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Canned TV Show #22: Sym-Bionic Titan

June 10, 2012 1 comment

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!

Canned TV Show #11: Earth 2

March 25, 2010 Leave a comment

Hello loyal readers.  It’s been a while.  How’s the wife?  Really?  You’re kidding!  Well, I wish her a full recovery.

But in all seriousness, I’m sorry it’s been so long since I did one of these.  It’s been a busy couple of months, and it’s been tough to find much time to sit and watch old TV shows of late.  But hopefully such a long and unfortunate break between posts won’t happen again.  Today, we’re going to go back in time, to a magical, far off world called the Clinton administration.  It’s hard to believe that 1990 was twenty years ago, but there it is.  The 90s will no doubt soon become the 80s, where a nostalgia boom will undoubtedly happen, more so than has already occurred.  I grew up watching 90s TV shows, primarily of the animated variety, but any 90s show, cartoon or not, has an undeniable sensibility that makes it instantly recognizable.  Often, it’s a winningly cheesy sensibility, but one that we have to forgive.  I did not watch the show I’m covering today in the 90s.  In fact, I hadn’t heard of it until my good pal Michael offered to let me borrow the DVDs for this blog (thanks for the loan Michael, by the way).  Despite not hearing about it until late last year, while watching it I felt completely at home in its 90s-ness.  The show I refer to is the forgotten (by most) sci-fi series Earth 2, which crashed and burned after one twenty-two episode season.  Did it deserve such a fate?  Is more like Lost in Space, or is it more like Lost, in space?  More on that soon enough.

Given that this show is from 15 years ago, I think it’s a little pointless to say whether or not it should be back on the air, because it’s undoubtedly a product of its time.  So, instead of my usual final statement, I will change it to “should it have stayed on the air?”  Just so y’all don’t think I’m being inconsistent.

Now, onto the show itself.  Earth 2 tells the story of a ragtag group of pioneers who are on a mission to set up a colony on a planet similar to Earth.  The reason they need to do this is because the original Earth has become an almost uninhabitable place, and most of humanity has moved to orbiting space stations.  However, this doesn’t seem to solve all their problems, as some kids born on the stations are afflicted with a disease called The Syndrome, which causes them to die by the age of eight.  This is due to the fact that apparently spending every waking and sleeping hour cooped up in a space station really isn’t so good for developing bodies.  Not content to sit idly by and watch her son, Ulysses (Joey Zimmerman), perish of this disease, rich lady Devon Adair (Debrah Farentino) leads and expedition to a planet known as G889, in the hopes of building a new colony where all the sick children can run and play and hopefully not be sick anymore.  With her on this expedition is Yale (Sullivan Walker), a reformed criminal whose brain has been wiped and is now a tutor; John Danziger (Clancy Brown), a gruff but kind blue-collar worker and his daughter True (J. Madison Wright); Morgan Martin (John Gegenhuber), a snivelly government guy and his wife Bess (Rebecca Gayheart); Julia Heller (Jessica Steen), who was genetically programmed to be the group’s doctor, and Alonzo Solace (Antonio Sabato Jr.), the ship’s pilot, who is a lot older than he looks, due to all the time spent in cold sleep.  On the way to the planet, the ship is sabotaged and crash-lands on the other side from where the colony was supposed to be set up.  So this group of reluctant pilgrims must traverse a harsh landscape that looks suspiciously like New Mexico, to get to where they need to set up the colony.  Along the way, they discover that the planet is basically one living organism, and that a group of creatures called the Terrians have a special connection with the planet’s resources.  When they take Ulysses and cure him of his illness, they give him certain Terrian abilities, making him a link between their world and the humans.  This makes a secret government group called the council, run by a man named Reilly (Terry O’Quinn in an excellent recurring role), interested in harvesting this link for future use in controlling the planet.

Here’s the opening credits that give you a nice feel of the series:

That’s the basic premise, without getting too detailed or spoiler-y on you.  A reliably good, campy Tim Curry shows up early on as a mysterious stranger who claims to be a marooned astronaut, but is actually hiding some dark secrets.  There’s also some creatures called Grendlers that play a part in some episodes, either causing trouble or actually helping the crew in some way.  Every episode has the same basic premise: something is putting the crew in danger and they have to stop it.  It gets a little repetitive, but for the most part it works.  The overlying message has an environmental vibe, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with it too much.  The idea is that in order to live on the planet, or our planet, for that matter, we have to coexist with our surroundings and not just barge in and take over.  It’s hard not to see the Terrians as sort of a stand-in for Native Americans who were forced off their land as we settled the frontier, but none of the environmental stuff really distracts too much from the story and characters.

One of Earth 2‘s strengths is that it seems most concerned with developing its characters, and seeing how each one of them grows in this new, unpredictable world.  Pretty much all the characters get their own storylines, and most of them are pretty interesting.  Like any series, it’s the characters that keep us coming back week after week, and it’s nice to see that underneath all the weird sciencey mumbo-jumbo talk and the constant peril, the show is really invested in letting its characters grow and change in their new environment.  Most of the acting is pretty solid, though I have to say sometime Sabato’s acting is a little questionable.  I know he was on General Hospital before this, but still.  I especially liked Brown and Farentino, who both very well play the sort of put-upon leader roles and complement each other while also being complete opposites.  They’re often at odds but have a very clear sexual tension between them that I’m sure would’ve been more deeply explored if the show had more time.  There’s one time where this tension really comes to a head, when Devon has to grab Danziger’s canteen with her mouth, given that they’re both tied up.  She has to bend down basically to his crotch and grab it with her teeth, it what can only be described as a mildly disturbing pantomime of oral sex.  I don’t think that’s my dirty mind making that up; I really think that’s what they were planning.  I wish I could find a clip to show you.

I should tell you though, weird oral sex thing aside, not everything in Earth 2 works.  It does fall victim to a lot of 90s cheesiness, even if it is endearing cheesiness.  Also, some of the plotlines are just plain ridiculous, and some of the science involved just seems like complete bullshit.  I know it’s in the future and all, but some of it sounds like total bologna, especially if, like me, you’re not one of those science loving folk.  There’s one really odd one where the crew finds an ancient Terrian body frozen in ice, and somehow its spirit, which is evil for some reason, manages to possess Danziger, at which point Alonzo has to enter the dream plain (which, I realize now, I neglected to mention.  Basically, Alonzo can communicate with the Terrians through his dreams, on what is known as the dream plain.  There.) and fight the evil Terrian to save Danziger.  It’s not a terrible episode, but it feels kind of out of place with the rest of them, especially since it does nothing to advance the story.  Think of it like the diamond thieves episode of Lost, only a little less stupid and not featuring Billy Dee Williams.

A few highlights, of many solid episodes, would have to be some of the final ones of the season.  I really liked one where 25 year-old Ulysses communicates with his mother via the dream scape, telling her she has to send his younger self into a cave with the secrets that could save the syndrome kids in the future.  We also get a glimpse at what the colony will look like, and it really doesn’t look too much better than the stations.  Sometimes these future episodes just seem like a filler when a show has no more new ideas, but I have to say it worked this time.  It was a legitimately interesting look at the future, and what would happen with Devon and Ulysses.  I also liked a two-parter where Yale starts to think his mind wash is going to malfunction and he’ll revert back to his criminal ways, but later he finds out the truth about what he did in the past, and it’s different than he thinks.  I like how the show wasn’t afraid to let a story play out over a couple episodes, instead of wrapping it up neatly at the end every time, like some shows do.

But alas, the show was unable to flesh out its characters too much, as it was cancelled after the first season, despite an extensive campaign by fans to keep it on TV, due to dropping ratings.  Evidently there was more at work than just your average ratings drop, however.  According to one site, NBC fired the producers of the show and made a promo video showing the direction they wanted to take the series.  When people finally saw this promo, including the cast and crew, they decided it was better off cancelled.  Apparently the network wanted to dumb the show down and make it more appealing to mass audience.  I get the sneaking feeling maybe sci-fi shows don’t really belong on major networks, especially the smart ones.  Luckily, what was made has been preserved on DVD, though unfortunately it is in broadcast order, which puts two unaired episodes at the very end, even though they belong earlier in the season.  Why they didn’t just put them in the right order, I have no idea.

So, should it have stayed on the air? I think so.  It may not have worked all of the time, but it had an intriguing premise, interesting characters, a constantly changing world, some compelling drama and some decent for the time special effects.  Sure, it appeals more to the sci-fi crowd than anybody else, but it’s still a reasonably compelling series.  It would’ve also given its actors more work, as not many of them have really had very illustrious careers after this show.  Clancy Brown went on to appear in numerous movies and shows, including memorable stints on Carnivale and in The Shawshank Redemption.  Also, my brain literally almost exploded when I found out he voiced Mr. Crabs.  All this time, and I never realized it was him!  Crazy.  He’s probably the most successful post-series; Farentino’s appeared in some stuff, as have Steen and Gayheart.  Antonio Sabato Jr. attempted a movie career, and largely failed.  Gegenhuber and Walker didn’t fare much better; his last notable film role was in the largely worthless 50 Cent vehicle Get Rich or Die Tryin’.  What a shame.  What’s also a shame, and a tragedy, is that J. Madison Wright, who played True Danziger, died of a heart attack at age 22.  That’s insanely young to have a heart attack.

Overall, while not spectacular, I’d recommend giving it a watch.  If for nothing else, than simply to bask in it’s wonderful 90sness.

Come back next time (though let’s be honest, who knows when that’ll be?  Hopefully soon) when I’ll be watching the recently cancelled Aliens in America!  I’ve heard good things.

Canned TV Show #6: Firefly

December 7, 2009 Leave a comment

Well fans, the hour is upon us.  Possibly the most beloved cancelled show of all time is here, and after five long entries, it is surely the moment you’ve all been waiting for.  For today, I will be reviewing the show most often mentioned when it comes to the idea of shows cancelled before their time: Joss Whedon’s Firefly.

Joss Whedon could have one of the most substantial pedigrees of anybody working in the TV medium.  He’s created numerous shows which have developed massive cult followings, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff, Angel.  His most recent show, Dollhouse, was recently cancelled by FOX before airing the rest of its second season, but will surely develop its own cult, most likely made up of the people who comprise the cults for his other shows.  Instead of it being his shows that have fan bases, Whedon himself commands a very large group of followers who will love and support pretty much anything he does, which is something very few TV show creators can say.  In fact, the work done by said fan base even lead to a comeback of sorts for this series, but more on that later.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of hype circulating Firefly, and so I had high expectations of the show.  I mean, an intensely loyal fan base, which included several of my close friends, must see something, right?  I entered my viewing experience expecting nothing less than literal TV gold, something that would change my life and the way I thought about it for eons to come.  Ok, so maybe that was a little high, but I certainly didn’t leave the show feeling disappointed.  I admit, it isn’t a perfect show, but it isn’t hard to see why so many people rallied so hard to keep it afloat, to see it return in some way.

The plot is really nothing too radical; but the characters, like any good series, are where the real reward of the show lies.  It’s centuries in the future, after the human population has grown to large for earth to sustain it, humanity leaves to terraform new planets and spread out over the galaxy.  There’s a central governing body called The Alliance, which is similar to your totalitarian governments of most future-set sci-fi, who represent a shadowy antagonist to our heroes, a ragtag group of outlaws who fly through the galaxy in a “firefly-class” spaceship looking for jobs of varying legality to sustain them.  They live outside of alliance rule, and frequently come into opposition with them.  Onboard the ship, the motley crew consists of captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), the stubborn but intensely loyal leader; his first mate Zoe Alleyne Washburne (Gina Torres), who in turn is extremely loyal to him; her husband Hoban “Wash” Washburne (Alan Tudyk), the ship’s pilot; Kaywinnit Lee “Kaylee” Frye (Jewel Staite), the ship’s bubbly mechanic; and Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), the hired muscle of the crew.  Also on board is Inara Serra (the gorgeous Morena Baccarin), a registered “companion,” basically a high class prostitute who is afforded almost royalty status, who rents out one of the smaller shuttles attached to the ship.  In the pilot episode, they also pick up holy man Shepherd Derrial Book (Ron Glass), who ends up serving as Mal’s conscience many a time, and Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher), who is carrying cargo which contains his sister River (Summer Glau), whom he rescued from The Alliance, which was performing experiments on her.

So if you managed to make it through that lengthy description of the crew, it’s not hard to see that the ensemble is really the heart of the show, and the characters’ conflicts with one another and with themselves is what keeps the show interesting from week to week.  Really, it’s one of the most interesting and entertaining ensembles ever assembled; everyone gets something interesting to do, and were all on their way to being very fleshed out, well-rounded characters before the show was cancelled.  The fact that even our heroes’ heroism is continually called into question offers a thought-provoking moral paradox to the series.  Each episode pretty much serves as its own adventure, and you don’t necessarily have to watch it from the beginning to get what’s going on at any given moment.  There is a larger storyline and some unanswered questions that carry over, but unfortunately the show didn’t get around to answering them before the ax fell.  What exactly were they doing to River?  Why does Shepherd Book seem to have such intimate knowledge of guns and combat?  Will Simon ever kiss Kaylee (there was a romance developing between them)?  Some things we’ll never know, and some things were cleared up a couple years later, in the form of a feature film called Serenity which gives some closure to the series.  I won’t really go into it, other than the fact that it has the awesome Chiwetel Ejiofor as the villain is reason enough to see it, but fans of the show can’t have a complete experience unless they watch it, and I’m sure pretty much all of them have by now.

One of the show’s central conceits is that the future is basically the same as the present; we’ll be dealing with the same problems we do now, just maybe on a different scale.  The sort of “future meets old west” look the show has going reflects this idea of the past and the future colliding, and it gives the show a unique and creative style.  Occasionally it doesn’t work quite as well, and the deliberate “blue collar” sound to the dialog occasionally sounds clunky coming out of the actors’ mouths.  Some can pull it off, but some sound a little awkward with the phrasing.  Also, the fact that the characters will occasionally slip into Chinese when they want to curse, because evidently the only two superpowers left are the U.S. (woot woot) and China (well of course), can be a little distracting.  I love the colorful ways sci-fi shows and movies get around not being able to swear, like the Chinese phrases here or the use of the word “frak” on Battlestar Galactica, with the excuse that “in the future there’ll be new swear words!”  But these are by and large nitpicky details to an otherwise massively entertaining series.

It’s hard to pick out which episodes are the best, since they all have great moments of their own.  If I had to choose, I’d say one of the standouts is the pilot, which introduces us to our crew and sets up the conflicts that will continue throughout.  The episode “Out of Gas,” in which a wounded Mal stumbles towards the back of an empty Serenity to replace a part which has caused her to break down, which is intercut with flashbacks explaining the origin of the crew and how Mal came to possess the ship we know and love, is another one.  The finale is also great, in which Richard Brooks (who would later reteam with Fillion on FOX’s Drive, which I covered a few weeks ago) plays a philosophical bounty hunter who subdues the crew and then tries to find River, not realizing she’s better at mind games than he is.  These are only a few, but really any given episode warrants a recommendation for some reason or another.  I enjoyed when the show was able to balance a scrappy comic tone and a heavier, more dramatic one, with Wash and Jayne providing a large amount of the comedy.  The closest the show comes to straight comedy would probably be “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” in which sexpot Christina Hendricks plays a con artist who tries to subdue the crew and take their ship, and it’s pretty hilarious.  Shepard Book warns Mal, who believes he accidentally married the girl during a recent celebration on an outer planet, “if you take sexual advantage of her, you’ll go to a special place in hell usually reserved for child molesters, or people who talk at the theater,” and later reiterates, “you were kissing, eh?  That sounds…special.”

So what caused such a beloved show to die an early death?  Probably the most obvious answer would be that FOX seriously mishandled the show.  They ended up not airing the pilot first, and instead aired the second episode, apparently concerned the pilot didn’t bring viewers into the action fast enough, which ultimately made the overall plot more difficult to follow.  More episodes were aired out of order as well, and FOX apparently didn’t believe keeping Whedon’s vision alive was a risk worth taking.  They also stuck the series in a bad time slot, and didn’t advertise it the way they should have.  While the series had a devoted following while it was on, it wasn’t enough to keep it on the air, even though said following sent in postcards and tried to get other networks to pick it up.  While they weren’t successful in keeping it on the air, their vigilance inspired Whedon to bring it back in some way.  I was probably still a tad too young to get into it while it was on, I’m sure had I been older I would have done my part to bring it back.  However, it makes me wonder if it’s better to be a short lived much much beloved show that will live a second life on DVD, to be continually rediscovered and relived, or to be on for several seasons and go without much fanfare.  If I made a TV series, I think I’d prefer the former.

For those who haven’t seen it, you can watch it all on hulu, though I’d recommend giving the DVD a look as well, as there’s some interesting bonus material on there.

So, should it be back in the air? I’m afraid I’m not going to break the trend here: yes, it most certainly should.  I think the thing I would’ve most liked to have found out about is Shepherd Book’s past; he obviously has some experience with fighting and possibly even killing, and it would’ve been cool to see where that came from.  Perhaps a prequel series could be arranged?

To send us out, here’s the kick ass opening title sequence with a kick ass theme song written by Whedon himself, and performed by Sonny Rhodes:

Come back next time when I’ll be reviewing the Pamela Anderson bookstore comedy Stacked!  Is Anderson’s ample cleavage enough to salvage the show?  Based on her acting skills in the past, I’m certain it might have to be.