What a long, strange journey it’s been for Ahsoka Tano. The new series centered on Anakin Skywalker’s former Padawan is a solid entry in Lucasfilm’s expanding “Star Wars” roster that should reward fans who’ve waited patiently for her turn in the spotlight, but may prove a harder sell for those coming in cold.
In terms of her role in the “Star Wars” universe, Ahsoka has been kicking around since 2008, when she made her debut in the “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” animated feature film (and subsequent series). As voiced by Ashley Eckstein, the character – unseen and unmentioned in the prequel trilogy – was a retcon by creator George Lucas to make Anakin’s fated transformation into the villainous Darth Vader that much more heart-wrenching. And it worked.
Anakin’s relationship with Ahsoka – evolving from annoyance to acceptance to affection over the course of seven seasons of “The Clone Wars” – gave further emotional context to the storyline depicted in the cinematic Episodes I-III. More importantly, it made the fans who watched the animated series care about her just as much as Anakin did.
Her subsequent appearances in the animated “Star Wars: Rebels” (set before “Episode IV” and, in its epilogue, just after “Episode VI”) further cemented her place as one of the most important figures in the “Star Wars” canon – though her significance might not be apparent to mainstream audiences just yet.
This is the context in which Disney+ unveils “Star Wars: Ahsoka,” with the first two of eight episodes premiering Tuesday night. As played by Rosario Dawson, the live action Ahsoka made her debut in the second season of “The Mandalorian” and returned in “The Book of Boba Fett” (opposite a CGI recreation of Mark Hamill as a young Luke Skywalker). Now the primary focus of her own series, she confidently holds the center and commands our attention.
The timeline introduced in “The Mandalorian” – approximately five years after the fall of the Empire in “Return of the Jedi” – is where “Ahsoka” picks up. The one-time Padawan, now working with the New Republic to mop up Imperial remnants, is recruited by her friend Hera Syndulla (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), another “Rebels” alum making her live action debut, and Ahsoka subsequently reaches out to her own former student, Mandalorian Sabine Wren (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), also of “Rebels,” to assist in a quest that may lead them to the missing Ezra Bridger (from, you guessed it, “Rebels”).
There’s a whole lot of pre-existing backstory ladled in, and that’s before you even get to the tease of Grand Admiral Thrawn –- a fan-favorite villain from the novels later brought into canon via “Rebels.”
As someone who loved the vivid world-building of “Rebels,” there’s something undeniably exhilarating about seeing it finally acknowledged meaningfully in a live-action project. Another area where this show excels is at shining a light on the post-”Return of the Jedi” New Republic period, still largely underdeveloped even after three seasons of “The Mandalorian.”
We know where things have to go in 30 years of storytime (as depicted in the sequel trilogy, Episodes VII-IX), but how we get there is pretty much wide open. As such, while both “The Mandalorian” and “The Book of Boba Fett” touched on what life is like after the Empire and before the First Order, Ahsoka really dives into the fragile, unsettled nature of the galaxy as Imperial remnants jockey for position and privilege.
The central quest eventually encompasses the late Ray Stevenson as Baylan Skoll, a former Padawan who turned to the Dark Side following the deadly Jedi purge in “Revenge of the Sith.” Beyond the undeniable emotional impact of seeing the great Stevenson in one of his final roles, there’s an added element of intrigue in how he ended up on opposite sides from Ahsoka.
In the lead, Dawson ably carries forward what was introduced about Ahsoka in previous live-action cameos while still feeling like a natural continuation of the version voiced by Ashley Eckstein. Serene and powerful, this is an Ahsoka carrying the wisdom accrued by all the struggles endured during some of the most eventful decades in “Star Wars” history.
As created by Dave Filoni, who also helped “Rebels” carve a place all to itself in the galaxy far, far away, “Ahsoka” benefits from his practiced experience building out this universe, tying together disparate strands from various threads of “Star Wars” storytelling in a way that makes them feel of a piece – all while working in a healthy amount of space battles and lightsaber duels.
Unfortunately, the accrued backstory also carries the risk of becoming burdensome for newcomers. With “The Mandalorian,” the titular bounty hunter Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal) was a blank slate at the start of the first season. Meanwhile, “Boba Fett” and last year’s “Obi-Wan Kenobi” and “Andor” all dealt with characters whose introductions and primary developments were contained within the feature films.
Ahsoka, on the other hand, will be entirely new to a lot of viewers who were unaware Anakin Skywalker even had a Padawan learner. Thus, the show must juggle the franchise’s extant mythology without making newcomers feel like they need to have Wookieepedia open on their phones while watching. Two episodes in, it seems to manage the balance well, but it remains to be seen if they continue in a similar vein.
If there’s one thing “Ahsoka” has working against it, it’s the unflattering comparisons with “Andor” that are sure to arise. The “Rogue One” prequel – packed with political intrigue and focused on oppression and persecution under the Empire – rightly drew accolades for being unlike anything we’d seen before from “Star Wars.” “Ahsoka” is more of a return to form, but that’s not so much a ding as an acknowledgement of a very different mission statement. It works by building connective tissue between different branches of this universe while telling an old-fashioned adventure story situated within it.
“Ahsoka” premieres 6 p.m. PT Tuesday, Aug. 22, on Disney+.