In the months leading up to the release of The Force Awakens last year, J.J. Abrams and Lucasfilm became notorious – often, but not always, in jest – for the “Mystery Box” secrecy surrounding the film, which ensured that fans knew very little officially released information about the movie and its characters before seeing it in theaters. This month at Celebration Europe in London, fans received implicit confirmation that the goal of keeping information about the films concealed wasn’t only Abrams’ doing. With no Bad Robot in sight, merely a few sparse new details were revealed about December’s Rogue One, and only the most general platitudes were mentioned about Episode VIII and the untitled Han Solo movie.
Not everyone at Lucasfilm shares this strategy of pathological secrecy in marketing and fan engagement, however. For both The Clone Wars and now Star Wars Rebels, Dave Filoni has long understood that hints, tidbits, teasers, and even spoiler-laden trailers don’t undermine fans’ enjoyment of his animated series, but in fact increase their excitement and anticipation for the next round of stories. The Star Wars Rebels presence at Celebration was no exception.
The success of Rebels earned its featured panel the premium spot on Saturday evening on the main Celebration Stage, bookended by the two movie panels on Friday and Sunday evenings. Rather than dwell on the previous season and the epic finale showdown between Ahsoka Tano and Darth Vader, the panel quickly launched into an in-depth look ahead to the upcoming tales in Season Three. Filoni shared the significantly modified character models for Kanan, Ezra, and Sabine, as well as the smaller updates to Hera and Zeb. One short clip highlighted Sabine’s skilled flying with a Mandalorian jetpack, with Ezra hanging on for dear life. Another clip emphasized that Darth Maul’s role is far from concluded in Rebels, and ended with a cliffhanger that earned gasps from the audience. But the reveals were not limited to visuals. Filoni elaborated on the emotional struggles facing Kanan and Ezra when Season Three kicks off. Voice talent Tiya Sircar noted that Sabine will face the challenges of her past – and some of her Mandalorian relatives – in the new season, while Sam Witwer delved into Maul’s twisted goals and warped motivations.
In another departure from the movie panels, Filoni then announced – even prior to the midpoint of the timeslot – that they would play the Rebels Season Three trailer so that they could discuss it in further detail during the panel. The biggest reveal, of course, was the return of longtime fan-favorite antagonist Grand Admiral Thrawn as the Ghost crew’s military adversary for the new season. But Filoni did not simply let the news stand on its own: he revealed the voice actor, Lars Mikkelsen, and shared the cover of the upcoming tie-in novel Thrawn and a video message from the character’s originator, author Timothy Zahn. Filoni noted that Story Group lead Kiri Hart also had been an advocate for bringing Thrawn to Rebels, and that the show’s crew is just as excited about bringing back the character as the show’s fans. During the fan Q&A, Filoni noted that the Force-repelling ysalamiri from Zahn’s Legends novels would not be included in Rebels, however, to maintain consistency with the understanding of the Force further developed by George Lucas during the making of the Prequel Trilogy and The Clone Wars. Ultimately, Filoni emphasized that everyone on the team had wanted to ensure that Thrawn’s portrayal in the show was authentic to Zahn’s vision and fans’ expectations for the character.
The Season Three trailer included other glimpses that immediately fired up interest and imaginations. Fan-favorite X-wing pilot Wedge Antilles makes his Rebels debut as an Imperial defector. Sabine not only has a jetpack, but at some point wields the darksaber blade previously possessed by both her clan forebear Pre Vizsla and his slayer Maul. Filoni expressed palpable delight that legendary Doctor Who actor Tom Baker provides the voice of Bendu, a gigantic alien creature who presents an ancient understanding of the Force different from the dogmatic views of the Jedi and the Sith. By the time the panel moved into its Q&A segment, fans’ minds already were churning with speculation and anticipation for new season.
After the one-hour panel, the audience gathered at the Celebration Stage experienced the world premiere of the first two episodes of Season Three. Without addressing spoilers, it’s safe to say the first appearances of Thrawn and Bendu are quite worthy of their introductions at the panel. Season Three promises to challenge the crew of the Ghost like never before.
On Sunday morning, Filoni, Sircar, and Witwer reassembled for the Star Wars Rebels press conference with the gathered media. Sircar and Witwer elaborated more on their character arcs in Season Three. Sabine not only will confront her past, but she also faces higher stakes and more responsibility as the Ghost crew becomes more deeply involved in the Rebellion. Maul does not appear frequently, because otherwise his appearances are no longer special, but his personality is as damaged and misguided as ever as the former Sith Lord remains stuck in a loop where every rise to success is followed by a plummet into failure.
Most fascinating, though, was the deeper insight into Filoni’s creative process in shaping Rebels and its stories. He explained that Thrawn had been on the villain list for Rebels since its inception, but like Vader must be used carefully because he should not be an adversary who loses repeatedly to the heroes. Unlike Season Two, however, when the Ghost crew had Ahsoka on their team to help neutralize the threat of Vader, they do not have a similar ally to counterbalance Thrawn, who poses a strategic threat like they have not face previously. While he refused to affirm any connections with characters from Rogue One, Filoni noted that Wedge is a familiar face from the Rebellion whose arrival further indicates the approach of A New Hope on the timeline. He added that Biggs Darklighter also would be a possibility, but because Biggs’ story is intrinsically connected to Luke Skywalker’s, his involvement would have to come even closer to the film’s events.
Rebels has been a great success with Star Wars fans, and Filoni’s creative process is a big part of the reason why. Witwer noted, for example, that Filoni had described to him the broad arcs of the Rebels series, including events only now being revealed in the Season Three trailer, before a single episode of Season One had ever aired. Such careful forethought is part of Rebels success, but Filoni also constantly seeks feedback from the crew throughout the stages of development. He reads scripts aloud to the episodic directors to gauge their reactions before they begin working. Input from other crew members similarly has led to changes to avoid aspects that garnered significant negative response. Filoni noted that the crew is all highly critical of their own work and always pushes the threshold to make Rebels as good as possible, and their feedback has invariably improved the episodes and the series as a whole. The showrunner does not need to actively consider whether the show is creating fanservice because everyone working on the show is a fan – so by being truthful to the stories they have created, they can have confidence that the end product will resonate with many Star Wars fans. This empathy and synergy with the fandom no doubt is why Filoni’s colleagues gave him the floor for the final remarks at the Art of Storytelling panel on Sunday, in which he expressed his heartfelt certainty that the stewards of Star Wars at Lucasfilm care just as deeply about the franchise and its success as the fans. The audience reaction to the Season Three trailer was as loud and enthusiastic as any response at Celebration proves that the commitment of Filoni and his team is paying off mightily.
In addition to the full panel video below, be sure to listen to Fangirls Going Rogue’s Priority Transmission from Star Wars Celebration Europe for Tricia’s exclusive interviews with Filoni, Sircar, and Witwer about Star Wars Rebels and the upcoming season.
- Dave Filoni interview on The Star Wars Show Live
- Tiya Sircar interview on The Star Wars Show Live
- Sam Witwer interview on The Star Wars Show Live
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