Peek behind the curtain with me. Usually, when new television series are released for preview, I watch them like the rest of the viewing public: sprawled out on my couch in front of a 32-inch screen. It is the perfect simulation of how a show’s core audience will consume the product. But there are some projects that defy that convention, throwing glitzy screenings and acting as if their product were always intended for the big screen. So it was with Disney+’s Star Wars: Ahsoka, which I watched at the cinema amid a sea of twirling lightsabers and papier-mâché montrals. This is small screen TV at, quite literally, its biggest.
Ahsoka picks up a thread left hanging in The Mandalorian. If you were watching carefully during “Chapter 13: The Jedi”, then you’ll have seen Rosario Dawson’s Ahsoka Thano placing rogue administrator Morgan Elsbeth (Diana Lee Inosanto) under arrest and urging her to reveal the whereabouts of shadowy Empire bigwig, Thrawn. That’s where the story picks up. But not long after the opening titles, Elsbeth is busted from space jail by Baylan Skoll (the late, great Ray Stevenson) and the chase is on for the show’s central MacGuffin: a mechanical map that leads, for some reason, to Thrawn’s hideout. “It’s never a straight line with you Jedi,” observes General Syndulla (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), which is also true of Ahsoka’s plot.
At its core, Ahsoka is a story of master and apprentice: Ahsoka Thano, the hard-bitten Jedi knight, and Sabine Wren (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), her impulsive, Force-light ward. Where one is taciturn and considered, the other is creative and rash – naturally, they will learn much from one another in this voyage through the galaxy. “You’re both difficult,” Syndulla observes. “I always thought that was what made it work.” If there is chemistry, however, it’s better served with a lightsaber in hand, chopping their way, balletically, through a line-up of droids. Like most Star Wars instalments, Ahsoka’s crackle comes more from the sound of blade on circuitry than from its dialogue.
Not that Star Wars is really about the zingers (even if Han Solo is rolling in his grave). The corpus is now so enormous that, inevitably, there will be wan, colourless instalments. Ahsoka is, after all, a spin-off of The Mandalorian, relying heavily on the lore from animated shows Star Wars Rebels and Star Wars: The Clone Wars. These fill in the gaps between the cinematic entries; the gaps, at least, that have not been filled by the almost 400 Star Wars novels. The project is now so expansive and arcane, not to mention abetted by Disney’s seemingly endless money pit, that projects come and go without much fanfare. Last year, Ewan McGregor reprised his role in Obi-Wan Kenobi, a show that sputtered its way through a first series, hot on the heels of The Book of Boba Fett, which never really got going at all. In the world of space operas, these are all more Florence Foster Jenkins than Luciano Pavarotti.
If you’re a Star Wars fan then perhaps there can never be too much Star Wars. But quantity over quality is not a long-term approach, especially when, in the streaming era, you constantly need to snare new audiences. Ahsoka lacks the beauty or grandeur of the best of George Lucas’s vision. It has nothing of the tactility of Tatooine’s deserts or Hoth’s icescape. The production design is as flat and flimsy as the characterisation. Ahsoka herself is, on paper, a badass – but on the screen she feels joyless. “Sometimes even the right reasons have the wrong consequences,” she mutters, as though she is looking at the Disney+ Q3 earnings report.
The trouble with showing television on a cinema screen – a scale at which it was never intended to be watched – is that it can paper over the cracks. But with Ahsoka it seemed only to draw attention to the tedious pacing, cookie-cutter characters and nonsensically convoluted chase plot. Airless and utterly devoid of life, Ahsoka takes its backdrop, the vast vacuum of space, a bit too literally.