The Return of Star Wars: The Clone Wars — A Guide For Newcomers
What it is, what you should know, and why you should watch it
I was very much a latecomer to The Clone Wars. Despite the fact that I grew up at the exact perfect time to be indoctrinated by the prequels — I was three and a half when The Phantom Menace came out — the CG animated show (and its 2D predecessor, which we’ll get to later) never really grabbed my attention. But once Disney came around to buy Lucasfilm and kick the Star Wars franchise back into high gear, I decided to give it another shot, to see if I had been missing anything worthwhile all this time.
Don’t get me wrong, TCW has had its fair share of rough patches, especially near the show’s beginning. It also didn’t help that the first few episodes of the show was released in theaters and marketed as a full-fledged, self-contained movie. But despite its issues, Lucasfilm’s unprecedentedly ambitious animated series The Clone Wars quickly grew into a mature, thrilling, thoughtful piece of television that could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best parts of the live-action saga.
Now, on the heels of the announcement that Disney will be producing one final season of the show several years (and another animated series) after it was cut short, I am here to (hopefully) give you a comprehensive primer on the show, one that will serve as a guide to those who have never seen it and are wondering what all the fuss is about, or who have always wanted to watch it and just don’t know where to start.
SO… WHAT IS IT?
Star Wars: The Clone Wars is a 3D computer-animated television series that debuted in 2008, three years after the third Star Wars prequel film, Revenge of the Sith, was released in theaters. The show takes place during the Clone War, between Episode II: Attack of the Clones (which shows how the Clone War started) and the aforementioned Episode III (which shows how the Clone War ended), and focuses mainly on the adventures of Jedi generals Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker and their relationship to each other, as well as Anakin’s relationship with his new padawan learner, Ahsoka Tano.
WAIT, SINCE WHEN DID ANAKIN HAVE AN APPRENTICE?
Since this show.
IS THIS CANON?
Yes. In fact, because George Lucas was heavily involved in its conceptualization and had a consistent hand in guiding the show throughout its run, The Clone Wars (and a few comics based on unused Clone Wars arcs) was the only piece of Star Wars media outside of the six main live-action films to remain canon when Disney started clearing the way for the sequel trilogy, relegating everything else to an alternate continuity known as “Legends.”
WASN’T THERE ALREADY A CLONE WARS CARTOON?
Yes, there was — a 2D animated miniseries (running about two hours long in total) headed up by Samurai Jack creator Genndy Tartakovsky, titled simply Star Wars: Clone Wars (sans “the”). It was released between 2003 and 2005 — before Revenge of the Sith had come out — as a sort of “pilot series” to test whether a full-fledged Clone Wars series could work. The show was well-enough received that George Lucas felt comfortable going forward with “The” Clone Wars later, and despite some of the drastic differences in tone and style between the two, Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars ended up introducing a few characters that would later reappear in the canon series, such as Asajj Ventress, and even featured the first appearance of General Grievous before his live-action(ish) debut in Revenge of the Sith.
OKAY, SO, WHAT’S THIS ABOUT AN APPRENTICE AGAIN?
Ahsoka Tano. She was a character created specifically for The Clone Wars, and appeared in the show’s first episode, introduced as Anakin’s new padawan learner. Ahsoka was not initially well received by many fans, either because they didn’t like that this was a seemingly major character in the saga that had never been mentioned before in the films, or because they saw her as the annoying, plucky sidekick meant to broaden the show’s appeal or something. (I’m also sure it had ~nothing~ to do with the fact that she’s a girl.) Cut to today, ten years later, and Ahsoka is now one of the most beloved characters in the entire canon for a huge number of fans. Her relationship with Anakin and the Jedi Order, as well as her reactions to some of the events of the Clone Wars, have done a lot to flesh out and explain why the Jedi (and ultimately the Republic) fell — and I’d argue makes Anakin a much more sympathetic, believable, and tragic character.
IS IT JUST THOSE TWO TRYING TO OUT-SNARK EACH OTHER? OR IS OBI-WAN THERE TOO?
Oh don’t worry, Kenobi is very much a part of this show, and he’s got equal parts wisdom and snark. We even get some more precious details about his past, including hints at what could have developed into a love life (?!?) had he not stuck it out with the Jedi Order.
But while the trio of Kenobi, Skywalker, and Tano are certainly the series’ main characters, they are far from the only focus. The show is typically split into two-to-four-episode arcs, each one zooming in on a particular set of characters and their story at some place and time in the galaxy. What that means is that any given storyline in the show could put the spotlight on anyone, from the Jedi on a swashbuckling adventure, to a specific squadron of clones on the front lines, to a single character we’ve never met before, to anti-heroes that operate in areas less clear than light side or dark side. That’s part of what makes the show great — you get to see how the war affects everyone, not just the familiar faces. You could probably go a dozen episodes without seeing a Jedi in the spotlight.
THAT SOUNDS LIKE A LOT.
It definitely can be. It also doesn’t always help that storylines are sometimes presented out of chronological order. But really, most of the stories are self-contained enough that it’s not usually a problem. (Plus, when you get confused, there are resources to help with that.)
I’VE NEVER SEEN THE PREQUELS BECAUSE [insert reason here]. SHOULD I WATCH THOSE FIRST?
Probably, yeah. While many of the stories in The Clone Wars work on their own, the show generally assumes you’ve seen the films already. Now, you COULD try to just marathon everything in chronological order, but for most people that’s probably more hassle than it’s worth, and there are some things that will be clearer/better experienced in The Clone Wars if you already know the events of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. I’d recommend just watching the prequels and then coming back to watch the show. Then watch Rebels.
WAIT, WHAT’S REBELS?
Oh, right. We’ll get back to that in a sec.
I HEARD THE PREQUELS ARE GARBAGE.
That’s not a question, but whatever, I’ll run with it. There are LOTS of opinions out there about the Star Wars prequels — some of them relentlessly “George Lucas ruined my childhood” negative, some of them “the Prequels are hidden masterpieces and here’s a thirty-two part essay explaining why” positive, and many others in-between. I am of the belief that no one’s opinion is right or wrong, and that it’s foolish to try to assign some sort of objective value or judgment to any work of art, so I’ll just give a brief synopsis of my perspective.
I was a toddler when The Phantom Menace came out and ten years old when Revenge of the Sith completed the trilogy, so it’s safe to say I grew up with the prequels. And I loved them — the spectacle, the music, the acrobatics, the worlds. I mean, really, is there any idea straight-up cooler than a lightsaber? And the prequels have a lot of lightsabers. Like, a lot.
Once I entered middle school I remember it seemed suddenly like everybody was going to war against the prequel trilogy. Maybe the general reception to these movies had never been good and I had just started noticing — I dunno, I was a little kid — but it seemed very important to a lot of people to expose the prequels as a fraud. And for a while, that’s how I felt too. All the points I saw seemed to make sense to me: the dialogue is stilted, the acting is awkward, the characters are sort of two-dimensional and don’t always seem to make logical decisions, there’s too many scenes of people walking in front of green screens (ha, green screen scenes, say that ten times fast), the plot is all nonsense politics and no substantive action, and so on. The bad-ness of the prequels soon became a sort of common understanding on the internet, and making fun of them was (and in some ways still is) a popular passtime.
But since then, my opinions have definitely changed — and so have the internet’s. Hating the prequels turned into making fun of the prequels, which turned into memes about the prequels, which turned into people ironically liking the prequels (a sort of “it’s so bad it’s good” situation), which turned into a resurgence of people genuinely trying to reveal what might be great about the prequels. As it stands now, at least on the internet, people sort of like the prequels again. I think that the kids like me who grew up unironically loving and rewatching Episodes I-III are now adults who have steered the conversation back towards positivity. Sure, there are more prequel memes than ever, but their tone tends to be less mocking and more of a lighthearted ribbing, poking fun at the goofier elements of these movies that we ultimately love for what they are. As for me — I really like them. I think they’re genuinely good movies with some major flaws that are ultimately overshadowed by all that they do well. In my opinion, the prequels have some of the best film music ever (see “Across the Stars,” “Duel of the Fates,” “Battle of the Heroes,” and “Anakin’s Betrayal,” among others), incredibly gorgeous and imaginative production design, a lot of fascinating world-building, incredible fight choreography, quite a few memorable lines of dialogue (as cheesy as many of them tend to be), and overall a genuinely interesting story (as unpolished and occasionally full of holes and strange decisions it might be). I’m not going to argue that they’re masterpieces, and I still think the original trilogy films are, on the whole, better works, but I still love the prequels, warts and all. You might think differently, and that’s fine too.
OKAY, SAY I GIVE THIS A SHOT. WHY SHOULD I WATCH THE CLONE WARS? DOES IT ADD ANYTHING SIGNIFICANT TO THE STORY?
Oh, yes. Definitely.
Let me put it this way: not only did The Clone Wars TV show help me remember all the things I loved about the prequels, it also retroactively improved them for me.
WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN? MOVIES SHOULD BE ABLE TO STAND ON THEIR OWN. THAT’S STUPID.
Um, rude. But I see your point. What I really mean is that the experience of watching Episodes I-III has been improved for me now that I have the greater context of the events of TCW. The films aren’t literally or tangibly changed by the show, but as a supplement, they provide a fix for what I think is the greatest flaw of the prequel trilogy — lack of character development.
As great as George Lucas is when it comes to world building and theming, he’s not always been so hot at giving complexity and depth to characters. Most of the content of the prequel trilogy is plot — establishing what happened when and where and why. It’s a series of events that unfolds in order to explain things that happened in the original trilogy. The problem here is that so many things happen, so many events need to be covered, that we don’t have enough time to give these characters room to breathe and live and grow. Episode I has to establish the conflict with the Trade Federation, the status of both the Jedi Order and the Sith, who Obi-Wan’s master is, how they found Anakin, how Anakin ended up joining the Jedi, why Anakin is important, and so on. Episode II jumps ahead several years to a point when Anakin is already a full-fledged Jedi Knight, and has to establish where the clones came from and how the Clone War started, not to mention Anakin’s budding romance with Padme and the beginnings of his transition to the dark side. Episode III jumps forward a few years yet again, so we can see how the Clone War ends and how Anakin becomes Darth Vader, how the Jedi Order falls, and how the Republic becomes the Empire. It makes sense to assume that while all the most important events of these characters’ lives take place in the films, most of their “growing up” and the development of their personalities happens during the less pivotal moments between the films. This, I think, is the main reason why people find the prequels to be boring or uninteresting — they spend too much time focusing on facts and events, and skip over all the parts of these characters’ lives that really make them who they are.
Over the course of five-and-a-half-ish seasons, Star Wars: The Clone Wars gives us a deeper understanding of pretty much every aspect of Episodes II and III. It gives Anakin and Obi-Wan stronger personalities, allows us to see them during times when they’re not suffering terrible inner turmoil or hurtling towards their inevitable falling out. We get to see Anakin in his prime as a well-liked, intelligent, powerful leader in the Clone Wars — as a genuinely likable character you want to root for. We get to see the lighter, softer, and funnier side of Obi-Wan that’s really only hinted at in the films, as well as some more backstory outside of “he’s a good Jedi who lost his master and has to train this annoying kid.” We gain an understanding of the relationships between the clone troopers and their Jedi leaders, seeing them fight side-by-side, learning how close the clones were not just to each other but to the Jedi they were eventually forced to betray. Speaking of which, we also learn some much-needed specifics about the planning and mechanics of Order 66 — the clones aren’t just mindless, cold-hearted servants of the emperor, but rather full-fledged people with hopes and dreams, that were controlled and made to betray the Republic against their own will.
SO, THE CLONES AREN’T JUST ALL THE SAME?
Nope! TCW does an astonishingly good job at giving many of the clones unique personalities and helping us distinguish between them, despite the fact that they all have the same face and voice. Much of this is thanks to the acting talents of Dee Bradley Baker, who voices every clone in the show as well as occasionally a few other characters, and the show’s consistently smart writing. The soldiers of the Clone War are revealed to have rich personal lives, and the show goes to great lengths to demonstrate the complexity of their place in this conflict.
WHAT ELSE DOES THE SHOW REVEAL THAT WE DIDN’T KNOW BEFORE?
Lots! I don’t want to spoil anything specific, but we do learn a lot about the Jedi, the Republic, the actions of the Sith, and all of the faults, tainted history, and poor decisions that lead to the coming of the Imperial era. We learn many new details about how the Jedi operate, from the council to the training of young Jedi to the creation of lightsabers to the evolution of their understanding of the Force. Pretty much every character you can think of gets time in the spotlight at some point: Anakin, Obi-Wan, Ahsoka, various clones and clone squadrons, Jedi masters like Mace Windu, Yoda, and Plo Koon, newer characters like the lightsaber-wielding assassin Asajj Ventress and bounty hunter Cad Bane, a young Boba Fett, Senator Padme Amidala, Sith lords Count Dooku and Darth Sidious, members of the Hutt clan, General Grievous, a whole lot of Mandalorians, and your soon-to-be-favorite character, the cocky space pirate Hondo Ohnaka, who later returns in Star Wars Rebels as well.
WHAT IS REBELS?!? YOU KEEP DODGING THE QUESTION!
Star Wars Rebels is another 3D animated TV series, taking place not too long before the events of the original Star Wars movie.
THERE’S ANOTHER ONE?!?
Yeah. It’s also really good, although the story behind it is a little weird. See, when Disney bought Lucasfilm, The Clone Wars was still in production on season six of a planned eight total, and they had a contract with Cartoon Network to air it. Once Star Wars became a Disney property, the contract was ended (Cartoon Network is owned by Time Warner) and The Clone Wars was effectively cancelled. Luckily, a shorter sixth season sometimes called “The Lost Missions” was eventually finished and distributed on Netflix and DVD. (There are also a few unfinished-but-still-canon episodes from what would have been season seven that you can watch on the Star Wars website.) Soon after that, Disney brought back most of the creative team behind TCW to create a new show, Rebels, which became the first major new piece of Star Wars canon content released by Disney, before even The Force Awakens.
Because it shares so much of the same creative team, Rebels functions as a sort of sequel series or spiritual successor to The Clone Wars, bringing back many of the first show’s iconic characters and voice actors, although the main cast of characters is totally new. All that being said, Rebels is an equally fantastic show, and you should absolutely watch it — but watch The Clone Wars first.
SO WHAT DOES THE FUTURE LOOK LIKE FOR THESE SHOWS? AND WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THE CLONE WARS COMING BACK?
After four seasons, Rebels officially ended in March 2018. It was amazing. Soon after, a new series called Star Wars Resistance was announced, set a few years before the events of The Force Awakens, that will premiere this Fall. Not much has been revealed so far beyond the series logo, but we do know that the show will follow a Resistance pilot and will have a unique anime-inspired visual style.
Then, just yesterday at a San Diego Comic Con panel celebrating the tenth anniversary of The Clone Wars, it was announced that the show will be returning for one final season, telling a story that takes place shortly before Revenge of the Sith. They showed a short trailer that you can find online (although I suggest not watching it if you haven’t watched TCW through at least the fifth season) and it looks amazing. All the original cast members and crew are coming back, and the show will premiere probably sometime next year, airing exclusively on Disney’s new streaming service.
AW MAN, PLEASE NOT ANOTHER SUBSCRIPTION STREAMING SERVICE…
I’m afraid so. If it’s any consolation, though, they’ve announced a live-action Star Wars show is coming to the service as well, created by Jon Favreau (director of Iron Man and the recent live-action The Jungle Book, among other things). Regardless, a new season of TCW means Disney effectively already has my money.
OKAY, INTERNET NERD, YOU’VE CONVINCED ME. HOW DO I START WATCHING THIS SHOW? DO I NEED TO WATCH ALL OF IT?
Luckily, it’s not that hard to get caught up on The Clone Wars, since the pilot movie and seasons 1 through 6 are all available for streaming on Netflix. What might be a bigger obstacle, though, is the sheer size of the series. I get it — not everyone has the time to watch six entire seasons of a show, especially when there’s already so much more media out there to inject into your retinas. Plus, it can be tough to get into TCW at the beginning, when things are a bit slower and the show is really still finding its legs. If you want to watch the best of what the show has to offer without dedicating half your life to it, I’d recommend following this guide. It highlights some of the best and most important arcs throughout the show, so you can choose to only watch the ones that interest you most, or just focus on the highlighted ones and come back to the other episodes later. I followed this guide and eventually went back to watch the episodes I had initially skipped, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Season six isn’t listed, but I’d say to just watch the whole thing — it’s all very good and the season is short anyway.
OKAY, COOL. ANYTHING ELSE I SHOULD KNOW?
You should know that The Clone Wars is really great. You should know that there are characters you’ll meet and not think much of at first, but eventually come to see them as if they were old friends. You should know that this show has an incredibly passionate and positive fan base, and cosplay is highly encouraged. You should know that composer Kevin Kiner knows how to tug on your heartstrings when it really counts. You should know that The Clone Wars is ultimately a tragedy, but that the journey is full of beauty and love and friendship and fighting for what’s right. You should know that this is a show created by fans, for fans.
Now, get going! Watch the show! And as always, may the Force be with you.