Disney+’s attention-grabbing debut Star Wars TV series, The Mandalorian, is already a quarter of the way through its eight episode run (I know, crazy!) and it’s becoming clear this isn’t just a case of serving up space mutton dressed as intergalactic lamb.
This is a Western disguised as a Sci-fi story (like a lot of Sci-fi stories are – Star Trek was first pitched as a “wagon-train to the stars”). A classic tale of the mysterious loner who walks into town and ends up doing good, almost in spite of himself. In another time he could have been played by John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. Here, an unnamed Mandalorian, takes on a high-paying bounty to hunt someone down and preferably bring them back alive. No spoilers, but the identity of the bounty is revealed at the end of episode one and skews the series in an interesting direction.
Pedro Pascal’s Mandalorian speaks little, swaggers a lot, and shoots fast like all good western gunslingers should. It’s a testament to Joe Johnston’s original design of the armour that it instantly conveys so much character. A lot of time is spent showing just how self-sufficient this loner is, from repairing his own armour to his rage when his ship is ransacked. He is a character of determination bred from desperation – he needs the money to survive, so does whatever it takes to get the job done. Be that walking through the desert or facing down a charging beast with just a pen-knife. He’s one tough MF but he’s not indestructible and that weakness is the key to making The Mandalorian a story you want to watch. For a man in armour, he has a soft side. It may just be me, but even wrapped in that armour, he is sexy AF.
Taika Waititi’s android bounty hunter IG-11 is quirky, but relatively tame for Waititi. Another entry in the long line of quixotic androids in Star Wars, it adds a nice bit of black comedy to the show that left me wanting more. Werner Herzog’s unnamed “client” is menacing and I can’t wait for more appearances by him. It’s a strange and joyous thing to hear one of the world’s most renowned directors saying words like “parsec” and “Beskar”.
At first I was worried The Mandalorian would suffer from the same “decompressed” storytelling a lot of streaming series do – two hours of story spread out over 13 episodes – but now with only six episodes to go, I’m worried there won’t be enough time to let the story play out. We’ve seen hints of the Mandalorian’s childhood and glimpses of characters that are sure to return. We have an ongoing mystery that needs unravelling. Set in a neat pocket of the Star Wars timeline (between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens – an era relatively unexplored in the Star Wars universe so far) so our skilled but slightly desperate Mandalorian slips neatly into that timeline, dancing deftly between the rain-drops of Star Wars’ continuity without getting too wet.
The show is instantly recognizable as Star Wars. The design work drops you right back into the world of the original trilogy and show-runner Jon Favreau and director’s Dave Filoni (Chapter One) and Rick Famuyiwa (Chapter Two) don’t stray far from the established visual language we’re so familiar with. The use of practical effects reminds you of the original Star Wars trilogy, there are puppets and prosthetics everywhere, and the use of hand-held camera work helps ground the show.
If there’s one thing Star War loves, it’s a good call-back and The Mandalorian is littered with them. A desert planet Arvala-7 that could be Jakku or Tatooine (it even has Jawas). We get bounty hunters who look like the ones we saw in The Empire Strikes Back. We get Blurrgs (first seen in the Ewok films – which aren’t in continuity, it’s a long story – and revived in The Clone Wars and Rebels). We get a cantina scene (like in A New Hope and repeated in The Force Awakens) and so much more.
The familiar armour he wears was first seen in the hilarious Star Wars Holiday Special (also not in continuity), when viewers were introduced to the character Boba Fett in an animated sequence, but is probably better remembered from Fett’s appearance in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. To be clear – BOBA FETT IS NOT A MANDALORIAN! HE JUST WEARS THE ARMOUR! Sorry for the caps, but it’s an error that has crept into a few reviews I’ve read, so I just wanted to clear that up. Boba Fett had only a small role in Empire Strikes Back but the impact the character made would turn him into an instant fan favourite. He just looked bad-ass!
Mandalorian society was fleshed out a lot in The Clone Wars and Rebels – a martial race with a love of weapons and heraldry. Think of them as a kind of medieval knights in space. At one point our titular character says “I’m a Mandalorian. Weapons are part of my religion”. But at this point in their history, the Mandalorian people have suffered through the rise and fall of the Empire and are no longer the proud, militaristic people they once were. It will be interesting to see them explored further throughout the series.
There are some clunky bits for sure. The puppetry will throw people more used to CG effects. The theme music isn’t very Star Wars’ (but it does suit the show). The pace might be a little slow. But none of these are deal-breakers. The Mandalorian continues the trend of blurring the line between cinema sci-fi and episodic TV.
So far The Mandalorian is delivering exactly what you want from a live action Star Wars TV show and giving us something different from the animated series and live action films. For all the “Star Wars-signalling” elements, this is not a deep dive into geek-dom – there’s plenty for a casual viewer to enjoy. The only problem I have now is having to wait a week for the next episode!
By Chad Armstrong
The first two episodes of The Mandalorian are streaming now on Disney+