It took a long time for Star Wars: The Clone Wars to grow on me. When the slick-looking computer-driven animated series was first launched in 2008, its opening arc was released in theaters as a feature film, and over a decade later it remains the only Star Wars movie that I simply cannot sit through. But what began as a painfully stupid kids cartoon best enjoyed with the sound off eventually grew into a genuinely compelling all-ages affair, mining for the stylish action and political intrigue only hinted at in the prequel trilogy. The show’s finale is as dazzling and emotional as its premiere is wretched, to the extent that I’d encourage any Star Wars fan to at least cherry-pick from the 133-episode run, if not to watch it straight through. I wasn’t attached enough to be sad to see it go when the series wrapped up in 2020, but when the final season offered an obvious backdoor pilot for a spin-off, I was totally game for it. Now that The Bad Batch is here, however, my initial “hell yeah” has been downgraded to a “hell, maybe.”
This review is spoiler-lite.
A Copy of a Copy
The Bad Batch is born out of one of The Clone Wars’ best ongoing threads: the lives of the Republic’s clone troopers, an army of men created from the exact same genetic stock and trained for the same purpose who nevertheless begin to assert their own personalities and identities. These characters — all subtle variations on the same character model, all voiced by legendary actor Dee Bradley Baker — became distinct individuals, testaments to the idea that no amount of conditioning can kill the innate human desire to be their own person. One storyline played with this idea further, introducing a squad of “defective” clones who were each unique, more dramatically different from the others. This team, Clone Force 99, now leads their own series, set after the events of The Clone Wars during the rise of the Galactic Empire.
Star Wars: The Bad Batch makes no bones about being a spin-off — it literally opens with the new series logo dissolving away its predecessor’s, followed by an opening narration that sets up this episode as if it’s just another arc on The Clone Wars. “Aftermath” assumes a familiarity with The Clone Wars in general and Star Wars in particular that, to be fair, is a very safe bet. The episode is a new window into the fall of the Republic, including another recollection of the infamous Order 66 that turned the clone army against their Jedi generals as depicted in Revenge of the Sith, The Clone Wars, the video game Jedi: Fallen Order, and countless novels and comic books. Order 66 has become an essential flashpoint in Star Wars history in both good ways and bad. On the one hand, “Where was [so and so] during Order 66?” is a question that more or less has to be answered about nearly every important character alive at the time. On the other hand, how many times can we see it before its impact is eroded completely? (“Aftermath” wisely includes another familiar character from the franchise to its Order 66 scene to give it a little extra kick.)
The 70-minute opening chapter of The Bad Batch expects the viewer to already know just about everything that’s going to happen, but to engage with it anyway, and I found myself unable to do that. It’s not uncommon for a series premiere to end where it feels like the series ought to begin, and sometimes it’s necessary to sacrifice that first episode establishing the characters and premise so that the next one can hit the ground running. The problem is that, since writers Jennifer Corbett and Dave Filoni seem to be operating under the assumption that the viewers are already acquainted with the source material, there’s actually no reason to spend the length of three episodes setting the table. They could just as easily have opened the show with Clone Force 99 on the run from the Empire and filled in the gaps along the way.
Quite Frankly Your Inner Child Has Been Spending a Lot on Action Figures and Could Stand to Cool Out
It’s tricky business criticizing a work that’s meant for children from the perspective of an adult. I think it’s important for grown-up nerds to acknowledge that while the creators of shows like Star Wars: The Bad Batch are certainly interested in entertaining themselves and people their own age, we are not the target demographic for this series. We are tourists in their playground, and if a kids cartoon holds up to adult scrutiny that is a bonus, not necessarily the goal. Not having a nine-year-old in my life with whom to consult and writing for an audience that I assume is also made up of grown-up nerds, I can only speak for my own experience. And in my experience, “Aftermath” is a little frustrating to watch.
With one exception (who I’ll address momentarily), the main characters of The Bad Batch are adults, experienced soldiers in the Grand Army of the Republic. They are, at least for the moment, caricatures, each reduced to a single personality trait. Hunter is their leader, a level-headed badass styled after John Rambo. Tech is the brains, nasal, verbose. Crosshair is the team’s detached, cold-hearted sniper. The quiet, haunted cyborg Echo is the character with the longest history, having recurred on The Clone Wars for years before joining the other misfits in the Bad Batch arc of Season Seven. But the figure who seems to take up the most space in “Aftermath” is the super-strong Wrecker, whose brainless meathead routine wore thin with me by minute 10. Dee Bradley Baker ably imbues each of these characters with their own voice and personality, but Wrecker is a fucking menace, too stupid to live and a drag on the entire experience. I don’t recall him being quite so annoying in his Clone Wars appearance, and I hope that the reason he seems so dumbed down is so there’s room for him to grow into a more complete person over the course of this series. Again, I remind myself, this show is for kids, and kids often love big lumbering goons.
Wrecker manages to be the least enjoyable character despite the presence of an obligatory kid sidekick, Omega (voice of Michelle Ang, The Twilight Zone). I do not begrudge The Bad Batch its young viewpoint character, after all this is a kids’ show and both The Clone Wars and its immediate successor Star Wars Rebels introduced rambunctious teens who now count among my favorite characters in the entire franchise. Omega, like Ahsoka Tano before her, also serves the important purpose of adding a female character into an inherited cast of all men. There is nothing inherently wrong with Omega, but what makes her frustrating in this episode is the amount of time that it takes the rest of the Batch to suss out her true nature. The “twist” about Omega, if we’ll even call it that, should be obvious to any adult watching from the moment she’s introduced but takes the better part of an hour for most of the characters to recognize. One more time, I try to remember that the kids watching may not be as quick on the uptake, but since the adult protagonists are already behind the audience in every other respect, watching them struggle with the one mystery to which they actually do have all the pieces made it that much harder to take them seriously.
More Star Wars:
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A Very Expensive Puppet Show
Where Rebels had its own (admittedly cheaper-looking) animation style and Star Wars Resistance had a different look altogether, The Bad Batch appears to take its character models and props directly from the final season of The Clone Wars. Lucasfilm can hardly be blamed for not fixing what ain’t broken — even as computer rendering technology got better and better, the The Clone Wars crew stuck to a design aesthetic that made each character feel like a living, carved and painted wooden doll, which avoided the uncanny valley and has aged very well.
The snowy forest planet in which the opening act is set is a gorgeous environment, so it’s a pity that most of the episode is set in the bland halls of the Kamino cloning facility, and none of the action set there is as exciting as I might have hoped. It’s natural to compare it unfavorably against the finale of The Clone Wars, which boasted terrific lighting and “camerawork” and even some motion capture for its climactic lightsaber fight. While I wouldn’t expect The Bad Batch to go quite that hard on a weekly basis, this is its feature-length premiere episode, so I was disappointed to find the action on the dull side. After seven seasons of watching clones trade fire with droids, “Aftermath’s” setpieces don’t have much new to offer.
There is hope, though, that the status quo set at the end of “Aftermath” will create opportunities for fresh stakes and fresh action in the series to come. The Bad Batch is set to explore the early days of the Empire, arguably the most interesting era in the Star Wars canon. There’s about a decade of history there that’s yet to be explored on screen, and a crew of discarded relics from the last war could make for an intriguing lens into the Empire’s hunt for the surviving Jedi and the early sparks of rebellion. But beyond that, I’d be thrilled if The Bad Batch showed me a piece of the Galaxy I don’t know to expect.
In the episode’s final moments, Omega is strapping into her seat in the crew’s pilfered spacecraft as they make their getaway off Kamino. A child who’s never been off-world before, she looks out the cockpit window in awe as the ship makes the jump to lightspeed. That’s the feeling I want to have when I’m watching Star Wars. With any luck, and the setup behind us, future episodes of The Bad Batch can emerge from the shadow of The Clone Wars and show me something that’ll make me feel like a kid again.