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1 April 2005

DVD Review of The Star Wars Holiday Special (Platinum Edition)

by Lawrence Person

Directed by David Acomba and Steve Binder

Written by Pat Proft, Leonard Ripps, Bruce Vilanch, Rod Warren (based on characters created by George Lucas)

Starring Mickey Morton, Paul Gale, Patty Maloney, Harvey Korman, Beatrice Arthur, Art Carney, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew

If there's any doubt that Revenge of the Sith is indeed the last Star Wars picture, LucasFilm's long-delayed and never-awaited release of the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special on DVD should lay them to rest. Though the technical details of this "Platinum Edition" are excellent, the embarrassing nature of the material gives this release a reek of desperation, as though Lucas wanted to squeeze a few more shekels (at $49.95 a pop) from the franchise while alienating his long-suffering base of fans at the same time. Stick a fork in it, it's done. The fact Lucas finally agreed to let this be released is a sure sign he's finished with the entire Star Wars universe once and for all.

The background, for those unfamiliar with it: The Star Wars Holiday Special (aka "A Very Wookiee Christmas") was a TV special featuring most of the characters from the original movie, three member of Chewbacca's family, and three comic TV actors (Harvey Korman, Bea Arthur, and Art Carney ), which aired only once on CBS, on November 17, 1978. The plot involves Han Solo and Chewbacca fleeing Imperial ships in an effort to get Chewie back to his homeworld of Kashyyyk in time for "Life Day" (a wimpy ecumenical holiday every bit as vague as "The Force," but without the compensating virtue of enabling serious ass-kicking). Back on Kashyyyk, Chewie's family, wife Malla, father Itchy, and son Lumpy (somehow "Itchy" and "Lumpy" just don't seem to mesh with the rest of the Star Wars universe nomenclature), are all waiting for his return, and amuse themselves by talking on the videophone to original Star Wars cast members, cooking, building toys, and dodging Imperial Storm Troopers.

Oh, and watching pop music videos from 1978. Really, what says "Star Wars" more than a performance by The Jefferson Starship?

Actually, the musical performances are among the least painful elements of this show. It's not that they're particularly good, it's just that when they're on screen you don't have to endure wookiees seal-honking inscrutably at each other for minutes on end, or Grandpa Itchy smacking his lips lustfully over Diahann Carroll's soft-core human pseudo-porn.

I would describe more of the plot, except there really isn't any. Art Carney shows up as a rebel-friendly trader bringing Itchy his pseudo-porn. Storm troopers search the house. There's a well-regarded animated short featuring (as any Star Wars geek worth his trading cards will tell you) the first appearance of bounty hunter Boba Fett, but by today's standards the animation is crude, and Han Solo looks disturbingly like John Travolta. Han and Chewie return, kill some storm troopers, and everyone celebrates "Life Day," which seems to involve standing around lots of white lights and smiling like they've just taken a fatal overdose of Prozac.

One feels story for everyone involved in this misbegotten project. Mark Hamill is wearing enough eyeliner to play the MC in a Fire Island production of Cabaret. Art Carney alternates between painful vaudeville shtick and looking embalmed. Bea Arthur belts out a Kurt Weil-esque ditty as owner of the Mos Eisley cantina. Harvey Korman battles the script gamely in not one, not two, but three separate, equally horrid and misconceived roles. Carrie Fisher sings the Life Day theme music. (Actually, despite what you may have read, she sings it rather well (at least in comparison to Bea Arthur), except for the high notes.)

The Star Wars Holiday Special is prima facia evidence that drug use in Hollywood had gotten out of hand by the late 1970s. "Bad" doesn't even begin to describe it. Nor "awful." Think "excruciating" and you're starting to get the picture. Showing this DVD to POWs would constitute a violation of the Geneva Convention. As God is my witness, The Star Wars Holiday Special is a more painful viewing experience than Manos: The Hands of Fate.

The technical details, for anyone who might conceivably care about them: The DVD is presented in the original TV video ratio, and the sound has been remastered in Dolby Stereo (sorry for those of you who wanted to enjoy every sonic nuance of Bea Arthur in 5:1). The transfer is exceptionally clean, especially compared to all the fifth- and sixth-generation video duplicates floating around the Internet, but it only makes the dismal nature of the entire enterprise that much clearer. (In fact, many of the toy and sitcom commercials on those video dupes (which are, of course, missing from this DVD) are far more entertaining than the Special itself. Not that that's difficult.) DVD extras include original teaser commercials, thumbnail biographies of the actors unfortunate enough to appear in it, and, best of all, Joe Sponwheer's 30 minute short documentary, The Highway to Life Day: My Search for the Star Wars Holiday Special. It follows the director, a self-professed "Star Wars Fanatic," in his three year search to find a copy of the show. (His quest took place 1991-1994, before Internet file-sharing exploded.) Along the way he conducts impromptu interviews with such luminaries as Hamill (who swears the Special is an "urban legend"), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), who half-heartedly defends it ("it's not quite as bad as people make it out to be"), and even Harvey Korman, who cracks wise about the entire experience (at one point during filming, Bea Arthur tells him "That's it. I'm killing my agent."). Finally, Sponwheer trades another fan a bantha action figure for a copy, only to find it every bit as bad as people had warned him. "Sometimes," he concludes, "the journey is a lot more fun than the destination."

Despite that, the only viewers I can even remotely recommend The Star Wars Holiday Special Platinum Edition DVD to are the most fanatical Star Wars collectors, who will pick it up no matter what I say. And they will probably want to pick up the "Deluxe Collector Box Edition" of 500 ($149.95, not seen), which contains 10 action figures based on characters from the special (including all three of Harvey Korman's characters). It might also be fun to rent a copy for a do-it-yourself Mystery Science Theater 3000 party, or perhaps a drinking game. (Sip every time a wookiee speaks, chug whenever anyone says "Life Day.") But if you want to hang onto any fond childhood memories George Lucas hasn't already managed to destroy, avoid The Star Wars Holiday Special like the Crimson Plague.

Lawrence Person's short fiction and poetry has appeared in Asimov's, Analog, Fear!, and the anthologies Alternate Presidents and Horrors! 365 Scary Stories. He edits the Hugo-nominated critical magazine Nova Express.
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