The Clone Wars Season 5 Episode 7: A Test of Strength
Great opening acts are hard to follow, and by keeping this in mind, I was able to enjoy A Test of Strength. It's not that this episode was bad, per se, but The Gathering was so character-focused and rich in Force-related philosophy, and following it up with a plot-based episode disrupted what I felt was an interesting exploration of the Force and the subtler lessons that a Jedi must learn. In the second part of the Young Jedi arc, Hondo's untimely intervention proved to be a transformative event for the younglings. Indeed, the kids' reactions to the pirates and their subsequent learning experiences actually created enjoyable scenes, as did the introduction of a new droid character. A Test of Strength did not have the depth of The Gathering, nor was it a gripping or particularly exciting episode, but it was fun enough not to be a disappointment.
Before the Sithspit hit the fan, this episode was a serious look at what it took to become a Jedi with a fun twist. The seriousness came from the difficulty of actually building one's lightsaber, as demonstrated by the younglings' continued failures to do so. As a fan of the Genndy Tartakovsky Clone Wars micro-series, in which Luminara Unduli accompanied Barriss Offee on the latter's trip to the Ilum crystal caves, I really enjoyed watching the younglings go through the Force-propelled lightsaber creation technique. Unlike Offee, they were not experienced enough to achieve their goal. It evidently required reaching deep inside oneself to summon the precision to assemble the weapon. Petro quickly created a lightsaber, and it certainly looked complete, but, as was the case with the crystal gathering, he had rushed through the process and messed up. He wasn't sufficiently in tune with the Force yet.
The character who was introduced to help the younglings along the way actually proved to be the highlight of this otherwise-mediocre episode. Huyang, the enigmatic droid lightsaber designer, was just great in every way. If lightsaber construction is to Star Wars as wand selection was to Harry Potter, Huyang was unquestionably the Ollivander of the Jedi Order. Doctor Who star David Tennant (who appeared as Barty Crouch, Jr., in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by the way) masterfully lent his vocal talent to the role of the uppity droid. When Huyang asked Gungi, the Wookiee youngling what connected with his Force, it reminded me of Ollivander asking a young Harry Potter to try out several of the wands in his shop. Even the music that played as Huyang rustled through his drawers reminded me of Diagon Alley.
The fact that Gungi chose wood for the hilt of his lightsaber made sense given what we might assume about "his" Force. Such a choice would bring him closer to his roots (no pun intended). I like the idea that a Jedi's lightsaber hilt says something about him. I also thought it was a nice touch to make Huyang, the guardian of the lightsaber-creation process, a droid instead of an organic being. It made for a great juxtaposition: a mechanical creation intertwined into the very spiritual, distinctly biological matters of the Force.
Even before Huyang revealed that his perfect robotic memory allowed him to recall what every Jedi Knight's lightsaber creation process had been like, everything about him screamed "I've been at this forever and I'll keep it at long after you're dust in the wind." In an obvious nod to Ollivander, he ambled around the stacks of lightsaber tools and rustled through the many drawers looking for the right parts. He was quirky, patronizing, and a bit pompous, and that was great to see in a droid. I would love to watch a conversation between Huyang and C-3PO about a subject on which each droid considered himself to be the expert.
Of course, Huyang also brought his quirkiness to bear in threatening situations, much to my amusement. When a pirate snatched him up out of the ventilation shaft, he intoned, "Unhand me, brigand." I loved seeing this episode built up Huyang into a sort of nutty robotic professor. It was also funny to see the droid take down a pirate with a sharp kick, showing off his impressive martial arts skills as he defended the younglings. Even without arms and a head, he was clearly dedicated to protecting his new charges. The shot of Gungi running while holding Huyang's head reminded me of Chewbacca doing the same for 3PO in The Empire Strikes Back.
I was glad to see that some of the younglings' unique quirks were faithfully and appropriately reproduced in the second part of their journey. This was most obvious in the character of Petro, whose brash and impulsive attitude naturally made him the biggest personality in the room. I liked seeing him experiment with his own lightsaber techniques while swinging that stick around. He was no doubt restlessly awaiting the ability to wield a real lightsaber, as his promise to challenge Obi-Wan Kenobi and slay General Grievous attested.
When the pirates boarded the ship and Huyang collected the kids' crystals, Petro predictably hung onto his. It was natural that the most impatient and impulsive character would want to take matters into his own hands when he was given the opportunity to be a hero. He reminded me a lot of Han Solo, always wanting to stand and fight, even though, as Ben Kenobi said, "There are alternatives to surrender." Like Han on the Death Star, Petro didn't want to sit around and wait. "Hiding is for cowards," he said. Such naïve conduct was the result of his being too young to understand that full-on assaults weren't always the answer. Sometimes, like in this case and in A New Hope, hiding was necessary, at least in the short term. Indeed, their ventilation shaft hiding trick was a nice hat-tip to Episode IV.
Later, Petro proved that he could actually be pretty clever when he tricked a pirate into triggering his unstable lightsaber. It was a moment that showed that sometimes the unconventional, unsanctioned action can be the right one. Petro may be impulsive, but sometimes that's what you need in a specific situation. After all, Ahsoka's orders to hide were useless now that they had been caught. How else would the younglings and Huyang have escaped that encounter? I may have harsh words for young Petro in general, but it's clear what that scene was supposed to demonstrate: going off-script is not always a problem. Sometimes it's the only solution.
Petro and the other younglings were content to spend their time deep in space building their first lightsabers, but as so many episodes of The Clone Wars have shown us, real life often gets in the way of best laid plans. With Hondo and his pirates busting open their airlocks, the younglings began to realize that they had to fight. Petro was the first to reach this conclusion, as much as Ahsoka tried to discourage his and the others' direct engagement -- fearing their deaths, obviously, but perhaps also their succumbing to darker tendencies. Nevertheless, Petro's heroism convinced the other kids that standing one's ground often became the last good option.
The younglings' plan to use their training remotes as weapons platforms was an example of creativity borne out of desperation. As the kids set the remotes to their highest pain level, it occurred to me that Hondo's arrival was a pretty good training exercise for them. At such a young age, they were already setting traps and shooting armed invaders. It was another sad example of the rushed growing-up process that Jedi younglings undergo in the big, scary galaxy. The scene with the training remotes shooting the pirates was an example of the ambiguity that sometimes seemed forced into this episode due to its kid-centric story. Were we supposed to assume that the pirates died, or would they eventually have destroyed the remotes? If it's the former, that was a pretty dark scene, especially when Katooni watched through the slit in the door while the remotes' blaster fire lit up her face.
Hondo Ohnaka, privateer and vicious profit-seeker, was certainly a departure from Hondo Ohnaka, brave leader of pirates and half-hearted Jedi ally, whom we saw in the first part of Season Five. His decision to attempt to steal crystals from the Jedi younglings was a reminder to viewers that, while he may have been funny, sympathetic, and likeable in the season premiere, Hondo is still a pirate. His motivation, as he told Ahsoka, will always be profit. It was important that the TCW team give a popular recurring character like Hondo a consistent personality. That way, even when he does something that seems discordant given what fans know about him, it's explainable in terms of his larger goals and opinions. Up until now, when he was an ally to the Jedi, it was only out of convenience (Revival) or a desire for profit (Tipping Points).
After this episode, I've come to realize that Hondo reminds me a little bit of Quark from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Quark, too, could get carried away by profit. In fact, profit was the only thing that mattered to Quark's species, the Ferengi. But whereas Quark was usually a reliable ally in the end, Hondo truly wasn't affiliated with anyone except his pirates. He follows the path of profit without having to worry about longtime allies distrusting or scorning him, which makes him even more of an opportunist than Quark ever was. When one of his pirates exhibited a degree of morality and said, "They're just kids," Hondo was ready with a retort: "'They're just kids.' When will they learn?" When Ahsoka threatened that the Jedi Council would respond to his attack, he brushed off threat by promising to kill all of this incident's witnesses, demonstrating a remarkable coldness that we haven't seen from him in his recent appearances.
Ahsoka's treatment of the pirates in this episode was interesting. When she explained her plan to void the ship's corridors to space and flush out the pirates, she danced around the fact that any pirates sucked into space would die. She clearly didn't want this boarding situation to get bloody in front of the younglings. She was certainly ready to kill if she had to, but she made every attempt to avoid it, even when it was just her and the pirates in the open corridor at the end. Ahsoka proved herself to be a great teacher, and it seems that every mission she undertakes has taught her something different about how to be a great Jedi.
While I didn't love A Test of Strength, it ended on a promising note. With Ahsoka captured, the younglings have only Huyang to protect and oversee them -- or rather, Huyang and R2-D2. I certainly hope that R2 gets more attention in the next episode. He got to save the day once in A Test of Strength when he electrocuted one of the pirates. In an episode that was largely without humor -- aside from everything that Huyang did -- it was refreshing and fun to see R2 extend all of his appendages and charge forward to rescue the kids. That moment probably played well with young viewers who anthropomorphize everyone's favorite astromech droid. When you really think about it, R2 and Huyang taking care of this collection of younglings would make for a really fun story. It has the potential to be much better than the R2/3PO duology in Season Four. R2 and Huyang are essentially droid parents at this point, stranded with anxious and inexperienced youngsters and separated from the organic life form who was coordinating everything.
On a darker note, Ahsoka's status as a prisoner of the pirates will be a test of both her resolve and the lengths to which this series will go. Hondo, who had rushed to her aid on behalf of the Jedi just a few episodes ago, implied in the episode's final scene that he would be turning her into a slave to make up for the lost profit from the crystals. While we've seen Ahsoka play a slave as part of a mission, it's never been this real for her before. How will The Clone Wars work such a grim situation into a story arc that is geared at its youngest viewers? More importantly, how will Ahsoka grow as a result of this situation? A Test of Strength may not have been that strong of an episode on its own, aside from the excellent involvement of Huyang, but it did set the stage for an intriguing continuation to the Young Jedi story arc.