It's been thirty years since Return of the Jedi came out. Thirty years since fans have seen anything genuinely good from the Star Wars franchise on the big screen. This Christmas looks to change that with the long-awaited release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which reunites the original trilogy characters and ushers in a new era for that galaxy far, far away.
But if you really think there hasn't been any Star Wars worth watching in three decades, you're dead wrong. The small screen has been home to some tremendous storytelling — and no, we're not talking about the godawful Ewok movies.
Television gets compared to film all the time, but the truth is, TV's episodic runtime allows it to explore more shades of its characters than a movie ever could. TV gives stories time to live and breathe and change — and the depth seen in the recent Star Wars TV shows rivals – or even bests – anything the franchise has ever produced.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars got off to a rough start, but it ultimately produced some genuinely compelling stories, consistently depicting fascinating characters. Star Wars Rebels is the new kid on the block — advancing the plot forward a good fifteen years to the earliest days of the Rebellion, and presenting a fun, motley crew of Empire-hating adventurers.
Why should you watch them?
Not Shows For Kids
For starters, let go of your preconceived notions that Clone Wars and Rebels are kiddie cartoons. The biggest barrier keeping Star Wars fans away from the TV shows is that they're animated and marketed to kids.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars aired on Cartoon Network. Star Wars Rebels airs on Disney XD, the "tweener" Disney cable network that produces cheesy sitcoms like Lab Rats and Kickin' It. Disney's own ads for the show feature a kid's voiceover, recommending it because it has "so much cool stuff!"
None of this instills one with hope for the kinds of storytelling that adults can enjoy.
But don't forget that the storytellers responsible for a particular TV show are not the same people who oversee its marketing campaign or choose its advertisers. For the most part, TV networks do pretty well at this. But only targeting kids for the animated Star Wars shows has done everyone a disservice.
How many kids shows do you know that feature all-out war with death, decapitations, and characters who give in to darkness? If these shows aired on the big screen, many episodes would easily qualify as PG-13.
The Clone Wars
Star Wars: The Clone Wars lasted for six seasons because it managed to do what the prequel films never aspired to: It entertained us.
Not that you would've known it when the show first got underway. The theatrical film that Lucasfilm Animation released (which was really the first four episodes of the show edited together and slapped up on the big screen) was weak. The entire first season was a perfect example of a freshman series trying to find its footing.
But it wasn't long before The Clone Wars hit its stride, achieving genuine depth and fascinating drama. In many ways, Star Wars: The Clone Wars was the story of Ahsoka Tano. She was outright annoying when she first appeared on the scene and declared herself Anakin Skywalker's Jedi apprentice. But she grew. She changed. She matured. And as she aged and took on experience, responsibility, inner strength and even wisdom, so did the show. The producers were smart to make Ahsoka the audience's entry point to the show.
Be honest: did you actually care about any of the characters in the prequels? Those movies never bothered to try and get fans to care about its characters. It simply assumed they would because: Star Wars.
The Clone Wars, by contrast, already knew that viewers were ambivalent (at best) about most of the prequel characters, and made a point of fleshing them out. Even arrogant, bratty Anakin was made more dimensional and sympathetic by letting viewers see his ongoing struggle to resist the pull of the Dark Side.
Even The Clone Wars couldn't justify the existence of the abysmal prequels, but what it did justify was every character, every location, everything that the prequels introduced us to.
The films gave us an army of clones that were bland servants of the Republic with barely more personality than Droid troopers. The Clone Wars gave every Clone individual identities, personalities, appearances (they distinguished themselves with unique hairstyles and tattoos) and even names. It showed how Clones were trained, how their internal society interacted and functioned, and the loyalties and rivalries between them. Believe it or not, some of the show's best story arcs followed a pack of recurring Clone characters.
Among its many great stories, The Clone Wars sent Obi-Wan Kenobi undercover amid a pack of bounty hunters, created an underwater war on the homeworld of Admiral Akbar, showed how Padawans get their lightsabers in an arc guest-starring David Tennant, explained how the Emperor was able to control the clones with Order 66, and dove deep into the nature of the Force itself in a story featuring the living embodiments of both the Light Side and Dark Side.
The Clone Wars made a number of "Expanded Universe" characters canon too, such as Asajj Ventress, who gradually evolved into something far more layered than a Sith assassin. The Nightsisters of Dathomir and their leader Mother Talzin, a group of primal female warriors who wield the Force like magic, were the creations of Star Wars novels writers, but they became recurring players on the show. Fan favorite EU Jedi Quinlan Vos became canon by featuring in a third season episode. And in its final story arc, the show canonized Darth Bane, the ancient Sith who instituted the "Rule of Two."
Oh, and it plausibly brought Darth Maul back. That alone is pretty remarkable.
Star Wars Rebels brings the franchise that long-missed sense of a dysfunctional family fighting against overwhelming odds in a galaxy dominated by the Empire. It's a healthy dose of the original trilogy's sensibilities at a time when they're needed most. With The Force Awakens looking to channel that same feeling, Disney commissioned Rebels largely to remind Star Wars fans of what they love about the franchise, and introduce younger viewers to the Rebellion.
Rebels' crew of misfits are made to evoke qualities of the original trilogy's cast, from Kanan's "cowboy Jedi" (think: Han Solo with a lightsaber) to Zeb Orrelios' furry muscle (his design is based on Ralph McQuarrie's original concept for Chewbacca) to Ezra's young, headstrong Jedi-in-training (do I even need to say it?).
Very slowly, Star Wars Rebels has started bringing in surviving characters from The Clone Wars and the original trilogy, such as Lando, Bail Organa, Tarkin, Darth Vader and others, culminating in the recent surprise return of Ahsoka.
No one is going to pretend that Rebels was created for any reason other than to give new Lucasfilm owner Disney its own Star Wars TV property. But with the same creative team behind it as The Clone Wars, it's smartly becoming both a sequel to the earlier show and a bridge to the original film trilogy. Most importantly, it brings back "that old Star Wars feeling" fans have been missing since Return of the Jedi hit cinemas in 1985.
Some big stuff is already building on Star Wars Rebels, with the crew quickly becoming key players in the formation of the Rebellion itself. Darth Vader recently entered their lives and has taken a special interest in them, given the presence of two Jedi among them. It'll be exciting to see what surprises this show has in store over the coming seasons.
Star Wars Rebels airs on Disney XD. Its second season debuts this fall, and its first season will be available on home video in about a month. The entire run of Star Wars: The Clone Wars is available on Netflix.
If you call yourself a Star Wars fan, you can't hide behind old excuses like "it's not real Star Wars" or "they're shows for kids." Not anymore. Dave Filoni, the showrunner behind both series, has more than earned the faith of fans. It's not only good Star Wars — it's just good TV.