Sunday, March 28, 2010

Season 2, Episode 16 - Cat and Mouse

In the first season of The Clone Wars, Storm Over Ryloth tried to offer Star Wars fans a strategic duel between generals in outer space - going so far as to make a reference to Grand Admiral Thrawn from the Timothy Zahn books. It was, in my eyes, one of the least successful episodes of the first season. Cat and Mouse has almost exactly the same premise, and it fares far better with clearer choices and smarter writing.

In Cat and Mouse, Anakin and Admiral Yularen are trying to break through a Separatist blockade and bring supplies to the besieged Bail Organa on the surface of Christophsis. Chronologically, (according to the official site) it takes places immediately before the events of The Hidden Enemy, which would then be immediately be followed by the 2008 feature. The episode focuses on Anakin's use of a prototype stealth fighter to break through the lines and overcome the formidable Admiral Trench.

Trench isn't the first character invented solely for the animated series, but he is one of the most memorable. It's not only because of his look (a humanoid Tarantula); it's because of how well the script supports him. He's shown immediately backing Anakin off of the battle (not easily done).Then, in a scene that shows the increasingly depth of character the animation can bring forth, Admiral Yularen explains in hushed tones just how dangerous Trench can be. By building Trench up as an idea, half the work is done before Anakin ever engages with him.

This episode was heavy on quoting (the show abuses quoting lines from the films a bit too much at times) but this episode seemed to have a good sense of how quoting can be used in a way that's clever and sly. Bail Organa literally saying himself "Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're our only hope" was a highlight for me.

Anakin's showdown with Trench, too, was exciting. Anakin's maneuvers seemed deft and daring in equal parts, and there was never, for me, a lapse in logic that distracted from the chess-match tone.

I also liked how this episode extended the mythologizing of the Battle of Christophsis. Raising up specific engagements in the Clone Wars is a smart frame for the series ongoing. I'm curious to see if other battles take on this type of life. I know that the Clone Wars movie's opening sequence was already augmented for me by The Hidden Enemy. Cat and Mouse only adds to this effect.

There were only a few minor issues that kept this episode from perfection for me. First was the throwaway "Welcome to the Army, Rookie!" subplot that seemed to have been largely cut down from a longer version of the episode. The other is that the episode's outcome, while exciting, seemed to knock down Trench just after he had been so effectively built. I'd love a little more long term thinking with these villains. Imagine a character like Trench that isn't defeated until Season 3. That's a moment worth waiting for. Patience, after all, is the Jedi way.

Rating (out of five): *** 3/4

Friday, March 19, 2010

Season 2, Episode 15 - Senate Murders

Much like the fourth episode of Season 2, Senate Spy, Senate Murders follows Padme Amidala's work in the Galactic Senate. 75% less laser guns, to be sure. As one might guess, Senate Murders is about some Senators getting murdered. It's up to our serious and determined heroine, Senator Amidala, to make things right.

Senate Spy had its heart in the right place, but failed (for me) to really hang together as a cohesive piece of storytelling. The tone just wandered around a bit too much. Senate Murders is far clearer and more effective. A character we know from Season 1's Bombad Jedi, Rodian Senator Onocanda Farr, dies mysteriously, directly after his coalition with Padme makes its case in the Senate to reduce funding for the war. I won't give away the ending, but I'll say it's pretty much a dead-on genre piece of short mystery writing, complete with red herrings and reveals.

What works well is this singular sense of purpose. Senate Murders sticks rather slavishly to a formula, and in doing so, is effective entertainment and it elegantly resolves.

It also gets Padme right, which is something that doesn't happen as often as it should. Padme just isn't a plucky wisecracker like Leia was (will be?). Padme is a serious woman, and its always best when she's played with a sense of single-mindedness and stubbornness. That's not to say she's humorless. It's just that her defining trait seems less her bravado and more her keen sense of what's just and true.

The existing characters from the films - Bail Organa, Mon Mothma - are well written and animated. They seem to fit well with Padme, and its clear that they could carry future episodes or story arcs themselves. The newer characters were a mixed bag. Kaminoan Senator Halle Burtoni is a fun invention, aged and mean-spirited. Not what we've come to expect from Kaminoans at all.

Lt. Divo, though, just didn't quite do it for me. It was clear the idea was a sort of bumbling detective, but the voice acting here (by voice acting star Tom Kenny of SpongeBob fame) just is a bit distracting and over the top. Also, Divo never seemed funny enough to be truly enjoyable to watch, or effective enough at his job to add much to the proceedings. I'm open to seeing more of the character, but this wasn't an auspicious debut.

The other thing that kept this episode from being among my favorites was simply that it felt a bit too by-the-book. Much of what happened never really felt in doubt to me, and while it was all perfectly acceptable, it never really soared. I think, perhaps, I'd like to see a story like this one over several episodes, much like many of the show's story arcs. If this mystery was resolved in three episodes as opposed to in 22 minutes, it would have packed a bit more punch. At least as good a punch as, apparently, Senator Amidala can throw

Rating (out of five): ***

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Senate Murders preview

Hm. I'll reserve judgment, but this doesn't exactly make me go nuts with anticipation.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Season 2, Episodes 12 - 14 - The Mandalore Trilogy

Hey everyone! Clearly, I'm way behind on my reviews. So I'm going to catch up quickly but reviewing in total the last three episodes: The Mandalore Plot, Voyage of Temptation, and The Dutchess of Mandalore. These three episodes compose an arc that is nothing less than superb.

The story: Prompted by a series of terrorist actions by a rebel group called DeathWatch, Obi-Wan Kenobi is dispatched to Mandalore in order to see if Republic intervention is necessary. The Dutchess of Mandalore is Satine, who is dedicated to being a neutral party in the Clone Wars. She and Obi-Wan, we discover, have a rich personal history that frames and supports the story.

These three episodes have just about everything you'd want in a prequel era story. They deepen our understanding of Obi-Wan Kenobi, they offer us a wider perspective on the Star Wars universe, they open us up to iconic but as-yet-unseen worlds, and they offer intrigue, adventure, and action. I can't speak highly enough about the final few moments of Voyage of Temptation, where writer Paul Dini is able to create a wonderful dilemma and make gleefully vicious reference to Anakin's fate, all in one swift stroke.

Of course, one of the great pleasures of the series is seeing the Mandalorians, or at least a sect of them dedicated to their war-like history, in action. The design of this armor is arguably one of the most enduring in Star Wars. It's a part of not only the Fett visuals, but became the template for the Clone Warriors pre-stormtrooper gear as well. To see where it supposedly "all comes from" was a thrill. energy lightsaber? Come now. That's just so right that it almost felt... wrong.

Rating (out of five): *****

I'll be back on schedule from now on. I'm putting a play up in New York City (Will be ruin his anonymity, they ask?) and it's been keeping me very busy.