If you ask me, one trope we haven't seen enough of in this series is the adventures of R2-D2 and C-3PO. That's why I found myself enjoying Mercy Mission. It was a very funny, if only moderately interesting, diversion from the beaten path of battlefield drama. A few moments raised skepticism in me and left me wanting more. This, combined with the episode's relatively mundane plot, kept Mercy Mission from being excellent, but I still wouldn't call it a bad installment in the series. It provided more enjoyable scenes with two of the Star Wars saga's most enduring characters than any other episode of The Clone Wars thus far. The absence of the main (organic) cast prevented Mercy Mission from furthering the overall arc of the war significantly, although I will address one intriguing plot element that I believe was overlooked by many viewers.
For starters, I like that R2 and 3PO get their moments to shine. 3PO in particular was able to show off as a translator, a role of his that has been largely absent from this series. The local Aleena really reminded me of the Ewoks in that they seemed to venerate the droids. Indeed, at the end of the episode, R2 interacted with the young Aleena child as he did with the Ewoks after they joined the tribe in Episode VI. The Aleena realized that R2 and 3PO cared more about their plight and were motivated to help them, so they approached the droids when the clones failed to understand or take an interest in them. With the droids getting increased screen time, it was important to keep their portrayal faithful to the movies. The animators certainly nailed their mannerisms, whether it was 3PO's gesturing and posture or R2's dome-tilting, holoprojector-socket-twitching, quirky noises, and curious spirit.
One thing I found interesting was that R2 had recorded Orphne's riddle. Does that mean he's recording all the time? It's not that I have a problem with that; it's just that this has never been explained to us. In any event, it came in handy here, as R2 immediately figured out Orphne's riddle and set to work escaping while 3PO, as always, took his time catching up. The little astromech even seemed to shake his head with exasperation as he roamed the room looking for the right floor plate. As is typical of 3PO, he proudly took credit for R2's ingenuity. I appreciated that Orphne's actual riddle was clever but not too clever. Younger kids were supposed to have trouble with it, leading to a rush of excitement from them when R2 figured it out. Teenage and adult viewers, on the other hand, almost certainly understood it before 3PO, so we could enjoy listening to the protocol droid's thought process without being distracted by the puzzle ourselves.
As the only one of the pair who speaks Basic, it was C-3PO who had to carry most of the narrative in Mercy Mission. True to form, he took his mission seriously, and it was this pride and determination that I enjoyed most about the episode. Anthony Daniels unsurprisingly did a great job replicating 3PO's anxiety and pride from the movies. His scolding R2 right after asking for his help was so faithful to the movies. He even had some pretty funny lines to R2 at the end of the episode, specifically "No one understands you anyway" and "Dare to dream, Artoo. Dare to dream."
Less central to this episode but no less interesting to watch were Commander Wolffe and his group of clones on relief duty. As one might expect during a war, loyal, battle-hardened soldiers are usually antsy to participate in the fighting, and Wolffe and his men were no exception. In an homage to Luke's line on Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back, one of Wolffe's troopers said to another, "Coming here was a bad idea," to which his comrade replied, "I"m beginning to agree with you." I appreciated the pervasive theme of Wolffe's clones undervaluing and being exasperated by R2 and 3PO. I laughed at Wolffe shaking his head and rolling his eyes as 3PO accepted the Aleena King's gratitude. More important than their treatment of the droids was their response to the locals' pleas for "peace." The clones underestimated the sophistication of the locals and didn't understand the planet's real problem. To them, "peace in the ground" was a primitive term for "an end to a natural disaster," but the Aleena, with a comprehension belying their simplistic appearance, seemed to realize that there was more to their planet's troubles than geological disruptions.
When I said earlier that many viewers probably overlooked an intriguing part of this episode, I was referring to the clones' disgruntled and disappointed attitude about being on relief duty. When the Empire takes over, species other than Humans are truly aliens, rejected by Palpatine and his xenophobic regime. As far as we've seen throughout the prequel films and The Clone Wars, it starts with this episode and Wolffe's frustration at being the Intergalactic Red Cross. He and his men know that they're better-suited to fighting on the front lines; they channel their lack of motivation into condescension toward (and disdain for) the Aleena. One of the best-received lines from an early Season 4 trailer was "It's gonna be another one of those planets," but deep below the surface of that humorous remark is a compelling element of foreshadowing. The clones' disappointment at being assigned such a trivial and behind-the-scenes task is the perfect early narrative stepping stone to the cold-blooded efficiency with which the newly-minted stormtroopers take Kashyyyk right after Order 66.
After the droids and the clones, the third interesting segment of this episode's characters was the community of Kindalo tree-beings that lived underneath the surface of Aleen. They looked and sounded awesome, with body movements, facial features, and vocal rhythms that were half-menacing and half-perplexing. As someone who's always been interested in the Expanded Universe's conception of tree people in the form of the Neti, I was pleasantly surprised to see an episode feature such a unique, even bizarre, race of beings. For those who wonder how the symbiotic balance between the Aleena and the Kindalo could have persisted for so long, consider that the Aleena in this episode valued prayer, superstition, and community, and were thus unlikely to be interested in sonar-mapping, archaeology, and other exploratory activities.
Orphne, Orphne, Orphne...When I missed the original airing of this episode, I tried to avoid Twitter and Star Wars forums as much as possible, but I did see one comment about this episode featuring a particularly bizarre and awkward scene. I'm pretty certain that this comment was referring to the introduction of Orphne. The way she touched the droids was pretty weird, and I know of very few sentient beings in Star Wars whose first attempt at interaction with others is to assess their edibility. Even had I not read that Internet comment, I wouldn't know what to make of Orphne. She didn't look like a Kindalo, and she certainly didn't act like one, so how did the Kindalo know her? She refers to the Kindalo with the pronoun "we," so she's clearly part of their society.
Perhaps the mystery of Orphne was supposed to be encouraging and enjoyable, but all it did for me was increase my disappointment at how empty the plot of Mercy Mission really was. I bet that I can construct an interesting background for Orphne in just one sentence, turning her into a compelling character instead of a sloppily-devised way to free the droids and solve the planet's problem. Here goes: Orphne was the child of a reptilian surface-dweller and an underworld inhabitant who was forced to remain among the Kindalo as an emissary to outsiders because of her genetic incompatibility with the above-ground atmosphere and her hereditary tendency to act and think like surface-dwellers. Hey, Lucasfilm Animation: paycheck please!
A few questions nagged at me when the episode ended. For one thing, I refuse to believe that an entire planet would only have "thousands" of survivors even after substantial earthquakes, especially if, as we learned, they were targeted quakes designed to alert the Aleena to the breach of the underworld portal. I also wonder why the Aleena didn't specifically tell C-3PO and Commander Wolffe about the doorway to the underworld. I also found it strange that the Republic relief unit didn't detect the underground Kindalo with their life-sign scanners. Just like with Shadow Warrior, these questions didn't completely drag down the episode, but they definitely bugged me and are worth mentioning as part of a thorough examination of this episode's strengths and weaknesses.
Mercy Mission expanded on the relationship between R2-D2 and C-3PO in the movies and the series so far, evoking the spirit of the old Droids cartoon and further humanizing both the protocol droid and his astromech friend. While this episode reinforced the TCW truth that stories suffer when they are devoid of primary characters like Anakin and Obi-Wan, it retained enough of R2 and 3PO's classic bickering and anthropomorphic tendencies to produce a likeable series of scenes. Additionally, the emphasis on the clones' boredom set the stage for Palpatine's post-Order 66 alien enslavement campaign and the Empire's Human-superiority propaganda. It was fitting that this flicker of anti-alien bias appeared in one of the first few episodes to feature Phase II clone trooper armor. The Imperials' eventual perception that the minor needs of primitive alien species are interfering with their true duty manifests itself faintly here on Aleen, and in this way, Mercy Mission sets the stage for important developments in the clone ranks as they complete a transformation into stormtroopers that will go beyond the kind of armor they wear.