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.
Darkness On Umbara (2011)
Season 4, Episode 7. Written by Matt Michnovetz, directed by Steward Lee.
“The first step toward loyalty is trust.”
Deep in the Expansion Region, a Republic fleet smashes through a Separatist blockade in an attempt to claim the contested world of Umbara. Jedi masters Saesee Tiin and Obi-Wan Kenobi split away from Anakin Skywalker to lead a two-pronged assault. But as the local militia are aligned with the Confederacy of Independent Systems, the battle may need to be fought with more than artillery…
Onto a quartet of episodes which tip their hat firmly in the direction of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 cult classic, Apocalypse Now, even if the homage isn’t overt at this early stage. The focus of our study will be Pong Krell, a Besalisk (the same species as Episode II‘s Dexter Jettster) Jedi who takes the war very seriously and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. And the sight of a four-armed brick outhouse of a warrior wielding a pair of twin-bladed lightsabers is quite something to behold.
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This foray into the actual warfare side of The Clone Wars goes all-in from its opening act. The battlefield chaos is heightened by Umbara’s permanent twilight, illuminated with plasma bolts and lightsabers and soundtracked with the gung-ho bellowing of Clonetroopers doing what they were born (manufactured?) to do. Cries of “Time to lock and load!”, “D’you wanna piece of this?” and “That’s the stuff!” evoke their similar excitement in the battle of Christophsis, almost raising intensity to the level of the marines in Aliens.
It’s also intriguing to think that while there’s clearly an official dispute over the Umbaran government’s alignment, the troops have effectively invaded a planet under Separatist protection and are working against the native security forces, purely to establish a strategic base. The clones are really the bad guys here. General Krell arrives on-world with the message that he’s to replace Skywalker, who is to return to Coruscant by special order of Chancellor Palpatine. The unease now ramps up a notch, and the battle which follows Anakin’s departure is brutal.
This arc begins as a parable about the importance of following orders in a combat situation, but quickly begins to upstage itself. With four episodes to tell the story, it’s something of a shame that Krell’s cynical colours are painted boldly from the off. His open disdain for the clones feels a bit heavy-handed (especially given that they’re the backbone of the Grand Army of the Republic, so he doesn’t exactly have any other option for fighting the war), removing any ambiguity that might have clouded his character.
Still, at least Krell’s long-term motives are sound. For now…
The General (2011)
Season 4, Episode 8. Written by Matt Michnovetz, directed by Walter Murch.
“The path of ignorance is guided by fear.”
With Anakin recalled to Coruscant, the 501st is placed under General Krell. The Jedi’s unorthodox leadership results in a defeat and retreat from the troops, who are now trapped in unfamiliar terrain and pinned down by local forces. General Kenobi’s intelligence sources have indicated a nearby airbase, the control of which would swing the battle in the Republic’s favour.
And so the battle for control of Umbara rages on, with Krell apparently happy to watch troops carrying out his orders from far behind the front line. While this approach has burnished the general with a notably high success rate, he also has the highest casualty record in the Grand Army of the Republic; a pair of statistics of which the Clonetroopers are only too aware. The 501st have their work cut out for them, but they wouldn’t want it any other way…
With Krell taking a back seat, this episode gives the audience an insight into the dynamics between the clones, when no one else is around. The vibe becomes closer to the ‘Band Of Brothers in space‘ originally envisioned for the show by George Lucas. Discussions of authority vs independence quickly become duty vs practicality, and a rift of mistrust opens – the first time we’ve really seen this from soldiers who were literally bred for unswerving loyalty.
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On a more technical level, considering the literal darkness on Umbara, the visual clarity here is fantastic. Many a production team would stage a story in low-lighting as a way to avoid illustrating the surroundings, not to give themselves the extra challenge of doing just that.
The only downside is that although the airbase is secured by the troops, the story seems to drag its heels in getting to what is a relatively straightforward victory. The dip in pacing allows us to share the unease of the clones, but turns that into a drawn out aspect in itself.
‘The General’ is directed by Walter Murch. Although his was a new name to the Star Wars canon in 2011, Murch is a long-time collaborator with George Lucas, having worked in the sound department for 1971’s THX 1138 and 1973’s American Graffiti. Crucially (for this entry) though, he also worked as a sound designer for Apocalypse Now and performed editing in the 2001 ‘Redux’ version, the same feature which famously employed Lucas in its early stages, and who was originally slated to direct it. Short of drafting in Coppola himself, Murch’s addition to The Clone Wars roster feels satisfyingly apt.
Plan of Dissent (2011)
Season 4, Episode 9. Written by Matt Michnovetz, directed by Kyle Dunlevy.
“The wise man leads, the strong man follows.”
The airbase is under Republic control, but General Krell seems oddly unimpressed with the 501st’s success. This attitude fuels further unrest within the ranks, as several view Krell’s plan to advance on the capital without waiting for General Kenobi’s assistance as nothing short of a suicide mission.
A trio of soldiers begin hatching a plan to destroy a Separatist supply ship in the planet’s upper atmosphere, which will aid their own cause as well as Kenobi’s. Meanwhile, one of their brothers discovers their disobedience and pledges fealty to the general – albeit for his own spurious reasons…
We began this thread with the guys-in-white being the enemy in the eyes of Umbara – foreshadowing the Imperial Stormtroopers which will follow Palpatine’s securement of power. But in ‘Plan of Dissent’ things become more complicated, as we see them actively discussing circumventing the chain of command. In the eyes of the clones, this is flat-out treason, and they know that. It’s reinforced here to show how strongly they feel about Krell’s leadership (not to mention his overall sanity).
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There’s a section in the episode’s third act which homages young Anakin destroying the Droid Control Ship above Naboo – indeed one of the clones states that he got the idea from a previous conversation with General Skywalker. And leaving aside the obvious snarking about The Phantom Menace (although not from your humble correspondent, here), its a sequence which wears its heart on its sleeve for the troubled prequel, coming to a similarly explosive conclusion.
But much like ‘The General’, the pacing in getting to this point is slow going, with many of the interactions feeling like padding after the troops’ misgivings are already shown. With some deft editing, the middle two episodes of this quadrilogy could probably have been spliced into one, which would take us racing, rather than tip-toeing, to its conclusion…
Carnage of Krell (2011)
Season 4, Episode 10. Written by Matt Michnovetz, directed by Kyle Dunlevy.
“Our actions define our legacy.”
With the CIS supply ship destroyed, General Krell makes his displeasure known in bypassing a court martial for the surviving clones and ordering their immediate execution instead. At the last minute, the previously-loyal troops refuse to carry out the instruction, putting Krell in something of A Difficult Position. Meanwhile, reports come in of Umbaran forces having stripped Republic fatalities of their armour, which they plan to wear in battle against the Republic, creating further confusion…
The gloves are well and truly off by this point, with the majority of the clones realising they can’t trust Krell. Unfortunately, as they’re unable to determine exactly why this is, they can’t predict what his next move might be. An arrest scene follows which mirrors not only Mace Windu’s confrontation in Palpatine’s office from Episode III, but also Anakin’s march on the Jedi Temple from the same point in the film.
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The spectre of insanity rears its head once more, as it emerges that Krell has pitched two separate battalions of clones against one another – assisting with the killing himself wherever possible – just to get the attention and admiration of Count Dooku. Krell isn’t a Separatist, and he’s certainly not a Sith – he’s just insane enough to think he can claim a place at Dooku’s side by creating as much destruction as possible. With clone trooper Dogma’s exasperated “you’re the traitors!” to his brothers when Krell has finally been deposed, we’re taken back to the series’ very first story (chronologically speaking), although the motivations were somewhat different back then.
This arc is a great exploration of an extended period of war, and what that does to the troops thanklessly tasked with fighting it. More and more of the clones are bearing tattoos by this point, showing that their experiences have begun to instil individuality in their psyches, as well as a collective uncertainty of operational morality (or lack thereof). We’re treated to a suitably climactic conclusion in which justice is served, to a point, but questions still remain, duly handed to the audience by Captain Rex in the closing scene.
When a war is won, what happens to those who only know how to be soldiers?
Join us next time for some undercover shenanigans as the ghosts of Anakin’s past once again threaten his future…