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TFN TCW Review: Secret Weapons

Posted By Eric on December 1, 2012

The Clone Wars Season 5 Episode 10: Secret Weapons

Just as the droids of D-Squad were the Republic's secret weapons, its unexpected punch that mixed things up and aided it in a way that no task force of organic soldiers could, this episode itself was The Clone Wars Season Five's secret weapon, opening up a new front in the season by launching an arc that mixes things up and takes an unconventional approach to depicting Clone Wars missions. I believe that this is only the second time in the series' history when droids have formed the main cast of an episode or arc -- the first time was last season's R2/3PO duology. Unlike that pair of episodes, reactions to which were mixed, Secret Weapons was an unqualified success and represents a breakthrough in storytelling through the eyes of robots.

By relying on a team of droids to retrieve the Separatist encryption module, the Republic was taking a risk. These droids had certainly seen action, but they had never (or in R2's case, rarely) operated independently of organic soldiers before. Similarly, The Clone Wars as a show was taking a risk by requiring a group of droids to shoulder the narrative burden of an entire episode. (Although two main characters did speak Basic, those two were nevertheless only a part of the core cast.) In the end, however, the gambit paid off. The mission to retrieve the encryption module was a welcome break from the pace that Season Five had been setting so far.

Before the droids left, however, we were treated to a glimpse into the bowels of the Republic's special-operations division when we met Doctor Gubacher. I found it interesting that someone with the title "Doctor" would be working with mechanized soldiers. The man was like a cross between James Bond's "Q" and Doctor Strangelove. The fact that he was a member of the Parwan species only added to his enigmatic persona. The visit to his workspace pushed the show beyond the typical blueprint of mission planning (Jedi standing around a holoprojector and then getting in their starfighters) and spiced up the preparation process. In addition, from a certain point of view, one could say that Doctor Gubacher was giving the droids new equipment just like any other soldiers would receive before a special mission.

Gubacher, however, played only a minor role in the episode. As far as organic beings went, the real star of the show was Colonel Meebur Gascon. This pint-sized officer seemed to be part of this arc's overarching lesson about not underestimating people (whether or not they're actually "people" in the proper sense of the word). Despite his small stature, Gascon filled every scene he was in with his forceful personality. It was easy to see why he was picked for this mission and equally easy to see why he shared more with his droid soldiers than he would care to admit. Like the droids, people literally and figuratively looked down on him. His bluster seemed designed to make up for his size.

Gascon was not just demanding; he was also excitable. He began the episode by jumping around on the holoprojector, an act that gave a light, bouncy feel to the character that contrasted with his harsh tone later on. He was not exactly whimsical, but neither was he a complete jerk. He was dedicated to the Republic's cause but seemed to care little for the immediate mission. Indeed, Gascon looked forward to his promotion to Brigadier General and was more interested in how he was viewed by others within the Republic military than in how his droid troops viewed him.

Gascon's attitude sharpened as the droids began interacting with him more. He casually had M5-BZ retrofitted to serve as his walking command center, telling Gubacher not to worry about upsetting BZ because he was "just a droid." Gascon clearly discounted the value of treating D-Squad like a group of organic soldiers. He even called WAC-47 a "moron," which I found disconcerting on this show, but the brusqueness certainly fit with his character. To reinforce how superior he saw himself as being relative to the droids, he gave them some of them dismissive nicknames: QT-KT was "Pinky," U9-C4 was "Flat-top," and WAC-47 was "Cyclops."

Later in the episode, Gascon lost control of the mission and had to confront the breakdown of his initial plan. In the face of his soldiers' misgivings and suspicions, he admitted his own inexperience with combat and dropped the facade of a hardened instructor giving new soldiers the chance to prove themselves to him. In reality, he still had a lot to prove to himself and to others. He considered a promotion to Brigadier General to be his destiny, but evidently he hadn't done much to earn it, despite what Mace Windu said at the beginning of the episode. After all Gascon, had never been in a battle or demonstrated the kind of valor that promotions usually entail. It seemed to me that he would only get that promotion by literally and figuratively standing on top of others -- in this case, droids -- who do the grunt work for him.

Another character in this episode was preoccupied with proving himself to his superiors: WAC-47, my favorite member of D-Squad. WAC was kind of the Jar Jar of this episode, eager but bumbling. I laughed when he pestered Mace Windu, and when, after Windu said that some of the droids might not survive the mission, he asked the others, "Why is he looking at me?" WAC had several childish moments, whether it was beseeching Gascon to let him handle the task of distracting some Super Battle Droids or swimming through the air during the zero-gravity fight scene.

WAC was also anxious to prove his worth, something that led him to call Gascon "corporal" on several occasions and even "captain" once. He was clearly trying so hard to get into the mindset of a special mission that he missed small details like his boss' rank. When he took initiative and set the droids' shuttle on a collision course with the Separatist flagship, he ruined Gascon's perfectly-planned approach scenario with his exuberance. WAC wanted to show off so badly that he forgot he wasn't in charge. He was so proud of his own improvised plan that he once again forgot Colonel Gascon's rank.

WAC's need to prove himself probably came from the fact that he was the true outside in D-Squad. While he had served on the front lines like the others, he had done so with Clone Commander Neyo, not a Jedi, which gave him different experiences to draw from and a different sense of how to operate with others. He also lacked the astromech droids' multiple appendages and wide array of tools. Gascon acknowledged the fact that WAC wasn't built for the same things as the others when he sent WAC away from Doctor Gubacher's lab. WAC didn't get special weaponry or gadgets, which set him apart from the others. The astromechs, Gascon was saying, are the real soldiers; you, WAC, are just their pilot.

Initially, WAC handled his outsider status by bragging about how pit droids possessed "better engineering" than astromechs. In short, he wanted to show off, not fit in. After R2-D2 and QT-KT disabled their battle droid escort, WAC took credit for the second "kill" and jumped up and down on the battle droid's head. You can imagine QT scoffing at WAC's need to be in the lead even when his contribution was negligible. After he actually did something helpful by distracting a pair of Super Battle Droids and locking them in a side room without pausing to let them object, he mimicked Colonel Gascon's earlier businesslike attitude and said to himself, "That is what I like. No questions." It was like he was imagining himself in a command role like Gascon.

Of course, WAC would soon learn to work with his fellow droids and not set himself above them. While he acted wacky for most of the episode, WAC grew testy with Gascon when it was revealed that the colonel was out of his depth on their mission. When crunch time, WAC showed that he knew what to focus on and how to cut to the chase. He decided to stand up to Gascon, agreeing to follow his orders but asking him to treat the droids with respect. It was clear to me that he had begun to feel like "one of the droids." By calling Gascon "shorty," he was reminding the colonel that he, too, had qualities he would rather not have emphasized. Gascon, perhaps surprised by how WAC had sobered up and defended his fellow droids, agreed to respect D-Squad, even if he covered up his mollification with more bluster about demanding their competence.

In addition to WAC's quest for recognition, two contradictory themes about the nature of droids in Star Wars dominated the plot of Secret Weapons. The first theme was that the droids of D-Squad seemed to want to be more like the organics they served. I saw it from the very beginning, when the droids snapped to attention as Colonel Gascon entered the room. They recognized a chance for them to shine, a chance for them to demonstrate initiative and dependability like "organics" did. They must have felt something like pride at being selected for such an important mission. (It certainly helped that Mace Windu, whose low opinion of droids was evident in the penultimate episode of Season Two, proclaimed his trust in D-Squad.)

The droids demonstrated approximations of other emotions in addition to a very human-like capacity for pride. When WAC-47 ran into the wall of the briefing room on his way out, the other droids passed him by and beeped out a series of noises that almost sounded like scoffs and laughter. Skywalker Sound really did a masterful job of using simple beeps and boops to infuse these droids with personalities. Later, in Doctor Gubacher's lab, M5-BZ sounded very nervous when the doctor told him what they were going to do to him. Secret Weapons took the time to emphasize the droids' reactions to what others were saying and doing to them, which probably led some viewers to compare themselves to the droids and put themselves in the droids' "shoes." This is a great way to create relatable protagonists, but it was especially important with unconventional protagonists like D-Squad.

Another important moment for the droids came at the end, as they were escaping the ship. Despite the urgency of their mission and the possibility of imminent capture, R2-D2 stubbornly refused to leave the disabled M5-BZ behind. Gascon, seeming to soften a bit, eventually relented, and the droids rescued their comrade. In this scene, the droids showed that, even if they couldn't feel emotions, they were able to simulate that kind of concern for their fallen friend. This was an example of something that I think The Clone Wars has done very well over the years: pushing droids beyond their technical boundaries. In this episode, D-Squad was not only given an unconventional mission; its members were forced onto uncharted "interpersonal" ground. In the absence of a strong organic command structure, with only Gascon's feeble authority to concern them, the droids had to serious reckon with the consequences of stopping to rescue M5-BZ or prioritizing their mission. It was a challenge that their organic masters had doubtless faced many times before.

Despite the many instances of droids acting like organics, there were also numerous scenes that acknowledged the persistent and fundamental divide between sentient biological organisms and robotic creations. One of these was the climactic fight scene in zero-gravity. This was a feat for which the droids were better prepared than living beings, and with an almost all-droid cast, it made sense that the only prolonged combat scene in this episode would take place in an environmental condition specifically geared toward droids. However, the fact that the fight took place in a setting that would have disoriented most organic beings set D-Squad apart from the flesh-and-blood Republic officers they were serving. It was a reminder that they had unique talents, but also a reminder that, unlike the rest of the Republic military, they were designed, assembled, and programmed to possess those talents.

Another scene that demonstrated the divide between organics and droids was more emotionally jarring. When M5-BZ fried himself by jacking into the door controls, Gascon proceeded without considering the droid's selflessness. In response to WAC's incredulity, Gascon stuttered "It--it's not my fault" and called BZ a nitwit. To some viewers, this might have seemed like the perfect setup for WAC to offer an impassioned argument about the importance of considering droids' welfare.

But the droids were not emotional enough to dwell on the apparent loss of BZ. Quite frankly, this was almost disturbing to watch. If this had been a team of organic soldiers, they would have paid more attention to a dead comrade, someone alongside whom they had probably trained for months, if not years. But these droid troopers weren't trained; they were programmed. It was an interesting comment on droids' limitations and a reminder of how inadequate they were to participate in society like organics did. Even though they were given missions like flesh-and-blood troopers, they lacked certain qualities that are required to successfully integrate into a social environment.

Ultimately, the droids' mission was greatly eased by their inconspicuousness, which came from their being just another set of maintenance robots in the eyes of the Separatist forces. Their seemingly lowly status and the dismissal that usually comes with it actually worked to their advantage. However, it was a reminder of the fact that they were fundamentally different from Republic heroes like Anakin and Obi-Wan. They were not capable of ascending to that level of fame or individuality. Their programming limited their behavior; certain aspects of their personalities, such as the kinds of risks they could take, were largely predetermined.

The Separatists reacted to the members of D-Squad in a way that reinforced this divide between individual organics and mindless servant droids. The battle droids who first encountered the Republic infiltrators dismissively referred to them as "tin cans." When Aut-O, the Separatist super tactical droid, and his retinue walked right past M5-BZ's unmoving boss without so much as a second glance, it emphasized the fact that they viewed BZ as mere scrap metal adorning the corridor, not as a dead enemy combatant. Once again, Secret Weapons presented a distinction between how astromechs and organic troopers were treated on the battlefield. The difference between droids and organics on a Separatist ship was reinforced when D-Squad ran into a battle droid patrol on the way back to the shuttle. The infiltrators thought they were going to be detained, but instead the battle droids assumed they were service units and ordered them out of the way. Even among droids, we saw a clear hierarchy and a set of expectations that comes with each droid model.

All in all, Secret Weapons was a masterful testament to the storytelling potential of droids. It offered a coherent narrative, an exciting and surprisingly diverse cast of characters, and multiple opportunities for the kind of robotic humor that has lightened many a Star Wars movie and TV show. Fittingly enough, R2-D2 was anthropomorphized the best. I loved it when the super tactical droid ordered him to put his arms up and he dropped to the deck and literally reversed his arms so that they were facing upward. The visual similarity to a surrendering organic soldier was brilliant, as was the zooming in on his twitching optical sensor and swiveling dome to emphasize his nervousness.

While there were occasional gags, like U9-C4 forgetting about the recoil on his new laser weapon, this episode had a serious purpose. The encryption module will no doubt greatly aid the Republic in the war. In the end, even Gascon had to admit that the droids had done well. Praise from an organic was obviously incredibly meaningful to these droids, just as Mace Windu's trust had been at the beginning of the episode. While they've been on the front lines before, they were usually there as attendants to their organic masters. Being able to execute missions designed for them, where they play the starring roles, must have been incredibly heartening, even for characters without hearts. That, ultimately, was the beauty of Secret Weapons: it successfully combined a serious mission with comedy that bordered on slapstick, and it explored philosophical questions about the nature of being "alive" through the photoreceptors of a handful of droids.


-------------------------------------

You can find all of my TCW episode reviews on TFN's review index page.


Related Stories

December 8, 2012   TFN TCW Review: A Sunny Day in the Void
December 5, 2012   Preview TCW: "A Sunny Day in the Void"
December 1, 2012   FC: TCW Roundtable: 509 -- A Necessary Bond
November 29, 2012   Preview TCW: "Secret Weapons"
November 24, 2012   TFN TCW Review: A Necessary Bond





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