Why The Star Wars Holiday Special Still Matters

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There’s something oddly compelling for me to see something in its formative stages, before even those involved know exactly what it is that they’re dealing with; going back, later, to watch early Buffys where the tone isn’t quite there, or re-reading X-Mens where Wolverine is much more of an asshole and Storm seems to be eyeing up Colossus, brings on this dual feeling of “No! No! No! That’s wrong” and “Well, that’s kind of interesting” all at once. It’s like accidentally seeing a glimpse of an alternate reality where everything went in a different direction from what you’ve come to know and love.

Which might explain why I kinda love the Star Wars Holiday Special.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t actually like it, and I couldn’t, in all honesty, make an argument towards its quality, but there’s something so completely wrong about it, about the fact that it seems completely alien to Star Wars as we know it know, that draws me in like a moth to a particularly tacky flame.

For those who don’t know about the Star Wars Holiday Special, the story goes like this: The first Star Wars spin-off, the Holiday Special was a two-hour Christmas TV show that not only starred the majority of the cast of the original movie – Only David Prowse and Alec Guinness didn’t make appearances – but also Jefferson Airplane, Bea Arthur and Art Carney, amongst others. Because, oh yes, there’s singing. The plot revolves around Han Solo and Chewbacca travelling back to Chewie’s home planet to visit his family (which includes his unfortunately-named son, Lumpy), only to run into Imperial trouble along the way.

The problem, for most people – including George Lucas himself, who had minimal involvement with the special and has since said that he would happily track down every copy of the program and destroy it – wasn’t the plot, though, but the execution; the show is just full of things that seem astonishingly off now, such as Princess Leia singing a version of John Williams’ theme music for the movie, or dancing Wookies, or… well, almost anything that happens in it, really. But what’s fascinating to me about it is how clearly it shows the skill with which the original movie – and that’s all that was really around at the time, in terms of previous examples of how to do it – balanced a tone that was part childlike-sense-of-wonder and part tongue-in-cheek derring-do. It’s only when you see it done this badly – so that it becomes childish and parodic – that you can appreciate how great it was in the first place.

(There is one part of the show that’s just kind of awesome for reasons other than historical curiosity value and process nerditry, and that’s the animated interlude that introduces Boba Fett for the first time, years before The Empire Strikes Back; it’s on a par with the Ewoks and Droids cartoons of the mid-80s animation-wise, but it’s the closest thing you’ll get to “real” Star Wars in the whole thing, tonally, and also: It’s the first appearance of Boba Fett. Come on.)

The oddest thing about the afterlife of the Holiday Special isn’t that it gets passed around as bootlegs or online, but that it is still apparently considered Star Wars canon, in terms of continuity. So, next time you’re watching The Empire Strikes Back and you see Chewbacca wail when Han gets placed in carbonite, just remember: He’s probably just missing Lumpy.

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