Report Card: The Star Wars Holiday Special

Read all the Star Wars Holiday Special reviews in chronological order.

When The Star Wars Holiday Special aired, it was only one year after the first movie, and while Star Wars was an obvious success at the time, no one knew it was bound to become one of the world’s biggest media juggernauts, which would still be producing blockbuster movies in the same diegesis five decades later (with no end in sight). So we can understand, if not forgive, that it was produced as an afterthought, rather than giving it the full attention and deliberateness we’ve since come to expect from the franchise. In short it was a crass way to keep audiences—and the toy purchasing public—thinking about Star Wars until Empire could be released a year and a half later.

It was doomed from the start. CBS wanted to camp on the movie’s success, and stupidly thought to force-choke it into a variety show format, like The Sonny & Cher Jedi Hour or Donny & Marie, Sith Lords, Variety Show. At the time, Lucas couldn’t be bothered to provide much beyond the framework story and a “Wookiee Bible,” (mentioned here) which explained the background and behavior of the Wookiees, including the fact that they were the center of the story and they can only growl. The first director quit after shooting a few scenes. Other than The Faithful Wookiee, the whole thing seems obviously rushed to production. It had about 30 minutes of script that had to be stretched into 90 minutes of airtime. Though they pulled in some respectable TV names of the time (Harvey Korman, Bea Arthur, Art Carney) to carry the thing and even had the stars of the original cast, those actors couldn’t do much with what amounted to a salad of terrible ideas written by and for goldfish: people pegging the S meter on the Myers-Briggs test.

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I’m quite fascinated by the Special partly for its narrative—for there is one, dishwater-flavored though it is—which requires us to be in the narrative and yet out of it at the same time, depending on the need, switching back and forth at a moment’s notice. For instance, you must dismiss the fact that Malla would have any interest in pausing her day for 5 minutes to stare at a security camera feed from inside a shop, because you know the point is the scene in the shop. Or, we dismiss the awkwardness of Itchy watching cross-species VR erotica in the family living room because we know that the point is the Mermeia Wow number. Or, we dismiss the tragic implication that Malla may be mentally challenged, because she takes a comedy cooking skit as literal instructions she should attempt to follow, because we know the point is the “comedy.” But how do we (or the toy-purchasing kids that were the target audience) know which parts to dismiss and which parts to indulge? There are no explicit clues. These are fascinating mental jumps for us to have to make.

It’s also interesting from a sci-fi interfaces point of view because, like most children’s shows, the interfaces are worse than an afterthought. They are created by adults (who don’t understand interaction design) merely to signal high-techn-ess to kids, whom they mistakenly believe aren’t very observant, and they do so under insane budgetary and time constraints. So they half-ass what they can, at best, half-ass, and the result is, well, the interfaces from The Star Wars Holiday Special.

Ordinarily I like to reinforce the notions that what designers are doing in reading this blog is building up a necessary skepticism against sci-fi (and plundering it for great ideas, intentional or otherwise), but in this case I can’t really back that up. What we’re doing here is just staring agape in amazement at what can come out of the illusion machine when everything goes wrong.

But, to compare apples-to-oranges, let’s go through the analysis categories:

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Sci: F (0 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

They are all not just props but obvious props. Straight up tape recorders. Confusing and contradictory user flows. A secret rebel communication device that shrilly…rings. Generally when they are believable, they are very mundane. Like, I’d say the Chef Gourmaand recipe selector or Saun Dann’s final use of the Imperial Comms (which contradicts Malla’s use of the same device.) The Special interfaces break believability all over the place and in terrible ways.

Fi: F (0 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

If I’m being charitable, maaaaaybe some of them help set the tone? The holocircus and cartoon player tell of the gee-whiz high-tech world of this galaxy far far away. But the Groomer, the Jefferson Projection, and the living room masturbation chair are pointless (and unnerving) diversions that distract. Any goodness in Lumpy’s cartoon player is strictly accidental and depend on heavy apologetics. The Life Day orbs have some nice features, but they’re almost extradiegetic, a cinematic conceit. Admittedly the show only gave a nod to a central narrative anyway because of its genre, but it cannot be said that the interfaces inform the narrative.

Interfaces: F (0 of 4) How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

This is the easiest rating to get, because it’s the thing movies are usually good at. But with the complicated and contradictory flows of the Imperial Comms, “secret” interfaces that rat out the users, extraneous controls and terrible interaction models, these interfaces are a hindrance much more than a help.

Final Grade F (0 of 12), Dreck.

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Doing this review was so painful, I note it took a little over two years since I started it. In between the first and last post, I’ve had to take a lot of breaks: a manifesto of sorts, a rumination on the Fermi Paradox in sci-fi, and reviews of the Battlestar Galactica mini-series, Johnny Mnemonic, Children of Men, a Black Mirror episode, and Doctor Strange.

I have not had a review at 0 before, so I had to invent the category name. Now if my ratings were recommendations, The Star Wars Holiday Special would get a MUST-SEE, but for cultural reasons. Like, you must see it because otherwise you would not believe it is real. But for inspiration or even skepticism-building, it’s only useful except as a cautionary tale.

For some reason the Special got a lot of attention this past December (c.f. Vanity Fair, Vox, the Nerdist, Newsweek, Mental Floss) which makes me think it was a concentrated stealth push by Disney to coincide with the release of The Last Jedi. Or maybe it’s just other writers, like me, are filled with a kind of psychological wound that the new films always reopen. A fear that we will once again he asked to watch a stormtrooper watch a “holographic” music video with questionable silhouettes.

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Whatever their reasons for talking about the Special, for me it serves as a reminder, kind of like The Laughing Gnome or perhaps Spider-Man 3, that even the greats occasionally have to overcome massive, embarrassing, WTF mistakes.

And with that, the review is done. I have gone into the Wampa cave and come out alive. Godspeed, Star Wars Holiday Special.

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