That thing is the character of Darth Maul. Darth Maul is the only interesting character in any of the three prequels. In fact, he's so much more interesting than any of the other characters in Episode I that I begin to wonder whether George Lucas didn't come up with him, and that he was a suggestion from some other editor or casting director or producer that actually knew how to write a film. Had they kept Darth Maul in the prequel trilogy, he might have been the saving grace it needed, and we wouldn't look back on Episodes I, II and III with such disdain. But alas, now we'll never know.
The first reason that Darth Maul is the only good character in Episode I is that he's the only character with any discernible passion, motive or direction. Let's look at the other characters. Qui-Gon Jin is a blank slate of a man, a boring old fuck who is supposed to be a wise Jedi master whilst doing business like a reckless apprentice. Obi-Wan does nothing but sit in the ship and moan for 90% of the movie. Padmé is a personalityless little shit and Anakin is a fucking annoying piece of crap that didn't need to be in this movie. What are the goals of the characters? Some terribly scripted crap about solving a dispute over space taxes, trade and the senate. That is literally what Episode I is about. Now contrast this with the aims and goals of the good and bad guys in A New Hope. See how much clearer and more entertaining this is?
Darth Maul is the only character with a properly scripted purpose in Episode I. His goal? Track down the Jedi and kidnap the Queen. Simple, evil and achievable. That's the goal you need to give bad guys in a Star Wars movie, not long winded intergalactic political coercion. He does his job without complaint because that's what he does - he's little more than a particuarly badass goon, which is actually similar to the role Darth Vader played in the original film, before the cultural mystique behind Vader prompted Lucas to write the entire series around him.
Darth Maul also gets some praise for almost being involved in the only great lightsaber moment in the three prequels. You can argue the merits of the story all day, but it's obvious to anyone with a brain that Lucas somehow managed to miss the point of lightsaber fights in his newer films. They were never about somersaults and five minute ninjitsu showdowns. Every duel in the original trilogy develops the characters in some way, and the fights are used as a catalyst for them to grow and change as people. Yet in the prequels we obviously just get the same shit - special effects for their own sake. There's about seven seconds in the final duel of Episode I, however, that almost got it right.
When Qui-Gon Jin dies (spoilers by the way), Obi-Wan actually gets angry. Yes! This is what we need! Some emotion to these characters instead of them acting like hollow robots all the time! And for a few short seconds, the fight choreography is actually great, Obi-Wan starts swinging wildly, and you can see Darth Maul has made him really mad. This is reminiscent of the end of Return Of The Jedi. When Vader makes Luke mad, he loses control of his emotions and just starts wailing away out of rage. For about seven seconds this fight emulates that great scene, but with a flashy twist to the fighting, which makes sense because back then lightsabers and the use of them was more common and practiced, right? But then obviously it goes back to being the same obviously choreographed toss that looks as much like dancing as it does fighting. No need to mention Darth Maul's highly illogical death, either. A master bladesman that took out two Jedi at once seems to forget how to use his arms just long enough to allow Kenobi to dice him up. Hell, Darth Maul even had the high ground. Didn't someone once imply that the high ground was the be-all and end-all of lightsaber fights?
Oh well. Darth Maul almost saves the prequels, but his existence was snuffed out before he could do anything meaningful in the story. If they were to start again, Darth Maul should have been a constant character throughout the prequels. Perhaps, the Emperor should have lured Anakin into giving into his anger and striking Darth Maul down to join the dark side, just as he wanted Luke to do in Episode VI. Hell what do I know, I'm just a bitter nerd with too much free time. Whaddya think George?
"It's like poetry, they rhyme. Each stanza kinda rhymes with the last one."