“Droids in Distress” tries to cram way too much into a single half hour episode.

The Star Wars: Rebels premiere movie turned out to be very promising, but at the end of the day, it’s still a double-length special. Now that we’ve met the Ghost’s highly-capable crew, the real question is how the series will handle regular half-hour episodes. Can it successfully balance the character development and space opera action that made helped make Star Wars an iconic franchise?

“Droids in Distress” answers this question with a definite “maybe”. All the ingredients are here: good character moments, fun actions setpieces, and hints of what will one day become the Rebel Alliance. But tacking on details about the villain’s backstory and throwing in classic Star Wars cameos? That doesn’t leave room to raise the episode to its full potential. While “Droids in Distress” is certainly well-presented, I’m not sure why Rebels needs to cram everything in this early in the series.

Were you in a galaxy far, far away when this episode aired? Don’t worry, you can still catch it on iTunes and Disney XD.

“Droids in Distress” opens with the Ghost’s crew having a bit of financial trouble, specifically that their space action shenanigans are preventing them from finishing any jobs. Kanan proposes getting back into the weapons trade, or more specifically, stealing weapons from the Empire and selling them to the criminal underworld. Two complications arise: The weapons are powerful prototypes that can disable entire ships, and have worse effects on organic matter. Second, a very familiar astromech and protocol droid find themselves trapped on Ghost during the heist, and their presence threatens to disrupt the entire sale.

That’s right, the major gimmick of the episode is that C-3P0 and R2-D2 make their first cameo appearance. It’s a mixed blessing; while I’m glad Anthony Daniels is back as C-3P0, his iconic humor is best when he’s playing it off of someone. The trouble is, he barely interacts with enough cast members to act as the comic relief. By the same token, it’s great to see the original Star Wars droids together again, but once the novelty wears off, they aren’t essential to the episode. These droids don’t contribute meaningfully to the plot, or help the Ghost crew do something they couldn’t have figured out themselves. (“What’s that Artoo? You think we should use these ship-disabling weapons on the incoming enemy craft? You’re a genius!“)

What redeems their cameo appearance is that it may provide the first taste of a bigger Rebel movement. Apparently C-3P0 and R2-D2 were attached to this Imperial weapons deal on behalf of Senator Bail Organa (Leia’s adopted father) so R2 could record the entire transaction. By intervening, the Ghost’s crew are now on Organa’s radar, and I imagine he’d love to work with a highly-effective Rebel cell in future episodes.

It’s just too bad that C-3P0 uses that opportunity to act like an actual Imperial lackey, calling the Empire so it can “rescue” him from these awful criminals. Sure, he doesn’t know the intentions of Rebels‘ protagonists yet, but it makes him far less sympathetic than the cowardly-yet-charming droid we know from past installments.

But the droids aren’t the only element of this episode. We also learn more of Zeb’s backstory: he saw these weapons in action when the Empire used them on his species. The event has clearly scarred him, causing him to drop his usual rough exterior and ask whether Kanan should sell these weapons at all. It’s a fantastic character moment, but it’s sadly used to prop up an unnecessary plot twist: Agent Kallus (who hunted Ghost in “Spark of Rebellion”) was the one that ordered Stormtroopers to use these weapons on Zeb’s species. You know, because the Empire can’t be villains unless they’re evil on every conceivable level, even borderline coincidental ones.

While we’re at it, Zeb takes point on the episode’s impressive melee-combat sequences… possibly too impressive. Despite being built like the Ghost’s version of Chewbacca, he’s insanely agile, dodging Stormtrooper blaster fire and diving into acrobatic melee combat. It’s well-presented, but the Ghost already has two Force-sensitive characters, including a former Jedi. Why don’t they break out lightsabers for that style of fighting, so Zeb can dish out a tank-based approach? It’s not like Kanan needs to hide it, since he already revealed himself to Kallus last episode.

Not that this doesn’t make for a good episode, it’s a lot of fun. But combined, “Droids in Distress” really has a one-step-forward-one-step-back tone; every great idea is countered by another that’s silly, unnecessary, or doesn’t quite work. To top it off, trying to pack everything into a half-hour timeslot makes the episode feel rushed, so that reveal regarding Zeb’s species only takes five seconds before we move on to something else. The concepts here probably would be better served with another double-length episode, or failing that, at least been trimmed down to a more manageable focus.

It’s also worth mentioning that Rebels is pushing its “criminals-with-hearts-of-gold” premise in some strange directions for a children’s show. Despite being heroes, these characters are way too comfortable with the idea of selling overpowered weapons, especially to the individual who probably betrayed them last episode. It’s especially bizarre coming from Kanan who, as a Jedi, should be well-aware of the consequences of these actions. But not only does he enthusiastically pitch the job to his crew, he hand-waves Zeb’s concerns away with “as long as the Empire doesn’t have them”. I’m sure future stories will address this episode’s fallout, but right now there seem to be some conflicting motivations happening here.

Bottom Line: “Droids in Distress” is a solid Rebels outing overall, but tends to undercut every great idea it puts forward. Characters are fleshed out in some interesting, if contradictory directions, and very exciting seeds have been laid for future episodes. But even cameos from C-3P0 and R2-D2 don’t make this chapter better than average.

Recommendation: This episode is probably setting the stage for impressive follow-up episodes, but I sense that it probably won’t be the most memorable episode of the season.

[rating=3.0]

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