The Paper Chase

Prominent among my most recent television diet has been the show The Paper Chase, a four-season drama that ran from 1978 to 1986 (the show was cancelled after the first season due to low ratings – which is what happens when you schedule it opposite Happy Days: the Fonz brooked no challengers – but revived a few years later on another network for three more). It was based on a 1973 film (which I have not yet seen) based on a novel by John Jay Obsborn about his experiences at Harvard Law School.

The premise of all three is essentially the same; an ambitious law student named James Hart comes to Harvard, where he runs up against the school’s most formidable teacher: Professor Kingsfield, Kingsfield is a crushingly brilliant, unyielding teacher of contract law who uses merciless application of the Socratic method to train his students. “You teach yourselves the law,” he informs them. “But I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush, and if you survive, you leave thinking like a lawyer.” We follow Hart (who idolizes Kingsfield) as he struggles to survive and grow under Kingsfield’s stern instruction, with the help of a small group of friends with whom he forms a study group.

So far I’ve seen most of the first season (one episode I couldn’t find, a few I skipped) and part of the second. The main appeal of the show, undoubtedly, is Professor Kingsfield himself, played to perfection by the late John Houseman, who reprises his role from the film. Houseman as Kingsfield represents one of those rare marriages of actor and role where the idea of anyone else in the part is simply absurd (similar to Columbo), which is all the more impressive as the film was his first major film performance. He had been a partner to Orson Welles, a stage performer, and had trained many actors in his day (the director actually claimed that Houseman was the Kingsfield of acting), but had never had a real film role. He won a richly-deserved Academy Award for his performance back when that actually meant something.

As I say, Kingsfield is a riveting figure. As conceived in the show, he isn’t just a brilliant teacher, but a legitimate Great Man of the old school. We’re told that he’s contributed significantly to the understanding of American Law, and one episode revolves around him being considered for the Supreme Court. When it’s pointed out that he’s nearly eighty years old, someone comments, “four or five years of Kingsfield on the bench is worth another man’s fifty.” More importantly, Kingsfield is shown to have both an iron will and principles of adamant, to the point where there’s a whole episode of Hart trying to figure out an old case where it looks like he might have made an ethical compromise, because he simply can’t believe the man would do that.

One of my favorite moments thus far has Kingsfield confronting a younger professor who has come to confess that he plagiarized an article for the Law Review. After laying out his excuses, the man nervously concludes with, “we’ve all done these things.”

“No,” Kingsfield answers. “We have not.”

(Earlier Kingsfield rebuked the man for televising one of his classes, saying that the law was not meant to be a show and that, however he disguised it, it was nothing but a tribute to his own ego).

There’s another bit at an old New York hotel where, in a rare moment of openness, Kingsfield talks to Hart about the great statesmen under whose portraits they stand, saying that they represent a now all-but extinct breed of lawyers for whom principle and law were paramount rather than fame and commercial success. No one says it, but we’re left in no doubt that Kingsfield himself is one of that breed.

A ‘great’ man may in this case imply a ‘good’ man, but don’t think for a moment that it implies a ‘nice’ man. Kingsfield is often a downright terrifying figure; a man who tolerates no nonsense and who is perfectly willing to verbally tear his students to shreds if they fail to perform. He rarely raises his voice beyond the firm ‘auditorium’ level he customarily uses, but his biting sarcasm, rhetorical skills, overwhelming genius, and iron focus produces more devastating results than bellowing ever could. A large part of the fun of the series is just watching his razor-sharp tongue go to work. “Speak up, Mister Hart! Fill this room with your intelligence.”

Meanwhile, he maintains an intentional distance from his students, affecting not even to recognize them outside the classroom. There are even (not unbelievable) reports that he’s driven students to madness and suicide over his career (an intriguing and thus-far never explained element in the first season is “the Screamer:” a male voice in the dorms that periodically just starts screaming out of nowhere. It’s rumored to be the ghost of a former student of Kingsfield. I really like those kinds of ‘might be supernatural, might not, and we’re not going to tell you’ elements in otherwise down-to-earth stories).

And yet, the show is at pains to show that Kingsfield is not merely sadistic; there is a method to his malevolence. By enforcing rigorous, unyielding standards and forcing students to perform or suffer he not only prepares them for the experience of the courtroom but forces them to understand the law and its principles instead of simply regurgitating what they’ve read. The final episode of the first season revolves around Kingsfield setting his students a seemingly-impossible assignment whose solution, it turns out, forces them to delve into the very roots of the idea of law.

Moreover, the show at least gives us periodic assurances that, aloofness aside, Kingsfield does indeed care for his students’ well being and, though he won’t cheapen his instructions for their sake, he does want what is best for them and wishes them well.

The plots of the episodes, when they don’t revolve around Kingsfield, tend to be rather standard, though generally well-written and not too boring. There was one episode of the first season, for instance, that featured Hart’s activist female friend becoming enamored with an imprisoned political agitator which did a remarkably good job of depicting both the myopia and hypocrisy of her immature, ‘idealistic’ perspective (without making her unsympathetic) and the workings of a manipulative personality. To be honest, I can’t really picture an equivalent episode on modern show ending with the soulful activist turning out to be a sociopath and the unsmiling prison guards turning out to be in the right. Another one about affirmative action actually made a point of deconstructing the Black student’s anger through some decent storytelling symbolism. Nothing brilliant, but at least the writers clearly gave the matter some thought rather than coming down with a, “this is what you should think about this issue” finality. Likewise an episode about a student in a wheelchair had him using his disability to manipulate his friends, not exactly intentionally, but almost without thinking about it. I also appreciate that there is some moral awareness going on, as when Hart’s friend discovers his father has been acting dishonestly, and though he’s disgusted by it, he can’t bring himself to actually expose him. So, there is thought and nuance that went into the writing of the show, even apart from Kingsfield.

At times the show deviates hard into melodrama, especially with Hart’s many girlfriends, most of whom carry some kind of extra dramatic baggage (e.g. one episode revolves around him dating a mobster’s daughter). Also, the supporting cast makes some odd shifts; losing two major characters between the first and second season is understandable, though having one the study-group (prominently featured in the opening credits) essentially disappear for most the first season, including an episode focusing on a one-shot character in his exact situation, before being dramatically written out entirely all but screams backstage drama. As always, of course, the episodes vary greatly in quality, though as suggested by all I’ve said they’re generally above-average fair.

But Kingsfield is what makes the show, and it’s at its best when the stories revolve around him. Honestly, this is one of the most successful efforts I’ve seen on screen to create a fictional Great Man who legitimately seems like the real deal. The show would be worth watching even if the rest of it were only mediocre just for the sake of observing a master actor bringing such a figure to life.

John Houseman in The Paper Chase (1973)

Bishop Sheen on the Three Confessions

Broadcasted 1957: Ven. Bishop Fulton Sheen traces the course of human sentiment through three great ‘Confessions:’ those of St. Augustine, of Abelard, and of Jean-Jacque Rousseau:

 

Money quote: “Jean-Jacque, therefore, gave birth to an entirely new concept of how to handle a conflict: namely, give way to it and call it right.”

Celebrating 30 Years of Mystery Science Theater 3000

By an interesting coincidence, I am exactly as old as one my favorite shows: Mystery Science Theater 3000. This show has had a huge influence on me, particularly when it comes to developing my sense of humor and appreciation for the obscurer side of the entertainment world. Now, as the show turns thirty years old, I explore a little bit of why it was so important at The Federalist:

Part of it is, of course, simply the humor; a group of very talented, very funny people reacting to some of the strangest and poorest films ever made. The Best Brains developed a distinct style of comedy, blending encyclopedic knowledge of cultural and entertainment subjects with clever wordplay and precision timing. They generally didn’t simply override the film, but carefully matched the gags to the events on screen, so what was said and what was happening came together to form the complete joke.

As the letters the cast used to read at the end of each episode demonstrated, the show made many, many people happy, and gave countless viewers a smile when they needed it most. That alone is worthy of commendation. But the show probably wouldn’t have found the audience it has if it weren’t for another factor: the jokes are not just funny, they’re often extremely smart, playing on cultural reference points that most of the audience won’t even get, but those who do will laugh twice as hard.

This doesn’t just appeal to the viewers. It also serves as a kind of cultural time capsule. Part of the MST3k “formula” was the writers’ vast knowledge of cultural and entertainment subjects. Since each episode was so long—about 90 minutes—each probably averaged well more than 100 individual jokes. These ranged over nearly every subject imaginable, from history and religion to politics and pop culture.

Thus, in a single episode, we could have references to “Gilligan’s Island,” Oktoberfest, the Clarence Thomas hearings, Batman, the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials, the Vietnam War, “The Great Race,” the Nuremberg Trials, the Nativity, “Twin Peaks,” and Jimmy Durante. Very few viewers would get all the esoteric references on a first viewing, and many would be inspired to seek out the reference. So the attentive MST3k viewer would find himself exposed to a whole host of cultural, entertainment, and historical touchstones that he might never have known of otherwise. To watch a single MST3k episode is to receive a crash course in American culture of the 1990s.

Read the rest here.

Apu and Charlie Chan Syndrome

I’m long since finished with ‘The Simpsons’ outside of the occasional re-run, but I had to comment on this.

Apparently, the show has decided to drop the venerable character of Apu in the face of ‘controversy’ over his ‘blatantly racist’ portrayal. Said ‘racist portrayal’, as far as I can tell, amounts to that he has a ‘stereotypical Indian’ accent and works in a convenience store.

This is a bit of a pet peeve of mine, but why is it that a certain segment of commentators seem to regard any non-White character with an accent to be a racist caricature, regardless of how the character is actually portrayed? I remember back when I watched ‘The Nostalgia Critic’ he did this all the time; like calling Fisher Stevens’ character in the ‘Short Circuit’ movies a racist stereotype because he…had an accent, I guess? Despite the fact that he’s portrayed as a perfectly decent human being and even takes over the role of human protagonist in the sequel.

I remember back in my corporate days we were forced to watch a video on ‘diversity,’ wherein we were shown a talk by an Asian gentleman who started off speaking with a very thick accent, then abruptly dropped it for a Midwestern-style voice. The idea, apparently, was that it was racist for us to assume he would speak with an accent. I pointed out that we only assumed that because he was in fact speaking with an accent.

Really, do the people who complain about this think that no one speaks with thick accents? Or do they think that finding accents funny is somehow ‘racist’? Because it’s not like anyone laughs at British, German, French, Italian, Texan, Minnesotan, or New York accents, right?

Isn’t considering a thick accent an ‘offensive stereotype’ insulting to people who actually talk that way? Doesn’t it imply that there is something wrong with them, if the portrayal of such an accent is taken as an insult?

As for Apu, the people behind this ‘controversy’ apparently missed the fact that part of the joke of his character is that he’s ridiculously overqualified for his job, possessing a genius IQ and a prestigious degree from an Indian university. The satire is that he’s stuck working behind a check-out counter because he’s Indian despite being qualified for much higher-paid work, but he still has an obsessive work-ethic. In other words, they’re complaining about the very stereotype he’s designed to make fun of.

There’s also the fact that he’s no more ridiculous than any other character on The Simpsons and much less than some. Again, he has a genius IQ, a killer work ethic, is a crack-shot, maintains a lush roof-top garden, and is personal friends with Paul McCartney. He’s cleans up at a bachelor auction and is as respected a member of the community as anyone (which, given the community in question, isn’t saying much).

This is what I call ‘Charlie Chan Syndrome’; where a character is assumed to be a racist caricature because of superficial qualities such as having a thick accent, regardless of what the character actually does (named after the ‘Charlie Chan’ film series, which featured an intelligent,  courteous, and professionally respected Chinese-American detective traveling the world and outsmarting predominantly white opponents, yet are often described as ‘racist’ somehow). This apparently only applies if the character is non-European. Thus a wise, polite, somewhat funny Chinese detective with a thick accent is racist; a wise, polite, somewhat funny Belgian detective with a thick accent is not.

This is a point we today often miss; how a character is objectively written, what he does and says and how he interacts with the story, is what determines what the character is, not what may or may not be going on in the world when the character was written. Charlie Chan is not a racist caricature because his race is never (at least in the films I’ve seen) portrayed as making him in any way inferior to those around him. The fact that he is played by a Swede and has a thick Chinese accent is irrelevant to that point. Likewise, the fact that Apu was written and voiced by a white man is irrelevant to the question of how he is portrayed on the show (you can legitimately ask why someone was cast and not someone else, or what the motives of the writers were, and so on, but that is a separate issue from what actually is portrayed on screen).

Anyway, The Simpsons has long outstayed its welcome, and as far as I can tell has been on a downward spiral for a while, but if they’re going to start rolling over and giving in to this kind of controversy, their end cannot be far off. More concerning is simply the fact that this kind of nonsense is actually taken seriously in our society.

Thoughts on ‘Phineas and Ferb Star Wars’

Past Entries:
-Star Wars
-The Holiday Special
-The Empire Strikes Back
-Return of the Jedi
-The Phantom Menace
-Attack of the Clones
-Revenge of the Sith
-The Force Awakens
-Rogue One
-The Last Jedi
-Solo

I wanted to end this series on a high note, so, despite the fact that it’s explicitly not canon (the opening crawl ends with “None of this is canon; just relax,” a disclaimer I wish all the recent Star Wars films carried), let’s talk about Phineas and Ferb Star Wars.

For those unfamiliar with the show, I’ll give a summary: Phineas and Ferb is a show about two genius step-brothers – cheery, out-going Phineas and taciturn, British Ferb – who, determined not to waste their summer vacation, spend each day doing something fantastic and impossible. They build rollercoasters in their backyard, go into space, become superheroes or pop stars for a day, and so on, in the company of their friends: super-cute girl scout Isabella (who has a not-so-secret crush on the perpetually oblivious Phineas), Bollywood math genius Baljeet, and secretly-cultured bully Buford. Meanwhile, their older sister, Candace, jealously tries to get them into trouble by telling their mom about their antics, except their projects always conveniently disappear at the last second, making Candace look insane. These disappearances are usually caused by side effects from the efforts of the “evil” Dr. Doofenshmirtz to take over the Tri-State Area with an endless series of ‘inators’ (drill-inator, turn-everything-evil-inator, rain-inator, etc.). He’s perpetually foiled by Special Agent Perry the Platypus…who maintains a secret identity as Phineas and Ferb’s beloved pet.

It sounds weird, and it is, but it’s a fantastic show in many, many ways that we don’t have time to get into here. For our purposes, the important thing is that in the show’s fourth and final season they were given the opportunity to do an hour-long crossover special with Star Wars, applying the show’s absurdist-yet-sincere tone to the Star Wars universe.

 I’ve written about this one before, so there will be quite a bit of overlap here, but I wanted to go into more detail about why I think this special is the best piece of Star Wars content to come out of the move to Disney.

Rather than attempting to simply re-create the story of Star Wars with Phineas and Ferb characters (e.g. Phineas as Luke, Ferb as Han, Isabella as Leia, etc.), the special takes a rather more creative and bold approach. It posits that versions of the Phineas and Ferb cast exist in the Star Wars universe and played an unseen, but crucial role during the events of the original film. This allows the original to stand more or less untouched (apart from one or two sight gags, the special doesn’t violate the continuity of the original film at all, which is frankly very impressive in itself) while also letting them tell their own story alongside it.

The plot goes that Perry the Rebelpus was the agent who stole the Death Star plans (from the ‘Empire Administration offices:’ a star destroyer with an office building stuck on top). Meanwhile, Phineas and Ferb are moisture farmers who live next door to Luke Skywalker, but unlike him are perfectly content with their lot on Tatooine, making the most of every day in typical Phineas and Ferb fashion. In fact, they’re too content: the special cleverly foreshadows that the boys’ easy-going satisfaction with their lot in life might not be the best thing for them long-term, and that they ought to leave their comfort zone sooner rather than later.

This is precipitated when they run into R2-D2 and accidentally end up with the Death Star plans. Realizing what they have, the boys chase after Luke and the others to try to restore what they lost, taking up with Isabella the smuggler (who is by far the most detached from her canon personality) and repeatedly crossing paths with Candace, an overzealous, underappreciated stormtrooper (who is accompanied by fellow troopers Buford and Baljeet, evidently the dregs of the Imperial military).

Meanwhile, on the “fully operational Death Star,” we meet the evil ‘Darth Enshmirtz,’ the Death Star’s original designer, which, of course, is why it has a self-destruct mechanism (this joke is even funnier in the wake of Rogue One, where it’s revealed that that is the canon explanation for why it was so easy to destroy). In typical Doof fashion, he’s bitter at not being appreciated for his work and so plans to build a new doomsday device to become the top Sith.

So, the first thing to note is that, even though it’s a spoof, the special actually puts in the effort to tell its own story, with its own character arcs, progression of events, and themes. Where The Force Awakens was just an awkward retread of the original, Phineas and Ferb comes up with an original story that works on its own terms…and does so while literally being a retread of the original. Thus, instead of a character discontented with his lot and yearning for something more, this special gives us two characters who are content, but who probably shouldn’t be and end up pushed out of their comfort zone and forced to attend to more important matters.

What’s more (and again, unlike The Force Awakens), this character line continues through to the end of the story and is reflected in the other characters. Phineas and Ferb end the story having given up their peaceful life on Tatooine, but having also found something worth believing in. They’ve expanded their lives beyond the narrow scope that we found them in.

Early on there’s a scene where their parents actually try to get them to go off somewhere and see more of galaxy, expand their horizons. When Phineas shrugs the suggestion off, saying they’ve got everything they need, their father mutters, “Wait until they find out there are no girls on this planet.” This ties into their meeting Isabella, who takes them into space to follow the Millennium Falcon, and has a payoff when she kisses Phineas at the very end. The character thread is established, given a clear ‘tell’ (in the form of girls), and pays off when Phineas, having grown beyond his narrow home world, receives a kiss from Isabella to drive home what he had been missing.

(The kiss is preceded by Isabella double-checking that they’re not related, in a funny reference to Luke and Leia’s relationship, but also motivated by the late-game revelation that Candace is Phineas’s long-lost sister. So, it’s both a nod to the fans and completely motivated in story).

This is the sort of thing The Force Awakens was missing with Rey: she was waiting for her parents, then was told they’re not coming back, then goes off to find Luke and be trained as a Jedi. The final point doesn’t tie into the first one, and none of it ties into the rest of the plot involving the super-Death Star.

Speaking of which, we have Darth Enshmirtz’s new super-weapon, the Sith-Inator, which makes whoever it hits extremely attune to the Dark Side of the Force, driving them evil in the process.

Now, it’s largely played for laughs as a typical Doof ‘inator,’ with him giving a catchy musical number about how he’ll “no longer be the lowest of the Darths” and fantasizing about choking Imperial officers and impressing the Emperor. But the idea itself is actually kind of cool, especially once it hits Ferb and he applies a more serious approach to it (we’ll come back to it, but Darth Ferb is one of the special’s most impressive accomplishments. It can’t have been easy to make Ferb actually intimidating, but man do they pull it off).

Having just come off a re-watch of the films, I think a weapon like this actually could work in canon: it would just multiply or add midichlorines to the bloodstream, but such an unnatural process and sudden surge of power would of course heavily incline one to the Dark Side. In any case, despite the absurdist tone of the special, I could see an entire trilogy being built around that kind of weapon: something that could turn an ordinary person into a powerful Force User inclined to the Dark Side. That’s both a lot more creative and a lot more insidious than just another planet buster, and without the logistical problems of just how the heck they made the darn thing. Can you imagine a trilogy where the new Republic suddenly found itself faced with a whole army of near-Vader level Sith?

Basically, in telling a joke for a cartoon special Dan Provenmire and Jeff Marsh (the creators of Phineas and Ferb) came up with a much better plot for a new Star Wars trilogy than all the highly-paid writers that the Disney studio could muster could come up with over the course of several years for their massively-expensive tent-pole film series. Just think about that.

What’s more, the device sets up an extremely tense and emotionally charged confrontation between Phineas and Ferb (all the more so for fans of the show, since this is something we never would have expected to see). The whole set up, with Ferb’s implacable hostility and Phineas’s desperate attempts to reach him even as they duel with lightsabers works very well. And again, they set it up even in the context of the special by showing us just how close the brothers are, which further lets us feel just how wrong and evil the Dark Side is if it can threaten a friendship like that.

(Meanwhile, they also make a very funny joke about how lightsabers keep getting more complicated and impractical: “Oh, we’re allowing modifications?”).

The fight ends up involving Perry and Candace as well, so now let’s talk about Candace as the stormtrooper. Once again, this goofy cartoon thoroughly embarrasses the multi-million-dollar blockbuster. Candace, like Finn, is a stormtrooper who ends up defecting to the Rebels. However, in her case, it’s an actual character arc: we spend a good deal of time with her, Buford, and Baljeet as stormtroopers, and even though it’s in the midst of a goofy subplot where they’re assigned to get socks for Darth Vader (which leads to some great gags, such as Baljeet saying ‘socks’ to the tune of the Imperial March and a store on Tatooine called ‘Tall, Darth, and Handsome’), we do get to see things from a stormtrooper point of view and get a sense for what working for the Empire was like.

Just the fact that Candace describes Rebels as “cruel, heartless sub-humans who are messing up the galaxy” gives her more depth that Finn ever had (I’m also kind of surprised they got away with the term ‘sub-humans’ in a kids’ show). She has a perspective informed by her training; a reason why she thinks she’s on the right side. She actually believes in the Empire, despite the mistreatment she receives from it.

There’s a very fun song where Candace sings about why she’s proud to serve in the Empire: “Now I’m a bad mama-jama and I rock a mean helmet / if I see a Rebellion then you know I’m gonna quell it / I’m a certified, full-blown, armor-wearing zealot / and it feels so good to know I’m always right!” Again, this gives us a very believable sense of how the rank-and-file Emperor troops view the war, which we never got in the films, even when they actually have a defecting stormtrooper as a main character.

Then, when she turns, it’s not just because she suddenly “makes a choice” for no reason: something happens that blatantly contradicts her beliefs, making her question them for the first time. The scene where she turns is actually quite striking; when she asks Buford and Baljeet, “We’re the good guys, right?” there’s genuine uncertainty in her voice (some nice vocal work by Ashley Tisdale there). And, believably enough, once she starts to question her assumptions, then she starts to realize other things that didn’t fit into her image of the Empire (“Didn’t we just blow up a planet?” “Yes, that is sort of hard to justify, morally”). Again, it’s mostly played for laughs, but it’s still a genuine arc. The characters have clear motivations for what they do that make sense in the context of the story rather than being dictated by the script. Even in the midst of all the absurdist humor, they act like human beings.

Likewise, Isabella goes through much the same story arc as Han Solo, but again, it works. We meet her as a cynical loner who snaps at Phineas that “this isn’t a friendship, it’s a spaceship, so don’t invade mine.” Then, as she sees the loyalty the brothers have for each other, she starts to feel the desire to do likewise.

There’s a scene near the end where she bumps into Han Solo at a bar and they each prod each other into doing the right thing. Goofy as it is to have Han Solo talking smack with a little girl, it kind of works. Certainly I can much easier buy Han having a rivalry with Isabella than I can him abandoning his wife and son and losing the Millennium Falcon. I can almost imagine that it actually did go down like that, with Han trying to distract himself with a drink, but being challenged on abandoning his friends. Dang it, it’s a good scene; for all the absurdity and cartoon logic, it works.

Speaking of humor, it’s classic Phineas and Ferb: very smart, but very silly at the same time. Like when two Rebel technicians discover that R2 doesn’t actually have the plans, their first plan is, “We’ll blame Jar Jar!” Then there’s a bit where two of the Imperial officers are talking and one starts making fun of Vader, then trolls the other by pretending to choke (not only is that funny, but I can actually picture the Imperial officers doing that sort of thing). Another great gag has Darth Enshmirtz gloating about how valuable his timeshare on Alderann has become, while in the background…

Likewise the great Phineas and Ferb dialogue is present in full force: “You see? You paint a big red ‘X’ on the floor, people will stand on it.” “And you thought we were gonna die in space!” “You go see if that kid’s evil yet.” “Not a bad set: one death, one dismemberment. Not bad for a Tuesday.” I want to say there are more quotable lines in this hour-long special than in all the Disney ‘Star Wars’ films put together, with the possible exception of Rogue One.

Yet, as indicated, the show’s trademark sincerity is equally on display, as in the aforementioned battle between Phineas and Ferb, or Phineas’s genuinely shocked reaction when he learns about the Death Star (“I never thought the Empire would go that far!”).

Then, near the end, there’s a moment where the main characters are standing on the Death Star, expecting to die, and they just kind of accept it, with Phineas saying that at least they went out for something they can believe in. Again, genuine human emotion and human reactions, even in the midst of all this absurdity, and a real, coherent plot with actual character arcs.

I also like that, though this is Phineas and Ferb, the writers didn’t try to shoehorn the standard show plot into ‘Star Wars.’ The classic catchphrases – “You guys are so busted!” “Whatchya doin’?” and so on – are present, but in contexts that make sense in the story. They don’t, for instance, have Linda as an Imperial officer that Candace is trying to ‘bust’ the boys to. They have this story to tell, and they tell it, working in references to the show where it makes sense, but not forcing it. Likewise, the Phineas and Ferb characters really do work in their roles: Candace’s misguided zealotry is perfect for a stormtrooper, Doof as a low-level Sith wannabe, Perry as a rebel agent and so on. Again, Isabella is a little jarring just because she’s so different from her usual character, but she works in the role (I especially like how her goggles take the place of her trademark hair bow).

Above all, it’s abundantly clear that the writers loved Star Wars and respected it. Even as they’re using the material for jokes, they still evince a thorough knowledge of the world and appreciation for the story and characters. Luke, Han, and Leia aren’t in it much, but they’re recognizably themselves when they are. When Luke chats with Phineas and Ferb about their modified speeder, it does feel like something Luke might do. And when Phineas says that he and Ferb have ‘Jedi lessons’ with Obi-Wan every Tuesday, it’s a gag, but it also makes sense for Obi-Wan’s character that if there were a couple of Force-sensitive kids nearby he would try to train them. And again, it sets up the duel at the climax (I also like that they made the choice not to have Obi-Wan present outside a silent cameo, apparently recognizing they didn’t have the resources to capture Sir Alec Guinness’s performance).

There are a lot of little jokes showing “the other side” of events in the original film. We see Han’s abortive attempt to bluff the guards over the com-link from the perspective of the officers receiving his message, for instance (“Aw, I was just getting into that conversation!”), and we get to see just what that garbage monster thing was and what it was doing (“That not trash, dummy, that’s a guy!”).

When I first saw this special, I wasn’t expecting to like it that much. I loved Phineas and Ferb, but the idea of crossing over with Star Wars seemed a step too far. But the moment the first notes of the opening song ‘Tatooine’ started playing, with Phineas and Ferb singing about how much they love their home, I knew it was going to work and I enjoyed every minute of it. It works best if you’re already a fan of both Phineas and Ferb and Star Wars, and I don’t know how it would play to someone unfamiliar with the show, but for me it’s easily my favorite ‘Star Wars’ story to come out of the move to Disney.

Thoughts on ‘The Star Wars Holiday Special’

Past Entries:
-Star Wars

I wasn’t sure whether I’d including the Holiday Special in my Star Wars rewatch, for the obvious reason that it’s not really part of the series proper. But, in the end, I decided that, since I had it (in the Rifftrax version), I might as well take another look in context of the rest of the series.

I’ve written about this one before, so there will be some repetition, but basically…yeah, it’s incredibly bad. Not just bad in terms of writing and execution, but bad in some really strange ways. Like, one of the first things that happens is that Chewie’s son, Lumpy, and father, Itchy stand around watching a hologram of a circus act for three minutes straight. Who would think that was good idea for any show, let alone a ‘Star Wars’ entry? Kind of a step down from the attack on Princess Leia’s ship.

Of course, that stems from the fact the special is structured as a standard variety show, only set within the ‘Star Wars’ universe. That itself is just such a strange idea; it’s as if, between Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, they did a special where Frodo and Sam ended up on a game show en-route to Mordor: why would anyone even think to do this, let alone take the time and spend the money to bring it to life?

Apparently, George Lucas meant this as a way to keep the brand in the public mind and continue to sell merchandise in between films, though it seems he wasn’t directly involved in either the writing or directing of this one, beyond the initial concept. The actual writers, I can only imagine (and at least one has confirmed), were all higher than satellites, to judge by the results. Among other things, we have about a quarter of an hour of Chewbacca’s family, done entirely in Wookie language. So, those growling noises Chewie makes? About half the special is done in that, without subtitles (this, apparently, was entirely Lucas’s idea). Then there’s the softcore porn film starring Diahann Carrol that Itchy gets from Art Carney. Believe me, I wish I could make up something as crazy as that.

Again, why is Chewbacca’s father watching a porno film? Who would even consider filming something like that? Not only in a ‘Star Wars’ entry, but in a ‘holiday special’? Also, that’s not an interpretation: the producers are on record saying that’s exactly what the scene is supposed to represent.

The plot (involving Chewbacca trying to get home to spend ‘Life Day’ with his family) is paper thin, and serves only to provide an extremely flimsy pretext for the skits. Though, even then the skits just sort of come out of nowhere, only occasionally with any justification whatsoever. Like, the Jefferson Starship musical number (no, not making that up) is Art Carney trying to distract an Imperial patrol…only, nothing comes of it; there’s no purpose to the distraction. It just eats up time.

Then there’s the cartoon short, showing a side-adventure of Luke, Han, and the droids, wherein they meet Boba Fett for the first time. This comes about simply from Lumpy watching a video player. Why is he doing that while there are Imperial troops sweeping his house? And why does he even have a cartoon of his father and his friends on an adventure in the first place? Why would such a thing even exist in this universe? You see, even as a framing device, the story is terrible.

As for the cartoon itself, it’s…pretty lame. The animation is terrible (Han in particular looks downright grotesque). The plot, involving a magical talisman that contains an Imperial bioweapon causing a form of sleeping sickness in humans, is at once too complicated and too silly to work even in a cartoon. Boba Fett doesn’t really do anything cool and his plan is foiled in a painfully lazy way, though admittedly it is kind of interesting to see him here before his official introduction in Empire Strikes Back.

Speaking of the main cast, they’re barely in the special at all. They just show up now and again for a couple minutes to remind us that ‘oh yeah, this is related to something we liked.’ Not only that, but they’re all kind of…strange. Mark Hamill is buried in very visible makeup meant to hide the effects of a recent car crash. Carrie Fisher, clearly at the height of her drug addiction, is visibly unsteady on her feet and stumbles over her lines. Harrison Ford, meanwhile, is clearly growing more and more bored as the show goes on, until he seems barely able to muster the energy to get his dialogue out. As for James Earl Jones as Darth Vader (who gets a special “and” credit in the opening), he has two scenes, one of which is in the cartoon and the other a dubbed scene from the first film.

Of course, saying the Holiday Special is bad is like saying the original Star Wars is good: it’s pretty much established fact at this point. So, is there anything positive to say about the special?

Actually, there is.

First of all, I really like the fact that the special actually shows the Empire from the point of view of the ordinary people of the galaxy. In the films, we see them doing terrible things, but mostly in the form of broad, specific outrages, mostly directed against the rebels themselves. Here, we get to see Imperial tyranny in the form of small, day-to-day injustices. For instance, there’s an early scene where Art Carney’s character (a trader) shows his wares to an Imperial officer, who, deciding he likes one of the items, simply declares, “I’ll take it” and walks off without paying. That’s a perfectly well-conceived (if not especially well-written) scenario, demonstrating just what the Empire means to ordinary people.

Likewise, a large part of the special is taken up by the Imperial Troops searching Chewie’s house for signs of rebel activity, threatening and abusing his family the whole time. The way Chewie’s family, with Art Carney’s help, have to tread carefully even as they’re tying to get the troops out before Chewbacca comes home is fairly well conceived and again captures that sense of powerlessness that comes from being under a tyrannical government in a way that’s not really seen in the films proper. There was some coherent thought put into this scenario.

Then there’s a late scene where the Empire imposes a curfew that forces the cantina on Tatooine to shut down. This creates a real headache for the owner (Bea Arthur), who finds herself forced to find a way to throw all her low-life customers out without offending them. But, again, there’s nothing she can do about it except to grumble resentfully and try her best.

On that subject, Arthur’s segment in the cantina is easily the best part of the special. Unlike just about everyone else (which includes some fantastically talented people, like Art Carney and Diahann Carrol), she actually puts in a legitimate performance, has some decent material to work with, and is honestly entertaining. There’s a particularly good line where, after being obliged to bribe her customers out with another round of drinks, she complains “I’m running a tab for the Empire.” She even elicits some honest emotions in the scene where she bids her staff goodnight before turning back into the now-empty bar. The whole segment feels refreshingly honest and human, not to mention it’s possibly the only piece of the whole special that actually seems like it fits in the ‘Star Wars’ universe. I can absolutely see Bea Arthur being the owner of the Cantina from original film, and that this is the sort of thing she deals with on a regular basis.

And I will say that the final shots, of Chewie and his family sitting quietly and enjoying ‘Life Day,’ are rather sweet. The preceding scene of Wookies marching through space in robes and Carrie Fisher singing, not so much.

So, yeah, in summary, this is an incredibly, mind-bogglingly stupid piece of work, the kind of thing where you really wish you could see the making of, just because you want to know what kind of thought process could have led to some of these scenes. I really hope someone, somewhere does a full-blown research project on this so that one day we can get a full documentary on just what they heck happened to bring this thing to life.