A moderately long time ago on a blog not so far, far away (okay, it was this one) I took one for the team and reviewed the Star Wars Holiday Special. Well, since Advent is upon us and we’re just under a week away from The Force Awakens hitting theaters, it seemed like a good time to revisit that old review, updating it a bit to address some of the changes made to the Star Wars universe since Disney took over.
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 forever 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 seen as a mentally handicapped 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 stance 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 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 again (ahem, at least not through any normal channels).
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, even though it wasn’t the “sequel” we were waiting on, the show was still the fix we were all jonesing 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 at least gave us 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, 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 such a thing. Hobbits and kings alike break into song all of the time in those Lord of the Rings stories, so why not Princess Leia? (Sigh.) Because in the ancient fantasy world of 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 soon say.) I have to believe, as goofy as some of the things George Lucas has personally written over the years 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 actually 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 dubbed The Holocron designed to keep track of what was and what wasn’t “Star Wars Canon”.
Basically, the Holocron worked like this. It consisted of four tiers (G, C, S, & N) with varying levels of authority based on their relationship to and distance from the films. Besides the movies themselves, G-Canon included novelizations and radio plays based on their scripts, as well as any statement George Lucas personally made. The second level, C-Canon, included books, comics, and video games which expanded the universe beyond the movies, but didn’t have any blatant contradictions. On a lower level, S-Canon included stories and games which were out of continuity, but may still have included non-contradicting elements from the higher levels. Imaginary stories and fanfiction populated N-Canon and were given no credence whatsoever. (Which means, mercifully, that video of Star Wars: The Empire Brokeback that showed up on YouTube DID NOT COUNT as canon.) Sue Rostoni of Lucas Licensing is quoted as saying, "Our goal is to present a continuous and unified history of the Star Wars galaxy, insofar as that history does not conflict with, or undermine the meaning of Mr. Lucas's Star Wars saga of films and screenplays." Of course it would have been extremely helpful if Mr. Lucas hadn’t re-edited his blasted movies every time ILM invented a new CG program, but for the most part The Holocron system seemed to accomplish pretty much what they wanted it to.
Until Disney took over, that is.
Once Lucas sold them the rights to Star Wars, Disney charged in like a bunch of mouse-eared Martin Luthers and declared there was going to be some substantial changes to the official canon. Under the Disney Reformation, everything produced pre-Disney except for the six movies and the Clone Wars cartoon was now deemed apocrypha (or “Legends” to use Disney’s term). In addition, anything added henceforth (books, comics, whatever) would be considered new canon, even if it contradicted what had come before. So, gone were beloved story lines such as the Thrawn trilogy, Luke’s relationship with Mara Jade, and generations of Skywalkers struggling with the force, and in were Rebels, Darth Vader Comics (which you really should be reading), and whatever J. J. Abrams has in store for us. Needless to say, a large number of lifelong fans were understandably upset that most of what they had believed about the Star Wars universe was now relegated to the status of fan fiction.
It’s a bummer to be sure, but that’s what happens when you take canon away from the ones who created it and put it in the hands of someone else. Just ask the original Lutherans. While they were mostly okay with their founder booting seven books from the Christian Old Testament, even they had to cry shenanigans when he turned his attention to the New Testament and began questioning the worth of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. To be fair, some Catholics before Luther had done the same thing, but fortunately the Church had safeguards in place for just such problems. As the Catechism notes, “It was by the apostolic Tradition that the Church discerned which writings are to be included in the list of the sacred books… [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching.” What they can’t do, though, is ever change it. Not even the Pope himself can ever do that.
Alas, there is no such like charism at work in the Star Wars universe. Pretty much whoever owns the copyright can change or invent anything they want to on a whim. The problem with that, of course, is that the more you add or change, the more potential there is for error to creep in. How do I know that for sure? Well, you tell me, is there any other way to view Jar Jar Binks than as a vile canonical error? I didn’t think so.
By the way, 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, I guess it’s not your problem anymore. Happy Life Day everybody. Whatever that means.