Last night (UK time) I had a most delightful re-watch of the ‘Umbara Arc’ of the Star Wars: The Clone Wars series during the live-tweet fest #UmbaraLive called by the Fan Girls Going Rogue (@FGGoingRogue). Re-watching the arc like this made me spot many things that I originally missed. It felt fresh again. But it also made me think about ‘what Star Wars is’ at the moment … on the cusp of the first ‘Star Wars Story’ film being released.
The Umbara Arc
When the four-part Umbara Arc was first aired it caused a bit of a stir. Not only was this a clone-centered arc in which none of the ‘usual Jedi’ played a significant role but it was one of the first Arcs that felt like a war-movie all through the set of four episodes. The lighting and set-pieces were exceptionally dark relative to the earlier episodes in the 4th and the previous seasons. But also violence and threat were ever present and there was little comic relief to speak of. This was as close to ‘Clone Wars’ that had raged in fan’s fantasies ever since Obi Wan spoke that one line in 1977 as either films or series had ever come to show.
The Umbara Arc introduced us to a new planet and a new species. Though the new species remained largely hidden behind the moderately transparent visors of their battledress it was clear they were close to human from the get go. Which meant another first for The Clone Wars as a series; the first depiction of large scale violence of clones against near-humans. Yet what struck me most, both during the re-watch as well as the first time is how the weirdness and novelty of the Umbaran technology not only poses a great threat to the Clone Trooper and their leaders but gives the Umbarans a very strong presence in each and every shot and scene. You can feel how much this is their home-planet they are defending. The ones we root for, our Clone troopers we have come to appreciate and love such as Rex, Tup, Fives, Waxer and Hardcase, they do feel like intruders into a world that is clearly the Umbaran’s.
It is against this background that the writers of the Clone Wars try to tell several very difficult stories about individuality, individual responsibility, about loyalty and allegiance, about honour, valour and sacrifice. They do so in a setting we have never seen before in the Star Wars universe that is so very different from anything we did see before. I think it is an overwhelming success in terms of story-telling and visual-design achievements.
Re-watching this while following on twitter the reactions of others watching this as well was invigorating. Not only is it absolutely wonderful to have little things you never saw pointed out to you by those who are just a little ahead of you. But also your own eye & mind watch it differently in the hope of capturing something you can share with the others. Being able to go back the next day to the hashtag #UmbaraLive and to reread some of the tweets I had seen and to read some of the ones I missed is also a really engaging way to revisit such an experience.
Star Wars in the Balance
This year the Star Wars universe will make a transition in the cinema from being a Saga-only phenomenon to a Saga-and-Story phenomenon. With a new trilogy just started last December and a new strand of films starting this September the Celebration 2016 in London was a ball. But what struck me during the Celebration and what I was reminded of last night during #UmbaraLive was how much the creations of the teams around Dave Filoni have become to define what Star Wars is for me.
I am a ‘fan since 1977’-fan of Star Wars and I realise that for many of ‘my generation’ it was The Force Awakens that marked a re-awakening of Star Wars. But I do not only adore the Prequels as much as the Originals, I have also consistently enjoyed Clone Wars and now Rebels. And for all the joy and excitement that I also feel about The Force Awakens and Rogue One I must say that these so far are not coming terribly close to what I believe has been one of the defining characteristics of Star Wars.
Star Wars was and should be imaginative. Using characters from past episodes and stories is perfectly fine and even recommendable, but not an excuse not to be imaginative and creative in how you use them. Using worlds of past films is fine, but you add to it. Creating new worlds is even better, but you create worlds, not just sets or set-pieces. The Force Awakens was unimaginative across the board in the worlds it brought us. We were given Jakku but not much more than just an outpost in a desert with a random population of freaks … really. Tatooine had ‘Sand People’ and with just two or three lines of expository dialogue in A New Hope Lucas created an entire mystery-filled world around them. Jakku only really got throw away lines.
Tokadana looks like Earth, now of course it was shot on Earth, but I find it remarkable how both Tokanada, D’Qar and Starkiller Base look like different places Earth while Alderaan in Revenge of the Sith and Naboo in the whole Prequel Trilogy look significantly more alien. But of course in addition to those we also had the Wookie homeworld, Felucia, Mygeeto and Mustafar for example. A rich imaginative universe that somehow was scaled down significantly for The Force Awakens.
In Star Wars the Clone Wars expanded the Star Wars universe greatly but, as far as I am concerned, also set a tone for what we are looking for in a Star Wars narrative. Imaginative worlds and species (Species! Not just a couple of freak characters at a table!), imaginative technology such as the fascinating tech of the Umbarans and finally story that touch confidently on deep and difficult topics and themes without simplifying or short cutting them. All of that clad in visually wealthy story-telling that does not shy away from symbolism. Anyone who has seen the Rebels Season 2 finale know what I mean, anyone who has seen the Rebels Season 3 trailer knows what I mean and anyone who has joined us in re-watching the Umbara Arc from Star Wars The Clone Wars knows what I mean.
For me the most profound Star Wars is currently happening in Dave Filoni’s part of Lucasfilm and watching #UmbaraLive and seeing how people repond to it just strengthened that impression. I love what I saw of the Rogue One movie in the Celebration reel with distinct hints of new ‘planets with a character’ and ‘tough topic’s story-telling’ that, quite honestly, I find increasingly lacking from The Force Awakens.
My little ‘Uh huh!’ during #UmbaraLive
With close to 90 minutes runtime the Umbara Arc is close to being an actual theatrical movie. I would love to see it on the big screen. The Umbara Arc discusses many difficult topic but possibly none as difficult as the notions of justice, revenge and the personal choices we need to make in such dilemma’s. Usually these dilemma’s are long in the making and require a lot of stuff to be told and to happen before we have them on the razor’s edge. The Umbara Arc builds towards that in all of the conversations between all of the characters and then brings it all into focus in that scene where Krell is to be executed. The whole vast collection of narratives of the Star Wars universe all seem to collide and collude for a few seconds in that shot where Rex is in doubt as to whether he should fire his weapon or not. Then, for a few seconds only, Kevin Kiner’s score ‘quotes’ the ‘Padme’s Ruminations’ piece from Revenge of the Sith. Briliant! But I never heard realised until watching #UmbaraLive last night.