Season 4 begins with a splash, as Anakin and his future Rebel Alliance nemesis Ackbar team up to prevent war on Mon Calamari

By Christian Blauvelt
September 17, 2011 at 05:55 AM EDT
Cartoon Network
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War! It’s neverending in that Galaxy Far, Far Away. Throughout the Star Wars saga we’ve seen battles on icy tundras, deserts, and grassy plains. In forests and planet-covering cityscapes. Even a showdown in a giant sinkhole (R.I.P. General Grievous). But until tonight’s aptly-titled fourth season premiere of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, “Water War,” George Lucas’s saga had never given us a full underwater conflagration.

When I spoke to Clone Wars supervising director Dave Filoni last March, before last season’s finale, I laid my geek cards on the table and said that if there was one thing I wanted to see from his show above all else it was a trip to Admiral Ackbar’s homeworld of Mon Calamari for some ultra-hydrated action. At that time Mr. Filoni would neither confirm nor deny that such a storyline was in the works, but he did indicate that I was not alone in my sentiment. Needless to say, despite an unfortunate Gungan incursion into the azure seas of Mon Calamari, I found “Water War” and its follow-up “Gungan Attack” to be pretty amazing spectacles—and more importantly, confirmation that The Clone Wars is making the jump to lightspeed from the get-go this season. No more episodes about corrupt Mandalorian school superintendants!

“Water War” opened with an image that immediately let us know we’d been transported to a totally alien landscape. The squid-headed king of the Mon Calamari had been murdered—his mollusk guts impaled with a spear—and his limp body floated like an expired goldfish turned upside down in its bowl. Not your typical image of an assassination, to say the least. If one of the drawbacks of Lucasfilm’s animation style has been how characters are subject to a curious weightlessness, that lack of physical presence works perfectly when the Clone Wars’ heroes are supposed to be underwater. Which they were for pretty much the whole hour. Padmé and “her Jedi bodyguard” both performed graceful swan dives into the ocean—after all, Padmé’s sister from another galaxy is the Black Swan!—and joined a meeting between the Mon Calamari and their tentacled neighbors, the Quarren, because every prequel-era storyline has to begin with a talky Senate scene. Still, we got a panoramic overview of the Mon Calamari’s capital city, buildings all decked out in Finding Nemo pastels and interconnected by an awesome rapid-transit tube system/water-park ride.

NEXT: Captain Ackbar goes rolling in the deep. He could have had it alllll!

We also met the Separatist ambassador, Riff Tamson, who’s basically just a Great White shark with higher cognitive and language skills. Riff is like one-half of the primary cast of Robert Rodriguez’ The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl, and I won’t deny that I spent part of the episode pondering who could be Lava Girl so as to make my ridiculous analogy stick. (We all know Anakin is certainly Lava Guy!) Anyway, Tamson’s a pretty cool new villain. But it became obvious that, unlike the Mon Calamari, he’s probably not amphibious. I mean, those gills are rather prohibitive. That means he can only show up as a recurring villain on The Clone Wars if the episode takes place primarily underwater. He’s like the anthropomorphic lead of Bart Simpson’s favorite show, Knight Boat—he can only appear in water. But maybe, like Knight Boat, future episodes will somehow locate kinetic action scenes in proximity to a stream, fjord, or aquifer so he can make an appearance.

After Tamson huffily led the Quarren out of peace negotiations, Prince Lee-Char, heir to the throne of Mon Calamari, gave a noble, if misguided speech declaring his belief that the Quarren would never attack. Misguided, because literally a second later crimson blaster bolts flew over his head as Tamson spurred his Quarren allies and a legion of hydraulic droids into battle. Not a great confidence builder, Lee-Char!

Luckily, the boy prince had an ace card up his epaulet-ed sleeve: a captain named Ackbar. Yes, the same Ackbar who some 24 years later will lead the Rebel Alliance fleet in a go-for-broke assault against the Second Death Star. But all politics is local, of course, and at this time Ackbar’s serving his own kind on his own world. My favorite Ackbar moment in the episode? When he fires into the oncoming hoard with a blaster in each hand and lets out a rebel yell of defiance. Who knew sushi could be badass?

NEXT: Heeeeeeeeeeeere’s Tamson!

Dave Filoni promised epic action this season, and, Sithspawn, have they delivered. What began as a waterlogged light show—kind of like what would happen if you’d cross the under-the-sea skirmish in Thunderball with the laser battle from Moonraker—became something I’d wager has never been seen before in ANY TV show or movie: underwater urban warfare. Add some Clone SEALs and you’ve got yourself a veritable Full Metal Blaster. Actually, the aquatic urban warfare wasn’t the only Kubrickian touch in “Water War.” At one particularly harrowing moment, Riff Tamson trapped Lee-Char & Co. in one of the city’s hydraulic mass-transit tubes, and began ramming it. Repeatedly. Like a Carcharadon carcharias ripping apart a diving cage, until finally his shark-snout poked through. Seriously, I half expected him to say, “Heeeeeeeeere’s Tamson!” Oh, and that was right after Lee-Char assured everyone that they’d be safe in the tube. That’s two you’ve gotten wrong, buster.

“Water War” ended with the Prince and his Jedi entourage—and one Naboo senator—on the run and hiding in the caves on Mon Calamari’s seafloor. Defeat? Nay. As Ackbar himself said, sometimes it’s more important to live and fight another day. Count Dooku understood this too, and at the beginning of part two, “Gungan Attack,” the Sith Lord told Tamson that while Lee-Char is alive he can be used as symbol of resistance. “Hope is not something we can allow our enemy to possess,” he said. Apparently Dooku doesn’t understand that one can become an even greater symbol as a martyr. But living on the other side of the universe I don’t suppose he ever had a chance to see Braveheart at his local holo-cinema. (You just know that in the wrap-up episode next week, Lee-Char will say something like, “This is OUR sea!”)

NEXT: There be Gungans here.

So I’ve often had a cockeyed respect for Lucasfilm’s insistence on still trotting out the Gungans. I mean, they’re the most hated characters in the history of pop culture, and yet The House That George Built at some point decided to double down (although at this point it’s more like quintuple down) on Naboo’s speech-impaired amphibians. But when Yoda said, “To the Gungans we must look for help,” I couldn’t help but think that this was a “Whoever wins, we lose” scenario. When Otah Gunga’s Boss Lyonie (voiced, as is Jar Jar Binks, by Ahmed Best) opened his mouth to sputter, “Mesa need some thinking time to respond to dis news,” my roommate Jeremy Berman turned to me and said, “The Gungans are so offensive….And yet I’m not exactly certain who should feel offended.”

Back on Mon Calamari the Prince, Anakin, Ahsoka, Kit, Padmé, Ackbar, and Senator Tils made a break for the surface where the Republic’s consular ship waited. But like a master dejarik player three moves ahead, Tamson blew up their ship just as they got close. When he told his tactical droid, “Spring the trap!” I thought for certain that would be where Ackbar would utter his famously on-the-nose catchphrase. But, alas, he did not. Honestly, I’m not quite certain why Tamson didn’t just wait to blow up their ship until they had, you know, actually boarded it. He could have killed several proverbial womprats with one stone. But luckily for our heroes, he didn’t—though perhaps the galaxy would have been better off if Anakin had died right then and there.

NEXT: Once more unto the breach…

I’m going to go out on a hyperbolic limb and say it: that post-explosion animation, as Lee-Char & Co. rode the debris from the ship down to the ocean floor, is the greatest The Clone Wars has ever given us. Combined with Matthew Wood’s hauntingly muted “underwater” sound design, the vertiginous depths of the Mon Calamari sea, murky with shrapnel and exhaust, truly seemed like a watery grave for our heroes. The pure disorientation Filoni and staff captured was magnificently unsettling.

Then the Gungans showed up. I couldn’t help but notice a tinge of sarcasm in Kit Fisto’s announcement “Gungans! The tide has turned in our favor.” But saviors though they were supposed to be, they were turned back easily enough when Tamson unleashed his whirlpool device, another opportunity for the Lucasfilm animation team to demonstrate their mastery of swirling particulate matter. I could just imagine the plaintive Gungan wails. “Ohsa, no! There’s a whirlpool a comin’! Waaaaaaaaaaah! Wesa gonna die!”

In the end everybody was captured except Lee-Char and Ahsoka. Jar Jar was left hugging Senator Tils—could this be a match made in amphibian heaven?—and poor, comatose Kit Fisto was dragged away by Tamson himself. I love an arc like this, because, even though we know how the Clone Wars ultimately end, we don’t know what’s going to happen to Lee-Char or his people as a result of the events of these episodes.

Mesa say this premiere was bombad! But what about yousa? Is it time for us to get over our aversion to the Gungans, accept that they’re here to stay, and move on? And, anyway, whatever happened to Boss Nass? After these episodes will we ever see Tamson again?  And surely next week Ackbar will say “It’s a trap,” right?

Before the Dark Times, before the Empire, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker fight to restore peace and justice to a galaxy far, far away…
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