First episode impressions: ‘Star Wars Rebels’ (TV review)

“The Clone Wars” it ain’t. But to be fair, “The Clone Wars” wasn’t the great show we now know and love in its formative episodes in 2008, so perhaps I should give “Star Wars Rebels” a few episodes before rendering a harsh judgment. The first major project of Disney’s “Star Wars” regime certainly has room to grow in a positive direction, but my first-episode impression of Friday’s “Spark of Rebellion” is that this is a mediocre show out of the gates.

Set a few years before “A New Hope,” “Rebels” is the first “Star Wars” TV series without any movie characters in major roles (“Droids” had R2 and 3PO, “Ewoks” had Wicket and friends, and “The Clone Wars” had Anakin and Obi-Wan). Aside from Obi-Wan (“The Clone Wars’ ” James Arnold Taylor) delivering his “Episode III” “stay away from the Temple” announcement via Kanan’s Holocron, there aren’t any major characters at all in “Rebels.” Perhaps overcompensating for this, the debut episode goes over-the-top in its aural links to the films (more on that in a bit).

The characters are initially generic in this episode penned by “Star Wars” newcomer Simon Kinberg (one of the producers), but I’m confident co-producer Dave Filoni of “Clone Wars” fame wouldn’t stay on board if a bland approach was a Disney dictate rather than first-episode jitters. As such, I’m expecting a lot of character growth in future episodes for the crew of the Ghost: the aforementioned Kanan (who I think of as the Freddie Prinze Jr. Jedi), Ezra (the young orphan pickpocket with Jedi potential), Hera (the Twi’lek pilot), Sabine (who favors Mandalorian armor, but undercuts its camouflage purpose by painting it in bright colors), Chopper (the kooky astromech droid) and Zeb (the tough guy who I thought was a Togorian but is actually a Lasat).

For now, though, Kanan is a repeat of Dass Jennir (the “Dark Times” comics) and Jax Pavan (Michael Reaves’ novels) – a Jedi doing his part to sow the seeds of Rebellion here and there without using the Force too much. In the final act, the crew of the Ghost and their Wookiee refugees get in a pickle against a squad of stormtroopers, and Kanan is forced to draw his lightsaber to get them out of it. As we see in the final scene, this inspires the Imperial Security Bureau’s Agent Kallus to sic one of the Emperor’s Jedi-hunting Inquisitors (or THE Inquistor, as he’s known for now) on Kanan and the Ghost crew.

I should also note that Agent Kallus seems like he’ll be the main nemesis of our heroes. This puts “Rebels” in contrast with “The Clone Wars,” which had a much vaster galactic game board. I think “Rebels” will be about small guerilla warfare and subtle operations, and we’re not likely to see Darth Vader taking a personal interest in the Ghost crew anytime soon. I think our heroes will look for small victories wherever they can find them, but won’t pull a Dack and take on the whole Empire themselves. On the other hand, the Inquisitor’s interest in Kanan could undercut this theory a bit.

As I gradually get to know the characters, it’s the look of the show – the models, the colors, etc. – that leaves a bigger initial impression. It’s on par with “Clone Wars,” or perhaps just a notch below, but that’s understandable as it will take time to build all the new assets in the computer and populate the world.

Of all things, it’s the music and sound effects that disappoint me most in “Spark of Rebellion.” The way this hour uses sound and music cues taken straight from the libraries of Ben Burtt and John Williams reminds me of “Star Wars” audiobooks, which have much smaller budgets than a TV series. The opening speeder bike chase on Lothol uses exact sound clips from the Endor chase in “Return of the Jedi.”

Composer Kevin Kiner did a genius job on “The Clone Wars” of making the soundtrack his own while also honoring Williams’ foundation, and traveled on his own dime to conduct a live orchestra for the final Season 5 arc. So it’s shocking how generic the “Spark of Rebellion” music is. The music isn’t exact lifts from the soundtrack the way the sound effects are lifted from the films – at least Kiner re-records the music in his studio.

But he uses “Here They Come” for the Ghost-vs.-TIE-fighters battle and “Leia’s Theme” for a happy Wookiee reunion. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of the “Star Wars Oxygen” podcast – which analyzes Williams’ music in-depth – so it strikes me all the more how lazy these premiere-episode choices are. I hope these selections were made only because it was the premiere episode and Disney is aiming for the lowest common denominator out of the gates and that Kiner will do more of his own thing going forward.

But as I said, I don’t think Filoni would work on a show where Disney shoots down all his attempts to make it as cool and “adult” and vast as “The Clone Wars.” We already see one subtle bit of world-building in the premiere episode. A stormtrooper speaks – reporting to Kallus that Ezra escaped and locked him in his former cell — and he’s not voiced by Dee Bradley Baker (the clone troopers in “Clone Wars”). This illustrates that not all stormtroopers are clones, and gives an explanation for why they are much worse at their jobs.

In another continuity note, the episode’s final battle takes place on a Kessel landing pad, but the characters don’t have to wear breathing masks aboveground as portrayed in stories such as Kevin J. Anderson’s “Jedi Search.” It’s a small thing – and there could be an in-universe explanation for it — but perhaps it’s an early example of what many fans feared when Disney canceled the Expanded Universe and started a new continuity: Perhaps this is the “official” version of Kessel. If so, it’s a more boring one.

The most off-putting thing about “Spark of Rebellion” is the tone. “Clone Wars” always presented death and destruction with proper weightiness through the music, animation direction and voice performances. That weight is not present in the “Rebels” premiere, which comes off as a spree of gleeful action where we’re asked not to think too hard about the violence, which is ever-present yet quickly cut away from. When Kanan tosses a bomb to a stormtrooper a few minutes into the show, killing him in a huge explosion, I thought, “OK, here’s where it gets serious.” But that’s followed by a rather happy-go-lucky speeder bike chase, and the rest of the episode maintains a carefree vibe that clashes with the life-or-death situation of the Ghost playing cat-and-mouse with Kallus’ bunch.

But these are just first-episode impressions. There are a ton of talented and “Star Wars”-loving people working on this show, and while I suspect there are some heavy-handed dictates coming down from the Disney brass who want “Rebels” to fit with the strict Disney storytelling model, I doubt it’ll be so bad that it can’t become a smart, layered show. We’ll learn a lot more with episode two, “Droids in Distress,” when “Rebels” moves to its regular night and channel, Monday, Oct. 13 on Disney XD.