Monday, May 04, 2020

Star Wars Day 2020 - a long review of The Mandalorian

As it’s Star Wars Day I feel this is as good a day as any to review The Mandalorian, the newish series set in the Star Wars universe. 

THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS so I'm posting a picture of my lockdown workstation buddies to break up the text. Read on at your own risk!

Yep, they're Lego!

The Mandalorian is the flagship series on the new Disney Plus streaming service. I’m not saying it’s the only reason we bothered buying Disney Plus, but the way the service launch coincided with the lockdown combined with this series that it feels like half of the geekier end of the Internet has been raving about, made the purchase almost inevitable.

(A sidebar on Disney Plus. Is it worth the money? Kind of. Except we already own most Disney and Pixar films on other formats, along with Star Wars and the better Marvel movies. The rest of the programming isn’t hugely exciting. The Star Wars animated series Clone Wars and Rebels are probably next on my watch list. Despite them saying its all of Disney’s back catalogue there are a couple of omissions – the film ‘Song of the South’, which has a fairly relaxed attitude to slave plantations implying how life as a slave was okay really, isn’t on there. Neither is that famous nature documentary where off-scene riggers literally threw lemmings off a cliff. Maybe that’s for the best.)

Disney have been adding a new episode of The Mandalorian every Friday for the past six weeks, with two available straight away. The eight episode run is now concluded. It was ace. I have to say that right from the start. It had humour. It had believable characters. It kept me hooked week to week.

It’s not a kid’s TV series. That’s not to say it’s hugely gritty or anything. Characters aren't using the f-word and nobody’s injecting narcotics into their eyeballs. There’s no nudity, or even hints at sex. But there is violence and even blood, which you don’t get a lot of in the Star Wars universe. Bad guys die some pretty horrible deaths, including getting tipped headfirst into a smelter, although they do tend to die their horrible deaths mercifully quickly.

The series is set in the aftermath of the Empire’s collapse. There are traces all around. Some Imperial generals have set up as warlords. Some high-calibre weaponry has got into the hands of thugs and thieves. It all feels quite believable – the power vacuum when the dictatorship collapses is something we’ve seen a few times. Ordinary people are trapped by it. The new regime doesn’t really care, or have the means to sort the problem out. There are New Republic X-Wings in one episode. They turn up for their plot point and then disappear. One character is a disillusioned former Rebel Alliance soldier. Even the good guys get jaded.

We learn more about the Mandalorian Warriors. The Clone Wars cartoon series has filled in quite a bit of back story, and this series adds to it. I liked the way it was considered as a creed rather than a race, with its own lore, and honour code. Most of all the Mandalorians were recast as ambiguous, neither good, nor evil, but following their rules. “This is the way,” being their affirmation of a course of action, and signalling agreement with it. The Armourer, who is sort of the sect leader, is a combination of smith and priest, and had some real gravitas.

The lead protagonist is the Mandalorian, a bounty hunter. Other members of the bounty hunter Guild just call him "Mando". We learn a bit about his back story as the series progresses, and his real name in the last episode. But overall he manages to remain a mystery man. He is the character the story follows without the story ever really being about him. I appreciated that. Too many shows rely on character exposition rather than letting you learn about them through observation. 

The main other character is “Baby Yoda”, although that is the name ascribed to the creature by fans rather than in the show. In the script the creature is just ‘the child’ and its origins, race and purpose are a mystery to everyone, except, presumably, the Imperials who are hunting it. I knew about Baby Yoda before watching the show because, like I said, the Internet went nuts about it. I didn’t realise Baby Yoda was going to provide the main story arc of the show. I’m not complaining at all. I love a good mystery, and maybe we will learn something about Yoda along the way.

Other characters are good too. I liked Kuiil (pronounced Queel) the Ugnaught. His way of ending arguments by just saying “I have spoken” has already passed into our household vernacular. They managed to give him a backstory – enslavement by the Empire and earning his freedom – in a few short lines that made him real.

Cara Dune, the jaded former rebel soldier, was a bit less three-dimensional. There’s definitely more in her back story that could be explored, and I’d like to know more about her. IG-11, the assassin droid hunting Baby Yoda, was a character in its own right by the end of the show. I’ve noticed that Droids tend to be expendable in Star Wars spin offs now (Rogue One and Solo spring to mind). Sadly, The Mandalorian continues this theme. 

The Imperial generals are a bit cookie-cutter villains, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing – often a villain trades menace for screen time. It’s the Jaws effect – the less you see of the shark the scarier it is.

There a lot of little background details that probably need several rewatches to get. I thought it as funny seeing the Salacious Crumb creatures being sold for food in the street market. And if you ever wondered what the Cloud City refugee carrying what looked like an ice cream maker was actually carrying, then that was resolved as well. But those details are for the fans and aren’t obtrusive. 

The only thing it would be helpful to know is that the robots in a flashback scene are Super Battle Droids from the Separatist Army in the Clone Wars. But you don’t really need to know that to get what is happening, or why the titular Mandalorian became a Mandalorian Warrior. I also really liked seeing Mos Eisley again.

There wasn’t much I didn’t like about the series. One episode was a bit duff, when the Mandalorian is forced to track down a wild beast. But even that episode has a very important plot point regarding Baby Yoda. The writers have run through a number of tropes though. We’ve had the ‘village in peril needs a gunslinger’ episode, the prison break episode, the ‘blackmailed into a feat of derring do’ episode, and the ‘helping a rookie’ episode. It feels like every science fiction series has the same stock story elements for episodes.

Overall though, despite being set in a well-known and well-worn fictional universe, I felt The Mandalorian had enough new elements and introduced plenty of innovative concepts to seem like it was breaking new ground, rather than rehashing the same old thing. That contrasted a lot with Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, which I saw around Christmas, which really didn’t offer anything new at all and felt totally bound by the conventions of Star Wars script-writing. (After The Last Jedi had controversially ripped up the blueprint for a Star Wars movie, Episode IX felt like a real let down.)

I feel The Mandalorian benefitted from not revisiting the same old scenes and from showing us something new, or showing us those things in a new way. (Mos Eisley is a big enough place to go back to.) The callbacks to the massive Star Wars back catalogue were subtle and evidence of the care shown by the creative team, but they weren’t included by people trying to show off their fanboy credentials. Blink and you’ll miss them. Those knowing nods are much more satisfying than in some of the cinematic releases, where it often feels they are trying a bit too hard.

So, overall, I really enjoyed The Mandalorian. And I’m a hard guy to please when it comes to modern Star Wars stuff. I know it’s entitlement, but I have been into Star Wars since 1983 so I have high expectations. The Mandalorian met those expectations, and I would say it’s probably worth signing up to Disney Plus even if that’s the only thing you watch on it.

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