Every Star Wars fan has a favorite Disney+ TV series, including titles like Andor and The Mandalorian, and nearly every fan has a “least favorite” to show hate-watch (we’re looking at you The Book Of Boba Fett). And after last weekend’s Star Wars Celebration 2023 in London, which saw lots of big announcements, there are even more series to come. But it used to be that Star Wars on TV wasn’t either good or bad. It was just bad. Really, really bad.
This is because Star Wars represented a paradigm shift—the shaggy, countercultural New Hollywood elbowing its way onstage in a time that was still governed by old Hollywood “entertainment.” Television in 1977 wasn’t supposed to be good. It was supposed to kill time, as blandly as possible. The top two shows were both set in the 1950s: Laverne & Shirley and Happy Days. Third-ranked was a paragon of what NBC exec Paul Klein derogatorily called “Jiggle TV”—the roommate farce Three’s Company, which could be remembered for John Ritter’s slapstick genius, but was notorious at the time for Suzanne Somers’ revealing outfits.
This is the ecosystem George Lucas was trying to navigate to build out his Star Wars universe. He fucked things up almost right away.
This isn’t the TV special you’re looking for
For its September 25, 1977, broadcast, the Donny & Marie program was gifted by the Star Wars Corporation with: high production value shots of the Millennium Falcon; the actual C3PO and R2D2; the real Chewbacca costume; the genuine Darth Vader wardrobe; and a regiment of finger-snapping Imperial Stormtroopers, shimmying their way through a retro-fitted version of The Temptations’ “Get Ready” that begins “We’re Darth Vader’s raiders/And we can’t believe/The things that you do/You’re ALLLRIGHT!”
The resultant 12-minute mini-musical truly puts the awe in awful. You know you’re in trouble from three syllables into the first song, when Donny (as Luke) calls Marie “Princess Lee-uh.” But true kitsch nirvana isn’t achieved until the line “Darth will be searching up and down!” is used to bust a John Travolta, point-at-the-sky disco move that people really performed in ye olde 1970s.
Only King of Cool Kris Kristofferson emerges unscathed, by using the Jedi mind trick we might call the Dean Martin Dodge: Kris plays Han Solo like he just rolled in from a party he’s trying to get back to, so he’s in the sketch but not of the sketch.
Donny and Marie were trendsetters in one way though. They were a brother and sister act, and so were Luke and Leia—although nobody knew this at the time.
Anger leads to hate, hate leads to The Star Wars Holiday Special
Donnie & Marie was just a prologue to the single worst Star Wars narrative project ever made: CBS Television’s Star Wars Holiday Special of 1978. Personally conceived by George Lucas as the Wookie movie he never managed to make elsewhere, the Star Wars Holiday Special got rushed into production through an outside company so it could air for Christmas. The intent (let us not kid ourselves) was to push Star Wars toys during the holiday rush.
The plot, if you want to call it that, has Chewbacca trying to get home for “Life Day,” a secular Wookie Christmas (there’s apparently no Jesus in a galaxy “far, far away”). Stormtroopers and whatnot project various threats, but they’re barely integrated into the storyline. The main Star Wars heroes appear, and are given not much at all to do.
A lot of time is spent on the allegedly comic hijinks of Chewbacca’s family, featuring Chewbacca’s father “Itchy” and his son “Lumpy” (presumably “Scratchy” was taken). A miniaturized version of Jefferson Starship performs “Light The Sky On Fire” which was probably Lucas’ way of discharging Star Wars’ minor debt to the band’s 1970 sci-fi concept album Blows Against The Empire. There’s also a cartoon that introduces Boba Fett for the first time, and it’s actually kind of awesome. At the end of it all, Leia sings.
That’s pretty much that.
Nothing in the Star Wars canon delineates the schism with old Hollywood better than this legendary horse turd, which plops Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher alongside TV icons Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur—a trio of brilliant comics in other contexts, but ambassadors from schtick-ville here.
According to writer Bruce Vilanch, the project failed because George Lucas insisted on featuring his groaning Wookiee creations—an excuse that would play better if Vilanch wasn’t also lead writer on the woebegotten Rob Lowe and Snow White Oscar opener of 1989, as well as a staff writer on Donny & Marie. Still, 1980’s officially sanctioned Star Wars Christmas album, Christmas In The Stars, suggests shoveling licensed yuletide crap into the marketplace was a corporate policy.
A wretched hive of scum and villainy and passable TV
The Star Wars talk show appearances of the era are mostly low-key fun. This one by Alec Guinness is mind-altering, though. The famously disgruntled Obi-Wan actor seems highly pleased by his first viewing of the movie, and even more pleased by his advantageous profit participation deal.
There’s lots more TV ephemera from the period, demonstrating how mainstream culture didn’t “get” Star Wars. Here’s a Bob Hope Christmas special featuring Hope, Olivia Newton-John, and Mark Hamill in “Scar Wars.” When Saturday Night Live got around to mocking Star Wars, it was the cluelessness of old showbiz types like Hope it targeted, with Bill Murray’s manic lounge singer crooning made-up lyrics to John Williams’ main title theme in the style of a demented Robert Goulet.
Carrie Fisher hosted a Star Wars-inflected SNL episode just a day after the Star Wars Holiday Special aired, neatly re-establishing the franchise’s dented bona fides in a single swoop.
Your eyes can deceive you. Not all ’70s Star Wars TV is bad
So, The Ewok Adventure notwithstanding, did official Star Wars ever get TV right during the George Lucas era? It did—exactly once, and not in narrative form. The Making Of Star Wars pioneered a format that DVD “special features” would later pound into the floor. Airing on ABC just a week before Star Wars met Donny & Marie, this comprehensive documentary goes behind the scenes on the original shoot, chronicling the fan hysteria in a breathless tone that feels like the way Lucas must have been experiencing it and positioning Star Wars in the wider context of cultural history. A lot of the credit has to go to scriptwriter and noted film critic Richard Schickel, who had already created a series of knowledgeable, crowd-pleasing docs about Hollywood for public TV.
Even the scripted C3PO and R2D2 material—so deadly on Donny & Marie—comes off fine, probably because The Making Of Star Wars was shot on film, not videotape, harmonizing it visually with Star Wars itself.
The Making Of Star Wars is the only Star Wars television show of the period that functions as the right kind of time machine today. It’s not an index of dated creative failures like everything else Star Wars touched on TV, but rather a transponder that communicates how Star Wars’ success was a product of human effort, and boundless enthusiasm. In this extremely corporate era of Star Wars TV, that, most of all, is what seems to hail most from a galaxy far, far away.