This weekend, the third season of Star Wars: Rebels premieres on Disney XD and in this year of our Sith Lords 2016, the Star Wars franchise is taking a break from Rey, Snoke, and BB-8 and spending time in the “classic” timeframe of the series.Many of the people behind Star Wars: Rebels, not limited to executive producer Dave Filoni, also worked on the previous animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars, but that was set in the prequel era, not a time period where Lando, Princess Leia, and Darth Vader were running around. That’s what makes Star Wars: Rebels so exciting and keeps it feeling essential to the Star Wars canon: It’s the stuff we love with the characters we love in a world we recognize.In other ways, Star Wars Rebels has forwarded the canon of the Star Wars Universe, especially after Lucasfilm re-set the Star Wars Expanded Universe (relegating old works to “Legends” status). Last season didn’t just follow the titular group of Rebels – budding Force user Ezra, last Padawan Kanan, Hera the pilot, Zeb the muscle, and Sabine the Mandalorian graffiti artist – but also tracked the slow building tension as Anakin Skywalker’s former Padawan Ahsoka came to realize that her former master had become Darth Vader.When season two ended, the greater Rebellion wasn’t doing so bad, but our core heroes were a bit worse for wear. Ezra, Kanan, and Ahsoka traveled to an ancient Sith temple where they found Darth Maul and several Inquisitors waiting for them. As Ezra moved closer and closer to the top of the temple, things became more perilous. Kanan was blinded, Ezra was tempted by Maul to turn to the Dark Side and Ahsoka had to face her old master while the others escaped.Ezra and Kanan did manage to collect the Sith Holocron that was hidden in the temple (Holocrons contain knowledge that can only be unlocked by using the Force) but otherwise, they barely survived their encounter with Vader. What could season three possibly do to top that? Besides building off the temptation of Ezra as he grows in power, the big news from season three is, of course, Grand Admiral Thrawn.Originally created by author Timothy Zahn for his novel Heir to the Empire, the first in the “Thrawn trilogy” where the blue colored Imperial marshaled what was left of the Empire’s forces after the second Death Star blew up over Endor. In that time an incarnation, Thrawn had special alien pets called ysalamir he would wear on his shoulders.The ysalamir sucked the power out of the Force (somehow) meaning Force users wouldn’t be able to use their powers on or around him. The good news is that those crazy Force-neutralizing aliens will not be re-entering canon while the cooler parts of Grand Admiral Thrawn are being moved to the Rebels time period.What are those cool things? For one, Thrawn is a Chiss – a blue humanoid species – and an Imperial officer and if you hadn’t noticed, the Empire is very racist. It’s cool to see a non-human officer and the fact that he’s one of the most revered officers in the Imperial Fleet makes it even better. Two, Thrawn will still insist that the best way to learn your enemy’s war tactics is by studying their art and culture.When Thrawn first appeared in the Star Wars books, he was the first example of a smart Imperial Officer villain (the closest we had been before was Grand Moff Tarkin, who didn’t think a single fighter was a threat to his Death Star), and his method of going about it was so completely sideways from the totalitarianism of the Empire and the religious knights of the Sith and Jedi.Season three wastes no time introducing us to why Thrawn is a threat, specifically this version of Thrawn who is at the height of his power between the establishment of the Empire (the end of Revenge of the Sith) and the battle of Yavin (the end of A New Hope). Although there were enough Legends stories to fill in this period in the officer’s life, the new iteration has Thrawn placed exactly opposite Hera. In some interesting character ways, this manages to make Thrawn feel at home in the Rebels universe.via disneyxd.disney.comThis season has more surprises up its sleeve than just re-introducing a character from a once discarded canon. Later on in the season, we’ll be introduced to a young Wedge Antilles, future Rogue Squadron Leader, who will be a defecting Imperial Pilot (!!!) and there are sure to be more surprises as Ezra and Kanan puzzle over the proper use of the Sith Holocron they have in their possession. In tomorrow’s premiere, fans with good voice-recognition might notice that the ghostly voice instructing Ezra from the Holocron (called “Presence”) is Nika Futterman the same actress who played fallen Sith Asajj Ventress in The Clone Wars.Darth Maul is still kicking around too, and might make a play for Ezra as an apprentice once again. Not to mention that the time period is right and the characters are in place for an Obi-Wan Kenobi versus Darth Maul rematch (not that there’s any confirmation of that happening beyond some fan-inspired speculation).Perhaps the coolest addition to the Star Wars canon to come from the early episodes of Rebels season three is the Bendu, who will be voiced by former Doctor Who Tom Baker. The Bendu is awoken by the Sith Holocron’s presence and helps Kanan “see” now that his eyes have been permanently damaged (hint: he can use The Force).via disneyxd.disney.comUnlike the usual divide that has existed in the Star Wars Universe, the Bendu is a Force user, but follows neither the path of the Jedi or the Sith, making it a new oddity in the Star Wars Universe: a neutral Force path.In Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Anakin, and Obi-Wan ventured far out into space where they found the Brother and the Sister, two physical embodiments of the light and dark sides of the Force. Up until now, Star Wars has made their religious monks choose a side and a bevy of laser sword colors so they could access different “light” or “dark” Force powers.Hell, there’s whole video games about how there are only two choices for any Force character. What the Bendu supposes simply by existing is that there’s a balanced version of a religious power that craves balance. Seems like it could be really powerful!via disneyxd.disney.comThe name and concept are also a cool easter egg for old-school Star Wars nerds. Before George Lucas wrote the script that would become Star Wars, he wrote a treatment based on a plot description of The Hidden Fortress, before that treatment there was an earlier draft of the story (technically the first story document for the Star Wars Universe) called Journal of the Whills, Part I which followed a Padawan as he trained under “Mace Windy” who is a “Jedi-Bendu.”Yeah, that means Bendu is tied for Mace Windu and Padawan for oldest Star Wars reference to make it through the production process. As you might be able to tell, Lucas made sure to re-read his original Journal of the Whills treatment before he began writing the prequel trilogy.Overall, Rebels season three is moving beyond the fun times with Star Wars of the first two seasons and has completed its transformation into a show that is absolutely essential viewing for any serious Star Wars fan. Not only does it bring a weekly dose of fun Star Wars adventures with a group of characters we like (except for me, I still hate Chopper), but it is introducing new concepts into the Star Wars Universe that will end up being important later (you think Snoke’s never heard the voice of “the Presence?” Please.)The new season starts September 24th at 8:30PM on Disney XD.