On November 17, 1978, America was subjected to a two-hour atrocity not seen since that fateful night. Millions tuned in, only seeing torture and an abomination of television programing. This being the infamous The Star Wars Holiday Special, which thankfully only ever aired that one time. But it’s Star Wars, of course it should be good, right? It’s Star Wars, why do I describe it like that? Well, the Holiday Special is the equivalent of The Room - so bad it’s good, bad in a way that can only be witnessed, just talking about it doesn’t do it justice. But the real question is how could they make something based off something so good so bad? What decisions were made to create something that easily could have ruined the franchise?
Star Wars had just come out, and became the cultural icon it is today. As soon as it got to that point, every company and marketing group in 1977 wanted a piece of that action, and George Lucas, who had successfully negotiated keeping all merchandising and licensing rights, wasn’t opposed to keeping the franchise going during production on the then-untitled Star Wars II (yeah originally it wasn’t Episode V, but that’s a different story). So, it wasn’t surprising when Lucasfilm had a meeting with CBS executives to get a television special produced. Lucas was not able to write or direct, or really be too involved with it, because of the commitments to the actual sequel film. However, Lucas did suggest the story to focus on a family of Wookiees celebrating “Life Day.” This would be the main story, and the family made into Chewbacca’s own family - a wife, a son, and a father named Malla, Lumpy, and Itchy, respectively. Somehow Chewbacca, who travels around the galaxy with Han Solo, found time to settle down and have a child the equivalent age of ten by the time of A New Hope.
From there, CBS hired the main cast of the original film - including Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and even James Earl Jones (and obviously not Alec Guinness or Peter Cushing). Kenny Baker (R2-D2) was the only actor from the film to not be involved in any way, as it was cheaper to use one of the remote controlled prop R2s in storage - David Prowse as Darth Vader appeared, though only via cut footage from the film. Now, one would think the team of writers hired on by CBS, all of whom had experience in television writing, would be able to fill an hour and a half or so with these characters and the Life Day plot. But these writers actually were mostly writing for variety shows, and CBS made the decision to make the special simply a Star Wars variety show type movie, with loosely connecting segments. They then brought in several well known actors to play roles (some playing several) for different segments. Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and yes, Bea Arthur were cast - Bea Arthur even got a musical number. The band Jefferson Starship (formerly Jefferson Airplane) were hired as well, to make a music video that would be part of the special. An animation house came onboard to make a cartoon - which is notable for introducing Boba Fett to the Star Wars universe, as a little sneak peek of the new villain for Star Wars II.
There isn’t much that has been written or even discussed about the actual production, though one can only imagine what it must have been like - the sets were cheap, Mark Hamill looked plastic due to heavy makeup being used to hide his scars from a car accident not long after filming of A New Hope, Carrie Fisher was obviously on something else when she sang the final musical number (yes there are three of them, plus the Jefferson Starship music video), and Harrison Ford appeared to rather be doing literally anything else. The first ten minutes is just Chewbacca’s family, and because they’re Wookiees, all they do is growl at each other, with no subtitles. Art Carney’s character brings Life Day gifts, and he gives Chewbacca’s father a rather risque hologram that plays in a giant VR type machine. It gets progressively worse and worse, the best part being the commercial breaks because if you find it with those breaks intact online, the 1970s commercials are just a blast. The animated segment isn’t terrible either, though the animation style itself leaves a lot to be desired. And it does give us a pretty cool intro to Boba Fett, so at least it does one thing right.
After that one airing, it was being torn apart by critics and audiences alike. On RottenTomatoes, which didn’t exist at the time but did compile the reviews to give a score, it is at 43%, but let’s be real, there isn’t too many reviews and the audience score is way lower. The special has never been aired again nor officially released on home media (save for the animated short being a bonus feature on the 2011 Blu-Ray box set), but bootleg copies are easy to find, whether it’s online or on sale from a vendor at a convention. George Lucas has been quoted as saying “If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it” as well as making it clear he had pretty much nothing to do with it - the man who created Jar Jar Binks hates the Holiday Special, if that says anything. While the actual story is largely ignored, the characters of Malla, Lumpy, and Itchy continued to make some appearances in books and comics during the Expanded Universe era, and in the current “Canon” era, Malla is confirmed to be Chewbacca’s wife still, and the special is considered non-canon now, but no official word has come down about it. To answer the question about where it all went wrong, it really boils down to CBS had their ideas and what they said went, though I can’t assume Lucasfilm would have pumped out a high quality product either.
Despite the negative reception, many fans still watch it from time to time, not unlike The Room or Plan 9 From Outer Space. Sometimes we want to watch something so bad it’s good. Especially when it’s part of something many of us love. I personally watch the Holiday Special every year, and make fun of it all the way through like my own personal Mystery Science Theater 3000 - and the people who made that show did a RiffTrax for the special, so you actually can watch that. It’s a testament to the legacy of awful, with a single two-hour TV movie being still laughed at and parodied, even by current Star Wars filmmakers. I'm not saying to go on YouTube and watch it, but it's just a search away on there if you don't want the 1978 commercials if you want to witness the abomination. Hey, Disney owns Lucasfilm and Freeform, maybe we’ll see a 40th anniversary airing next year. Or they’ll save us the horror - which is really the most likely scenario.