"This holiday is yours, but we all share with you the hope that this day brings us closer to freedom, and to harmony, and to peace. No matter how different we appear, we're all the same in our struggle against the powers of evil and darkness. I hope that this day will always be a day of joy in which we can reconfirm our dedication and our courage. And more than anything else, our love for one another. This is the promise of the Tree of Life." - Princess Leia Organa
Andy: The Star Wars Holiday Special is something of a dark legend in nerd culture. Airing only once, November 17, 1978 on CBS, it was a quick attempt to cash in on the popularity of the original movie, released a year prior. Almost universally, it's agreed that the special is a horrible abomination. Copies of it have been historically difficult to find, as it was never rebroadcast or officially released. However, you might track down a copy on a torrent site or streaming video. Personally, I’ve seen enough bits of it to get a feel for why it is so hated. It isn’t all bad though, and if you can find the Boba Fett cartoon parts strung together, they're worth a watch. Bugsy, what's your experience with the Holiday Special that brought us Life Day?
Bugsy: Aside from the quality of the program itself, the Holiday Special falls squarely into that very strange “post-success” era. As mentioned in my post about the Star Wars radio plays, I’m fascinated with the period between the 1977 film and The Empire Strikes Back, when there was no consensus on what “Star Wars” was, or how anything related to it should look or feel. The era of the original Marvel comics, tie-in novels that later movies render… unfortunate, and some truly bizarre non-licensed works. One thing that stands out about all these is how much they are obvious products of their time, versus the timeless quality of the film itself. And if The Star Wars Holiday Special is anything, it’s a product of its times, from the smeary picture to the "disco music video" effects to the variety show format itself.
The Holiday Special’s current reputation is, I think, based largely on the hyperbolic tendency of internet writing and debate, particularly among folks our age and a little older, who remember a time when there was little interest in Star Wars and new films seemed an utter impossibility. There’s a certain bitter irony in knowing that something official, even featuring the original actors, existed besides those three movies… and that it was terrible, which makes the Holiday Special remembered in a way that, say, the Droids and Ewoks shows are not. While viewing it in preparation for this post, I’ve been trying to think about the mindset of the kids seeing it for the first time, rather than as a fan long familiar with its reputation. What was going through your mind, Andy, assuming that your synapses didn’t freeze up to protect you from the horror? (speaking of hyperbole…)
Andy: Immediately after watching the entire thing for the first time, I attempted to give a summary of what I’d just watched to my wife. I found it exceedingly difficult to do, given the nonsensical nature of the whole production. Also, how dare you make me remember it all again! However, in trying to look at it from a kid’s point of view, as you suggested, I can say that it isn’t all bad. Let me do my best to summarize for those of you not wanting to drive yourselves insane watching this:
It starts off fairly strong with Han and Chewy, but takes a quick dive after the opening credits as we visit Chewy’s family. We spend about the next NINE MINUTES watching the Wookie family mill about in holiday prep and watch an acrobatics performance on the Dejarik (holo-chess) table. Why is this an issue? They’re all speaking shyriiwook with no subtitles! I don’t know about you, but my shyriiwook is pretty rusty. It feels like an eternity. Finally, we get to hear from Luke and R2D2 (as played by R2D2. I guess Kenny Baker wasn’t available?) as the family calls in search of Chewy. By his look, Luke is obviously dealing with his own issues and is of very little help. We next get some attempts at humor as Art Carney shows up as a human trader on Kashyyyk, warning the family of an Imperial presence. This isn’t as bad as you’d expect, but not as good as the production wants it to be. We then hit one of the lowest parts of the production, Chewy’s wife Mala watching a cooking show as she prepares a meal. Time for Harvey Korman to shine.. only he doesn’t in this odd alien parody of Julia Child. It wasn’t serious enough to be solid wookiee programming, nor silly enough to actually be funny. It just... was. Do yourself a favor and skip this part if you're attempting to watch. We’re saved from that mess by a few more seconds with Han and Chewy. It all goes south again though when Art Carney visits the family with gifts. We get several awkward moments as Diahann Carroll sings to Chewy’s dad in his head. Trust me, don’t ask. We get a few more scenes with Leia with C3P0 and Han and Chewy, but our Star Wars favorites are the dimmest of bright points in this special. Imperial troops come to hassle Chewy’s family, and we get a brief musical interlude by Jefferson Starship. (Star Wars...Starship...it works right? Throw it in!) This is followed quickly by the much-loved Boba Fett cartoon. After that, you get another few comedic attempts by Korman, as Chewy’s son Lumpy attempts to build a transmitter. Although the inclusion of Bea Arthur as a singing bartender in the Mos Eisley Cantina makes no sense, it's somehow more entertaining than most of the special. Through some trickery, Art Carney and Chewy’s family kick the Empire out of the treehouse, as Han arrives just in time to dispatch the last trooper. We then get a very strange transition into the Life Day celebration, as Chewy and family, dressed in robes, walk into a giant orb of light. I’m not making this up. Leia then explains what Life Day truly means and sings us off into the stars.
And there you have it. I honestly think this whole special could be salvageable if you cut some of the really awful bits and edited it down for time. What we really should be talking about, though is Life Day itself. The fictitious holiday is slightly different depending upon if you’re talking about what is considered current Star Wars canon or "Legends" material. One thing both agree on is that Life Day is about the celebration of family. However, I think I’m partial to the Legends version that is specifically about honoring friends, and includes consuming treats, lighting fireworks, music, and decorating trees. It sounds a lot like Christmas, but with more fireworks and giant orbs of light. I think my household will delay our Life Day celebrations until we can watch the new LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special coming out. How will you celebrate Star Wars and Life Day this year?
Bugsy: Lacking Disney+, I fear I won't be able to partake of the new special. But I may pull down my old West End Star Wars: the Roleplaying Game books and start planning out how to run it remotely for friends and family new to tabletop gaming. That seems like the most appropriate way to celebrate. Speaking of friends and family, I do think the Holiday Special blew what could have been an excellent opportunity to develop the Star Wars characters. To begin with, focusing on Chewbacca's family brings up unfortunate questions about his absence from their lives, and pulls away from the connection the characters have formed as "found family." Both Luke and Leia have the only families they know murdered by the Empire in the first film - a Life Day story could have been about the connections they've formed with each other. Instead, aside from Han, they're completely separate from the main story, and consider it (at most) a distraction. While it's far beyond what anyone was thinking in regards to the Holiday Special or the Star Wars franchise itself, imagine what a touching story could have been told here.
The Holiday Special, of course, barely has any story at all, and exists mainly as a way of lazily setting up the next variety show bit. Having said that, this was the first time since the 1977 movie that the Star Wars universe was portrayed on screen, and no matter how much it may have been botched, the creators had to think about what life in that universe must be like. And, while the best they could do was "vaguely kooky version of contemporary Earth," simply asking what goes on past the borders of the film reel opens the story up to anyone who wants to contribute. As GMs who have both run Star Wars games, what lessons could you take from this… less successful attempt at broadening that Galaxy Far, Far Away?
Andy: Unfortunately, I think the Holiday Special as a whole translates horribly to a good tabletop roleplaying experience. You are right though, Bugsy, it can teach us a few lessons. I think the main ones span over any genre of RPG and can be summarized in two words: Content and Pacing. Specifically, these two things were very wrong in the Special and we can learn to do the opposite with our games. In regards to content, you see a lot in the Holiday Special that nobody asked for. Were people clamoring to see what Wookies watched on television, in their holo-headsets, or on their Dejarik tables? Okay, maybe on their Dejarik tables, but, otherwise, I think not. At least when you see the round of space chess on the Falcon, it serves a purpose. You learn that while he may be a gentle giant, Chewbacca can easily rip some arms off if things go the wrong way. Why did his family watch acrobats on the Dejarik table at home? No idea. Why did they see a music video from Jefferson Starship? No idea. Why did Chewy’s father Attichitcuk imagine a seductive singer? No. Give your players the content they want to see. Give them some flavor text of what's going on in the room: “there's a female Wookie watching a cooking show starring a strange four armed chef.” After that, move on. If the players want to know more, they’ll ask. Just be prepared to improvise if needed.
The other lesson I pointed out was pacing. The very beginning of the special sees Han racing Chewy back home to his family for Life Day as they’re assaulted by Star Destroyers. We’re set up for action and a fast paced show...only to spend most of the next ten minutes without any dialogue or really anything happening at all. Can you imagine that during an RPG session? That isn’t to say you won’t have highs and lows in your sessions, but try your best to find a good middle ground and keep your players engaged. You aren’t there to read them the dictionary. As with content, find your high (or your low) and then move on. Speaking of moving on, let me move this back to you for a few final words Bugsy. What lessons do you think we can learn from this failure?
And maybe that's the best takeaway from the Star Wars Holiday Special. You can keep coming up with new and better answers as long as the questions get asked. May your stories stay open and your audiences inquisitive. Happy Life Day, everyone!