The newest Star Wars animated series offers thrilling adventures in clone babysitting
If you’re a Star Wars fan and, for whatever reason, you’ve slept on the various animated series all this time, let me just say: I get it. Animation, especially in this franchise, might initially seem too juvenile or simplistic, the kind of cringeworthy kid fodder George Lucas trotted out when he had Jar Jar Binks step in alien poo. But you couldn’t be more wrong, as evidenced by The Bad Batch, the most recent foray into a galaxy far, far away by Dave Filoni and his space-battle hardened creative team.
The Bad Batch continues where the Clone Wars left off, a series that turned out to be one of the best Star Wars properties in the entire franchise, undoubtedly better in almost every way than the most recent trilogy. It’s got everything a Star Wars fan might want, minus live action: beautifully rendered artwork, morally complex storylines, humor, action, flawed characters we can’t help but root for and deep dives into the galactic lore. As it turns out, Disney+’s newest addition to its seemingly endless Star Wars content onslaught is almost as good as the animated series that spawned it.
In a galaxy far, far away
If you’re new to this side of the galaxy, here’s the gist. The Bad Batch takes place roughly 19 years before the events of A New Hope, at the very end of the Clone Wars, when Chancellor Palpatine (a.k.a. Darth Sidious) births the Galactic Empire by seizing control of the senate, declaring himself Emperor, and attempting a wholesale slaughter of every living Jedi. He accomplishes this via a long-gestating plot that involves activating the “inhibitor chips” inside the brains of the clone troopers, who have no choice but to turn on their Jedi commanders and gun them down when given the command to “Execute Order 66.”
As we remember them from season seven of The Clone Wars, the titular batch is a misfit band of elite clone troopers, each bred with a genetically advantageous skill set. There’s a tracker, a sniper, a barbarian, a cyborg, and a hacker, with names corresponding to their respective talents: Hunter, Crosshair, Wrecker, Echo, and Tech. You don’t have to be the sharpest lightsaber in the Jedi temple to figure out which is which.
These five operate in a unique space among the clone army, usually independent of rank-and-file troops, whom they refer to as “regs,” and who in turn mistrust and sometimes even despise their mutant brethren, as we see illustrated in a classic cafeteria food fight in the first episode. They’re basically somewhere between G.I. Joe and the X-Men, with a little A-Team thrown in, which again is a familiar if not unwelcome conceit.
Early in the first episode, Order 66 somehow escapes the Bad Batch, whom we find left stupefied when clone troopers start mowing down the Jedi generals who’ve fought by their sides the entire conflict. Well, minus one of them: Crosshair’s chip seems to be working all too well, leading to more than a bit of awkwardness amongst the ersatz misfit soldier family, since Crosshair assumes his brothers to be traitors who refuse to follow orders, and the remaining four thinking that maybe ole deadeye has completely lost his space marbles all of a sudden.
It doesn’t take long for the new Empire to label the Bad Batch as a threat, sending four of our anti-heroes on the run with both Crosshair and the nascent Empire on their trail. And just in case the situation wasn’t dire enough for Hunter, Wrecker, Echo and Tech, they find themselves adopting a female clone child named Omega who might or might not be force-sensitive, and whom the Empire and the cloners on planet Kamino seem to want to get their hands on even more than The Bad Batch.
Thrills and tropes
It’s a highly entertaining, even thrilling start to a series, showcasing Dave Filoni and company, riding high from their success on The Mandalorian, as the most narratively adroit creative force in Star Wars land at the moment. As the Bad Batch moves forward, the mysteries deepen, and so do our understanding and empathy for the show’s characters both good and evil. Similar to The Clone Wars, there are deep themes of service vs. slavery, being a “good soldier and following orders” vs. questioning authority, how easily people cheer the emergence of an authoritarian regime, and further moral conundrums of what it means to live as a clone.
Once the boys and their ward are on the lam, things become a bit more predictable. Rebels fleeing from pursuing nefarious forces is pretty much the bread-and-butter trope in Star Wars, be it the actual Rebel Alliance, Ahsoka Tano, Ezra Bridger and the crew of the Ghost, and of course The Mandalorian.
In fact, there are a number of Mando connections in The Bad Batch, the foremost being the appearance of bounty hunter extraordinaire Fennec Shand, who takes a contract to retrieve the young Omega. To their credit, Filoni’s team made sure to drop as many nods as possible to existing Star Wars properties, giving us a veritable vineyard of member berries to snack on in each episode. I couldn’t help but chuckle at Tech telling Echo, “You’re more machine than man” — a shameless callback to Return of the Jedi.
The series falls into a fair number of familiar narrative archetypes in the shorter episodes following the expansive 70-minute debut, drawing deeply from tales as varied as The Wizard of Oz, Oliver Twist and Platoon, amongst others. But if good artists borrow and great artists steal, the Filoni bunch falls on the great side, mostly because all of their thievery is either from themselves or highly transparent. I find it impossible that the writers aren’t winking at us when they had Omega pick up a handful of soil and wonder, “What is this? It’s amazing!” Of course they did this in reference to Anakin Skywalker’s meme-spawning hatred of sand. How could they not?
Standout selling points
What The Bad Batch does best is walk the tightrope between familiarity and suspense, setting us on a well-trod path but leaving enough unanswered questions and compelling characters to keep us hooked. This is not an easy thing to do, and the writers manage it with skill and intelligence. Sure, the idea of some scruffy-looking scoundrels avoiding nefarious pursuing forces with a wide-eyed young ingenue of mysterious importance under their wing might sound less than original, especially in the Star Wars universe, but it’s still really great popcorn fun.
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how stunning the artistry in the animation is here. If you watch in high definition, you can see what appear to be brushstrokes in the detail of the characters’ faces when we’re treated to close-ups. It’s a detail easily overshadowed by the action and narrative but remarkable upon careful viewing.
Who should watch
So, should you watch The Bad Batch? If you’re a Star Wars fan who enjoyed previous entries into the franchise’s animated canon, absolutely. Those who’ve dug in completely will be rewarded most here. If you haven’t watched any animated Star Wars, however, you’d probably be best advised not to start with this one. There’s simply too much going on to fully appreciate unless you at least dig into the last season of The Clone Wars. Even then you might find yourself lost by some of the references or deeper themes, to the point where you’d likely conclude that The Bad Batch is frivolous kid’s stuff. And of course you’d be wrong, as I was some years back.
Ultimately, if you’re at all intrigued by this band of rough-and-tumble mutant clones and their adventures in babysitting, do yourself a favor and go on a serious animated Star Wars binge. It’s definitely worth your time. Because this batch, despite its few shortcomings, is definitely a good one.