Where the Apple+ streaming service had to open with a range of new original programming, Disney+ thumped down with a massive back catalogue. It does offer a live action version of The Lady and The Tramp but its most notable new program is the first Star Wars live action series The Mandalorian.
Helmed by John Favreau as chief showrunner, writer and executive producer, the show very much is attempting to bring big cinema visuals to a small screen show (a very small screen if you count my phone). However, of the other names attached to the show (including Kathleen Kennedy and Colin Wilson*) the most relevant is arguably David Filoni.
Filoni’s early career included directing episodes of Avatar:The Last Airbender but is more famous for his work on the animated series Star Wars:The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels. There is a strong sense of The Mandalorian slotting into the ongoing history of Star Wars animated series. Like previous shows, it fits into a historical in-plot gap between films. In this case the setting is in the aftermath of the collapse of the empire after the events of The Return of the Jedi.
Post-Empire the more out of the way planets are even more lawless and violent as they were during the original trilogy. A guild of bounty hunters roam the spaceways looking for wanted criminals and bring them in dead or alive. It’s a Wild West Spaghetti Western galaxy of dusty planets and taciturn men, scattered through with remnants of a defeated army and lost veterans who can’t find peace after years of war.
Of course the intersection of “Spaghetti Western” and “Star Wars” spells “Samurai” and the film legacy of Akira Kurosawa, which is where the whole concept of ‘Mandalorian’ comes into the picture. Wearing Boba Fett like armour, the titular character works as a bounty hunter but is actually a member of a semi-hidden warrior society who live to perfect their armour and follow a kind of religious discipline which includes never taking off their helmet.
“Mando” as the character tends to be called (his fellow Mandolorians are sufficiently secretive that for most people he’s the only Mandalorian they’ve ever met — hence the definite article) extrapolates the Clint Eastwood man-with-no-name to the the man-with-no-name-and-no-face. Where Eastwood’s character rarely let emotion alter his expression, Mando is nothing but a chrome burnished helmet. It is the ultimate expression of the introversion-as-masculinity trope with the ultimate warrior who literally encases his vulnerabilities is impenetrable armour.
It is not surprising then that The Mandalorian is proving to be something of an exception to the Star Wars hate in right wing circles. I think there’s some unsubtle satire going on from Favreau with the masculinity tropes, especially given his past exploration of an armoured character who literally calls himself Iron Man. However, subtle deconstructions/celebrations of masculinity tropes inevitably are taken at a surface level in some quarters (cf Fight Club or the people whose favourite character from Watchmen was Rorscharch).
The show is old-school in another way. Rather than a deeply interconnected serial story, the show is more episodic. After the initial episodes that establish the premise, the show is essentially Mando wandering the galaxy and encountering a different set of characters each week. The guest stars are worth watching (Amy Sedaris as spaceship repairer, Richard Ayoade as a insectoid robot, Werner Herzog as an ex-imperial scientist and an unrecognisable Nick Nolte) but this is a show with few re-occuring characters or settings. With a little introduction you can watch any of the past three episodes in almost any order.
I’m pacing myself here to see how much I can write before mentioning Baby Yoda. The answer is: this far.
The initial episodes featured Mando taking on an apparently close to impossible man hunt commissioned by Werner Herzog (about whom we know little other than he has a gang of very beaten-up Imperial Stormtroopers helping him). The target is described as fifty-years old but I think it is very safe to spoil the reveal that the fifty-year old is an infant who physical resembles Yoda and is presumably a being of the same species.
The internet has gone wild for the infant muppet** because of its almost unbearable cuteness. Even less talkative than Mando, Baby Yoda (officially ‘the child’) is a powerful force user with a toddler’s instincts and a habit of sticking frogs in its mouth. The scenes where the two interact are often pure comedy gold and Baby Yoda elevates the show both as a plot macguffin and as a humanising influence on the central character.
Pedro Pascal does an excellent job of an almost thankless acting task: adding character to a figure who is essentially an almost silent walking suit of armour. The puppeteers working Baby Yoda have an even harder task and that the Baby Yoda/Mando pairing on screen works so well is a testament to the skills and talent of everybody involved.
Worth watching? I really like cartoons with ambitions to be substantial TV and this show feels like a very good animated series that somehow has escaped into live action. I don’t mean that as a put down because there’s been no shortage of good animated TV shows that have been overlooked by wider audiences because cartoons=juvenile in peoples minds. Still, this is a show that often follows the violence conventions of animated shows aimed at older kids. There is a lot of shooting and people do die but it is not gory and at least one episode has resorted to the cliche of showing that the bad-guys were all not actual killed just knocked out and captured despite the implication of the earlier scenes.
The last thing to note is that Disney are deploying the show on a weekly basis rather than indulging in the Netflix binge-watch approach. I believe it is intended to be an eight episode series, with six episodes shown so far.
A retro-futuristic show that gives a great hit of Star Wars aesthetics with a shout-out to classic Westerns.
*[No, not that Colin Wilson but this Colin Wilson]
**[the character is a puppet rather than CGI but I don’t know if it is technically a muppet]