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Amusing ourselves into tyranny

The political message of the Star Wars Holiday Special.

Small-business owner Saun Dann (Art Carney) is harassed by government agents during a visit to the Wookiees’ house.
Screenshot via YouTube

“All democracies turn into dictatorships, but not by coup. The people give their democracy to a dictator, whether it's Julius Caesar or Napoleon or Adolf Hitler.”George Lucas, 2002

“So this is how democracy dies … to thunderous applause.” Sen. Padmé Amidala, 2005 (19 BBY)

“There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.” John Adams, 1814

One of the more consistent political themes in the Star Wars films is the fundamental weakness of democracy. As the above quotes suggest, a chief concern is not that democracies are easily toppled from without, but that citizens within a democracy are all too willing to hand over power to a tyrant.

We see this concern play out in several of the franchise’s films, especially Revenge of the Sith (2005), cited in the quotes above. In that film, a scheming chancellor fabricates a military conflict to convince frightened legislators to hand over greater executive power, to the point where elected senators cheer the transformation of their legislative-centered democracy into an executive-centered dictatorship. But I’d make the argument that one of the most important and nuanced portrayals of the risks to democracy in the Star Wars pantheon comes from the widely reviled Star Wars Holiday Special (1978).

If you haven’t seen the holiday special, well, you probably shouldn’t. It’s not very well done. Shown on TV in November 1978, it was the first feature-length piece of Star Wars entertainment since the release of the first film a year and a half earlier. It’s basically the Star Wars universe played out as a ’70s variety show, featuring songs by Bea Arthur and Diahann Carroll and comedy routines by Art Carney and Harvey Korman. Basically the whole original cast is there, as well, and Carrie Fisher even sings at the end. Its one claim to fame is the first onscreen appearance of Boba Fett.

The plot of the show is centered on the planet Kazook (later understood to be the Wookiee home world of Kashyyyk), a peaceful forested planet populated mostly by Wookiees. We do see a few humans, though, including Art Carney, who runs a trading post. Much of the action takes place in the treehouse of Chewbacca’s family. Chewbacca is off with Han Solo somewhere but is trying to get home to celebrate Life Day (something vaguely like Christmas) with his wife Malla, his son Lumpy, and his father Itchy.

Importantly, although we see little evidence of violence among the natives of this world, it is under brutal occupation by Imperial troops. Soldiers drop in unannounced at the Wookiees’ household to look for communications devices and randomly harass civilians and destroy property. They interfere with business at the trading post. They impose curfews. This is actually something we see very little of in the main franchise films — the impact of tyranny on the lives of average citizens.

We are left with the question of just how such an apparently* peaceful world could fall under totalitarian rule. The answer appears to be: screens.

The Wookiees do not have a large treehouse, but they nonetheless have a surfeit of visual devices for entertainment and communication. These include:

  • A hologram circus performed on a chessboard
  • A living room video chat system
  • A secret video chat system hidden behind a bookshelf for communicating with Luke Skywalker
  • A large screen in the kitchen on which Malla watches Harvey Korman doing a cooking show routine in drag
  • A virtual reality helmet that allows Itchy to watch interactive softcore porn (seriously)
  • A small screen on which Lumpy watches an animated rendition of his father meeting Boba Fett
  • A holographic device that shows a performance by Jefferson Starship
  • A DIY computer in the attic that shows instructions on how to make other computer screens

I counted at least eight screens in this household, and this was made back at a time when the average American household had 1.7 televisions. I can only assume the writers wanted the audience to take note of this fact.

The show is in many ways evocative of Brave New World, whose central message is that tyranny can take hold and even be accepted if people are entertained and distracted enough. In this case, the Wookiees have so distracted and amused themselves that they didn’t notice a hostile power had taken control of their planet.

Films tend to be products of their times, and if they have political messages, those are attuned to the politics of their day. This holiday special, however, is possibly better suited to the America of 2017 than that of 1978. We have never had so many devices for entertaining and distracting ourselves as we do today, and our democratic norms are facing an unusual attack from a leader who seems especially adept at dominating the content of those devices. That doesn’t make the holiday special a good film, and I still don’t recommend it. But if you’re going to watch it (which you can do on YouTube), now’s not a bad time.

*I say the film is apparently peaceful because, well, there’s clearly some seditious activity going on. Chewbacca is an important figure in the Rebellion, and his family has some ways to transmit secret information to him. It’s not clear how complicit his family is in the resistance, or whether this activity preceded or followed the Imperial occupation of the planet.

(h/t to the Beltway Banthas and How Did This Get Made podcasts for provoking some ideas for this post)

This post is part of Mischiefs of Faction, an independent political science blog featuring reflections on the party system. See more Mischiefs of Faction posts here.

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