Star Wars

The Mandalorian, Troops, and the Fan-Filmification of Star Wars

Today's Star Wars fulfills the promise of the late '90s internet.


If you were alive and online in the 1990s, there is a reasonably good chance you stumbled on the fan-made short film Troops, which reimagines the white-and-black-clad Imperial stormtroopers of Star Wars as head-knocking beat cops in the style of the then-popular police reality show, COPS. Just 10 minutes long with credits, this short went viral back not only before the concept of virality was widespread, but before YouTube or other websites made uploading digital videos easy. Viewing Troops meant downloading the video, typically using a modem and telephone line if you weren't in an academic or corporate setting with access to high-speed internet; this could take minutes, even hours. Signing up to watch Troops was a commitment. 

But people made that commitment, and in droves, partly because the effects-work was surprisingly high-quality for a nonprofessional production and partly because it was genuinely funny, with amusingly accented ride-along confessionals by stormtroopers on the beat, recasting Jawas and other Star Wars–universe types as local ruffians. The mashed-up elements weren't original, but the parodic synthesis was, and by treating the stormtroopers as ordinary beat cops patrolling local communities, it delivered the sort of world-building that helped make Star Wars an obsession for a generation.  

Meanwhile, the distribution mechanism—online fans and friends who insisted that you just had to see it, that it was worth tying up your phone line for an hour or more—was new to most viewers as well. Troops sold the promise of the early internet: that anyone, anywhere with sufficient talent and ambition could make neat stuff and that anyone, anywhere with a connection could have it delivered to their screen without deep-pocketed gatekeepers or intermediaries. 

Troopswhich went online in 1997, two years before The Phantom Menace and the start of the Star Wars prequel trilogy—also delivered on another promise: At last, there was more Star Wars. Although the franchise had been built out in comics and novels that comprised what was then known as the Expanded Universe, filmed entries in the series were largely dormant. The franchise's creator, George Lucas, was holding out. Troops was clearly created by a devoted, loving fan. And it catered to a then-unsatiated fan hunger for more (and more and more and more). 

Today, Troops is sometimes credited—at least on Wikipedia—as helping to launch the modern fan film movement, and it's easy to see its legacy, not just in the fan-made Star Wars shorts that have become as plentiful on YouTube as sand on Tatooine, but in the entire universe of amateur and semi-professional films that have been filed away on streaming video servers. What once took unusual effort to make and produce is now so commonplace that it's become glut. Indeed, online video is so plentiful and easy to watch today that it sometimes feels as if the effort required has been inverted: It takes a commitment to not watch it. 

But looking back at Troops also sheds some light on the evolution of the Star Wars franchise in the intervening quarter century since its release. I couldn't help but think of it as I watched the first episode of the latest season of The Mandalorian, the popular Star Wars spinoff series on Disney+, because what The Mandalorian shows is that Star Wars has evolved into a kind of fan project, even if it's one backed by the biggest entertainment companies in the world. 

The Mandalorian isn't a one-to-one parody in the style of Troops, but it's a homage that borrows heavily from the traditions of classic spaghetti Westerns, with a tight-lipped, mysterious protagonist and a series of encounters with dusty border towns. And while it's straightforward enough to be enjoyed without an advanced degree in Star Wars-ology, it traffics in complex lore and mythology about its title character and his people, the Mandalorians, which were developed largely outside the mainline series of Star Wars feature films—first in early Star Wars spinoff comics, and later with even greater depth in The Clone Wars animated series and its follow-ups, Star Wars Rebels and The Bad Batch

Those series were all created by Dave Filoni, who is also an executive producer on The Mandalorian. They not only represent some of the best Star Wars-adjacent storytelling of the last two decades, they are also, implicitly if not explicitly, attempts to rescue the feature film prequel trilogy overseen by George Lucas between 1999 and 2005. 

When the prequels arrived, they were greeted by many fans as disappointments, but Filoni's multiple animated series attempt to fill in the gaps, expanding the universe and telling the story of the Empire as a sprawling fantasy epic, with a huge cast of characters, surprisingly nuanced political conflicts, and vast, vast amounts of lore and backstory. 

Filoni is, by all indications, a Star Wars super fan, the kind of intense and devoted obsessive who one can imagine staying up late into the night posting elaborate tributes to his favorite series on message boards, imagining off-screen storylines based on hidden hints to make sense of the story he so clearly loves. Over the past decade and a half, Filoni has essentially built a new universe on top of the old one, renovating and, in most cases, improving the old space in the process. 

In some ways, Filoni and his collaborators are merely following in the footsteps of the various novelists, video game developers, and comic book writers who kept the franchise alive during the fallow period between the original trilogy and the prequels. But that's just a reminder that for most of its life, Star Wars has existed as a collaborative project. Filoni has delivered a super fan's vision of the Star Wars universe—the difference is that he's done it with the backing and resources of the franchise's corporate owners. 

The Mandalorian was created by Jon Favreau, but Filoni is a key creative player too: In addition to his producer role, he's served as both a writer and director on the series. And from appearances by Cad Bane and Ahsoka Tano to this season's storyline about the clans of Mandalore and the mystical legacy of the Darksaber, it's clear that it's an expansion of Filoni's vision and understanding of the Star Wars franchise.

And that vision is very much a fan's vision, with a new streaming series every few months, dozens of episodes and stories, an endless universe of stories and legends and lore, delivered in different tones and styles, often borrowing from multiple other genres that fans adore. It is, in some ways, a smaller vision, more intimate, more friendly, more suited to TV-style serial storytelling than big-screen epics. It's more experimental in some ways, and less audacious in others, serving both casual viewers and franchise junkies alike. It allows for commitment, but it no longer requires one. And in that sense, it has fulfilled the promise of Troops, of effortless access for creators and consumers, of more (and more and more) Star Wars, of a universe given over to its fans, and, over time, remade by them.