Star Wars Comes Home… Marvel Comics

Star Wars #7In an earlier post, I discussed my early love affair with comic books.  They were are part of my regular reading diet along with classics from H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, C.S. Lewis and the like. One of the earliest monthly comic titles I regularly collected was Marvel’s Star Wars which was published back in the late 70s through the mid 80s.  The stories we very hit and miss, but they kept me satiated while I awaited the next big screen adventure.

Luke, Han, and the Princess, now called the Star Warriors in classic Marvel fashion, would travel to strange worlds, fighting the oppression of the evil Galactic Empire.  Looking back at the series for every dud there were a handful of excellent stories like the Shira Brie arc, or Luke’s frequent run ins with the Tagge family.  But like all good things, Marvel’s Star Wars title came to an end, and the further adventures of the Star Warriors would go dormant for a few years.

Tales of the JediFortunately the hiatus did not last long, and Dark Horse Comics took up the Star Wars mantle churning out a regular stream of stories over the span of 24 years.  Like Marvel, sometimes they missed the mark, but by and large Dark Horse’s run was brimming with outstanding Star Wars adventure.  From Dark Empire to Tales of the Jedi to Dark Times, Dark Horse always pushed boundries and explored many eras left untouched by the Saga.  Many Dark Horse stories centered on the early days of the Jedi Order and The Republic, while Star Wars Legacy took Star Wars some 100 years after the end of Return of the Jedi.

However, with the 2012 purchase of Lucasfilm and Star Wars by Disney, there now appeared to be rough weather ahead as Disney owned rival comics publisher, Marvel Comics.  For the next two years Dark Horse dutifully continued releasing new titles, but it was becoming increasingly apparent the Star Wars licensing would be moving again… Star Wars would be coming home.

Following the release of Dark Horse’s final titles, including the very interesting mini series, The Star Wars, which was based on an early draft of the Star Wars screenplay, Disney/Marvel announced their first slate of Star Wars comics.  Two of the titles, Star Wars, and Vader would focus on our heroes and villains in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the Death Star during the Battle of Yavin.  Princess Leia, would be a five issue mini series centered on Leia and her efforts to rescue refugees from her homeworld of Alderaan who escaped the planet’s destruction.  Finally, Kanan: The Last Padawan would be a tie in to the Disney XD show, Star Wars Rebels.  Kanan promised to explore our title character’s days as a Padawan in the Jedi Order, and chronicle just how he escaped Order 66, and took up with the Rebel Alliance.  All of these titles held a certain amount of promise, and appeal to me.

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So rather than do a full blown review for each issue, I’ll give a brief summary of the story so far and my likes and dislikes.  Two of the titles are top notch, one I’ve grown ambivalent about over the course of three issues, and one title I’ve grown very frustrated with and wonder if I will collect it beyond the first storyline.

Star Wars OngoingStar Wars –  The first title released under the new Marvel branding, Star Wars begins strong with a riveting story by Marvel scribe Jason Aaron.  Our heroes have been sent to wreak havoc on an Imperial weapons factory.  The action is fast and the dialog at times seems to channel the actors performances; there are a couple of glaring missteps along the way, but Aaron keeps the story moving.  There’s a great moment when Darth Vader arrives on the scene to thwart the Rebels and hopes to discover the identity of the pilot who destroyed the Death Star.  Suddenly he comes face to face with Luke, but he quickly dispatches the young would be Jedi; Luke realizes he has a long way to go in his training.

While the premiere issue started well enough the next two issue took a bit of a step backwards.  It becomes apparent there’s very little plot in the way of this story, and most of that was presented in Issue #1.  The subsequent two issues came across as nothing more than beautiful action panel after panel, lovingly drawn by John Cassaday.  It’s wonderful to look at, but there’s little in the way of substance.  Hopefully, the title can present a few more stories with some depth; the announcement of a flashback one-shot issue featuring Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi fills me with some hope.  Overall it’s a good title, I just hope there’s a little more meat on the bone down the road.

Vader ComicVader – Unfortunately Vader is a title in need of some direction. The story is part Vader as office lackey, part Vader as threatening Dark Lord, part soul searching, angst riddled former good guy. It would work if it could figure out which of these titles it wanted to be. As it stands the title is extremely confused and double minded. The series, penned by Kieron Gillan, tries desperately to walk this tightrope between these three versions of Vader, and what we are left with is an attempt at a post-modern deconstruction of the Dark Lord that leaves us felling neither sympathy or fear of Emperor Palpatine’s dark apprentice.

Part of the problem is this title really makes ample, and I mean ample use of call backs to episodes in the Star Wars Saga. There are so many winks to classic Star Wars moments that any investment you may have felt in the story is lost as your brains replays moments from the films. In one issue Vader is in Jabba’s palace negotiating with the vile Hutt. There’s a good three pages worth of pointless panels wasted on us looking at Vader’s feet as he drifts dangerously close to the trap door Luke fell through into the Rancor pit in Return of the Jedi. Of course this kind of assumes you are pretty familiar with all of the Star Wars films. There’s even one of the more bizarre reference to The Clone Wars animated series as we meet the Geonosian Queen. Vader is apparently needing an army to use against those who would conspire against him, and the Queen, now part cyborg is just the ticket as Vader proceeds to steal her cyborg/insect babies. It’s bizarre and feels completely out of place in Star Wars.

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AphraTo make matters even worse we are introduced to one of the most annoying, ill fitting character concepts in the entire Star Wars universe…. the rogue archaeologist, Doctor Aphra. My hatred of this character has only grown over the course of the two issues since her arrival. Imagine the most loathsome, computer savvy, whiney, depressed, emo, know-it-all teenager you could find in a coffee shop… that’s Aphra. Constantly juggling between moments of really wanting to help Vader, and depression over her suspicion that he will kill her when her service for him is finished; there is little to recommend about her. She comes across as a character taken from the pages of Tank Girl, or a contemporary angst teen superhero comic. She’s really a poor fit for a galaxy far, far away, and for a brief instant when she demanded Vader kill her and be done with it, I really wished Vader would have choked her out (she deserved this fate… not Padme).

If it sounds like I’m being overly harsh… well I am. I had extremely high hopes for this title and it has been nothing but a let down. The art is fantastic, and there are individual moments that click, but I could not recommend this title to anyone but a total fanatic, or a Star Wars comic completist. The book simply doesn’t warrant the investment, and while it tries desperately to please everyone, it fails to do so in so many regards.

Princess Leia Issue 1Princess Leia (mini series) – Fortunately the bad taste in my mouth that was left after issue 1 of Vader was washed away by this fantastic series. Princess Leia quickly became my favorite of the new batch of Marvel comics. Sure, the art was a little different than either Star Wars or Vader, but it had a neat kind of retro vibe which looked like some of the early materials released by Wizards of the Coast for their Battle for Theed Introductory RPG game. What really made the title stand out though was the story and the characterization of Leia. This is the Leia hinted at in the early scenes of A New Hope, before the arrival of Luke and Han. This is the Princess of the Royal House of Organa who has to exude confident leadership, but is racked with pain over the destruction of her home and the death of her family.

Defying orders from the hierarchy of Rebel Alliance leadership, Leia Organa, along with Rebel pilot, and fellow Alderaanian, Evaan, escape from the Rebel Base on Yavin 4 looking for survivors and expatriates from Alderaan. Realizing her citizens may be in peril, Leia begins to take her role as the head of House Organa seriously. This eventually leads them to Naboo where a large contingent of Alderaan’s artists and thinkers live. Of course all is not what it seems and there’s political intrigue afoot. There’s even a wonderful moment in Theed City when Leia sees an artistic rendering of her mother that ties both trilogies together. It’s a fascinating moment because when we see the portrait of the Queen in her full makeup we realize that Leia shares the same duality as her mother. There’s the proper Princess of the Royal House of Alderaan, and the feisty, blaster wielding, fast talking Rebel resistance fighter. Series writer Mark Waid handles this moment with care and it is much more effective than the ham fisted Saga references in Vader.

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So far, Leia has been an enormous success, and sales figures have been very brisk. Hopefully this will lead Marvel to revisit the character in another mini-series. I’m not sure Leia needs her own regular monthly title, but she’s a central character to the Saga and deserves a lot more attention.

Kanan Star WarsKanan: The Last Palawan –  Finally, we come to my favorite Marvel Star Wars series to date. Only one issue old, Kanan was released a few weeks after Princess Leia’s debut, but the book quickly became my favorite of the new stories set in the new canon Star Wars universe. The series follows the adventures of Kanan, Jedi teacher and Rebel leader on the Disney animated series, Star Wars Rebels. Kanan Jarrus is a former Padawan named Caleb Dume who escaped the horrors of Order 66 with the help of his Jedi Master, Depa Billaba. However, the first issue of Kanan begins with the closing moments of the Clone Wars, as Billaba and her young Padawan lead their Clone Troops into a final battle against the force of the Trade Federation.

What makes this series work so well is the writing. The first two arcs of the series will be penned by Rebels producer/screenwriter (for the 1st Season), Greg Weisman. He has a firm grasp of these characters, and more importantly, imbues them with a reality. Although this is a fantasy series the characters feel like people you might know. There’s a wonderful moment toward the end of the first issue when Kanan is talking with some Clone Troopers about duty, and following orders. The clones relish in ribbing the young Padawan, and the writing just feels right. What really makes this scene work is that we know what’s coming in only a few pages… betrayal. The reader is left with confused emotions; we feel genuine sympathy for these clone soldiers, but we know that they will ultimately turn on their friends. It’s heart wrenching, and only a master storyteller like Weisman could pull off a scene like this.

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In addition to Weisman’s outstanding script, Kanan: The Last Padawan is graced with the top notch artistry of Pepe Larraz. From top to bottom this is the best of Marvel’s new Star Wars series, and will hopefully fill in some gaps of what happened during the early days of the newly formed Galactic Empire. It’s a very wide open part of the timeline now filled with new dangers and enemies for our young Padawan hero.

 

May the Force Be With You… and “Make mine Marvel!”

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Star Wars Rebels Season 2 Trailer!

At the Star Wars Celebration Rebels panel they debuted the trailer for Season 2 of Rebels.  Again, more great work from Dave Filoni and company.  For Clone Wars fans the trailer features the return of Captain Rex and that villainous pirate Hondo Ohnaka.  Looks to be a great season!

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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May the Force Be With You

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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May the Force Be With You

Disney… You’re Killing Me Smalls Pt. 2 (This Time With Good News)

The DisneyXD Yo-Yo

STAR WARS REBELSSo last week’s ratings for the November 4th airing of Breaking Ranks posted with no fanfare from Disney, and for good reason.  Once again the show took a nose dive shedding over 300,000 viewers from a near series high of 946,000 viewers the week before.  The numbers were hard to find as the show made barely a blip on any of the standard websites covering TV ratings news.  However, I was finally able to dig up the number, but no demographic breakdown, but it appears the youth numbers must have been pretty good as the 18-49 year old demographic only posted a 0.1 rating.  But once again the show dropped 30% of its viewers and seems destined to continue this trend of good news bad news for Disney’s struggling boy-centric network.

But then I found something fascinating…

They said, “Disney Channel is the place ya ought to be…”

The outstanding ratings analysis blog, TV-Aholic, posted Friday’s cable numbers… and they were very illuminating…

On Friday, November 7th, the Disney Channel aired a 1-hour bloc of back-to-back episodes of Rebels following an airing of the animated film, Despicable Me:

Friday Ratings

Yes, you read that right, Star Wars Rebels was the #6 and #8 rated cable program during primetime on Friday evening pulling in very Clone Wars like numbers.  It should be noted the show aired in the same time slot Clone Wars initially did during its early run on Cartoon Network.  The 9:00 PM airing pulled in over 2 million viewers, and even the 9:30 broadcast was able to maintain a large chunk of those viewers despite being pitted against the Discovery Channel’s hit reality show, Gold Rush, and an ESPN broadcast of NBA basketball.  Clearly the show demonstrated it can pull in mass viewers when aired on another night, and on another network.Disney XD

The Future

Clearly Disney has little expectations for ratings on DisneyXD, and like the Marvel properties, views the brand as nothing more than a a means to lure viewers to their struggling cable channel.  But it’s obvious that Rebels can bring in solid numbers on Disney Channel proper, so airing on DisneyXD is nothing more than “playing with house money.”

The Disney Channel has announced plans to begin airing reruns of Rebels on Saturdays at noon beginning November 29th, so it will be interesting to see how those Friday numbers translate.  However, it should be apparent to Disney executives that the Disney Channel is a natural home for the show.

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Rebels – Out of Darkness

Fair warning: This episode is airing tonight on DisneyXD so there are SPOILERS ahead!!!

Episode 6 – Out of Darkness – Visually Stunning But Empty

  

Before I begin my review of Out of Darkness, I’d like to apologize for my absence this week.  This has been a big week for the Evans clan as my oldest daughter begins a new college basketball season and we celebrate our grandson’s 1st birthday.  So please bear with me as I try to catch up with my posts over the next few days. Now, on with the show…

Every television show has its stumbles, and not every episode can be a hit.  To use a baseball analogy, while Rise of the Old Masters and Breaking Ranks were game winning, walk off, extra base hits; Out of Darkness felt more like a slow roller to the short stop with the runner on 1st being put out on the force at 2nd, and the batter barely beating the double play throw to 1st.  It’s an okay result; you’re safe, but you are left feeling a little empty.

EscapeThe episode begins with Hera, Ezra, and Sabine returning from a mission with Imperial T.I.E. fighters in hot pursuit of their small craft, The Phantom.  Hera deftly evades the incoming craft while exchanging some painfully awkward dialog with her two young passengers.  Eventually through some hot shot piloting Hera finishes off the last of the T.I.E.s, but not before seriously scraping the underbelly of The Phantom, resulting in a serious fuel leak.

Returning to the Ghost, Hera asks Zeb, Ezra, and Chopper to run a full diagnostic of The Phantom before she takes off again for a rendezvous with their mysterious contact, Fulcrum.  While the gang heads off to run their system checks, Sabine confronts Hera and suggests she is being less than forthcoming with information about the mission they were just on and who exactly is Fulcrum.  Hera explains to Sabine that sometimes there is information that she needs to know as one of the leaders that simply cannot be shared with young Mandalorian.  This does not sit well with Sabine who is clearly frustrated.

Meanwhile, Zeb, Ezra, and Chopper continue their comedic antics from previous episodes complete with jovial shoving, zapping and punching, all the while trying to complete The Phantom’s diagnostics.  All of their shenanigans lead leads them to miss the massive fuel leak from the ship’s fuel line (of course).  This moment completely took me out of the episode recalling numerous episodes of Star Trek where distracted crew members just happen to miss a critical failing ship’s component which launches the main plot of the episode.  I had to ask myself after two viewings if this crew had been functioning as resistance fighters for some time how could they be so cavalier about the functionality of a key component of their job?

Hera contacts Fulcrum who informs her there is an important cargo for her to pick up on an abandoned asteroid base near their location.  Sabine demands to be included on the mission, and after a bit of cajoling, Hera relents.  So the two hop aboard The Phantom and make the hyperspace jump to pick up their mysterious cargo.Hera & Sabine

The two arrive at an old, abandoned military installation, but find no sign of their Rebel contact.  However, they do locate the cargo containers they were supposed to pick up.  Sabine asks what’s in the containers, but Hera is reluctant to divulge what she knows.  She explains to her young companion that sometimes in this fight it is better that some are left in the dark so the Empire cannot learn of the Rebel’s plans in case one of them is captured.  Sabine simply isn’t buying it and says she cannot truly feel like part of a team if things are being hidden from her.

They begin loading the cargo when Hera notices something is wrong.  One of the crates that had been sitting on the landing platform is now missing, and she suspects it has been dragged away by a creature into the shadows of the abandoned cliff face base.  Inside they are completely surrounded by darkness, and are left with the uneasy feeling that they are being watched.  They find the missing crate and soon the thief is revealed.

Hera and Sabine find themselves surrounded in a nest of gruesome black creatures which walk on their hind legs.  The two women battle the animals off, and eventually retreat to the landing platform.  However, the animals retreat in fear and pain when they are exposed to the light.  Hera and Sabine are safe for now.  They make their way back to The Phantom only to discover the ship is out of fuel.  Hera calls The Ghost for a pickup, but it will take time.  Unfortunately the duo have little time as the sky is littered with asteroids which periodically block out the sun, allowing the foul creatures to rush our heroes under cover of darkness.

To the RescueSabine devises a plan to make a last stand while they wait for their rescue.  She finds canisters of rhydonium, a highly combustible material,  she can use as explosives to force back the waves of incoming predators.  Eventually a very large asteroid blocks out the sun and the creatures make their attack.  Wave after wave of the creatures advance, and while Sabine’s plan is working, both she and Hera are running out of real estate as they are pushed back by the onslaught of these monsters.

Hera and Sabine make their epic last stand atop The Phantom, when suddenly The Ghost arrives to save the day.  The Phantom is loaded aboard The Ghost and the crew narrowly escapes with their lives.

The episode concludes with Hera explaining to her young friend that she will try to be more open with information, but that Sabine needs to understand that she is a valued member of the crew, and Hera trusts Sabine with her life.  While this makes for a nice little coda to the episode we are unfortunately left with more questions than any sense of resolution.

Quick Observations:

The Good:

Kevin Kiner once again turns in a superb score.  There are great moments filled with flourishes and staccato rhythms which drive the action the episode, but where the soundtrack really stands out is when Hera and Sabine arrive at the abandoned outpost.  There is a beautiful, unsettling quality in the score which raises the creep factor and accentuates the mystery of what danger is lurking in the darkness of the asteroid base.

There are some great visuals in Out of Darkness, specifically the design of the abandoned outpost and the lighting.  Visual Effects designer, Joel Aron, creates a lot of production value out of the limited resources used in this episode.  The lighting at the landing platform on the asteroid base accentuates the growing danger in the episode, and gives the visuals an almost realistic feel.Hera Sabine

The only downside is this episode, like other Rebels episode, uses very few visual elements.  Like Season 1 of The Clone Wars, the series has a limited catalog of character, vehicle, and locale models; subsequently the show looks like it was made on a fairly limited budget.  However, as the show goes on I’m sure the visual pallet will expand offering us more variety on a bigger scale.

The Bad:

Kevin Hopps is a very familiar name with those who follow the animation industry.  He has been working in the business for years, and has scripted a number of outstanding shows.  He also wrote the screenplay for the Rebels episode Fighter Flight, and unfortunately, like that earlier episode, the script is the weak link.  Out of Darkness’ is filled with moments of forced humor and poorly executed drama that feels stiff.  Initially I thought the problems may simply have been the execution by the actors, but multiple viewings made it clear this was simply a bad script, that felt like standard Saturday morning cartoon fare.

The episode is supposed draw the viewer in as more layers of the episode story are revealed.  For example, who is this Fulcrum character, and what’s inside the crates?  Why is Hera so quick to identify a specific crate she alone is meant to handle?  Unfortunately the crates wind up being nothing more than a poorly executed McGuffin, and we are left in the dark as much as poor Sabine.  There are no answers at all, which of course creates another problem for the story; since there is no payoff, and we only know the crates are important, there are no real stakes in the episode.  If we even had a vague clue what the contents of the crate were we might feel invested in the characters and the danger growing around them, but as it is the audience feels little motivation and is left to wonder why Hera and Sabine don’t simply abandon the mission and call the Ghost to rescue them at the first sign of trouble?

Despite the story’s shortcomings, where Out of Darkness really trips up is with the characters…

At this point in the series I’m getting very frustrated with Sabine, or to be more specific, with how the screenwriters handle her.  So far Sabine is far and away the hollowest character on the show.  She’s your typical smart, but sassy teen girl who is prone to whining and is found on dozens of Disney-like shows.  There’s really nothing about her character that makes her truly standout other than her Mandalorian duds and her explosives.  While I feel like I have a good idea about what motivates Ezra, Kanan, and Zeb, I really have no idea what made Sabine the frustrated artist/anti-establishment Rebel that she is today.

This episode tries to offer a clue about Sabine’s background when she suggests she left the Imperial Academy on Mandalore because she felt like the Empire was keeping secrets from her.  But this little nugget is left on the table with absolutely no resolution.  Are we really supposed to believe she left the Empire because they wouldn’t provide her with information that, as we used to say in the Army, was “above her pay grade?”  Wouldn’t it be more compelling if Sabine and her fellow cadets were witnesses to something terrible, or were forced to participate in some atrocity?  Maybe this will be revealed at a later date, but as it stands it’s simply vague and muddled.  Yes, this is a kid’s show, but her motives need to run a little deeper than I’m ticked off at the Empire because they are keeping things from me.  Ultimately it makes her come across as less of a freedom fighter and more of an entitled feeling teenager.

Unfortunately, Hera appears to be suffering the same fate as Sabine.  When the show was announced, I was immediately drawn to Hera, especially given the potential Clone Wars ties her surname suggested (Syndulla was the family name of a freedom fighter who appeared in a Clone Wars arc).  However, after six episodes we still have yet to really examine her as a character and be given a motive that drives her.  Hating the Empire is all well and good, but why, why has she picked these people to assemble as the crew, and what are her ties to Lothal.

I understand that many of these answers are found in the pages of John Jacson Miller’s outstanding spin off novel New Dawn (review coming soon), but your average viewer shouldn’t have to read every novel or comic to get the “full story” of our heroes.  In many ways Hera comes across as the Deanna Troi (Ship’s Counselor on Star Trek) of the show; a character with little actual development who periodically chimes in about what she is feeling or sensing.  Hera is supposed to be the “soul” of the crew but she lacks any real depth, and is more of an ideal for the crew to aspire to than an actual character.

Overview: Out of Darkness has the vibe of one of those throw away episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation which focused on the minor characters of the Enterprise crew.  It simply feels hollow and unimportant in the grand scheme of things.  What should have been a great character driven episode featuring the female crew of the Ghost, is lost in a weak script filled with ham-fisted dialog and ideas which are never fully fleshed out.  There are some great visuals in the episode, and initially there is a great creep factor in the episode, accentuated by Kevin Kiner’s fantastic score, but overall the episode feels empty and bereft of any real danger.

What makes this episode particularly disappointing is there was a real opportunity to examine the emotions, motivations, and backgrounds of Hera and Sabine, two characters who have largely played second fiddle to the “boys” on the show, but ultimately we learn very little about what makes these characters tick.  They simply come across as unformed and underdeveloped tropes meant to draw in female viewers, while being palatable to young boys.  Sabine is the tough “warrior chick” commonly found in sci-fi and fantasy programming, and Hera is the “ship’s mom.”  That may seem like a fairly harsh assessment, but through a 1 hour movie, and 5 full episodes Rebels has spent little time developing either character, and Hera and Sabine deserve better than that.

6 of 10

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May the Force Be With You

Rebels – Breaking Ranks

Fair warning: Rise of the Masters has yet to air on DisneyXD so there are SPOILERS ahead!!!

Episode 5 – Breaking Ranks – This IS Star Wars

Breaking RanksI approached the newest episode of Star Wars Rebels with a bit of trepidation.  After all, as I said in my review of Rise of the Old Masters, that episode was near perfection and rivaled many of my favorite Clone Wars episodes; Breaking Ranks had a lot to prove, and boy was it ever up to the task.

I don’t often throw around the word superlative to describe things. I usually reserve it for something that has had a profound effect on me, or resonated with me on some level.  While I loved every episode of The Clone Wars – Lost Missions, I have not had such a visceral thrill or wave of emotion come over me watching Star Wars since watching The Wrong Jedi, the final broadcast episode of Clone Wars.  To further make the point how moved I was by Breaking Ranks, when it was over I immediately Tweeted writer/producer Greg Weisman (who wrote this episode), and thanked him for this story.Greg Weisman

Breaking Ranks is a simple story, and that’s what makes it work so well, especially given its 22 minute run time.  As our episode begins, Ezra has been on a mission for the crew to infiltrate the Imperial Academy and pose as a cadet so he can get access to data files which include the coordinates of a convoy that is in possession of some incredibly potent weapon for the Empire.  Both Ezra and Chopper have infiltrated the facility and have been working on the inside for weeks when our story opens.  And while Kanan says he is confident in his young Padawan’s ability to complete the mission, he is clearly concerned Ezra is in over his head.

Eztra Jai and ZareEzra and his fellows cadets are lowered into an ominous Imperial testing facility known as The Well.  They are required to climb a series of moving platforms as quickly as possible while the Academy Commandant measures their stamina, physical prowess, and ability to think quickly and independently.  As the episode unfolds they are placed inside The Well multiple times, each time with a slight twist to the test.  What the cadets are unaware of though is that the Empire also uses this examine to determine the potential Force abilities of the trainees, for a purpose that will be revealed later.

One of the things I really appreciated about these sequences was how they felt familiar.  Season 3 of The Clone Wars began with a spectacular arc following a group of Clone Trooper cadets.  The testing facility has a similar look to the training facilities on Kamino, and even The Well feels eerily to a bounty hunter testing facility from the Season 4 Episode, The Box.  The episode does a spectacular job tying itself to the lore of Star Wars.

LothalWhile attempting to make communication with Chopper, who is in disguise as a black-painted (of course) old Imperial droid, Ezra unwittingly draws the attention of one of his fellow cadets, Zare Leonis.  Zare follows Ezra to Agent Kallus’ office, and watches as Ezra tries to steal the encrypted disc the crew needs to intercept the Imperial shipment.  Zare confronts Ezra over his apparent betrayal, but Ezra senses there is something off about his fellow cadet.  Zare warns Ezra that he is about to set off an alarm if he simply tries to walk out of Kallus’ office with the disc.  Finally, Zare admits he is under cover as well, looking for his sister who trained at this facility and never returned.  The two decide to join forces and find another way to steal the disc.

Later Zare attempts to distract Kallus while Ezra uses the Force to life the disc out of the office into a ventilation duct where Ezra is hiding.  After stealing the disc Ezra overhears an alarming conversation between the Commandant and the  Inquisitor; not only are the Imperials testing for Force abilities among the cadets, but those that do will be delivered to the Inquisitor for special training.  The two candidates the Commandant has eyed for this training are Ezra, and another cadet named Jai.

ZebEzra delivers the disc to Hera and Kanan, but informs his Master that he is staying behind to help his friends, much to Kanan’s dismay.  Ezra must help Jai and Zare escape, but Jai is reluctant, he appears to want to be given this chance at what he thinks might be a better life.  Both Ezra and Zare implore the young cadet that he will probably never see his mother again if he stays.  Jai agrees and their plan is set into action.

Meanwhile Hera and Kanan arrive at the coordinates for the rendezvous and find a group of three ships.  We then learn what the Ghost crew’s mission has been all along.  This convoy carries special cargo, a Kyber Crystal, and enormous crystal with incredible destructive power (give you a guess what it’s for…).  Hera and Kanan must locate the ship carrying the crustal and destroy it before the ship jumps into hysperspace.  The Imperials catch sight of the Ghost and the battle begins.

On Lothal, at the Imperial Academy, the cadets go through one last test in The Well.  Ezra, Jai, and Zare must win the competition, so they will be stationed in the facility’s enormous landing bay when their escape plan is launched.  Unfortunately one of the loyal students intervenes and stuns Zare before he can reach the top.  Thinking quickly, Ezra sacrifices himself, allowing Zare to be one of the final three contestants; Ezra will have to devise a new plan.

SabineFinally Zeb and Sabine launch their attack on the Academy, and Zare and Jai take control of a small AT-ST walker firing at troops and vehicles, creating a diversion for their escape.  Using his incredible powers Ezra jumps onto the walker as more troops approach.

Hera and Kanan are finally able to locate their target and begin their attack, however, waves of TIE fighters attack the Ghost.  All appears lost when the Imperials are about to jump to lightspeed, however, Hera’s fancy flying and a few well placed shots destroy the Imperial ship, and a enormous shockwave erupts from the vessel.  The Imperial ships are consumed by an enormous energy ball, but out heroes narrowly escape making the jump to lightspeed.

Back on Lothal, Ezra, Jai, and Zare are finally able to escape the Academy as Zeb and Sabine finish off the last of the Stormtroopers.  As they are about to leave Zare tells Ezra he’s not going; he must stay behind and keep searching for his sister and the Academy is his best start.    As out heroes escape Zare takes a couple of shots at their escaping speeder, to ensure the Imperials are not suspicious of his mutiny.Ezra wanted

As our story concludes, Zare is taken before the Inquisitor who asks asks the young cadet all he knows about Ezra.  Zare is trapped… for now.  Jai is sent off to find his mother so they can hide from the Empire who will surely try to track the young Force sensitive down. Finally, Kanan and Ezra are reunited.  Kanan finally comes to terms with the fact that his young apprentice is capable, and he should stop doubting him.

Ezra, like Daniel in the Bible, has emerged from the proverbial Lion’s Den with his faith tested and strengthened.  He’s no longer the Lothal street rat without purpose; he is becoming a man.

Quick Observations:

The Good:

The pacing of this episode is perfect, there’s absolutely no fat in this story, but there’s more than enough meat on the bone to sink our teeth into.  I never once felt cheated as a viewer, as if I were missing something, or the story needed to be padded… everything felt right.  There’s a growing tension throughout the episode as we wonder if Ezra will be caught during his mission, what are Zare’s intentions, will the Inquisitor finally get his hands on Ezra, and what exactly is the Ghost’s mission?  All of these questions finally culminate in a thrilling and dramatic conclusion.

PhantomYears ago, when Dave Filoni was still the Supervising Director of The Clone Wars, he once said in an interview that he was “learning how to make Star Wars from George (Lucas);” clearly Dave was a great student, and George was a brilliant teacher.  The tension filled finale with Ezra, Zare, and Jai trying to escape the Imperial Academy with their lives, cross cut with Hera and Kanan on the Ghost trying to destroy the Kyber Crystal, is nothing short of classic Star Wars.  It recalls the epic final battles from A New Hope, Return of the Jedi, The Phantom Menace, and Attack of the Clones as we cut back and forth between our heroes building tension and drama.  The stakes are enormous and there is a frenetic pace to the editing, that often leaves the viewer doubting, just for brief moments, whether our heroes will survive.  Composer Kevin Kiner’s score keeps the tempo and ends with just the right dramatic flourishes at the perfect moments.  For a few minutes I forgot I was watching a weekly animated kids show.

Taylor GrayTaylor Gray is nothing short of stunning as Ezra Bridger.  I was initially concerned about the character and his similarities to a certain Arabian Disney “street rat.”  However, in only a handful of episodes all of those concerns have been swept away.  He has brought a level of depth to the character that I never believed would materialize, and his performance as the young Jedi-to-be is filled with energy, compassion, thoughtfulness, and a sense of purpose.  Since Ezra has taken on the responsibilities of a Jedi Padawan, there is a seriousness to him and a sense that he is growing in confidence.  While he still has that roguish charm, and is quick with a sardonic joke, he is beginning to come into his own as a young man.

One of the things that really makes Ezra stand out to me is his growth.  When the series first began he was simply looking out for himself and very reluctant to get involved in the affairs of the crew.  But as the story continues we can see his maturation.  He is becoming a selfless warrior for the less fortunate around him.  In the final test at The Well he willingly sacrifices himself so that Zare can be a finalist and get a chance to escape.  He is beginning to realize that his gifts in the Force can be a benefit, not just to himself, but to those around him, and that he can use those abilities to help change other people’s circumstances.

He has a larger place in the universe…

The Bad:

I have nothing bad to say about this episode, except that it ended.  Oh, one little nitpick… If you haven’t watched the unfinished four part Crystal Crisis on Utapau arc (what are you waiting for) from The Clone Wars, you wont fully get the reference of the Kyber Crystal,  But even if you haven’t, the crystal still functions as a classic film MacGuffin, that thing the heroes are always in search for, but you never truly find out what it is.

Overview

Perfect pacing, perfect script, great voice acting, a solid score, terrific animation, and a thrilling conclusion make for a near perfect Star Wars adventure.  Breaking Ranks is right up there with the best Clone Wars episodes, and is equally as entertaining as the films that spawned both series.  I’m not sure how Dave Filoni and company topped Rise of the Old Masters, but they have.

Superlative Star Wars storytelling…

9.5 of 10 (Leaving room… just in case)

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May the Force Be With You