The Star Wars prequels are universally regarded as the nadir of the franchise, but at least they gave us spinoff series The Clone Wars, writes Sam Brooks
Nobody likes the Star Wars prequels. Though that statement is slightly hyperbolic, it’s not far from the truth. Even if you can make a limp defence for certain scenes in the first three episodes – a podrace scene here, a Palpatine scene there – they’re hard to defend as actual films, especially in comparison to either the original trilogy or even the sequel trilogy. Watching the prequels is like having a child explain to you the fall of Rome. The plot beats are there, but none of the nuance or necessary detail.
It would’ve been nice if the prequels were any good, but the sad reality is that they didn’t need to be. Since A New Hope, every Star Wars film, good or bad, exists as a jumping point for near endless offshoots and merchandising. Since The Empire Strikes Back, the series has spun off into books, games, television shows, and just about every piece of content that you can slap the name Star Wars on and make a quick buck off. There’s a reason why they call it the Expanded Universe, y’all.
Nearly immediately upon acquiring the Star Wars brand, Disney purged the Expanded Universe like a bride cutting extended relatives from the wedding guest list. All those books, all those games, all those spinoffs were declared to be no longer part of the canon. The only content that mattered were the films and anything released after Disney got their hands on them. One of the few spinoffs that survived the purge was the animated TV series The Clone Wars, which takes place between Episode II and III, and follows the war between the Galactic Republic (good guys) and the Separatists (bad guys).
Despite being declared canon, The Clone Wars was one of the unfortunate casualties of Disney’s Star Wars acquisition. Despite the consistent critical acclaim since its Carton Network debut, the show was quickly cancelled after Disney bought it, and the series was allowed to finish its then-sixth-and-final season on Netflix. It seemed like the series would never get to finish out its run, but a near half-decade later, Disney announced that The Clone Wars would be returning for its seventh and final season, which debuted yesterday on its own streaming service, Disney+. The series picks up towards the end of The Clone Wars, focusing on the Siege of Mandalore, and continues the story of the Galactic Republic’s fight against the Separatists, with the Jedi on one side and the Sith on the other.
The show’s popular success, and critical acclaim, was down to the way it took the broad, clumsy strokes of the prequels, and coloured them with the nuance that had been missing. It introduced characters like Ahsoka Tano, Anakin Skywalker’s padawan, initially to bring colour to the crude dark-or-light nature of Anakin; she subsequently became a fully-realised character in her own right. The show also started to introduce more complex interpretations of the relationship between the Jedi (basically good warrior priests) and the Sith (evil warrior priests), in a way that didn’t contradict existing canon, Force forbid, but instead deepened it.
In the new season, that nuance is most noticeable in the humanisation of the clones, originally presented en masse in Attack of the Clones. A bulk of the cast is made up of these clones, all voiced by Dee Bradley Baker doing a spot-on kaleidoscope of Temuera Morrison impressions – because, of course, the NZ actor played Jango Fett, on whom all clones are based. Each is given specificity, most notably Captain Rex, the clone to which all others aspire to. The early episodes of this final season focus on The Bad Batch, a unit of elite clone troopers who have undergone mutation and modification, and the show manages to define all of them individually, through both the writing and Baker’s excellent performances.
In other places, the series patches up the holes left by the other films. The relationship between Anakin and Padme is made more specific, with a beautifully drawn push-pull between their secretive relationship and their duelling obligations (him to the Jedi, her to the Senate). It’s one of the most believable relationships I’ve ever seen in an animated show – ironically, a lot more realistic and deeply felt than the live action version. The care given to their relationship is all the more impressive given that it exists inside a property seemingly resuscitated simply to fill a gap in Star Wars content (season two of The Mandalorian comes later this year, you guys).
The Anakin and Padme relationship highlights the big question with The Clone Wars – the same question that has hung around every Star Wars entry since The Empire Strikes Back. Is this a franchise for kids, or a franchise for people who want to revisit the same experience they had when they were kids? Most of Star Wars tends towards the latter, but The Clone Wars seems squarely stuck between the two. As an animated show, and a relatively cutesy, fast-moving one at that, with an almost conspicuously Disney-esque sense of humour, it often seems like its made for kids. But then there’s the occasional leap into darkness and depth that jars with that. It’s a show about war, and while this is hardly 1917, there’s some graphic imagery that ranks with some of the darkest of the franchise.
One of the biggest assets of the Star Wars franchise is that it’s never really done. There’s always a story to be continued, a character to be followed, or a past to unearth. The best Star Wars content does all three of these things, shining light where we might not have even thought to look. The Clone Wars, in its final season especially, goes one step further, serving as a beautifully rendered bridge between Episode II and Episode III. It won’t convert newcomers to the franchise, but it’s fascinating watch for anybody loves the original trilogy, or has even a blushing fondness for the prequels.
You can watch Star Wars: The Clone Wars on Disney+ right now. New episodes drop every Friday.