Lots of shows decide they need a little Christmas come December, but they’re not quite sure how to do it. Do you talk about the big Jesus-shaped elephant in the room? Do you just focus on Santa? Do you, I don’t know, cast Juliana Hatfield as an angel or make miracles happen on Walker, Texas Ranger?
This late-December urge becomes extra fun when sci-fi shows try it—they don’t actually want to deal with the religious aspect of Christmas, but they still have to find a way to explain Santa and presents (and maybe just a dash of Christianity) to aliens who are already confused enough just trying to deal with humans. So most of them fall back on humans teaching aliens about “goodwill” or “being kind to others.” This leads to some amazing moments, as we’ll see.
“A Cosmic Christmas”
This 1977 special was Canadian company Nelvana’s first foray into television—shortly after completing this one, they moved on to a Halloween special, The Devil and Daniel Mouse, before tackling the most important holiday of them all, Life Day, in their short “The Faithful Wookiee,” which featured in the Star Wars Holiday Special. A Cosmic Christmas is regretfully wookiee-free, but it does have a startlingly simplistic holiday message, imparted by aliens. Kinda.
Three aliens who look like they’ve been shipped in from Fantastic Planet land on earth on Christmas Eve, searching for the meaning behind the “Transitory celestial phenomenon” that occurred on Earth 2000 years ago.
Unfortunately, they’ve landed on the mean streets of Canada, so they find a town ridden with, um, teenage hippies, and people who seem to be pretty into Christmas, but not as into it as a ten-year-old boy wants them to be. Said ten-year-old boy, Peter, greets the aliens, who ask him about the “meaning of the star.” He yells in reply, “You mean Christmas!” Rather than asking him to elaborate on this one-word answer, they ask how “Christmas” can be “measured,” so Peter does his best Linus Van Pelt impression: “We celebrate every year with love, peace, and caring for others!” Apparently the aliens managed to find the only pre-teen in history who wouldn’t just scream “PRESENTS!” and then jump up and down in a fit of Christmas-cookie-induced mania.
Peter takes the three wise aliens home and introduces them to his grandmother, who sings about how Christmas used to be while the aliens induce a mass hallucination of old-timey decorations flying around the living room. This reverie is interrupted when one of the hippies steals Peter’s pet goose, leads the cops on a chase, and then falls through the ice and almost drowns. Peter tries to save him, by the kid’s super-sweet flared jeans are waterlogged, and keep dragging them both down.
The humans form a chain to pull them out, and the aliens break their vow of non-involvement to help pull them out, saying that “helping” might be the meaning of Christmas. (Peter already told you the meaning of Christmas, aliens, what more do you want?) Then Peter’s family invites the whole town over for dinner, and everyone accepts the aliens, who decide that they’ve got Christmas figured out, so they fly away, but not before giving everyone a fabulous laser light show, because it’s the 70s.
“George and The Christmas Star”
“George and the Christmas Star” does not exactly fit in with the rest of these specials, but it’s set in space, and there are aliens, and it’s an interesting enough half hour of TV that I want to make it work, dammit. Plus, the director Gerald Potterton, was one of the directors of Heavy Metal, which makes for a fascinating animation pedigree for a Christmas special. The show somehow combines a goofy sci-fi story that is nearly Pinkwaterian in its deadpan humor, with the song stylings of Ottawa’s own Paul Anka, with only the barest hint of a message about Christmas or goodwill, or anything really.
George decides that his usual cut out paper Christmas tree topper isn’t going to cut it this year. He looks out the window and sees the star that he wants, and thinks to himself: “Living alone with a cat has its moments, but there are times when you just have to get out there and prove something to yourself.” So he builds a steampunky spaceship out of spare parts, flies through a black hole, meets a robot named Ralph, rescues an astronaut named Barbara, tangles with space rangers, space pirates, and space bikers, meets Santa, finally gets his star, and then loses the star, all so he can learn a vague message about being happy that he has friends.
Obviously, the most important element is that the “space bikers” are called the Bell’s Angels. But here’s the weird thing. This special is called “George and The Christmas Star” and it’s clearly the star that he’s looking for, with the extra little points and glowiness and everything, but not once in the whole special does anyone talk about the significance of this particular star…but again, Bell’s Angels. All is forgiven.
A few people chimed in to our post about the odd and campy Christmas specials to demand that Invader Zim get more attention. Zim-lovers, your moment has come. How does Zim react when presented with the mysterious San-tah? Well, he realizes that Christmas could be a great new avenue for World Domination, claims to be the Real Santa, and begins enslaving humanity until Dib impersonates an elf to stop him. The show focuses on Santa, and doesn’t even bother bringing that Other Christmas Figurehead into things, which is probably for the best. It’s pretty much the best Zim episode ever, featured the only appearance of Mini-Moose, and was also, sadly, the final entry in Jhonen Vasquez’s epic.
He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special
I’m just going to skip over the weird incestual subtext between He-Man and She-Ra, and the gross negligence of She-Ra hanging out on Eternia and leaving Etheria unprotected, and Bow’s horrifying attempt at a Christmas song. Let’s just focus on the basics. Orko crashes on Earth, and the two dumbest children in the entire world, Miguel and Alisha, explain Christmas to him. They start by skirting around Jesus and talking about gifts, then dive into a Nativity narrative after a weird camera dissolve, and then move quickly onto Santa. Orko displays intelligence and discretion, possibly for the first time in his life, and latches onto the “presents!” aspect.
We find out that Adam and Adora’s mother is actually an Earth astronaut who crashed on Eternia and just stayed, even though now Man-at-Arms has invented a way to get back to Earth, and she could have at least visited home to let her family know she was still alive, but instead she’s just like, “Oh, yeah, Christmas is a thing,” and instructs everyone how to hang garland properly. There are some tortured plot machinations, Miguel and Alisha get kidnapped a bunch, and end up giving Skeletor the Christmas Spirit, seemingly by osmosis, since they never even give him the stilted explanation Orko got. They’re finally sent home just in time for Christmas, and He-Man comes on to give a vague lecture about how everyone has the Christmas Spirit inside of them at all times. But since the show never really defines “Christmas spirit” and we’re still not sure that anyone on Eternia knows what the hell Christmas is, this postscript just adds to the confusion.
“Christmas Comes to PacLand”
This totally counts since PacLand is presented as an alien world. Santa ends up crashing his sleigh after he gets lost on the way to Earth, and has to try to explain the concept of Christmas to Pac-Man and his family. The special is able to freely focus on the Santa-and-presents aspect of the holiday, since the “death and miraculous resurrection” storyline is covered by Pac-Man himself after the ghosts chomp him and he has to rally to save Christmas by ‘roiding the reindeer out on Power Pellets. All of the denizens of PacLand happily accept the idea of a gift-based holiday, with no questions asked about how it got started, what humans are, or why Santa also gives the ghosts presents even though their dearest wish in life is to bite a baby to death.
So I’m ending this now on what is probably not just the greatest alien meets Christmas special, but also the greatest thing that came out of the 80s:
ALF’s Special Christmas
So for those of you who are either blissfully unaware of ALF, or maybe just suffered a specific type of PTSD that has erased it from your memory: ALF crashes on Earth after his home planet, Melmac, is destroyed. The Tanner family adopts him, teaching him about humanity and shielding him from the government, while tolerating his terrible Borscht Belt jokes and threats against their cat. ALF is widely acknowledged to have had one of the most disturbing finales in the history of television. However, what doesn’t get nearly enough press is that the show also produced the single most fucked up Christmas Special in History. Eat ALF’s dust, Diahann Carroll serenading Itchy the Wookiee.
The episode opens with Willie Tanner dragging the family to spend Christmas in a cabin that is not so much “rustic” as “barely a house.” The cabin has been loaned to them by sweet Mr. Foley (played by Cleavon Little, aka Sheriff Bart from Blazing Saddles!!!) who is veers wildly between grieving for his deceased wife, and jocularly playing Santa Claus at the local children’s hospital. We’re just going to skip over the idea that the Tanner children are the actual aliens here (they seem suspiciously ok with staying at the cabin, sans heat, electricity, or running water) and instead get right to ALF learning the True Meaning of Christmas. After he opens all the Tanner’s presents, the family becomes a bit frustrated, so he does what you or I would do and climbs into the back of an unattended truck filled with toys. Since we’re in a sitcom, this is Mr. Foley’s truck, and before you can say “collision course for wackiness” Mr. Foley is dressed as Santa to hand out toys to the sick kids, and ALF, pretending to be a stuffed version of himself.
He only makes it a few minutes into the tea party she throws him before revealing his true identity. Rather than freaking the fuck out like a normal kid, she accepts his story about being an alien (and not, say, a medication-induced hallucination) and begins confiding in him. She draws a picture of her and ALF hanging out, except…she’s wearing wings. We’re in some deep Life Lesson waters here, so do your best to stay afloat as I relate the following conversation:
“Alf, do you ever miss Melmac?”
“Yeah, I miss it a lot. It was my whole world. Everything, and everybody I knew was there…but, when I came to this world, I made new friends! Like the people I live with, and you, Tiffany!”
She asks if he had Christmas on Melmac, and he shakes his head. “I don’t really have a handle on Christmas yet. People get uptight about presents.”
“That’s cause they don’t know. Christmas isn’t about presents, it’s about giving of yourself. That’s what Santa Claus said.”
“After meeting you, I know what he means.”
“I’m gonna have to move onto another world too, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it, and I’m afraid to go, Alf.”
OK, at this point I have to switch into summary, because my brain has shut down. The last time I watched this episode with friends (or perhaps I should say, the last time I inflicted this episode on some friends at a Christmas party, because I’m a terrible person) we were all watching this scene through our hands like it was a ferocious Dalek, and my tolerance for it hasn’t gotten any stronger. He tells her it’s all right to be afraid, and then they discuss whether this other world will have Christmas (owwww…) whether Tiffany will have friends there (gurk) and then ALF manages to stick the landing on a joke, and they say they love each other as she falls asleep. The show then shuffles us straight into the wacky sitcom world of the 1980s in which “alien puppet delivers a baby in an elevator”= high-larity.
ALF uses his new understanding of the True Meaning of Christmas to save Mr. Foley from suicide, and then everyone brings Tiffany presents, which is great, but there is no reprieve here. Mr. Foley is still depressed, Tiffany’s still going to die, and OH MY GOD the ending credits dedicate the show to two different real people who died that year.
Whew. I never expected to say this, but it seems like of all the aliens presented with varying True Meanings of Christmas, ALF was the one who got it right.
So, I hope this has given you some new viewing options this Christmas—or possibly some specials to avoid. My holiday wish for you? If an alien crashes into your home, may it be of the friendly, wise-cracking variety, amenable to whichever traditions you hold dear, and willing to help clean up after your New Year’s Eve party.
This article originally appeared on Tor.com on December 20, 2013.
Leah Schnelbach needs some extra-strength egg nog to recover from that ALF special…