The CBS announcement on the night of Friday, Nov. 17, 1978, seemed innocuous, if not promising: “Because of the following special program, ‘Wonder Woman’ and ‘The Incredible Hulk’ will not be presented this evening.” Little did the world know that what followed over the next two hours would be one of the most peculiar, disjointed, garish, poorly conceived, and undeniably dreadful pieces of television in history. “The Star Wars Holiday Special,” airing only once before vanishing into the mists of mythology, lore, and geekdom, stood as a colossal misstep in the early “Star Wars” canon. So terrible was this creation that George Lucas himself allegedly declared, “If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it.”
Naturally, such a proclamation only fuels the curiosity of subsequent generations, tempting them to seek out copies of the special that aired just once on broadcast television. In the present day, a mere YouTube search provides instant access to the full special. However, for a more comprehensive and entertaining exploration, one might turn to the meticulously researched, consistently amusing, and occasionally affectionate documentary, “A Disturbance in the Force.”
Directors Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak, along with a remarkable lineup of interviewees ranging from participants in the special to pop culture observers, actors, and filmmakers, don’t argue that “The Star Wars Holiday Special” was good – far from it. Instead, they celebrate its terribleness without mockery or cynicism. After all, why mock a show featuring Bea Arthur in a “Fiddler on the Roof”-style musical number with a giant rat, Harvey Korman as a four-armed, blue-faced alien cooking show host reminiscent of Julia Child, and a surreal sequence where Chewbacca’s father experiences a virtual-reality-like soft-porn fantasy song-and-dance with a sultry Diahann Carroll? The evidence, captured in grainy color, speaks for itself.
Over a brisk 86 minutes, the filmmakers skillfully provide context and illuminate the origins of this infamous special. At the time, with a three-year gap between the massive success of “Star Wars” in 1977 and the release of “The Empire Strikes Back” in 1980, there were concerns that the franchise might fade from the public consciousness. To keep “Star Wars” relevant, a massive campaign to sell toys and action figures was launched, featuring the characters prominently on television.
The special’s basic premise revolves around Chewbacca returning to his home planet to celebrate the holiday of “Life Day” with his family. However, the journey unfolds through inexplicably weird set-pieces, including a rock band (Jefferson Starship) in vaguely alien-looking getups, Art Carney as Trader Saun Dann speaking Wookie language, and a musical number on “Donny and Marie” with Donny as Luke, Marie as Leia, Kris Kristofferson as Han Solo, and Osmond siblings as Stormtroopers.
Through interviews with notable figures like Donny Osmond, Bruce Vilanch, Bob Mackie, Kevin Smith, and the late Gilbert Gottfried, the documentary captures behind-the-scenes memories of working on the show and its enduring impact on geek culture. Despite being a colossal bomb, the “Star Wars Holiday Special” remains a topic of conversation even 45 years later, a testament to its unique place in television history.