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'Star Wars: Ahsoka' has a Jedi with two light sabers but not much else. Yet.

Rosario Dawson as Ahsoka Tano.
Suzanne Tenner
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Suzanne Tenner / Lucasfilm Ltd.
Rosario Dawson as Ahsoka Tano.

If all you know about the Star Wars franchise is its feature films, you might not even be aware of who Ahsoka Tano is.

But that alone shouldn't stop you from sampling her debut as a leading character in Disney+'s new streaming series, Star Wars: Ahsoka. All you really need to know to jump into the story is that Ahsoka is a powerful warrior – with TWO lightsabers – skilled enough with the Force to beat up battle droids and make off with a map that just might lead to a major villain.

Before long, it's obvious she's set off on an adventure that will explore lots of heady stuff: How to move forward from past pain to make a new future. The towering responsibility of being a good mentor and a worthy apprentice. How to find the bad guys who want to resurrect the evil Empire and subjugate the galaxy.

Still, the biggest challenge Ahsoka faces is simpler: How to build a new Star Wars series that longtime fans will love without leaving newcomers in the dust.

Distracted by world building

Rosario Dawson's Ahsoka Tano defeats a battle droid.
Lucasfilm Ltd. / Lucasfilm Ltd.
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Lucasfilm Ltd.
Rosario Dawson's Ahsoka Tano defeats a battle droid.

The series begins at a time when the Empire has fallen, the legendary Jedi Knights are dead or disbanded and Ahsoka herself is without the junior partner/mentee most Jedi have, called a padawan.

Rosario Dawson plays Ahsoka with a steely calm which befits her status as an experienced warrior and rebel hero – but can also sap the energy from scenes when she's not fighting.

For example, when she needs to reconnect with a talented, stubborn fighter named Sabine Wren, who had been on track to become her padawan, Ahsoka is so stoic that her face and voice are barely expressive — even as she admits regret over the way Wren's training ended.

"Sometimes even the right reasons have the wrong consequences," Ahsoka admits at the end of one dry scene.

That's a lot of backstory, and exchanges like that highlight one big problem for Star Wars: Ahsoka: it is trying to cram the knowledge accumulated by decades of world-building books, films and TV shows into a couple hours of TV. Creator Dave Filoni — considered a protégé of Star Wars creator George Lucas and the backbone of the TV shows — can fall into Lucas' bad habit of getting too distracted by the world he's building to make the narrative consistently compelling.

Ahsoka first surfaced in the animated movie Star Wars: The Clone Wars, as an aspiring padawan bringing a message to legendary Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi and his own padawan, Anakin Skywalker.

Later, she was also featured in the animated Clone Wars TV series and Star Wars: Rebels. Dawson brought her to the live-action world, playing her in an episode of The Mandalorian, where she revealed the name of the character fans often call Baby Yoda was actually Grogu.

Rosario Dawson as Ahsoka Tano and Natasha Liu Bordizzo as Sabine Wren.
Suzanne Tenner / Suzanne Tenner / Lucasfilm Ltd.
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Suzanne Tenner / Lucasfilm Ltd.
Rosario Dawson as Ahsoka Tano and Natasha Liu Bordizzo as Sabine Wren.

But even though Star Wars nerds have watched Ahsoka grow up onscreen, participating in pivotal moments to become a beloved character, for other fans who haven't watched those series, she still needs a bit of an introduction. Watching Ahsoka eventually team with Wren and Mary Elizabeth Winstead's green-skinned New Republic general, Hera Syndulla, brings hope this kinetic sisterhood will bring out more sides of the show's starring character.

A great showcase for a departed character actor

Ray Stevenson, who died in May, plays Baylan Skoll with Ivanna Sakho as Shin Hati.
Nicola Goode / Nicola Goode / Lucasfilm Ltd.
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Nicola Goode / Lucasfilm Ltd.
Ray Stevenson, who died in May, plays Baylan Skoll with Ivanna Sakho as Shin Hati.

This may explain the pacing of the first two episodes, which alternate flashy, lightsaber-wielding fights scenes with a few too many sluggish, talky moments. Fortunately, that does mean some great scenes for character actor Ray Stevenson — who died earlier this year, but excels as a skilled former Jedi-turned mercenary working for the villains. (the first episode ends with a simple dedication onscreen: "For our friend Ray.")

One open question: In a flashback, will we see Ahsoka face the Jedi master who trained her – Anakin Skywalker, who eventually becomes Darth Vader?

Still, with all those criticisms in mind, Ahsoka is a series I'll keep watching. Last year's Disney+ series Star Wars: Andor also started slowly before blossoming into one of the year's best shows, so there's still hope. But Andor resonated with audiences by offering a persistently grounded narrative on the early days of the rebellion: no Jedi knights, mystical uses of The Force or lightsabers in sight.

At a time when audiences have thinning patience both for super-heroics and too much fan service, Ahsoka will still need to raise its game to prove it's more than wish fulfillment for longtime Star Wars fans.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.