By Sabrina Fried
Published: October 18, 2008
Before I even start this month's column, I think it is only fair to say that I have seen the Clone Wars theatrical pilot. And unsurprisingly, I didn't like it at all. Those of you playing the Fried Circuits drinking game may now take a shot. The Clone Wars theatrical pilot was a kid's movie promoting a kid's television show. I can accept that. It's a bunch of episodes from this kid's show stitched together to earn some fast green at the box office. I can accept that too. It has all the hallmarks of a Star Wars production overseen personally by George Lucas himself: Corny dialogue, lots of exposition, tons of sight gags, entire scenes with no other purpose than to make us nostalgic for the Original Trilogy and an annoying sidekick character or three.
But I'm willing to make my peace with all that. Because that's what Star Wars is now. And the fans who have been around awhile put up with it because occasionally, especially when George Lucas isn't paying attention, a few writers, artists and other creative types will get together and produce something more likable, or at least something better suited to the fans that are outside the current target market. This is precisely how the Expanded Universe managed to keep interest in Star Wars alive long enough for the prequels and The Clone Wars to get made. In the years between the trilogies, Star Wars aged with its fanbase so that they wouldn't lose interest in it. The end result was that when the prequels came around, the fans were still there to introduce their own kids to Star Wars and create a whole new generation of fans.
After watching the theatrical pilot, the last thing I wanted to do was watch the TV series when it debuted this month. I watched the first three episodes anyway, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this column. The Clone Wars is probably the most accessible show that no one except the most hardcore of fans wants to admit they are watching. Those of us who do not schedule our lives around television can patiently watch the episodes buffer on the Official Site (we may even get to watch a few frames of it too). Or we can pay to download the episodes from iTunes for $1.99 each. American fans can watch the episode online at the Cartoon Network's site. There are other, more reliable, means of seeing the episodes without watching on TV, but since I try not to advocate that kind of stuff when I know industry types are reading, we won't get into those now. The episodes I've seen so far are not all that bad. In fact, I would go as far as to say that they are a vast improvement over the pilot.
To my astonishment, I actually enjoyed the first episode of the series. The other two episodes are so-so filler-grade fare, but I've seen worse. The first episode of the series was everything I was hoping the new series would be, despite the pilot. We get to see Yoda, in his prime, tearing up battle droids in the name of intergalactic peace. But being a good role model he also takes the time to provide the moral of the day in the form of words of wisdom to his demoralized escort of clone troopers. All in all, my opinion of The Clone Wars would have been much higher if I would have watched this episode in theaters instead of watching Ahsoka schlep around a sick huttlett for an hour. I had a big stupid grin on my face by the time the episode was over. It was the first time in a very, very long while that I felt everything was alright with the Galaxy Far, Far Away.
But there are some very distinct reasons why the first episode worked, while I relegate the other two to filler status. The first is that this is supposed to be a kid's show, even if it is broadcast in prime time, and we only get about 22 minutes of show per episode. The episodes are supposed to be episodic enough that kids and their notoriously short attention spans can watch them casually, but they still have to be canonically Kosher and fit into the larger story arc of the Clone Wars, or at least whatever the official canon of the Clone Wars is today. Television episodes are like short stories. You can, and should, tell a story that fits into the larger arc of the show. But you can't fight the entire Clone Wars in 22 minutes. This episode was one of the few times I can recall in recent memory in the Expanded Universe where someone actually remembered to finish their story! For that alone, the episode felt refreshing. After awhile, I didn't even care that the design of the show doesn't look any better on the small screen than it did on the big screen. The backgrounds are still bland and look like CG animation from ten years ago, but the design of the actual characters is stating to grow on me. I keep thinking of these characters as a CG version of Supermarionettes in the tradition of Thunderbirds or, for my younger readers, Team America from a few years ago.
The other two episodes that have aired so far are part of a story arc within the larger Clone Wars story arc which I suppose deals with the rise and fall of the Malevolence. The episodes have their moments, but my perception of them is that if I were a kid in this show's target market, I would have turned off the TV and reached for my book (or my video game controller) halfway through. Honestly, even as an adult viewer more accustomed to storytelling that requires patience I've been having a hard time following these episodes. Just as I start to get into these episodes, I get smacked with something that ruins my ability to suspend my disbelief.
The Malevolence episodes feel like they were written on the fly and then animated with no review or edits. How else can you explain trapping four armored clone troopers, an unarmored clone ship officer of some kind, and Plo Koon in a tiny lifepod with no airlock, then having the clone troopers (who conveniently have space-capable amour with them when their ship is unexpectedly blown up) and Plo Koon exit the lifepod to do battle in space, while the unarmored clone trooper remains safe and sound inside.
Let me say this again: The lifepod did not have an airlock. So how did they get out without killing the unarmored clone? All five of them within a few seconds no less. They're already hard at work on the retcon asserting that lifepods do in fact have some sort of device that can serve as an airlock, I'm sure. I'll even set aside the bizarre plot device that asserts that Plo Koon can survive hard vacuum without the need of any kind of spacesuit or anything warmer than his Jedi robes. Hey, his species breathes helium, yet his voice is deep, it could happen, alien physiology, breathing mask doohickey and all.
These episodes also serve to amplify all the "in-jokes" that were already tired by the time the pilot was halfway over. Every single battle droid needs to wisecrack constantly for its entire (usually short-lived) screen presence, as though the droid army is a bunch of frat boys out on the town. Now I can understand that the droid army can overwhelm the Republic's army with numbers alone, but this makes both armies very hard to take seriously. The whole point of having a huge droid army was that they were something that couldn't be reasoned with. They were just this huge, mass of evil that would roll over any resistance without any of the "failings" of organic beings, like compassion. Interestingly, I posted a comment similar to this on the Dark Horse boards, and was responded to by Henry Gilroy, one of the show's creators who acknowledged that the regular battle droids are not much of a threat and hard to take seriously, but there's a fix in the works for that. That still doesn't answer the original question: How did the Separatist threat progress so far if its army is comprised mostly of droids that aren't much of a threat? Is anyone taking this war seriously? Are the numbers really stacked that much in the Separatists' favor? Are the Jedi really such poor Generals?
And even all of this can be temporarily forgiven by waving the magic wand of "It's a kid's show!" Most kids are not going to sit down at watch, repeatedly, the kind of dark storytelling that we got in Dark Times, where Resa met her unfortunate end at the fork tip of Dezono Qua. Even most of the Vector story arc is pushing it for a lot of younger readers. The whole reason why there is an official licensee for young adult novels is because no one expects the kids to be reading the Del Rey books. They do, but that is a rant for another column. The fact that we actually saw clone troopers dying in their cockpits at all in the cartoon was a surprise. Wise cracking droids and product-placement characters like Ahsoka are simply playing to the perceived target market.
But when I come back to thinking about that target market, I just can't imagine any kid I know sitting through these episodes. Why? Because fully half of each episode consists of characters standing around talking about the things they plan to do in the episode, or explaining what just happened so that we can all understand the monumental importance of their actions. The amount of exposition in these episodes is unreal and, frankly, unnecessary. Whatever happened to show, don't tell? Exposition is a storytelling tool that is supposed to be used sparingly. Since this is an animated cartoon, we know that budgetary restrictions are not an issue. It takes the same amount of money to animate an exotic planetscape as it does a huge space battle or two Jedi sitting in a room sipping tea. And we know that the plan is for The Clone Wars to run for at least 100 episodes (if it doesn't get canceled), so it's not like they don't have the time to tell these stories properly. Some of my favorite cartoons from my youth took as many as four or five episodes just to document a single fight between two characters without feeling like they were stretching things out. And we had fewer commercials back then so the episodes were longer than they are now. Part of the issue I am sure is that they are trying to write these stories for the perceived target market, but maybe not in the right way. The perceived target market for The Clone Wars is young kids and teens that may or may not be watching the episodes with their parents or other hardcore Star Wars fans. Given the age of the target market, there is no guarantee that these kids have read or watched anything else related to the Clone Wars, or even the prequels. Much of the exposition is there to fill in the parts of the Clone Wars story that has been or will be told in other stories and media. It shouldn't matter if your primary target market is one that is likely too young to have seen even the prequels in theaters, or if you suspect that the people actually watching the show are old enough to have watched the Original Trilogy in theaters back in the 70's and 80's. Let The Clone Wars tell its own story without insisting that all the other Star Wars media documenting this era crowd it out. I would even go as far as to say that if something from other Clone Wars media is really so important to The Clone Wars' story, then it should be re-told in the cartoon. It's much better to watch a story being repeated then to watch Anakin try to summarize it to Ahsoka as they walk down Generic Spaceship Corridor #1138. Show, don't tell.
The Clone Wars is for that new generation of fans who came in with the prequels (maybe). But it is also focus-group certified to be accessible to Original Trilogy fans as well. Hence the number of homage scenes in the show that re-create famous scenes from the Original Trilogy. Every time the ion cannon on the Malevolence fires, we get a scene (the exact same scene, recycled over and over again), of two battle droids cowering away from the laser, much as the superlaser technicians of the Death Star did. The attack on the ion cannon by Anakin's squadron of Y-wings is practically the trench run all over again. There are the expected Wilhelm screams and the "I have a bad feeling about this" among other recycled dialogue. Now as an older fan, I did appreciate some acknowledgment that the Original Trilogy and the entire Rebellion-era catalogue of stories do still exist, but these things have to be done in moderation. The best homage work is the kind of thing that fans familiar with the original work may catch on the second viewing, but won't get in the way of enjoying the first.
I think it is safe to say that The Clone Wars has earned a second chance. It's still not must-see TV, but then what is? It is possible to have a cartoon with a primary audience of children or teens that can also command a respectable adult audience. The Simpsons' did it, as did a large number of anime shows that were eventually brought to North America and translated. Steven Spielberg's Animaniacs is a classic example of this trend in action. Canadian-made ReBoot became one of the few successful cartoons to be broadcast outside the country by appealing to such mixed audiences. More recently, shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender on Nickelodeon provided stories more entertaining for adult fans than most of its live-action competition.
But these cartoons all have one thing in common. They didn't worry about what anyone else was doing. They didn't worry about selling action figures or beating the Moral of the Day into their viewers' heads (though they accomplished both as a side effect anyway). They just did their own thing and told the best stories they could. And that's what The Clone Wars needs to do if it wants to grow its viewership outside the hardcore fans and their kids. Just tell stories. Good ones. And don't rush through them. If the show acts like it needs 100 episodes to tell its stories properly, the viewers will respond to that, and with a receptive audience, the networks are that much more likely to let the show have the five seasons or so it wants.