If you’re a long-time fan of “Star Wars” animation, you’re in for a mighty satisfying first 15 minutes of “The Bad Batch.” It’s enough of a spoiler that we won’t say exactly who it is who shows up, but let’s just say it is a kid version of a beloved “Star Wars Rebels” character. It’s the kind of interconnectedness that feels organic and earned, and will certainly elicit squeals of delight from anyone who can tell the difference between a tooka cat and a lothcat.
And if you have no idea what a tooka cat and a lothcat are at all, don’t fret! What follows is one of the most accessible slices of “Star Wars” animation to date, and a glimpse at an era in that galaxy far, far away’s history we’ve never seen before.
What happened right after Order 66, the extermination of the Jedi, and the declaration of the Empire? It’s about 15 years from the end of “Revenge of the Sith” to the start of the “Star Wars Rebels” TV show, with nothing else in between thus far save for “Solo.” How did the Republic become the totalitarian nightmare of the Empire so quickly?
The first episode of “Star Wars: The Bad Batch,” titled “Aftermath,” chooses a bottom-up approach to answer those questions. A lot of the major characters still alive at the end of “Revenge of the Sith” don’t appear here. There’s no scheming Bail Organa trying to subvert the new Emperor’s regime. No Mon Mothma trying to assemble the first Republic-loyalist senators who’ll become the core of the Rebel Alliance. There certainly isn’t any Darth Vader, who’s almost certainly spending considerable time recovering from his lava burns and adjusting to his new life behind a mask. This instead is the disorienting view of a few freethinking soldiers who suddenly find themselves serving a completely different power. Those are the misfit clone troopers of the title, of course.
Where Dave Filoni’s “Clone Wars” series sometimes struggled to differentiate its clone warriors, “The Bad Batch,” the nickname for crack Republic attack squad Clone Force 99, clearly delineates each of its five lead characters from the get-go. None of its members look quite like pixelated riffs on Temuera Morrison, the New Zealand actor who played the clone troopers starting in 2002’s “Attack of the Clones,” that’s for sure. The leader, Hunter, like all of the “Bad Batch” soldiers, has genetic mutations that the Republic could exploit for their war effort. His revolve around heightened senses. Wrecker is a giant-size bruiser who uses brawn to get the job done. Echo has cybernetic enhancements. Tech has the ability to make complex computations on the fly and hack into systems like he’s Chloe from “24.” And crosshair is a sniper who can hit any target.
All of the members of the Bad Batch look different, but what’s astonishing is that every last one of them is voiced by Dee Bradley Baker, who voiced all the clone troopers on “The Clone Wars” series, affecting a version of Morrison’s Kiwi accent. Much of this series is Baker just portraying five different characters in dialogue with each other at the same time. It’s a stunning feat of vocal acrobatics, especially considering that he does deliver a distinct, recognizable voice for each one. It’s animation as a one-man show.
Because of their mutations, the members of the Bad Batch — introduced in such a way for new viewers that it might as well be a first introduction to these characters, despite their “Clone Wars” appearances — have the ability to think for themselves more than “reg” clone troopers. So when Order 66 comes down, as it does in the first 15 minutes of “Aftermath,” they don’t react the way all the other clones do. They don’t turn on and murder the Jedi they’ve been fighting alongside for the past three years. Exactly why would they gun down their own generals? Much of what follows is them trying to piece together and make sense of the strange new reality they find themselves in. Suddenly, this new Empire is even ordering them on a mission to massacre a bunch of civilians. Something has to break, and finally it does, thanks in part to a mysterious young girl named Omega.
“The Mandalorian” and “Clone Wars” mastermind Dave Filoni is listed as creator of “The Bad Batch” and co-writer (along with Jennifer Corbett) of the 71-minute pilot. He continues to have an uncanny “feel” for this universe. Day to day operations on the show at Lucasfilm Animation are being overseen by supervising director Brad Rau. “Aftermath” itself is directed by “Clone Wars” and “Rebels” veterans Steward Lee, Saul Ruiz, and Nathaniel Villanueva. If that indicates, in effect, three episodes being stitched together, you’d never know it. (You definitely did know it with the pilot of the “Clone Wars” series, which was released into theaters in the summer of 2008 with the Frankenstein sutures connecting its episodes more than a little visible.) How, after over 100 episodes of “Clone Wars” they’re still able to come up with distinctive action scenes for clone warriors is a mystery, but they pull it off, especially nailing the teamwork aspect of their action scenes. To take down one killer robot, Hunter throws a knife in the air, and then Crosshair shoots his rifle at it, sending the knife across a room to embed its blade in the droid’s skull.
Could “The Bad Batch” just end up being a project that tides us over until the return of live-action “Star Wars” with “The Book of Boba Fett” on Disney+ this December? One shouldn’t bet on that. “Star Wars” animation has proven it’s as good as live-action “Star Wars” every step of the way, and a source of inspiration for the live-action stuff: Bo Katan, Ahsoka Tano… “The Mandalorian” drew on those characters from years-worth of inspired animation. From “The Mandalorian,” Ming-Na Wen’s Fennec Shand is going in the opposite direction: she’ll be making her animation debut on “The Bad Batch” before appearing in the flesh once again in “The Book of Boba Fett.”
For completists then, “The Bad Batch” is essential. For everyone else? Its first 71 minutes provide an engaging, thoughtful, expertly animated story. But it’s a story that’s still just clearing its throat. Not having to rely on any established characters, aside from Fennec Shand, means that it could go to some unexpected places. This may even be a series that puts old-fashioned storytelling ahead of interconnected mythmaking. And that could be a very exciting thing indeed.
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