This review is based on the most commonly-available copy recorded from the broadcast by the CBS affiliate in Baltimore, MD, with all commercial breaks intact.

When we began our little retrospective of the Star Wars franchise, I asked you to do something unfathomably difficult, and pretend that it was 1977, and you just saw Star Wars for the first time, and you didn't know yet that it was the kickoff to the biggest sonofabitchin' cultural event in modern cinema history. Now I'm going to ask you to do it again.

So it's 1978, and Star Wars has made a truly unbelievably huge amount of money in ticket sales, and a patently absurd fairy-tale amount of money in merchandising. That part, in the last two weeks of 2015, I think you should be able to imagine without too much trouble. The question is, if you are George Lucas and the rest of Lucasfilm, how do you keep it going? The film's sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, in in pre-production, but that's still two years in the future, and nobody really knows what a property like this is going to do. We've simply never had one of these, and who knows how long the audience will stick with it? Who knows how long the toys will keep selling?

This, anyway, is why Lucas & Co. were receptive, in retrospect shockingly so, to a proposal from CBS to make a television special set in the Star Wars universe. The network knew that the brand name was a goldmine no matter what, Lucas got to keep the material fresh in the public eye, and what could go wrong? It's not like the finished product would be the worst professionally-made piece of motion picture entertainment in the history of either film or television.

Some bad news about that last part...

The Star Wars Holiday Special aired in North America on 17 November, 1978, and the fact that anybody in the world still cared about the Star Wars universe by the morning of the 18th is a full-on Christmas miracle. Calling the Holiday Special a uniquely repulsive failure of the filmmaker's art is an unearned compliment. This is down in the sub-subbasement of cinema along with Manos: The Hands of Fate in the rusted-out filing cabinet of things so wholly unwatchable that I felt a nearly bodily rejection of them as I tried to make it through for the first time. I guess I have to give the edge to Manos as the single worst thing I've ever seen: to this day, I haven't been able to make it all the way through it without the assistance of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Whereas I have now officially watched The Star Wars Holiday Special enough times that I've lost track: either four or five, when once is already more than any healthy person should seriously consider.

It's no achievement, I assure you. This object, whatever we want to call it, is really quite devoid of anything entertaining. It's not at all fun-bad; individual scenes are, but they are swamped by the more prominent scenes which are simply excruciating. Twice, the special claws its way into something that's passably decent, and snipped out of context seems tolerable enough to watch, but in context is somehow even more painful as a reminder that there is pleasurable art out in the world, re-sensitising us to the abject awfulness of the special containing it. It is like placing a damp sponge, for just an instant, in the mouth of a man dying of thirst.

Anyway, for those of you who haven't had the pleasure, The Star Wars Holiday Special takes place some while after the destruction of the Death Star at the close of Star Wars. Stock footage ships are firing on the Millennium Falcon, with Han Solo (Harrison Ford, giving the worst performance of his entire career in the mercifully few minutes we see him) desperately trying to outgun the Imperials and reassure his dear friend Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) that they'll make it back to the Wookiee homeworld - the first appearance of its canon name, Kashyyyk, is later in this special - in time for Life Day. And that's the last time the Queen's god damned English will come out of any onscreen character's mouth for countless precious minutes, as the action now switches to Kashyyyk itself, where Chewie's family lives in a deeply unconvincing matte painting of a futuristic tree-house: his wife Malla (Mickey Morton), his son Lumpy (Patty Maloney), and his father Itchy (Paul Gale), the last of these a particularly hideous creature of latex wrinkles and crags draped in cheap grey fur. The family is wondering where the hell Chewie could have gotten to, padding around the house, fretting, and barking at each other in the made-up system of grunts and groans of the Wookiee language. It's all speciously pantomimed, and each character has a wholly distinct "voice", and it's too bloody distressing to put into words how tedious and weirdly melodramatic it all is. The really awful thing? This is the peak. Nothing in The Star Wars Holiday Special will ever be this enjoyable again. Even the good parts, like I said, are just there to make the pain raw again. So this deeply wretched passage of inchoate nonsense is to be treasured as something especially precious.

Before we go any deeper into the content of the thing, it's important to understand what The Star Wars Holiday Special is. Basically, it's a one-off variety show, with its five-man writing staff mostly made up of variety veterans: Pat Proft logged time on The Carol Burnett Show, Bruce Vilanch had credits with both The Brady Bunch Variety Hour and Donny and Marie. The 1970s variety show is, despite the nostalgia thrown its way by a certain subset of boomers and the very oldest tier of Generation X, a fundamentally broken format, I am tempted to say; Carol Burnett is the unabashed masterpiece of the genre, with several of American television's all-time funniest moments to its name (the sketch "Went with the Wind" triggered, allegedly, the longest stretch of laughter in television history), and it still has a hit-to-miss ratio that's barely above .500. When the format went wrong, it did so dramatically.

So take the basic sins of the variety show - dopey comic sketches and incongruous musical numbers, with an all-star guest cast - and try to fit it into the adventurous Star Wars universe. I don't know what the best-case scenario of that hybrid would look like; still pretty bad, I imagine. What we got was not at all the best-case scenario: the freedom to add science fiction elements to the ghastly broad comedy stylings of the genre results in some of the most bitterly anti-funny sketch comedy I have ever witnessed, including deliberately conceptual sketch comedy where anti-funny was the goal.

Anyway, back to the plot. The first sign of the bleak turn things are going to take comes when Itchy attempts to distract Lumpy from the generally dolorous mood in the house by playing some kind of holographic acrobat show, in which the members of the Wazzan Troupe (variety show veterans in their own right) do a straightforward little parade and are then composited onto a table top. This causes Lumpy to go absolutely nuts: he stares and gapes and looks generally like the awakening of a serial killer - Maloney's eyes are always eerily expressive through the goofy costume, and she has an axe-crazy stare in this sequence. Incidentally, as the Wazzan dancers are mostly wearing red and green, this is the most Christmassy moment in The Star Wars Holiday Special.

Pictured: Christmas!

We're about 11 minutes in, so it's probably time to hit the fast-forward button. Malla, being the wife of a known contact of the Rebellion on a planet with what later seems to be a significant Imperial presence, thinks nothing of dialing up the man who blew up the Death Star on an unsecured communication line, but how else are we going to get Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Hamill, by the way, is wearing a truly heroic amount of make-up. Like, drag queen amounts of makeup. And now I really want to know what Star Wars-themed drag looks like. A shitload better than this, I am certain. This is not the fast-forward button, I get that.

The plot - I'd put it in scare quotes, but there's not enough irony in all the world to justify calling this a plot, really - involves the Wookiees waiting impatiently for Chewbacca to show up; the Falcon's presence in the system has triggered massive Imperial attention, however, and so some stormtroopers come investigating. Saun Dann (Art Carney), the hustler, shop-keeper, and smuggler who arranged for Chewie's trip, keeps butting in to distract the Imperials, mostly with great success, given the stormtroopers and officers here take the already bone-stupid intelligence on display in the actual movies and then filter it through the zany filter of '70s TV comedy writing. While everybody putters around tensely, various characters distract themselves with this or that futuristic doo-dad, and this is where all of the bits come in.

Speaking of futuristic doo-dads, the first commercial break advertises the most amazing toy ever. And here's where I will say that if you watch The Star Wars Holiday Special, for God's sake, make sure it has the full commercial breaks (the ones on YouTube don't). It's all cultural archaeology, watching Bea Arthur and Harvey Corman cross paths as Jefferson Starship and Diahann Carroll warble on the soundtrack. But it's mostly the kind of archaeology that causes professors from Miskatonic University to scrawl out illegible passages about unspeakably foul jade statues exuding an aura of pure malice while they descend into madness in an asylum cell. At least the commercials are fun; it's a little snapshot of life as it was in a time not so distant, but also unfathomably remote. There are two ads for pantyhose. Also a news break in which we learn that the Russians had tested but decided not to pursue a neutron bomb. Plus, a McDonald's jingle that was retired before I was born, but is presently running through my mind like a calliope from hell: "There's more in the middle of an Egg McMuffin than an egg in the middle of a muffin". Arguably, there is in fact less.

Anyway, the first break advertises Trailtracker, a little van that follows a line you draw in crayon on a white plastic sheet. I have never wanted anything as badly as I want that toy, every time I see this damn special. It follows a crayon line. In 1970s technology. That's some next-level stuff. Other fun commercials to keep an eye out for: one in which the International Ladies' Garment Worker Union urges us to "Look for the union label / When you are buying a coat, dress, or blouse", because once upon a time, in the lifespan of those now living, unions were enough of thing in American culture that they could advertise on TV. Also the Reggie Bar, which finds New York Yankee star Reggie Jackson gazing at a candy bar based upon himself, and purring "Hmmmm Reggie, you taste pretty good". Also Tobor, which the announcer darkly informs us is "robot" spelled backwards. And also Kenner's Star Wars toy line, which I'm sure was the shit of all shit in '78, though I'd definitely rather have a Trailtracker than even the Death Star playset with an actual trash compactor (the child playing with it is crushing the everloving hell out of poor Luke). But much as the commercials themselves end, let us resignedly turn back to the special itself.

The bits and cameos are by and large absurdly rancid. Korman swings by as Chef Gormaanda, a Julia Child parody with four arms insisting in a frenzy that we stir, whip, stir, whip, whip, whip, stir, beat, with the enormously talented comedian grimly trying to sell a joke that literally doesn't go any deeper than I just indicated. Korman is also stuck with the most painful segment of the whole special, potentially the whole of human artistic expression, as an "amorphian", a being who appears to stutter and shut down thanks to the miracle of video editing. That's it, that's the gag. Carrie Fisher comes by for a cameo as Princess Leia, who is written as a cold-hearted harridan who observes that Malla is scared and miserable, and then waits not even a fraction of a second before brushing past that to peremptorily demand to speak to Han. There's a murderously long Jefferson Starship song bathed in pink and purple lighting, with Carney doing a little old man rocking-out dance in the background of one shot - honesty compels me to concede that it is charming more than embarrassing to see Carney do this, but the song is really bad.

The most infamous sketch, surely, is Carroll's appearance as holographic soft core pornography gifted by Saun Dann to Itchy in dialogue that finds Carney delivering the line "And I do mean Happy Life Day" in a tone of voice that could not sound filthier if he were just told to say "biiiiig ol' titties" over and over again for ten seconds. This is a TV special selling toys to children. Carroll, for her part, delivers lines that aren't even hiding it: "I am your pleasure, enjoy me... I can feel my creation... I'm getting your message... Oooh, we are excited, aren't we?" While this happens, we get to watch a mildewy bathroom rug have an orgasm. This is still a TV special selling toys to children. All of this is more embarrassing than charming.

In two places and two places only does the special rise above the level of "festering runny dog shit". One of these is the much-mocked but actually not horrible part where Bea Arthur sings a clumsy cabaret song that's retrofitted onto the Star Wars cantina band music. The narrative of the sketch is insane: all Imperial troops must watch this live feed from Tatooine to appreciate how awful the people they're subjecting are, and to feel better about their own lives, I don't even get it. So Arthur, as Ackmena, shows up as the owner of the cantina, with many re-used creatures from Star Wars showing up, and demonstrating the almighty power of cinematic lighting: they look utterly terrible here, all rubbery and blandly-colored.

Anyway, it's hella dumb, and Korman is not being given anything to work with as the simpleton in love with Ackmena, but it has a secret weapon in the form of Arthur, who alone out of the cast does not appear to have cared that she was in some absolutely barrel-scraping cash-in. By God, she sells it - she's the world-weary owner of a dive bar full of trash and scoundrels, but it's the life she knows and loves, and that's all there is to it. It is, given the context, and given the raw material, a truly excellent performance. And Arthur has a great, whiskey voice to sing the mordant Weill-esque result of slowing the cantina music down and welding it to a torch song.

The other highlight is the animated short stuffed precisely into the middle of the special. And again, "highlight" is all relative: the animation by Nelvana (who'd later oversee the 1985 spin-off series Droids and Ewoks) is striking and unusual for America in 1978, but also quite ugly in the character design and animation, with lines and body proportions that bend and warp like a bad acid trip.

And I do hope that Harrison Ford was able to sue who ever decided that, even as an animated caricature, this is what he looked like:

That being said, this is still clearly the best thing going in the Holiday Special: it's a story that feels meaningfully aligned with the swashbuckling of Star Wars, mixed with a version of the weird worlds of '70s sci-fi pulp fiction and comics that doesn't show up all that often in the franchise, surprisingly enough. None of it makes sense - the in-universe explanation for why a cartoon starring Han Solo and Luke Skywalker would be made during the war between the Empire and the Rebellion is lacking, to say the least. Nor does it seem to register that Lumpy is watching a cartoon version of his dad. But it's vibrantly odd in the visuals, and Hamill's vocal performance is remarkably confident and flexible - little wonder that he'd end up a voice actor down the line (Ford, incidentally, is even worse in the animated sequence than the live-action footage).

Eventually, Life Day itself happens, at which point the show - never firmly in grasp of reality - has its psychotic break, with Wookiees in red robs marching through space into a singularity of light while grasping glowing orbs, and then a very obviously stoned Fisher comes along to intone aimless Manichean thoughts on good and bad. Is she also in the singularity? Is she the embodiment of the Spirit of Life Day, taking a familiar form so that we can more easily process its existence? Can't say, any more than I can say what Life Day is meant to celebrate. I can say that she sings a very bad song and she does so very badly, missing by at least a couple of notes on the word "liiiiiiiiight". While this happens, Hamill and Ford stare at her with fixed, grim expressions.

What do we take from The Star Wars Holiday Special, after all of this? Reader, the answer is nothing. Absolutely fuck-all. We take from this the knowledge that greed plus a marketable trend at the remarkable height of its popularity plus the 1970s, with all the tasteless hedonism implied, can make people do abysmal things. This is phenomenally unpleasant, and an intellectual dead end: it represents nothing, it typifies nothing, it's just stunningly bad decision that kept getting worse as it went along. It's godawful in every way purely on its own merits; the fact that it's slapped onto the back of one of the most iconic movies in history is just the little goose it takes to transform godawful into the most godawful. Not even ironic pleasure can be scraped out of this, and yet I know even as I write these words than in a couple more years, I'll head back for another round. It's just one of those forms of pain that becomes addictive, if only for that rush that comes when you stop feeling it and suddenly everything in life feels exciting and joyful, simply by virtue of not being The Star Wars Holiday Special. Its absence makes the world a better place.

Reviews in this series
Star Wars (Lucas, 1977)
The Star Wars Holiday Special (Binder, 1978)
The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
Return of the Jedi (Marquand, 1983)
The Ewok Adventure (Korty, 1984)
Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (Wheat & Wheat, 1985)
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (Lucas, 1999)
Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (Lucas, 2002)
Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (Lucas, 2005)
Star Wars: The Clone Wars (Filoni, 2008)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Edwards, 2016)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Johnson, 2017)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (Howard, 2018)