The Star Wars prequels have been the subject of two decades of scrutiny and controversy. Though bold and even revolutionary in their technical achievements, the films were poorly received, with criticism of its plots and dialogue overshadowing the groundbreaking visuals. But, for all the wrong things the prequel did, they gave us Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
Created by Dave Filoni, The Clone Wars filled in the gaps between Attack on the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. It also fulfilled the promise of A New Hope by giving us a real look at the war teased by Luke way back in 1977, a war that split the galaxy in two and led to the rise of the Galactic Empire. While the movies skipped most of the war, showing us only the opening incident that sparked the war, and the last couple of battles, The Clone Wars got us down to the nitty-gritty of the war.
The show, which returns for a final season later this month, made heroes of the Jedi commanding the army of clones, fleshed out characters we thought we knew like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, while also introducing new fan favorites like Ahsoka Tano. More than anything, the show managed to humanize the previously faceless armies that make up both sides of the war. The Clone Wars made us care for both the clones, and even the Separatist droid army.
MORE THAN CLONES
When we first meet the clones that make up the Grand Army of the Republic, they're as the name suggests, a massive army of people who look like the bounty hunter Jango Fett. The twist is, they have no lines and no personality of their own. Indeed, both armies are little more than cannon fodder that serve to simply make the Jedi look cool.
The Clone Wars, on the other hand, turns the clones into fully fledged individuals, and there's no better example than the Domino Squad from the episode "Clone Cadets," which introduces us to a squad of clones training in a Kamino facility. From the start, we can see that there are small distinctions between these otherwise identical characters, and their individuality only grows from there. The cadets go on to become recurring characters, and we witness their ascent from rookies to elite members of the 501st Legion. We see them question orders, have desired of their own, and build friendships with the Jedi they serve, making the eventual execution of Order 66 all the more devastating.
Just watch the Umbara Arc to see how the show manages to make background extras into victims of the war you feel sorry for, as the four-episode story sees the Domino Squad and the larger 501st Legion on a deadly mission to take the capital of Umbara, and the clashes between the clone soldiers and their reckless commander, Jedi Pong Krell. The episode makes you side with the clones over their Jedi commanders, with the full knowledge of how the tables will eventually turn. There's even an episode where we follow a clone who had decided he was fighting a war he didn't believe in and decided to become a deserter, absconding to a simple, happy life.
While the movies try their hardest to make the clones appear as lifeless and devoid of personality as the Stormtroopers, The Clone Wars devotes multiple episodes to the clones' quest for identity, as they alter their appearances with tattoos and haircuts to separate themselves from their brothers, and pick nicknames to replace their numeric based names (a tendency that would continue even to the time of the First Order). It seems that the people in charge of the show know how effective The Clone Wars was at making audiences care for the titular clones, as some of them made appearances in the follow-up show, Star Wars: Rebels. The upcoming seventh season of The Clone Wars will include a storyline about the "Bad Batch" group of clones who turned out radically different from the others.
MORE THAN THE SUM OF THEIR PARTS
On the other side of the conflict, there's the Separatist Droid Army, made out of dozens of different types of droids ranging from foot soldiers, to large, seemingly sentient ships. It's not like we didn't care about droids in Star Wars before — the true heroes of A New Hope are C-3PO and R2-D2, who bravely deliver the Death Star plans to the Rebellion and even rescue Princess Leia in the process. But where those were outlying personalities, the rest of the droids in the original and prequel trilogy were either background objects being tortured by Jabba, or the killing machines of the droid army that laid siege on Naboo and later killed a bunch of Jedi.
Let's admit it, the droids in The Phantom Menace were nothing more than useless robots without any personality or emotion beyond being "pretty dumb," and they could be destroyed even by wind alone. The Clone Wars takes that idea and runs with it, turning them into comic-relief by giving the droids distinct personalities (this is a children's show, after all). There is an in-universe for this, which explains that the older B1 battle droid units were completely slaved to a central computer to prevent them from developing independent thought. After a while, all B1 units got an upgrade that allowed them to think independently of the central computer, presumably to allow them better critical thinking that could make them more efficient killing machines. The problem is that this allowed them to develop quirky personalities, turning them into functioning idiots.
The result is an army of sentient and self-aware droids that realized they were being used en masse as simply blaster fodder for the clones and grew to resent that while still being unable to do much about it. The droids can often be seen in The Clone Wars commenting about their situations and orders, which result in outright hilarious yet tragic scenarios. They seem to be blissfully unaware of their own stupidity, as seen during the episode "Liberty on Ryloth" where a group of B1 droids look at an older model with a blaster hole in its head, and one of them says that they wouldn't suffer the same fate because they are independent thinkers, right before the entire group breaks into a chorus of "Roger, rogers."
The droids are also heard crying out when they are killed, lamenting that their programming is wasted for absolutely no reason. Though it's played for comedy (again, kids' show) each time a lightsaber slices through a group of droids, you can hear a few "ouch" and "ah" cries from the defeated B1 droids. What started as a bunch of faceless drones capable only of uttering the phrase "Roger, roger," became an army of underdogs who could recognize their predicament while being unable to do anything about it.
During the episode "Legacy of Terror," we see a couple of B1 droids following Poggle the Lesser while on Geonosis. One of them, designated O.M.5 is quickly swept away by a sandstorm, but Poggle told the other B1 droid (named O.M.7) to just keep moving. The camera then looks down to O.M.5 half-buried in the sand as it utters its last words: "Don't leave me…"
Droids in the animated show were also seen questioning orders. In the episodes "Cargo of Doom," and "Legacy of Terror" droids hesitate to carry out orders that would mean the destruction of more droids. In "Jedi Crash," tactical droid TF-1726 orders the destruction of a Republic Star Destroyer. A B1 battle droid quickly replies that there are still hundreds of droids on board the cruiser, as they were sent there earlier in the battle to capture General Aayla Secura. TF-1726 doesn't care and ignores the protest, but you can see the disappointment and sadness in the little B1 as he's forced to kill hundreds of its fellow droids.
Thankfully, Star Wars: Rebels redeemed the droids by having them fight alongside retired clones against the Empire, giving the B1 battle droids one last hoorah.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars may have been an animated show aimed at kids, but episode after episode, it did a better job breathing life into what were previously faceless armies than any of the live-action movies ever did.