This review contains spoilers.
2.13 The Call
Star Wars: Rebels is showing its age. Well into the second season, the characters are well-established and principled, and the show has some things it consistently does well – big vistas and little flairs in action scenes, and Star Wars mysticism. It’s also showing the age of its target audience. The Call seems like it would be best for children – and that doesn’t mean that it is especially simplistic, or goofy. It has a lot of gravitas at moments and builds on the development of the characters. However, it’s derivative, taking some of its lush visuals from Fantasia or Treasure Planet, and might be great, but I felt that it would really be best for someone who hasn’t seen this story before.
The journey of the whales begins with the Ghost crew adrift in space in a desperate effort to find fuel for both their own ship and the entire squadron. It’s something of a one-way trip: they have just enough fuel to get to a gas refining facility. This does an excellent job of showing how low on resources the Rebellion is, although it shakes a little bit of my faith in Sato that he might send some of his (presumably?) best people out without fuel. The crew tries to keep warm with hot drinks and shivering, but their respite comes in the form of purgill, dangerous space whales that eventually lead the Ghost to the refinery.
What follows is inevitable: the purgill are connected to the gas somehow, and that connection provides the core of the episode. Unlike in Protector Of Concord Dawn, the Imperials don’t make a cursory appearance in this episode. The refinery chief is villain enough, and to show that he is, he’s weighted with some angry dialogue that gives him one motivation: to get the Rebels and purgill away from his refinery. On the other hand, the Rebels have no problems with killing the people who work at the mine. It’s apparently enough to demonise them that they’re selling their gas to the Empire.
The Call isn’t particularly original or surprising. The villains are especially one-dimensional, and are given the kind of broad accents and dramatic declarations typical of some of The Clone Wars’ thinner characters. The episode repeats some of the lessons of The Protector Of Concord Dawn, this time with Hera as the person who wants to solve their problems with weapons and Ezra as the voice of peace. The show is doing a very good job with the family dynamic, and Sabine even gets some follow-up dialogue here when she hesitates to attack the purgill. Kanan never fell into the cliche of being the wise older mentor, and his personality is really solidified by now. The “cowboy Jedi” is not outright altruistic or outright dark. He advises against killing for a practical reason, not a moral or environmentalist one.
On the other hand, Hera’s motivation for her dislike of the purgill goes by quickly and never quite plays out. She says that people she knew were killed by purgill, but those people are never named. Giving the viewer a little more of a connection to them might have made Hera’s dissenting opinion sound more honest. It could certainly have come from the strong value she places on loyalty. Instead, it sounds a bit like the script simply needed someone to voice a different opinion about the situation.
However, Ezra’s story is progressing very clearly toward the young Jedi getting more in touch with his own powers. Ezra has always had a connection with animals; he used a loth cat to help him in the first season, and a vision including a loth cat guided him to the answers about his parents. I love that Star Wars Rebels shows a Jedi whose powers aren’t distributed in the same way as anyone we’ve seen before, and especially a young, male Jedi whose greatest power is his compassion and ability to connect to others. He’s less skilled at physical aspects of the Force, and the difference between his fall and Kanan’s beautiful roll when they jump out of the ship shows that. Taylor Gray is presented with some different material in this episode, and his hissing gasps did very well to sell his peril.
The episode wraps up as one would expect, along with a surprising resolution. Were the whales… predatory the whole time? The purgill are quite literally tentacled whales, and they don’t quite look like they’re in the same world as the Ghost when they’re flying next to it. The design coheres, but is too close to its Earthly counterpart. I couldn’t determine a source for the light that shines on the purgill in space.
They work a bit better when they’re closer to the refinery, where the light from the gas interacts with them beautifully and the lunar surface is abruptly broken by the weird, bright light of the gas. The free fall that brings Ezra, Kanan, Sabine, and Chopper to the refinery is wonderfully paced, with the camera lingering just long enough on them as they make trails through the thin atmosphere. (Kanan’s stormtrooper helmet, spruced up by Sabine, is cool too.)
The latest episodes of Star Wars Rebels have been pretty, but the stories don’t stick. I feel like I’m saying this a lot lately. This episode could have added a few more hooks: it could have given the refinery chief more personality, could have left Ezra’s beliefs a bit more shaken, could have made Hera’s story a little more relevant.
But sometimes, it’s important to remember that this is a kids’ show. The characters don’t have to be genre savvy. Kanan saying he trusts Ezra is building on a season and a half that has talked a lot about trust and family. This is going to be somebody’s first space whale story, somebody’s first story where figuring out the life cycle of an alien is more valuable than shooting a gun. It has a blatantly environmentalist message, both muddled and oversimplified at the same time by the black-and-white way it deals with its villains. It’s going to make somebody feel a little more awe when they look at the stars.
But for others, this story has simply been told before.