A Disturbance in the Force – Reviewing the Star Wars Holiday Special Documentary

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Tim Beisiegel
| December 21, 2023
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No one will confuse “The Star Wars Holiday Special” for “The Empire Strikes Back”. So we got that going for us. However, The Holiday Special holds a weird place in the history of the Lucasfilm universe. It was aired one time on CBS back in 1978 and has never been aired again. Since 1978, this show has been locked away in the Lucasfilm vault. 

The stars of Star Wars, including Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford, all hated being a part of it. Rumors have been out there for some time that George Lucas has sought to destroy every available copy so that it could be scrubbed from existence. The funny thing is, however, that for as many people who dislike the Star Wars Holiday Special, there are as many who think it’s something special and to be enjoyed. George Lucas is obviously not one of those people who enjoys it. 

The creative team of directors Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak, alongside producers Adam F. Goldberg, Kyle Newman, Scott Kirkwood, and Jason Lenzi, introduced a new documentary called “A Disturbance in the Force” to explore that topic over its 85 minute run time. They talked with the team that put the show together and the people who watched it on television. They explore why it went awry and why those who loved it, loved it the way they did. 

You can watch the trailer here

Where it went wrong 

One of the best things the documentary does is set the stage for the era in which the Holiday Special was brought to life. It gives us a view into what was happening in entertainment and introduces us to the people who did the sets, casting, costume design, and more. Each one of these members of the production crew played a unique role in getting this show on television for our viewing pleasure. The documentary does an excellent job interviewing many of the production crew members who wanted to be on camera. 

One individual who didn’t want to be was the original director of the special. Older interviews & recordings had to be used for David Acomba, who was replaced after filming only a few scenes by Steve Binder. To this day, Binder stands behind the special saying, “I’m proud of it, too. Against what the popular opinion might be, I had a great time doing it — and would do it again in a heartbeat.”

Star Wars Holiday Special Title Image

By all accounts, by the time Binder joined the show, it was over budget and underfilmed. Creative differences between Acomba and CBS were causing story and directional issues. According to my interview with producer Kyle Newman, one of the issues here was the lack of involvement from George Lucas. Newman told me, “It’s a very unique slice of time, 1978. George has his eye firmly set on Empire Strikes Back and getting that film off the ground, investing all his own money into it and starting his new company. But he also has to keep Star Wars in the Zeitgeist, he has to keep his investment relevant, has to keep it fresh, got to keep people going to the theaters.” Newman went on to say that Lucas was attempting to make sure that Star Wars “wasn’t a flash in the pan.” 

Binder says that another reason that it failed was how Lucas presented this to CBS. He says, “The public never knew this wasn’t Star Wars II. This was a television show that Lucas sold to CBS to sell toys to kids, and that’s all it was. Everybody who tuned in without that knowledge was expecting it to be a big, expensive movie! But Lucas made a deal with Hasbro and wanted to get on national television to sell merchandise, and that was the whole purpose of the show to begin with.”

According to Newman, “This special goes from being a one-hour special to a two-hour variety show. George has a very big influence on the outset, the initial story, the concept, the Wookiee family.” Basically, the issue came when Lucas began to back away and spend more time preparing the Empire Strikes Back movie. CBS plugged into the popular Donny and Marie style variety show of the late 1970s starring all the older actors of the time. It was no longer a science fiction-themed show; it was now a song and dance number with Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, and Bea Arthur leading the charge. Not to mention that this Wookiee Life Day, which was kind of a major part of Lucas’ writings about the show, now becomes secondary to the costumes, the puns, and the musical numbers by guests like Jefferson Starship

A part of that blame has to fall onto the shoulders of the director, Steve Binder. Still, at the same time, it’s not his fault. I say blame only because he was the director. But to be fair, Binder was best known for the Elvis comeback special, and the variety hour show was his specialty, so coming in late with no budget, he stuck to what he knew. 

The documentary helps build appreciation for the Holiday Special

It isn’t all doom and gloom! There are many people out there who do love the Star Wars Holiday Special. They love it, not because it was groundbreaking or added to the 1977 A New Hope release, but because it introduces Wookiee Life Day and Boba Fett in an animated short

The documentary sits down with people like Kevin Smith, Seth Green, Weird Al Yankovic, and many others to talk about what it was like and what it meant to them to have Star Wars on their television in 1978. Those people tell us why that was so important at that time. They talk about the weirdness of Bea Arthurs dance number and the awkwardness of Chewie’s Dad, Attichitcuk or Itchy as he was known, essentially watching VR Wookiee Porn. (Go back and check it out, Itchy was a weird dude.) 

Itchy VR

At the same time, while it was weird to have all those things done by the older actors of the day, it was cool to them because it was Star Wars. The galaxy far, far away was now on the small screen in their home. They could watch Luke, Han, and Leia without leaving the house. And since this was released in 1978, that was a huge deal. In 1978, they didn’t realize they wouldn’t get more Star Wars until 1980 when Lucas released the sequel to A New Hope. This was all they would get until The Empire Strikes Back would come. It also helps to remember that this is only the second thing for Star Wars that has ever been put on film. 

All those involved and interviewed, from the writers such as comedian Bruce Villanch to the costumers and the director, typically have positive things to say about the Holiday Special experience. Steve Binder was quoted earlier talking about how quickly he would participate again. That sentiment is repeated by others as well. Many speak of the impact this had on their lives and careers, and it’s a positive to them. Their perspective of their work may influence you to look at this differently. I’m not saying that you’re going to love it now, but you may dislike it just a little bit less. 

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly 

So why should you watch “A Disturbance in the Force”? Well, as producer Kyle Newman says, the documentary helps in “debunking some myths about it and also revealing some new truths. I think the most important thing not just to say, oh the holiday special is bad, and there’s the joke. You know that everyone knows it’s not amazing. But, there is some fascinating stuff in it; it is really the how and why.” 

The documentary directs you to new perspectives, new ideas, and new trains of thought. It shows the people in the show and those who watched it from home. It shows you the blood, sweat, and tears that these men and women put into this variety show, only for it to be so underappreciated, even hated, and never to be shown again. It shows you that people at home recognized it as something Star Wars, but not the same as the Star Wars they had seen in the theaters, and still appreciated it. 

So watch the documentary, and if you want to, watch the Holiday Special. George Lucas and Lucasfilm may have the original under lock and key at the Lucasfilm vault, but that didn’t stop people from putting it out on the internet on websites like YouTube for people to watch and enjoy. And then, after that, you can always go to Disney Plus to watch the new Holiday Special, the Lego Version, and you can watch the animated short that introduced Boba Fett. That’s one bit of the 1978 Holiday Specials that is still Lucasfilm-approved. 

Star Wars Lego Holiday Special Title card

However, the very best thing that the documentary does is acknowledge this very confusing time in Star Wars history. It acknowledges how bizarre it can be. Disturbance shows that while all of the bizarre parts of the special may not have worked, there are beloved parts to this story that still work, like Wookiee Life Day and Boba Fett. 

Overall, the documentary is very good. Very well put together, a solid 8/10. In my opinion, this movie is a worthy buy, or at least a rental, on your favorite streaming service such as Apple TV, Amazon Prime, or Vudu with an average rental cost of $4.99. Purchase options are available in digital, BluRay, and DVD here

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