Most often seen as a cinematic venture, Star Wars has not always been an easy fit with television, even though the immediate successor to the global phenomenon of 1977 was a television event, November 1978’s Star Wars Holiday Special which set the tone for all further small screen adventures, focused on the child rather than the family demographic of the films: the two Ewok adventures Caravan of Courage (1984) and The Battle for Endor (1985), the cartoon series Droids and Ewoks (both 1985-1986) and the various Clone Wars iterations (2003-2005 and 2008-2014).
That predilection remained when Star Wars returned less than triumphantly with a second trilogy of cinematic prequels which carried not only the weight of expectation but the burden of foreknowledge, leading inevitably towards a destination already shown. Perhaps it was for these reasons that in order to reach a wider audience who perhaps had not seen the original films on their initial cinema release these films, particularly The Phantom Menace, featured a correspondingly younger cast, an emphasis on slapstick comedy which clashed with the established tone and a reliance on digital spectacle which overshadowed the meagre plot and slight characters.
Despite long running rumours that George Lucas was planning a major dramatic television show to explore the wider universe only hinted at previously, the announcement in October 2012 that Lucasfilm had been acquired by Disney seemed to affirm the revised direction of Star Wars; in time, a new series of films was announced, the first to be directed by J J Abrams, co-creator of Fringe and most recently director of Star Trek Into Darkness, and a new television show, again a cartoon, to be carried on the Disney Channel, seemed to be affirmation that Star Wars was now forever to be aimed at children.
Created by Simon Kinberg, Dave Filoni and Carrie Beck, Star Wars Rebels is the final piece bridging the gap between the original films and the prequel trilogy, set fourteen years after the death of Anakin Skywalker on Mustafar and five years before his son, Luke Skywalker, would receive a message from his twin sister which would set him on a course to the stars to rescue her.
Writer and producer Kinberg cannot be held solely responsible for the fate that befell his script collaborations on X-Men: The Last Stand or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and having redeemed himself withX-Men: Days of Future Past he is now involved with the forthcoming reboot of The Fantastic Four. Writer and animator Filoni has worked largely in television on Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Clone Wars, where he also voiced the bounty hunter Embo, his sole cinematic venture as director of the feature film based on that animated show.
Opening with the feature length episode Spark of Rebellion, it is apparent from the outset that the show does not look back to the prequels, it looks forward to what is to come, actively channelling the excitement of the summer of 1977 through deliberate use of the original John Williams score and the classic design of that film, Star Destroyers hanging in orbit above the Outer Rim world of Lothal, the familiar scream of TIE Fighters as they patrol the surface.
Young thief Ezra Bridger (Taylor Gray) has eked out a living as his homeworld is stripped of resources by the Empire, but rebellion is in the air as he witness a speederbike patrol expertly ambushed by Kanan Jarrus (Freddie Prinze, Jr), and Sabine Wren (Tiya Sircar). Aiming to steal the same cargo they are, when they are pursued Ezra is reluctantly forced to make his escape with them aboard their freighter Ghost where he is made less than welcome by Kanan, Jarrus and their Lasat enforcer Garazeb Orrelios (Steven Blum), nor do his light fingered tendencies endear him to his new associates once they have escaped into hyperspace.
In contrast to the ponderous prequels, Rebels proceeds with a breathless urgency, speeder chases, dogfights, ambushes, daring rescue missions and acts of bravery and kindness which show the characters at their best and at their most dangerous. The inertialess feel of the technology as established in the original films is perfect for an animated series, and while the character models are basic they serve the purpose, and the environments are crafted to seamlessly segue into what is to come. The inspiration is not only from the established future but also from the deep past which never was, with Zeb and astromech droid C1-10PR (“Chopper”) based on Ralph McQuarrie’s conceptual designs for Chewbacca and R2-D2.
Ezra is the element which most obviously makes it a Disney show, present to appeal to a specific demographic, and he can be annoying, but brought up as a thief he cannot help his actions and nor has he yet learned to trust the crew of Ghost. While in some ways the show would be better without him, as the outsider his questions open up exposition, and he is undeniably preferable to Anakin Skywalker at that age, but while he is the Manga-wide eyes of the young audience it is upon the more experienced characters the success of the show will depend, particularly the enigmatic renegade Jedi Kanan Jarrus.
Contrasting this, Rebels is violent for a cartoon and the dynamism of the animation reminds of the much missed Roughnecks, and with Imperial officers blown into space following a hull breach it certainly dares to go places the normally wholesome Disney doesn’t. Unlike the prequel films, which were triggered by an artificial crisis created by politicians then followed the staggering gullibility of Anakin Skywalker, the most easily manipulated “hero” in science fiction history, Rebels feels as though it actually has a purpose, something to push against. The Empire is fully formed, it is corrupt and evil, and the audience are invited to be part of the uprising against them.
Furthermore, it does not feel like coincidence that though the Ghost may share design features with a YT-1300 freighter, the unfolding ramp and the stacked cargo hold owe less to the Millennium Falcon than they do another famous cargo ship acknowledged as the spiritual descendant of Han Solo’s ship, and certainly the mantra for this show could be taken from either of the taglines of Serenity‘s last screen voyage, “They aim to misbehave” and “Let’s be bad guys,” each of them reminders that above all else, Star Wars was once fun.
These rebels truly are something from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…