François Duhamel/Lucasfilm/Disney Plus
You’ve probably read a lot of takes over the last few days that see Disney Plus’ new flagship series, The Mandalorian, as a revolutionary change to the Star Wars franchise. By making a TV series, it is assumed, Star Wars has somehow taken a left-hand turn into an unexpected parsec of the universe.
The thing is, that’s not true. Not even close. The revolution in a galaxy far, far away has always been televised. Television is perhaps the most Star Wars medium of all.
The facts are plain. Before the arrival of Disney Plus, the hours of Star Wars content produced for TV outweighed that for the big screen by a factor of at least four-to-one. (1,445 minutes on film versus roughly 6,356 on television.)
The bulk of those numbers are from the franchise’s most recent animated series: The Clone Wars (2008–present), Rebels (2014-2018) and now Resistance (2018-present).
But Star Wars has been on television from the beginning, dating back not just to the notorious Holiday Special of 1978, but to the two Ewok Adventure made-for-tv movies (Caravan of Courage and The Battle for Endor) from 1984 and 1985. We then saw the Ewoks and Droids animated series that followed in their footsteps, the former being an early credit for Batman: The Animated Series and Harley Quinn cocreator Paul Dini.
Even by 1990, many more hours of Star Wars had been produced for television than for the big screen. But pointing out that Star Wars has always had a healthy televised life isn’t just “well, actually” peevishness — it’s about getting to the heart of what makes the franchise tick.
While some point to The Mandalorian as Disney’s great backup plan for the Star Wars franchise now that the Skywalker saga is coming to an end, television has always been how the franchise has lived on.
Take a look at the dates above: When Star Wars runs out of puff in the multiplex, it turns to the small screen. When Lucas was feeling out his options for a Star Wars sequel in 1978, he turned to TV and made the Holiday Special. When Return of the Jedi conclusively ended the story of Luke, Leia, and Han in 1983, Lucas made the Ewok Adventure TV films and animated series in 1984 and 1985. When the prequels ended, The Clone Wars began… on TV.
This is to say nothing of Star Wars Underworld, the live-action series Lucas conceived to take on the Star Wars mantle after Revenge of the Sith in 2005. There are still 50 unproduced scripts (some by Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek legend Ronald D. Moore) in storage at Lucasfilm, with some episodes allegedly inspiring elements of Rogue One and Solo. The Mandalorian might illustrate the future of Disney’s Star Wars on the small screen, but it’s simply the latest iteration in Star Wars’ most familiar strategy, dating back to the birth of the franchise.
The bond between Star Wars and television is, in part, due to seriality. Hollywood didn’t really “do” sequels in the way it does today until the dominance of Lucas in the 1970s and ’80s. His films — not just Star Wars, but Raiders of the Lost Ark, too — had a refreshing “story of the week” quality, writ-large. It’s hard to imagine how unusual that is in today’s era when Hollywood is dominated by franchises.
R2-D2, C-3PO, Chewbacca, Princess Leia, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker celebrate Wookiee Life Day in The Star Wars Holiday Special.
Much is made of the influence of old film serials (such as Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe) on the young Lucas, and subsequently on Star Wars. These were single-reel adventure stories that played weekly at film theatres as part of a longer feature presentation. Heavy on cliffhanger endings, they made cinema attendance ritualistic and routine, and often delved into suspense, special effects, and spectacle in a way that big budget films of the time did not.
We know how these serials influenced Star Wars. But what is not often pointed out is that Lucas didn’t actually go to the movies in order to watch them. He was too young — Flash Gordon for example played from 1936-1940. Lucas wasn’t born until 1944.
In fact, going to the cinema wasn’t a big part of the young Lucas’ media diet at all. As both Dale Pollock and Brian Jay Jones’ definitive biographies of Lucas make clear, the young man’s preoccupations were cars, comic books and television.
Television was where Lucas found the inspiration for Star Wars. By the 1950s, when he was a boy, TV stations desperate to fill the airwaves had licensed those same adventure serials Lucas was too young to see in cinemas. They played them weekly — sometimes even daily. These were rapid-fire, action-filled science fiction and Western stories that continued plotlines over multiple episodes. And they were on TV: Same time, same channel, every week.
More than half a century later, bringing Star Wars to TV with The Mandalorian feels like the only possible move, in a long line of the franchise making the exact same move.
This is a long way from a revolution. Unless of course, we mean the way a wheel makes a revolution, spinning full circle to make the same journey again and again and again.
Dan Golding is the author of Star Wars After Lucas.