Star Wars fight tonight! With the completion of Obi-Wan Kenobi, we now have three Disney+ live-action shows to compare, so that’s what we’re going to do. We’re only considering the first season of each show, which shall be rated on the four critical elements that make stories popular: attachment, novelty, tension, and satisfaction. Who will walk away with the franchise crown: The Mandalorian, with its gunslinger aesthetic; Obi-Wan Kenobi, with its tightly choreographed lightsaber fights; or The Book of Boba Fett, with its, uh, bacta-tank naps?
Spoiler Notice: The Book of Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi
It’s a little weird that this show’s protagonist has all of the traits we typically associate with Boba Fett, but he isn’t Boba Fett. He’s a stoic bounty hunter who wears Mandalorian armor and never removes his helmet, plus he’s got cool gadgets and he disintegrates people. But he’s not Boba Fett, we promise; he’s Din Djarin.* How could you confuse them? He’s just designed to be as much like the popular image of Boba Fett as possible. Oh, well, I’m sure this choice will never come back to bite Star Wars in the exhaust port.
This show centers around a very well-executed iteration of the Lone Wolf and Cub trope. Both Din and Grogu* are highly novel characters, but in contrasting ways. Din’s got all those cool Boba Fett traits I mentioned, while Grogu is just incredibly cute, plus he has Force powers. Together, they complement each other and do a lot of the show’s heavy emotional lifting. Without Grogu, Din’s novelty would fade and then he’d just be a stoic jerk imprisoning people for money. Without Din, Grogu would be more frustrating than cute, since Din is the one who actually gives the story a direction. That is a recipe for some strong attachment.
Most of the other characters range from good to at least okay. Cara Dune has a very interesting backstory as a rebel soldier and survivor of Alderaan, and she has a good rapport with Din. It’s too bad we’ll probably never see her again because her actress turned out to be a terrible person, but it was nice while it lasted. Meanwhile, Kuiil has exactly one trick, but it’s an effective one: he has spoken! I don’t really know much about the guy beyond that catchphrase, but he’s pretty iconic for a side character. Also he gave us IG-11, the badass nanny droid, so there’s that.
As an episodic adventure story, The Mandalorian doesn’t ever stay in one place long enough to build attachment to specific locations or factions, but at least Din’s ship racks up a few points in its own right. The Razor Crest isn’t the fastest, prettiest, or best-armed ship in the galaxy, but it’s a real trooper for surviving all the crap Din puts it through.*
The only major failures in attachment appear during episode six, when Din teams up with some mercenaries for a job. In short, they are the worst. The show makes a big deal about how they’re all supposed to be deadly and dangerous, but all it shows us is that none of them know what the heck they’re doing. On the mission, they do little but set off alarms and cower while Din does all the work. The rest of the time, they’re constantly trying to pick fights with Din, a man who wears blaster-proof armor. One of them even tries the galaxy’s least-convincing seduction.
Fortunately, they’re contained to only a single episode,* so they don’t do too much damage. It’s just hard not to notice how poorly written they are.
Final Score: 8
The Mandalorian has all the Star Wars touchstones you’d expect from a big-budget TV show. It’s got spaceships, blasters, droids, giant monsters, and planets with exactly one biome across the entire surface. Sometimes it’s a forest planet or a volcano planet, but let’s not kid ourselves: it’s usually a desert planet. There are so many desert planets in Star Wars that I cannot keep track of them, so they’re all Tatooine as far as I’m concerned.
This speaks to a bigger problem The Mandalorian struggles with: Star Wars isn’t new or unusual anymore, and it hasn’t been for a long time. New Star Wars stories can’t count on the same wow factor that New Hope got in 1977, so they need to shake up the formula to make an impression. The Mandalorian does that, but not a lot.
The most immediate source of novelty is the Mandalorians as a people. While these armored warriors have appeared in countless books and animated shows, this is the first time they’ve gotten any live-action development. Their practices of adopting foundlings and never removing their helmets are certainly interesting, but the show is so focused on its episodic plots that there’s little time to delve further. I would really like to know why such powerful fighters are hiding out in the sewers of Bounty Hunter Town, but that’s not in the cards for this season.
The other source of novelty is exploring the Star Wars universe from the point of view of someone who isn’t a leading figure in galactic events. Again, this isn’t new if you read Star Wars books or watch the cartoons, but for those who don’t, the concept is still pretty fresh.* It’s still the Star Wars you’re used to, but with at least something of a twist.
Final Score: 6
On one hand, Din’s enemies are much better shots than typical in Star Wars, which is good for tension. On the other hand, the only reason that happens is because Din has blaster-proof armor, so very little damage is done when he gets hit. And despite that, the bad guys still have to miss a lot more than they realistically should so that Din and his friends can survive until the next episode.
Another serious problem is that we often have to ignore how easily Din could solve a given problem with his ship. In one episode, Din spends an entire montage learning how to ride a local tadpole creature when he could have just flown instead. In another episode, he and Cara have to defend a village from bad guys who have an AT-ST walker at their disposal. That’s pretty scary, except that one strafing run from the Razor Crest would take care of it. Maybe Din was out of gas money that week.
It’s also really unclear how tracking fobs work in this setting. Sometimes they allow bounty hunters to home in on a target from light-years away, which seems impossible. But when that function would be inconvenient for the plot, the fobs suddenly do nothing. This makes it difficult to tell how hard Din needs to work in finding his targets, and how hard the bad guys have to work in finding him.
That said, the tension does vary by episode, as each story is fairly self-contained. Even though it’s rated lowest by critics, episode five probably has the best tension, as Din and another bounty hunter have to scurry from cover to cover so they won’t be picked off by elite sniper Fennec Shand. I can only assume Fennec’s rifle is powerful enough to at least damage Din’s armor; otherwise he could have walked right up to her.
Final Score: 5
Most of The Mandalorian’s individual episodes have fairly satisfying endings. Even episode six, featuring the worst mercenaries ever, ends with Din trapping them on a New Republic prison ship, so there’s at least some justice in the world. Other episodes have even stronger endings as Din protects a village, fixes his ship, or saves Grogu from mortal peril. Each of these endings is entertaining on its own and brings the audience back for more, which is exactly what you want in an episodic show.
That said, there are two significant issues. The first is that, even in just eight episodes, Din’s adventures feel a little repetitive. To a certain extent, that’s unavoidable. Din is a bounty hunter; there are only so many types of adventures he can realistically go on. Even so, the guy goes on a lot of fetch quests for various clients.
The other issue is that the season’s overarching plot resolves with a bit of a whimper. That plot is about Moff Gideon, leader of an Imperial remnant faction, trying to get his hands on Grogu for some kind of science experiment. At first, Gideon works through bounty hunters, until he arrives in person for a two-part finale.
That could be fine, except that the resolution is for Din to handily defeat Gideon, then run away. Nothing has really changed about the Gideon plot, except that he’s slightly less threatening because of the defeat. That’s certainly not the worst season ending I’ve ever seen, but it doesn’t feel like much is resolved either.
Final Score: 6
The Book of Boba Fett
Now, you might be thinking that I already wrote an entire post about why this show is bad and how it could have been better. And you’d be right, but you know what that post doesn’t have? Numbers!
I honestly can’t recall the last time I watched a show where the characters made such a small impression. It’s not even that I dislike them; it’s that they amount to nothing. Boba himself is the most obvious as the main character: a man without motivation, desires, or even opinions. We can assume he wants to be a crime lord because he murders a man for the position, but there’s no understanding of why he wants that. It’s certainly not money, which would be boring anyway, but Boba doesn’t even seem particularly interested in a return on his investments. All the time that could have been spent developing him is wasted on flashbacks to his time with the Tuskens, and even then I’m not sure what the show is telling me about him.
Boba is such a nonentity that he has to be constantly prodded into action or nothing would happen. Since Fennec is usually the one prodding him, you might think she would get some development, but we know almost nothing about her either. She feels indebted to Boba for saving her life, and that’s it. Does she believe in his cause? Is she looking for a chance to pay off her debt and escape? I have no idea!
The only character with any attachment is the Majordomo, a man who doesn’t even merit a name. His role in the story is pretty minor, but his theatrical manner makes him far more memorable than anyone else. Well, except for the random appearances by Din and Grogu, but I’m not giving this show any credit for bringing in more-successful characters to distract from its own failures.
As a final kick in the teeth, we have an appearance by Luke Skywalker, in which Disney uses the most advanced technology available to show us what it would be like if Mark Hamill couldn’t act. Also, he’s building his new Jedi academy on the prequel rule that Jedi aren’t allowed to have friends. Great.
Final Score: 2
Have I mentioned that I’m tired of Tatooine? ‘Cause wow, am I tired of Tatooine. Unfortunately, that’s about all this show has to offer: more of a planet that Star Wars just can’t get away from. The only times we leave Tatooine are when the show inexplicably cuts over to Din for a while, which is a nice change of scenery, but it also feels like watching an entirely different show.
In fairness, Book of Boba Fett could have shown us a different side of Tatooine. Despite the Jabba’s palace sequences in Return of the Jedi, we don’t actually know much about the planet’s criminal underworld* or what life is like in a town like Mos Espa. The show could have explored those aspects and provided some novelty that way.
It does not. Mos Espa is reduced to a series of streets and one cantina while the criminal underworld is glossed over entirely. Boba has a couple of brief meetings with other crime lords, and that’s it. The only new material we get is for the Tuskens, and most of that is in service to Boba being their white savior. The Mandalorian manages more novelty in one brief scene, when Din and a random Tusken exchange information in sign language. At least that told us something about the Tuskens beyond the fact that they live in a desert and are very spiritual.
The only other point I can give the show for novelty is that the Pykes’ war droids are very cool looking. I’d love to see them again in a better show.
Final Score: 3
A significant chunk of this show is spent in Boba’s flashbacks, which isn’t a great place to start, since we know he gets through okay. Putting that aside, most of those flashbacks involve the Tuskens treating Boba like crap, which is unpleasant but not tense. The tensest it ever gets is when he helps the Tuskens attack a sand train, which is too little, too late.
In the present, tension remains incredibly low, mostly because the story never gives us any reason to care about what’s happening. What does it matter if Boba takes over Mos Espa and runs it as his own personal crime fief? How will it be any different from what came before? On the off chance you’re invested enough to care anyway, half of Boba’s enemies just give up and leave after a couple of episodes.
The last few episodes have Boba face off against the Pyke Syndicate, who at least have a lot of muscle, but it’s difficult to tell why they’re even fighting. I think it’s because the Pykes don’t want to pay Boba the tribute he’s asking for? But if that’s the reason, why do they need all the hardware? Boba’s never shown that he has the interest or ability to force tribute payments from anyone.
They’re certainly not fighting over the spice trade. Boba is only told to care about that once the battle is well underway. To cap it off, the climactic fight is between Boba and a gunslinger villain named Bane, whom you might know if you’re a fan of Clone Wars. That could be tense, except that Boba is wearing blaster-proof armor and Bane isn’t. When the fight is close anyway, it’s more confusing than tense.
Final Score: 3
When the dust settles and Boba stands victorious, it is difficult to find anything worth celebrating. True, the Pykes are defeated, and they seem to be bad people. But what will Boba do that’s any different? He occasionally talks about the idea of ruling through respect rather than fear, but that doesn’t seem to have any material difference for the people of Mos Espa. The spice trade is over, but we have no idea if spice was even a problem here. And because the show builds almost no attachment to Boba, it’s difficult to cheer for him personally.
Other than Boba’s personal triumph, we have… not much, honestly. Din gets a new ship, which is technically something, if you can get past the question of how a bounty hunter is going to bring back targets in a single-seat starfighter. Oh! Grogu chooses to be with Din rather than train at Luke’s new cult school, so we technically get some satisfaction on a storyline from The Mandalorian. How nice.
The most satisfying element of this storyline is when Grogu uses his powers to put a rampaging rancor to sleep, as I was worried the good guys would have to kill it. Yes, that’s still focused on a character from The Mandalorian, but at least it’s resolving a conflict that’s actually specific to The Book of Boba Fett. That’s about the best we can hope for.
Final Score: 2
This last entry is a weird one that frankly exceeded my expectations. I couldn’t imagine what Obi-Wan might do during his years of exile that would be entertaining while also not blowing the timeline wide open, but the writers found a way. Mostly. The timeline has a few cracks in it, but nothing too serious.
The show is also extremely popular, with many calling for a second season despite the premise obviously being designed for just one. Partly, I think that’s because of a collective nostalgia we’re feeling for the prequels, after the sequel trilogy was such a disappointment. Of course, the prequels were still worse by most rational metrics; we’ve just had longer to process them. But Obi-Wan’s popularity isn’t entirely motivated by disillusionment with Rise of Skywalker, and I’m here to explain why.
As the title suggests, this show is built around the best part of the prequel trilogy: Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi. It’s not a hot take to say that he’s a very good actor, and this time he has a decent script to work with. Amazing! McGregor does a great job portraying a man who is very much not over the enormity of his traumatic failure, and he never has to say anything like “only a Sith deals in absolutes.”
The show also builds attachment to Darth Vader, showing him as both a bloodthirsty villain and a deeply insecure man who still needs to prove he’s better than his old teacher. That’s more depth than Vader usually gets, and we even see Hayden Christensen again! He’s behind a mask for most of the show, but his one flashback appearance as Anakin works quite well. Can we somehow get Natalie Portman back to read some decent lines as Padme? Asking for a friend, who is me.
The next major character is Reva, who fills the unusual role of scrappy underdog villain. While she doesn’t have the existing attachment of Obi-Wan and Vader, actress Moses Ingram delivers a solid performance. This is despite a lot of very unpleasant people getting upset for reasons that I’m sure have nothing to do with there being a Black woman in Star Wars. Reva’s backstory of becoming an inquisitor so she might have a chance for revenge on Vader is also a more compelling narrative about falling to the dark side than Star Wars usually manages. Most of the time, Jedi inexplicably join Team Sith after killing someone, but Reva actually had to work for Vader while plotting against him. That’s a perfect recipe for twisting someone up inside.
The final major character is a young Leia, and she’s distinctly… fine. She looks a bit too young for her supposed age of ten, and her dialogue feels like it was written for someone a few years older, but none of it is episode-ruining. The background characters are also generally good, if not exceptional. Owen does get in a truly epic burn against Obi-Wan, though, which is easily the first episode’s highlight moment.
Final Score: 8
Like the previous shows, Obi-Wan Kenobi doesn’t have much to show us in its locations. Several episodes take place yet again on Tatooine, oh boy. I don’t like Tatooine. It’s samey and boring – and it’s everywhere in Star Wars. We do get our first look at Alderaan, which is neat but nothing we didn’t expect, and visiting Crime Planet is a similar experience. Star Wars locations just have such a well-defined look by this point that it’s hard for them to surprise us.
However, there is some novelty in watching Obi-Wan work his crappy job at the meat mines. Even Rey’s salvaging work is glamorous by comparison, and it drives home how low the former general’s fortunes have fallen. The Path rebels are also an interesting addition to the universe, as they don’t fight the Empire directly. Instead, they quietly move vulnerable people out of Imperial reach, making their situation even more desperate than that of the scrappy heroes of Rogue One.
A final burst of novelty comes from the characters of Owen and Beru. Owen stands up to both Obi-Wan and Imperial inquisitors, which is pretty impressive for a guy whose main skillset is running a glorified dehumidifier. Meanwhile, when Beru hears that a Sith warrior is coming to kill Luke, her response is to grab a blaster and prepare for a siege. Seeing these two portrayed as real characters is just an unusual experience, and it helps the show feel different from what’s come before.
Final Score: 6
As a prequel, this show struggles with tension because there’s only so much danger we’ll believe the main characters are in. Obviously, central figures like Obi-Wan, Leia, and Vader aren’t going to die or even be injured too badly, as we need them in fighting trim for the original trilogy. The show does create some tension by threatening side characters, but they’re just not important.
With that limitation in mind, the show creates tension as well as it can. The action scenes are very well choreographed, except when stormtroopers march slowly into blaster fire so they can be mowed down in an orderly fashion. The lightsaber fights in particular are very good, and Vader is an absolute beast. The way he takes Obi-Wan and Reva apart in their respective fights is some top-quality villain work. That’s the kind of threat level I want to see!
We also get a fair bit of tension from the Empire and its hegemony over the galaxy. In one scene, Obi-Wan tries to blend in as a patrol of stormtroopers chat and joke right next to him. Everything’s casual, but there’s an undeniable menace as we imagine what they would do if they found out who he was. The Empire is so powerful that open rebellion is impossible, so the best resistance anyone can manage is smuggling refugees to safety.
Tension would be even higher if the writers didn’t employ a number of contrivances to keep our heroes alive. In one scene, Vader is tossing Obi-Wan around with levitation, but then forgets about that ability when it’s time for Obi-Wan to be rescued. In another scene, Reva is stabbed through the stomach, but she walks it off by the episode’s conclusion. I’m glad Reva lives, but I wish they’d put more thought into how!
Final Score: 7
Obi-Wan Kenobi’s ending is an extremely mixed bag. On the one hand, we finally have emotional closure on the relationship between Anakin and Obi-Wan. This is the closure we should have gotten in Revenge of the Sith, but as we’ve established, the prequel movies are very bad. Reva’s choice not to kill Luke is also a great moment, and I wouldn’t mind watching a show about her at all.
On the other hand, the same contrivances that reduce tension bring down satisfaction as well. We see the moment when Obi-Wan decides that Vader isn’t Anakin anymore, which is good, but then Obi-Wan just leaves his wounded enemy alive for no reason.* Reva gets her big moment to attack Vader, but despite years of planning, the best she can manage is a sneak attack from behind.
Both of these issues could have been fixed with better plotting. If Imperial reinforcements had arrived to drive Obi-Wan away, we wouldn’t be left wondering why he didn’t finish the job right there. Reva could easily have had a more elaborate plan for revenge and still failed to kill Vader. With all his Force powers, Vader is the perfect villain to appear dead from an explosion or collapsed building, only to emerge unharmed from the smoke and rubble.
Unfortunately, that’s not what actually made it onscreen, so we’re left with an ending that’s decent, but certainly not great.
Final Score: 6
As is tradition, we shall now total up the scores: 25 for The Mandalorian, 10 for The Book of Boba Fett, and 27 for Obi-Wan Kenobi. While Mandalorian and Obi-Wan are definitely good shows, Boba Fett is the unfortunate star of the night for earning the lowest total I’ve yet to give out. I’ll admit, I was tempted to remove a point somewhere so it could also be the first single-digit score, but if I don’t have my integrity when rating space westerns, then I have nothing. Incidentally, nothing is also what motivates Boba in his TV show!
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