Thursday, December 21, 2006

I'm Dreaming of a Weird Christmas

from Kolchak

Every year, the holiday season brings with it its peculiar set of challenges. Finding that special present for your significant other. Paying for that special present for your significant other. Getting through the company Christmas party without drinking. And, --perhaps the most challenging of all-- avoiding holiday-themed shows on television.

In addition to the usual suspects, like variety shows and sitcoms, holiday themes can pop up in unusual places, like science fiction shows and other genre entries. Here are some of the weirdest Christmases I've found while channel surfacing:

The most notorious program in this category is probably The Star Wars Holiday Special from 1978. This was such a bizarre mixture of space opera and variety show that it only appeared on television once (How many Christmas specials can you say that about?) and Lucasfilm has never released it on home video. There are bootlegs in circulation-- Weird Al Yankovic "buys" one in the video for his song "White and Nerdy"--but I'm working primarily from my memory of that single broadcast.

The holiday in question here was Life Day, a celebration on Chewbacca's homeworld, Kashyyyk. Han Sola and Chewie are trying to make their way back to Kashyyyk, so the wookiee could celebrate Life Day with his family. Most of the stars of the original Star Wars movie appeared in the holiday special but the emphasis was on Chewie's family and characters played by performers like Bea Arthur and Art Carney. The Internet Movie Database says that Jefferson Starship also makes an appearance but I seem to have blocked that out of my memory.

If you're wondering how all this comes together, the answer is: badly, very badly. According to Mythmaking by John Baxter, the length of the show kept growing as the producers made room for the commercials that were being sold. Unfortunately, the story didn't grow. .Or the production values. As someone who still considers himself a Star Wars fan, I have to admit that the prospect of seeing more of Chewie's home planet was a big deal in 1978. But I wanted to wash my hands after seeing The Star Wars Holiday Special.

On the other hand, I usually find the time every year to dig out my copy of "Too Many Christmas Trees," an episode of The Avengers from 1965. In this story, a team of psychics tries to drive John Steed insane while he and Mrs. Peel are attending a multi-day Christmas party in the country. Although "Too Many Christmas Trees" features a classic "Avengers"-style British eccentric--a man fanatically dedicated to the works of Charles Dickens--this is a moderately serious episode with Mrs. Peel showing genuine concern over the possibility of Steed having a breakdown.

However, there are some lighter touches. Early in the story, Steed opens a Christmas card from his previous partner, Mrs. Cathy Gale. As he examines the envelope, Steed says, "Whatever could she be doing in Fort Knox?" At roughly that time, Honor Blackman, the actress who played Mrs. Gale, was starring in the James Bond movie Goldfinger.

BBC America is currently running The Avengers, but the network seems to be sticking to the color episodes while "Too Many Christmas Trees" was filmed in black-and-white.

And, of course, no holiday season would be complete without lizard-like extraterrestrials eating live rats and otherwise camping it up. In 1984, this obvious gap was being filled by V, a weekly version of a popular mini-series. Ultimately, the weekly V didn't last much longer than the mini-series but it lasted enough for the producers to take a crack at a Christmas episode.

As you may recall, V dealt with the fight between human race and the lizard-like Visitors for control of the Earth. In the weekly series, though, this fight consisted mostly of running and shooting, while, in the original dealt more with political maneuvering.

In the Christmas episode, the Visitor leader, who went by human name of Diana , celebrates the holidays by creating an evil clone of a human-Visitor hybrid (Don’t ask.).

Meanwhile, Ham Tyler (Michael Ironside) , the toughest and coldest of our human characters, undergoes the Grinch heart-expansion treatment as he and the other resistance fighters smuggled some human children into the relative safety of Los Angeles.

Earlier in the season, Los Angeles had been established as an open city, where both humans and Visitors could live without restrictions. I’m mentioning that because I think that was the main reason why humans were celebrating Christmas. In a surprising bit of actual world-building, it’s mentioned that some of the traditional stores are running out of supplies and many of the holiday gifts are hand-made items being sold by street vendors.

The complete weekly run of V is currently available on DVD. The show had a long list of problems when it first appeared and those problem haven't gone away, But there are elements to the series that I still like.

A relatively recent SF Christmas program is "The Christmas Invasion," a special episode of the recently-revived Doctor Who. It's first run, in England, was in Dec., 2005. In this story, aliens called the Sycorax come to Earth during the holidays, in order to stop the Doctor from regenerating. This episode is more about David Tennant taking over the role of the Doctor than it is about Christmas, but there are exceptions. At one point, a group of Sycorax, all dressed as Father Christmas, pursue our heroes. Also, a very secret branch of the British government called Torchwood destroys the Sycorax ship on Dec. 25, and "the explosion at Christmas" is mentioned in a later episode.

The Scii-Fi Channel is has scheduled a rerun of "The Christmas Invasion" for 3 p.m. on Dec. 25.

This is not a complete list of weird Christmas episodes by any means. During the first season of Bomes , a mystery/crime show on Fox, the main characters spent the holidays in quarantine together. In Beauty and the Beast, the people who live in the streets beneath New York City have a ceremony that celebrates Winter Solstice.

When handdrummer and I first talked about this post, he remembered a holiday episode of Hill Street Blues, and said that Kwanzaa played a role in an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. So, if you have any nominees for this list, let us know.


1 comment:

Diane said...

I remember "Too Many Christmas Trees!" I wish I could see it now.

I don't recall any of those others, though.