Star Wars Rebels has a problem, one that was severely magnified in the last two months. It’s a cute little show, entertaining in its own right, and it fills in that annual Star Wars void between movies by giving us a weekly dose of the action. It’s also filling in some of that unexplored gap between Episodes III and IV. However, the increasing problem with the show is that it’s becoming very, very apparent that it’s also very subordinate to Episode IV, and thanks to a cute cameo, it’s now married to Rogue One. The show is good, but the problem is that we fans pretty much know how this series is going to turn out.
In case you’re one of the few people who isn’t familiar: Star Wars Rebels is a weekly animated series on Disney X D which explores the lives of a Rebel cell set about five years before Episode IV. At the outset, the show was very new and yet familiar, playing off recognizable concepts to Star Wars fans and yet bringing in moderately original characters and designs. The show mostly revolves around a surviving Jedi (Kanan Jarrus) taking on a teenage apprentice (Ezra Bridge) who’s discovered his growing force powers. Teamed with a Twi’lek pilot (Hera Syndulla), a Mandalorian artist (Sabine Wren), a surly wookie-type brawler (Zeb) and a little bastard droid (Chopper), the team fights Stormtroopers and Imperials and runs covert missions against the mighty galactic empire. Conceptually, this is all well and good, and the first season tended to run more original than not.
Obi-Wan Kenobi once told Luke Skywalker that learning the force was “step[ping] into a larger world.” Star Wars Rebels frequently does this by stepping into the larger Star Wars lore, but in doing so, it very much limits itself to what’s actually a shrinking world. It increasingly seems like every week, the show necessitates the appearance of a guest character from either the movies or the predecessor Clone Wars animated series, to which Rebels has some very overt ties.
Rebels has run 50 episodes to date (officially, hour-long episodes are two episodes sandwiched together). Of those episodes, they’ve included the following characters from the films: Darth Vader, Darth Maul, Palpatine, Yoda, Princess Leia, R2-D2, C-3PO, Lando Calrissian, Wedge Antilles, “Hobbie” Klivian, Bail Organa, Grand Moff Tarkin, and just last week, Saw Gerrera. From the Clone Wars cartoons, they’ve also included Ahsoka Tano, Captain Rex, Hondo Onaka, Cham Syndulla (Hera’s father), and probably a bunch of others that I can’t think of. A few of these are cameos; most are not, and tend to dominate an entire episode. A few of these characters have had repeat appearances or are even semi-permanent additions to the cast. In other words, Rebels is frequently less about the journey of the main characters, and more of a “guest star of the week” show.
What’s worse–I’ve reflected on this before in my weekly reviews of the show–is that Rebels is frequently torn between both wrapping up the past of the Star Wars saga or setting up its future. With respect to the past: well, since Disney cancelled Clone Wars before the show had a proper wrap up, it was inevitable that Rebels would pick up its unanswered threads. What happened to Ahsoka? Well, she hung around, grew up, and became a Rebel, and now she’s on the show. OK, but what about Rex? Hung around, grew old, Rebel. Darth Maul? Still around. The Battle Droids? Still ar–ok, we get it. This stuff isn’t stopping. An episode airing in two weeks is going to deal with Sabine’s connection to some Mandalorian matters that are also unfinished from the old show.
Keeping Darth Maul around as an antagonist is simultaneously fun and obnoxious. OK, it’s cool that he’s still around, because he got minimal time in his one film appearance and this show has done some neat stuff with him. But the recent Season 3 trailer has also shown that he’ll finally confronting Obi-Wan Kenobi and…well, look. Rebels is set two years before A New Hope and Obi-Wan is still around at that point. It may be a cool fight, but: we know how this is going to turn out.
This leads me to the show’s other problem: thanks to Rogue One, we have a pretty good idea of where Rebels is going. Rebels got a cute fanservice appearance in last month’s movie with Hera, Chopper, and the Ghost all getting mentions and appearances. That essentially means that at least Hera and Chopper are going to live for the next two years worth of story and end up at the battle of Scarif. (This may also mean they’ll die there–Scarif went really badly for the rebellion at the end.) The shoutout was fun, but now the characters have an identifiably locked-in destiny which is going to limit what the show can do in that time.
Worse is the fates of the show’s two Jedi, Kanan and Ezra. Because this show is set so very close to Episode IV, there’s not much that can be done with them. Kanan and Ezra are probably very likely going to die as well. By the time of the original films, Luke Skywalker is the last Jedi. Before that, he’s training to be one. No one–including Leia, who’s met the Rebels–has ever told Luke “Hey, I know these other two Jedi you should meet.” The show might surprise us, but realistically: this show is going to end with the main characters’ deaths, or at least has to take them off the table to make room for Luke’s story.
What all this means is that Rebels hasn’t had a lot of room to breathe on its own and tell its own story. It has to some degree: there’s been a smattering of episodes focusing on the individual characters with no guest-stars in sight. “The Honorable Ones” and “The Forgotten Droid” are decent episodes which spotlighted specific characters and didn’t get wrapped up in the larger saga’s story. And the show has done a good job this season of bringing in Grand Admiral Thrawn from the Expanded Universe. That’s a great use of a major character who’s not in the movies, allowing for simultaneous fanservice and originality and making a unique story that’s parallel to the film saga, but not anchored to it.
The point is, Star Wars is a big story in an even bigger galaxy. With millions of planets and billions of people, there’s no need for the show to keep dipping back into the guest-star well and continue to make references to the movies. It’s Star Wars. People will keep watching it regardless of whether it continues to overtly insert popular characters into each episode. At this point, Rebels has grown enough that it could stick to the Thrawn story for the remainder of its lifespan and tell a decent, parallel story to the saga with only occasional fanservice guest-stars.
Why doesn’t it? Maybe it’s too much fun to bring in a major guest. Maybe market synergy demands it–the appearance of Saw Gerrera right after the Rogue One release was too obvious. Or maybe Star Wars doesn’t know how to tell any other stories right now. Whatever the issue is, I hope someone from the show’s production is reading this and considers letting the show soar just a little bit higher on its own. It can handle it.