Ashoka: Season 1 (Christian TV Review)
About The Show
Arguably no character in Star Wars has had a more tumultuous journey than Ashoka. Originally created in 2008 for the animated show The Clone Wars, her initial reception from fans was far from positive. But since then, she has become a fan favorite and was the first character in the Star Wars canon to make the jump from animation to live-action. Now she has the opportunity to headline her own eight-episode show. Like the character, Ashoka may take some time to win over new viewers, but the show ultimately delivers some of the most promising Star Wars storytelling in years.
Among fans, Andor is generally praised as the best of the live-action Star Wars series. I agree that it is arguably the best show, but I’m less convinced it is the best “Star Wars” show. It was a compelling story set within the Star Wars universe, but it lacked many of the traditional elements of the franchise. Ashoka may not reach the same level of storytelling sophistication and quality, but it does have plenty of those old-school Star Wars vibes.
There are exciting lightsaber duels and space dogfights, new and familiar aliens, a renewed focus on the mystical Force, and perhaps the best Star Wars music this side of John Williams. Unlike Andor, the show also returns to its roots as a story accessible to all generations and ages. Is it a bit goofy for older viewers to watch a migration of “space whales” swim through space while dramatic music plays and characters gaze on in awe? Of course. But Star Wars has always been goofy. That’s part of its charm.
Despite being Season 1 of Ashoka, the show is perhaps better understood as Season 5 of Rebels (the animated show that ran from 2014-2018). Additionally, the first chronological episode of Ashoka’s live-action journey occurs in Season 2 of The Mandalorian. Such is the nature of today’s “cinematic universe” landscape (for better or worse). Viewers less familiar with these prior Star Wars stories will still be able to follow the plot, but the show assumes a level of emotional attachment to characters and events that is not always warranted by the show itself. There’s nothing necessarily “wrong” with a Star Wars show building on and continuing previously established Star Wars mythology. But much like Luke Skywalker in the Dagobah cave, enjoyment of the show may depend, in part, on what audiences bring with them.
Another aspect I appreciated about Ashoka is its sense of forward-moving purpose. Some viewers might disagree. I’ve seen complaints that the show spends too much time spinning its wheels. Admittedly, it does not always move at the speed of hypertravel, but it does progress in a singular direction. Gone are the superfluous “side missions” that bogged down the most recent season of The Mandalorian. Each character’s motivations and goals are established at the beginning, and each steadily works toward accomplishing them, with most (but not all) achieving some degree of growth or closure by the final episode.
Speaking of the characters, Ashoka is not always the most compelling lead character, at least not at this stage of her life. She’s essentially the wise mentor of the story (a la Obi-Wan Kenobi). During the early episodes, she lacks the energetic spark of her animated counterpart, at least until a dramatic event midway through the season alters her character for the better. Natasha Liu Bordizzo is perfectly capable as Sabine Wren, despite missing some of the warmth that made her animated version endearing.
Thanks to the power of de-aging technology, Hayden Christensen returns as Anakin Skywalker and delivers what is easily his best performance in the Star Wars universe. Also fantastic is the late Ray Stevenson as a disillusioned former Jedi with murky motivations and allegiances. In fact, the villains in Ashoka are excellent across the board, with each character balancing being a menacing threat with nuance and complex motivations.
In the end, Ashoka is an enjoyable return to the galaxy far, far away. It is also a welcome return to form after a lackluster season of Mandalorian, a disappointing Obi-Wan Kenobi show, and the total failure of Book of Boba Fett. Does it have some storytelling problems? Sure. Does it go too far in assuming existing emotional attachment to characters rather than putting in the work to establish those connections? Perhaps. But is it an exciting and satisfying Star Wars adventure? Absolutely! Star Wars may never return to the lofty heights to which it once soared, but Ashoka at least points the ship back in the right direction.
Engage The Film
Internalized Spirituality v. Traditional Religion
After having been pushed to the side in many of the other TV shows, The Force—the mystical power at the center of the Star Wars universe—is once again a focal point. In fact, Ashoka recontextualizes the Force in noteworthy ways. An early conversation between Ashoka and Sabine establishes that all people have access to the Force and the potential to wield its power. Whereas Star Wars has traditionally depicted The Force as a sort of external power to which characters can “reach out” and commune, the spiritual power is now emphasized as an internal essence characters can “reach within” to discover. It is an interesting reflection of our culture that has increasingly adopted an individualistic understanding of spirituality (I explored this theme more extensively here).
Another interesting thematic thread is how—in light of a more internalized understanding of the Force—characters reevaluate the religious institutions and structures built around that spiritual power. Both Ashoka and Baylan Skoll (a former Jedi turned evil) have complicated relationships with the Jedi, and they are forced to find their place in an essentially post-Jedi world.
When asked by his apprentice if he misses the Jedi order, Baylan replies, “I miss the idea of it, but not the truth, the weakness.” He is disillusioned with the Jedi, yet he maintains some level of respect. Baylan’s apprentice, Shin, is being trained to “be something more” than a Jedi. And yet, his apprentice still wears the traditional padawan learner braid of the Jedi, and Baylan is reluctant to kill Ashoka, since there are so few Jedi remaining.
Ashoka also wrestles with her history as a former Jedi. She still follows some “Jedi protocol,” even while questioning the value of other Jedi practices. She continues to wrestle with her past and legacy as the apprentice of the Jedi who would one day become Darth Vader. Again, these themes are relevant to our own culture of “deconstruction” in which many Christians and skeptics are reevaluating their relationship with the religious institutions of their pasts. Ashoka is less focused on providing answers than on the search for answers, but it provides some interesting themes for Christians to ponder.