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After more than 40 years, Star Wars has finally found the kind of success on the small screen it's enjoyed in the multiplex.
In the '80s, as Star Wars mania swept the country, Lucasfilm tried out several cartoons and TV movies in an effort to make the jump from hyperspace to our TV screens. Unfortunately, not even Jedi mind tricks could make those early offerings register with audiences in the way that the movies did, or like The Mandalorian does now. But thanks to Star Wars’ first live-action series becoming an instant fan-favorite — alongside animated offerings such as Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels — the franchise has finally made its mark on television.
Star Wars’ future seems firmly tethered to more TV shows and Mando spinoffs, starting with its newest animated series, Star Wars: The Bad Batch. With this much-anticipated show about to launch on Disney+ on May 4, SYFY WIRE has done the rank-and-file thing for every Star Wars TV show and TV movie ever.
Yes, including the Holiday Special. Speaking of...
11. The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)
Aside from the animated short featuring the debut of Boba Fett two years before his appearance in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, there’s not much worth watching in The Star Wars Holiday Special. There is a reason it remains infamous to this day: It is a project so creatively disappointing that Lucasfilm has disowned it.
A year after Star Wars changed the way Hollywood makes, um, everything, George Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz took time away from pre-production on Empire to work with CBS on how to push their newly minted brand forward. The end result is a cheesy, low-budget misfire that is less sci-fi adventure and more odd variety show. The plot, centered on how Wookiees celebrate their Life Day holiday, is a thread-bare excuse to assemble the leads from A New Hope alongside a random mix of celebrities that includes Bea Arthur, Art Carney, and… Jefferson Starship?
Boba Fett’s animated origin story is the only element of the Holiday Special to make it onto Disney+, but the die-hard Star Wars completist can seek out the rest via a Google or YouTube search. Watch it for the nostalgia factor and the pocket-sized aquarium.
10. Droids (1985)
Developed by Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt and Peter Sauder, Droids puts R2-D2 and C-3PO front and center as they encounter and evade a PG-friendly roster of scum and villainy.
Anthony Daniels voices his iconic character once again, as our favorite droids participate in adventures set between the events of Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. In doing so, Droids struggles to find a way to make the duo’s live-action antics as entertaining on the small screen as they are on the silver one; the show tries to serve up a very, very kid-friendly take on that galaxy far, far away and it doesn't always hit the mark. The show only lasted one season, so take that as you will.
09. Star Wars: Forces of Destiny (2015)
Forces of Destiny is a great concept in search of a far better execution.
A collection of shorts roughly four minutes in length, the intent behind Forces of Destiny is to showcase the Star Wars universe’s considerable female heroes — from Leia to Ashoka Tano — and give them and their heroics more time in the spotlight. What could have been a female-centric version of Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars shorts from 2003 is instead a series of disconnected stories tied to a singular visual aesthetic that feels like a rough concept sketch come to life. As fun as it is to watch these female characters get a bit more screentime, it's still not enough.
08. Ewoks (1985-1986)
Lucasfilm released a couple of popular TV movies centered on the Ewoks in the ‘80s (more on them shortly). Naturally, an animated TV spinoff followed, but, honestly, it was more a marketing ploy for Lucasfilm than a worthwhile extension of the franchise.
Ewoks was one of many ‘80s cartoon shows designed to sell toys, cereals, and action figures to kids, as the target audience followed the further adventures of Ewok Wicket and his English-speaking, Endor-dwelling family. Co-developed by Batman: The Animated Series writer Paul Dini, Ewoks featured a few surprisingly entertaining installments that appealed to both parents and kids, particularly the penultimate episode, “Battle for the Sunstar,” which features our fuzzy heroes boarding an Imperial Star Destroyer.
Audiences soon grew tired of Ewoks, though; this short-lived series aired its final episode in December 1986.
07. Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure (1984)
Caravan of Courage is an uneven, but not embarrassing, chapter in the Star Wars universe.
George Lucas, having learned his lesson from the mess that was the Holiday Special, refused to be hands-off with this family movie for ABC. As an active producer on the project, he enlisted the talents of ILM and the production designer who helped create Boba Fett, Joe Johnston (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), to make Star Wars’ first feature-length TV movie.
Set after the events of Return of the Jedi, Caravan of Courage is basically Lost In Space, Ewok-style: A family of space adventurers stranded on Endor need the Ewoks’ help to get back to the stars and away from the evil clutches of the villainous Gorax.
The end result is a charming Star Wars side-story that mostly achieves what it set out to do: entertain children. There are better live-action Star Wars adventures, sure, but this one delivers on more than just the nostalgia factor.
06. Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (1985)
Ewoks: The Battle for Endor is a sequel to Ewok Adventure that, like its predecessor, features an impressive visual effects budget for a TV movie aimed at little kids. If only the story were as consistently engaging as the visuals used to tell it.
Battle of Endor centers on the young human girl from Ewok Adventure, the orphaned Cindel, who must team up with the Ewoks to keep Endor safe from a group of marauders. Wicket gets considerable screentime here as the action rockets to an impressive third-act finale. Fans are also treated to the late Wilford Brimley (Cocoon) going full cranky hermit in the role of Noa, who reluctantly works with the Ewoks and Cindel in an effort to get his old star cruiser back in flying shape.
Battle of Endor’s highlights are mostly in the production design and the performances, but a script by Pitch Black co-writers Kim and Jim Wheats does its best to hold its own opposite the bigger-budgeted Star Wars movies.
05. Star Wars Resistance (2018-2020)
Set six months before The Force Awakens, the underrated Star Wars Resistance follows the animated adventures of rookie pilot Kazuda “Kaz” Xiono. He reluctantly joins General Leia’s collection of Resistance spies to infiltrate the First Order and work alongside Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron to gain the necessary intel to help bring down this rising threat.
While not as popular with fans as Rebels or Clone Wars, Resistance’s cel-shading animation style stands out amongst the franchise’s traditional CG-animated fare. The show has an almost old-school anime feel laced with more modern design upgrades and budget, especially in any action scenes involving spaceships engaged in daring maneuvers or trading blaster fire during dogfights. Using the show as a bridge of sorts between live-action installments of the Sequel Trilogy is a bold move that started off promisingly but petered out due to low ratings and dwindling promotion from the studio. But the diverse cast of characters and impressive visuals make the show hard to, um, resist.
04. Star Wars Rebels (2014-2018)
“Pure fun” best describes Star Wars Rebels, a riveting animated series that captures the awe and joy of A New Hope in ways that the great Clone Wars doesn’t quite.
Originally set between Episodes III and IV, Rebels follows one of the most likable casts of characters — led by the Force-sensitive orphan Ezra Bridger — as they embark on Firefly-style jobs for hire to stay one step ahead of the Empire. (The show was so popular with fans that its iconic ship, the Ghost, made a cameo in the final battles of Rogue One and Rise of Skywalker.)
Rebels is arguably the most thematically ambitious series in Lucasfilm’s stable, as it is unafraid to tackle the heady consequences of living life on the run, job to job, in a galaxy where hope is in short supply and evil is on the rise. Rebels’ dramatic edge helps distinguish it from its peers; it gives Star Wars’ younger audiences the type of programming that engages them in ways that the original movies entranced their parents.
03. Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008-2020)
Five years after the release of Cartoon Network’s 2D Clone Wars shorts, Lucasfilm made a big-budget push into CG animation with its landmark Star Wars series, The Clone Wars.
The 2008 theatrical movie of the same name is basically a backdoor pilot for the series — one that critics were stale on but fans saw potential in. The series would more than live up to that potential, doing exactly what fans wanted the prequels to do: Take a deep dive into the Clone Wars campaign and chronicle the boots-on-the-ground events that would lead to the Jedi’s near-extinction.
The series spanned a variety of planets-turned-battlegrounds, places where series leads Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and fan-favorite Ashoka Tano could deal with the heady fallout of the war they fought with the help of inventive and exhilarating lightsaber battles. Showrunner Dave Filoni taps Star Wars canon in ways that deepen our already passionate appreciation for it by exploring the inner lives of our animated heroes as well. The series fills in the gaps between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith with heart, action, and compelling emotional stakes.
Despite the fanbase’s passion for the show, Clone Wars was unceremoniously shelved in 2014. But in 2020, Lucasfilm and Disney+ gave a seventh and final season the green light to close out this very entertaining corner of the Star Wars universe. In doing so, Clone Wars further maintained its status as one of the best things to come out of the Prequel Era.
02. The Mandalorian (2019-Present)
The Mandalorian is even more of an homage to the works of Akira Kurosawa than Lucas’ original trilogy was. It’s Star Wars meets Lone Wolf and Cub for most of its (thus far) two-season run, with generous nods to classic Spaghetti Westerns thrown in for good measure.
Created by Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni, Disney+’s flagship series follows the titular character on an episodic, Wild West-like journey through the criminal underbelly that has crept out of the shadows of the Empire in a post-Return of the Jedi galaxy.
The expensive and visually groundbreaking series, which uses VR-like sets to render CG landscapes and backgrounds in real-time, allows Star Wars to explore darker and more violent corners of its universe while also maintaining its signature tone and look. But The Mandalorian is far superior visually than it is narratively. The repetitive episodic structure of the first season — Mando leaves his ship and The Child/Baby Yoda alone, Baby Yoda gets in trouble, Mando gets them out of said trouble, repeat — can get a bit tired.
But with Season 2, the show moved beyond some of its formulaic trappings by reaching back into the franchise’s past and bringing legacy characters (Luke! Ashoka!) into its orbit. That deep bench of characters and story arenas afforded the series, coupled with its two instantly-iconic lead characters, is why legions of fans can’t get enough of this very meme-able show. With the Child’s future seemingly in the hands of Master Skywalker, Mando’s seems up in the air. We can’t wait to see what Season 3 has in store for our favorite intergalactic gunslinger.
01. Star Wars: Clone Wars (2003)
Clone Wars (2003) is a masterful exercise in visual storytelling and one of the franchise’s most underappreciated entries.
Genndy Tartakovsky, hot off his success with Samurai Jack, gave Star Wars its most dynamic visuals ever as he tackled all the Clone Wars action and conflict Lucas left out of his big-screen prequels. Loosely centered on Anakin and Obi-Wan and their efforts to defeat what would become the Empire, what Clone Wars lacks in intricate storytelling it more than makes up for with stunning animation and stirring action scenes. The mini-episodes are bare bones by design, as Tartakovsky employs a pure visual storytelling execution of the material — as if he wants to see how much story he can tell by merely “showing” it.
The franchise has only taken such a bold stylistic risk this one time, which might explain why it took years for Lucasfilm to embrace it like it did the other Clone Wars series. Now that Tartakovsky’s brilliant work is available on Disney+, here’s hoping new fans will watch it with the level of passion Lucasfilm needs to feel good about taking another risk like this again.