For decades, Star Wars TV shows found themselves on the dark side of critics. And rightly so. From the bizarre Muppet-Babies-style animation of spin-off Ewoks, to the psychedelic cooking sequences of the infamous the Holiday Special, small screen Star Wars was considered a pale force ghost of the movies.
But then something strange happened: the TV shows got good. Really good. In fact, good enough to make you think the movies are no longer necessary.
It’s an argument that starts with The Mandalorian. Launching to critical-acclaim on Disney Plus, Jon Favreau’s expertly-crafted series gifted viewers a fleshed-out and fun-filled character study of mysterious and fallible lone bounty hunter (Pedro Pascal) as he outguns mercenaries and Empire troops. And, unless you’ve been living under a GCI rock inserted for the Bu-Ray release, it’s the show that gave viewers Baby Yoda, a character with arguably a bigger cultural impact than Rey, Kylo Ren and Poe Dameron put together.
Much to fans’ pleasant surprise, animated series The Clone Wars has also eclipsed Star Wars’ big-screen offerings. Despite its ill-received first season, the later seasons of the family-friendly show took a deep dive into Anakin Skywalker’s turn to the dark side with compellingly layered storytelling not seen in movie rival Revenge of Sith.
Season seven of the Clone Wars – the finale of which is available to watch this Star Wars Day on Disney Plus – currently sits on an impressive, most impressive, 100% score on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Similarly, The Mandolorian shines with a 93% ranking, with an identical audience rating.
The Rise of Skywalker, however? 52%. A rating incredibly disappointing for what was hoped to be the triumphant conclusion to the Skywalker saga, something the fandom desperately needed after mixed reactions to The Last Jedi.
So why the growing gap between the TV and film series? One key answer: a small screen season is just intrinsically better at exploring a galaxy far far away. Not only does more screentime mean TV outings are better at establishing a fully-realised universe, but their structure encourages better – and more collaborative – Star Wars storytelling.
It’s all about a solid framework. You see, your average sci-fi TV season tends to follow one central arc – a single thread that follows, however loosely, through all episodes. Individual instalments may vary wildly in tone and setting, but this one thread stabilises all. If rooted firmly enough, this central arc allows writers to create stories that branch off far from the initial premise while still feeling part of a larger tale.
This collaborative series structure isn’t only the secret to the success of modern Doctor Who and Star Trek, but The Mandalorian has demonstrated it can work wonders for Star Wars too. While the entire series was grounded on the titular gunslinger’s attempts to keep Baby Yoda out of Empire hands, each episode pulled the show in vastly different directions.
In its 10-episode run, there was a high-adrenaline heist story (The Prisoner), a more intimate character study (Sanctuary) and a full-on nostalgia fest with comedic undertones (The Gunslinger). All of these instalments had vastly different tones. All were from different writers. All explored different areas of the Star Wars mythos. Yet all of them, thanks to following a principal arc, felt completely coherent.
The sequel trilogy, however, didn’t have this. Say what you want about each individual movie, but together, they just didn’t work as one story. They weren’t the product of a singular vision. They were jumbled, both tonally and narratively.
From Captain Phasma, to Finn’s Stormtrooper guilt and Supreme Leader Snoke, plot points were set-up in The Force Awakens, only to be either discarded in future films or brought to a swift and unsatisfying conclusion (looking at you, Knights of Ren). Fans were even forced to turn to the extended Star Wars universe to find a resolution to how Maz Kanata acquired Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber – a question explicitly asked in The Force Awakens.
Without a clear structure, even individual characters became inconsistent, General Hux being the obvious example here. A terrifying Grand Moff Takin type in the Force Awakens, Domhnall Gleeson’s First Order baddie became the butt of jokes in The Last Jedi before evolving into an implausible Resistance spy in The Rise of Skywalker.
Thematically, too, there’s little coherence between all films. Just look at Rey’s disjointed arc. Daisy Ridley’s character in The Force Awakens is portrayed as a character taking destiny into her own hands, throwing away her past life as a junkyard scavenger to fight for a cause she believes in. The movie is essentially a story of how Rey learns to define her own place in the galaxy, becoming master of her own destiny.
The Last Jedi builds on this message further. In the events of the movie, we’re told Rey’s parents are ‘nobody’, that essentially she’s the source of her own powers. Not only is the message that Rey has become one of the Galaxy’s heroes largely by her own efforts, but that everyone else can do the same – we’re all master of our own fates. And, just to make sure this meaning is clear, The Last Jedi even ends with a slave stablehand summoning a broom towards themselves with the force. Anybody can be a hero.
The Rise of Skywalker, however, largely drops this theme with the discovery Rey is actually the grandkid of Emperor Palpatine. Gone is the story of a scavenger overcoming her troubled circumstances to become a hero in her own right – turns out Rey’s powers were dealt upon her before birth. Ultimately, her place in the universe is defined by others.
Coherent it ain’t. But although the tone and themes of the trilogy are muddled, there’s little confusion as to why: there was no central structure. Unlike Jon Faverou’s steadying hand in The Mandalorian – or Dave Filoni for The Clone Wars – the sequel trilogy had no one person in charge, no established arc and no clear vision. While doubtlessly bringing their own creative flair to the saga, JJ Abrams (The Force Awakens, The Rise of Skywalker) and Rian Johnson (The Last Jedi) were destined to produce a disjointed story without a framework to follow.
Due to the nature of TV, a Star Wars show can’t be commissioned without such structure. With a neat outline in the bag, the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi and Rogue One prequel series can naturally follow a coherent arc while also opening up uncharted areas of the Star Wars universe. New themes, worlds and characters imagined by multiple creatives will be given proper time to flourish, offering viewers the best Star Wars experience possible.
Heck, if those shows reach the heights of The Mandolorian, more new projects could launch. This could even include a revamped version of the abandoned series Star Wars: Underworld, a dark and gritty show set in the crime-riddled streets of Coruscant during the rise of the Empire. Because who wouldn’t want to see a show Star Wars creator George Lucas described as “Deadwood meets The Sopranos in space”?
Now, all this isn’t to say a coherent long-running sci-fi film franchise isn’t possible. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, of course, has served up 23 hugely successful instalments to date – 14 more than Star Wars’ Skywalker saga. However, the best long-running movie series have always worked with some form of guiding framework, with Marvel deploying films around meticulously-planned ‘phases’ based on decades of solid comic-book source material.
Star Wars, on the other hand, has nothing like this. A Rian Johnson trilogy is the only multi-film project in the works, and there’s every chance those movies could be as divisive as The Last Jedi (search your feelings, you know it to be true). Star Wars’ only other offering is a series of anthology films, that, however good, simply won’t have the screen time to fully develop a completely new area of the Star Wars mythos.
TV shows, however, will wield enough time – and a proper structure. Upcoming big-budget Disney Plus series could have entire well-formed seasons to explore new planets, heroes, villains, themes that can unite the Star Wars fandom and ensure a long long future to the franchise.
And, who knows, if we’re really really lucky, we may even get another Baby Yoda too.
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