sw hero Forrest Whitakers Rogue One, Star Wars Rebels connection one of many
With Dave Filoni (creator of ‘The Clone Wars’ animated series) at the helm, “Star Wars Rebels” has functioned as the first concurrent television series of the new Star Wars canon. Even though it premiered the same year as “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens,” the show takes place 19 years after “Revenge of the Sith” and has more closely grazed major events leading up to the original trilogy.

With the Dec. 20 announcement that Forrest Whitaker will be joining the cast of the Disney XD animated series — taking over from the character’s original voice actor on “Star Wars: Clone Wars,” Andrew Kishino — when the show returns Jan. 7. Now that the film is out, it’s time to review the connections already in place. Easter eggs, subtle implications and fan-favorite characters aren’t the only nods to canon in this beloved successor to “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” — but just like “Agents of SHIELD” bears stronger unity with the Marvel Cinematic Universe than the Netflix series do, “Rebels” is becoming a must-watch as we explore the all-important rise of the Empire.

RELATED: ‘Rogue One’ may be the most fascinating ‘Star Wars’ movie yet. Seriously.

The original trilogies tell us about the Republic, Rebellion and Empire from the very top levels — even “Rogue One” concerns itself with the most important direction actions of the Rebellion. But what the secondary storylines of “Clone Wars” and now “Rebels” — not to mention the now-defunct but always promising “Underworld” — show us is that ground-level stories are just as thrilling, fascinating, and overall crucial to the fabric of the canonical universe as a whole.

If you loved getting to know the members of “Rogue One” this holiday season, now’s the time to meet the crew of Phoenix Squadron’s ship, the Ghost. “Star Wars Rebels” is officially set five years before the original trilogy — and thus “Rogue One,” which takes place almost directly before “A New Hope” begins — which means it shares a timeframe with the characters and stories we’re only just beginning to love.

In Seasons 1 and 2, we’ve seen Hera, Kanan, Ezra, Zeb, Sabine and even Chopper cross paths with major film characters. While the Ghost’s crew mostly focuses on running supplies to other rebels, or places in need of resources to survive, their adventures often intersect with familiar faces who have come to help or to challenge them.

star wars 4 Forrest Whitakers Rogue One, Star Wars Rebels connection one of many

What’s really cool about the approach is that these episodes never shove the show’s leads in the backseat — they’re still the protagonists, and the chief satisfaction becomes watching those mid-film loose ends tied up through their eyes.

Early on we saw Hera work closely with Senator Bail Organa on missions for the Rebel Alliance. R2D2 and C-3PO appeared on a droid centric episode to butt heads with Chopper, which was mostly silly — but presented us with both droid-on-droid violence and a “day in the life” of droids in the Star Wars Universe.

RELATED: What we know about ‘Star Wars: Episode VIII’

Then, of course, Lando showed up to remind us that the anti-heroes were still up to no good — even back in the day — and just how legendary he is at the game of Sabacc — so legendary that Zeb lost Chopper in the game, which Lando then leveraged for help with his schemes.

Moff Tarkin played a pivotal role in the first season, as he tried to wipe out the growing threat of Rebel cells splintering off — which didn’t work. And Princess Leia made a memorable appearance where she helps Ezra cope with the loss of his parents, and inspires him to fully join the fight. (And all from the safe side of the uncanny valley! Imagine.)

star wars 1 Forrest Whitakers Rogue One, Star Wars Rebels connection one of many

During Season 2 the Ghost enlists the help of “Clone Wars” hero Captain Rex to find a home for one of the Rebel cells, which led to the exciting discovery that their informant “Fulcrum” was “Clone Wars’s” most beloved creation, sometime-Padawan Ahsoka Tano.

This reveal truly set the stage for the official “Star Wars” past — yes, the prequels — finally intersecting with the future — the original trilogy — setting in motion the events of “A New Hope” and beyond.

Season 2’s climactic fight between Ahsoka and Vader, once she learned his true identity, was a huge turning point for “Rebels” Jedi-in-training Ezra and his mentor Kanan. The fallout between the “Clone Wars” former master and apprentice presented one possible future between these heroes of the current series — and was the same that Season 2 finale in which Darth Maul made his first re-appearance, to try and seduce Ezra to the dark side — with disastrous and painful consequences.

RELATED: ‘Star Wars’ cologne lets you smell like Queen Amidala for some reason

In Season 3 we’ve gotten a few surprises within the story of Ezra possibly turning to the dark side and endangering his friends under the rising threat of a new power in the Empire. One of which — and probably the biggest — is that of Admiral Thrawn, an undisputed gold-star character from the old Expanded Universe (now called “Star Wars: Legends”), who’s been resurrected back into the official canon.

Thrawn is one of “Legends” most volatile and dangerous villains after the events in “Jedi.” He kicks Luke & Co.’s butts repeatedly in the books that originally followed the films. He doesn’t even use the Force, he’s just wicked smart and cunning. One of his traits is his ability to learn a lot from his enemies using his knowledge of art and culture, which we see in his reimagined “Rebels” debut when he dissects Sabine’s rebel graffiti and uses it against the crew. Later, his ruthlessness in making a guy blow himself up during a factory test on a vehicle was classic Thrawn, and seeing the worker’s charred helmet roll into frame was chilling — a reminder that even the colorful world of “Rebels” is crumbling in the grip of the Empire.

sw hero 2 Forrest Whitakers Rogue One, Star Wars Rebels connection one of many

A tiny ray of hope in “Rebels” is our heroes’ uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time. One of the best moments in Season 3a was Sabine’s infiltration of the Imperial Academy to help young pilot defectors break out and join the Rebellion… Including one Wedge Antilles!

Leading into “Rogue One’s” release, then, we see “Rebels” going on hiatus just as young pilots start to fill Rebel fighter ranks, and Darth Maul discovering that Obi-Wan Kenobi lives — so where does that really leave the show in regards to the rebel plans being stolen? The convergence is super close, that’s for sure.

In one of the latter “Rogue One” trailers, fans spotted the Ghost amid a Rebel fleet over the planet Scarif, where the Death Star plans are archived by the Empire. When Rogue One crewmembers Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor plot their renegade mission for the plans still on Yavin 4, you can clearly hear “General Syndulla” being summoned by the Rebel Alliance over the speakers: Hints to “Rebels” fans that the Ghost and her brave crew swooped in to join the fateful climactic fight for the Death Star plans. And the establishing shot in “Rogue One” matches the tone and visual style of “Rebels,” indicating a uniform model for “Star Wars” stories outside the Skywalker Saga for those interested in how off-beam these offshoot stories are allowed to be — it’s hard to imagine a “Jessica Jones,” just yet, but we’re getting there.

RELATED: Did Carrie Fisher drop a major ‘Star Wars: Episode VIII’ spoiler?

“Rebels” finds itself in the unique situation of laying the groundwork for how all these stories are interwoven but are still distinctly their own. Even showrunner Dave Filoni has teased that “Rogue” and “Rebels” directly influence one another, but won’t say how — we’re hoping, and it seems distinctly possible with this Whitaker news — that the “Rebels” crew might bump into those fantastic characters introduced in “Rogue One” — or even explored their story from its own perspective.

Lucasfilm’s story trust is doing a fantastic job at continuity, and allowing “Rebels” to mine the rich universe and characters for its own unique stories — it’s a beautiful story all on its own, all about a very brave family of misfits — but what makes it special here is the way all those Easter eggs, hints and secrets add to the story, rather than sticking out. So often we get fan service that seems tacked on, or that actually crashes the story it’s meant to save — Remember the first half-season of “Agents of SHIELD”? Remember finding out why it was like that? — but here, that stand-up-and-cheer feeling never goes away.

Who else do you think might turn up? The films are creating their own wonderful world, it’s true — Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) has a lot in common with Kanan, and it would be great to see him again — but we can’t help wishing a private little midichlorian wish to meet a young Mara Jade down the line…

“Star Wars: Rebels” airs Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on Disney XD, returning Jan. 7, and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is in theaters now.

Posted by:Sabina Ibarra

Sabina Ibarra is a filmmaker and entertainment writer based out of Los Angeles. Lover of genre TV/Movies, tea lattes and trips to Disneyland.