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Okay, let’s get this out of the way. The prequels aren’t bad.
Okay, fine, scratch that.
The prequels are bad.
But they aren’t only bad.
I like to think of it this way; If the Star Wars prequel trilogy was just three bad movies, no more, no less, I wouldn’t know who Kit Fisto is.
Much digital ink has been spilt about how George Lucas, once he got the chance to make the prequel trilogy and had the clout to do it without having to listen to a single solitary other human being, revealed himself to be a talentless hack who was lucky enough to have some really talented people to collaborate with the first time around.
That’s not true.
Sorry, scratch that.
That’s not entirely true.
The prequel trilogy sees Lucas’ worst faults as a film-maker on display; a love of cringe-inducing, borderline offensive comic relief, little to no inclination or ability to get believable performances out of his actors and the little matter of being one of the worst dialogists on the Hollywood A List.
But he does have skills, not least a knack for world building and for crafting character arcs that tap into deep, universal themes.
One of the great misconceptions about The Phantom Menace is that it’s boring because it’s about politics, which is like saying that Westerns are boring because they feature gunfights. Politics is one of the most inherently thrilling subjects that fiction can tackle, particularly in times of unrest (Christ, have you looked at the news at any time in the last ten years and thought it was a snoozefest?). The movies themselves may be largely terrible, but the world they conjure, an ancient and increasingly corrupt democracy slowly sliding into fascism against the backdrop of an impossibly vast conflict spanning the galaxy, is incredibly fertile and (if I’m honest) a good bit more interesting than the war between the squeaky clean rebels and the boo-hissable Empire.
The subject of today’s review is an odd beast. Released in 2003 when Attack of the Clones was still steaming on the sidewalk and Revenge of the Sith was just a relatively watchable glint in Lucas’ eye, Star Wars: Clone Wars was a series of shorts released online filling in the adventures of Obi-Wan and Anakin set between episodes 2 and 3. The series was overseen by Genndy Tartatovsky, creator of Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack and master of having characters do something very, very slowly while a violin chord plays and I’ve looked everywhere for the name of that thing but it doesn’t seem to have a name so whaddyagonnado?
These cartoons were a huge hit, winning awards and critical acclaim and with fans the world over joyously proclaiming them to be the one good thing to come out of the prequels. And then George Lucas came along and said “Nope, none of this is canon. I’m doing a new Clone Wars series. All in CGI. And do you know who’s going to have whole episodes devoted to him? Jar Jar Fuckin’ Binks, that’s who. You’re welcome.”
And the fans were all: “…………………………………………………why do you keep doing this?”
Star Wars: Clone Wars (CW) has a weird relationship with its sister show, Star Wars: The Clone Wars (TCW), launched in 2008 under the supervision of Dave Filoni. TCW had a really rough roll out, with Lucas making the truly baffling decision to release the two-hour pilot as a stand-alone movie meaning it would draw inevitable comparisons with the original trilogy. Season 1 rarely rose above the level of competent kiddie fair and the fandom wailed for poor, wronged Genndy. But then, something odd happened. TCW started getting better, and kept at it, expanding on existing characters, introducing new ones and telling some of the best and most compelling stories ever told in this universe. If you saw Solo and were confused as to why Darth Maul seemed in rather rude good health it’s because TCW realised what a waste it was to have killed him off in Phantom Menace and brought him back. After initially meeting only scorn, TCW’s prestige in the fanbase is such that it was actually genuinely difficult for me to research this review because Google kept assuming I was looking for information on the later show.
So CW has gone from critical and fandom darling to almost forgotten afterthought. Which is more deserved? Which show is better? Will I ever find a better way to end an introduction than asking rhetorical questions?
So the first season consists of 20 episodes, each one just about long enough to make a sandwich. This is because it was originally an online series, in a time when the internet was still largely turned by hand and the water mill. In narration, Yoda fills us in an all that’s been happening. Really? You gave narration duty to Yoda? Who was your second choice?
Yoda gives us the skinny; the Galactic Republic, led by Sheev Palpatine, is locked in civil war with the Confederacy of Independent Systems, also led by Sheev Palpatine who is secretly playing the galaxy’s greatest game of “Stop Hitting Yourself”. Yoda explains that the Republic’s greatest hope is young Anakin Skywalker, one of the most talented and naturally gifted Jedi there has ever been.
So, rather than dragging this out until the end, let me just tell you where I stand on the debate as to which Clone Wars series is better. The animation fan in me loves CW, but the writer in me loves TCW. CW just looks amazing, the animation is fluid, the designs are all faithfully translated from the movies but with a little indefinable zip that’s hard to describe and the action is fantastic. Tartatovsky does motion better than…honestly maybe any animator ever. Every movement is just so precise and perfectly calculated. But where CW is a show that’s meant to be seen, TCW is a show that’s meant to be watched. Wait, does that make sense?
What I mean is, CW is a visual delight but TCW is a better story. For instance, TCW manages something that neither the prequel trilogy or CW can; it gives us an Anakin Skywalker that you don’t want to force choke every second he’s onscreen. Now, I personally think Hayden Christensen actually gave a very good performance…just maybe not in the way George Lucas intended. If you watch Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith as a story about the origins of a serial killer, then Hayden absolutely knocks it out of the park. The narcissism, the arrested development, the possessive jealously. I absolutely believe that that guy would grow up to be Asthmatic Space Hitler. But the fall of Anakin is supposed to be a tragedy, the story of a noble hero who loved not wisely but too well, and so fell to the dark side. Lucas couldn’t give us that. Tartatovsky couldn’t either. But Filoni did.
Anyway, our story begins with Obi-Wan, Anakin and Kit Fisto (I’m joking, I know it’s Yoda don’t @ me) meeting with Chancellor Palpatine to tell him that the banking clan on Muunilist has been building droid armies and secretly providing them to the seperatists (Lehman Brothers used to pull that kind of shit all the time). Also, how the hell have the Jedi not figured out that Palpatine is evil yet? He’s literally doing a Mr Burns pose.
Obi-Wan says it’s time to head over there and Occupy Muunilist. Palpatine agrees and suggests that Anakin should go too and should be given command of Obi-Wan’s “space forces” and Obi-Wan’s all “actually sir, in space we just call them “forces”.” Yoda and Obi-Wan are both not sure that Anakin is ready for command yet but Palpatine overrules them, much to their annoyance.
So Obi-Wan and Anakin and shit ton of clones set off for Muunilist, with Anakin hovering with his ship outside Padmé’s window because this couple spend 90% of their time staring mournfully at each other through windows over the Coruscant skyline.
En route Anakin tells Obi-Wan that he knows that he doesn’t think he’s ready for command but that he is the best pilot in the order and wow, they are not even trying to get us to like this guy. The amount of whining, neediness and narcissim that he manages to squeeze into that one line must be some kind of force power. I also don’t really like his design with his stupid butt-chin and weird hockey-stick lookin’ eye-brows. I do love their design for Obi-Wan, particularly how he looks super suspicious of everyone every single second of this thing.
While Obi-Wan and Anakin attack Muunilist, Kit Fisto is leading at attack on the planet Mon Cala where the loyalist Mon Calamari are waging a civil war against the separatist Quarren…
Okay, the “It’s a Trap!’ guys are throwing down with some Cthulhu looking fools. Got it? Good.
Kit Fisto is being sent here because, as Yoda tells him, “trust your judgement in these matters, we do” and he’s all “it’s because I’m a squid-man, right? You just naturally assume all we squid-men are alike. Bunch of racist mother…”
Anyway, he goes and kicks ass underwater and that’s basically it.
Sorry, if it seems I’m jumping around a lot it’s because these things are like ninety per cent action scenes. It’s like recapping the plot of a wrestling match.
On the planet Rattatak, Count Dooku is in the market for a new hench-thing and is shown into an arena where your typical ruck of slavering space beasties are hacking each other to pieces with axes and whatnot. And I have to say, I think his hosts are misreading their customer here. Does Dooku really seem like the kind of guy who’d want a massive green drooling cyclops with a mace as his body man?
His host is killed by a mysterious figure who emerged from the shadows. This is Asajj Ventress, who started out initially as a concept for the villain of Attack of the Clones before Dooku was developed. She was one of the few elements of this show that actually survived and made into canon so you know she’s badass. She cuts through all the gladiators like a white hot Stujonian knife through Hoth perma-butter (it’s Star Wars guys, we can’t be doing with simple idioms) and Dooku gives her a polite clap.
He tells her that she’s got the moves and skills and the cool outfit, but that she’ll never be a Sith because he senses great fear in her.
Which, I’m sorry, what?
I thought Fear leads to Anger leads to Hate leads to Suffering leads to the third exit off the N11 past the McDonald’s which heads straight to the Dark Side? Surely all Sith should have great fear? Surely that’s them well on their way? Well anyway, Fear does indeed lead to Anger which leads to Asajj declaring that Dooku knows nothing of the Dark Side (quite possibly) and attacking him. And then he blasts her force lightning until she passes out so, yeah, okay, maybe he knows a thing or to about the Dark Side.
She wakes up in his tastefully minimalist Doom Cave and Dooku introduces her to Darth Sidious. Sidious congratulates Dooku on finding a worthy apprentice because apparently in this continuity the Rule of Two is like an open relationship: You can have other apprentices, as long as you tell your partner and stay safe. They give Asajj her orders; kill Anakin Skywalker.
Wait a minute, Sidious? I thought you were trying to cause Skywalker to fall to the Dark Side, not ice that fool?
Meanwhile, back on Muunilist, the centre of the Galaxy’s Banking system, is burning like Wall Street will once Bernie gets elected. Obi Wan battles Durge, a vast collection of pink and purple tentacles crammed into a suit of armour who keeps coming back after being seemingly defeated like the measles. Durge pulls Obi Wan inside him and, before you can yell “KANEDA!” Obi Wan blows him up from the inside. Bad ass.
Meanwhile, over the planet, Anakin and his clone troopers try to take out the Seperatists’ gun platforms while battling a frankly ridiculous number of flying droids. Anakin tries spinning (which is a good trick) and succeeds in blowing up the platform. But then, Asajj Ventress shows up in her ship, wipes out a load of clone troopers and baits Anakin into following her over Obi Wan’s orders who tells him that…
We now jump to the planet Dantooine, where an entire two minutes is given over to watching Mace Windus singlehandedly take out an army of hundreds and hundreds of droids. UNARMED.
It’s honestly kind of ridiculous, the character has always been depicted as being powerful but here he’s operating at full on Superman level. If you’re watching Season 1 as a continous movie then it does absolutely bupkiss to advance the plot but it’s probably my favourite stand alone sequence in the whole thing. It is just frickin’ cool.
Meanwhile Anakin tracks Asajj to the planet Yavin 4 and they battle in the ruins where, decades later, the Rebels will make their base in A New Hope. What I love about this sequence is just how beautifully it’s staged, and the use of light and shadow. Absolutely stunning.
On the roof of an old temple, Anakin gives in to his hate and takes one of Assaj’s red light sabres and seemingly kills her, all while John Williams epic “Dual of the Fates” plays. Just to really drive the point home that he’s turning to the Dark Side. Y’know, in case that scene in Attack of the Clones where he wiped out an entire tribe of indigenous people (children included) left you thinking that he was a good kid who just made a few bum calls.
Actually, that’s kinda grim isn’t it? Basically every time you see Anakin Skywalker in TCW or the comics or this show, you have to remember that he’s already committed mass murder, that his wife knows about it, and they’ve just managed to keep it a secret form all their friends. And they’re…fine.
They’s just fine.
Until you look into their eyes.
Also, what a weird picture. She’s holding her own hand like she’s trying to figure out what human contact feels like and he’s using her as a standing desk.
Anakin returns to Muunilist and gives an almost-apology to Obi Wan saying that Obi Wan was right about it being a trap but that he totally won anyway. And Obi Wan’s all “Well, did you at least learn something?”
God, how does Obi Wan put up with this guy?
Okay, so the series actually ends on a cliff hanger with a small group of Jedi being hunted down by General Grievous. You remember Grievous? The wheezing loser from Revenge of the Sith who kept running way from every battle. Yeah, he was introduced in this show and he was ever so slightly different.
I am at a loss to describe how awesome this version of the character is and I am slightly aghast as to how they could have nerfed him so badly in the movie.
As Grievous prepares to cut down the last surviving Jedi, we cut to Yoda on Coruscant as he watches a storm gathering on the horizon and murmurs that the worst is yet to come.
Clone Wars might not have the depth of storytelling and characterisation of The Clone Wars but damned if it’s not one of the coolest looking things ever to come out of this franchise. This is like pure, uncut, top-tier Star Wars delivered in little super-concentrated doses. The force is strong with this one.
Great character designs and it just looks so cool.
Not the Anakin Skywalker show and thank the Force for that. This is the first time I think a lot of Star Wars fans got the young Obi Wan we always wanted. Mace Windu, Kit Fisto and Yoda don’t get much fleshing out other than: “These guys are so freaking awesome” but there ain’t nothing wrong with that.
Disney Workhorse Corey Burton does a damn fine job of capturing Christopher Lee’s sepulchral tones Dooku. And Grievous would never be this amazing again.
Supporting Characters: 15/20
No Jar Jar. Automatic 15 points.
Makes excellent use of John Williams, but on a TV budget the orchestration can’t help but sound a little small.
FINAL SCORE: 75%
NEXT UPDATE: 13 March 2018
NEXT TIME: Domo origato, Mister Mutton Chopo…