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After Star Wars Rebels’ fairly strong premiere, “Droids In Distress” takes a clunky step backward, with a run-of-the-mill plot that doesn’t quite congeal all the way, and never does justice to its characters. Despite the show’s title, it’s important to note that its heroes aren’t rebels quite yet. Sure, they ignore the Empire’s control and surveillance, but they aren’t actively fighting the Imperial Army so much as they’re being an annoyance. They’re mercenaries. The team’s stakes, overall, are relatively low, primarily focused on surviving and doing odd jobs for credits, which means the individual characters have to be strong enough to carry the narrative weight, until the Rebel Alliance we all know and love comes into fruition. The pilot did well enough in defining Ezra and his inevitable acceptance into the Ghost crew, but “Droids In Distress” lacks that any kind of character followthrough.

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The idea of the episode is sound, despite a wonky setup. After a failed mission, the Ghost crew is in dire straits. So they take a random job that involves tracking some weaponry and selling it to Cikatro Vizago, a black market smuggler who seems to have his hand in many, many illicit activities. Tracking the weapons requires hitching a ride on a transport ship, running a translation con on Minister Tau and her alien companion, and snatching up the arms before the Empire grabs them. It took me a few watches to get the full gist of the plan, which was admittedly rather clever—although I did take some issue with sending Ezra, the Jedi-in-non-training, to leap across the buildings to reach Bay Seven. I’m not sure if that was the best way to handle pulling the newbie Ezra more into the action, but that’s only a minor complaint.

The “big” moment in the episode is the appearance of C-3PO and R2-D2, although I feel like this was more of a distraction. The humor here is mostly based on the semi-antagonistic banter between C-3PO and R2-D2 (and Chopper, appears like he’s going to be a problem). These characters don’t add anything to the story beyond cameos from well-known characters. Last week, several commenters expressed some fear about the show leaning too much on classic Star Wars characters (and aesthetics), and this might be a good example why. The show should give us more time with the core cast before dropping into the bigger universe at large.

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The weapons the Ghost crew steal are banned ion disruptors, which depresses Zeb greatly, as it’s revealed that those weapons were used in the massacre of his people. It’s a pretty heavy piece of subject matter, but considering that the Star Wars franchise began with a movie in which an entire planet is destroyed, I’d like to presume that the show’s younger audience can handle it. While Zeb’s character carries the weight of that truth with him during the episode, it’s a bit strange to see no one else in the crew at least try to converse with him about it. The team’s dynamics need work: It feels like the characters aren’t quite a full-fledged unit.

It is telling, though, that the crew, particularly Kanan, are relatively okay with selling extremely powerful weapons to an unknown customer. They justify it by claiming that they’re not being sold to the Empire, but having these kinds of guns out there in the universe cannot possibly end well. Most likely this little endeavor will have a bit of a fallout that will turn this ragtag team into something more heroic, but for right now we’ll have to see how things go. Star Wars Rebels is playing with a lot of gray moralities, which is great, but the characters seem to operate outside of those gray areas. It would be nice to see how each of them actually feel about what they do, and how the consequences affect them and their camaraderie.

The action sequences also took a slight step back, with a lot of it feeling more perfunctory than in “Spark Of Rebellion.” Stormtroopers still can’t hit the broadside of a barn (the pilot at least pretended the characters were taking cover), and it kind of felt like the AT-ST attacks would appear when convenient. The bo-rifle fight between Zeb and Kallus just seemed… weird, like the camera was trying to keep up with their movements, which were mostly blurs. In the end, right before Kallus strikes the final blow on Zeb, Ezra force-pushes Kallus, exhibiting the Jedi powers… that we already knew he had. It’s a “cool” moment, but somewhat unearned (since Kanan could’ve done the same thing). The lack of character chemistry unfortunately renders it meaningless.

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Star Wars Rebels still has a lot to enjoy. The voice work is still fun, the sets are wonderful look at, there are very few juvenile gags, and a lot fun Star Wars details in the margins to keep audiences hooked (including an end cameo with Senator Organa from The Phantom Menace). If the show wants to really thrive, though, the team interactions and relationships really need a tune up.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS:

  • Welcome to The A.V. Club’s official coverage of Star Wars Rebels! Your voices were heard, so it looks like we’ll be covering the first season at least. It’s nice to know that we have a fairly mature action show on the air, particularly with The Legend Of Korra winding down, and I’m excited to explore the show with you all. And who am I? Well, I’m Kevin Johnson, and I helped Todd VanDerWerff in the past with his pieces on DuckTales and Rugrats. I do a lot of explorations of kids cartoons, because I have no life. You can check out my blog here to see some past work. I also have a Twitter account, if you want to see me rant about the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles show I’m currently watching.
  • I made a mistake last week in stating that Rebels may have a bigger budget. Most likely it’s a different animation system that’s producing a “cleaner” look. The show is aiming for something more expressive, like Tangled. Dave Filoni talks about it more here.
  • I will at some point watch The Clone Wars, but this is a rather busy TV season. I’m hoping to get to it before the second season.
  • Hey, did anyone else see the random Stormtrooper with the orange shoulder pad? I thought they were going somewhere with that, but nope, no one brought it up. What was up with that?
  • R2-D2’s real mission, apparently, was to make sure the disruptors didn’t get into the hands of the Empire. (C-3PO wasn’t in the know.) Did anyone bother to ask how he’d actually accomplish that?
  • Anyone expecting Kallus to have any more nuance will be sorely disappointed. He gave the order to fire the disruptors on Zeb’s people, and he basically gloats about using the bo-rifle when fighting with the endangered Lasat. Next week I assume he’ll be eating baby Wookiees and Tauntauns.

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