Bad to the Clone
Star Wars: The Bad Batch: Season 1
I'll be honest, Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same. is not a franchise I live and die for. I've enjoyed plenty of the movies, and I've found some charms from the shows, but in comparison to a franchise like Star TrekOriginally conceived as "Wagon Train in Space", Star Trek was released during the height of the Hollywood Western film and TV boom. While the concept CBS originally asked for had a western vibe, it was the smart, intellectual stories set in a future utopia of science and exploration that proved vital to the series' long impact on popular culture., I just don't get that into Star Wars and its tales of space wizards. The franchise has an issue, baked into its DNA the second the Prequel Trilogy came out, that all it really cares about is one era, one set of families, and it creates the feeling that the series just can't move on from its own successes, that it has to keep iterating on what worked (the Original Trilogy) to give fans that experience over and over again.
This vibe certainly wasn't shaken by The Clone Wars, a TV series obsessed with retelling us the tale of the Clone War when we'd already seen the relevant parts of that saga in the Prequel Trilogy (I'm actually stuck in the middle of third season because I just can't care about what's going on with characters I already know will die in the next mainline film). Of course then the Sequel Trilogy came out and it made us long for the days of the Prequels. No matter what, though, Star Wars needs to find some new stories to tell.
In some ways spin-off series The Bad Batch does just that. Instead of focusing on the same families of rogues and Jedis, this series follows the eponymous "Bad Batch", the Clone Troopers (or "Regs") from Squad 99, a group of genetically "defective" clones (due to mutations on their DNA) that still managed to band together to become one of the most reliable troop squads in the Republic army. These guys showed up, from time to time, in The Clone Wars, and with that series airing its last season on Disney+, creator Dave Filoni elected to take this squad and send them on their own far-flung adventure.
With the Republic having fallen as the Emperor rose, Squad 99 found themselves on Kamino in a tough place. The team -- leader Hunter, brawler Wrecker, technicians Tech and Echo, and sniper Crosshair (all voiced by Dee Bradley Baker) -- weren't sure what kind of place they should have, or even wanted, in the newly risen Empire. When they're sent on a mission to take out a couple of traitors, they realize they've been sent to kill a Jedi and their padawn, and Hunter refuses. This puts him at odds with Crosshair, the one clone in the crew who feels that "good soldiers follow orders". When Crosshair betrays the rest of the squad, Hunter and his crew are forced to go on the run, fleeing the safety of their home on Kamino for hiding places in the distant worlds of the old Republic.
Before leaving the team picks up Omega (Michelle Ang), a young clone girl and another genetic "defect". Omega becomes the heart and soul of the team, acting as their conscience as they try to find trade and search for safe havens to hide out. But each place they go they run across the resistance, planets and soldiers fighting against the Empire. The squad just wants to keep their head down and survive but it seems that the war spreading across the galaxy may have other plans for these clone soldiers. And they always have to keep an eye on their backs and Crosshair is out there, hunting them, waiting to take his traitorous brothers down.
In some ways The Bad Batch is exactly the show I was looking for from Star Wars: new characters, new settings, without anyone familiar always showing up to remind us this is Star Wars. Yes, there are a couple of minor cameos but, for the most part, this series is free to explore its own stories, giving us riffs on case-of-the-week adventures that don't feel like they have to tie into Star Wars lore. Some of these adventures are great and often it allows the show to just fire and find its own vibe, a vibe I like and enjoy quite a bit.
I think the show is at its weakest, in fact, when it tries to tie itself to the larger continuity. Any time it turns its eyes back to the Empire, to the war we know is going on (and has a natural conclusion in the Original Trilogy), that's what the show starts to sputter. We're talking about four guys and a little girl who, from time to time, are expected to best whole armies of Imperial troopers, as if they're somehow going to become the saviors of the galaxy. We know they can't do that and, in fact, that most of the efforts would be all for naught (at least while they're operating on their own) and yet the show still tries to tell these stories anyway.
Worse, any time it focuses on characters that we know show up in later works (like Caleb Dune and Hera Syndulla from Rebels or Fennec Shand from The Mandalorian) all the life gets sucked out of the show. We know where those characters are headed and the series winking at us saying, "remember them?" we're reminded that the galaxy is, in fact, much too small considering how vast it should be.
It leaves the season feeling very uneven, which is sad because I really actually like the main cast of characters. The five clones we follow are all distinct personalities each given depth and shading (impressive as four of them are voiced by the same guy). There's real stakes to be had from them running from the only home they've known, pursued by one of their own brothers who wants nothing more than to put them down (or at least put them back in their place). The show could mine a lot of great material from this, crafting a kind of The Fugitive adventure with the clones wandering, helping, and then running. That's a version of the show I'd love to watch.
If only the show could just ignore what's going on with the Empire and find its own tale to tell. Instead, the show keeps acting like it's going to feint back to having the Clones join up with the Rebels and become freedom fighters. That doesn't happen this season but its inevitable. Everything in this galaxy apparently has to get back to the main conflict, and everything had to once again be about the Original Trilogy. There's a great show buried here somewhere, but a muddled season leaves the show wandering, trying to find a path that actually keeps in interesting.
It's not bad enough to stop watching (unlike, frankly, the early seasons of The Clone Wars) but it doesn't have the spark and fire it needs to be a great tale set in the Galaxy Far, Far Away. Hopefully it gets retooled and refocused for season two. For now it's just another clone of the main franchise with only a few minor ideas that help to set it somewhat apart.