In an interview published this week by Rolling Stone, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy spoke about the blank slate facing Star Wars movie-making after next month, when The Rise of Skywalker will bring an end to the Skywalker saga. The films that follow Episode IX will be tasked with forging a fresh start for Star Wars, one free of whiny farm boys, precocious podracers, and the grumpy hermits/Sith lords/Force ghosts they grow up to be. There’s still a Star Wars trilogy slated for release in December 2022, 2024, and 2026, but now that David Benioff and D.B Weiss have pivoted to their Netflix development deal, we don’t know who’ll be holding the reins for those films—Rian Johnson, Kevin Feige, or a series of indie directors whom Kennedy will inevitably replace with Tony Gilroy or Ron Howard. Nor do we know what the movies will be about. Neither, it seems, does Kennedy.
“I can’t even begin to tell you where this may end up,” said the steward of Star Wars, musing about the “endless possibilities” facing her studio at this turning point for the franchise. “Do you go back? Do you go forward? All those questions are being asked. Do we stay in this galaxy? Do we go to another?” (Here’s my pitch: What if the galaxy were far, far, far away?)
All we know for now is that the foreseeable future of Star Wars lies on the small screen. Disney is producing three upcoming projects for its streaming service—an Obi-Wan miniseries, a Rogue One prequel series, and the seventh season of the animated series The Clone Wars—with even more ideas in development. While we’ve been waiting for Episode IX, two proofs of concept have already debuted.
Last week marked the arrival of two important prongs of Disney’s plan for nonfilmic content set in the Star Wars universe: The Mandalorian, which launched alongside Disney+, and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, the Respawn-developed video game for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. The Mandalorian is the first live-action Star Wars TV series, and Fallen Order is the first single-player-only, nonmobile/browser-based Star Wars game to tell an original story since 2010’s The Force Unleashed II. Together, they demonstrate both the potential for stand-alone Star Wars stories set between trilogies and the constraints that Star Wars storytellers will have to work within between now and the next set of movies.
Although The Mandalorian is scripted and Fallen Order is interactive, they’re a lot alike. Both rely on the Unreal Engine for at least some of their special effects. Both follow a similar structure: journey to planet, complete quest, collect loot, earn experience points, customize gear, gain new abilities, follow tracking device to new objective. Both bring an end to a decade of delay: The series and the game scratch itches that some Star Wars fans have been trying to reach since the conception of Star Wars: Underworld and Star Wars: 1313, a planned pairing of live-action series and companion game that entered doomed development in 2009.
It’s fitting that The Mandalorian and Fallen Order entered the world within a few days of each other this month, because the former is a spiritual descendant of Underworld, while the latter is the first game to deliver on 1313’s promise of a full-fledged, immersive, single-player campaign (with apologies to the 2011 MMORPG Old Republic, its expansions, and the shorter campaign that accompanied the multiplayer-oriented 2017 title Battlefront II). Many ambitious, unfinished Star Wars video games died before Respawn brought us this blend of Uncharted, Tomb Raider, Metroid, and Dark Souls.
Finally, both follow a five-year plan: Fallen Order takes place five years after Revenge of the Sith, and The Mandalorian unfolds five years after Return of the Jedi. Galactic upheaval is the backdrop for both stories, and the source of their respective protagonists’ emotional scars: The Mandalorian is an orphaned survivor of Separatist strife, and Fallen Order’s Cal Kestis is a Padawan who narrowly survived Order 66. The two psychologically—and, frequently, physically—damaged characters go on grim adventures in disordered settings that reflect their own inner turmoil (which we can thus far only infer in the helmeted Mandalorian’s case).
These are times of transition: In The Mandalorian, Imperial credits are devalued, causing a currency crisis, and in Fallen Order, the hulks of Old Republic and Separatist capital ships are being broken down at the junkyard where Cal works as a scrapper. The first two Star Wars trilogies—and quite likely the third—are all build-ups to climactic confrontations that fade to black when one side wins. But that’s not the way most wars work. The Iraq War didn’t end when Saddam Hussein’s statue fell, and the Galactic Civil War didn’t end when a Coruscanti crowd toppled Emperor Palpatine’s. If anything, the aftermath is messier than the epic confrontation with the clearly drawn battle lines and the rousing score. Medal ceremonies are movie material. The Mandalorian and Fallen Order tell the stories of survivors who are just trying to lick their wounds, take stock of their losses, and get their bearings before the next conflagration.
That difference in focus allows these liminal tales to carve out an identity that’s distinct from the films. In theory, it also gives them room to breathe. Fallen Order begins 14 years before A New Hope. The Mandalorian has a 25-year buffer between its events and those of The Force Awakens. That seemingly leaves them almost unlimited narrative real estate to explore. Save for Solo, which transpires about four years after Fallen Order and 10 years before A New Hope, this is heretofore protected territory. The three animated series—Clone Wars, Rebels, and Resistance—cluster close to the trilogies, so they aren’t in the way: Clone Wars takes place between episodes II and III, Rebels takes place in the years leading up to Episode IV (which is immediately preceded by Rogue One), and Resistance starts shortly before The Force Awakens and runs parallel to the latest trilogy. Some books and comics encroach on these periods, but on screen, they’re near-pristine.
Yet these wide-open spaces still feel confining, for a reason that will probably apply to most of the Star Wars stopgaps that will give fans their fix until the next trilogy. I’m about to spoil some stuff, so if you don’t want to know how Fallen Order ends, avert your eyes.
Although Cal escapes the Order 66 massacre, he loses his master, and with the Jedi destroyed, he has nowhere to go. To stay away from Imperial eyes, he lies low as a laborer on Bracca. For years, he keeps a low profile, but he blows his cover when he uses the Force for an instant to save a falling friend. That attracts the attention of the Inquisitorius, a group of Force-sensitive Jedi hunters controlled by Darth Vader. On the run from these Inquisitors, Cal joins forces with an ex-Jedi named Cere and a captain for hire, Greez. Cere recruits him for her quest to retrieve a Jedi relic called a holocron that contains the locations of every Force-sensitive youngling the Order had identified before it fell. If they can get their hands on the holocron, she hopes, they can kidnap the potential trainees (a time-honored Jedi tradition) and begin to rebuild the broken Order.
The holocron was hidden by Cere’s former master, and retracing his steps predictably demands a mix of platforming, puzzling, and fighting Inquisitors, troops, and wildlife with a lightsaber and an expanding array of Force powers. As he and his comrades flit from planet to planet in search of clues to the holocron’s whereabouts, Cal gradually restores his connection to the Force and approaches Jedi knighthood, much as the Mandalorian raises his status and strengthens his connection to his culture by collecting Beskar armor.
The Mandalorian is a strong start to the Star Wars live-action era. (You, um, may have heard a bit about it elsewhere on our site.) And Fallen Order is a good game, one that comes close to being worthy of the long-dormant mantle once worn by a multitude of classic Star Wars titles. It’s buggy, devoted to backtracking and repetition—be prepared to propel Cal through innumerable narrow cracks in the wall and use the Force to slow the giant fan blades that improbably block his progress through almost every level—and prone to occasionally frustrating deaths, and, as satisfying as the combat can be, lightsabers are never quite as cool in video games as they are in the movies, where they can cut through everything. But it looks and sounds like Star Wars, from the John Williams–soundalike score to the four-armed Greez and his Doug Chiang–designed ship to Cal’s constant companion BD-1, who at least temporarily wrests the “most endearing droid” belt away from BB-8.
The holocron, of course, is a MacGuffin, and we’re always aware that it’s nothing more than that. That’s the curse of the between-trilogies Star Wars installment: We know more than the characters do. Cal and Cere can’t have succeeded in bringing back the Jedi, because the Jedi were still scarce and scattered in the original trilogy. Their mission is destined for failure from the start. At the end of the game, Cal does recover the holocron, and, despite all of his (and our) hours of searching, he destroys it with a flick of his saber, entrusting all of those promising midi-chlorian carriers to the will of the Force. His casual negation of the time-consuming quest might be frustrating for the player, except that there was never any way that the quest could come to fruition.
The Mandalorian faces a similar problem with its breakout star, Baby Yoda. An older version of the infant hasn’t appeared in the latest trilogy, and a consequential cameo in The Rise of Skywalker would feel a bit abrupt, which would seem to suggest that decades after the Mandalorian beats his bounty-hunting competition to its cradle, the mysterious little life form hasn’t survived or amounted to much. Maybe that’s misleading—always in motion is Baby Yoda’s future—but it’s hard to escape the sense that this Force-sensitive infant won’t fulfill his potential to change the chess board. Then again, given how quickly the character has caught on, maybe the next Star Wars trilogy will be about him.
Between-trilogies Star Wars series don’t have to have high stakes, but Disney hasn’t yet been bold enough to tell a stand-alone Star Wars story that didn’t tie itself tightly to the original trilogy (à la Solo and Rogue One) or at least appear to have implications for the fate of the galaxy. Unlike Star Trek loyalists, who were introduced to their favorite fictional universe through the relaxed, repetitive rhythms of TV, Star Wars fans are conditioned to expect fanfare.
Holy crap. I’m on @disneyplus and they have the 20th Century Fox fanfare in tact for #StarWars episodes I-VI! I always felt the fanfare is as much part of the soundtrack as any other track. This makes me so happy! #DisneyPlus #NostalgiaFeels pic.twitter.com/tN14MOnx5n— Jon Lee Brody (@JonLeeBrody) November 12, 2019
They also expect to see recognizable names, and, with all that IP piled up, it’s difficult for Disney to resist the temptation to dip into the back catalog. Fallen Order boasts drop-ins by, among others, the Wookie chieftain Tarfful from Revenge of the Sith, Saw Gerrera from Rogue One, and Darth Vader in a brief, Rogue One–esque closing sequence. It also inserts subtle Easter eggs: Cal’s former master is a Lasat, like Zeb from Rebels, and the game strongly hints at the hitherto unconfirmed origin story of the planet that the First Order reshapes into Starkiller Base from The Force Awakens. In an ostentatious act of Disney synergy, Fallen Order’s hidden chests are also stuffed with lightsaber skins that mirror real-life saber accessories that can be assembled and bought at Galaxy’s Edge. The Mandalorian hasn’t double-dipped with any crossover characters beyond its Yoda clone candidate—unless that was Boba Fett in the background of Chapter 1—but it has surrounded its leading Mando with Jawas, Trandoshans, an Ugnaught, and other staples of the original trilogy’s alien life.
To their credit, neither game nor show shoehorns in its cameos; most of them make sense in the story or are too unobtrusive to be the bad kind of fan service. And even though we’re aware that The Mandalorian and Fallen Order almost inherently have to be dead ends, or at best incidental detours, in relation to the larger Star Wars saga, their writing is strong; their minor, non-Mando/Cal characters are indelible; and their scenery is arresting, which makes them worth taking the trip.
As Star Wars takes a step back from the big screen, it’s logical for Lucasfilm to fill in the blanks in these between times while the long-term plan takes shape. That way, it won’t cause any conflicts with the pre-prequel or post-Skywalker trilogies that could come next. But there is a cost to playing in these parts of the Star Wars sandbox: It’s impossible to watch The Mandalorian or play Fallen Order without a nagging awareness of what comes next in the preestablished timeline. With the conclusion of the Skywalker saga less than a month away, that’s about to become a familiar feeling for Star Wars fans. The franchise’s intertrilogy years are perfectly suited for smaller-scale stories. But for storytellers who are trying to take big swings, it can be a bit of a trap.