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The Media Man Reviews: Tales of the Empire

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I never thought I'd be reviewing something from the current era of Star Wars again, yet here I am.


As you may remember, Ahsoka was such an mess of a show that it was the final straw for me and I ended up quitting the current era of Star Wars because I was just so damn tired of being disappointed constantly by what was being offered to us. The Disney+ live-action shows were just one disappointment after another. But the animation side of things is another story.


While I'm still yet to watch The Bad Batch, the Disney era of Star Wars has consistently been great in terms of animated content. We had Rebels, a show that was way better than anyone expected it to be, The Clone Wars was given the final season it was long overdue for and it ended the series on a massive high and then we got the anthology series Tales of the Jedi, a project of such top-tier quality that it's probably the most beloved thing to ever come out of Disney Star Wars. And I heard The Bad Batch is considered great too, but I'm still yet to watch it.


So because the animation side of Star Wars has been great when the live-action side has not, I was more than willing to give this new series a chance. After Tales of the Jedi, it was clear that Dave Filoni had more ideas in mind for shorts as we now have another anthology series, this one titled Tales of the Empire. Seems appropriate we go from a Jedi-focused series to an Empire-focused one.


So are these tales worthy of the Empire's legacy? Or should the Empire dump these from their history books so we may never speak of them again? Let's dive in and find out...


Section 1: The Story


Actually, "story" is the wrong word here. There are TWO stories in this series, each one three episodes long. The first story centres around Morgan Elsbeth and her rise to power while the second story centres around Barriss Offee and what became of her after The Clone Wars. Already, this sounds pretty strange a premise for what's supposed to be a show called Tales of the Empire. That's because they ARE tales of the Empire, it's just it's about characters whose stories are tangentially related to the Empire. I get if some people might be bummed that it's not a series about characters like Darth Vader and such, but a series about characters whose lives involve the Empire in some way is still an interesting concept for a series. The question is the choice of characters to focus on. I can understand wanting to tell a story about Barriss Offee, but who was asking for a story about Morgan Elsbeth? She was such a nothing character in The Mandalorian and Ahsoka, so what made Dave Filoni think devoting three shorts to her would make her any more interesting? They should've focused on literally ANYONE ELSE except for Morgan.


For this review, I'll talk about each story individually and conclude which one was the best. Starting off, we have Morgan Elsbeth's story. Was it any good? Eh...it's complicated. The story does a good job on giving us Morgan's backstory and explaining her gradual fall into villainy as she lets her tragic past consume her to the point she becomes the very thing she hated. It's even very cleverly paced out with the naming scheme of the episode titles being "The Path of..." and the last word in each title is Fear, Anger and Hate respectively. Those who remember Yoda's speech in The Phantom Menace will get the reference, and Morgan's story follows this to a tee. She starts off fearful after what happened in the siege on Dathomir, then that fear becomes anger as she's full of rage and wants revenge for the deaths of her people, then that anger becomes hatred as she's full of hate for those that wronged her and finally, that hate leads to suffering as she climbs her way up the Imperial ranks and takes over the planet of Corvus, which explains how she ended up where she was in The Mandalorian Season 2. It's really cleverly written and executed in that sense.


I also like how the story doesn't try to make her sympathetic either. It's clear that we're not meant to feel sorry for Morgan, more like we can at least understand why she ended up where she was and what led to her turn to darkness. Even in the last episode, it's VERY clear we're meant to feel sorry for the people Morgan's subjugated rather than Morgan herself. If they'd tried to make her sympathetic, the story wouldn't have worked so I'm glad they didn't here. This isn't a redemption arc or a story of redemption, it's a damnation arc and it's well executed in that sense. Miraculous Ladybug could do with taking notes from these episodes. =P


Oh and we got by far the best depiction of General Grievous in a long, long time, so that's a plus. Seriously, it's been a while since he's been depicted as the lethal killing machine he's supposed to be.


So yeah, the story's well written and explains Morgan's fall to villainy well. So why did I say "it's complicated" in response to it being any good? Well, that's the thing. The story IS told well and is clever in how it handled Morgan's fall to the dark side by having it go the way Yoda explains. It's just...why did this story need to exist? Morgan Elsbeth is NOT interesting, and this story doesn't make her any more interesting. I still don't care for her by the time this is over. It just comes off as information we didn't need to know. Why did we need to know why Morgan became a villain? Why is the show's first three episodes focused on her instead of a more popular and interesting character like Darth Vader or Grand Admiral Thrawn or the Grand Inquisitor or something? Hell, focusing on Grand Moff Tarkin would've been a better use of the story's time instead of giving us a story nobody asked for! Nobody cares about Morgan Elsbeth so why did we waste three episodes on a story that didn't need to be told because nobody was asking for it?

Also there's some pretty big continuity errors in the story too. First of all, General Grievous's appearance is all wrong here. He's depicted with his cape and his arms are intact, whereas in actuality, he never wore his cape during the attack on Dathomir and his arms got damaged by Asajj Ventress during the fight, so what's that all about? And second, people have pointed out that the second episode essentially retcons the TIE Defender project by having it turn out it was Morgan's idea rather than Thrawn's. I don't really care about that though since the TIE Defender project never got off the ground thanks to the events of Rebels anyway, so it's not that big a deal. Still, with those errors and blatant retcons, it only makes the story's presence feel even more confusing and easily disposable. If it's not going to fit into the continuity of Star Wars well, then why should we accept it as canon? I see the effort put into this story, but in the end it was three episodes wasted on a story we didn't need and it should've been given to someone else. At least Tales of the Jedi had two stories that everyone wanted to see and about two characters everyone loves.


And now for Barriss's story. Was it any good? Much better than Morgan's that's for sure. Unlike Morgan, Barriss's story is one the fans DID want to see. We were all curious to know what happened to her after The Clone Wars and it's nice we finally got an answer to that. Her story sees her spared since she's no longer a Jedi and thus that loophole means the Clones have no reason to kill her and sometime after Order 66, she's invited to join the Inquisitors. Many fans suspected that would happen to her and this story confirms that indeed, it's what happened. I do like how Barriss gets a redemption arc here as having her become straight up evil would've felt too out-of-character for her and would've gone against her reason for turning traitor something fierce. I remind you, she didn't betray the Jedi because she'd turned evil or anything, she became disillusioned by the war and felt the Jedi had become the very villains they were facing and felt the need to do something about it. So in my eyes, it made sense that she got redeemed in the end, as short-lived as it was. It was also rather nice how the story ends with her helping Fourth Sister abandon the Dark Side and I'm definitely curious if we'll ever find out more about what happened after that. Did Fourth Sister truly abandon the Inquisitors? Is she still alive now? Hopefully we'll get an answer.


The only problem with Barriss's story is that due to this being an anthology series and there's only three shorts rather than full length episodes to tell her story, a lot of missed opportunities arise from it. How fascinating would it have been to see Barriss and Darth Vader interact for starters? Or see Barriss and Luminara reunite and have Luminara play a part in Barriss's redemption? Or see Barriss reflect on her betrayal and question if she'd ever been right to do so at all? All of those interesting plot-points have to be skipped over because there's just no time to use them. Honestly, they should've scrapped the Morgan episodes and made all six episodes about just Barriss so her story would've had more time to breathe and then all these interesting ideas could've been included. I do get that this is an anthology series and it's more about highlighting moments in the character's lives rather than a full-on story, but maybe this method of story-telling wasn't the right approach for a story as big as this one.


So yeah, we have one story that didn't need to exist and one story that feels half-explored because there's no time to tell it. Sounds like a bad series, right? Eh...I wouldn't go that far. This is still LEAGUES above any of the Disney+ live-action shows. At least when watching this series, I don't feel frustration and disappointment. It still has its moments like some cool action scenes, story-telling that's very visual with minimal dialogue that adds more nuance to the stories and a good focus on the characters the shorts tell about. It's just they should've told any story other than Morgan's and Barriss's story should've had more episodes to let it breathe and then the series would've been another masterpiece like Tales of the Jedi. As is, it's decent at best and given how lackluster Star Wars content is these days, I'll take decent over mediocre...


Section 2: The Characters


The Tales of series is great for how they're a series of shorts focused on certain characters and we get to see more sides to them than we did before. Tales of the Jedi did great in showing Dooku's backstory and revealing more of Ahsoka's past and what she got up to after Order 66. So how did Tales of the Empire do with the characters it focused on? So-so honestly.


The first story is focused on Morgan Elsbeth (voiced as a teen by Cathy Ang and voiced as an adult by Diana Lee Inosanto) as mentioned before and sadly, this series still fails to make her interesting. She's boring in the live-action shows and she's still boring here. As I said, her story is well told and does show her fall to darkness well, but it's also a story that nobody asked for and we didn't need for it to be told. It doesn't make her more interesting, nor does it really "say" anything about her. It's just "She survived the siege on Dathomir and joined the Empire". We really didn't need to see how or why she joined them and what led to her doing so. Also she just comes off as very confusing here since she's mad at the droids for wiping out her people and so she decides to...take over a village and be a cruel dictator? What sense does that make? She hates how her people were massacred and wiped out and yet she's willing to work with the Empire, which will wipe out anyone who stands in their way and literally built an entire weapons station that can destroy planets?! Does Morgan seriously not see what a massive hypocrite she is here? This character is a waste of imagination and her story doesn't change that. She didn't need to exist and her story didn't need to be told, plain and simple.


The second story is focused on Barriss Offee (voiced by Meredith Salenger) and unlike Morgan, she's a character who's story was worth telling and worth following. Disillusioned by the Jedi Order, Barriss is given an opportunity to escape her life in prison by joining the Inquisitors, only to see that they're no better for her and their methods are too brutal for her liking, so she abandons them and goes on to live life as a healer. Barriss definitely has the more interesting story here, but as mentioned above, her only problem is there's not enough time to tell said story so a lot of ideas that her story brings up don't get utilized here. I'm still glad we got it at all and I think her coming back to the light was the right direction for her character to go in, as well as the fact she convinces Fourth Sister to abandon the Inquisitors in the end. I'm not sure if anyone will truly forgive Barriss for what she did in The Clone Wars, but I'm glad to see her attempting to do good again.


The only other character worth mentioning is Fourth Sister, aka Lyn Rakish (voiced by Rya Kihlstedt). Unlike in the Obi-Wan Kenobi show where she just exists and has nothing to do except fill in the background, this series is able to give her a personality and make her an actual character. Fourth Sister is among the most ruthless and bloodthirsty of the Inquisitors and is essentially the bad cop to Barriss's good cop. However, it's clear that she's not with them out of loyalty or anything, she's there out of fear, which she expresses when she rants to Barriss about what will happen to her if she fails. Her rage and fury causes her to accidentally stab Barriss and that ends up being the wake-up call she needed in order to leave the Inquisitors since it caused her to kill the very person who was trying to help her. I wouldn't say she has a great redemption arc and it most certainly doesn't excuse how violent and bloodthirsty she is, but I do like how Barriss's kindness and offer to help inspires her to change, and possibly for the better. This show actually makes me want to know what happens next to her and see where she goes from here. How funny that she went from being a nobody to being more interesting? If only Morgan could've done the same.


For the rest, they're merely supporting characters to Morgan and Barriss's stories. Darth Vader makes a silent cameo, the Grand Inquisitor (voiced by Jason Issacs) plays the villainous mentor role to Barriss, Admiral Thrawn (voiced by Lars Mikkelsen) plays a part in Morgan's damnation arc and General Grievous (voiced by Matthew Wood) only appears at the beginning of the first episode to set up Morgan's story while also getting to look the most threatening and badass we've seen him look and act in years. They may not be in the show for long, but their scenes REALLY count when they do show up.


Tales of the Empire failed to make Morgan interesting, but at least it succeeded in answering our questions about Barriss Offee and make Fourth Sister more interesting. If they focused on any character other than Morgan and gave Barriss more episodes, we could've had something even better. Still, at least the cast in the Barriss episodes make the show worthwhile.


Section 3: The Animation

It still amazes me how far The Clone Wars style of animation has come since 2008. Seriously, it's unreal how beautiful the animation looks here.


The character designs still have a bit of a stylized look to them like how they did in The Clone Wars, but they don't look quite as stylized and look more realistic compared to the character models in The Clone Wars. Even Thrawn, The Grand Inquisitor and Darth Vader look more realistic and don't have that same stylized look from Rebels with Darth Vader especially looking like he came straight out of the movies. He has all the details from the shine on his helmet to the lines in his suit and the folds in his cape and he looks incredible depicted in this animation style. But of course, if anyone got the biggest upgrade in terms of character models in this show, it was General Grievous. He looks like he fell directly out of Revenge of the Sith and landed here and he looks absolutely incredible. Too bad the character model used creates continuity errors as I mentioned earlier, but I still love how awesome they made Grievous look in this show. Now I want to see an entire anthology series about him so we get to see more of this Grievous in action.


Not only to the character designs look great, but the visuals themselves look great to. The backgrounds especially look nearly photo-realistic with all the details and the realistic lighting effects that make it look almost as if it was filmed rather than animated. To give you an idea of how ridiculously detailed this animation is, there's one part where Morgan crashes her fists on the ground in anger and we can see EVERY SINGLE GRAIN OF SOIL in the dirt mound she makes by doing so. I watched the show with my brother and he was like "Look how real that dirt looks!" and I agree. Heck, there's a scene where Barriss looks from her prison window and we can see it raining outside. The rain looks incredibly realistic at that part, almost like it's real rain! They're also able to convincingly and brilliantly animate fire as well whenever one breaks out, especially at the end of Episode 3. Even the blizzard we see at the start of Episode 6 looks like a real snowstorm and you can practically feel the cold of the storm just by watching the scene. I expect that level of detail from a Pixar movie, and yet here's a Star Wars animated series pulling it off too! I also like how we get a variety of different scenes and settings for the animation to bring to life such as the red world of Dathomir, the Inquisitor's base that is depicted as incomplete and still under construction to give us some idea on how long after the prequels this takes place to the icy world Barriss sets up her healer services in and the oppressed town of Corvus. All the backgrounds are beautifully detailed and look very nice onscreen and some of the more familiar locations are very faithfully recreated. Corvus especially looks as it did in The Mandalorian Season 2, so kudos to the animators for keeping that level of detail consistent and accurate to what came before.


Speaking of detail, I like how Barriss's death at Fourth Sister's hands takes place in a freezing cold cave so their breath frosts as they speak. I was worried they were going to make it so yet again, a character survives after being stabbed by a lightsaber but no, if you look at Barriss long enough, you'll see her breath eventually stops frosting, indicating she actually died from the stab. Congratulations Disney, you finally remembered that lightsaber stabs are fatal. Then again, it's possible they'll have it turn out that Barriss survived somehow so I best not get too ahead of myself...


It also wouldn't be Star Wars without some cool action scenes and this series delivers on that. The siege of Dathomir is depicted in all its grisly glory, only it now looks even better with the updated and improved animation we've gotten since The Clone Wars and we see plenty of action from the droids, Nightsisters and General Grievous. Grievous vs. Morgan's mother especially was pretty awesome. Morgan gets a brilliantly choreographed and animated fight scene with Rukh which has some clever use of her Beskarr armoured spear and the Inquisitors have a cool fight with a rogue Jedi that they fight against in the mountains. One of the coolest action scenes for me was when Barriss and another potential Inquisitor had to fight each other for a spot in the Inquisitorious and they're in this arena that gradually shrinks with laser walls closing in on them and there's a huge hole in the centre. It's either they fight to the death or meet their end via the laser walls or falling down the hole. It was a creative set piece for an action scene and was suitably intense to watch as it happened. Animation really does prove to be one of the best ways to stell stories in Star Wars because the action scenes at times can rival the movies in what they're capable of.


I only really have one critique with the animation, and that's with the chins on many of the character models. I don't know why they can't do them right, especially as they have done them right in shows like Rebels, but to me it always looks as if they had their chins sanded down so they look super flat and it just looks weird to me. If they could just fix the chins and make them look better, the models would look perfect.


As is, I have nothing to criticize too much about with the animation. This is one of the most visually gorgeous properties in all of Star Wars and is easily the best-looking animation of all animated Star Wars content. Disney may not have the best track record with writing in this franchise, but their track record in the visuals remains consistently great...


Overall


Tales of the Empire isn't as good as Tales of the Jedi, but it's still leagues better than anything else Disney Star Wars has given us lately. It's just refreshing to have modern Star Wars content that I can say ISN'T mediocre. The stories are well-told for the most part despite one being unnecessary and the other being too surface level, it has the same nuanced style of story-telling from Tales of the Jedi, Barriss is at least interesting and deserving of a spotlight even if Morgan isn't and the animation is absolutely terrific. It is a pity that the show wasn't another masterpiece like I was hoping for, but hey, at least it isn't terrible. It really does seem like Disney can only make good Star Wars content if it's animated at this point because their live-action properties keep being bad but their animation content keeps being good. So maybe for this current era of Star Wars, I'm better off just sticking to the animation side of things. I hope we get another Tales of series in the future. If the next season focuses on General Grievous and Darth Vader, I'll be well happy, but that's wishful thinking. Still, it's refreshing that for now, I have a piece of modern Star Wars content that wasn't bad for a change and with that, I'm happy to take the victories while I can take it. This doesn't mean I'm changing my mind on the live-action stuff though, not unless Disney finally gets their act together and fires Kathleen Kennedy. Once she's gone and they put someone else more worthy in charge, then we'll talk...


And that's all I have for this review. I hope you enjoyed it and I invite you all to share your thoughts down below. Did you like Tales of the Empire? Did you not like it? Which story was your favourite? I'd love to hear all about it.

Next week, I'm doing something special to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Transformers. See you then media fans!

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