Revisiting the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special

The 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special wasn’t great, but it had one good thing–it inspired the character of Boba Fett…which brought us The Mandalorian…
on Nov 26, 2020 · 6 comments

Two years ago I wrote an article about the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special. For this post I’ve touched up the previous post with an edit and a few new observations. Including a brief comment on The Mandalorian.

In November of 1978, when the now rather infamous Star Wars Holiday Special aired, I was ten years old. I watched the special myself, on CBS. I’d seen Star Wars three times in the theater, in an era in which most people only watched any movie just once (unless a movie was re-released, as the Walt Disney fairy tale stories often were). I was as much a target audience for the TV show as anyone ever could be, because I loved Star Wars that much. Plus, I was a kid without very sophisticated tastes. Yet at the time I was mostly unimpressed.

My opinion hasn’t really changed, but still I’m thankful I got to see the special as it aired live. And there’s one good thing that came from it.

Note that at the time, seeing Star Wars (which hit theaters in 1977) only three times as a kid was like Charlie in the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory only buying two Wonka bars–he obviously would have bought more, but couldn’t afford it. I overheard other kids at the time saying they saw Star Wars as many as a dozen times or more. Clearly not everyone was that much of a fanatic, but for those who were not alive then it’s hard to explain how much of a phenomenon A New Hope was in comparison to pretty much every other movie for most people (note that nobody back then called it A New Hope–everyone said “Star Wars“). Lots of people saw it far more times than anybody thought was normal at that time.

Back in 1978, I lived well outside of the small town of Whitefish, Montana. Cable TV existed back then, but we didn’t have it (we were outside the service zone). Our TV antenna picked up one and only one channel–which was an NBC outlet (on which I’d watched the original Star Trek cartoon as it aired earlier in the 70’s). So in order to watch the Star Wars Holiday Special, I had to spend the night at a friend’s house. It’s sad perhaps, but I don’t even remember which friend I stayed with–but I do remember the Holiday Special, though not in comprehensive detail.

I remember it focusing on Chewbacca’s family, his wife and son and father, as they prepared to celebrate a “Life Festival” that obviously was meant to parallel the US holiday of Thanksgiving. The parallels with our own place and time struck me as too much to really make sense in context of the Star Wars universe, even when I was ten–but I didn’t hate it for that reason. Han and Chewie were eager to come to this celebration, but were blocked for some reason. They eventually arrived, and the various bits of strange Star Wars-themed entertainment that were tucked into the special ended and the viewing audience got the chance to see the main Star Wars actors together. I found that moment to be the highlight of the show and that it more or less justified the rest, which mostly was not very interesting to me.

The main characters assemble in the Holiday Special. Credit:

I had no idea then that the special would eventually be considered one of the worst pieces of television of all time. Not so bad it’s good–it’s widely considered to manage to be full-time cringe-worthy, painful to watch, without the enjoyment that comes from laughing at genuinely campy entertainment. (If you are curious as to why the holiday special is seen as so terrible, follow this link to a USA Today article about it.)

I vaguely remember an original cartoon that was aired with the special. It made no real impression on me at the time, but it introduced Boba Fett as a character and today, post facto, is considered the best part of the Holiday Special. I just watched this cartoon on YouTube (you can too if you follow this link–it’s a bit over 9 minutes long) and would say it’s so-so at best. But it isn’t horrible and introduced a character who would prove to be iconic. So even what is widely seen as total garbage as a piece of entertainment had at least one success story…and that small success story in turn inspired the series The Mandalorian, a modern hit.

Boba Fett makes his exit in the 1978 cartoon. Credit:

And that’s what makes me feel thankful about the Star Wars Holiday Special. I haven’t seen it again since 1978, but it must have been pretty terrible to fail to impress me at the time–yet still, it contained one good thing, one positive aspect worth remembering. A diamond amidst the rubbish.

It’s just so easy to be critical of entertainment that isn’t our cup of tea, an attitude I’m guilty of plenty of times myself. Unless all is up to our standard, we don’t like it. In a way, that makes sense–only one cockroach at a restaurant table tends to spoil a meal for most people.

Yet isn’t part of the spirit of Thanksgiving to find the good, even if it’s surrounded by bad? To be grateful for what we have received, instead of griping about what we haven’t?

I didn’t even like the Star Wars Holiday Special at the time all that much, but I’m thankful to have witnessed it in its original context. As a piece of my personal history, I’m thankful for it.

And isn’t it encouraging, for those of us who create stories, to think that even a real stinker of a piece of entertainment can have at least one good aspect? I mean, even if we authors fail to obtain our lofty goals for a story, that doesn’t necessarily mean all is lost. One small thing can make a positive impression on others, even if our critical selves see nothing but our own shortcomings. (Which is how I often feel about my own writing, to be honest.)

And isn’t it interesting, that the launch of Boba Fett came in the middle of an otherwise failed production? And that this particular character, one in the middle of an awful mess, inspired The Mandalorian, which is really quite good? If not great?

It’s hard to believe it, but the 1978 Holiday Special ushered in this character type (image copyright, Disney)

So let me end this by calling on those who enjoy speculative stories to be less critical (I’m including myself here). Let’s be thankful for those things in stories that are good, even if they’re in the midst of elements that fall short. 🙂

Travis Perry is a hard-core Bible user, history, science, and foreign language geek, hard science fiction and epic fantasy fan, publishes multiple genres of speculative fiction at Bear Publications, is an Army Reserve officer with five combat zone deployments. He also once cosplayed as dark matter.
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  1. notleia says:

    Continuing our previous week’s rambling discussion: if you are more okay with uncertainty than I guessed you were (it has to do with tickey boxes on the authoritarian follower list), then I wonder why you even bother with being a literalist. Nearly all the literalists I’ve come across also ping on my radar for anxiety patterns. (Which is what influenced my guess on your grimbright preference, re anxiety response, like if you didn’t have an external anxiety, you’d invent one all for yourself? But if anxiety isn’t your particular bugbear, then maybe it’s a preference for concrete vs abstract goals and ends?)

    • Travis Perry says:

      It seems the drive to psychoanalyze me in public coincides with the effect of downplaying anything I have to say as representing an opinion worth listening to. No, I am not saying your public attempts at explaining me show your intent is to explain me away, so that nobody would listen to me. There’s reason to believe you are just speaking your mind. Though I think the effect is there nonetheless–your comments on my posts don’t really do me any favors in terms of helping get my message across. You know, just saying–because I don’t really expect you to change.

      Though in fact my responses to what you say may downplay anything I have to say as much or more as anything you say. Yeah, sometimes I lose perspective. Sigh.

      So while I don’t think it’s in my own interest to give this comment a long and detailed response (hey, look, I’m actually paying attention to my own interests for once 🙂 ), I think it’s worthwhile to fight the embedded notion in your comment that there is some pathology required to explain literalism. No, actually, literalism is the standard and most important means of communication for almost all human beings at almost all times. Sure, being figurative or engaging in wordplay or using double entendre, etc can be interesting, but even the most poetic of people want a literal cup of coffee when they order coffee, much more often than not.

      It is rather the belief that the Bible is somehow better if it is seen as completely non-literal that’s a pathology that requires explanation. I think I know how to explain it in you, at least in part. My hypothesis is that you were never taught the Bible very well from a historical and grammatical perspecitve that really studies it in depth and also takes it seriously–which means taking non-poetic parts literally.

      When you did finally formally study the Bible, it was from people not only more experienced than you, it was from people smarter and more experienced than the literalists you knew. You concluded the non-literalists must be right. You experienced a massive paradigm shift and you flipped over to adopting the new perspective you were exposed to pretty much entirely. Hook, line, and sinker, as the saying goes. To the degree you think any other view is pathological.

      I on the other hand knew some smart literalists and did some real study on my own before running headlong into modern skeptical scholarship. So while I was able to immediately think of reasons to counter certain claims about the Bible–for example the idea of the evolution of the Gospels becoming more legendary over time is shown false by Mark having the most miracles per page of any Gospel (and John having the fewest miracles)–I did not reject every new thing I heard. I analyzed, thought about things, adopted some ideas but not others. I went through many paradigm shits, including one away from Young Earth Creationism–yet I still believe there was a literal creation of the universe by God and a literal Adam and Eve and a literal Garden of Eden. Many other passages take those accounts literally–but just because I see accounts as literal, doesn’t mean I think traditional explanations are necessarily adequate to explain these passages (nor to do I think new explanations are automatically better). I’m willing to be non-standard about such things.

      I believe I study the Bible (and the universe) for what it is, to the best of my ability, by the grace of God. You could do the same–if you could divorce yourself from the notion you’ve already got things figured out…which is how I perceive you feel about yourself, that you are clearly right, with no doubts, and you have no need to question your own certainty.

      • E. Stephen Burnett says:

        “I think it’s worthwhile to fight the embedded notion in your comment that there is some pathology required to explain literalism.”

        I just point out that such attempts at explaining Travis’s pathology must themselves be read literally, in which case, the critique quickly deflects upon the critic. Also: if anyone insists on misreading this approach to the Bible as “a wooden literal view,” etc., etc., this is both cornball nonsense and a basic failure to echo the other person’s belief to the extent that the other person can say, “Yes, we disagree, but you stated my position well.”

  2. Yeah, over the last few years I’ve really learned to be a lot less critical. Not in the sense of ignoring flaws, but in the sense of learning how to assess and react to them differently, whether those flaws occur in shows or in other people.

    Fate Zero and Fate Stay Night are kind of an example of what you’re talking about. Fate Zero’s a truly amazing show that has a well written exploration/commentary on things like war, heroism, tragedy, etc. At first it might seem kind of slow, but it’s dark and gritty and if a person pays attention to the story then they might get pretty attached to it and start to see how deep it really is. And even if the scenes in the first few episodes don’t seem like much at first, there’s actually a ton buried in there, which people often notice upon watching the series a second time. And then those first episodes are more likely to hit them with greater emotional impact. Like, here’s the first scene of Fate Zero:

    As the series progresses, we see exactly how much guilt and pain Kiritsugu carries, and it’s not just the fact that he knows his wife will die in the Holy Grail War. There’s so much more that he’s done and will do and the weight of it all makes him feel so horrifically tainted that he doesn’t even think he deserves to be happy, let alone hold his innocent newborn child. And when he does start to feel happy, he feels guilty and somewhat even avoids that happiness. And as time goes on the audience gets to see and experience his heartache with him. And that’s just one tiny example. At another point in the episode, one of Kiritsugu’s opponents was talking about how ruthless he was by saying Kiritsugu shot down a whole jetliner just because his target was on it. That almost seemed like a passing comment that a viewer would feel safe forgetting (until they rewatch the series). But way later in the second season, there were two entire episodes leading up to WHY he shot that plane down…and it ended up being one of the most painful and pivotal moments in Kiritsugu’s life. We see similar things with all the other chars, too. Irisviel’s outlook on the whole situation is far more complicated than being the stereotypical supportive wife, for example. She has her own reasons for acting the way she does and things she’s had to grapple with. And as much as she loves her husband, she doesn’t always agree with him.

    Not long after I saw Fate Zero, I looked at a clip from the first episode of Fate Stay Night, the show that sorta kicked off the Fate series. And…to me it just didn’t look nearly as awesome as Fate Zero, at least not at first glance. I wasn’t the only one that thought so. Someone in the comments of that Fate Stay clip said Fate Zero sent them there to see its retarded older brother. My initial reaction to the Fate Stay clip wasn’t that mocking, but seeing that comment still made me snicker. Yet Fate Zero probably wouldn’t have existed without Fate Stay Night, which means I would have missed out on one of my favorite shows, which would have made me lose out on something that influenced me for the better. Same goes for other people.

    Over time I’ve kinda learned to really appreciate shows for their flaws, too, even though I’m still willing to point out and criticize those flaws. I hardly ever watch a show unless I feel there’s something in it worth seeing (so it’s rare for me to appreciate a show in an ‘it’s so bad it’s good’ kinda way). But other than that, flaws are a part of a show’s identity, and maybe it’d be harder to remember the show without them. They provide examples of how NOT to write, and/or give fans things to discuss. And they can be good practice for fanfic writers that decide to break the writing problems down and figure out how to fix them, that way they have a better idea of how to handle their own original stories.

    And then I used to be harder on stories for not being as close to perfect as possible, and told myself I’d never publish a story that committed so many mistakes. In some ways I still hold myself to a pretty high storytelling standard, but even though I had a pretty decent amount of writing/worldbuilding experience at that point, that experience doesn’t compare to what I have now.

    A series like, say, Naruto, spans one or more decades, and the writers/artists are often working under intense deadlines and a myriad of (contradicting) expectations from their fans and publishers. Franchises/stories like that are going to have a very hard time staying consistent with plot and quality level over that span of time, even just from the sheer amount of information the author has to work with.

    I’m seeing how hard that can be now, considering how many chars, storyworlds and universes I’m writing. Plus, long term memory is one of the greatest weaknesses someone with my personality type has. Even though I’ve learned to write stuff down in a way that more or less works for me, that doesn’t usually account for the way those bits of information interact with each other. Even if an author manages to remember 1000 ways that info should interact with/affect the story, they might still overlook some small yet important detail.

    With all that, it’s important to have understanding and cut people a lot of slack, but also learn from mistakes and have high personal standards for one’s self. Not in an unhealthy way where we beat ourselves up over every little thing, but in a way that has an eye on learning and self improvement. And, like…I dunno, we should also spend more time learning from other people’s mistakes than we do mocking them. Or something like that.

  3. T-1, I appreciated a culture moment you refer to, something that I wonder if we’ve lost in the age of streaming: You had to go to a friend’s house to watch something. Just reading that brought back so many memories of times in the 80’s that I, a farm kid outside the broadcast zones with limited options and before VHS, did exactly that: had a sleepover with my friends in town who had cable, according to a schedule because it might only be available at a certain time, to watch something. Fragglerock comes to mind, but there were definitely others. Honestly, I kind of miss those days and the sense of anticipation that would rise through the week: “I’ll be over at Jimmy and Allen’s on Friday night and we’ll get to watch [something or another] that I can’t at my house!”

What do you think?