The History Behind the Infamous ‘Star Wars Holiday Special’

Since the premiere of the first Star Wars film in 1977, George Lucas’s space opera fantasy series has been the dominant franchise in pop culture. The saga has permeated culture through feature films, television animation, video games, novels, toys, theme park attractions, and pretty much anything else you can imagine. However, there is one piece of Star Wars lore unavailable anywhere: the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special. 

Millenium Falcon: Smugglers Run

The concept of the Holiday Special was born in the wake of the gargantuan success of 1977’s Star Wars (now known as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope). The film’s record-setting box office led the CBS network to approach the Star Wars Corporation (which would eventually come to be known as Lucasfilm) with the idea of Holiday Special for the 1978 Christmas television season. 

Initially, the Lucasfilm team was very excited by the idea by all accounts, with Lucas himself suggesting a plot built around Chewbacca’s Wookie family celebrating a holiday known as Life Day. However, according to producer Gary Kurtz, the company and Lucas himself quickly became distant from the project. 

©Lucasfilm

As Kurtz explained years later to Mashable, “It did start out to be a lot better [with a different script]. We had half a dozen meetings with the TV company that was making it. In the end, because of work on promoting Star Wars and working on the next film, we realized we had no time. So we just left it to them and just had the occasional meetings with them, provided them with access to props and the actors, and that was it.” This distance would become glaringly obvious when the Holiday Special aired.

Ad for the Holiday Special

When audiences tuned in to CBS at 8PM on November 17th, 1978, they were expecting to find more of the same space fantasy adventure that had wowed them in theaters the previous year. What they got was, for the most part, not that. Outside of one notable exception (which we’ll get to shortly), the special was Star Wars in name only.

Despite featuring the accurate sets, props, a plot built around Chewbacca, and appearances from the entire main Star Wars cast, the special was built and structured nothing like a space opera. 

Bea Arthur in the cantina sequence

Instead, the show followed the formula of a typical 1970s variety show. There were comedy sketches and bizarre Star Wars-themed musical performances from Diahann Caroll (singing as a hologram to Chewbacca’s father), Jefferson Starship (presented as a music video being watched by an Imperial Trooper), and Bea Arthur (in the Eos Eisley Cantina from the film).

The show’s climax and most memorable musical performance featured Carrie Fisher singing a song about Life Day set to the tune of John Williams Star Wars theme. 

The Cast

However, as we mentioned above, there was one segment of the special that felt like the film: the animated segment “The Faithful Wookie.” This Lucas-penned canonical cartoon was much more in-tune with the type of Star Wars content fans wanted to see and featured the film’s cast reprising their roles as voice actors.

The animated portion of the special is best remembered for introducing the character Boba Fett, who would go on to become one of the most beloved characters in the saga through the later films and up to the current Mandolorian series. 

Boba Fett in his original animated form

Despite the positive reaction to the animated portion, the Star Wars Holiday Special was overall a critical bomb of the highest order. Fans were irate, and critics eviscerated the special at the time. In the years since the special’s reputation hasn’t fared much better.

Fans, critics, and even Star Wars actors including Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Anthony Daniels have publicly spoken of the entire experience with derision. 

 

George Lucas himself said of the special in a 2005 interview with StaticMultimedia.com, “The special from 1978 really didn’t have much to do with us, you know. I can’t remember what network it was on, but it was a thing that they did. We kind of let them do it. It was done by…I can’t even remember who the group was, but they were variety TV guys. We let them use the characters and stuff and that probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but you learn from those experiences.”

The Animated Version of the Main Cast

Given those reactions, it should be unsurprising to learn that the Star Wars Holiday Special was never officially released again. Following its initial airing in 1978, there have been no reruns, no VHS, no Laserdisc, no DVD, no Blu Ray, no digital release, no nothing. Any fan who wanted to see the special had to settle for low-quality bootlegs acquired at conventions or found in underground corners of the internet. 

©Lucasfilm

When the Walt Disney Company acquired Lucasfilm, many fans were hopeful that the Holiday Special might see the light of the day once again. As of now, the company has yet to release it, either on home media or on the Disney+ streaming platform.

However, the company did revisit the Holiday Special in a cheeky way in November of 2020. On November 17th of this year, exactly 42 years to the day of the original release, the satirical animated Lego Star Wars Holiday Special premiered on Disney+. 

The 2020 Lego Holiday Special

Needless to say, whether for good or bad, The Star Wars Holiday Special will go down in history as an infamous part of the Star Wars legacy.

Are you old enough to have watched the Star Wars Holiday Special when it first aired, or maybe have seen a bootleg copy? Do you think Disney should release the original version? Let us know in the comments below. 

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