In this ongoing series, Ian Blackout revisits Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series, in a (roughly) chronological order of events and grouped (roughly) into story-arcs.
Season 3, Episode 12. Written by Katie Lucas, directed by Giancarlo Volpe.
“The swiftest path to destruction is through vengeance.”
With concerns about loyalty and growing strength, Darth Sidious orders Count Dooku to terminate his assassin, Asajj Ventress. As the former Jedi abandons his secret apprentice in the thick of battle, she manages to escape on a stolen pirate junker to her homeworld of Dathomir…
And relax. We leave the senators to their bickering on Coruscant for the foreseeable future, and while the next couple of arcs may be light on actual clones, they’re rich in the fabric of Star Wars. This trio of episodes is written by Katie Lucas, showing an almost uncanny ability to expand the mythical horizons of the Galaxy Far, Far Away while keeping the unfolding story familiar on a tonal level.
Nightsisters is quite the episode of premieres, unveiling Count Dooku’s home on Serenno and finally bringing the Outer Rim planet of Dathomir to the screen for the first time since its introduction in Dave Wolverton’s 1994 novel, The Courtship Of Princess Leia. Its jungle terrain carries over from the literary representation of the world, as does the clan of witches who run the game out there. What we see of the planet is painted in reds and greens, stark primary colours denoting the primal danger to be found there. In fact with its creeping vines and thorned, teardrop trees, Dathomir looks more like a mid-1980s fantasy painting than traditional Star Wars.
Overseeing the brood is Mother Talzin, a witch with existing links to our network of Sith Lords. Developed from concept art created for The Phantom Menace and voiced with a suitably B-movie Transylvanian drawl by Barbara Goodson, Talzin is that most fun of galactic denizens, untrustworthy and fascinating in equal measure. A genuinely maternal streak is evident for those in her charge but it barely conceals the pragmatic ruthlessness underneath.
On a broader level, this is where we see Asajj Ventress break away from the traditional Sith-model and begin to branch out alone, a turn of events which influences the rest of the series. A brief flashback sequence gives us snapshots of her younger years and illustrates her Force-sensitivity. Clone Wars showrunner Dave Filoni suggested that the Nightsisters use something closer to magic than The Force as we know it, but the end result is satisfyingly vague either way. We see it working, that’s the important thing.
‘Nightsisters’ is also fairly explicit in showing how little Sidious trusts Dooku, further reinforcing the idea that he was always intended as a stopgap apprentice until Anakin was ready to be turned. The manager just can’t let the temp learn how to run the office in the meanwhile.
Kevin Kiner’s score for this episode is sweeping and dramatic as befits the visuals, rounding out one of the best opening chapters to one of The Clone Wars greatest sub-plots. The ripples emanating from ‘Nightsisters’ will be felt throughout the rest of the war…
Season 3, Episode 13. Written by Katie Lucas, directed by Kyle Dunlevy.
“Evil is not born, it is taught.”
Mother Talzin plots to help her clan-daughter Ventress bring down Count Dooku by supplying the Sith’s next assassin from one of the male Dathomirian tribes; a ringer to pledge subservience then strike at a critical moment. Now, unbeknownst to Dooku, Ventress selects her replacement…
Straight off the back of ‘Nightsisters’, this episode follows the creation of a major player in The Clone Wars, Savage Opress – or rather his upgraded self at least. ‘Monster’ shows the gender segregation on Dathomir, with the males living in tribes on the far side of the planet. But despite their relative independence, the witches are in charge and there’s a tithe to be paid.
Selecting a tribe’s most skilled warriors, Ventress puts the group through their paces with a series of physical skill and endurance tests. Eliminating combatants (sometimes in the most literal of terms), the best of the bunch still requires that extra edge if he’s to serve – and so he’s brought back to Nightsister HQ to be imbued with their magic. Bigger, stronger, with his innate Force-sensitivity amplified and a now-unswerving loyalty to Asajj Ventress, this is the Savage Opress who will accompany us through the next three seasons.
This episode opens up the lore of Dathomir a little more, without over-explaining or making anything too neat. Although by necessity of the pacing for a 22-minute story, the “best” warriors the village has to offer are pretty terrible for the most part. This also seeps over into the matriarchal society-structure on display. It’s very fitting for the story and was working well under its own steam, but at times during ‘Monster’ it’s like watching a Star Wars tribute to the ‘Worm That Turned’ serial by The Two Ronnies.
But a visit to Dathomir by Dooku allows voice artist Corey Burton to go all in with his flawless performance or Christopher Lee’s character, and the lack of trust between him and Mother Talzin is palpable. There’s also some outstanding lighting design, both in the ambient settings and the Magical Makeover Sequence™. The score picks up choral cues now to complement Savage’s presence, and there’s the feeling that this is a key point in the war.
It certainly is for the Jedi who are about to be in the middle of Opress’ first test-run…
Witches Of The Mist (2011)
Season 3, Episode 14. Written by Katie Lucas, directed by Giancarlo Volpe.
“The path to evil may bring great power, but not loyalty.”
The Jedi council are alerted to a new threat in their midst by the massacre on Devaron. While Count Dooku further trains his assassin in the ways of the Dark Side, Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi investigate reports of a lightsaber-wielding Zabrak by visiting Dathomir, and the former clan of one Darth Maul…
Before we plunge into the carnage (and what carnage), it’s worth noting that the opening minutes of ‘Witches Of The Mist’ feature a quartet of familiar faces (well, helmets) as the bodies of two Jedi are returned to the temple. Striding grimly down the ramp with the caskets come the familiar markings of Delta Squad, the special operations clones from Lucasarts’ 2005 game, Republic Commando.
To know these players exist ‘in canon’ caused quite the excitement at the time, particularly since seeing them on screen meant the animation models were completed – a significant step toward them returning in the future. Alas this wasn’t to be, although we do get a commando, separated from a different squad, in the fifth season. With the upcoming return of The Clone Wars on the Disney+ streaming platform, we can only keep our fingers crossed that Boss, Sev, Fixer and Scorch might get a chance to show their skills once again.
Shortly after this cameo, it’s all kicking off on Serenno. Our aspirant Sith Lord Count Dooku puts Savage Opress through his paces in a dark parallel of Luke Skywalker’s training on Dagobah. As this blunt instrument becomes gradually sharpened, Ms Ventress decides that the time is right to strike (it turns out this wasn’t exactly a long-term plan), and sneaks aboard Dooku’s cruiser to face him alongside her brainwashed ally. But trust is in shorter supply than patience round these parts, and before long the three of them are at each other’s throats in a desperate free-for all.
Naturally this is the optimal time for Anakin and Obi-Wan to arrive, their blue lightsabers adding some variation to the flurry of red. The direction and fight choreography throughout this climactic sequence is outstanding, and even though everyone lives to fight another day it’s a remarkably tense battle.
Even though the visuals of this trilogy have brought new places and faces to the galaxy, Katie Lucas’ writing here is undoubtedly, instinctively Star Wars. Long may that continue.
And if you think magic potions and enchanted vibro-axes are a big ask of an audience’s suspension of disbelief, just wait until you visit a planet which only exists in the Force…