‘Star Wars’ isn’t the first film that springs to mind this time of year, as you clamber for something to distract you from drunk relatives and impending credit card bills.
As good a series as it may be, it isn’t exactly festive. But a long time ago on a continent far, far away it did try to be, and the result was… well, it wasn’t great.
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On 17 November 1978 between the hours of 8 and 10pm Eastern Standard Time the infamous ‘Star Wars Holiday Special’ aired on US network CBS for the first and only time.
In the decades since it has been mocked relentlessly by its stars, become a cult classic among fans and has been called the number one dumbest event in TV history. Its Wikipedia page even has its own section entitled “Regrets”.
George Lucas himself, who let’s not forget went on make the prequel trilogy, reportedly said of the project: “If I had the time and a hammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it." How exactly then did this monstrosity come to pass?
Five hundred and forty one days prior, ‘A New Hope’ was released in US cinemas. It went on to be the most successful film of its time and was an enormous cultural phenomenon that still resonates to this day.
Naturally executive business types behind screens big and small wanted to capitalise, so the idea of a seasonal special was put forward. Who exactly put it forward, however, isn’t entirely clear; some reckon it was 20th Century Fox while others blame LucasFilm.
Either way, the responsibility of making the special fell to Smith-Hemion Productions, and they had the entire ‘Star Wars’ cast at their disposal.
Oh yes, this wasn’t some cheap cash-in, this was an expensive cash-in! It was feature length, had celebrity cameos, an animated sequence, musical numbers and all the principal members of the film’s cast apart from Alec Guinness, who clearly knew better.
‘The Star Wars Holiday Special’s story begins with Han Solo and Chewbacca on their way to the Wookiee home-world of Kashyyyk to celebrate “Life Day” with Chewie’s wife Malla, son Lumpy and creepy father Itchy.
Yes, that did say his wife.
Before Han and Chewie arrive, however, Imperial Stormtroopers barge into his home looking for the war criminals, and keep his family mildly inconvenienced for a few hours before the inevitable happy ending.
Along the way it gets a bit strange. Very strange, in fact.
There’s ten minutes toward the start of the show that consists solely of three Wookiees howling and growling at each in that Wookiee kind of way. Chewbacca on his own was never annoying, three Wookiees conversing is.
A short dance sequence from a group of men in tights also features, and there’s a lesson in cooking “Bantha Surprise” from a terrifying space chef who appears to be a man in futuristic drag. In the second half of the show there’s also a sequence set in the Mos Eisley cantina which ends with the bar maid singing a melodramatic song to the theme of the famous Cantina Song.
[Related link: Buy the Star Wars Cantina Song on iTunes]
Among the “celebrity” cameos are rock band Jefferson Starship, actress Bea Arthur, comedian Harvey Korman and actor Art Carney.
As terrible as it sounds, however, it isn’t all bad…
Boba Fett made his ‘Star Wars’ debut on the show as part of a cartoon young Lumpy watches to pass the time as his oppressive overlords harass mum in the kitchen. The cartoon tells the story of Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, C3-PO and R2-D2’s first encounter with the bounty hunter on a planet covered in red goo.
In the years to follow, many stories regarding the special and the actors’ relationship with it have surfaced, including how George Lucas once tried and failed to buy all master copies of the show to ensure it was never aired again.
Carrie Fisher revealed during an interview in 2010 that she once made George Lucas give her a copy of the show in exchange for doing DVD commentary for the films. She added that she plays the video at parties, "mainly at the end of the night when I want people to leave”.
Author David Hofstede named the special number one in his book ‘What Were They Thinking?: The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History’, calling it "the worst two hours of television ever".
The low point of the show – even worse than the terrifying moment it appears Chewbacca might start kissing his wife – happens right at the end when Carrie Fisher sings the special’s theme song to the tune of John Williams’ iconic film score. Everyone looks awkward.
Due to its so-bad-it’s-good fame, copies of the special are still in circulation online, either on YouTube or as downloads. Each is taken from VHS recordings of the original airing, some even including the adverts.
Dreadful even by George Lucas’ standards, ‘The Star Wars Holiday Special’ needs to be seen to believed, and it is certainly the right time of year.
And it’s still better than ‘Attack of the Clones’.
[Related link: Buy 'Star Wars: The Complete Saga' on Blu-ray from Amazon]