Can Disney’s new TV show Ahsoka stop Star Wars becoming an utter Sithshow?

‘Ahsoka’ seems destined for the same forgettable fate as ‘The Book of Boba Fett’ and ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’  (Suzanne Tenner / Lucasfilm Ltd.)
‘Ahsoka’ seems destined for the same forgettable fate as ‘The Book of Boba Fett’ and ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ (Suzanne Tenner / Lucasfilm Ltd.)

A long time ago (2012) in a galaxy far, far away (Los Angeles), a deal was struck of Death Star-ian proportions. The Walt Disney Company purchased production studio Lucasfilm – and its crowning jewel, George Lucas’s Star Wars, with it – in a deal worth $4.05bn. At the time, the amount was staggering. Just three years later, it would seem like a steal. The Force Awakens made more than $2bn at the box office alone, not counting the preposterously lucrative merchandising. A year later, the well-received spin-off Rogue One added another billion to the stack. From there, however, Star Wars’s upwards trajectory hit turbulence. The violently polarising Last Jedi (2017) was followed up by the drab, underperforming Solo, and then, finally, 2019’s messy trilogy-enderThe Rise of Skywalker. The iconic sci-fi franchise had finally hit rock bottom. But, of course, it didn’t end there. Wednesday sees the premiere of Ahsoka, the latest in a string of lavish streaming series set in the Star Wars galaxy.

After The Rise of Skywalker’s release, Star Wars fled into hiding, like Yoda into the swamps of Dagobah – or at least, that was the case when it comes to films. The multiplexes have been without a Star Wars movie for four years now, and there’s none officially on the docket until 2026. Currently, there are four “confirmed” projects in the works (from James Mangold, Taika Waititi, Dave Filoni and Ms Marvel’s Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy), but the slate is in constant and omnidirectional flux. A prospective trilogy from Game of Thrones duo David Benioff and DB Weiss has been shelved; plans for a Solo sequel abandoned; Rogue Squadron, a project helmed by Wonder Woman’s Patty Jenkins, is in limbo. In the meantime, though, Star Wars fans have been served course after course of streaming content: The Mandalorian; The Book of Boba Fett; Andor; The Bad Batch; Visions; Tales of the Jedi; and Obi-Wan Kenobi. And now, the eight-part live-action Jedi series Ahsoka. Did I say served? More like force-fed.

The Star Wars series have not been all bad. The first season of Andor was strong, downright brilliant in stretches, while The Mandalorian and Visions have been broadly well-liked. But it’s clear at this point that the franchise is in trouble. The Disney+ shows have all failed to make an impact with a mainstream audience – save for the brief meme phenomenon that was Baby Yoda. The Book of Boba Fett was swallowed up without a trace, Sarlacc-style. Obi-Wan Kenobi was a similar non-event, despite the vaunted returns of prequel trilogy stars Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen. Ahsoka, which sees Rosario Dawson play ronin-like Jedi Ahsoka Tano, seems destined for the same fate. The continuation of a story that began in the animated Star Wars Rebels (2014 to 2018), Ahsoka is likely to have limited appeal beyond the already converted.

So how is Disney to turn this ship around? Star Wars fans are hard to satisfy. The Force Awakens was accused of playing it too safe, while The Last Jedi was too audacious. Baby Yoda (aka Grogu) was too cutesy and Disney-fied while Andor was, for some, too dry and adult. A lack of lightsaber combat – long the franchise’s most bankable source of thrills – blighted Solo and much of Disney+’s early output. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ahsoka rectify this with an abundance of brightly lasered sabre-swinging sequences, but none have enough choreographic flair to leave a lasting mark on audiences. It may be, though, that the solution is profoundly simple: stop making so much Star Wars. The proliferation of these expensive but mostly forgettable TV series has diluted a franchise that once epitomised “event” cinema. A new Star Wars release used to have fans queuing down the street in gleeful mania. Now, it’s just another Friday.

The flaw with Disney’s strategy runs deeper than just Star Wars. They are suffering a similar problem with their Marvel output – a slew of high-budget straight-to-streaming series, which fail to curry enthusiasm outside the faithful. (Inaugural effort WandaVision was a crossover hit, but later series, such as Hawkeye or this year’s Secret Invasion have sunk like stones.) It also speaks to a larger issue: the entertainment industry’s broader pivot away from theatrical releases and towards subscription streaming. The recent successes of Barbie and Oppenheimer have proven that the public’s appetite for the theatrical experience is still there, likewise last year’s Avatar: The Way of Water, which snuck up the charts to become the third biggest film of all time. Star Wars belongs on the big screen. Its bombastic action, lavish otherworldly sets, brassy orchestral scores – these are all things that benefit from being experienced in a cinema.

On a purely commercial level, too, the streaming business model has never made any long-term sense. It is a bubble blown from stock prices and rising “investment value”, predicated on the unsustainable fantasy of perpetual growth. There is no way of recouping the billions invested yearly in original programming through subscriptions alone. So why do it? If Obi-Wan Kenobi were released as a film, as was initially planned before a pivot to streaming, it would have been all but guaranteed a 10-figure box office gross. That’s hundreds of millions of dollars just thrown away, in favour of… what, exactly? The limp prestige of being able to say, “Watch it exclusively on Disney+”?

Hopefully, Star Wars’s current theatrical hibernation will serve to generate a bit of mystique around the franchise’s inevitable return to cinemas. It needs it. The fans need it. For the time being, Star Wars devotees have to make peace with the fact that something once precious has become ubiquitous. Something holy is now prosaic. Awash in a churning sea of content, it is harder than ever to stay moored to what made us fall in love with the series in the first place. For now, though, at least it’s not impossible.

The first two episodes of ‘Ahsoka’ will be available to stream on Disney+ on 23 August. Episodes will be released weekly from then until October