TV Review: Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008 – 2014)

With Star Wars’ first full-length animated TV show being released on Netflix, I finally had the opportunity to sit down and binge-watch it all, but does The Clone Wars deserve to be added to the light side or dark side of the Star Wars Expanded Universe?

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This review is years late.

I actually finished binge-watching The Clone Wars last summer and, for whatever reason, I’ve put off this review until now. I’ll use “time to gain perspective” as my excuse, but “I just forgot” may be a more accurate reason.

Ahsoka Tano

Let me start off with my favorite part of this show: Ahsoka Tano.

Ahsoka_TanoAhsoka joins the show as the padawan of Anakin Skywalker. She’s confident, brash, sassy, and, most importantly, new. A lot of these characters are shoehorned into their fates. We’ve already seen Episode III, we all know what happens to Mace Windu, Plo Koon, and even Anakin. So, it’s hard to really build onto characters with fates that we already know. There is no tension or excitement there because we know where they end up.

That’s why Ahsoka is so great. She’s not in the films! She’s new! Where the writers had to write in a form-fillable manner with most of the rest of the cast of characters, they could cut loose with Ahsoka and really experiment. Ahsoka is a fully three-dimensional character as opposed to the sagely Obi-Wan and brash Anakin (who have very little depth in either character or voice acting). She goes through arcs, experiences tragedy, and learns from it.

Towards the end of the season I found myself actually very concerned for Ahsoka’s fate, because I knew Order 66 was coming. I found myself repeatedly googling “how does Ahsoka survive Order 66?” and I found that I was not the only one who had had these concerns.

Ahsoka was a great character and a worthy addition to the list of strong female characters in Star Wars; which is admittedly pretty small (including Leia, Rey, and hopefully soon Jyn Erso).

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The Clones

Another thing I liked about The Clone Wars series was the Clones themselves. As strange as it seems, the Clones were a varied and compelling group of background characters. For a group of people that are all genetically identical to one another, they are a diverse cast and I think that Dee Bradley Baker had a large part in that. That man deserves an award for all the nuances and dialects that he put into each clone trooper to make it different from the next.

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Much like Ahsoka, I found the Clones an exciting addition to the story because they were new, in a sense. We all know that the Clones will inevitably execute Order 66 and bring about the fall of the Jedi and the Republic, but getting to see them before Order 66 is fascinating and makes the Clones turn even more poignant when it does finally happen.

Rocky Start

The Clone Wars admittedly got off to a rocky start. With a… just God-awful movie paving the foundation for the series, I automatically didn’t have any hope for the series. And the first few seasons did nothing to alleviate my doubts or concerns about the quality of the show, but I had friends repeatedly telling me to push through the first few seasons to get to the really good stuff. Around Season 3, the show did begin to pick up and with it came MUCH better animation and a new artistic style (which I was immensely grateful for).

A comparison between Season 2 and Season 5's animation

A comparison between Season 2 and Season 5’s animation

However, something that truly baffled me about the show was that the episodes were all out of order. If you watch the series from Season 1, Episode 1 to Season 6, Episode 13 you would be lost. Characters that had previously died would reappear and certain story arcs would seem to have never happened. You could chalk this up to poor writing and production and you’d probably be right, however, LucasFilms released an official watching order of episodes to solve this problem. If you are planning on sitting down and watching The Clone Wars, I highly suggest that you watch in the order of episodes posted above, otherwise you will be surely lost.

Simplistic and Childish

Look, I realize this is a cartoon and cartoons are made for children, but just because they are made for children does not mean that these shows can not transcend that age barrier and be meaningful and have something for viewers of all ages. Take Avatar: The Last Airbender for example, a show for kids, but with just a wealth of three-dimensional characters and themes that keep even adults engaged.

The Clone Wars was straight childish.

And I wouldn’t have too big of a problem with it if not for George Lucas’ quote about the show before it released:

It’s very much Star Wars. It’s not a, you know, South Park comedy. It’s not a baby girl’s show like Hannah Montana. It’s sort of the first dramatic animated show that is, um, PG-13, so it doesn’t really go on late night, it doesn’t go on Saturday afternoon, it actually doesn’t go anywhere. I don’t know what we’re gonna do with it, but we’re having a hell of a lot of… a great time making it.” (George Lucas, 2007) 

He says it isn’t “a baby girl’s show” (whatever that’s supposed to mean), but it isn’t an adult show like South Park. That would put it somewhere around a teen level as far as themes, characters, and plot should go, but the show could not be more simplistic.

For example, the good guys shoot blue lasers, the bad guys shoot red lasers (which is not true of the original Star Wars movies, but whatever). The only reason I can think of the writers doing this is so children can understand that blue is good and red is bad. And that’s not so awful, but what is awful is that during one episode Obi-Wan and Anakin manage to turn a band of pirates over to their side during a fire-fight to combat a common enemy. Immediately, the pirates’ blasters begin to shoot out blue lasers, rather than the red they had been shooting seconds before.

We are the good guys now, ya?

We are the good guys now, ya?

WHAT?!?

Did the pirates suddenly decide, “Wait, let’s play good. Everybody get out your good blaster packs. Ya know, the blue ones!” I guffawed out loud at this episode.

Besides that, The Clone Wars were a BIG deal! It is an event that changed the course of galactic history. In Episode IV, Obi-Wan talks about The Clone Wars with a visible weight on his conscience. This is war, people! There is nothing simplistic about it! I’m not saying this show should have been more violent, but it would have been nice to see a gritty representation of the war and more importantly its impact on the cast of characters.

In A Galaxy That Is Very, Very Small

star-wars-galaxy-mapThere is nothing wrong with having a tight, small cast of characters. In fact, that’s the best cast to have so you can really expand on the motivations and characterization of each (unless you’re George R.R. Martin and this is A Song of Fire and Ice). However, this series fell into a trap of believing that in a galaxy full of innumerable planets, exotic races, and bizarre characters, that only a few people in the galaxy ever do anything.

The formula for the series is very episodic. The show happens in arcs that have very little impact on the next arc, but has characters that may resurface next season in another arc. So, in a show that is episodic like this one was, you find your main cast of characters in many different venues doing very different things. Rather than capitalizing on having different characters featured in different arcs, the writers just had the main cast of characters jumping from one edge of the galaxy to the next to participate in back-to-back-to-back story arcs. (Which admittedly allows for very little character growth.)

This show would have you believe that C-3P0 and R2-D2 are the only droids in the galaxy. Every time an episode pops up where droids must do something, our lovable droid duo is there. Which is alright at first, everyone loves 3P0 and R2, except they appear in every… single… droid episode. Instead of being daring or adventurous and introducing to us a new droid that we could learn about and fall in love with, the writers chose a very safe and very boring path of just stamping the overused images of C-3P0 and R2-D2 into the episode. In the final episodes of the series, Yoda goes on a walkabout and takes R2-D2 with him. What? Why? Why isn’t R2 with Anakin in the field like he always is? Why would Yoda take an astromech he knows nothing about? You could have put any other astromech in the slot of Yoda’s starfighter and it wouldn’t have changed a thing.

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And this happens multiple times with many different characters. It would seem that there is no other pirate in the galaxy besides Hondo Ohnaka (a persistently returning and somewhat annoying character) or any other Jedi besides Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Ahsoka. The series does branch out and introduce a few more Jedi outside of the Big Three (as it were), but there were too many episodes where they were thrown into a story where introducing a new character would have been the perfect, exciting choice. There is an arc where Ahsoka goes to train a group of Padawans (which I think is just crazy: a Padawan training Padawans?). Her role is very minimal and has very little impact on the story. You could have thrown in any tertiary Jedi character (like Plo Koon or Aayla Secura) into that role and the story would have advanced the same. I would bet that the reason Ahsoka was included in that specific arc was simply so the animators did not have to make another model. Which is just a very sad excuse.

Some of my favorite episodes were in fact those that did not feature the main cast at all. I’m reminded of an arc that focused on a group of Clone trainees called Domino Squad. The arc followed them through their training on Kamino and then into their first taste of the war. We got to see the emotional and physical growth of the characters and by the end of the arc, we had a deep connection to them and were excited when they showed up in subsequent episodes and mourned when they met untimely, yet heroic deaths. I wish more episodes had taken cues from these episodes and brought us episodes with new characters in new venues participating in a very desperate galactic struggle.

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17dkz79vep6v0jpgAlso, STOP TRYING TO MAKE JAR JAR HAPPEN!!! I can guarantee that every episode that features Jar Jar in it will stink. He was a very poor attempt by Lucas to capture the attention of younger viewers in Episode I. While that certainly worked on an eleven-year old David, Jar Jar’s role in Episode I greatly tarnished that movie. He does the same with this series. He’s an annoying character who’s only role is to provide slapstick comedy. Even when the writers paired Jar Jar up with Mace Windu and gave him an alien love interest (which was just stupid), Jar Jar still failed to elicit any other emotion in me besides annoyance.

How It Could Have Been Better

After watching this series, I could not help but think in “What ifs?” What if this show had been good? What if they had gone a different direction with it?

Allow me to share my thoughts on how The Clone Wars could have been a massively better show:

First of all, get rid of the episodic formula. It may make it easier on the writers to crank out a lot of episodes, but it detracts from the quality of the show. In each arc we see characters grow in their experience, but when the next arc comes the characters revert to blank slates so they can learn a new lesson. It’s frustrating! We have these characters that never grow, because each episodic arc is as far-flung from the next as the planets they are featured on!

star-wars-the-clone-wars-20100909023637232Instead, lets create a season with a flowing narrative and a single cast of characters. I say out with Obi-Wan and Anakin as the show’s main focus. We know what happens to them, their story is told in the movies. This show should be about someone else. Enter Ahsoka Tano as our series’ lead: a young Padawan with a chip on her shoulder and something to prove. Of course, Anakin and Obi-Wan can be featured in the show (being Ahsoka’s mentors) but they will not be a focus. They will be recurring guest stars.

So, Ahsoka joins The Clone Wars. Things are not looking good for the Republic at the time. The Jedi are spread too thin and are too few. As such, Ahsoka, although young and inexperienced, is placed in control of a small squad of Clones. These Clones are equally just as raw as Ahsoka, having been just commissioned from Kamino. The Clones of Domino Squad (as mentioned above) are a diverse and lovable group of Clones. They captured our attention in the series in the few episodes they were featured in, so why not make them the main characters of the show?

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The series follows Ahsoka and Domino Squad through the war. We get to see the grittiness of the war and see how it affects both the Clones and the young, unproven Jedi. Our love and admiration grows for these characters and we may even loose a few on the way to the harsh theater of war. We see Ahsoka team up with a varied cast of characters, both Jedi, Clones, and ne’er-do-wells all the while trying to save the Galaxy. She helps her Masters Obi-Wan and Anakin fight General Grevious. She uncovers a murderous plot of political subterfuge on Mandalore. She finds a rival in Sith apprentice Asajj Ventress, both trying to prove themselves to their masters. She and a single Clone from Domino Squad must infiltrate a tight-knit group of bounty hunters led by the young Boba Fett. All this happens as we see Ahsoka and her friends in Domino Squad grow alongside the narrative.

maxresdefaultThen, when Ahsoka’s expulsion from the Jedi Order comes at the end of Season 5 and her old friends Domino Squad must track her down, we feel a real emotional weight on both sides of the conflict. (A possibility that I feel the show failed to capitalize on when Anakin had to track his former Padawan down, but never mind that.) Maybe Domino Squad sacrifice their lives or social standing in the army to make sure their old friend safely escapes the obviously corrupt Republic. It’s not a happy ending, but this is not a happy time in the Galaxy and a New Hope has yet to surface on the horizon.

If The Clone Wars had gone this route, with a succinct cast of characters and actual narrative-based plot, I feel it could have been outstanding. But alas, we got what we got.

The Kids

Is Star Wars: The Clone Wars appropriate for kids? Yes.

My personal feelings of being childish and simplistic aside, children will definitely find (and have already found) plenty to love in this series. However, there is one episode that comes to mind as having cursing in it. it is an episode that features Clones on the front line, but besides that, there is no really inappropriate material.

The Grade

The image of what The Clone Wars could have been will always be that proverbial unfinished drawing in our sketch book. The show suffered so much from a cast of two-dimensional characters, unconnected episodic arcs, simplicity, and a very sluggish first few seasons that even the interesting, new character  Ahsoka Tano and Dee Bradley Baker’s great portrayal of an entire army of Clones could not save it.

I give Star Wars: The Clone Wars a grade of….

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What do you think? Is my assessment of The Clone Wars fair or is it too harsh? What do you think of my proposed plot for a better The Clone Wars? Let me know in the comments below!

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