Until recently, the thought of a fully realized, movie-worthy Star Wars series on television was unthinkable. The franchise has dabbled in the TV realm since almost the very beginning, but there’s a reason The Star Wars Holiday Special is buried in a vault so deep even Indiana Jones couldn’t find it. But with the advent of Disney+ and the wildly popular first season of The Mandalorian, suddenly Star Wars has come alive on the small screen.
As we wait for The Mandalorian: Season 2, the Bad Batch animated series and other major new Star Wars projects, let’s explore the colorful and sometimes less than glamorous history of the Star Wars franchise in television.
The Star Wars Holiday Special
Star Wars’ very first foray into television is also widely regarded as one of the lowest points for the franchise. That’s despite the fact that it reunites most of the main cast from A New Hope (Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, James Earl Jones, Anthony Daniels). It didn’t help that George Lucas was too busy crafting The Empire Strikes Back to be heavily involved with the spinoff, which was instead directed by Steve Binder (Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special). The result is a painfully awkward musical comedy featuring your favorite Star Wars heroes bumping elbows with TV stars like Bea Arthur and Art Carney, as everyone learns about the importance of Wookiee Life Day.
The special was broadcast only a single time on CBS in November 1978 before disappearing from the public eye for good. It’s never been made available on home video, meaning fans will either have to scour the Internet or buy a bootleg recording if they want to see what passed for a Star Wars Expanded Universe back in 1978.
But as reviled as this special is, it did make a few notable contributions to the franchise mythology. Iconic bounty hunter Boba Fett made his debut during an animated interlude, and fans meet Chewbacca’s entire Wookiee family – wife Malla, father Itchy and son Lumpy.
Star Wars and the Muppets
Given the fact that the original movies relied so heavily on puppetry and the common thread that is puppeteer/actor Frank Oz, it should come as no surprise that Star Wars has a long history of intermingling with series like The Muppet Show and Sesame Street. Mark Hamill famously appeared in a 1980 episode of The Muppet Show, where he played both himself and his “cousin” Luke and danced onstage with C-3PO, R2-D2 and Chewbacca. It’s basically a more successful version of what The Star Wars Holiday Special was trying to accomplish.
Luke’s two droids also appeared in multiple Sesame Street episodes in 1980, and many other series icons have stopped by the show in the years since.
The Ewok Movies
In 2020, news of live-action Star Wars spinoffs debuting on TV would be all the rage. But back in the mid-’80s, the two Ewok movies were barely a blip on the pop culture radar. 1984’s Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure and 1985’s Ewoks: The Battle for Endor both take place in between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. But apart from the Endor setting and the presence of Warwick Davis’ plucky hero Wicket, there’s not much to link these two films back to the larger Star Wars saga. Tonally, they’re very different – more kid-focused fairy tales than epic space fantasy.
That said, there is a popular fan theory suggesting Aubree Miller’s character Cindel Towani eventually grows up to become Captain Phasma.
Droids & Ewoks
While the mid-to-late ’80s were generally a dead zone in terms of new Star Wars content, this is also the period when the franchise got its first two animated spinoffs. Both Droids and Ewoks are kid-friendly shows set before the events of the Original Trilogy. Unfortunately, between the simplistic storylines and the lack of recognizable characters apart from the main leads (Wicket in Ewoks and C-3PO and R2-D2 in Droids), neither show garnered much attention from an audience that had already moved on.
The two shows debuted on ABC in 1985, airing during an hour-long block called The Ewoks and Droids Adventure Hour. Droids was canceled after one 13-episode season, leading ABC to re-brand Ewoks as “The All-New Ewoks” in its second and final season.
While neither series fits into contemporary Star Wars continuity (particularly given that Ewoks features the characters speaking Basic rather than their native Ewokese), certain characters and elements were later repurposed for various movies and novels.
Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars
Following the cancellation of Ewoks in 1986, it would be a full 17 years before Lucasfilm pursued another animated Star Wars series. Fortunately, no less an expert than Samurai Jack creator Genndy Tartakovsky was called upon to animate the Star Wars universe. Star Wars: Clone Wars is a short-form series (with most episodes running between 5 and 15 minutes) aimed at fleshing out the period in between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.
Like Samurai Jack, the series is light on dialogue and plot and heavy on stylized action. While no longer treated as part of the official Star Wars canon, the series is notable for introducing major characters like Asajj Ventress and General Grievous, as well as revealing exactly how Supreme Chancellor Palpatine wound up in Separatist custody at the beginning of Revenge of the Sith. The series also helped set the tone for Dark Horse’s various Clone Wars-focused Star Wars comics.
Star Wars on Robot Chicken and Family Guy
While Star Wars jokes are a staple of pretty much every animated sitcom, Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken broke new ground in 2007 with Robot Chicken: Star Wars, an hour-long special devoted entirely to lampooning the iconic franchise. The various skits include a “Yo Momma” battle between Luke Skywalker and Emperor Palpatine, an alternate take on the scene where Ponda Baba gets his arm sliced off by Obi-Wan Kenobi and an elaborate “Star Wars on Ice” musical sequence. Two sequels followed in 2008 and 2010, respectively.
The same year, Family Guy delivered its own Star Wars spoof episode in the form of “Blue Harvest,” a retelling of A New Hope with the extended Family Guy cast playing various Star Wars roles. Because both Family Guy and Star Wars were Fox properties at the time, the series was actually able to use assets and music from the movie. Two sequel episodes eventually followed, with “Something, Something, Something Dark Side” spoofing The Empire Strikes Back and “It’s a Trap” handling Return of the Jedi.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars
It wasn’t until 2008 that Lucasfilm made a concerted effort to tap into the true storytelling potential of a Star Wars TV series. Similar to the Genndy Tartakovsky series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars set out to fill in the three-year gap between Attack of the Clones and revenge of the Sith. But with longer episodes and a much larger scope, the second Clone Wars cartoon was able to do so in much greater depth.
While the series features familiar Prequel Trilogy characters like Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Count Dooku and Padme Amidala, it also focuses on characters who don’t appear in the movies, such as Asajj Ventress, Captain Rex and the heroes and villains of Mandalore. The series is most notable for introducing Ahsoka Tano, the Jedi Padawan we never knew Anakin had.
The Clone Wars met with a mixed reception early on, in part thanks to mediocre reviews of the 2008 theatrical movie that preceded the series. But over time, the series won the hearts of many a Star Wars fan, all while casting the Prequels in a new and better light. That didn’t stop the series from being prematurely canceled in 2013. But the Force works in mysterious ways, and The Clone Wars did finally get the finale it deserved with the belated Season 7 arrived on Disney+ in 2020.
Star Wars: Underworld
The Holiday Special and Muppet guest appearances aside, there’s a reason no one had ever attempted a live-action Star Wars series before the 2010’s. Replicating the look and feel of the movies on the small screen is a difficult and extremely expensive prospect. But never let it be said George Lucas didn’t give it his best try.
Before selling the franchise to Disney in 2012, Lucas was in the process of developing a live-action series called Star Wars: Underworld. Underworld was set in between Episodes III and IV and, as the name suggests, would have focused on the seedier side of life during the Empire’s reign. Sadly, it seems Lucas was never quite able to crack the code for a live-action series.
“Right now, it looks like the Star Wars features,” Lucas said on G4’s Attack of the Show in 2011. “But we have to figure out a way to make it at about a tenth of the cost of the features, because it’s television.”
Lucas also confirmed there were 50 completed scripts for the series, which had some strong similarities to the canceled Star Wars 1313.
Star Wars Detours
Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm also cut short plans for an animated series called Star Wars Detours. Helmed by Robot Chicken’s Matthew Senreich and Seth Green, Detours was meant to be a more all-ages-friendly parody of the saga, complete with cutesy, rotund versions of your favorite Star Wars icons.
According to Green, no fewer than 39 episodes of the series were completed before Disney acquired Star Wars and opted to kill the project. Theoretically, there’s no reason Detours couldn’t be pulled from the Disney vault and released on Disney+, but there’s been no sign of that actually happening yet.
Star Wars Rebels
One of Disney’s first acts after acquiring the Star Wars franchise was to replace The Clone Wars with a new animated series set closer to the events of the Original Trilogy. Rebels introduced a new band of heroes keeping the spark of freedom alive in the years before Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo become the face of the Rebellion. The series also managed to give Clone Wars fans a certain amount of closure, with characters like Ahsoka Tano and Darth Maul playing major roles. The series even inducted Expanded Universe favorite Grand Admiral Thrawn into the Disney canon for good measure.
Rebels only lasted for four seasons on Disney XD, but unlike Clone Wars, it delivered a conclusive ending in the process. The series won a devoted following, and even now fans are wondering when we’ll see characters like Hera, Ezra and Thrawn again.
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Star Wars on YouTube
Even as Disney has been busy filling out its new Disney+ streaming platform, they’ve also been bringing plenty of Star Wars content straight to YouTube. Star Wars: Forces of Destiny is an animated web series that focuses on the women of the saga, like Princess Leia, Jyn Erso and Rey. Star Wars: Galaxy of Adventures is another animated web series that offers a stylish new take on familiar moments from the movies, while Star Wars Roll Out re-imagines the entire cast as BB-8-esque balls. And finally, Star Wars: Jedi Temple Challenge is a competitive game show hosted by Jar Jar Binks himself, Ahmed Best.
Star Wars Resistance
Shortly after the conclusion of Star Wars Rebels in 2018, Disney followed up with a new animated series dubbed Star Wars Resistance. Resistance differs from its predecessors in more ways than one, sporting an unusual cel-shaded art style and a plot that takes place in the era of the sequel trilogy. While the series focuses mostly on new characters like New Republic pilot-turned-Resistance spy Kazuda Xiono and The First Order’s Commander Pyre, the series does feature a number of familiar movie characters like Poe Dameron, General Leia Organa, Captain Phasma and Kylo Ren. Many of these characters were even voiced by their original actors in Season 1, though those roles were largely recast in Season 2.
Despite a mostly positive critical reception, Resistance only lasted for two seasons before being quietly canceled. To date, it remains the last Star Wars series to air on Disney XD.
Star Wars: The Mandalorian
Star Wars: Underworld may have been a few years ahead of its time, but The Mandalorian proved a live-action Star Wars can indeed work without bankrupting the studio in the process. Lucasfilm managed this feat by turning to Iron Man and Jungle Book director Jon Favreau to oversee the series and relying on an innovative “video wall” set that all but eliminates the need for location shooting.
The Mandalorian is set roughly five years after the events of Return of the Jedi, starring Pedro Pascal as the titular bounty hunter/gunfighter, Gina Carano as ex-Rebel shocktrooper Cara Dune and Carl Weathers as bounty hunting guild leader Greef Karga. While the first season doesn’t really tie into the larger Skywalker Saga, it does greatly flesh out the warrior culture of Mandalore. Plus it introduced Baby Yoda to the world…
Season 2 looks as though it could have a larger impact on the franchise. Whereas the first season focused entirely on new characters, Season 2 will reportedly draw in Temuera Morrison’s Boba Fett, Katee Sackhoff’s Bo-Katan Kryze and even Rosario Dawson as Ahsoka Tano.
The Future of Star Wars on Disney+
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Disney+ has so far played home to The Mandalorian and the final season of The Clone Wars, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. With the direction of the franchise on the big screen still uncertain post-The Rise of Skywalker, TV is where fans will be getting their Star Wars fix over the next few years.
Star Wars: The Bad Batch will likely be the next Star Wars series arriving on Disney+. This animated spinoff of The Clone Wars takes place after the war’s end and follows the elite squad introduced in Season 7, as they struggle to find purpose without a cause to fight for.
As far as live-action series go, Rogue One’s Cassian Andor is getting his own show, with both Diego Luna and Alan Tudyk reprising their roles and Rogue One co-writer Tony Gilroy serving as showrunner. The series is set five years before the events of Rogue One and will explore Cassian’s exploits as a Rebel spy.
Then, Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi is getting his own series. Ewan McGregor will be back in the lead role, with the series shedding light on Obi-Wan’s life on Tatooine. Deborah Chow (The Mandalorian) will serve as showrunner, and production is expected to begin in January 2021.
Finally, Russian Doll creator Leslye Headland is writing and overseeing a female-driven Star Wars series. That’s about all we know about this mystery project so far, but some fans have speculated the series could be a Mandalorian spinoff starring Rosario Dawson’s Ahsoka Tano.
That’s a lot of Star Wars. Head down to the comments to let us know your favorite TV incarnation of the franchise and which Disney+ project you’re most excited to see.
Jesse is a mild-mannered staff writer for IGN. Allow him to lend a machete to your intellectual thicket by following @jschedeen on Twitter.