Star Wars Day 2021 brings Star Wars animation's return in Star Wars: The Bad Batch, the successor series to Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Picking up right where The Clone Wars left off, The Bad Batch sees the deviant clone troopers of Clone Force 99 introduced in The Clone Wars' final season -- Hunter, Wrecker, Crosshair, Tech, and new recruit Echo -- navigating the fall of the Galactic Republic and the rise of Galactic Empire. It's a surprisingly serious debut -- perhaps reflecting streaming television's diminishing reliance on advertising and toy sales -- that manages to make familiar Star Wars themes newly relevant while keeping up the high-quality standards set by The Clone Wars' last episodes.
The Bad Batch's premiere picks up at the same point that The Clone Wars concluded, the waning days of the war between the Republic and the Separatists. Emperor Palpatine delivers Order 66, and the clones turn on their Jedi commanders. At the time, Clone Force 99 was on the same planet as a certain Jedi padawan that Star Wars Rebels fans will find familiar, though the much younger version of the character having the same voice as the adult version is a bit unsettling.
With one exception, the Bad Batch's genetic (or, in Echo's case, cybernetic) deviations prevent Order 66 from taking hold, which puts these clones in an uncomfortable position. While the "regs" are all programmed to take orders and accept them, Clone Force 99 has to make a choice: to fall in line with the new order or to break ranks, with much of the weight of that choice falling on squad leader Hunter's shoulders. Complicating matters even further is Hunter and company discovering the existence of Omega, a young girl they learn is an enhanced clone like themselves. At the same time, the Empire decides to reassess whether the clone army needs to exist.
The episode essentially asks whether these soldiers are capable of recognizing an authoritarian takeover as it happens, a question that -- rightly or wrongly -- many in the real world have been surprised to find themselves considering in recent years. The troop reacts in familiar and recognizable ways, convincing themselves that the new regime isn't different from what came before. The same person is in charge, after all. How different can Chancellor Palpatine be from Emperor Palpatine?
The episode deals with the situation in the broad, uncomplicated, and bloodless terms you'd expect from a Star Wars cartoon. That prevents it from becoming too dark for its intended audience, but it is dour in tone compared to The Clone Wars on Star Wars Rebels. While Dee Bradley Baker does a tremendous job voicing the entire main cast, giving them all distinct personalities, none of these soldiers have the heroic charm of Anakin, Obi-Wan, Ahsoka Tano, or the Ghost crew. The writing leans heavily on strong but dimwitted Wrecker to provide comic relief, which, over the premiere's 70-minute run time, begins to grate but does provide some needed levity.
When The Clone Wars' final season arrived last year, it showed how far the show's animation had come since the abysmal pilot film, and The Bad Batch continues to impress visually. Clone Force 99's unique abilities offer the animator plenty to play with to create thrilling action scenes, and that potential doesn't go to waste here. As soon as the team returns to rainy Kamino following Order 66, the visual mood changes to match the "dark times" they're now inhabiting. And when the group makes their choice and laser bolts start to fly, the action lives up to the "no going back" moment at hand.
The team behind Star Wars' animated installments are bringing everything they've learned in the more than a decade since The Clone Wars debuted to the table for The Bad Batch. The first episode has to do some heavy lifting to set the stage for what's to come as it puts the Bad Batch together with Omega and sends them on the run. While the gloomy tone makes the episode a bit staid compared to the high adventure shows that preceded it, it sets up an exciting premise as the Bad Batch becomes an A-Team-like entity searching for a place in a galaxy going through tremendous upheaval. It's also interesting to consider that this is the first Star Wars animated series that doesn't have a clear endpoint to shoot towards -- no apparent Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith or Star Wars: A New Hope to presage -- while the questions surrounding Omega adds a dose of intrigue into the mix. It's a solid first outing for a new show that seems poised only to get stronger as its characters grow and its mysteries unravel.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5