Now streaming–Two-hour Ahsoka opener makes one solid Star Wars movie

Review by C.J. Bunce

The trailers didn’t lie: The first two episodes of the new Lucasfilm series Ahsoka, now streaming on Disney+, feel like Star Wars.  This is the real deal.  At the helm is Dave Filoni, who at last gets to show us solo his Star Wars in live-action form.  The result is Star Wars in every good sense, with great characters, great visuals, great actors stepping into new roles, and most importantly, the kind of clean story writing that Star Wars TV series haven’t quite mastered yet.  Where The Mandalorian presented a solid Western on the fringe of the Rebel vs. Empire Star Wars galaxy, this story brings us back to the center.  In his delivery, Filoni borrows from the spectrum of genre’s best: Raiders of the Lost Ark here, Jim Henson there, Firefly here, a little Doctor Who, and some The Lord of the Rings and The Golden Compass.  But he makes “derivative” work for him.  Leading the series is Rosario Dawson, the top genre actress there is, and here she owns every scene despite her character’s reserved demeanor.

Viewers are in for Star Wars on a grand scale, and the only question is whether they can hold onto that excitement for a full season.  In just two full-length episodes it already runs circles around Obi-Wan Kenobi and Andor as well as all the other Disney event series released this year.

The energy of the opening episodes is carried by composer Kevin Kiner, who engages with themes reminiscent of John Williams without ripping off his work.  Kiner was the go-to composer on both the animated Star Wars series and Star Trek Enterprise, and is the perfect match for these characters.  But viewers will see the heart of the show will be carried by the three women leads: the powerful Dawson, plus the eminently likeable Mary Elizabeth Winstead (10 Cloverfield Lane) as Hera Syndulla and Natasha Liu Bordizzo (Day Shift) as the impressionable Sabine Wren.  Winstead balances charisma and cocky with a new authoritative persona as a New Republic General–think of the changes in Han Solo from his first appearance in Star Wars to his rise in importance to the Rebels in Return of the Jedi.  Bordizzo is charged with moving from the “angry girl” of Star Wars Rebels to someone whose path has seen predecessors fail spectacularly, namely her Master’s Master, Anakin Skywalker.

The guest stars so far are the best you could hope for, with the ubiquitous Clancy Brown (Starship Troopers, Buckaroo Banzai) back as Asadi from Star Wars Rebels and the great Peter Jacobson (House, MD, The Lost Room) as a new administrator.  Add in the return of David Tennant as the droid Huyang, and it’s really a genre fan’s dream team of supporting performers.  Then add in the bad guys: Ray Stevenson has a Christopher Lee presence as ex-Jedi Baylan Skoll (the first episode is dedicated to Stevenson, who died after production wrapped) and The Mandalorian’s Diana Lee Inosanto is creating a new evil force with her character Morgan Elsbeth.  But the three woman leads lose out in the opening episode as badass ranking goes to Ivanna Sakhno as Shin Hati, who seems to be chanelling Ray Park as Darth Maul from the prequels as she unleashes her energy on the screen.

If you watch all things Star Wars, you already know what’s going on, so let’s try to get everyone else caught up.  Ahsoka serves as a sequel to the brilliant, animated Star Wars Rebels (our top animation pick several years in a row) and The Clone Wars, while also tying together threads from The Book of Boba Fett, The Mandalorian, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the Andor series–even the animated Tales of the Jedi and Star Wars Resistance are expected to get touched on.  From Star Wars Rebels, the central question presented is twofold: Where is Grand Admiral Thrawn and if he is alive does that mean Ezra Bridger is still alive, too?  In Star Wars Rebels the two disappeared by means of the actions of purrgil–space whales–a creature Sabine once etched onto her shoulder plate.  Prophetic (aka good advance planning by Filoni)?  Ahsoka’s focus is stopping a war, but fans have to think it’s really about bringing back Ezra as a live-action presence.  But who is Marrok, the dark masked presence that confronts Ahsoka?  Is this Filoni doing his take on Tron: Legacy or Black Widow?

Easter eggs and genre influences abound.  Early Star Wars was at its best when it had the Jim Henson touch, like with Frank Oz’s Yoda.  Here we get a great Muppet-inspired CG Loth-cat, actually several, and they are perfect space cats.  But a Rubik’s cube puzzle box and ancient temple also conjure Aughra’s orrery from Henson’s The Dark Crystal.  The overall opening puzzle mixes Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Fifth Element.  Tech savvy Sabine Wren is 100% inspired by Kaylee in Firefly.  An evil lair is a throwback to the eye of Sauron.  Morgan is a witch that conjures Serafina of The Golden Compass.  And let’s face it, nobody sees David Tennant’s robot Huyang and doesn’t see Doctor Who’s 10th Doctor taken over by a Cyberman.

Filoni is also careful to emulate ghosts of Star Wars’ past, good and not-so-good.  The frequently incomprehensible opening scrawl, for example, is as wordy and convoluted as if George Lucas wrote it himself.  Then there are scenes that mirror the prequels, like a dark apprentice on a solo mission to eliminate a threat a la The Phantom Menace.  The lesser elements are overshadowed by the stunning opening entry overhead by a space cruiser a la the opening of the original Star Wars, and numerous nicely framed scenes of ships, including soaring X-Wings and sets with all kinds of neat graphics.

Will we see another appearance of Steve Blum voicing the larger than life Zeb–the missing member of the team from the Ghost ship in Star Wars Rebels, who had a brief live-action appearance in The Mandalorian?  Will we get more than a glimpse of live-action Thrawn in the season finale?  The idea of eight episodes, especially full hour episodes like the first, is promising especially in light of the prevalence of six-episode seasons from Disney lately.  Viewers can look forward to appearances by Lars Mikkelsen, Genevieve O’Reilly, and Hayden Christensen, with a new episode arriving each week.

This series has something for every corner of Star Wars fandom.  So far, so good.  Ahsoka is streaming now with the first two episodes on Disney+.

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