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Get Thee to the Geek: 15 Reasons Why 'The Clone Wars' Was 'Star Wars' At Its Best

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Mar 12, 2013 | 4:51pm EDT
15 Reasons the Now Canceled Star Wars The Clone Wars Was Great

The news that Star Wars: The Clone Wars had been cancelled came to me as a slowly-dawning shock. Almost like the Five Stages of Grief in reverse. I started with acceptance, the realization that this show couldn't last forever. After all, it had originally been planned for only 100 episodes at its outset, and we crossed that mark this January. Lucasfilm's announcement also promised that another animated series is in the works, one that would explore a wholly untouched part of the Star Wars timeline. That's exciting. But as much as it may be un-Jedi-like of me, as  the day progressed and the news truly started to sink in, I found it harder and harder to let go.

The Clone Wars has been an amazingly accomplished series throughout its run. If its quality ever varied, it's because it realized it had to be all things to all Star Wars fans and deliver different kinds of episodes for different demographics: young kids encountering that Galaxy Far, Far Away for the first time, teenagers and young adults who first experienced Star Wars with the prequels, and middle-aged fans for whom the original trilogy is all the Star Wars they ever care to know. That's a tall order. And with an incredible batting average, it succeeded in pleasing each of those groups at one time or another.

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The lazy, kneejerk response to The Clone Wars is that it was what the prequels should have been: kinetic, action-driven, easy on the politics and heavy on the mythmaking. You will get no such prequel-bashing from this post. The funny thing is, The Clone Wars could be daringly political and devote whole episodes to moral quandaries and character's relationships as easily as it could space battles and lightsaber duels. It can be argued, very easily in fact, that The Clone Wars took the best of the prequels and the best of the original trilogy and made a series radically original and unlike any previous TV animation project. What emerged was a show as vast as the Star Wars galaxy itself. And lucky for us, there are still stories to tell, due to still unaired episodes that are due a DVD release or online streaming or who knows what. The final separation pains are still to be felt later on. But for now, let's take a deep breath and count the ways The Clone Wars was the very best that Star Wars had to offer.

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1. The Clone Wars Gave Us Vivid Characters With Bold Personalities and Complex Motivations

For the incredible roster of characters The Clone Wars gave us, you have to give a great tip of the hat to Lucasfilm Animation's talented stable of voice actors. (We'll get to them in a minute.) But, first and foremost, you've gotta acknowledge not only the depth but the economy of the writing. There were hundreds of characters with speaking parts throughout the 109 episodes of the show. And each episode ran for only 22 minutes. To convey a sense of any character's personality, the writers had to communicate something unique about each of them...and very quickly. Members of the Jedi Council, who served as freaky-looking window dressing in the movies, had to be fleshed out, and, in the case of Plo Koon or Even Piell or Adi Gallia, be capable of anchoring episodes themselves.

An even greater challenge lay in making each of the Republic's clone troopers distinct. I mean, they're clones. They all look the same. They all have the same voice (the incomparable Dee Bradley Baker). How do you set them apart? The writers made it seemed like they'd solved that problem effortlessly, building whole episodes, or even multi-episode story arcs around squads of clone troopers, like the Battle for Umbara Arc in Season 4. Take away the white armor, the blasters, the lightsabers, and any other funky tech, then splice those episodes together, and that arc could have served as a solid Vietnam War movie.

Then there's the way the show introduced new characters. Some of these developed whole cults of personality themselves, like Duros bounty hunter Cad Bane. Others would only appear in one episode, or even one scene, but were still capable of making an impression. Writer Brent Friedman especially proved himself a master at efficiently setting up new characters and delineating their personalities, as in the clip below, my favorite scene from my favorite episode of the series: Season 4's "The Box." Look at the way Friedman introduces 12 characters from the show in under 90 seconds. And once those 90 seconds are up, you know exactly what you need to know about each of those characters.

Even beyond the economy of that set-up, Friedman writes something A New Hope achieved brilliantly: a line of throwaway dialogue that suggests an epic history we're not entirely privy to. In this case, it's when Count Dooku says to the final bounty hunter, a Selkath of the aquatic race first scene in the videogame Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, that his people were once a peaceful race and "How far they have fallen." Whoa. So what happened to them, exactly? Why did they change? We don't know but our minds are racing with possibilities. This is writing that inspires the imagination, and it's in micro what Clone Warsdid all the time.

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2. The Clone Wars Went Further than the Expanded Universe

I love the Star Wars Expanded Universe. I've probably read a good 70+ Star Wars novels easy, not to mention countless comics and graphic novels. So I can understand why fans were upset when The Clone Wars rewrote previously established canon, like killing off Even Piell (who had previously been depicted as surviving Order 66), or, most notably, what the show did with bony Sith assassin, and all-around hottie, Asajj Ventress. In the Clone Wars comics released before Revenge of the Sith hit theaters, Ventress was portrayed as a repeat sufferer of abandonment, whose loneliness drove her toward the Dark Side -- and the manipulation of Count Dooku. On the show, some of that was left in place, but she was also revealed to be a Nightsister, and rather just exiting galactic history stage-right near the end of the war, as in the comics, on the show she became a bounty hunter and, eventually, a quasi-ally to both Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ahsoka Tano. George Lucas, who had a hand in most, if not all, of the TV show's plot points, personally steered Ventress' arc in that direction. And you've got to admit it's more interesting than what had already been established in the EU. The same goes for Barriss Offee, who in the Season 5 (er, series) finale revealed herself to be a traitor to the Jedi Order and the person framing Ahsoka for murder and terrorism. In the comics, she was just another anonymous casualty of Order 66. On The Clone Wars, however, she was given a far more compelling exit.


3. The Clone Wars Featured Some of the Saga's Greatest Battles

And, yes, the show had plenty of action. In fact, it offered up space battles and lightsaber duels of true cinematic sweep, the equal of anything seen in the movies. And it set those battles in landscapes and environs unlike anything seen in the movies. Space battles? Try the Sky Battle of Quell on for size, instead.

The Clone Wars even cannibalized unused concept art for the original trilogy that legendary artist Ralph McQuarrie had painted. His original blue-white vision for Hoth became the moon Orto Plutonia in Season 1. And his exotic cityscapes were just as interesting, so his design for Coruscant's Monument Plaza made it onto the show, as well. 

NEXT: The Clone Wars was brimming with talent, behind the scenes and in the recording booth.

4. The Clone Wars Was Really Smart

This show was capable of delivering a two-part episode about the passage of legislation that would enact banking reforms (in Season 3), as a kind of commentary on the Wall Street shenanigans that led to our financial collapse in this galaxy in 2008. I know, I know, you'll balk and say that sounds as dry as "the taxation of trade routes," but The Clone Wars made that incredibly interesting. It became a study of the political process, about how Palpatine coerced his minions to do what he needed to do, that was worthy of Lincoln or Advise and Consent. And it showed the intersection of economics and warfare. To ensure the passage of that legislation, General Grievous sends suicide-bomber droids to Coruscant to destroy the the government district's main power center and plunge the Republic Senate in darkness. His motivational speech to those droids as he sent them on their mission was almost Dickensian: "I won't lie to you...this  is a dangerous mission. Some of you may not return....Actually, none of you will return." The resulting blackout was dripping with Langian paranoia and the kind of inky, palpable fear of a people ready to turn to fascism to solve their problems. Brilliant stuff.

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5. The Clone Wars Had an Incredible Roster of Voice Talent

The show's regular cast of Matt Lanter as Anakin, Ashley Eckstein as Ahsoka, Tom Kane as the Narrator, Dee Bradley Baker as the clones, the late Ian Abercrombie as Palpatine, and James Arnold Taylor as an inspired (and inspiring) Obi-Wan, was peerless. But supervising director Dave Filoni also managed to score high-profile guest talent: actors like George Takei, Michael York, Tim Curry (as Abercrombie's replacement for Palpatine), Katee Sackhoff, Seth Green, Simon Pegg, and even, in one memorable cameo, Liam Neeson himself as Qui-Gon Jinn. As great as they were, it was the regulars, though, who really made the show shine week-in and week-out. Check out the final time we heard Abercrombie as Darth Sidious, at the end of this knock-out fight when the Sith Lord sneers at a supplicating Darth Maul and says, "I'm not going to kill you...I have other plans for you-u-u-u...(trails off into maniacal laugh). The best.


6. The Clone Wars Gave Us the Most Fully Realized Star Wars Underworld Yet

Sure, we got glimpses of scum and villainy in the Mos Eisley Cantina, Jabba's Palace, and that weird Coruscant nightclub Anakin and Obi-Wan visit in Attack of the Clones. But Clone Wars went deeper. In fact, it even devoted whole episodes to gangsters, pirates, and bounty hunters. For years, it's been rumored that a live-action TV series, tentatively titled Star Wars: Underworld, would explore the demimonde of that Galaxy Far, Far Away. But you don't need to wait for a show that may never happen. It already has happened. This interaction between Nika Futterman's Asajj Ventress and Simon Pegg's Dengar is perfectly indicative of the languid sleaze and scuzzy sexiness the show could trade in effortlessly. 


7. The Clone Wars Had an Unbeatable Rogues Gallery

We've already talked about how great Ventress was on the show. But she's just the tip of the villainous iceberg. Jon Favreau, director of Iron Man and Elf, voiced the sinister, snarling Mandalorian Death Watch terrorist Pre Vizsla, a character who could have been a throwaway baddie but ended up having a kind of karmic--even tragic--story arc. Or the Nightsister coven leader, Mother Talzin. Or Revenge of the Sith's General Grievous, whose unique mix of malice and campiness was perfected by voice artist (and Oscar-nominated sound editor of There Will Be Blood) Matthew Wood. Or Savage Opress, who, forget Vizsla, really had a tragic arc, and was voiced by Highlander's Clancy Brown! Or Tarkin, the King's English-accented villain inhabited by Peter Cushing in A New Hope, who was the only man capable of holding Vader's leash, and was given a new, equally snide personality by Stephen Stanton. Or Cad Bane, who was the Star Wars Galaxy's answer to Lee Van Cleef's Angel Eyes in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: implacable, unstoppable, someone we'd call a force of nature if he weren't just so damn civilized. He was the kind of bounty hunter willing to kill someone if they had a wider-brimmed hat than him, who was never to be found without a toothpick in his mouth, who just seemed to conjure Morricone-esque music out of thin air. In this scene, the floor of his apartment was originally supposed to have the chalk outline of a Gungan. Even more reason to like him!


NEXT: The Clone Wars drew upon a diverse range of influences from Star Wars itself to Alfred Hitchcock to, I would argue, John Waters. (Yep, we're talking "Hunt for Ziro.")

8. The Clone Wars' Movie Inspirations Were Savvy

Though the call-outs were subtle, several episodes were designed as homages to movies cherished by Dave Filoni & Co. A Season 2 episode recast Seven Samurai with Star Wars bounty hunters, in tribute to the centennial of Akira Kurosawa's birth. One of the characters, the broad-hatted Embo was part of a race named the Kyuzo, in honor of Seven Samurai's most taciturn badass. There were also episodes rendered in the style of Godzilla movies, zombie flicks, Spaghetti Westerns (note that sarape Boba Fett wears in Season 2!), even a blow-by-blow redo of the end of Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious with Anakin as Cary Grant, Padmé as Ingrid Bergman, and Senator Clovis as Claude Rains

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9. The Clone Wars Gave Us Mini Movies. 

Serialized storytelling is the holy grail of TV production today, but Clone Wars found a middle ground between a serialized rollout of its stories and an episodic approach. Though a character like Anakin's Padawan, Ahsoka Tano, obviously has an arc throughout the course of the whole series, the show mostly preferred three-to-four episode arcs. Splice those together, like Season 3's Nightsisters arc, or the Mortis trilogy, or Season 4's awesome Undercover Obi-Wan arc, and you'd have some pretty tasty cinematic experiences. Here's hoping that the final episodes that have yet to be released will be cut together to fully unleash their latent theatrical heft. 

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10. The Clone Wars Explored the Niches of that Galaxy Far, Far Away

One thing you could do in a TV show that you couldn't do in a movie, not even in the spin-off Star Wars movies Disney has planned, is give really obscure supporting characters the spotlight. Take one of the oddest, but possibly most original, episodes of the series: "Hunt for Ziro." Ziro the Hutt, a tattooed, purple Hutt who escaped from prison with the assistance of Cad Bane, but forgot to pay Bane for his services, was modeled on Truman Capote, voice and all. Despite Ziro's previously ambiguous sexuality, he was revealed to have a girlfriend in "Hunt for Ziro," the glam lead singer of the Max Rebo Band, as seen in Jabba's Palace in Return of the Jedi, Sy Snootles. Sy put on a Vegas floor show in "Hunt for Ziro," then rushed to her beloved Ziro's side, after he was locked in prison again. They exchanged some self-consciously overheated Tennessee Williams dialogue like Ziro's "Unfortunately the cage that entraps me now also entraps my chance of loving you again." So Sy helped him escape...and then she gunned him down, proving herself to be the Star Wars saga's ultimate femme fatale. Who knew?

 

11. The Clone Wars Had a John Waters-esque Affinity for the Absurd

And the grotesque. When Obi-Wan and fellow Jedi Quinlan Vos are on the hunt for Ziro in "Hunt for Ziro," they enlist his mother for help. Wow. To think we thought Jabba was obese. And to think we thought Ziro was sexually ambiguous! Ziro's mom is indicative of The Clone Wars' sometimes surreal proclivity for comical exaggeration. If Ziro was based on Truman Capote, Ziro's mom must surely have been inspired by Divine. Brace yourself for this one. You could argue this is The Clone Wars' all-time worst moment. I'd argue it's one of the best.


NEXT: Just like Luke Skywalker's story ended (or so we thought) the moment he became a Jedi, The Clone Wars will go out on top.

12. The Clone Wars' Animation Kept Getting Better and Better

Every season saw a new visual advance. Mind you, Industrial Light & Magic was already a pioneer in the rendering of CGI fire effects. But foliage, water, and hair had always been more of a challenge. And with each year it met those challenges one-by-one. The Season 3 finale's Most Dangerous Game setup of Trandoshan hunters tracking Ahsoka and fellow Padawans through a dense jungle showed how the Lucasarts Animation team had mastered creating a fully organic environment, where before they relied on arid landscapes of sand and rock. Season 4 tackled water with the season-opening arc's three episodes set entirely beneath the waves of ocean planet Mon Calamari. And by Season 5, the characters' hair, previously immobile, had started to move and sway with the wind and their own exertion. Not to mention that their choreography of elaborate fight scenes had never gotten more visceral than by the end of its run. Check out the incredible final showdown between Maul and Pre Vizsla from Season 5's "Shades of Reason."


13. The Clone Wars Could Be Edgy

Oh yeah, Vizsla suffered the fate of Ned Stark there. The Clone Wars could be violent and it more than once got in trouble with timid Cartoon Network censors. Other, more graphic beheadings were cut out of the show altogether. And this scene from the Season 3 premiere, of Asajj Ventress kissing a soldier she's impaled on her lightsaber, was also left on the cutting room floor.


14. The Clone Wars' Makers Knew It Served a Wide Audience

A glimpse at Season 5, alone, shows the narrative diversity of this show. It opened with a four-part arc focused squarely on the war, for an older, more action-oriented crowd. Then it followed that up with "The Young Jedi Knights," episodes that gave the spotlight to younglings first learning the Jedi ropes, showing how they would find their lightsaber crystals, then build their blades. Those eps were clearly for the under-10 crowd, and great for parents to watch with their kids. The same goes for the four-episode adventure about "D-Squad," plucky droids behind enemy lines. Then we got to a three-parter about Darth Maul, and those episodes featured a level of grit--not to mention multiple deaths--to satisfy a Game of Thrones fan. And finally the "Jedi On the Run" arc that saw Ahsoka leave the Jedi Order would appeal to, well, everybody. But especially older fans of the original trilogy searching for those movies' unique mythological resonance.

15. The Clone Wars Corrected the Mistakes of the Prequels

Mind you, I stand by my initial remarks that this is not a time to praise Clone Wars at the expense of the prequels. Actually, I consider myself an ardent prequel defender. Those movies are certainly different from the originals, but in some ways they go deeper, even deconstructing the very Manichaean, Dark Side/Light Side bipolar split of the originals, in showing that the very qualities that make a hero can also make a villain. That's pretty heady stuff. But I do think the Clone Wars series picked up a couple threads that maybe weren't explored as effectively as they could have been in Episodes I, II, and III. Namely, George Lucas himself realized the missed storytelling potential of killing off Darth Maul at the end of The Phantom Menace when he decided to resurrect him on the TV show. Or, rather, that we'd discover he'd never been killed but had survived being cut in half because of the power of the Dark Side...which, as we know, leads to abilities some consider to be unnatural. Suddenly, Darth Maul was back and his motivations were as prickly as his horns--did he want to return to Darth Sidious' side? Did he actually resent Sidious for abandoning him? Just what does he want? Like Hamlet, he may not even know. But that wasn't going to stop him from unleashing a bloodbath in the meantime.

The other area where I'd say The Clone Wars picked up a neglected strand from the prequels was in its development of the relationship between Obi-Wan and Satine. It was funny and fresh, bristling with a hormonal spark and repressed longing. At times, like in the scene below, when Obi-Wan subtly mocks Satine for being a pacifist, there was even a screwball wit to their dynamic. It's probably what we would have liked to have seen from Anakin and Padmé in the movies. But obviously, that could never have been, since Anakin and Padmé's relationship, though consummated, is marked by tragedy, betrayal, and abuse. Instead, Obi-Wan and Satine captured a will-they/won't-they free-spiritedness we hadn't seen in a Star Wars couple since Han and Leia.


There are probably a dozen more reasons I could list for why The Clone Wars was such a valuable part of Star Wars storytelling. Whatever animation projects Disney and Lucasfilm are planning for the future can learn a lot from this show. Hell, Episode VII could learn a lot from The Clone Wars. I've been writing about it in-depth for almost five years, and it still seems too soon to say goodbye.

This will be a show long remembered.

Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt

[Photo Credit: Lucasfilm] 


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