The "Star Wars" universe expands even further today to include “Star Wars: The Bad Batch,” a spin-off of sorts of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” the hit animated series that started life on the Cartoon Network in 2008 before ending on Disney+ last year. Created by "Star Wars" kingpin Dave Filoni—one of the men behind “The Mandalorian,” as well as a major creative force behind “Clone Wars”—“The Bad Batch” is an animated series that seems unlikely to make the same kind of waves as the hit that gave the world Baby Yoda/Grogu, but should satisfy the hardcore fans who know why this show is premiering on May 4th. The series premieres with a very long episode today (72 minutes) that plays more like a feature film kick-off before settling into a weekly format with a standard episode this Friday (28 minutes). The latter is stronger than the former—as “The Clone Wars” movie proved, these things work better in half-hour episodic adventures than film length—but both should satisfy fans while also giving casual viewers a vision of what the future of “Star Wars” is going to increasingly be as dozens of projects tell stories taking place across the universe.
This one unfolds in a very different era from “The Mandalorian,” which was initially set five years after the end of “Return of the Jedi.” “The Bad Batch” picks up much earlier, after the end of “The Clone Wars,” which places it between the prequel trilogy and the original “Star Wars.” (In fact, Lucasfilm has even named these eras—this one is called Reign of the Empire as evil forces grow stronger in the run-up to the action of that first film.) The final season of “The Clone Wars” opened with a four-episode arc that essentially served as a long pilot for “The Bad Batch.” In those episodes, Filoni introduced a group of clone troopers called Clone Force 99 a.k.a. The Bad Batch—Hunter, Wrecker, Tech, Crosshair, and Echo, all voiced by Dee Bradley Baker. These troopers have unique powers that separate them from average clone troopers. They’re sort of the X-Men of troopers, with unique powers, and, importantly, more of their own free will.
That last part matters because “The Bad Batch” opens with the legendary Order 66, when all of the troopers turned on and murdered the nearest Jedi they could find after a hidden programming forced them to do so at the will of Grand Moff Tarkin. As most troopers learn they have programmed codes they're expected to follow, the Bad Batch discovers that they can go their own way. Well, most of them can. Without spoiling anything, the initial action of “The Bad Batch” centers on a rift in the titular group regarding whether or not to heed the instructions of Order 66.
The issue of whether or not to follow unjust orders provides a strong dramatic thrust to the first episode (and is a theme throughout many of the SW films) but the introduction of a Kaminoan child named Omega (Michelle Ang) works decidedly less well. Omega ends up befriending the Bad Batch and becomes a sort of sidekick. While a new kid protagonist is clearly a way to try and get younger viewers engaged, older ones may regret how much focus she steals from the Bad Batch themselves. There are also some clunky extended action sequences in the premiere—a lot of repetitive shooting and clanging—that lead to an episode that drags at times. Over the run of its existence, “Clone Wars” was a remarkably fast-paced show, and so it’s not great to see "The Bad Batch" slow down and spin its wheels in the first episode, which really could have been half as long.
Having said that, these two episodes are visually richer than "Clone Wars." It feels inspired at times by “The Mandalorian” with its focus on the natural world and more complex shadows than the original “Clone Wars” series, which often had a habit of looking like a video game cut scene. The visual palette here in both episodes is notably stronger and more refined than “Clone Wars,” and that goes a long way in keeping the show engaging.
While the show is unlikely to find the same audience, there are striking narrative parallels to “The Mandalorian” here too. The issue of following orders vs. free will has been one that “Mandalorian” explored; Omega is kind of a variation on Grogu in her unexpected sidekick role; the structure is one that will allow for episodic missions contrasted against what’s basically an extended chase for what I suspect will be most of the season (and maybe beyond). This isn’t the Disney+/Lucasfilm series to rewrite the rules or break the mold. Will “The Bad Batch” feel too reminiscent of what “The Clone Wars” and “The Mandalorian” have already done well? For some fans. But most won’t lament having too much of a good thing.
Two episodes screened for review.