There is a Yuletide Star Wars joke that feels older than Yoda. It goes like this: how did Darth Vader know what Luke was getting for Christmas? Answer: he felt his presence. That one feels like it might have fallen out of a cracker when George Lucas’s original trilogy was in its imperial phase of box office domination in the early 1980s. But there is another enduring festive punchline from around the same time: the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special, a truly unique spin-off celebrated in new documentary A Disturbance in the Force.
Technically the first Star Wars sequel, the Holiday Special was supposed to allow US fans to enjoy the cinematic thrills of a galaxy far, far away in the comfort of their own homes. The main thrust of the nominal plot involves Chewbacca racing to get back to his Wookiee home planet in time for Life Day, an invented cosmic holiday that cannily combines the reflectiveness of Thanksgiving with the gift-buying impulse of Christmas.
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In an impressive coup, all the core movie cast reprise their characters. But Luke, Han and Leia only appear in brief vignettes. The majority of screen time is split between Chewbacca’s sitcom-ready Wookiee family – stressed mom Malla, flea-bitten grandpa Itchy and young furball Lumpy – and a series of seemingly incongruous vignettes. Shimmering aliens perform interpretive dance on a hologram chess table. A frantic cooking demonstration parodies Julia Child. Jefferson Starship beam in and rock out. A pre-Golden Girls Bea Arthur seems to be running the Mos Eisley cantina and sings her own cabaret-ready closing time number.
The Star Wars Holiday Special was broadcast on the CBS channel on 17 November 1978 in a prime time slot to impressive ratings. After that though? Silence. Over four decades later, it has never been repeated, or officially rereleased. But its sheer WTF weirdness slowly created a cult around it. Bootleg VHS cassettes became highly sought-after artefacts and badges of fan pride. If Lucas had intended to strike it down, the Holiday Special became more powerful than he could possibly imagine. (In 2023, it is much easier to track down and experience via a basic search on YouTube.)
The whole wild story is reexamined in A Disturbance in the Force (subtitled “How the Star Wars Holiday Special Happened”) which assembles an impressive geek chorus of US comedy talents, including Patton Oswalt, Kevin Smith, Seth Green, Bobcat Goldthwait, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic and the late Gilbert Gottfried. That sharp-tongued line-up suggests that the doc will be an extended roast of all the bizarre creative decisions, stilted performances and garish 1970s TV production flourishes that made the Holiday Special such a head-spinning experience.