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The Secret History of STAR WARS: UNDERWORLD

What if I told you that there was a live-action Star Wars TV series that had 50 episodes ready to go nearly a decade before The Mandalorian premiered on Disney+, but it was ultimately gobbled up by the Sarlacc pit of development hell? Chances are you’ve heard its name in hushed whispers on the Outer Rim of Star Wars fandom: Star Wars: Underworld. No Bothan spies need die to bring you this information though; simply digging through the archives and parsing through the sacred texts will let you uncover the story of the not-so-little Star Wars show that couldn’t.

Described as “Deadwood in space” and “Empire on steroids,” Star Wars: Underworld, as it has come to be known, was first announced by George Lucas at Star Wars Celebration III back in 2005. It was a prestige TV show trying to exist in a time before studios were willing to shell out the big bucks for the small screen.

After making The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles in the ‘90s, Lucas became enamored once more with making television. Producer Rick McCallum teased that Lucas envisioned this new project being “somewhere like 100 hours between Episode III and Episode IV,” placing it in that 19-year period between the Prequel Trilogy and the Original Trilogy in which films like Rogue One and upcoming series like the Cassian Andor Disney+ series take place.

Boba Fett and other bounty hunters

In a 2008 interview with Star Wars Insider, McCallum described Underworld as “a much darker, much more character-based thing. It’s not as plot driven [as the movies].” McCallum added that the series would be “about brand new characters, a group of people that we haven’t seen yet, except Boba Fett, who will be an instrumental part of it” and that “the series will also showcase other bounty hunters.” Sounding familiar?

Except this wasn’t going to be a story about Boba Fett learning the trials and travails of fatherhood as he looked after a sweet baby Yoda of his very own; it was said to set in the seedy underbelly of Coruscant, giving us insight into a world of criminals, outlaws, and operatives making their ill-gotten gains against a backdrop of a galaxy under the Imperial boot.

To bring this grimy galaxy far far away to life, Lucas and McCallum enlisted a murderer’s row of genre writers. They interviewed hundreds of writers from around the world before settling on a group including Battlestar Galactica’s Ronald D. Moore, Life on Mars’ Matthew Graham, and Doctor Who’s Chris Chibnall, as well as Fiona Seres, Tony McNamara, Terry Cafolla, Louise Fox, and Stephen Scaia.

Lucas and McCallum had grand plans to make 100 episodes, with the potential to expand to up to 400. To do so, their Rebel Alliance of writing talent would, according to Ronald D. Moore, “gather at Skywalker Ranch periodically, every couple of months and break stories and write scripts” alongside Lucas.

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In classic George Lucas fashion, the 25 scripts he originally wanted soon ballooned into 50. “George wanted to create twenty-five scripts for a season,” Matthew Graham told Den of Geek in 2016. “And then he was enjoying the process so much that he wanted to carry on and do two seasons’ worth of scripts.”

Not all of these scripts were camera-ready, though. “Some of them were at first draft, some at third draft,” Graham continued. “Some needed a lot more work, some were in really good shape.” That was, perhaps, in part due to the fact that Lucas wanted an insane scope for this series.

According to Moore, “[Lucas’] mandate on the scripts were: ‘Think big. Don’t have any worries. We’ll make it. Budget is no object.’ So we wrote these gigantic pieces.”

Unfortunately, at the end of the day, roadblocks like the writer’s strike and ballooning episode budgets made actually making Underworld an impossibility. In 2010, Lucas told IGN that “We have a movie of the week and 50 hours written, all done, ready to go. It’s just that we can’t figure out a way of doing it for less than $50 million per episode.”

That is a significant leap from The Mandalorian’s reported budget of $12.5 to 15 million per episode.

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Image credit: Lucasfilm/Lucasarts

Although the show purportedly focused on new characters, scripts included familiar faces like Emperor Palpatine, Darth Vader, Boba Fett, Han Solo, Chewbacca, and more. Unused concepts and stories from Underworld like how Han met Chewie and how Lando lost the Millennium Falcon made their way into future Star Wars stories like Solo. Hell, Rogue One actually began as a pastiche of ideas from Underworld. Other ideas found their way into the ultimately canceled video game Star Wars 1313, which…pour out some blue milk on the curb for this incredible-looking game we will never get to play.

Perhaps the wildest example is how elements from Underworld made their way into 2018’s excellent God of War. In 2016, director Cory Barlog told VentureBeat:

“I was allowed to go up to the ranch and read the scripts for the [canceled live-action Star Wars] TV show. It was the most mind-blowing thing I’d ever experienced. I cared about the Emperor. They made the Emperor a sympathetic figure who was wronged by this fucking heartless woman. She’s this hardcore gangster, and she just totally destroyed him as a person. I almost cried while reading this.”

Maybe that lady gangster is Rey’s grandmother? Only time will tell.

Baby Yoda blinking in a gif from The Mandalorian.

Image credit: Lucasfilm/Disney

So while we may never get Star Wars Underworld as George Lucas originally envisioned it, thanks in no small part to Disney acquiring Lucasfilm in 2012, its ideas live on not only in the galaxy far, far away, but with a whole generation of creatives across a variety of disciplines. And if nothing else…at least we have Baby Yoda.

And that is a brief history of how George Lucas almost made The Mandalorian nearly a decade before The Mandalorian actually came out. But tell me — what do you think? What kind of live action Star Wars series do you most want to see? Let me know in the comments below and give me a thumbs up while you’re there.

If you want even more Star Wars goodness, check out past episodes of Explainiac right now wherever fine Nerdist content is streamed.

Remember — not everything in life can be explained. For everything else, there’s this show.

Images: Lucasfilm

Dan Casey is the creative director of Nerdist and the author of books about Star Wars and the Avengers. Follow him on Twitter (@DanCasey).

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