The Mandalorian Season Two Premiere Review

As the sophomore season of the Disney+ flagship show lands in a sitting room near you at lightspeed, the weight of high expectations and fan theorizing rests heavily on the shoulders of lead creatives Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni, as well as every other creative in front of and behind the camera. If the season two premiere is any indication, it looks like they may have just exceeded each and every one of these expectations in effortless fashion.

In broad strokes, the first few minutes of this episode play out in similar fashion to those of the initial season one premiere. Our protagonist, the titular Mandalorian known as Din Djarin, is on assignment in an alien environment, using nothing but his wits and his personal arsenal of advanced weaponry to survive. The key difference is that whereas before he was operating as a bounty hunter chasing his mark, this time around he has the fan-favourite Child in tow and is seeking information on where he might find other members of his warrior culture. A few world-building moments and fight sequences later, Mando is then on his way back to Tatooine to chase up a lead on a fellow mystery Mandalorian who he hopes can help him repatriate his green and diminutive adopted baby.

While it feels like a logical progression from the season one finale when the Armorer gave him these orders, proceedings are swiftly turned on their head when it transpires that the sighted Mandalorian is hiding out in Mos Pelgo, a township far from the infamous Mos Eisley and absent from any official maps.

Mando and The Child, the father-son duo that the galaxy far, far away didn’t know it needed, but is now grateful to have

Upon arrival he soon encounters the man he seeks, a man acting as the town’s marshal and wearing Mandalorian armour – which franchise fans will immediately recognize as the set previously owned by Boba Fett. Except, Boba Fett is not the person hiding underneath the helmet – it is Cobb Vanth, a character who originally appeared in the Aftermath trilogy of books and is now using the armour as an authoritative uniform. After demanding that he return the armour to a true Mandalorian, but before things can turn hostile, a gigantic Krayt Dragon causes havoc in the township. This encourages both men to put aside their differences and work together for mutual benefit – if Mando saves Mos Pelgo by helping to take out the leviathan along with rival Tusken Raiders then Cobb will voluntarily hand over the armour.

Cobb Vanth, marshal extraordinaire

The premise of the episode is daring in scope when ties to previously-established canon are considered, yet simple in nature when the basic idea of ‘monster hunter saves town’ comes to the fore at the end of the first act and then drives the rest of the episode’s narrative.

Sitting comfortably at over fifty minutes in length this is by far the longest episode of the series to date, and this goes a long way to allow certain moments to breathe and run their course naturally rather than having to be rushed along for the sake of plot. In many respects it is comparable to a mini-movie rather than an episode of television, and that is definitely a large feather in the cap of all those involved behind the scenes – particularly those responsible for the jaw-dropping change in aspect ratio during the climactic Krayt Dragon fight.

The very inclusion of the Krayt Dragon is itself a love letter to Star Wars fans, harkening back not only to the infant skeleton of a mysterious creature in the opening act A New Hope, but also a plethora of other references to the species in the franchise’s expanded media.

The Krayt Dragon and an explosive-wrapped serving of Bantha lunch

However, this being the first time it has been seen onscreen, in all of its destructive and dazzling special effects glory, is just the latest in a long line of inclusions in the series which have rewarded long-time fans of the franchise for their diligence. From a model of storage container first seen on Cloud City in Empire Strikes Back being used to transport Beskar steel, to a Lothal cat hissing from underneath a table on the forest planet Sorgan, the writing team behind The Mandalorian have been careful to include just the right amount of minute details and larger subplots that only an überfan will fully appreciate. Thankfully, this process has been practised to a fine art and while not every detail and inclusion is fully appreciated by everybody, the series can still be watched in a vacuum and no enjoyment or context is lost. This is fan service done right.

“One more episode, barkeep, as quickly as you can!”

From a technical standpoint the series is even more impressive now than it was last season, with the set design, character wardrobes, and prosthetics being as impeccable as ever. The world(s) that are inhabited by this cast of characters feels truly lived in, and even on a familiar planet things still feel brand new.

Part of the commendation must deservedly go to the VFX artists working with The Volume, the on-set technology being used to produce digital backgrounds and special effects in realtime rather than using jarring green screen. As with last season, this has allowed them to continue making CGI look more realistic than ever before, with some of the set pieces during the climax of the episode even putting parts of the franchise’s theatrical outings to shame.

The cherry on top of this spectacular episode is the return of Temeura Morrison as Boba Fett himself, seen watching from afar as Mando rides off into the sunset with his armour in tow. What this means for the future of both characters is open to speculation, but in the meantime fans can rejoice in the knowledge that the character behind everyone’s favourite action figure survived his apparent death in 1983.

A scarred Boba Fett, confirmed in live-action to be alive after he was last seen tumbling into the maw of a Sarlacc five years before the events of the series

In conclusion, from script to director’s chair Jon Favreau has delivered an impeccable opening episode to the new season of The Mandalorian. By any metric, be it technical prowess, plot progression, pacing, longtime fan satisfaction, sound design, and anything in-between, this premiere episode was a roaring success. The stage has now well and truly been set for what is surely going to be a rollercoaster of a season, especially with it being all but confirmed that another fan-favourite character, this time of the animated variety, is on her way to making a live-action debut in the coming weeks. If anyone is still undecided on whether or not they should join the masses and follow the adventures of The Mandalorian and The Child, then just know that this is the Star Wars you spent your childhood daydreaming about while playing with action figures.

Final Score: 10/10

Doctor Aphra Audio Drama Review

From guest-starring in the Darth Vader comic series to headlining her own forty-issue run, from a crossover with Skywalker and Co. to a second volume of her own series which is now well under way, Dr. Chelli Aphra is certainly popular in four-colour print. But can she make the switch to a sightless medium?

To the relief of her legion of fans, the answer is a resounding yes. Since blasting onto the scene in early 2015 a handful of different artists and writers have put their stamp on everyone’s favourite archaeologist since Indiana Jones. This audio drama adaptation of her first set of appearances in the Darth Vader comic series where she finds herself under his employ puts the focus on her own perspective, in addition to adding some bonus content which before now would have been left to the imagination of the reader. In concept it is intriguing, and in practice it is thoroughly enjoyable.

Scribed by seasoned author Sarah Kuhn, the voice and chaotic neutral energy of Aphra is captured perfectly in this five-hour adventure. While it may take some getting used to for listeners who are unfamiliar with our (anti?)heroine, this new venture is as faithful to the character as fans could have hoped. Featuring a handful of delightful scenes which allow Triple-Zero to remind us all why we love his murderous tendencies, listeners are soon reminded just how important sound can be when stirring our imaginations.

Sarah Kuhn, the latest in a long line of authors to leave their mark on characters residing in a galaxy far, far away

The voice acting lends itself very well to the narrative with impressive performances found here from the majority of the cast. Emily Woo Zeller is a convincing and praise-worthy Aphra, Sean Kenin is a suitably-sociopathic Triple-Zero, and Marc Thompson is a worthy successor to the role of Darth Vader. One downfall of the voice work is the inclusion of the trio of heroes who are synonymous with this far, far away galaxy. Despite their best efforts none of the actors portraying Luke, Han, and Leia do so to a degree which would be considered seamless coming from their live-action appearances. While this has no impact on the actual story per se, it does unfortunately take the listener out of the moment and forces them to readjust.

First appearance of Doctor Aphra in Star Wars: Darth Vader #3

The story itself moves along at a swift pace which somehow manages to never feel rushed. Framed as a series of flashbacks from the perspective of a later Aphra retelling her escapades to a voice recorder, the listener benefits from enjoying her adventure while also being exposed to some of her regretful hindsight which comes after the fact. This includes, but is not limited to, a touching apology to her former lover Sana Starros which is beautifully acted-out by Zeller.

Clocking in at nearly half the length of Audible’s recent venture The Sandman and being more akin to their trilogy of Alien audio drama adaptations in length, Doctor Aphra still manages to pack an awful lot in to its disappointingly-light runtime. Unfortunately, it is still beat-for-beat almost identical to her first appearances in comic book form despite promises to the contrary. For a universe as expansive as that of Star Wars and a blank canvas painted by the original source material, one would have hoped that the additional narrative content would have been a bit more substantive than what is presented here. Although constrained by the course of events that are set in stone, given that this piece is surely designed to attract new readers to the character it would have been prudent to offer more than close to the exact same story that has already existed for nearly five years in print even if that meant upping the runtime.

Nevertheless, if it were not for the promise of an expanded story which goes relatively unfulfilled there would be little to fault in this audio drama. Gripes with the original heroic trio aside, it offers both stellar performances for the most part, amazing sound effects throughout, and a narrative which keeps you on the edge of your seat. If the production quality of Doctor Aphra is any indication of things to come, fans will surely be clamouring for other fan favourite characters who have yet to receive the live-action treatment to step into the recording booth.

The first solo appearance of Doctor Aphra, accompanied by her delightfully devilish supporting cast

All in all, Doctor Aphra is a fine audio drama which Random House Audio can be proud of. Despite its shortcomings in certain guest performances and a promise of more content which did not quite reach expectations, it still manages to offer a thrilling adventure from a unique perspective. Augmented by pitch-perfect performances from its main cast and sound effects which bring immersion to new heights, this is one story that effortlessly takes your imagination far, far away.

Final Score: 7.5/10

The Rise of Kylo Ren (2019) Mini-Series Review

A long time has passed since the origin story of the Sequel Trilogy’s standout character was announced at San Diego Comic Con. Now, eight months later, has Charles Soule delivered a satisfying ending (or beginning?) to this chapter of Ben Solo’s life?

The Rise of Kyle Ren #1

In short, almost. Last December, hot off the heels of Ben Solo’s tragic death in the conclusion to the Skywalker Saga on film, fans were desperate for more content starring the conflicted son of Han Solo. With the fandom in mourning, the first issue penned by Charles Soule and masterfully illustrated by Will Sliney scratched an itch that could be felt even in a galaxy far, far away. Fast-forward three months to March, however, and this series is no longer an itch-scratcher. It has become required reading.

The sad truth of it all is that this series has made it crystal clear that Ben Solo was never going to have a happy ending. Even from a young age Palpatine was whispering in his ear, sowing the seeds of the Dark Side of the Force in his impressionable mind in order for him to blossom into the not-quite-Sith Kylo Ren who captivated the imaginations of fans the world over in The Force Awakens. Right at the beginning of this series it is revealed that the Knights of Ren refer to the Dark Side as ‘the Shadow,’ a nickname which is then used like a dagger through the heart of Ben Solo fans when it is said by another of Luke’s former Padawans that he casts “a pretty long shadow” in the Force. All the more tragic is the revelation that Ben did not set fire to Luke’s temple. Does the lightning strike suggest a powerful Dark Side user like Snoke, or even Palpatine himself? A likely bet, but maybe a patented Maz Kanata “good story, for another time.”

Still, it isn’t all tragedy and pity. Some of it is pure nostalgia and adrenaline. Seeing ‘Prime Luke,’ some years after the events of Return of the Jedi but before he became the Old Man Luke seen at the end of The Force Awakens, is something that has been sorely missing from the wider canon since the erasure of the old EU. Seeing Luke being a mentor to young Solo and in his fighting prime, easily dispatching the Knights of Ren, was a joy to watch unfold as Will Sliney makes every sabre slash look just as iconic as they do when projected in a theatre. Unfortunately the Knights themselves are still as big of a mystery as the eponymous Ren who dies at Ben’s hands, solidifying him as their new leader. A throwaway line in the final issue indicates that they are essentially bounty hunters, but beyond that we learn nothing more about them apart from the occasional name-drop which can be found in the movie’s visual dictionary. Seeing the Knights be single-handedly defeated by Luke and then struggle to fend off a single Padawan in the final issue does little to boost their credibility before we next see them in The Rise of Skywalker.

Still, if there is one thing which this series does well in terms of fleshing out the background of the Sequel Trilogy it is Luke’s academy. Used sparingly, the academy itself is only shown a handful of times. The real intrigue comes from Ben’s fellow Padawan learners Voe, Hennix, and Tai. Destined to die before this series even began due to the nature of villainous origin stories, getting to know each of these three students and their different personalities was something that is dying to be replicated in an animated series set post-Return of the Jedi and featuring Mark Hamill. Until that fan dream comes true, we must satisfy ourselves with this teaser of those lost years. Who knows, maybe we will meet the three Padawans who died at the hands of Ben again someday, making their deaths even more cruel in the second half of this series.

Last but not least, the final conflict. Sadly a little rushed, the series needed more than one final issue to wrap things up after the cliffhanger in Issue #3. Although Ben’s transformation into Kylo Ren as he embraced the Dark Side (even catching a glimpse of a certain brown-haired girl from Jakku) was satisfying to see in all of Will Sliney’s glory, as was his bleeding of the cyber crystal which would go on to power his cross guard lightsaber, for the most part the final quarter was forced to spend too much time ticking boxes to wrap things up and not enough time laying bare the conflict within Ben.

While we did get a healthy dose of psychology during his battle with Tai in which he outlined the battle between Light and Dark inside of him, it comes from a place of conflict and not a place of self-awareness. Joining the Dark Side becomes more of a frustrated reluctance rather than a profound epiphany, which both undermines the string-pulling of Palpatine and cripples the sympathy felt by the reader. If Ben fell to the Dark Side because Snoke showed him love and affection and didn’t care that he was the son of Han Solo, shouldn’t the same be said of Luke not caring that he was the grandson of Vader? Not even a callback to the iconic over-the-shoulder lightsaber draw on Exogol in The Rise of Skywalker can negate this particular grievance.

In any case, the build up to Kylo’s ‘rise’ over the previous three issues did a great job showing a more innocent side to Ben Solo and of expanding the lore of this galaxy far, far away. With any luck we will see the Jedi outpost from Issue #2 in one of Soules’ works set during the High Republic era over the course of the next few years. However, the grand finale, visually stunning as it may be, needed a fifth or even a sixth issue to breathe and give the reader a better sense as to why Ben Solo became Kylo Ren.

Overall Score: 7.5/10

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