Since its inception in 2008, no animated series -and possibly no TV series of any sort- has captured the imagination and fueled the creativity of its fans like Cartoon Network's Star Wars: the Clone Wars. Yet while a rising generation of younger fans have consumed the show with almost blind appreciation and bewilderment, older fans tend to measure the quality of every episode against their own previous entertainment experiences. Most of all, viewers brought to the series through its vast source material, which includes a widely popular six movie saga, several prior TV series, and countless novels, video games, and comic books, have compared the Clone Wars with these beloved sources. Some of the elements that these serious Star Wars fans look for in every episode are exotic fantasy locals, compelling and "cool" characters, mind-blowing action sequences, epic music, and relevant plots and dialog that tie into other Star Wars media. Based on my own fandom and expectations and the knowledge that I have gathered from other fans like me, I will attempt to outline the elements that contribute most greatly to the overall quality and popularity of an episode of the Clone Wars.
The most important element of a story is just that, the story. And ultimately that is what Star Wars and any other media property boils down to. But what makes a story good? And more importantly here, what makes a story a good Star Wars story?
In my personal opinion good stories are those that serve a purpose, and great stories are those that may serve multiple purposes. The most obvious purpose of many Clone Wars episodes is to demonstrate a moral, a common truth about life that encompasses virtue and wisdom. Some of the episodes that illustrate strong morals are those with references to eastern values. Here are some that have stood out to me:
Bounty Hunters - Season 2, episode 17
This well written episode tells the story of a small agricultural village that is being harassed by space pirates. The villagers have no tools or ability to defend themselves so they use the little excess profit that they have to hire a group of bounty hunters to protect their crops from the pirates. The story takes an interesting turn when three Jedi show up at their village after a crash landing on their planet. The farmers immediately view the Jedi as their saviors and ask the Jedi to join the bounty hunters in protecting their harvest. But the Jedi know that if they defeat the pirates, it would only be a matter of time before another band of brigands would show up and use their military prowess to extort the farmers. To make matters worse, the farmers were not wealthy enough to constantly hire enough bounty hunters to protect them. So the Jedi decide to teach the farmers how to defend themselves. After a period of difficult and sometimes begrudged training, the farmers begin to gain confidence in themselves and join the bounty hunters in a battle against the pirates. The pirates attempt to pay off the bounty hunters so they could take on the farmers alone. But the bounty hunters show integrity by honoring their pact and defending the village from the pirates. In the end several characters realize their inner strength among their humble circumstances and the farmers prevail in driving away the pirates. The moral of this episode can be summarized in a well known proverb, "Give a boy a fish and he will eat for a day, but teach a boy to fish and he will eat for a lifetime."
Lightsaber Lost - Season 2, episode 11
What happens when a Jedi loses her most vital possession? As the wise master Obi-Wan Kenobi once said, "This weapon is your life!" And on the seedy streets of Coruscant one of the series' main protagonists, Ahsoka Tano, encounters this dilemma after a pick-pocket makes a get-away with her lime-green blade. Eager to both reclaim her honor and keep the knowledge of this event from her master, the young padawan seeks help from one of her trusted elders, a librarian in the Jedi Archives. The librarian refers Ahsoka to an aging Jedi who is a supposed expert on the criminal underworld. Antsy to find her lost weapon, Ahsoka is surprised to find Tera Sinube sleeping in broad daylight in front of a computer in the library. Upon being awoken from his slumber by the impatient padawan, master Sinube proceeds to help Ahsoka comb a database of known criminals to find the thief who stole her lightsaber. After Ahsoka gains information about the criminal that she deems sufficient to begin her search of him, she immediately tries to get away from the quirky and lethargic Sinube. But the elder Jedi asks to come along on her adventure and warns her that if she does not "slow down", she will never reclaim her lost blade. The two very different Jedi then embark on their quest to find the lightsaber, with Master Sinube teaching Ahsoka valuable lessons about patience and control throughout the episode. In the end it is the ancient Jedi's wisdom that helps the padawan find and repossess her blade, and Ahsoka ends the episode by teaching the lessons she has learned from the experience to a class of younglings. This episode deftly illustrates the moral that "patience is a virtue" as well as suggesting that although sometimes appearing slow and eccentric, our elders can teach us valuable lessons about life.
In addition to these hallmark episodes, there are many more in the series that incorporate morals into their storylines. For instance, Season Two's "The Deserter" asserts the philosophy that each individual has his or her own path to honor and fulfilling duty and Season Three's "Clone Cadets" illustrates the value of teamwork. Stories like this not only serve the purpose of entertainment but are parables of wisdom. They exemplify the heart of the Clone Wars TV series and make for the most memorable plots.
Episodes that exemplify moral values have purpose, but this purpose can be lost if the plots do not fit into the Star Wars universe that forms the backdrop of the series. Most Star Wars fans look for elements that are related to and even expand upon events in other Star Wars properties, especially the two theatrical trilogies. Here are some episodes that in my opinion are either successful or unsuccessful at providing relevancy in their plots:
Heroes On Both Sides - Season 3, episode 10
This episode does well in explaining a line from the opening crawl in the Star Wars film Revenge of the Sith that hints that there are honorable people seeking peaceful resolution on both sides of the complex civil war. Frustrated by the seemingly endless fighting and futile debate surrounding the war, Senator Padme Amidala and padawan Ahsoka Tano travel covertly behind enemy lines to meet with one of Padme's former mentors who is now a member of the opposition. Upon arriving in the enemy's political capitol, the two protagonists witness firsthand that not just their own government is mired in debate about the war. Padme's mentor went on to work with the Senator to propose peaceful legislation, only to be thwarted by a terrorist attack that forced the escalation of the war through fear. Along the way the young Jedi Ahsoka learned the terrible truth that she is not just fighting mindless automatons but actual civilizations of honorable civilians who stand behind the antagonists. The episode provides a great deal of relevant exposition about the mechanics of the war at the heart of the series and reveals the strategy of its true mastermind, the puppet-master Palpatine, to use fear to pit the two opposing halves of the galaxy against one another in an effort to gain ultimate power in the universe.
Corruption - Season 3, episode 5
Despite a respectable effort from the creators of the series, in many opinions of critics and fans alike this episode fell short in terms of quality and plot relevance. The intended point of the story is apparently to illustrate the decay of civilizations at the time of the Clone War. Yet the episode steps out of the realms of both war and politics and uses underdeveloped and completely new characters to drive the choppy story forward. "Highlights" of this episode include weak, nameless antagonists and "poisoned Snapple", far departures from the intrigue of the war and the mystique of the Force. The events of "Corruption" could have been summed up in less than a minute at the beginning of the following episode, and their relevance to the overall story arc of the series is limited.
Other relevant episodes include the Boba Fett trilogy of Season Two which chronicles the young bounty hunters quest to avenge his father's death and Season One's Lair of Grievous which provides insight into the mysteries of the cyborg and the erosion of the constraint and humility of the Jedi. These episodes fit well into the Star Wars universe and serve to extend storylines from the films.
Probably more than any other element, Star Wars is known for its memorable characters. Staples of the films like Darth Vader and R2-D2 have become pop-culture icons that have broken through the boundaries of Star Wars media and entered the lexicon of universal entertainment. But the question is, what makes a good Star Wars character?
There are two things that I look for in a character. Firstly, does the character have the "cool factor". And secondly, is the character compelling? The creators of the Clone Wars series have given us countless characters with breathtaking designs, Cad Bane, Embo, and Savage Opress to name a few. But it is more difficult to make a character compelling. Some of the key elements in a compelling character are an interesting back-story, a unique personality, and sufficient character development. These elements make us feel strongly about the character; we will either love to hate the character, identify with the character, or just think the character is plain "awesome". Here is my analysis of some Clone Wars characters based on these criteria:
The Well Developed Character: Ahsoka Tano
The padawan was one of the first new characters added to the series, and her development is one of the main story arcs that ties the series' eclectic collection of episodes together. Her back-story is one shared by many Jedi; she was found by Master Plo Koon as a young child and transported to the Jedi temple for training. When the Clone Wars started to escalate she was assigned as an apprentice to the headstrong yet powerful Jedi master, Anakin Skywalker. Unbeknown to Ahsoka, her master is destined to follow a dark path, as he eventually succumbs to the power of the Dark Side of the Force, the collective ethereal antagonist in the Star Wars universe. With her fate uncertain, a rarity in a series that takes place in the middle of the Star Wars continuity, the audience follows the padawan's training and experiences with expectation of her imminent triumph over -or fall to- evil. Ahsoka is the best example of a character that people identify with, as we uncover the mysteries of the Clone Wars and the Force through her eyes. We witness exceptional development of and revelation about her character in episodes like "Storm Over Ryloth", "Brain Invaders", and "Assassin". Her future is directly tied to the future of the series and although many have been adverse to her character, her fate is greatly anticipated.
The "Cool" Character: Cad Bane
Under a wide brimmed hat, the minds behind the Clone Wars TV series have achieved creative brilliance. Cad Bane is the epitome of the "Man With No Name" western gunslinger. From his innovative gadgetry to his intimidating voice, the bounty hunter has captured the fancy of millions of fans. His antagonizing character is both a relevant and fresh addition to the ever-expanding Clone Wars cast. After nearly an entire season consisting of nothing but Separatist vs. Republic action, Bane added a third dimension to the map of the Clone War. He is a representation of the Star Wars underworld, an endless assemblage of both villainous and honorable characters driven not by duty or morals but by the quest to make their way in the universe through shady and marginally legal dealings. In action, Bane is deadly as he stretches the heroes of the series in new and imaginative ways.
The Underdeveloped Character: Padme Amidala
I will probably take some heat on this one because I know many people who enjoy stories about the good senator. But in my opinion her character is sadly weakened in the Clone Wars series and has thus become a boredom and downright nuisance to many fans. Very often I hear the phrase, "Not another Padme episode!". I think this growing disdain stems from one simple fact: the character of Amidala does not change during the Clone Wars. True her heroism is evident and compelling through the first two theatrical films she appears in, but during the time of the Clone Wars series she becomes jaded and frustrated, and too many episodes have focussed on this occurrence. It seems that one time too many we have watched her beat her head in vain against the wall of corruption and tyranny, and even though the ideals she holds form the base of the future rebellion against the Empire in the original Star Wars film trilogy, her presence in the Clone Wars series only serves as a plot device in her husbands downfall and an illustration of the death of democracy. While some of this is necessary, I feel the series has not developed her character in any relevant way and centers stories around her too frequently.
Even with a relevant storyline and intelligent plot, it is ultimately the portrayal of the characters that makes or breaks a story. Clone Wars episodes that have been centered around compelling characters have enjoyed more popularity than episodes that are lacking in this department.
Once you have a great plot for a story and compelling characters to take part in it, the only thing left is to actually tell the story, and that is where the dispersion and choreography of action, the precision of editing, and the tonality of music come in. Here I will give my opinion on what mixes of these elements make for a quality and popular episode:
Action is synonymous with Star Wars, and the franchise provides a rich assortment of action elements to the Clone Wars series. The audience is entertained by lightsaber duels, Force fights, and blaster shots galore, as well as epic battles in space and alien locals. For the most part, the choreography of these elements has been phenomenal in the series. But sometimes it is the absence of this action that lets fans down. While some political and character-based storylines are well written enough to carry an episode that is void of significant action, too many of these episodes occurring sequentially have constituted lapses in the show's quality and appeal. Star Wars fans have seen the capabilities of the Clone Wars series in staging fantastic action, and want to see the limits pushed even further in this area.
Direction and Editing
I have already discussed most of the major elements that contribute to the quality of a Clone Wars episode, but there are a couple minor things that I would like to address. While, the Clone Wars TV series has been groundbreaking in terms of direction and editing, I believe the series could improve in a couple areas. Those areas are spacing and perspective. By spacing I mean the juxtaposition of fast paced action and more slowly paced downtime. Because the creators of the series have limited time to work with while making each episode, sometimes they will edit the scenes together at a break-neck pace. This makes for an action packed episode, but it is the quieter character-building and scene-setting moments that give the show depth and artistic relevance. If the creators find a way to incorporate more of these moments into episodes, it will make for a more dynamic and compelling presentation. Another thing that the series could improve upon is the perspective of its camera angles. Unlike in a live-action series, the creators have limitless ability to show scenes from any perspective that they chose. Because of this, sometimes they do not emphasize the difference in scale adequately. Sometimes a star cruiser can appear to have the same weight as a tiny speeder and epic battles can seem like small skirmishes. This lack of perspective can lead to rooms seeming minuscule and empty and characters appearing the same size. Improvement in perspective would give the series more gravity and impact.
The final thing I want to discuss is music. While sometimes a trivial element of other entertainment properties, the soundtrack of Star Wars has been referred to as the oxygen of the franchise. The films are known for their memorable and moving musical scores just as much as for their characters. While some of the motifs of the Clone Wars series that were written by the talented composer Kevin Kiner are fitting additions to the Star Wars soundtrack, more often than not the scores serve as nothing but monotonous filler. In my opinion, either more original Star Wars motifs need to be added to the series or Kiner's scores need to become more poignant and memorable for the series to equal other Star Wars media in this important area.
Therefore it is my conclusion that Clone Wars episodes that have the highest quality must contain a purposeful storyline, a relevant plot, character development, and compelling storytelling. So far, the series has delivered in these areas more often than not, but there is still a great deal of room for improvement. The creators of the Clone Wars TV series are avid fans themselves, and thus I trust that the series will do nothing but improve in quality as it progresses. Hopefully by the time it ends, it will have taken its rightful place as a jewel of the Star Wars franchise and will be deservingly recognized as the most groundbreaking animated series in the history of television.