No sooner was Revenge of the Sith on general release that George Lucas proudly announced the future of the franchise. There were to be no more movies (yeah, course; I expect to be sitting down to Episode VII in 2021 - let’s see if I’m right), but the Wars were never going to be far away. A television series covering the Clone Wars was in the pipelines, alongside the usual slew of video games, and very recently fans could view the trailer for themselves - click here.
As promising as it looks, the question of how necessary it is should be asked. After all, cast your minds back to 2003, when the long, long build-up to Episode III was just starting. With Lucasfilm making us wait three years for each slice of movie midichlorian magic, a series of animated shorts was released as a promotional tool, and also no doubt to ensure that none of this was ever going to be out of our minds entirely. Cue the frustration of fiddling around with video timers and Sky + as the three-minute episodelets blinked on to our screens each evening. I couldn’t keep up with it, missing whole swathes of the plot (not that there was a lot of ‘plot’ to speak of, more a series of brief action sequences) and scrabbling around for online versions. It was, of course, the Genndy Tartakovsky directed…
Star Wars: Clone Wars
I admit I got excited when I read Tartakovsky was the man to realise the Clone Wars. Like any Dad who has to spend time watching telly with his child, I found the lousy early days of enduring Teletubbies, Tweenies, Dora the Explorer and the dread evil that is Barney, gave way to the sort of stuff I actually quite liked. The Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory and especially Samurai Jack were all brilliant series, and I live in hope to this day that he’ll at least complete the latter’s odyssey. Mako may be dead, but that’s no reason for ending Jack’s adventures in mid-air. We need to see him vanquish Aku and get reunited with his family, damn it!
In any case, Tartakovsky’s animation impressed me greatly with its signature bold lines, colourful images and endless homages scattered within the stories. Jack referenced Star Wars no end, so it wasn’t a great surprise to find him slated to direct two series of mini-shows depicting scenes from the Clone Wars, events that bridged Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Intended as extended adverts for the upcoming movie, the shows were aired on Toonami (Cartoon Network in America) at the start of the peak viewing period. A third and final series consisted of five twelve-minute episodes, allowing for more narrative development, and leading to the very start of Sith. Miss the show, and you could find it on the official Star Wars site - if you were really lucky, you didn’t even have to subscribe to bleed-you-white Hyperspace for the privilege of watching an episode because Video Plus had failed to pick it up in the first instance.
Of course, with all three series being released on two DVDs, you can see the show in its glorious entirety. ‘Volume One’ covers the entire run of three-minute mini-epics, making for 67 minutes of top drawer animation. With access to John Williams’s score, and the various Wars sound effects (voices were supplied by suitable soundalikes, apart from Anthony Daniels, who is obviously proud/skint/sad enough to appear in person to provide the ‘Terry Scott’ tones of C-3PO), Tartakovsky was able to come up with something that sounded authentic. His animation style suited the action also, which focused on extended action sequences at the expense of plot development, a good thing considering the virtual impossibility of watching the series in its linear form when it aired on television.
The story focuses loosely on Obi-Wan and Anakin, who are sent to a world under the control of the Separatists. Kenobi commands the ground troops, whilst his Padawan looks after things in space. With them go an army of clones, and we get to see the effectiveness of the Republic’s forces as they beat back rank after rank of droids. In the meantime, a Sith wannabe named Assajj Ventress is recruited by Sidious and Dooku to kill Anakin. No slouch with a lightsabre herself, the albino warrior is a stooge. Either she’ll complete her mission, which will suit the Sith fine, or she’ll die trying, because in slaying her young Skywalker will need to tap into the darker side of his powers.
But this is only part of the show. One of its greatest strengths is its willingness to move away from the traditional main characters, and focus on those the films have chosen to ignore, or underdevelop. Green-skinned Jedi, Kit Fisto, is involved in an excellent sea-based adventure. Two Jedi priestesses fight destructive droids in the cave where the crystals placed inside lightsabres are found. Best of all is Mace Windu’s battle on Dantooine. We see exactly why Samuel L Jackson was fully justified in etching ‘BMF’ into his sabre, as the Master uses the force to deal with hundreds of battle droids and a craft that pummels the ground, sending everyone flying. Fast-paced and epic, the action scenes are scintillating, and at times put the movies to shame. It’s not often we see the Jedis at their most potent. Here, they really are super beings, capable of reducing entire armies with their abilities.
Haters of the slower moving moments in Star wars will love this. Given the lack of plot development, expositional scenes and those lambasted Anakin-Padme wooings are notable by their absence. It doesn’t mean that Skywalker is any less difficult to deal with. Saving his men with daring stunts in one moment, acting up to Obi-Wan the next, the show gets him about right without having to labour the point. His duel with Ventress is genuinely riveting, a battle that starts in the trees and moves to a Yavin temple. As the opponents regard each other, Leone style, it starts raining, water causing little bursts of steam to sizzle into life on the lightsabres.
A series highlight occurs towards the end of the volume with the sudden arrival of General Grievous. This is our first glimpse of Episode III’s main baddie, and an impressive sight he is. The General doesn’t have his bad cough until the movie (we find out how he gets it during a gripping finale on Volume Two), and here he’s one dangerous mother, turning the fight against the Republic almost single-handedly. For the first time, the Jedi have an enemy they can’t beat easily; indeed his hobby is collecting the sabres of warriors he has vanquished, and he seems to genuinely relish dealing out death to the beleaguered good guys.
The final five episodes, collected in ‘Volume Two,’ are no less thrilling, and manage to tell something of a story. Whilst Anakin and Obi Wan are fobbed off into visiting a world believed to be Grievous’s location, the Separatists invade Coruscant. Their aim is Chancellor Palpatine, who is protected by several Jedi as the General and his bodyguards pursue. This plot involves orange-skinned Jedi knight Shaak Ti, a character dealt with so shabbily in ROTS that her scene was deleted, but here she’s a star. Their breathless chase through the streets of Coruscant is easily the more entertaining half of the yarn. As for the other, our heroes come across a tribe of natives that has been losing its menfolk. Anakin goes off to investigate, and sure enough finds they are being used for nefarious purposes by the Separatists, who for good measure are tampering with the environment. The plot seems to be a set-up, however, for the ‘vision’ Skywalker has in a cave that provides him with a nightmarish look into what the future holds. It also gives us a glimpse into the young Jedi’s uneasy maturity, a point marked with him becoming a Knight.
In total, the running time for Clone Wars extends to over two hours, or the length of an average Star Wars movie. The extent to which you believe it can be compared with the films is entirely to the viewer’s discretion; personally I would no longer be able to contemplate sitting through a Wars marathon without including it, and in its right place. Clearly, Lucas believes the story is worth retelling. The trailer to the upcoming series suggests it tracks the same events as depicted here, which implies the people who matter at Lucasfilm think little of Tartakovsky’s offering. They’re wrong. It’s solid entertainment that often raises the standard to a similar level as the films themselves, and occasionally higher still.