As much as I’ve said in the past that I’m a Trekkie first, there’s no doubt that Star Wars is firmly in the ascendant these days. I would have thought that both franchises were destined to stagnate and fade quietly away. Whether or not Star Trek: Discovery proves me wrong I won’t know for a while, but Star Wars has unexpectedly risen again with the release of the exhilarating the Force Awakens and gut-punch intense Rogue One.
Still, I can only re-watch them so many times. It was out of curiosity, and some unexpectedly good reviews that I ended up trying out the animated spinoff series: Clone Wars a while back on Netflix, and then, more recently, Star Wars: Rebels.
Rebels‘ third season wrapped up a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve found myself quite enjoying it. Moreso than Clone Wars, although that didn’t stop me watching four fifths of it, too. I assumed that it would be very kid-oriented and shallow. A little unfairly, it turned out…
Star Wars: Rebels features Ezra Bridger, a street kid in the capital of the planet Lothal. The Galactic Empire is squeezing the planet for labour and resources and cracking down on dissent. Ezra is pickpocketing his way to survival when he gets caught up in a more ambitious Robin Hood-style action by the crew of a smuggler ship, the Ghost. One of them, Kanan, recognizes Ezra’s uncanny intuition and skill for what it is: he’s a Force-sensitive. Kanan was a Jedi student during the Clone Wars, and takes the brash Ezra under his wing. As they cause mayhem for the Empire on Lothal, they attract they attention of Imperial authorities, including the cunning intelligence officer Agent Kallus, his boss, the formidable Grand Moff Tarkin, and the Imperial Inquisitors, Force-sensitives tasked to hunt down surviving Jedi. Eventually, even the Inquisitors have to give way to their boss, Darth Vader. As the spark of the Lothal rebellion grows, inspiring others and drawing in other rebel cells, they become part of a larger movement that openly confronts the Empire, under the insidious and erudite Grand Admiral Thrawn.
Ezra becomes a member of a closely-knit crew of misfits: Kanan, the half-trained Jedi veteran, the exiled warrior-artist Sabine, sour ex-soldier Zeb, recalcitrant droid Chopper, and their feisty yet cunning captain, Hera Syndulla. Each of them brings their own skills and personal history and issues that drive them to oppose the Empire and stand by each other, however difficult that sometimes proves. Ezra struggles to fit into a crew, and family, and all of them try to cope with the growing scope of their role in the galactic conflict, as Ezra also begins to learn the ways of the Force and the perils of the Dark Side.
If that seems like a busy schedule, it’s because Rebels is built to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer model of a new Big Bad every season, although Thrawn isn’t out of the picture as of the end of Season 3. That can be a dodgy approach, as it was on Buffy or Legend of Korra because it can be hard to keep ramping up the drama from scratch. However, Rebels takes an in-between approach, where the story arc of gradually escalating the scope of the rebellion, and the Empire escalating its response in line with it by bringing in a succession of heavy hitters.
By and large, the escalation coincides with the show finding its feet. Personally, I didn’t find the Inquisitors, with their creepy eyes and overdesigned light sabres, all that scary. But you’d have to be nuts not to find Tarkin or Vader scary – especially after the latter’s exploits in Rogue One, and Grand Admiral Thrawn is chilling, although his sinister wait-and-watch habit arguably went on just long enough to seem silly before he finally brought the hammer down, but boy did he ever!
That said, I have to say that I still find the series somewhat toothless. A lot of shows listed on the TV Tropes wiki have a section called ‘Getting Crap Past the Radar.’ It usually lists things like dirty jokes or heavy content slipped into kid shows for the benefit of the more mature-minded. Batman: the Animated Series and Avatar: the Last Airbender have quite a lot of entries in theirs. It says a lot about Rebels by comparison that it doesn’t have one at all.
Rebels sort of resembles Firefly in that it features a created-family scenario scrunched into a slightly run-down spaceship doing crosses between covert ops and odd jobs. But somehow it still maintains a certain plastic unreality. The ship seems awfully clean and well-lit. Their food never seems to run low, enemy weapons only ever hurt them if the plot needs them to, they only have one or two episodes where fuel or money troubles vex them. And, like that old joke about the Enterprise, the Ghost doesn’t seem to have any bathrooms.
The characters themselves, meanwhile, are each interesting in their own right but the chemistry between them is a little weak. The show isn’t willing to do anything so brazen as have even subtextual romance subplots. Ezra seems to be trying catch Sabine’s eye for a while but nothing ever comes of it one way or the other. She doesn’t even just say ‘no,’ the subplot just trails off after a while. Kanan and Hera seem to have a thing for each other – she calls Kanan ‘love’ a lot – but it’s not clear what the story is there. And even during the tough times, very rarely do any of them break character in a shocking way.
The show is about war – it’s right there in the name and all – but like Clone Wars before it, the subject matter doesn’t really seem to be taken seriously. Not least because there’s a double standard about how shocking death is. In Clone Wars, the fact that the bad guys were bumbling battle robots made mowing them down seem unremarkable, notwithstanding some philosophical considerations concerning droid sapience. But now the Imperial stormtroopers are the enemy mooks, their bumbling and bad aim clash with the knowledge that there are actual human beings in that armour – although they very carefully avoid letting you see their faces whenever their armour gets stolen. It makes the death of any stormtrooper, especially one with a speaking role, or one who perishes with particular irony, quietly disturbing. And yet when death or maiming happens to someone with a face, then it gets regarded with shock by the heroes, even if it’s a bad guy, like the defector Tua or the Inquisitor who commits suicide in season 1 – presumably preferring that to having to report in to Darth Vader.
In general I think what makes me uncomfortable about Rebels is that it doesn’t consistently treat war as something bad but necessary, but as something awesome and cool. It makes for compelling battles and raids, though. Kanan is pretty good about speaking up for a more pacifistic angle, as well. And some episodes deal with the costs of war, like when Kanan gets blinded in season 2, Sabine’s schism with her clan, and the hideously costly battle at the end of season 3. Avatar had to pull punches as well, of course, but was somehow more consistent about it, and was more convincing about treating war as something you have to do but rather wouldn’t. The priority of action over character development also means that characters come through the fires of war but it doesn’t seem to cost them that much emotionally – they bounce back too easily.
That said, the toothlessness of the action is markedly diminishing, with characters unambiguously dying and the rebels getting set back big time in season 3. Given the Ghost and Hera’s very brief cameos in Rogue One, the bar for how far we can take this is promisingly high. And I do like the characters a lot. Ezra’s got rather more emotional range than average for the spunky young hero. Kanan has fascinating internal conflicts, and I like the way he subverts the standard Old Master character by being himself half-trained. Zeb has something of the shell-shocked veteran going on – he kind of reminds me of D’Argo in Farscape. Sabine doesn’t get as much character development as I’d like, but the premise of the scion of a martial tradition with the soul of an artist is quite charming. The level of sophisticated thinking displayed by Thrawn is well above average for a cartoon villain. My favourites are Hera herself, and Agent Kallus. Kallus has perhaps the most pronounced character arc of them all, keeping me guessing throughout. Hera’s interesting on a few levels. Arguably, she has the greatest emotional range and deepest backstory of any of the characters, especially since her father’s character carried over from the Clone Wars. But as a Star Wars fan, the coolest thing about her is that she’s a Twi’lek.
If you don’t know, Twi’leks are an alien species in Star Wars, almost invariably found in the context of exotic dancers and slave girls in the thrall of people like Jabba the Hutt. So to get one promoted to lead character is really cool. Besides that, she’s no one’s sex object. She makes those who assume she is one pay dearly in one early episode where she has to pose as a slave, and she dresses eminently practically, in something like Kaylee in Firefly’s work clothes. On a bigger scale, almost all of the human characters are discernibly non-white, so we’ve got actual representation and metaphorical representation as a garnish.
However cagey I’m being about character arcs, they’re a decided improvement over Clone Wars, which consisted of multiple, mostly isolated adventures. That aspect of Clone Wars is handy because no more than a passing acquaintance is needed to get the significance of legacy characters like Hondo Ohnaka, Rex the retired clone trooper, or Ahsoka Tano, who has her own supporting character arc as a former apprentice of Anakin Skywalker when Darth Vader enters the narrative. It also gives the galaxy a bit more sense of scale – they don’t effortlessly go just any old where with no sense of how the larger war is going, and they’re only one, not particularly powerful independent cell of a larger resistance.
As a Star Wars fan, the references to the larger canon are charming without making the series completely inaccessible. Canon characters like Darth Vader and Lando are recognizable enough, as are locations like Dantooine and Mustafar. Others like Thrawn, Saw Gerrera and Colonel Yularren – otherwise known as one of the dudes sitting around the Death Star’s conference table – are engaging enough even if you don’t know who they are. At the same time, the writers are pretty good at making sure that the story of our main characters is served by the appearance of legacy characters like Vader, Ahsoka or Obi-wan, without them stealing the show. Likewise, they never defeat the primary villains in a way that diminished their effect or menace.
I might be being a little too harsh in some of my critiques, since I have a bad habit of putting this show on and half-watching it while I wash the dishes and such. But while I find it shallower and more by-the-numbers than Avatar, Legend of Korra, or the new live-action Star Wars productions, it still has much merit. Apart from the cool factor of Star Wars, it has cool and diverse characters, charming dialogue, and a promising story arc that’s been getting better and better. The music is superb, making effective use of the classic motifs by John Williams. The voice acting it a big part of what makes it, with Billy Dee Williams, Forrest Whitaker and James Earl Jones himself reprising their characters from the live action movies. The versatility of Dee Bradley Baker, who somehow made all the Clone Wars troopers sound like different people with the same voice, and Steve Blum, who, if you know what to listen for, is half the supporting cast, is stunning. And some big names come to the party as well: Jason Isaacs as the first Inquisitor, Freddie Prinz Jr. as Kanan – and his wife, Sarah Michelle Gellar as another Inquisitor – Star Trek’s Brent Spiner as an Imperial senator, Kevin McKidd as a Mandalorian warrior, and no less a personage than Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor, as the mysterious Bendu in season 3! Sherlock fans may also recognize the chilling Lars Mikkelsen as Grand Admiral Thrawn.
With such merits, the show is most promising and a lot of fun, and a great way to spend a lazy afternoon.
May the Force be with us all.