Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the Star Wars franchise, including The Mandalorian Seasons 1-2, Jedi: Fallen Order, and the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi series.
We’ve known for a while that the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi series will feature Darth Vader – somehow. Hayden Christiansen, who played Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels, has even signed on to play the role, something which has excited at least some Star Wars fans. Today we’re going to consider what kind of role the Obi-Wan Kenobi series could offer to the franchise’s most iconic villain, and how the show will have to navigate a tricky situation of its own making.
Regular readers will know that I haven’t exactly been wild about many of the recent decisions taken by the Star Wars franchise. The Mandalorian, which seemed to offer such promise when it was announced, very quickly returned to the Force and the Skywalker family, and brought in a number of characters and settings that were lifted directly from the original trilogy. When Lucasfilm announced a slate of upcoming Star Wars projects last December, I felt that the franchise was doubling down on this kind of nostalgia play, unwilling to step out of the shadow of the original films and tell new stories. The inclusion of Darth Vader in the Obi-Wan Kenobi series – and indeed the very existence of the show itself – is a case in point.
Regardless of what I and others may think, this is the direction Lucasfilm and Disney have chosen for the franchise. The most generous thing I could say about it is that, following the controversy generated by the sequel trilogy, they’re retreating to what they consider to be safe, comfortable ground for the foreseeable future. Returning the franchise to characters fans know and (mostly) love may be indicative of a franchise aiming for a grade C – a basic pass – but perhaps after the controversies of recent years, the higher-ups think that will be good enough.
Although the decision to return to classic characters may seem to be the safe path in the aftermath of the sequels, it’s not one that is free from danger. Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi may indeed prove to be bankable characters – along with the likes of Boba Fett in his upcoming spin-off – but fans won’t forgive Disney and Lucasfilm if the way these characters are used undermines their previously-established arcs.
When it comes to Darth Vader’s inclusion in the Obi-Wan Kenobi series, to me the single most important thing is that the two characters simply can’t be permitted to meet. A New Hope was their first face-to-face meeting since their duel on Mustafar, and were they to meet in the series it would seriously undermine the power of that moment.
We could talk at length about the failures of the prequel trilogy – and I have in the past – but to me their most egregious fault was the harm done to the character of Darth Vader. In the original films we’d learned all we needed to know about this character – he had once been good, then fell to the dark side, but had enough residual love for his son to be ultimately redeemed in the moments before his death. He was an intimidating villain, but one we could feel a pang of sympathy for. Seeing him as a child and a whiny teenager detracted from that; his background was over-explained.
Vader has already been undermined by the prequels, and it’s difficult to see him in the same frightening way as I did on first watching the Star Wars films in the early 1990s. But throwing him into a face-to-face meeting with Obi-Wan years before their iconic duel aboard the Death Star would rob the original film of one of its most significant moments. It would feel like cheap fan-service and accomplish nothing.
There are ways for Darth Vader to play a role in the new show’s story – even a major role – without having him and Obi-Wan meet. The show is set at least a decade after the events of Revenge of the Sith, meaning that Darth Vader’s role as the second-in-command of the Empire is well-established by this point. He’s a senior leader who answers directly to the Emperor with his own dedicated Stormtrooper corps, and has spent much of his time chasing surviving Jedi and enforcing the Emperor’s rule on wayward systems.
We also know that Darth Vader has an intense hatred of the planet Tatooine. Obi-Wan chose the planet for his and Luke’s hiding place specifically for that reason, so Vader shouldn’t set foot on the planet for the entirety of the story. And really, Obi-Wan shouldn’t leave the planet either! It was strongly suggested in Revenge of the Sith and the original trilogy that he and Yoda wouldn’t leave their respective exiles, and Luke Skywalker seemed to have known “Old Ben” for his entire life.
This was something that led me to be sceptical of the Obi-Wan Kenobi series from the outset; how much of an adventure can “Old Ben” have within a few miles of Mos Eisley and his desert hut? I assume, though, that he will ultimately leave the planet at some point – it would be a pretty dull series otherwise!
But if a significant portion of the action takes place on or in the vicinity of Tatooine, and Vader won’t set foot on the planet, then we have a pretty good reason for keeping the characters apart and preserving the special moment in A New Hope. But that still raises the question of what kind of role Darth Vader will have in the series.
If I were writing it, I’d use Darth Vader sparingly. He could be the overarching villain, sending out his troops or henchmen on missions for the Empire without ever having to interact with Obi-Wan personally. He might have a minor role in a couple of episodes, or he could appear toward the end of the season, with the revelation being that whoever Obi-Wan has been battling is actually one of Vader’s henchmen. This would still have to be done in a way that kept the knowledge of Obi-Wan’s survival and location from Vader, and that’s a difficult line for the series to walk.
It isn’t impossible for Darth Vader to be included in a Star Wars story in this fashion. The video game Jedi: Fallen Order did something similar – players spend much of the game facing off against the Second Sister and other forces of the Empire, only for Darth Vader to reveal himself at the story’s climax. In the case of Jedi: Fallen Order there wasn’t a pressing need to keep protagonist Cal Kestis away from Vader in the way there is in the Obi-Wan Kenobi series, but the game was better for having more original characters, at least in my opinion.
Although some prequel fans are undoubtedly looking forward to Vader’s return, I’m more interested to see what original characters the Obi-Wan Kenobi series will introduce us to. Will the titular ex-Jedi be facing off against the forces of the Empire? Presumably the inclusion of Darth Vader means there’ll be some kind of Imperial involvement in the story somehow. But I’m just as interested to see what Obi-Wan might get up to on Tatooine, outside of Vader’s reach.
At the end of the day, I wouldn’t have chosen to greenlight a series like this one. And if I were tasked with picking it up after it had already been greenlit, I’d have certainly kept characters like Darth Vader far away from the new show. Even though we’ve spent more time with him than we arguably needed to, Darth Vader can still be used to great effect in Star Wars, and I don’t want to say that there’s no room whatsoever for the franchise’s first and most iconic villain going forward. But the Obi-Wan Kenobi series just feels like a bad fit.
These are two characters who spent a long time apart, totally disconnected from one another for almost two decades prior to their fateful meeting aboard the Death Star. Maybe there’s a way for Obi-Wan to learn that Anakin survived and became Darth Vader – we know he was aware of his former apprentice’s identity by the time of A New Hope. Maybe there’s a way for Vader to be included in some kind of flashback, dream, or vision. But I can’t imagine that the series could get away with having the two face off against one another or have another duel. How would such a meeting end? If Vader so much as knows that Obi-Wan is alive – let alone meeting or fighting him – it undermines a key part of the original film.
Having made this announcement and gone to a lot of trouble to include Darth Vader in the conversation surrounding the Obi-Wan Kenobi series, some fans will feel let down if Vader’s role is reduced to some kind of dream or flashback. I still think he could be included as some kind of overall villain, provided it was handled in such a way as not to overwrite anything we learned in A New Hope. But to me, this is a pretty egregious example of Star Wars skirting too close to canon for comfort. It’s not as bad as bringing Palpatine or Boba Fett back from the dead with no explanation, but it’s straying into that territory.
I’d love to say I’m excited for the Obi-Wan Kenobi series… or any upcoming Star Wars project, for that matter. At best, though, what I can muster is cautious interest. I’m curious to see what Obi-Wan got up to during the years we all assumed he was living in quiet seclusion on Tatooine. I just hope that the story doesn’t go off the rails. The decision to bring Darth Vader into the story has me more nervous than excited, and if I’d been in the room I’d have argued very strongly against it.
The Obi-Wan Kenobi series will be broadcast on Disney+ in 2022 or 2023. The Star Wars franchise – including all properties mentioned above – is the copyright of Lucasfilm and The Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.