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FILMEDGE REVIEWS THE CLONE WARS EPISODE 3.04 'SPHERE OF INFLUENCE' — AIRDATE 10.01.10

When Pantoran Chairman Papanoida's family is kidnapped and held for ransom, Ahsoka Tano must team up with Senator Riyo Chuchi to aid the new chairman in recovering his family. It's a journey deep into the dark underbelly of the Coruscant crime scene, with an unlikely — and immediately recognizable — protagonist painted into a corner and forced into action in Sphere of Influence, an all-new episode of STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS airing at 9:00pm ET/PT Friday, October 1st on Cartoon Network.

A child stolen is a hope lost.

Pantora in peril! The newly elected Chairman of Pantora, Baron Papanoida, is caught in a deadly political game. The Trade Federation has blockaded Pantora and suspended all commerce with the system. Isolated from the rest of the Republic, the people of Pantora are beginning to rally against the Senate, who have seemed unsympathetic to their plight.

To make matters worse, Count Dooku has come forward offering aid if Pantora joins the Separatist alliance. Chairman Papanoida has dispatched Senator Chuchi to Coruscant with the hope that she can motivate the Senate to act in favor of Pantora before Lott Dod can legitimize the blockade...

SYNOPSIS:  Forcing a political crisis, the Trade Federation blockades the planet Pantora under the guise of collecting unpaid debts before free trading with other systems may resume. Of course Count Dooku is once again using the Federation as his secret ally to blackmail Pantora into joining the Separatists while Lott Dod continues misdirecting the Senate on the blockade's true motives.  Senator Riyo Chuchi (first seen in Episode 1.15 Trespass) accuses Dod of enacting the blockade under Separatist orders but he denies the charge vigorously, demanding proof of her claim be provided. While members of the Senate sympathize with the Pantorans' plight, Chuchi fails to get action from the bureaucrats. Padme expresses her concern directly to Chuchi and urges her not to join the Separatists. Chairman Papanoida reports their people are growing desperate enough to consider Dooku's offer of Separatist alliance in exchange for supplies and relief from the blockade.

That night, bounty hunters Greedo and Gotal kidnap Papanoida's daughters, Chi Eekway and Che Amanwe, from their chambers, although Che bashes Greedo's head with a relic before she's stunned and taken away with her sister. Padme shares her concerns about the blockade with Anakin when Ahsoka Tano announces the kidnapping to them. Anakin insists the problem is not under Jedi jurisdiction, but Ahsoka volunteers to investigate unofficially as Chuchi's friend to learn more. Anakin reluctantly agrees since the Separatists may be involved, and will make sure the Jedi Council doesn't learn of Ahsoka's mission as long as she doesn't interfere with local law enforcement. With a wry smile, Padme wonders why the Council ever let Anakin teach a padawan given his rule-bending attitude.

Count Dooku expresses his insincere condolences to Chairman Papanoida and his son Ion on the sisters' kidnapping, offering any help to ensure their safe return. Ahsoka enters to relate Padme's concerns along with many in the Senate, along with Padme's suspicion that the Separatists are behind the kidnapping. Papanoida suggests Chuchi and Ahsoka visit the Trade Federation ship organizing the blockade of Pantora to search for possible clues to Che and Chi's whereabouts as hostages, while he and his son follow the police investigation.

Returning to his quarters, Papanoida is greeted by Lieutenant Tan Divo, in charge of the investigation, who reports he found no clues to identify the kidnappers. But Papanoida finds the moon goddess relic Che used to hit Greedo has been moved from its place on the altar. A closer look at the icon reveals blood smears on the statuette, and Papanoida analyzes the blood to identify it came from Greedo. The Chairman and Ion head to Tatooine, Greedo's last known location, to question the bounty hunter and find his hostages.

Chuchi arrives on the Trade Federation command ship, pretending to negotiate a possible alliance between Pantora and the Separatists to learn if that would influence Sib Canay to end his blockade of her world. He agrees in theory if the Chairman denounces the Republic in the Senate, and invited Chuchi and her servant (Ahsoka in disguise) as his guests. Meanwhile Papanoida and his son arrive on Tatooine to visit Jabba the Hutt and find Greedo amid the crowd of other bounty hunters. Back on the Federation ship, Chuchi and Ahsoka overhear the ship's Federation envoy express his fears over the Pantoran hostages being held on this ship. Armed with this proof of Trade Federation complicity with the Separatists, Ahsoka and Chuchi search for the kidnapped daughter. With some difficulty, Ahsoka uses the Force on a Nemoidian detention guard to let she and Chuchi pass where they search the cells and eventually find Che Amanwe and free her from the hapless droid guards.

Greedo finds Papanoida and a short battle of fisticuffs ensues before the Chairman holds Greedo at knifepoint, insisting they take the kidnapping matter before Jabba himself. Papanoida presents the blood sample evidence from the kidnapping scene, insisting that a sample of Greedo's blood will prove his guilt or innocence in the crime, and therefore that Greedo was working on Jabba's orders or someone else's. Jabba orders Greedo's blood to be sampled but the Rodian confesses first, insisting he was acting on Separatist orders to force a treaty with Pantora. Papanoida forces Greedo to take him to his hostage daughter hidden Mos Eisley.  In a seedy cantina, Greedo tells Gotal to free their hostage as Nute Gunray has changed their plan.  But when Chi Eekway calls out to her father, the ruse abruptly ends and a furious blaster fight begins with Ion, Chi and Papanoida shooting it out with the gang of bounty hunters.  The Pantoran family defeat the bounty hunters except for Greedo, who escapes out into the dusty Mos Eisley streets.

Back on the Federation command ship, Sib Canay unleashes a squad of battle droids to halt Ahsoka's rescue mission but the valiant padawan hacks the machines to pieces.  The Federation envoy insists he is innocent of the kidnapping, yet Chuchi counters that Chi's detention on his ship proves compliance between the Trade Federation and the Separatists, which she will reveal to the Senate unless he orders an end to the blockade of Pantora.  Addressing the Galactic Senate, Lott Dod feigns innocence and blames the kidnapping entirely on Sib Canay's lone actions as a Separatist conspirator who infiltrated the Federation ranks. As a gesture of peace, Dod returns the kidnapped daughters to Papanoida and ends the blockade of Pantora to resume free trade at once — reuniting a father with his family in safety at last.

Chairman Papanoida descends into the Coruscant underground in search of his family in 'Sphere of Influence,' an all-new episode of STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS premiering at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT Friday, October 1 on Cartoon Network. TM & © 2010 Lucasfilm Ltd. All rights reserved.

'Sphere of Influence'
Episode clip

REVIEW:  Sphere of Influence, despite its blaster-smoking shootout and backfired blackmailing plot, may prove to be one of the less compelling episode of THE CLONE WARS' third season. At its center, several new or peripheral supporting characters take the main action, while a series regular like Ahsoka briefly shows off her Jedi skills in support of their cause. Anakin and Padme are quickly sidelined from the main plot, glossing over any genuine implications or consequences of Skywalker allowing Ahsoka to get involved in a potentially explosive matter of politics and kidnapping that implicates Separatist alliance with the Trade Federation. It's find to see Ahsoka given more personal responsibility in her Jedi missions, but the episode allows her little latitude in action aside from being a detective and lightsaber-wielding dispatcher of droid obstacles — in short, her actions advance Ahsoka's character very little in terms of the big-picture scope of the series itself.

Riyo Chuchi proves once again to be a feisty yet thoughtful Senator who actually shows quite a bit of maturation from her first appearance in Trespass in Season One, and kudos to voice actor Jennifer Hale for bringing out this growth in the character. Despite the notable cameo appearances of creator George Lucas and his daughter Katie in REVENGE OF THE SITH, Chairman Papanoida and daughter Chi Eekway — with new sibling Che Amanwe based on Lucas's eldest daughter Amanda — now exist on their own terms as another of the series' examples of a loving, complete family who fights to stay together against all odds and dangers. This contrast to Anakin's own life story might have served as a much more dramatic counterpart to the troubled Jedi Master instead of letting Ahsoka star. A missed opportunity to advance Anakin's character arc?  Perhaps, especially how this moves Ahsoka forward in the Saga very little. The character designers did a fine job retaining the Lucas family resemblance to the Papanoida family, and Corey Burton does indeed invest the Chairman with a very suitable and distinctive voice (based loosely on Orson Welles) as previewed earlier this week.

The advertised 'cool factor' of Greedo's debut on THE CLONE WARS really didn't pay off much either, as his kidnapping plot quickly reveals him to be much more clumsy an adversary than his original STAR WARS introduction in A NEW HOPE three decades ago. How Che Amanwe gets the drop on Greedo, at gunpoint no less, to bash him on the head with the idol is puzzling since Gotal quickly stuns her into submission after her attack. What happened to Greedo's (revised) instinct to shoot first, eh?  Okay, I won't get started on Lucas' revision of the cantina shootout with Han Solo the EPISODE IV Special Edition, but this kidnapping plot makes Greedo look more like a stooge-for-hire than a ruthless, clever bounty hunter he's shown to be later in the saga. His quick escape from the gunfight with Papanoida may preserve canon from the Prequel era to the EPISODE IV events, but it also paints Greedo as a bit of a gun shy coward since the rest of his cohorts stay to shoot it out. Tom Kenny did quite a good job transforming Greedo's voice from Huttese as seen in A NEW HOPE into English here, with technical assists from sound designers David Acord and Matthew Wood.

The episode's overall animation quality is solid and consistent with Season Three's advancements in detail and action, but the rather small scale of events focusing mostly on political intrigue and plotting don't require much pushing of the technical envelope compared to the season-opening premiere two-parter. Jabba's palace looked a bit barren and underdecorated compared to how it looked in RETURN OF THE JEDI, which undercuts the visual clues that the Hutt domain is a dangerous place for Papanoida to confront his daughter's kidnappers.

It's difficult to see how Sphere of Influence will have any great influence on THE CLONE WARS series unfolding this season, beyond fulfilling its function as a sidebar episode featuring some new and old characters who may play more significant roles in Clone War events ahead. This episode is enjoyable to watch but perhaps not particularly memorable or surprising on its own merits.

ANALYSIS:  There may not be much in terms of larger STAR WARS mythology to analyze or speculate on with Sphere of Influence, aside from some smaller insights into the creeping corruption and eventual fall of the Galactic Senate as a just and functional body of democracy. While turnabout may be fair play when blackmailing a blackmailer like Lott Dod or Sib Canay, it also shows how a stalwart and honest young senator like Riyo Chuchi can perhaps fall victim to the same traps they tried to spring on her and Pantora. While justice is delivered to the Pantoran people, this end is achieved by a back room deal cut between a Senator and a Trade Federation envoy who both know about and conceal Separatist influence behind a secret alliance which will eventually destroy the Republic.

Of course Chuchi's hand is forced since she cannot blow the lid off the Separatist/Trade Federation conspiracy in THE CLONE WARS since this revelation is saved for EPISODE III, but showing that the Senator makes a deal to save Pantora enables perpetuation of the myth that the Federation is not allied with Dooku's forces. It's a short term gain for the Pantorans but contributes to the long term failure of the Senate and eventual destruction of the Republic. Yet these are terribly subtle threads woven through the subtext of this episode, its implications not at all directly dramatized in the plot itself.  As noted, Sphere of Influence plays out very much like a stand-alone episode in the season, though we can only suspect that, like Riyo Chuchi herself, events from this episode could be revisited and developed later to comment more directly on the Clone War and help foreshadow the fall of the Republic.

PREVIEWING EPISODE 3.05 Corruption airing next week, Senator Amidala takes action on Mandalore to assist Duchess Satine while the planet is being slowly starved to death as a painful price for their neutrality in the Clone War!


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