Andy Markham is a far better man than I...
If there's one fact that we can all agree on, it's that the Star Wars Holiday Special is awful - it's just really, really bad. On that note, it's easy to dismiss the whole thing as a horrid blind alley in the early days of Star Wars. But I'm here to tell you that not everything about it is terrible - some parts of it are in fact pretty entertaining! So I've sat down, watched the whole thing, and looked for the good parts so you don't have to. Here is your handy guide to the diamonds in the rough - the things about the Star Wars Holiday Special that aren't entirely terrible.
There are certain things that you can always rely on every Star Wars fan to say. One of them is, of course, "the Holiday Special is terrible" but almost as predictable is the perennial follow-up, "but the cartoon is good". Yes, even though pretty much everyone hates the special in general, almost everyone loves the 10-minute cartoon that Lumpy watches featuring our heroes in a mission against the Empire (starring the real actors, no less). It's actually pretty impressively animated (for 1978), it feels much more like Star Wars than anything else in these two hours (check out the cameo from General Dodonna, by the way) and most strikingly of all, it introduces us to one Boba Fett. Definitely worth a watch for that reason alone. Of course, there is the weird issue of how exactly Lumpy is watching a cartoon starring his real life friends and family, but... whatever. It's definitely the highlight.
Just one more round, friend...
As the special trudges through its interminable second act (the part where the Wookiees and Imperial Officers just kind of hang out and chill for half an hour) we take a visit to the Cantina! Yes, THAT Cantina! It turns out Wookiees enjoy reality TV, and they sit down to watch what is clearly The Only Way is Mos Eisley. Bea Arthur stars as the landlady (where was she in A New Hope, then?) who has to deal with unwanted advances from a customer who drinks through his brain (?!) and then has to quell a full-scale riot when she tries to close down for the night. How to deal with this nightmarish existence?
All of a sudden, the famous Cantina Band play that exact same song all over again except much slower, and now it has lyrics! Bea proudly strides through the Cantina, belting out a truly endless but rather catchy little number about how her guests will simply never ever clear off and leave her in peace, and how she's forced to drown them into a stupor with free drinks to get them to go home. It's cheerier than it sounds. The really hilarious thing about this sequence is that all the costumes are re-used from A New Hope - it's literally the exact same clientele, including recently deceased Greedo happily downing a few! It's basically the campest and most bonkers thing you will ever see in the Star Wars universe - the Star Wars galaxy's own little tribute to Cabaret, to be precise. And it totally works. I genuinely enjoy this sequence. And if you don't, then I guess you need...
One more round, friend.... then it's goodnight, friend...
I mean, really... who in the world doesn't enjoy a flourescent, cheesy and utterly random performance from Jefferson Starship to break up a tedious few hours? Clearly chosen purely because their name sounds a bit spacey, this is a humorous and actually pretty enjoyable moment.
Hilarious 70s commercials!
If the show itself is doing nothing for you (and you're not alone there) then you can at the very least enjoy the genuine TV commercials from 1978 USA. Some are weirdly long and dull, others are pure 70s cheese. Some give us a stark reminder of where we are in history here - there are commercials for Pez dispensers, and a TV spot for National Lampoon's Animal House. C-3P0 himself stars in one advert towards the end for some Star Wars-y something or other. And then there is the infamous moment where a newsreader breaks in to say "fighting the frizzies, at eleven". Despite fandom's greatest efforts, no one has ever been able to explain this moment. Personally I think it's to do with preventing frizzy hair. We'll never know. Just enjoy the mystery.
An Imperial officer ripping a toy bantha's head off for no reason
I'll just leave this here. This special may well make you so depressed and angry that you feel like resorting to violence. Apparently, one Imperial officer feels the same, when he walks into Lumpy's room, rips the head off his brand new toy bantha, and leaves. That is all.
R2-D2 as.... R2-D2!
You might not have caught this one, but it really does sum up the idiocy behind this special. The cast are wheeled out at the beginning, and all the familiar names greet us - "Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca... Anthony Daniels as C-3P0... and R2-D2 as R2-D2!". Umm, what? What happened to Kenny Baker? It turns out that for no reason whatsoever, the producers decided to pretend that Artoo is a real, fully functioning robot with no actor inside of him. Which not only means that Kenny Baker appears in this turd without being credited, but also that some kids would now think he wasn't in A New Hope either! Personally, I find this hilarious, and it really does crystallise just how strange and needlessly off-the-wall this special is.
Bea Arthur's turn as Ackmena isn't the only performance worthy of mention. In amongst all the terrible guest spots (Harvey Korman stars as no less than three horrendously annoying characters), Art Carney actually gives it a good stab as local trader Saun Dann. The character is actually pretty intriguing - he apparently considers it socially acceptable to give an old gentleman a virtual reality porn machine as a Christmas gift, for one - and he is notably the only human we see living on Kashyyyk (that's three 'y's, and pronounced Kazook, for no reason). He is a pretty likeable guy, actually, and anchors the dreadful Wookiee scenes with some kind of semblance of reality. It would definitely be worse without him. Not to mention, I'm a major fan of puns, and this little gem, where Saun Dann is secretly relaying news of Han and Chewie's journey, steals the show for me: "that shaggy carpet you ordered will arrive at your home, created especially for you by a woman four planets away, all by herself. You might say she did it by hand... solo." Applause-worthy.
Leia's spaced-out singing finale
You might reach a point, around 80% of the way through this thing, where you think "hey, all the characters I know and love have only been in one scene, what a rip-off!" and move to turn the programme off. But wait! You haven't yet witnessed the marvellous moment where the whole cast turn up on Kashyyyk to celebrate "Life Day" (basically, Space Christmas), followed by something entirely unexpected. Carrie Fisher steps forward at this point to deliver a rousing speech about the importance of friendship and family, but this being the Holiday Special, you know what's coming...
After the remix of Cantina Band earlier, Leia gets the honour of singing along to the Star Wars theme itself. The words are utterly banal and nonsensical, and the sheer madness of Leia singing the Star Wars theme distracts from them in any case. Best of all, she is clearly and visibly away with the fairies - and Carrie Fisher later confirmed that she was so high during filming that she has absolutely no memory of the Holiday Special at all. So to all those who can find nothing to enjoy here - I ask you, how about a drugged-up Leia singing the Star Wars theme surrounded by Wookiees on national television? Some people clearly are never satisfied.
A New Hope montage
This is all in jest, of course - obviously the Star Wars Holiday Special is an appalling piece of television and it's been damn hard to find ten good things about it, I can tell you that. But one of them is truly worthy of mention, purely because it restores one's faith in Star Wars. After Leia's caterwauling is done with, Chewie fondly remembers the events of A New Hope, which we get to see via a quick montage. It's so comforting to see "real" Star Wars on screen at last to bring us back to some sort of normality and is an unfortunate highlight in that regard. Also, like everything else in this programme, it also has an added level of unfortunate humour. At some point, it seems to have been forgotten that the framing device for this bit is "Chewie's happy memories". It's actually just a montage of all the key moments from the film, which means that Chewie ends up happily reminiscing about that time the Falcon got captured aboard a giant metal moon of death, or that time that Obi-Wan got killed. Even in its crowd-pleasing moments, the Holiday Special messes it up. Never mind.
Star Wars fever at its height
But really, there is one aspect of the Holiday Special that every fan can enjoy. Forget the endless brays of Wookiees and Mark Hamill's terrifying post-surgery make-up. Forget the ten-minute Diahann Carroll erotic song to a space monkey, and Harrison Ford's hilariously weak performance. What really is special about this... special, is that it's a prime example of when Star Wars was at its height. Indeed, the fact this thing even got made is reason to celebrate. The idea that Star Wars got a two-hour Christmas special for all the family with the full cast, songs and celebrity guests, frankly warms my heart, and I can't help but long to be a child again and enjoy this special sort of Star Wars mania.
So when you go out this Christmas to watch The Force Awakens, don't forget about the other Star Wars adventure released at Christmas. It's hard to enjoy at times, but deep down, it will always be my guilty pleasure.
Now how about some of those Wookiee-ookies?
Andy Markham is a writer, musician, graduate, and super-geek. Ginger
glasses-wearer. Star Wars obsessive and Doctor Who enthusiast.
Specialises in film music and currently writing his first book on the
subject. Follow Andy on Twitter.