“War, huh, yeah, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing,” Edwin Starr sang back in 1970, as a retort to those who believed war was good for the creation of worldwide American hegemony. (I believe Henry Kissinger produced a pop single with this as the hook line.) Listening to Edwin on the radio in 1970 was the little-known film-maker and beard aficionado George Lucas. “This ‘war’ of which Mr ‘Starr’ sings intrigues me!” he cried. “It seems to be some sort of a ‘Starr War’, and what is it good for? Franchise potential, spin-offs and merchandising, a hubba-hubba, arooga, ka-ching etc.”
It is now 2023, and a year doesn’t pass without a Star War being beamed to our eyeballs via our personalised digital brain soothers. This week it’s Rosario Dawson’s turn. She dons the prosthetic tentacles and face paint of Ahsoka Tano, a moody space wizard with a glowy sword. “Ahsoka Tano” is the kind of fancy name Star Wars characters get in the 21st century. If this character had existed in the first Star Wars film, in 1977, she’d have been called something like Tentacle Face, and she would have been played not by an actor of Rosario Dawson’s stature but by a middle-aged bit player whose dreams were dead.
Say what you like about Emperor Palpatine, but he made sound infrastructural investments (employment-creating Death Star projects) and knew how to balance the books (blowing up costly planets)
Decades have passed since Lucas was first inspired by Edwin Starr’s melodic musings. Reboots of old comic books, cartoons, sci-fi properties and toy franchises created for 20th-century children have taken over mainstream entertainment for 21st-century adults. It has sucked in the best actors of the era. These days when a talented actor says they aspire to “play the Dane” they are most likely referring to Scooby-Doo rather than Hamlet. And this is why Rosario Dawson plays Tentacle Face.
Not everything created in this postmodern system of endless cultural churn is terrible. Andor, Tony Gilroy’s Star Wars project, managed to be a pretty incisive exploration of ordinary life under a totalitarian space government (Ken Loach’s Star Wars, essentially). It genuinely piqued my interest in space politics, and if I lived in space I would probably vote now. Ahsoka, on the other hand, is a story about a nice space wizard battling evil space wizards with very little attention paid to policy detail. Watching this show, I have no idea what my bin charges would be like under the Jedis. That’s relevant because this show is set in the period after Return of the Jedi, when the “goodies” have successfully defeated the “evil” regime of Emperor Palpatine. So you’d expect some improvement in public services.
There’s a lot of familiar stuff in the first two episodes of Ahsoka (streaming on Disney+). Our heroine is accompanied by an effete robot with an English accent. She has a friend who is in the army, and that friend has an R2D2-style sidekick who utters impenetrable gibberish that the army person then repeats in English. (Everyone knows a couple from the midlands who communicate like this.)
There’s also a rebellious apprentice named Sabine. We know she’s a rebel because when we meet her she’s listening to space punk and driving a space motorbike on a weirdly empty space highway. Given that her space bike floats, this highway is a good example of the sort of feckless spending that probably typifies the Jedis’ space socialism. Say what you like about Emperor Palpatine, but he made sound infrastructural investments (employment-creating Death Star projects) and knew how to balance the books (blowing up costly planets).
The postrevolutionary Jedi belief system is vague and light on detail. This is possibly because many of these characters already exist in a vast, extended Star Wars universe of tie-in novels, animated TV series, video games, cheese dreams and fan fiction. The first episodes of Ahsoka don’t even try to stand alone. You’re required to do a pile of homework to fully appreciate the references in franchise material these days. And this is why everything is going to the dogs. Yes, young people may know Ahsoka’s backstory in painful detail, but if they hadn’t watched all seven seasons of Star Wars: The Clone Wars they might own a house now. (This piece was originally written for The Irish Times’ opinion pages, so we’re keeping this as the headline.)
This said, there are a few clues as to where the Jedis sit on the political compass. When Ahsoka visits a shipyard in the second episode, we learn that when the empire fell “all imperial assets were dissolved and redistributed”. Another character, a nefarious businessman who has secretly been working with the Empire, mentions that his “loyalty is to my investors”. This makes the Jedi economic position pretty clear. For all of Darth Vader’s telekinetic choking of his underlings, the true invisible hand of the Empire was that of the market rather than the Force. (This was another potential headline.)
These characters like nothing better than to stroll and stare meaningfully at one another, presumably contemplating all of the backstory I am unfamiliar with
Meanwhile, the Jedis seem to want us all to live in a van (a space van) and share our stuff. Now, Lucasfilm is hardly an anarchosyndicalist collective and Walt Disney wasn’t a big fan of redistribution. If he knew any Jedis in real life he would definitely have named them at the House of Representatives’ un-American activities committee. On the other hand, he was a fan of merchandising, and if there were a market for Karl Marx dolls, the Disney corporation would make them.
So the story so far: after a prelude involving some murderous lightsabre-wielding baddies, we meet Ahsoka/Tentacle Face as she’s antiquing in the ruins of an old planet. She finds a mysterious brass sphere that is actually a map to another galaxy, and then she is attacked by a band of violent robot ninjas who end up blowing everything up. Ahsoka escapes and seems fine with this destruction. Then the episode slows down considerably. This is because these characters like nothing better than to stroll and stare meaningfully at one another, presumably contemplating all of the backstory I am unfamiliar with.
In Ahsoka, everything – the sets, the ships, the planetscapes, the action – feels weightless, consequence-free and photocopied from other parts of the franchise. At the end of the first episode a baddie sticks a flaming lightsabre through the torso of a core character, but by the next episode that character is in a hospital feeling much better. And now your children probably have unrealistic expectations of what being skewered through the torso involves.
Our heroes then start digging about in the explody severed head of one of the ninja robots. They do so in the space hospital despite the fact that this might destroy the whole place. (Eat your heart out, Oppenheimer.) One of the things I liked about Andor was that actions had consequences and everyone looked worried all the time. These space wizards, on the other hand, don’t worry half enough. They’re living in a CGI daydream. And that’s why I continue to back Senator Sheev Palpatine for emperor. He gets things done.