More often than not, Star Wars can’t resist solving all its mysteries.
But once, long ago, in a canon not so far away, Star Wars was filled with more questions than answers, and plenty of fans preferred it that way. Since 1999, as the franchise has steered through a series of drawn-out prequels and origin stories, the results have often been less than inspiring. While various merits of prequel films like The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith are still hotly debated, the very existence of a debate demonstrates that it can be tricky for Star Wars to fill in all its blanks.
On Disney+, the animated Star Wars series The Bad Batch is following a meticulously detailed route to explain one element of the classic trilogy backstory: The emergence of stormtroopers amid the decline of the clone troopers that preceded them. Technically speaking, The Bad Batch is completing this retcon. But it’s also falling short for one massive reason. When it comes to Star Wars world-building, less should be more — except it never is.
In 1999, The Phantom Menace changed Star Wars forever, mainly by explicating a new set of rules governing its space-opera universe. For example:
- The Force only works if you have enough midi-chlorians in your bloodstream
- There can only be two Sith
- The Jedi are waiting for a Chosen One
- The Force is out of balance and can only be rebalanced by the Chosen One
None of these rules existed prior to 1999, even across all the Star Wars tie-in books and comics now considered “Legends” (or non-canon). In his infamous stand-up routine, “I Will Kill George Lucas at Midnight,” Patton Oswalt points out that simply explaining what ingredients created familiar characters and situations isn’t really enough to create a compelling story. (Giving children rock salt is not the same as giving them ice cream, for similar reasons, as Oswalt rants: “I don’t give a shit about where the stuff I love comes from!”)
Now, this is an extreme position to take; and though hyperbolic, there’s wisdom to be gleaned from it. One could argue that what makes the prequels interesting is that they basically reinvented Star Wars; in the creation of all those specific rules, they gave the other films and shows more opportunities to follow previously unexplored paths. We couldn't have arrived at The Mandalorian if Star Wars canon hadn’t gotten tangled by The Clone Wars, and we wouldn't have seen The Clone Wars without the prequels.
On a case-by-case basis, the idea of creating an entire story out of arguably unnecessary backstory can sometimes work. Even though its plot is nonsensical, Rogue One is aesthetically more interesting than Revenge of the Sith, even though fans were more interested in the origin of Darth Vader than a two-hour movie about how dead characters stole the data tape eventually handed to Princess Leia. Rogue One works as a movie, but it shouldn’t. In this, it’s the exception that proves the rule.
Less really is more
Say we consider Rogue One to be an outlier.
Once you dig into retcon-prequel shenanigans in Star Wars, generally speaking, the pattern is this: once Star Wars zooms in on a new explanation of pre-existing canon, that story backfires, and makes the event in question less convincing than it was before.
The smoking blaster in this respect is the concept of midi-chlorians — once you start thinking about them and wondering about the technical aspects of the Force, the idea of this all-powerful energy becomes less believable.
In the classic trilogy, minimalism made the sci-fi world-building work. Ditto for the sequel films. In The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren mocks Rey with a dismissive description of her parents, which gives us just enough information to keep the story moving. In The Rise of Skywalker, Rey’s parents are given a bigger new backstory, which just makes the emotional truth of her arc throughout the trilogy more confusing less plausible. In a similar way, Han Solo mentioning the Kessel Run in A New Hope is an iconic moment, but seeing him do the Kessel Run in Solo is less-than-thrilling because there are far too many technical explanations offered for what he’s doing and why. It robs the gunslinger of his mystique.
When Star Wars commits to enigmatic, gorgeous world-building in minimal brush strokes, telling us only what we need to know to feel immersed, it’s like looking at a beautiful painting. When the franchise overexplains canon, it’s like watching someone fill in a paint-by-numbers picture while explaining their every action. Whenever Star Wars forgets to be minimalist and tries to dig into a weird loose end in its complex chronology, things get dicey. This leads us to The Bad Batch.
Stormtroopers, Stormtroopers — where!?
In episode 14 “War-Mantle,” The Bad Batch explores the origins of rogue clone trooper Gregor, who will eventually appear as an old man in the Rebels episode “The Lost Commanders.”
This origin story is most inoffensive, but the real trouble starts with the way in which the series is slowly rolling out the non-clone stormtroopers, hammering home all the various reasons why the Empire chose to use human recruits over clones. At first, we were told it was because clones were too expensive. Then, that the clones were unreliable. And now, it’s all about the idea that the new “TK Units” are just more loyal to the Empire because... reasons.
It makes a little bit of sense that clones who fought for the Republic would balk at fighting for the Empire, a bureaucracy with vastly different intentions and tactics. But here’s the problem. All of this is just semantics. If the Emperor had decided to just keep the name “the Republic,” the clones would have simply had to swallow a new leadership. And if the Empire was worried that Jango Fett clones weren’t really cutting it, why not just find one loyal new recruit for the stormtrooper project, and clone them? Why would all these recruits be loyal to the Empire? Where did they come from?
In the sequel trilogy, we’re told the First Order kidnaps children and turns them into stormtroopers. This, while horrific, at least makes a little more sense logistically — the First Order brainwashes their soldiers very young. But, in The Bad Batch, we’re supposed to believe that millions of adult citizens of the once-peaceful Republic are not only fully trained as soldiers, but actively looking forward to serving in a non-conscripted army during peacetime... because... they love Palpatine?
If The Bad Batch focused on showing who these new stormtroopers were, as people, then maybe this would be convincing. But it doesn’t — and it isn’t. In “War-Mantle,” old John Williams cues from A New Hope score many of the scenes, to help convince us that we’re seeing the origins of the classic pre-“Imperial March” stormtroopers. But, because there are now so many rules as to why some clones are good and some clones are bad, all of this exposition about the clone-stormtrooper changeover made this moment in Star Wars history less convincing than ever.
Canon in the crosshairs
A microcosm of all that’s wrong with The Bad Batch and Star Wars’ refusal to stop rewriting its own past lies in the inhibitor chip. In the first Bad Batch episode, “Aftermath,” it's heavily implied that Crosshair is only still loyal to the Empire because his inhibitor chip is working. But, a dozen episodes later, it’s not really clear how much the inhibitor chip matters. In “Rescue on Ryloth,” clones turned against the Empire even though they still had their chips installed. Presumably, stormtroopers aren’t getting inhibitor chips inserted into their brains, though it would actually make sense if they were.
So, why does Crosshair love working for the Empire? Because he’s a bad person? That would be a decent explanation, though the nature of the series is 100 percent about an army of clones who have all developed different personalities for a variety of reasons. If you could forget that the show was set in the Star Wars universe, cool science fiction concepts abound: What would happen to an army of clones no longer useful once the war had been won? How would they react and adapt? What would they do next? How would they relate to each other?
In theory, this is what The Bad Batch should be about. But because it's so preoccupied with connecting dots in the greater Star Wars canon, any of its unique sci-fi ideas are steamrolled by the larger scale of the franchise’s history. Before the existence of this show, the switch between clones and stormtroopers was a strange blip in the Star Wars canon, which probably could have been left alone.
But now that we’re here, there’s no turning back. Where we once had only a few questions, now we have hundreds. And there are no good answers in sight.