Friday, February 27, 2009

Season 1, Episode 19 - Storm over Ryloth

Storm over Ryloth, the first of a "trilogy" of episodes that even have their own trailer, isn't exactly the "grand and operatic" epic promised by the Lucas Animation crew. Instead, it's a fairly pedestrian affair for Star Wars, and a rather large missed opportunity.

Anakin has been tasked with leading a strike force against the Trade Federation blockade of Ryloth, whose citizens are starving due to the brutal and oppressive regime of Wat Tambor. As we open the episode, Ahsoka is leading a squadron of clones against the Trade Federation cruisers. When the intriguing new character Captain Mar Tuk of the Separatists springs a trap, Ahsoka fails to follow orders and loses a bulk of her men. Her confidence shaken, and with few resources, Anakin still must find a way through the blockade, to set the stage for Obi-Wan's ground assault.

Where to begin? This episode has two basic components that need to work in order to be effective. Sadly, neither of them do.

The first is that the action of this story is that of a duel between strategic captains: Mar Tuk and Anakin. Battles like these are like chess between leaders, or they should be. Unfortunately, Mar Tuk's trap (that entirely fools Anakin and winds up getting Ahsoka's squadron decimated) is to call in reinforcements at the last minute. That's not exactly what I'd call advanced tactical strategy. Anakin's rebuttal? Fly a big ship into the other guy's ship.

All of this is underwhelming. There's clearly the desire here to reference Grand Admiral Thrawn from the original Timothy Zahn trilogy (Ahsoka's one "idea" is an homage to Thrawn); but the space combat scenes themselves are shot in a relatively dull way. There are a few moments that look "cool" but in Star Wars, that's par for the course. After episodes like Shadow of Malevolence or Jedi Crash, where we can see just how much fun the series can have with battles such as these, this episode felt uninspired.

The second part, though, is Ahsoka's crisis. This is the first time in the series we are shown Ahsoka not only making a huge mistake, but that mistake costing her men's lives, and risking many more. This could have been a significant deepening of the series and of Ahsoka's character, given the proper handling of the material. Instead, Ahsoka, both in animation and in the voice acting of Ashley Eckstein, seems mostly nonplussed. It appears as if having men die because of your mistake is mostly a... bummer, and its the sort of thing you can get over with a little faith in yourself.

Anakin's response, which is to be momentarily annoyed with her and then quickly encouraging, seems to happen too quickly and seems entirely out of synch with what she's done wrong. To later her put her in charge of the entire mission seems more like an act of incompetence than of mentorship. It seems almost sociopathic that Anakin should risk the success of the mission, and the lives of the citizens of Ryloth, in order to provide Ahsoka with self-confidence.

What works? I did like the idea of Mar Tuk, and was glad to see him live to fight in a better episode. I also enjoyed seeing Admiral Yularen take a more active role than water carryer for the Jedi. His character is a blank slate, and I'd love to see them give him more of an active role in the series. He is, after all, an Admiral in the Clone Wars.

All in all, though, the entirely mismanaged treatment of the emotional core of the episode, combined with the mildly staged space action, makes Storm over Ryloth seem more like Tryouts for the Swim Team Over Ryloth. I'm hopeful that in retrospect, this will seem like a bump in the road towards an exciting next two chapters of this 'trilogy.'

Rating (out of five): * 1/2

Friday, February 13, 2009

Season 1, Episode 18 - Mystery of a Thousand Moons

Following Blue Shadow Virus immediately is Mystery of a Thousand Moons. This installment embraces a larger view of the Force: it's one of those wonderful moments in Star Wars, like with the Cantina or Jabba's Palace, when we're presented with a wealth of new designs and characters. It's also more than just the successor to Blue Shadow Virus chronologically; in both episodes' DNA is The Phantom Menace.

When Padme, Ahsoka, Jar Jar and the Clones find that the virus has been set free in the underground laboratory, they battle to keep the Droids from breaking through the outer shell and releasing the airborne virus into Naboo's atmosphere. In the midst of this, they find themselves exposed to the virus. The only way to save them is to find a cure, and quickly. Obi-Wan and Anakin rush to the planet of Iego, to find the rare root from which an antidote can be fashioned.

Iego (as anyone bothering to read this blog will remember) is name dropped by Anakin Skywalker in Episode I, when, as a 10 year old boy, he tries to put the moves on Padme. "Are you an Angel?" he asks. "I've heard the deep space pirates talk about them. They're the most beautiful creatures in the universe. They live on the moons of Iego, I think." 


The quality of the line not withstanding, here, our patience is once again rewarded. Not only do we find ourselves in Iego, but Iego is richly realized. Abandoned and trapped by what the denizens call Drol (because their terrifying God tells remarkably good jokes at dinner parties), the characters we meet on Iego are eccentric to say the least. And yes, we get a look at an "Angel" (voiced by Padme's voice performer Catherine Taber in a nice touch). We also meet a few new creatures, and an Anakin-esque boy named Jaybo Hood.  

Jaybo, for his part, wasn't a part of the episode I relished. Maybe it was that David Kaufman's voice work lends Jaybo a decided Saturday morning cartoon tone. Or perhaps it's because there seems to be no limit to the remarkably smart children in the Star Wars prequel universe.

There also seemed to be something "off" about the timing. As Padme and Ahsoka are rapidly dying in a small contained area, Obi-Wan and Anakin go to Theed, interrogate a prisoner, fly to a completely foreign planet, find a cure to a disease, escape the inescapable, etc. It felt a little like time was being truncated for the heroes, but stretched out for those in peril. Also, if opening the laboratory at all would cause the virus to kill most of the life on did they get Padme, Rex and Ahsoka out of there?

The episode has its definitive strengths; most prominent among them is how well Anakin and Obi-Wan's differences are played. While we know that Anakin's headstrong nature will lead him astray in the long run; it's also hard not to sympathize. His wife is, in fact, dying. It's also wonderfully obvious that Obi-Wan is no fool. When Anakin refers to the Senator as Padme, it's Obi-Wan who gives him a non-verbal reminder to keep up appearances. 

Also, as with many of the later episodes, the animation has matured. I love the brilliant blue of the virus's haze; which stands out against the yellow uniforms and red safe room. The look of the re-purposed battle droids, and the Angels, are all memorable as well.

All in all, I definitely enjoyed this episode, but it didn't have the compact plotting of its predecessor, and a few logistical issues nagged at me as I watched.

Rating (out of five) *** 1 /2 

Season 1, Episode 17 - Blue Shadow Virus

I confess: I have a soft spot for Naboo.

In 1999, I was sitting in a theater, watching someone called Qui-Gon Jinn run away from a weirdly bulbous tank, on a planet, a completely new planet, a planet I'd never heard of... I think there was something so completely satisfying about the experience that I've never really shaken it off. It's that feeling that made me love the prequels; that feeling of getting something you wanted after being about as patient as a, well... a Jedi Master. The planet of Naboo said, "Star Wars is back and it's new." I was anticipatory and nostalgic all at once.

Now, Naboo conjures its own form of nostalgia. That's how terribly old this is all making me feel.

I say all this because Blue Shadow Virus, an action packed episode, and the first of a two-parter, has The Phantom Menace written all over it. As much as the previous episode, Trespass, embraced the imagery of Ralph McQuarrie; Blue Shadow Virus gives the nod to Doug Chiang. Chiang's designs are less angular than his predecessors, more sleek. He embraces the Buck Rogers elements of the saga. Where the original trilogy has a hardscrabble, 'lived in' feel, the prequels show an ornate and peaceful galaxy, built not only for use, but also beauty. Blue Shadow Virus captures, aesthetically, that spirit.

What it also gives us, for the first time in Star Wars, is "The Mad Scientist." Amazing that we haven't come across this particular character type before in the Star Wars saga. Here, we get Dr. Nuvo Vindi (gleefully voiced by Michael York) who is creating a biological weapon for the Separatists. The weapon is based on the Blue Shadow virus, which we're told was wiped out entirely because no life form was immune to it. Not only is Vindi bring the virus back, but has created a strain that is airborne and sticks into into a bunch of bombs. (I expect novels and comic books about the Blue Shadow virus's history any day now.)

The episode is teeming with life. We see Captain Typho for the first time in the series; we see the return of the "rabbit droid;" we meet two new characters; and the entire prequel trilogy cast is present. Even Mace Windu and Yoda stop by for a cup of hologram coffee.

What is a marvel, given all this, is how well everything fits together without ever feeling rushed. The episode feels more like the Escape from Jabba's Palace in Return of the Jedi than anything else: a series of discreet set pieces and objectives all edited together hyper kinetically. Even though this episode aired originally back-to-back with episode 18, it feels entirely complete on its own, in just about 22 minutes of actual airtime. Quite a feat.

If there's anything that pulls the episode back from perfection, it's the silliness that pervades the plot. Vindu, though hilarious and cunning, is also played so broadly that it was hard to take him seriously as a threat. I was also unclear (as I often am) about what the Separatists had to gain by releasing a deadly virus. Aren't they Capitalists? Can't sell anything to the dead, can you?

Balancing that effect out is the note-perfect dynamic between Obi-Wan and Anakin. We shouldn't forget the primary struggle in Anakin and Padme's troubled lives is their secret love. When Padme is in danger, Anakin can barely contain his edge, his desire to protect her above all else. Obi-Wan's slightly raised eye brow, and counselings of caution, are both foreboding and endearing. It's always good to see the writers in this series highlight the complex character dynamics from the prequels. Those complications add a necessary depth to what could be just very well-made Saturday morning cartoons.

Ratings (out of five) ****

Monday, February 9, 2009

Ryloth "Trilogy" Trailer

Is now up at the Official Site.

I have to admit, I'm still a sucker for trailers with the Star Wars music. Especially during a time when we're all nostalgic for the hype surrounding The Phantom Menace, this type of thing really makes me smile.

They should make teaser trailers like this for all the two or three-parters. I would be on those like white on rice.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Season 1, Episode 16 - The Hidden Enemy

The Hidden Enemy is a brief prequel (or at least precursor) to the Clone Wars movie. It, therefore, takes place prior to the introduction of Ahsoka Tano, but after Attack of the Clones. The entire Clone Wars series leads into Revenge of the Sith, which is the last of the trilogy of prequels. To which I say: Star Wars continuity officially needs a spreadsheet. Maybe two. I haven't even mentioned those, you know, original three movies.

I bring this up because The Hidden Enemy has lots of little nods to the Clone Wars movie. It takes place of Christophsis, it mentions "heavy cannons" (which were the focal point of the first battle in the movie), and Asajj Ventress makes a point of getting off-world just in time to be on her mark for the start of the film. Why, exactly, it was deemed necessary to give people the events immediately prior to the Clone Wars movie isn't immediately clear to me. At least now we know.

All these little references make The Hidden Enemy a sort of oddball of an episode. At its core, beyond the obligatory set pieces, is a story that I suspect will have a big impact on fan's understanding of the clones. The idea of a clone traitor, despite the fact that the clones were bred for "obedience" and loyalty (according to the Kaminoans) means that the clones aren't brainwashed, but instead, participating in a culture of service. The line is a thin one between service and servititude where clones are concerned: they're bred (heck, grown) for combat, by the truckloads, but they're also individuals in their way. To see a clone trooper that openly disdains the Jedi opens the door for the story to come.

And so, the main story of Commander Cody and Captain Rex as Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson works very well. Cody and Rex have been well-established as characters now, and watching them feels familiar and fun. The interrogation and subsequent hunting of the traitor are certainly fun and full of fun character notes and smart moments.

The rest of the episode, though, isn't as well thought out. Obi-Wan and Anakin have a secret plan to, apparently, drive directly up to the front door of Separatist central. If that's your plan...why make it secret to begin with? Then, when they fight Asajj Ventress, she announces to them that she has an informant. What good is an informant inside your enemies camp if you announce his existence to them?

Why, I'm forced to ask, are they really fighting her at all? Not that I don't enjoy a good lightsaber duel. I do. It's one of my favorite things. (It's on the list with Brooklyn Lager, Kettle Chips and comfortable shoes.) I just like there to be a reason for the fight. My standards are low on this point. If it was "If you want to leave here, you'll have to get through me" or "I am going to make a very real attempt to kill you" I'd be satisfied. In The Hidden Enemy, it's pretty clear we're watching a lightsaber duel so we know why Obi-Wan and Anakin aren't around while the clones are sorting stuff out.

(Let me go on record, though, of loving the Asajj vs Obi-Wan flirt/fight dynamic. I can't wait until we get an episode in Season 2 that sounds like Who's Afraid of Virigina Woolf? with lightsabers. I pray for it at night.)

With these three disparate elements (the mystery, the movie lead-in, and the lightsaber duel), The Hidden Enemy tries to do too much and feels, as a result, thinner than it should with such rich material. The core story, though, answers a burding question about the clones' psychology, and rolls out in an entertaining way. That makes it an episode that's required viewing for clone wars fans, flaws and all.

Rating (out of five) ***

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Season 1, Episode 15 - Trespass

Trespass (like previous stand alone episodes like Rookies and Lair of Grievous) is a compact story with great impact. By divorcing itself from the main conflict of the Clone Wars, and exploring a local border dispute it finds a little breathing room for an independent, and no less engaging, story.

Anakin and Obi-Wan are sent to the remote Hoth-like world of Orto Plutonia, to investigate the radio silence from a clone outpost. They are accompanied by dignitaries from Pantora, a nearby moon. The Pantoran chairman, Chi Cho, claims that Orto Plutonia is the protectorate of the moon, and that it is essentially uninhabited. When its discovered that Pantora is the homeworld of a tribe of Talz, the Chairman's own bravado, and distaste for negotiation, become roadblocks to peace. His accompaniment includes a young Pantoran Senator, Riyo Chuchi, who he, at first, is able to bully and prod without much resistance.

What happens in the episodes full 22 or so minutes isn't hard to imagine. The Jedi work hard to broker peace, the local "savages" are far from savage, etc. etc. If the episode has any major flaws, its that its plot plays out much as one might expect.

Some plots, though, are often returned to because they work. That's how Trespass feels: more like classic plotting than lazy cliche. Within its classic structure, every thing is in its right place.

The delight is in the details. Orto Plutonia is beautifully realized, and its clear that the artists had a fine time mixing nostalgia for the Empire Strikes Back with prequel era design. The "Freeco" Bikes are a kick-ass blend of speeder bike and snowspeeder. The Clone Trooper Snowsuits are a great blend of old and new. The Pantorans are a strikingly rendered new race, and the Talz (seen in A New Hope and in the Clone Wars microseries) are elevated from cameo status in style.

Those feats of animation don't do much without excellent character work, and Trespass doesn't fail in that respect. I was especially happy to see Obi-Wan, who in the prequels is far to often relegated to officious finger-wagging, shining through as the budding mentor we see in the original trilogy. I also appreciated the truthfully played, (if telegraphed) transformation of Riyo Chuchi from inexperienced teen to peacemaker.

Trespass also manages to give the battles a hint of loss. (Not easy in a series that built its reputation on fun, creative battles.) Each Talz warrior that falls, each Clone killed by a spear, each Pantoran who dies; they all seem to go needlessly. When Captain Rex shows his prowess, it seems a shame to see him gun down so many warriors who aren't, in any real way, his enemies.

By offering up some of the series most memorable visuals, and one of its most complete, emotional, and well-told stories, Trespass is a boon to the series as a whole, and the Clone Wars mythos.

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