Friday, February 13, 2009

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) ****

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