Last week’s second season finale of Disney’s online serial The Mandalorian certainly grabbed the Internet’s attention, with an action-packed climax, more than one historical Star Wars cameo, and the surprise announcement of yet another short-run series due for release in 2021. It has been fascinating to view the varied reaction to The Mandalorian this year, largely because it has perfectly illustrated the growing Balkanisation of Star Wars fandom.
Star Wars was, and remains, a cultural phenomenon. Originally a single movie trilogy with a long tail of toys and merchandise, it has since expanded to include prequels, sequels, spin-offs, cartoons, novels, and videogames. None of this is likely to be new information for anybody reading; as a pop culture monolith it is all quite difficult to escape or ignore. Since 2012 the entire Star Wars franchise has been in Disney’s hands, generating more material than ever, but arguably with it in its wobbliest creative state ever. That Star Wars can be hugely profitable for Disney has never been in doubt. Finding the best way to generate that profit has been a process of second-guessing, corporate indecision, and general confusion.
It is clear that Disney initially perceived Star Wars as a strong stablemate to their hugely successful Marvel Studios. That series advanced so fast since its debut with Iron Man (2008) that it was releasing as many as 3-4 mega-budget franchise pictures a year before COVID-19 shut the cinemas down. Star Wars launched with an expectation of something similar: a new trilogy of sequels, interspersed with spin-offs and prequels, released one film a year each December. Put bluntly, the strategy for one fictional universe was not appropriate for the other. Marvel successfully expanded through diversity: an Iron Man film was not tonally identical to a Guardians of the Galaxy film, or a Thor movie. Tonally speaking, however, Star Wars films are broadly identical – their aesthetic homogeneity forms part of their core appeal.
Think of it this way: the first six Star Wars films produced by George Lucas were released between 1977 and 2005. Disney’s first five Star Wars films came out between 2015 and 2019. When Lucas separated each of his episodes by three years apiece, it gave time for audiences to anticipate the next instalment. When Disney adopted an annual schedule inside a much more competitive and over-crowded market, audiences were never given a chance to anticipate anything. (2019, which featured The Rise of Skywalker, featured close to 50 studio-backed sequels, remakes, and spin-offs.)
Add in some embarassing second-guessing and changes of directors on Rogue One, Solo, and The Rise of Skywalker and it all led to a staggering case of diminishing returns. Seeing the theatrical box office in decline, Disney clearly panicked. There are now no Star Wars films coming until the end of 2023.
Enter The Mandalorian in late 2019. It was released at a genuinely odd time, directly competing for media attention with The Rise of Skywalker in theatres and a high-profile videogame Jedi: Fallen Order. As a launch title for the new streaming service Disney+ it wound up getting quite a lot of attention, and given the sniffy reviews given to Skywalker was widely praised – particularly by the hardcore fandom – in comparison. Combined with Disney’s post-Skywalker announcement that the films were ‘taking a break’ for a few years, The Mandalorian was effectively Star Wars‘ flagship production going into 2020.
And what a difference a year makes. The once-touted film prequels based around characters Obi-Wan Kenobi and Boba Fett are now Disney+ serials. So is Andor, a serialised prequel to the film Rogue One. Add in Ahsoka, Rangers of the New Republic, Lando, and The Acolyte, and Disney has confirmed eight all-new live-action series – plus a third season of The Mandalorian all to launch over the next two or three years. Animated series continue as well: The Clone Wars continues via the spin-off The Bad Batch, and Droids has been announced too. It seems very much that at a corporate level Disney took one piece of evidence – that an annual film schedule was flooding the market – to shut down Star Wars movies – while taking another piece of evidence – that The Mandalorian was very popular – to justify doing the exact opposite on streaming television. There is more Star Wars in production now than ever – it is difficult to see how this level of familiarity isn’t going to breed contempt.
Here is the thing: The Mandalorian is to my mind a poor model for the future of Star Wars, and copying its format eight times between now and 2023 will simply compound that problem. Of course I could easily be wrong, but even if I am I remain one hundred per cent certain that the Star Wars franchise that will be established by 2023 will not resemble the franchise that relaunched with The Force Awakens in 2015.
I think one of the main reasons for Star Wars‘ original success in 1977 was the vast breadth of design work that made it a more dynamic and varied science fiction setting audiences had ever seen. There was an unprecedented variety of starships, aliens, robots, costumes, and planets depicted in each film.
An entire generation of children became obsessed with the tsunami of action figures and playsets that followed – and it became the world’s most successful toy range precisely because of that plurality of design. Every strange humanoid or monster could become a toy. Most background characters in the films never got names on-screen, of course, so that audience learned the names of everyone from Bossk to Boba Fett by buying the toys. It is an aspect of Star Wars that often goes unmentioned: almost every character, no matter how minor, was commodified and turned into a 4-inch plastic figurine that gained new significance for the child who played with it. For cynical adults the wide array of content was an excuse for Lucasfilm to license toys. For the children of the time, while not consciously realising it, the toys were a narrative extension of the film’s fictional universe.
The Mandalorian‘s executive producer Jon Favreau was 10 years old when Star Wars first hit theatres. His fellow EP Dave Filoni was almost nine when Return of the Jedi premiered. The Mandalorian is the first major Star Wars screen project produced by the exact generation that played with Star Wars toys in their childhood – and it shows.
Take the Star Wars sequels as an example. They introduce all manner of new alien species, organisations, planets, droids, and designs. Regardless of one’s opinion of the films themselves – and, of course, opinions vary considerably – they are aggressive in creating new visual content, just as the original and prequel trilogies did before them. The Mandalorian essentially does the opposite: it opens up an effective ‘toy box’ of elements produced for the first six Star Wars films, and re-arranges them into new patterns. It begins with a character resembling fan favourite Boba Fett in all but name, and has him protecting ‘baby Yoda’ from all manner of challenges including Stormtroopers, Jawas, Sand People, and more. Much of the joy of the series for long-term fans comes from recognising continuity references – and those references cut remarkably deep, referencing everything from old novels and videogames to the Star Wars Holiday Special. For viewers in their 40s and 50s, episodes are littered with references to the original trilogy. For viewers in their 30s, episodes reference and recall the sequels. For teens and twentysomethings, the characters and situations invented in The Clone Wars and Rebels cartoons are continued and expanded in a new live-action context. There is a reason The Mandalorian derives so much content from previous Star Wars iterations: the series is deliberately nostalgia in a box.
I do not think it is a coincidence, given the people behind the new series. I also do not think this is necessarily a problem: fans like this kind of continuity referencing. I have had considerable issues with the quality of writing and acting on The Mandalorian for both seasons, but even I experience a momentary frisson of nostalgia when I recognise a character or planet from my childhood (except for Tatooine; good lord, for a planet allegedly the furthest from the bright centre of the universe, people travel there an awful lot. I’m beginning to think young Luke was petulantly exaggerating when complaining to C3PO).
The Mandalorian is also seemingly designed to take advantage of the contemporary online world and its dedicated fans: each episode is made available more or less simultaneously around most of the developed world, and in the days that follow licensors announce new toys and novelties based on content from that latest episode – all available online for immediate pre-order. If Star Wars was historically a merchandise machine, Disney has effectively transformed it into a factory line.
The Mandalorian is a deliberately derivative work: it has no focus on generating anything new, but rather in remixing well-worn elements for a pre-existing audience. It feels almost literally like watching two boys – one nine, one ten – playing out their own scenarios with action figures. No wonder so many fans adore it, particularly ones that appeared to bristle at the sequels highlighting new characters at the expense of old favourites. Indeed the only segment of Star Wars fandom excluded from The Mandalorian‘s appeal are those that actually liked seeing the sequels attempt something new, and whose desire for quality writing exceeds their desire to see a resurrected Boba Fett.
This is where the so-called Balkanisation of the fandom becomes relevant. It seems to happen to all long-running cultural artefacts that last for a few decades. It is the process wherein a superficially single fandom has actually split into multiple and simultaneous ‘fandoms’. New material brings new viewers, but that same new material infuriates older ones. Ardent fans of the original film trilogy bristled at the prequels, while at the same time newer, often much younger fans became fans of Star Wars via those same prequels. There are discrete sub-sets of fans for whom Star Wars is Luke, Han, and Leia – and those for whom it is Rey, Finn, and Poe, or Anakin, Padme, and Obi-Wan, or even Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Ahsoka.
The longer a media franchise goes on, the more of these specific sub-sets of fandom develop. The more sub-sets that develop, the more potential there is for an pre-existing fan to dislike new parts of the franchise. If you are one of the ones doing the disliking, it can be a particularly upsetting experience: with so much emotion invested in the setting, the stories, and the characters, seeing it done in a manner you do not enjoy can genuinely feel like betrayal. For fans who do appreciate the new part it can be tedious in the extreme to be harangued and argued with, when all they wish to do is enjoy the film or TV series. These splits form social fissures, and inevitably break fandoms. In some fandoms – Doctor Who springs to mind – the franchise can develop so many factions that you would swear the majority of self-proclaimed fans despise whatever the current series happens to be.
Perhaps the most difficult part to accept for fans is that, to a large degree, no one is actually wrong. One can be a Star Wars fan and adore The Mandalorian. One can despise the series and remain a fan of the franchise overall. What seems missing to my mind is a dialogue between these splintering factions: just as there is nothing wrong with liking a new iteration, there is nothing wrong with disliking it either. Someone else’s opinion should not be taken as an attack on an individual’s own, and debating the merits of the text usually raises fresh perspectives and insights. (As a personal example, my appreciation of 1990s cult hit Babylon 5 is much greater now than it was 20 years ago directly because I debated its merits with other fans.)
Gendered or racist attacks on a series are another matter, and should be treated with the contempt they deserve. To The Mandalorian‘s credit, the series is serving its female characters in particular an awful lot better than the films ever did (let’s just say Luke’s deduction that Leia is his sister is not the stunning moment of insight he thinks it is).
Ultimately, however, the series does not work for me. I have watched both seasons to date, and while I have shared the same little thrill each time a pre-existing element turns up, altogether I think it is a poor approach. I think it would likely have worked better had The Mandalorian stayed under the shadow of the films, as an indulgent side project aimed directly at pleasing the hardcore. The uneven quality of The Rise of Skywalker and Disney’s subsequent cancellation of future films (until 2023, at least), have shifted The Mandalorian‘s prominence – and therefore its responsibility to the overall franchise.
Consuming your back catalogue for hits and cover versions only takes you so far. If you don’t fill the well with new ideas at the same time, however, you eventually run out of water. Shows like The Mandalorian eat into long-running franchises more than they build upon them. A historical example is Doctor Who during the 1980s. The series finished the previous decade as one of the BBC’s most successful children’s programmes. After its new producer actively filled the serials with returning monsters, villains, and guest characters, Doctor Who‘s viewing figures fell by close to 75 per cent. Sure, other factors were involved in the series’ 1989 cancellation, but the creative equivalent of a snake eating its own tail really did not help.
If you had asked me a year ago about The Mandalorian I would have out-and-out condemned it: bad writing, bad characters, no ideas. This year the series has improved considerably – and I honestly commend its cast and crew for that – but it is still a derivative work. As a supporting text, akin to a videogame or an animated series, it it perfectly appropriate. As the cornerstone for an entire expanding multi-series franchise, it overwhelmingly seems like a creatively weak – not to mention franchise-threatening – thing to do. Disney needs to get back to large-scale, epic Star Wars films as soon as they can. Nostalgia eventually runs dry without new content to inspire it.