Why ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ Is the Last, Best Hope for ‘Star Wars’

Obi-Wan Kenobi might be the show you’re looking for.

Here’s a spoiler for the upcoming Disney+ miniseries Obi-Wan Kenobi: Obi-Wan, played by Ewan McGregor, doesn’t die. No matter what happens over the course of the show’s six episode run, the status quo will remain the same as Revenge of the Sith left it, with “Ben” Kenobi hiding out on Tatooine and watching from a distance as Owen and Beru Lars raise a child who will one day grow up to learn the Force and destroy a Death Star.

Anyone with passing familiarity with Star Wars knows this; and while a story doesn’t need life or death stakes to be entertaining, there’s something curious about a sci-fi fantasy adventure series where the potential for consequences is largely existential. Even more curious: it could actually work. Star Wars’ track record for prequels, or inter-quels, or whatever the hell Obi-Wan Kenobi is, is spotty, but the show has one major advantage on its side: Obi-Wan himself.

He wasn’t supposed to be the main character of anything, really. As originally scripted, Kenobi fit a very specific, almost rigidly determined role: the mentor figure who points the hero towards the correct path, and then dies to leave said hero to fend for himself. Before studios discovered the cost effectiveness of plot recycling, that was enough. Obi-Wan appears as a ghost in both The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi, and in both cases, his purpose is entirely informational–he has no goals, no interests, no real personality on the page beyond “generic wisdom.” There is the suggestion of a past, but that suggestion is only meant to imply a history, not to draw focus.

Still, he made an impression, largely thanks to Alec Guinness. An established actor with four decades worth of prestigious theater and screen work under his belt, Guinness brought a level of authority to George Lucas’s wacky tale of space wizards and laser swords. The actor famously hated the way Star Wars’ blockbuster success overshadowed his more accomplished roles, but his performance in A New Hope still adds an impressive amount of nuance to what is, basically, a cliche. Guinness brings a dry humor to the part, creating a sketch of a man who’s spent too long in hiding to have much time left for niceties or beating around the bush. He’s pragmatic and direct, and Guinness’s distinctive, slightly nasal tenor gives him an air of amused detachment in any but the most dire of circumstances. The character’s having a good time, even if the actor wasn’t.

It’s a vibe Ewan McGregor tried, and largely succeeded, to capitalize on when he was cast as the younger Obi-Wan in The Phantom Menace. Even though the prequels were not well-received, somehow Obi-Wan retained his cool. While Hayden Christensen was panned for failing to bring an impossible role to life, and Natalie Portman was stuck with an arc that led straight from the Galactic senate to the refrigerator, McGregor escaped the trilogy unscathed, leaving the character’s legacy intact and even expanding on it to the point where he became a viable hero in his own right. The Obi-Wan of the prequels suffers the same clunky dialogue and clumsy plotting as everyone else, but while McGregor can’t always salvage the jokes (it’s doubtful even Harrison Ford in his prime could have), he captures the spirit of the original in a way that proves surprisingly resilient.

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