2018 marks the tenth anniversary of Star Wars: The Clone Wars arriving on our screens, both big and small. The Galaxy Far, Far Away has seen seismic changes and rapid re-expansion in the intervening decade, but the events of this first computer-animated series remain within the Lucasfilm Story Group boundaries of narrative canon.
So what better way to evaluate the impact of the series than to revisit each and every adventure, from the 2008 debut to 2014’s muted finale. For convenience, we’ll group the episodes (roughly) into their story-arcs, and skip around the creation/broadcast order to examine them in the (roughly) chronological order of events. Because few things are clear-cut when the whole galaxy is at war…
Cat And Mouse (2010)
Season 2, episode 16. Written by Drew Z Greenberg, directed by Steward Lee.
“A wise leader knows when to follow.“
With the beleaguered planet Christophsis blockaded by a Separatist fleet, the Jedi realise that bringing aid to the surface may be a job for a scalpel rather than a hammer, and a determined General Skywalker gets to field-test that shiny new scalpel…
Ah, the joys of non-linear storytelling. This has long been the case for Star Wars of course (‘Episode IV‘ has been a fixture of the opening crawl since 1979), but to watch The Clone Wars from the ‘beginning’, we need to go to episode 16 of its second season. If this dotting-around the timeline feels unusual in 2018, rest assured that it was a point of some discussion on the message-boards and podcasts ten years earlier, too.
With a relatively small cast of characters, ‘Cat And Mouse’ acts as a smooth gateway into the war-at-large, and even though two episodes act as retrospective lead-ins for the theatrical movie, the story still opens in medias res. Although if there’s one thing Star Wars has always been great at, it’s airdropping the audience into the middle of a battle with combatants they don’t know, and still having the whole thing make sense. In that respect, showrunner Dave Filoni is a fine student of George Lucas.
That said, even though we’re thrust into the action as the Republic forces regroup to plan their way around the Confederacy of Independent Systems blockade, this still feels like it should be in the middle of a story arc, rather than its beginning. It’s a real shame that another episode wasn’t made later to prequel this one.
Standing out from the crowd in this episode is the seven-foot tall tarantula-like Separatist Admiral, Trench; a theatrical villain drawing on both General Grievous and Darth Vader for his speech and mannerisms. In fact, Dee Bradley Baker’s vocal performance is clearly channeling the latter, particularly James Earl Jones’ work on The Empire Strikes Back, where Vader elongates his vowels and sounds like a pirate for most of the film.
Speaking of such references, this episode features cloaking technology on a relatively small ship – a visual nod to Captain Needa’s line in Empire when the Millennium Falcon slips from the Star Destroyer Avenger’s scopes. Administered with somewhat less subtlety are the phrases “mercy mission” and “Help us General Kenobi, you are our only hope“, both of which feel a little more crowbarred into the script.
Even though we’re watching season two, the characters here still walk with the almost marionette-style movement that was established in the 2008 movie, and the facial animation feels a little basic. But the texturing is absolutely gorgeous, and it all adds to the visual identity of the show as a whole.
And not-for-nothing, the first clone to have a speaking line in this chronologically angled re-watch of the series is the superbly monikered Commander Blackout. Just leaving that one there…
The Hidden Enemy (2009)
Season 1, episode 16. Written by Brian Larsen, directed by Kyle Dunlevy.
“Truth enlightens the mind, but won’t always bring happiness to your heart.“
Managing to break the blockade, Anakin Skywalker arrives on Christophsis to deliver aid and supplies. But the Separatist forces seem to be able to anticipate the Republic’s moves a little too well…
So to continue, we move back-yet-forward to the 16th episode of season one. ‘The Hidden Enemy’ is a more clone-centric episode than most, and the perfect chance to shine (once again) for Dee Bradley Baker, who voices all of the Clonetroopers. In episodes like this, it leads to scenes where Dee is effectively having four-way conversations with himself, and it’s a testament to his versatility as a performer that he manages to give each one their own identity – even when they all have the same accent (albeit a more Aussie twang, as opposed to Temuera Morrison’s Kiwi accent from the live-action films). Contrast this with animated features from studios who ‘stunt cast’ a star performer, making their character sound exactly like the actor…
The Clone Wars introduces several big-players for the series in this episode, the most familiar of whom will be Commander Cody (although audiences who’ve seen Revenge Of The Sith will already have seen where his trajectory takes him). Also stepping onto the stage is Asajj Ventress, who got more of a proper introduction in the Genndy Tarkatovsky Clone Wars micro-series from 2003 and Dark Horse’s Republic comics of the time. Last but by no means least is Captain Rex, the writing and editing giving away no hint as to how important his character would be to small-screen Star Wars in the years to come.
Even at this relatively early point in the war, psychological fatigue is already becoming an issue with the clones, as some troopers begin to question the motivations of the powers-that-be. This is treated as ‘defective’ behaviour of course, since these soldiers are products, rather than people.
The ‘suspect-among-us’ plot used here establishes that loyalty isn’t just programmed into the army, but is also nurtured throughout their shortened lives with a shared fraternal bond. That’s an important point considering the quantity of episodes to come, as well as still leaving a massive question-mark hanging over Revenge Of The Sith‘s Order 66 sequence.
Although the traitor in the clones midst is specifically posited as being ‘in the wrong’ here, it’s a bold move for the series to raise questions about the morality of the war in general, and the use of clones to find it. Almost as if no-one was prepared to really discuss this in Episode II, so now it’s down to the clones themselves to bring up…
Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)
Theatrical release. Written by Henry Gilroy, Steven Melching and Scott Murphy, directed by Dave Filoni.
“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….“
Admiral Yularen manages to sneak through the blockade to bring further supplies and a bonus surprise, while the siege at Christophsis comes to a head with the battle droid ground army threatening to overwhelm the Clonetroopers. Meanwhile, the Jedi Council have agreed to investigate the kidnapping of Jabba The Hutt’s son, certain that the diplomatic prizes to be won outweigh the moral ambiguities involved. But darker forces are at play, and the Jedi are walking into a trap…
And this is where it all began. After three decades of the 20th Century Fox fanfare, it felt weird in 2008 to be watching a Star Wars movie opening with a Warner Bros ident. In 2018, some of that disquiet has become nostalgia, but as this didn’t preface the following 121 installments it’s still quite odd. Kevin Kiner’s bombastic reworking of John Williams’ main theme and the ‘newsreel’ narration which stands in for an opening crawl were quickly blended into the fabric of the Galaxy Far, Far Away of course, as they were used for every episode.
We open with the ground battle on Christophsis in full swing, as energy bolts go flying off lightsaber blades, and troopers’ heads go flying off their shoulders (no, really). This, in its essence, is precisely what The Clone Wars is about when the overlying politics is stripped away (besides, there’ll be plenty of time for politics in future episodes). Perhaps not the ‘heroes on both sides’ perspective that had been cited in 2005, but Star Wars has always been about goodies vs baddies.
Oh yeah, and Anakin’s got a padawan now. The Clone Wars movie introduces the young Togruta, Ahsoka Tano, assigned to the newly knighted Skywalker by Yoda as a means of giving him broader responsibility. Much like Captain Rex, Tano would go on to become a major player in the series and beyond. Ahsoka is voiced by Ashley Eckstein, a strong presence on the convention circuit, and a fantastic ambassador for the brand and for fan-relations. On a related note, 2008 was also the year we learned that Vader had taken on a secret apprentice in The Force Unleashed. Not quite the lone-wolf we’d assumed he’d been, but hardly ideal teacher-material…
So, this film is effectively four episodes of The Clone Wars TV show stitched together. ‘The New Padawan’ concludes the Christophsis arc, segueing into ‘Castle Of Deception’, ‘Castle Of Doom’ and ‘Castle Of Salvation’. In these later installments, Anakin and his feisty charge have to track down Jabba’s kidnapped son Rotta, before the infant Hutt succumbs to a mystery illness.
Oh yeah, and Jabba The Hutt’s got a son, now. Whether this is a product of the hermaphroditic reproductive cycle established in A.C. Crispin’s Han Solo Trilogy of novels, isn’t clear. For obvious reasons, the PG movie didn’t feel the need to explain. Although Jabba’s hyper-camp cousin, Ziro, pretty much steals the Hutt-show anyway.
Because of the main story’s focus, we spend a lot of time with Anakin here. Voiced by Matt Lanter, this is a more brash interpretation of the war’s poster-boy than we’d previously met. When this Skywalker goes against a pre-laid plan, it’s borne of reckless enthusiasm rather than sullen petulance. And while your humble correspondent is part of a distinct minority who found Haydn Christensen’s performance in the prequels to be largely acceptable, it has to be said that animated-Anakin is on a different page altogether, tonally speaking. They’re both great, they just feel like different characters.
Much like the cave on Dagobah, what the audience gets out of The Clone Wars movie will depend almost entirely on what baggage they take in with them. As noted above, this is less of a mythical space opera brought to life as culturally iconic cinema, and more like four episodes of an animated TV show from Cartoon Network bolted together, acting as a feature-length promo. Expectations should be adjusted accordingly.
But for those already onboard, the 2008 film provided a tantalising glimpse of a galaxy-spanning war we’d really only read about by that point. Heroes, villains, intrigue, action and everything in-between.
Begun, the clone war has…