One of the very first scenes of the new Disney+ series Obi-Wan Kenobi shows characters slaving away in the desert, earning a pittance by scraping scraps of meat from a giant, long-dead carcass. This is either a complete coincidence, or someone at Disney is a little more self-aware than they should be.
Because, to continue the meat metaphor for a moment, Obi-Wan Kenobi is connective tissue. His two good stories – how he came to train the boy who would be Darth Vader and, later, how Vader killed him – were told decades ago. Chronologically, this new series sits somewhere in the middle. Kenobi left Anakin Skywalker for dead a decade ago and, realistically, it’s another decade before the events of Star Wars: A New Hope.
As such, the Obi-Wan we meet here doesn’t have an awful lot to do. He hacks up meat by day, squabbles with Jawa in the evening, and at night he dreams exclusively in flashbacks from Episodes I-III. It is entirely possible that we could have all got through our days perfectly decently without seeing this chapter of his life.
But such is the way of super-franchises. Post-Lucas Star Wars exists almost exclusively to bulk out thin gruel, joining various dots that didn’t need to be joined, for the delight of a quickly ageing fanbase. And so it is here. Consider this Obi-Wan Kenobi: The Startlingly Unnecessary Years.
The story goes that this series started life as a film. But once The Mandalorian surged out of nowhere, reversing what looked like terminal theatrical decline, the project jumped rails and ended up on TV instead. And, at times, it shows. Especially in the opening episode, scenes drag on for much longer than they need to, bogging themselves down in exposition that could have been chewed through far more elegantly.
However, once Obi-Wan Kenobi starts to build up a bit of momentum, a miraculous thing happens. The series actually starts to justify its own existence. Two episodes of six were released today, so we’re already a third of the way through the entire series, and so far the series seems to be a kind of intergalactic John Wick. Kenobi is on the lam, hunted by a combination of hired mercenaries and Vader’s forces, while trying to protect a young Princess Leia in the process.
And when the show leans most heavily into this premise, it works marvellously. Obi-Wan has spent 10 years ignoring his Jedi powers, and as a result all his fight scenes have a smash-mouth tangibility to them. Ewan McGregor spends a lot of these first two episodes punching aliens, and elbowing them in the face, and performing WWE-style clotheslines on their necks. Inevitably the mysticism will return later but, for now, it’s genuinely thrilling to see this weird hybrid part-Jedi, part-Jack Bauer in action.
In the almost 20 years since he last played Obi-Wan, McGregor has also found a way to navigate his biggest flaw; trying to act naturally while wearing the full weight of all Alec Guinness’s mannerisms. In the prequel series they often overwhelmed McGregor’s performance, but here, he wears them lightly, letting some of his natural charisma seep through.
It helps that he has a worthy foe too. Reva, played by Moses Ingram, is an Imperial Inquisitor (translation: Jedi hunter) who has hilariously little time for the petty bureaucracy of the Galactic Empire. While her superiors fret and worry about obeying the letter of the law, she’s out there flinging knives at the heads of innocent strangers and threatening to kill entire families. She’s hot-headed and impetuous and carving a straight line towards Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Also of note is Kumail Nanjiani, who plays a sort of charming fraudster with a glint that helps to temper the show’s often ponderous tone. It’s the sort of character and performance that would usually deserve its own spin-off, even if it didn’t exist in the world of modern Star Wars, where every single character who ever appears onscreen is all but guaranteed a full series about their origin story.
And that also goes for Obi-Wan Kenobi. Did it need to be made? No. Is its existence a sign of creative exhaustion? Probably. But does it make the best of its thankless job? Happily, yes it does.