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Convalescent Critic #2: “Steven Universe”

(One unlikely hero, one redeemed ex-fascist functionary, one PTSD-afflicted alien superbeing, and one sentient pumpkin. A fairly typical day in the Steven Universe universe …)


“Steven Universe” (and the Crystal Gems) (US animation, 2013-present)

The likelihood is that most of the world heard of this little sci-fi / comedy gem (pun totally intended) way before me, but since binge-watching it with the hubby – who introduced me to it – did a lot to get me through the earliest and nastiest stages of my convalescence, it seems only fit to spread the gospel …

Now on its fifth season, with a huge fanbase, and spoilers all over the place, it is perhaps difficult to approach this show with a completely open mind (which is a real shame, as the plot is full of ingenious twists and the character development beautifully judged), but for those lucky enough to be discovering it afresh, I will just stick to the premise. The titular Steven, as of the first episode, is a pre-teen boy living in a dilapidated beach resort town on the east coast of America, the son of unsuccessful rock musician Greg Universe and repentant (although now deceased) alien invader Rose Quartz, of whom Steven himself – due to the complexities of cross-species reproduction – is in part the reincarnation.

Surreal enough yet? We’ve hardly begun …

Several thousand years ago, as it transpires, a race of silicon-based holographic beings (the “gems”, who all project forms as humanoid women, unless their crystal core is corrupted and / or shattered, in which case they assume monstrous forms) attempted to found a colony on Earth, of which numerous relics and ruins remain. In spite of their advanced culture, technology, and surreal beauty, however, they were not above greed and imperialism, and their activities became increasingly cruel and threatening to organic life, leading to a civil war. Steven’s mother was the head of the resistance, the last three survivors of her cadre – Garnet, Pearl, and Amethyst (the “Crystal Gems”) – are now his guardians, and it is their task to raise the initially naive boy to take his mother’s place and master her powers before the ruthless Homeworld gems turn their attentions back to Earth again.

As you may have gathered, the premise of the show is astonishingly epic with more than a shade of “Star Wars”, yet it is far more successful in the characterisation stakes, managing to conjure sympathy in the most unlikely of places. Characters set up as apparently total villains reveal hidden depths, while characters the audience has seen as selfless heroes succumb to flaws and weaknesses, or reveal information which changes our perspective on them. An aspect for which this show has rightly garnered a lot of praise is for its plethora of strong female and strong LGBT characters*: in fact, they constitute the majority of the characters, and while Steven himself is technically the lead, his own gender proves decidedly fluid on more than one occasion (but to say any more on that would be a spoiler). Grandiose as the themes and settings are, they never overwhelm the emotional dimension, and the series is invariably as touching and funny as it is awe-inspiring in its concepts.

That being said, it is a long series with an increasingly tense overarching plot, so especially as it develops one can get frustrated at the occasional episodes that seem to take it no further: sometimes the case when an episode centres around Steven’s interactions with the human townsfolk, most of whom have very little knowledge that their town is the last outpost of an alien resistance force. Some of these side characters are more interesting and sympathetic than others, a couple are just plain irritating (such as the town’s vain, ineffectual mayor, and their resident David Icke-esque conspiracy theorist, who mistakenly believes himself an expert on the town’s alien issues), but as the story moves on and the Crystal Gems are increasingly unable to shield the townsfolk from the various alien menaces, the story tends to focus on the less gimmicky characters, and again reveal hidden depths in unlikely places.

I hesitate to say any more, as this show is well worth the trouble of discovering for oneself. Alternately hilarious, haunting, and heartbreaking, with a diverse cast of appealing characters, a beautiful and surreal art style, and the most unapologetic and glorious celebration of female and LGBT empowerment ever committed to animation, “Steven Universe” is a triumph and a joy (not to mention a wonderful testimony to my wonderful hubby’s good taste).


* A wholly intentional aspect according to show creator Rebecca Sugar: “Steven Universe creator fights to show that ‘all people are deserving of love’.”

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