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The Star Wars Holiday Special: Some folks are in space for the benefit of nobody

The Star Wars Holiday Special aired exactly one time in 1978. It never aired again, and it was never officially released, because it is one of the worst shows in the history of American television. Just ... here, just look at it.

Six or so hours of canonical material have held our attention for nearly 40 years. That's 45 seconds a month. That is all Star Wars needed to lay down its rails. It's won our fascination for lots of different reasons, but the quality that's kept me fascinated is its absolute weirdness.

  • Why does it happen "a long time ago"? (This is not a critique, I love that it does.)
  • Why does it have so much trouble falling on the emotional/gravitas register between "everyone is about to die" and "the robot's makin' with the funny beeps"?
  • How did the same people who made something culturally immortal let it marinate for more then a decade, and then come back with three of the most heartless movies I've ever seen?
  • How did George Lucas come up with the gall to name a scary villain who wants to violently kill you MAUL, and name a loner protagonist SOLO, and name a fighter pilot SKYWALKER? Why did they stop there? Why Darth Vader and not EVIL ELECTRIC SWORD DAD?
  • How can they, on one hand, tell a story so compelling about fathers and sons and destiny and how it is that people can come to embrace evil, and on the other, yoke it to the Force, a system of space magic as under-explained as M. Bison's move set?

The entire concept of the Force is in service to the idea of "good vs. evil," which is binary fake-deep nonsense. It leaves nothing for us to consider; it's spiritual bumper-bowling. Intellectually, the whole of Star Wars G-Canon is eclipsed by the scene in Spaceballs in which the characters watch the movie Spaceballs. There is absolutely nothing to learn from that scene, and that is okay. It is okay to not be lectured.

A lot of Star Wars just isn't any good, but it means something to me. It's dumb and sucky and I love it.

So much about Star Wars  -- its tone, mood, quality, everything -- oscillates so wildly that it's disorienting. It might be the greatest fictional phenomenon of the last hundred years. Nothing this strange and finite is supposed to have this inescapable amount of cultural gravity. In that way, it's a triumph and an absolute wonder. I wouldn't change a thing about it if I could, because sometimes, things just aren't about me, and they aren't made for my approval.

The Star Wars Holiday Special wasn't made for anyone's approval. It was a naked cash-grab, and it's been recognized as one of the worst moments in the history of American television. I finally watched it the other day. It was a journey into an extraordinarily weird universe, whether that universe was the Star Wars universe or just the year 1978. I don't know which is weirder.

Nothing you like about Star Wars is in this damn thing.

1

It is bad, yes. The Star Wars Holiday Special is as terrible as everyone tells you it is, and if you watched it without this expectation, you would hate it. Watching it with a full understanding of what this is and isn't, though, allowed me to actually appreciate it.

This is the timeline, scene by scene.

2

The story is centered around Chewbacca, who is trying to get home to his family in time for Life Day. The first 90 seconds concern he and Han Solo dorking around in space and trying to evade an Imperial patrol. Then the opening credits roll. Then the show begins in earnest, with nine consecutive minutes of wordless Wookiee dialogue.

Nine entire minutes of that.

Chewbacca is kind of a non-starter as far as characters go. He can't talk, and he can't push a lot in the way of emotion through his puppety face. He's just set up to fail. These are his avenues of expression:

1. Wailing. Maybe he's saying, "yeah," or maybe he's saying, "ah, shit." Those are the only two things.
2. Cocking his head.
3. Fumbling at a control panel.
4. Huggin'.
5. Throwin' folks.

Other characters have to talk to him like they're talking to Lassie in order for us to understand him at all. We've seen Chewie on the screen for hours, and we don't really know a damn thing about what he's like beyond, "dumber R2." He's one of the crummiest major characters sci-fi cinema has ever seen, and there's really no plainer evidence for this than the Holiday Special. When we make Chewie and his family the stars of an entire 97-minute production, we learn nothing more about him. There's just nothing more to learn.

This nine-minute scene is stretched out by a long scene in which Chewie's son watches holographic acrobats. Here are a few seconds. If you've seen this, you've seen all of it.

wheeeeeeee

Five minutes into this thing, we're watching a character we've never met watch a dance-and-juggle routine. As someone who has produced videos for the Internet, this gives me a panic attack. When I produce them, I'm constantly stressing out over losing someone's interest. I'll trim a nine-second visualization to seven seconds because I'm just certain that it's the difference between someone staying put and scrolling down their Facebook feed. Some take that as an indictment of short attention spans; I take it as a reminder that other peoples' time is valuable and that I really need to get the hell on with it.

This scene is such a spectacular window into the pre-Internet, pre-cable video experience: "you've got three channels, dingus, and one of them is fuzzy, and we know you don't have shit else to do." These days, we're perpetually nervous over losing you because something runs four seconds too long. Those days, a show might kick up its feet and stay a while, just because it could.

No time for that here. Look at this! It's some softcore porn, dropped right in the middle of television's family hour.

In this scene, which lasts nearly seven minutes, Chewie's dad meets noted TV personality Diahann Carroll through a virtual reality machine. And, listen, we ...

We need to talk about Star Wars canon for a minute. There are several different levels of canon in this universe. The six Star Wars films are considered "G-canon" -- in other words, absolute components of the Star Wars storyline and universe. Beyond that, things like TV shows and novels and such are assigned various levels of canon. This holiday special is considered "secondary canon." That means that if any future Star Wars work contains a story or elements that contradict what happened in this special, those things supersede this special.

Apart from that, though, everything we see here "happened" and is part of the Star Wars universe. So, yes: the Star Wars universe contains lightsaber duels, political intrigue, the destruction of planets, and the nature of descent into evil, but also, also, it contains the noise an old Wookiee makes when he jacks off. Greedo shot first and a Wookiee jacked off. Endor was saved and a Wookiee jacked off. Yoda died and a Wookiee jacked off. The Force Awakens And A Wookiee Jacked Off.

By some definition, that can probably be accepted as an action sequence, in which case this entire special has two (2) original live-action sequences. The other scene is barely even that: Han sneaks up on a Stormtrooper and shoves him off a railing. I swear, y'all, nothing happens in this thing. This is the entire A-plot:

1. While on their way to visit Chewie's family for Life Day, Chewie and Han are delayed as they dodge Imperial ships.
2. Imperial forces barge into Chewie's family's house and wait there to apprehend Chewie.
3. Chewie's son hacks an Imperial transmitter signal to lure all but one of the Stormtroopers away from their house.
4. Han sneaks up and pushes the last Stormtrooper off a railing.

That's it. I have never seen so much standing around. A full five minutes are killed by an Imperial officer sitting at a Lite Brite-lookin' thing and watching a Jefferson Starship video.

smile

D'awwww, he likes it! Look! He's smiling! In the old trilogy, George always had the toughest time when it came to humanizing Imperial forces. Most of the time, he just didn't give a shit about doing it, and we just had to accept that half the people we saw in this universe were Bad People from the Bad People Factory.

At the end of Return of the Jedi, the time finally came for a bad guy to express his humanity, and the result is the funniest Star Wars moment of all time. The Emperor is electrocuting Luke to death, and Lord Vader has a crisis of conscience. The problem is that he's wearing a mask. So in the middle of this, the most pivotal moment in the history of the galaxy, he stars fidgeting. Oh shit, how do I emote? Shit, shit, shit. Think, Ani, think! His answer is to literally TURN TO LOOK ONE WAY to consider evil, and then TURN TO LOOK THE OTHER WAY to consider good. Like, he's doing full-body pivots. That's what you do when your son is dying, right? You look back and forth like you're Fran Tarkenton comparing mortgage rates? Good god, Star Wars is stupid. Love it! Love it. But it's stupid.

Anyway, we can say this: it might have taken a throwaway holiday special and a Jefferson Starship performance, but for one second, a bad guy smiled and was human.

It was the lone highlight of this sequence, which is excruciatingly drawn-out. Here's a scene in which an Imperial officer goes upstairs to search one of the Wookiee's rooms.

I sped up this sequence because at normal speed, it lasts one minute and two seconds. This is a completely unimportant scene in which a couple of guys look through a bunch of stuff and don't find anything and don't have any dialogue, and it claimed a full minute of national television.

I understand that behind this special were people who tried and cared. Some of them probably realized that they were making horrible television, but something like this cannot exist without people trying or caring. The finished product, though, creates the amazing illusion that nobody cared. Not only that, but it feels like it wasn't even "made." A minute of absolutely nothing happening creeps closer to real life than scripted television ever gets. So, completely accidentally, I found that this special drew me in to this universe in parts. I honestly felt like I was drawn into this shitty universe where nothing was going on. I felt like I was really sitting in this house, bored to death, wishing there was something to do.

The end of this special, on its face, is the least remarkable end to anything. It actually comes back from commercial to share 56 seconds, from one camera, of Chewy and his family sitting at a table in silence.

It's amazing. Television is all about super-reality: things happen more quickly than they could possibly happen in real life, and characters say things more dramatic and witty than any unscripted human has ever said. This right here is sub-reality. It stretches out the silence and nothingness that permeates our real lives and just lies in it like a hammock.

It hits me in the heart. It feels like every morose wintry Sunday night, dreading another cold week of the fifth grade. It's a dim, long, protracted yawn. "This was bad," it says. "Nothing happened, and now you have to leave."

It's made beautiful by that sleepy John Williams reprise, warbled by decades of sitting unplayed in the dusty home of the person in Dayton, Ohio, who bothered to record it in December of 1978. We know this person was in Dayton, because station identification graphics pop up once in a while throughout the recording. Since no official copy of this was ever released by Lucasfilm, and since this is pretty much the best copy we've got, I guess that means that Dayton, Ohio is part of the Star Wars universe. Dayton is canon.

dayton