Star Wars – Obi-Wan Kenobi

Ewan McGregor returns to the role of Obi-Wan for his the first small-screen outing in the role. But can the series live up to the character’s oversized reputation?

What’s the Show, JG? Obi-Wan Kenobi

What’s It All About? Well depending on how generous you’re feeling, it’s either about redeeming pretty much the lone good things from the Star Wars prequels (i.e. Ewan McGregor), or it’s yet another cynical ploy to wring yet more cash / subscriptions out of Star Wars fans by pandering to them with a big star returning to their old role but on the small screen. Either way, Obi-Wan is hiding out on Tatooine nominally watching over Luke Skywalker as he grows up. After Princess Leia – a precocious child with surprising parkour skillz – is abducted, Senator Jimmy Smits Bail Organa asks for Kenobi’s help to get her back. Meanwhile, there’s an Inquisitor on Obi-Wan’s tale, Third Sister Reva Sevander, who has set up the abduction and has her own agenda. After surviving the slaughter of the younglings at the hand of Anakin, she’s out for revenge and wants to kill Luke. The abduction of Leia is part of her absurdly daft and baroque plan to draw Kenobi out, but anyway, we get six episodes of escaping-from-planets, a few lightsaber battles along the way, and eventually Reva gets redemption, Kenobi finally accepts Anakin has gone for good and has subsumed into Darth Vader, and everything ends more or less where it began. Except for all those dead bodies, but oh well, omelettes, eggs, etc

Why Did You Give It A Go? Because Ewan McGregor really was pretty much the only good thing about the prequels and he deserves a shot at redemption away from those atrocities. He’s aged a fair bit since then, which helps bring him closer, chronologically, to Alec Guinness, so it’s also interesting to see if the years since the prequels have helped age him into the role. Also, obviously, I was going to watch this.

Is It Any Good? Well, it’s better than The Book Of Boba Fett (see: bars, low, subterranean), that’s for sure. It still struggles with “good” as an overall concept however, even though plenty of individual bits are perfectly enjoyable and – as with the final lightsaber battle between Vader and Obi-Wan – occasionally even fantastic. But McGregor continues his run of being the best thing about whatever he’s appearing in when that thing never quite seems worthy of his talents. To be fair, that’s not just Star Wars – he’s a great actor who frequently turns up in movies that never seem quite worthy of his talent, but he’s undoubtedly the best thing on display here. He re-inhabits the role with ease, as one would expect, and his commitment and obvious enjoyment at getting to play the part of Obi-Wan really make the character feel warm and alive. He’s vocally getting better and come across much more like Alec Guinness too, which really helps sell this as the same character. As he ages his voice is becoming rougher and it really starts to sound like Guinness, rather than just being an impression (although the voice noticeably slips when McGregor has to emote – every time there’s a Big Emotional Moment, his Caledonian burr wanders unmistakably onto set).

The rest of the cast are fairly hit and miss. Moses Ingram excels in the role of Reva, especially impressive given she’s landed with a somewhat lazy and rather unearned redemption arc that only makes you-can’t-kill-Luke-he’s-in-the-next-movie sense. But as an actual adversary she’s outstanding, and could easily have anchored the series as the main protagonist had Hayden Christensen / James Earl Jones proven to be unavailable. Christensen, someone else in need of redemption, does well here, though he’s not got a vast amount to do. Sure, he’s strutting around in the Vader costume but the times he’s actually playing the character rather than then being overdubbed by Jones are few and far between. Still, respect where it’s due – he’s good. A dramatically miscast Kumial Nanjiani not so much. Clunky and poor in his first appearance, he doesn’t get any better when he unexpectedly returns towards the end of the series. Ah well. Most of the bit-part players are functional at best, though Bonnie Piesse deserve a mention as Beru – given little to work with and almost no character to build on from A New Hope she manages to make Beru actually seem like a real person. Scenes of her in the final episode, defending Luke and just tearing shit up in his defense, give a real sense of the character from almost nothing and are most welcome.

The variability of the cast are a bit of a problem, because ultimately the thing that Obi-Wan Kenobi is really bad at is getting us to care about the characters. The plot drifts along, and it’s not anything special – literally four of the six episodes are various shades of “escape from the planet”. Individual beats can work rather well – the exploration of the underwater base in Jabiim in the fourth episode is pleasing for not just being Another Damn Spaceship, for example – but it’s all relatively functional. “Rescue the annoy brat” and the adventures along the way to do that isn’t really complex enough to screw up (although, see below) but there’s just little sense that these are characters we’re actually meant to care about in any way.

Affection for / fear of the legacy characters is just that – legacy. We care about Vader because we have nine movies (ten, if you want to include his little cameo at the end of Rogue One) where he’s an unrelenting force of evil. We care about Kenobi because, well, it’s Obi-Wan Kenobi. Of course we care. But for the rest? As mentioned, Reva’s redemption arc is half-hearted and motivated by the necessity of resetting the situation far more than something which comes from her. It’s an arc that could work, but we get five episodes of her remorselessly planning to kill Luke, setting up absurdly complex plans to do it, then she gets stabbed by Vader, left for dead, finds the kid and changes her mind. Calling it abrupt would be an insult to abruptness.

And none of the other characters even register all that much. Fifth Brother is distinctively evil and underplayed, but he’s only in a few scenes and doesn’t do much other than look frustrated. Nanjiani’s Haja Estree only really registers because it’s him that’s playing the part. Indria Varma’s disillusioned Imperial officer Tala Durith doesn’t leave much of an impression either, which is a shame as that’s a potentially fruitful type of character to have around. She’s dead by the end of episode five anyway, but her loss doesn’t have much weight to it because the character never really feels like more than a plot function. And that’s the problem in a nutshell – this is a show that desperately wants to be about characters but instead leans far too hard into various (and far too cluttered) plot threads for them ever to come alive. It’s a tension the show never manages to resolve.

How Many Episodes Did You Watch? All six of them.

Would You Recommend It? It’s better than Boba Fett and not as good as The Mandalorian, so it sits nicely in the middle, qualitatively speaking. Part of the problem Obi-Wan Kenobi faces is that of expectations. If you’ve McGregor, Christensen and James Earl Jones all returning to their roles then the expectation is that this is going to be something really special. Christensen came in for a fair amount of criticism for his portrayal of Anakin – something of an understatement – and McGregor and Jones have always been well-regarded, so this can’t help but carry a certain monumental feel to it. Yet this isn’t really a monumental story, it’s far more of a chess game, where pieces are moved around as the plot threads of A New Hope are put into place.

Some of this works, some of it unbearably clunky, but there’s a certain limit to what a series like this can do. The series gets better as it goes on – that first episode is slow for a season that only has six episodes – but the character work is necessarily limited. Of course it’s fun seeing Obi-Wan’s adventures prior to the first Star Wars movie, but in choosing to invoke so many legacy characters – Obi-Wan, Vader, Luke, Leia, Beru, Owen – the show ties its own hands because nothing can ultimately happen to those characters. That makes any stories told with them inherently limiting. They can be threatened, and there’s plenty of excitement to be garnered from finding out how characters survive, not merely if they are going to, but in the end everything has to be reset. Obi-Wan needs to go back to his hermit life. Luke has to be safe. Leia has to be rescued. Vader must remain in charge. It’s not even that you can’t tell interesting stories with those characters, it’s just that this show doesn’t especially. Leia’s inclusion is especially baffling, and quite unnecessary when a new character would have achieved the same thing without the same limiting factors. But the series doesn’t trust the audience enough to get them to care about new characters, so up pops an old one.

But when the show is good, it’s good. That final lightsaber duel between Vader and Obi-Wan is a masterclass of how to do that kind of battle, and the weird hybrid casting of Christensen and Jones suddenly snaps into place and makes sense. The damaged helmet, Christensen hissing out his lines as the dialogue sparks between him and Jones, is brutally effective, and the whole scene is incredibly powerful as student and master face off against each other. The direction, too, is excellent and makes real use of how different Vader is when he isn’t hidden behind that implacable helmet.

Yet it also demonstrates the flaws of the series too. Vader buries Obi-Wan under a pile of rocks then just turns and struts off without even bothering to check whether his old master is dead, then ta-da, up he pops to continue the fight. It makes Vader look incredibly stupid and/or careless. Then after he’s defeated Vader in battle, Obi-Wan just turns, delivers a flippant farewell, and pisses off. Which makes him look less like he’s being merciful and more like he just can’t be arsed with this any more. How many billions die at Vader’s hand because Obi-Wan can’t or won’t finish the fight? But this is exactly the limitation of the series, and of using these characters in that way – of course Obi-Wan can’t end Vader here because there’s all those other movies he’s in. So instead of a satisfying conclusion we get what is basically a fight to the death between to characters who cannot, in fact, die and then Obi-Wan strolling away not really looking all that bothered about it anyway.

If all this sounds terribly harsh, it’s worth restating – this is mostly an enjoyable series, and if you go into it with lower expectations than “Obi-Wan’s big return” imply then there’s certainly plenty to enjoy here. The whole plot thread of The Path – a rebel resistance organisation dedicated to rescuing orphaned and lost Jedi – is pleasingly different and could have stood further exploration, but what we get is both interesting and intriguing. And while this obviously isn’t the highest budget show ever, the money it does have is mostly spent wisely. Some sets looks a little small or cramped but if the consequence of that we get the base flooding in episode four, or the lightsaber battle in episode six, then it’s a worthwhile trade. Special-effects wise, things are fine for the most part – lightsaber battles are convincing and most of the spaceship battles are fine (although: can that Star Destroyer really not take out the crappy old ship Obi-Wan is escaping on in episode six? Really? Plot armour really is thick, I guess). Vader stopping an escaping shuttle in episode five with the Force is a fantastic moment from him, and indeed the whole of episode five is the best the series gets, with Reva’s cat-and-mouse game between Obi-Wan and Vader an absolute highlight. As well as being a frustrating example of what the show should have been doing more of.

And that’s the legacy of Obi-Wan Kenobi really. There’s some great moments but they’re never quite reducible to a great show. Simply put, including so many legacy characters was a mistake and shows too little faith in the audience – a counter-intuitively timid approach given how successfully The Mandalorian was able to get people to care about a guy who never even takes off his helmet. Moments on their own can be fantastic, but absolutely everything is subsumed by plot logic and the necessity of hitting the reset button so it’s all tied up in a neat bow by the end of the series. Reva’s redemption is meant to be heartfelt, but how many people died so she could feel bad and then not just slaughter a small child in cold blood? Obi-Wan doesn’t even get to stop her in the end, which says something. This is an entertaining series, and worth watching, but the frustration of it comes from just how easy it would be to move the dial from “entertaining” to “fantastic”.

Scores On The Doors? 6.5/10

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