Star Wars: The Clone Wars proved to be the perfect antidote to the prequels, showing that Star Wars could pay tribute to its heritage, while aspiring to something greater. Creator Dave Filoni and the show’s stars talk to us about taking the saga into a bigger world…
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To say the prequel triumvirate of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were a letdown for Star Wars fans would be doing a disservice to the word ‘understatement’. Fans wanted to see the Jedi hero that Obi-Wan Kenobi spoke of in Return of the Jedi; instead, they got a whiny, arrogant child killer. Key moments like the fall of the Jedi were squeezed into a minute-long montage, and a fertile breeding ground for potentially exciting storylines were replaced by guff-like trade routes, Midichlorians and Gungans. These truly were dark times.
Yet, intermingled among the dirge, there were some glimmers of hope. Running from 2003-05, the 2D-animated Star Wars: Clone Wars injected a welcome jolt of madcap energy into a saga that was in danger of stagnating. Liberally borrowing the over-the-top action aesthetic creator Genndy Tartakovsky had used previously on the likes of Samurai Jack, the show was met with an overwhelmingly positive reaction from fans. It was totally different from any iteration of Star Wars seen before, but it proved that the demand was there.
Indeed, it was something that George Lucas took heed of. In 2005 at the Star Wars Celebration III event in Indianapolis, he announced the creation of a new series, with Dave Filoni being hired as supervising director – despite his lack of experience in 3D animation. “I had never done CG animation before this job,” remembers Filoni. “But that didn’t matter to George, I think he just wanted a director that he could work with, get along with and share some of his visions with. And I was totally open to that. One of my early ideas was that maybe we’d do the Jedi in 2D and the clones or droids in CG. But George was always interested in this being CG, and I think that stems from his experience in live-action films, and what he saw that his team of animators was able to achieve in the films. That was a natural step for George.”
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With Filoni on board, the pieces continued to be put into place. Lucasfilm Animation divisions in California and Singapore were involved with the creation of the series, with the effects being achieved primarily through the use of Autodesk and Maya 3D software, and the final assembly of the episodes taking place at Skywalker Ranch. Lucas was heavily involved in the day-to-day production of the series, working alongside Filoni and the writing team in the creation of the show. By 2007, an initial 22-episode first season arc had already been completed, although there was one caveat: it hadn’t been picked up by a network yet.
CG animation was still in its relative infancy and combined with the tepid critical reception received by the prequel trilogy (despite their box-office success), as such represented a risk, even coming from someone with as much clout as Lucas. Fox Broadcasting turned down the chance to host the project, and Cartoon Network also wavered. However, something soon happened that would change their mind.
James Arnold Taylor, who reprised his role voicing Obi-Wan Kenobi from the 2D Clone Wars series (he would also go on to voice characters like Plo Koon and Rako Hardeen), remembers of the series’ genesis: “There were always these rumours that there would be another Clone Wars. Then we got a call from Lucasfilm… we got together and did The Clone Wars, then that’s when George Lucas decided that the first four episodes make a great movie.”
Enticed by the prospect of a theatrical run to galvanise viewing figures, Cartoon Network’s interest was suddenly ignited, with Warner Bros gaining the rights to the movie (instead of the saga’s traditional home at 20th Century Fox). The film was released in cinemas on 15 August 2008, over three years after Revenge of the Sith, the film many assumed would be the last one on the big screen to bear the Star Wars insignia. Focusing primarily on action over intrigue – at least initially – this new take on the series was immediately familiar to fans young and old, with some voice actors from the 2D series being retained (most notably Taylor’s Obi-Wan, Corey Burton as Count Dooku and Tom Kane as Yoda). However, there was a new hook that would set this series apart: Anakin would be getting his own padawan.
Togrutan female Ahsoka Tano (voiced by Ashley Eckstein) wasn’t initially met with the warmest reception by fans, weary of seemingly yet another irritating, Jar Jar-esque creation. Filoni himself admits, “I completely understand the hesitation. When she was pitched to [writer] Henry Gilroy and Me by George, our first reaction was ‘What do you mean Anakin has a padawan?’ And George was like, ‘It’s something I’ve wanted to do.’ So we had to get on with it pretty quickly if we were going to make it work.” Not that Ahsoka was alone in receiving the fans’ ire. The overall critical reception to The Clone Wars was negative, currently sitting at a paltry 18 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes. As far as attention went, this wasn’t exactly the best scenario that could have been envisaged.
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Still, things started to look up. The first episode of The Clone Wars TV series, ‘Ambush’, premiered on 3 October 2008 to an overwhelmingly positive reception. Seeing Yoda pitted against Separatist commander Asajj Ventress (a character from the 2D series who had gone on to gain popularity in the Expanded Universe books and comics), it characterised the approach to the rest of the series: rather than focusing on the core cast, it would see different combinations of characters helm entire episodes. While the core triumvirate of Anakin, Obi-Wan and Ahsoka featured the most, they weren’t by any means the sole focus, with many previously silent fan favourites being given the chance to shine. ‘Lair Of Grievous’ saw tentacled Jedi Master Kit Fisto and his apprentice attempt to escape the clutches of the titular General, and the ‘Malevolence’ arc allowed Predator lookalike Plo Koon to get time to shine. Jar Jar also showed up a few times, but even he was less annoying – only slightly, mind.
The series’ newfound goodwill extended to Ahsoka. Previously maligned, she became a firm fan favourite, with her mentor/student relationship with Anakin proving to be one of the show’s strongest elements – something Filoni claims was never in any doubt. “I knew that kids would accept her outright because they don’t have the history that we do with Anakin. If you think about it, the fans are like Anakin when Anakin meets her. He doesn’t want this kid, he’s asking why he needs a student. He was the same way.”
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Arnold Taylor agrees: “She was one of those things people didn’t expect at first: ‘Oh boy, it’s like Short Round in Temple of Doom or something.’ She turned out to be this amazing character. Ashley Eckstein is a brilliant actor, a wonderful ambassador for Star Wars. She’s brought to life a character that was created by Dave Filoni to help save the pain and anguish of Anakin Skywalker turning to the Dark Side. If you look at it in that regard, she’s a pivotal part of not just The Clone Wars, but the Star Wars legacy.”
In turn, a side effect of Ahsoka’s influence was that Anakin himself grew as a character. Previously, fans had seen him as a whiny kid, a whiny padawan and a whiny Jedi-turned-traitor and serial killer. Here, people finally got to see the heroic, jovial Anakin we had all heard about but never seen. Taylor is unambiguous in his opinion of why this is the case. “Matt Lanter brought a whole new side to Anakin,” he says. “I hear so many people say, ‘That’s my Anakin Skywalker right there, because of what Matt was able to bring to the character.”
Speaking to SciFiNow back in 2010, Lanter himself was similarly forthright in detailing his approach to playing the future Darth Vader. “To be honest, I kind of blind myself a little bit to knowing that I kill a bunch of kids. That’s really detrimental. Having said that, I know that Anakin goes down this dark spiral. But at the same time, I feel like we’ve done a good job of establishing Anakin as a hero. It kind of makes it sadder for the character.”
Season Two, marketed under the sub-heading ‘Rise Of The Bounty Hunters’, saw the show venture into darker territory, most notably via the on-the-nose ‘Brain Invaders’, in which parasitic, mind-controlling worms enter unfortunate occupants’ minds through their nostrils. Above all else though, it was about fan service. While Boba Fett was still too young in the continuity at this point to suit up, there was the opportunity to take a look at the society that birthed his kind. “I loved the Mandalorian arc,” says Taylor. “I thought those were fantastic stories.”
Similarly, both characters old and new showed up. Bounty hunter Aurra Sing (the Phantom Menace extra who took on a new life in the comics) and Bossk (he of glowering in The Empire Strikes Back fame) appeared, although the accolade of show-stealer went to an entirely new creation: Cad Bane. “George bought [Cad Bane] to the forefront,” recalls Filoni. “He said he’d like a character named Cad Bane, to look like [Western film actor] Lee van Cleef, a bit with the low-brimmed hat. He’s a really interesting one.”
Yet it wasn’t just the bounty hunters who stole the show. Season Three, ‘Secrets Revealed’ saw the clone troopers brought to the forefront, with episodes like ‘Clone Cadets’ and ‘ARC troopers’ showing the clone hierarchy and training on Kamino in a whole new light. The (mostly) nameless cannon fodder of the films were given names and unique personalities (if all possessing the same face), which again goes to show the quality of the voice actors portraying them. Ashley Eckstein remembers, “My goodness, to see Dee Bradley Baker play God knows how many clones and differentiate them all, it was truly unbelievable.”
For many, the third season would be its strongest yet, featuring some truly excellent episode arcs. If ‘Monster’ and ‘Witches Of The Mist’ were slightly ham-fisted attempts at unnecessary fan service – introducing Darth Maul’s previously unmentioned brother, Savage Opress – and the presence of Chewbacca in ‘Wookiee Hunt’ was utterly unnecessary, if fun, it was made up for by the visually outstanding three-episode ‘Mortis’ arc. Seeing Anakin, Obi-Wan and Ahsoka stranded in a mysterious planet-sized sphere, they are soon caught up in the machinations of The Father, who is locked in a seemingly never-ending struggle to balance the diametrically opposing Force powers of the Light Side-wielding Daughter and the Dark-infused Son (voiced by Sam Witwer, best remembered as Sith apprentice Starkiller in The Force Unleashed videogames). All three Jedi would face challenges: Obi-Wan being warned by the spirit of his fallen mentor Qui-Gon Jinn (a role reprised by Liam Neeson); Ahsoka appraised of her potential path by her older self, and Anakin tormented by visions of his horrific destiny.
“My favourite episode arc was the ‘Mortis’ trilogy,” recalls Eckstein. “The story was fascinating, and for Ahsoka to go from older Ahsoka to Dark Side Ahsoka, it was so much fun to do those episodes, and to do them with Anakin and Obi-Wan. It was the first episode Sam Witwer did with us – he was brilliant.”
Similarly, the three-episode ‘Citadel’ arc came in for acclaim, seeing a team sent to the seemingly inescapable Citadel prison to rescue Jedi Master Even Piell. As well as being the latest in a line of episodes that harked back to classic cinema with its air of The Guns of Navarone (Season Two episode ‘Bounty Hunters’ was essentially a remake of Akira Kurosawa classic Seven Samurai, even being dedicated to the late director), it would see the first real challenge to established canon, with Piell’s death contradicting his demise in the previously released Jedi Twilight book. Moreover, the future Grand Moff Tarkin appeared as a smug but tactically savvy Republic officer, who prophetically starts a friendship with Anakin in an only ever-so-slightly on the nose bit of foreshadowing.
Season Four saw things venture into even darker territory, combining elements from previous seasons. The four-episode ‘Umbara’ arc saw the series venture into Apocalypse Now territory via the unhinged Jedi Master Pong Krell, while the ‘Kadavo’ arc continued this trend in its depiction of slavery – all the while sowing the seeds for Anakin’s descent into darkness. This would continue in ‘The Box’, in which an undercover Obi-Wan looks to foil a plot against the Chancellor’s life, with Anakin being kept in the dark, further adding fuel to the feelings of not being trusted he displays in Revenge of the Sith. “I love ‘The Box’,” says Taylor. “It reminds me of that sci-fi movie The Cube – it was like a Twilight Zone episode.”
By far the biggest moment of the season though – and arguably of the entire show – was the return of Darth Maul. Last seen tumbling in pieces in The Phantom Menace, his survival was revealed in Season Three, with ‘Brothers’ seeing him brought back to sanity by his brother, ready anew with a grudge against Obi-Wan. Witwer returned to the show after his run on the ‘Mortis’ arc and took on vocal duties yet again – something Taylor recalls fondly.
“Sam is great, a brilliant actor,” remembers Taylor. “He’s an immense Star Wars fan – he knows everything there is to know. He will correct Filoni and the writers, even in the middle of sessions!”
Maul’s survival would eventually spill over into Season Five, culminating in the death of Satine – Obi-Wan’s former love interest – in ‘The Lawless’. “Anna Graves played Satine – she’s such a fun, wonderful person,” says Taylor. “In Season Five, that stuff with Darth Maul, Obi-Wan and Satine, it was so powerful. It was very emotional to do those.”
However, despite the show’s popularity, things weren’t to last. On 31 October 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm for the princely sum of $4.05 billion (£2.5 billion). But while the future of the series was ensured with a new trilogy of films being announced, there was a catch. A number of properties in development or due for release were immediately scrapped or put on hold indefinitely, with videogame Star Wars 1313 (elements of which would later show up in The Clone Wars) and spoof animated series Star Wars: Detours being among the casualties. By far the biggest scalp, however, was The Clone Wars. Allowed to run until the end of its fifth season, with the completed Season Six episodes (13 in total) later being made available on starwars.com, the series ends with Ahsoka Tano leaving the Order, strolling out of the Jedi Temple in a way that directly mirrors Anakin’s own storming of the Temple in Revenge of the Sith. Although this visage ended the series on a strong yet poignant note, it wasn’t the one they originally had in mind.
“I want to be fair, and I understand that it’s business for everybody, but I think we were all disappointed that we didn’t get to finish the way we wanted to finish,” says Taylor. “We wanted to go on for eight seasons, really finish off those storylines and where the characters go. I felt they could have taken Clone Wars up to December 2015, done The Force Awakens, and then come out with a show like Rebels after.
“At the same time, Rebels is great and people are enjoying it, but we had a lot of stories to tell still, and I think it’s a shame we didn’t get to finish them, but that’s the way business is sometimes. It hurts still because it’s the one show I’ve been on where all of us could have done it for the rest of our careers, so it’s hard to say goodbye to that.”
Saying that, the spirit of The Clone Wars lives on in the form of the aforementioned Star Wars: Rebels, still helmed by Filoni. The series retains its nods to the original series, with Taylor returning in the premiere to voice Obi-Wan (“I got to deliver the message he leaves that we never got to see in the movies, warning all the other Jedi. I think it was pretty cool to get to do that!”) and latterly an older Ahsoka showing up in the Season One finale. With Darth Vader poised for a bigger role in Season Two, it almost seems as if the old gang are back together again.
Closing things off, Taylor is adamantly proud of the legacy left behind by The Clone Wars. “I’m very proud of it. It was an adult cartoon, but something kids could watch, and that was the brilliance of it, that it was just like the original Star Wars, something that anybody could find something to relate to. I am very humbled and happy to be involved with it, and blessed to be in the Star Wars family to this day.”
This article was originally written in 2015. All seven seasons of The Clone Wars is currently available on Disney+