By Nick Sergi
Star Wars has been a game-changer since its inception 45 years ago. Its influence exists throughout all of popular cinema. Its winning formula of epic battles between good and evil, worlds one could only dream, and vast new soundscapes that help us follow characters and their journeys make these expansive adventures explode straight out of imagination and onto the screen for all to see. It's no wonder so many films, and film franchises have taken on the image of Star Wars. Since its initial release in 1977, countless movies have benefitted by replicating or recreating some of the attributes that made Star Wars so incredibly successful. After all, the franchise continued to own the silver screen throughout those long years when new Star Wars films weren't released.
Since 2019, Star Wars has blazed another trail, changing "TV" as we know it. We all know that TV can be as big as the movies, right? We'll go back to that question in a moment. Let's explore Star Wars' journey to what could be (or once was) "the small screen," how it might be the best thing for the franchise, and how it might expand the kind of stories that could be told in that galaxy oh so far away.
When George Lucas created Star Wars, he integrated several films and shows that inspired him growing up. As much as you can see Kuruasawa in Star Wars or even Western showdowns, there were also the old (and somewhat cheesy) science fiction serials that graced the screen in the 1940s, short little adventures, alien planets, and lots of cheesy ray guns. They also featured "crawling text" at the start of each episode; in case you hadn't seen the previous episode, you'd have enough information to go on to watch the latest one. Most of these episodes would end on cliffhangers, and the only way to know how the heroes survived a perilous situation was to show up and watch the next adventure. Lucas wanted to recreate this kind of serialized storytelling while bringing an epic experience to the viewer. This was only possible in the late 70s in the movie theater.
Some of my favorite scenes in Star Wars (1977) involve our heroes running around the inside of the massive space station, the Death Star. They move from one dangerous situation to another, seemingly more perilous than the last. Like when they found themselves trapped in an impenetrable garbage compactor with (GASP!) walls moving towards them, ready to crush them after narrowly surviving a battle with stormtroopers in the corridor of the detention area. "One thing's for sure," Han Solo says, "we're all going to be a lot thinner." Upon reflection, these scenes do little to expand on the story and narrative told in the film, but they offer a glimpse into the serialized storytelling for which the film owes its existence. These tiny little cliffhangers found throughout the film might not "end" the episode so that you have to come back another time, but that sense of constant peril is still a lot of fun in a fantasy/space opera film such as Star Wars. This point will be important in a moment.
The original title crawls that opened the Star Wars films of the original trilogy also harkened back to those cheesy serialized adventures. Eventually, all three films in this trilogy would become known as "episodes four, five, and six," indicating in media res of this sprawling saga yet able to catch up despite the "missing" first three adventures. Any kid that grew up when the films were released will tell you, at that time, there would also be "episodes seven, eight, and nine." There were always whispers of an epic far grander than three films alone could contain.
Lucas created those prequel stories more than twenty years after releasing the original film. The intriguing plots and exciting worldbuilding were nearly canceled out by rigid scripts, wooden acting, and an over-reliance on computer-generated effects. Though not equal to the original films, the prequels have come to be respected over time as part of the Star Wars canon.
Now, let's bring it all into focus. When Disney purchased the rights to the franchise in 2012, it immediately announced that those sequel stories, episodes seven, eight, and nine, would be produced. Yes, all those whispers about these awesome continuing adventures that kids whispered rumors to each other about all those years ago would finally come true. It turns out making this move could have been a mistake. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was already starting to prove that you can lay track for future stories, and there was no need to think of storytelling in such a rigid way. The structure of a trilogy naturally employs the same three-act design that most individual films follow (introduction, rising action, climax, and conclusion). Buying into that mysterious and self-perpetuated rumor that "episodes seven, eight, and nine" must exist would not only be tearing out the final pages of a story that had a satisfying end already but would force creators to work within the same story structure of the original trilogy. Instead of laying track for dozens of future films and having a slow buildup for many kinds of stories, they had to create a beginning, middle, and end of a story, and the result is a trilogy that feels like a copy of the original trilogy instead of a fresh take on an ever-aging franchise we call Star Wars.
What's more: in this new trilogy, the stakes were even higher. Why have one Death Star that can wipe out a planet when each ship in the Imperial Fleet can do the same? The stakes became so high at this point, the audience is guaranteed to tune out.
Amidst all of this, Disney decided to create a Star Wars live-action television show to launch its streaming service, the aptly-named Disney Plus. While generally smaller in scale and scope than the films have been, the producers of the show have put a lot of effort into ensuring that the effects are feature quality and that the fantastical universe of Star Wars will feel natural. Verisimilitude was the key. Now, let's look at the episodes. Many of them are around forty minutes, more or less and the story isn't really "complete" until the end of the season. Perhaps not even then, as there are rumors that The Mandalorian is the beginning of a mini-shared universe shared by a few planned live-action Star Wars shows. Those rumors have come true this year, as the story The Book of Boba Fett follows up on events from The Mandalorian series. How fitting that, like The Mandalorian, it has the same episodic structure, an episodic structure not unlike the science-fiction serials of the '40s.
So now, the ability to create special effects that look great has caught up with the need to tell stories in a short episodic format. These Star Wars streaming shows have already and will continue to give Disney a stake in the Streaming Wars. Still, it will also enable the showrunners of these stories (people you may have heard of, like Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni) to have the ability to tell smaller, more intimate stories with lower stakes that allow people to care and become invested. In the Mandalorian, the entire galaxy is not at stake yet, the audience does very much care about the title character's adopted son, Grogu ("Baby Yoda" as he is known by people who haven't even seen a single episode). We care more about how this father/son relation will develop, and we care about whether or not the Mandalorian will stick to the creed he has sworn to all his life, the one that has prompted him to never remove his helmet in front of others. While telling these rather intimate stories, the showrunners can lay track for future Star Wars stories. Gone is the relatively rigid need for that "trilogy," which has made the sequel films (episodes seven, eight, and nine) somewhat of a chore to get through or justify.
Maybe it is true indeed that Star Wars can thrive on streaming TV, telling far more interesting stories than it could ever tell on the silver screen.