There are some moments that change your life forever - a near-death experience perhaps, or maybe the irreplaceable experience of being so bored that the clock seems to go physically backwards. Well sir, I’ve had both of those things happen to me, but now I feel I’ve truly arrived. Because I’ve seen the worst programme ever made.”Wow!” you exclaim. “I witnessed the fourth series of Teachers too, but it wasn’t that bad, was it?” Hey, it was pretty cruddy, that’s for sure, and worse because you might have expected something half decent, but it looked like the collaborative output of Scorcese, Eisenstein and Orson Welles compared with…
The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)
I downloaded the Holiday Special for the sake of completism, and also because I’d heard it was quite bad and wanted to know for myself. The show was broadcast in November 1978, for American audiences bloated on Thanksgiving, and sated their desire for Star Wars, by this point at its peak. Conceived as a tangential episode to the overall Star Wars mythology, it was intended by George Lucas - who came up with the story - to keep the fans happy while The Empire Strikes Back was in production, and as a consequence it enjoyed a good share of the ratings.
But why haven’t we seen this? What’s the reason for a legitimate slice of the Wars, featuring all the main actors, not being released for British audiences, indeed for virtually suffering from a cover-up from the makers (it’s conspicuously absent from the ‘Empire of Dreams’ documentary on the trilogy DVD, which covers every other wart connected with the series)? Here’s the reason. It’s very bad. Very, very, very, very bad indeed. In fact, I’ve never known anything that’s made me want to tear my eyes out more, or at least force me to rush upstairs and explain to said eyes that I was really sorry and it wouldn’t happen again, honest. And it won’t.
The sad thing about the Holiday Special is that it ain’t just bad, in a Phanton Menace type sense of irritation, but it’s boring and meaningless too. It makes the prequels look generally like they were written by Harold Pinter. I’m almost at a complete loss to emphasise so completely what was wrong about it; indeed Lucasfilm have exorcised it from their collective. Heck George, I can forgive you for Jar Jar, because I know how bad it can really get…
The 90-minute show opens with a scene about the Millennium Falcon escaping from Imperial spaceships. Han and Chewie are on board, and for a short, blissful few seconds everything seems present and correct as the pair banter and argue about how they’re going to get out of their predicament… but wait! Is Han wearing a mass of make-up? He is! And as the credits roll, highlighting each member of the star cast, all just as tarted up (everyone from the film is in it apart from Alec Guinness, whose character presumably had the good sense to be dead at the time). Mark Hammill looks as though he’s been liberally coated in plastic, like a version of the toy figure that was hitting the stores at the time… but further horrors await.
The tale follows Chewbacca trying to make it back to Wookie World to participate in Life Day (no idea what this means) with his family, and so we get to meet his nearest and dearest. There’s Chewie’s wife, Malla, who at least looks like a Wookie and has a Wookie-ish name. His dad is called Itchy(!), and turns out to be a curmudgeony, randy old ape-type thingy. Finally, there’s Lumpy, Chewie’s son, a horrendous proto-Barney creation who’s supposed to be cute, all-American and a Wookie to boot. The first 15 minutes of the programme is dominated by their waiting for the, umm, Wookie of the house, as they communicate in growls and, er, that’s it. I mean, I’m sorry, but 15 minutes of this? It’s just a bunch of monsters talking to each other! The grown-ups try to placate Lumpy (I can’t type that word without a shudder echoing through my frame) by sitting him in front of table, upon which a series of green-clad acrobats appear in an effort to entertain him. I don’t suppose I need to add they didn’t do the same for me.
It gets worse. Malla watches a video of Gormaanda, a female chef played by Harvey Korman (in a personification of the mighty falling, he was once Hedley “It’s Hedley!” Lamarr in Blazing Saddles, and also shows up later in the show as a love struck alien, falling for Golden Girls’ Beatrice Arthur as an alien who drinks from a hole in the top of his head(?) - incidentally, Beatrice plays the barkeep of the pub at Mos Eisley, getting shot of her customers by singing to them, and hey, it works - who subjects her to an increasingly hysterical cooking lesson (”Whip… spin… beat… whip… whip… spin…”). And then, for no apparent reason, up pops Art Carney as Saun Dann, an intergalactic trader, who gives each of the Wookies a gift. The most incredible of these is a sort of virtual reality thing that looks like one of those old hairdryers, which is dished out to Itchy and shows him an image of Dianne Carroll. Real-life soul singer Carroll plays Holographic Wow (I’m not joking), who talks dirty to Itchy for a few minutes and then sings a song about something utterly unconnected with the plot.
Shortly afterwards (mercifully), a troop of Imperial guards enter, again without just cause, and proceed to ransack the place. They’re led by Colonel Camp, as I am wont to call him, clearly someone who relishes wearing his starched uniform of the Empire and barking out commands in what can only be described as a gay way. For reasons we’re best kept out of, Dann gives one of the imperial troops a videotape, which inexplicably introduces a performance from those well-known intergalactic rock maestros, Jefferson Starship. In a manifestation of torture, they play for what seems like a short eternity.
There’s more, much more, including a cartoon that features the very first appearance of bounty hunter, Boba Fett (it says something that the animation sequence is by some distance the best thing about this whole deal), and cameos from Luke and a clearly mid-Postcards from the Edge Princess Leia. Eventually, Han comes and sorts the troopers out, tells Malla and her hairy mates that they’re the closest thing to a family he has whilst trying not to look hugely embarassed by being involved in such cobblers, before leaving Chewie to it. What follows can only be described as a war crime, a diabolical plan to wipe out humanity.
The Wookie joins his family in a steam-filled room of, er, more Wookies (this involves a stereophonic Wookie whine) around something called the Tree of Life (scriptwriters at their most imaginative here), and then Leia starts singing. That’s right! And not only does she sing, but it’s a love ballad crooned to the Star Wars theme tune, a little like Anita Dobson and the Eastenders music, except worse. Worse! It’s not that Carrie Fisher’s bad, just the sheer audacity, shit lyrics and the sense you’ve been pounded by over an hour of improbably worse than Fresh Fields telly add up to a sense of bemusement and blasphemy that by all accounts had George Lucas declaring he’d like to burn every last copy of the film.
By now though, it’s nearly over. All that remains is for Chewie to reminisce over the broad sweep of Star Wars’s action (i.e. your series of clips, which translates as a merciful release) and finally for him to look as though (no! Horrible! My eyes!) he’s about to indulge in some Wookie love with Malla.
Words barely describe how bad this is. The really sad truth surrounding the Holiday Special is that despite all the web-based bile regarding it, if you see it’s available somewhere you will watch it, won’t you? Maybe you’ll believe the show isn’t as bad as all that - TPM was slated, and it was a better movie than its critics would have us believe, right? So why not the Holiday Special? Why not, huh? Why? Because those were my exact feelings as I waited for it to become available, gentle readers. I was eager and mad for it. The great lost episode of the Wars! I found myself dreaming, not prepared for one moment for the utter Corner of Wrong that awaited. I’d give it one ‘Darth’ for effort, but the truth is it’s so appallingly horrible that it wouldn’t be deserved. Think of the cliche ’so bad it’s good,’ remove the last two words, and you have the Holiday Special.