Star Wars: The Clone Wars - The Complete Season One

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - The Complete Season One

***1/2

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

A long time ago – in 1977, in fact, in the original Star Wars, back when the blockbusting space opera had not yet lost its primacy and inherited the designation 'Episode Four: A New Hope' – an aged Obi-Wan Kenobi was heard reminiscing about the Clone Wars of his youth. By the time, decades later, George Lucas had announced his three Star Wars prequels, it seemed inevitable that the Clone Wars, and the heroic role that Luke Skywalker's father Anakin plays in them, would find their way onto the big screen. Sure enough, the trilogy's second film Attack Of The Clones (2002) marked the emergence of the Clones as a Republican force against the Separatists' Droid armies, while the trilogy closer Revenge Of The Sith (2005) showed the endgame in the Clone Wars and the beginning of Empire.

It was, however, left largely to comic books and Genndy Tartakovsky's much admired TV cartoon series The Clone Wars (2003) to imagine the many struggles and skirmishes of the intervening years, filling in the gaps of the 'Expanded Universe' of Star Wars. Then Lucas announced an epic new animated television series of at least 100 episodes (22 minutes each, as opposed to the 127 minutes in total of Tartakovsky's earlier series) devoted entirely to the Clone Wars, with Dave Filoni as supervising director and Lucas himself as series creator and occasional co-writer.

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Lucas was so impressed with Filoni's early work that he proposed the show's pilot be expanded for release in cinemas – and while the resulting feature-length theatrical teaser, released in 2008, boasted a fast pace and impressive visuals, it never really managed to escape the episodic nature of its television origins, ultimately falling flat because it lacked any sense of climax as it leapt from one spectacular set-piece to the next.

Fortunately the same criticism hardly applies to the first season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, whose 22 episodes (seven in director's cuts) are collected in this four-disc boxset. After all, these were made to be consumed in bite-size chunks, and while some of the arcs are spread across several episodes to achieve something like feature length (especially the Malevolence and Ryloth stories), a general disregard for either chronological order or focus on a single character gives the season the feel more of an impressionistic mosaic than a monolithic narrative. These Clone Wars are fought battle by battle, in no particular order – perfect for the disruptive structures imposed by commercial television.

Not that the series lacks problems of its own. Like the clones whose many engagements they celebrate, these episodes multiply without necessarily evolving, and so, despite many variations in location and character, there is considerable repetition. This growing sense that it has all been seen before (only in a different exotic setting each time) is not helped by the poverty of characterisation. They may be rendered in 3D, but there is seldom more than one dimension to the Jedi, Sith, Republican politicians, Separatist lackeys, clones, droids and pirates, bounty hunters and alien bystanders who populate this cartoon galaxy.

Take away their bizarre names, their unusual forms, their outlandish costumes, hairstyles and tattoos, and there is often little left to distinguish them. Likewise the dialogue often sounds like it has been written by teenage boys – reflecting, no doubt, the target demographic. Here, it is all about story and spectacle – everything else is sketchy and merely serviceable.

Of course, if we are honest, this has been the dirty little secret of the entire Star Wars cycle (where fan favourites like Boba Fett and Darth Maul are adored far more for their cool looks and slick moves than for any depth of character they might claim), and perhaps Star Wars: The Clone Wars should not be singled out for its deficiencies in this area. Yet where the original Star Wars trilogy was carried along by both its grand mythic status and its relative novelty, and the prequel trilogy was intensified and ironised by our knowledge of the catastrophe to come, the dramatic impact of The Clone Wars is, at least so far, weakened by its intermediate status in Lucas' saga.

Are we really worried about the fate of the missing R2-D2 in episodes Downfall of a Droid and Duel of the Droids? Is there really a chance that Plo Koon will run out of breath in Rising Malevolence, that Jar Jar Binks will be killed (however much we might wish it) in Bombad Jedi or The Gungan General, that either Kit Fisto or General Grievous will die in Lair of Grievous, or that Anakin, Obi-Wan, Amidala, Mace Windu, C-3PO, Luminara Unduli, Nute Gunray, Senator Palpatine, Dooku or Aayla Secura will be fatally injured in their adventures here?

The restrictions of canon continuity ensure that any characters still alive by the beginning of Revenge Of The Sith cannot suffer any irreparable damage here, and so there is rarely any real sense of peril. Perhaps that is why it is easier to invest in the all-new Jedi Padawan Ahsoka Tano than in anyone else – not only is she volatile, flawed and winningly feisty, but we genuinely do not know where her character is headed, making it that much easier to care.

While there are certainly things that the series loses from its position between Attack Of The Clones and Revenge Of The Sith, there is also at least one thing gained, namely a cumulative suggestion – so appropriate to a series on war - of the futility of effort. Filoni can make 22 episodes, a hundred, or even a thousand, to document the many details and experiences, victories and losses, of the Clone Wars - but we still know that every struggle is ultimately in vain, as the final outcome is already written in the stars (or in the existing sequels).

This, it seems, is the real insight that the The Clone Wars has to offer into the nature of conflict, or even of existence – and it is what allies this series to the grave fatalism of Greek tragedy. If most of the characters here are destined to stay alive, that is only because most of them are equally destined to be killed in the violent birth pangs of Empire that will immediately follow.

Meanwhile, there is always the series' extraordinary audio-visual panache to savour. A variety of richly imaginative environments that look as photorealistic as the ones seen in the 'live-action' (but CG-inflected) prequel trilogy are filled with idiosyncratically stylised versions of characters who are able to move in ways that real actors could never hope to achieve. This 3D animation is a joy to behold, and is of a quality rarely seen in anything made for televison. And no one could say Lucas does not know his fanbase – Season Two promises to focus on bounty hunters, with the last episode here (Hostage Crisis) offering a taster.

Reviewed on: 16 Nov 2009
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Animated antics from a galaxy far, far away.
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