In the US: Fridays, Disney+
In the UK: Available on Disney+ from March
I’m not sure what’s more interesting: the fact that all the giant US media mega corporations are starting their own streaming services, most of which will inevitably end in closure in a couple of years’ time; or what shows they’re choosing to launch their networks with – and when.
Apple has recently given us Apple TV+. With the likes of See and For All Mankind, it’s a combination of extremely good-looking, under-specced, American-centric TV shows that Apple assumes will be so desirable, everyone will just want them. WarnerBros is launching HBO Max soon, but only in territories where it can’t make money more easily by simply selling the shows to existing networks. CBS and NBC are launching or have already launched streaming services in the US, with no plans of launching them anywhere else.
And now we have Disney+. That’s coming out in phases, with the US first, the rest of the world next year, with the UK getting its bite in March.
What’s on it so far? Pretty much everything that Disney has ever made – the older stuff carrying a warning that it might be culturally insensitive. It’s done that by removing pretty much everything that it’s ever made from other services, including Netflix, in case you were wondering where it had all gone to.
But in terms of new shows, it’s going to be a while before much shows up. Because mock Apple for its four new TV shows all you like, Disney+ has a glorious one new show – one for adults, anyway, and I personally would never have counted High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, simply because of the number of colons in its title.
Naturally, it’s starting with one of its existing franchises. Yes, it’s a Star Wars show.
Not a manatee
Time was when three Star Wars movies was enough. Then we had six – and wished we still only had three. Now we’re on our way to nine movies in the main storyline, the three new ones wiping most of the bad taste of the prequels away, and two others – Rogue One and Solo – just sort of sitting there, hoping you’ll watch them because they have Star Wars in the title.
The Mandalorian sort of sits in the latter camp. Written by Jon Favreau (Iron Man), The Mandalorian is set five years after Return of the Jedi and ostensibly stars Pedro Pascal as a ‘Mandalorian’, a sort of religious bounty hunter who dresses a bit like Boba Fett, but isn’t.
I say ostensibly, because he never takes his helmet off so it might as well be Michael Crawford under there – which is odd because his boss is played by noted film director Werner Herzog, a man you’d normally hire to play a part purely because of his voice, not because of how he looks.
Herzog hires the Mandalorian via Weathers to go and kill a specific target on a desert planet that definitely isn’t Tatooine but might as well be. Off he trots and after bumping into another bounty hunter (voiced by Taika Waititi this time), he finds his target isn’t quite what he thought and ends up protecting him/she/it.
Not in Mandalay
Star Wars was always intriguingly ambivalent about whether it was a western or an ‘eastern’, giving us notable western saloon card-sharp archetypes such as Han Solo and quasi-samurai archetypes such as Obi-Wan Kenobi. Pleasingly, The Mandalorian offers much the same mixture and innovates as well as duplicates.
The first, longer episode (roughly 50 minutes) is our introduction to The Mandorian, his mission and the current state of the Star Wars universe. It’s very clearly a western, with saloon deals, lawless wastelands and a lone anti-hero who’s on no one’s side but his own. The Mandalorian is a paladin version of Han Solo, replacing Solo’s flip humour and cynicism with a new religion of sorts dedicated to killing people for money.
The rest of the episode then adds in other characters who may (or may not) be regulars, including Herzog and Waititi, with other maybe-regulars including Gina Carano still set to show up.
Not a Mandelbrot set
The second episode, despite mining that Tatooine vibe to the max with Jawa stealing tech, starts to push the show eastwards, as it becomes more obviously Lone Wolf and Cub, with the Mandalorian now shunting a baby around in a basket, in between sword fights.
Which is curious. So far, we have a show whose lead never shows up and whose format changes with each episode, the one constant being The Mandalorian himself – or at least the stuntman wearing the Mandalorian’s outfit. It’s a bit Shane, it’s a bit Shogun Assassin. It’s Shane Assassin.
Not how I would have started my multi-billion dollar streaming franchise or even my Star Wars TV series, bereft as it is of even one character from any of the movies, but what do I know?
What I do know is that it’s very pretty in all its aspects. It’s well directed, has good production values and good CGI. Monstrous hairy Muppet rhinos show up and are reasonably plausible. It’s also quite funny at times, particularly the hairy Muppet rhinos.
Yet without any regular cast or a central character with much personality – or face – The Mandalorian is a bit unengaging. With all the vast wealth available for stunts and action scenes, as well as the current state of filmic martial arts meaning just about anyone can have good fight scenes if they try, you’d have hoped to have even one fight as good as Darth Maul’s in The Phantom Menace.
Yet bad gunfights and the occasional slapping match are all we have. It’s very kid-friendly, I guess, and fits with a certain 1950s western aesthetic – just not with the eastern aesthetic.
Not a Delorean
As a result, The Mandalorian feels a bit half-cocked. It’s got a lot working for it, some fresh ideas and some fan service. But it’s not really willing to do much with what it’s got. It’s cautious and tentative, not vibrant and exciting.
You could imagine Pedro Pascal really ripping things apart (cf Narcos), if he’d been allowed to turn up, take his helmet off and utter some choice dialogue. Instead, The Mandalorian is just there, occupying space in the frame. That might work for Judge Dredd, who at least gets to have a free chin; here, it’s like watching the latest adventures of a Star Wars action figure.
Like Disney+ itself, The Mandalorian is a half-hearted, half-launch to a series that really needs some fire behind it to make an impact. Take the gloves and the helmet off, guys, and you could really have something.
UPDATED: For some reason I thought Carl Weathers had been in Star Wars, not Billy Dee Williams. What a fool!