❉ With 10 new Star Wars serials announced, Don Klees reflects on ‘The Mandalorian’ and the path for Star Wars’ future.
“One year on from The Rise of Skywalker, the path for Star Wars’ future once again seems to be exploring its past… The Mandalorian showcases characters and lore from both the movies and spin-offs, but because the program takes place in a relatively unexplored part of the Star Wars timeline, it has greater latitude to tell a story with wide-ranging continuity implications.”
The five years since Star Wars returned in earnest to pop-culture prominence have been quite Dickensian. In addition to introducing a multitude of evocatively named characters, it’s been the best of times and the worst of times in this long ago, far far away galaxy both on and off-screen. After a period in which Star Wars’ future seemed limited to animation and spin-off media aimed at devoted fans, five movies plus a live-action series that helped erase the embarrassment of the infamous 1978 holiday special have restored much of its mainstream stature. Paradoxically, even as the recent announcement of multiple new Star Wars series empirically affirms that prestige, a vocal segment within fandom seems reflexively disappointed by each new development.
The seeds were planted in 2012 when creator George Lucas sold Lucasfilm and with it the rights for Star Wars to Disney. Some fans were disappointed by the subsequent announcement that the upcoming sequel trilogy would disregard the events of popular novels such as Heir to the Empire. On balance, though, the prospect of new movies with Luke Skywalker and the rest of the original trilogy’s heroes generated genuine excitement about Star Wars for the first time in over a decade. A series of well-crafted trailers built up both anticipation and a sense of mystery ahead of the December 2015 release of The Force Awakens.
Directed by J.J. Abrams who co-wrote the screenplay with Michael Arndt and Star Wars veteran Lawrence Kasdan, The Force Awakens is (to borrow Pauline Karl’s infamous phrase) “a shallow masterpiece” but also one deserving of respect. While it reworks a variety of familiar elements, the film’s triumph lies in re-mythologizing the saga, restoring the once-upon-time feel that the prequel trilogy’s emphasis on trade disputes and parliamentary wrangling diminished. The immense box-office success of this unapologetic crowd-pleaser mirrored the onscreen success of the new and established heroes – an appealing cast of characters led by Harrison Ford as Han Solo – in striking back at this year’s model of the Empire. 2016’s Rogue One likewise struck a balance between commercial and creative accomplishment, redeeming the whole notion of Star Wars prequels in the process, but the equilibrium turned out to be short lived.
Where The Force Awakens foregrounded the legend of Star Wars and why legends matter, the saga’s next chapter, The Last Jedi, examined the philosophy of Star Wars and how legends are often insufficient for dealing with the demands of reality. Writer-director Rian Johnson’s movie bordered on brilliant when focusing on some combination of Rey, Kylo Ren and Luke Skywalker, but the sections involving Leia and other members of the resistance lacked urgency. Nevertheless, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver and especially Mark Hamill all gave standout performances. Critics embraced The Last Jedi, but the movie polarized fans, revealing an ugly side of the fan-base in the process.
Some of the more odious elements within fandom claimed their boycott of the 2018 prequel Solo made it the least successful Star Wars movie at the box office. However, as a practical matter, the film’s behind-the-scenes problems and the general pointlessness of an origin story for Han Solo probably had a far greater impact on its fortunes. The best thing about Solo was spotlighting Lando Calrissian in his younger days. The character’s absence in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi had been much remarked on by fans, and his portrayal by Donald Glover proved far more interesting than the younger incarnation of Han Solo, let alone most of the supporting cast.
In the same way that Lando was the highlight of Solo, Billy Dee Williams reprising the role he originated enlivened the final episode of the sequel trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker. With Han and Luke having died in previous instalments and Leia’s involvement limited by Carrie Fisher’s 2016 death, it fell to Lando to serve as a guiding light for Finn and Poe. His arrival at a pivotal moment in the battle between the Resistance and the resurrected Emperor’s forces was the most rousing moment of a movie that found J.J. Abrams struggling to pull the plot threads from the preceding films together in a satisfying manner.
One year on from The Rise of Skywalker, the path for Star Wars’ future once again seems to be exploring its past. The two seasons to date of The Mandalorian take place about five years after the events of Return of the Jedi and more than two decades prior to those of The Force Awakens. While its story doesn’t directly tie into the sequel trilogy (at least so far), the glimpses shown of the bigger galactic picture make it all the more plausible that the Rebel Alliance won the war but ultimately lost the peace after the fall of the Empire.
The Mandalorian showcases characters and lore from both the movies and spin-offs, but because the program takes place in a relatively unexplored part of the Star Wars timeline, it has greater latitude to tell a story with wide-ranging continuity implications. At its heart, though, is the relationship between its titular character and “the Child” – or, as he’s more popularly known, Baby Yoda. What series creator Jon Favreau and fellow writer-producer Dave Filoni (who worked with George Lucas pre-Disney) understand about Star Wars is that, underlying all the swish hardware and mysticism, the driving force is familial bonds, however unusual they might be.
Even by Star Wars standards, Mandalorian bounty-hunter Din Djarin is an unconventional father figure, especially with Baby Yoda almost certainly being much older than he is, yet their bond is tangible. It’s also very much in keeping with tradition. Going back to the original trilogy, some of the most affecting moments have emerged from unexpected sources. The most enduring is the relationship between R2-D2 and C-3PO, which featured in 10 of the 11 live-action Star Wars movies as well as animated productions and other spin-offs, but it’s just one of many.
Despite its mixed record with regard to representation, nearly all of Star Wars’ iterations have come down on the side that human and non-human characters alike all deserve empathy (if not necessarily sympathy). To the extent that there’s a real difference in approach between the original movies and more recent productions, it lies in making that principle more explicit. As Lucasfilm prepares to produce a variety of Star Wars based TV series over the next few years, one hopes this mindset combined with the appealingly promiscuous approach to genre George Lucas introduced in 1977 will remain front and center.
❉ You can watch The Mandalorian on Disney Plus.
❉ Don Klees has spent many years in the video business. This continues to enrich his life in many ways, chief among them being able to tell people he watches television for a living. An avid consumer of pop – and sometimes not-so-popular – culture, Don is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.