A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to spend two weeks in Australia. The hotel where I was staying had a pretty nice breakfast buffet. My first morning there I tried a traditional Australian food known as Vegemite. It was horrendous! I had never tasted anything so awful before, and I couldn’t believe that the fine folks at Kraft were trying to pass this off as food.
My second day there, I had some Vegemite again. Why? Simple. I thought to myself that it couldn’t have been as awful as I remembered, so I wanted to try it to make sure. It was as awful as I remembered.
Which brings us to my latest Convention Find- The Star Wars Holiday Special, the Vegemite of TV Specials. It’s so awful you have to watch it again just to assure yourself that you weren’t hallucinating its awfulness the first time you saw it.
In 1977, Star Wars (I refuse to call it “A New Hope” or “Episode Four”- we all called it “Star Wars” when it came out, and “Star Wars” it will remain) was released and was a huge financial success. It permeated the culture and helped revive the moribund science fiction genre in movies. It was inevitable that there would be a sequel (even if George Lucas hadn’t already planned out a 9 episode arc).
Skip ahead to 1978. The Empire Strikes Back is still some months away, and Kenner’s got a buttload of new “Star Wars” toys that it wants to sell at Christmas. How do you keep the franchise in the forefront of everyone’s minds? Why, a Christmas Special, of course. But since the series takes place “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”, the show can’t actually refer to Christmas. So, the producers make up the Wookiee holiday “Life Day,” and center the story around Chewbacca’s family as they await Chewie’s return for the big holiday.
We start off with scenes pulled from the movie- the Millennium Falcon is trying to escape some Imperial Ships. Cut to inside, where Han and Chewy exposit a bit about how Han has never let Chewie down before when he needed to get home for Life Day. (Incidentally, despite the fact that this is an official Star Wars movie, and most of the major players from the movie appear in it, they do not use any of the actual sets. That explains why the interiors of the Millennium Falcon have a somewhat cardboardy look to them.)
Cut to the credits.
When we return, we meet the members of Chewie’s family: his wife, Mala; his father, Itchy; and his son, Lumpy. (Yes- Itchy, Lumpy and Chewie. Do all Wookiee men have adjectives for names?) They are having a typical Wookiee day- Mala’s doing housework, Itchy is sitting around, and morbidly obese Lumpy is trying to steal some cookiees, err... cookies. (Actually, later we’ll find out they’re actually called “Wookiee-Ookiees.” Gah.) They also talk to each other in that roaring Wookiee language. This goes on for 10 minutes (I timed it with my VCR), with nary a subtitle to help us out.
Finally, something happens- Lumpy walks over to one of those holographic chess tables from the first movie, and spends 5 minutes watching some proto-Cirque du Soleil shenanigans set to boring New Age music.
Mala walks over to a viewscreen and sees a message that there are no starships in the vicinity. She then opens a secret panel, which reveals another viewscreen. She uses this to call our next guest stars, Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker and R2-D2. This special must have been shot not too long after Hamill’s motorcycle accident, because the skin on his face (especially around is eyes) is oddly tight and plasticy, and he is made-up to almost Tammy Faye Bakker levels. Mala tells him she is worried about Chewie, and he reassures her that her husband will be home before too long. Their conversation is in what I like to call “Lassie-speak”, where Mala roars something in Wookiee, Luke repeats what she said in English (for the benefit of us who are non-proficient Wookiee speakers), and then answers her. You know, like this:
Mala: “Roar, Rooowwwer!”
Luke: “What’s that Mala? You’re worried about Chewbacca? Don’t worry, he’ll be home soon.”
Mala: “Growlllll... Growllll”
Luke: “Do I think he’s going to bring you lots of presents? Of course he is.”
And so on.
(You know, if I were having a conversation with someone and the first part of their reply was always a restatement of what I told them, I’d probably end up roaring and growling at them, too.)
Anyway, the rocket engine Luke is working on suddenly starts emitting copious amounts of smoke, so Luke signs off.
Next, Mala contacts Saun Dan, a trader. Saun Dan is played by Art Carney- a very overweight Art Carney who seems unable to button up his shirt. What follows is a brief sketch where an imperial Storm Trooper is looking to buy a personal groomer. I’m not sure if this sketch is supposed to be funny, or if it was even rehearsed beforehand- the pacing is very odd, with a lot of pauses, as if the two were just improvising the whole scene. After the trooper leaves, Saun Dan gives Mala the same type of assurances (in Lassie-speak) that Luke gave her.
Quick cut to one of the Imperial battleships, where Darth Vader is talking to one of his officers about the Millennium Falcon’s escape, and how they must search every house on the planet to find the two rebels. This scene was obviously taken from the movie and then overdubbed, as the officer’s mouth in no way matches the words that are coming out it.
Back at Casa de Bacca, we get what is intended to be a comedy sketch. Mala is preparing Bantha Rump for dinner, and she turns on a cooking show to see how it’s done. The show features Harvey Korman as Goormanda, a Julia Child-type cook with four arms. The four arms allow Goormanda to prepare the food much faster than Mala, who has trouble keeping up. Mala gets flustered and turns off the TV. Comedy gold!
Out in space, the Millennium Falcon is still trying to evade the Imperial forces. An announcement comes over the viewscreen that a blockade is now in place around the planet, and the Empire has declared martial law.
Saun Dan comes to visit the ‘Bacca house, and brings Life Day presents for the family. What follows is a truly disturbing scene- Itchy’s present is a memory chip, which Saun Dan describes as being very “Wow!” Itchy sits in a virtual reality chair, inserts the chip, and then puts a helmet on. Itchy smiles widely as Diahanne Carroll appears. She tells Itchy that she is his fantasy, and that he should enjoy and experience her fully. Then she sings a truly awful song. Itchy meanwhile grins lewdly and starts breathing heavily. At the end of the song, we see him lying back in the chair with a very satisfied look on his face. He probably needed a cigarette at that point.
Ignoring the her post-coital father-in-law (can you be post-coital if you’re by yourself?), Mala goes back to the viewscreen and calls Princess Leia and C-3PO. Judging by her glazed expression, and eyes that are all pupil, Leia is played by what looks to be a pre-rehab Carrie Fisher. Leia and 3PO give Mala the same assurances that Luke did, and sign off.
Back on the Falcon, Han and Chewie have broken through the Imperial blockade, and decide to land in a safe area in the north section of the planet. They’ll have to walk from there. (Apparently, the Wookiees live on a pretty small planet.)
Mala hears a knock on the door, and rushes over, assuming it’s her husband. Unfortunately, it’s two Imperial officers and two stormtroopers, who proceed to search the house. They nearly discover Mala’s hidden communicator, but Saun Dan distracts them by suggesting that Mala prepare food for everyone. He also gives one of the officers a video to watch. This one features Jefferson Starship doing a song that is almost as good as “We Built This City.”
After the video, the search continues, with the stormtroopers going upstairs to Lumpy’s room. To show how evil they are, the troopers rip the head off of Lumpy’s stuffed Bantha. While this is going on, Lumpy stays distracted by watching a cartoon of his father’s adventures:
The Millennium Falcon crashes on a water planet. Luke, Leia, R2 and 3PO go after them, and run into Boba Fett, who wants to help them. They all board the Falcon, where Han has been infected by a mysterious sleeping virus caused by an ancient talisman. Luke immediately contracts the virus as well. Fett tells Chewie that he can get a cure in a nearby, Imperial-occupied city. Once there, Fett instructs Chewie to stay behind while he gets the cure. After he’s away from Chewie, Fett contacts Darth Vader and informs him of the situation. He tells Vader he will deliver the rebels to him. On the Falcon, as C-3PO is caring for Han and Luke, he and R2-D2 intercept the message. Fett and Chewie return to the Falcon, and cure Han and Luke. After they recover, 3PO tells everyone about Fett’s plan. Fett ignites his jet pack and blasts away, promising that he will meet them all again. Everyone then returns to the rebel base on board the Falcon.
After the cartoon is over, and the stormtroopers have moved to another part of the house, Lumpy goes back to his room and opens the present that Saun Dan gave him. It’s a bunch of electronic parts and an instructional video. The video, our next bit of “comedy”, features Harvey Korman as a malfunctioning robot who acts out the assembly instructions for the kit. The hilarity consists of video and audio tomfoolery that make Korman look like a Max Headroom precursor.
Downstairs, the stormtroopers are still searching the house as the viewscreen comes on. A voice-over announces that the program, “Life On Tattoine”, is required viewing for everyone. We then cut to the Mos Eisley cantina, which is run by Bea Arthur. Harvey Korman shows up as his third character (the guy’s a veritable Peter Sellers)- an alien who drinks by pouring liquids into the hole on the top of his head. Stormtroopers enter the bar, declare martial law (again!), and order everyone to their homes. Arthur ushers everyone out by singing a song. And, yes, it was probably the awfulness of the song rather than the martial law that caused everyone to leave the bar.
All of a sudden, the troopers get a transmission telling them to return to base. All but one leave. The remaining trooper discovers that the return to base is not an official command, but is coming from the kit the Lumpy built. He destroys the kit, and then chases Lumpy downstairs and outside the house.
As soon as they’re outside, Chewie and Han show up. Chewie rescues Lumpy by casually strolling across the porch and standing between him and the trooper. Han, meanwhile, sneaks up behind the trooper and knocks a blaster out of his hands. The trooper then conveniently trips, falls over a railing and plummets to his death to the forest below. (Did I mention that Wookiees live in big treehouses, hundreds of feet in the air? Well, they do.)
With Chewie reunited with his family, they can have their Life Day celebration. This consists of dressing in red graduation robes, holding glowing spheres and walking through outer space with a bunch of other Wookiees. When they reach their destination, they are met by Han, Luke, Leia, C-3PO and R2D2. Leia sings a Life Day song (very off-key), set vaguely to John Williams’ “Star Wars Theme” as Chewie flashes back to all of his adventures from Star Wars.
Looking back at what I’ve written, I see my summary takes up nearly 4 pages in Word, which would imply that something happened during this show. Nothing could be further from the truth. For two hours (including commercials), we are forced to watch interminable scenes of Wookiee growls followed poorly paced and horribly unfunny “comedy” sketches. Or, for a change of pace, we get amazingly awful songs.
Everyone looks uncomfortable in this- most give off a “I’m only doing this because I’m contractually obligated” vibe. Carrie Fisher seems to have gotten through it only by being highly medicated.
I started off this review with the joke about Vegemite. At least, I intended it to be a joke until I watched this video again. It had been at least 5 years since the last time I watched the show, and I wanted to see it again so I could write with it fresh in my mind. But, my goodness, it truly was painful to watch. I was glad I had it on tape so I could fast forward through all the boring parts (which comprise about 95% of the show). In a complete turnabout from the way most people watch TV shows on video, I fast-forwarded through the show just so I could get to the commercials, which were infinitely more entertaining than the program which surrounded them.
I was at a loss to describe how terrible this production is, until I was hit by this thought: George Lucas has said there will never be an official, Lucas-approved version released on DVD. Ever. Lucas is proud of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith and has released them in deluxe DVD editions. But no Holiday Special DVD.
Heck- you can get Howard the Duck on DVD. But not The Star Wars Holiday Special. It’s that bad.