It’s no easy feat to uphold the legacy of Star Wars, largely due to the high expectations of the legion of fans, something that all the directors and screenwriters who have been at the helm of this universe in recent years have no doubt been very well aware of. Neither is it easy to be George Lucas and to be responsible for a universe so beloved by millions of viewers. But it is a weight that can be greater or lesser depending on the show in question and its importance within the overarching timeline of the saga. When Disney+ started to serialize Star Wars stories, it did so with one that could be considered peripheral, involving a new character who neither participated in nor was implicated in any of the key moments of the saga, which remained as a backdrop to the story. This was one of the keys to the success of The Mandalorian – it meant even viewers unfamiliar withthe Star Wars timeline became hooked on the series and, because it gave Jon Favreau a free hand to diverge from the wider narrative, existing fans of the saga got to enjoy a fresh story set in their favourite universe. Which is precisely the opposite of what happens with Obi-Wan Kenobi, the new Disney+ series which is set within the Star Wars universe and is surely its worst enemy.
That’s because the star of Obi-Wan Kenobi is one of the most beloved characters from the film franchise and features Ewan McGregor reprising the seminal role. What’s more, it takes place during a key period in the saga’s storyline, that of the purge of the Jedi and the consolidation of the Empire, with none other than the formidable Darth Vader, the most iconic of all Star Wars characters, playing a key role. And not only that, but (warning – some spoilers to follow) other major characters also appear in the series, such as a very young version of Leia. All these crucial elements mean that Obi-Wan Kenobi is under much more pressure than earlier series were because it is a core piece of the canon and its transgressions are therefore all the more grave. For this reason, and despite the positive aspects of the episodes released so far, overall this installment falls short of what you’d expect from a show of its magnitude.
Among those things the series does get right, its treatment of the Obi-Wan character deserves kudos for the way it addresses the internal conflicts of someone consumed by guilt – a guilt that has been eating away at him for years, and that is further fed by the desolation of a desert which only breeds gloomier thoughts – and willing to ignore the Jedi principles based on compassion and service of others. The guilt is so great that it has plunged him into a state of self-hatred compellingly portrayed by Ewan McGregor, who carries the weight of the series on his shoulders. Another high point is the inclusion of Leia, who shakes his character out of its apathy. In this regard there are the same essential elements of the core relationship in The Mandalorian – initially Leia represents a specific mission to him but she will go on to act as the catalyst that brings the character back to life. With these elements, a more somber tone, and more sedate pacing than other stories set in the Star Wars universe, the Obi-Wan Kenobi approach might work if it weren’t for the fact that its shortcomings are hard to overlook.
The first is the most jarring, because in a series of this level, encountering direction as lousy as in the scene where Leia is chased in the forest immediately undermines credibility. How is it possible that a scene so clumsy, in every sense of the word, made the cut in the series debut? Okay, such sloppiness can occasionally occur, so director Deborah Chow could be forgiven if it were in isolation. The problem is there’s another, more serious error, which erodes the integrity of the series overall – a lack of bravery and, with it, a lack of personality that leads to a safe, hackneyed approach. This lack of audacity is especially pronounced in scenes that should be legendary, such as the rematch between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader, which is built up to be epic and thrilling but turns out to be unexciting, lackluster and lightweight. This is where Obi-Wan Kenobi is the exact opposite of The Mandalorian, which oozed edginess, energy, and creativity from the get-go. Obi-Wan Kenobi loses its nerve, and with its flawed execution falls far short of the potential of a production of this scale.