Warning: this post contains spoilers for Season 1 of Star Wars Rebels.
Anyone who knows me, or has spent any time perusing this website, probably knows I’m a big Star Wars fan. I have been since I first watched the trilogy on VHS (a late-nighter with a cousin, and I fell asleep during the last half hour of Return of the Jedi). I’m not old enough to have seen the original trilogy in theaters, and I was in high school when The Phantom Menace came out in 1999. I actually made the premiere showing of Revenge of the Sith and wound up sitting in the front row. I spent the first twenty minutes of the movie (the opening starfighter sequence, plus a little recovery time) motion sick from watching it at a weird angle.
The Star Wars media marched on, most notably in the TV show Star Wars: The Clone Wars. This isn’t a post for getting deep into that show, but suffice to say, I didn’t like some of the choices they made. Mostly, I found it lacked the sense of adventure that the original trilogy had evoked. It felt more like the reimagined Battlestar Galactica with a Star Wars skin, and the themes and level of violence felt a bit inappropriate for a kids’ show. (Don’t get me wrong, I liked BSG; but it should be and is a different beast from Star Wars.)
The great Disney buyout happened, The Clone Wars ended, and a new show was announced: Star Wars Rebels. (Look at that! I got to my subject by the third paragraph!)
I was rather skeptical at the start, mostly because of The Clone Wars. Setting it in the original trilogy period seemed like a great idea, but as more details started trickling my skepticism grew. A Jedi character central to the cast in a show set after the Jedi had been wiped out? A pink Mandalorian graffiti artist? An alien from a species we haven’t even seen before (sort of – it was based on concept art for the Wookiees)? A random street kid thief? Okay, I bought the pilot character and the astromech droid, but that’s two out of six.
I didn’t watch the shorts before the Season 1 premiere (which was a good thing, or I might not have watched the one-hour opener). My wonderful wife and I settled in to watch, though, and we were both prepared to dislike it. (Incidentally, my wife liked The Clone Wars even less than I did, though she’s a Star Wars fan as well.)
An hour and several bowls of popcorn later, and we were both stunned. We actually liked it.
Even more stunning, I liked the Jedi character, Kanan.
Side note: as I’ve grown older, I have found I dislike Jedi more and more. I don’t have some Karen Traviss-level hatred; I’m certainly not going to call fans of Jedi characters Nazis. Rather, I’ve disliked how, more and more throughout the Star Wars Expanded Universe (now Legends; we’ll see if the new canon does this any better) nothing happens without a Jedi being involved. It wasn’t always that bad – for example, the Rebel Alliance in the original trilogy and the old EU was composed of common people and political firebrands who chose to fight the Empire.
Then The Force Unleashed video game and novel happened. Suddenly, no one was willing to act unless a Jedi was involved. The common people never act in their own interest, but rely on the Jedi for, well, everything.
Star Wars Rebels flipped that on its head. The Jedi character, Kanan, is nominally the leader of the resistance group in question, but even in the premiere (and later confirmed in the story) the true leader is actually the pilot, Hera. She’s allowed Kanan to take the public face as leader because he’s a more capable combatant, but she’s the one who actually has all the knowledge.
As the series progressed, we find not only are people capable of acting without the Jedi, they have. Bail Organa is building cells of resistance, using another Jedi as his agent. While the Jedi are certainly important in the grand plan, they are also not necessary – even without Fulcrum or Kanan, the resistance effort would certainly be built.
Early episodes were on the childish side (and hey, this is a kids’ show!) like “Fighter Flight”. Surprisingly, though, the series maintains an extremely strong sense of continuity. Even the seemingly stand-alone and kid-friendly episodes tie into the later plot, and mistakes the crew makes along the way – even those that seem inconsequential, like breaking protocol to use a name instead of a callsign – come back to haunt them.
Surprisingly, the character (as explored thus far) have more depth than would be expected from a kids’ show, particularly on Disney. The aforementioned Kanan is uncertain of his own powers, having hid them away to survive the Jedi purge and only recently begun using them again. While he initially projects an aura of invincibility, the first time he crosses lightsabers with an Imperial Inquisitor shows just how outclassed and out of his depth he is when it comes to actually acting as a Jedi.
Ezra, the boy and the viewers’ hook into the group, has emotional issues ranging from uncertainty to rage to a fear of vulnerability. If Ezra had stood before the old Jedi Council and asked for training, they would’ve tossed him out so fast he would’ve suffered whiplash. And it shows – he’s unintentionally tapped into the dark side of the Force, and his future is very uncertain.
The Twi’lek pilot, Hera Syndulla, has an unexplored past but a delicately approached present. She has a strong sense of duty, to the point she was willing to let Kanan die to prevent her mission and the larger rebellion-in-progress from failing. It wasn’t until her own crew disobeyed her to pursue Kanan that she was willing to take a chance on saving him.
Zeb (Garazeb Orrelios, but only to his mother and to Hera when she’s chewing him out) is one of the few survivors of the genocide of his people. He burns with hatred toward the Imperial agent responsible for the deaths of his people, and pursuing vengeance nearly kills him in the first regular episode of the series. He’s a bit of a loose cannon, but he can generally be talked down by his own allies.
Chopper, the token astromech droid on the crew, is a bit of a controversial character. While he does the usual R2-D2 type work by fixing the ship and generally going places only droids can go, he’s acted in ways that endanger the crew. He was indirectly responsible for the near-death of Hera and Sabine in “Out of Darkness” and Ezra’s fall off the Ghost in “Rise of the Old Masters”, and was nearly as much harm as help. Perhaps the writing team understood the character was over the line, giving him heroic moments later in Season 1 like summoning a Rebel fleet in “Fire Across the Galaxy” to save his crew.
Sabine is the final major protagonist, and the least explored. There are hints she was at one point an Imperial and had been betrayed, but only hints – hopefully hints that are followed up on in Season 2. She’s the team’s demolitions expert and very good with blaster pistols, though the latter actually nearly gets her killed in the Season 2 premiere, “Siege of Lothal”.
The show isn’t perfect by any means; the Empire seems extraordinarily incompetent, though the arrival of actually dangerous characters makes the incompetence rather blatant. And while the show was very light-hearted in early episodes in spite of subject matter (arms trafficking, for example), it becomes far more serious when the Inquisitor arrives and is shown to be a danger to the crew. A later episode turns even more serious when Tarkin shows up and summarily has two Imperial officers executed (off-screen but heard) for incompetence, and Kanan is captured and tortured.
The show started out very light, but by the end of Season 1 there were complaints that the show was violating the spirit if not the letter of its TV-Y7 rating.
Do I recommend it? Absolutely. It brings back the spirit of the original trilogy – the sense of adventure, the mystery of the Force, the danger of an Empire unchecked, and the heroic spirit of those who oppose it.
If you’re concerned about your young children watching it, I’d recommend screening episodes in advance. There are certain sequences and scenes that could be disturbing for young children.