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A new documentary examines the 'Star Wars Holiday Special' and asks: Why?

There might be even more lore about the Star Wars Holiday Special than about the Star Wars universe itself. Aired once in November 1978 on CBS and then locked away beyond the reach of legitimate viewing, it sends Chewbacca back to his home planet to visit his family: his wife, Malla; his father, Itchy; and his son, Lumpy. (Yes. Lumpy.)

The special had guest stars like Bea Arthur and Harvey Korman and original cast members from the movie, including Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford. It was a true variety show, complete with singing and dancing. And skits!

Because it's never been officially released on home video or re-aired, the holiday special became a treasure to superfans, copied and shared on VHS tapes. A new documentary called A Disturbance in the Force looks back on how the special happened, especially under the watchful eye of the notoriously particular George Lucas.

It finds one answer in a delightful examination of the ubiquitous '70s variety show format. If you think the holiday special is bizarre, wait until you see the Star Wars segment on Donny & Marie. Or clips from Wayne Newton's special at SeaWorld, with guest star Shamu.

But the closest thing to a reason for the special has to do with the period between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Lucas and his associates wanted to make sure the fans didn't lose interest between movies, and a holiday special could get kids excited about Star Wars toys for Christmas.

Lucas, who has made his contempt for the special clear, chose to go ahead with it and then tapped out of most of the process, according to some of the people who worked on it. And so, the special was ... very, very strange. And yes, there are many clips.

In the documentary, comedian Paul Scheer looks back in puzzlement on the moment Bea Arthur snuggled up to a giant rat. Writer Bruce Vilanch, who explains the rat by saying "we got a lot of remainder aliens," also says that a cantina scene took forever to film with the cast in hot and unventilated costumes, "but that was only because the aliens kept fainting."

Members of the creative team remember the experience and wrestle with the punchline the special has become. Talking heads — "Weird Al" Yankovic, Gilbert Gottfried, Patton Oswalt, Kevin Smith, Seth Green, Taran Killam — try to explain its legend.

Admittedly, some of this is nerd content for nerds. But even if you just want to see a lot of clips of Harrison Ford looking like he wants to dissolve into goo and seep into the floor, never to be seen again, it's well worth tracking the documentary down.

A Disturbance In The Force is available to rent on the usual streaming services like Apple, Google Play, and YouTube.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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