Clone Wars Re-watch Go!

The official Star Wars site is leading a chronological re-watch of The Clone Wars, with new posts by the site’s Associate Editor, Kristin Baver, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If that sort of thing sounds appealing to you, you can find the first episode recap/analysis here and a list of all the episodes here; the show and the film are available in their entirety on Netflix.

It’s still fairly early in the re-watch, and the pace of two episodes a week is not too demanding, so it’s still an easy time to get started. As of this writing, they’re just now through the film.

There are two improvements about this particular viewing schedule.

First, there’s a more consistent narrative, and it’s easier to see the war–and individual battles–evolving. The show seemed to take a while to settle into itself and didn’t get into long-form storytelling until later on, but part of that is attributable to the fact that episodes were aired out of chronology. With a streaming service like Netflix, the effort involved in hopping between episodes (and seasons, and the film itself) is minimal and the payoff, in having a richer narrative immediately with clearer character development, is big.

Second, this re-watch breaks the film into three acts. Watching the acts on their own, as complete episodes in and of themselves, makes the film just another arc in the series. Its lower stakes (compared to the saga films), meandering pacing, somewhat jarring cuts between acts, and shifting tonal dissonance is forgivable when it’s understood that each episode is doing its own thing. We don’t need to have a galaxy-shaking event every week for the television show; The Clone Wars was often at its best when showing clone troopers with their boots on the ground. And it feels natural to make these divisions–after all, the film was originally a few different episodes of the planned television series, spliced together into a single theatrical release at the request of George Lucas.

Also, treating the film as its constituent episodes rather than a single component separate from the series means that it flows rather well with the supporting stories that chronologically take place earlier. We see Anakin and Obi-Wan break the blockade of Christophsis, deal with loss and betrayal, encounter Ventress, and then meet Ahsoka just in time for a final battle before racing off to beat the Sith to recovering Jabba the Hutt’s child. I wouldn’t point to any part of the film as one of my favorites in the entire series–a lot of it was silly, the animation and character models and storytelling still having had a bit of growing to do. But the Anakin defying Jedi orders in “Cat and Mouse” and the Rex who was just shaken by a betrayal of one of his own in “Hidden Enemy” meeting Ahsoka for the first time and being changed by her even as they provide guidance is a pretty cool thing to see. Plus, the Battle of Teth sequence, with its electric-guitar-and-exotica soundtrack, misty purple forests, and vertical firefight, is a fantastic television experience, even if it’s a bit short and (relatively) quiet for a theatrical sci-fi war film’s centerpiece battle.

Another takeaway from the re-watch: I don’t recall registering just how brutally the war was depicted. Maybe it’s the structure of the re-watch, or maybe I’m just registering because I already know that I got attached to some of these clones. So many die, often in heroically pointless ways. So much of the Battle of Christophsis, for instance, is repeated Jedi over-extension, with the clones dying for Jedi heroics. It’s not remarked on so much yet, but it’s very visible. And while the droids are played for laughs, it’s hard not to read them as sentient, many with full and unique personalities. While Anakin and Ahsoka are quite willing to mow down hostile droids, they do show an endearing love and respect for allied droids, especially R2-D2; similarly, while they are both willing to accept battlefield losses (at least later on), both are fiercely loyal to and protective of Captain Rex.

Similarly, the failings of the Jedi Order are really apparent to me now in a way that they weren’t on my initial watch. While Anakin is unwilling to leave an infant Hutt to die, he thinks it’s a very bad idea to work with the Hutts. Of course he would! They enslaved him and his mother! And Jabba is a notorious criminal! The Jedi and the Republic are willing to throw away principle and get in bed with a slave-dealing criminal organization for a strategic advantage. The war has already skewed their thinking. And while Ahsoka might be old enough to be a Padawan, placing her in command of troops and in the midst of battle is a terrible idea! The use of child warriors is shockingly poor judgment. It’s hard not to see the Jedi as radical religious crusaders at that point. Ahsoka sees so much killing and dying, and while she handles it well, it’s just wrong for the Jedi to have put her in that situation.

One of the weirdest things for me on re-watch is knowing that The Clone Wars represented a sort of soft canon reset before the official Disney reboot. Dave Filoni always showed himself to be aware of the Expanded Universe, even when he changed it. There was more respect for the EU setting than George Lucas ever showed, at least. But still, it was jarring to see an over-complicated, cluttered Clone Wars added to even further with so many new central characters and events when there was supposed to have been so much already documented post-Attack of the Clones. Re-watching with knowledge that this series represents almost the entirety of the “official” version of the Clone Wars relieves a lot of confusion and some mild frustration that younger me had (I’ll admit that I’m also just a lot mellower and less worried about canon issues than I was as a teen).

There’s a new, minor thing that bothers me now though: there is a level of familiarity with the old Expanded Universe, and that causes a new bit of confusion when those stories don’t “exist” within the current canon. Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Ventress have a clear history together. They hint at it a lot in their sparring. At the very least, this would seem to incorporate the introduction of Ventress from Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars. This makes sense–prior to Filoni’s run, Tartakovsky’s show had been well-promoted, highly praised, and rather visible on Cartoon Network. In addition to introducing Ventress, the show introduced Grievous, and it also showed Anakin’s transition from Padawan to Knight! But we don’t have any canon versions of these happenings, and Tartakovsky’s series now has very little visibility to new audiences. I feel that, at some point, at least certain elements of Clone Wars should be retold in the new canon. We can iron out the continuity contradictions, dial back the hyper-stylized format, and develop certain plot points more, but introducing Grievous and Ventress, charting the early course of the war, and showing Anakin’s growth from Padawan to a Knight ready to train the next generation would be great material for new stories.

Finally, I am struck by how much the chronological re-watch clearly centers the show around Anakin, Ahsoka, and Rex. This is really Ahsoka’s story–she’s present almost from the very beginning, and what comes before in that story directly lays the groundwork for her entrance on the scene. Yes, I know the film came first, but it felt like a separate and detached experience. The show itself started with more of a scattered anthology approach. The impact is rather different when we get this focus on Ahsoka almost immediately, with just enough of Anakin and Rex to see where they are when they meet her. It’s a different experience than encountering the show for the first time with the one-off “Ambush” episode. (And I didn’t even watch the show episodically at first–I was very sporadic and really only got interested in the series after seeing the 1.15 episode “Trespass,” though I later went back and watched in order after picking up the DVDs.)

If it’s been a while since you’ve watched The Clone Wars, or if you’ve never watched chronologically before (or even never watched the show at all), now’s a great time to dive in.

Fairly weak Forces of Destiny

I watched Star Wars: Forces of Destiny this weekend, making me remarkably up-to-date for once on a Star Wars project that doesn’t involve a theatrical release. It’s a fun little concept, with one-off adventures focusing mostly on the heroic ladies of the Star Wars galaxy. The end result is a bit of a mixed bag.

I thought some episodes, particularly the ones involving Leia, were pretty engaging, but all in all they didn’t really show or tell anything vital. All style, no substance. It’s the nature of this micro-episode format, but I already have a more interesting point of comparison: Genndy Tartakovsky’s Star Wars: Clone Wars. Those super-short episodes still managed to have something substantial to say and were incredibly effective at packing in a lot even within bite-sized chunks. I suppose the comparison is not entirely fair, since Tartakovsky’s series had a long-form story being told across episodes, while Forces of Destiny is just a scattered collection of one-offs. But it does seem like the creators want the comparison to be made, with an animation style that apes the stylized visuals and minimalist animation of the preexisting property. Even here Forces of Destiny feels distinctly less than; the animation falls flat, more along the lines of an amateur Flash video than a true spiritual successor to Clone Wars, and many of the character models were just sort of ugly. I was especially unhappy with the smooshed-up look on Anakin Skywalker’s face.

In short, I wanted to like the show, and what I could like I did, but there was a lot that I was not a fan of. This is especially disappointing in contrast to the continually great Rebels. While I think it’s fantastic to give more screen time to women in genre fiction, including in Star Wars, I would point to Filoni’s work with The Clone Wars or Rebels, or the new movies coming out, or many of the new-canon books, as better examples. Women should be in the story to do things, not to simply highlight the fact that they are women; diversity should not be synonymous with tokenism.

My final concern is that while Star Wars has always been used to sell merchandising, Forces of Destiny appears to exist only as a catalyst for the resultant merchandising. Even the press release announcing the series premiere concludes as follows:

A new short will premiere online each day at 10 a.m. PT, culminating with their broadcast debut on Disney Channel, Sunday, July 9; books, apparel, bedding, and toys based on the series will arrive August 1

Maybe this concern is a little silly, given that Star Wars has always been commercial, but normally the franchise has been more than just a vehicle to sell stuff.

Oh, by the way, and as evidenced by my header image, IG-88 is briefly in the series, in “Bounty of Trouble.” IG-88 is shown to be…fairly incompetent here. Further support for my theory that the Empire bounty hunters are far from the best, just the closest and most desperate!

My new favorite television family: the Ghost crew

A New Dawn did, in fact, give me the final push needed to start watching Rebels. Last night, I intended to watch the first episode, but that transformed into watching the first four. And I watched just about as many today, too. The show’s wonderful! The visuals, sound effects, music, dialogue–it all feels so perfectly Star Wars. The Ralph McQuarrie-inspired character, vehicle, and setting designs are just lovely. And the backgrounds look sort of painted in, like the lush matte paintings in films that I’ve always had a soft spot for.

The subject matter is just fascinating, too. We get to see the early days of the Rebellion against the Empire, before it was even an organized effort. And with the focus on original characters, instead of the mostly known properties of The Clone Wars, the stakes are higher and there is a greater sense of risk and mystery. Anything could happen (within the scope of a show that is, after all, aimed at kids or families).

I liked a lot about The Clone Wars, but it didn’t click for me as quickly or as strongly as Rebels already has. In many ways, the earlier show feels like Dave Filoni’s warm-up for this later attempt. I admit that I might just have more nostalgia rooted in the sights and sounds of the era of the original films, and in the setting and tone of many of the spin-off stories and books from the ’90s. But if that’s a factor, that’s okay–it’s certainly not the only element at work.

Anyway, this post is here in part for me to specifically point out just how much I love the family dynamic of the show. I know I’m not the first to comment on it–that theme is pretty explicit within the text itself, after all. And I won’t be the last. But I need it to be known that I think it’s great! Orphan Ezra finds a family in the crew of the Ghost–Hera and Kanan are mom and dad, Zeb is a grumpy older brother, Chopper’s the family pet (Filoni famously remarked, “If Artoo is the family dog, Chopper is the cat“), and Sabine is…maybe a sister, but maybe a childhood crush?

Whole episodes are about exploring this developing family identity. But my favorite to deal directly with the subject so far, even if in a secondary plot line, is “Rise of the Old Masters” (if you haven’t seen it, there will be some spoilers in the discussion to follow, although this show’s on Season Four now, so at this point maybe some early-series spoilers just have to be accepted). In it, we see that Kanan has finally begun to devote efforts to training Ezra in the ways of the Jedi, although since Kanan never completed his own training and Ezra has his own hiccups, the training is off to a rough start. When the Ghost crew learn that Jedi Master Luminara Unduli appears to have survived the Clone Wars only to have since been held in Imperial captivity, they launch a mission to rescue her. Kanan hopes that Luminara will be able to properly train Ezra, while Ezra worries that Kanan wants to pass him off to someone else just as soon as he has started to feel a connection to the crew.

By the episode’s end, Kanan recognizes that he alone can train Ezra. He also gains a better understanding of an old Jedi proverb, coming away with the determination and confidence to train Ezra properly. Ezra, meanwhile, confesses that he really does want to train under Kanan, even if the older man can’t be the best teacher that Ezra might need, and he is placated when Kanan reaffirms his commitment. The episode ends mirroring its beginning: Kanan has Ezra practice swatting away thrown objects with his lightsaber. While it was high-stakes and dramatic in the beginning, and Ezra failed, the scene now is low-key, simple, and relaxed, and Ezra successfully hits target after target.

But what’s wonderful about this final scene is that we are watching it from a wide view, at a distance; the characters stand among waves of grain, outside their ship, for all the world looking like a father tossing balls to his son to practice at bat. It might be Jedi training, but it’s also a familial game of catch.

What needed to be said between them was said, but even more powerful to the audience, I think, is that closing image, which communicates still more about the sort of relationship held between Kanan and Ezra.