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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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Convalescent Critic #1: “Yatterman Night”

What to do when I am not even halfway through my ten-week healing process after gender confirmation surgery, and still barely able to get out of doors for any length of time? Getting back to fiction writing or game programming would be ideal, if I had any promising ideas … which I am currently lacking in, alas. Passive entertainment it is, then, but if I am to be expanding my media collection I may as well take the time to review some of it.


doronbo

Yatterman Night” / “Yoru no Yattāman” (Anime TV series, 2015)

The original “Yatterman” (1977) was a cheerfully silly sci-fi / secret agent romp in which two precocious adolescent engineers – Gan and Ai (AKA Yatterman-1 and Yatterman-2) – would don masks, build garish but effective animal-themed mechas, and bravely combat the machinations of the Doronbo Gang: an endearingly incompetent trio of would-be master thieves. It was one of many such lighthearted SF cartoons (although probably the best-remembered) created by Tatsunoko Productions as part of their long-running “Time Bokan” series.

The dystopian, post-apocalyptic “Yatterman Night,” created for “Time Bokan’s” 40th anniversary, sits in relation to those shows in much the way “The Prisoner” sits in relation to “The Man From UNCLE.” The silly, garish, larger-than-life tropes are all there, but placed in a context that makes them downright unnerving.

Starting as it means to go on – with tragic scenes of global devastation – the show cuts to an indeterminate future, with most of the world turned into a blighted wasteland. A single, walled-off nation – the Yatter Kingdom – exists, reputedly ruled over by the now-immortal, deified heroes of the original series who, legend would have it, saved the remnants of humanity from the disaster and now require the survivors’ unquestioning loyalty in return. Needless to say, this all turns out to be malicious propaganda, but it is ingrained into the sorry survivors with religious faith, including the protagonist: a nine year-old girl called Leopard, who is the direct descendant of the main villainess (Lady Doronjo) of the original series. At first she carries this legacy with shame, and dreams only of somehow pleasing her overlords, winning their acceptance, and redeeming her family name. That is until her mother falls dangerously ill, and her pleas to the shadowy state authorities for some scarce medical aid are met only with gunfire. She survives the encounter, but her mother dies soon afterwards, and Leopard comes to the distraught realisation that in a society of such inhumane laws, criminals such as her ancestor (whose name and style she now assumes with vengeful pride) are the only possible heroes left.

The rest of the series chronicles her quest for revenge and meaningful justice as she penetrates deeper into the despotic state with the aid of her loyal, protective, if rather less idealistic family retainers: both also descendants of the original villains, but in this series more like a pair of Sancho Panzas to her Don Quixote, deeply sympathetic to Leopard’s cause but not confident it can ever succeed. She also manages to accidentally “recruit” a young pair of traumatised citizens to her cause – Galina and Alouette – and their progress from dejected impotence to active resistance (with some interesting twists along the way) is almost as much the crux of the story as Leopard’s struggle to avenge both her mother and her distant ancestor.

I hugely enjoyed this show and warmed to the characters (especially Leopard and Galina), but I must add that “Yatterman Night” is as absurd as it is dark, taking all the campness and implausible tropes of its original, such as the cutesy animal mechas and the cartoon physics, but disconcertingly putting them in the service of a fascist state. This generally works to jarring and quite sinister effect. Seeing despairing peasants being forced to do silly dance moves and proclaim their happiness before being marched off to labour camps is particularly chilling. The outright comic relief moments do not work as reliably as the drama – there are a lot of references to earlier anime that are easy to miss, among lots of cultural references that do not translate particularly fluidly – and the climactic battle is infamously messy and badly-edited (leading to rumours that the animation budget ran out at the last minute, forcing a lot of footage-recycling) but the story is engaging enough for one to forgive the clumsier moments, the art style and animation elegant and haunting, and the finale both tragic and heartwarming. A grim and deconstructive, yet ultimately strangely affectionate take on fantasy melodrama, and thought-provoking in all sorts of ways (On the values and dangers of symbols and faiths, on how they can be both corrupted and reclaimed, and on how blurry the line between ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ is in a grey-shaded world).


As for my actual healing … I have made a fair bit of progress since leaving the hospital almost a month ago. The bruising that once covered most of my lower half has now receded to a few patches, I can stand upright again and take short walks, and I am able to help out a bit around the flat, hopefully making life a little less arduous for hubby, who has been wonderful, but rushed off his feet looking after me. Exercise and long trips are still inadvisable, though, so I will have to resign myself to being an indoor person for some time to come. For want of any adventures to blog on, more random reviewing is highly likely (though I dare hope the adventures are not too far away now).

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“Destiny of the Daleks” – retrospective

exterminated

(Poor, exterminated Lan. Strangely, his day will actually get worse from this point …)

 


Having just finished my first ever foray into fanfic – a trilogy of Doctor Who novellas all based on one largely ill-remembered late-1970s serial – now seems like an opportune moment to look back on it …

Doctor Who, in its classic years (1963-89), tended to be at its best the closer it stuck to its roots, and said roots – as one will quickly realise when looking back at Season One – were quite astonishingly dark. The Doctor himself was initially presented as a selfish, amoral figure, essentially kidnapping his first set of companions and threatening, on more than one occasion, to leave them stranded and helpless. The Daleks, first appearing in the second story of Season One, were far from the ranting caricatures they would later often be depicted as, being paranoid and ruthless, yet also intelligent, devious, and not remotely comical. Even their final demise was shown in a subdued, almost tragic light, without victory celebrations or misplaced flippancy. Merely as the inevitably bloodthirsty end to a terrible war that should never have taken place.

1979’s “Destiny of the Daleks” – more or less co-written by Dalek creator Terry Nation and famed comedy SF writer Douglas Adams (editing heavily from the former’s script outline) – could hardly be more different in tone, and not for the better. At this stage in show history – after the very successful, intense, but controversial mid-Seventies tenure of producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes, under whose guidance the show had veered into very dark and violent subject matter – the current production team were still very mindful to keep the show “family friendly”. This is problematic when your most popular baddies are mutant-cyborg expies for the Third Reich, and unfortunately the solution chosen to lighten the subject matter is to make fun of said baddies. The most (in)famous moment of this story is probably the scene in which Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor, having rope-climbed to safety from the pursuing Daleks, turns back in order to fling them the taunt

“If you’re supposed to be the superior race of the universe, why don’t you try climbing after us? Bye bye!”

Ouch. One gathers Terry Nation was less than enthused at his script editor’s approach, which sadly clouds the whole story. There are more intense moments – including one particularly ruthless mass execution scene lifted straight out of “Blakes Seven”, which is Terry Nation all over – but they jar most awkwardly with the general flippancy of the shooting script. The premise itself – that Daleks have now somehow evolved into purely robotic, logical beings, and become stuck in an unbreakable impasse with an opposing race of equally logical androids – feels very misguided, throwing away sixteen years’ worth of establishing the Daleks as anything but logical: in fact, as one character in their first story put it, they are “stupid and ridiculous” for harbouring their pathological “dislike for the unlike”. Since their racism, at any rate, seems entirely intact in “Destiny …” one has to question the quality of their much-vaunted logic.

The other thing this story is probably most remembered for are the Movellan androids – sometimes deemed as partially successful creations, often deemed as miserable failures, but at least memorable enough that they earned a small cameo in the 2017 season. On a purely aesthetic level – given the limitations of the show – they work quite well, exuding a graceful, blasé manner even under threat, and sending out just enough “uncanny valley” vibes to unsettle while still coming across as plausibly humanoid (They are, at least initially, attempting to obscure their AI nature, although the Doctor quickly catches on). There is a lovely, creepy moment when one of them politely and affably replies to a conversation he couldn’t possibly have heard, thus providing an early signal that they are not as human as they appear. On the whole, their characterisation is sparse – hindered in part by the fact it takes them so long to show their true colours – but they end up having some resemblance, whether intentional or not, to a prettier, colder, nastier version of the early 1970s “UNIT family”: the human military allies the Doctor was forced to work with during the 1970-73 seasons, having been exiled to Earth by the Time Lords.

The Movellan commander, Sharrel (Peter Straker), is courteous but utterly ruthless, not unlike the early depiction of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, and seemingly just as devoted to causing massive explosions. He is also just as limited in his personal imagination, but smart enough to recognise that having the right scientific advisor on his team would compensate for this … and thus he is keen to retain the services of a certain less-than-enthusiastic Time Lord. Below him, in the role of trusty stalwart, we have Movellan soldier Lan (Tony Osoba, pictured above): almost the android version of Sergeant Benton, always keen to volunteer and put himself in the way of danger for the sake of his comrades, but not very quick-witted, for which he pays dearly (Like his human predecessor, he is better-suited to standing around and looking pretty than trying to match wits with renegade Time lords). The final named Movellan, Agella (Suzanne Danielle), is not given a great deal to do, but her main notable action – sparing the Doctor’s companion from being incinerated in a trap Sharrel ordered her to set – marks her out as the closest thing to a moral centre in her unit, as Liz Shaw and Jo Grant had been during the UNIT years (Apparently, even among DW robots, it is the female models who are the nice(r) ones …). This also seriously muddies various attempts in the script to establish the Movellans as basically humanoid Daleks – just as single-minded and merciless – although perhaps we are meant to read Agella as a rare exception to the rule. She is, at any rate, accorded the dubious mercy of being reprogrammed to serve humans and thus surviving the story, while most of her comrades are deactivated.

The resemblance is probably coincidence, although at any rate it does make a neat (if unintentional) bookend to the 1970s phase of the show. The Doctor, by this stage, had been AWOL from UNIT for three seasons, would not encounter them again for several more, and had firmly re-established his bohemian, anti-authoritarian personality. He had now installed a randomiser in his TARDIS, thus enforcing the same chaos and unpredictability on his future journeys as his first incarnation – through his sheer inability to pilot the TARDIS – had enjoyed (There was a plot reason for doing so – to shake off pursuit from a powerful being – but the Doctor’s smile at the close of the 1978 season strongly hinted he was quite looking forward to the mystery tour ahead …). Having finally shaken off the grim ties of military employment, of his Earth-bound exile, and of having to undertake penitential missions for the Time Lords and the White Guardian, the Doctor is now ready and eager to re-embrace his role of carefree spacetime rogue extraordinaire … only to be confronted by a bunch of uptight, pristine, militarised androids who want to force him right back into settled employment. In context, one cannot wonder that he takes such a grim delight in showing them where to stick it.

Indeed, it is with the character of the Doctor and his companion Romana that “Destiny of the Daleks” redeems itself somewhat. While Douglas Adams’ witty stylings do not lend themselves terribly well to convincingly threatening Daleks, they do lend themselves to the barbed, sparkling chemistry between Tom Baker and Lalla Ward (At the time, a real-life couple). The very fact that this story introduces Lalla Ward’s version of Romana – albeit through the clumsiest regeneration scene ever devised – makes it worth viewing for fans. Merit is also due for its dramatic location filming and – strange as it may seem – its special effects and miniature model work. The late ’70s shows somehow did quite well in these areas, in spite of a sharp decline in set and design quality (and “Destiny …” is no exception: be prepared to see some seriously tatty Daleks and costume recycling all over the shop).

As for the Movellans – in spite of being miserably trounced in this story – they somehow upped their game, as the next anyone heard of them (in 1984’s “Resurrection of the Daleks”) they had utterly defeated the Daleks with biological weapons. There is no canon word to this day, however, on why they apparently did not follow through with their stated plans of galactic conquest, or indeed what motivated said plans in the first place … or who created them, or why. Perhaps the revived show will eventually shed light on this, now that it has at least revisited the scene of their war … although I must admit, having now written three novellas’ worth of speculative answers to these enigmas, I kind of hope it never does. Even in the murky, lawless world of alt-canon, one would prefer not to be rendered obsolete too quickly.