Friday, December 18, 2015

Ask JKM a Question: The Clone Wars?

A regular reader, Jason, writes:

I'm interested in your opinion of Cartoon Network's "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" (2009-2013) series.”

Jason, I’ll be honest about this.

Before I received your e-mail (several weeks ago....) I didn’t have a very clearly formed opinion of The Clone Wars. 

I had watched only a handful episodes with my son, Joel -- out of order too -- and found them likable enough. 

However, after reading your e-mail, I went back and watched several more installments of the program.  The whole series is now available on Netflix and so this seemed like the perfect time to wade in.

So my opinion -- with the caveat that I have still have still viewed less than thirty installments, overall -- is that it is an enjoyable series, and more than that, a dignified, respectable, and worthwhile continuation of the Star Wars saga.

More significantly, I feel that The Clone Wars has mimicked the general creative approach of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) in a way.

By that comparison, I mean only that Star Trek: The Next Generation took a while to find its legs as a successful creative endeavor.

Early on, for example, the Ferengi were an embarrassing disaster in terms of their villainy. But The Next Generation writers and producers didn’t drop the Ferengi, ignore the Ferengi, or mark them as toxic failures. 

Instead, they figured out how to deploy the Ferengi creatively and dramatically, and then brought them back to serve as prime supporting players in both TNG and Deep Space Nine.

Similarly, many long-time Star Wars fans did not like the prequel movies (1999 – 2005) or their universe very much.

There were complaints about Jar-Jar Binks, young Anakin, older Anakin, and so forth. 

But to its credit, The Clone Wars doesn’t shy away from the universe established by the live-action prequels, and brings back races and characters that weren’t happily perceived the first time around.

Yes, even Jar-Jar Binks.

Yet as I believe The Next Generation proved, something intriguing happens when disliked or initially unsuccessful characters (such as the Ferengi or Jar-Jar) return in additional (and often superior…) stories. 

We get to know them better. They become deeper. We know and understand how they "fit" into the universe, and we start to accept them.

And, finally, this new-found success in later ventures sort of retroactively shines back on the earlier stories. You can suddenly go back to the lesser tales and find some value that was harder to see before, when you were distracted by the creative missteps.

There, I said it.

Watching The Clone Wars actually makes re-watching the Star Wars prequels a better, and far more intriguing and engaging experience.  

This principle applies to the development of Anakin (and his eventual journey to the dark side), his relationship with Padme, and many other factors that some fans felt were inadequately handled in three movies.  

By revisiting the Gungans (in stories such as “Gungan Attack”) or Watto’s people, the Toydarians (in stories such as “Ambush,”) the aliens take on new substance, and the universe seems, oddly enough, less like a cartoon designed to sell toys.

Again, my caveat is that I have not seen the entire series at this juncture.  But based on what I have seen, The Clone Wars actually does an extraordinary job deepening a universe that could use some deepening.

There are two important factors that I noted on my survey.

The first is that with Star Wars functioning as a TV series, the creators have far more time to discuss issues of moral complexity.  

The six feature films dramatize an epic story of a galaxy in transition, and so there often simply isn’t time to go into detail regarding some aspects of life in the Empire or Republic. But the episodic nature of The Clone Wars allows writers to linger on those world-building qualities and moral shades that the movies, by necessity, gloss over.  

For instance, we remember young Anakin as a slave in The Phantom Menace (1999).

Here, episodes such as “Slaves of the Republic” in season four of The Clone Wars allow that idea to play out a little more fully, and in a way that adds to our understanding of Anakin’s journey as a character.  For example, Anakin recalls that his mother was sold in a slave market like the one he visits on the planet Zygerria. 

Ahsoka, Anakin’s padewan, must pretend to be a slave herself in the course of the story and questions how a “civilization as advanced” as the Republic permits such atrocities to continue.

Other episodes ask additional questions that the movies simply couldn’t get to. One clone notes in “Rising Malevolence,” an early episode, that “we’re just clones…we’re meant to be expendable.”  

Is that true?

If so, one can tie this comment from a clone to the notion of slaves in the Republic and see that nobody, not even the Jedi, have clean hands. The series thus asks -- at least occasionally -- whether it is right for a society to maintain, essentially, second class citizens.

The episodes of The Clone Wars that I have watched are not overly deep, it is true. But they at least touch tangentially on these issues of importance in the Star Wars universe. They add color and texture to places and people that, in the movies, were afforded no such color or texture.

The second and perhaps more noticeable virtue in The Clone Wars involves the visuals.  

They are often, as far as I can determine from my viewing, simply breath-taking.  

“Gungan Attack” -- which features an underwater war between the Separatists and the people of Admiral (here Captain…) Ackbar, is positively stunning in its imagery. Huge alien and mechanical armies battle beneath the sea with giant machines, robots, and vessels, and light-sabers swinging everywhere.

The whole set-piece resembles some brilliantly imaginative 1930s era pulp cover, and one Separatist ship in the episode even boasts the large “eyeball” windows, it looks like, of Disney’s Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954).

Actually, I really admired this story a great deal because the visuals are superb, and the touches of continuity-- Ackbar, Mon Calamari, and Gungans -- suggest a fidelity to all eras of the franchise.

The episode captured the essence of Star Wars, in my opinion. That essence consists of splendidly-realized action-adventure in an unusual setting (wild alien planets or environments) -- combined with a knowing pastiche of earlier science fiction images, re-purposed for maximum excitement.

Are there some aspects of The Clone Wars that give me pause? 

I suppose so. I have a bit of trouble with the Battle Droids, who act crazy and function as overt comic relief, but never really project a genuine menace. I fail to understand why the Separatists make their battle droids talkative blunderers with bad aim.

But the bottom line is this:  I wish I had about fifty hours to kill, right now, to watch the whole series from start to finish. 

Perhaps, after I watch more, I’ll find something to really dislike in Clone Wars, but for right now, I’m hoping that Joel swings back to a fascination with Star Wars so we have the opportunity to watch the whole series together start to finish. 

Don't forget to ask me your questions at

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