Friday, January 23, 2009

Season 1, Episode 14 - Defenders of Peace

I was, when I read the premise of Defenders of Peace, concerned that the showrunners would wind up treating the pacificism of the Lurmen as misguided or somehow cowardly. My lack of faith was unwarranted: more than any other episode thus far, Defenders of Peace allows for ambiguity.

It helps that the Separatists aren't just asking for the Lurmen's lunch money. The Separatists are led by Lok Durd (voiced with smarmy relish by Star Trek veteran George Takei); and he's testing a weapon that wipes out all organic life, leaving droids intact. The Lurmen are done for, and the Jedi feel obligated to protect them. The Lurmen (or at least their leader) seem willing to die before the compromising their values.

This premise not only sets up a dramatically interesting conflict, but just good old fashioned fun action sequences. There's a grand scope to Lok Durd's weapon that makes it worthy of all this bluster. The Jedi and Clones work together to remain hidden, sneak into the Separatists' outpost, and, finally, do battle against tremendous odds.

The action is all tremendously put together; especially the dimly lit sequence when the Jedi steal a Neimoidian shuttle. The final stand, with the energy shield, is reminiscent of the battle between the Gungans and the Battle Droids on Naboo in The Phantom Menance, with a bit of a Seven Samurai twist. The action is well-supported by zippy dialogue and increasingly nuanced animation.

Tee Watt Kaa, the Lurmen elder, closes the episode worrying about the unrealized cost of the events in Defenders of Peace. It would be interesting to see if the show revisits this planet in later episodes and explores the impact that these episodes had on their leadership and traditions.

The episode's "fortune cookie" is "When surrounded by war, one must eventually chose a side." Instead of wagging its finger at pacifism, Defenders of Peace sees that war itself forces those with good intentions into choices they'd rather not make. Why else would else would the war be an end unto itself for the Sith?

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

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

By the way

John Williams provides music for the Inauguration.

TD Jakes says "May the force be with you" to Barack Obama on the day of the inauguration.

George Lucas attended the inauguration.

We were well represented on the big day it appears, oh Star Wars fans.

It occurs to me, re-watching Episode III, that the prequels were very much commentary on the Bush era.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Season 1, Episode 13 - Jedi Crash

At the beginning of Jedi Crash, the viewer is thrust into swirling action. Super Battle Droids dive through the atmosphere; gunships roar; war ships lurch to and fro. Jedi Master Aayla Secura desperately needs reinforcements. They come, almost too late, from Anakin Skywalker and his battalion of clone troopers.

It's a rousing start, and it leads quickly into daring escapes, and finally, the titular crash itself, on a grassy planet. (According to the episode guide it's called Maridun.) Anakin has been severely injured in the escape, and its up to Aayla Secura, Ahsoka, and the remaining clones to figure out where they are, and how to get home.

As with Duel of the Droids (also directed by Rob Coleman, Animation Director for the prequels) the color palette and the perspectives are all artfully combined. Where The Gungan General felt rushed; Jedi Crash feels carefully put together.

It may be that a little extra care was put into the episode: it was written by Katie Lucas, daughter of He Need Not Be Named. To her credit, the action here isn't the only thing to recommend the episode. As the episode goes into its second and third acts, the script takes over from the action, and has a few of the series strongest moments. (It also features at least one line that's a remarkable groaner, but heck, that's a pretty good batting average.)

The major theme here is, once again, attachment. Ahsoka doesn't want to leave Anakin's side, but Aayla rightly gets her to think about more than her own immediate needs and attachments. They leave Rex behind with Anakin and head out to find help.

(Here's the groaner: they find a piece of wood that shows, plainly, GIANT TREES and people living near them. Ahsoka looks at it and, like Encylopedia Brown, says "I think the people around here live near GIANT TREES." "Very perceptive," says Aayla. Ouch. Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is.)

What they do find, though, are the Lurmans. They look a whole lot, frankly, like Nelvaanian women and children from the original Clone Wars microseries. But they're more adorable, and they're pacificsts. And they live in giant seed pods. And they can roll like Droidekas.

The Lurman leader, Tee Wat Kaa, espouses his values to the Jedi, before agreeing to provide Anakin with medical supplies. There's a bit more non-descript action before the episode closes on a cliffhanger as well, and pacifism seems to rule the day. I don't have to tell you (I hope) that Anakin lives.

Jedi Crash is a largely exceptional episode. The action (as I stated) is fantastic. More than that, there are moments where the Jedi's role in the war is questioned, and there needs to be more of this in the series.

Think about telling a story about the war in Iraq without ever mentioning how the war was started. It doesn't make any sense. The Clone Wars are the reason for the fall of the Republic. They were started under false pretenses, built around trade routes and an arms race. In short: the war is a trick. The Jedi claim to fight for freedom, but have the Separatists claimed to fight for fascism? There is a very real difference between the World War II inspired battles of the original trilogy and the morally ambiguous Clone Wars. The Clone Wars are Vietnam or Iraq; the Galactic Civil War is a war against a clear evil.

So, I was incredibly happy to hear even a hint of that in the voice of the Lurmens. The series will only be more rich if the sourness of the war and its irony is allowed to breathe a bit in the emotional life of the characters.

It was also nice to hear Ahsoka learn something. I mean, seriously. Aalya Secura turns out to be yet another strong female Jedi character, this time with a french accent, and a tougher edge. (There must be some theory of the Lucasverse that we can better remember characters with simple traits like accents.)

For all that good stuff, then... why is there something I feel was missing from this episode? Maybe it's that I find it almost impossible to invest emotionally in Ahsoka Tano. At this point, I've watched a film where she was all but the star, and maybe 5 of the 12 episodes aired before this one featured her prominently. That's plenty of time to get to know the character, and still, she comes off as entirely unlikeable to me. I also don't find myself concerned with her "fate" and how it affects Anakin's fall to the dark side.

Here's why: we don't need it. Anakin's mother dies, he kills out of anger, he fears for the death of his secret wife. His mentor is, unbeknownst to him, the biggest bad guy of all bad guys. That's the mythology that matters. Ahsoka's fate isn't really a blip of that kind of drama's radar.

So, I fully admit that bias. If Ahsoka's in an episode, it has to work three times as hard to impress me. She's a product of someone's idea of how to appeal to a certain demographic, and I don't care of "she" learns about the Jedi Code.

Also, unfortunately, is the problem with the Duel of the Droids two-parters: Anakin lives. Putting Anakin or R2-D2 in danger are dramatically inert choices. If you know the outcome you can still mine dramatic tension (the prequels figured out how to do this because the questions were "how" and "when," not "if"); but if the question is who survives...the question is asked and answered.

Add Ahsoka's anti-charisma and Anakin's dilemma being sort of dramatically uninvolving, and I'm left with an episode I found impressive and satisfying intellectually; but that never really hooked me.

Rating (out of five): ***

Monday, January 12, 2009

Welcome New Readers

If you're visiting this blog for the first time from either Club Jade or TFN, welcome! This space will be updated weekly with reviews of each episode of the Clone Wars TV series currently airing on the Cartoon Network, usually either the night of the episode, or the Saturday following.

Don't forget to add us to your Bloglines or Google Reader lists, and comment freely!


Friday, January 9, 2009

Season 1, Episode 12 - The Gungan General

The Gungan General, while a lot of fun, doesn't quite maintain the momentum established by it's lead-in Dooku Captured. The best moments are hidden behind some slapdash story choices and bland writing. The episode's take on Jar Jar Binks, though, is more in-depth than was the previous Jar Jar episode Bombad Jedi.

The episode begins with a head scratcher. Although we plainly saw Obi-Wan and Anakin outsmart the pirates and pointedly not sip from drugged drinks at the end of the previous episode, this episode begins with them captured themselves, having been drugged. Huh? (Apparently, the explanation can be found in the online comic, but it's not much more dramatically satisfying that way.)

Then, the Jedi are put into a cell and tied to Count Dooku. Which, of course, is the smartest thing for wily pirates to do. Take three powerful Jedi and tie them together. They'll never escape that way.

For the most part, I'm fine with this sort of expedient plotting if the results are worthwhile. The best reason to tie heroes and villains together is to get to some entertaining, hopefully comic, dynamic. Odd couples in peril are a grand tradition (see: Midnight Run.) Here, though, it's a better idea than its execution. Dooku and the Jedi seem less like mortal enemies and more like classmates from different social circles thrust together to study for a final exam. Their banter consists of harmless "I agree" or "I don't want to hear your voice." It's an opportunity that isn't truly taken advantage of.

Also, the reason that the Jedi keep trying to escape isn't artfully established. At one point, Obi-Wan even says: "We have to get out of here or we'll look like fools." Not such a compelling reason for an escape, if all the Jedi have to do is wait for the Republic to show up in the meantime. High stakes are key in any compact narrative, and this one's stakes appear to be pride, at least for the Jedi.

Jar Jar, though, has better material to work with. He accompanies Senator Kharrus and their clone escorts to deliver the ransom for the release of Count Dooku to the pirates. Unfortunately, Turk Falso, Captain Ohnaka's second in command, decides to go after the ransom himself. He has the envoy shot down.

Senator Kharrus is killed, which leaves Jar Jar as the ranking officer. Jar Jar, in this episode, proves less of a hopeless, child-like buffoon than he did in Bombad Jedi. He shows his own sort of instinct and wisdom; and his words about Senator Kharrus's death are the closest thing the episode comes to real sentiment.

As with Dooku Captured, the action in this episode flies forward, with our heroes getting into and out of trouble again and again. This time, though, plot feels more slapdash. Why, for example, didn't they spread out the Jar Jar Binks storyline over two episodes if this was intended to be a two-parter? Why wasn't Turk Falso introduced last week? It feels like a bit too much is crammed into The Gungan General, and it shows.

What was good? Well, the pace, for all is chaos, cooks and that is always good in Star Wars. As I said, I prefer this version of Jar Jar Binks to the sillier one. I also liked how, knowing how things wind up in Episode III, Anakin and Obi-Wan's response to dealing with Dooku showed contrast.

Finally, Obi-Wan's decision to consistenly avoid a quarrel with the pirates, even when he's out of danger from them, was an excellent character note. It shows that part of being "The Negotiator" is having a sense of honor, not just a way with words. Obi-Wan comes off as rather cold in the Clone Wars series, at times. Here, we see a bit more of what makes him heroic.

While the Clone Wars took a step forward with it's presentation of Jar Jar; the trio of Obi-Wan, Anakin and Dooku just didn't live up to its potential. An fairly entertaining episode, if far from perfect. The Gungan General seemed to lose decent ideas to rushed execution.

Rating (out of five): ** /12

Friday, January 2, 2009

Season 1, Episode 11 - Dooku Captured

Dooku Captured turns out to be the beginning of yet another story-arc. There's little that goes on in Dooku Captured that breaks the mold. It does, though, have some of the best traits of any good Star Wars story: it starts in the middle of the action, it flies forward, and it features tons of characters and complications. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

For an episode called Dooku Captured, Count Dooku doesn't wind up in that particular predicament until about half-way through. Much of the first part of the episode is dedicated to Anakin and Obi-Wan implementing a plan to capture him. As with the Duel of the Droids two-parter, this episode suffers a bit from its well-trod territory. We know the fate of all the main characters, including and especially Dooku, so there's not very much suspense.

There doesn't seem to be much going on here but the desire to crank out an entertaining adventure. On that level, the mission is accomplished. Anakin and Obi-Wan make, in this series, an entertaining duo, and watching them get into and out of trouble very much speaks to the serial roots of Star Wars. They go from prison cell, to chase scene, to crashing on a planet, to buried in rubble, to running away from a monster, to...need I go on? In just under 30 minutes, we watch our heroes get into an out of countless scrapes. Moreover, it's simple and entertaining team stories like these that make what eventually happens to Anakin and Obi-Wan all the more tragic.

There is, though, more than just another story about Anakin and Obi-Wan to recommend this episode. The Weequay pirates, led by new character Pirate Chief Hondo Ohnaka, are an entertaining bunch. It's good to know that the Lucasverse is still big enough to throw a much needed wild-card into the mix now and then.

The pirates will likely send some fans into eye-rolling apoplexy. How could, one might ask, a character as powerful as Dooku wind up captured by a band of guys with guns.

I was happy to see that choice made. It's fun to play around with unbeatable force powers in a video game, but in terms of storytelling, the Jedi and Sith have always seemed more like samurai than superheroes. As much as I loved playing The Force Unleashed and seeing the awesome Mace Windu episodes of the original Clone Wars series, those mediums were simply wish fulfillment. They didn't have to carry the weight of drama. If even Sith can be outnumbered, if blasters pose an actual threat to Sith and Jedi alike, then we're in a far more dangerous universe, and it's all the better for it.

The dialogue in this episode, also, stood out to me as being very much on-tone for Star Wars. In fact, this was an episode where the characters and their dialogue took the lead over the action, and that was a refreshing success.

It's hard to say just how this story-line will close out (the preview for the next episode shows a fair amount of Jar Jar) but the set-up hits all the right notes. Maybe not the sort of episode that thrusts the series into hyperspace, Dooku Captured is nothing more than an enjoyable romp.

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