The best lightsaber fight in the entire Star Wars canon doesn’t happen in a movie. Hear me out, friends, hear me out. It’s in the 20th episode of the third season of the cartoon Star Wars: Rebels. Short version: the Sith-trained Darth Maul (you know the one, face like a hockey fan) confronts the Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi, hiding out on Tatooine to watch over a young Luke Skywalker. After some banter, the two longtime adversaries—Maul killed Obi-Wan’s master, is a thing you probably don’t remember from the prequels—draw their swords and stare at each other for what feels like days. Maul advances, and in three strokes the duel is over.
It’s every bit the samurai-Western kind of fight that the movies no longer do, instead chasing ever more action-packed dopamine-squirts. Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote or co-wrote a bunch of Star Wars movies, told me in an interview once that he saw Jedi like Obi-Wan as descending from the kind of samurai that Toshiro Mifune played in Yojimbo, and this scene has all the bushido I could ask for.
I bring this up not only because Rebels ended its five-year run last week, but because today Lucasfilm and Disney announced a boss for a live-action Star Wars TV show—an idea that’s been in the works, in various forms, since before Disney bought the franchise. It’ll be executive-produced and written by Jon Favreau, most recently the director of the upcoming Lion King live-action (well, photorealistic CG) movie and the similarly re-executed Jungle Book. It will also presumably anchor Disney’s upcoming streaming network, not unlike the way CBS used a Star Trek show to get people excited for CBS All Access. (If you’re gonna take all your Pixar/Marvel/Lucas toys and leave Netflix, you’re gonna lock people in every way you can.)
Favreau has plenty of genre chops; he’s an on-the-record nerd and directed the first two Iron Man movies, sparking the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’s no stranger to TV, having EPed the Star-Trek-like show The Orville, among a bunch of other work. Yet fans took the news of his hiring as something of a disturbance in the Force, and not just because (talented though he may be) he’s yet another white dude running Star Wars stuff, announced on International Women’s Day, no less. These macrobinoculars have some bad optics, y’all.
But more to the point might be that after production shake-ups on Rogue One and the upcoming Solo and a yearly drumbeat of movies, some people might ask: Perhaps that’s enough Star Wars, thank you? (I’m just saying! Don’t AT-AT me.)
Nobody would have said such a thing back in the mostly Star Wars-free days of 2005, when George Lucas, who created all this, worked on developing a live-action Star Wars TV show. Star Wars: Underworld planned to tell stories from the seamier side of the universe—Hutt gangsters, bounty hunters, wretched hives of scum and/or villainy, and so on. A young Han Solo might’ve shown up, and some of those stories may yet move Solo’s solo movie, Solo. The Star Wars rumor mill hinted that characters from the pre-Disney Expanded Universe—non-movie properties like comics and videogames—might play a part. “There was a team of writers that George Lucas put together and we would go up and work at Skywalker Ranch every six or eight weeks. We would break stories with George and talk about Star Wars. I did a couple of scripts,” Ronald Moore, rebooter of Battlestar Galactica and showrunner of Outlander, told me in 2013. “You’re in a writers room, and you go back and forth. And you’re telling the man, ‘I don’t think Darth Vader would do that.’ And he says, ‘Yes he would.’ And you go, ‘Oh, maybe he would, then.’”
Underworld might have stood alone; this show can’t. Marvel, DC, and Trek have, to different extents, firewalled their cinematic and televisual universes. The fundamental narrative proposition of Disney-era Star Wars is that all the pieces have to add up to a seamless holocron of entertainment.
But where? When? Star Wars has taught us that prequels only undermine stakes and complexify timelines. One thing I can promise you about Solo is that the lives of its two main characters, Han Solo and Lando Calrissian, are not in any way in jeopardy. Similarly, while I’m open to it, I’m still having trouble processing the idea that at no point in six decades of continuity has Mr. Spock ever mentioned that he has a sister named Michael who was Starfleet’s only mutineer in history.
And it seems unlikely that Lucasfilm would set a Star Wars TV show after The Last Jedi, unless it was waaaayyyy after, because of the spoilers. Now I’m just armchair showrunning, but that points toward stories set off to the side of the mainline universe, with occasional visits, perhaps, from familiar characters. This can work; Rebels proved it, occasionally looping in Lando or C-3P0, as well as characters from the earlier cartoon Clone Wars. (The Darth Vader appearances were epic.)
Even if Favreau’s show jumps to all-new hyperspatial coordinates, it’s tough to imagine things going as seedy as Lucas planned for Underworld. TV Star Wars has always been aimed at kids and family viewing, all the way back to the Star Wars Holiday Special and two TV movies set on the Ewok-infested moon of Endor. In fact, before the Force Awakened in 2015, cartoons and Legos were my kids’ primary entry point to Star Wars. Maybe the way to avoid overall brand attenuation here is to dissect the demographics the way Marvel did, slotting its grittier street-level stuff on Netflix while staying squeakier on ABC and Freeform. (But then again, Marvel has by my rough count 4,693 superhero shows, which gives them room to experiment.)
Every TV show has those kind of constraints, though. Nerds are pretty good at spending 1,000 words or so to say, essentially, if it’s good it’ll be good. Execution depends on the writers room and maybe Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy’s comfort with the kind of creative idiosyncrasy that plays better on screening TV than in the movies. Any writer hoping to staff this show is asking the same questions I have here, and they’ll likely find better answers. (Where I’d be in there pitching, like, Jedi Police and President Hutt.) You can see the outlines of opportunity here—like Star Wars: Rebels, but for grown-ups. If the nominal kids’ show can do the best lightsaber fight in the universe, well, call me an optimist, but I have a pretty good feeling about this.
-With Star Trek: Discovery, CBS discovers that making TV isn’t as easy as it used to be
-.The Force Awakens makes it clear: you won’t live to see the last Star Wars movie.
-With Joss Whedon, Marvel found the right person to turn its many threads into a true shared universe.