"It's surprising, but true," said Executive Producer Dave Filoni when Fanbase Press talked with him about the the debut of Star Wars Rebels' third season. Filoni credits the audience affection for the character to voice actor Jim Cummings. "I don't think with anybody else [Hondo] would have the broad spectrum of personality. The character can be incredibly warm and incredibly cruel if needed," he explained. In making that mark on the galaxy, Filoni added that it feels as though the smuggler has "always been there."
"I always attribute that to [Star Wars creator] George Lucas," he continued. "The character must've been bouncing around in his brain and he decided to bring him out in Clone Wars. And he's made such a connection with people that we keep [Hondo] around.”
Hondo, Rex, and Ahsoka Tano represent a few of the Clone Wars characters available to Filoni and his staff who help make the world of Rebels authentically Star Wars, as the crew of the Ghost gets drawn deeper into the emerging Rebel Alliance. The show also goes further afield into the Expanded Universe with characters like Grand Admiral Thrawn or the concepts like the Ashla and the Bogan. Filoni said it is satisfying to present these elements of Star Wars lore to new audiences, but added that plenty of care goes into choosing when an EU concept is right for the story. "I try to be very respectful of that material because it wasn't created by me. I'm trying to reference the history of Star Wars."
Back on Clone Wars, Filoni and his staff considered using the EU bounty hunter Dirge, but as the story developed, the character's appearance and abilities kept changing until he was not recognizable as Dirge. In the end, the series introduced a new bounty hunter, Cad Bane, instead.
Filoni added that he never felt it was his job to define Star Wars or declare canon. "I try to take what everybody loves the most about it and bring those things to life." That balance was something he learned from Lucas when the Star Wars creator was actively involved in Clone Wars. "To a lot of people, it feels pretty authentic when animation does some stuff with [the EU lore.]"
That level of authenticity reflects a change in the way animated spin-offs are viewed. Looking back on the Star Wars animated series from the 20th Century, Droids and Ewoks, Filoni noted they were produced with wildly different functions in a vastly different industry. "For a long time, animation was seen as something that was a side -- not part of the actual story -- and keeping the brand alive," he explained. Droids and Ewoks, which he recalled fondly as part of his childhood, filled more of a fantasy function in what Star Wars was in the late 1980s.
But he also recalled trying to understand where the shows fit into the Star Wars saga. "Where are the Stormtroopers?" he joked.
"All these years later, you see these cinematic universe that all fit together," he continued. "George was very insistent that [the new shows] were part of Star Wars and [Lucasfilm President] Kathleen Kennedy recognized the value of that." In having a role in the larger film universe, Filoni said part of Rebels’ mission statement is to tell its own story while it also "gives dimension" to broader scope of Star Wars as a whole.
And part of those new dimensions is Bendu, a creature Kanan meets in the season premiere who professes to be "the middle way" between the Jedi and the Sith. The term itself comes from early drafts of the first Star Wars film as part of the name of the Jedi order itself. Filoni decided to use the term to give Bendu a connection to something more ancient and to denote a different view of the Force.
Visually, the character is massive to further set him apart from Force users seen in the past. "Initially, he was almost Kaiju-like and the Rebel base was accidentally built on his back," he revealed. The final concept scaled him down to something like "a giant, old tree" which still conveys everything Filoni intended. He was also rigged and modeled to feel like a puppet or a creature from Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal. "I thought it would be an interesting way to go and feel right for our time period,” he explained.
Bendu is also set apart from other Star Wars characters by the voice of Doctor Who's fourth lead actor, Tom Baker. "I had Tom in mind from early on," Filoni said. Seeing him in the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special, "The Day of the Doctor," the producer noted a certain magic from the actor in his brief scenes as an art curator who may also be the once and future Doctor. "I think he understands these types of characters," Filoni explained. He added that little flourishes Baker added come from "a deep understanding" of both the warmth and unease Bendu can convey. "It's a quality of performance that I'm so grateful we have on Rebels."
And while guest characters and deeper lore are part of what makes the show compelling viewing, it is also the story of the Ghost's crew and Ezra Bridger's ongoing struggle to find his place in the galaxy. Season Three sees him both face teenage angst and a Dark Side Holocron, which Filoni said were story elements the team had to "lean into" and "embrace" as both would make Ezra occasionally unpleasant. "He's going to go through this period of questioning [everyone], and it's heightened because he's wielding forces of the Dark Side. But it is also why you can relate to him," he said.
He also pointed out that the character's unpleasant moments were more dangerous when he was younger, much like the younger Ahsoka on Clone Wars. But also like Ahsoka’s journey, Filoni said the occasionally grating aspect of the character is part of Ezra’s path to maturity. "Even with the Dark Side,” he said. “There is that growing sense of responsibility if or when he tried to gain the other side out of it."
Should the character learn to accept the consequences of his actions and become a more responsible member of the team, Filoni said the character will become more likable to the audience for having seen his struggle.
The new season also sees Hera taking on more responsibility for the group in the wake of Season Two's climax. "Command was always something that she's wanted," Filoni said. But the challenge ahead of her is to discover what it really means for her to take charge of the growing Rebel cell. "It's not just running around in this space truck smuggling a few puffer pigs," he explained. "It's fighter details and marshalling resources and building toward something." It may also conflict with more personal goals.
But one commander absolutely sure of himself is Grand Admiral Thrawn, who finally makes his debut in the premiere. Teased since Star Wars Celebration in July, Filoni revealed the character was always a possibility for Rebels going back to day one. "We all felt that if and when Thawn appeared, he needed to be showcased on his own," Filoni said. With the first season's focus on the Inquisitor and the second year's tale of Darth Vader and Ahsoka, the character remained in waiting. "We thought it would've robbed from the characters [to introduce him then]," he explained.
Going into the third year, Filoni decided to step back from Force-wielding antagonists. "When Tarkin tells Vader [in Star Wars], 'Their fire has gone out of the galaxy, my friend. You are all that's left of that ancient religion,' you want to feel that that's true. And having too many Jedi/Sith people, that's not going to make as much sense," he said.
And while Maul is still out there plotting his own thing, Filoni thought it "might be Thrawn time" as Vader becomes the only remaining visible Force user in the Empire.
To him, Thrawn was someone who could legitimize the Empire's fabled military might. "He's not just a guy in a military uniform, but a real threat." Both cultured and a brilliant tactician, he created a new sort of menace as he gets inside the mind of the Rebellion's leadership.
Like Hondo's appearances or nods to the Ashla and the Bogan, the choice of Thawn is also an example of the great care the staff of Rebels puts into deciding when to use EU characters. While a fan favorite character from the novels, he also answered very specific story needs. "It's a win for everyone all around, provided fans enjoy the portrayal of the character," Filoni joked.
"But we're fans," he added. "And we hope other fans will like it."
The new season of Star Wars Rebels is now available on Disney XD.