A Disturbance in the Force: How the Star Wars Holiday Special Happened Blu-ray Review: Bringing Balance and Answers After 45 Years  

Making its sole television appearance on November 17, 1978, the Star Wars Holiday Special is an event that remains forever embedded in Star Wars lore. Conceived as a perennial favorite like A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, or How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Star Wars Holiday Special missed that mark by a parsec and had mixed reviews upon its solo showing before it vanished, becoming the stuff of legends and leaving questions as numerous as Death Star debris that fans could only speculate at the answers. Forty-five years later, there’s a new hope that we may finally get some answers from A Disturbance in the Force: How the Star Wars Holiday Special Happened. It’s a fine film that does indeed provide many answers as to how the Holiday Special was created. For a full look at the wacky Special itself, check out this review by Gordon S. Miller. 

A Disturbance in the Force starts by taking us back to how George Lucas and Charlie Lippincott, head marketer, went about promoting Star Wars in unconventional ways. Before the 1977 release of Star Wars: A New Hope, then simply known as Star Wars, Lippincott made the rounds, visiting sci-fi conventions to get word out about the upcoming movie. He made sure that there was a novelization, ghost written by sci-fi author Alan Dean Foster, and a comic book series that would eventually run until 1986. Lucas would even ask Foster to write a low-budget sequel that could be filmed on the cheap if Star Wars didn’t do so well at the box office.  

Wacky variety shows ruled the airwaves in the 1970s and after the success of Star Wars, the cast started to make the TV show rounds to keep promoting the movie. While Mark Hamill did a song and dance with Bob Hope, Darth Vader along with Chewie and the droids C3PO and R2D2 made appearances on the Donny & Marie show where the Osmond brothers did a vaudeville number dressed as Stormtroopers while singing about being Darth Vader’s Raiders. Richard Pryor even got in on the act, doing a cantina segment on his show. With these television appearances and skits in mind, we start to get a bad feeling about where any sort of Star Wars special could be headed. 

To help keep the fans interested while the sequel that would become The Empire Strikes Back was being planned, CBS approached Lucas about doing a holiday special for the network. Lucas reluctantly agreed under the guise of “fan interest” but really to generate more money. Lucas seems like he wasn’t entirely against it at first, at least as originally conceived in his mind. His idea was for a story that involved Chewbacca the Wookie’s family on their home planet, Kashyyyk, as they celebrate a Christmas-like event known as Life Day. A TV special could also be tied in with the biggest money generator: a toy line that would be scheduled to launch in sync with its airing. Yes, there was a planned toy line for Chewie’s family members’ wife Malla, son Lumpy, and old man Itchy, but that was abandoned after the special flopped. Things are starting to make sense as it becomes clear that any TV special was aimed at promoting the action figure line’s release. So in the end would a better plot or cohesive story even matter? 

CBS then brought in top variety show producers Gary Smith and Dwight Hemion as well as writers Bruce Vilanch with Ken and Mitzie Welch to handle the musical segments. The variety team was to collaborate with the Lucas crew which consisted of Lenny Ripps and Pat Proft who would flesh out the Wookie stuff. CBS had hopes of attaching big names like Cher, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Ann Margret but what they got was Art Carney, Bea Arthur, and Harvey Koman, who would play many roles including one in drag. They were stars, sure but not for the demographic that included most Star Wars fans. CBS did manage to land Diahann Carrol once Cher opted out and Jefferson Starship makes an appearance as space rockers. At  one point, they almost had Robin Williams but he was turned away by the Welchs. Oops. At least they got costumes done by the legendary Bob Mackie, whose work stands out most on the circus hologram segment. 

After one meeting with the combined creative team and before filming started, Lucas dropped off the project to focus on The Empire Strikes Back. Shortly after production began, Lucas’ hand-picked director David Acomba left the project due to creative differences with CBS. This led to the Lucas team’s slow fade out, leaving the variety show people to finish any writing and production tasks. At this point, the special had already gone far beyond its budget and variety show expert Steve Binder, who had directed Elvis’ ’68 Comeback Special, was called in to take control and fly this disaster home. Binder, having other commitments, had to leave immediately after filming wrapped and would have no time to help with any editing. Thus leaving that difficult task to the Welchs who had never done any editing before. Binder to this day regrets that decision. Could he have salvaged the special in the editing room? Maybe but probably not. Upon viewing the special before it ran, Lucas was said to have wanted all the negatives destroyed. He then took his name off of the project and disowned it entirely. 

Many years after the Special aired, an original five-page show treatment written by Lucas was found in illustrator Ralph McQuarrie’s archive. In those five pages. Lucas emphasizes the Wookie Life day aspect as well as the use of many futuristic devices resembling iPads and VR devices that would help tell the story. He even envisioned Raquel Welch as an Imperial Officer that performs an interpretive dance sequence for Chewie’s son Lumpy. So from the hyper jump, this wasn’t going to be Star Wars 2, the TV movie. The main Star Wars characters would appear but the focus would be the Wookies and their version of Christmas with special appearances by the top star of the day. 

Miki Herman, who was liaison to George Lucas while making the Special, does add one interesting note she says came from Lucas himself that explains why Chewie at the end of A New Hope didn’t receive a medal. According to her, Lucas had said Chewie didn’t want a medal. He only asked that Han get him home to be with his family for Life Day. Interesting when one takes that into consideration while watching the opening segment of the Holiday Special.  

The true highlight of the Holiday Special is a Lucas original idea, The Story of the Faithful Wookie. A ten-minute cartoon that introduced the character of Boba Fett. Lucas had seen a holiday special called A Cosmic Christmas years prior animated by Nelvana and was so impressed that he got them to do the animated segment. This all-new adventure actually seemed to fit with the themes and ideas of the Star Wars movie. Nelvana would eventually go on to animate the cartoons Ewoks and Droids that would appear on TV a few years later in the 1980s. Fett would later appear in the movie sequels and became a very popular character and sought after action figure due to his badass armor and weapons. 

A Disturbance in the Force’s mission is to bring peace and balance to fans’ splintered minds and put an end to their befuddlement. Mixing news footage and television excerpts along with vintage and current interview clips with Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and George Lucas himself, there are even snippets from Harvey Korman and Bea Arthur. Many notable and knowledgeable fans were interviewed such as “Weird Al” Yankovic, Seth Green, Kevin Smith, Bobcat Goldthwait, Gilbert Gottfried, and Kyle Newman (director of Fanboys). Green has had many conversations with Lucas and seems to have the best insight and most amusing anecdotes of how this mishap came about. 

The Star Wars Holiday Special is weird and odd but when framed against the 1970s, variety-show era, it doesn’t seem too out of place but that doesn’t mean it’s any better because it’s a product of its time. That also means maybe it takes so much flak because it’s Star Wars related. Nobody cares that the Paul Lynde’s Halloween special or any of the Donny & Marie episodes no longer air. Donny Osmond makes a good point when he admits that he never liked Donny & Marie but it’s what fans wanted to see and he embraces that he did his best, good and/or bad. So maybe it’s time Lucas owns up to walking away from the project with a fist full of loot and letting other people handle what he should have. I’m not saying he should have directed the thing but maybe kept a closer eye on the production.

The Holiday Special did give fans Life Day, which is celebrated on November 17, and many aspects of the special would go on to become Star Wars canon in various media. Many of those “extended universe” appearances would further fill in gaps left by the Holiday Special, like the proper names of Chewie’s family, not just the nicknames we hear used on the small screen.

A Disturbance in the Force is a must see and has given me a new perspective on the Holiday Special. I was way too young to watch it when it aired and had only seen it on the internet many years later. Disturbance did in fact answer many questions and those not directly addressed can be chalked up to Lucas’ limited involvement and the choice of producers/writers who rushed through the over-budget production. Disturbance is an enjoyable 91-minute film that I will for sure return to a few more times. It’s insightful, Star Wars-related, has many laughs, and shows clips of the Holiday Special, saving me from having to sit through that mess again. I’m also sure many kids in 1978 must have thought “we missed Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk for this sh*t?”  Happy Life Day and may the Force be with you. 

Buy A Disturbance in the Force

Joe Garcia III


  1. Gordon S. Miller on January 10, 2024 at 8:12 pm

    I didn’t remember much beyond it existing, but could not believe how bad that TV special was, outside the cartoon, during my recent watch. Not even so bad it’s good to watch with intoxicated friends.

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