Everything about The Mandalorian is beautiful. Every scene seems as if it was born from some sort of oil painting, transformed onto your screen. (And in a way, it likely was.) It has a rich history and canon in which to explore, and it has not shied away from doing so. (At time to its own detriment, perhaps.) And it has the sort of slow swagger that you don't get much these days.
And you can't mention Disney+ without the word "Mandalorian" following quickly behind.
But here's the thing: The Mandalorian isn't even the second-best sci-fi series streaming right now.
Search your feelings you know it to be true.
1. The Expanse (Amazon Prime Video)
The Expanse — which just kicked off its fifth and penultimate season — is the best sci-fi series on TV right now.
The story of The Expanse, which premiered in 2015, almost is as thrilling as the series itself. It was a sleeper hit on cable's SYFY for its first three seasons before it was unceremoniously killed off, right at a critical juncture for future episodes. Then, in the sort of sequence of events only science-fiction fans could pull off, a fervent grassroots campaign led to Amazon scooping up the series and announcing two new seasons. (A sixth and final season was announced in November 2020.)
The Expanse is based on a series of novels by James S.A. Corey, and it's quite the ride. To recap it makes you sound perhaps a little crazy. But the short version is the solar system has been colonized many years into the future, and divided into three main groups. Earth and Luna (that's the moon) make up one. Mars, which was colonized and then won its independence, is another. And everyone else working out in the asteroids and moons and space stations beyond — particularly in the asteroid belt — are the third.
A series of secret experiments on an extra-solar material called "protomolecule" brings the three divisions together at times, and against each other at others, before finally opening up hundreds of new galaxies for humanity to explore.
The Expanse is fast and brutal. (Not unlike space.) There are multiple stories — all interlinked — at work, which keeps things moving along at a pretty good clip. And perhaps my favorite part is how gravity itself is a character in the entire series and not just one of those annoying laws of physics that gets explained away (or not).
And with Season 5 now streaming, it's proved once again that it belongs in the conversation of the best sci-fi series around. And in my book, atop that list.
2. Star Trek: Discovery (CBS All Access)
CBS All Access is the new home for all things Star Trek, and it has quickly proven that it's making the most of this next generation. (Sorry not sorry.) Its first new exclusive series, Star Trek: Discovery, also is the best in a long, long time.
Discovery has the best production of any Trek series we've ever seen. That's not a huge shock given the improvements in the entertainment industry and in computer graphics. It also has seasoned actors mixed among newcomers in a way that's not unlike the veterans and cadets you'd find in any quasi-military structure.
And it's maybe a small thing, but Discovery (and CBS All Access) opened a door for a new, more realistic Trek. One in which people have emotions and feelings and act accordingly, with the occasional outburst and colorful language. (Wesley Crusher was just before his time, folks, and let's not forget Data's "Oh, shit" moment in Star Trek Generations.) To hear an f-bomb from someone in uniform — it's refreshing, if not particularly safe for the kids in the room.
The Discovery series began in 2017 with a pretty dark tone in its first two seasons, with death and war and captains willing to do anything to win. A few major characters were quickly killed off, with no way of knowing whether it was a great cameo, or if they'd somehow return later on.
The cast is brilliant. Sonequa Martin-Green is Michael Burnham, an orphan raised as Spock's sister, and all the hangups that come with that. Jason Isaacs (as in Lucious Malfoy) gives her new purpose as Captain Gabriel Lorca. Anson Mount follows as Captain Christopher Pike and was so good that he's getting his own show, Strange New Worlds. The likes of Doug Jones and Anthony Rapp and MIchelle Yeoh and Mary Wiseman and Wilson Cruz — and the list goes on — only make the ensemble cast that much stronger. And that's before we get anywhere near Season 3, which brings a wonderful David Ajala into the fold. (Plus: David Cronenberg!)
Star Trek: Discovery has been on its own journey over the course of three seasons. And it's will worth the ride.
3. The Mandalorian (Disney+)
It almost feels weird calling The Mandalorian science-fiction. Star Wars really is a genre unto itself now. And with all the new series and films that are coming up over the next couple of years, it's only getting bigger.
But The Mandalorian was the tentpole series when Disney+ launched in November 2019, and it's remained so ever since. That's both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, The Mandalorian is good. Really good. It's got a huge world from which to draw, and it's done a great job of bringing in characters who have lived just below the level of mainstream Star Wars popular culture but have been introduced in books and other series like The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels.
But for as exciting as that is — and I'm thrilled to see Katee Sackhoff as Bo Katan and for Ashoka Tano get a dedicated series — it doesn't change the fact The Mandalorian has been a slow grind. Almost impossibly so. It has individual moments and episodes that warm the nerd soul, for sure. Kicking off Season 2 with Timothy Olyphant was just plain fun, and the return of Boba Fett is great, even if there's definitely some forced retconning going on.
But each week also comes with a sense of dread. Is the story going to advance mere inches once more? Or are we actually going to make some progress?
And that's before I even start in on the dialog, which gives the term "stilted" a bad name. I recently caught Solo on TV for the first time in a while and the difference talking like a normal human being and what's going on in The Mandalorian couldn't be more striking. That's not to say that Mando shouldn't have a different tone and cadence and that the series shouldn't have a different feel to it — it absolutely is unlike anything in the Star Wars universe, and that's great.
But bad dialog combined with bad pacing too often makes The Mandalorian a tough watch.
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