Star Wars TV shows have reached a point that was passed by Marvel superhero series a while ago: franchise fans still thirstily slurp down every new one in full, but casual viewers no longer have room in their schedules to blindly commit. So is Ahsoka a crossover thrill – like Andor, The Mandalorian (seasons one and two only!), and the last few episodes of The Book of Boba Fett? Or is it a fans-only drudge, like most of Boba, recent Mando and all of Obi-Wan Kenobi?
After an opening double bill introducing us to the new adventures of Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson), we don’t really know. Ahsoka has plenty of flickers of what made Andor and the early Mandalorian such a ride, but it suffers from the same syndrome that makes Bad Star Wars bad: it’s so in awe of franchise lore it keeps taking our interest for granted.
Our heroine is a former apprentice to Anakin Skywalker, the man who became Darth Vader, who hasn’t followed her master to the Dark Side. Although exactly who Ahsoka is can be hard to pin down, which isn’t ideal for a lead character – she’s a sort of mentor/vigilante/fixer – she cuts a calm but stern figure in an era of fragile progress. The monstrous Galactic Empire has fallen, but fears of its imminent revival are well founded. Ahsoka’s quest is to find and neutralise Grand Admiral Thrawn, an exiled Empire stalwart, and she’s learned that an arcane map could reveal his hiding place. When two malign mercenaries who seem to be using Jedi-like powers for nefarious ends also show an interest in the map, a race is on. But it’s not a race in which anyone moves fast.
Ahsoka is set in a galaxy so far away that it is yet to receive word of the old screenwriting maxim about starting a scene late and leaving it early. Take, for instance, the sequence where Ahsoka searches an abandoned underground hub on a desolate planet. Like everything else in the show, this dusty, creaky lair is sumptuously designed, and there are pleasing Indiana Jones vibes as secret trapdoors are opened, artefacts are found hidden in sand, and stone obelisks are twisted into just the right position to awaken their mysterious power and spring them open. But it all happens at such a measured pace that if you haven’t come to the show primed to enjoy every little thing Ahsoka does – enthusiasts have spent more than a decade watching the character develop in the animated series Clone Wars and Rebels – you might wonder why you’ve just had to spend several minutes watching a woman find a map.
Eventually, despite a lot of gazing at admittedly impressive CGI backgrounds, and plenty more scenes where people walk around for a bit before they do anything, a gang emerges. Ahsoka’s need for help in decoding the map leads her to take a risk on her talented but unstable former protegee, Sabine Wren (Natasha Liu Bordizzo). More reliable assistance comes from Hera Syndulla (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a general in the benign New Republic.
The potential in this all-female trio is for a nuanced, character-driven take on space capers, as the maternal Ahsoka and the auntly Hera try to nurture Sabine’s wild warrior talents. Although Ahsoka is a little too inscrutable – she sometimes has the air of a sitcom mum, folding her arms in mute exasperation at the foolishness around her – and Hera’s main discernible trait so far is that she has a green face, the dynamic is there. Not that the show foregoes spectacular action: Sabine’s impulsiveness means that a hoverbike duel or running chase is never far away, and Ahsoka regularly shows off her cool trick of fighting with her lightsaber held in a reverse grip. A fact-finding trip to a bustling port, meanwhile, lends the action a bit of Andor-esque insight into how fighting fascism is a never-ending struggle, when it becomes apparent that although the gaff is no longer run by the Empire, not everyone who runs it has seen the light.
The foundations are in place, then, if the show can remember that Star Wars at its best is snappy and fun, not slow and serious. There’s another lost opportunity in the form of Huyang, a droid voiced by David Tennant (reprising his role from Clone Wars): he enjoys making the robot sound like a caring but fussy butler, with notes of PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Red Dwarf’s Kryten. But in a show where, when a scene needs to establish a thing, the characters often stand there directly, drily discussing that thing – “show don’t tell” being another writing rule that hasn’t survived the trip across the cosmos – Tennant is often left trying to say unfunny lines in a funny voice. Like everything in Ahsoka, he could be so much better if he were allowed to cut loose and entertain us.
Ahsoka is on Disney+