A Disturbance in the Force finally reveals how The Star Wars Holiday Special went so wrong

This breakdown of the documentary A Disturbance in the Force was originally published when the movie debuted at the 2023 SXSW Conference. It has been updated for the movie’s digital release.

For a couple of decades after its one-time-only broadcast on Nov. 17, 1978, The Star Wars Holiday Special was a secret handshake among nerds. “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “White & Nerdy” video contains a scene where Al buys a bootleg VHS of the special in an alley next to a dumpster, winking at how much currency this infamous televised fiasco had among fans in the days before YouTube. Now, a quick search on that particular site will pull up multiple full-length uploads of the special — much to the presumed angst of George Lucas, who has publicly expressed his desire to destroy every copy of Star Wars’ first big misstep himself.

Just because The Star Wars Holiday Special is easier to find in 2023 doesn’t make it any less baffling, however. Once a fan discovers its existence and watches it, however they’re able to access it — Lucasfilm has never officially released The Star Wars Holiday Special, and probably never will a series of questions inevitably follow. “What?!” comes first, followed by “Why?” and “How?” The documentary A Disturbance in the Force seeks to answer these queries.

The film kicks off with the “WTF?” of it all, in a montage that includes sound bites from pop culture talking heads like Seth Green and Kevin Smith, both of whom have inextricably tied their personas to their love of Star Wars. These are intercut with legacy clips of Star Wars actors, including Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, refusing to discuss the special, setting it up as a holy grail and appealing mystery: “The Star Wars oddity they don’t want you to see!”

This part of the film is fine. It’s fun and it’s lively, but it doesn’t really add anything to the legend. Then the film brings in people who can answer the questions raised by the special, rather than simply restating them in colorful ways, and A Disturbance in the Force becomes something far richer and more interesting.

A stock publicity photo from the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special shows R2-D2, C-3PO, Chewbacca (in a long red robe), Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, Harrison Ford as Han Solo, and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, all standing together in front of a tall, grainy stone Photo: Lucasfilm

The most surprising thing A Disturbance in the Force reveals about The Star Wars Holiday Special is the caliber of talent involved. The crew was the best 1978 television had to offer, and CBS called in its top stars to make appearances on the show. And yet, somewhere, somehow, everything went to hell. Here are a few questions that are actually addressed in A Disturbance in the Force:

Why does The Star Wars Holiday Special exist?

In short, because of a combination of conventional wisdom about movie promotion in the late ’70s and George Lucas’ spite toward 20th Century Fox. At the time, Star Wars was not embedded in our cultural consciousness the way it is now, and studio executives thought the enthusiasm about the movie would be temporary, in spite of its box-office success. An executive told Lucas that in a meeting in the summer of 1977, and Lucas began pushing to get Star Wars characters on TV as much as possible, to prove that exec wrong. (The fact that Star Wars toys were still being rolled out a year after the movie first hit theaters, and that Lucas had a personal financial stake in the sales of those toys, didn’t hurt.)

Why the song and dance numbers, though?

At the time, variety specials were TV staples — more common than rollicking sci-fi adventures told in the style of old-fashioned serials, which meant that Lucas’ new movie model got stuffed in an old box to sell it to the masses. A Disturbance in the Force argues that The Star Wars Holiday Special was not the worst of Star Wars’ late-’70s TV appearances: That honor goes to a 1977 episode of Donny & Marie in which Donny Osmond played Luke, Marie Osmond played Leia (who was, at the time, still Luke’s love interest, not his sister), and Kris Kristofferson played Han. The clips shown in the doc support this thesis.

Why does The Star Wars Holiday Special feel so disjointed?

A combination of factors comes into play here. First, the original director, David Acomba, was fired after three days for spending most of the show’s budget within those 72 hours. Steve Binder, a pro who had also directed the Elvis ’68 comeback special, stepped in to finish the job. But Binder had another commitment that prevented him from being involved with the editing of the special, so that job fell to a pair of producers named Ken and Mitzie Welch, who had made plenty of variety shows, but knew nothing about editing, Star Wars, or sci-fi in general.

Who designed all those wild costumes?

Bob Mackie, who was RuPaul’s and Whitney Houston’s favorite fashion designer, and the premiere costumer for film and TV in the late 1970s. Mackie, now 84, has a great sense of humor about the whole thing, and his interviews are a highlight of the film.

Art Carney and Bea Arthur sit together in their Star Wars costumes, looking at the camera, in a posed publicity photo for 1978’s The Star Wars Holiday Special Photo: Lucasfilm

Why does Bea Arthur nuzzle up with a rat in the cantina?

Like the rest of the masks used in The Star Wars Holiday Special’s cantina scene — and the original Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars, for that matter — the rat was a leftover from another production that effects artist Rick Baker had worked on in the past. The rat was also featured in the 1976 creature feature The Food of the Gods.

Why do Chewbacca and his family speak in unsubtitled Shyriiwook for nine minutes?

More misguided conventional wisdom: CBS executives thought viewers would change the channel if they saw subtitles.

Why is Jefferson Starship in The Star Wars Holiday Special?

Because they had a song called “Hyperdrive,” and the band had “Starship” in its name. Really.

Was Lucasfilm embarrassed by the special after it aired?

Not really. TV was more ephemeral in the days before VCRs became commonplace, and interviewees in the doc who saw The Star Wars Holiday Special as kids say that they and their peers thought it was awesome — mostly because of its Boba Fett cartoon, which marks Fett’s first official appearance in the universe. Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni were two of those kids, which is why Mando’s rifle on The Mandalorian is modeled after Fett’s on the holiday special.

Is Disney embarrassed by the special now?

The company has started selling Life Day merchandise, and has declared Nov. 17 — the day the special aired on CBS — as an official Star Wars holiday in its theme parks. So, as always with Disney: It’s fine with any ancillary product, so long as the company can make money off of it.

Why does Chewie’s dad Itchy celebrate Life Day by watching Wookiee porn?

Some mysteries are best left unsolved. All we know is that Cher was supposed to play the Diahann Carroll role, but dropped out at the last minute.

A Disturbance in the Force is now available for digital rental via Amazon, Vudu, and Apple.