Why Canberra Is Australia’s Official Star Wars Holiday Special Capital

Why Canberra Is Australia’s Official Star Wars Holiday Special Capital

How best for Gizmodo Australia to mark May the 4th, known to geeks everywhere as Star Wars Day? Let’s do that by celebrating one of Star Wars‘ more obscure Australian connections: it seems Canberra was one of the last places in the world where it was possible to freely and legally view the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special.

If you haven’t heard of the Star Wars Holiday Special, blame series creator George Lucas. Lucas has never allowed this risible 1978 TV Christmas oddity to be repeated in the US — it was broadcast just once on CBS, on 17 November 1978. By 1980, The Empire Strikes Back emerged as the official sequel and Lucas apparently decided that the Holiday Special must never be spoken of again.

Sure, Disney might have recently decreed that the entire Expanded Universe is effectively kaput, but this special never even received that level of temporary acknowledgement. Save for the first ever appearance of fan-favourite Boba Fett (in animated form), the official assumption is that none of this ever happened. Weird Al Yankovic’s parodies are taken to be more canonical.

The special features all the original cast members (Harrison Ford! Mark Hamill! Carrie Fisher!) as well as some decidedly stranger choices and plotlines. Here’s a contemporary and unironic description of the broadcast from a 1978 AP report, filed before everyone had realised just how bad it would be:

The show loosely centres on the family of Chewbacca, Han Solo’s 7-foot-2 Wookie co-pilot, on the planet of Kazzook. At home are his wife, Mall; his father, Itchy, and his son, Lumpy.

The Wookies are visited by many of the stars of the movie and are entertained by Beatrice Arthur, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, Diahnn Carroll and the Jefferson Starship.

The fact it was never repeated Stateside or released on home video or DVD has made it the stuff of legend (and frequent torrent sharing) among more dedicated Star Wars fans and that was the case even in 1984, when the main three flicks were completed and strange Ewok-related spin-offs were being permitted. The special was supposed to be effectively dead. Except…

1984 was also the year that the Holiday Special received a weird mid-afternoon repeat on RVN-2. RVN-2 was the local station for Wagga Wagga in regional NSW, but was also listed in the Canberra Times as the station could be viewed in the capital as well. Canberra wasn’t big enough to have the full range of commercial stations in its own right, but was big and central enough to receive multiple commercial alternatives, unlike most regional towns which generally had just two channels: the ABC and one regional commercial network.

Although technically a Christmas special, it was shown on a Sunday afternoon (27 May to be exact), filling in time between a 1961 Bob Hope movie and unnamed cartoons. Yes, weekend TV in the 1980s really was this dire and from that point of view alone, the Holiday Special being on the schedule makes perfect sense.

This wasn’t the first time the special had been seen in Canberra. When I initially encountered the 1984 listing, I thought perhaps the ACT was running late and had simply never bothered to show this Christmas-themed dreck before. Back in the 1980s, TV schedules weren’t nationally aligned to the same extent they are now, so that was a definite possibility. But no.

It turns out Channel Seven had shown it on Saturday 29 December 1979 (realistically the first year a Christmas special from the States would be seen in an era when fast-tracking was not remotely a concept). Here’s the Canberra Times listing for that broadcast, from a galaxy far, far away when television did not transmit 24 hours a day and the fact the test pattern was coming on was worth pointing out in TV guides:

We’ll discuss the horror that was Michael Bentine’s Potty Time on another occasion, thanks. Notice that the presence of Bea Arthur and the Jefferson Starship is not mentioned in the cast list.

Regardless, ACT residents got to see the Holiday Special at least twice, five years apart and on different networks (meaning more than one rights deal). The big “this didn’t exist” hissy-fit that Lucasfilm subsequently enacted clearly hadn’t taken effect in 1984, at least not as far as Australian broadcasts were concerned. Maybe George Lucas needed the money for extra Ewok costumes for Caravan of Courage.

It’s possible that the 1984 repeat screening happened elsewhere in Australia, but I couldn’t find any references to it during a search of newspaper archives for other cities. It certainly wasn’t on Seven in the ACT the same day.

And anyway, I want it to be remembered as having its last gasp in Canberra. This is where the Australian War Memorial is, so it seems strangely fitting. Lest we forget.

Canberra picture: Pedro Leiria. Poster from Wookiepedia. TV listings from Trove.