TCW 7.6: “Deal No Deal”

I’m really liking Trace and Rafa. They’re more interesting and three-dimensional characters than I was expecting. Trace is pure-hearted, overconfident, and desperate for something more in life. She shares that last attribute with her sister, who is amoral, manipulative, and always out for the next get-rich-quick scheme–even as her debts pile higher and higher. But Trace is a little foolish and rash, and Rafa seems like someone genuinely protective of her sister, so it’s maybe not as simple a dynamic as I initially thought, and it promises to continue evolving. It looks like theirs was a slowly fraying relationship by the time Ahsoka showed up, but she’s certainly added to their dysfunction, and I’m not sure yet if she’ll push them apart or actually manage to mend their fractures and put them on a path that’s different than their scrounging, scrabbling lives lurking on the periphery of the galactic underworld.

I like the structure of this arc within the season, too. It’s a little more character-focused. It’s certainly less brass and violent and loud so far, even with the action scenes that have been interspersed throughout, as we’re focusing on the forgotten members of everyday galactic society, civilians just trying to make ends meet as the war rages elsewhere. This episode in particular felt rather like an early adventure for an RPG party. The heroes are now assembled, and they finally have an operational ship that can broaden their horizons, but their first job is a simple delivery mission. Until, of course, they overthink it and it all goes to hell.

The additional emotive expressiveness on the character models goes a long way to selling their interactions. And the emotional weight of every scene is heightened by a score in this episode that represents some of the best musical accompaniment in the whole series.

In one of my favorite moments of the episode, Trace takes her new starship into a military lane over Coruscant, ignoring the frenzied guidance of Ahsoka and Rafa. They are soon contacted by a familiar voice: Admiral Yularen. He assumes they’re just a bunch of amateurs taking stupid risks and intends to deploy some troops to arrest them. But Anakin, aboard Yularen’s Star Destroyer, asks what’s up, and when Yularen explains, Anakin reaches out with the Force and senses Ahsoka’s presence. He tells Yularen to let them pass. It’s really sweet, another great emotional moment from this final season, and it’s of course also a nice nod to Anakin and Luke’s Force encounter over Endor in Return of the Jedi.

The season is forming into a perfect brew of great ingredients, and I’m so happy for it. It’s a fun weekly escape.

TCW 7.5: “Gone with a Trace”

At some point, my episode descriptions for this season of The Clone Wars can all boil down to some variant of, “I loved it!” Same is true for this episode, which picks up with Ahsoka after she left the Jedi Order. The Order doesn’t exactly have a severance package, and she’s down-on-her-luck with some small reserve of credits and a broken-down speeder bike the only things left to her name.

Ahsoka sees more than ever what the state of affairs looks like for those left behind by the Jedi when they went off to fight their war. And she also finds that there are kind, good people still trying to do the right thing even at the bottom of the heap.

My favorite moment in the episode was another single line, when Ahsoka admits that she learned how to fight from her “big brother.” It’s a nice enough cover, if a bit flimsy, but her delivery sells me that that’s exactly how she viewed Anakin. Heartbreaking, especially knowing not only what came before but what will ultimately become of their relationship.

Final thought: the sibling relationship of older, unreliable scoundrel Rafa and younger, goodhearted Trace reminds me rather strongly of Mission and her big brother Griff from Knights of the Old Republic. And I get the feeling that Rafa is bound to let Trace down in a big (or even bigger) way, too.

TCW 7.4: “Unfinished Business”

This was another episode in which I lost it over a single, character-defining line:

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Over the course of The Clone Wars, we saw Anakin come to embrace his role as war hero. Violence became the easy answer. An early example of that can be found in “Voyage of Temptation” (season 2, episode 13): Obi-Wan and Satine hesitate to stop a traitor, saboteur, and terrorist sympathizer as he taunts their noble ideals. The villain even mockingly asks, “Who will strike first and brand themselves a cold-blooded killer?” At that point, Anakin handily shows up to stab him in the back. Under the disapproving gaze of Obi-Wan, Anakin retorts, “What? He was going to blow up the ship.” Then, in the season three Citadel arc (episodes 18-20), Anakin is introduced to Tarkin, who challenges him with the idea that the “Jedi Code prevents them from going far enough to achieve victory, to do whatever it takes to win,” which Anakin finds he agrees with based on his own wartime experiences (season 3, episode 19, “Counterattack”).

Following Ahsoka’s departure from the Jedi Order, Anakin is left reeling, doubting more than ever his relationship with the Order and the inherent rightness of its ways. In “Unfinished Business,” Anakin is close to unhinged, willing to do anything at all to achieve victory. Even though his actions are intended to save lives, it’s clear enough that the Dark Side already has a strong hold on him. And yet he gets results, and he remains a hero to the Jedi and the Republic, rewarded for the lengths he’ll go to. At this point, Anakin sees the virtues of the Jedi as weaknesses, hindrances. It’s not a far moral step from what he does to Trench to his disarming and beheading of Dooku. Another reminder that The Clone Wars did (and still does) an excellent job of deepening the characters and better illustrating their moral journeys from Attack of the Clones to Revenge of the Sith!

 

TCW 7.3: “On the Wings of Keeradaks”

Okay, this is a super-short post. The episode was entertaining to watch, I’m glad to have Echo back, and I like the Bad Batch, but we’ve sort of seen this plot many times before on this show. Daring mission goes sideways, and the Jedi/clones have to convince neutral locals to fight back–conveniently just in time for the Separatists to track them down and rain fire on everyone. Don’t get me wrong: this was another enjoyable episode. I just don’t find that I have anything to say about it. Rex and especially Echo have been through a lot. I don’t know how much time the show will have to address Echo’s trauma and apparent difficulty with readjusting, but I’m confident we’ll get to see something approaching a conclusion to Rex’s arc from inexhaustible loyalist to rule-bending, free-thinking, war-weary veteran.

TCW 7.2: “A Distant Echo”

I have a very narrow reaction to this latest episode. There is plenty to say if I wanted: it’s a beautiful, emotionally powerful episode with a fun adventure/thriller plot that ends in a heartbreaking revelation. It’s good Star Wars and good storytelling. And it looks and sounds great throughout. But the only thing I really want to say is, bless The Clone Wars for coming back, if only for this moment:

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It was always easy enough to read in Attack of the Clones that Obi-Wan knew about how Anakin felt for Padmé. And of course Obi-Wan deduces that Anakin is the father of the unborn child(ren) Padmé is carrying in Revenge of the Sith. But I love how The Clone Wars has teased out how much Obi-Wan knew, how much he understands Anakin’s affection for Padmé and how that could pull on his loyalty to the Jedi Code. Obi-Wan had experienced that competition himself with Satine Kryze. Obi-Wan and Anakin often have veiled conversations about Anakin’s feelings, even though Anakin insists on hiding the truth, even though Obi-Wan refuses to admit how much he knows, or suspects. This little moment in “A Distant Echo,” so close to the events of Revenge of the Sith, is such a delightful exchange. Obi-Wan comes as close as he probably ever was able to in laying out all he knew. And even in this moment, he doesn’t condemn Anakin or force the conversation. And Anakin’s look back to Obi-Wan…

Look, a lot of people don’t like Revenge of the Sith. And like all Star Wars, it’s not perfect. But the fraying of relationships between Anakin on one side and Obi-Wan and Padmé on the other has always twisted at my heartstrings. And moments like this just add further emotional nuance and dramatic irony. The Clone Wars gave so much depth to the prequel trilogy and to the Star Wars galaxy as a whole. I’m glad to see that it came back firing on all cylinders, ready to continue revising and refreshing our understanding of that galaxy and the characters who populate it.

Some Sunday Star Wars thoughts

I’m obviously very delighted by the return of The Clone Wars. It’s wild to reflect on how my relationship with the show has evolved–and how I’ve evolved as a person. I think I’ve already beat that drum on this site before, though. It’ll be interesting to see how much the show’s conclusion crosses over with Revenge of the Sith. And the whole season is a fascinating artifact, partially prepared while Lucas was still involved in the series. To what extent? How much does the final season reflect his vision for The Clone Wars, or for Star Wars overall? If we talk about Lucas’s vision for Star Wars, is that the saga films plus TCW, or all that minus the last season? (What about the Ewok movies, which he prepared stories for and in which he served as executive producer?)

And what of Dave Filoni? He’s often been presented as sort of the storytelling heir to George Lucas, but he’s of course coming to Star Wars with his own perspective and impulses. I find myself viewing Rebels as closer to what George Lucas would have done with Star Wars if he stuck around–but is that right? (I could see something like Underworld having gone the animation route eventually.) How does Lucas privately view the state of Star Wars today? Does he feel his vision is most fully realized through some particular media or through a specific story or through an individual storyteller? Or is he still mostly just bitter about the loss of creative control in the sale?

I think it’s safe to say that the films don’t track with how he would have wanted the story to go, for better or worse. I find myself increasingly viewing every non-Lucas-involved project as another Expanded Universe franchise deviation, a way to keep money flowing into the machine. At one point, that was guided by a flawed auteur with a unique vision, who still seemed to enjoy making his own Star Wars projects in his own sandbox. In Kathleen Kennedy, there is some sense of continuation, but I get the impression that she’s better at getting movies made than being a storyteller. And I think she’s done an overall good job of shepherding the franchise post-Lucas! But while Lucas did not write his movies all by himself, and while he didn’t even direct all of them, he still was the man behind the story throughout his films. The books and comics and games could do their own thing because they weren’t his story; there was room for others to dabble in his universe, but he still held the keys to the most visible presentations of that galaxy far, far away.

I think that there’s something lost in the removal of the single, personal vision. Still, creators like Dave Filoni and Rian Johnson (and the creative team behind The Mandalorian, including Filoni but also Deborah Chow, Rick Famuyima, Bryce Dallas Howard, Taika Waititi, and of course showrunner Jon Favreau) certainly show the benefit of other perspectives bringing their own personal ethos to the franchise. No version of Star Wars is perfect. Every creator brings their own flaws, and the fundamental nature of the franchise is to filter through so much pop culture history that it’s hard to keep problematic elements entirely out of the distillation process. But these creators feel like they’re bringing something new and fresh to the franchise. For that matter, I think there’s a lot of good content in Star Wars literature, and there are probably more consistent successes by a more diverse range of artists now than in the old Expanded Universe–especially when keeping in mind that this is only about eight years from the reboot and corporate transition (wow, it’s almost been a decade already?). In contrast, J.J. Abrams’s films, though fun to watch, bring nothing of substance–they feel more like the production-by-committee, formulaic Marvel movies that have grown so stale for me.

What’s my point? I don’t know for sure (and writing without a point is probably always bad writing). This is something I return to every now and then, and I think that I’m just barely scratching at much deeper conversations about the nature of art, including pop art, and consumerism and popular culture and late-stage capitalism and nostalgia that have been explored in much greater length by many other writers over time. I guess I find myself returning to my hesitancy about the great beast of manufactured pop content that Star Wars represents. It’s funny that my concerns dissipated somewhat after the purchase by Disney. I guess I was just hopeful for the reset. Here we are, though. I’m not bitter. And I’m certainly not over Star Wars, Disney or otherwise. This isn’t a manifesto. Just half-formed reflection born out of equal parts eagerness and uneasiness.

Thankfully, the release of expectation, the recognition that this Disney era of Star Wars isn’t exactly “official,” no matter who “owns” Star Wars, allows me to enjoy the stories I want and to disregard the rest. It’s been a few years in the making, but I’ve cooled in my urge to simply consume every new “canon” Star Wars story coming out. (A seemingly impossible goal at this point, given how many stories have piled up and in light of my persistent refusal to read solely new Star Wars content.) I doubt that this will be the last time that I touch on the subject, but I don’t know if I’ll ever find a satisfactory conclusion to it.

TCW 7.1: “Bad Batch”

Maybe it’s that I just finished my rewatch of the first six seasons of The Clone Wars earlier this week, but watching “Bad Batch,” it felt like the show never left. For newcomers, this is a perfectly serviceable action episode in a beautiful sci-fi setting, leavened by many comedic moments. For fans of the show, it’s a great time to reunite with Commander Cody, Captain Rex, Jesse, and Kix toward the end of the Clone Wars, as they attempt to salvage a losing front of the war, even while Rex begins to suspect that Echo, who appeared to die in a blast during the breakout of Even Piell from the Citadel back in the third season, is still alive. And while the Bad Batch, clone super-commandos with mutations that give them unique gifts in combat, is new, their designation as Clone Force 99 is a nice throwback to the deformed clone trooper 99, who sacrificed his life supporting the active troops in the defense of Kamino. The clones we know acknowledge the appropriateness of the name, but for any new viewers, there’s nothing to make this seem like a lot of additional explanation is required.

I never watched the animatics, other than a brief clip or two here and there, for the “Bad Batch” arc, but I had read enough about them to understand Echo’s role in it. This didn’t ruin the excitement and hope cultivated by this episode. And without having actually seen an early, incomplete version of the episode, it all felt new to me. I don’t know how closely the finished version adhered to the earlier version, and it doesn’t really matter to me. All I can say is, damn, this episode looked good. It’s incredible how far this show has come–and I guess six years of time since the last season gives plenty of opportunity to bring the computer animation technology even further forward. The emotional range and nuance depicted in the clones, the variability of character models and appearances and animations, and the breathtaking environmental and lighting effects (resulting in some stunning battle sequences) make the rest of this season very promising. And it’s not just art and animation. The sound design is incredible–I specifically remarked on this to my wife as we watched. The sound of the blaster shots and their impact into droids was so sharp and clear.

I really had no problems with the episode. The Clone Wars is back, and it’s picking right up from its late-series peak!

Reviews: Bloodline / Xenozoic

Bloodline (Star Wars)Bloodline by Claudia Gray

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like Claudia Gray’s Star Wars writing. I love Leia as a character. Gray’s Leia, Princess of Alderaan was a fantastic story about this beloved character by a writer I enjoy. Bloodline possesses these same traits, and yet I struggled with it. Partially, I’ve just found myself busier than usual for a while now. But I also found myself again and again making a choice to read other books or comics. It’s not that the writing’s worse here. And Gray did a fantastic job writing an older, wiser, wearier version of Leia (a version that was written and published before the Leia of Princess of Alderaan). That said, I guess I just found myself bored with it.

Bloodline follows Leia over two decades after the Battle of Endor. She’s a respected senior legislator, pragmatically trying to keep together the political faction of the Populists, who believe in decentralized government and who are in opposition to the Centrists, a party with a strong authoritarian streak. Government has ground to a standstill because the increasingly polarized parties refuse to cooperate, and there is no strong executive in government to create compromise or shepherd policy. The novel concerns itself with two major developments: the neutral planet of Ryloth, home to the Twi’leks, seeks aid from the Republic to uncover a rapidly growing and incredibly influential new criminal cartel while the Centrists advocate for the creation of a First Senator to bring order to the government and to force the legislature into actually producing results once more. Leia takes the initiative in investigating the crime cartel, even as she is nominated to be the Populist candidate for First Senator.

Over the course of the novel, Leia forms a bond with Ransolm Casterfo, a younger and more idealistic senator who initially comes off as villainous because of his love for collecting Imperial armor and his belief that Empire is the best form of government. We come to find that he is an honest, principled man who may believe in a strong central government but who still hated the abuse of authority as represented by figures like Darth Vader or the Emperor. And in the end, he finds himself in opposition to most of the other Centrists, some of whom are actually backing the crime cartel while others celebrate the Emperor and want a return to tyranny.

Leia also finds other allies among the younger generation, including a former racer turned senatorial aide and an overly eager starfighter jockey. They have their own subplots and interrelationships. (The racer has a particularly unexpected mystery that appears abruptly and quickly explains her career change late in the book.) These other characters are important because they represent the generation to follow Leia, but their importance is undercut by their lack of use in later stories. Meanwhile, Han only briefly appears, living his life as a manager of a racing team, and Luke and Ben are known to be off training but otherwise only appear in the story by reference.

This is Leia’s story. In some ways, it makes sense to table other key characters. It also allows for emotional vulnerability, as she is cut off from her traditional supports. However, the absence of Luke and Han feels big enough to be distracting at times. And while we see Leia forming the core of what will eventually become the Resistance, the new characters don’t ever really get wings to do their own thing; they’re caught in Leia’s gravity.

Ransolm Casterfo leaves the biggest impression, proving to be a strong foil and ally for Leia throughout the book. In Ransolm, Leia sees hope for restoring balance to the Republic. She sees the potential for compromise, for reaching across the aisle. Without getting into more specific spoilers, it is enough to say that that hope is crushed, leaving Leia with only the option of forming a covert Resistance in anticipation of the threat of imminent civil war to come. Ransolm is an interesting character, but his fascist cosplaying and admiration for an authoritarian government are never really adjusted or adequately challenged. Loving an empire so long as evil cultists don’t rule it doesn’t stop you from being a fascist. Yet after admonishing him repeatedly, largely from a place of pure emotion, Leia eventually just accepts that this is part of his identity. One could certainly chart real-world analogies in this book, and I’m not sure the implications of a character like Ransolm and Leia’s relationship to him are all that great.

Still, if I said that Ransolm was why I struggled with this book, I’d be lying. I was just not particularly engaged with the pace. It’s a lot more talking and reflecting than in a lot of Star Wars stories, but the ideas being discussed aren’t very deep. Star Wars always seems to struggle when it attempts to accurately portray politics, and I think that’s where the book falters a little bit as well. It’s trying to be too granular, lacking the usual bombast. Yes, there are big revelations. Yes, there’s a bombing, a duel, and at least two intense chase sequences. But that’s more par for the course for a contemporary political thriller, not the usual excess and swashbuckling adventure of a Star Wars story. At the end of the day, I just wasn’t as compelled by the story being told here. But there’s nothing really bad about the book, the ideas, or the depiction of the characters. I guess this one just wasn’t really for me!
XenozoicXenozoic by Mark Schultz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve long loved just about anything with dinosaurs in it, but the pulp action, gorgeous art, environmental messages, and sense of history contained within Xenozoic makes it so much more than just a collection of fun stories about prehistoric beasts.

I vividly remember two Xenozoic stories from my childhood, which I encountered in the colored re-releases under the Cadillacs and Dinosaurs brand. Those two stories are “The Opportunists,” in which one of the two protagonists, scientist-ambassador Hannah Dundee of the Wassoon tribe, manages to turn the annoying pterosaur scavengers around the City in the Sea into an early threat detection system for mosasaur attacks, and “Last Link in the Chain,” in which the other protagonist, eco-warrior mechanic Jack Tenrec, becomes stranded in the wilderness on a return from patrolling for poachers and finds himself hunted by a ferociously determined theropod. (There’s a lot of wild and expansive lore in this series, and I trust that concepts like Wassoon, the City in the Sea, or the spiritual order of Old Blood Mechanics will quickly make sense if you start reading this comic.)

I’ve been itching to read the full series for years and never got around to it. It didn’t seem to be widely available, but I think I also dreaded the potential that my nostalgic fondness would be shattered by reality. I finally broke down and bought a collection of the black-and-white original Xenozoic Tales, and I was happily surprised to realize that it’s still great. Those two stories were still full of spirit, dynamic art, and excitement, and they weren’t even the best stories in the series, I’ve found. With age, and the context of the whole series, I more strongly appreciate the environmental and political themes underlying the series. I also like the wild mad-science pseudo-explanations for the resurgence of a variety of prehistoric life from multiple eras of Earth’s history in the wake of man’s near-extinction. Interestingly, for a series spanning the late eighties through the mid nineties, Schultz quickly hints that the characters are living in a world following environmental collapse from climate change, with a history of atmospheric deterioration and rising sea levels. From the beginning, much of the story is set in a flooded New York City.

A cool thing about Schultz is that he’s clearly willing to improve his work over time, rather than sticking to an established and familiar appearance. His art style grows and evolves over the series. Characters change, become more distinctive. The prehistoric creatures, dinosaurs especially, get updated over time to make them more in line with evolving understandings of what they looked like. In comparison to Jurassic Park, which largely started off on the edge of scientific perceptions of what dinosaurs were like in the flesh but then allowed the images to stagnate as science moved on, the continued (though gradual) evolution of the depiction of dinosaurs is thrilling (and also serves as a fun glimpse into the evolution of pop culture paleoart).

The only disappointment about this collection is that it ends. And I don’t just mean that in the sense that I want more. It ends in the middle of a major plot arc! There’s a lot of story still to be told! I sincerely hope that Mark Schultz eventually returns to this project. If you like dinosaurs, classic cars, pulp adventures, or comics, you really should check this out!

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