Monday, November 17, 2008

Season 1, Episode 1 - Ambush

A little less than two months after the release of Star Wars: The Clone Wars as a feature, the first season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars began on Cartoon Network. It aired two episodes on October 3rd, 2008 back-to-back, the first of which was a stand-alone episode entitled "Ambush."

This episode was, at the very least, extremely encouraging. Yoda is en route to the coral moon of Rugosa, to meet with King Katunnko of Toydaria (Watto's race). Upon arrival, the Republic cruisers are immediately ambushed (hence the title) and Yoda and three Clone Troopers find themselves alone and outgunned.

Asajj Ventress argues that the inability of the Jedi to defend even themselves should lead King Katuunko to conclude that he should accept Separatist protection. Yoda, unwilling to concede defeat, swears to avoid capture and reach the Katunnko before the Separatists can stop him.

In short: Yoda and three Clone Troopers against a bunch of battle droids. The outcome is never in doubt, but the execution of the episode had much to prove after the lackluster feature. Happily, Ambush announces the series more auspiciously than did the film release.

Any Star Wars fan could have predicted some of what Ambush offers effectively: Yoda being generally terrific at tearing up metal. The central battle scene, where Yoda dismantles boatloads of battledroids and tanks, is a whole lot of fun. The Clone Troopers are well-realized as well. This episode is about 70% Yoda fighting; and on that criteria alone, it's all you could ask for.

What is more satisfying is that there was clearly an effort made to show the side of Yoda that appears in The Empire Strikes Back. He smiles, he laughs, he makes cryptic statements; he's generally less dour and officious than he is in most of the scenes in the Prequel Trilogy. His interactions with the Clone Troopers show actual concern for them as individuals, and an instinct to mentor.

There are elements of this episode I think, though, could be easily overpraised. Yoda's "wisdom" in this Episode isn't's far more of the Saturday morning cartoon variety. There's nothing particularly wrong with that, but it does show how difficult it is to capture the tone and feeling of Empire. Yoda in Ambush has the quality of a mentor and some basically good advice; Yoda in the Empire Strikes Back speaks about the essential nature of the Force and the path of belief. There's really only a surface level comparision.

Also prevalent is the lack of tension. The outcome of the Episode is pretty clear from the get-go, and the idea that even a thousand Battle Droids could defeat Yoda alone is almost laughable.

Plus, Katuunko seems relatively generic. If Watto's race of Toydarians are resistant to mind-tricks, for example (remember Episode I?) then there seems to be something distinctive about them. Katunnko is noble and well-meaning. He's pre-sold on Yoda, and rooting for him. Not much of a negotiation.

Laughable, in fact, is what the Battle Droids are in this episode. As it was in the Clone Wars movie (and to an extent in the prequels) the Battle Droids have gone completely backwards. They're not a threat: they're a gag reel. Which works, frankly, intermittently. I won't deny that I guffawed at a couple of Battle Droid one-liners, but its a choice that needs to be balanced in the long run.

The other reservation I have with this episode is its treatment of Asajj Ventress. Ventress was originally introduced, even given a backstory, in the Genndy Tartakovsky 2003 series. If the new series is intended to replace the Tartakovsky series, then why is Ventress treated as if she's always existed? The time-line, here, is a bit muddled. It's not the best storytelling device to just say "Oh, you remember Ventress from the other series? She's in this one too."

All that said, Ambush hits a lot of the right notes. It's contained, effective, light and fun and Yoda seems like the Yoda we know and love. Plus, the action is wonderfully directed. A good, if not terribly ambitious, beginning.

Rating (out of five) *** 1/2

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