Fantasia 2023 Review: A DISTURBANCE IN THE FORCE, Concise History of THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL
On November 17th, 1978, the Star Wars Holiday Special aired on CBS in America. The special premiered almost a year and a half after the first Star Wars film landed in cinemas and took the world by storm. It aired once in America. Just once. Then it was promptly locked away in the vaults at Lucasfilm, never to be seen again…
Unless you lived in Australia where those lucky bastards got to see it every year for six years between 1979 and 1984.
The story in the Holiday Special follows the events of the first film. Chewbacca and Han Solo attempt to visit the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate "Life Day" but the Empire is hot on their tails. So we follow the day in the life of his father Itchy, his wife Malla, and his son Lumpy; non-verbally grunting as Wookiees do. Various unfunny sketches and musical numbers carry on throughout its run time. It has long been regarded as the worst thing to ever bear the Star Wars label.
The Holiday Special program was partly inspired by Star Wars-themed segments on variety shows like The Donny & Marie Show, the short-lived The Richard Pryor Show and others like Bob Hope’s Christmas Special in 1977. Variety shows were a hot format at the time, sucking all manner of celebrity into their vaccumous black holes. No one escaped the variety show format. Celebrities of the time - Bea Arthur, Art Carney, Diahann Carroll, Harvey Korman and more - had their own special and cringy segments of song, music and comedy in this one time event.
The reason Lucasfilm allowed CBS to make the special was that the sketches like the ones in those previous variety shows helped revive the box office for Star Wars. Naturally everyone wanted to keep the franchise in the minds of the public consciousness. The sequel was still two years away. There was no merchandise unitl the following year. The special would even be the first mention of Boba Fett, who would first appear in the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, in 1980. Fett’s toy wouldn't be out until a year later in '79.
Disturbance is a very entertaining documentary that caters to the casually committed Star Wars fan, like us. We are the simp-iest of simps when it comes to the franchise; we’ll watch every movie and show for the sheer entertainment value alone. Disturbance does well to set the context of when the show was created and gives the reason why it was made. We get a thorough history of production, from all the creatives who were brought in and all who left partway through. It does so with fun anecdotes and stories from those from the production that are still around and Star Wars nerd authorities brought in to talk about it.
It was no surprise to see Seth Green who has a long-standing creative history with Lucasfilm. You get Kevin Smith because he's Kevin Smith. The appearance of Gilbert Godfried drew cries of sympathy when they first appeared. Paul Sheer has emerged as someone with some nerd cred. Taran Killam whom we only know for their time on SNL was cracking funny jokes. Weird Al of course referred to pirated VHS copies of the Holiday Special in the video for their song White And Nerdy. Bruce Vilanch was one of the writers of the Holiday Special, one of the last remaining authorities of the creation of the television event. Most surprising of all was seeing horror icon Mick Garris. We did not know that they operated R2 in the special but they were a receptionist at Lucasfilm at the time that all of this was going on! Uh-whaaaaaaa!?! (Amendment: And we guess there were no woman-identfying nerds before 1980, no one to speak as another voice of authority along with the boys.)
Any of the stars of the movie were not interviewed for the doc. As well, many of the creatives are no longer around so many soundbites are from previous interviews. So a lot of opinions and musings about the Holiday Special come from clips and soundbites. We see clips of Mark Hamill, ever the diplomat, Carrie Fisher, always a firecracker, and Harrison Ford, forever the cantankerous goat (played for laughs in a clip from Late Night with Conan O’Brien). Even Anthony Daniels makes airs of being ‘put off’ by being asked about the Holiday Special in an interview clip. It is almost as if in the back of their minds they hear George Lucas saying, “Let us never speak of this again… or our lawyers will find you”.
We cannot speak for the hardcore fans but we don’t believe there are any big revelations here that haven’t been talked about over the years. As much as Disturbance is a conspectus of what we already know, put together in a light, fun, and accessible format, for the ones who always put in the hours of research there probably is not anything new under the twin suns of Tatooine for them.
We know these hardcore fans. They are the ones who have watched every movie and show frame by frame, the kind of fan who identified the Ghost in the Battle of Scarif in Rogue One on their first watch. They have watched and listened to every interview, every soundbite, and a snippet of information, committing the smallest details to memory. They are the kind of people that we see posting reaction videos to trailers, identifying the most obscure easter eggs. They dream of standing up to Dave Filoni and stumping him. Disturbance is probably not for them but it is a super casual and funny wrap-up of everything they already know about the Holiday Special.
If there are any other takeaways from this experience is that it did prompt me to look into the Holiday Special a little more as we prepared for this review. Follow me down the mental rabbit hole we made for ourselves, specifically about that bit about the special playing in Australia for six years. That bit of info is not in the documentary, but something we found while looking up the original release date and air time. Finding that bit of info out in a quick search gave me some extra context for this doc.
We believe the reason for not mentioning such detail is that it takes away from the mystique of the special’s disappearance in America after airing only once. Also, do not talk about it airing in other countries in Europe and Latin America between 1979 and 1981. Yes, it was still out there in the world, but we can see how mentioning that takes away from the mystery of what is in turn an American-centric story.
We do not know when Disturbance was made and filmed. Was it made during the boom boom times, when international travel was not an option? Star Wars is a global phenomenon. From our quick research the number of countries that the Holiday Special played in, in the years following that first and only airing in America, is limited. But if there are celebrity nerds in those other countries who would have something to say about the Holiday Special we do not know who they are. As our mandate has always been looking out to the rest of the world for genre goodies this other perspective would have been nice.
Disturbance speaks of the legacy of the Holiday Special. November 17th is known to Star Wars fans as Life Day and is forever part of the SWU lexicon (as proven by clips from shows like The Mandalorian). Life Day is celebrated and more importantly, merchandized at Disney theme parks.
Lucasfilm (and Disney for that matter) have always been notoriously stingy regarding quality control of the SWU. We've been begging how long for a decent edition of the original cuts of the original saga. Disturbance is a dare of sorts. Lucasfilm and Disney, you're already cashing in on ideas and concepts presented in the Holiday Special. There is no sense in hiding it from us anymore. We know the Holiday Special exists. Own up to it, simply own it.
The production of Holiday Special was led by two people who were big in the variety show circle but were clearly not Star Wars fans. The format was all the rage back then but it is one that has not aged well. The Holiday Special shall remain a victim of its time. However, it cannot hurt the franchise or the brand anymore as it has become the stuff of myth and legend. Star Wars is impervious to ridicule, what's been said has been said. What was written will not fade away.
It is time to publicly recognize the special place that the Holiday Special has in the SWU.