'A Disturbance in the Force' Tells a Tale of Hubris, Stupidity, and Plain Old Greed

'A Disturbance in the Force' Tells a Tale of Hubris, Stupidity, and Plain Old Greed

4 min read

New documentary explores the origins of the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special

I wrote a piece some time ago suggesting Return of the Jedi was partly a product of cocaine. It was (mostly) a joke, though some of the performances make you wonder. <cough Harrison Ford cough> We don't have to wonder about The Star Wars Holiday Special. It's obvious.

There's also the fact that The Holiday Special co-writer Bruce Vilanch admitted he was heavily into cocaine while working on the project.

Tell me something I don't already know, Bruce. I have eyes and also common sense. Cocaine and writers are like the union of the Two Towers—a force to be reckoned with, but the joining is more likely to produce nothing but pain and misery.

The Star Wars Holiday Special aired once, in 1978, and has since lived in infamy.

Apart from bootleg copies passed around like old Playboys, you couldn't watch The Holiday Special prior to the internet. George Lucas did his darnedest to ensure you didn't, which only stoked fan curiosity. Even though Disney now owns Star Wars and has its own streaming service, you will only find The Holiday Special on YouTube. (I'm providing a link only to reinforce that statement, not as an endorsement. You really don't want to watch it. Trust me. Some of you will click anyway out of spite or contrariness or simple curiosity, so let me skip ahead and say I told you so.)

For a long time, The Holiday Special was just a terrible rumor, something every 80s and 90s kid somehow knew about even though our social networks began and ended with the playground. The very idea was outlandish, and therefore really no different from hearing Marilyn Manson had ribs removed so he could perform fellatio on himself or that Richard Gere liked to stuff gerbils where the sun didn't shine. I don't know how and where such rumors started, but they found their way to every kid in pre-internet America. And we believed, in part because everyone had heard the same thing.

If you weren't there at the time, it's hard to articulate just how big Star Wars was in the pre-Prequel era. Star Wars is still kinda a big deal, but after the dry Prequels and Disney's uneven tenure, the Saga has lost some of its luster. Prior to the Prequels, Star Wars had only ever been awesome. When people talked about The Trilogy—yes, capitalized; put some respect on that name—they only meant Star Wars.

So the idea of a legendarily-awful Star Wars production was way harder to believe than rumors about celebrities' weird sexual appetites. That George Lucas could make something so terrible literally did not compute. Even though he was responsible for Howard the Duck, a movie in which Lea Thompson spends most of her time trying to shag a giant talking duck. That was different. This is Star Wars we're talking about. Star Wars.

Though I have been a Star Wars fan my entire life, I didn't see The Holiday Special until I was an adult. In some ways, that made it much worse. Children often suppress traumatic events, or have a way of overlooking unquestionably horrible things, like Grandpa Wookiee watching VR porn in the living room. Adults have a harder time unseeing and forgetting.

After watching The Holiday Special, you're left with only the one question—after all the WTFs work their way out of your system—how the hell did this happen?

It was one of life's great mysteries, like the Bermuda Triangle or Pete Davidson's effect on women. And now, thanks to A Disturbance in the Force, we finally have some answers.

The documentary gets the story directly from the people involved with the special, and includes interviews with geek luminaries like Seth Green, Kevin Smith, and Patton Oswalt to provide context. It's everything the source material is not—interesting, well-structured, funny, full of humanity—and though I won't go so far as to say the documentary makes me want to revisit The Holiday Special, at least now I understand how the train got off the tracks.

There's plenty of blame to go around.

I'm not going to spoil the story because I think the documentary is a must-see. There's something cathartic about watching a bunch of celebrity fans dunking on The Holiday Special and swapping stories about the lengths they went to watch it. But more than simple entertainment value, the documentary places us in the proper place and time to truly appreciate how The Holiday Special came to be.

Putting Star Wars into a 1970s variety show format—with all the musical numbers and hokey jokes—sounds like a terrible idea in retrospect. But as the documentary explores, that's how marketing was done at the time. Before The Holiday Special was even a coke-fueled fever dream, Star Wars was already on the variety circuit to keep the fledging franchise top of mind. The Donny and Marie Star Wars episode is perhaps even worse than The Holiday Special and it predates the special by an entire year.

You probably wouldn't be surprised to hear some of the motivation behind the special has to do with toys. What even is Star Wars without toys? For just over a year, the world had one without the other and kids were slowly losing their minds. Imagine getting a coupon for Christmas promising four Star Wars action figures in 2 to 6 months and being pumped about it.

I'd like to nominate those kids for the greatest generation. They're the real heroes.

A Disturbance in the Force is for Star Wars fans, writers and artists, and people who enjoy true crime.

A Disturbance in the Force is available basically everywhere that offers digital rentals and purchases, and also Amazon.