“A child stolen is a hope lost.”
“Sphere of Influence” is an episode of the Clone Wars that successfully mixes intrigue, adventure, action, and political maneuvering into a story that is quite entertaining. Toss in some very obvious-yet-enjoyable homages to The Phantom Menace, an iconic minor character from the Original Trilogy, and a notable cameo, and you’ve got an installment that is as much Star Wars as any episode of the series to date.
The story begins with a Trade Federation blockade of a peaceful planet — in this case, the amusingly named planet “Pantora.” Sounds like a boring redux of The Phantom Menace, doesn’t it? But do not fret! The episode spends only a minimal amount of time on the actual ins-and-outs of the trade dispute and, instead, uses it as a launching point for the real plot: the abduction of two daughters of Pantora’s Chairman Papanoida (the Revenge of the Sith character who was portrayed by George Lucas).
As a result, the episode splits into two subplots. The first features Ahsoka and the Pantoran Senator Chuchi, who travel to the Trade Federation ship blockading Pantora in the hopes of finding the captives. The other follows Papanoida and his son, Ion, as they head off to Tattooine in search of Greedo, whose blood was left behind after the abduction of the daughters. The setup here sounds a bit dry and clunky — and I suppose it does take a few minutes for the episode to get into the heart of the story — but the execution is far more seamless onscreen than in print — the cameo of Lieutenant Tan Divo helps spice things up a bit.
The result are two stories which clearly, and effectively, evoke previous Star Wars films.
For starters, Ahsoka and Chuchi arrive on the Federation ship much like Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon did in The Phantom Menace. They even find their way to a familiar-looking conference room as they surreptitiously search the ship. Later, as they make their way to the detention area, we’re further reminded of the Death Star detention area in A New Hope. Papanoida’s journey to Jabba’s Palace and, later, to Mos Eisley also evoke Return of the Jedi and A New Hope, respectively.
These are all in good fun, fitting rather plausibly into the story of the episode. I suppose it’d be legitimate to criticize the fact that common film characters, locations and plots show up in The Clone Wars, but when they are presented as matter-of-factly, with as much gusto, as we see in “Sphere of Influence,” it’s hard to be all that concerned about their presence.
Also, one could point out the fact that the episode doesn’t really touch on any deep or meaningful themes. However, this is nicely balanced by a couple of subtle, yet important, subplots. Firstly, we’ve got another instance of the Trade Federation portraying itself as “neutral” while an “extremist” like Nute Gunray tries to hold sway over its operations. It’s a nifty political commentary and additional layer for the series. Also of note is Anakin’s willingness to send Ahsoka off on her own, without first getting approval of the Jedi Council. It’s this kind of mild subversion — and, truth be told, it was the right thing to do in this situation — which really lends some plausibility to his eventual turn to the Dark Side.
Overall Grade: B
Despite a noticeable lack of “clones fighting in a war,” “Sphere of Influence” is a classic episode of The Clone Wars. The Mos Eisley cantina shootout was plenty fun. Ahsoka’s growing power in the Force — using the Jedi Mind Trick, levitating Senator Chuchi out of harm’s way — is effectively portrayed. And the underlying character and political developments bode well for the series.