It’s been a hectic five years of Star Wars filmed entertainment, but the dust has finally settled. Time to take stock of what we’ve seen, and what it all tells us about the future of the franchise.
The Mandalorian season 1 finale dropped on Disney+ Friday; the final film in the Skywalker Saga arrived in theaters the previous Friday. For the first time since before the Episode VII (not yet The Force Awakens) release date was announced in 2013, we do not have a specific date for when we will see our next live-action Star Wars.
We know only this: It’ll be on our TVs, not on the big screen.
A mini-series about Obi-Wan Kenobi, starring Ewan MacGregor, is on its way courtesy of director Deborah Chow, who proved her mettle helming excellent Mandalorian episodes. That will probably go into production in 2020. A prequel series starring Rogue One’s Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and sassy droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) will follow, as will The Mandalorian Season 2, which is set to drop Fall 2020.
Meanwhile, on the “film” side of, um, Lucasfilm? Well, Last Jedi director Rian Johnson is still working on his trilogy, and Marvel’s Kevin Feige is developing a Star Wars film of his own. No titles or subject matter has been announced for either; we know only that Johnson’s story takes place in the same galaxy, but far, far away from the characters and concepts we know.
And that’s all she (Kathy Kennedy) wrote. The Game of Thrones guys’ film series got canned; the untitled Kenobi project was turned from a spin-off film into a Disney+ series in the wake of Solo’s disappointing box office. Now more than ever, the future of Star Wars is streaming on the small screen.
This turn of events was not inevitable. It’s hard to recall now we’re living in the age of Baby Yoda, but success was far from assured for The Mandalorian. It was the first Star Wars live-action TV show. It was expensive, said to be as much as $15 million an episode. And yet it was also sparse and slow-moving in parts, deliberately aping the style and pace of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns. The lead actor spent (almost) all his time under a helmet.
Plus, so far as we knew at the time, almost every piece of Star Wars seemed to divide fans into lovers and haters. The wars over the Wars raged endlessly online; two years after The Last Jedi, detractors still couldn’t let it go on social media.
But The Mandalorian was, in social media terms, nothing short of a miracle. Hardcore fandom was almost entirely united in its love, and casual fans flocked to see the green kid. The Mandalorian took Game of Thrones’ place as the most streamed, most pirated show in the world.
It wasn’t that the show was Golden Age TV, exactly; it’s still Star Wars, replete with scenery-chewing, simplistic or clunky dialogue, and pew-pew noises. It’s more that the show exists so hard in the Star Wars universe. It’s a slow burn that parcels its mythology out at just the right sparing pace to generate wonder, and keeps its characters ignorant of some important tropes. (Eight episodes in, not one character has used the words “the Force.”)
The upshot is a constant emotional payoff. You’re happy just to be there, to be transported to the relatively lawless bounty-hunting Outer Rim planets, in the company of two vulnerable characters that adult viewers can care desperately about. (So desperately do we worry for Baby Yoda’s well-being, in fact, that this may be the first family show that is scarier for adults to watch than for kids.)
There are moments of wonderful mundanity, such as the opening scene of the finale: just two biker scout troopers shooting the breeze as they wait for orders from an officer. The scene plays as light comedy, but it’s also so believable, in a “poor working saps” kind of way, that we are utterly immersed, all disbelief suspended.
Contrast that with The Rise of Skywalker, which is so all-over-the-place you almost want to prescribe it Ritalin. That’s not entirely the fault of director J.J. Abrams, though he does deserve to be dinged for not hewing to one essential rule of good storytelling, at the very least. It’s more that, well, any attempt to wrap up a closely-followed, piecemeal-constructed nine-movie saga is going to be jam-packed with stuff. Some of the explanation you seek is either on the cutting room floor, or in books released to help make sense of the film.
Abrams was not working from scratch; he had to build on the scaffold of a story by Colin Trevorrow, and he had to use old footage of the late Carrie Fisher to wrap up a story that was originally supposed to focus on her character. It was a hell of a needle to thread, especially when you know in advance that a large chunk of fandom is going to hate whatever answers you provide.
Creating a Skywalker Saga film in these days of high expectations and vituperative internet criticism has long been a thankless task; just ask prequel-era George Lucas.
Compared to that salt-mine-style operation, Mandalorian showrunners Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni were in the lap of luxury. The first season’s total runtime was 5 hours 15 minutes, compared to 2 hours 40 for Rise of Skywalker; Team Favreau-Filoni had space and time to breathe.
Fans had been writing the end of the sequel trilogy in their heads for years, to the point where almost nothing on the screen could measure up. But with The Mandalorian, we had few expectations and no clue where it was going, so it was free to surprise and delight. (As it did at the end of episode 1, when the Baby Yoda twist turned a Sergio Leone homage into a Lone Wolf and Cub homage.) With a mere week between episodes, instead of two years, there was little time for fan theories to metastasize online.
Which director would want to sign up to a Star Wars movie now, especially given the high redundancy rate among Star Wars movie directors? Who wouldn’t want to do a Disney+ show instead, where expectations are lower and your degree of freedom is that much greater?
The past and future of Star Wars
Ultimately, what we may be learning here is that television is Star Wars’ natural habitat. That may have been the case all along, in fact; one of the reasons George Lucas hated the famously awful 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special is that it squashed his plans for a Star Wars TV series that could kick the crap out of Glen Larson’s Battlestar Galactica. (That show had syphoned off many of the artists and special effects gurus he’d used on the first movie.)
Fast forward to 2005, after the prequels ended, and Lucas once again turned his attention to live-action TV. Directing his artists to try to reverse-engineer the far superior 2004 Battlestar Galactica reboot, hiring writers including Galactica’s Ronald D. Moore, Lucas ended up with more than 50 scripts for a show called Star Wars Underworld.
It was pitched as “The Godfather in space,” which piqued the interest of executives at ABC. But Lucas’ insistence on adding podracing scenes — yeah, really — kept breaking the budget.
Underworld never went into production, but the interesting fact remains: way, way more hours of Star Wars TV entertainment have been written than Star Wars movies. It’s not even close. And while we’re talking TV, the same goes for Lucasfilm’s animated TV: Clone Wars (six seasons and counting), Rebels (four seasons) and Resistance (two seasons and counting).
By referencing and picking up concepts from these shows — like the Darksaber — The Mandalorian is actually more in line with the bulk of Star Wars storytelling than The Rise of Skywalker was.
As services like Disney+ help it to grow, all this content will effectively blend into the same thing, a continuous streaming vertical. The movies will be increasingly dwarfed. Our grandkids will probably think of the Skywalker Saga as a subcategory, a way-old mini-series of nine episodes, albeit double-length ones. Under the “Extras” tab on the app, perhaps: a couple of double-length specials titled Rogue One and Solo, plus a couple of Ewok-themed episodes and a Holiday show.
The Mandalorian, though, that will have its own category that our grandkids will know. Because with a couple of main characters who thrive on mystery, a long-term quest to return one of them home that we never want to end, and one of the scariest TV villains since the same guy played Gus Fring, Favreau’s show looks like it could run and run. This is the way, indeed.
The Rise of Skywalker — for coming generations, that’s a single forgettable finale in another kind of saga. But who could forget the first live-action Star Wars TV show, starring an ever-more-realistic cutest creature in existence?