Review by C.J. Bunce

Jawas, Ugnaughts, and Bounty Hunters… oh, my.

With three episodes in and a new episode dropping today on the new Disney+ streaming service, it’s time to dig into the latest entry in the Star Wars universe.  Great music, callbacks to prior Star Wars elements, and the best alien creations of any sci-fi or fantasy that have come along in years provide fans a lot to talk about.  With a complete story arc, and what is essentially a new, full-fledged Star Wars movie in the A Star Wars Story vein, The Mandalorian might be the greatest innovation in the Star Wars saga since the original movie that started it off back in 1977.

If there are faults in The Mandalorian, it is in its faithfulness to George Lucas’s world building.  Sometimes that includes clunky, simple dialogue.  Sometimes that includes characters with names that lack creativity (such as a mercenary named Greef, since a General Grievous wasn’t enough).  Sometimes that includes lack of rich character development and layered storytelling.  That said, there is so little fan service in the major creative franchises, so that when–at last–someone is listening to fandom, and the people pulling the strings grew up with the original trilogy like they did (I’m talking about you, Dave Filoni and Jon Favreau), and they artfully deliver in such a satisfying way, well, the perceived faults just don’t seem to matter.  The Mandalorian is the dream of every kid who lived through Star Wars in multiple viewings in the theater in 1977.  Every kid who played with a Jawa in a plastic Kenner Sandcrawler.  Every kid who had action figures of Boba Fett, IG-88, and Bossk, battling each other, and mashed up his/her Ugnaught action figure from The Empire Strikes Back with a patrol dewback toy from the first movie.  And every kid who still thinks Boba Fett can’t be surpassed as the word “cool” is defined, despite lots of variants on the character in the prequels and animated shows.  All that plus so, so many Easter eggs to find.

But The Mandalorian probably couldn’t have happened before now.  It relies on the effectiveness of Roger Christian’s lived-in distressed look of buildings and objects replicated so well in Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One in 2016.  It relies on the confidence that the Western is not dead, as tried on for size in Ron Howard’s Solo in 2018.  And it even skips over The Empire Strikes Back to find what may be a simple Western story framework as seen in Lucas’s original Star Wars, itself an interpretation of Akira Kurosawa and Jin Yong’s legendary heroic adventures.  In good writer style, it has all those beats needed so that the first three episodes could have been released with only little tweaks in theaters, and shown on the big screen, as a standalone.  Say, The Mandalorian: A Star Wars Story, as a major motion picture.  You need a good story and good writing, regardless of genre, to grab viewers.  This first tale may not be complex, but compare it to the first three episodes of any other sci-fi or fantasy series or any movie, and it’s The Mandalorian that rises above the rest.

We’ve raved here at borg before several times about score after score created by composer Ludwig Göransson (Community, Creed, Black Panther, Venom, Angie Tribeca).  If, as both Lucas and Steven Spielberg have said over the years, half the success of their films is due to John Williams’s music, then the same goes for Göransson with The Mandalorian.  He’s been referred to as tapping into Ennio Morricone’s “spaghetti Western” themes.  But if you listen closely you’ll hear more, unique themes as well as callouts to all kinds of evocative, programmatic reference points.  When the show’s protagonist meets repeatedly with a religious representative at The Mandalorian sanctuary, you can sense James Horner’s Vulcan themes at the fal-tor-pan altar from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.  And yes, the Clint Eastwood era Western tones are there, too, particularly in repeating cues of hoofbeats and the echo of clanking spurs while the hero assesses each new situation.

If audiences would have been introduced to the three-episode story of The Mandalorian in 1980 instead of The Empire Strikes Back, they would have gone just as crazy for it.  And the proof is in the character known only as The Child.  Compared to what was the greatest new creation of The Empire Strikes Back, The Child–especially once it leaves its pod to walk on its own and interact with the show’s hero–is just as fantastic and engaging.  Audiences know this is a major feat because they’ve seen Lucas himself try to re-create that wonder in a similar way in his prequel films.  If this isn’t the next best thing to the original Star Wars, it’s certainly the next best thing to The Empire Strikes Back.

In fact all of the non-human characters up the ante for the genre.  Since the original trilogy, it’s been the Doctor Who series that has provided the most fantastical aliens of sci-fi and fantasy films and TV shows.  Finally the makeup and alien creations in Star Wars have arrived, from Trandoshans (that look even better than Bossk) to an Ugnaught (voiced by Nick Nolte) that far surpasses earlier versions in the original trilogy to an entire den of aliens of the Mos Eisley cantina variety.  Credit the cutting edge makeups of Carlton Coleman (The Orville, Bright, Captain Marvel), The Orville and Tombstone costume designer Joseph A. Porro, and the Industrial Light & Magic effects team in London as the next triple threat in film.

Yes, there are things to critique, like all episodes too short (31 minutes!?) and a first season that looks to last only eight episodes and come in under five hours total while other streaming series are at nine, but The Mandalorian is still the best outer space TV series in years.  The dialogue is surprising and funny.  Audiences are treated to a new mythology with the Mandalorian religion apart from the Force that has dominated the saga so far.  All this and we haven’t even met the characters played by Gina Carano and Giancarlo Esposito yet.  Is anyone not hoping to see “Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in Carbonite” by the end of the first season?  Then there is Pedro Pascal, who plays the title character.  He could be voicing the character only and we wouldn’t know because of the helmet.  Yet his moves are quick and certain.  The Old West is far from dead.  Audiences are seeing the beginnings of the next great gunslinger, just via a 21st century actor.

The future of Star Wars is now.  The first four episodes of The Mandalorian are streaming today on the Disney+ streaming service.