Star Wars: The Clone Wars makes its grand comeback

February 25, 2020

Six years. That’s how long I’ve waited for a new season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. It used to run annually from 2008 to 2013 on Cartoon Network, then got canceled and moved to Netflix, where it had an abbreviated sixth season in 2014 and was again canceled before it could be finished. Now, 12 years after its pilot, the show is finally airing its last season on Disney+.

The Clone Wars is set during the titular war between the Galactic Republic and the Seperatist Alliance between the events of episodes two and three. It’s a spiritual remake of the 2D animated Clone Wars series that ran from 2003 to 2005, and features characters from the movies as well as original characters. There’s no central plot to the series. It’s a loose anthology of stories from the conflict, some of which connect or run for several episodes, but ties together to form the central narrative of the war and the individual journeys of characters.

As a young boy growing up just outside Washington, D.C., new episodes of the show were the main thing I looked forward to every Friday getting home from school. For me, it was Star Wars at the very best it could be — it fixed everything wrong with the controversial prequel trilogy. Anakin Skywalker was now an actually likable and heroic character who cared deeply for his friends and not a whiny creep. Padme turned from a passive damsel in distress into a person with motivation, ideals and courage. The faceless CGI clone troopers that populated the battles of episodes two and three now had individual personalities and became characters you got attached to.

I think the best example of how much the Clone Wars improved the prequels for me was the Order 66 scene in Episode 3, which is supposed to be sad but fails because we aren’t given time to care about any of the Jedi we see killed. But now Plo Koon, Ki-Adi Mundi, and Aayla Secura are all characters we know distinctly and are invested in, so now it hurts to see them mercilessly gunned down by the soldiers they commanded and bonded with over the course of the war.

Yes, it was just a “kids’ show,” but it ran far deeper than that, and only got better with every successive season. Season One was honestly somewhat mediocre, and if you’re new to the series, I would recommend skipping it. It was at its absolute best when it was threatened with cancellation, and the showrunners went all-in with the depth and quality of the material.

So when a seventh and final season of the series was announced in 2018, I couldn’t have been more excited. It was only 12 episodes compared to the standard two dozen of the first five seasons, but that was more than enough to satisfy me. On the night of the premiere, I sat down on my couch to watch the first episode on my free trial of Disney+, which I broke my self-pledge to never subscribe to in order to view the new season. When the intro came on with its triumphant theme music, it really did feel like I was that little 10-year-old boy watching it late on a Friday evening again.

Season Seven picks up in the third year of the war, a few months before Episode 3 takes place, although later episodes will very likely run concurrent to its events. For the most part, it’s a collection of cancelled episodes for which the basic voice work and story reels were completed years ago, some of which were shown at the Anaheim Celebration in 2015. I’ve been lucky enough not to spoil most for myself but there are some plot details I’m aware of going into the new season. But really, it doesn’t ruin the excitement of having new clone wars content for me and shouldn’t for you either.

Now we finally get into the episode released last Friday, episode one. It’s set during the Battle of Anaxes, a shipyard world for the Republic Navy under siege by Separatists. The Republic’s clone army and their Jedi generals are on the backfoot because of a Separatist algorithm designed to predict Republic battle strategies. Returning characters Captain Rex and Commander Cody take a team behind enemy lines of familiar characters from the 501st Legion and new characters from Clone Force 99, the “Bad Batch,” made up of clones bred with desirable mutations to give them enhanced abilities.

The name itself is a touching callback to 99, a deformed clone unfit for combat duty and assigned to janitorial work on the clone production world of Kamino who died heroically helping his brothers during a Seperatist attack on the planet. It’s evidence of the attention to detail that the showrunners give with the continuity of this show’s lore.

The premise of a special ops mission behind enemy lines to turn the tide of the battle is nothing we haven’t seen before in war movies. There are parts very clearly inspired by the Vietnam War which is nice to see in the Star Wars setting, much like the Umbara arc in season four, which was my favorite in the entire series. In terms of setting, episode one plays it pretty safe, which is fine since the show hasn’t aired in six years and needs reintroduction to a new generation of viewers.

The real highlight of this episode though is the interactions between the regular clones and the “Bad Batch.” The Bad Batch themselves are fairly standard war movie archetypes. Hunter is the cool-headed and confident squad leader, Wrecker is the thick-skulled and boisterous heavy weapons specialist, Crosshair is the silent, brooding, and possibly sociopathic sniper, and Tech is the young tech-savvy geek. You’ve seen them in Saving Private Ryan, Full Metal Jacket, Generation Kill, countless others.

But where they shine is in how they learn to respect and work with the “regs” on their mission. Rex and Cody are very by-the-book in their actions, preferring to take the cautious approach, but the Bad Batch are unorthodox and aggressive, revealed right away when we see their shuttle making a hard landing at the Republic Forward Base. This obviously creates conflict between them and the drive for them to resolve that is really what the focus of this episode is, not the mission to get the algorithm.

Often, the clones themselves are the best part of The Clone Wars because of the unique situation they’re in that the live-action movies didn’t even attempt to explore. Millions of identical twins bred from birth to fight loyally and unquestioningly for a cause they have no stake in. They’re slaves in all but name, with no identity outside of the war, and some of the show’s best episodes are ones that explore the idea of this. As the war’s end grows near and the clones are about to be replaced with the Empire’s legions of stormtroopers the potential for this material only grows.

We get a very touching scene early in the episode where Rex laments the loss of all their fallen brothers to Cody, who comments on the difficulty presented by surviving in a situation where they’re not expected to and where few others have.

This episode is also the opportunity to show off the Clone Wars’ new animation technology that makes use of motion-capture techniques. Like other things in the series, the animation only gets better with every season, and seven is absolutely no exception. It’s more crisp and detailed than ever, and looks almost interchangeable with shots from the live-action movies in some scenes.

I’m well aware that Star Wars is a fantastical space opera not meant to make sense, but one of the biggest gripes I had about Disney’s sequel trilogy was that nobody’s decisions make sense. The Resistance and First Order both make incredibly stupid tactical choices in battles. The single best moment of Episode Nine for me was when the First Order actually got a character who was mildly competent at commanding his troops. It’s not good when that’s the best moment of your movie for me. This matters because having incompetent villains undermines the danger that the protagonists are in, and makes me less invested in what’s going on because I don’t have any reason to believe they won’t win. Incompetent protagonists make them less sympathetic too, because their failures are their own faults and no one else’s.

Just like the first few seasons provided a breath of fresh air in comparison to the flawed prequels, so far this provides just that after the flawed sequels. Part of the dynamic between the Bad Batch and the regular clones is that they have to sort out their differences and work together to stay ahead of the Separatists, whose endless hordes of battle droids are constantly only one step behind them. They make moves that appear irrational at first, but serve to give them an edge against the droid army later on. It’s nice and satisfying to see.

Episode one of the new season is a solid start, not a powerful one. It doesn’t take too many risks and reveals little that’s important in the way of plot but does demonstrate that this does have the potential to be the very best content thus far in the Disney era of Star Wars. I look forward to next week’s continuation of the Anaxes plot.

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