Friday, 28 October 2016

The Star Wars Holiday Special: The 10 Most Excruciating Moments – Part 1

An ad for The Star Wars Holiday Special

It’s time we talked about something painful. Today, Episode Nothing begins to look at the single most bizarre moment in the history of Star Wars – the infamous 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special.

Looking back at The Star Wars Holiday Special

At around this time of the year, when the nights draw in and people start thinking of the winter holidays, a lot of first generation Star Wars fans may begin shuddering uncontrollably as they experience terrible flashbacks. They’re thinking of Friday, November 17 1978. A week before Thanksgiving, the CBS network promised American viewers a Star Wars spinoff  and instead delivered one of the strangest television experiences ever broadcast.

It’s a work so indescribably weird that millions of Americans must surely have doubted the evidence of their senses. Had they really spent two hours watching a low-rent Star Wars variety show, based around a bunch of wookiees – with Harvey Korman in drag, Bea Arthur serenading the aliens in the Mos Eisley cantina, and even Princess Leia breaking into song?

It’s worth noting that unless you’re a first generation American fan of Star Wars, you probably haven’t seen the Holiday Special in any officially approved way. I didn’t even know of its existence until I saw it mentioned in an edition of Fantastic Films in 1981, and I didn’t see it until the 21st century.

It was broadcast in Canada on the same night as its US transmission. It has also seen in Sweden (in 1979), Venezuela, Honduras, Brazil (in 1981), Argentina and in shortened form in France (1979), and, according to some sources, it was also seen in Australia and New Zealand. But for a generation of fans, it was the stuff of legend, until, thanks to eBay, file-sharing sites and YouTube, we had access to off-air recordings that proved it really happened.

In a nutshell, the Holiday Special is a series of sketches and songs linked by a slender plot set on the wookiee planet Kashyyk. There, Chewbacca’s wife, son and father, along with their human friend Saun Dann (Art Carney), are awaiting Chewie’s return for the holiday of Life Day. I say “in a nutshell”, but in fact that’s about all there is. It’s not much to sustain 97 minutes of screen time, but what flows from it is truly weird.

Later, we’ll look at the story behind the Holiday Special and consider whose fault it really was. I’ll also attempt to look at its good points – or at least the moments that might have redeemed it for a young viewer. But today, let’s begin a look at ten of the most bizarre moments in the Holiday Special.

A NOTE ON AVAILABILITY: For many years, the versions of the Holiday Special that changed hands on DVD or appeared online were based on one of three off-air recordings: one made in Des Moines, Iowa; another in Chicago; and one in Baltimore, Maryland. The commercials and local news and links contained in the latter recording was a good part of the charm. Those recordings were merged and enhanced as fans sought to put together the best possible version. In recent years, however, a recording from WHIO in Dayton, Ohio, offered better quality than had been seen before. You can see it above in surely the best quality possible – but be warned, it’s one instance where you might be craving commercial breaks. By the way, the timings in the sub-headings below are based on this version, if you want to skip ahead and get the worst out of the way first.

The 10 most excruciating moments in the Star Wars Holiday Special

1. At home with the wookiees (2.55)

Malla at home in The Star Wars Holiday Special

Before the opening credits, we had a brief glimpse of Han Solo and Chewbacca aboard the Millennium Falcon to get us excited. Then, some spoken opening titles gave the uneasy sense that this was Star Wars, but not as we know it: alongside the cast of the film, we were to be introduced to Chewbacca’s family, as well as Art Carney, Harvey Korman, Bea Arthur and Jefferson Starship.

Now, we get to meet that wookiee family. For all his adventuring with Han, Chewie has dependents at home – a wife, Malla; a son, Itchy; and a father, Lumpy. It seems the males in his family are traditionally named in the style of the Seven Dwarfs.

The family live in a treetop home that looks remarkably like any given sitcom set, but with a green carpet and even more wood-effect furniture than the average 1970s American home.

And for almost nine minutes, there is no human dialogue. We watch Lumpy annoy his grandfather and mother by rushing around playing with a wooden X-wing toy. We see him refuse to do his chores. We watch him go outside and walk on the railings of their home. We see Malla mooning over a picture of Chewbacca, consoled by Itchy, and we watch her operate what looks like an early micro computer, which tells her there are no star ships in the area. Until the introduction of Luke Skywalker (see below), no one says anything in an Earth tongue. You can sense millions of grown-up viewers in 1978 consulting their TV Guide and thinking about watching switching channels,while their children implored them to stick with it. It was bound to get better, right?

2. The hologram acrobats (7.40)

Lumpy watches the acrobats in
The Star Wars Holiday Special

We’re quite a few minutes into a domestic drama about a trio of wookiees – and the younger viewers are getting impatient for space battles. How do you keep them interested? Have someone whip out a lightsaber? Get on with some gunplay? Well, the obvious choice is … acrobats.

After irritating his mom and grandpa for quite a few minutes, Lumpy badgers them to play what appears to be a small video cassette. They put it into something that looks somewhat like the Millennium Falcon’s holographic chess board – and the entertainment begins.

Lumpy stands there mesmerised as a tiny troupe of acrobats appear. They stand on each others’ shoulders, do their routine on the uneven bars, and show off their juggling skills. At one point, one of the group appears full-size in ghostly form and interacts with the still-miniaturised performers. (According to the best website about the Holiday Special, the acrobats are the Wazzan Troupe, with the Mum Brothers doing the juggling, Stephanie Stromer as the gymnast and Yuichi Sugiyama as the ring master.) All this is done at great length to hideous electronic music.

At this point, the viewer might be tempted to wonder why this is all so fascinating to a species that has tasted space travel. Or whether it’s too late to switch to ABC and catch up with the plot of The Love Boat.

3. Luke Skywalker – but what’s with the haircut and make-up? (11.44)

Luke and R2-D2 in The Star Wars Holiday Special

At last, a human voice and some characters we know from Star Wars. But something’s the matter with Luke.

Malla opens the door of a dresser to reveal a communications screen, which she uses to contact Luke Skywalker. There’s Luke, dressed in his fighter pilot uniform while fixing an engine as R2 helps and hinders.

But this is not quite Luke as we know him. For one thing, he’s wearing an awful lot of make-up. When viewers point this out, the fan community usually retorts that this is because of the car accident Mark Hamill had been in while Star Wars was in post-production. I’m never sure whether that explanation is accurate. The accident was in January 1977 and Hamill made a lot of appearances on television between then and the filming of the Holiday Special in the summer of 1978. It’s probably best to take that explanation as read and leave the make-up issue aside. But surely there’s no excuse for the haircut.

In one of those moments that really reminds you that Star Wars was a product of the 1970s, Luke appears to be sporting Joanna Lumley’s haircut from The New Avengers. We just have to be grateful that no one decided this bob would be a good look for Hamill to sport a few months later when filming began on The Empire Strikes Back.

Luke Skywalker's haircut is troublingly like
Joanna Lumley's in The New Avengers

As for Hamill’s performance in the Holiday Special, you can sense him trying to embrace the spirit of the enterprise without abandoning the integrity of the character. “I wouldn’t worry about Chewbacca,” he tells Malla. “I know him and he hasn’t missed a Life Day yet, right?”

So far, Hamill has succeeded in keeping his dignity, but then he has to deliver one of the special’s many toe-curling lines. “Chewie’s not going to want to come home to a houseful of long faces, is he?” he teases. “Come on Marla, let’s see a little smile.”

Shortly after the unsettling implication that Luke and Malla have a bit of a crush going on, Luke signs off and R2 brings the sequence to an end by enveloping the scene in smoke. In the story, that’s portrayed as a blunder on the droid's part, but for the viewer, and the cast, it’s a mercy.

4. Harvey Korman cooks Bantha Surprise (19.07)

Harvey Korman as the TV chef in
The Star Wars Holiday Special

We’ve just been shown a scene from Star Wars that wasn’t in the final cut of the movie. Darth Vader strides down a corridor with an Imperial officer (known in the expanded universe as Bast) and exchanges some dialogue which has been rewritten for the Holiday Special. After that treat, we’re back to wookiee domesticity. Oh good.

Malla is busy in the kitchen and she switches on a TV cookery show. The presenter is Harvey Korman in drag, taking us through a recipe called Bantha Surprise.

“All those hungry mouths in your household will be going yummy-yum on their tummy-tum,” he says, in another contender for the title of Most Embarrassing Star Wars Dialogue Ever.

The cook takes us through preparing a cut of bantha loin (as if bantha loins were something we really wanted to contemplate) and then leads her viewers in the process of stirring the mixture. “Stir-whip, stir-whip, whip-whip stir.” Along the way, she reveals a third arm for beating the mixture and a fourth for catching a sneeze.

Did all this seem funny to the people making it? It’s hard to imagine. Perhaps there’s a satirical point being made about TV cookery shows, i.e. that you need four arms to follow along with them. Maybe it’s more amusing if you know the TV chef Julia Child, whose work is apparently being spoofed. But Korman – who had been amusing in Mel Brook’s High Anxiety, released the previous year, and even better in Blazing Saddles (1974) – is putting in a lot of effort and not getting many laughs.

At the height of the slapstick, Malla turns the TV off – much as quite a few Holiday Special viewers must have by now.

5. Diahann Carroll introduces wookiees to VR porn (28.00)

Diahann Carroll in The Star Wars Holiday Special

Did you think that inter-species flirting between Luke Skywalker and Malla the wookiee seemed a bit awkward? Well, the Holiday Special had something much more troubling up its sleeve.

Art Carney as the trader Dann has brought gifts for the wookiee household. Itchy settles into a device which looks like a salon hair dryer but is identified in the script as a “mind evaporator”, and Dann gives him a cassette to play in it.

As Itchy settles down, images of some sort of dancing nymphs appear, before Diahann Carroll comes into focus. She is wearing a sparkly wig and off-the-shoulder gown and speaks directly to Itchy (and us).

“I’m getting your message? Are you getting mine?” she says. And when Itchy groans, she adds: “Oh, oh, we are excited, aren’t we?”

As viewers attempt to pick their jaws from the floor, she says: “I am your fantasy. I am your experience. Experience me.” Yes, there’s not much doubt that Itchy is watching the wookiee equivalent of a blue movie. In fact, the point of the scene is pretty much summed up in the title of this blog post, ‘That time the Star Wars Holiday Special predicted VR porn’.

Fortunately, Diahann Carroll (her character is called Mermeia in the script) does eventually get on with a song called ‘This Minute Now’, but most viewers will be too busy squirming to notice it. 

Itchy's reaction to Diahann Carroll
in The Star Wars Holiday Special

Yes, it seems the Star Wars Holiday Special really was intended as a family show. Something for the kids, something for the rock-loving older sibling (we’ll come to Jefferson Starship later), something for parents… even something for the lecherous dad or grandpa. And in case anyone is tempted to think they may be imagining the suggestiveness of this episode, it’s there in the script, published here, when Dann hands over the cassette “as if he is giving Itchy the most X-rated piece of literature in the galaxy” and wishes him a happy Life Day “as if he is a dirty old man”.

At this point, you can sense the fingers of millions of dads finally backing away from the channel changer … while millions of moms edged closer.

That may be all the Holiday Special anyone can take for now. Next time, the rest of the Special's top ten excruciating moments.


Unknown said...

I'm glad I never heard of it until adulthood.

If I'd been aware, I'd have scoured every Christmas and Radio Times as soon as we got them. In essence, what was an annual cultural highlight would have been ruined each and every year by the non-appearance of the Holiday Special.

This magazine mention you saw - what did it say about it?

Steve said...

I remember watching this when I was a kid when it aired. My memories don't recall what I thought of it at the time. I think since I was like 8 or 9 and obsessed with Star Wars I probably was too excited to have anything Star Wars related on TV that I enjoyed it regardless.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks for the comments guys.

Dec, I'll try and dig out the Fantastic Films magazine. I think it was very much about the animated segment and the first appearance of Boba Fett, revisited in the wake of The Empire Strikes Back.

Steve, I think I'd have felt the same way, had I seen it. That's why I was keen to do another post about the bits a young viewer would have enjoyed at the time.