Why it Works: How "The Mandalorian" Honors "Star Wars" Nostalgia while Still Doing Something New
Updated: May 20
If you’re a fan of Star Wars at all, you’re probably familiar and maybe even annoyed by some of the recent criticism surrounding the new trilogy in the Star Wars franchise. To say that some fans were (and still are) divided by Episodes 7, 8, and 9 is a Jabba-sized understatement! But also let's not forget, fans were divided by the prequels too, so let’s keep things in perspective.
You can’t say that Star Wars fans aren’t passionate about Star Wars. That’s for certain. But at the end of the day, isn't that a storyteller's dream? A fanbase who cares so much about the story you've written and world you created they're willing to speak up when things don't meet their expectations!
With the sequel trilogy, many felt that Kathleen Kennedy, JJ Abrams, and Disney played it too safe, relying heavily on nostalgia, fan service, and recycled plot structures instead of taking creative risks and crafting a bold, original story. Others believed that directors like Rian Johnson were too bold and flew too far from the heart of Star Wars (specifically with The Last Jedi), dishonoring its legacy and characters in the process. That's a little too harsh for me, personally!
Too much of the same? Too different? Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.
I don’t envy the creative powers and story group at Disney-Lucasfilm one bit. Okay, that’s not true at all. I am insanely jealous that their writers get to tell stories and spend all day playing in a galaxy far, far away. They have the coolest job on any planet. But it’s also becoming more and more difficult to satisfy a passionate and often-fickle fan base.
As a storyteller, people will always have ideas and opinions about how you should write your story. And as a storyteller, you have to remember that they aren’t the ones writing it. You are.
Sometimes fan ideas and theories are really good. Sometimes they aren’t, but it’s not their job to tell the story, it’s yours. What was it Julia Cameron said? “Most academics (and fans) know how to take something apart but not how to assemble it.”
You must respect your audience, of course. They’re the ones who read your books and go to see your movies. Honor their investment, listen to their feedback, and take all criticism with a grain of salt. But be confident in the story you are trying to tell and tell it to the best of your ability. The rest is beyond your control.
That doesn’t mean that writers get a pass for telling bad stories, but they also shouldn’t be bound to just give fans whatever they want either, no matter how angry or vocal they may get on social media, which we've seen before with Star Wars.
Regardless of how any of us may feel about The Rise of Skywalker or anything that came before it, let’s make something clear: George Lucas didn’t just write a one-off story with A New Hope and his original trilogy. He created an entire galaxy of amazing creatures, incredible worlds, and brewing conflict to be explored in future films, video games, books, and television series. We’ve seen some of this already in The Clone Wars and definitely in the Expanded Universe (rebranded Legends) of Star Wars novels, comic books, and video games.
Some fans were frustrated by what felt like the new trilogy’s inability (or unwillingness) to explore all the Star Wars galaxy has to offer. But that saga is over. Episodes 7, 8, and 9 were always going to connect to the six films and characters that came before them. It was a continuation of those storylines. But now the twin suns have set on the Skywalker story. The writers of Star Wars can take the story in new directions with future movies, video games, and Disney+ series and aren’t bound to wrap up or expand upon original character arcs or plot points from the saga (although they probably still will to some extent, and that's okay).
That being said, there are still worlds we haven’t visited, creatures and characters we haven’t met, and stories that haven’t been told that have nothing to do with the Skywalkers. For this reason alone, I do believe that the future of Star Wars is bright! And when it comes to all things Star Wars, I ultimately fall back into the category of fan more than critic.
But is there a way to create something that feels both new and nostalgic? This seems to be one of the biggest questions regarding the future of Star Wars. Can you do something different that’s still wholly Star Wars? Do you have to play on nostalgia to win over old school Star Wars fans? As a writer, especially one writing on series or coming into a franchise like Star Wars, how do you take the story in a new direction while still honoring what people love about earlier episodes? Where does Star Wars go beyond the Skywalker Saga?
Guess what? All it took was eight episodes of Disney+’s flagship series, The Mandalorian, to answer that question and prove that the future of Star Wars has many more stories to tell.
To be clear, what follows is not a review of The Mandalorian’s first season, just my analysis of how the new Star Wars series honors the legacy of Star Wars while having a blast doing something new but not entirely unfamiliar either.
Minor Spoilers Ahead if you haven't seen Season 1 of The Mandalorian.
1. Assembling the Right Team
To start, Jon Favreau deserves every dollar he’s making as showrunner of The Mandalorian. The guy gets it. As we saw with Ironman (2008) and the start of the MCU, Favreau knows how to step into an existing franchise with existing characters, storylines, and rules, and still create something that feels both fresh and familiar.
The diverse team of insanely talented directors assembled to bring the world of The Mandalorian to life also seems to understand what Star Wars is and what it can be. With Star Wars veterans like Dave Filoni, seasoned television darlings like Deborah Chow, and zany wonders like Taika Waititi, the creative team behind The Mandalorian demonstrated a childlike admiration and fandom for Star Wars mythology and a deep respect for its fanbase in their handling of each episode. And trust me, Star Wars fans know a LOT more about Star Wars mythology than we give them credit for.
You have to have storytellers and filmmakers who care about Star Wars and approach it with a sense of wonder, imagination, and play. Favreau, Filoni, Chow, Waititi, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Rick Fumuyiwa’s individual styles are evident in their respective episodes but never intrusive or distracting. Each director lends their talents and voice to telling this chapter of the Star Wars saga in the most collaborative way possible,.
The Mandalorian reminds us how much fun we’ve had with Star Wars in the past while taking us to a few more desperate and lawless parts of the galaxy for the future.
With The Mandalorian, Favreau and his team aren’t reinventing the wheel; they’re steering it to take us to places we haven’t necessarily been before. They’re not creating a new world; they’re exploring more of the world George Lucas gave us. And they’re not trying to make up new rules or change the game; they’re just having fun playing the game we’ve enjoyed playing for forty-two years, just in different ways.
2. There are No New Stories, Just New Ways of Telling Them
As I mentioned before, The Mandalorian doesn’t reinvent the wheel in terms of its basic plot and premise, but it also doesn’t have to. Sure, The Mandalorian may borrow from classic Spaghetti westerns, their plot structures, tropes, and archetypes (heck, episode 4 of The Mandalorian is Mando meets the The Magnificent Seven), but it’s not like A New Hope invented the Hero’s Journey either.
George Lucas never scoffed at archetypes or cliches, and why should he? In his words, "don't avoid the cliches. They're cliches because they work."
Star Wars has always borrowed from classic adventure narratives, western archetypes and classic mythological plot structures, but it has also found ways to do so in a uniquely Star Wars way. Where the sequel trilogy is justifiably open to criticism is when it recycled its own plot and the plot of the original trilogy. At that point, it’s not about familiarity but redundancy.
The Mandalorian, however, gives us the classic western gunslinger in a galaxy, far, far away. This is apparent from the first scene of the pilot episode.
Follow me: we open with a wide shot on a desolate planet and cut to a low angle looking up at our hero, a gunslinger and bounty hunter who’s tracking something (or someone). The bount hunter of few words walks into the town saloon. Local tough guys are there harassing patrons and quickly step up to assert their dominance over the new guy in town. Citizens cower in fear, sensing something is about to go down. The gunslinger quickly dispatches of the tough guys who prove to be all bark and no bite. He retrieves his quarry, delivers him to his clients, and collects his bounty. Next mission.
Sound familiar? As much fun as it is watching this plot play out in the wild west, it’s just as entertaining seeing the interchange between the Mandalorian and Quarren or Trandoshan ruffians. It’s why some of the earliest scenes in the Mos Eisely Cantina were so fun in A New Hope. Familiar situations, a different world, and unique, unusual, and loveable characters. As George Lucas himself argued, “don’t avoid the clichés – they are clichés because they work.”
We met the smuggler and scoundrel in Han Solo. Now we’re meeting the bounty hunter with a code of honor. Cliché and archetypical in the grand scheme of storytelling? Sure. But most stories are. There are only a few types of rollercoasters in the world, but that doesn’t mean that each isn’t its own, thrilling ride, and that’s exactly what we’ve been given with The Mandalorian.
3. Making the Skywalker Saga a Lifeline, not an Anchor
The nice thing about The Skywalker Saga is that it established a central conflict to base future stories around. Whatever happens now, all we need to know is where our new story exists in relation to events from the Skywalker Saga. Pre-Empire (Republic), Empire (Rebellion), or Post-Empire (Resistance)?
We know that The Mandalorian takes place five years after the events of Return of the Jedi but before the rise of the First Order. That’s enough information to let us know where things stand in the political structure of a galaxy now removed from the shadows of the Empire.
Events from the Skywalker Saga are referenced in The Mandalorian but never dominate its story or overshadow its new characters. Rather, they inspire and inform where they’re going.
For example, in The Mandalorian, we learn that…
Cara Dune (Gina Carano) is a former Rebel shock trooper who fought on Endor,
Kuill (Nick Nolte), like most Ugnauts, was once enslaved by the Empire.
Greef Karga (Carl Weathers) is a disgraced former magistrate.
Din Djarin/The Mandalorian’s (Pedro Pascal) parents were killed by Separatist battle droids during the fall of the Republic. He was also raised by the Death Watch of Mandalore, which I’m sure will be significant in later seasons.
The biggest mystery and unanswered question are wrapped around the origin of The Child aka Baby Yoda, who we've learned very little about thus far. Season 2 anyone? While I don't feel The Mandalorian needed to include the presence of The Force, I like that character and his role in the Mandalorian’s arc enough that I’m willing to wait to get answers about where he comes from and why Moff Gideon and the remnant of the Empire want with him.
There’s a ton of backstory that connects to previous subplots and narrative threads in Star Wars canon, but The Mandalorian is also its own story with its own characters and worlds to explore, and there’s a difference between connection and attachment. The Mandalorian reminds us that the Skywalker Saga will always influence future storylines in the Star Wars universe, regardless of when they are set. But that doesn’t mean it has to be the anchor for everything here on out. Sometimes it’s nice to break free provided we acknowledge where we’ve been.
4. Creatures Create Familiarity Just as Much as Characters
I understand that a television series is different than a film trilogy in the way stories are crafted and how characters are developed, but what The Mandalorian reveals about Star Wars moving forward is that fans don’t necessarily need to see the familiar characters from the Skywalker Saga to still feel grounded in the Star Wars universe.
Other stories in the Star Wars universe have resorted to character cameos and subplots for good reason:
It makes sense for Chewbacca and Lando to show up in Solo.
The presence of Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader is expected for a story about the Death Star (Rogue One).
Star Wars: Rebels was always going to include early leaders of the Rebellion.
The Clone Wars was meant to fill in the gaps between Episodes II and III, which means showcasing the heroes of those stories.
While it’s always fun to see C3-PO and R2-D2 roll into frame, The Mandalorian proves that Star Wars creatures can create a sense of familiarity just as much as characters we’ve met before.
And can I just say, the use of puppets, prosthetics and practical effects in Baby Yoda and Kuill instantly makes The Mandalorian feel more nostalgic to original Star Wars than the prequels and most of what we've seen from Star Wars in recent years. I have spoken!
I know the creative team has already hinted that season 2 of The Mandalorian (premiering Fall 2020) will include several appearances from established characters from the Skywalker Saga. In my opinion, that isn’t necessary. We are more than capable of falling in love with new characters, provided they characters are well-defined and interesting, which they definitely are!
Jawas, Ugnauts, Trandoshans, Twi’leks, IG assassin droids, Pit Droids, Stormtroopers, and Mandalorian armor are all present in The Mandalorian in ways we have never seen before. Creatures who were normally just background fillers in saga crowd scenes have become significant players in The Mandalorian, and that makes this story feel both fresh and familiar. We’re introduced to new characters in old creatures all trying to navigate the post-Empire galaxy in their own way.
It’s a universe of interacting cultures. Technology will be passed around, and in addition to seeing familiar creatures and places (such as the Mos Eisley Cantina), we should encounter familiar vehicles and weapons utilized in past films. Refurbished AT-ST’s, swoop bikes, tie fighters, X-Wings, jetpacks, and maybe a last second appearance from the darksaber remind us that we are still in a galaxy far, far, away, with its own shared mythos, culture, and history, and for fans of Star Wars, that’s a lot to keep us hopeful and excited for the future.
In summary, The Mandalorian has opened up major door of possible stories to exist beyond the Skywalker Saga and proven that you can honor nostalgia while taking narrative and creative risks in the same story. You can travel to the far reaches of a vast galaxy without having to abandon it, and if you respect the world that’s been created as well as the characters and creatures who inhabit it, fans will be more than willing to get on board and go where the storytellers lead them.
The only downside is, we’ll have to wait until next Fall to find out where that is. I just know, given what I’ve seen thus far, I’ll be there when Season 2 of The Mandalorian premiers, and if you’re a Star Wars fan, hopefully you’ll be too.
I have spoken!
Anyway, thank you so much for reading. Only one more Star Wars post to go until Season 2 of The Mandalorian drops on Disney+ next Fall.
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Until Today, Storytellers!