Obi-Wan Kenobi

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Ewan McGregor in Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Ewan McGregor in Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Photo: Lucasfilm

SHOW:

Obi-Wan Kenobi

WHERE TO WATCH:

Disney+ (New episodes every Friday)

OUR RATING:

4/5 Stars

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

It's been ten years since Emperor Palpatine seduced Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen, with the voice of James Earl Jones) to the Dark Side to become his right-hand man, Dark Vader, and destroyed both the Republic and the entire Jedi order. Anakin's former mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewen McGregor), now spends his days as a menial worker on the desert planet of Tatooine, looking over his young charge and Anakin Skywalker's son, Luke Skywalker, from afar – promising Luke's uncle Owen (Joel Edgerton) that he would only interfere to protect Luke from the agents of the Empire. When Luke's sister, Leia Organa (Vivien Lyra Blair), is kidnapped from her adopted planet of Alderaan, a weary and world-beaten Obi-Wan is coaxed back into service by her foster father, Bail (Jimmy Smits), to rescue her, but with Jedi hunters, the Inquisitors, on his tail, Obi-Wan will be forced to confront the events of ten years prior and his hand in creating Darth Vader.  

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

Disclaimer: Four of the six episodes have been watched for this review. We may need to add or subtract a star depending on how it all turns out.

You would be excused for being more than a little wary about the idea of another Star Wars series or movie being set before the events of the original trilogy - especially one focusing on Obi-Wan Kenobi during his years living as a hermit on Tatooine.

Whatever you may think of the prequels – and, for my money, while Episode III has a pretty great final hour, the rest of them look worse and worse as time goes on – between those three movies, the Clone Wars and Rebels animated series, and numerous books, video games, and comics set during the Rise of the Empire era, that whole part of the Star Wars canon must surely be pretty well and truly covered by this point. Plus, the last two attempts to fill in the gaps of specific Star Wars characters – the enjoyable but slight and occasionally maddening, Solo: A Star Wars Story and the mostly woeful Book of Boba Fett – have suffered badly from trying to fill in blanks that never actually needed to be filled.

And it's hard to think of a blank in the overall and continuously expanding Star Wars narrative that's less in need of filling than Obi-Wan Kenobi's "Ben" years. One thing that's very clear from when we first meet "Old Ben Kenobi" in the first Star Wars film is that this is a man who has been living a quiet, hermetic life on this desert planet on the periphery of the galaxy for decades – and with the release of the prequels, that twenty years apparently ages you much harder and faster on a desert planet – so there would only really be two ways of doing an entire series devoted to him during his wilderness years.

One, go for a plotless, Terence-Malick-esque meditation on the futility and beauty of existence with Force Ghosts providing the whispered narration and Ewan McGregor piggy-backing on Banthas as the picturesque desert glides slowly past him. Or two, try to shoehorn a plot that would very greatly run the risk of undermining the Obi-Wan Kenobi we first met in 1977 in one of the greatest science fiction (or space opera) films ever made. Surprisingly enough, they went for the second option.  

It's to showrunner Joby Harold's credit, then, that Obi-Wan Kenobi doesn't entirely fall prey to the ravages of that now-infamous disease known as "prequelitis". It does a bit, of course, because Harold and his team of writers and director Deborah Chow aren't miracle workers. There undoubtedly is a constant sense that this series just doesn't quite fit and that no matter what happens in these six episodes, they have to end up in a place that all Star Wars fans, even casual fans, are intimately familiar with. This was a problem with the prequels, too (and Rogue One, Solo, the Clone Wars, etc. etc.), but they at least had an obvious story to tell. And yet, there's more than enough that's good and compelling about Obi-Wan Kenobi to justify its existence. 

First and foremost, there is Ewan McGregor, who just totally slays as our titular hero. He was, along with Ian McDiarmid's wonderfully sinister Palpatine, the best part of the prequels, and he was the main reason I had any hope for this show going in. It's hardly surprising that he's great here, but it is particularly pleasing to see him get a whole lot to play with. Certainly, though the dialogue is hardly exceptional, it's a damn sight better than what he had to work with – or, more accurately: around – in the prequels.

While Obi-Wan in the prequels was an endlessly likeable and only slightly flawed action hero, Ben is a man broken down by his own many failures. He is haunted by survivor's guilt of being one of the last remaining Jedi when it was he (at least in his eyes) who failed his apprentice, Anakin Skywalker. He used to be one of the Republic's greatest and most noble Jedi Knights and leaders, but now he sits impotently on a distant planet as the galaxy goes to hell, and his one remaining duty: to look after Luke and to one day train him in the ways of the Jedi is badly hampered by Luke's own uncle, who wants nothing to do with Obi-Wan and even less with the Jedi.

Largely disconnected from the Force and ground down by his own cynicism and loneliness, he is understandably reluctant to take up Bail Organa's offer to launch a single-handed rescue of young Leia when she is captured on the order of an Inquisitor, Reva (Moses Ingram) who believes, rightly as it turns out, that it will be Obi-Wan Kenobi who will come to rescue her.

The greatest pleasure of the show is watching McGregor as Obi-Wan slowly get his mojo back and finds, presumably, some redemption in what is apparently only the first time he rescues Princess Leia from the clutches of Darth Vader. No matter what else works and doesn't work about the show (and there's a fair amount of both), it does brilliantly by its titular hero and by the actor who has never been better at playing him.

Speaking of doing right, the other major contribution to the Star Wars canon made by this series, is the redemption of Hayden Christensen as Darth Vader. Well, sort of. Of all the things that I have come to hate about the prequels, nothing irks me anywhere near as badly as Christensen's godawful performance of Anakin Skywalker – but whether that was his fault or the truly terrible writing is another matter entirely. Either way, his Anakin was an unbearable, massively smackable brat who never, ever made the jump from stroppy teen to anything more mature – certainly nothing to suggest that he was a great Jedi or a genuinely good man - and his turn to the Dark Side turned out to be a personality upgrade. And, no kidding, Christensen got much, much better when Anakin went all evil in the climactic final act of Revenge of the Sith.

Sadly, there is nothing to do about redeeming how Anakin was portrayed in the prequels (though I have heard good things about his portrayal in the Clone Wars animated series, which I still need to watch), but Christensen brings a raw, overpowering physicality to Darth Vader that makes him the scariest he has ever been. Yes, even more so than in Rogue One. And this despite the fact that four episodes in, we still haven't actually heard Christensen speak.

James Earl Jones voices the character once again – or maybe not: they used the same technology that had Luke Skywalker sounding a lot younger in the Book of Boba Fett than Mark Hamill does now, and I'm still not entirely clear just how much of the performance is purely reconstructed from archive recordings – but it is Christensen who makes Vader feel like an unstoppable force of pure evil in a way that surpasses even David Prowse's work in the original films.

Obi-Wan and Vader have unsurprisingly been the big selling points here, but there really is a whole lot to like. Seeing Obi-Wan operate in the dirtier, more lived-in world of the original trilogy is a real treat after the digitised-to-death prequels, and McGregor is clearly having a fantastic time working with physical sets and acting against actual human beings and physical creature effects. There are some fine set pieces befitting a Star Wars series (albeit also one of the franchise's most laughable ever during a scene in the first episode where some goons try to capture a teeny, tiny Princess Leia) and some strong supporting turns from the likes of Kumail Nanjiani and Indira Varma. And I don't care what the haters say: adorable 9-year-old Vivien Lyra Blair gets Leia's feistiness exactly right.

It's not all good news, though. Moses Ingram has received a lot of inexcusable personal abuse from repugnant, bottom-feeding, racist, misogynistic "fans", but that doesn't change that Reva is an awfully bland villain or that Ingram's entire performance is a very tiresome single note. The plot, too, is nothing to write home about as it needed to play it safe by definition, so it went for the tried and true Star Wars rescue trope that obviously, more than ever, recalls the Princess Leia rescue sequence in the original film. And, no, I still don't know if it entirely fits into the bigger Star Wars picture. 

Whatever. It's not perfect, but Obi-Wan Kenobi is an endlessly entertaining Star Wars series that's good enough to bring together fans who grew up on the original films and those who (sorry) grew up on the prequels. And that is really no small feat at all.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:

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