LET’S face it, the best thing about George Lucas’s largely turgid Star Wars prequel trilogy was Ewan McGregor, complete with Alec Guinness voice, as Obi-Wan Kenobi.
McGregor added some much-needed humanity, as well as plenty of charm and swashbuckling swish, to Lucas’s CGI-swamped muddle. It’s great to have him (and the voice) back.
Obi-Wan Kenobi (Disney+, streaming now) is officially billed as a six-part miniseries, although it seems inevitable that there’ll be more.
The actor has already said he’d be up for it. If the rest of the episodes, which drop weekly, are as excellent as the first two, I’d also welcome further adventures.
McGregor slips back into the character as effortlessly as he dons the Jedi robe. But in what is the most character-driven Star Wars spin-off so far, Obi-Wan is a somewhat different man.
He’s older, obviously (the series is set 10 years after the events of the last of the prequels, Revenge of the Sith), but also depressed, defeated and emotionally battered. The hope and fight half have gone from him.
When a young Jedi on the run tries to rally him, Obi-Wan turns him away. “The fight is done,” he says. “We lost. The time of the Jedi is over.”
There are other returnees from the prequels: the great Jimmy Smits as Senator Organa, the seemingly ageless Joel Edgerton as Luke Skywalker’s Uncle Owen and, of course, Haydn Christensen as Anakin Skwalker/Darth Vader, who shows up at the very end of episode two.
I’ve always thought Christensen got an unfairly rough ride from some critics back in the day. Lumbered with Lucas’s trademark dreadful dialogue and the backbreaking weight of fans’ expecations, he did a good job of putting a human face on a villain who, despite his iconic status, was basically a suit, a mask and the rumbling voice of James Earl Jones.
There are some tasty new villains, too: the white-faced Grand Inquisitor (Rupert Friend, almost unrecognisable behind ingenious prosthetics and contact lenses), whose job is to hunt down the remaining Jedi, and his sidekicks Fifth Brother (Sung Kang) and Reva Sevander, a former Jedi who’s turned to the dark side and is as ruthless, nasty and violent as she is ambitious.
Obi-Wan, now going by the name Ben Kenobi (which I always thought was a lousy alias), is living a fairly miserable half-life on the desert planet Tatooine, keeping an eye on the young Luke from afar and holding down a dead-end job chopping meat.
He’s still haunted by his failure to prevent Anakin from turning to the dark side or save the life of his old Master, Qui-Gon Jinn (in The Phantom Menace). When he appeals to Qui-Gon for guidance, I half-expected a ghostly cameo from Liam Neeson. You never know, we might get one yet.
We don’t see much of Luke (Grant Feely), but his twin sister Leia, who’s living the luxurious life of a princess with adoptive parents the Organas, is at the centre of the plot. She’s played by Vivien Lyra Blair, who’s cute but not annoying, and has good chemistry with McGregor.
Leia is already showing her rebellious streak. When Organa tells her she’ll one day serve in the Senate, she says: “Senate is boring – people in itchy clothes arguing.” It sounds an awful lot like a gentle dig at the interminably tedious, talky trade agreement scenes from the prequels.
Boring is something Obi-Wan Kenobi is most definitely not. After Leia is kidnapped by mercenaries in a rogue operation orchestrated by Reva to lure Obi-Wan into her clutches, Organa begs him for help. At first, he refuses.
“I’m not who I used to be,” he says. “I’m not the man you remember.”
But once he digs his lightsaber out of the desert sand he buried it in years before and sets off on a rescue mission, we know that, deep down, he very much is the man we remember.
This is thrillingly old-school Star Wars, set in the convincingly lived-in world, with its grubby cantinas and scuffed, dusty spaceships, that Lucas created for the original films, then ruined with the shiny computer-graphic overload of the prequels.
Director Deborah Chow, who did all six, gives us a beautifully paced first episode and an action-packed second that’s full of exciting chases, narrow escapes and satisfyingly crunchy fight scenes.
In contrast to today’s other big streaming arrival, the bloated Stranger Things 4, the first episode clocks in at a tidy 56 minutes and the second at 46.
Verdict: 4/5 stars