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‘Star Wars: The Bad Batch’ Is a Familiar-Looking Window Into an Unfamiliar Era

The newest Disney+ show may be harder to sell to casual fans who haven’t fallen for the earlier animated shows, but the supersized premiere indicates a continuation of Dave Filoni’s small-screen success

Dan Evans
Spoiler warning

“Aftermath,” the 70-minute premiere of Star Wars: The Bad Batch, culminates in a moment of literal wide-eyed wonder. Omega, a girl who’s just escaped her homeworld of Kamino with the series’ titular unit of idiosyncratic clone soldiers, is about to venture outside of the system for the first time. “Strap in, kid,” says Hunter, the hirsute, tattooed leader of the group. “You’re not gonna want to miss this view.” The view isn’t new to seasoned Star Wars watchers, but it exhilarates Omega, whose eyes fill with stars as the faint twinkles of distant destinations smear into blue blurs and the ship enters the tunnel of hyperspace. She’s bound for fresh adventures, and so are we.

But not so fresh that The Bad Batch doesn’t feel familiar. Lucasfilm’s latest series, which debuted on Disney+ on Tuesday to mark May the Fourth (and the one-year anniversary of the Clone Wars finale), is both brand new and older in origin than most recent or scheduled Star Wars releases. It’s designed to stand on its own, but it owes deep debts in appearance, content, and tone to the predecessor that spawned it, The Clone Wars. And although it lays claim to a time period unexplored by previous Star Wars movies and TV shows, it’s also hemmed in by the inviolable narratives of two trilogies. All of that makes The Bad Batch harder to hype, and perhaps harder to sell to casual fans and those who haven’t fallen for the earlier animated shows. But based on the premiere and a second episode slated for Friday, both of which were provided to critics in advance, The Bad Batch looks likely to extend a strong run of small-screen series created or produced by Dave Filoni, a protégé of George Lucas whose inspired Star Wars work has helped tie together the 44-year-old franchise’s pre- and post-Disney trilogies and timelines.

The Bad Batch is an A-Team–type unit of clones whose genetic abnormalities provide advantages in combat; as one member puts it in the premiere, “We’re more deviant than we are defective.” Crosshair, the standoffish sniper, has enhanced sight; Wrecker, the slow-witted Leeroy Jenkins, has enhanced strength; Tech, the geek and gadget guy, has enhanced smarts; and Hunter, the Predator/Rambo rip-off, has enhanced senses (and also, apparently, enhanced hair). Echo, a regular clone (or “reg”), can interface with secure computer systems thanks to cybernetics implanted in Separatist captivity, which have made him more machine than man. Extensive dialogue among the outwardly identical clones and the more distinctive Bad Batchers tests the ample talents of Dee Bradley Baker, who’s been voicing the progeny of Jango Fett (among other characters) in TV shows and video games dating back to 2008.

Echo completes the group until “Aftermath,” which picks up approximately where the Clone Wars finale left off last year. In the action-packed premiere, the Clone Wars come to a close; Chancellor Palpatine declares himself Emperor Palpatine; and Crosshair, driven by a brainwashing inhibitor chip, turns on his uninhibited comrades, who desert the incipient Empire and its mind-controlled clones rather than follow orders to execute Jedi and innocent “insurgents.” Omega, a fifth (and, her name suggests, final) Bad Batcher, takes Crosshair’s place. Unlike her older brothers, she’s not a seasoned soldier, and the special skills she possesses—and the nature of the relationship that made cloner Nala Se help her (and the rest of the Bad Batch) escape—are still undisclosed.

These atypical clones were the brainchildren of Lucas, who envisioned them more than a decade ago as Star Wars’ answer to The Dirty Dozen. They were introduced (and joined by the preexisting Echo) in the first four episodes of the seventh and final season of The Clone Wars, which aired in 2020 following a long delay. That backdoor pilot led to this spinoff of a spinoff, which was created by Filoni and developed by him and head writer Jennifer Corbett, a U.S. Navy veteran who cowrote the premiere with Filoni and, like him, serves as an executive producer. Corbett worked on procedurals Breakout Kings, Golden Boy, and NCIS before writing three episodes of the lackluster Star Wars: Resistance, which was pitched toward a younger target audience than The Clone Wars or Rebels and ran for two seasons. Filoni has his head and hands full with The Mandalorian, Ahsoka, The Book of Boba Fett, and other projects, but The Bad Batch has a solid support system of Star Wars TV veterans, including executive producer and supervising director Brad Rau, EPs Athena Portillo and Carrie Beck, and producer Josh Rimes, all of whom have worked on multiple small-screen Star Wars series.

Disney still hasn’t said how long the first season will run. But according to a recent comment by composer Kevin Kiner—another veteran of The Clone Wars and Rebels—Season 1 will contain at least 14 episodes, which would make it longer than the last two seasons of The Clone Wars (though likely not as long as the first five seasons of that series, which ran for 20 or 22 episodes apiece). In an April press junket, Rau said “there’s a plan” for a finite number of episodes in the series, but he wouldn’t divulge what that plan is.

A new streaming release in one of Disney’s flagship franchises can’t help but build buzz, and the supersized premiere of The Bad Batch aspires to the status of event TV, teeing up the series like the 2008 Clone Wars film did for Filoni’s first show. Even so, the fact that Disney sent screeners for The Bad Batch—which it didn’t do for The Mandalorian—speaks to this series’ lesser capacity for internet-breaking reveals. Unless you somehow hadn’t heard about Order 66, “Aftermath” doesn’t present surprises on the level of The Mandalorian’s first glimpses of Grogu and Boba Fett. Because it’s animated and won’t be buoyed by big stars, franchise-shaking plot twists, and Grogu GIFs from week to week, The Bad Batch’s 20-something-minute installments, which will follow each Friday, are unlikely to dominate the nerd-culture news cycle like The Mandalorian, WandaVision, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier did—especially after Marvel’s next small-screen series, Loki, launches on June 11.

Prime among the reasons for fans to be excited is when The Bad Batch takes place: We may have seen series with similar vibes, but we haven’t seen series set during the formative years of the Empire. Although the 19-year slice of the Star Wars timeline between the prequel trilogy and the original trilogy is sparsely populated with books, comics, and video games, no existing Star Wars films or TV series encroach on The Bad Batch’s turf. The nearest neighbor, Solo, is set somewhere between 10 and 13 years before Episode IV. Rebels begins five years before Episode IV, and Andor and Obi-Wan Kenobi, two live-action series due out in 2022, will be set nine and five years before Episode IV, respectively. That gives The Bad Batch between six and nine years of unsettled story to work with.

In some respects, this is rich narrative territory. In the months and years after Order 66, the Empire consolidates control, and the few surviving Jedi flee from Darth Vader and his hunters, the Inquisitors and Purge Troopers. The Bad Batch can depict these dark times of turmoil, which haven’t been seen on screen. It can also explore the clones’ adaptation to life without war and explain how and why the Empire shifts from a well-trained, compliant clone army to an army of free-thinking (and often incompetent) conscripts. “Aftermath” hints that the decision comes down to cost, and in The Clone Wars, the Kaminoans conceded that they were almost out of Jango DNA, but there may be more to the transition. “We definitely explore it in detail,” Corbett says, and Rau chimes in to add, “great detail.”

Some Star Wars stories have illuminated the Empire’s evils from the inside: In some cases, it gradually dawns on characters who are fighting for the Empire that they’re the bad guys, at which point they switch sides (see Sabine Wren, Alexsandr Kallus, Iden Versio, Wedge Antilles, and Finn, among others). In the Bad Batch, the good guys see through Palpatine’s law-and-order façade and desert from the get-go, which restricts their view of the Empire’s inner workings. “As The Clone Wars illustrated, the Bad Batch never really does things the normal way,” Corbett says, adding, “because they’re more free-thinking clones, I think it was easier for them to realize that this place is not where they belong and they need to make a change.” Of course, Crosshair is still following the Empire’s evil orders, and he’ll probably be on the rest of the Bad Batch’s trail. Although that alignment limits his potential as a protagonist, he’s one disabled inhibitor chip away from defection and redemption.

In addition to the “Hunter becomes the hunted” dynamic of intra–Bad-Batch betrayal—You were my brother, Crosshair!—there’s plenty of opportunity for crossover cameos. “This era is so untapped on screen,” Rau says. “So I think that gets us excited as creators, that we can have our characters figuring things out and run across characters that fans might be familiar with.”

Rau notes that the creative team tries to be strict about ensuring that crossover characters serve some purpose beyond basic fan service, but “although we try to be specific,” he says, “the possibilities are massive.” The premiere taps into some of those possibilities: In “Aftermath,” the clones encounter Wilhuff Tarkin, Saw Gerrera, Jedi general Depa Billaba (voiced by Archie Panjabi), and, in a heart-wrenching treat for fans of Rebels, a young Kanan Jarrus, who’s still called Caleb Dume. (Caleb/Kanan, who survives Order 66 with help from Hunter, is voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr., who originated the role in Rebels.) The trailer featured Fennec Shand (from The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett) and Captain Rex (from The Clone Wars and Rebels), and it’s easy to dream about the Bad Batch crossing paths with classic characters including Vader, Ahsoka, Obi-Wan, Darth Maul, Boba Fett, Lando, or even the great Grogu himself.

With many more prequels and spinoffs still ahead, there’s no need for The Bad Batch to cram legacy characters into every episode, despite the streaming synergy that could come from filling in gaps in the backstories of figures who’ll soon star in their own shows. If viewers of The Bad Batch find themselves wondering what Lando is up to, it would probably mean that the series has failed to establish its own compelling cast. The key to that cast is the bond between the older clones and Omega, which promises major Mando-Grogu vibes. “That’s a toss-up,” Rau says, when asked whether Mando or the Bad Batch are worse equipped to take care of a kid. Unlike Din, the Bad Batchers take off their helmets and share responsibility, and Omega seems more self-sufficient than Grogu. Then again, in another difference from Din, the clone soldiers don’t know what it’s like to live with parents (however briefly, before their brutal murders).

“I think ‘found family’ stories are part of Star Wars,” Corbett says. “I know that there are some similarities in various shows, but for us it was really just ‘How can we challenge this unique group of elite soldiers?’ It’s not going to be something mission-oriented, because as we’ve seen in Clone Wars—and you’ll see in this show—they’re very good at what they do. What throws them off balance is the unknown, and one major factor in that is Omega and how she has a completely different perspective on life and survival than they do because of how they were raised so differently. It’s a ‘found family’ story, but it is different.”

Those core relationships will have to click to keep the series from sinking into despair. The drawback of this time period—and possibly part of the reason it’s still so lightly used—is that there’s little potential for the galaxy to be a better place in the short term. “With a handful of fighters and limited firepower, you don’t stand a chance,” Hunter says to Saw. Saw could say the same to Hunter. If The Empire Strikes Back was a dark time for the Rebellion, the time before the Rebellion is darker still. As The Bad Batch begins, the Alliance is still a long way away.

“There’s this darkness in this period, so looking for those moments of hopefulness are really important,” allows Rau, who says the series can “be rewarding and hopeful without it being this massive, cosmic-scale, galactic, blowing-up-the-Death-Star” type of tale. He continues, “Sometimes, hope can be a small thing. It doesn’t have to be saving the galaxy.” Historically speaking, though, stories about saving the galaxy are the signature of Star Wars.

“Aftermath” isn’t really representative of the smaller-scale episodes that will be the norm for The Bad Batch. Many aspects of its standard formula remain murky: whether the series will be episodic, serialized, or a Mandalorian-like blend of both approaches; whether the members of the Bad Batch can morph from broad archetypes to rich and complex characters; whether they’ll have goals aside from survival; whether Omega’s mysterious abilities (which include enhanced perception and precocious marksmanship) will make her as important to Palpatine as Grogu’s many midi-chlorians. But The Bad Batch has the bones of a worthy addition to the prequel canon.

As fictional universes expand exponentially to meet the demand of insatiable streaming services, prequels provide a tempting but treacherous path. Some properties, such as Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings, can only lay new narrative track by visiting earlier eras, but prequels tend to be plagued by lower stakes and less suspense. In theory, Star Wars has the freedom to expand in both directions, but the divisive sequel trilogy is still such an open wound for fans that Lucasfilm seems to be backing away from that entire era. Star Wars has experienced prequel problems of its own, and The Bad Batch may not be immune to the prequel curse.

To make matters more difficult, the spinoff is arriving at a far different time for fandom and the franchise than The Clone Wars did. The Bad Batch isn’t built to feed the nonstop social-media rumor mill that surrounds Star Wars today. It doesn’t seem intended to tee up a big blockbuster or spark all-caps speculation about the future of the franchise. Its purpose appears to be more modest: to ensure a steady stream of Star Wars that sustains the success of Filoni’s animated oeuvre. For fans who’ve binged The Clone Wars and Rebels, that’s enough to get back on board.

Ultimately, scarcity may make the strongest case for investing in The Bad Batch. Although there’s an onslaught of Star Wars ahead, the franchise is mired in a year-long lull (High Republic publications aside). It’s been almost five months since the Season 2 finale of The Mandalorian, and there won’t be more Mando (or The Book of Boba) until at least December. Fans need a fix, and The Bad Batch is the only Star Wars show in town. Fortunately, early indications are that it’s going to be a good one.

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