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On 17 November 1978, barely eighteen months after the release of a small science fiction motion picture called Star Wars, a feature-length festive special made its broadcast debut on CBS. The original movie, the third from student-turned filmmaker George Lucas, was developed with low expectations but upon its release after several arduous years of development, would ultimately come to transform the film industry by revolutionising special effects, exploiting the concept of marketing and ushering in a new era of fantasy cinema. ‘Star Wars grossed $2.89m in its first seven days and, by mid-June, was playing in three-hundred-and-fifty theatres,’ noted the director’s biographer Marcus Hearn. ‘By August, Star Wars‘ domestic box office hit $78m…It was official…Star Wars was the fastest-selling, highest-grossing ticket in Hollywood history.’
And while Lucas had claimed that even while developing the movie he had envisioned a trilogy of stories, even before he could commence work on the highly-anticipated sequel, the world of Star Wars was transported to the small screen for a Christmas special. With the movie having become not only an unexpected success but a cultural zeitgeist for the late 1970s, its parent studio 20th Century Fox was eager to capitalise on the new phenomenon and even while preparing to re-release the film in cinemas under the new title of Episode IV: A New Hope, thus building anticipation for the next instalment, the first spinoff in what would become the ever-expending universe of Star Wars would enter production.
‘If I had the time and a sledgehammer I would track down every copy of that show and smash it,’ a jaded Lucas had once admitted regarding his feelings towards what would eventually become the Star Wars Holiday Special, a project which he feared would undermine not only his breakthrough feature but also the sequels which he was developing, the first of which, The Empire Strikes Back, was set for release in less than two years. Yet with the studio insisting on a way to build on the popularity already created by the first film, a reluctant Lucas set about devising a story that would serve as the foundation for what co-star Harrison Ford would later dismiss as ‘an embarrassment.’ Ford had been a struggling actor throughout most of the 1970s but when he was cast as renegade smuggler Han Solo in the science fiction picture he was, alongside newcomers Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, transformed overnight into a global superstar.
The story for the special would follow the climax of Star Wars, in which the rebel forces alongside Solo had succeeded in destroying the Galactic Empire’s planet-sized space station the Death Star. While its commander Grand Moff Tarkin had perished in the attack, Sith Lord Darth Vader continued to hunt down the alliance with the intention of annihilating them once and for all. While The Empire Strikes Back would open with a band of rebels hiding out on the frozen planet of Hoth, only to be discovered by Imperial scouts, the special would see Solo and his Wookie first mate Chewbacca attempting to outrun Star Destroyers as he tries to get his friend back to his home world for a celebration known as Life Day. Eager for Chewbacca’s safe return, his family contacts Solo’s close friend and rebel hero Luke Skywalker, who reassures Chewbacca’s wife Malla that Solo will will get them home safely no matter what.
Meanwhile, Vader continues his obsessive search for the rebels which, as later revealed during the events of The Empire Strikes Back, now includes trying to locate his estranged son Skywalker, in the hope of seducing him into the Galactic Empire. Safely arriving out of hyperspace, only to discover that a blockade has been created around Chewbacca’s home world as a result of Imperial martial law, Solo decides to take refuse in a different region of the Wookie’s planet while another friend, rebel leader Princess Leia, expresses concerns over their disappearance. Imperial soldiers arrive at the Wookie household in search of alliance sympathisers and, realising that one of the family is missing, the officer in charge orders a search of the area.
The story then reverts to an animated report witnessed by one of the Wookie children via a television set, in which the captain of the ship RS Revenge states that both Solo and Chewbacca had been tasked with acquiring a talisman which, according to protocol droid C-3PO, possesses the power of invisibility. Watching as the Falcon appears out of lightspeed, only to crash-land on a nearby planet, Skywalker, C-3PO and fellow droid R2-D2 launch a rescue mission but immediately encounter the ruthless bounty hunter Boba Fett who, following his official introduction to the franchise eighteen months later with The Empire Strikes Back, would soon become a fan favourite. With both Solo and Skywalker contracting a sleeping virus caused by close contact with the talisman, Boba Fett claims the Empire have a remedy for the condition in a nearby city and, begrudgingly accompanied by Chewbacca, sets out to obtain the cure.
While waiting for the pair to complete their mission C-3PO and R2-D2 stumble upon a transmission between Boba Fett and Lord Vader and soon learn that the bounty hunter has been preparing a trap for them in the hope of leading the imperial forces to the hidden location of the rebel alliance. With the imperial Stormtroopers searching the Wookie home being summoned back to base under false pretence by a fake transmission, Solo and Chewbacca finally arrive to save the day. By the finale all of the rebels are reunited to celebrate Life Day as one, each taking a moment to tell one another what they all mean to them, echoing the family sentiments of Christmas.
Incorporating both live action and animation, the latter of which would later be expanded upon in the mid-1980s with the popular cartoon spinoffs Droids and Ewoks, the Star Wars Holiday Special would premiere a little over a month before Christmas Day on CBS, broadcast through a sponsorship with General Motors. With Hamill, Ford and Fisher reprising their roles of Skywalker, Solo and Leia, respectively, other veterans of the hit movie to make an appearance would include Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) and James Earl Jones, who would once again provide the voice of Darth Vader. The special would also be noted for an array of cameos from popular celebrities of the 1970s, such as Bea Arthur, then best known for her eponymous performance in the long-running show Maude, although from the mid-1980s onwards she would become a household name through her role as Dorothy in the hit sitcom The Golden Girls.
Ostensibly a variety show mascaraing as a science fiction movie, the Star Wars Holiday Special would also feature live performances from two musical acts who were enjoying modest acclaim during the latter half of the 1970s. Diahann Carroll had become a prominent figure in black art in the 1960s after receiving the distinction of being the first African-American female to win the Tony Award for her role in the Broadway musical No Strings, while a second live performance would come from Jefferson Starship, the new incarnation of former San Francisco hippie icons Jefferson Airplane. Debuting a brand new song entitled Light the Sky on Fire, which would later be included on the band’s 1979 compilation album Gold, Jefferson Starship‘s appearance would be notable for the omission of Grace Slick, who had briefly parted ways with group earlier in the year.
‘Lucas was very busy in 1978,’ explained an article published by the Los Angeles Times in 2018 to mark the fortieth anniversary of the original broadcast. ‘Then, according to first-person accounts, production was turned over to CBS, who put the project in the hands of veteran variety show writers and producers. The first director got frustrated with the budget and fast-paced production schedule of television and quit…By the end, the whole thing had run out of money.’ In the years following its premiere the special has built a cult legacy but not one that has portrayed the feature in a positive light. ‘I was at least an hour into the Star Wars Holiday Special before I realised that it was, in fact, a variety how that they were trying to put over on America,’ stated Greg Moody in his retrospective review for the Milwaukee Sentinel. ‘Don’t be fooled by the spacey surroundings! What we’ve got here is nothing but a common, everyday variety show, packaged with bright Star Wars wrapping, sure guarantee of healthy ratings.’
With Disney having acquired Lucasfilm, the owners of the Star Wars property, on 30 October 2012 for the sum of $4b, the enterprise wasted no time in developing new instalments of the popular franchise, with the first, Episode VII: The Force Awakens, making its way to the big screen shortly before Christmas 2015. And while its sequel The Last Jedi may have received unanimous praise from critics it strongly divided the core fanbase of the series, ultimately affecting the commercial appeal of the subsequent spinoff Solo: A Star Wars Story. The final part of the saga The Rise of Skywalker is set to debut later this year but after the significant fan backlash of The Last Jedi many have noted that Disney have been on damage control, instead turning their attention to small screen escapades such as Forces of Destiny and the upcoming spinoff The Mandalorian.
A decade before developing The Mandalorian for the new video on-demand service Disney+, filmmaker Jon Favreau entered the world of big budget science fiction when he helmed the first instalment of what was to become the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Expectations were relatively low for Iron Man when it was released in May 2008 but it became an instant success and would create the template for what many of the MCU origin stories would follow over the subsequent ten-plus years. And while he may have stepped away from the studio’s director’s chair following the release of Iron Man 2 in 2010, Favreau continued to be a creative force for Marvel as he would not only enjoy the recurring role of Happy Hogan in seven MCU pictures but would also offer his guidance as a producer throughout the creation of the cinematic universe.
Following his attendance at the recent Saturn Awards in Hollywood, Favreau revealed his ambitious small screen plans for Star Wars and what project he would like to bring to the franchise. ‘We all get to do Star Wars. The bottom line for me is that I never thought that this would even be on the cards. I was a little kid watching the first film and here we are telling these stories with a bunch of people who’ve already worked with Star Wars, the people at Lucasfilm and ILM and Dave Filoni and they’re sort of indoctrinating us into understanding the depth of the genre,’ he told Entertainment Tonight. ‘I was the one who was bringing the Holiday Special to the table. It’s my generation! I love the Holiday Special. I mean, certain sequences more than others, but I love the introduction of Boba Fett and that rifle that he had. That animated piece still holds up, it’s pretty cool and I draw inspiration from that. And I would love someday on Disney+ to do a Holiday Special too. I’ve got to pitch that to them, we’ll see. If you want to see a Holiday Special let Disney+ know!’