The Clone Wars Season 5 Episode 11: A Sunny Day in the Void
It may have been a sunny day on Abafar, but the forecast was mixed for this episode of The Clone Wars Season 5, the second of four episodes in the D-Squad arc. The episode had some enjoyable moments, to be sure, and many of them continued the themes of humanity versus autonomy, choice versus rote behavior, and training versus programming that were first introduced in Secret Weapons. Unfortunately, A Sunny Day in the Void suffered from the very trait that made it unique: it was supremely bizarre. Ordinarily episodes of The Clone Wars are filled with detail and chock-full of both character development and story material. This episode was intended to be an experiment. What would happen if all of that were tossed out the window? Could such an episode work? Despite occasional scenes and conversations that were suffused with emotional and psychological depth, that experiment failed.
At first, I wasn't sure whether Colonel Gascon had reconsidered his attitude toward the droids. He referred to BZ as his "command center," but then relented and called him by his designation. Obviously, he was still a cold and demanding officer, but he was at least willing to play the droids' "personality" game for the time being. This conciliatory attitude evaporated almost as soon as the episode got underway. When the Republic shuttle encountered a storm of icy comets, Gascon berated the droids and yelled at them to work faster to fix the ship's engines. He called the droids "lousy mechs" at one point, which made me think, "Hey, at least they're helping."
Indeed, Gascon was back to his usual ungrateful and rude self by the time the shuttle crash-landed on the planet Abafar. He blamed the mechs for "getting us into" this mess, despite the fact that no one could have outmaneuvered the comet storm by the time it was close enough to appear on the shuttle's sensors. As the group took stock of their situation, Gascon insisted that they wait at the ship, because he wanted to plan more. He was cautious, whereas R2, who wanted to leave the crash site and finish the mission, was ambitious. The droids followed R2, as if they were giving him credit for taking the initiative, and Gascon reluctantly followed. Throughout the episode, the droids increasingly took matters into their own hands more as they saw Gascon lose his composure and as they lost confident in him accordingly.
Even though Gascon was steadily losing confidence in himself, he remained protective of D-Squad's operation, calling it "my mission." At one point, he touched on what I consider the overarching message of this story arc. He angrily told WAC-47, "Droids don't get training; you get programming." This is what I was talking about in my review of Secret Weapons: the differences between organics and robots. Gascon thought that the way in which sentient beings learned things was relevant to how creative they could be, which is wrong. He thought that droids couldn't "act outside [their] programming," but this too is wrong. Throughout this episode, the droids acted on instincts just as much as Gascon did. They weren't programmed for this specific situation, so they extrapolated, just like a living being with years of training would do.
Gascon made it clear that his officer training hadn't prepared him for their predicament. When he explained how he was trained, WAC compared it to programming, and Gascon blanched at the thought. He clearly wanted to distance himself from them, as if he disdained them. He considered them to be sub-rational actors, constructed beings incapable of the kind of imaginative decision-making that flesh-and-blood Republic patriots employed every day. He even said that they couldn't "think."
However, the ludicrousness of Gascon's argument quickly caught up with him. Seeing that WAC was beginning to show some initiative, Gascon said that he didn't want the droids to think. The hypocrisy of this statement was obvious: he had just told them that they couldn't think, so what was he worried about? As WAC's industrious attitude started to frustrate Gascon, the colonel began ranting at WAC, furious that he had to justify his existence to this group of automatons. This statement gave me pause -- don't these droids face the same problem when dealing with other organics? Don't they have to prove how sentient they are? It was an interesting thing to consider.
As Gascon's despair began to get the better of him, the colonel asked for a sign, begging no one in particular to offer him "a glimmer of hope." Gascon got exactly that: a glimmer, and nothing more. He immediately saw a phantasmal village off in the distance. Of course, none of the droids saw it, because they didn't plead with the planet for direction. When the vision dissolved into nothingness, Gascon found his water bottle on the ground nearby. It was a reminder of his mortality and a sign that his resources had run out. Seeing this, Gascon finally lost it and started jumping around like a madman.
Lost in the depths of his despair, Gascon told WAC, who had remained with him after the other droids left, that "Life is a void." WAC responded, "Giving up is not in my programming. I am surprised that it is in yours, colonel." If there was a fundamental message in this episode, this was it: hope versus despair. WAC was programmed to ceaselessly perform his duty. He wasn't susceptible to despair. That line about not being programmed to give up directly contrasted him with Gascon in that regard. Gascon, he seemed to suggest, was flawed.
When Gascon finally opened his mind, an actual solution appeared. He admitted that Abafar, with its total emptiness, had proved that his utterly rational training was imperfect. He even gave WAC credit for being "more than just a pilot." It was a moment fit for the season: perhaps the stubborn colonel's heart had just grown three sizes. Suddenly, the stampede of birds appeared. Now it's Gascon's turn to seize on a solution. "Follow the birds' instincts," he told WAC. Together, the two of them let go of all semblance of control and logic and let the birds take them wherever the flock was going. The birds seemed to embrace their riders, as if the planet was saying, "It's about time you caught on!"
If Gascon had a co-star in this character-driven episode, it was the pit droid WAC-47. Throughout the episode, he seemed much more focused, as if he realized that their mission called for a less whimsical and more serious attitude. He proved himself to be a capable pilot in an emergency situation, and he even addressed Colonel Gascon by his proper title. Once on the surface, WAC retained that newfound sense of maturity and professionalism. He expressed an interest in taking point and mused about a promotion. It was a very organic way to think about his place in the mission.
WAC's demeanor was significantly more positive than Gascon's. The pit droid gave the episode its title when he called the present environmental condition "a sunny day." This statement emphasized WAC's persistent optimism, given that, despite his cheery assessment, there was no actual sun and the squad was hopelessly lost. WAC's behavior grew even more serious when he recognized the colonel's inability to lead them out of their predicament. He explained how he was superior to Gascon: he didn't have to consider his health, so he could focus solely on the mission. The implication was obvious: Gascon was a living being and had a variety of weaknesses as a result. Gascon didn't want to think about what WAC was suggesting, but the persistent pit droid spelled it out anyway.
"When you die, I should lead D-Squad," WAC said. Despite the seriousness of the episode, this line and several other moments that followed the same track struck me as unusually grim. Here you had a robot spelling out Gascon's imminent demise, reminding him that he would die and that trying to deny it was futile. There were certainly other signs of Gascon's mortality -- his drinking from the water bottle and commenting on how hot the climate was -- but WAC took it to an unexpected level.
WAC casually remarked about Gascon's emotional distress and the possibility of suicide several more times, each more grim and disturbing than the next. When Gascon climbed on top of the ship that they discovered, WAC told the other droids, "Maybe he is going to jump and put himself out of his misery." After Gascon's vision of a settlement turned out to be nothing more than a mirage, WAC said, "He should have jumped," referring to the colonel's earlier perch atop the discovered ship. While WAC's commentary on Gascon's mortality may not have been entirely out of character for a somewhat unobservant pit droid, I remain disturbed that The Clone Wars would slip such a grim line of thought into a story arc with such an upbeat theme (droids on a mission!). It was certainly at odds with the vibe that I got from previews of this story arc.
In any event, WAC was not entirely a changed droid as a result of his experiences in D-Squad. Even he called R2 "just a mech" and said that he couldn't be group leader. R2 then bumped into WAC to remind him of his place, but I'm not sure that it worked. As we saw, there are prejudices even among droids. WAC's superiority complex seemed to be returning. At the end of the episode, WAC even echoed Gascon and called the rest of D-Squad "stupid lucky droids," as if he too was trying to dismiss the mechs' superior capabilities with ridicule.
WAC's superiority also translated into WAC's dealings with Gascon. When the beleaguered colonel mused about whether or not he was already dead, WAC condescended to him, which was weird to see from a droid to his organic commanding officer. "I should have gone with the mechs," WAC said to himself as Gascon despaired. The way WAC regarded Gascon in this episode was very different from how he regarded him in the previous episode. He went from respecting Gascon and wanting to please him to viewing him as a liability and a child.
Although none of them played as big a role in this episode as Gascon and WAC-47, the astromech units occasionally had their own significant moments. The scene in which the droids tried to fix the shuttle's engines during the comet storm reminded me of The Phantom Menace. (Although in this case, as the focus of the story was on the droids themselves, none of them was destroyed.) I liked how the astromechs banded together to save each other when two of them were swept off the hull. It contributed to the idea that these astromechs, who knew that they were far superior to either the pit droid or their tiny organic boss, had banded together and pledged to care for each other.
There were a few comic moments involving the astromechs that lightened the mood in this episode. As WAC walked off and told Gascon that he'd "been thinking," the mechs all looked at each other and wheeled off to follow them. The glance they shared spoke volumes about their opinions of the other two. It was a very human moment for them. Later, when Gascon ordered the squad to halt, the mechs all bumped into each other in their line.
Comedic moments aside, the astromechs also had more serious moments. At first, they only reluctantly followed Gascon -- they'd all but lost confidence in him as a leader. Later, they actually left WAC behind, because they didn't want him as a leader any more than they wanted Gascon. As they trundled away, they told WAC that he was just a pilot. Obviously, there was distrust and underestimation all around in this episode. Far from WAC and Gascon being the only ones to exhibit human-like vanity and other character flaws, the astromechs too indulged in condescension -- condescension that, as it turned out, was unwarranted, at least in WAC's case.
This was a character-focused episode, but there's one character I haven't yet touched upon: the planet itself. Abafar's design was unique and curious, perfectly in line with supervising director Dave Filoni's description of the episode as "really abstract," "out on the edge," and "really experimental stuff." The planet had a deserted landscape feel to it, much like Tatooine, but the fact that there were no surface features as far as the eye could see made it even more barren and uninviting than Tatooine. In the spirit of reusing what works, Lucasfilm Animation clearly appropriated some of the musical cues from R2's lonesome trek through the Jundland Wastes in A New Hope. One of R2's worried beeps was ripped right out of that scene as well.
For a barren, desolate place, Abafar certainly seemed to have a personality to it. The planet's surface left no trace of the squad's footprints. WAC said they should be moving forward anyway, and not looking behind them, and it seemed as if the planet was encouraging this kind of exploration. When Gascon strayed from the explorer's path, the planet began toying with him. Just as he started succumbing to despair, he saw what he believed was their ship. The planet gave him hope for a moment, but then transformed it into a lesson about the folly of his original plan (waiting with the ship). WAC and R2 commented on the decomposed body of the pilot by saying, "This is what happens when you stay at the ship." This was the lesson that the planet was trying to send Gascon, but it would be a while before he learned it. Later, as Gascon mused about the nature of the settlement he had spied, the vision shifted and blurred, as if the planet was intentionally keeping the image vague so that Gascon's imagination could fully run its course. All in all, it was a very bizarre planet.
D-Squad finally made its way to some semblance of civilization at the very end of the episode. The recessed settlement area, with its orange lake, was the first sign of habitation and order they had encountered. (The fact that the settlement was recessed into the ground like the Lars family dwelling on the inhospitable planet of Tatooine was not lost on me.) It was funny to see that the astromechs beat Gascon and WAC to the settlement. After Gascon's uplifting speech about following the birds' instincts and letting go of their training, they could have just gone with the mechs and found their way here. In any event, Gascon was in better spirits as he surveyed the settlement. He gave WAC a field promotion to corporal and availed himself of the lake's water. Maybe he just wanted to get WAC out of his hair, or maybe he was really starting to recognize the value of trusting WAC with some autonomy.
I have written a lot about the characters, both biological and mechanical, who had very human experiences in this episode. I did indeed have a lot to say, but this should not be misconstrued as wholehearted approval. I did not love this episode. There were a number of thought-provoking moments, especially between Gascon and WAC, but there was no story to speak of and very little in the way of excitement. Nothing really impressed me. In fact, the only time I found myself admiring the design of the episode was at the very beginning, during the comet storm. That definitely looked awesome. The way the comets faded in and out of view was almost ghostly. They looked like jellyfish streaming upward out of the deep, dark water. The comet scene also benefited from bizarre music that did a good job of setting the tone for the episode, giving it an "uncharted territory" feel.
Overall, though, there just wasn't enough meat on the bones in this episode to impress me. A few moments that convey the sense that WAC is more than just a pit droid do not make up for an adventure that was as devoid of story as it was of scenery. I recognize that the bizarreness of this episode -- the absence of rich scenery and a detailed plotline -- was intentional. I have already quoted Dave Filoni as calling this an experimental episode. But that does not mean I have to give it a pass. It did not fit in with the arc, nor with the fast pace that a series' fifth season should be setting. The fact that there is probably only one full season left until the series concludes is all the more reason why experiments like this one do not serve the show well. I have praised episodes that deviated from the main war story before, but this episode went beyond that level of deviation. It is, at least for now, my least favorite episode of Season 5. Given how much promise this story arc seemed to have after Secret Weapons, my hope is that the next two episodes will recover that promise and follow through on it. Just as D-Squad returned to civilization upon finding that settlement and felt better after doing so, the D-Squad story arc needs to return to more familiar ground -- and fast.