“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”
It’s Life Day, the most important holiday on the Wookiee’s home planet of Kashyyyk, but Chewbacca, on the run from the Empire since helping the rebellion blow up the Death Star, hasn’t made it home yet. Chewie’s family (wife Malla, father Itchy, and son Lumpy) wait in quiet desperation for his return while doing their best to avoid the incriminating questions of the imperial storm troopers who have invaded their home searching for clues of the rebel’s whereabouts. With the aid of local trader Saun Dann, the Wookie family manage to sneak a few calls to Chewie’s pals Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia while keeping the Empire goons distracted with various entertaining gadgets. After some narrow escapes from stock footage imperial star destroyers, Han and Chewie finally arrive at the house where Han is forced to knock a trooper off a flight of stairs to his death. (Don’t worry about your young impressionable kids, the trooper swung first.) Saun Dann provides a convenient cover story which allows everybody, including the just arrived Luke, Leia and the droids, to join with Chewbacca’s family in the celebration of Life Day.
I’m about to say something so heretical, so sacrilegious, so potentially blasphemous, that it may mean my excommunication from the ranks of sci-fi geekdom forever. But I have no choice. You see, I have watched the Star Wars Holiday Special and what I have to say is this… I really and truly wish with all my heart that George Lucas had written this show.
I know, I know, please forgive me. I know George is the guy who wrote dialog the likes of "Hold me, Anakin! Hold me like you did by the lake at Naboo!", thereby assuring a pair of potentially tragic Shakesperian-type lovers would be viewed simply as a couple of twits. I know he’s the guy who actually wrote the word “YIPPIE!” for his child actor to yell out, thereby assuring anyone over the age of five would want to bludgeon the poor kid to death. And yes, I know he’s the guy who wrote every grotesque word that came out Jar Jar Binks’ mouth thereby insuring a major character in the Star Wars universe would always be viewed as a semi-retarded Rastafarian wannabe. I know Lucas is the guy who wrote ALL OF THAT… and yet, still, I wish he had written The Star Wars Holiday Special. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.
I’m willing to take this unholy stand because, even though Lucas’ own literary lapses are legendary, I can’t remember a time he’s ever, I repeat EVER, written anything as mindbendingly screwy as some of the stuff you see in The Star Wars Holiday Special. (And, yes, I’m counting Captain EO.) Now to be honest, Filmfax magazine does claim that Lucas was somewhat involved in the first rough draft of the script. But having little interest in an idea forced on him by 20th Century Fox, Ol’ George made the decision to leave everything beyond that point in the capable hands of Smith-Hemion Productions. And that’s probably where everything went straight to hell because, alas, Smith-Hemion was not a company known for its writing. What Smith-Hemion WAS known for was producing shows like the Tony Awards. Have you ever listened to the jokes on one of those things and wondered who in the name of all that’s holy wrote them and thought they were remotely funny? Well, it was these guys.
Which at least explains a good chunk of what’s wrong with The Star Wars Holiday Special. For those fortunate few of you who have never seen it, let me explain. What the nice people at Smith-Hemion Productions did was take George’s outline and twist it to fit their own special niche. The show quickly morphed from Lucas’ vague concept of “a sweet and sentimental vision of a holiday season" into a full blown 1970s style variety show complete with aging yet familiar television faces like Art Carney, pedestrian comedy skits, and dinner theater style musical performances. The end result of it all was… well, not exactly what Star Wars fans were hoping for. In a May 2002 interview with Maxim magazine, Lucas briefly commented on the special. “Right. That's one of those things that happened” he said, “and I just have to live with it.” Of course, by living with it he means sealing it up inside a vault never to be seen (officially) again.
But rather than try to bury The Star Wars Holiday Special (as Lucas has attempted to do), maybe we should try to praise it just a bit instead. For one thing, no matter that it wasn’t the “sequel” we were waiting on, the show was still the fix we were all looking for that brisk November of 1978. After all, Star Wars had finally ended its astonishing 44 week theatrical run in March and it would be another year and a half before The Empire Strikes Back hit the big screen. We faithful were starting to feel a tinge of desperation to see our favorite rebels again and The Special gave us just that. There was Luke Skywalker (whose recent injuries from a car accident required him to wear more makeup than a roomful of transvestites at a Tammy Faye Baker lookalike contest), there was Han Solo (a mortally embarrassed looking Harrison Ford who used to pretend this show never happened until Conan O’Brien ambushed him one night with some found footage), there was Princess Leia (well on her way by this time to a much publicized alcohol and cocaine addiction), and there were even all of the lovable supporting characters like C3PO and R2D2 and, of course, Chewbacca (all just happy to have a gig in between films). Say what you will, but at least all the original actors were there, walking around… and saying things… annnnd singing.
Okay, in fairness, Carrie Fisher was the only Star Wars cast member forced to sing. And its not like there isn’t precedent for that. What about those Lord of the Rings stories? Hobbits and kings alike break into song all of the time in those things, so why not Princess Leia? (Sigh.) Because in Middle Earth it just doesn’t seem out of place for people to communicate tales of heroic struggle and loss through song. In the Star Wars universe, however, it… it… in the Star Wars universe, the freakin’ fugitive Princess of Alderaan and de facto leader of the rebel alliance doesn’t just spontaneously burst into song because she’s overcome with emotion while attending a holiday wing-ding thrown by a bunch of overgrown lhasa apsos, okay, she just doesn’t! And almost nothing that happens in The Star Wars Holiday Special has any business being near Star Wars either. An interminably long Cirque De Soleil type performance by The Wazzan Troupe in the Wookiee’s living room. No. A post-Maude Bea Arthur singing a cabaret tune to a bunch of aliens at the Mos Eisley cantina. No. An imperial guard completely and utterly mesmerized by a Jefferson Starship video. No. Harvey Corman playing four different roles, including a multi-armed Julia Childs type chef named Gormaanda. No, no, no, and no. Chewie’s dad Itchy lustfully leering at Diahann Carroll as she sings and (blecch) comes on to him. NOOOOOO!!! (As Luke would say.) I have to believe, as goofy as some of the things George Lucas has personally written may be (I’m looking at you midochlorians), even he wouldn’t have put some of this crapola down on paper.
Now amidst all that dreck, there are a couple of redeeming moments. The Nelvana produced cartoon which introduces the character of Boba Fett was actually pretty cool (despite such artistic choices as Han Solo’s nightmarishly elongated face), the art direction was still top notch (the Wookiee architecture resurfaced in Episode III), and it was kind of neat to get a recipe for Wookiee-ookies (released soon after in The Star Wars Cookbook: Wookiee Cookies and Other Galactic Recipes), but in the end there just wasn’t enough good stuff to counterbalance the overriding wrongness of the whole production. After this debacle is it any wonder Lucas became such a stickler for protecting his franchise (at least from everyone but himself). Having already waived his fee as director in lieu of owning the licensing rights to Star Wars, Lucas took special care to procure all rights to The Holiday Special back from CBS and lock it away in that aforementioned vault. From there, as we previously discussed way back in our review of Final Exam: The Novelization, Lucas Licensing developed a continuity tracking database known as The Holocron in order to keep track of what is and what isn’t “Star Wars Canon”. And as of late, the Lucas legal team has been zealously pursuing any hint of copyright infringement, as in the recent court case against a London costume designer selling replicas of storm trooper uniforms.
As anal retentive as all of this sounds, it does give the fans who care about such things the utmost surety that anything they purchase with Lucas’ imprimatur stamped on it is, in fact, part of the authentic Star Wars universe. In those instances where something looks official but doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the canon, like say Princess Leia warbling “A Day To Celebrate”, Lucas has the final authority to have such things declared apocryphal (writings or statements of dubious authenticity). So even if you do somehow run across a copy of this so-called Special (and really, who hasn’t by now?) which happens to have Star Wars in its name, that doesn’t mean it’s really, really Star Wars. Not completely, anyway. Surprisingly, a lot of the non-singing stuff from The Special has found its way into canon as the Star Wars story has developed over time. But that’s Lucas’ call too. Over the years, the authority Lucas exercises over his franchise has been called a number of things (God complex, megalomania, hyperegotism, etc.), but as a good Catholic boy I tend to prefer the term “Magisterial”, as in the Magisterial authority held by the Pope and the Bishops.
Too far, you say? Perhaps I’m going a bit overboard in this review with my usage of religious terms like heretical, canon, magisterial, etc. when discussing Lucas and Star Wars? Well, let me refer you to a May 2008 article on Time.com which reminds us that “in three decades the franchise has spawned more than just massive revenues and legions of fans — it has also inspired a religion. Jediism, based on the teachings of the films, counts thousands of members worldwide.” Daniel Jones, co-founder of the first Church of Jediism in the United Kingdom states that “with the 2001 Census, now everyone recognizes Jedi as a religion. If the government says to us 'You can't do that because you're not a true religion," we can say 'Yes we are' because there's more Jedi than Scientologists in Britain.” All of which tells me two things. One, sci-fi writers with grand ideas coupled with poor writing skills seem to have the uncanny ability to inspire bizarre religions. And two, it’s more than appropriate to compare Lucas to the Magisterium. There are, however, a couple of important distinctions.
As the Catechism notes, we Catholics believe “Jesus entrusted a specific authority to Peter: "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." The "power of the keys" designates authority to govern the house of God, which is the Church… The Roman Pontiff and the bishops are "authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach the faith to the people entrusted to them, the faith to be believed and put into practice." Over the years this Magisterial authority has allowed the Pope and Bishops, among other things, to make final decisions on what books belonged in the official canon of Christianity, which later writings or teachings were authentic developments of dogma and doctrine and which ones were just apocrypha, and even what doctrines and disciplines could be changed over time. That’s somewhat analogous to how Lucas handles his franchise. The big difference between the Church’s authority and the type Lucas wields, however, is that George is the creator of the little world he controls and can change or invent anything he wants to at his whim. The Church, on the other hand, is simply a steward of The Deposit of Faith handed down in Scripture and the oral teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. Changing it isn’t allowed.
Or even possible, really. Which brings up the second big difference between the two “authorities”, the dreaded and oft-misunderstood Catholic dogma of papal infallibility. As defined by the Catechism, “The supreme degree of participation in the authority of Christ is ensured by the charism of infallibility. This infallibility extends as far as does the deposit of divine Revelation; it also extends to all those elements of doctrine, including morals, without which the saving truths of the faith cannot be preserved, explained, or observed.” We can see this idea of papal infallibility starting to kick in throughout the New Testament, particularly in those instances where the newly formed Christian Church is faced with the dilemma of whether or not to force Gentile Christians to adopt Jewish ritual purity laws. Peter’s initial personal belief is yes, but the Holy Spirit works on him both through dreams (Acts 10) and a ticked off Paul (Galatians 2), and once it comes time to make an official declaration, the word is no, they do not. As Patrick Madrid chronicles in his book Pope Fiction, this process of the Holy Spirit safeguarding the Magisterium from corrupting the Deposit of Faith (sometimes hilariously, sometimes frighteningly) has continued throughout the ages up to today. Even Pope Benedict XVI, in the introduction to his brilliant book Jesus of Nazareth, is careful to acknowledge that the work represents his personal opinions and does not fall under the charism of infallibility.
There’s a lot more to papal infallibility than what’s presented here, but in the context of this review the important thing to note is that when individual Popes or councils of Bishops have held personal beliefs contrary to the Deposit of Faith and wanted to make some official changes, the Holy Spirit has always stepped in and prevented it from happening. Alas, for poor George, there is no such like charism at work in the Star Wars universe. While Lucas actually appears to have more authority with his canon than the Church does with hers, having the ability to alter it at will, he unfortunately has no guiding (ahem) force to keep him from screwing it up. How do I know? Well, you tell me, would anybody working under a charism of infallibility write Jar Jar Binks into their official Lexicon? I didn’t think so either.
So tell me, Mr. Lucas, for all of your hand-wringing and bemoaning over the Star Wars Holiday Special and your promise to never officially release it to the public again, how do you justify your actions two years later in 1980 when you officially sanctioned THIS?
Way to safeguard your “canon”, George. Oh well, Happy Life Day everybody. Whatever that means.