There’s a certain threshold in every journey of fandom when one stops trying to obsessively protect the object of one’s love from any unpleasant adulterations, and just opens the floodgates to the wealth of crap that is inspired by, spun-off from, or otherwise associated with the original work. No fans are more practiced at this than Star Wars fans, who’ve had to put up with three whole central-canon movies that most would like to pretend don’t exist. Star Wars fans come in all varieties and levels of obsession, but most are practiced pop-culture realists, readily accepting the fallibility of their gods.
That said, even those who have long since reached that level of geek enlightenment may be easily broken by The Star Wars Holiday Special. Now, I realize you don’t need me to tell you that this two-hour nightmare (almost as long as A New Hope!) is an indisputable piece of shit. Its reputation precedes it; bring it up among the right crowd at a holiday party this week and watch how the mere mention of it cues raised eyebrows and ominous nods, like any other dark chapter of American history that we try not to think about unless forced.
But, despite what would be easy to assume by the uninitiated, it isn’t so much the lazy, mercenary idea of a Star Wars Christmas extravaganza that makes the show so unbearable; it’s how excruciatingly slow every moment of it is, like a nightmare of running through molasses while trying to escape a serial killer. It’s not so bad it’s funny. Otherwise, many of its curiosities—look, it’s Bea Arthur in the Mos Eisley cantina! Oh hey, the first appearance of Boba Fett!—might have been better documented, or at least made available on DVD or lovingly remastered by some cult aficionado. It’s just a nonfunctional piece of entertainment, failing so badly at being an extension of the Star Wars universe and being something anyone would think to watch during the Christmas season that, should you decide you need to see it just the once, there is no reason ever to do so again.
And just so we’re all clear, this will probably be the most unrecognizably Christmas-y Christmas Special on this Advent Calendar. There’s no tradition to talk about here. (It can’t be tradition if nobody wants to watch it once, much less more than once.) Nobody is nostalgic for The Star Wars Holiday Special, save for maybe some fond memories of getting stoned and trying to watch it on some blurry, 13th-generation dub in your college dorm. Though it borrows from the format of many variety shows of the time, it’s even hard to make any stylistic comparisons with its contemporaries, because doing so would be pretending that it has anything to do with anything else in the universe.
I suppose for a kid in 1978, before VHS became commonplace, and with a seemingly eternal 18 months to go before the next Star Wars hit theaters, the mere idea of seeing the beloved Han, Luke, Leia, and Chewie on television was reason enough to tune in. That the producers at CBS would abuse this love for as much ad time as they could was to be expected, I suppose, but come on—the show opens with 12 whole wordless minutes as Chewbacca’s son Lumpy plays with a toy X-Wing and bothers his grandpa. This is just a practice round for what’s to come, but I know plenty of people who gave up six minutes in. You have to wonder what the 6-year-old kid in 1978 was thinking, though: Was this what they had in mind as they counted down the days to when Star Wars would be on TV? Were they sitting there in awe as Lumpy ran aimlessly around the treehouse, grunting and squawking, or were their bullshit detectors already starting to kick in?
As one’s mind wanders during that and the countless other long stretches of uneventful silence in the special, it inevitably turns to what possibly could have been going on in the writing room for this thing. Picture them now: a room full of veterans of The Carol Burnett Show, The Sonny & Cher Show, and Donny & Marie, plus Bruce Vilanch (you know, in case you needed another reason to hate Bruce Vilanch) tasked with capturing the magic of an international box-office smash in a television spectacular sure to be watched by millions. “Lenny, your kids saw the Star Wars in the the-ater, didn’t they?” “Yeah, they can’t get enough of that Luke Starwalker and his alien friends.” “Well, the kids love all that future crap. The holograms and laser guns and space aliens.” “Let’s just put a lot of holograms and a few aliens in this thing. But make sure they’re the friendly type. So’s we don’t scare the little ones.” (For some reason, that whole exchange needs to be imagined in varying degrees of New York accent and/or smoker’s lung.) There’s this logic throughout the show that the addition of holographic projection can make anything more exciting, which results in chunks of The Star Wars Holiday Special just being about Wookiees watching TV.
Possibly the most memorably awful example of this, and the next common tap-out point after the opening, is when Saun Dann (the trader played by the admirably game but pathetically unsupported Art Carney) drops by with Itchy’s Life Day present: Wookiee porn. Granted, it’s PG porn, just consisting of a molasses-slow, spaced-out song performed by Diahann Carroll (whose character, the Internet tells me, is named Mermia Holographic Wow) in a sparkly dress, but it marks the first point the special starts to get seriously trippy, and unless you happen to be on some 1978-grade LSD, it’s pretty hard to follow it down that rabbit hole. The song is actually remarkably descriptive of the frozen horror and disbelief that comes from watching The Star Wars Holiday Special:
If I could just hold my breath
And close my eyes, and not make a sound
Til the universe has stopped growing old
Still the universe keeps going round and round,
And on and on and on and on…
Still, that’s not even the most memorable musical performance of the special (and no, I’m not referring to Jefferson Starship’s holographic ditty for the Imperial troops, complete with glowing pink phallic microphones.) That honor probably goes to Princess Leia’s moving performance of a Life Day anthem to the accompaniment of the Star Wars theme. Carrie Fisher looks so ridiculously blissed out while singing, and it’s all the more endearing when you find out that she would later put on a tape of the special at parties to get people to leave at the end of the night. At least she seems to have a sense of humor about all this, unlike George Lucas, who has been quoted saying, “If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it.”
At the end, after Chewbacca successfully makes it home for Life Day and we’re reminded of all the awesome Star Wars toys you can buy for your horrible children this holiday season, the wookiees sit down for some Bantha Surprise, joining hands wordlessly and slowly putting their heads down on the table, Peggy Olson style. It’s a fittingly resigned ending to an exhausting two hours of television, one that drains viewers of the capacity to laugh or ridicule or even feel anger or horror anymore. “It is indeed true that at times like these, R2 and I wish that we were more than just mechanical beings, and were really alive,” C-3PO says during the final Life Day ceremony, “So that we could share your feelings with you.” Trust us, C-3PO, at times like these, it’s probably way healthier to be a machine.
Tomorrow: Merry Christmas from one of the oddest fads ever.