Artoo and Threepio go on a very non-Kubrickian space odyssey.

By Christian Blauvelt
October 15, 2011 at 05:57 AM EDT
Lucasfilm

“Nomad Droids” opened with a classic quote from Obi-Wan Kenobi: “Who’s the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?”

In a sense you could reword that to ask, “What’s the sillier episode? ‘MercyMission,’ with its talking trees and mystic frogs, or the episode that followed ‘Mercy Mission?’” In the case of “Nomad Droids,” the follow-up to “Mercy Mission” and conclusion of R2-D2 and C-3PO’s bizarre, yet ever kid-friendly, journey, you’d have to say the latter. I mean, it seemed like even narrator Tom Kane put an extra bit of tongue-in-cheek facetiousness when he belted that Artoo and Threepio had been “caught up in an adventure beyond their imagining.”

After they journeyed into the center of Aleen and solved that planet’s seismological crisis, the droids returned to their usual duties aboard a Jedi cruiser—although why their respective masters let them go in the first place, and why any droids in the Grand Army of the Republic couldn’t have just as easily fulfilled their respective functions on Aleen, remains unexplained. So it was nice to see Threepio in particular fulfill his primary programming when talking to Padmé—they were discussing plans for a senatorial banquet. Sure he’s a great interpreter (6 million forms of communication is nothing to sneeze at) but etiquette and protocol are also deeply a part of his circuitry.

Still, Threepio couldn’t plan party favors and seating arrangements for long, because a Separatist fleet cornered Jedi Master Adi Gallia’s cruiser, on which they were aboard. Much like they would once again 20 years later aboard Princess Leia’s Tantive IV, the dynamic duo found themselves dodging blaster bolts as their ship was boarded. And also like they would 20 years later they had to deal with a heavy-breathing cyborg. This time it was General Grievous, not Vader, who stood in their path. Luckily, Adi Gallia was there to fight the reconstructed Kaleesh warrior, buying time for Artoo and Threepio to make their way off the ship, not in an escape pod, mind you, but in a Y-Wing fighter. Yup, the sturdy two-person fighter with Star Trek-style nacelles that participated in the battle over Yavin to destroy the Death Star got its start in the Clone Wars, as we first saw way back in season one when Anakin and Ahsoka led a squadron against General Grievous’ then flagship, the Malevolence.

It seems like Artoo committed some Grand Theft Y-wing here, but I suppose, given how quickly the Jedi cruiser was destroyed, that they would be commended for saving whatever of the Republic’s hardware they could. Not that it was easy, with Artoo darting his fighter between crimson and azure laser flashes as the cruisers fired Horatio Hornblower broadsides at each other. One particularly pesky droid starfighter perched itself on Artoo’s tail and scored some blaster burn. That meant that our duo were forced down onto a nearby planet to facilitate repairs. Little did they know then what a strange odyssey through movie clichés they were about to embark upon. 

Droid Odyssey, Leg  1: Lilliput

I actually like the idea of devoting a couple episodes to the exploits of Artoo and Threepio. Like the opening of A New Hope—and it’s inspiration, Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress—it allows us to explore an alien environment from the perspective of its lowliest inhabitants, a super quick way to grasp all the power relations at work and make the epic feel intimate. In The Hidden Fortress, those lowliest life forms were two bandits. In Star Wars, they’re droids—and, eventually, Jar Jar. Sure, the Kurosawa comparison only goes so far. It would be closer if, in A New Hope, C-3PO tried to rape Princess Leia, but for all it’s scum and villainy that Galaxy Far, Far Away is a remarkably family-friendly realm.

 NEXT: Artoo and Threepio become the Republic’s Two-Droid Arsenal for Democracy.

And if we didn’t remember that it is a family friendly realm, boy did we ever get a reminder when we saw the inhabitants of Artoo and Threepio’s first stop: six-inch tall, pastel-colored aliens. Okay, fine, Lilliputians. They were immediately drawn to the droids, by their own admission, because they’re “shiny.” When Threepio knew they were being watched, he threatened, “Whoever you are, please know that my counterpart here is programmed in 47 schools of self-defense.” It seems he did need to issue that kind of warning, bluff though it may have been, because the Lilliputians proved remarkably formidable, quickly stunning the two droids and presenting them to their Big Hay-Zu. The Hay-Zu, a decadent, litter-born despot was actually going to let them go, but Artoo in his clumsiness fell on him. Needless to say, there was only Hay-Zu juice left. Didn’t you know the R in R2 stands for “regicide”?

The Kingslayer and Threepio were greeted as heroes by the Hay-Zu’s former subjects, who resented his iron-fisted rule and shameless war mongering. They begged Threepio and Artoo to be their leaders, because primitive peoples in the Star Wars galaxy always have to possess worshipful reverence for them. (It really is just because they’re shiny.) Threepio used this opportunity to give the little people a crash course in democracy. When he asked his reverent followers to choose their smartest, wisest and most compassionate to be their new leaders, three stepped forward. Without any background checks or pre-campaign vetting, Threepio announced that one of the three would be their new leader, then encouraged a vote by acclamation. He patted himself on his golden back for supposedly having brought democracy to these people, which I can’t help but feel is Lucasfilm’s covert allegory for colonialism. Representatives of a more technologically sophisticated culture (no mere accident that one has a British accent) murder a less developed society’s ruler, push democracy on them—all the while pulling the strings to elect a new, more malleable leader—then put the indigenous people to work on their war machine…in this case, a Y-Wing fighter. A pretty devastating critique, to be honest.

Droid Odyssey, Leg 2: Oz

I suppose a Wizard of Oz reference on The Clone Wars was inevitable. We’ve already had episodes paying tribute to Notorious, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Aliens, Night of the Living Dead, and Godzilla. The Wizard of Oz also has a tin man, which was sort of L. Frank Baum’s conception of a droid, I suppose. Threepio didn’t need an oil can on the planet Balnam, a stellar remnant in early stages of organic development, but after being captured in an electro-net by galactic hillbillies a la Zed in Pulp Fiction, he did find himself standing before an All-Powerful…hologram? The goons who’d captured him thought this was an omnipotent being, capable of unleashing lightning to reinforce its will. But it was really like Oz, controlled by a timorous charlatan with a flair for the theatrical, hiding behind a curtain. It wasn’t Henry Travers, but a pack of pit droids. Apparently, when they’re not working a podrace, this is their chosen hobby: to lord over the simple-minded denizens of a one-tank world to make themselves feel superior. Still, they could have chosen a better omnipotent incarnation for themselves. Their hologram looked like “God” from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. I half expected Threepio to ask, “Why does God need a Y-Wing?”

Artoo exposed the droids behind the curtain to their “followers” who promptly set upon them with their blasters and rage. If that Galaxy Far, Far Away had pitchforks, pitchforks would have been carried. Didn’t you know the R in R2 stands for “Revolutionary,” and the D stands for “Death-Dealer”? Well, you do now. As the pit droids’ hideout blew up in the background, Artoo and Threepio slowly moved toward the camera like mechanical versions of Chow Yun-fat and Tony Leung in a John Woo movie. I half expected to see a toothpick clenched in Threepio’s mouth.

NEXT: Robot boxing sans Hugh Jackman!

But after their moment of triumph, the two droids found they were finally running out of power. I thought they had some way to replenish their supplies. Surely, R2 must have a portable solar panel like WALL-E. How could he not? They’re both voiced by Ben Burtt. So they both powered down and in their vulnerable state were abducted by Weequay pirates. I could have sworn Hondo Ohnaka was among them, but I guess I’m alienist: I can’t tell Weequay apart.

Droid Odyssey, Leg 3: Pirates of the Outer Rim: On Stranger Tides

These pirates apparently had access to some premium channels on their Holonet receiver, because they promptly pitted Threepio and Artoo against a flame-thrower wielding robot in a boxing arena. Hmm…boxing robots, why does that sound familiar? No father-son empowerment narrative developed a la Real Steel, however, though Hondo could have made for a killer Hugh Jackman substitute. Nor did Aurra Sing or Asajj Ventress show up to play the role of the hot but emotionally dead rival robot owner. In fact, before this battle could even begin, General Grievous’s warship showed up.

When the droid captain informed Grievous that there was a pirate ship on their scopes, the fearless leader immediately ordered, “Use that ship for target practice. Open fire!” Now, ostensibly, the Separatists are trying to form their own government apart from what they perceive as the Republic’s corruption. Some of these, like the Late Senator Bonteri are indeed political idealists. So how can they still think their philosophy is worth a damn when their military is led by General Grievous? Some crazy cyborg who likes to just use random ships he encounters in space as target practice.

I suppose Grievous’ bloodlust actually worked in the droids’ favor, because they were spared from having to participate in the death match when their ship vented its contents into outer space due to his well-timed laser fire. Like WALL-E and EVE, the two droids danced in zero gravity against the backdrop of the whirling cosmos, until Artoo was able to guide them into the Separatist ship’s landing bay.

Droid Odyssey, Leg 4: Into the Fiery Pit

On board Grievous’s ship—could this be his Revenge of the Sith flagship, the Invisible Hand?—Artoo and Threepio were immediately herded to the incineration room to be melted down into who knows what. Actually, I know what: raw material for the General’s war machine! The two droids stared annihilation head on. But this time, the Republic forces, led by Plo Koon, got the jump on the Separatist war criminal, boarded his ship, and rescued the droids. Oh, and Adi Gallia too. To quote a favorite Clone Wars writers’ room expression, “Plo Kool!”

Though a strange hodgepodge of movie references, kiddie humor, and confrontations with death, “Nomad Droids” was an engaging episode. I will say, and it’s rare for me to say this…I wish the animation had been better. The two planets the droids visited seemed exactly the same—all rocks and craggy hillsides–with the second, Balsam, featuring especially disappointing, plastic-looking flora. A major, major comedown for the quality we saw in the Mon Calamari opener this season. But even Lucasfilm has to worry about budget issues, folks!

Padawan readers, where did “Nomad Droids” rank among this season’s episodes so far? A disappointment, or an improvement on “Mercy Mission”? And are you ready for that upcoming four-part, clone-centric battle epic on Umbara, featuring an episode directed by Oscar winner Walter Murch, or what?

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