Star Wars: The Clone Wars & Rebels – The Animated Universe

Star Wars: The Clone Wars & Rebels – The Animated Universe

Star Wars Rebels has just concluded its fourth and final season and it went out with a bang. I want to take some time to reflect on Dave Filoni’s animated Star Wars universe and what it means to fans.

Star Wars was never particularly good in the animated department. It’s first two productions were Droids (1985) and Ewoks (1985); two kid’s shows that were not outright terrible, but still make you scratch your head when watching them today. At the time, of course, they were the only television rendition of Star Wars conceivable (if one discounts the horrible, nay horrendous Holiday Special).
But in 2003 we were treated to Star Wars: Clone Wars, which bridged the gap between episodes II and III. The show, or two films, as they were later released, were low on story-telling, but high on action. This goes doubly for the first installment, whereas the second one tried to give us a bit more in setting up the Battle over Coruscant and Anakin’s journey towards Jedi Knighthood. Overall, the films fit well into the prequel era and provided us with some interesting little insights. Most importantly, it introduced us to the frightening droid general Grievous, who at the time was not only a military genius, but also capable of defeating six master-level Jedi single-handedly. The only one who could stop him was Mace Windu, who was shown to be ridiculously overpowered and finally crushed Grievous’s lungs when he encountered him for a brief second on Coruscant. This finaly tidbit was also important in explaining why Grievous was less of a threat in Episode III and constantly coughing.
When Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008) hit theatres, I was excited. The first ever 3D animated film and it was hitting the big screen on my birthday, no less. Unfortunately, the film’s plot was weak and only really served to introduce the new character Asokha Tano and set up the further plot for the animated TV series.

At the time, I was highly sceptical of it all. While The Clone Wars fit into the Expanded Universe and even created new EU material, some things did not quite match up. Nautolans began to blink, Grievous was already a coward with respitory problems, who regularly got his ass handed to himself by the Republic and the battle droids were reduced to a joke. It fit into Episode III and characters like Asajj Ventress were also directly lifted from Comics and the previous Clone Wars films, so it was all still connected, but the perception of the conflict changed. It became more kid-friendly and less brutal and menacing. This is probably the biggest grief I have personally with the new animated shows. They are made for kids and therefore do not portray too much heavy storytelling. There are still tragic deaths and gruesome moments in The Clone Wars, but often they are watered down or only shown on the Blu-Ray releases, to shield the child audience. While this is important, as an adult viewer, one may get a little furstrated with this treatment of the Star Wars universe. In Rebels, this has lept to new heights, as stormtroopers are rarely killed by blaster bolts or lightsaber cuts and there are no dismemberments. They usually end up unconscious or unarmed, unless they are force pushed off a cliff. Cliffs are fine, because you can’t see the people you killed.

What makes The Clone Wars and Rebels great is their ability to connect all of Star Wars. The Clone Wars already connected the Old Republic era with the Prequels and the Original Trilogy, but Rebels took it to a whole different level, not only connecting with The Clone Wars, the Prequels and the Original Trilogy, but also with the Sequel Trilogy and the spin-off films. Not only that, but Rebels also became a testing ground for new things later to be used in the films and also happened to reintroduce old legends content like the Hammerhead corvette or Malachor from Knights of the Old Republic, as well as beloved EU characters, like Grand Admiral Thrawn. While things play out very differently for these old characters and locations, their portrayal is often superbly reminiscent of the old Expanded Universe.
What mistifies the whole new Star Wars canon, is the many references to the Expanded Universe in Rebels and The Clone Wars. The animated shows act as a bridge between the Expanded Universe and the new canon. Both are firmly nested inside of them and cannot be untethered from one another. This would create great confusion if one were to go back now and revisit the old material again. Neither the new canon, nor the Expanded Universe can claim its universality when viewed through the lens of The Clone Wars and Rebels TV shows. This of course, is merely a reflection of the hasty and rash abandonment of the EU in favour of the new canon, but is made into something far more intriguing by the final episodes of Rebels.

Before the end, Rebels introduces the concept of time travel (and manipulation!) that has the potential to rewrite all of history in the Star Wars universe at any given time. Was the Expanded Universe actually true? Did someone mess with the timeline at some point in the future and create the new canon? We will of course never know the answer to this question, but it may very well be the best in-universe explanation for why these two timelines clash in the animated series.

While The Clone Wars was never allowed to finish properly, the last “lost” season six actually brought the series to a satisfying conclusion. The final three episodes focus on the character of Yoda and his journey to immortality. Guided by Qui-Gon Jinn (voiced by Liam Neeson!), Yoda explores the depths of the Force, like none of the films ever did before. With this finale, The Clone Wars serves up explanations for some of the most fundamental philosophical questions surrounding the Force, the Jedi and the Sith and why exactly some Jedi can become Force ghosts. It also connects us further to the Expanded Universe, by introducing Darth Bane (played by Mark Hamill!) into the canon. Originally, Darth Revan would have also made an appearance, but was later scrapped, though WIP footage of him still exists. The ending is bitter-sweet and at times perhaps a little confusing, as it mostly plays out in metaphors, which are left to be interpreted by the viewers. The most interesting part, to me personally, was the connection established between the series and the Original Trilogy. As Yoda finishes his journey, his spirit guide explains to him “There is another Skywalker…”, in a bright flash of light, Yoda sees something, and we can only hear his own dying words, Vader’s breathing, the sound of AT-ATs fighting snowspeeders on Hoth, lightsabers clashing, blaster shots being exchanged and Leia’s theme playing in the background. Did Yoda see the entire Original Trilogy play out before his eyes? Did he only see what he was meant to see? We don’t know how much insight he gained at that moment, but it was likely what motivated him to believe so strongly in the importance of Leia during the Original Trilogy. Perhaps, he even saw what she would eventually accomplish (or was supposed to accomplish if she hadn’t been taken from us so soon). The ending is so wonderful, because it explains so much and yet keeps us guessing further. This is what Star Wars does best: open up a world of possibilities and wild imagination for us to play around with.

It also presents us with the morale of the entire Star Wars saga: In fighting wars, we have already lost. But the light and good can prevail in another way if we only hold on to it. It is in essence a Buddhist philosophy, but can also be interpreted from many different philosophical and religious perspectives, including Christianity, which may or may not have been hinted at, during the final shot, which showed a three leaved plant. It does not matter, because Star Wars is for everyone. I can appreciate the message as an antheist and so can any muslim, hindu or jew. Star Wars is not political (okay, maybe it is anti-fascist, but it is not left vs right political) or religiously motivated. It is inspired by real life events, religions and philosophies, but it keep its distance to stay inclusive.

Star Wars Rebels delivered a similarly powerful ending, perhaps even more powerful. While The Clone Wars’ finale was rooted in the Prequel Trilogy’s focus on politics and philosophy, rather than character driven storytelling, Rebels was anchored in the Original Trilogy’s character ensamble storytelling. Season one was almost exlusively character development, as the crew of the Ghost bonds over their relatively small adventures, helping the ordinary citizens of Lothal and discovering the might and aggression of the Empire, as it retaliates and chases them in the form of Imperial Agent Callus, the Grand Inquisitor, a Jedi hunter and eventually even Grand Moff Tarkin himself. Season two starts of with a bang, as Darth Vader himself joins the hunt for the Rebels and Ahsoka joins the Rebels, only to discover the terrible truth about her former master. The entire season leads us to its one hour finale worthy of recording in the Jedi archives. Twilight of the Apprentice may very well be one of the best Star Wars films ever made, even though it technically is a two-part episode of a television series. It was so powerful that while it left an incredible amount of questions open, no one could complain. It brought a satisfying conclusion to Vader’s involvement in the show and left Season three to focus on the creation of the Rebel Alliance, which might have felt like taking a step back at times, but also grounded the series in the Star Wars universe. Season four finally, wrapped everything up.
The 90 minute finale was emotional and revolved completely around the characters. In a tasteful display of understanding how Star Wars works, everyone that played a part in Rebels, with the exception of deceased characters and Original Trilogy cameos (which wouldn’t have made any sense in the context of the show or the trilogy that followed it) returned for the grand finale. Every character was put in jeopardy, not everyone made it, but it was surprising who did and who didn’t.
Ezra went on a final journey and confrontation with the Dark Side and Darth Sidious himself, to emerge a Jedi and sacrificed himself in the most unexpected way, leaving not just the audience, but his fellow rebels standing around with dropped jaws in utter shock and silence.
Grand Admiral Thrawn was not defeated by utilising such an unlikely strategy, no one in the galaxy would have even suspected it was possible. My only regret is, that they killed of Captain Paelleon in an off-screen audio-call. The character would have deserved so much more, considering how improtant of a role he played in the Expanded Universe. Rhuk’s demise was similarly saddening. At the same time, both Ezra and Thrawn survived their ordeal and simply travelled somewhere (or somewhen?) far far away, changing their seemingly inevitable fate in the end.

The journey of Ezra from an annoying unlikeable kid in the first episode, to one of the most interesting and accomplished Jedi in the finale, was something to behold. Likewise, Sabine and Kanan had an amazing story arc and even though Hera and Zeb often took a backseat, they too got their times to shine and develop. Unfortunaltey, Rebels was often limited by just how far it could go, both by its “kid’s show” label and by what the story group would let it tell. Often times, it felt like certain story and character arcs could have easily been deepened or that they were not quite finished. Perhaps the best example was the Mandalorian storyline of Sabine Wren. Sabine left the Ghost for a very short amount of time to help her family, but was immediately called back, only to be dragged right back into the Mandalorian conflict. But instead of leading the charge herself, she ends up giving away the dark saber, because she is not ready yet. This was not the story, we were supposed to be told in Rebels, but teasing it, felt a little unfair. Still, as far as character arcs are concerned, Sabine’s was easily one of the best and deepest we have seen in a long time.

Combined with amazing cameos from The Clone Wars, Rogue One and The Original Trilogy, Rebels made for an amazing addition to the Star Wars canon. The ending alone was spectacular and its epilogue only reinforced it. The epilogue tells us that all of our beloved characters continued to exist and work throughout the Original Trilogy, albeit in different capacities. Their stories continued and we can look forward to exploring them individually over time. However, this was not the story we were being told. We were told the story of the Ghost crew and how it all lead to Ezra and Sabine. This was their prologue and their adventure together is only just beginning. All questions have been answered, but new questions have arisen and we are now lusting for more answers. Again, this is what Star Wars does best. The conclusion to Rebels was as satisfying to me, as the ending of Return of the Jedi. But now I want more. While I am personally not invested or interested at all in the new film trilogy, for me Star Wars lives on through the work of Dave Filoni (the last disciple of George Lucas) and his team and I cannot wait to see what they come up with next.

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