You can take Star Wars out of the movie theater, but you can’t take the television out of television. That was my first impression on seeing The Mandalorian, the expensive-looking new show that is the marquee offering of the Disney+ streaming service. There have been TV forays into George Lucas’s sci-fi universe before, in the form of much-maligned holiday specials and animated programs aimed at young audiences. But the first episode of The Mandalorian, which dropped today, looks like it could be the first act of a blockbuster film, laden with elaborate alien creatures, blaster shoot-outs, and dazzling set design.
The impressive production values, however, can’t cover up a relatively skimpy plot. “Chapter 1” of The Mandalorian is a thin piece of setup stretched over 38 minutes, barely introducing its hero and then dangling a tantalizing twist at the end. The narrative flimsiness is a sign that, despite the studio’s financial resources and the imperative to make this TV debut feel like a major event, Disney+ is following the No. 1 rule of streaming as first defined by Netflix: Dragging out one story over the course of a whole season is the best way to hook subscribers.
Unlike most Netflix shows, episodes of The Mandalorian will be released weekly, with the next installment due out Friday and then six more planned for the rest of the year. After that, the series will exist, eternally binge-ready, in a corner of Disney’s library—a small part of the company’s plan for digital domination that includes various Marvel spin-offs and an archive of cinema classics. The Mandalorian’s pilot episode is a distillation of that plan. It’s a handsome-looking work of marginalia that’s embedded within the Star Wars universe but that doesn’t interfere with the films’ main saga.
The show’s creator is Jon Favreau, a Disney mainstay who has directed two Iron Man movies along with The Jungle Book and The Lion King. (He’s also an avowed Star Wars fan who made a voice appearance in the recent spin-off Solo.) The series is indebted to old Westerns, with the laser-gun-toting, armor-clad Mandalorian (played by Pedro Pascal, though we never see his face) giving off a distinct “Man With No Name” vibe. Wearing a costume reminiscent of the hallowed character Boba Fett (another bounty hunter from the planet Mandalore), the Mandalorian travels the galaxy looking for fugitives and lowlifes, hauling them in for justice and a paltry sum.
The series is set five years after the events of Return of the Jedi, and decades before the main arc resumed with The Force Awakens. This period of time has been largely unexplored in wider Star Wars lore, but the events that transpired might help explain some of the storytelling leaps made by the latest trilogy. For example, how did Lucas’s galaxy far, far away adjust to the destruction of the Empire, and what caused the villainous First Order to spring up in its place? The most interesting moments in The Mandalorian touch on those questions, presenting an uneasy, lawless world suffering from an obvious power vacuum.
There’s no mention of Jedi, no sign of lightsabers, or even a reference to the democratic New Republic that emerged to replace the tyrannical Empire. The Mandalorian’s setting, like many an edition of Star Wars, is some dusty planet far from the center of galactic power. After the episode begins with him capturing an amphibious-looking runaway, the Mandalorian is given a riskier job by a frighteningly soft-spoken client, played wonderfully by the German director Werner Herzog, who can bring gravitas to nonsensical lines such as “He said you were the best in the parsec.”
Guarded by dirty-looking Stormtroopers and sporting faded Imperial regalia, the client is a hint that darkness still lingers in a galaxy supposedly purged of evil. With any luck, the show will delve deeper into his background over the coming weeks. Aside from Herzog’s magnetic scene, the rest of the pilot is devoted to perfunctory story basics: The Mandalorian learns to ride a leathery alien hog creature, encounters a cold-blooded robot rival named IG-11 (voiced by Taika Waititi), and finds out the surprising specifics of his quarry via a twist that has seismic implications for the episodes ahead.
The visuals are all perfectly splendid. But the story itself is nothing more than an intriguing prologue at best. The Mandalorian should be enough for Disney+ to make a splashy (if technically tricky) entry into the crowded world of online TV by appealing to decades of fandom. Thus far, the only other qualities distinguishing the show from the rest of the streaming glut is its big budget and its attachment to a beloved intellectual property. For a Star Wars nerd looking to fill in some arcane details, it’s a cozy watch, but one episode in, The Mandalorian has yet to prove it can stand on its own.