The 2014–2018 animated Star Wars series Rebels can be a hard sell to fans.
On first look it’s a colourful, kiddy take on the Star Wars universe; the animation style tends towards large eyes and toy-like proportions, and it all looks very un-Star Wars and quite a lot like a toy commercial. Under this veneer though, Rebels is a lovingly-crafted dose of pure Star Wars, bringing lots of much-loved non-canon material into official Star Wars canon, addressing many questions and speculations that fans have been throwing around since 1977, and even gently poking fun at the more absurd elements of the Star Wars franchise. All this is built around a core of space dogfights, lightsaber duels, blaster fights, speeder chases, roguish smugglers, heroic patriots, rousing John Williams-like scores and a great story — everything any fan can ask for from a Star Wars experience.
That having been said, Rebels isn’t meant to be a traditional Star Wars film experience. From the start the pacing is slower — it’s more thoughtful, and takes plenty of time to explore its themes and build its characters. Each episode in some way contributes to the season arc, and each season builds on the previous one to tell a four-year story about how the Rebellion got the point at which a farm boy could destroy the Death Star. Rebels begins five years before A New Hope, and ends just months before Jyn Erso transmits the Death Star plans from Scarif at the climax of Rogue One, which itself is only a short time before A New Hope begins. In many ways Rebels can be thought of as the backstory to Rogue One and A New Hope.
Expanding the universe
The much-loved Timothy Zahn character Grand Admiral Thrawn, Interdictor Star Destroyers, YT-2400s, Inquisitors, TIE Defenders, and numerous other ships, droids, characters and locations that were once the province of the ‘Expanded Universe’ (the material from decades of novels, comics and games that was never officially part of Star Wars canon, now known as ‘Legends’) are firmly established as canon through the seasons of Rebels. Details that have long been debated by die-hard fans are addressed almost casually, like ‘where exactly does a freighter like the Millenium Falcon carry cargo?’ We find out what happened to all those Clone Wars era ships and equipment, what became of Jedi that survived Order 66, what exactly happened to all those clone troopers and how the Empire became a tyrannical monster, and why it took twenty years for the Rebellion to actually do something about it. Delightfully, there are many moments where it’s clear fans are speaking through the characters:
Kanan: “Do or do not, there is no try.”
Ezra: “What does that even mean? How can I do something if I don’t try to do it?”
Kanan: “…well…see…actually that one always confused me too, but Master Yoda sure used to say it a lot.”
Rebels addresses so many things that have been discussed by fans for years that it’s impossible to even scratch the surface in one article. It takes time to establish that the fledgling rebellion had to steal, beg, and trade for the supplies necessary to actually become the Rebel Alliance — and when Luke jumps in that X-Wing in A New Hope we now know that the ship, the base, the fuel to fly it and all the supplies sitting around came from people working for years to build everything up to the point where a farm boy can jump in a fighter like he’s hopping in a rental car.
Small beginnings lead to big things
Rebels is a lovingly-crafted dose of pure Star Wars.
The planet of Lothal is pivotal to the overall plot of Rebels, and has many of the visual cues we’re all comfortable with seeing in Star Wars — buildings with domed roofs, open markets, speeders zooming around, white-armoured Stormtroopers patrolling the streets. Right from the first episode we’re shown ‘ground level’ Imperial occupation and discover a lot of the internal workings of the Empire, a topic much discussed by fans. We see how the local governors enforce Imperial laws, forcing displaced citizens into makeshift camps — all the result of Moff Tarkin’s iron diktats. The allusion to Nazi-occupied countries in the Second World War can’t be ignored, and much of the action during Season One could be re-skinned as a series about the French Resistance, though with spaceships.
The Ghost (the hero starship) and her crew archetypes quickly resolve into actual characters, and it’s clear this isn’t just a pick ‘n’ mix of Star Wars tropes. The bickering crew of the cramped ship are each running from something, living between the cracks of an oppressive regime, driven to help others. It’s something we’ve not quite seen in official Star Wars before, but it is something that the old Expanded Universe explored in detail: the spaces between the large-scale action of the films.
The pilot and owner of the Ghost, Hera Sindulla, is also the leader of this cell of the Rebellion, trying to find a balance between helping individuals and doing the most good for the most people. There’s the muscle, Zeb (Garazeb Orrelios), who witnessed the Empire massacre his entire race for refusing Imperial rule. Young Mandalorian outcast Sabine Wren is weapons expert and artist, and through her, fans get to explore Mandalorian culture. Chopper is an obsolete, cranky droid salvaged by Hera from a crashed Y-Wing at the end of the Clone Wars. Esra Bridger was orphaned at the start of the occupation and is a ‘street smart’ kid, cast in the mould of Aladdin. Finally, there’s Kanan Jarrus, who was a Jedi Padawan when the Clones carried out Order 66. He’s been in hiding since the death of his master and, unlike many Jedi we’ve seen, is scared and uncertain. It’s difficult not to make the comparison to Joss Whedon’s Firefly during Season One — not because the crew of the Ghost are in any way copies of the crew of the Serenity, but because these rebels evoke the same bickering, loving family vibe as those rebels.
Senator Bail Organa (Leia’s father) makes an appearance on the familiar white corridors of the ‘Blockade Runner’ early on in Season One. This callback to the end of Revenge of the Sith — which in itself is a callback to the opening scenes of A New Hope — is the first of many links between characters from the prequel trilogy, Clone Wars animation, and the chronologically later films. Rebels ties all these scattered threads together, showing how they influenced the formation of the Rebellion. Other appearances to look forward to are Vader himself, Ashoka Tano, Hondo Onaka, Lando Calrissian, Clone Trooper Rex, Saw Gerrera, Wedge Antillies, Leia Organa, Mon Motha, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul to name but a few. These cameos and reprisals help to fill in missing backstory, give characters a close on their personal stories from earlier outings, or set up their characters for later down the line.
The space between light and dark
Towards the midpoint of Season Two there’s a bottle episode that draws heavily from the classic sci-fi film Enemy Mine. Zeb and the Imperial agent Calus are stranded together on a hostile alien world and forced to rely on each other for survival. This is a great example of how well the characters in Rebels are put together; what could easily have been a one dimensional ‘Imperial’ and a fairly simplistic ‘alien warrior’ actually have a full range of motivations, emotions, and history that inform their actions. It’s clear that Calus genuinely believes that the Empire is bringing “peace and security” to a very troubled galaxy and fervently believes in his mission to stop dissidents and rebels that are (for reasons he doesn’t understand) working to destroy order and ‘safety’. The interplay between Zeb and Calus often echoes the discussions between fans in the endless debate over whether the Empire is really intrinsically evil. Rebels has many of these moments, in which the viewer is confronted with questions about the ethics of the Rebellion’s methods or whether every Stormtrooper gunned down by the protagonists is actually a bad guy. Early on Ezra is sent to infiltrate a cadet training group that encourages a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality, heavily implying that Stormtroopers are indoctrinated from a young age; comparisons to the Hitler Youth programme can’t be ignored here. Star Wars is a great vehicle for these kinds of debates, and fans of the franchise will probably still be discussing the ethics of the Rebel Alliance and moral justification of the Tarkin Doctrine long into the future.
Over the course of the four seasons we get to see the spaces between the Imperial occupation and the Rebellion. The Expanded Universe explored the Black Sun, Hutts, and other criminal groups, yet until the recent Solo film we’ve only really seen Jabba the Hutt on screen as the single example of ‘the criminal underworld’. Rebels takes a deep dive into how regular people navigate an increasingly dangerous galaxy, and how the line between crime and survival becomes blurry when the Empire is your governing body. The crew of the Ghost have to contend with groups like the Mining Guild as well as small-scale criminal syndicates and individuals all jostling for scraps. Through the series it starts to become clear why there might be such a large criminal underbelly in the galaxy; smugglers and rogues are almost a necessity for daily life under an Empire that tightly controls and limits legitimate trade.
It binds the galaxy together
The Force has always been a hotly discussed topic amongst fans. Rebels doesn’t shy away from revelations that are later echoed in The Last Jedi and began all the way back in the Clone Wars animation. Kanan encounters a creature called the Bendu, who introduces itself as “the one in the middle” and speaks in mystical tones. Kanan’s conversations with the Bendu seem like the writers and fans debating the nature of the Force, firmly establishing the ‘grey’ nature of beings that aren’t either light or dark. There’s a scene in season four where the Emperor is chanting over what looks very much like a cauldron, suggesting that his Sith abilities might well be augmented by other uses of the Force.
At one point Kanan, Ashoka, and Esra explore an ancient Jedi Temple which introduces the idea that the Force seems to be at least partially sentient on its own — perhaps “the will of the Force” mentioned by Qui-Gon in The Phantom Menace is not a metaphor after all. Kanan meets ‘Temple Guards’ wielding yellow lightsaber blades (the first time this colour is seen in canon) which seem to be both visions and also solid entities. Certain animals seem to be able to tap into the Force, but certainly aren’t Jedi or Sith – there’s certainly a much wider universe out there still. Yoda even appears a couple of times, Force-projecting from Dagobah, significantly foreshadowing a similar (and hotly debated) feat by Luke in the The Last Jedi. These may seem trivial to casual viewers, but to fans these are significant entries into the lore of Star Wars. For many it will be satisfying that Star Wars under Disney has firmly returned the Force to the realms of mysticism and magic, as opposed to George Lucas’ attempt to ‘sciencify’ the Jedi during the Prequel era (midichlorians, anyone?) Others will feel that the Force is perhaps becoming a little too Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Rebels certainly leans more heavily into the mystical side.
Always connections, there are
Season three gives us a moment where ‘old Ben’ sees a silhouette running back to the low domed farmhouse as we hear Aunt Beru calling “Luuuke”. This scene is so very familiar it’s a stark reminder of just how close to A New Hope this is. This is ‘Ben’ Kenobi we see, full Alec Guiness — not the Clone Wars General, but the seasoned, dedicated, aged mentor. This little glance, along with the recording Kanan has of Obi-Wan which plays right at the start of season one, are the only solid links we have to A New Hope, yet by proxy there are so many connections it’s impossible to count: locations, characters, ships, droids, even the way the camera frames shots, are all intrinsically linked back to the 1977 film.
Obi-Wan Kenobi recording:
“This is Master Obi-Wan Kenobi. I regret to report that both the Jedi Order and the Republic have fallen, with the dark shadow of the Empire rising to take their place. This message is a warning and a reminder for any surviving Jedi: trust in the Force. Do not return to the Temple; that time has passed and our future is uncertain. We will each be challenged — our trust, our faith, our friendships. But we must persevere, and in time, a new hope will emerge. May the Force be with you, always.”
By the end of Season Three a large part of the Rebellion is being hounded by Grand Admiral Thrawn almost to destruction, and the usual fluke cards played in Star Wars to snatch victory from defeat fail one by one. The future of the Rebellion looks bleak. The result of this failure leaves the remaining leaders concluding that it was too soon to make a move — this echoes the sentiments expressed in Rogue One, but now we have insight into the seeming cowardice of the Rebel leaders. They did try it, less than two years before Jyn Erso’s call to action, and almost lost everything. Season Four closes the loop and returns to Lothal to complete Ezra’s personal story.
Of course, we know that this isn’t the true end; Chopper, the astromech, can be seen in the background at the Yavin IV base when Jyn arrives. The name ‘General Sindulla’ can be heard over the intercom, too. Later above Scarif, the Ghost can be seen fighting with the fleet to get the Death Star plans out. The crew of the Ghost — Hera, Kanan, Zeb, Sabine, Ezra and Chopper — might not be as famous as the boy from Tatooine or the smuggler and his Wookie companion, but without them the Rebel Alliance would surely have struggled to destroy the Death Star and bring about the end of the Empire.