The highest achievement of my academic career thus far is having defined what I call the “cabin scenario” – a cinematic horror trope in which one or more characters are trapped in a remote structure and menaced by some monster. The upshot of this is, like a Wookiee life debt, I am honor-bound to keep my little definition alive as best as I can, and that means actively identifying other potential cabin scenarios when I stumble upon them. I have done so a few times in my podcast with Kat Sas, where we’ve discussed potential cabin scenarios in various episodes of Doctor Who‘s “The Impossible Planet” and its spinoff Class‘s “Detained” (the latter of which we decided didn’t quite fit the criteria), as well as at least once in the Mythgard Movie Club during our discussion of Alien. Hey, my cabin scenario has even been cited in a Whedon-studies book!
Now, I am going to attempt to bring the concept of the cabin scenario to my longest-loved fandom, Star Wars, via the new Disney+ live-action series, The Mandalorian. Specifically, the most recent episode, “Chapter 6: The Prisoner,” constitutes what I’m dubbing an inverted cabin scenario, one in which the menacing monster is actually our eponymous protagonist, Mando (Pedro Pascal), and in which the members of the haunted (and hunted) group are the initial aggressors. In terms of what effect this has on Mando’s character – well, we’ll get to that below.
Before jumping into the discussion, here’s a quick reminder of the criteria for a cabin scenario:
- a remote location (such as a woods) that cuts off the character(s) from the rest of society
- a man-made construction (such as a cabin) that likewise separates the characters from the wilderness
- a monstrous threat, frequently human, that lives within or originates from the wilderness
That reminder provided, let’s start with the setting.
A Remote Location
The setup for the episode is pretty simple: Mando reaches out to an old partner in crime, Ranzar “Ran” Malk (Mark Boone, Jr.), to see if he has any jobs available, because apparently feeding “The Child” – a/k/a Baby Yoda – and staying a step ahead of the Bounty Hunter’s Guild are expensive. Fortunately (or perhaps not) for Mando, Ran is forming a crew and needs one more person…or rather, a ship, which the Mandalorian conveniently possesses. Thus, Mando becomes the fifth member of a crew consisting of Ran’s handpicked crew chief human Mayfeld (Bill Burr), the Devaronian Burg (Clancy Brown), the droid Q9-0 or “Zero” (Richard Ayoade), and the Twi’lek Xi’an (Natalia Tena), with whom Mando has a mysterious and possibly romantic past.
The mission is straightforward, though as it turns not, not exactly simple: rescue one of Ran’s associates from a New Republic prison ship. The ship is hiding somewhere in deep space (no worries, Zero knows the coordinates), and it’s warded by droids. In other words, it’s in a remote location and cut off from society. In fact, we learn that the New Republic seems not to be actively keeping track of the ship, since it requires a handheld tracking device to summon help. According to Aftermath: Life Debt, the Holonet is still active at around this time, so it’s curious why the ship couldn’t simply be able to communicate via the information superspaceway, but suffice to say that, apparently, normal channels of sending a distress call aren’t available. What we have is basically the equivalent of a fire alarm that will trigger an emergency response. Given the limited communications available, this is the perfect setting for a cabin scenario.
A Man-Made Construction
You can’t have a cabin scenario without a cabin. Of course, the prison ship is sentient-made, if not necessarily human made. (If it is a captured Imperial ship, there’s a good chance it was made by non-human slave labor.) As noted in the Mythgard Movie Club discussion of Alien, the whole concept of a spaceship is to protect people from the surrounding wilderness that would kill them – i.e., the vacuum of space – which effectively serves the same purpose as a cabin in the woods.
Prison spaceships – or their analogs, such as space stations or natural satellites like the Moon (cf. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress) – aren’t exactly a new trope in science fiction. Such ships aren’t themselves enough to qualify as “cabin scenarios,” since a prison ship need not necessarily be remote. For example, in Battlestar Galactica, the fleet contains a prison ship, and even though the prisoners break out and capture the ship’s crew, along with Apollo, Dee, Cally and Billy (“Bastille Day”), it plays out more like a hostage situation similar to the Class episode mentioned above, rather than a cabin scenario.
The ship in The Mandalorian does qualify, however, not just because of its remoteness, but also because of the somewhat bizarre decision to limit communications from the ship to a rudimentary distress call. (Perhaps some argument could be made that if the prisoners somehow took over, then they wouldn’t be able to call for rescue and would remain trapped on the ship?) The slight inversion here is that, as much as the ship is protecting its occupants from the deadly wilderness of space, it is also protecting the rest of society from the peril of its inhabitants.
I will also note that the ship itself is pretty simplistic, as most cabins in cabin scenarios are. It’s boxy, with what appears to be a single main corridor that runs along the middle of the various cells. (The cinematography inside the ship makes it appear to be slightly more complex, but it’s essentially still all right-angle corridors running the length and width of the ship.) Nobody won any awards designing this thing. It’s just a place to stick individuals disfavored by the current ruling elite.
A Monstrous Threat
There’s an interesting sort of double danger going on with the monstrous threat, with some subverted expectations based on the cabin trope. Initially, the threat to the legitimate occupants of the prison ship – i.e., the droid guards and the one human staffer, Staven1 (Matt Lanter), nobody knew was on board – is Mayfeld and crew. The biggest threat to the droids is, of course, Mando, given his well-established dislike of mechanical automatons. He singlehandedly dispatches a group of droid guards when Mayfeld, Xi’an and Burg are pinned down. (It’s curious to me that Mayfeld later takes out three droids on his own simply by shooting them, given that his blaster seems ineffective against this first batch.) When they come upon the human in the control room, however, Mando is the only one who uses, um, “aggressive negotiations” to try and prevent the others from killing him. To Mando’s apparent chagrin, insofar as we can read chagrin behind his Beskar mask, Xi’an kills Staven while the others are engaged in a four-way Mexican standoff.
After they free Qin and double-cross Mando by locking him in Qin’s former cell, the terms of the scenario shift. Mando manages to quickly free himself, destroying another droid in the process, and he becomes a menace to his erstwhile crew, haunting him through the hallways of the prison ship – which are now eerily lit red to indicate that we have come to the real threat of the episode. One by one, Mando sneaks up on and overcomes each of the others – who, in true cabin scenario style, have split up. Qin assumes that Mando killed the others, an assumption that the Mandalorian lets stand by replying, “They got what they deserve.” Spoiler alert: As it turns out, he did not in fact kill them, but instead trapped them in a cell (presumably Qin’s prior digs), as we learn in the final shot of the episode. (Zero doesn’t figure into the cabin scenario portion of the episode, but being a droid, his fate is unsurprisingly different.)
The inversion of the usual cabin monster as protagonist here is interesting to me. The episode feels in many ways like Firefly‘s “Objects in Space,” in which the bounty hunter Jubal Early incapacitates all of Serenity‘s crew except for River Tam, the person he is looking for, who escapes to Early’s ship and saves everyone by pretending to incorporeally possess Serenity. I like this inversion, because I think it gives us a deeper view of exactly how vicious and tenacious Mando can be, while still remaining a principled warrior. He’s not engaging in a wild firefight with dozens of nameless villains, whether they be bounty hunters, droids, or stormtroopers. Nor is he merely protecting his charge, whether it be The Child or the inhabitants of a backwater village. Rather, Mando is punishing others, not only for betraying him personally, but for completing their job dishonorably – which is precisely what Greef Karga (Carl Weathers) accuses him of doing by retaking The Child from the Imperials. This more personal interaction and insight is part of the overall focusing effect I argue is part of the value and appeal of cabin scenarios.
1. I’m not 100% sure of his name here. He’s listed on IMDb and in the credits as “New Republic Soldier,” but when Mando asks him his name, he replies “Staven” or something similar to that, which Mando immediately repeats.