This week marks the 30-year anniversary of one of the most horrific events in American history.
No, not the Jonestown cult tragedy — which was admittedly quite horrific. For the purpose of this column, I’m referring to the TV debut of “The Star Wars Holiday Special.”
This crass collision of pop culture phenomenon and get-rich-quick marketing ploy should merely exist as a remnant from a long time ago in a far away memory ... were it not for the Internet.
The CBS special is nearly impossible to find otherwise — it never ran on TV again and wasn’t released on video or DVD. While bootleg versions are available at sci-fi conventions, the opus has found its widest audience courtesy of sites such as YouTube.
But back on Nov. 17, 1978, millions of Americans tuned in to watch the first official follow-up of any kind to the outrageously successful “Star Wars.” What they got in return can probably best be summed up by a look at the cast accompanying stars Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford:
And introducing Chewbacca’s family: Itchy, Malla and cute little Lumpy.
Oh, the humanity!
The plot of the two-hour program involves Luke Skywalker and Han Solo evading the Empire while trying to get Chewbacca to his home planet in time for the all-important celebration of “Life Day.”
Directed by Steven Binder (TV’s “Aladdin on Ice”) and written primarily by Ken and Mitzie Welch (“Manilow: Music and Passion Live from Las Vegas”), the special zooms from one trainwreck sequence to another. Despite trying to look “futuristic,” the whole enterprise has that trapped-in-the-’70s vibe — like watching a rerun of “Donny and Marie” but with worse music.
• A virtual reality seduction bit in which singer Diahann Carroll materializes to tell Itchy “I am your fantasy” and “we can have a good time.”
• Bea Arthur (from TV’s “Maude”) belting a boozy pub song called “Good Night, But Not Goodbye,” while linking arms (tentacles?) with various rubbery aliens that appeared in the famous Mos Eisley cantina scene.
• Long conversations between the Wookiee family consisting of growls and bleats — only with no subtitles.
• A closing number in which Carrie Fisher sings a schmaltzy “Life Day” ballad that sounds suspiciously like the melody from the “Star Wars” main titles.
• Art Carney declaring, “May the Force be wit’cha.”
Among “Star Wars” fans, the special is most significant for introducing the bounty hunter Boba Fett in a stand-alone cartoon adventure called “The Faithful Wookiee” that was produced by Toronto-based Nelvana. It proves the lone bright spot in this marathon of uncomfortable boredom.
One comment posted about the YouTube clip sums it up perfectly: “Even at 5 years old, this couldn’t hold my interest.”
Filmmaker George Lucas has disowned the project, at one point reportedly trying to buy up all the master copies. Of course, given the eventual debasing of the franchise at Lucas’ own hand, it’s hard to evaluate his reaction.
If nothing else, this program certainly proves that “The Phantom Menace” isn’t the worst thing ever to be affiliated with the name “Star Wars.”