Canned TV Show #22: Sym-Bionic Titan
So I was planning a month of all animation but that kind of didn’t pan out. But here’s another animated series anyway! This one’s a little different from what I’ve done before, since it’s geared toward a younger audience than the more adult-friendly animated shows I’ve covered so far. But make no mistake, it’s a mature, thoughtful show all the same.
Today’s show is Sym-Bionic Titan, co-created by the great Genndy Tartakovsky, who was also responsible for Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack, two tentpoles of my childhood. I have great affection for this guy’s work, so I was excited to watch this to say the least. Credit where credit is due though: Bryan Andrews and Paul Rudish also share a creator credit, so it’s hard to know exactly who was responsible for what, though it certainly shares some important similarities to past Tartakovsky work. Much like Jack, this show features a more serialized plotline, and pays homage to a whole host of pop culture. Whereas Jack was an extended tribute to everything from samurai flicks (duh), spaghetti westerns, and dystopian sci-fi, Titan references nearly the whole of science fiction cinema, as well as some other, less expected elements. It’s slightly less serialized than Jack, which was, to my memory at least, one of Cartoon Network’s first attempts and doing more long-form storytelling, more like an anime (another important influence on both Jack and Titan), and that continues here.
So what is the story, you might ask? It concerns three individuals: Ilana (voiced by Tara Strong), the princess of a planet called Galaluna, a sort of quasi-Victorian world with futuristic technology; Lance (voiced by Kevin Thoms), a military prodigy; and Octus (voiced by Brian Posehn, who is just great), a super-intelligent robot who can change form. Lance is charged with protecting Ilana, who is hiding out on Earth while fleeing her home planet due to a military coup in progress. The man responsible for the coup is General Modula, who used to be the king’s right-hand man. He’s enlisted the help of the Mutraddi, a race of horrifying aliens, in order to sieze power (listen, I don’t wanna be “that guy,” but is it a coincidence that the ugly, violent “other” in this scenario has a name that sounds vaguely Arab, or is there some secret anti-Islamicism at work here? It’s probably just me. God, I never wanna be “that guy” again). Modula is holding the king hostage, and sends a range of giant beasts to Earth to kill Ilana, beasts which are continually defeated by the titular Titan.
About that Titan: it’s essentially a giant robot formed from three smaller robots, two commandeered by Lance and Ilana, and the third is just Octus. They work in tandem to control it and harness it’s power, hence the sym part of the title. It’s a pretty neat example of “work together and you can do anything!” kind of thinking.
The show balances a number of plotlines, including the trio’s attempts to assimilate into high-school culture and keep a low profile while also protecting Earth from the monsters sent to destroy them. Ilana and Octus (as a nerdy student named Newton) are ostracized, but Lance becomes surprisingly popular in a dark and mysterious kind of way. In addition, the military views Titan as a threat, and they’re also being monitored by G3, a sort of S.H.I.E.L.D. or Men in Black-esque group that monitors alien activities. There’s sort of a romance teased between Ilana and Lance, though each of them also has their own separate beau at one point. In one of the show’s stranger (but pretty charming) subplots, Newton begins dating Kimmy, the most popular girl at school, after he helps her with her math test and actually treats her like a person, which causes him to begin questioning his newly emerging feelings. It’s pretty unlikely that the most popular girl would ever date an oddly shaped nerd in the real world, ever, but it’s affecting, and prompts one of the show’s most stylish sequences:
As you can imagine, Sym-Bionic Titan is composed of some pretty unexpected influences. Tartakovsky said he was equally influenced by giant robot anime as he was by John Hughes movies, and it’s surprisingly effective. It’s enjoyable to pick out the different sci-fi genres on display, from the obvious giant robot and monster of the week shows to movies like Robocop, Blade Runner, and The Thing. The show feels like an affectionate love letter to sci-fi as a genre.
Titan does follow a formula in its early going, where some dispute divides the group, then a monster comes, and the group must get past their differences to defeat it. Happily, the show demonstrates a willingness to play with or even abandon the monster of the week formula, which does get a little tedious after a while. Some of the series’ best episodes are devoted to showing us what happened before our heroes ended up on Earth, or are more character-based. Sometimes, weirdly enough, a giant monster appears just to be easily dispatched, almost as a matter of course. Unfortunately, the Galaluna subplot is abandoned for several episodes at a time, our only information being that yep, General Modula’s still in power and yep, he still wants Ilana dead. There’s a little bit of time devoted to showing Galalunians fighting in resistance to the Mutraddi takeover, but it doesn’t get developed very much, at least in the episodes we get. Perhaps had the show been able to continue, it would have explored these plotlines in more depth.
There are plenty of things to like though; the show is really beautifully designed and realized, featuring a combo of Jack’s stylish, outline-free animation style, and the more traditional feel of Dexter’s Lab. Different episodes do have a slightly different feel, no doubt the product of different directors. But it’s always wonderfully animated and dynamically constructed. Even at their most tedious and generic, the monster battles are always well staged and exciting to look at. The show balances its darker, graver moments with some very funny ones, such as Octus’ (who also poses as Lance and Ilana’s father) attempts to use a little kid’s cartoon to help him better understand how to communicate with humans (or humanoids):
Though the show is geared towards a younger set, it’s also surprisingly dark and even sexual at times, like when Kimmy does a sort of stiptease for Newton (minus any clothing removal) in an attempt to get him to give her the test answers:
That wouldn’t have flown when I was a kid, by golly! (this sentence brought to you by your grandfather)
So what happened to Sym-Bionic Titan? Was it low ratings or network disinterest? Surprisingly, it may be neither of those things. Some unnamed industry insider said that, while ratings were decent, Cartoon Network opted not to renew the show because it didn’t have enough toys connected to it. Seriously. Only in the world of animation is that a concern. Though it’s basically the same as any other show’s need for merchandising capability, I can’t help but picture a hyper nine-year-old in a business suit surrounded by action figures shouting “I demand more toys!” Clearly, my mind is a strange place. I suppose it makes sense that toys would be a concern, but the show isn’t really geared towards the age of kid who would really play with toys, anyway. That is, unless you’re weird and still collect action figures at 14 or 15 (though to be fair, that’s probably the same group that would also watch cartoons at 14 or 15…unlike myself, who is an adult and hasn’t just spent over 1,000 words writing about a cartoon). The other sad thing is the toys for this show would probably be pretty badass. I mean, who doesn’t love giant robots and monsters? Built in money right there.
So, should it be back on the air? absolutely. It’s an engrossing, well-made piece of storytelling, despite a few flaws. Unfortunately, though fans rallied in support, Cartoon Network has shown no interest in reviving the show, and Tartakovsky moved onto Sony Pictures Animation to direct the upcoming CGI film Hotel Transylvania. Here’s hoping it ends up being good, though with him involved, chances are high.
Join us next time!