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 four 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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Life Day Orbs

The last interface in The Star Wars Holiday Special is one of the handful of ritual interfaces we see in the scifiinterfaces survey. After Saun Dann leaves, the Wookiee family solemnly proceeds to a shelf in the living room. One by one they retrieve hand-sized transparent orbs with a few lights glowing inside of each. They gather together in the center of the living room, and a watery light floods them from stage right while the rest of the house lights dim. They hold the orbs up, with heads tilted reverently. Then they go blurry before refocusing again, and now they’re wearing blood red robes and floating in a sea of stars.

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Then we cut to a long procession of Wookiees walking single file across an invisible space bridge into a glowing ball of space light, which explodes in sparkles at no particular time, and to which no one in the procession reacts in any way.

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Break for commercial.

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Lights up, and dozens of blood robed Wookiees are gathered in a dark space at the foot of a great, uplit tree called The Tree of Life. Stars occasionally, but not consistently, appear behind the tree. Fog hugs the floor and covers randomly distributed strings of fairy lights. Everyone carries the glowing orbs. They greet newcomers arriving from the star bridge with moans and bows (n.b. sloppy seiritsu form). Then C3PO and R2D2 appear from behind the Tree and walk out onto an elevated platform to greet Chewbacca (who seems to be some sort of spiritual leader in addition to being a Rebel Leader) with a “Happy Life Day!” An unholy chorus of Wookiee howls emerges from the gathered crowd. C3PO turns to the audience and says, “Happy Life Day, everyone!” C3PO expresses his and R2’s Pinnochio Syndrome to the crowd, though no one asked. Then Leia, Luke, and Han arrive.

Leia speaks (in English) explaining to the Wookiee gathered there the meaning of their own, dearest holiday. She then sings the Life Day Carol. (Again, in English.) No Wookiee has the biological morphology to participate, so they just watch. As a public service, I have transcribed these lyrics. Posthumus props to Carrie Fisher for delivering this with complete earnestness.

Life Day Carol

Sung by Princess Leia

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We celebrate a day of peace
A day of har-moh-neeeee
A day of joy we all can share
Together joyously [thx to scifihugh for this line]
A day that takes us through the darkness
A day that leads into light
A day that makes us want to celebrate
The light

[Horn section gets exuberant]

A day that brings the promise
That one day we’ll be free
To live
To laugh
To dream
To grow
To trust
To know
To be

Once the song is done, the Wookiees gather to file up a ramp and past the humans, greeting them each in turn with nods and exit back over the star bridge.

Then Chewbacca has a sudden dissociative fugue episode, where he relives moments from his recent past. (I’m going to sidestep the troubling but wholly possible implication that he has PTSD from his experiences with the Rebellion.) When he finally recovers, his family is back in their living room, staring at their glowing orbs, which sit in a basket in the center of the dining room table. The robes are gone. They are gathered for a family meal of fruit. (Since Mala’s actual cooking would probably not go down well.) They gather hands and bow their heads reverently in a deeply disturbing, ethnocentric gesture. Fade to black.

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Analysis

The design of ritual is a fascination of mine. So if there’s ever a sci-fi movie showing of The Star Wars Holiday Special, that should be one topic for the hangout afterward. What does it purport to mean? Why do non-Wookiees get the starring role? Why the robes? What’s with the unsettling self-centeredness of having essentially North-American Christian rites?

But in this house we talk interface, and that means those orbs.

Physical Interface

The orbs’ physical interface is fit to task. Because they’re spherical, they can’t be easily set on a surface and put “out of mind.” (Kind of like a drinking horn, but no one gets inebriated in the Star Wars diegesis.) The orbs must be held and cared for, which is a nice way to get participants into a reverent mood. It also means that at least one hand is dedicated to holding it throughout the ceremony, which might put participants into a bit of active meditation, to free the body so the mind can focus and contemplate: Life and Days.

Visual design

The transparency and little lights within are also nice. Like the fairy lights common to many winter celebrations, they engage a sense of wonder and spectacle. Like holding fireflies, or stars in the palm of your hand. They speak a bit to the Pareto Principle, related to the notion that life is rare, precious, and valuable. The transparency also brings the color and motion of the surrounding environment into attention as well, speaking of the connectedness of all things.

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Turning them on

I presume this is automatic, i.e. the lights illuminate just ahead the datetime of the ritual. They either have a calendar or some technology in the home automatically broadcasts the signal to come on. They could even slowly warm up as the ritual approached to help with a sense of anticipation. This automation would make them seem more natural, like a blossoming flower or budding fruit. You know, life.

Activation: Go there

If part of the celebration of Life Day is about togetherness, well then having the activation require literally gathering the family together with the spheres in hand is pretty on point. There’s even feedback for the family that they’re close enough together when the orbs signal the family’s Hue lights to dim and turn on the watery-reflection projection.

Note it also has to have some pretty sophisticated contextual awareness. Note that it only started once all four Wookiees were close together. Recall that Chewie almost didn’t make it home for Life Day. Would they have just been unable to participate without him? Doubtful. More likely they somehow know, like a Nest Thermostat, who’s home and waits for all of them to be in proximity to kick things off.

Note also that it did not start when they were in their storage basket, but only when they’re held up in the living room. So it also has some precise location awareness, to.

Sidenote: Where is there?

Where is the Tree of Life and how does the orb help them get there?

Literal

The Tree of Life is real, on Kazook/Kashyyyk and the orbs provide a trippy means of teleportation to this site. This would mean the Wookiees have access to teleportation tech that they don’t use in any other way—like, say, in their struggle against the Empire. So, this seems unlikely.

Virtual

Since it’s not literal, and I can’t imagine the whole thing being some sort of metaphor, the other possibility is that the tree is virtual. This would help explain why there are only a few dozen Wookiees around this single sacred tree on its high holy day: It’s not bound by actual physical constraints. This raises a whole host of other questions, such as how does it project the perceptual data into the Wookiee’s senses that they’re robed, and walking the star bridge, and at the tree?

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So…pretty nice

All told, the orbs design helps reinforce the themes of Life Day, cheesy and creepy as they are.

You know, when The Star Wars Holiday Special came out, this “technology” was pure fancy. But that now we have cheap, ultrabright LEDs, tiny processors, WIFI chips, identity servers, all sorts of sensors, and Hue lights. If anyone wanted to build working models of these as an homage to an obscure sci-fi interface, it’s entirely possible now.

Snitch phone

If you’re reading these chronologically, let me note here that I had to skip Bea Arthur’s marvelous turn as Ackmena, as she tends the bar and rebuffs the amorous petitions of the lovelorn, hole-in-the-head Krelman, before singing her frustrated patrons out of the bar when a curfew is announced. To find the next interface of note, we have to forward to when…

Han and Chewie arrive, only to find a Stormtrooper menacing Lumpy. Han knocks the blaster out of his hand, and when the Stormtrooper dives to retrieve it, he falls through the bannister of the tree house and to his death.

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Why aren’t these in any way affiiiiixxxxxxeeeeeeddddddd?

Han enters the home and wishes everyone a Happy Life Day. Then he bugs out.

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But I still have to return for the insane closing number. Hold me.

Then Saun Dann returns to the home just before a general alert comes over the family Imperial Issue Media Console.

Continue reading

21 Hyperdiegetic Questions about The Faithful Wookiee

Since I only manage to restart The Star Wars Holiday Special reviews right around the time a new Star Wars franchise movie comes out, many of you may have forgotten it was even being reviewed. Well, it is. If you need to catch up, or have joined this blog after I began it years ago, you can head back to beginning to read about the plot and the analyses so far. It’s not pretty.

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When we last left the Special, Lumpy was distracted from the Stormtrooper ransack of their home by watching The Faithful Wookiee. The 6 analyses of that film focused on the movie from a diegetic perspective, as if it were a movie like any other on this blog, dealing mostly with its own internal “logic.”

Picking up, we need to look at The Faithful Wookiee from a “hyperdiegetic” perspective, that is, in the context of the other show in which it occurs, that is, The Star Wars Holiday Special. Please note that, departing from the mission statement for a bit, these questions not about the interfaces, but about the backworlding that informs these interfaces. Continue reading

RSW CalArts: Rebel bombing target computer 2

I have, over the past several years, conducted a workshop at a handful of conferences, companies, and universities called Redesigning Star Wars. (Read more about that workshop on its dedicated page.) It’s one of my favorite workshops to run.

In April of 2016 I was invited to run the workshop at CalArts in Southern California for some of the interaction design students. Normally I ask attendees to illustrate their design ideas on paper, but the CalArts students went the extra mile to illustrate their ideas in video comps! So with complete apologies for being impossibly late, here are some of those videos.

Next up, a second redesign of the Rebel bombing target computer.

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Monique Wilmoth and Andrea Yasko redesigned the controls to keep the Rebel bomber’s hands on the controls, added voice control, and reconsidered the display. Take a look at their video, below.

 

If you’d like to discuss a workshop for your org, contact workshop@scifiinterfaces.com.

RSW CalArts: Rebel bombing target computer

I have, over the past several years, conducted a workshop at a handful of conferences, companies, and universities called Redesigning Star Wars. (Read more about that workshop on its dedicated page.) It’s one of my favorite workshops to run.

In April of 2016 I was invited to run the workshop at CalArts in Southern California for some of the interaction design students. Normally I ask attendees to illustrate their design ideas on paper, but the CalArts students went the extra mile to illustrate their ideas in video comps! So with complete apologies for being impossibly late, here are some of those videos.

Next up, a redesign of the Rebel bombing target computer.

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Abby Chang and Julianna Bach redesigned the controls to keep the Rebel bomber’s hands on the controls, and reconsidered the display. Take a look at their video, below.

If you’d like to discuss a workshop for your org, contact workshop@scifiinterfaces.com.

RSW CalArts: Luke’s binoculars

I have, over the past several years, conducted a workshop at a handful of conferences, companies, and universities called Redesigning Star Wars. (Read more about that workshop on its dedicated page.) It’s one of my favorite workshops to run.

In April of 2016 I was invited to run the workshop at CalArts in Southern California for some of the interaction design students. Normally I ask attendees to illustrate their design ideas on paper, but the CalArts students went the extra mile to illustrate their ideas in video comps! So with complete apologies for being impossibly late, here are some of those videos.

First up, a redesign of Luke’s binoculars.

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 Yinchin Niu and Samantha Shiu redesigned the control buttons to make them more accessible to Luke and reconsidered the augmentations through the viewfinder. Take a look at their demonstration video, below.

If you’d like to discuss a workshop for your org, contact workshop@scifiinterfaces.com.

Report Card: The Faithful Wookiee

Read all The Faithful Wookiee reviews in chronological order.

Of course we understand that The Faithful Wookiee was an animation for children and teens, the script of which was thrown together in a short time. We understand that it is meant to be entertainment and not a prediction, building on the somewhat-unexpected success of a sci-fi movie released the year before. We get that the plot is, well, unlikely. We understand that 1978 was not a time when much thought was given to consistent and deeply thought-through worldbuilding with technology. We understand it is hand-drawn animation and all the limitations that come with this.

But, still, to ensure a critique is valuable to us, we must bypass these archaeological excuses and focus instead on the thing as produced. And for that, the short does not fare well.

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

Comms have interfaces with inexplicably moving buttons. Headsets require pilots to take their hands off the controls. Spaceships with EZ-open external doors, the interfaces just don’t make sense. The one bright spot might be the video phone on which Fett calls Vader, but with no apparent camera and unlabeled buttons, it’s a pretty dim bright spot.

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

Comms efficiently lets us know Chewie is incoming, mysteriously not responding to hails. Headsets let us know when Luke is talking to base. We find out about Boba’s deception to suddenly reveal the danger our heroes are in as well as the stakes. The escape hatch ends the story quickly without violence. These interfaces are almost exclusively narrative in purpose, which is why they fail in other ways.

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

The comms make its user remember and interpret important data. The headsets require pilots to take their hands off the controls. The evillest organization in the galaxy bypassing basic security. A door that seems to ignore the basics of safety and security. There is little to recommend these interfaces as models for designs in the real world.

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Final Grade C (8 of 12), Matinée.

Despite the failings of the interfaces, I’ll argue that The Faithful Wookiee may be the best thing about the Star Wars Holiday Special. And, we’re back to that mess, next.

Escape door

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There is one last interface in The Faithful Wookiee we see in use. It’s one of those small interfaces, barely seen, but that invites lots of consideration. In the story, Boba and Chewie have returned to the Falcon and administered to Luke and Han the cure to the talisman virus. Relieved, Luke (who assigns loyalty like a puppy at a preschool) says,

“Boba, you’re a hero and a faithful friend. [He isn’t. —Editor] You must come back with us. [He won’t.What’s the matter with R2?”

C3PO says,“I’m afraid sir, it’s because you said Boba is a faithful friend and faithful ally. [He didn’t.] That simply does not feed properly into R2’s information banks.”

Luke asks, “What are you talking about?”

“We intercepted a message between Boba and Darth Vader, sir. Boba Fett is Darth Vader’s right-hand man. I’m afraid this whole adventure has been an Imperial plot.”

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Luke did not see this coming.

Luke gapes towards Boba, who has his blaster drawn and is backing up into an alcove with an escape hatch. Boba glances at a box on the wall, slides some control sideways, and a hatch opens in the ceiling. He says, deadpan, “We’ll meet again…friend,” before touching some control on his belt that sends him flying into the clear green sky, leaving behind a trail of smoke. Continue reading

Video call

After ditching Chewie, Boba Fett heads to a public video phone to make a quick report to his boss who turns out to be…Darth Vader (this was a time long before the Expanded Universe/Legends, so there was really only one villain to choose from).

To make the call, he approaches an alcove off an alley. The alcove has a screen with an orange bezel, and a small panel below it with a 12-key number panel to the left, a speaker, and a vertical slot. Below that is a set of three phone books. For our young readers, phone books are an ancient technology in which telephone numbers were printed in massive books, and copies kept at every public phone for reference by a caller.

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