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'Star Wars: The Clone Wars' - Season Three Premiere

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One of the many ways in which Star Wars: The Clone Wars excels is how it manages to humanize ancillary characters, particularly the clone troopers. It might seem pointless to some for the series to spend so much time giving distinct personalities to these jar-born jarheads—especially when lightsaber-wielding Jedi Knights are far “cooler”—but as is the case in the one-hour season three premiere of this acclaimed animated series, this attention to detail pays off in a big way.

In the first of the two episodes debuting on September 17, “Clone Cadets,” we meet Domino Squad, a so-called “bad batch” of clones that just can’t seem to work together. Under the watchful eyes of Jedi Master Shaak Ti and two hired bounty hunter drill sergeants, El-Les and Bric, Domino Squad has incredible difficulty overcoming a training simulation. Passing the test means being sent to the front lines as proud members of the Grand Army of the Republic. Failure means being destined to maintenance duty at the cloning facilities on Kamino—hardly a desirable fate for a born-and-bred soldier.

Each member of Domino Squad has their own unique quirks, earning them appropriate nicknames: Fives, Echo, Hevy, Droidbait and Cutup. If a few of these names sound familiar, it’s because Domino Squad played a major role in “Rookies,” a fan-favorite episode from season one. Here, we get to see the trials and tribulations this squad faced before they were stationed at Rishi Base. It’s not necessary to have seen that episode to enjoy “Clone Cadets,” but this episode and “ARC Troopers”—the episode that aired immediately after it—bookend “Rookies” nicely.

A new clone introduced in the season three premiere is 99, a failure or “bad batcher” relegated to clean-up duty on Kamino. Withered, aged and hunch-backed, 99 is constantly berated and insulted by the drill officers and even his clone brothers, and it’s hard not to feel for this character. Fortunately, he’s able to play an important role in rallying Domino Squad to complete their trial, earning some respect and admiration from his peers. Like all clones, 99 is voiced by Dee Bradley Baker, who rises to the task of portraying 99 far differently from the other clones while making it apparent that they are cut from the exact same cloth, so to speak.

“Clone Cadets” isn’t the most exciting episode of The Clone Wars, but it does an excellent job bringing the viewer into the clone troopers’ world and giving them a deeper look at how these genetic duplicates are readied for battle. It’s also fascinating to see how the Jedi grapple with conflicting ideals during the war: They are dedicated to preserving life, but are tasked with leading an army whose sole purpose is to fight and die on the battlefield.

Where “Clone Cadets” is more or less a character study, “ARC Troopers” is all-out action. Taking place sometime after “Rookies,” this episode depicts the Separatists’ bold assault on Kamino’s clone production facilities. After all, if you’re fighting an army of clones, why not go after their source? Better yet, why not steal the clone DNA and use it for your own nefarious purposes?  General Grievous, Asajj Ventress and a host of aquatic battle droids storm the facilities, while Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Commander Cody, Captain Rex, Shaak Ti and the remaining members of Domino Squad fight to repel the attack.

Chronologically, this episode marks the first time Ventress and Grievous meet face-to-face, and the tension between the two hints at some interesting storyline possibilities in the future. Both are vying for power as servants of Count Dooku, and there’s clear competition between the two. The duo is eventually separated—Grievous battles Obi-Wan while Anakin crosses blades with Ventress—but their verbal sparring matches are a lot of fun to watch. Well, okay, they’re not as fun as lightsaber duels, but then again, few things are.

At one point in the episode, 99 gets to join his clone brethren on the field of battle, and winds up making the ultimate sacrifice shortly after tasting combat for the first time. Since we only just met this surprisingly likeable character, it’s a shame to see him go. Then again, since this series is not produced chronologically, it’s likely we’ll see 99 at some point later on.

With strong visuals—including a very cool underwater sequence pitting Obi-Wan against the aforementioned aqua droids and two cleverly-edited lightsaber battles—“ARC Troopers” doesn’t disappoint in terms of sheer action. But it also succeeds on an emotional level, as we get to see Fives and Echo achieve their goal in becoming ARC troopers. Taken as a three-part story, “Clone Cadets,” “Rookies” and “ARC Troopers” would actually work as a satisfying feature film.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars is off to an excellent start this season, but be warned: Next week’s episode stars Jar Jar Binks. As is often muttered in the Star Wars universe, “I have a bad feeling about this.”

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