Of all the beautiful moments in the original Star Wars Holiday Special, the one I hold most dear is a close-up shot of Malla’s face, her head titled to one side, wide mouth slightly parted and darkly shaded eyes looking right through me.
If you haven’t heard of Malla, Chewbacca’s wife, or the rest of his family, you aren’t alone. The 90 minute TV special (two hours with commercials) aired once and only once on November 17, 1978, and was so reviled that George Lucas has never allowed it to be packaged and sold—though good citizens continue to make it available online.
I understand why most people involved with the project have disavowed it. The premise seemed good—Chewie is trying to get home for “Life Day” while Malla, Itchy (Chewie’s father), and Lumpy (his son) keep the Empire at bay. The execution was…less than flawless. But these criticisms have obscured the brilliance of an artifact that should have at least the status of The Room if not The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In particular, the holiday special asks a question that’s equally relevant to Wookiees in the 1970s and human audiences in the 2020s: what do we want from our technology? And what can we expect in return?
Driving the holiday special’s attention to technology is a structural decision most viewers really hate: the decision to structure the special as a variety show, with each sketch centered on a character interacting with a high-tech object: holovids, television shows, video calls, video games, and VR. Fans complain that these sketches are not nearly as compelling as the Wookiees seem to think they are, but if you settle in and pretend you’re watching a Kelly Reichardt film, a kind of meditative wonder will enfold you in its hairy embrace.
Nevertheless, the fact that we spend so much time watching Wookiees quietly absorbed by their devices is deeply strange. First of all, Star Wars is adventure-based, and while tensions run high in the Wookiee household (will Lumpy take out the trash? will the Imperial guards destroy all his toys?) the show’s characters stay in place. They aren’t exploring new worlds or plotting to overthrow the Empire. They’re playing defense while Chewie makes his way home. Even the 1979 Wookiee Storybook is more action-packed!
But watching Wookiees on their devices is weird for a less obvious reason too. Chewie, as the only Wookiee film audiences have encountered previously (or will again until The Revenge of the Sith), is characterized as a semi-animal warrior, not a consumer of complex culture. Han Solo’s sidekick is loyal and (mostly) very brave but he isn’t known for the kind of deep attention that his family exhibits at home. On the contrary, Chewie is prone to fits of pique and rage—even his game of holo-chess in A New Hope is tinged with violence. “Let the Wookiee win,” C3PO advises.
And this makes sense. Chewbacca is a “wild man,” an archetype of ancient and medieval cultures used to map out the boundaries of the human. Enormous, violent, and often hairy, wild people appear in Mediterranean literature as early as Homer’s Odyssey. Greek writers often describe these figures as human beings but also always characterize them as bestial, especially because of what they lack: spoken language, marriage customs, and religion.
Lucas designed Chewbacca with similar ambivalence, making him look like a lemur or bushbaby (on Michael Heilemann’s account), but implying that he possesses human intelligence. Chewbacca’s voice speaks to both parts of this characterization: he is perfectly intelligible to Han and a few others within the world of Star Wars, but to everyone else—including the audience—he sounds like an animal.
Chewie’s family sure look and sound like him (though on a lower budget), but they are very different creatures: peaceful, domestic, and solidly middle-class. They don’t mark out the far boundary of the human, they represent a 1970s version of normality.
This seems like a bizarre twist, but as Michelle Moseley-Christian points out there’s a tendency for wild people to travel from freak show to normative center. The more interesting question might be: what are Malla, Itchy, and Lumpy saying about being human? What does this wild family have to say about advanced technology in the 1970s or even the 2020s?
By the late 1970s television had become ubiquitous in U.S. homes and early video games were catching on as well. The Star Wars Holiday Special celebrates these entertainments and imagines their future incarnations (including the toys advertised on commercial break), but it also questions the role of technology in the home. Each family member seems happy to disappear into their devices, but over and over again a gap emerges between the Wookiees and the objects of their desire. Malla tries to follow a cooking show but literally can’t keep up with the four-armed chef. Lumpy, desperate for his father, watches a cartoon of Han and Chewie’s adventures instead. And in the holiday special’s most deliciously terrible sequence, Itchy hooks up to a soft-porn VR of Diahann Caroll, who promises to become exactly what he desires.
Carroll’s character offers the most tantalizingly intimate tech experience of the show. But when she sings, she describes unrequited longing, not ultimate fulfillment: “Reality is sweet this minute, can’t we repeat and repeat this minute, why can’t it be always right now?” Similarly, Malla, Lumpy, and Itchy’s devices do not satisfy their yearning.
This desire for connection and intimacy is only answered face-to-face. When Han and Chewie finally return home, Chewie and Malla gaze deeply into each other’s eyes. The Wookiees, who have been in frequent video contact with Luke, Leia, R2D2, and C3PO, are magically united with them in the flesh (or maybe spirit) to celebrate their sacred holiday.
Yet technology also saves the Wookiees, distracting the Imperial guards who — in one of the special’s few action scenes — toss the house in their search for Chewie. In a hilarious turn of events, Lumpy hacks the Imperial communication system and draws the guards away from his family. Technology can’t replace Lumpy’s father, but it can prepare his return.
It’s tempting here to reflect on the Covid holidays currently underway, holidays in which so many people have been separated by distance & disease and are able to connect, if at all, only through mediated technology. We know video calls aren’t a substitute for what we truly desire, they’re just what we have.
Instead, what’s remarkable about watching the Star Wars Holiday Special in 2020 is how comforting it is to see a family being sad and anxious together, to watch them cope in their separate worlds. Malla’s face is beautiful because it is melancholy. She isn’t a funny sidekick or a lusty father-figure or a rambunctious child. She’s the heart of the holidays, a process of looking back and looking forward and seeing it all. For me, this is the promise of the tree of life.
Clara Bosak-Schroeder (she/they) is a writer and academic at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign with a passion for hairy women. You can follow Clara’s work at theburningboy.com and on Twitter @thaumatic