For those with renewed interest in the Star Wars franchise after last year’s sublime “Andor” (like yours truly), let me make clear right off the bat: “Ahsoka” is not “Andor.” The most recent Disney+ series set in a galaxy far, far away feels the same distance removed from Tony Gilroy’s taut, visceral, and trenchant first season. Yes, both are Star Wars shows, both are spinoffs, and both start with the same letter, but only one appears interested in associating its top-of-the-alphabet title with its affiliated grade.
On paper, those hoping for A-level material have good reason to do so. Created by Dave Filoni (a long-time Lucasfilm favorite), “Ahsoka” follows in the footsteps of the acclaimed “Rebels” animated series (which Filoni also helmed), and the new series features an accomplished cast led by Rosario Dawson in the title role. Toss in the recent success of “Andor” and one could easily argue the long-struggling Star Wars franchise finally has momentum again.
But in the first two hours, “Ahsoka” holds firm to the wrong roots. Since “Rebels,” Filoni has produced and written for “The Mandalorian” and “The Book of Boba Fett,” including the episode of the former that introduced Dawson’s fan-favorite Jedi. Despite dwindling returns from previous entries (“Mandalorian” of late and “Boba Fett” from the beginning), “Ahsoka” follows a similar template with shared setbacks: thin storylines, stock action scenes, and massive special effects serving sequences absent any emotional heft. Characters feel cut from the same cloth as so many others in the franchise, as does the overarching premise: something something the Empire is up to no good, something something the dark side is rising, something something small band of rebel resistance — all circling the same listless drain as “Somehow, Palpatine has returned.”
Once it starts shouting out legacy characters, “Ahsoka” fits all too snuggly within the pre-“Andor” Disney+ playbook of safe, simple nostalgia-bait. Perhaps it will find it’s own way eventually, but there’s nothing in the premiere to indicate it even wants to try.
What is there — filling roughly 90 minutes of narrative — could’ve largely been dispensed with in the opening scroll. Ahsoka, a Jedi drop-out who trained under Anakin Skywalker but left before earning her formal degree, is searching the galaxy for a map. Said map is coveted by another group of unofficial Jedi (who still use lightsabers and the Force, like Ahsoka). These robed baddies hope to bring back Imperial Grand Admiral Thrawn, whose return would rally those loyal to the Empire and restart a war that only recently forged peace. Ahsoka, meanwhile, wants to use the map to locate a friend: Ezra Bridger, a heroic rebel who gave his life for the cause… but may be alive after all.
Helping our white-tentacled hero is the green-tentacled general, Hera Syndulla (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Appearing mainly via hologram (as little more than literal support), Hera isn’t exactly the best use of Winstead’s considerable talents. So far, her dialogue is zapped of the actor’s usual sharp wit and action scenes relegate the well-trained thespian to a seated position. Perhaps that’s because Hera’s main goal — even beyond the galaxy-in-the-balance mission, honestly — appears to be reuniting Ahsoka with her former Padawan, Sabine Wren (Natasha Liu Bordizzo).
Sabine is a hailed warrior in her own right, though she’s not one to bask in praise. “Ahsoka” introduces her via absence, when she bails on a lavish public ceremony for some me-time with her Not Cat. Cruising down the open road on her speeder, orange hair flapping behind her helmet, Sabine flips a metaphorical finger to the law (two officers sent to retrieve the would-be honoree) and embraces her status as too cool for school — a rebel chick whose rebellion couldn’t be any more stereotypical if she was on a teen soap.
Soon enough, Sabine is set on the straight and narrow by her
mother figure sorry, her Master, and Sabine, Ahsoka, and Hera fly off to save everyone from the dark side, or the Empire, or the Bad Jedi, or all of the above — alongside their droid sidekick, Huyang, of course. (The great David Tennant, reprising his role from “The Clone Wars,” voices the timid ‘bot, but so far he’s just been forced to perk up dreary lines like, “Hey Huyang, still in one piece?” “Oh, yes. And still 75 percent original parts!”) The trio has solid chemistry that could prove strong enough to sustain a mission-based episodic format like “Mandalorian” relies on, but “Ahsoka” appears intent on a serialized structure. For all the room it has to bask in its cast’s talents, it gives them shockingly little room to strut.
Die-hard fans who crave easter eggs and deep-cut callbacks may find “Ahoska” sturdy enough to scratch that dull itch. It certainly doesn’t waste time outlining the lead character’s backstory for newcomers, or establishing a visual style outside the barren, bright look of “The Mandalorian.” (So many giant, sparse rooms, so little tactile connection to anything in them.) Dawson is clearly capable of more than looking the part, but potential has never been the problem when it comes to Disney-era Star Wars stories. Following through is where things always go haywire. Well, almost always. At least we still have “Andor.”
“Ahsoka” premieres Tuesday, August 22 with two episodes on Disney+. New episodes will be released weekly.