Rebels – Gathering Forces

Fair warning: This episode just aired on DisneyXD tonight and is also available through the DisneyXD app so there are spoilers ahead!!!

Episode 8 – Gathering Forces – Great Moments Overshadowed By a Weak Plot

Ezra Gathering ForcesLast week’s episode, Empire Day, was perhaps the best episode of Rebels to date, and left viewers with an exciting cliffhanger.  Agent Kallus and the Inquistor were in hot pursuit of our heroes, and in danger of capturing them once and for all.  Meanwhile, the renegade Rodian Imperial worker, Tseebo, was about to reveal to Ezra the fate of His mother and father.  Unfortunately, Gathering Forces is an episode which looses focus on the central plot established in Empire Day, and instead focuses on Kanan’s command decision to confront the Inquisitor along with Ezra.  While that subplot works brilliantly on its own, as a conclusion to this two-pary arc, it feels rather clunky and forced.

Our story begins right in the middle of the action where we were left at the conclusion of Empire day.  Our heroes, aboard the Ghost are trying to desperately outrun a group of T.I.E. fighters led by the evil Inquisitor.  The ship is being pummeled by blaster fire and shields have nearly collapsed as Kevin Kiner’s score ratchets up the intensity.  During the battle the Inquisitor manages to launch a tracking device which attaches itself to the hull of the Phantom, a small craft docked on the Ghost.

star-wars-rebels-REB_IA_6354Chopper has been knocked out of the fight and it is up to Ezra to affect repairs so the ship can jump to lightspeed, however Ezra’s skills are a bit limited, but the timely arrival of Tseebo to the cockpit saves the day, and the ship blasts to hyperspace.  However, the crew’s sense of relief is short lived when Tseebo reveals that the Imperials have placed a tracker on the ship.

Hera and Kanan debate the next course of action with Hera recommending the crew stay together to ensure Tseebo is safely delivered to their Rebel contact, the mysterious Fulcrum. However, Kanan believes the best course of action is for he and Ezra to take the Phantom and drop out of lightspeed at the abandoned asteroid base featured in the episode Out of Darkness.  Hera is not convinced (and neither was I… more on that later), but ultimately relents, so Kanan and Ezra prepare to take off as a diversionary tactic.

Meanwhile Ezra is growing increasing frustrated with Tseebo’s presence on the ship.  He soon reveals that Tseebo was in fact responsible for Ezra’s parents disappearing, and had failed in his task to take care of Ezra for his parents.  Ezra clearly resents the impact that Tseebo has had on his life, but quietly admits that if he had not been orphaned he would never have learned how to survive.  Tseebo’s story is made even more tragic as he reveals that all he wants is forgiveness from Ezra, but that appears to be something that is not coming soon.

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In an exciting sequence, the Phantom is detached from the Ghost while still in hyperspace.  Eventually Kanan manages to gain control of the little craft and sets down at the old abandoned Clone Wars era asteroid base.  Kanan informs his young Padawan that he will have to use his training and reach out and control the minds of the vicious shadow beasts before the Imperials arrive.  However, Ezra is filled with fear, and at first cannot control the creatures, but in this moment Kanan uses his fear of the beasts to conquer his real fear… that he will learn the truth about his parents.  He is finally able to summon up his courage and overcome that fear, and in a very powerful scene reaches out to Tseebo through the Force and tells his old family friend that he is forgiven.  Having overcome this fear Ezra is now able to control the shadow beasts.

Just then, the Inquisitor and his troops arrive only to find Ezra and Kanan defended by a large den of dark critters… all hell breaks loose.

star-wars-rebels-REB_IA_6451Kanan and the Inquisitor face of in a quick, but intense duel with the Inquisitor quickly getting the upper hand, and almost toying with Kanan along the way.  With a powerful Force push he hurtles the Jedi away, and turns his attention to Ezra.  Alone now, and once again faced with fear, and now anger as he sees his Master unconscious at his feet, Ezra channels his power to a much darker place.  The Inquisitor even eggs the young apprentice on, and goads him into tapping into the Dark Side.  Ezra does just that, summoning what appears to be the queen of the shadow beasts, and enormous creature which dwarfs the other creatures.  Ezra commands the beast to attack the Inquisitor.  Meanwhile, Ezra gathers up his Master and they run to the Phantom making their escape, and disabling the Inquisitor’s shuttle in the process.

Meanwhile, back on the Ghost, the crew delivers Tseebo to Fulcrum (whom we never meet), and we are once again left to wonder the fate of Ezra’s parents as we cut away right at the moment Tseebo is about to tell Hera what happened.  It’s a frustrating tease which really feels drawn out now for no good reason.  Finally, Kanan and Ezra are reunited with the crew, but Ezra has a lot on his mind and doesn’t appear to be quite ready to hear about his parents just yet.  In the poignant final scene of the episode, Sabine presents Ezra with a gift for his birthday (member last episode we learned Ezra’s birthday was on Empire Day); a cleaned up holographic picture of Ezra with his parents before the Empire arrived at Lothal.  Those were clearly happier times, and it’s a fitting conclusion to the arc.

The Good:

star-wars-rebels-REB_IA_6480Gathering Forces concludes with a great light saber duel between Kanan and the Inquisitor.  The choreography of the fight is very dynamic with the Inquisitor uses a technique very akin to traditional fencing versus Kanan’s slightly less elegant style.  This works perfectly with the Inquisitor’s arrogant attitude and leaves the viewer with the impression that the Inquisitor is simply toying with Kanan and has the upper hand.

Ultimately the Inquisitor dispatches Kanan with minimal fuss, leaving Ezra alone to handle the dangerous Dark Side Force user.  In a very powerful moment, Ezra reaches out with the Force in his anger and rage and summons the queen of the shadow beasts and directs it to attack the Inquisitor.  There’s some great animation as the air literally seems to stand still as wave of the Force call out to the creature, and Kanan’s face is filled with dread as he knows exactly what power his young Padawan has tapped into.

Freddie-Prinze-JrThis episode is also chock full of terrific performances; Gathering Forces may very well be the best acted episode of the series to date.  In particular, Taylor Gray, Freddie Prinze, Jr., and Jason Issacs turn in some tremendous work building up the drama and tension of the episode’s terrific finale.  Issacs turns in his usual deliciously villainous work with the Inquisitor, spewing out his venomous lines with a nasty haughtiness which really makes you love and hate him simultaneously.

But Freddie Prinze, Jr. in particular  really seems to have found his voice in Kanan and brings a tremendous amount of depth to the role in Gathering Forces.  His love of Samurai and martial arts films really comes through in his work as Ezra’s Master.  Yet there is also edginess to the role which suggests that in many ways he’s flying by the seat of his pants, and is probably in a little over his head.  Kanan is slowly emerging as my favorite character of the show, and a great deal of that is in part to Freddie Prinze, Jr.’s  acting chops.

The Bad:

star-wars-rebels-REB_IA_6454Unfortunately, Gathering Forces is saddled with a fairly ridiculous plot which strains the limits of logic, and makes Kanan come across a little selfish.  The crew realizes their ship is being tracked by the Empire through hyperspace with a device attached to the hull of the Phantom, the small craft which is docked with the Ghost. Hera immediately concludes they should ditch the Phantom leaving it for the Imperials to find while they continue to make their way to rendezvous with Fulcrum and deliver Tseebo and his secrets to the Rebels.  Kanan immediately overrules this and decides that it would be best for him and Ezra to leave the ship in the Phantom and lead the Imperials on a wild goose chase.  Kanan suggests that the Inquisitor won’t stop pursuing the Ghost as long as the two Jedi are on board

However, this really makes no sense, as we’ve seen no evidence in the show at all that the Inquisitor can track our heroes’ location through the Force.  He may get odd premonitions, but nothing that would lead him to discovering the Ghost crew had pulled one over on him until they were far away.  Also, as we’ve seen through numerous episodes, the crew works better when they are a team, and all work as one.  Whenever characters get separated from the rest of their comrades, that’s when the trouble starts, and you can see that as a theme in practically every episode.  A united family makes a stronger force for good than a fractured one.

Rebels-Questions-from-the-Past-SW_f9772f18Ditching the Phantom makes the most logical sense, and allows our intrepid band to complete their mission in the shortest amount of time possible.  Remember, Tseebo and the Imperial secrets he holds in his cybernetics are vitally important.  But Kanan’s decision to make his “last stand” at the abandoned asteroid base only makes matters worse and is a very questionable decision too.  Regardless of the crew’s experiences in Out of Darkness, the Empire is unaware of this location and it could still be of use as a secret location for drop offs with Fulcrum.  The crew would simply need to be cautious, and now that they are aware of the danger it would still be a suitable location to conduct drop offs.  But now that option is completely off the table as the Imperials know of the location.

Kanan’s decision to leave the Ghost and take the Phantom simply comes across as a little reckless and a decision based more on emotion and a desire to confront the Inquisitor and stop him.  That doesn’t seem very Jedi-like.  Rather than focus on the mission of delivering Tseebo and the Imperial secrets he stole to their Rebel contacts, Kanan is almost going out of his way to place himself and his Padawan in harm’s way.  And to make matters even worse he really places Ezra is a very dangerous spot by making him try to control the shadow critters who inhabit the mountain at the asteroid base.  So, far we’ve only seen Ezra fail at trying to control one lone, wild Lothal cat; this is not the time to test his young apprentice, especially as the Imperials are fast approaching.  I simply found the plan to be foolhardy and reckless given the stakes if the crew failed to deliver Tseebo safely.

Rebels-107-Gathering-Forces_9d8960e2Ultimately, what really bothered me about Gathering Forces is that the episode did not feel like the conclusion of the story which started in Empire Day.  Once Ezra and Kanan leave the Ghost this almost come across as a one off episode, and the payoff to the story that was being laid in Empire Day comes across as an afterthought.  We gets hints and suggestions to who Fulcrum is, we are teased, once again, regarding the fate of Ezra’s parents, but ultimately there’s no conclusion as we divert attention from the main plot of delivering vital stolen Imperial data to the Rebels to a lightsaber duel on a remote asteroid.  It makes for a poorly thought out conclusion to the story, as if the writers really didn’t know how to wrap up the story, or had simply run out of time to tell a self contained episode and padded the story to stretch it out to two episodes.

Unfortunately Kanan’s plan leads to another beef I’m beginning to have with the show… the reuse of character and location models.  The decision to return to the abandoned asteroid base almost comes across as a cheat, and a means to finish the arc on the cheap by reusing a location they’ve already visited.  Now to be fair, in the early days of an computer animated series your are going to reuse characters and locations until you can build up enough assets to populate worlds with a variety of animals, plants, and locations.  But Kanan’s plan already felt needlessly forced, and this just highlighted the frequent criticism among some fans that the show appears to be made with a modest budget compared to The Clone Wars.  This is not necessarily a fair comparison, but Clone Wars raised the bar so high that it makes the show’s visual shortcomings stand out like a sore thumb.

Rebels_112414_1600Having said all that, Gathering Forces has some of the most stunning visuals of the series to date.  In particular the lightsaber duel on the asteroid base is a visual treat as is the opening space battle.  There are some terrific, visually dynamic moments in the episode that are almost on par with the films, and it is clear Dave Filoni and crew understand the visual language of Star Wars, there are just some areas they need to tighten up to reach the visual quality of storytelling they aspire to.

Overview: Gathering Forces is one of the most frustrating episodes of the show to date.  There are some really great character moments in this episode and the final confrontation between the Inquisitor, and our Jedi duo, Kanan and Ezra, is superbly crafted.  However, Kanan’s plan to save Tseebo makes no logical sense and comes across as just an excuse to set up a story which will end in a lightsaber duel.  The result makes Gathering Forces feel less like a continuation of Empire Day, and more like a self contained episode which just happened to reference it.  Loose plot threads are left everywhere, and we are never really given a proper payoff for Tseebo in the episode’s conclusion.  Unfortunately, his story and the fate of Ezra’s parents will have to wait for another episode.

NOTE:  If Gathering Forces was a standalone episode only focusing on Kanan and Ezra’s confrontation with the Inquisitor this would have rated much higher, as those elements alone work quite well.  However, I’m grading this as part two of an arc, and compared to Empire Day this episode is simply a weak conclusion.

7 of 10

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Rebels – Empire Day

Fair warning: This episode has yet to air on DisneyXD and is available through the DisneyXD app so there are SPOILERS ahead!!!

Episode 7 – Empire Day – Henry Gilroy to the Rescue

After stumbling last week with the very forgettable episode, Out of Darkness, Rebels rebounds with a stellar follow up, Empire Day.  Veteran Clone Wars writer Henry Gilroy pens another gem of an episode that is filled with danger, intrigue, excitement, and larger themes that are a staple of Star Wars story telling.

Ezra and KananAs our story opens, the crew finds themselves in a small town outside of Capital City.  While Hera, Sabine, and Zebb make their way into town, Ezra and Kanan take in a quick bit of Jedi training.  Kanan’s tries to teach his young Padawan how to connect to other living things through the Force, but Ezra is lost in thought and he finally reveals to his Master that today in Empire Day, and clearly the meaning of that day has a profound effect on Kanan’s young student.

Kanan and Ezra make their way to the local cantina where they find the rest of their crew.  They also find trouble in three Imperial T.I.E. pilots who arrive at the bar and accost the local patrons demanding they reveal the whereabouts of a Rodian they are looking for.  The pilots also demand the bar owner turn on the Holo Net, the Empire’s nonstop propaganda network, and orders the patrons to raise their glasses in a toast to the Emperor.  It’s a great scene which shows just how intrusive the Empire has become in the average citizen’s life, and how fed up many citizens are with their Imperial overseers.  Some appear willing to risk subtle defiance, but whether these civilians will be spurred to seditious action is another thing altogether.Capital City

Ezra immediately recognizes the Rodian the Imperials are looking for as an old family friend named Tseebo.  He quickly flees the scene returning to his makeshift “home” in an abandoned communications tower outside Capital City.  There, Ezra revisits ghosts from the past as he recalls the words of his mother and father.  It is clear the Bridger family was sympathetic to the Rebel cause and actively aided some in resisting the power of the Empire.  Ezra realizes that he must locate Tseebo, and he’s pretty sure he knows where the Rodian is hiding out.

Tie Advanced 2Ezra reunites with the rest of the Ghost crew who have returned to Capital City.  Imperial Forces are showing off their military might in a traditional Empire Day parade, and local Imperial officials roll out the latest T.I.E. Advanced that will begin coming off the assembly line soon; but the Ghost crew has a surprise in store.  After distracting the crowd and the Imperials with an impressive fireworks display, courtesy of Sabine, Kanan detonates a bomb he placed aboard the prototype fighter sending the crowds running in a panic.

The Imperials give chase as the Rebels try to make it back to their ship, however Stormtroopers have blocked off many of the roads forcing our heroes into hiding.  Ezra leads the crew to an abandoned building which has been condemned by the Imperials… Ezra uses an old key card and the doors to the building open.  We realize this was once Ezra’s home.

Ezra finds Tseebo hiding in the basement of the building.  Inquisitor 2The Rodian’s mind is a jumbled mess since the Empire implanted cybernetics in his brain to increase his productivity.  These implants contain secrets into the Empire’s plans in the Outer Rim as well as detailed schematics of new Imperial weaponry which explains why the Empire is so desperate to find the runaway Rodian.  While Ezra appears to want to help the Tseebo, he also seems to be highly suspicious of the Rodian as Ezra reveals that Tseebo began working directly for the Empire shortly after his parents disappeared.

Kanan vs KallusKanan concludes that the crew MUST get Tseebo off world, so Kanan, Sabine, and Ezra make a break for the ship which is waiting for their call.  The Imperials are in hot pursuit led by Agent Kallus and the Inquisitor.  Eventually our heroes board a Troop Transport and will rendezvous with the Ghost for pick up.  The episode concludes in an amazing action sequence with the crew hurtling down a freeway as the Ghost comes in to pick them up.  Meanwhile, the Inquisitor, flying one of the T.I.E. Advanced fighters is giving chase while Kallus tries to prevent the Rebels from boarding their ship.

Meanwhile, Tseebo reveals to Ezra that he knows what really happened to Ezra’s parents…

FADE TO BLACK

Quick Observations:

The Good:

Henry GilroyHenry Gilroy once again turns in a stellar script filled with tension, mystery and wonderful character moments which give us a deeper insight into Ezra’s past and what motivates him.  The reveal that Empire Day is not only the birthday of the Empire, but of Ezra himself, packs an emotional wallop.  In addition we learn that Ezra’s parents actively resisted the Empire which explains a lot of Ezra’s initial hesitancy to join up with the crew.  Ezra wasn’t playing the “tough guy” part when he first refused to help the Rebels; Ezra likely blames himself for his parents disappearance in some way, and the fact that he shares the same birthday as the Empire probable adds to his feelings that somehow he was the catalyst to all of this madness on Lothal.  It’s very weighty stuff, and gives the episode a deeper emotional meaning as not only does Empire Day commemorate the arrival of that destructive force on the galaxy, but it also signifies the rise of Ezra Bridger, a character that promises to have his own impact on the galaxy at large.

Empire Day is the best written episode of the show to date, and Henry Gilroy seems to be especially adept at writing in George Lucas’ enormous universe.  He understands how to weave plot, action, and character into the broader themes that make Star Wars stories work.  As a full time producer/writer on the series going forward, it is clear that Star Wars Rebels is in good hands.  One Star Wars fan put it, “Can we just nominate Henry Gilroy to write every episode of Rebels?”  I wholeheartedly agree.

APeter MacNicolnother great addition to Rebels is the arrival of the multi-part arc!  Hurray!  Finally, the writers get some room to breath and tell longer stories with deeper layers without limiting the story to 22 minutes.  I was actually getting worried at the 15 minute mark that the producers were going to try to cram the finale in the remaining moments when there were multiple story threads still to be resolved.  Fortunately the screen faded out, and the words “To Be Continued…” graced the screen… cliffhanger.  And what a great cliffhanger it was.  What will Tseebo reveal about the fate of Ezra’s parents, will Agent Kallus and the Inquisitor be able to stop our heroes, what exactly is the Empire’s Five Year Plan for the Outer Rim?  Fortunately many of these answers will have to wait until next week, and I couldn’t be happier.

This episode also featured some tremendous vocal performances by our main cast, and from veteran actor, and guest star, Peter MacNicol as Tseebo, family friend of the Bridger’s and keeper of the Empire’s secrets.  MacNicol gives a performance that is at times both funny and heartbreaking, but always tinged with some sadness as we come to realize Tseebo has lost what “humanity” he had left thanks to the cybernetics the Empire implanted in his brain. MacNicol’s Tseebo is a tragic figure stripped of his individuality except for brief moments of lucidity, and he is Ezra’s one tie to unlocking the secrets of his past.

Tiya SircarTaylor Gray turns in another stellar performance as Ezra, but the actor that really caught my eye this time around was Tiya Sircar.  Generally, I’ve found her work in Rebels to be fairly flat and limited, but like I’ve said before I suspected this was more a result of poor writing for her character rather than any lack of ability on Sircar’s part.  Thankfully, Empire Day gives Sabine some real meat to work with, and Sircar turns in a stellar performance.  There’s a great moment where Sabine is forced to punch a Stormtrooper in the head in a bit of close quarters fighting.  The blow clearly hurts and while shaking off the pain in her fist she wryly comments, “I miss Zeb.”  It’s a great little character scene that was missing from many of the previous episodes.  In addition, Sircar does a great job of conveying Sabine’s sympathy for Ezra when we learn about his past.  There’s a thoughtfulness and sense of compassion in her delivery which leaves the viewer want to know more about Sabine’s own backstory.  It’s by far Sircar’s best work on the show.

The Bad:

I only have two minor quibbles about this episode that did nothing to distract me from the enjoyment of the story.

SabineThe limited character models on the show, and the sheer audacity of the plans of our heroes make it extremely hard for me to believe the Empire would really have that difficult a time locating the Ghost and its crew.  From what we’ve seen of Lothal there’s the capital city surrounded by a number of small locales and farming communities, however, the crew jumps around from town to town without a care of being spotted.  In the pilot episode it was established the Ghost was able to change its transponder code (basically its license plate) at any time allowing the ship to be identified as another ship.  But how many freighters are crewed by a Lasat and a Mandalorian with brightly colored armor.

The crew attacked the Imperial Academy on Lothal, rescued Wookiees in the Spice Mines of Kessel, escaped from a high security Imperial detention facility, and destroyed a critical component in the manufacturing of the Death Star’s super laser (although they were unaware of it), wouldn’t the Imperials have sent in mass forces by now to root out these Rebels and capture them?  It just seems odd at this point that the Rebels crew has the ability to freely roam Lothal without the threat of being recognized.  Don’t get me wrong, this is a minor annoyance, and I’m still able to suspend my disbelief to a degree, but it seems to me that the limited budget of the show is actually hurting its ability to tell stories in the most effective manner possible.TIE Advanced

My only other issue with this episode is the almost complete lack of Hera in this adventure.  Hera appears briefly in two scenes, but for most of the episode she is stuck watching the ship so she is really not involved in the show’s action and is mostly relegated to being a disembodied voice on a comm channel.  There are a couple of quiet moments that come across a little weird as Sabine takes on the “ship’s mom” role when talking to Ezra about his past on Lothal.  The scenes still work, but it just seems a little odd that Hera could not be included in these moments.

Overview:

Although this episode gets a slightly lower score than Breaking Ranks, Empire Day is my favorite episode of the series to date.  It has a wonderfully engaging plot with a lot of great character reveals for Ezra.  The action scenes are dynamic and exciting, and once again Kevin Kiner hits it out of the park with a stellar score.  My only minor quibbles were some odd pacing issues in the beginning, and Hera’s inexplicable absence, but those minor gripes aside, Empire Day is an outstanding addition to the lore of Star Wars, and gives viewers an insight into daily life in the Empire living in the Outer Rim.

9 of 10

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