Star Wars Rebels is the first of two animated pilots on the project list, and one of the very few that my wife and I had planned to try anyway. She’s a longtime dedicated Star Wars fan with an Expanded Universe emphasis, as are some of my oldest internet cohorts. Together we watched nearly every episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars until its abrupt cancellation. We number among the many thousands of fans waiting impatiently and vainly for closure on the life of former Jedi Padawan Ahsoka Tano. Regardless, we’d look and feel weirder if we didn’t give the new show a try.
Far as I can tell, nearly everyone who’ll love any media product with the words “Star Wars” on it has given the show an A for existing. So far to me, it’s Firefly for kids. There’s some good and some less-good in that.
I waited a bit before reviewing it because I wasn’t sure which section of it counted as the “pilot” for our project purpose. The new characters were introduced in four online shorts you can watch for free on the official sites either at starwars.com or at disneyxd.disney.com. Two weeks ago came the premiere on the Disney Channel with Spark of Rebellion, which was advertised as a “special” as opposed to a pilot or a premiere. Minutes later Rebellion was given a rush DVD release and is now on sale at your local Walmart. Last Monday came the first standard episode, “Droids in Distress”, in its regular time slot on Disney X.D. rather than on the Disney Channel. On top of all that, an extended edition of Rebellion will on October 26th on ABC. Viewers without cable or DVD players may appreciate it most, but SW completists have to tune in if they want to see newly added scenes, including a cameo from the James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader.
I feel like singling out any one of these products as a capital-P Pilot for project purposes is more thinking than I should have to put into this. The shorts are easy enough to set aside — they’re quick action-scene intros for each of the main characters, not really intended for academic Pass/Fail conversations. They’re tidy pop singles to teach you all the character names and make excitable kids yell “WHEE!” for three minutes. Four side quests completed.
Spark of Rebellion is the closest we have to an origin story for now. Rebels is saving most backstories for later and launching with simple space adventures to get things rolling. Our viewpoint character is Ezra Bridger (Taylor Gray, a.k.a. Bucket from Nickelodeon’s short-lived Bucket & Skinner’s Epic Adventures), who is, shamelessly and incontestably, space Aladdin. He’s an orphan living hand-to-mouth with Aladdin’s face, and another character literally calls him “street rat”. I found myself humming “One Jump Ahead” during his chase scenes with the authorities, but couldn’t quite get the pratfalls to match the downbeats.
Soon he’s whisked off-planet and introduced to a hardy crew of space smugglers who likewise scrounge to survive, and aren’t afraid to resort to illegal means to do it. Most of them seem to be character types voted into the show by the Star Wars Fanfic Writers Union: there’s the reluctant, secret Jedi (Scooby-Doo‘s Freddie Prinze, Jr.); the strong female Mandalorian (Tiya Sircar, whom I just saw the other night in 17 Again); the furry, cocky nonhuman (ubiquitous voice artist Steve Blum); the ship’s Twi’lek pilot, who doesn’t have to be a white guy and therefore isn’t (Vanessa Marshall, a voice artist I didn’t recognize, but she’s apparently everywhere); and the mandatory droid — the astromech C1-10P, nicknamed Chopper, who has a pair of wiry arms installed in his head because after R2D2 the animators probably think they’ve run out of ways to lend expressiveness to a character that’s basically a large rolling salt shaker.
Together our heroes fly around the galaxy looking for odd jobs to do, mostly smuggling, mostly for the slowly gestating Rebel Alliance. They stay on the down-low to avoid capture by the nefarious Empire, who don’t yet feel like evil conquerors so much as they feel like just another version of The MAN. Their mouthpiece, as played by film actor David Oyelowo (last seen in Rise of the Planet of the Apes), is a villain with the silly name Kallus, who probably has henchmen named Blystyr, Kanker, and Wortt. He reports to a supervisor known only as the Inquisitor, who thus far has appeared once as a grouchy hologram. Since the Inquisitor has the voice of Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy!) I trust his presence will dominate over time and hold our attention while Emperor Palpatine remains offstage.
The ruff-‘n’-tumble protagonist scalawags manning the Starship Ghost seem likeable at face value. It’s not a bad idea to focus on smaller, character-driven tales as a change of pace from the Clone Wars approach of hopping around space-time on the broader canvas. On the downside, the animation is noticeably scaled back and lacks those Clone Wars visual moments of “WOW” that were all the best parts of its epic space battles, bombastic land skirmishes, and exotic landscapes. Nowhere is the cost-cutting more apparent than in Spark of Rebellion, in which one of the MacGuffins is a cute baby Wookiee whose entire tribe was cursed with plastic Lego fur. The stories are kept basic for the younger viewers and even a little recycled, as in the large portions of “Droids in Distress” that rehash the Clone Wars episode where it was so cute watching two astromech droids with attitudes flailing and sqwonking at each other. It’s like peering in on a domestic slap-fight between Mr. Salt and Mrs. Pepper from Blue’s Clues.
I get that the show is clearly aimed at a new generation of fans and not us old-timers. That’s perfectly understandable. I’m not one of those older fans who insists all intellectual properties from my childhood must continue to cater to me and only me at the exclusion of new audiences. My wife and I are content to continue following along for now for the sake of discussion, but we reserve the right to abandon ship at any time because nothing about this is mandatory for us. However, if Rebels truly is more for kids than for adult collectors, I have three issues with that:
1. Way back in the original Star Wars trilogy, whenever the Rebel Alliance committed various acts of espionage and theft and mayhem and mass murder of all those bad guys on the Death Star (thousands? millions?), they were pardoned because their acts were in the name of war (cf. that iconic title!) against the horrifying monsters responsible for the obliteration of Alderaan and its billions of citizens, to say nothing of all who were butchered retroactively in the Prequels Trilogy. They were like young America in the American Revolution with a long-term justifiable cause, albeit with a much higher body count. All we’ve seen out of the cast of Rebels is a lot of theft and smuggling so they can get paid, just like the crew of the Serenity. The fact that their targets just so happen to be Evil seems very much incidental. We’ve not yet witnessed them refusing to steal from innocents, and I’ve seen nothing to prove they would refuse. Kids who aren’t old enough to understand what an “antihero” is might need an additional talk or two between episodes, until and unless they all join the Rebel Alliance full-time as believers in the cause and not as amoral mercenaries.
2. Where there’s a kiddie cartoon, there’s a toy line. The initial launch wave of Rebels action figures will number six in all: the two human male heroes, two evil males, the droid, and an always-male Stormtrooper because heaven forbid Hasbro go for six months without producing Stormtroopers. Even though the decidedly not-male Sabine and Hera are front and center on the team, someone corporate thinks they’re not good enough to be action figures yet, if ever. Because clearly action figures are for boys only, and real girls who like Star Wars are waiting for the twelve-inch Sabine and Hera dolls that come with assorted space outfits and some space snacks to bring to pitch-ins at Barbie’s Dream House.
(I could insert any number of paragraphs here from the millions of women who’ve been Star Wars fans for decades, many of whom still spend big bucks on toys and on adult merchandise at Her Universe. Or my wife could expound at length on the Star Wars toy sexism she encountered in her youth. But you get the idea.)
3. The entire point of Luke Skywalker’s existence in A New Hope is that he’s the very last hope for the revival of the Jedi Order because by that time all the rest are dead except for the exiled Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, both of whom are over the hill and have no other pupils available in all of existence. (And, I guess, Leia isn’t as gifted as Luke or whatever.) Rebels has already introduced us to two new Jedi, and I won’t be surprised if more are waiting in the wings. Unless the showrunners are happy with totally undercutting Luke’s special meaning in the original Star Wars trilogy for the sake of inventing awesome new Jedi toys, that means sooner or later all these new Jedi are doomed. Whether this means individual tragic kills at random points like The Walking Dead or a surprise Red Wedding group Jedi slaughter, either way those new fans will need to hurry up and mature some more so they can handle watching when it’s time in a few years for their favorite action figures to die.
(For more information on the MCC 2014 Pilot Binge project, please visit the initial entry for the rationale, the official checklist of pilots, and links to completed entries as we go. Thanks for reading!)