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How Star Wars Holiday Special became more powerful than George Lucas could possibly imagine

A new documentary captures that fleeting moment when Star Wars was already a global sensation, but nobody had quite realised what an all-conquering brand it would become

Darth Vader in the Star Wars Holiday Special

Darth Vader was one of the original movie’s characters making an appearance in the much-maligned Star Wars Holiday Special in 1978

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. 

Instead, the film, co-directed by Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak, is much more warm-hearted, going to great efforts to contextualise the milieu in which the show was created. The intentions were twofold: to keep the brand in the public imagination while Lucas worked on the sequel, and to generate hype for the first Christmas when Star Wars action figures and toys would actually be available to buy (those shelves were bare in 1977).

This was a time when family-friendly, unashamedly cheesy variety shows were at their peak in the US, so the still-nascent Star Wars property was simply fed into the existing TV production line, which might explain why guest stars like Art Carney and Harvey Korman skewed towards old and established rather than young and hip. Beyond the concept of Life Day, Lucas himself had minimal involvement, and the veteran creative team were pulling in different directions. Though the special had an impressive budget for the time, CBS executives kept insisting the running time be increased; after the first few days of shooting, the original director quit. Once you hear the whole fractious tale, pieced together from testimony by the surviving writers, it seems like a Life Day miracle that the Holiday Special exists at all.

What it truly illuminates is that fleeting moment when Star Wars was already a global sensation but nobody had quite realised what an all-conquering, carefully curated brand it would become. So the Holiday Special is a minor but enjoyably messy part of the mega-franchise’s origin story.

Seek out the original on YouTube and if you are horrified but hypnotised, the new documentary is a valuable companion piece. The farce is strong with this one.

Graeme Virtue is a film and TV critic.

A Disturbance in the Force will be available on digital VoD and Blu-ray from 5 December – it also screens at Bristol IMAX on 14 December 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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