harrison Ford mumbles his lines and stares into the middle-distance. Fisher—in the middle of a period she would later describe as a dark, drug-addled chapter in her life—slurs her festive dialogue and noticeably sways back and forth. Not helping matters is the cast of low-rent creatures that look like knock offs of knock offs of official merch. Chewie looks authentic, but his family looks like they just went for a spin in an industrial dryer.

holiday special star wars An ad for the holiday special from TV Guide. TV Guide, Lucasfilm

It wasn’t all a bewildering trainwreck, though. An animated segment introduced Boba Fett, a villainous bounty hunter that showed up in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and became one of the series’ most beloved characters.

But still, the holiday special is god-awful. (Hard to believe that something co-written by master of the empty awards-show joke Bruce Vilanch would be bad…) It only aired the one time, and it came in for blistering criticism from people just itching to blast the megahit movie.

The most vicious critic, though, might have been George Lucas. The Star Wars creator has admitted that if he had “the time and a sledgehammer,” he’d track down every existing copy of the special and destroy it. Of course, Lucas hating something Star Wars -branded makes the holiday special intriguing, which is why countless podcasts, web series, and oral histories have touched on it. Despite Lucas’ efforts, you can still track down bad bootlegs of the special online.

But in the wake of the cataclysmic reception of the show, Lucasfilm cast most of its elements into its own personal Sarlacc pit. Chewie’s weird family is never seen again. (Marvel’s Chewbacca comics gave him a new backstory in 2015, sans Itchy and Lumpy.) Even Boba Fett ends up in the belly of the Sarlacc in Return of the Jedi. You can’t keep a good bounty hunter down, though—Boba eventually escaped being slowly digested over a thousand years.

So, hey, maybe there’s still a chance for that Disney-sanctioned Blu-ray 4K restoration of the Star Wars Holiday Special. For those of us who love B-movies, a collector’s edition would be a Life Day miracle!

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