May the 4th was strong with the Force.
While my own household celebrated “May the 4th” in our own way, Disney+ also offered a slew of new Star Wars-related content for this unofficial Star Wars holiday, which is really a thing now. First up was the launch of a new post-“Clone Wars” Star Wars cartoon series called “The Bad Batch”, which features the renegade rogues of “Clone Force 99”; an elite squad of mutant former Republic clone troopers whose individuality makes them both exceptional soldiers and free of the new Galactic Empire’s preprogramming.
*****STAR DESTROYER-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!*****
The Bad Batch S1.1: “Aftermath.”
The 70 minute pilot for the series, “Aftermath”, takes place at the very end of Star Wars famed “Clone Wars”, which ended on a gut punch early last year. The titular characters are five clone troopers created for the Army of the Republic from a single Mandalorian prototype, Jango Fett. Unlike the millions of fellow clone troopers created on the stormy planet of Kamino, these five troopers of “Clone Force 99” exhibit some…unique qualities. These individualistic traits have also become their unofficial nicknames. Their unofficial leader is “Hunter” (who physically resembles Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo); the bespectacled brains of the outfit is “Tech”; the loudmouthed human wrecking ball of the group is, well, “Wrecker”; the untrustworthy sharpshooter-assassin of the group is named “Crosshair,” and the adoptee of the group is an injured ‘reg’ troop named “Echo”, who’s received bionic enhancements (much like Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader). All five characters are voiced (with traces of the original Jango Fett’s Kiwi accent) by talented American veteran voice actor Dee Bradley Baker, who’s also worked on writer/creator Dave Filoni’s other successful Star Wars spinoffs, including “The Clone Wars,” “Rebels,” and the recent runaway live-action hit, “The Mandalorian.”
Note: While the titular characters are supposed to be clones, who would naturally sound alike, the fact that Dee Bradley Baker creates such distinctive characters using only his voice is a tribute to the criminally underrated performance artistry that is voice-acting. I’ve met countless voice actors at conventions over the years, and their talents never fail to impress me—they are actors in the purest sense.
The troops are assisting a Jedi general Depa Billaba (Archie Panjabi) and her young padawan, Caleb Dume (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) in one of the last battles of the Wars. As the Bad Batch are busy routing their final targets, they witness their fellow clone troopers acting strangely, having just received Emperor Palpatine’s fateful “Order 66.” Order 66 is an order prewritten into clone trooper DNA that puts the troopers directly under the power-mad Palpatine’s personal authority—making them abruptly turn on their Jedi counterparts (see: “Revenge of the Sith”). The Bad Batch sees a Jedi purge taking place, as fellow clone troopers unexpectedly turn on their Jedi superiors. Something about the Bad Batch’s genetic anomalies prevents them from mindlessly heeding the order, and they try to reason with their fellow troops, but to no avail. Even adopted “reg” trooper Echo seems immune, no doubt due to his vast bio-mech enhancements. The only member of the Batch who remains influenced by Order 66 is sharpshooter Crosshair, but Hunter prevents the trooper from acting on his deadly impulse. When Hunter sees Jedi general Depa mercilessly gunned down, he follows his conscience and allows her padawan apprentice Caleb to escape. When a suspicious Crosshair rejoins Hunter, Hunter lies and tells his untrustworthy comrade that the fleeing Jedi Caleb fell to his death down a nearby waterfall. The ever-suspicious Crosshair does not believe him, but reluctantly stands down. With the war declared over, the troops return to their home planet of Kamino, where they were manufactured and trained.
Notes: Wondering aloud why regular troop adoptee Echo wasn’t affected by Order 66, Hunter and the others suspect that his array of bionic enhancements prevented the order from taking root. He is, in a riff on Obi Wan Kenobi’s description of Darth Vader, “more machine now than man.”
Emperor Palpatine’s audio from “Revenge of the Sith” is also reused here as well, both for the lines “Execute Order 66” and the lines from his speech later on, inaugurating the birth of the “Galactic Empire” from the ashes of the Old Republic. Palpatine is, of course, played by Ian McDiarmid, who has played the role since 1983’s “Return of the Jedi”.
Freddie Prinze Jr. voices young Padawan Caleb Dume, who would, of course, escape the purge of Order 66 to become veteran Jedi Knight “Kanan Jarrus” (Dume’s future alias) in all 4 seasons of “Star Wars Rebels.”
Back at Kamino, the troops are all assembled to hear their Emperor’s speech, which signifies the death of the democratic Old Republic and the birth of the First Galactic Empire, under his personal rule. The Bad Batch seem to be the only ones at the assembly who are cynical of the Emperor’s motives, with the curious exception of Crosshair, who stubbornly insists that “orders are orders.” Later, at the mess hall, they are met by a young clone girl (another mutant, like themselves) named “Omega” (Michelle Ang), who takes an instant liking to the misfit group of soldiers. Later during their meal, we see the other regular clones’ disdain for the “mutants” in their ranks. This bristling animosity erupts into a full-fledged food fight.
Note: The scene appears to be a Star Wars-themed riff on the infamous food fight scene from 1978’s collegiate comedy “Animal House”, where the haughty Omegas have a run-in with the informal slobs of Delta House, resulting in John Belushi’s “Bluto” declaring an all-out “food fight!”
Hunter and his squad are told that a visiting Admiral Wilhuff Tarkin (Stephen Stanton) is arriving on Kamino to assess the viability of further clone trooper use versus an infantry of draftees. It’s clear that Tarkin isn’t fond of clone troopers, and is trying to make a case to the Emperor for discontinuing their use; he’s less about forming an unbiased opinion and more about justifying his own. Meanwhile, young Omega further befriends the Bad Batch, even following them back to their barracks, which are filled with personal effects—unlike the more spartan quarters of the other ‘reg’ troops.
Note: “Admiral” Wilhuff Tarkin, is, of course, future Governor/Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin (whatever the hell a “grand moff” is), who later commands the Death Star in the first “Star Wars” movie (later retitled “A New Hope” in 1981). The live-action Tarkin was first played by the late horror film legend Peter Cushing. The character was later resurrected after Cushing’s 1994 death in 2005’s “Revenge of the Sith” using an actor (Wayne Pygram) in a mask , and in 2016’s “Rogue One”, with actor Guy Henry in a digital CGI makeover (who recorded the dialogue as well). Actor Stephen Stanton has since voiced the role in the Disney cartoon spinoffs.
The Bad Batch are then sent into a large field training chamber, where they are to face ‘simulated’ combat to test their resilience against a new type of battle droid that is resistant to their non-lethal training weaponry. The game soon turns lethal as the robot’s weaponry is set to fire live blaster rounds. Proving almost impossible to overcome, Hunter and Tech break open a captured droid’s control box and reprogram it to destroy the others. Even the admittedly anti-clone biased Tarkin is impressed by the Bad Batch’s unorthodox methods, though he is still wary of their reluctance to follow orders…
Note: The Bad Batch first appeared in the Clone Wars cartoon’s final season with their appearance clearly being set up for this spinoff series. The Bad Batch’s individuality, which is key to their avoidance of Order 66, is also in keeping with Star Wars’ greater theme of individuality vs. conformity; the Galactic Empire is a largely monolithic ‘humans only’ club, while the Rebellion embraces diversity of all species and genders within its ranks.
As it turns out, the exercise wasn’t so much about replacing clones with conscripted troops as it was about testing the Bad Batch themselves. Tarkin later visits the squad and tells them he has a critical assignment for them; a remaining Separatist stronghold has been located on the planet Onderon and needs to be eliminated. Still angry that Admiral Tarkin used live ammunition against them during their ‘training exercise’, the Bad Batch nevertheless agrees to the assignment. Before departure, the Batch are met by young Omega, who warns Hunter and the others that Tarkin has it in for their group.
Taking an Imperial shuttle to the planet Onderon, the squad goes in search of the suspected insurgency, which they assume to be a regiment of battle droids (the preferred soldiers of the Separatists). However, they soon detect life readings and humanoid life signs—including children! Arriving at the camp, Hunter orders his group to stand down, with Crosshair angry at Hunter’s change of heart and evolving loyalties. The group is met by the local insurgent leader, future Rebel ‘terrorist’ Saw Gerrera (Andrew Kishino). Saw tells them that he and the others in his camp fought for the democratic Republic during the Clone Wars, but refused to fight for the newly formed fascist Empire. For their disloyalty, Tarkin wanted them slaughtered. The Bad Batch soon realizes they’ve been sent to slay Gerrera’s group as a loyalty test. Hunter and the others listen to Gerrera, who reluctantly agrees to let his former wartime comrades go, only because they’d once fought together. Before they depart, Gerrera offers the Bad Batch a bit of advice for their own future: “You can either adapt and survive, or die with the past.” The Bad Batch also learns they were being observed on Onderon by an Imperial probe droid, which an angry, distrusting Wrecker makes short work of.
Note: One minor nitpick I had with this scene was the changing depiction of Saw Gerrera, who looks somewhat different from his appearance in 2016’s “Rogue One,” where he was played in live-action by actor Forrest Whitaker. In “The Bad Batch,” Gerrera has straight, light brown hair and green eyes—a stark contrast to African-American actor Whitaker, who is brown-eyed, and has a looser afro hairstyle. I realize that the Gerrera character, in his “Clone Wars” cartoon appearances, wasn’t initially conceived as he later appeared in live-action, but this was later retconned within the “Rebels” cartoon series to more closely align with his “Rogue One” casting. For me, the character’s live-action appearance should now be seen as the template for future appearances, and he should’ve been made to more closely resemble Whitaker instead. Having Gerrera revert to his earlier “Clone Wars” appearance was visually confusing, and I didn’t even recognize the character as Saw Gerrera, until I heard his name spoken aloud.
Leaving Onderon, Hunter remembers that Omega had tried to warn them about Tarkin’s setup. Realizing she is also a fellow ‘mutant’ clone like themselves, Hunter decides to return to Kamino and retrieve the child, who is probably in danger for warning them. The return to Kamino is opposed by Crosshair, who is still bitter that they didn’t complete their mission objective. Upon landing the group is immediately arrested, and Crosshair is taken for examination. Based on the probe droid’s observation, Tarkin is curious why Crosshair is the only one of his group with lingering loyalty to the Empire. Tarkin then orders technicians to amplify those parts of Crosshair’s brain which are genetically predisposed to obey Order 66, and he becomes a sharpened tool to use against the others.
Inside the brig, the team’s individual strengths come to play as Tech analyzes their cell—which is Kaminoan in origin, and not designed with Imperial standards of prisoner detention. The freakishly strong Wrecker finds the weak spot in the wall and smashes through it. Making a hole just large enough for Omega to slip into, the child volunteers to slide into the crawlspace and deactivates the brig’s forcefield. Escaping to their quarters, the Batch retrieves their battle gear and makes it to the cargo bay, but are caught in a firefight with other clone troopers as well as Crosshair, who’s amplified obedience renews his mindless allegiance to the Empire. Using their improvisational battle skills, the Bad Batch makes it to their shuttle and barely manages to escape with Omega aboard. Omega is to be the new ‘defective’ member of the Bad Batch, not Crosshair.
Note: Nice to give the Bad Batch a bright child ally as a younger audience member avatar—also nice to make the character a girl and break up what could’ve very easily turned into a Star Wars sausage party. Contrary to long-busted myths, I know plenty of women (including my wife) who love Star Wars just as passionately as any male audience members.
With a nervous Omega (who’s never left Kamino) safely aboard, the fugitive group of clones blasts off into hyperspace for J-19, where Hunter knows an ally who might help them. Meanwhile, the long-necked clone master Kaminoans discuss how to keep word of the Bad Batch’s escape a secret from their Imperial overlords…
Note: Omega’s awe at the jump to hyperspace brings to mind my then-10 year old self’s similar awe when seeing “Star Wars” theatrically for the first time in 1977. I, too, felt my beating heart rise up into my throat when Han Solo first made the Falcon jump into the star-streaked beauty of ‘hyperspace’—I had literally never seen anything like that in my young life at that point. I very much related to Omega in that moment…
With the five irregulars on the run and their former comrade Crosshair on their tail, the pilot successfully sets the table for the subsequent series. All the elements are there; the four fugitives, the child audience avatar, and even their “Lt. Gerard” (Crosshair) who will no doubt be doggedly searching for them in the future. My only disappointment with “The Bad Batch” is my own overfamiliarity with its core concept: the runaway spaceship filled with eccentric outlaws (the brains, the muscle, the skipper, etc) has been a staple of sci-fi TV as far back as Terry Nation’s “Blake’s 7” (1978-1981) and more recently with Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” (2002), not to mention creator Dave Filoni’s previous Star Wars series, “Star Wars Rebels” (2014-2018). So right out of the box, there’s little terribly new about this Star Wars spinoff.
Despite the premise’s lack of originality, the 70 minute pilot still shows a lot of promise; particularly for future Star Wars crossovers and cameos by famous canonical characters, such as Tarkin, Saw Gerrera, and others to come. I was also deeply impressed by voice actor Dee Bradley Baker’s tour de force performances, playing five of the featured characters in this series (I wish science fiction were more recognized as an actor-friendly genre). I can also see opportunities down the road for future episodes of this series to use templates from classic war stories like “The Dirty Dozen” or “The Great Escape.” Whether or not the series will be habit-forming for me personally remains to be seen, but the pilot episode definitely makes for a successful (if not spectacular) launch.
Other Star Wars Offerings.
In addition to the launch of “The Bad Batch,” there were also a few other Star Wars offerings released on Disney+, including the Star Wars/Simpsons mashup “The Force Awakens From Its Nap” as well as “Star Wars Biomes” and “Star Wars Vehicle Flythroughs”; the latter two feature lovingly long looks at the planets and ships in the Star Wars universe—rendered in the sort of detail you would never see in the fast-paced Star Wars films/TV shows.
First up was “The Force Awakens From Its Nap,” which sees 32-year old “baby” Maggie Simpson from the “The Simpsons” being dropped off in a Star Wars-themed daycare, where we follow her on a brief quest to find her beloved pacifier. Maggie battles droids and other perils leading to her confrontation with a Bart Simpson-styled Darth Maul Sith Lord. Stuffed with Star Wars in-jokes as well as Simpsons’ style of sardonic, self-aware humor, this cartoon is made possible largely due to Disney’s recent purchase of Fox Entertainment, though such cynical business machinations don’t really come to play in this delightful short. There are a lot worse ways for a Star Wars or Simpsons’ fan to kill three minutes.
Next up was Star Wars Biomes, an 18 minute travelogue which takes lovingly long looks at several Star Wars planets, including Hoth, Tatooine, Sorgan, Ach-To and Mustafar. As the camera slowly pans over these exotic yet familiar landscapes, we see a few little easter eggs whiz by, such as Luke’s landspeeder, Imperial AT-ATs and other details to help stoke our Star Wars feels. This would make a fine feature for Disneyland’s Star Tours ride, and I really enjoyed the pressure-free look at some of these beautiful locales—all rendered in gorgeous high definition detail. In fact, the CGI is so good that it sparked a brief debate with a friend of mine if we were seeing actual unused B-roll footage from the films or newly created CGI (I’m of the latter opinion). If I had one minor complaint, it’s that the virtual camera spends waaay too much time on the relatively minor Southeast Asian-looking world of Sorgan, which is only seen in one short episode of “The Mandalorian” (Chapter 4: “Sanctuary”) and simply doesn’t seem as iconic or memorable as the other feature film locales. While it was thoughtful of Disney’s powers-that-be to include a planet from the wildly successful “Mandalorian” TV series, they could’ve just as easily substituted the forest moon of Endor instead, or even Coruscant—either of which would’ve been far more interesting (and iconic). Hopefully we will see other Star Wars worlds in a future installment (?).
Up next was the 10 minute Star Wars Vehicle Flythroughs segment, which offered up-close tours through the iconic Millennium Falcon and a “Force Awakens”-era First Order Star Destroyer. The Falcon tour is seen in the kind of loving detail one gets when going through the Millennium Falcon tour/ride at Disneyland’s Galaxy’s Edge, which I was lucky enough to catch in February of 2020, just before the current COVID pandemic became critical. In “Vehicle Flythroughs,” you will see every compartment on the ship, as well as every knob, control and lever in the Falcon’s cockpit. Having seen the ‘real’ thing up close and personal, this virtual tour is just about as good as it gets for fans who may not have the money or opportunity to visit a Disney theme park. The Star Destroyer tour is also lovingly detailed, offering many of the chambers seen in the Star Wars sequel trilogy (2015-2019), including the detention levels, as well as the command centers—such detail mirrors what fans see in Disney’s “Rise of the Resistance” ride as well. I’m assuming that the virtual tour of the First Order Star Destroyer probably uses many of the same digital files seen in the actual theme park ride. Once again, to Star Wars fans who don’t have the money, time or opportunity to see such things at a real-world Disney park, I highly recommend these wonderfully immersive virtual tours. They are truly the next best things to being there.
“Star Wars The Bad Batch” and all other Star Wars shorts/content can be viewed on Disney+. The movies can also be purchased in physical media (Blu-Ray or DVD) contact-free from Amazon.com as well, or in-person (with masks) at Target or Best Buy. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are just over 575,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, several vaccines have been developed and inoculations have become widespread, which is gradually slowing the US mortality rate (though numbers in Brazil and India are spiking dramatically). Given a certain level of vaccine hesitancy (around 8 percent in the US), it may take longer for for eventual herd immunity. Even with vaccines, the overall situation is not fully safe. Many questions remain regarding the coronavirus variants, or if vaccines fully prevent unwitting transmission from an asymptomatic carrier. If you haven’t already done so, please get vaccinated as soon as possible (I myself have been fully vaccinated now for nearly a month), and let us all vaccinate our way out of the COVID pandemic.
May the Force truly be with us through this deadly pandemic.