Star Wars reviews: The Clone Wars Season 7

Presenting a really late entry in the latest round of Super Blog Team-Up, looking at Expanded Universes. Everyone else got their contributions up around June 24th. Oh, well, maybe that’s actually appropriate, since I’m looking at the much-delayed conclusion to The Clone Wars.

The long-awaited seventh and final season of the Star Wars animated series The Clone Wars was released earlier this year thru the online streaming service Disney+.

My initial experience with The Clone Wars was underwhelming.  In the three year period between Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005) there had already been numerous stories set during the Clone Wars presented in Dark Horse’s Star Wars comic books, in various novels, and the original Genndy Tartakovsky animated series.  So when the computer animated movie The Clone Wars was released in 2008, followed by the ongoing series on Cartoon Network, my initial reaction was basically “Why do we need more of this?”

There were a couple of other reasons.  I actually read Karen Traviss’ excellent novelization of The Clone Wars before I saw the movie.  Traviss gave the characters some very complex, subtle motivations, and explored the ambiguity of the conflict.  None of that was present in the actual movie, leaving me disappointed.

And then there was the character of Ahsoka Tano, the teenage Jedi padawan introduced as Anakin Skywalker’s student in The Clone Wars movie, created by George Lucas & Dave Filoni and voiced by Ashley Eckstein.  I’m going to quote Wikipedia here…

“Although initially disliked by both fans and critics, Ahsoka developed into a well-rounded, complex character who received positive reactions from both groups. Serving as a foil for Anakin Skywalker, she has been highlighted as a strong female character of the franchise.”

Yes, that sounds very accurate, and it was basically my experience with Ahsoka Tano.  At first I did not like her, and I thought she was a pointless addition to the Star Wars mythos.  I never followed the ongoing television series, only catching an episode here or there, so this impression lingered for a while.

However, over the next several years The Clone Wars developed a huge following of younger viewers.  For these new fans, this was their Star Wars, and Ahsoka Tano was their Jedi hero, just as Luke Skywalker had been mine growing up in the early 1980s.  I did catch a few of the later episodes, and read some summaries of the others.  I realized that the overall writing on the series had improved tremendously, and Ahsoka had developed into an interesting, three-dimensional character.

Season Six came out in 2014, meaning there’s been a six year wait for the series’ conclusion.  In that time another animated series, Star Wars: Rebels came out, in which we learned Ahsoka Tano and clone trooper Captain Rex both survived the war.  I’m sure this must have left a lot of regular viewers with plenty of burning questions about what had actually happened.  So now we finally have the conclusion, and the answers.

Season Seven is 12 episodes long, divided into a trio of four-episode storylines:

The first four sees Captain Rex (Dee Bradley Baker) working with a misfit group of clone troopers known as the “Bad Batch” to go behind enemy lines in order to discover how the Separatist armies are seemingly anticipating all of the Republic’s battlefield plans, and to find out if Rex’s comrade, the missing and presumed dead clone trooper Echo, is actually still alive. (A spin-off animated series featuring the Bad Batch was just announced by Lucasfilm.)

The second storyline features Ahsoka, who has left the Jedi Order due to the hypocrisy and politics she saw the Jedi Council practicing.  Ahsoka’s speeder bike breaks down in the undercity of Coruscant, and she meets teenage sisters Trace and Rafa Martez (Brigitte Kali and Elizabeth Rodriguez).  Trace is a brilliant, idealistic mechanic, and Rafa is a more cynical figure who believes that breaking the law only way the two of them will ever escape poverty.  Ahsoka initially sympathizes with Trace, but she comes to realize that Rafa has a legitimate point, that the sisters’ socioeconomic circumstances have left them with very few paths.  When the sisters’ involvement in a spice-smuggling operation goes pear-shaped, Ahsoka helps them escape from the ruthless Pyke Syndicate.

I did think this four part segment was a bit padded out.  It reminded me of a Doctor Who serial from the Jon Pertwee era, with Ahsoka and the Martez Sisters getting captured, locked up, escaping, running around, getting recaptured, locked up again, escaping again, running around again… you get the idea.  Nevertheless, it was still a fun and thoughtful story.  It also leads into the next segment, as Ahsoka learns that Darth Maul (Sam Witwer) is working with the Pykes.

The final four-parter chronicles the Siege of Mandalore.  Ahsoka has joined forces with a group of Mandalorians led by Bo-Katan (Katee Sackhoff) who want to liberate their planet from Maul’s control.  Realizing they don’t have the numbers to stage an assault, Ahsoka goes to Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Sywalker, who she has not seen since she left the Jedi.

Unfortunately the Separatists have launched an attack on Coruscant and kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine, and Obi-Wan (James Arnold Taylor) has orders to return there immediately.  Ahsoka accuses the Jedi of once again playing politics, of prioritizing the Chancellor over the people of Mandalore.  Anakin (Matt Lanter) agrees to split up his clone forces, giving Ahsoka and Rex half of them to take to Mandalore.  Ahsoka, Rex, Bo-Katan and the clone army arrive, and there is a huge, stunning battle against the Mandalorian commandos allied with Maul.

Ever since the introduction of Boba Fett waaaay back in the animated sequence from the Star Wars Holiday Special and The Empire Strikes Back, there has been a lot of speculation about Fett and the other occupants of Mandalore.  Due to the technical limitations of the early 1980s, as well as Fett actually being a fairly minor character in the original trilogy, very little of this was ever explored on-screen.

I think part of the appeal of this storyline is that we finally get to see the mythical Mandalorians in combat.  The same goes for the live-action series The Mandalorian, also on Disney+.

Initially I thought bringing Darth Maul back from the dead was a bit ridiculous, but it is another area that worked out well in the long run.  Maul is a lot like Boba Fett, a visually interesting character who was ultimately underused in the movies.  Maul in The Phantom Menace was basically Darth Sidious’ attack dog, nothing more.  Maul, resurrected in The Clone Wars, and then later seen in Rebels, is a cunning, dangerous agent of chaos who seeks to carve out his own power base and undermine the plans of Sidious.

There are definite parallels to Ahsoka and Maul at this point.  Both of them have become disenchanted with their previous beliefs.  Ahsoka has lost faith in the Jedi Order, and Maul wants revenge on Sidious for casting him aside.  Maul makes a pitch to Ahsoka to join forces with him, and we can see that she is definitely tempted.  In the end, though, she rejects the offer, and the two come to blows.  Ahsoka, with the aid of Bo-Katan and Rex, eventually defeats the former Sith.

And then everything goes to Hell.  Anyone who has seen Revenge of the Sith knew this moment was coming, but it nevertheless remains a wrenching experience.

I really thought The Clone Wars would end before the events of Revenge of the Sith, because I just could not imagine the series actually showing Order 66.  But they went full-in.  Palpatine / Sidious orders the elimination of the Jedi.  Ahsoka, just like all of her former comrades, finds the clone troopers turning against her.

A good development introduced in The Clone Wars was the idea that the clone troopers had control chips implanted in their brains, chips that when activated would make them follow Sidious’ commands without question.  This enabled the clones to be loyal, courageous, honorable soldiers throughout the series, and explain why they so quickly turned on the Jedi.  In the end the clones were also victims of Sidious, robbed of their free will, reduced to mindless assassins, forced to murder their own generals.

Ahsoka discovers the existence of the chips and is able to extract the one in Rex, freeing him from Sidious’ control, but she is unable to save the rest of her troops.  The final scene of Ahsoka and Rex standing before the graves of the clone troopers is genuinely haunting.

Someone on Twitter recently commented “The last four episodes of Clone Wars was some of the best written, acted and directed Star Wars ever created.”  That’s a sentiment with which I definitely agree.  Those final four episodes are exciting and moving and heartbreaking.  Dave Filoni’s scripts were incredible.  The voice acting by Eckstein, Baker, Witwer and everyone else was superb.

The animation on this final season was absolutely stunning.  There were moments when I forgot that this wasn’t live action, that’s how good it was.  I realize that there is a large group of people involved in creating the animation for this project, and the majority of them unfortunately do not get the recognition they deserve.  My compliments to everyone involved in literally bringing all of these characters and all of these action sequences to life.  Job well done!

I recognize that some of the Star Wars movies released under Disney have been underwhelming.  This final season of The Clone Wars, as well as the first season of The Mandalorian, are refreshing reminders that there is still a tremendous amount of potential to the franchise, that there are many more fun, exciting, interesting stories that can be told within this fictional universe.

Here are links to all of the other #SBTU contributors. We had a lot on entries this time. Please check them all out. Thank you.

Star Wars reviews: Republic #61

The new Star Wars movie The Force Awakens comes out in December.  Although I haven’t written much about it on this blog, I’ve been a big Star Wars fan since I was a kid.  At first I was thinking of re-watching and reviewing the previous six movies on this blog as a sort of lead-in to The Force Awakens.  But I realized that so many others have written about them already.  Besides, I just couldn’t decide what order to review them in!

Then it occurred to me to look at some of the tie-ins that have been published over the past 38 years, the comic books and novels.  Most of those have never been examined in-depth.

I know that many people were disappointed in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy.  While I readily acknowledge that those films were flawed, I still enjoyed them.  And they opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the so-called “expanded universe.”  Dark Horse, which had the rights to publish Star Wars comic books from 1991 to 2014, released many excellent stories set during the prequel era.

My favorite writer to work on the Dark Horse comics was John Ostrander.  He has always been incredibly adept at crafting stories that combine action, drama and political intrigue.  This made him particularly well suited to examining the events of the prequel era.

Star Wars: Republic #61 is written by Ostrander, with artwork by Brandon Badeaux & Armando Durruthy and a cover by Brian Ching.  It was published in January 2004.

Star Wars Republic 61 cover signed

Sixteen months after the Battle of Geonosis the Clone Wars are raging across the galaxy.  Senator Bail Organa is en-route from his home planet of Alderaan to the capital on Coruscant when his ship is attacked by space pirates.  Fortunately the Jedi arrive to drive off the raiders.

Landing on Coruscant, Organa is greeted by Senator Mon Mothma.  She is unsettled by the Senate’s willingness to leave oversight of the war to Supreme Chancellor Palpatine.  Organa acknowledges he is perplexed the Senate hasn’t discussed the Republic’s recent catastrophic defeat on Jabim.

That evening Organa is secretly visited by Finis Valorum, the previous Chancellor who resigned in disgrace after a vote of no confidence.  Valorum is aghast at the Senate granting Palpatine more and more power.  Organa rationalizes that this is “temporary,” to which Valorum fires back…

“The Senate barters away the fundamental rights upon which the Republic was built! You trust that the tyrant you are creating will give them back to you when the crisis is over? Palpatine will give back nothing! No one who seeks power the way that he does ever surrenders it willingly!”

Valorum informs Organa that Palpatine is using the assault on the Senator’s ship to reintroduce the Security and Enforcement Act.  Organa is alarmed by this news.  As their meeting ends the two are unknowingly observed by a cleaning droid equipped with a camera.

The next day Organa has an audience with Palpatine.  The Senator questions the lack of debate on Jabim.  Palpatine waves this away, arguing that if the facts of the Republic’s defeat were on the record it would serve to alarm those whose loyalty is wavering.  Organa then informs the Chancellor that he resents the space pirate attack being used as an excuse to reintroduce the Security and Enforcement Act, and that he will be opposing it.  An unperturbed Palpatine simply replies:

“You must, of course, do as you think best. Might I give you a small warning? It would not be wise for you to see Finis Valorum again. Dirt rubs off so easily, and can tarnish those who would otherwise seem clean.”

Of course Organa detects the implied threats beneath Palpatine’s seemingly polite words, and he begins to ponder if Valorum is correct.  Soon after he and Mon Mothma meet with Valorum, who is preparing to depart Coruscant.  Organa says he is starting to share Valorum’s  suspicions concerning Palpatine.  Valorum boards his ship, which takes off… and then, to Organa and Mon Mothma’s horror, the vessel explodes above the spaceport.

The following day in the Senate, the destruction of the ship by an act of “terrorism” is offered as a further argument for the necessity of the Security and Enforcement Act.  Organa addresses his colleagues, voicing his opposition.  He passionately argues of the dangers that occur when too much power is held by a single individual:

“This chamber is a place of reason, invested with certain powers and authorities! When power is invested in many, it cannot be seized by one! That was the plan and the purpose when the Republic was formed!

“The powers that this Act seeks to invest in the Supreme Chancellor belong to the Senate! They are our responsibilities and given to us in trust…

“We fight for the Republic. But what is the Republic, if not the principles on which it is based? To cast aside those principles would make even a clear-cut victory in this war pointless.”

Despite Organa’s efforts, the Act is passed into law by the Senate.  Although he has lost this battle, Organa tells Mon Mothma he now recognizes the importance of fighting for the integrity of the Republic.

Star Wars Republic 61 pg 9

When Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were released in 2002 and 2005, Lucas was asked if he was commenting upon George W. Bush’s “War on Terror,” the passage of the Patriot Act, and the formation of the Department of Homeland Security.  Lucas denied this, stating that both the original trilogy and the back story he utilized in the prequels were originally conceived in the early-to-mid 1970s.  If there was any influence, it was actually Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War.

Lucas went on to state that the prequels were an observation of the cyclical nature of human history.  Specifically he was commenting upon how democracies often give way to dictatorships as citizens willingly give up their rights & freedoms for the promise of security.

This is something that I’ve observed on this blog before, the seductive lure of the so-called “benevolent dictator” who will supposedly guide a nation through turbulent times with a firm hand, relieving the population of the burden of the messy, complicated business of democracy.

I went to see Attack of the Clones in the theater with my father. He didn’t regard the rise of the Separatists and the Battle of Geonosis being secretly orchestrated by Palpatine to enable himself to obtain “emergency powers” from the Senate as a reference to the War on Terror.   Instead my father was reminded of how in 1964 Lyndon Johnson convinced Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in response to a supposed act of aggression by North Vietnam.  This gave the President the power to utilize military force in Southeast Asia to combat “Communist aggression” without a formal declaration of war from Congress.

Star Wars Republic 61 pg 12

In 2008 I met Karen Traviss, author of several novels set during the Clone Wars, at a book signing.  As with Lucas, she commented that her books were not inspired by the War on Terror per se, but on reoccurring motifs throughout history.  Traviss stated that just as people seeing the prequels in the early 21st Century might be reminded of Bush, so too would those born in the mid 20th Century recall Johnson and Nixon, and a Roman centurion watching the movies would see parallels to the rise of Julius Caesar.

Nevertheless, when I met John Ostrander at a comic convention in early 2005, he confirmed for me that Republic #61 was certainly his commentary on the War on Terror.

There were several scenes filmed by Lucas for Revenge of the Sith where Padme Amidala, Bail Organa and Mon Mothma, realizing that Palpatine does not intend to relinquish his extra powers once the war concludes, begin organizing the movement that would become the Rebel Alliance.  Unfortunately these ended up on the cutting room floor, although they were included in the extras on the DVD.  As these were omitted from the actual movie, I’m glad that at least in the comic books Ostrander was able to depict some of the events that placed Organa and Mon Mothma on the path to opposing Palpatine.

Ostrander is correct that “temporary” or “emergency” powers granted to heads of state are often anything but transitory and are seldom relinquished.  One only needs look at the transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama.  I don’t know if Republicans honestly believed that the authorizations that they granted the Presidency in the aftermath of September 11th would simply vanish into thin air once Bush left office.  But they certainly appeared to be completely shocked when Obama utilized those same broad powers to authorize drone strikes and conduct warrantless surveillance on millions of American citizens.

Star Wars Republic 61 pg 21

This is one of the reasons why I am a huge science fiction fan.  Yes, sci-fi is fun with its robots and rockets and ray guns.  But the genre also allows writers to offer commentary on political and social issues via allegory and symbolism.  Often it is much easier to critically analyze these controversial topics by transposing them into the future or onto another planet, to address divisive questions in a setting less likely to arouse bitter partisanship.

Ostrander certainly did this in his work on the Star Wars comic books published by Dark Horse, crafting stories that were both entertaining and thought-provoking.