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8 Great TV Christmas Specials (But Not The Ones You're Probably Thinking)

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As Christmas approaches, there is one thing on which we can always rely, year after year: festive television specials. For those who are tired of cute Christmas episodes where everyone from the Brady Bunch to Buffy the Vampire Slayer gets into the festive spirit, or don't need to see yet another broadcast of the much-loved Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, here is some alternative Christmas programming, with clips that are definitely worth watching this holiday season.

1. Dragnet "“ The Big Little Jesus (1953)

Even in the early days of television, drama series had Christmas episodes. This one, from Oscar-winning screenwriter Richard Breen, was so popular that it was first heard on the radio serial, filmed for the 1950s TV series, and filmed again (as "The Christmas Story") for a 1967 series revival. In the story, Sgt Joe Friday (Jack Webb) and his partner (Ben Alexander in the first TV series, Harry Morgan in the second) spend their Christmas Eve looking for an almost "worthless" statue of the Baby Jesus that has been stolen from the Old Mission Plaza Church, hoping to return it in time for Christmas mass. They discover that it was borrowed by a young child, who had been given a wagon for Christmas, donated by charity, and wanted to take the baby Jesus on the first ride. "Paquito's family"¦" explains the priest, "they're poor." Friday looks at the Nativity scene. "Are they, father?" he says.

2. Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas (1977)

Christmas variety shows were an inescapable part of Christmas for about 30 years, hosted by Perry Como (who did no less than 39 Christmas specials), John Denver, Bob Hope, The Carpenters and many others. One of the more serious, without the usual comedy sketches and "surprise" appearances by Santa, was Johnny Cash's 1977 Christmas special, including an all-star tribute to Cash's friend Elvis Presley, who had died a few months earlier. That same year, however, provided an even more unusual, and even more moving, Christmas show. For his sixteenth Christmas special in a row, legendary singer Bing Crosby wanted to sing with a young star. As he was on a concert tour of London, someone suggested 30-year-old David Bowie, who was then one of Britain's more offbeat glam-rock artists. Bowie happened to be a huge Crosby fan, so he jumped at the chance. In a segment filmed on September 11, they sang "Little Drummer Boy," which was perfect for Crosby's crooning, but as Bowie's voice was higher, he also sang Peace on Earth as part of the same number. Bing was impressed by the "clean-cut kid" and gave him his phone number. Sadly, the crooner died a month later, giving extra poignancy to the special when it was shown in November.

3. The West Wing — In Excelsis Deo (1999)

In this popular episode, Toby (Richard Schiff) discovers that a homeless man who had died wearing one of his old coats was a Korean War veteran. Using the authority of the president's office, Toby arranges a full military funeral at the Arlington National Cemetery. President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) is not happy, afraid that this could create precedent. "I can only hope so," says Toby. He attends the funeral, along with the president's secretary, Mrs. Landingham (Kathryn Joosten), who reveals that she lost her twin sons in Vietnam on Christmas Eve 1970. Also in attendance: Arlington superintendent John C. Metzler, Jr, appearing as himself "“ presumably the only time he has attended a funeral for a fictitious person. The episode was made with the Pentagon's full cooperation.

[We couldn't find an embeddable version of this episode, but you can watch it on YouTube.]

4. Mystery Science Theater 3000 "“ Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1991)

The cult show Mystery Science Theater 3000 was about a janitor and two robots who are trapped on a space satellite and forced to watch terrible B-movies. The movies were real, and the show was an excuse to play them with running commentary from the three characters. Twice the series had Christmas episodes. Santa Claus (1959), the focus of the 1993 episode, was a very obscure, badly dubbed Spanish film in which Santa does battle with a demon sent to Earth to make all children naughty. But Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) was already notorious. Despite awful reviews ("Absolutely the worst science-fiction flick ever made, bar none!" announced the fanzine The Monster Times), it was re-released every Christmas for years, easily returning its $200,000 budget many times over. In this film, Martian invaders kidnap Santa (played by minor Broadway actor John Call) to save their own children from misery. Though Santa defeats the villains (as the title suggests), one of the happier Martians takes over as the local Santa. It finishes with the boppy song "Hooray for Santa Claus" ("He's fat and round, but jumping jiminy, he can climb down any chiminey.")

5. Xena "“ A Solstice Carol (1996)

How does a TV show do a Christmas special if it's set in the days before Christ? Very few series have had that dilemma, but one exception was Xena: Warrior Princess, set in ancient Greece. In this episode, Xena and Gabrielle visit a kingdom ruled by the miserly King Silvus, who plans to close down an orphanage and has banned Winter Solstice celebrations. In a nod to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, they disguise themselves as various ghosts and do some play-acting in his bedroom to convince him to change his ways. Gabrielle even gives a speech about Winter Solstice that could easily have been written for a Brady Bunch Christmas episode: "On this special night, a new light, a new chance, is born to us all. So it's a time for miracles and goodwill towards all living creatures."

[The clip of this episode has been removed from YouTube. If you find one, please leave the link in the comments.]

6. Blackadder's Christmas Carol (1988)

A Christmas Carol is a ritual of Christmas television. Many versions of have been filmed, starring everyone from impersonator Rich Little (playing Scrooge as W.C. Fields) to the Muppets. But the funniest was probably the British comedy Blackadder's Christmas Carol (1988), about Ebenezer Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson), a kindly and generous shopkeeper in Victorian London. By the episode's end, the Spirit of Christmas (Robbie Coltrane, looking like he did as Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies) unwittingly inspires him to become selfish and cruel "“ and stop being exploited by everyone else. Bah humbug, indeed!

7. Doctor Who — The Christmas Invasion (2005)

The BBC science fiction series Doctor Who is almost as much of a British institution as Christmas TV specials. For the past three years, they have combined the two, so that Doctor saves the world from alien invaders each year at Christmas. As a result, everyone is too scared to leave their houses during the festive season. The first Christmas special, however, had a bonus for fans. After his all-too-brief stint in the title role, actor Christopher Eccleston was leaving the series, and the Christmas special properly introduced his successor, David Tennant. After spending half the episode bed-ridden, as the vicious Sycorax race prepares to subjugate humanity, the new Doctor appears just in the the nick of time, still dressed in his pyjamas. "Did you miss me?" he smiles "“ and fans cheered in living rooms all over Britain. From that moment, his friends (and the viewers) know that the situation was all under control.

8. A Ghost Story for Christmas (1971-1978)

In case you want a break from Christmas revelry, the BBC had just the thing for audiences in the 1970s: scare the life out of them! From 1971 to 1978, they would adapt a spooky story, usually by horror-fantasy writer M.R. James, into a truly chilling TV play. (One of them, The Signalman, was from a story by Charles Dickens, who was no stranger to Christmas ghosts.) During Christmas week 1972, in case one Christmas ghost story wasn't enough, they also showed The Stone Tape, written by horror / science fiction master Nigel Kneale, about a group of scientists who move into a haunted mansion. The strange Christmas tradition of visiting haunted houses even reached The X-Files. In the 1998 episode "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas," the ghosts of two ill-fated lovers (played by Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin) try to force Mulder and Scully to kill each other. Of course, they fail in their lethal quest"¦ unlike many of the ghouls in A Ghost Story for Christmas. Here's a clip from The Signalman:

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 


PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.

THE AD

If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).

SKINHEADS, A DISCUS THROWER, AND A SCI-FI DIRECTOR

Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.

WHAT EXECUTIVES AT APPLE THOUGHT

Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother

WHAT EVERYBODY ELSE THOUGHT

When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."

THE AWFUL 1985 FOLLOW-UP

A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:

20-YEAR ANNIVERSARY

In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:

FURTHER READING

Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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