‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ Was Stuck in Star Wars’ Past. Here’s How ‘Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’ Does It Better
Both new series faced the challenge of working around franchise lore, but one made more of its decisions to step outside the established narrative
There’s plenty of overlap between the audiences for Star Wars and Star Trek, yet for decades the two fan bases have been pitted against each other like reluctant gladiators dropped into an arena (whether the one where a shirtless Captain Kirk fought in “The Gamesters of Triskelion” or the one where Padme Amidala got her midriff exposed in Attack of the Clones). Which is superior, they have argued: the action-adventure bent of Star Wars or the more philosophical science fiction of Star Trek? Which stoic group of people is more compelling: the mystical Jedi knights, or the logic-driven Vulcan race? Is Jim Kirk a more charming rascal than Han Solo? And on and on and on.
This spring saw the arrival of new streaming series from both franchises — Obi-Wan Kenobi and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds — and with them yet another point of contention: Which prequel show did a better job of maneuvering around famous points of continuity?
On paper, it may resemble a tie. Both series seem to run roughshod over what was established in earlier movies and shows. But the answer is more complex than that, and ultimately seems to favor Star Trek over Star Wars.
Obi-Wan Kenobi is set roughly a decade before the events of the original Star Wars adventure, with Ewan McGregor from the prequels reprising the title role. It appears to repeatedly contradict lines of dialogue and other events of the 1977 film. In the movie, Darth Vader implies he hasn’t seen Obi-Wan in a very long time, since he was a student and Obi-Wan was the master; yet here we see them having a fight only 10 years after Obi-Wan left his former pupil Anakin Skywalker for dead at the end of Revenge of the Sith. In the movie, Princess Leia’s video message to Obi-Wan reminds him that he served alongside her father in the Clone Wars, but makes no mention of the plot of this show, where he repeatedly saved the life of Leia as a little girl. Luke Skywalker’s whole character arc in the first film depends on him having lived an unremarkable life to that point, untouched by the Empire, the Jedi, etc., yet in the Obi-Wan finale, he is pursued and nearly killed by a lightsaber-wielding Imperial Inquisitor named Reva (Moses Ingram).
Strange New Worlds begins with roughly the same narrative distance from the events of the 1966 Star Trek TV show, mixing younger versions of famous characters like Spock (Ethan Peck) and Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) with a mix of figures who are either brand-new to the franchise or only appeared briefly, the latter including Anson Mount as Captain Christopher Pike. As with Obi-Wan Kenobi, there are moments where what happens on the new series doesn’t quite mesh with what we know from earlier adventures. Spock and his fiancée T’Pring (Gia Sandhu), for instance, have a much deeper and stronger relationship than the one implied by the famous Star Trek episode “Amok Time,” where she bitterly pitted the long-absent Spock against Kirk as a way to marry someone else. The new characters, meanwhile, include security chief La’an Noonien-Singh, who is the descendant of infamous despot Khan Noonien-Singh, and who openly (if with embarrassment) discusses being related to him. Yet when Khan emerges from suspended animation in the original series’ “Space Seed” episode, Spock does not seem to know who he is. The technology also appears far more advanced than anything Jim Kirk got to use, and the Enterprise seems to have far more alien crew members, when on the original show, Spock was presented as something of an anomaly in Starfleet at the time.
Now, both series also allow you to hand-wave away some or all of these apparent discrepancies, and at times go out of their way to make it possible. In the Obi-Wan finale, Anakin/Darth refers to Obi-Wan as “Master,” and Obi-Wan is once again able to best him as if Darth is still the learner. In a later scene, Obi-Wan tells Leia that they must always keep their adventures together a secret for… reasons? And young Luke never really sees Reva use her lightsaber or the Force, and is told by his Uncle Owen that they are being attacked by Tusken Raiders. “Space Seed,” meanwhile, contradicts itself a few times on exactly how well-known Khan is in the 23rd century. It’s entirely possible that before Strange New Worlds is finished, Spock will do something unforgivable to T’Pring that turns her into the cold manipulator of “Amok Time.” And the Scott Bakula-fronted Star Trek: Enterprise series, set a hundred years before the original series, also featured multiple alien crew members, including another Vulcan.
The issue, though, isn’t whether you can reconcile this stuff, but whether either show is getting enough dramatic value out of the changes to make them worth the bother. And it’s here that Strange New Worldsis out way ahead.
Prequels are hard. Everyone knows this. Better Call Saul is the exception, not the rule, and even that show periodically finds itself hemmed in by viewers’ knowledge of what’s to come on Breaking Bad. (A recent episode featured a tense climax featuring one character who did not appear on the parent show and several who did; guess who didn’t survive that scene?) And, for that matter, both of these franchises have had to bend over backward in the past to explain apparent contradictions, like Obi-Wan’s ghost in Return of the Jedi telling Luke that what he once told him about how his father was dead “was true, from a certain point of view.”
But watching both seasons so far (Obi-Wan is complete, while Strange New Worlds still has a few episodes to go), it’s hard not to see Strange New Worlds as a show thrilled to be able to play in this famous toy box, and Obi-Wan as a show very nervous about messing up so much as the packaging of the individual toys.
Strange New Worlds, in fact, weaponizes the audience’s very knowledge of future events, which usually makes prequels so hard. The original series’ “The Menagerie” two-parter presents Pike (who was the hero of an unsold earlier attempt at a Star Trek pilot) as severely disabled and disfigured in the wake of him sacrificing himself to save several Starfleet cadets from an accidental radiation discharge. When the Anson Mount version of Pike was appearing in Season Two of Star Trek: Discovery, he was confronted with a vision of that terrible future, and it has defined his character arc on the new show. This Christopher Pike knows that his life as he knows it will end in about 10 years, but rather than run from his nightmarish fate, he chooses to embrace it. He will live the fullest, most noble life he can for the next decade, and then willingly give that up to protect other people. It fuels so much of what’s appealing about Mount’s performance, and about the optimistic ethos of Strange New Worlds in general.
And many of the other things that seem to violate continuity are primarily about correcting period-specific flaws of the original series, particularly its rampant sexism. T’Pring in “Amok Time” is a two-dimensional villain, while the ship’s chief nurse in the Sixties, Christine Chapel, had as her sole character trait a hopeless, thoroughly unrequited crush on Mr. Spock. T’Pring here is a much more complex and nuanced character, and so is the new Nurse Chapel (now played by Jess Bush), who still has some burgeoning feelings for her half-Vulcan crew mate — and he, perhaps, for her — but also a far richer life and personality beyond that. If doing better by these characters — or by Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun), a minor figure on the old show and a thoroughly lovable one here (not to mention the centerpiece of the emotionally overwhelming conclusion to this week’s episode) — contradicts things from the Gene Roddenberry days, so be it. It’s unclear whether La’an’s familial link to Khan will have more payoff beyond fan service (and a reason for her to be briefly mistrustful of Rebecca Romijn’s genetically-enhanced first officer, Una Chin-Riley), but on the whole she’s been a fine addition to the ranks of Star Trek crew members.
Strange New Worlds does have the advantage of acting like a television show, where Obi-Wan is structured as a very long movie. (It began life, in fact, as a standalone film, before the story evolved and expanded into the weekly Disney+ version.) Strange New Worlds can tell lots of largely standalone stories that have little to no connection to Trek lore, and only touch the third rail of continuity when it wants to. Obi-Wan, on the other hand, spends its entire time running between the raindrops of established Star Wars mythology, frequently asking its audience to step outside of the story to wonder how certain developments make sense within the franchise’s past(*).
(*) There’s a very good — and now likely out-of-continuity — novel called Kenobi, by John Jackson Miller, about Obi-Wan’s earliest days on Tatooine. It’s basically a Western where he’s the mysterious stranger who wanders into town, does battle with nefarious groups (both Tusken Raiders and gangsters affiliated with Jabba the Hutt), and then rides off to another adventure. The lack of other significant Star Wars characters probably made it unappealing for a live-action adaptation — and now some of the Tusken material would feel redundant with The Book of Boba Fett — but it would have avoided a lot of the prequel-itis issues that plagued the actual show.
But the main problem is that Obi-Wan was too sloppy to justify the mental contortions necessary to make its pieces fit together with what we’ve seen of the larger Star Wars puzzle. Again, you can explain the seeming contradictions, at least by the letter of the law, if not the spirit. (The Darth/Obi-Wan confrontation in Star Wars feels much richer if it’s their first encounter since Revenge of the Sith.) And you can also read other aspects of Obi-Wan’s character from the films into what happens here: Haja, the fake Jedi with a heart of gold played by Kumail Nanjiani, may have made Obi-Wan more willing to trust the similarly slick-but-good Han Solo when he had to hire a pilot to get himself and Luke off Tatooine. But so much of it requires the viewer to do the work that the show itself hasn’t done properly, along with explaining plot developments within individual episodes. (The climax to the third episode, with Reva somehow getting ahead of Leia in a secret tunnel, and Darth Vader being stopped by a wall of fire only moments after we saw him use the Force to get past a similar one, was probably the worst offender.)
Obi-Wan has its moments, because McGregor is just so good in the role, because other actors like Moses Ingram and Indira Varma (as a rebel agent working undercover in the Empire) brought their A-games, and because the relationship between Obi-Wan and Anakin is so fraught. But even that final confrontation between master and pupil, with Darth’s armor damaged enough so that we hear a mix of Hayden Christensen’s Anakin voice and James Earl Jones’ more mechanical Darth cadences, was largely a rehash of a similar fight Darth had with his own former pupil, Ahsoka Tano, in an episode of the animated Star Wars: Rebels series.
There’s also the matter of Obi-Wan once again leaving a wounded Darth Vader alone on a planet without delivering the killing blow. In Revenge of the Sith, it can be explained away as him assuming Anakin will soon die from his wounds or the lava, plus Obi-Wan not having the heart to kill his longtime comrade. But part of the point of their battle here is Obi-Wan accepting that the Anakin he knew is dead, and that the villainous Darth Vader is all that’s left. This is meant to, again, apply some plaster to cracks in the mythology: It explains why Obi-Wan calls himDarth in Star Wars, and why he would believe he was telling Luke the truth “from a certain point of view.” But it also means that Obi-Wan is leaving a genocidal monster alive to go on killing innocent people. As with so many other parts of the show, you can rectify it if you choose to — say, Obi-Wan is still too heartbroken over the loss of his friend to do it — but it’s yet another development that pulls you out of the story, when the actual answer is simply that Obi-Wan can’t kill Darth because Darth is alive in Star Wars.
In The Last Jedi — a Star Wars film for which there is universal acclaim, if I recall correctly without checking my notes — Kylo Ren declares, “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. It’s the only way to become who you were meant to be.” That movie was attempting to forge a new direction for the whole franchise, before Rise of Skywalker came along and undid almost everything from its predecessor in the dumbest ways possible. Since then, Star Wars has mostly tried to live in its past, with The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett set between the original trilogy and the sequels, and now this show set between the prequels and the first film.
The past doesn’t have to be a dead end. The Mandalorian is mostly a delight, as is Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. (Perhaps not coincidentally, The Mandalorian also embraces its nature as a television show with distinct episodes.) But the degree of difficulty is much higher — at times too high for the effort to pay off. As one of Christopher Pike’s successors as captain of a starship Enterprise will later say (albeit on the mostly middling Star Trek: Picard), “The past is written, but the future is left for us to write.” If you don’t have something clear and good to say about the past of your franchise, it’s probably best to look to the future instead and see if you can say something new.
From Rolling Stone US.