This week’s edition of the Hero Nation Index features a look at the glorious present and the odious past of Lucasfilm’s live-action Star Wars storytelling on television.
MEET BABY YODA: The Mandolorian spearheaded the massive launch of Disney+ but the new franchise’s MVP performance for Disney’s Lucasfilm doesn’t end there. The series will deliver a major retail boom for the holidays by introducing the too-cute-to-resist toy of the holiday season. The little green guy has been dubbed “Baby Yoda” by fans because, well, he looks like Yoda and he’s a baby, but the little sweet pea’s true identity is actually a bit of a mystery. Is he Yoda’s child? Or perhaps a clone or regenerated version of the dead Jedi Master? Or (most likely of all) a young member of Yoda’s still-mysterious race? Time will tell but, judging by the reaction of Star Wars fans, the pistachio-hued alien is the perfect size for a stocking stuffer — which means the cosmic cutie will be the color of money this Christmas.
DISCO DAYS OF JEDI TV: The Mandalorian is the first live-action TV series in the history of Star Wars storytelling but it isn’t the first live-action TV project for the brand. That distinction goes to a one-off project in 1978 that George Lucas would rather forget: The Star Wars Holiday Special. It was 41 years ago this past Sunday that CBS aired the two-hour primetime special. It was a momentous, must-see broadcast for fans of Star Wars, which had hit theaters 17 months earlier in a truly transformative moment for American pop culture. The Holiday Special represented the first screen return to the Jedi universe (the theatrical release of The Empire Strikes Back would be the following summer) and audience expectations were stoked by the participation of core Star Wars cast members (led by Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher). Millions of fans tuned in that night (I was one of them, watching the now-defunct WTVJ in Miami) with hopes of reconnecting with the magic of the movie. What they got was jaw-droppingly bad television.
HOW BAD WAS IT? The Death Star’s trash compactor smelled better than the ill-conceived script for the Holiday Special, which was part variety show with some veteran hands of classic small-screen comedy (Art Carney, Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman) trying to wring daffy comedy out of flimsy sketch concepts that had less heft than a hologram (the writing team included Bruce Vilanch, the one-liner specialist of Hollywood Squares fame who became the head writer for the Oscars from 2000-2014). The central story revolves around the celebration of Life Day on Chewbacca’s home world and involves his family tree (and that’s not a genealogical reference — his family literally lives in a tree). Chewie’s woolly relatives sound like rash symptoms (his dad Itchy, his son Lumpy, etc.) and have a hambone humor that makes them seem like the deep-space edition of the Country Bear Jamboree without the banjos. Even worse, because it was 1978, The Jefferson Starship randomly show up for a musical number that manages to sound both lumpy and itchy. Jon Favreau, the creator of The Mandalorian, knows all this sordid history, of course, which is why there was a terrific Life Day reference cleverly dropped into the pilot episode of the Disney+ flagship franchise.
THE OG BOUNTY HUNTER: The Star Wars Holiday Special remains the nadir of all Lucasfilm projects (and, remember, this is the company that eight years later laid an egg called Howard the Duck) and Lucas remains savagely (and appropriately) embarrassed by it. Lucas would erase the show from the memory banks of humanity if it were possible, but since that hasn’t happened yet, here’s the one bright-spot segment from the wildly woeful Holiday Special that doesn’t qualify as a television train wreck.
The above animated portion of the Star Wars Holiday Special is called The Faithful Wookiee and it made history as the very first Star Wars animated adventure. The segment was the handiwork of Nelvana Ltd., the Toronto animation house that would later produce the Saturday morning shows ‘Droids and Ewoks. It also represents a milestone moment as the first adventure anywhere to feature Boba Fett, the fan-favorite bad guy — and the first famous bounty hunter to wear Mandalorian armor in a Star Wars story. Also interesting: Han Solo (voiced by Ford) looks more than a little like Adam Driver, who portrays Solo’s son in recent films.
ALL THE KING’S MEN: Hard-core Star Wars fans know about the Star Wars Holiday Special but few of them know the backstory of the special’s director, Steve Binder, who had a strong hand in three historic music moments of the 1960s. The first was the 1964 concert broadcast called the T.A.M.I. Show, which famously featured James Brown, the Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye, the Beach Boys and many more. Binder was also the director who in 1968 defied sponsor demands that he cut a duet by Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte from an NBC special because the white Clark touched the black Belafonte on his arm during the number. “The touch” became a television first and earned Binder a bigger gig: Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special, which ranks as a legendary music moment in TV history. One decade later he somehow found himself lost in space with Wookiees.