This piece is an addendum to the series on classic children's TV. On occasion I will do posts on shows that don't qualify for the main series, but give me a chance to explore the edges of 'quality' in this genre.
Like most Americans of a certain age and inclination, I tuned in to one of the early episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. I hated it. As someone who has refused to watch the first three movies, I didn't understand what was going on. I found the CGI cold and forbidding, and the constant battles both chaotic and boring. After a couple of years, though, it became clear that this show was not going away and was even going to be important in the history of kids' TV. Having seen enough examples of amazing animation, I decided to give it another try and have come to a grudging affection for the damn thing. It turned out to be an excellent example of the strengths and weaknesses of George Lucas' vision.
The Clone Wars takes place in the same general time period as the first two Star Wars movies, with the Galactic Republic and its army of clones warring against a separatist movement allied with the Sith, those who serve the dark side of the Force. We follow the adventures of Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker, his student Asoka, and his own teacher Obi-Wan Kenobi as they attempt to prosecute the war and keep the future of the Jedi secure (irony alert!). The setting creates a mixture of plots culled from the Spanish Civil War, WWII, and post 9/11 American domestic policy. As usual, Lucas thinks he is far deeper than he actually is: each episode even begins with a fortune-cookie-like aphorism. There are civil liberties issues, questions of the status of clones, and much pontificating on war and peace in between ships blowing up spectacularly and light saber battles. Unfortunately the moral quandries usually turn out to have shallow roots. As a pacifist, I was particularly interested in the episodes where our heroes crash land on a planet settled by war-resisting lemur people with Northern Irish accents (no, really), but the writers seemed to have some trouble distinguishing between pacifism and unprincipled neutrality (we're looking at you, Switzerland). In the end it is determined that it might be okay to go to war to defend yourself against really bad guys, especially if you're only 'killing' droids and you have an old codger to continue to voice the extreme position so that you don't totally give up on your values. Oddly, with all the show's concern with raising philosophical problems, the deep problem at the heart of its very premise remains unexplored, as I will detail in a moment.
The ships blowing up really are spectacular, as is much else about the show's visual world. It's the first animated series to be made completely in CGI, and the sharp saturation of the images is absolutely stunning. But there's an ancient joke that George Lucas would prefer to make movies in which there are no actors at all, and the one problem CGI has is with human figures. They look awkward and unnatural, and although discomfort with this fades over time it never completely goes away and creates a bit of a distance between viewer and character (it certainly doesn't help that the actor who voices Obi-Wan is stunningly bad; like, historically bad). The biggest distancing effect, however, is a symptom of Lucas' own moral quandry: he made the show's hero Anakin Skywalker.
The very public second act of this man's life is as a genocidal galactic dictator, who started his career as a Sith Lord by murdering a temple full of children. His 'redemption' takes the form of saving the life of his own son. Since Anakin is consistently presented as someone who cares about the people close to him above any other type of value, that's not a difficult moral stretch for him. Yes, in doing that he assured the destruction of the Empire, but he didn't have to repair or even regret any of the terrible things he did over a twenty-odd year career as Darth Vader. Yet in choosing to make the first set of movies after completing the middle trilogy, in replacing the figure of old Vader with young Anakin in Return of the Jedi, and in creating an entire series built around him, Lucas continually downplays the enormity (in its classical sense) of Vader's crimes. He started out as a good person and is eventually 'redeemed,' and that seems to be the only thing that matters. I think it creates quite a bit of confusion and eventually great unpleasantness to present Anakin as a hero to a very young audience which is still forming its sense of morality. Children see things in black and white. Complicating this is a slow and delicate process. And quite frankly, even as an adult who loves morally complex stories, I am not looking forward to watching this basically decent guy turn into a monster. In the planned five seasons, there will be too many episodes to be able to avoid traversing the ground of the films. Darth Sidious has already appeared, and Darth Maul is scheduled for season three. There's only so long they can take before starting to turn Anakin, and astute children will also realize that a number of the characters are going to die. At the end of this phase of the story, the bad guys win.
Now, here is point in which people swoop in and argue that the show isn't meant for children, that it airs on Adult Swim as well as Cartoon Network proper, and that TNT picked it up. To which I reply, the show's own website touts the Nielsen numbers in all three child-related age groups including 2-6. That's TWO to six. It's incredibly violent, with most 22-minute episodes containing at least three scenes of combat, beautifully rendered so as to be realistic. Also, one of the things that attracts adults like me is that it does attempt to deal with some of the realities of life in a war zone, and the plots continue from episode to episode. The darkness and sophistication of some of these plots is reminiscent of shows like Gargoyles, and obviously focuses heavily on the betrayal of previously trustworthy figures. These are things that the show's most ardent viewers, boys from 6-11, need to be discussing with their parents at the very least. It also really emphasizes the usual Lucas confusion about the target audience for his work.
Most of the Star Wars movies were rated PG as well, but they always seemed like something made for grown-ups that kids had access to. One of the most troubling aspects of The Clone Wars is the continuing need the animators have to create fanboy service by making all the women half-naked. The female characters on this show are actually fabulous, but their dress severely undermines their strength and status as equals. General Secura, a Jedi Knight and a leader of the Republic forces, shows a vast amount of cleavage and her lower garment is cut below the hip. There's a female villain, Ventress, who is both ugly of face and completely sexualized of body, as has become popular in sci-fi since she has to be both shown to be evil and shown to be sexually available to viewers at the same time. The show's major female protagonist, Asoka, is supposed to be an adolescent, and yet she too wears a bare midriff. What is this double standard telling the kids who tune in with the fanboys? Equally maddening is that Asoka, as the one regularly-occurring woman on the show, calls the male hero 'master.' Obviously that's because she's his student, but they couldn't have figured out a less servile dynamic for the show's heroes? They do undercut it somewhat, just as Anakin is not particularly obedient to Obi-Wan, but it still rankles as a gendered practice. And let's not even get started on the racial symbolism of Jar-Jar Binks. Lucas should have scrapped this disaster post-Phantom Menace, but instead the jive-talking incompetent provides 'comic relief' by either screwing things up royally with his physical awkwardness, or saving the day by tripping and falling on the right lever. He's excruciatingly dumb as a concept, and stands in stark contrast to some of the decent comedic dialogue that goes on among the other characters.
As someone who is equipped to grapple with all of these issues (except Obi-Wan's voice acting for which there is no excuse), I am actually looking forward to The Clone Wars season three premiere on September 17th. There will be lots of great visual images and Asoka will kick further ass with the world's coolest weapon. I do worry, however, about the effect repeated viewing of this show has on the very young male demographic. That is not going to be assuaged as it gets ever darker in seasons to come.