I have just enough knowledge of the Star Wars Expanded Universe to really love The Mandalorian. Admiral Thrawn, Ahsoka Tano, and Bo-Katan are all names I’ve picked up from Star Wars obsessed friends who’ve insisted, for years, that if I just gave their favorite novel, comic, or cartoons a chance, I’d love Star Wars the way they do. Thanks to The Mandalorian, I may have to take them up on it. But it’s mostly thanks to a video game.
I enjoy a good war in the stars, but I’ve never been a huge fan of the series. It has, for me, mostly been what’s presented in the movies—a fun and often dumb space fantasy with an outsized cultural impact. The main way I engaged with the franchise was through its excellent video games. So it was during a recent episode when mechanized Dark Troopers showed up on screen that I hooted and pointed at my television like Leonardo DiCaprio. I played Star Wars: Dark Forces! I had fought against those machines before! Dark Troopers.
Dark Troopers first appeared in the video game Star Wars: Dark Forces, a Doom clone from 1995 that grew into a beloved franchise all its own. They’re combat droids that, in Dark Forces, were big scary enemies reminiscent of Mancubus from Doom II. In The Mandalorian, they’re villain Moff Gideon’s enforcers. It’s a great reference that will go over most viewers' heads.
The Star Wars film franchise is a messy and nightmarish culture war touchstone. It comprises nine films of middling quality, billions of dollars in box office, and extra material from video games, comic books, and novels that make up the “Expanded Universe.” The Mandalorian has proved that the best thing the films ever did was create a rich and fertile ground where creators smarter than George Lucas and JJ Abrams could set up shop and tell wonderful stories.
Boba Fett is the most mainstream example of what I’m talking about. Boba Fett sucks. He has four lines in the original trilogy and his death is played for laughs. Do you remember how Fett goes out? Han Solo accidentally hits him in the jet pack, which launches Fett into the side of Jabba the Hutt’s pleasure cruiser and into the Sarlacc pit. The Sarlacc pit burps after digesting the bounty hunter.
Despite his goofy presence in the original trilogy, fans loved Boba Fett. There's no good reason to love him based on his minimal presence in the movies other than he looks cool, a kind of space Spartan warrior, which along with a very popular action figure was enough to turn him into an icon of the franchise. Boba Fett’s power was not in his cannon presence, but in all the things that presence suggested. Why did he have this distinctive armor no one else did? What was the symbol on his shoulder? Why don’t other people have jet packs? Part of the power of Star Wars is that the art design, set design, suggested a much bigger universe beyond what we saw on the screen.
Boba Fett, with his limited presence in the films, was mysterious and interesting despite his silly screen death. Other, often more talented, creators took the world Lucas envisioned and built out that universe and populated it with wonders. Mandalorian culture, Beskar steel, and the Darksaber are all creations that flowed out from Boba Fett’s six minutes of screentime. And, as Disney has inelegantly finished the films that Lucas began, it’s obvious that the future of the franchise will be rooted in that expanded universe its creator had so little input in.
Reports of Boba Fett’s death in the Sarlacc pit were greatly exaggerated. He’s alive and well in The Mandalorian and he’s way cooler than he was in the original trilogy. The triumphant return of the fan favorite character, played by the same actor who played his father in the prequels, comes with the weight of fan expectation, but is tempered by how much work countless artists have done to give dignity and backstory to a throwaway character from the original films.
The Mandalorian is the Star Wars dilettantes introduction to the expanded universe. It’s the perfect vehicle for people to get excited about stories and worlds they never knew they wanted to hear. It’s more than just fan service, deep cut references like the Dark Troopers and Admiral Thrawn are doing the work that Boba Fett did in the original trilogy. They’re suggesting a wider world, one populated by interesting characters and strange landscapes. It’s Star Wars at its best.