Wednesday, October 05, 2016

star wars retrospective

We have about two months left to go until "Rogue One" hits the silver screen, so I think it's time to stop and take stock of where the franchise has been.

The year was 1977. Jimmy Carter was in office, having carved out a victory over President Ford the previous fall. The United States was in an economic slump marked by stagflation. The energy crisis was on, so much so that President Carter was pushing for ways to get the nation off oil and moving toward energy independence, even taking the revolutionary step of adding solar panels to the White House roof. That May, "Star Wars" came out.

Soon Star Wars was everywhere. It wasn't just in movie theaters; it was in schools as children carried their new Star Wars lunchboxes with them. It was in toy stores, with rack after rack of action figures for characters like Hammerhead, whose entire appearance involved turning his head to follow the camera as it panned across the Mos Eisley Cantina. Phrases like "May the Force be with you" dropped into everyday speech, and people waited in line for an hour or more to see the movie.

And somewhere in CBS headquarters, some genius had the idea of filming a made-for-TV Star Wars movie to broadcast.

The basic plot of "The Star Wars Holiday Special" is fairly straightforward. It's Life Day, the most sacred holiday to Wookiees, and Han Solo is doing everything he can to help Chewie get home. Unfortunately, there is an imperial blockade around Kashyyyk, and there are star destroyers on the tail of the Millennium Falcon. While Han and Chewie do their thing, and the imperials do their thing, Chewie's family are at home, wondering if he'll make it home and wondering if they'll ever be free from the jackbooted presence of imperial troops.

A friend of mine recently shared that he had been unaware of this movie, Oh, Jeff. You don't know how lucky you have been.

The holiday special first aired in 1978, a week before Thanksgiving, and not long after we had made the annual switch to standard time. I was 8 years old at the time "The Star Wars Holiday Special" aired, and remember chiefly being disappointed that I was unable to watch the special when it aired, as all my friends did.

We were an excited group when it came to Star Wars. At the lunch table we talked about which action figures and other toys we had. We argued over who had seen Star Wars the most times. We even brought in Star Wars trading cards to show, to share and to trade with one another.

No one talked about the TV special the next day. It was like it hadn't even happened.

In the years since, I heard stories about how bad it was, and it became something of a legend. The movie never aired again, though there were two more made-for-TV Star Wars movies: "Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure" and "Ewoks: The Battle for Endor." Rumor has it that whenever anyone mentions the holiday special to George Lucas, he gets glassy-eyed and acts like he drifted off and missed what you were saying.

(Not that the other Star Wars TV movies were any better. When I let my 5-year-old watch one, she started crying halfway through because an adult was verbally abusing the main character, a young child whose parents had just been killed. I had to turn it off. She's never asked to see the Ewok movies again. Keep in mind that these were all movies made for the holidays.)

As fate and fortune would have it, several years ago a co-worker lent me an nth-generation copy of a videotape of the original "Star Wars Holiday Special." The copy had deteriorated badly. The picture was fuzzy, it jumped, and sometimes it was marred with green and black lines. These were actually the best features.

"A Very Wookiee Christmas," as the movie also is known, is so awful that it's not even fun to watch for how bad it is. It's just awful. I think it may have killed the comedy careers of a few people who were in it. It certainly claimed the lives of a few people who watched it and were unable to change the channel.

The first five minutes are nonstop Wookiee growling, without benefit of subtitles, dubbing or a human interlocutor. Shortly after that Chewbacca's father watches nine minutes of Wookiee porn. Other highlights include a six-minute Jefferson Starship video, the world's least funny humor sketch starring Harvey Korman (three of them), a really bad musical number with Bea Arthur set at the Mos Eisley Cantina, a 10-minute cartoon that introduces Boba Fett but still isn't enough to redeem the special, and finally Carrie Fischer singing for Life Day.

You might think that the presence of performers like Harvey Korman and Bea Arthur would make this something to see. You would be wrong. Long before the movie is over, you're left feeling sad for them, that their careers actually came to this.

There are other things that the intervening years have allowed me to forget, a gift of time for which I am immensely grateful. The only good parts of the movie feature Chewbacca and Han Solo, or they are clips taken from the actual "Star Wars" movie.

Here it is, but I strongly advise against watching it.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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