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While we eagerly await next year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it’s worth casting our minds back to a time when audiences were just as excitedly anticipating another visit to a galaxy far, far away. On Nov. 17, 1978, CBS broadcast the Star Wars Holiday Special for the first (and, it turned out, only) time.
To say that the Holiday Special isn’t fondly remembered is an understatement. George Lucas himself once famously commented, “If I had the time and a hammer, I would track down every copy of that program and smash it,” which likely gives you a good idea of just how well the show re-created the atmosphere of the original movie, despite the presence of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and the rest of the cast.
In many ways, the Star Wars Holiday Special is as much a cautionary tale for what not to do to Star Wars as the much-maligned prequels (if not more so: As dull as Episode I — The Phantom Menace might have been, it didn’t feature a musical performance from Jefferson Starship). Bearing that in mind, here are some lessons The Force Awakens has hopefully learned from the Holiday Special.
You can’t go home again (without a good reason)
Both the Holiday Special and The Force Awakens share a nostalgia for the original movie, reuniting the original cast and returning to the scene of previous crimes. The Holiday Special is set in part on Tatooine, in the Mos Eisley Cantina where Obi-Wan and Luke met Han Solo and Chewbacca for the first time. It’s a shortcut to audience engagement, but one that doesn’t really work; without having any true reason for its appearance, the Cantina becomes just another set filled with guys in rubber masks, devoid of any of the wonder from the original movie. Similarly, watching Hamill, Fisher and Ford go through the motions on this show doesn’t feel like it’s a lost part of the Star Wars story at all; without good writing to back them up, it feels as essential as Hamill’s guest shot on The Muppet Show a couple years later.
It’s safe to assume that more time and attention was lavished on The Force Awakens’ screenplay than the entirety of the Holiday Special, but the lesson remains: If you want the audience to feel like this is the next chapter of their beloved story, you’ll have to earn that. Just looking the same isn’t enough.
Parents just don’t understand
Another unexpected similarity between the Holiday Special and The Force Awakens, if rumors are to be believed, is that the new movie will feature the offspring of the original cast in some manner. The Holiday Special, meanwhile, introduced audiences to Chewbacca’s son, Lumpy.
The Force Awakens can learn a couple of lessons from the Holiday Special here. Firstly, have some reason to introduce family members that goes beyond, “Hey, maybe we can create some fake jeopardy by getting them in trouble so that the audience expects our more familiar character to save them.” There’s really no point to Lumpy at all, aside from the fact that kid Wookiees are inherently cute (not to mention less annoying than Ewoks); he’s there to get protected by Chewbacca, but he doesn’t serve any purpose beyond that. We don’t learn anything new about Chewbacca as a result of his introduction, other than the fact that Chewie’s apparently a deadbeat dad who just abandons his son to go gallivanting across the universe in the Millennium Falcon. If you’re going to introduce new characters related to the familiar cast, make sure they’ve got some reason to show up.
The second lesson is even more important: Offspring of your protagonists or not, give your characters better names than “Lumpy.”
(Bad) boys will be (bad) boys
Strange but true: Boba Fett first appeared in the Holiday Special, years before his cinematic debut in The Empire Strikes Back. That latter appearance created a hard-core fan base for the bounty hunter that remains convinced of his badass hypercompetence even after his Return of the Jedi activities, apparently proving that his Holiday Special showing had been entirely forgotten — if only because no one who saw it could have fallen for the character in any way.
Boba Fett’s animated debut turns the character into … well, not exactly a good guy, but certainly someone who pretends to be one out of necessity and in doing so, seems far less of a threat than he was later built up to be. He helps the good guys? What happened to the cold bounty hunter who’d stop at nothing to achieve his goal? In the end, it’s lucky that the Holiday Special disappeared as quickly as it did, allowing Boba’s slate to be wiped clean so easily. For the makers of The Force Awakens, remember what made Darth Vader so appealing in the first place: the idea that he was entirely bad. Whoever the replacement Vader for the new trilogy is shouldn’t believe in half-measures. It’s all-out evil or nothing.
Space operas should be epic
Something that the first three Star Wars movies did right — and the Holiday Special, along with Episode I and arguably Episode II — Attack of the Clones, did wrong — is convince the audience of the scale of the story being told. What makes Star Wars “feel like” Star Wars is the sense that the future of the entire galaxy is at stake. This, surely, won’t be a problem for The Force Awakens (if that movie doesn’t feel like it’s about the future of the galaxy, something’s gone very wrong), but it might be a problem for the various spinoff features. How to tell “smaller” Star Wars stories without them actually feeling smaller?
There is never any excuse for a character singing a song based on the Star Wars theme
OK, that one’s just self-explanatory. (Honestly, how did anyone think this was a good idea?) I don’t care that Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver have a history of singing about outer space, if they bring out a guitar for a folk-rock version of John Williams‘ classic theme at any point in The Force Awakens, we’ll all know it’s over.
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