‘Droids in Distress’ Analysis

Opening

After thoroughly enjoying the series pilot, via streaming as part of the Disney X.D. app, as a participant in the Washington, D.C. screening at the AMC Gallery theatre, and also during the TV airing, it was a pleasant surprise that I didn’t have to wait until October 13th to view the next episode. Fans received notice that the Disney X.D. app would be streaming the new episode, Droids in Distress that evening, and of course I spared no time in viewing what was available.

I have to admit that once I was privy to the title, and nature, of the next episode, droid wariness via Star Wars: The Clone Wars entered my mind. It’s no secret that the R2-D2 and C-3P0 centric episodes of that series didn’t always work for most fans, while the Season 5 droids arc was almost universally panned. Not so with this episode of Rebels, though the perennial duo only served as guest stars rather than foreground protagonists.

The episode begins with a familiar Empire-esque chase, with Imperial TIE fighters and a Star Destroyer pursuing the Ghost crew into hyperspace — almost analogous to Bo and Luke Duke aboard the General Lee, rip-roaring through Hazard County while being pursued by inept police deputies in CBS’ The Dukes of Hazard (1979-1985). From there, we realize that the crew had to leave their shipment behind, affording them a ransom that would keep their mission alive, and therefore must detour to a new operation or put the ship on mothballs. Per Kanan’s recommendation, they head to the “space port” to begin, where we get our first glimpse of the familiar droids post-Revenge of the Sith.

Jim Crow Star Tours

It’s always interesting the varying approaches to critiquing the same works of art. If we walk into a gallery, prior to seeing any pieces, Yoda and Luke appear to have already prefaced the appropriate scaffold:

Luke: “What’s in there?”

Yoda: “Only what you take with you…”

As the episode in question hasn’t yet aired, most sites and podcasts have refrained from discussing the details, with the exception of Making Star Wars.net (at least as far as I’ve seen). Via a review, written by Jason Ward, and during their associated podcast Now, This is Podcasting!, it was mentioned that the shuttle sequence in Act I was a direct homage to Disney’s Star Tours, both in the design of the vehicle, and with recruiting ‘Pee Wee Herman’ actor himself Paul Reubens to voice pilot robot RX-24, I have no doubt this was the intent of the Lucasfilm crew (particularly since Filoni has used Star Tours material in The Clone Wars previously, in the form of a Republic deep space station in the final Droids Arc episode, Point of No Return). As I’ve never been to the Star Tours exhibit, I would not have caught that tribute. However, as a person of African descent who is also a historian that specializes in African and African American history, I complimented Greg Weisman over Twitter with sneaking in a number of deep Earth-bound issues in between the fun of droid/human banter. When the Ghost crew and Imperial representatives enter the transport (which I felt was more a salute to the shuttle models used in the JJ Abrams’ version of Star Trek), you’ll notice that droids are meant to be banished to the rear of the craft, even though our hero bots initially begin posted near their masters. In a ploy to draw C-3P0 and R2 back to the droid section, and away from Imperial negotiations between a minister and an arms dealer, Chopper begins to run amuck. And what does Kanan say in response?

“Hey, pilot! Isn’t there some rule against droids in the passenger area?”

To which the pilot responds,”I am sorry, sir (referring to Ezra). Your droid must proceed to the back (slight pause) of the craft.”

Naturally, Ezra responds, “Hey, if my astromech’s banished, then those two astromechs are banished, too!”

Of course, the haughtiness of 3P0 won’t allow being compared to his intrepid friend, and as the Imperial minister Maketh Tua, voiced by Mon Mothma and Mina Bonteri voice actor Kath Souchie, adamantly demands the interpreter remain present for her negotiations, the pilot reminds the minister that moving them all to the back are in accordance with, “…Imperial regulations.”

While it is a wonderful ploy to get 3P0 away from Minister Tua in order to afford Sabine the opportunity to infiltrate, I couldn’t help but notice the obvious Jim Crow segregation references inherent in this sequence. Of course, the original movie established that droids weren’t always welcome in certain venues of the Star Wars galaxy, and after exhibiting the Prequel Era, one could discern that an outcome of the Clone Wars would be a widespread distrust of droids. I think this angle to the story spoke to Gone Girl and Seven director David Fincher, who recently alluded to a wish to tell a mature and darker tale involving the perspective of Star Wars through the lens of droid slavery. As the Empire would be quick to capitalize and inflame the “…passions and prejudices…” of the general public, as Obi Wan so noted of its Emperor once, and as Lucas has always used Star Wars as a metaphor for human struggles on Earth, I thought it was a stroke of genius to build this Jim Crow angle into that scene. Not only is there humor present, along with complex plotting for the episode itself, there is an attempt to teach and provide the audience an opportunity to discuss real world issues without any preaching. This has always been the hallmark of Star Wars under George Lucas, and it is encouraging to see those who step into his shoes continuing that legacy effectively.

Zulus is to Zeb…

Act III begins with the Ghost crew making their way back to Lothal, in order to meet up with Vizago once again for their appointment to sell the arms (taken from the Imperial minister) for profit. During the sequence, with the Empire in hot pursuit, Callus shows up with walkers and troop transports to reclaim the disrupters and capture or kill the rebels that thwarted him in their initial meeting. While I’ve read and heard a number of people reference the analogy of Kallus as the Star Wars version of police inspector Javert from 1862’s Les Misérables, which could prove considerably true as the show develops, I also saw the dynamic between Kallus and Zeb here in alternative historical terms.

In the 19th century, Southern African civilizations, north of the Cape, exhibited a divergent dynamic once Shaka became king of the Zulus. Initially, prior to his reign, warfare in the region was almost non-existent. There was plenty of land and resources for one to use (contrarily exhibited in Europe and Japan, which had rich traditions of martial conflict, where you had large populations fighting over a lack of land and resources). In fact, if there was ever a conflict to be resolved “militarily” in Southern Africa, fighting would take the form of what Westerners might see as a javelin competition. In essence, the two sides would appear in a central location, with spectators surrounding the hills, and spears would be thrown by either side — though no one would be intentionally hit. When Shaka came along as a young warrior, he felt this tradition was ridiculous. He modified the traditional spear into the famous shorter weapon, the assegai. He reorganized the Zulu army, allowing them to become highly disciplined and competent warriors that actually kill, and amassed a considerable empire in the region.

With the coming of the Boers during the Great Trek — descendants of Dutch travelers and traders who had carved out an independent life in the Cape region until their annexation by the British Empire — the Zulus inherited a large scale and bloody conflict. Under the leadership of Cetshwayo, Zulu strategy and ingenuity allowed this conflict against Boers armed with firearms, and later the British armed with a Gatling gun or two, to last longer than it could’ve. Ultimately, they lost control of their lands by the late 19th century after having to battle both the Boers and the British imperial forces. Among the officers who distinguished themselves in this conflict was Sir Henry Bartle Frere and Horatio Herbert Kitchener, the latter of whom took over British military forces in the region during the Second Boer War, and expanded such ruthless tactics as the use of concentration camps after Boer farms were destroyed. So notable were the campaigns of Kitchener there, and in the Sudan region of Northeast Africa, that by the time WWI erupted, he was Secretary of War, where is visage was used in recruitment posters defining the British campaign against the Central Powers.

Kallus, Roman-style helmet et. al., fighting Zeb in a Lothal backdrop of small hill peaks surrounded by grassland reminiscent of Southern African geography, could serve as a metaphor for Imperial conflicts in that Earth-bound region, and throughout human history. We learn that Kallus was present at the destruction of Zeb’s home world of Lasan, a point of which he touts, and he revels in the bloodshed of those moments as he fights among the survivors of this deceased species — the use of the honor guard Bo-rifle and staff a tool for further cultural humiliation at Zeb’s expense. Normally a focused, confident, and fierce combatant, Zeb becomes unglued when he realizes the crate of weapons they secured earlier were a multitude of  long-barreled T-7 ion disrupter rifles previously used to destroy his people. In fact, his moment of recognizing these weapons in hangar 7 could be akin to a former Samurai, Bedouin, or Zulu warrior coming across a cache of Gatling guns — often the instrument that robbed these ancient and traditional warriors of life and liberty by the thousands during a period of shifting modernity. With the issue of nightmarish disruptors, banned by the Imperial Senate (of course, we now understand why Palpatine gets rid of this “inefficient” body once the Death Star is operational, as I’m sure he, Tarkin, and other Imperial military officials privately balked at such decisions), continuing to plague his mind, Kallus defeats Zeb in a one-on-one melee with the traditional Lasan weapons, and most likely would’ve killed him if not for the burst of Force power awakened within the young protagonist, Ezra. The intriguing aspect, moving forward, is whether this fight result was a fluke, or will the writers continue to milk the historical cow for further drama between Kallus and Zeb?

Psychological Inertia: Concerning Stormtroopers and Speed Cameras

There’s been considerable discussion online, and via podcasts, of the ineptitude of Imperial troops and pilots thus far, as depicted in Rebels. While the trooper and TIE pilot proficiency matches that of the original trilogy, affording the heroes a badge of elite prowess, this can become problematic over the course of multiple television seasons. So, while I understand the depiction, I share the long-range concerns of those who have entered this debate.  There is, however, an in-universe explanation for what we see of this current troop iteration, and why such a maladroit force could maintain an iron grip on the galaxy.

Largely, the Clone Troopers did the work of building the Empire into the feared dictatorship that gives everyone pause. For ten years, the Kaminoans grew artificial life, and train it in a sterile environment, which gives way to a more practical approach in the form of an equally engineered real-galaxy war — allowing Social Darwinism to afford Palpatine the best equipped, most experienced, and battle-hardened troops to survive and usher in the new era post-Revenge of the Sith. One of the greatest, and most subtle, lessons that one can take away from the Geonosis Arc of Season Two, and the Umbara Arc of Season Four’s The Clone Wars,  is the shear arduousness of occupying planets against their will. Human stormtrooper recruits did not distinguish themselves in the bloody conflicts akin to the carnage of Iwo Jima, Okinawa, or The Bulge, and once the Empire comes to fruition, any infrastructure that could’ve been used to resist Imperial occupation was already either destroyed or usurped, and the memories of combat against these clones, are still fresh.

Once the period of clone use begins to run aground, they are slowly replaced by inept volunteers with inferior training by comparison — a way for the Empire to save time, money, and resources while still maintaining control, as they bank on the realities of psychological inertia. It really isn’t different from the use of speed and red light cameras in and around the state of Maryland, and Washington, D.C. When speed cameras began popping up everywhere a few years ago in my area, it seemed as if everyone wished to defy them: “Oh, I’m not paying if it takes my picture…” Then, people began to get multiple violations, with fines anywhere from $40 to $75. It became such a consistent threat for people, particularly after municipalities didn’t hesitate to seek out those who weren’t paying, traffic quickly took them seriously and would religiously slow down in their location. By law in the state of Maryland, the cameras don’t trigger unless one is clocked at 12 miles over the speed limit, but often people are so paranoid that they’ll get a ticket (even after school sessions are closed, or on the weekends when many of these cameras are turned off), they are beginning to travel EXACTLY AT, or largely BELOW the speed limit. Just recently, I saw on the local news that there is a specific area where these cameras are placed, and they are inadvertently causing traffic jams because of this greater fear of being tripped up by the cameras’ eye for even trivial transgressions over the limit.

Ultimately, though these cameras work with slowing down traffic in their immediate vicinity (superficial compliance at best, but school zones and residential areas that post them are protected), they are expensive to maintain. Therefore, some municipalities (including the one in which I live) employ fake cameras strategically to elicit the same results while lowering the expense — essentially banking on this psychological inertia that was built. What’s interesting is that, over time, when certain rouges who live in the vicinity of these fake cameras repeatedly challenge their “authority” by exceeding the limit in spades, the majority of motorists still abide by the camera’s perceived authority and slow down to either the limit or below. The funny thing is even the local police chief had appeared on the news, talking about the existence of fake cameras in the area, and people still don’t want to take the chance that a camera isn’t real…even when one can clearly see there’s an empty box with a police logo on it.

In a similar fashion, this is how the stormtroopers enforce the will of the Empire in the age post-Revenge of the Sith. They are largely cashing in on the psychological inertia the clones have generated in the galaxy. They only need to show up in the intimidating white armor, with the personal weapons and mechanized equipment, and speak in an authoritative voice (see the lead trooper in ‘Art Attack’, pushing the guy from the McQuarrie poster around, saying, “Move along, this is a restricted area!”) The average person isn’t going to challenge them. They won’t take the risk…except those rebellious few.

My feeling is that, as this show progresses, and this band of rebels continue to succeed, they will attract more people to their ranks, and spread this sentiment of defiance further throughout the galaxy. I imagine officials like Callus will call upon reform in training and commitment behind the scenes, and the troopers will progressively get better. We will lose more rebels then, perhaps even one of the main characters. But, by the end of the show, they will be the troopers we are introduced to on the Tantive IV, gunning down Leia’s rebel crew. And we will look back on this season saying, “Yeah, the early troopers were just simply green back then…”

Flotsam

Ultimately, I felt this was a rather strong episode, and though I enjoyed the initial premiere immensely, I liked this more. Just some final thoughts:

  • The animation of familiar droids. While I felt the animation of C3P0 in The Clone Wars was superior to what we see of him here (though I liked it), I felt R2 looked much better in Rebels via this episode. Of course, the inclusion of the Return of the Jedi droids theme, as they trekked to Jabba’s palace, in this episode put a smile on my face.
  • Basket Case. It appears that Kevin Kiner continues to use Williams’ Basket Chase musical queue for Zeb’s theme, as it makes an additional appearance while the Lasat warrior fights stormtroopers in the hangar. While some may feel that this is an odd choice, I’ve always felt that Indiana Jones and Star Wars were close cousins, for obvious reasons. And the Lothal market square in which the Zeb musical theme first appears is somewhat reminiscent of those Raiders moments within Cairo. Indeed, the Spark of Rebellion premiere begins with a Indy-esque chase, sans a traditional Star Wars crawler opening. Why not tap Indy music as reference material?
  • Walkers. Since their reveal at New York Comic Con, I’ve loved the design of these new (or are they old) walkers. The inclusion of the Empire Strikes Back theme for the walkers, as blended with Vader’s theme by Kiner here, felt a bit over the top in this sequence to me. But it reminded me once again of something I believe absolutely needs to happen during the course of Rebels: if we are to be privy to Imperial themes, we NEED to hear the original Imperial theme from A New Hope. If Kiner doesn’t mine that during the course of Season 1, let alone the rest of the series, that will certainly be a missed opportunity that many will point out.
  • Visago v. Hondo. Though Visago has only appeared in two episodes thus far, one can’t help but compare him to Hondo Ohnaka, the famed pirate and smuggler from The Clone Wars. The sequence with him purchasing the disrupters, only to slip away as the Empire arrived, rang of the Onderon Arc, where Hondo was used to smuggle weapons to the rebels there(in exchange for knowledge of the Jedi kyber crystal complex on Illum, anyone?). The question, moving forward, is where does his character depart from that of Hondo’s, or we will have an issue of non-creative characterization where lightning does not strike twice.
  • Reusing character models. One of the notable features of The Clone Wars, in an effort to save money, was the appearance of the same few character models, in the background, often wearing different clothing, or exhibiting different skin tones, but ultimately the same face and body. We were treated to this phenomenon once again, as the model for Minister Maketh Tua first appeared in the pilot episode’s opening sequences on Lothal’s market square. Though the character didn’t speak beyond releasing a gasp as Imperial officials harassed the jogan fruit merchant, the model was there. So, as with the Mandalorian civilians, who appeared time and again on Coruscant, on Raxus, among other locals, be prepared to see this gimmick in use in Rebels as well.
  • Bail Organa and…I hope not the Sundered Heart. Yet another reason this show almost feels like Clone Wars Part II is the appearance of Bail Organa, once again voiced by the great Phil Lamar. Though his appearance in this episode wasn’t a surprise for those who purchased the Visual Guide for Rebels, it was a welcome edition. If the rebels will band together as an alliance of various cells, perhaps Organa will serve as the connective tissue. Though the pilots and personnel we see in A New Hope may not have any knowledge of the characters recently created for this show, Organa (and by extension Leia) may be the orchestrator of their coordination, and since we never see him in the original film, he’ll have a greater presence on Rebels prior to his death at the hands of Tarkin. This would effectively tie this show to Episode IV, and would flesh out why his home world was targeted in the first place — beyond the obvious conclusion that Leia was a rebel participant. Perhaps Kallus’ Imperial Security Bureau, in the final season, retraces Organa’s steps back to the formation of the Alliance, just as the plans to the Death Star are stolen. Though these new rebels may not have participated in that operation, there might be other critical developments Bail managed while Leia was away, directly tying him more to these new characters.
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