With critics and audiences fawning over Star Wars: The Force Awakens it is slowly becoming easier to pretend that the three prequel films that introduced the world to Jar Jar Binks no longer exist. But if that trilogy is destined to become the intentionally forgotten segment of the Star Wars canon, none of those films can rightfully be called the worst Star Wars movie ever made.
No, that distinction belongs to the Star Wars Holiday Special, which aired just once on CBS the night of Friday, Nov. 17, 1978 and now lives in infamy on YouTube.
Presented to the nation a little more than one year after the surprise success that was the original Star Wars film (later christened A New Hope), the holiday special aimed to give the new franchise’s eager fan base something to hold them over until The Empire Strikes Back premiered two years later. But without much involvement from George Lucas, the show failed to capture audiences’ hearts.
The special has a 50 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes from a handful of reviewers, as opposed to the overwhelmingly positive 95 percent currently enjoyed by The Force Awakens. But while it was viewed as a major disappointment when it first aired, not every reviewer saw it that way. Writing for The Hollywood Reporter in 1978, Gail Williams called the show a “welcome surprise” and praised the “cleverly integrated musical numbers and amusing special effects.”
The actors who had to suffer through the filming were not as generous. At a recent press event, Harrison Ford called the special an “embarrassment” and Carrie Fisher described it as “awful,” adding, “and I don’t mean awful in a good way.”
No one is more ready to forget the holiday special than George Lucas, who told Empire magazine in 1999 that he was “talked into” doing it by Fox Studios. Legend has it Lucas once told a Star Wars Wars convention, “If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it.”
Along with Ford and Fisher, the special features appearances from nearly every major actor in the original film, minus Alec Guinness, who wisely only appeared in archival footage. We see Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, hear James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader, and most prominently, get to spend a lot of time with Peter Mayhew’s Chewbacca.
While Chewie and his Wookie brethren were a relatively small element of the original film, they took centerstage in the holiday special. We meet his wife Malla and see his home planet of Kashyyyk, where he and Han Solo are trying to get for the Life Day holiday. Chewbacca is certainly welcome in small doses, but entire scenes between Wookies that feature no intelligible English are a tough sell even for die hard fans.
Along the way, various 1970s celebrities make the types of appearances one would expect in a holiday special like this one. Disco singer Diahann Carroll appears as a hologram sexual fantasy for Chewbacca’s father and Jefferson Starship performs the song “Light the Sky on Fire” from within some sort of suitcase-shaped 3D virtual reality viewer. There is comic relief from Harvey Korman, who portrays a variety of characters, and Bea Arthur, who serves as a singing cantina bartender.
The end result was terrible enough that Lucas and his Star Wars-fueled production company never sought to capitalize on it by making a VHS or DVD version available. For years, it could only be seen via the handful of tapes that circulated from fans who recorded it when it aired live—not a common occurrence in 1978. While it eventually found its way to YouTube, one can only imagine how bad the fallout would have been had the Internet been around back then to mock the special mercilessly.
Yet somehow, despite all of history’s lessons, The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams apparently remains open to the idea of a holiday special sequel. “Maybe there’s a version that none of us could imagine that would be genius,” he told the press.
America may have Star Wars fever again, but don’t hold your breath.