Star Wars Rebels Season 1 Episode 1: "Droids in Distress"
"Droids in Distress," the first regular episode of Rebels, opens with a shot of the Ghost flying away from camera, followed by the ominous, relentless, even inexorable presence of an Imperial Star Destroyer. That shot was almost certainly meant as an homage to the opening of A New Hope, and given where this episode was going and whom it introduced, that homage was completely appropriate. It set the tone for a story that was nearly as multifaceted as Episode IV itself. "Droids in Distress" was partly an exploration of one character's depressing past and the ways in which that past affected his present. But it was also, in the mold of the first film, a simple story of pursuit, stolen items, and yes, very important droids.
The use of John Williams' iconic score at several crucial moments in this episode helped sell the significance of those moments in Ezra Bridger's journey from loner to team player and potential Jedi. The first major use of the Williams music alongside the rustling of the wind — a combination that the Rebels team is using to personify the Force — came when Ezra had to jump from the rooftops of a collection of towering buildings over to a landing bay in a spaceport. Ezra seemed to hesitate as he peered up at the nighttime landscape — which was beautifully rendered by Lucasfilm Animation, by the way. Yet as Ezra was standing there, his innate Force sensitivity asserted itself in the form of what I will call the "Force cue." Emboldened by the power within him, or perhaps just acting on Force-powered instinct, Ezra relied on his nascent abilities to literally leap tall buildings in a single bound. A superhero he wasn't, but it became clear that he was capable of much more than he had ever imagined.
The second use of the Williams music that really mattered in the episode came when Ezra's irritated bunk-mate Zeb was at his lowest moment in the story. Spying Zeb moments from either death or capture, Ezra reacted on instinct. I'll revisit Ezra in more detail a little later, but for now, suffice it to say that John Williams' work was a strong presence in the split second that it took Ezra to act. The theme that the Rebels crew chose for that moment really imbued it with the stirrings of the Force. Both on screen and on the soundtrack, the Force appeared to be tentatively asserting itself in young Ezra.
This was the first time we really saw the entire team at work, incorporating Ezra's strengths, weaknesses, and unique value as a part of the crew. The con that the team pulled off aboard the shuttle — piloted by an RX-series droid voiced by Paul Reubens in a neat nod to the popular Star Tours ride — was the perfect example of a dynamic that I am overjoyed to see from a Star Wars TV show. Ever since I saw the series premiere at a press screening, I started thinking about the crew of the Ghost and their interactions through the lens of a TNT series called Leverage.
The basic premise of the show, which ran from 2008 to 2012, was that a team of thieves conned bad people out of their money, jewelry, or other priceless valuables and used their winnings to help people who couldn't help themselves. In the cast of Rebels, I see obvious hints of the Leverage crew's dynamic. To pull off their little operation aboard the shuttle and acquire the location of the docking bay containing their target, the team had to position the shuttle's occupants in a certain way. They had to move the Imperial bureaucrat's sleek golden translator droid and his stubby astromech assistant out of the passenger area so that Sabine could handle the next step. Sabine then had to play on the bureaucrat's wistfulness for her youth with a mention of the Imperial academy, luring the woman into a false sense of camaraderie and trust. By playing on what they knew to be true about their surroundings, the team was able to accomplish a very difficult task. They essentially exploited the pilot droid's strict enforcement of "Imperial regulations," leading him to do their job for them.
This kind of manipulation of circumstances in heist or con-artist storytelling did not begin with Leverage, but the diverse makeup of the crew and their playful, though subtle, interactions during the con strongly reminded me of that series nonetheless. I am sure that the Rebels crew did not purposely base their team on the crew ably led by Timothy Hutton's character Nate Ford in TNT's series, but I saw parallels all the same, and as a big fan of Leverage, that pleased me immensely.
It wasn't just their deft manipulation of people — getting them to do what the team needed them to do — that impressed me about this newly developing team. Throughout the episode, their banter and teamwork led me to genuinely believe that they had been working together for quite some time. When Zeb asked Hera what Chopper said as she was preparing to escape the Star Destroyer, Hera confidently replied, "He said 'Hello hyperspace!'" to which Zeb gamely responded "That's not what he said." With humor and simplicity, this laugh line reinforced our view of Zeb as a gruff and curious Lasat and Hera as a cocky pilot who gets a thrill out of escaping Imperials.
Elsewhere, in the episode, the audience gained insight into the leadership situation within the team (as when Kanan seemed to ask Hera for her blessing to take the T-7 job) and Sabine and Zeb's propensity for trickster behavior (as when they shared a grin during the shuttle con). The interaction between Kanan and Hera showed that the former was well-connected in the Lothal black market and the latter was understandably skeptical about missions with lots of variables. The glance between Zeb and Sabine implied that they were polished professionals at this sort of con.
Sabine, who received the least character development in the series premiere, grew as a character in this episode by showing us that she was more than just the demolitions expert. Sure, there was the moment when she embraced her task about the designated explosion-setter, responding to Kanan's suggestion of overloading the T-7s by observing that he was "speaking my language." But Sabine was also capable of playing a role that Leverage fans call "the grifter." She slipped easily into the character of a hesitating Imperial trainee who wanted to burnish her Aqualish translation skills, effortlessly roping the frowning Imperial bureaucrat into the crew's scheme. I also enjoyed seeing her drop that act as the bureaucrat walked away, mocking the woman who had condescended to her by sarcastically continuing to suck up to her in her absence. I am greatly enjoying Sabine's sharp sense of humor.
Of all the crew members, Kanan was perhaps the least on his game in this episode — or, depending on how you look at it, the most attuned to what really mattered. The Jedi-turned-rebel relayed the precarious nature of the Ghost and its occupants by saying that they were "low on everything." To show how desperate this crew has become, the writers gave them the unpleasant task of ferrying weapons to an unknown destination. As we will see, the mission raised a serious and painful red flag for Zeb, but in contrast to what one would expect from one attuned to the Force, Kanan was more concerned with making money than taking stock of the crew's feelings.
Several times throughout the episode, Kanan missed Zeb's obvious unease; his interest in keeping the Ghost flying led him to overlook the warning signs, showing that he was far more of a rebel than a Jedi at this point. After all, when the going gets tough and the Temple is far from one's memory, even the Force can't compete with the need for credits. The multiple scenes where Kanan dismissed Zeb's concerns also showed us that even this Jedi didn't know everything about his teammates yet. Even if he could have read Zeb's mind like an open book using the Force, this episode made it very clear that his priorities were the state of the ship and its crew.
Indeed, Kanan's only concern regarding the weapons was that they weren't going to the Empire. His dismissal of Zeb's continued protests suggested that, so far at least, he had little patience for sentiment when it came to practical matters like keeping the ship fueled. Kanan only had one box to check -- "not helping the Empire" -- in order to dismiss his worries. Only when he saw the threat of the Imperials grabbing the T-7s did he finally engage with the danger that the weapons posed.
If Kanan was emotionally disengaged, Hera was the exact opposite. Many people, including Vanessa Marshall, who voices Hera, have said that the character is the mother of the group. This was patently obvious from just one scene in the episode. After Zeb kicked Ezra out of their shared quarters, Hera called him into the cockpit like a parent reprimanding a child who had behaved tactlessly. She had to sit him down and tell him what happened to Zeb's people to give him the perspective on Zeb's anger that he badly needed. As usual, I thought during this scene, Hera seems to know everything about the crew. She's the one making sure that everyone plays along and understands what they need to understand in order to work together.
What bothered the calm and understanding Hera was the fact that Kanan was shirking the duties they had both agreed he would perform. She was visibly frustrated to hear Ezra's sarcastic comment that he's "never heard of" Jedi training, reacting with the perturbed expression and determined voice of a parent preparing to have a serious talk with a spouse. Shortly thereafter, the two emerged from what was obviously a discussion of the need to train Ezra with the banter of two close friends tinged with just a hint of a parental dynamic: "Can we discuss this later?" "That's fine, love."
Ezra, for his part, was nicely integrated into the episode, even if he wasn't the focus of it. While he played along with the Ghost crew's mission, his discontentment with teamwork was obvious. Ezra is still new to this whole cooperation business. Based on what we've seen, his preferred form of cooperation is drawing Imperial heat off of a rebellious merchant to guilt the merchant into letting him steal a bag full of fruit. He's still uncomfortable taking orders. It wasn't really insubordination — although Ezra did seem to blow off one of Kanan's orders when Kanan told him to watch the droids and he responded, "Right, that'll happen" — but the episode made it clear that it wouldn't be smooth flying as Ezra found his place among his new teammates.
When Ezra did prove himself, it was through instinct, not careful consideration. He and Zeb had been butting heads throughout the episode, but in a moment of extreme peril for the latter, the former came to his rescue. Ezra's instinctive reaction to Zeb's plight — throwing out his hands and Force-pushing away Agent Kallus — perfectly demonstrated how uncontrolled and unrefined his Force powers were, but it also reflected the fact that he cared for his teammates. However untrained he was, his concern for Zeb did allow him to call on the Force. Kanan reacted with surprise to Ezra's feat, but Ezra himself was practically amazed at what he had done. It seemed like he still doubted that he had the power to do such things. Later, when Kanan told Zeb who had saved him, Ezra started to smile, but then he almost seemed to regret it. Ezra, it seemed, was still uncomfortable with his place in all of this craziness, and with the abilities that his uncharacteristic selflessness had awakened.
There were really three stars in "Droids in Distress," only one of them an organic life form. That flesh-and-blood star was Zeb Orrelios, whose role in this episode cemented his status as complex, three-dimensional character rather than just a moderately intelligent brawler with enough of an exotic accent to disarm the Chewbacca analogies. From the first mention of weapons, Zeb was uncomfortable with being, as he put it, "arms dealers." The audience was meant to wonder why, since he was so capable with his own weapon, Zeb found the business distasteful.
Zeb's concerns would build to a raw and even touching display of humanity that added a welcome new aspect to his personality. His visible disgust and discomfort with the T-7 ion disrupters and his quiet mention that the Empire banned them for disturbing reasons gave us a hint of his having a tragic backstory before it was explored. After the bulk of his fight with the stormtroopers in the spaceport, a remarkably one-sided altercation scored with brilliantly energetic music, Zeb could be heard shouting "Never again!" in the background as the rest of the team did their work. What had happened before, we wondered, and why did it matter so much to Zeb?
This insistence on not repeating the past caused Zeb to get mad when Vizago said he could make beautiful music with his T-7s. Zeb's continued discomfort demonstrated that he had long-standing beliefs and deeply-rooted emotions. In short, he had a history with these weapons. As Hera explained to Ezra, they were the seeds of destruction for his entire way of life. The later demonstration of the T-7's power — destroying an entire AT-DP with a single shot — emphasized how dangerous they were and left unstated that they could sow even more carnage when used on living beings.
When Zeb got so distracted beating up unconscious stormtroopers that he almost forgot to join the team in their exit strategy, Kanan had to pull him away from his brutal and repetitive routine. Zeb disengaged uneasily, as if he'd been caught red-handed. In a sense, he had been: the Lasat had let his rage distract him, revealing a genuine vulnerability. Later, when Zeb saw Agent Kallus wielding the weapon of a Lasat honor guard like himself, he reacted with fury. His memories of a society eradicated and an honorable system tarnished flooded back to him, overpowering his discipline. Kallus' taunts played on Zeb's feelings of loss, and in response, Zeb's manic, almost animal attacks showed that nothing could restrain him when he met the man who had destroyed his people.
Before I move on, I want to offer some brief observations about that man and the other notable Imperial in this episode. We are slowly starting to see the series build out the mundane world of the Empire, with its pompous but relatively low-ranking bureaucrats and their boring assignments. Kath Soucie's voice work as Minister Maketh Tua conveyed the perfect mix of disdain, disgust, and displeasure, creating the archetypal Imperial functionary. From her haughty exclamation "We have seats in the front," to her pronounced exasperation while waiting for her translator droid, to her attempt at asserting her authority to stop the pilot from banishing her droids, Tua was everything you would expect an Imperial bureaucrat to be during this time.
The more interesting of the two, however, was Agent Kallus. When the minister contacted him about Zeb, Kallus delighted in the recollection of the Lasat race's near-extermination at his own hand. He relished the chance to say that there were "only a few" Lasat left. This added a sadistic twist to his personality and established a personal animosity between Kallus and Zeb that is sure to yield some interesting interactions in the future. When they met in combat for the first time, Kallus ordered Zeb to face him, recognizing him as perhaps the last of a great race brought low by his orders. Kallus saw Zeb as a worthy opponent. Much as Darth Vader wanted to attend to Ben Kenobi personally aboard the Death Star, Kallus marked Zeb for death not by his stormtroopers' blasters but by the very weapon that symbolized the dignity and power of Lasat society.
Zeb was the episode's living star, but two robots undoubtedly stole the show. When Star Wars Rebels: The Visual Guide first revealed that "Droids in Distress" would unite the crew of the Ghost with C-3PO, human-cyborg relations, and his counterpart, R2-D2, fans were understandably nervous. Were they to be shoe-horned into the story in a cheap attempt at reassuring familiarity? Was it a ploy by Disney to convince fans that this was still the Star Wars that they used to know? Even I expressed some concern about the wisdom of giving two of the franchise's most recognizable characters a chance encounter with a random group of dissidents.
As it turned out, the encounter was, as the voice of 3PO might put it, a smashing success. The use of R2 and 3PO did need to be meaningful, and so it was. "Droids in Distress" incorporated the duo in a fun but realistic way, attaching them to a blustery Imperial bureaucrat and her alien contact in the role of translator and technical counterpart. The way the characters were written was perfectly in keeping with their appearances in the six films. Their portrayals were just as good as, if not better than, their appearances in The Clone Wars.
3PO wanted to "add a personal note" to his words of praise for the Imperials. R2-D2 was put off by Chopper's aggressiveness and the way the orange droid interfered with his blue cousin's mission. 3PO took pride in his translation skills and implied that an organic like Sabine can confuse the Aqualish words for 7 and 17 "if she is an amateur." R2 was the one who had the idea to overload the T-7s to keep them out of Imperial hands. 3PO obliviously ambled toward the stormtroopers on Lothal and nearly got blasted to pieces; even as he ran away from them, he exclaimed, "You're here to rescue me!" He was equally oblivious talking to Kallus, whose command of the situation and insidious intentions contrasted humorously with 3PO's confusion and innocence.
The character that got the best interactions with R2 and 3PO was Chopper. I loved watching him try to stall the Imperial entourage by arguing with R2. The droids using their manipulator arms gave them humanity, and Chopper putting his manipulators in the air and warbling "Whoa whoa whoa!" in mock surprise was a great bit of personification. The interplay between these droids later in the episode was great, because while R2 wanted to work with the Ghost crew in the service of his briefly-foreshadowed "real mission," 3PO didn't understand his counterpart and just stood there amazed. Chopper, meanwhile, was angry that another droid, perhaps shinier and better constructed than him, seemed intent on replacing him.
In short, the droids were well-written and they integrated very nicely with the main characters' ongoing mission. It was actually reassuring to see these classic characters pass through Star Wars Rebels for a brief moment. I would compare their role in "Droids in Distress" to the role that the godlike entity Q played in several episodes of Star Trek after the end of the series that made him famous, The Next Generation. When Q reappeared in Deep Space Nine and Voyager, it was a reminder to Next Gen fans nervous about the later series that this was all happening in the same creative framework and that familiar elements were always available to the writers of the new shows as a source of inspiration and storytelling potential. R2-D2 and C-3PO are two of the most famous characters in all of popular culture. They must be used sparingly, but when it is done right, as it was in this episode, incorporating them pays tremendously.
Nothing in this episode had me smiling with memories and confidence like the introduction of Bail Organa in the closing scene. Including Organa was a brilliant way to incorporate the early, embryonic structure of the Rebellion in an indirect way. The use of Episode IV music as Bail was relating a Jedi proverb about selfless gestures and "hope" to Kanan was a nice blend of the old era and the new one. Kanan began to wonder how Bail knew the saying, but we were out of time, and he decided not to pursue it. Then, as the Episode IV music grew even stronger, Bail spoke quietly to his droids, the ones he would one day send on a mission of gravest importance, calling R2-D2 "old friend" and asking the droid to debrief him on the episode's events.
Bail's exact words at the end of the episode were the same ones that the show's creators wants us to utter as it gets underway. "Droids in Distress" featured a strong mix of new characters and old ones, familiar themes and exciting new possibilities, and because I am fully engaged with the struggles of the Ghost's crew, I will reward the hard work of the team at Lucasfilm by earnestly repeating those words myself:
Show me what you have on your rebels.