TV that takes you from an alternate Oxford to a galaxy far, far away

Why We Wrote This

How well does science fiction and fantasy translate on the small screen? Our reviewer evaluates whether new takes on the “Star Wars” universe, book series “His Dark Materials,” and DC Comics classic “Watchmen” are worth your time.

Francois Duhamel/Disney Plus/AP
Pedro Pascal stars in "The Mandalorian." The eight episode show with the budget of a feature film is one of the marquee offerings of the Walt Disney Co.’s new streaming service, Disney Plus, which launched Nov. 12.

The launch of streaming service Disney Plus this week offers the latest addition to the “Star Wars” family, “The Mandalorian.” It joins other new lavishly budgeted science fiction and fantasy fare such as HBO’s new interpretation of “Watchmen,” from DC Comics, and “His Dark Materials,” the bestselling series written by Philip Pullman. What can viewers expect? 

“The Mandalorian”

For nearly all of its existence, the “Star Wars” universe has had a single lodestone: the Skywalker family. Be it the heroics of Luke, the transformation of Anakin to Darth Vader, or the turmoil of Ben Solo/Kylo Ren, “Star Wars” has always turned on the Skywalkers’ saga. Even a spinoff movie like “Solo” only fills out the backstory of the most important Skywalker in-law.

That makes “The Mandalorian,” the flagship show of Disney Plus, something quite special – for it has nothing to do with the Skywalkers. It’s its own story, about a lone, unnamed bounty hunter, played by Pedro Pascal, working in the lawless backwaters of the Star Wars universe. The Empire is in ruins, there are no Jedi running around, and the fate of the galaxy is not at stake (at least not yet). So far the only hint of a greater plot arc is in the reveal of the race of the bounty hunter’s target at the end of the first episode, which debuted Tuesday (new episodes will be released every Friday until Dec. 27).

But this is a very good thing. Unshackled from the Skywalkers and their wars, “The Mandalorian” has a chance to delve into Star Wars’ rich non-film backstory. For example, the bounty hunter is a member of the Mandalorian people, a culture extensively explored outside of the movies, and which the first episode begins to investigate. And the race of the bounty hunter’s target promises some very interesting discussion down the line.

Of course, it is a “Star Wars” show, and that means it needs to have action. And it very much does. “The Mandalorian” is basically a sci-fi Western, with no shortage of shoot-outs and bar-room punch-ups. The Mandalorian fights like a prototypical Man with No Name, a la Clint Eastwood, but equally fun is IG-11, a gangly assassin droid voiced by quirky actor-director Taika Waititi. 

In fact, the whole cast is entertainingly weird. Legendary director Werner Herzog plays a deep-pocketed client who hires the Mandalorian to bring in a mark. Nick Nolte is unrecognizable as a short, pig-faced alien known as an ugnaught. Carl Weathers is the liaison with the bounty hunters’ guild. With a cast like that, all overseen by showrunner Jon Favreau, of “Elf” and “Iron Man” fame, one can only expect the show to have an offbeat streak all the way through. (TV-PG)

“His Dark Materials”

Now that “Game of Thrones” has finally ended, HBO appears to be in the market for a new fantasy series to take up its mantle. Channel executives may be hoping that “His Dark Materials,” based on the series of books by Pullman, can fill the void, but early evidence is ambiguous.

The story revolves around Lyra, a young girl left to live among Oxford academics but who is prophesied for greatness. She is quickly thrust into adventure when her adventurer uncle, Lord Asriel, is caught up in the conflict between the Magisterium, the dominant religious authority, and his academic research into “dust,” an elementary particle that shapes the metaphysics of this world. More importantly, the world Lyra lives in is not quite our own – all human beings have a natural extension of themselves called a dæmon, which manifests as a sentient, talking animal. And dust plays a mysterious role in that.

Unfortunately, the show, like the first book in the series, “The Golden Compass,” rushes quite quickly into this world and can be difficult to follow. Moreover, the showrunners have chosen to remix the narrative, shaking up the order of events and adding a new arc with the Magisterium that introduces elements from later books early. So far, it’s hard to see this version of “His Dark Materials” engaging either newcomers or existing fans. (TV-14)

“Watchmen”

Despite sharing the same name as the 1980s comic classic, HBO’s “Watchmen” is not a retelling, nor is it a sequel. Rather, it is an extension of the original “Watchmen” universe: a place where men and women decided that putting on capes and masks was a good way to fight crime, until a real superhuman came along and changed the world.

This “Watchmen” attacks a theme that was largely unexplored by Alan Moore in the original: race. But it does so in a way that feels wholly believable within Moore’s framework. The late antihero Rorschach has become inspiration for KKK-like white terrorists in Oklahoma, and to fight back, the police have adopted masked identities themselves. Foremost is Sister Knight, played by Oscar winner Regina King, who is quickly drawn into a conspiracy when her friend and mentor Chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) is murdered. (The show’s creator was influenced by the 1921 Tulsa race riots, which play an important role in the series.) 

“Watchmen” is filled with homages to the original comic, often just in simple shots that reference panels of Dave Gibbons’ art. But by the sixth episode (the last one made available to reviewers), deeper ties to the comic become clear in ways that make one rethink the original work. It’s still a minor revision of “Watchmen” canon overall, but it adds a new layer that wasn’t there before, and it doesn’t feel forced. That is high praise for this new addition to “Watchmen” lore. (TV-MA, including intense violence)

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