“It’s an attack!” Captain Ackbar shouts when the Quarren and their Separatist allies assault the Mon Cal city. Not quite a trap, but Ackbar steals the show in the first half of the season four opener of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. ‘Water War’ sets the stage for this multi-part story with lots of exciting action as things deteriorate rapidly for Prince Lee-Char, the Jedi and Mon Calamari people.
The quick recap: After the murder of the king, a young Prince Lee-Char assumes control of the world of Mon Cala, but the Quarren, allied with the Separatists, refuse his rule. Recognizing the war is a possibility, Republic observers Padmé Amidala and Anakin Skywalker call the Jedi Council for troops. Captain Ackbar gets saddled with guarding the untrained prince instead of leading the defensive preparations. Just as Lee-Char speechifies that he thinks the Quarren will seek peace, Riff Tamson leads the aqua droids and Quarren in an attack. In the battle, Lee-Char attempts to outflank the Seps but his squad is lost when a tubeway breaks. Kit Fisto, Ahsoka Tano and the clones arrive to reinforce the Mon Calamari soldiers. Tamson bites a clone. Anakin loses his helmet. Ahsoka rescues Anakin’s helmet, then rescues the prince from Tamson. As Tamson bashes his way in on the tube containing Ahsoka and Lee-Char, we find out the real reason the Mon Cal are going to lose this war: their weapons suck against sharkface. The Quarren retreat, as Tamson brings in his heavy guns for round two: cyborg giant jellyfish, called Hydroid Medusas. In the second assault, the Medusas shock the defenders, allowing the Tamson and the aqua droids to force the surviving defenders to retreat to the caves down deep. Despite the win, Tamson threatens to kill Quarren leader Nossor Ri for showing up late. Ackbar reminds Lee-Char that living to fight another day is an important lesson.
What went right with ‘Water War’? The Clone Wars team put in a lot of effort to raise the bar on the visuals for this season, and their success shows. With nearly the entire episode taking place in the underwater environments of Mon Cala, the animation captured the different sense of motion and lighting that are seen under the sea. The story is solid, and the mood changes as war begins – we start in the colorful and well-lit palace chambers of Snorkville, and the first battle is fought around the city center, still blue. But as things go badly, the light drops, with the second battle only lit up by the sickly yellow Hydroid Medusas (btw, hydromedusae are a real class of jellyfish, and hydroid is also a life stage for most hydrozoans), and the final scenes in the shadowy depths of the caves.
Ackbar steals the show as the capable military leader of the Mon Calamari (saying Mon Cala just makes me think of the board game with stones). He manages to make the most of his role as tactician while diplomatically getting his protectee Prince Lee-Char to ‘officially’ give the orders. He does manage to leave the bodyguard duties to Anakin in battle, who then passes the role to Ahsoka. In the palace scenes, Ackbar even has a baton that harkens back to his vintage Kenner figure accessory.
And Kit Fisto gets his grin after defeating one of the mecha-jellyfish, a reference to his penchant for smiling in battle (back in Episode II and in the Genndy Tartakovsky Clone Wars micro-series). Speaking of, while Dave Filoni used some of the that series’ Mon Calamari battle episode for both design elements and Kit Fisto, underwater butt-kicker, there’s a good difference between the two episodes (besides the lack of dialogue in the micro-series) – the battle plays out quite differently and here the Mon Cal live in cities with tubes and fight with aqua rifles, while back in 2003, they rode on underwater versions of the luck-dragon from The Neverending Story. I really liked how they reverse-engineered the Mon Cal star cruisers from Return of the Jedi into the building architecture here, and I wish we got to see a little bit more of the city from further out.
Where it got all wet: A few things just didn’t feel right to me – some of them involved suspension of disbelief issues. I mentioned that I had some nitpick issues to some of fellow fans, and they were like “lightsabers working underwater” and “talking underwater,” and actually, I’m totally fine with both. At first I didn’t quite get the hamster tubes, but after a second viewing, it is clear that they serve as much faster one-way conduits for travel than swimming alone. It’s just that Riff Tamsin outside a tube could keep up with Ahsoka and Lee-Char riding a Devilfish aqua sled inside a tube. I guess he’s that awesome a swimmer. And he’s super strong since he can bash his way into a tube, while crashing a sled into a pack of aqua droids won’t damage the tube system at all. And he’s nigh invulnerable, since a pack of Mon Cal soldiers can’t hurt him with their guns, and so he chomps them all up. Maybe that’s the real problem: Sharkboy is just too awesome. I should have this problem. But I bet, unlike the Mon Calamari and Quarren, he doesn’t do well out of water. As a new alien, Riff Tamson just doesn’t seem alien enough for me – he’s just a grown-up shark-boy, or rather a man-sized great-white shark, with human limbs. Maybe they’ll blow him up by getting him to bite a gas tank and then they’ll shoot it. Still, he’s a formidable predator – if Riff brought several of his Karkarodon pals from home to fight, the Mon Cal would be nothing but chum.
It felt like there was big jump that happened from the opening scene of the Quarren eventually deciding to storm out of the government to “Hey! We’re at war!” In the government chamber, neither Tamson nor the Quarren mention taking their political disagreement up to armed conflict. It felt a bit disjointed – from saying Prince Lee-Char is too young and inexperienced to rule and walking out, to the next day launching a surprise attack! While the scene colorfully introduces all the new characters (except Meena Tills, who probably should be in this scene), the episode could have just started with the war starting, and bypassed the rough jump from this scene to war. Oh yeah. Meena Tills – she just came off as a political novice in this episode, yet she apparently ranks high enough to force Ackbar to make protecting Lee-Char as his top priority when war is imminent, and after the first battle is over, she suggests that the prince try to get the Quarren to surrender. It didn’t seem like she was terribly competent, and yet she represents her people in the Senate. Odd.
The Hydroid Medusas also were a little odd – as the first wave attackers in the second assault, they shock a total of three soldiers (two clones and a Mon Cal), and then they just serve as lighting and background as the aqua droids close in on the defenders. Even when they retreat and Kit Fisto sends his Scooty Puff Jr into one of the giants, in a non-suicidal Independence Day-class ramming, the giant jellies aren’t attacking – just hanging out. Maybe they got bored.
Back to nitpicks – underwater pressure: it’s a killer. As another commenter pointed out to an earlier post of mine, what about issues of the bends as they rapidly dive and surface? Maybe Mon Cala’s atmosphere doesn’t have those problems. Also, while it’s a trope in TV and film to have lights inside your helmet underwater (to show the character’s face) – I think Sphere might have introduced Hollywood to that effect, it’s not all that practical for the swimmer’s vision. The battle: while the underwater animation was fantastic, it didn’t feel like the creative forces really worked out how an infantry battle works in the three-dimensional environment of water. It just felt like the Separatists coming in one wave, moving to the left, and the Mon Calamari and the clones just moving to the right. Having battle lines mostly horizontal instead of thinking of the up and down – there was some wasted potential here.
Overall: ‘Water War’ starts things off with an action-filled bang, and ends on a low note for the heroes. We see some pretty cool sequences in the battle: Riff Tamsin slashing through packs of his enemies, and Anakin fighting off attackers while struggling to find his lost breather-helmet. Lee-Char fits well as the child prince recognizing that while thrust into the position of authority, he still has a lot to learn. Adam McArthur voices him well, bringing youthful naiveté to the role with lines like “As long as we’re in the tube, we’re safe.” But Tamson’s ultra-powerfulness seemed a bit much – even Cad Bane isn’t immune to blasters. That opening scene didn’t transition well to war – and why are the Mon Cals taken by surprise? If they are gearing up for the potential of war, you’d think they’d post a lookout or something. Maybe they don’t have comlinks, which is why everyone has to swim around to find each other in the battle. While the look of Mon Cala and the battles are stunning and fun, there were a few things that kept me from enjoying this first part to the fullest.
Also, read our review of ‘Gungant Attack’.