A Note Upfront: I’m hoping to make this the first in a regular series of weekly reviews covering Star Wars Rebels. I’ve been wanting to write more for this blog, so covering a weekly TV series seems like a decent way to convince myself to do so with some level of regularity. As it stands, this is largely an experiment, so we’ll see how this goes!
If you follow me on Twitter, you might remember a week or so ago when I began excitedly talking about the new Star Wars Rebels animated TV show. For a bit of context, I, like many people, have been equal parts frustrated, disappointed, and exhausted by the output of the franchise for the last 15 years. Star Wars was a joke. It was nothing more than the bloated corpse of something I used to enjoy paraded about and violated for the pleasure of zealotous morons. Even when the Disney acquisition offered a sliver of hope for a future where Star Wars is free from the crushing weight of its creator’s abuses, this also soured with the announcement of yearly film installments and the newly minted sequel trilogy apparently revolving around the antics of Han, Luke, and Leia’s kids.
Then something funny happened. The Michael Arndt script that reportedly focused on the Skywalker and Solo moppets was tossed in a shredder, and when new story details began to emerge they actually sounded interesting – exciting, even. Not only that, but Disney announced their intention to make the new tangential elements of the franchise – books, TV shows, comic books – important parts of the canon rather than masturbatory fan fiction with an official license like much of the previous “Expanded Universe” was. The first of this being a Disney XD series called Star Wars Rebels. A year ago you couldn’t have paid me to watch a new Star Wars cartoon, yet a week ago I did just that – and to my supreme surprise and delight it was actually really good!
“Spark of Rebellion,” the TV movie that serves as the series pilot, is the single best piece of Star Wars media we’ve seen in ages. It’s fun, it features likable characters, and perhaps most crucially it feels like Star Wars. For fifteen years we’ve been stuck with Star Wars media that was mired in the prequel aesthetic – an aesthetic that is fundamentally and intentionally divorced from the classic movies. Even stories that have been set in and around the time period of the original films borrow heavily from the visual language of the prequels (I’m sure this is due in no small part to Mr. Lucas’ supervision). Rebels, however, fully embraces the aesthetic and tone of the original Star Wars, whether it’s drawing inspiration from old Ralph McQaurrie concept art or depicting lightsabers as being flat and blade-like rather than the “neon tube” look that has always felt like an imitation of the toys. All of this feels like the kind of thing that Lucas would have rejected when he was in charge, but it’s exactly what makes Rebels so cool.
Of course the aesthetic wouldn’t mean anything if it weren’t in support of worthwhile characters and a compelling story, and luckily Rebels has both. The characters haven’t all found a solid groove to fit into yet (most notably Sabine who is likable but extraneous at this point), but all shows take some time to hit their stride. The important part is that these are characters I enjoy spending time with and I enjoy seeing interact with each other. This sets the show apart from the prequels who’s characters were all various shades of boring and irritating. Watching Ezra uncover his potential to be a Jedi is thrilling and moving in a way that brings back memories of Luke activating his father’s lightsaber rather than the plodding, emotionless dreck we got with Anakin’s arc in the prequels. And though there are shades of Luke in Ezra, none of it feels like a rehash. Ezra – and the rest of the Ghost’s crew for that matter – are distinct characters; this isn’t a cover band version of Star Wars but rather a legitimate, exciting entry in the series. “Spark of Rebellion” sets up a compelling story that feels like Star Wars without just being a series of empty fan service references. It’s connected to the original trilogy films, but thus far it doesn’t feel like it’s over explaining or undercutting the classic films. Ties to the films exist, but they’re distant enough to allow Rebels to unfold as its own unique story.
At this point, I’m going to transition into talking more specifically about this week’s episode, “Fighter Flight,” and this discussion will include spoilers, as will my reviews of any upcoming episodes. For those of you who haven’t been watching already, “Spark of Rebellion” will be airing on ABC this Sunday if you want to check it out.
This third episode of Star Wars Rebels is somewhat of a step back. While the pilot was great, and “Droids in Distress” offered enough solid character beats to make up for its lack of connection to a larger story arc, “Fighter Flight” is just a whole lot of filler. I still had fun with it, but it’s the first episode in the series so far that really needs to be graded on the “kids’ show curve.” I’ve really appreciated the way that Rebels hasn’t aimed to be superficially dark and gritty in an attempt to please adult fans who are self-conscious about watching a kids’ cartoon, but here we’re getting into some of the downsides of serialized children’s television, namely its propensity for filler episodes that play better in re-runs than more serialized episodes do.
This episode serves primarily to explore the relationship between Ezra and Zeb, but in doing so it somewhat undercuts the way their relationship has been portrayed in previous episodes. From the first time they met, there’s been a tension between Ezra and Zeb, but previously that tension has been played in the form of an adult who is somewhat frustrated that they have a kid tagging along in their crew. In this episode, Zeb is essentially recast as an older brother for Ezra, and the two of them bicker like children. This dynamic isn’t inherently bad, but it’s less compelling than the aforementioned relationship, and doesn’t offer the same amount of narrative depth available to be mined. Not only that, but the episode doesn’t do a whole lot meaningful with the relationship. There’s some back and forth about who saved who’s life that feels superfluous, and there’s never a clear moment when they’re forced to come together as a team. At the end of the episode when they’re trying to rescue the farmers being held captive on the Imperial transport, they’re effectively acting separately. Sure they occasionally help each other out of a tight spot, but it’s really not a dramatic change from where the episode begins, or even from previous episodes for that matter. Having Zeb separated physically from Ezra by being in the TIE Fighter only exacerbates this problem. The episode ends with them being closer than they were before, but the episode itself never really earns this payoff.
The episode’s story doesn’t do much to help the situation either. We know from the very beginning that the whole thing is a wild goose chase, and this eliminates any stakes that might have made it feel crucial for Ezra and Zeb to work together. The show tries to raise the stakes with the subplot of the farmer that Ezra used to know, but it’s all artificial. Ezra’s emotional stake with this guy is never made explicit, so he ends up being just some random civilian in peril. You want Ezra to save him, and it’s fun watching him do so, but it doesn’t raise the stakes in any meaningful way.
I know it sounds like I’m really down on this episode, but like I mentioned I had fun with it. I still like these characters, and even if there wasn’t a ton of weight to it, the action was well staged and fun to watch. Again, I’m grading on a curve here, but I’m well aware of how children’s programming works and I’m certain that we’ll get more filler episodes of this type later down the line. Hopefully by that point these characters and their relationships with one another will be more solidified allowing them to play with those dynamics in a way that’s compelling even when the arc of the season isn’t moving forward. Next week, though, it’d be good to have an episode that is more clearly focussed on major story beats, especially with new people (hopefully) being introduced to the show when “Spark of Rebellion” airs on ABC. “Spark of Rebellion” serves as a really great hook, but the show needs another plot heavy episode to establish forward momentum.