Thursday, December 11, 2014

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (Seasons 1-6)

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (Seasons 1-6) (5/5)

Technically, Star Wars: The Clone Wars is not a part of the Expanded Universe.  When Disney executed their own version of Order 66, unequivocally banning the EU from the canon, they exempted all six theatrical films and The Clone Wars animated series.  But because it serves as neither quite sequel nor prequel, the series still seems like more of an addendum to the prequel films, even if it exceeds them in quality.  So I’m calling Star Wars: The Clone Wars fair game for my series of Star Wars Expanded Universe reviews.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars got off to an ignominious start.  The theatrical film was dumped into theaters at a time when the general public had fatigued on the prequel films.  The film was panned and its box office was a mere pebble next to the boulder sized hauls of the proper films.  It didn’t help that The Clone Wars movie was uneven at best.  The film made a number of mistakes that didn’t bode well for the eventual series, for which it was, in part, serving as an advertisement.  The film had Anakin take on a Padawan of his own, Ahsoka Tano, a strong headed teenager.  The two are charged with recovering Jabba the Hutt’s infant son, Rotta, who is a poorly conceived bundle of “comic relief.”  Among other missteps, the film also includes the character of Ziro, a purple Hutt who not only speaks English (or Basic in the Star Wars Galaxy) but does so in an obvious imitation of Truman Capote for no reason at all.  Although the film boasts some great action (which was true of the prequels as well), it feels undercooked.

The Clone Wars film didn’t accurately represent the complex world that the series would eventually create.  If anything, Star Wars: The Clone Wars demonstrates how rich and rewarding the prequel universe can be.  First and foremost, The Clone Wars managed to both tweak traditional elements of Star Wars while also maintaining the general aesthetics of George Lucas’s creation.  Each episode opens with the usual Star Wars fanfare along with some added arpeggio as the series title withdraws from the screen.  This is followed with a rotating series of aphorisms in the color and typeface of “A long time ago…”.  Each episode begins in media res, and a stilted, slightly campy announcer speaking in the style of 1940s newsreels brings the audience up to speed.  Within the first minute or two, each episode demonstrates that it is exploring the moral power of myth, recreating the thrills of those 30s and 40s serials, and producing stories that are diverse but also clearly a part of Star Wars. 

Although the series would continue to improve over the years, the first season is still largely confident, and the multipart “Malevolence” episodes signal early on that The Clone Wars is interested in more than simply recreating a Saturday morning adventure of the week cartoon.  But if there is a single moment in the first season that showcases the series’s ambition it might be in “Innocents of Ryloth” when two Clone Troopers form a bond with a young refugee Twi’lek orphan.  The episode briefly explores the devastating effect of war and demonstrates what happens when people become trapped between the Republic and the Separatists.  The Ryloth three-parter does not shy away from violence, and it is shot in the cinema verite style of Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan.  (George Lucas also used simulated hand held photography to film some of the large battles in the prequels, a style that was modeled off of World War II footage.  Lucas also showed documentary footage of World War II dogfights to his special effects team when creating the first Death Star run.)  What’s special about this episode isn’t merely that the series isn’t afraid to show violence when necessary (plenty of episodes would probably be rated PG-13), but that it was also willing to grapple with morality and war. 

The Ryloth episodes also expand on perhaps my favorite new element from the prequels: the clones.  In the prequels, the clones were cannon fodder or they were a plot point, but they weren’t actual flesh and blood characters.  The Clone Wars actually imbues the clones with their own personalities, and although they have the same genetic makeup, each clone purposefully attempts to differentiate himself from the others by styling his hair or getting unique tattoos.  The image of nearly identical grunts striving for individuality is more telling, more heartbreaking than you might expect.  There are a number of reoccurring clone characters who have slightly different personalities: Rex, Echo, Fives and Cody all become important characters in the series. And because each clone is genetically identical to the one another, they are quite literally Shakespeare’s “band of brothers.”

The fifth episode of the first season, “Rookies,” focuses almost solely on a handful of Clone Troopers manning a distant outpost, and from here it becomes clear that the series, unlike the films, isn’t interested in just following members of the Jedi Council and the Republic Senate.

 In fact, several of my favorite story arcs focus mostly on the Clone Troopers, including a confrontation between the Clone Troopers and a bigoted Jedi, General Krell as well as a season six arc that takes some of its cues from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and grapples with the notorious Order 66.  Episodes focusing on the clones also try to tease out the paradoxical role of a military grunt.  To be a member of the armed forces, you have surrendered yourself to a purpose much greater than yourself, whether it is the Galactic Republic or the U.S. government, but you have little input into the goals and policies of these overriding institutions.

The series also allows for a further exploration of the Jedi and their place within the galactic conflict.  I’ve always maintained that the prequels included some tremendous ideas that were hindered by poor execution.  One of Lucas’s cleverer conceits was to stage a war where no matter who wins, the galaxy loses.  Palpatine has engineered it so that he is the hidden power behind both the Separatists and the Republic.  In most narratives, and especially in large blockbusters, wars are always divided between the good guys and the bad buys, but here Lucas presents us with what is close to a no win scenario.  It’s made clear in both the show and the films that the Jedi are not warriors.  They’re a monastic order who occasionally must rely on violence, but only if it will prevent some greater evil.  But the Clone Wars series suggests that they have compromised their values by taking on military positions within the Republic.

Expanding on the morally tangled choices made by Jedi only deepens our understanding of Anakin’s fall to the dark side.  In a third season arc, Anakin, Obi-Wan must sneak into a nearly impenetrable Separatist prison known as the Citadel in order to rescue captured Jedi Even Piell and Captain Tarkin.  Fans of the original trilogy know that Tarkin would go on to command the Death Star alongside Darth Vader in A New Hope, and in the Citadel arc there’s an interesting exchange between him and Anakin about the lengths the Jedi should go to in order to win the war.  Tarkin believes that Jedi shouldn’t serve as generals, because their code of ethics gets in the way of victory, a point of view that Anakin, who is seen throughout the show bending the rules, appears sympathetic to.  This scene suggests that Anakin’s turn to the dark side is born out of the corrupting nature of war as much as it is his own personal circumstances.

Perhaps The Clone Wars’ greatest contribution is that it finally got the character of Anakin right.  He’s no longer the petulant teenager that we saw in  Attack of the Clones or the na├»ve innocent from The Phantom Menace.  Here Anakin is more impulsive and known for working on gut instinct.  A common complaint about the prequels is that there are no rogue characters like Han Solo in this trilogy, but the writers on The Clone Wars realized that Anakin could fill this role.  Because Anakin is allowed to be charming, the audience actually feels a sense of loss and foreboding knowing about his ultimate fate, which is alluded to a few times throughout the series.

The Clone Wars expands on the mythology and world of Star Wars in a number of new and exciting ways—including the introduction of strange force-like beings that are more gods than men—but perhaps the greatest contribution to the Star Wars universe is the character of Ahsoka.  When she was first introduced, most people pegged Ahsoka as the annoying sidekick, but over the course of the series she demonstrates that she’s smart, talented and resourceful.  We are given only a few glimpses into Ahsoka’s past.  We do know that her force sensitivity was first recognized by the Jedi Plo Koon when Ahsoka was a child, but who she is mostly becomes apparently through her actions.  Over the course of the series, she demonstrates some of Anakin’s more impulsive tendencies, and the two are often competitive, sometimes acting more like friends than master and padawan.  Ahsoka also adds a necessary female character into the mostly male dominated world of Star Wars.  While the Star Wars movies aren’t completely devoid of empowered women—in A New Hope Leia ends up playing the role of her own rescuer in her escape from the Death Star—but it’s evident that most of the important characters in the Star Wars films are male.  With this in mind, Ahsoka serves as a sort of gender corrective.

The Clone Wars does so much right that it’s easy to forgive some of its flaws.  One problem the series never quite figured out was what to do with Padme.  Obi-Wan and Anakin get to fight massive space battles, but she’s stuck playing the role of the diplomat, which by comparison isn’t nearly exciting.  There are a handful of strong Padme episodes.  In “Heroes on Both Sides,” Padme and Ahsoka attempt to broker a secret peace and stop the war.  The episode showcases Lucas’s ability to use myth and fantasy to interrogate contemporary topics, and in “Heroes on Both Sides” he takes a look at the financial crisis as well as the war on terror.  It’s a smart episode that illustrates that the only way out of impossible situation engineered by Palpatine is to find a non-violent, peaceful reconciliation between the Republic and the Separatists.

But I believe the biggest misstep is the resurrection of a character who should have stayed dead. [Spoilers ahead].  In season three, we are introduced to the character of Savage Opress, a vicious force powered brute given abilities by the Nightsisters, a coven of force sensitive witches.  We later learn that Savage has a brother, Darth Maul who had been chopped in half at the end of The Phantom Menace.  It’s not clear why Maul is still alive, or why the writers thought it was a good idea to bring him back.  Darth Maul was an admittedly cool villain, thanks in large part to Ray Park’s physical performance.  But he was interesting precisely because we knew so little about him.  But we finally get to hear Darth Maul speak at length, and it turns out that he’s kind of whiny.  It doesn’t help that Savage and Maul are responsible for killing a character with deep emotional ties to Obi-Wan, but in a matter that is cheap, unnecessary, and wholly unsatisfying.  There are times when I’m not sure whether I hate the Darth Maul or the Jar Jar Binks episodes more. 

Still, The Clone Wars series is an important part of Star Wars lore that expands the story of the prequels in exciting and complicated ways.  Even when his filmmaking skills weren’t up to snuff, Lucas’s ability to conjure up worlds from his imagination always remained strong.  The prequels might falter more often than they should, but the universe Lucas created with those films is still vibrant, and this is clearly evident in The Clone Wars.  In the series, Lucas managed to take the Manichean divide between light and dark and weave a more complex tale of good people going towards damnation even as they have the best intentions.  And he accomplishes this in a universe interspersed with 1930s serials, space samurai, and World War II tough guys.