Distribution: 6 Episodes (36-53 minutes)
Plot: Set in the intervening years between Episodes III and IV, Ben Kenobi (formerly Obi-Wan) looks after the two children of Darth Vader while outrunning the Empire’s Inquisition sent to destroy his kind.
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Moses Ingram, Vivien Lyra Blair, Indira Varma, and James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader
Directed By: Deborah Chow
Written By: Joby Harold (additional writing by Andrew Stanton)
Review: How do you fill in the adventures of the most well-known Jedi and get the audience to invest in an outcome they already know? For Disney, in their third turn at a Star Wars TV show, the answer is to mildly retcon the most successful story in the series and fill in the gaps with a bunch of “stuff”.
Despite serving as a sequel to one of my favourite films of all time, it is distressing to see Obi-Wan Kenobi fumble on such creative fertile ground. What excites me about the show beyond a returning Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen is that it for once forces Disney to acknowledge the less acclaimed prequel trilogy exists. Something it avoided like the plague in its sequel trilogy loaded with callbacks.
McGregor enthusiastically reprises his role as Ben Kenobi, ten years after Episode III and around a decade before Episode IV (1977 original). A repressed Jedi hiding in plain sight on Tattooine, he is called into action to rescue a pre-pubescent Princess Leia as the evil empire led by Darth Vader and his acolytes hunt down the remaining Jedi Order.
The big question raised by audiences with prequels always is why wasn’t this mentioned before? The short answer to that is it doesn’t really matter.
When Princess Leia and Obi-Wan meet in A New Hope she claims to know him only through her father Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits, reprising his role here). But instead of expanding that thinly developed relationship from Episode III, the show takes the short, lazy, retcon route and puts Leia and Ben together immediately, undoing the most solidified story in the mythos.
Such questionable storytelling tactics are no shock coming from the writer of such critical and financial bombs as Awake and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. But it is sad to see Disney hire such a magnificently unaccomplished writer to write the interquel to the most influential sci-fi story of all time. The hiring of Academy Award Winner Michael Arndt for The Force Awakens feels like a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. The glimmer of writing prowess comes much later on in the final two episodes that are co-written by Andrew Stanton (writer and director of Finding Nemo and WALL-E) that tie some coherent motivation to the plot and jostles some momentum. Disney would be wise going forward to more gainfully employ this man.
In episode 5, Obi-Wan with Leia and other resistance fighters get pinned down at a hanger. The episode is told in parallel structure with flashbacks to Obi-Wan training Anakin. These flashbacks would be cool if they had any meaningful dramatic weight behind them. Or anything to say that we didn’t already know by previous film episodes. The duels themselves are also unremarkable in part due to them not using any swords or sticks to make them. Whereas previous fights in the series had a weight and momentum to them, these entries feel like the show killing time until Star Wars: A New Hope arrives ultimately confirming the show was unnecessary in the first place. A moment when the show comes close to justifying its existence comes late in the final episode in a dimly lit final battle. Here we see the former master and apprentice portrayed by actors completely settled into their roles exchanging words they might have never had the courage to speak before. And yet it does nothing to shift our understanding of what comes after, aside from making the characters dumber for not taking each other out.
A cool moment in episode 5 shows Vader stopping a ship from taking off by using The Force. An outstanding display of power immediately undone by the “real ship” virtually identical, taking off immediately, right beside it, and escaping to safety. The show’s sandwiching between sequel and prequel is not a valuable storytelling restriction for Director Deborah Chow and Lead Writer Joby Harold. They never figure out a creative way to find this Obi-Wan Kenobi sequel/ prequel a story worth telling to non or skeptical Star Wars fans. Better Call Saul this is not. It is not even in the same galaxy of quality in storytelling or craft despite having an abundance of resources from the largest moviemaking and television company in the world.
With the original development studio behind Star Wars, the original actors in the story fully involved, a $150 million budget, and a fair amount of development time, fans and non-fans alike deserved more. What has Disney brought to the Star Wars brand beyond quantity? To be fair, it’s not like this is something George Lucas would’ve ever gotten around to. As discussions of a live-action Star Wars series had been around since the early 2000s. Still, this fan is waiting for the day when a creative artist brings balance to the force with creativity, wit, and craft.
Of course, many Star Wars fans who grew up with the prequels and don’t care about writing craft will be thrilled with this show. Obi-Wan Kenobi demonstrates that Lucasfilm’s strategy under Kathleen Kennedy to spoon-feed audiences things they already know might be enough of a recipe for commercial, if not creative, success…for now.