Star Wars fans disillusioned with the property in the wake of the prequel movies and the Star Wars: The Clone Wars TV show can take some solace in hard economic fact: Disney didn’t pay more than $4 billion to Lucasfilm to leave it on a shelf or screw it up. Exhibit A in the anecdotal evidence supporting this theory is Star Wars Rebels, the first new Star Wars material released under the Disney banner and whose first season is now available on a 2-disc Blu-ray set. While the earliest episodes don’t quite live up to the colossal weight of expectations on them, the show very rapidly hammers out its own distinct identity from both the original trilogy of films and the prequel films and its spinoffs. The end result manages to look forwards and backwards in the larger Star Wars timeline, while still finding its own voice within that continuum.
Star Wars Rebels is set between the end of the prequel movies and the start of the original trilogy, as the Empire’s grip on the galaxy begins tightening enough to chafe. Young orphan Ezra Bridger (Taylor Gray) is content to be a petty thief and an annoyance to the Empire’s operations on his homeworld in Lothal, in the edge of civilized space in the Outer Rim planets. His attitude and his fate change dramatically when he runs into the crew of the Ghost, a motley quintet of outlaws playing Robin Hood on Lothal against the Empire. They are led by Kanan Jarrus (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) and Hera Syndulla (Vanessa Marshall), who provide leadership and piloting skills, respectively. Rounding out the crew are the muscle Zeb (Steve Blum), the lithe Mandalorian explosives expert Sabine (Tiya Sircar), and the grumpy C1-10P astromech droid nicknamed Chopper (himself). For Ezra, finding a surrogate family and becoming part of something bigger than himself pales in comparison to the discovery that his unusual good luck is actually a powerful connection to the Force. This realization and the commencement of his training as a Jedi mean that Ezra and the crew of the Ghost suddenly become a genuine existential threat to the Empire as the outlaws’ ambition grows and word begins to leak that the Jedi Order may not be so dead after all. However, the Empire has resources of its own to counter this new threat: the doggedly determined Special Agent Kallus (David Oyelowo) of the Imperial Security Bureau and the mysterious Jedi-hunting Inquisitor (Jason Isaacs).
“Spark of Rebellion,” the two-part premiere of Star Wars Rebels, openly invites comparison to the original trilogy of movies with its small-scale scope and roguish sensibilities, as compared to the epic but stilted ambitions of the prequel movies and The Clone Wars. I didn’t think that the show did itself a service by inviting such open comparison, though. While the premiere is enjoyable enough, the comparison to the original movie sets up expectations that I’m not sure any inherently derivative production could ever meet. I am also still annoyed that one revelation in this two-part premiere was spoiled months in advance by the pre-release publicity (and which I am trying, perhaps in vain, to avoid spoiling in this review). I suspect the reasons had more to do with the way modern entertainment conglomerates inundate their franchises with ancillary merchandise — ironically, something established as the norm by the original Star Wars. If Disney/Lucasfilm didn’t spoil the secret openly, all of the toys would have, which definitely feels like the cart driving the horse. The big reveal at the spice mines of Kessel is set up to look like a big surprise for both the characters and the audience, so it’s too bad that the moment was robbed of most of its impact so far in advance. Then again, I suppose if you’re new to Star Wars, the revelation may have all the meaning to you that references to “the Clone Wars” did the first time you saw the original movie.
The temptation to compare this new show with the original trilogy gets worse with “Droids in Distress,” which guest-stars C3PO and R2-D2, along with another familiar face at the very end. It’s always nice to see the droids, with Anthony Daniels reprising C3PO as his usual fussy self, and the interplay between Chopper and R2 is highly entertaining. Their appearance just feels a bit too much like a crutch, or a lack of confidence that the show could stand on its own without that guest starring turn. My other problem with this episode is how it ensures we understand Agent Kallus is a Very Bad Man. Star Wars has given us a variety of faces of evil, from the venal Grand Moff Tarkin, the manipulative Emperor, the intimidating Darth Vader, and the assortment of barely competent functionaries whose rise to power is more due to their compliance than their competence (represented in this show by the supporting characters Imperial Minister Maketh Tua and two Imperial officers on Lothal). Some hints in the premiere suggested Agent Kallus might have more texture, and he would have been far more interesting if he was a true believer, genuinely believing that the Empire was in the right and viewing himself as a force for law and order. Making him relish his villainy makes him a bit redundant once the Inquisitor shows up and starts talking about how awesome the Dark Side is.
The third episode, “Fighter Flight,” may be the weakest episode of the season, centering on the simmering sibling rivalry between Ezra and Zeb, and producing the expected rapprochement. It’s better than average because this reconciliation involves a stolen TIE fighter, but it still feels like a very familiar story. However, things change dramatically with the next episode, “Rise of the Old Masters,” which is the first episode that truly manages to escape from the shadow of older works. While its central plot twist relies on bringing in a minor supporting character from the original trilogy, her role ends up being strictly functional. This episode also features the first confrontation between the crew of the Ghost and the Inquisitor. This confrontation is genuinely pulse-pounding, presenting the Inquisitor as a real threat that’s just past the ability of the Ghost‘s crew to handle. However, as good as it is, the next episode “Breaking Ranks” is when Star Wars Rebels truly comes into its own, sending Ezra undercover to the Imperial Academy on Lothal to secret out information necessary to disrupt a critical Empire supply shipment. The way everyone gets a chance to shine and fill a role in a bigger plan is why I’d mark this episode as the one where Star Wars Rebels hammers out its own distinct place in the Star Wars universe.
“Out of Darkness” puts a welcome spotlight on Hera and Sabine, as the independent Sabine begins resenting the compartmentalization of knowledge that Hera and Kanan mandate for the team. While Ezra is focused on his own problems and Zeb doesn’t really care what he’s doing as long as it involves pounding Stormtroopers, Sabine’s past and her personality means she chafes when she’s deliberately left in the dark, somewhat resenting the relationship Hera has with their mysterious intelligence source code named Fulcrum. The episode culminates on an abandoned asteroid base populated by vicious nocturnal alien beasts, and ends with an interesting ambiguity and lack of resolution. While there is palpably more trust built between Sabine and Hera, there is little fundamental change in their relationship and Sabine is not granted more access to information. It’s entirely sensible for relationships in an insurgent cell, even if it doesn’t give a neat and tidy resolution.
The paired episodes “Empire Day” and “Gathering Forces” mark a real turning point for the show, as Ezra mourns his 15th birthday during the Empire’s founding-day celebrations. However, the Rebels’ plans for sabotage change suddenly when the group finds Tseebo, a Rodian from Ezra’s past with a cybernetic brain implant packed to the gills with Imperial intelligence. Getting Tseebo off the planet and into the hands of Fulcrum leads to an intense chase and Ezra’s first true exposure to the temptations of the Dark Side of the Force. The show had always depicted Ezra as naturally gifted with the Force, but “Gathering Forces” presents that gift as a potential danger to himself and others for the first time. The episodes nicely fill in some of Ezra’s backstory without getting bogged down in it, and also sets up most of the major plot twists in the near- and long-term.
One of those near-term twists pays off in the next episode, “Path of the Jedi,” where Ezra is sent to explore a lost Jedi temple on Lothal as a true test of his mettle. The coincidence of a Jedi temple that happens to be on Lothal can be hand-waved away with “the Force moves in mysterious ways,” but the surprise appearance of a guest star in the episode is not as easy to justify. It’s a blast for the character to appear (voiced by the original actor, no less), and it’s the first time in a while that Star Wars Rebels relies on an element from the other movies. However, it also begs the question why this character doesn’t get more involved immediately when that’s the most sensible thing for him to do. It’s the one and only element that mars an otherwise excellent episode. The ending moment has tremendous symbolic weight, as Ezra takes a big step in his journey as a Padawan.
“Idiot’s Array” is a brief diversion for another guest star from the original trilogy, and I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to reveal that it’s Lando Calrissian (especially since he pushes his way into the episode almost immediately). While the cynicism and gallows humor of crew of the Ghost can sometimes make them feel like six variations on Han Solo, they quickly meet their match at Lando’s hands (with the possible exception of Hera, who’s never fully taken in by Lando’s wiles). Billy Dee Williams reprises his role as the character and has lost none of his slightly unctuous charm; the addition of James Hong playing a disgusting alien crime boss is icing on the cake. In the long-run, this is a diversion from the closing four episodes, but it’s also one of the most fun episodes of the season.
“Vision of Hope” sets up the grand finale to the season, as the Ghost‘s crew learns that rogue Senator Gall Trayvis will be visiting Lothal, and that the Empire has set a trap for him. Senator Trayvis figured prominently in “Rise of the Old Masters,” and if the revelations in this episode aren’t much of a surprise, they also drive the crew to the audacious actions in the subsequent “Call to Action.” The crew’s actions on Lothal and the failure of the Empire to deal with them lead to the arrival of Grand Moff Tarkin to oversee the elimination of the Rebels. The Ghost crew’s plan to seize an Imperial communications tower to broadcast an open call to rebellion ends in a Pyrrhic victory, with Kanan captured by the Empire as he ensures the rest of the crew can escape. “Rebel Resolve” and “Fire Across the Galaxy” form a two-episode rescue mission, as the Ghost launches a daring rescue mission to pluck Kanan from Tarkin’s Star Destroyer in defiance of Fulcrum and their Rebellion handlers. “Fire Across the Galaxy” provides an explosive season finale, raising the stakes as the Rebels’ plan doesn’t survive contact with the enemy, forcing them to keep improvising solutions until the surprise-packed ending.
“Spark of Rebellion” got a DVD release shortly after its TV premiere, but the sins of that disappointing bare-bones release are more than compensated by this deluxe season set. Star Wars Rebels shows a lot of the same symptoms of CGI on a TV budget (like curiously abandoned locales and recycled character models, along with some truly terrible looking Wookiees), but stretching Disney’s dollars as far as they can go ensures that Rebels still looks superb in 1080p high-definition video. I still find physical media to be best for pausing action precisely to catch things in animation, like character reactions in the background or the way you can tell which chair in the Ghost‘s cockpit is Sabine’s. Being able to pump the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack through a decent home theater setup is also a real pleasure, bringing the excellent sound design to life. One element I still get a kick out of is the way every major character’s blaster gets a distinct firing sound so you can tell who’s shooting even in the most chaotic action scenes. By now, John Williams’ soundtrack elements are familiar enough to evoke precise emotional cues as needed, but it also demonstrates how powerful his musical contribution to the Star Wars universe is.
The bonus features on the Blu-ray set are a little disappointing. The best bonus feature are the inclusion of all four of the Rebels short films and all the StarWars.com “Rebels Recon” recaps. The “Rebels Recon” videos are roughly five minutes apiece, but are surprisingly dense looks behind-the-scenes at individual episodes. My only wish-list item would be a marathon-play option that inserts them in between episodes. The remaining bonuses are packed onto disc 2. A 5-minute look at Star Wars Rebels at Star Wars Celebration 2015 is fluffy, even if it does include an adorable moment between executive producer Dave Filoni and a very young fan. Star Wars Rebels: The Ultimate Guide is a half-hour TV special recapping the entire season, which is nice from a completist point of view but also somewhat unnecessary since we have the entire season in our hands already. Fans will probably be most eager to get at the “Rebels Season 2: A Look Ahead” featurette, but while Dave Filoni drops some broad hints, most of the featurette just repackages the trailer/sneak preview released online earlier this year. One nice surprise is the complete lack of forced trailers or other interruptions when inserting either disc, dropping straight into the animated disc menu. However, this lack of interruption is tempered by the annoying way the discs will run the unskippable anti-piracy message before every single episode if you choose to watch them singly.
The absolute best thing I can say about Star Wars Rebels is that it nicely restores the shine to the franchise after the prequel projects added more tarnish than treasure (with the notable exception of Genndy Tartakovsky’s Star Wars: Clone Wars). It’s entirely accessible to newcomers while giving old fans plenty to get excited about. There may be open questions about how this all fits into the larger Star Wars saga (especially the fate of Ezra, given that nobody ever mentioned him in the original trilogy), but at least the series avoids the frequent continuity hiccups and pitfalls that bogged down Star Wars: The Clone Wars and kept it from being all it could have been. It’s a fabulous first step back to the galaxy far, far away and makes me optimistic again for Star Wars: The Force Awakens later this year.