At the time Disney acquired Lucasfilm in late 2012, Star Wars was in a weird spot. The most popular multi-media franchise of all time up to that point had basically ended. George Lucas had publicly committed to not doing any more films and the only outlet for new storytelling of any real legitimacy to happen was in the well-liked, but still somewhat niche The Clone Wars cartoon. Beyond that, the popular perception of the series was still colored by the widespread disappointment in the prequel movies – a negative cultural association nearly as pervasive as the positive reception to the original film. On the one hand, Disney was purchasing the most financially lucrative entertainment brand outside of their own; on the other, they were in a very real way inheriting damaged goods.
And I don’t say any of that as a slight to the prequels, The Clone Wars, or to any of their respective fans – my relationship with both has evolved quite a bit over time. Instead, I want to paint the picture of where the popular opinion of Star Wars was circa 2012 and the challenges both Disney and Lucasfilm had laid out before them if they wanted to bring the franchise back to life. The biggest thing, clearly, was the commitment to producing Episodes VII, VIII, and IX, but films on that scale take years of planning, shooting, and post-production work. Episode VII logistically couldn’t be the formal reintroduction of Star Wars, so the task of setting expectations for the future and making clear the intent of Lucasfilm’s new direction fell to, of all things, another cartoon series: Star Wars Rebels.
This new show shaped by Carrie Beck, Simon Kinberg, and the quite literal apprentice to George Lucas, Dave Filoni grew out of the original concept Filoni had for The Clone Wars. A sort of ragtag band of misfits operating out of a Millennium Falcon-type ship on the fringes of the galaxy, exploring a perspective on this universe that’s somewhat more grounded than the operatic grandeur of the main series of films. That idea married with the franchise’s first real exploration into the formation of the Rebel Alliance laid the groundwork of what this show would become. Set between Revenge of the Sith and the original Star Wars, but much closer to the latter, it gave the storytellers an excuse to really dig deep into nostalgia for the original films in a way that – for all the show’s strengths – The Clone Wars was never really able to do. As Dave Filoni explained it in an interview with /Film:
…In a lot of ways that’s why this show is kind of just so unapologetically classic in a Star Wars sense ’cause we all want the fans to feel that this going to be off on the right foot. You’re gonna recognize the music. You’re gonna recognize the look of things. I think there’s gonna be plenty of time in the future to get more aggressively different and exciting and develop new things in Star Wars you’ve never seen. But now is the time of just saying like “Hey guys, this is gonna be a great era for you, just buckle up and get ready.”
It’s a very similar mission statement to what J.J. Abrams was concurrently pursuing with The Force Awakens; an effort to shake off some of the negative associations people have with the prequels and return to a more classical ideal of what the series should look and feel like. But while the first entry in the revived film series occasionally feels like a slave to nostalgia, Rebels, remarkably, does a much better job of hitting those familiar notes but doing so in the service of something new and unique.
All of that is on display right up front in the series’ pilot movie, “Spark of Rebellion.” I’ve always been more of a movie guy than a TV guy, and I’m sure there are countless terrific TV pilots that I’ve simply never seen, so perhaps don’t roll your eyes too hard when I say that the debut episode of Star Wars Rebels is one of the very best television pilots I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s just so remarkably good. It would be easy for me to compare it to the arc of The Clone Wars which took two or three entire seasons to really develop into a show worthy of its eventual acclaim, but you really don’t need to.
Beyond any sort of comparison, Star Wars Rebels is really stinking terrific all on its own merit. While the show would certainly grow and evolve in scale and scope over time, it arrives pretty much fully formed right in its very first episode. The characters are clearly defined and the state of the world that they happen to inhabit is pregnant with rich storytelling potential. The crew of the Ghost is made up of people existing on the fringe of society under a tyrannical Imperial rule: there’s the idealist pilot and daughter of an infamous anti-Empire revolutionary, there’s the Jedi in exile who never formally completed his training, the aging and cantankerous pre-Clone Wars astromech droid, the disgraced former protector of a now dead race hunted to near-extinction by the Empire, and the artistic Mandalorian deserter from the Imperial Academy. And then there’s Ezra.
Like the original film, Star Wars Rebels is grounded by an ensemble cast of compelling characters, but when it comes right down to it, the show is ultimately about one person: Ezra Bridger. Ezra is a fascinating figure, a kid who was literally born on the same day as the Galactic Empire; the orphan son of two outspoken critics of Imperial rule, left to fend for himself on a remote farming world after his parents were seized by the government they spoke out against.
Ezra is an analog to Luke Skywalker, but in some ways his arc is more compelling. Both are orphans, gifted in the Force, called to be part of something bigger, but where Luke seeks primarily a life of adventure, Ezra is shown the stakes and importance of organizing to fight back against oppression. In “Spark of Rebellion” we see Ezra find kinship in the Ghost crew and discover his own connection to the Force, but the most significant scene comes when he gets to see first hand what these rebels are fighting for. He gets on their radar when he attempts to steal a crate of supplies that they’ve already stolen from the Empire, planning to sell its contents off and buy himself another day of survival on the streets, but instead, he witnesses the rebels take these supplies not for their own gain, but to help those in need, those who have been displaced from their homes and their livelihoods by the cruelty of Imperial rule. Ezra, who’s own life was upended by the Empire learns that there’s much more to be gained in fighting for others than in merely fighting for yourself.
This becomes the through line for the first season of the show: Ezra growing in both his connection with the Force as well his connection to others. So often have characters in Star Wars talked about the ways in which the Force binds every living thing together, but never has that idea been explored as fully as in Rebels. As Ezra pursues his potential as a Jedi, he discovers he has a particular knack for making connections with other creatures – be they the wild Loth-cats that roam the grasslands of Lothal, or the vicious Fyrnocks that lurk in the shadows of an abandoned military base. All of this comes to a head in the mid-season finale as Ezra is forced to grapple with the reappearance of Tseebo, an old friend of his parents now a slave on the run from the Empire. Tseebo knew of the Bridgers’ imminent arrest, but failed to warn them in time. With Imperial soldiers hot on the rebels’ tail, Ezra struggles to focus his mind and tap into the Force, it’s only when he reaches out, makes a connection, and forgives Tseebo, that he’s able to access that power. The Jedi Order of old taught that connection – or, at least, attachment – was forbidden, a pathway that could only lead to the dark side, but we saw how well that worked out for them. Instead, it’s only in opening himself up to another being that Ezra is able to truly understand the nature of the Force. The Force, above all else, is about connection.
Beyond merely Ezra, though, the whole show is all about learning that you are part of something larger. Coming off of The Clone Wars, a common criticism of Rebels’ first season was how the setting of the show was almost entirely confined to Lothal. There’s no denying that this was a budgetary constraint, allowing the show to reuse the same set of locations across an entire season, but it’s also hugely important for the story being told to begin with this narrower scope. This is a story of people fighting back against an almost incomprehensibly massive totalitarian regime without any knowledge of a larger rebel movement, simply fighting to protect their home and their loved ones and to do what they feel is right.
In the second episode, “Droids in Distress”, we see these Lothal rebels get on the radar of Bail Organa, who presumably gets in touch with Hera via Fulcrum shortly thereafter, but the show goes to great lengths to make it clear that the rest of the Ghost crew isn’t let in on this secret. I touched on this in my article on The Clone Wars’ fifth season, but this origin story for the Rebel Alliance is so much more compelling and so much more moving than it simply emerging fully formed from the minds of Bail Organa and Mon Mothma. What it indicates is that all across the galaxy, people took it upon themselves to fight back against oppression, knowing the odds were impossible, because it was the right thing to do. The Lothal rebels are but five people (and a droid) standing up against an entire Galactic Empire, but they’re also unknowingly part of a much larger movement spreading like fire across the galaxy.
One of the most interesting episodes in this regard is “Vision of Hope.” In some ways, this may be the bleakest story in all of Star Wars. The Ghost crew learns that Gall Trayvis, a former senator and outspoken critic of the Empire, is coming to Lothal; what’s more is he sends a coded message expressing interest in meeting them personally. Unfortunately, it turns out that the message is a trap and Trayvis is an agent of the Empire, luring in those who would speak out against it and ensuring their arrest or worse. It’s a moment that leaves the Ghost crew devastated. The one person lending their movement any sort of legitimacy turns out to be a phony. They are utterly alone. But rather than despair, it strengthens their resolve. If Trayvis’s messages of hope were a lie, then why not take it upon themselves to send one of their own? The rebels infiltrate an Imperial communications tower and broadcast a message to Lothal and the surrounding worlds; a message of hope and resolve given by Ezra Bridger, continuing the work begun by his parents.
The arc of Star Wars Rebels‘ first season is about a group of people learning to become part of something bigger, but in a broader, metatextual sense, the show itself has its sights set on something larger as well. This is a show that obviously and intentionally trades in nostalgia for the classic movies, lifting music cues and even entire shots wholesale for the original trilogy, but it’s also a show made by people with an outspoken fondness for the prequel films, led by a man who spent seven years working directly under George Lucas on the production of an animated series set in that era. Rebels is a love letter to the original trilogy, but it’s also an attempt to build a bridge between the original movies and the widely detested prequels; an attempt to make whole something fans of a certain age adamantly insisted be separate.
I know because I was one of them.
In 2014, I was done with Star Wars. I grew up watching and loving the original trilogy on video and the prequels hit when I was just the right age to be totally enamored with them, but as I grew up my fondness for the prequels soured into resentment. I bristled against their frustrating filmmaking and the ways in which they challenged and seemed to undercut the mythology of the original movies. Combine that with Lucas’s seemingly endless alterations of the original films and the apparent lack of any new stories worth telling (I refused to entertain the idea that The Clone Wars ever got better after its debut movie), and something I had enjoyed for longer than I could remember had become a point of bitterness and frustration.
But Star War Rebels made me love Star Wars again. What’s more, it made me love Star Wars in a way I never really had before. It invited me in with the familiar iconography of the classic films I adored, but it refused to stop there. Instead, it continued to bring in elements from The Clone Wars, compelling me to give that series a fairer shake. In turn, immersing myself in The Clone Wars led me to better appreciate – if not entirely enjoy – the prequel films, and suddenly I found myself, for the very first time, embracing Star Wars not just as a series of three films released before I was born, but for the totality of what it had become.
Part of what makes Star Wars such an enduring staple of pop culture is its capacity to constantly reinvent itself while still carrying the torch for what’s come before. This is a continuous story that’s spanned more than four decades, but it’s also welcomed in multiple new generations of fans with new characters, stories, and ideas. There’s the generation that grew up with the original films, the generation that grew up with the prequels, a generation raised on The Clone Wars and Rebels, and now a new generation coming of age with these new sequel films. I, however, always occupied a weird spot in between these generations. I loved the original films, but they were always very clearly something passed down to me from my father. I was the right age when the prequels hit, but I very quickly grew out of them. Rebels, though, Rebels is my Star Wars. It seemed to initially fall through the cracks as this weird show that wasn’t quite what the holdover fans of The Clone Wars wanted, and was largely dismissed out of hand by older fans of the films who looked down their noses at a cartoon, but there I was, completely enamored with it from the jump. It caught me by surprise and felt like a true discovery in a way I never imagined was possible. It opened my eyes to the greater context of how the breadth of this story could mean different things to different people at different times while still connecting them though a mutual love of this larger thing. Star Wars, above all else, is about connection.
I hope you’ll indulge this hard left turn into deeply personal territory, but this show means a great deal to me. The title of this article implies that Rebels saved Star Wars, but that’s a bit of a misdirect. In 2014, the popular perception of Star Wars was toxic thanks, in no small part, to people like myself, but Star Wars didn’t need saving. Rather, Rebels allowed me to see what was always there, but was too stubborn and too closed off to see. Star Wars Rebels charted the course for Lucasfilm’s new direction, it set the stage for profound achievements like The Last Jedi, and it built a bridge uniting Lucas’s pair of trilogies. More personally, it cut through years of bitterness and resentment and made me not just a better fan of Star Wars, but a better consumer of art and culture. When I say Rebels saved Star Wars, what I really mean is that, in its own way, Star Wars Rebels saved Star Wars for me.
Leading up to the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, I am endeavoring to watch every canonical Star Wars movie and TV show in the in-universe chronological order. Follow along with…