The Expanded Universe comes for The Mandalorian
But is The Mandalorian simply becoming a launchpad for more projects?
I meant to get this issue out the day after Thanksgiving — apologies for the delay. The holiday itself was good. We made a small mountain of food and more turkey than we needed, but our dog, Tiki, was stricken with something. Lots of problems over the course of the day and the next, resulting in a visit to the vet. I was afraid that he’d gotten a raisin from our daughter (who’s in a throwing-her-food phase), and spent most of the night worried sick that he’d dehydrate himself to the point of kidney failure when I took him out every couple of hours.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen: the vet told us that he was in good shape, and proscribed a bunch of meds to help get him back on track. He’s back to his old self now — sleeping on the couch.
This week: I’ve got some thoughts on The Mandalorian, now that we’re a bit past the halfway mark. There’ll be spoilers, so skip ahead if you want to avoid that.
Apex Books Cyber Monday Sale
Forgive this brief commercial interlude: Apex Book Company, which published my and Jaym Gates’ anthology War Stories: New Military Science Fiction is running a Cyber Monday sale. Use the following checkout codes to save on the book (and others):
50% off ebooks: BLACKFRIDAY2020-EBOOK
20% off the paperback: BLACKFRIDAY2020-PRINT
The anthology came out a while ago, but it still holds up nicely, looking at what the future of war might look like, and how combat weighs on everyone involved, from machines to soldiers to civilians.
If you want a taste, there are a couple of stories online:
Enemy States by Karin Lowachee
Ghost Girl by Rich Larson
Contractual Obligation by James L. Cambias
The Wasp Keepers by Mark Jacobsen
Valkyrie by Maruice Broaddus
War Hosts by Yoon Ha Lee
War Dog by Mike Barretta
The Mandalorian: Disney’s launch pad
Let’s talk about that namedrop.
If you’ve seen the latest episode of The Mandalorian, you know exactly who I’m talking about: Grand Admiral Thrawn.
I made an inhuman noise when Ahsoka Tano dropped that particular name during ‘The Jedi’, and it’s probably one of those rare moments in the Star Wars franchise where I’ve been completely surprised and delighted.
But let’s back up for a moment: this season of the series has been quite a bit of fun to watch, and I’ve been enjoying the variety of themes and deep-cut references that have come each episode — not just in other parts of Star Wars lore, but the filmmakers’ efforts to pay homage to the classics of cinema, from westerns to Dune to Japanese action films. I feel like we’re seeing way more of the galaxy this time around, and really showing off how big the world is, which is great to see, and not something we always get from the franchise.
This season has brought plenty of references to other parts of the franchise as well: Bo-Katan Kryze made her live-action debut teasing a bigger storyline involving the remnants of the Empire and Mandalore, we’ve had a neat tie-in to Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy in the form of Cobb Vanth, the revelation that Boba Fett is still alive and kicking, and Dark Troops — a really fantastic deep cut from the Expanded Universe. And now, we have Thrawn, who’s been brought back into the fold in a huge way.
We’ve seen this before: George Lucas and his successors were notorious for recycling ideas and concepts from film to film, project to project. Rebels in particular brought in a number of those original ideas to fruition: the character Zeb is based on an unused design by Ralph McQuarrie for Chewbacca, while the show also brought back Thrawn in 2016.
And now, The Mandalorian is flexing its connections to the larger franchise, with those references. The result is that this season feels a bit less like its own thing, and more a connected part of the larger franchise. That’s good and bad. On one hand, The Mandalorian was a nice breath of originality (ish) for the franchise. I’ve always maintained that when Lucasfilm lets its creators off the leash a bit — like Michael A Stackpole, Karen Traviss, and others — and create and explore new characters and stories, the franchise is better. This season feels like it’s picking up some of the threads that Dave Filoni left hanging after Rebels ended. On the other hand, it can all get a bit… stuffy.
Earlier this year, I wrote about how you shouldn’t think about The Mandalorian as a standalone series, that it’s part of a wider media strategy on the part of Disney to bring its vast library of Star Wars IP to bear as it ramps up Disney+ for a world in which theaters are somewhat less important to Hollywood at large — streaming’s going to be where it’s at, and COVID is certainly pushing that along. (I don’t think theaters are going away, but the industry won’t be what it was when this is all over.)
That’s the big picture. What that ultimately leads to is a series that feels like a launch-point for other projects. As a friend mine pointed out: the titular Mandalorian himself essentially feels as though he’s playing second fiddle to everything else that’s going on in the universe. It’s a good, and somewhat accurate point, one that parallels my thought that The Mandalorian’s first season was essentially Jon Favreau’s ongoing RPG campaign: it’s side campaign after side campaign, without as much of an overarching narrative that follows Din Djarin himself.
This season feels like it’s doing a bit of the same: we follow him as he goes from planet to planet in search of someone to take baby Grogru off his hands. He’s less an active character than he is someone buffered by a stream of incidents necessitated by Lucasfilm / Disney to help introduce a whole bunch of other projects. He doesn’t really have any agency of his own, and I think that that’s a huge drawback for the show this year: I think that the show really could benefit from a more active protagonist who’s steering his own path in the universe.
A tumblr user had another astute take: “The Mandalorian is literally a story about a supporting character.”
Mind, all of that seems to be working just fine, and it’s still a show that I’m perfectly content to watch: a high-concept planet/adventure-of-the-week series as opposed to something that’s dense and chewy as something like HBO’s Watchmen. There’s room for both in my media diet. But while I’ve been enjoying this season, it feels like it could be a bit more.
Before he stepped down, Disney CEO Bob Iger said that they were going to spin off The Mandalorian’s various characters for their own projects, and we’re seeing what that might look like now. Building off of The Mandalorian makes sense: it’s an incredibly popular series, and these piecemeal bits and hints are like candy to long-time EU fans, and tantalizing stories for newcomers.
Already, there’s been rumors that Lucasfilm is creating a miniseries about Boba Fett for Disney +, with production apparently in the works now. Seeing that he was teased for in this season’s debut episode, I can see them wanting to do that, especially since we haven’t seen him pop up since. (Boba vs. Cobb on Tatooine? I’d definitely want to see that.)
All of those connected bits that I mentioned earlier? They all feel like hints at other projects that Lucasfilm has in the works — Bo-Katan and her quest to retake Mandalore, Ahsoka looking for Grand Admiral Thrawn — all stuff that comes out of Rebels. There’s been rumors that LFL has been looking to cast a live-action version of the character, and I can’t help but think that we might see some sort of continuation there.
It also feels like there are some real ties being forged to set up the events of the sequel trilogy, and I wonder if we’re going to see Disney using its shows as a way to build up context around the rise of the first order and retroactively explain some of the more bizarre points, like Palpatine coming back with his massive Final Order fleet. The tubes that we saw in ‘The Siege’ feels like a step in that direction.
We’ve seen this a bit already as well: the final season of The Clone Wars broke into three arcs: one about the Bad Batch, another about the Martez sisters, and the last about the Siege of Mandalore — it all felt a little like a jumping-off point for other stories. We’re already getting one: the Bad Batch are coming to Disney + next year. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the Martez sisters pop up somewhere else down the road if Disney/Lucasfilm decide to build out a bit more of the underworld side of the franchise around Solo.
Ultimately, what Disney’s building out is a self-reinforcing franchise that spits out new characters and stories for the sole purpose of telling new characters and stories, rather than waiting for a reason to tell a good story. It’s a high-volume firehose, one that streaming is suited for. I’m a little wary of that, because you have to worry about quality. It all feels a bit like the focus has drifted away from making The Mandalorian as good as it can be, and more of an introduction to the wider world.
The aforementioned Watchmen spinoff that HBO just did is the perfect antitheses of that: it’s an utterly perfect series, one that came at just the right moment, told a self-contained story, and ended (with just the barest hint that there could be more to tell.) The show’s creator, Damon Lindelof, has repeatedly said that he’s done with the series:
Unless I have an idea that is as important to me as Tulsa ’21 was, then I shouldn’t do it. And I haven’t had that idea, and I want to create the space versus people waiting for me to change my mind. I want to create the space for people to come forward and say, ‘I have an idea.’”
I think that’s the best way to go for any creative type.
But then again, Star Wars has always been a hyper-commercial activity, rather than a purely artistic one. And in that flurry of content, we’ve had gems and phenomenal stories. But looking back at the film franchise, there’s certainly hits and misses, and when you scale that up to the Star Wars Expanded Universe, you’ve got way more misses than you have hits. Hopefully, we won’t look back on this impending explosion of now shows in the same way.
I’ve finally gotten through a handful of books. Most recently, Gareth Powell’s Embers of War, the first of his space opera trilogy, Philip Pullman’s little Serpentine — an episode between The Amber Spyglass and The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth — and The Tower Treasure, the first of the Hardy Boys series, which I’ve been reading to Bram before bed.
I’ll have more thoughts on Embers of War at some future time, but revisiting the Hardy Boys has been fun: they were the books that got me into reading when I was a kid, and while they’re very dated, this one’s really durable mystery-adventure, one that my own kid sucked right up. We’re already onto the next one, The House on the Cliff.
Currently on the to-read list:
Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline. This one went to the top of the pile, because I’m planning on writing about it soon. It’s … not great, but I’m withholding judgement until I’m done.
The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow. I’ve been wanting to read this for a while now, and I picked up the audiobook for a long drive. I’m enjoying it so far.
The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson. Read the first couple of chapters, and am really enjoying it so far.
Madi: Once Upon a Time in the Future by Duncan Jones / Alex de Campi. I picked this up from the Kickstarter campaign, on the basis of Jones’ film work (well, Moon, not Mute.)
The Human Cosmos by Jo Marchant. Still picking away at this one.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama. The writing in this is great. I’m not reading this one actively, but I’m picking through it page by page and chapter by chapter when I get spare moments.
Pantheon by K.R. Paul. I’ve been enjoying this one, although I haven’t had a chance to get too far into it.
The 2084 Report by James Lawrence Powell. This is a quick read — something for another piece I’m writing.
Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse. Started this a while back, and need to get moving on it.
Sourdough by Robin Sloan. Started this one for a piece, and it’s interesting so far.
The Salvage Crew by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne. I’ve really been digging this story, especially the narration.
Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising by Timothy Zahn. I’ve been picking away at this for a short while, and the recent news about him has me looking to finish this one up.
That’s a … lot. Sigh. I’ve slid into the habit of picking up books and getting a bit into them before starting another. I’ve got a couple of others that I want to finish before the end of the year, like Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, Martha Wells’ Network Effect and Natalie Zina Walschots Hench. Time to double down on reading time.
Book Thefts. A while ago, I read a book about antique book thefts (I can’t remember what the title is, and my Google searches are failing me), and it’s a topic that’s become a bit of a fascination. Atlas Obscura has a really tense feature about a spate of thefts in Germany, and how the culprit was ultimately caught.
Bookselling in a COVID world. Protocol has a good report on indie booksellers coping with the COVID environment, and how Bookshop.org plays a role in their sales.
Challenge Coins. Task & Purpose has a neat look at the challenge coins that Disney’s security teams trade amongst themselves.
Fireside stepped in it. Fireside Fiction fucked up bad, hiring a white narrator to voice a black woman’s essay, one that began with “I’m a southern Black woman who stands in the long shadow of the Civil Rights Movement.” Aidan Moher puts together a solid overview in his newsletter, Astrolabe. Lateshia Beachum at The Washington Post also has a good overview. Publisher Pablo Defendini wrote an explanation, and Brian J. White, the founder of the publication, announced that he’s taking over from Defendini as editor.
First! Paul Collins has a great feature in The New Yorker about the first American science fiction novel: Symozonia, and its mysterious authorship.
The future we deserve.
RIP David Prowse. Darth Vader himself has passed. He’s the man behind one of the world’s best-known villains, and made the convention circuit for years. I had heard that he’d had a bit of a falling out with Lucasfilm towards the end of that period, but everyone that I’ve heard from who met him said that he was a lovely person.
Simon Stålenhag’s ‘Geronimo’. I really loved Simon Stålenhag’s artwork, and I was intrigued to see that he’s turned his hand at directing. He helmed the music video for Duvchi’s new single ‘Geronimo’, which looks and sounds really cool.
War Gaming. I wrote about how I took part in a session about war games and AI. Vice has a great interview into the world of military wargaming and how it’s used.
Tomorrow, I’ll have my regular monthly book list, the last one of the year. For paid subscribers, I have a couple of other posts in the hopper this month: some thoughts on the Penguin Random House’s acquisition of Simon & Schuster, as well as a thing about audiobooks. Then there’ll be some end-of-the-year stuff — a year in review-type post, and a gift guide. Stay tuned.
As always, thanks for reading. I really appreciate it, and I hope that you had a good and safe Thanksgiving holiday. Let me know what you’ve been reading!