Saturday, February 22, 2020

The Gift of Fresh Clones

Last night, after six years, Clone Wars returned. Breathe the free air again, my friends. It's so little but so much. Sure, the episode is less than thirty minutes and sure, many of us have basically seen it already as it was one of the unfinished episode released in a rough form years ago. But now it's finished and it's the herald of a full, finished, albeit short, season. Sorry to invoke Lord of the Rings in a Star Wars context but it does feel a little like Theoden, throwing off the influence of Wormtongue, letting the weight of premature, imposed decrepitude fall away.

No heavy handed morals. No annoying insistence that every character fit neatly and always obviously into slots of good and evil. It's just pure, sweet, story.

One of the things I always loved about the cgi Clone Wars series is that it presented the tragedy of Anakin and the Republic along with a subtle, melancholy satire of propaganda. Those openings with the strident announcer and the trite title card messages are so like 1940s war reels. And the more the characters of the clone troops are developed, the more we see stories of them presented as hard struggling heroes, the more horrific is the idea that, one day, their loyalties are going to turn with a flick of a switch. Their significance as representatives of the viewer's feelings onscreen are going to be turned instantly and so easily. It's perfect because that's the nature of propaganda. It gradually forces everyone into simpler, infantile perspectives of good guys and bad guys, to the point where even contemplating the perspective of the other side feels frightening. So when the Emperor or Stalin says we're all going to change directions, no matter how completely or abruptly or senselessly, people do it, automatically--not just because they fear prison or death but because they've been conditioned not to think deeper than on the simplest, loudest rhetorical level.

That's why I was so disappointed when, on Rebels, it was shown that Rex and his team had somehow resisted Order 66. After that, their characters were of no interest to me. It's like if Othello ended with everyone surviving and Othello going off looking for buried treasure with a wisecracking sidekick.

Anyway, last night's new episode, "The Bad Batch", features two of the more prominent Clone Troopers, Rex (Dee Bradley Baker) and Cody (Dee Bradley Baker), teaming up with a squad of troopers who call themselves the "Bad Batch", a group of aberrant clones who've been deployed because of their "favourable" mutations. The implication that there are some mutant clones who can't cut it, along with an oblique sex joke from one member of the Bad Batch (about some hostile animals who'd tried to mate with the squad), signal we are blessedly outside of Disney moral territory. The Bad Batch includes a big fellow who lives for the thrill of killing droids, a sinister sniper, and a leader who seems to have been modelled on Rambo.

They're on a mission to go behind enemy lines and the old battle droids are back. It's true, the Phantom Menace era droids are silly though I've always liked how they never come off as sadistic. Even in Revenge of the Sith, they seem more like bored office workers chatting around the water cooler until it's their turn to be decapitated by rampaging Jedi.

Like many Clone Wars episodes, the resolution, where Rex finds a clue that one of his comrades, previously presumed dead, may still be alive and working for the enemy, feels strangely small given the scope established in the story. But this is perfect, it's one of the things that gives Clone Wars a genuine feel of a classic serial. This is only one piece of a larger puzzle.

Clone Wars is available on Disney+.

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