Season Three of Star Wars: The Clone Wars starts off with an interesting two-parter: ‘Clone Cadets’ and ‘ARC Troopers’ – it’s actually acts one and three of a trilogy of episodes sandwiched around the S1 fan favorite ‘Rookies’ episode. We go back in time to see when the shiny clonetroopers of ‘Rookies’ were just cadets, and then see Kamino come under attack with the two survivors of ‘Rookies’, now in the 501st, back at home. A rather unique way to start a season… but does it work? Let’s look at the first part: ‘Clone Cadets.’
The story: ‘Clone Cadets’ fits in the Band of Brothers style of episode as five clones in a squad struggle to overcome a string of failure in order to avoid being washed out. The key to their success: unifying as a team when given a second chance.
“Brothers in arms are brothers for life” is the fortune cookie, and the newsreel describing the clone training process really feels like a 40’s era newsreel exploring a topic for its viewers. We find Domino Squad in the testing facility, an oversized Marble Madness course with battle droids blasting at them. After learning a few of their individual quirks (Echo’s penchant for repeating the orders rather than innovating, Fives’ frequent bickering, etc.), the team fails to get it together and their trainers play a little good bounty hunter – bad bounty hunter with Shaak Ti, in charge of training, on whether to drum the lads out.
The clones don’t want to end up like 99, a defective older clone stuck doing menial janitorial duties in the barracks, but Master Chief (no, not that Master Chief, but the cerebral-in-appearance-only Bric) puts them in their place saying that they’re not worth a Jedi training them. Meanwhile Shaak Ti expresses her concerns about the squad’s fitness to Lama Su, who considers the situation more a product failure based on the dwindling supply of good Jango DNA, than an issue of training. ARC Trooper Colt shows up to give a pep talk to the different squads, hoping to inspire the clones to eventually be ARCs, and oversees the final tests. Overachievers from Bravo Squad easily pass the test of beating the droids and capturing the flag (or glowrod). The Dominoes enter the Tron-pit and fail halfway through when their lack of teamwork causes them to abandon an injured squad mate.
El-les, their Arcona trainer, feels that their failure is his failure while the more mercenary Bric just shrugs it off. Apparently, these teachers don’t get student performance based bonuses. El-les suggests giving them a second chance – but what happens before then: Fives and Echo try to get Shaak Ti to switch them to another group, Cutup earns his name when Bric accuses him of hiding behind his jokes, and CT-782 considers going AWOL before 99 instills him with some confidence with a little pep talk and a name: Hevy. Realizing that he has the chance to succeed, Hevy returns and helps inspire his clones in their second chance test in the citadel.
With the inspiring music at full tilt, Domino squad sticks together, and works as a single entity to deliver pizza in under thirty minutes, or at least cover each other all the way through the gauntlet of battle droids and commando droids. A snag is reached when they discover their ascension guns missing – but they innovate on the spot a way to scale the tower, by shooting out the gun emplacements then climbing over them, to win the challenge. Even Bric, who had sabotaged their chances, begrudgingly agreed to their ingenuity. Awarded medals for their performance, Hevy secretly turns his over to 99, recognizing the old janitor as “one of us”. And then the clones get to march out with new trooper helmets on graduation day. Off to war!
So, what went right with this episode? The lesson of the episode of overcoming individual personality traits and selfishness to bond as a team is simple but it works here. Not only does Domino Squad not fall down when put to the test, they realize that confidence (in themselves, from each other, and from others like 99 and El-Les) can help them achieve their mission. We do get some of the cliché training motifs: the tough guy coach willing to just write them off and amazed when they succeed, some pep talks, including from Boothby.. err.. 99, the trash-talking over-achievers and the inspiring music as they show unity in their final test – and even a little Band of Brothers-esque trumpet fanfare as we fade out on the end of graduation day. But we also get scenes like Cutup finding his name as he managed not to be bullied into a fight by the cranially endowed bounty hunter Bric – a lesser soldier might see a chance to fight his antagonizing drill sergeant.
While much of the visuals seemed rather bland – the barracks and the training citadel inspired by the Enterprise-D holodeck, some of the visuals just oozed cool like the painted feel to Shaak Ti’s skin. One scene where Shaak Ti and Lama Su enter the prime minister’s chamber just begs to be the poster example of how far animation has progressed in The Clone Wars with multiple swishing robes, something only a dream in the first season’s effects. Also, while the citadel arena looked like it came from some 8-bit video game, the clone’s equipment had some good texturing, like the scuffs in their helmets.
What went wrong with ‘Clone Cadets’? One of the chief problems for me with the episode was that we’re used to seeing individualized clones with identifying armor, haircuts, or tattoos, and because the troopers in ‘Rookies’ pretty much all had the same haircut – they are visually copies (or clones) of each other – making them tough to tell apart other than their Aurabesh numbers on their practice armor (and Hevy’s fondness of a particular weapon). And since they don’t all have nicknames at the start of the episode, it’s tough to actually tell them apart. The voice acting by Dee Bradley Baker really does help here, but it wasn’t quite enough for me to distinguish them all in some of the citadel combat scenes. If you want us to care about the characters, you need to make the characters be identifiable. Is it fair to blame this episode for the designs created in season one? Perhaps not, especially since part of the point of this episode is to show that even though they are all cut from the same mold (or cut and paste clipboard), they are not all alike as cadets.
And there’s some commando droids in the training citadel test? Maybe the Republic has captured a couple – but clearly didn’t know how to program them to act like the smarter and tougher commando droids that were originally introduced in ‘Rookies’ – they just stood around like regular battle droids to get shot.
Overall: ‘Clone Cadets’ told a good story, and featured some existing characters by dipping into their past. As a season opener, it felt a little odd to have an episode without Anakin and Ahsoka, or even major wartime action (there’s combat action, but it’s all training battles). The real conflict is internal, as a batch of clones fights their own individuality to form a unified team. The visuals fit the scenery – while a few external Kamino shots were nice, but when the visual highlight of the episode is the swish of a Jedi’s robe or the scarred crags of the hunchback 99’s face, and the scuffs on the squads old-school Galactica practice helmets, the rest of the episode was somewhat featureless visually – much like the interiors of Kamino. But you gotta love getting some backstory on some clones, and this episode, combined with ‘ARC Troopers’ compelled me to re-watch ‘Rookies’ to get the whole trilogy in place. And finally, Shaak Ti!