For “The Star Wars Holiday Special,” the most infamous piece of Star Wars media, the Ryans and Bethany decided to watch together, each of them for the first time. What follows isn't so much of a review as it is a reflection on Star Wars' secret brother that George Lucas never told you about. Each writer focused on one or two things that really stuck out to them on their initial viewing.
Ryan V.: An expanding universe
For a piece of Star Wars non-canon that George Lucas wanted to track down and smash with a sledgehammer, the “Star Wars Holiday Special” has a special place in the history of Star Wars. It's the first real attempt to build out the Star Wars universe into something bigger than the hero's journey. It's a first step towards the Expanded Universe, LucasArts, countless RPG adventures and fanfiction stories. It's a first step that fails, but still sets the precedent of this bigger world for years to come.
"But wait," you might be saying, "Doesn't the 1977 'Star Wars' have quite a bit of worldbuilding in there?"
Sure. But the worldbuilding in “Star Wars: A New Hope” is focused—only enough to sustain the main story. In “Star Wars,” you don't need or want to know why Tatooine has two suns, or why Luke's milk is blue—it's all just cinematic shorthand for "This is a weird futuristic science fiction space place." Everything is close to our own world, but juuuuuuust a little off.
On the other hand, the “Star Wars Holiday Special” is full of the kind of extraneous details that exist only to provide fodder for the nerds of the world. Seemingly every character serve this purpose – not just Chewie's family, but even down to the various characters Harvey Korman plays and certain denizens of a cantina on Tatooine. Boba Fett is introduced, and they name the water planet featured in his introductory cartoon (Panna). If Star Wars can be mapped to the Harry Potter books, the “Star Wars Holiday Special” is the epilogue of “Deathly Hallows,” naming minor characters and giving a main character multiple family members.
“Star Wars” takes a macro view of its world, interacting with only the main characters of the great epic Campbellian saga, but the “Star Wars Holiday Special” zooms in on the “normal” of the Star Wars world. Whole sequences are devoted to the day-to-day life of seemingly unimportant denizens of the universe. Yes, some of these are at least tangentially related to the "main story." Chewie's family certainly talks to enough main cast members on various viewscreens. But there's also an entire sequence dedicated to closing time at a cantina.
There was certainly an interest in the backstories of various Star Wars characters before the special, with Cantina Playsets featuring some of the various aliens from the scene. However, these early sets referred to the aliens by nicknames like "Walrus Man" or "Hammerhead." The Holiday Special set the precedent and expectation that yes, we will name all of the things and flesh out their backstories. If a dumb holiday special can flesh out the names of Chewbacca's family or various mostly unimportant merchants and the like, then we can know that all of the little details in the movie can likewise be expanded.
So sure, the “Star Wars Holiday Special” is terrible. Most of the expansion of the universe revolves around how many different ways a Wookiee family can watch TV. There's a lot of really creepy subtext to the cantina scene and the "Mind Evaporator" scene. But it was also an example of how the world of Star Wars could grow to be more than just one epic trilogy of movies. The “Star Wars Holiday Special” is essentially the first entry in the Expanded Universe and a promise to continue this expansion as Star Wars continued.
Ryan H.: The mutability of time
Until I watched “The Star Wars Holiday Special,” I thought that alternate realities and time travel were conceits left for Star Trek, not its action-adventure cousin. In the special, however, either the cast is jumping in and out of more alternate universes than “Mirror, Mirror” or Bruce Vilanch et al. really wanted to show the kids of 1978 that time is a flat circle, reality has no meaning outside of your own perspective, what if the confines in which we perceive the world are artificial, why oh why have I been cursed to walk this wretched sphere someone please help.
In this interpretation of the special, the production's most infamous scene – in which Chewbacca's father Itchy is visibly aroused by the sight of a gently swaying virtual reality Diahann Carroll – becomes the least odd of the film's seemingly endless parade of interstitial bits. Harvey Korman's ubiquity in the bits, whether as the four-armed Julia Child parody Gormaanda, a malfunctioning android or a volcano-mouthed sexual predator – and don't worry, we'll get back to that shit in a second – suggests either a “Crisis on Infinite Earths”-style look at three dark visions of one man's potential or a universe in which the only entity with more power than the Empire is the entertainment conglomerate CorMann. Jefferson Starship's music video either canonizes modern rock instrumentation in the Star Wars universe or is some sort of pun-based portal into our universe; either way, it's a shame we don't get a scene of “Figrin, it's your brother. Your brother, Barquin D'an? You know that new sound you're looking for...”
But the two strangest scenes belong to the cartoon segment (produced by Nelvana, who we've seen previously in the Droids cartoon) and the mini-musical in Bea Arthur's cantina. In the cartoon, which Chewbacca's son Lumpy watches shortly after a scene of Han and Chewie evading Imperial ships and coming in for a landing on Wookiee homeworld Kashyyyk, the Millenium Falcon crash lands in a swamp and outfoxes Boba Fett before flying off again. Perhaps I wasn't paying close enough attention, but I became fascinated by the idea that the cartoon was happening at that point in the story and that Chewie and the Big Three had temporarily become animated before their eventual arrival at the Wookiees' home. A quick check of some synopses of the movie show that this is apparently incorrect – Han and Chewie must have landed uneventfully and walked past the Imperial guards searching for them to get to Chewie's house – but if the cartoon was fake or even a piece of Rebel propaganda recounting the past exploits of the gang, why is Lumpy so worried that his father won't make it in one piece? His uncanny valley features are etched with concern that his cartoon dad will never make it home for Life Day with animated Han, who looks in the special like the offspring of Chevy Chase and a sarcastic horse.
Finally, there's the Bea Arthur scene, which begins with the Empire commanding the stormtroopers in Chewie's home to watch a video of the curfew of Tatooine. The content of the video begins strangely enough, with very little Imperial show of force and lots of Bea Arthur singing what is basically the intergalactic version of “Closing Time” and fending off the advances of Harvey Korman's final evolution, a creeper who hits on Arthur whilst pouring an alcoholic beverage into a mouth hole on the top of his head.
Abruptly, the Imperial transmission ends, but the the action immediately cuts back to the cantina, revealing that the inhabitants of the bar had apparently been watching the same transmission as the Wookiees the whole time. Were they watching themselves participate in live musical theater? Was there ever any transmission at all? Do we ever really cut back to Chewbacca's house, or did Lumpy lose the top that tells him if he's still in the dream world? Before we can get these answers, we cut away from the cantina again, right after it's revealed that Korman has been hiding in the cantina in order to subject Bea Arthur to, at the very least, aggressive sexual harassment. I was so perplexed by this development for the remainder of the special that I hardly registered the final scene in which the Chewbacca family walks across space, through a star and into the Wood between the Worlds from “The Magician's Nephew.”
Bethany: Sex and boredom
The “Star Wars Holiday Special” is a sight to behold. The fact that it has been relegated to an afterthought in the Star Wars universe and rumored to have weathered attempts made to rid the earth of its very presence makes it oddly endearing. It is the classic underdog, the movie you hope beyond all hope exceeds your expectations. The “Star Wars Holiday Special” ends up being everything you want it to be and more, if what you’re wanting is a flaming, humorless wad of disappointment that shows the most boring aspects of the Star Wars universe you never knew you didn’t want to see. It's exactly like watching the most boring parts of your own life, only up in trees or something.
The premise is promising enough. Han Solo is attempting to get Chewbacca home for a holiday called Life Day that has no explanation attached, but we later find out has something to do with a tree, but a specific tree? Just as you think maybe this will be a cool tale of Han and Chewie fighting their way through the galaxy to get Chewie home to his family for a special holiday, the program takes a turn for the worse (worst). We’re two minutes into this, oh jeez, hour and a half special, and this is where things start to go south.
We cut to the idyllic planet of Kashyyk, where we meet Chewie’s perpetually exasperated wife Mala, his tragically hideous father, Itchy, and his creepy son Lumpy. Mala, Itchy and Lumpy – apparently Chewie has some seven dwarf blood on his father’s side.
Immediately, we see Itchy whittling a toy X-wing, which is not a euphemism, and for a brief moment we think we'll get to see fun integrations of the world we know with this new one. Then, Lumpy enters the picture making horrible screeching broken vacuum-like noises to simulate X-wing sounds and he runs around the living room annoying the crap out of Itchy and every single human watching.
As with the other Star Wars movies, all of the Wookiee dialogue is in the guttural growling dialect we’ve come to know from Chewbacca. Unlike the movies, where we have the advantage of a dialogue between Chewie and other characters, we have no idea what anyone is saying to each other because they all only speak Wookiee. It really adds to the realism and authenticity of watching giant people in costumes celebrate a made-up holiday during an inter-galactic space war. There’s a full 30 second scene of Mala and Lumpy having some sort of conversation where Mala is trying to convince Lumpy to get into the kitchen? We don’t really know because it’s just back to back cuts of Mala growling, Lumpy growling, Mala growling, Lumpy growling. Riveting.
Outside, Lumpy looks toward the jungle floor and climbs up on the edge of the railing and for a brief moment, we think he might actually jump and rid us of his screeching fuzzy urchin self. Instead, he just balance beams his way across the banister just for the most minor of payoffs at the end. Just wait, you’ll see.
Back inside, a now apron-less Mala approaches Itchy, in the first of many “is it sexual, is it not?” scenes in the special. They have a long conversation that isn't supposed to be sexually charged at all. When Mala puts her hand on Itchy's shoulder, it is only a mere sign of familial affection and nothing more. When she crosses to the photo on the bookshelf, she is not saying, "We can't. I love your son." And Itchy does not reply, "I do too. But we can love him...together."
In between several inexplicable and interminable interstitial scenes, Mala frequently checks large computer-like devices for any sign of Chewie’s ship (for the record, this would have been the perfect time to introduce Jefferson Starship, guys). Mala looking for her missing husband is also the perfect catalyst for her calling several guest stars, such as Luke Skywalker and some Old Trader Guy (Art Carney) no one cares about but has the most dialogue in this entire thing. The Old Trader Guy (who I guess actually does have a name, Saun Dann, but I prefer Old Trader Guy) discreetly tells Mala in code that her husband is on his way. He’s talking in code because there’s an Imperial Naval goon lazily attempting to locate Rebel spies while also looking for a last minute Life Day gift for his mistress. See, we need to be introduced to him now because he’ll come into play later. There's so much set-up and payoff it’s hard to keep track!
Finally, after a brief Darth Vader cameo and a cooking show (not a joke), we’re in the Millenium Flacon, getting a brief glimpse here of the Star Wars we came here to see. Han half-heartedly promises Chewie he’ll get him home. I think this was just placed here to whet our appetite, make us think more cool stuff like this is on the way (SPOILER: it’s not).
Back on Kashyyk, the Chewbacca family gets some unfortunate news via yet another device. The evil Empire has set up a blockade and won’t let any ships on or off of the planet. The Old Trader Guy is somehow close enough friends with the Chewbacca’s that he drops by with some Life Day gifts for the family unannounced, but also not good enough friends with them to have ever been to their house before.
Let’s talk about Mala’s encounters with her human counterparts for a second. When she expresses her perfectly legitimate concerns about her husband’s whereabouts to Luke, she is met with him consoling her by basically telling her her fears are unfounded and she needs to smile more. And when Old Trader Guy brings gifts for the family, he withholds Mala’s until she gives him a kiss. It’s fascinating that, even on another planet a long time ago, the misogyny that was evident during 1970s America for human women is alive and well on Kashyyk. I guess misogyny knows no species.
Then Old Trader Guy veers into Disgusting Old Man territory as he helps Disgusting Old Itchy fix his mind evaporator which is most definitely a euphemism. What follows is a not subtle, mildly pornographic romp through Itchy’s fantasy. Good thing we stay in close-ups on Itchy’s face lest we be exposed to the snows of Hoth (also definitely a euphemism).
Mala steers clear of Itchy when he’s in his happy place, but accepts a call on still another device from Princess Leia and C3PO. Girl power! Princess Leia apparently urgently needs to speak with Chewbacca or Han but no such luck, lady, neither of them are here.
Leia asks if Mala is alone and C3PO aptly translates that she is not in fact alone, but with a...friend. Wonderful! Princess Leia should see that Mala is being forced to spend time with a smarmy old trader who helps get her father-in-law's jollies while she makes dinner and requires romantic favors in return for items, but Leia doesn’t get the hint and instead leaves Mala to her fate.
Back in the Millenium Falcon, Han declares that they’ve made it! Finally! But wait...we still have a full hour left. That can’t be right. They’re going to have to set their ship down on the north side of the planet and walk home. Can we please just see them walking quietly in the woods together for the next hour? Maybe take a page out of the original animated Clone Wars series and have the rest of this be directed by Genndy Tartakovsky? So what if he’s only 8 years old; I’m positive he can do better than this.
No such luck. We’re back on Kashyyk with Lumpy. He hears the Millenium Falcon pass overhead. He and Mala rush to the front door excitedly. Chewbacca’s home! We can all end this misery and eat some dinner! But wait, who’s at the door but some stormtroopers and Imperial officers. Dramatic sting!
The Imperials burst in, and one of the Officers surveys their living room, asks them the whereabouts of the Third Male Wookiee who is missing from the residence. Not to fear, though, Old Trader Guy to the rescue. He implies some sort of domestic violence situation to the officer as the reason for Chewbacca’s absence. If there’s anything an Imperial officer can relate to, it’s spousal abuse! The Imperial Officer tells the Old Trader Guy he can leave, so he begins to wrap up his visit by telling the Empire employees to make themselves at home while Mala makes them a home-cooked meal!
Mala begrudgingly heads for the kitchen, and Old Trader Guy sets up the gift she earned for the main Imperial officer to enjoy. By the way, Imperial officer No. 1 is the same one that had visited the Trader earlier, implying this was a setup from the beginning: a setup, we quickly learn, to bring us to a full four-minute Jefferson Starship song displayed on, get this, yet another device (for those keeping track at home, that’s 137 devices).
While the officers search the house, Lumpy sulks his way to...yep, you guessed it, another device and starts to watch a very confusing cartoon because it stars his father and all of his father’s friends and is happening right now ,and is this supposed to be Alliance propaganda that he’s watching right in front of the Imperial officer to taunt him?
I will say, if there’s one piece of this entire thing worth watching, it’s that cartoon. Skip ahead, watch the cartoon, and never look back.
After the cartoon, Lumpy sneaks back upstairs to play with his gift from Old Trader Douche. He watches the how-to video, which I’m pretty sure what supposed to be funny but all it succeeded in telling us was that this thing is a transmitter.
Lumpy gets caught with the transmitter after it starts repeating a “return to base” message that made most of the Imperials lead, and a stormtrooper left to keep watch meets his end when he chases Lumpy outside, where we finally run into Chewbacca and Han, who pushes the stormtrooper to the jungle floor (payoff!). And the people rejoiced! Chewbacca made it home we can finally eat dinner and fall asleep on the couch to the peaceful sound of grandpa Itchy playing with his lightsaber (definitely a euphemism).
Just kidding, there’s an extended scene of Chewie looking deep into Mala’s eyes (seriously like a full minute of this). Then a scene where Old Trader Guy comes back to help them lie about killing a stormtrooper to an Imperial officer. And then, finally, the entire family does the traditional Life Day celebration of holding candles, suddenly wearing robes, walking toward a bright light where they join a chorus of other Wookiees, and C-3PO, R2-D2, Leia, Luke, and Han are all there, and they sing and there’s absolutely no way this is a drug-induced trip at all (except maybe for Carrie Fischer).
And before you know it, an excruciating hour and a half later, we’re finally sitting down with the Chewbacca family at the dinner table, to say a Life Day grace over food Mala never got a chance to cook because she was too busy worrying about her husband and getting absolutely no help from Chewie’s filthy father.