Without a doubt, the first episode of The Clone Wars Season 4 blew every other premiere out of the water. (Sorry, had to do it!) Between the introduction of a fierce new villain, the return of a fan-favorite senior Jedi Master, the stunning visuals, and the TCW debut of a classic Rebel Admiral, Water War had all the elements of a phenomenal episode. Jose Molina's great writing and Lucasfilm Animation's technical wizardry combined to produce a story that was rewarding on so many levels. So water we waiting for? Let's dive in!
I'd like to start with the obligatory gushing over how damn pretty everything look and how cinematic everything sounded. The animation was simply incredible. From the early shot of the Republic corvette skimming the surface to the panning shot of the opening joint-species meeting, from the sequence where Ackbar glides through the underwater city's tubes to the breathtaking views of the massive city itself around him, this episode was one of Lucasfilm Animation's most extraordinary accomplishments to date. The main battle sequence in Act Two was stunning, with huge swarms of soldiers on each side and hails of blasterfire everywhere one looked. In Act Two, there was also a great shot of the Republic gunships sailing over the water as Rex's assault ship looked in the sky behind them. That moment, among several others, really gave me the feeling of watching a live-action feature film. The impressive visuals continued with shots such as Riff Tamson and Nossor Ri swimming among the weeds and the Separists' hydroid medusas electrocuting Mon Cals and clones. Both of these shots were appropriately grim, and in the latter scene, the scream of a clone getting electrocuted helped sell the eye-popping yet unsettling visual.
One of the most interesting visual elements in this episode was simple, obvious, and all-pervasive, yet it made this episode (and, I expect, the rest of this arc) stand out as different. Most episodes have been set on dry land or in space -- because water plays with gravity differently, character movements took on a unique style. There was something almost graceful about the way that the Mon Calamari soldiers slowly recoiled when shot, simply sliding backwards instead of flying off their feet as they would on land. Overall, the movement in this episode was much more fluid (this time, no pun intended).
Complementing the amazing visuals in this episode were the array of aquatic musical cues and sound effects. The arrival of the aqua droids, for example, was scored in such a way as to remind me of the battle droids marshalling on the plains of Naboo before their battle with the Gungan army. The underwater skiffs that both sides used emitted a cool pulsing, swishing sound that evoked ideas of submarine warfare. As Riff Tamson swam up to Nossor Ri during the search for the Republic forces, the music reminded me of something out of Jaws -- an appropriate choice of music for a bloodthirsty villain like Tamson.
I was really impressed with Riff Tamson overall. He may not have been all that tactically savvy, but his voice was terrific, his mannerisms were perfectly predatory, he was a fiend in hand-to-hand combat, and his ambition to rule Mon Calamari was as sharp as his teeth. Speaking of his teeth, one of my favorite parts about this episode was that we got to see Tamson bridge the gap between sentient villainous leader and ruthless, crazed animal. There were a number of excellent closeups with Tamsin looking every bit like the feral, mindless shark that his body reflected. These closeups were superseded in viciousness only by the many gruesome shots of Tamsin literally chewing through Mon Calamari troops. One of my favorite Tamson moments was him pursuing Ahsoka and Prince Lee-Char at the end of Act One. When he caught up to them outside the tube, he began circling it like a predator waiting to strike. As he smashed away at it with his head, I was reminded of a shark tank in an aquarium. Even when one feels relatively protected, there is always the fear of that which is barely contained.
The first we saw of Quarren chieftain Nossor Ri was his somber acknowledgement of the friendship he'd had with the Prince's recently-deceased father. This revelation of a broken bond between the Quarren and the Mon Calamari set the tone for Ri's behavior throughout the rest of the episode. While he allied with the Separatists because he believed that it was in his species' best interest, we soon learned that Ri found their involvement unpleasant. I enjoyed seeing the friction between Tamson and Ri, which is most evident when the latter says of his reinforcements' late arrival, "I didn't think you and your Separatist droids would need backup." I liked that this disdain was slowly built up throughout the episode, because while Ri chafes at Tamson's aggressive tactics, he seems to be developing a sense of regret about involving the Separatists.
I'll get to everyone's favorite fish in just a moment, but first I want to say how glad I am that Kit Fisto is back. With every appearance, the Fisto we see in TCW increasingly replaces in viewers' minds the silly, near-useless Nautolan Jedi Master from Revenge of the Sith. Throughout this episode, he is, in the words of a friend of mine watching the show for the first time, "a total badass." From his graceful underwater acrobatics to the moment where he flashes that trademark Kit Fisto grin after destroying a medusa, he is every bit the Jedi that he should have been in the Prequels (that one great moment during the Battle of Geonosis notwithstanding).
As for Captain Ackbar, I think it's safe to say that the Season 4 premiere of The Clone Wars did wonders for his backstory. It's really awesome to see him in his early days of leading troops into battle. The fact that this doesn't contradict anything we've already read in the EU is a nice plus. Water War showed Ackbar developing the tactical and diplomatic strengths that he would need when he joined the Alliance leadership. I really enjoyed his conversations with Lee-Char, especially when he advised the Prince to "make it for you" in reference to the cheering from the Mon Calamari. Throughout the episode, we see that Ackbar is clearly apprehensive about trusting the fate of his people to Lee-Char, but in true Ackbar form, he accepts that it is tradition and immediately gets down to the business of educating the boy. In guiding Prince Lee-Char, he displays a sense of wisdom and pride in his species that we didn't get the chance to see in Episode VI, and that's a welcome new dimension to his character. As a side note, Artt Butler's voice is a great match for Erik Bauersfeld in Return of the Jedi. It brought a smile to my face to hear Ackbar shout, "It's an attack!"
Before I comment on a few odds and ends, I want to address the new character who was clearly the star of the premiere: Prince Lee-Char of the Mon Calamari. Right from the start, people around Lee-Char emphasized that it was the reluctant Prince's destiny, his hereditary duty, to assume his father's role as commander of the Mon Calamari armed forces. This notion of being "the chosen one," and all reluctance that follows from such a weighty responsibility, reminded me a lot of Luke's own hesitation to leave Tatooine and even Anakin's desire to look back at Shmi in Mos Espa. Lee-Char is being asked to take up a heavy burden, albeit on a smaller scale than Anakin or Luke, and the responsibility of leading his people appears onerous and mystifying to the young Prince. His naivety shows when he declares, "I do not believe the Quarren will attack," moments before Tamson shouts, "Attack!"
Lee-Char soon faces the reality of his planet's civil war head-on, and in no scene is this more obvious than when he stares transfixedly at three dead Mon Calamari who came to defend him from Tamson. The Prince hates the loss of life in general, but in this case he specifically regrets that it happened on account of him. Despite his fear, he wants to continue fighting for his people, and Ackbar must teach him "how to live to fight another day." Lee-Char initially didn't want to fight -- didn't even think it would be necessary -- but once he saw that war was inevitable, he seemed determined to win. Ackbar had to show him that one can't win every battle and that the Mon Calamari cause is more important than the Prince's need to prove himself in his first command situation.
One character who learned that lesson a few seasons ago is Ahsoka Tano. In the underwater battle, Ahsoka really proves herself and displays an incredible amount of skill with her lightsaber. She makes herself particularly useful when she retrieves Anakin's lost helmet in time to prevent his suffocation. I liked that he thanked her by saying, "I had it under control, Snips." That kind of Ahsoka/Anakin banter is refreshing once in a while. Both she and Anakin had a number of great acrobatic combat moments, such as when Ankain spun around and in one swift motion chopped apart a handful of aqua droids. Ahsoka was no less deadly around the droids, holding her own against a squad of them in a way that Season 1 Ahsoka never could have. I really appreciate that we're seeing significant improvement in Ahsoka's Jedi skills as the series progresses.
Those are the major parts of this episode, but I noticed a few miscellaneous things that I liked. First of all, I enjoyed seeing the Separatists' tentacle-like droid carriers return to the series. The hydroid medusas were also cool, even though I find their name more than a bit silly. (I prefer to call them "jellyfish of doom.") In their initial, lumbering appearance, the medusas bore a strong resemblance to jellyfish, and the the bodies of the dead Mon Calamari floating in front of them lent an eery vibe to their debut. I also saw a few parallels between the Mon Calamari preparing for battle in this episode and the Gungan army doing the same in The Phantom Menace. The sequence where the soldiers lined up with grim determination on their faces and the line "Steady, steady" were nice homages to Episode I. Of course, the entire plot -- that of a Mon Calamari vs. Quarren civil war -- is harkens back to earlier Expanded Universe material and several installments of the Genndy Tartakovsky Clone Wars micro-series.
While I know that the best in this season is yet to come, it's hard to deny that this was an extraordinarily impressive episode. Just last season, we heard from Dave Filoni how challenging it was to animate water accurately. With this premiere, Filoni and his team demonstrated how far they've come in terms of animation quality. Introducing familiar characters like Ackbar and Fisto firmly grounds the episode in the Star Wars mythos, while new characters like Lee-Char and Riff Tamson inspire and terrify us respectively. Throw in a new Separatist weapon and a few fancy moves from Anakin and Ahsoka, and you've got a recipe for a phenomenal season opener. As part one of a three-part arc, Water War mixes the old with the new and produces a thrilling twenty-two-minute adventure.