So, you’re faced with a few days off, but don’t want to do anything too strenuous? Of course, the temptation is to slump upon the sofa and see through that food coma with some Christmas TV. But if you’re sick of Morecombe and Wise reruns and EastEnders, then we have a few alternative choices for your viewing pleasure.
STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL
It’s not truly a Christmas TV show. Yet this is the most bizarre gift George Lucas ever bestowed upon us. For good reason, he’s since done his best to suppress any mention of this wondrously surreal chunk of festive cheer. The advent of YouTube enhanced the show’s notoriety, enabling new generations to be bemused by its plentiful oddness. In it we see Han Solo and Chewbacca desperate to reach the Wookie’s home planet. Obstructing their path is a trade blockade, a nuisance affecting the Star Wars universe with all the wearying regularity of UK train strikes. The pair are aiming to celebrate ‘Life Day’, a tree-hugging secular holiday that doesn’t involve a Queen’s speech or The Two Ronnies. Snow is noticeably absent from these festivities, but that might be because Princess Leia has eagerly shovelled it all up her nose. Yet the heroine’s possible inebriation was the least weird thing Lucas beamed onto TV sets during Thanksgiving 1978. Families across America excitedly gathered around the TV to be met with a bewildering masterclass in how not to expand a movie franchise.
What everyone experienced was a muddled foray into the domestic life of the Millennium Falcon’s first mate, mixed with an old-fashioned variety show. His wife Malla, father Itchy and son Lumpy are all sitting around, wondering why their home looks so cheaply made. Obviously Wookies don’t speak English, so the emotion and exposition of this two-hour bad acid trip is mostly conveyed through ham-fisted gestures and howls. We do get the first appearance of Boba Fett via an animated short, some whacked-out musical numbers, a disinterested Jefferson Starship perform inside a sewing machine case, and Bea Arthur of Golden Girls fame working in a rather rough space bae – but these are all perplexing rather than festive. The money shot (almost literally) is Chewbacca’s father donning a VR headset and becoming sexually aroused by the antics of disco diva – Diahann Carroll. Is there anything more festive than a horny and hirsute granddad? For most American kids, it was to be a very long two years until the release of The Empire Strikes Back.
Nobody does Christmas better than California. Seriously though, what they lack in Glühwein, snow and Cliff Richard’s chart-toppers they more than make up for in goodwill. This time the stars of this multi-racial, motorbike-based, police drama find themselves pursuing a missing church bell. It makes a welcome change from the tedium of over-tight trousers and car chases which end in fiery molten death.
In a valiant attempt to lure local kids away from gang culture or watching the Star Wars holiday special, a youth group had been fund-raising to buy an antique bell. But then someone only goes and nicks it! The super-sexy Officer Poncherello might be missing his family at this special time of year, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to stop looking for these festive thieves. Like the proverbial Grinch, the couple responsible are intent on ruining Christmas for everybody. Cars are stolen, houses are burgled and many of the city’s fine residents suffer at their hands. Mix in the inevitable drunk-driver storyline, Ponch and his partner Jon staring into each other’s eyes on numerous occasions and some tree decoration, and you’ve got yourself a typical seasonal special. The payoff comes when Ponch’s mum is brought to visit by his colleagues, just in time to witness his recovery (and ringing) of the bell. Merry Christmas indeed!
It’s the perfect celebration at the hands of Britain’s most tasteless man. A near-faithful recreation of the Partridge family home is packed with guests, and his boss. It’s playing on Alan’s mind that this special needs to be a hit, or he might not score a coveted second series. It’s an ideal time to dazzle with his ‘chat’, but instead everyone is treated to ruinous intolerance and self-obsession. An entendre-slinging transgender chef isn’t helping matters, and neither is a guest sparking a debate about masturbation or some indiscrete product placement. We do see Alan in a contemplative mood, as his retailer is closed so he can browse in peace. So, mix in Mick Hucknall dropping some carols, the distribution of second-hand toys on a children’s ward, an ill-fated cracker-pulling stunt for charity and punching a wheelchair-user as a finale, and we have a proper Partridge Christmas.
After a spectacularly uninspiring election, it’s perhaps time to bring cosiness back to US politics. This liberal sex-dream of a show demonstrated that not everyone wanted the Leader of the Free World to be a billionaire embarking on the riskiest vanity project of all time. In fact this series was driven by characters that cared deeply about their nation, yet shackled by internal wrangling and sheer misfortune. While President Bartlet should be watching The Andy Williams Show surrounded by family, he and the gang are instead fire-fighting their way through the holidays. There’s plot-lines involving abandoned veterans, hate-crimes and a staff member’s previous predilection for booze and pills. Yet amongst the complications, formation walking and snappy witticisms there’s a sense of hope. Aaron Sorkin has shown the world his lofty expectations of the White House, and everyone ignored it.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone get around to celebrating 2,000 years of Christian culture in the only way they know how, with a group of cute anthropomorphised wildlife shouting: “Hail Satan!” That’s probably the least offensive thing about this episode, as it uses the coming of a new saviour to cover plenty lot of ground. At the centre sits the case for logic, but perhaps it gets lost amongst all the matriarchal loss, religious intolerance, and blood orgies. To be honest, it’s not going to give Granny a suitable alternative to Morecambe and Wise, unless there is something very wrong with her. On the cheery side, there’s some wonderfully dark songs and Santa has a shotgun.
THE OFFICE – A BENIHANA CHRISTMAS
While Ricky Gervais’ original did all it could to make you shudder, the US incarnation was a more wholesome and more extended affair. Back in season three, manager Michael Scott finds himself dumped after some inappropriate Photoshopping. Hold up in his office, he seeks solace in playing a 15 second James Blake clip on iTunes – repeatedly. That is until Andy thinks it would be a good idea to take him for lunch at a local Japanese restaurant.
This is all just a set-up for a progression of awkwardness and ignorance. The Party Planning committee splits into two warring factions, surreal karaoke, and romantic gestures. The killer gag comes when drunken Michael interacts with two waitresses, not realising they’re different to the pair they were attempting to woo at lunch. To compound matters, he’s unable to tell them apart and resorts to scrumptiously marking one to ease his confusion. In the hands of a less-capable cast this would appear crass, but here it’s another moment in the life of someone who craves love a little too much.
The years since haven’t tarnished this show’s depiction of 60s America. For most offices, Christmas means a party. A major client is in town, so the struggling Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce must organise some form of gathering. Drifting above recovering is Roger Sterling. A walking invitation for legal action, his child-like inability to take anything seriously still steals every scene, even when he’s made to look a complete fool.
Drunkenly finding companionship for his spiralling loneliness with his secretary, Don Draper chivalrously buys her silence with a generous bonus – because that doesn’t seem creepy at all. Elsewhere there’s a spot of lovelorn teenage home invasion, some woefully pre-feminist attitudes to advertising skincare products and some pointed sexual politics. In the middle are an unravelling protagonist and few stark reminders that the era was sometimes a little grubby. Aside from a Santa suit and some decorations, it’s just another day at the office.
Tina Fey’s wilfully off-beat comedy does Christmas TV like no other show can. Rather than consider traditional messages, the crew on The Girlie Show featuring Tracy Jordan have created a new festive tradition. But in doing so they perfectly encapsulate the true meaning of this time of year. The writing team is getting ready for ‘Ludachristmas’ celebrations, something which upsets one more devout member of staff. Their boss is also having to deal with her family (featuring some over-supportive parents and a traumatised, yet sexually mature, brother who still thinks it’s 1985) all coming to town.
The Christmas gifts are exceptional this year, coming in the form of a combination paper shredder/phoropter. It transpires Tracy can’t drink, due to a monitor on his ankle. So, consuming all the booze at the ‘Ludachristmas’ party then cutting his own ankle seems reasonable. But all this is simply a typically silly preamble to his fabulous closing song.
BLACK MIRROR – WHITE CHRISTMAS
While A Christmas Carol at least had a joyous ending, Charlie Brooker’s take on Christianity’s greatest festival dwells in a darkness which might soon envelop us. For this special episode, he brings in Jon Hamm as a seemingly amiable chap who’s paid to manipulate other people. What we get is a series of near-disparate vignettes which come together with an unnerving finale. To let on any more would ruin the narrative, but you can be sure it’s filled with betrayal, murder, and consequences. You’ll never feel truly comfortable at a Christmas party again.
What makes Brooker’s work stand apart from his contemporary sci-fi writers is not his way of presenting shiny new technologies, but the way imagines society will adapt them. His brave new world is over-run by ethical nightmares, where our willingness to blindly adopt each scientific breakthrough which enslaves rather than frees. The viewer is kept curious throughout, even more so when the reality of the story’s world begins to disintegrate. Realistically, this witty and thoughtful story is far from festive. Our central character does get a white Christmas at its close, but it’s not the one you’d ever want.
Alongside kids breaking gifts, arguments and being forced to eat sprouts, Dr Who has become a seasonal tradition – and for the best festive special we go all the way back to where they started, in the show’s present form at least. Back in 2005, BBC viewers were treated to both a regeneration story-line and the first in a long line of Christmas Day episodes. After being mortally wounded whilst saving his companion Rose, Northern Doctor must metamorphose into a new form. What we get is Fit Doctor, as played by David Tennant. But as the planet faces its greatest threat, our hero is left more tired and bewildered than Lindsay Lohan during Spring Break. It’s a transition which all of the companions will have to grapple with, but right now there’s Sycorax are invading – and these guys are complete dicks. Rose and her wonky family do what any red-blooded Brit would do, they plan to hide in the TARDIS while everything around them is destroyed.
The over-riding theme through the episode, more than the seasonal look at rebirth and triumph, is abandonment. While Rose’s ex-partner has had to accept her slow withdrawal from his life, her own feelings for The Doctor are beginning to manifest themselves. It seems there’s a thin line between sucking TARDIS time energy from someone and French-kissing a travelling companion. V 10.0 has yet to decide what kind of Doctor he wants to be, but right now he’s spending Christmas Day in his pyjamas – how very British.