Wednesday, October 10, 2018

In Laman's Terms: Ten Years of Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Shockingly, a major Star Wars anniversary occurred one week ago and it generated minimal to no fanfare, to the point that I didn't realize it even happened until over the weekend. I'm, of course, talking about the tenth anniversary of the airing of the first episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Back on October 3, 2008, this show kicked off its run that would end up lasting for six seasons before it became a casualty of the Disney/Lucasfilm merger (though the show will be returning with at least one new season next year). Though it began life with a widely mocked theatrical movie (which debuted two months prior to the shows first episode) that seemed to cement the franchise's status as just another way to drain money from the Star Wars brand, over the span of 121 episodes the TV show actually managed to become something that could stand as a testament to all the storytelling potential that lies in the various corners of the Star Wars universe.

Like many TV shows before and after it, Star Wars: The Clone Wars took a little bit of time to find its sea legs. While the franchise is and always has been aimed at children first and foremost, the enemy battle droids all of a sudden engaging in humorous banter and the presence of a fart gag in these early season one episodes felt like gratuitous concessions to the fact that the program was being aired on a kids channel like Cartoon Network. Similarly, the enemies the protagonists faced off against in early episodes felt only slightly more threatening than Team Rockets Jesse and James, removing much of the tension from the proceedings. Trying to find a balance between making sure the show could appeal to youngsters (as it should) with ambitions for more sophisticated storytelling was a large issue plaguing this first season of The Clone Wars.

But even in this first season, it became clear that this program was capable of something special. Just four episodes into the show, an episode called Rookies arrived and served as a showcase for just what The Clone Wars was capable of. For the first time in the show's history, Anakin Skywalker, his apprentice Ahsoka Tano and Obi-Wan Kenobi were not the lead characters, rather, a group of five newly introduced clone trooper soldiers were the focus of the plot. These five were put in charge of guarding an outpost that's soon under attack by Separatist forces and they're forced to handle the situation by themselves with no accompanying Jedi. All the characters in this smaller-scale episode are voiced by Dee Bradley Baker and it's impressive how he's able to make each of these clones feel like a separate person. Through his voicework and the more character-centric tendencies of the entire Rookies episode gave one hope that maybe this show just might amount to something after all.

These kinds of demonstrations of potential getting realized were scattered throughout this first season of The Clone Wars, particularly in newly introduced characters like Hondo Ohnaka (God, what a fun character, especially in his voice performance by Jim Cummings) and most of all Cad Bane, a ruthless bounty hunter who seemed to have walked out a Sergio Leone Western. An entertaining creation like Bane, as well as those five new clone troopers in Rookies, showed how much The Clone Wars was excelling when it was tackling brand-new characters and story material that hadn't been covered by the Star Wars Prequels, something that would be exemplified in the programs second season, which just emanated confidence in itself and was all the better for it.
To put it simply, the second season of The Clone Wars began establishing the gung-ho tendencies towards embracing all kinds of grandiose cosmic plotlines that would mark the best episodes of this season of the show as well as future seasons of the program. What other animated kids tv show would devote two whole episodes to a storyline about space worms that turn people into zombies and then proceed to tell it in a way that feels like a mash-up of George A. Romero and Ridley Scott's Alien? How about a two-part episode about a giant beast called The Zillo Beast that allowed series creator Dave Filoni to indulge in his Godzilla love to wildly entertaining results? And those were just the storylines in the second season! The first half of the third season was devoted almost exclusively to political intrigue involving the character of Padme Amidala while another third episode storyline became an esoteric experience as it delved into Anakin, Ahsoka and Obi-Wan meeting with physical manifestations of various sides (the Light Side, the Dark Side, etc.) of the Force.

This show got a whole lot weirder than that 2008 movie and its initial episodes would have suggested and it was a great joy to be an avid viewer of the show and watch the scope of its storytelling expand so vastly over the course of six seasons. There was just so much ambition in this show, which sometimes outgrew its reach (a decision in season five to make every storyline span four episodes made a storyline involving four droids and a frog alien commander on a solo mission go on for far too long), but far more often resulted in something immensely entertaining. When The Clone Wars started out, I never would have thought we'd get multiple episodes told simply from the perspective of Darth Maul and his brother Savage Opress creating a crime empire on Mandalore (God, this show sounds like total Star Wars fan-fiction out of context), but we very much did and it was glorious.

Even plotlines seemingly made for just cheap fan-service, like extended plotlines chronicling the formative years of Boba Fett, managed to actually work because they actually allowed Boba Fett to become a character for the first time in Star Wars history and because they were fun to watch, especially one Boba Fett storyline that involved Simon Pegg as Dengar and a heist that beat Solo: A Star Wars Story to the punch when it came to space train robberies! Plus, the fact that references to existing Star Wars mythology were balanced out with a horde of newly introduced characters helped such references go down smoothly, The Clone Wars was gonna make sure a resurrected Darth Maul was at least always accompanied by new character Savage Opress, for instance.

One of the best of the shows numerous newly introduced characters was Ahsoka Tano, a character who started out thinly-sketched in her initial appearances (she was just your routine kid sidekick at first despite Ashley Eckstein giving the character a strong vocal performance from the get-go) before, like so much of The Clone Wars, becoming a far more complex creation over time. In fact, Ahsoka Tano proved to be one of the more fascinating characters in The Clone Wars in how she kept rubbing up against the flawed elements of the Jedi order. That particular element of her character was also one of the most fascinating parts of The Clone Wars show, this whole program was far more critical of the Jedi Order compared to the Prequel movies and the way numerous episodes allowed the viewer to see what normal people (like a clone trooper whose become a farmer, for instance) were doing to survive in this expansive war was one of its best traits. In Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the element of humanity, as well as the element of fun, finally got injected back into Star Wars.

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