It saddens me to say that cartoons these days just ain't what they used to be. As a relative youngster myself, I don't remember the 'Golden Age' of televised animation, that legendary era which entailed such memorable shows as 'Looney Toons' (though I do watch them, and I do love them). I do, however, retain fond memories of how the cartoon landscape used to be. I personally grew up with a lot of dubbed anime (Pokemon, Digimon and Beyblade are the ones that immediately spring to mind) and I remember loving them because they had story AND action. That was what boys cartoons were about. The girls may get to learn something about friendship, but WE get the explosions. Sadly, that is an age long since passed. Nowadays, the shows that leap like an alien facehugger into my view when I turn on the box are sloppily animated, squeaky-voiced cutouts that run around slipping up on various waste products and giggling like manic two-year-olds. Spongebob Squarepants, I'm looking at you. I'll save the bulk of my complaints on this matter for another post, but for now let's just say that these are not boy's cartoons. These are weird, gender-bent creations for the modern age. That's just one of the reasons why the work of Genndy Tartakovsky shines out like a diamond in the rough during these troubled times. You'll probably remember Tartakovsky's unique style from the show 'Samurai Jack', which saw a samurai thrown into the future to battle endless hoardes of evil robots in an attempt to defeat the evil demon that sent him there. If you don't remember that, maybe you'll recall the 'Star Wars: Clone Wars' miniseries. This isn't the irritating CGI remake (more on that in a future post), but an explosive, action-packed romp through the Star Wars universe, flinging lightsabers and exploding droids and all the while reminding viewers why we continued to love the movies through Jar Jars and midichlorians and Jake Lloyd. Basically, in an age where, cartoon-wise, you just can't tell WHAT's going on, Tartakovsky's shows are a brilliant example of what an action TV show, animated or otherwise, should be.
His latest invention is a number entitled 'Sym-Bionic Titan'. They made one season of twenty episodes, and then it got cancelled. I recently managed to watch the show (it's very tricky to find - they apparently didn't even release a DVD as far as I can see) and it was, quite frankly, made of awesome. Because there are too many things I want to say about this show that I won't remember them all without being prompted, I'm going to go through each of the twenty episodes and explain why, in a short sentence or two, this show is incredible.
Episode 1 - 'Escape to Sherman High': This episode introduces our main characters, who are relative strangers to each other as well as us, but pretty soon they're going to become like a family, and a family that we get to be a part of. If you've seen the show before, it'll be cool watching such a deep and well-crafted relationship form from this beginning point. If it's your first time 'round, enjoy the way the series starts with a bang - giant robots, check, alien planet at war, check, first battle has half the city incinerrated, check. And if none of that was enough to capture your attention, there's the simply kick-ass slo-mo moment when Lance (male lead) backflips over some bullies and explodes food into one of their faces. This sequence is only very short, but is a subtle preview of the cinematic form of the show which is even better showcased in...
Episode 2 - 'Neighbours in Disguise': This episode introduces a shot of humour as our favourite trio of aliens are forced to try and become a common Earth family. What results is, predictably, hillarity. More impressive in this episode, however, is the extended sequence that sees Lance chasing across the city after Ilana, who is on a bus into town. Here we see sweeping camera shots, slow-mo and incredible panoramas that would be right at home in a big-budget Hollywood production. This is a real heart-pounding scene, and although not a single punch is thrown, it really is an example of what a proper actioner can achieve. If nothing else, watch the episode just to see this sequence. Seriously.
Episode 3 - 'Elephant Logic': Ah yes, the compulsory episode where our characters learn about friendship, and the value of working together. Still, at least with THIS show the lesson is learned by pounding an alien monster into the dust. And you just can't help but smile when Octus plays the tune from a kids' TV show to defuse the incredibly dangerous situation, causing military personel and main characters alike to glance around, completely baffled. Not one of my favourite episodes, but another string to the ever-increasing bow of Lance, Ilana and Octus, who are becoming ever-closer in their replacement family. These are three characters from completely different lives that probably never would have met if it wasn't for the tragic circumstances that forced them together, and watching them grow, both as individuals and as a unit, makes their repeated victories so much sweeter for us as spectators.
Episode 4 - 'The Phantom Ninja': and with it comes even more oppertunities for Lance to be a badass. Turning into a superhero show for an episode, we see some impressive hand-to-hand combat, but more importantly, this episode sees a lot of individual growth from the character of Lance, and Octus also begins to fill into his role as the parent (or brother. Or neither - this is a confusing character).
Episode 5 - 'Roar of the White Dragon': Tartakovsky and his trusty team of crack-shot animators prove to us that they can shoot action in more ways that just robots fighting. The car chase scenes in this episode are an adrenalin shock to the system. Things only get better when exploding roads and giant aliens are introduced into the mix. It may sound repetitive, but it's at this point (or around here) that we really start cheering our characters on. I was also impressed to find that Ilana, who plays the stuffy, always-follow-the-rules type in order to balance out Lance, is actually quite likable as a character despite (or perhaps because of) the fact.
Episode 6 - 'Shaman of Fear': The ol' get-'em-with-their-worst-fears trick. Good for character development, yes, but it also makes for a slightly darker episode which seems to tell us that, while this aired on Cartoon Network, the guys behind this show are really just doing what THEY want to see. And it works, because they churn out yet another awesome episode.
Episode 7 - 'Showdown at Sherman High': NICE. The lights are extinguished, the doors are locked shut, there's no way out - we're trapped in school! Nightmare, right? Well it makes for a great claustrophobic episode. This time our good guys can't just suit up and beat the monster into submission (not the second time, anyway) and have to rely on their wits and resources to make it through with not only their own lives intact, but also the lives of their fellow classmates, who surround them in a panic. While Lance hunts for Ilana under ever-mounting pressure, we see Ilana show that she has enough guts of her own to rank her up there with her soldier bodyguard. She may be a princess, but she's also pretty badass in this episode, and when they figure out how to finally get rid of the baddie, well that's just one of those moments where you get chills.
Episode 8 - 'Shadows of Youth': Not many kids' shows will stop in mid-story to turn back time and have an entire episode in flashback for the sake of character development. Luckily, SBT isn't a show that's afraid to take risks, and we get so much closer to Lance because of it. Seeing him go from the underdog to the top of the class to misunderstood prodigy is a great journey, and a big one to undertake in just one episode. As a result, our sympathy levels are bolstered, and as 'insiders', it's also cool to see how Lance and Ilana's paths have half-crossed for mere moments in the past, dispite their complete differences in upbringing.
Episode 9 - 'Tashy 497': Have a little think about it, and tell me how many action shows you know would sacrifice the big action sequence for an episode with little fighting, where the battle is emotional and the enemy is a cute little ball of jelly. Not many, huh? Well, this episode gives us several pulse-pounding moments through the dramatic irony of the exploding jellypet (IE, we know what the characters don't - that that thing could explode at any moment and kill them all). More importantly, this episode shows that SBT has something that most kids' cartoons don't have. It has the clever storytelling (mind), all the action sequences you could ever want (body), but uniquely, this show has got HEART. A perfect episode to demonstrate this fact.
Episode 10 - 'Lessons in Love': One word: "Parallelogram!". Seriously, this episode is perhaps one of the funniest ones of the series. Seeing the robotic Octus in 'serious' social relations during a close encounter with the school's lead cheerleader leads to some fantastically funny instances. Moving aside from 'that' scene that caused a fuss to be kicked up by the parents of viewing kiddies (can't say I'm surprised, to be honest), it's still a brilliant episode. In particular, the sequence that sees Kimmy walking home, head in the clouds and bopping along like a giddy child to some eighties' tune while behind her a movie-scale battle rages between two aliens is TV gold. One of those episodes I see myself watching again and again.
Episode 11 - 'The Fortress of Deception': There are deeper things going on behind the scenes - deeper than the monsters out to get them and General Steel trying to blow them to smithereens. This episode explores those things. Another full-throttle actioner, this one is a jailbreak a hundred miles up, without the reassuring presence of Octus to guide the troubled teens. Great scenes as usual, and this episode has a twist that I, for one, did not see coming (one of those facepalm moments where you yell 'OF COURSE!!').
Episode 12 - 'The Ballad of Scary Mary': I don't know about you, but I can't get me enough of that awkward teenage interraction, especially with the great mix of main character's we've got revving along at this point. Lance is typically moody, ever trying to keep an eye on Ilana, who just wants to cut loose and have a good time, perhaps make some friends, and, perhaps funniest of all, Octus is finding his feet as a boyfriend, even if he doesn't quite register it. This episode also has an awesome monster to fight. Very cool.
Episode 13 - 'The Demon Within': Good God this show is awesome. Picture this: an entire episode using only the three main characters, in only one setting. That's right, just the three, and just the one. It's creepy, it's cool, it has character development. I can't think of any other show - animated or otherwise - that has an episode using only three characters (and a monster). This was an episode where I really wasn't sure what was going to happen, which is a rare thing with adults and cartoons.
Episode 14 - 'I Am Octus': Extremely interesting episode here, as we really train our audience eyes on that loveable robot. Lance and Ilana have had plenty of development and backstory, but Octus has been a bit of a questionmark up until now. Here's where we clarrify that, like everything in SBT, Octus isn't just your average thing - not your average robot, and indeed not your average character. With most of the episode done in monologue, you would think it would be limitting or dull, but the reality is completely otherwise. Also, I don't think I've ever seen such a creepy scene in a cartoon as that one in Paris. You know the one I mean. Brilliant on every level.
Episode 15 - 'Disenfranchised': SBT is many things, but it is, perhaps, one thing above all. It's stylish. Lance joins a local band and creates some angsty melodies while the ever-supportive Ilana and Octus are forced to deal with both the ravaging monster on their tails and the ever-watchful eye of the military. Not a particularly noteworthy episode for development or story, but, as I say, it has STYLE.
Episode 16 - 'Escape from Galaluna': If it isn't enough that SBT is an action comedy with anime influences, this episode brings us an entire world based on the sci-fi genre. Another flashback episode sees the events leading up to episode one. Somehow this feels like a kind of revisiting, a clever filling-in of the gaps in preparation for the final episode. It's all part of a build up, but aside from that, it's an incredible episode. Probably one of the most visually stunning ones out of the twenty we were given, this one has all-out war, soldiers and tanks and aliens, and, best of all, an absolutely STUNNING sword-fight. That's right, in the middle of 'Star Wars', we're given 'Zorro', and it works so well. Such a great episode that it wasn't even spoiled by the fire alarms in my building going off right in the middle of it and having to evacuate at half-past-twelve in the morning.
Episode 17 - 'Under the Three Moons': Another episode with heart. Not much to say other than that it's another emotionally charged episode that captures your attention and reels you in right from the start, refusing to let go 'til the credits roll. That final scene with Lance and Ilana is really moving - it couldn't be made more clear in those moments that they really are all they've got; two aliens on a strange and dangerous world with only each other to rely on. Beautiful stuff.
Episode 18 - 'A Family Crisis': In my opinion, this series kind of has a three-part finale. While you can watch the other episodes (excepting one) in any order you please, these three go together and, as one, are the most intense episodes of the lot. This is probably my favourite of the three. All the way along, through the direction and the cinematography, we get a sense of being on the edge, like something very very bad could happen at any time... and it does. And it is, quite literally, heartstopping.
Episode 19 - 'The Steel Foe': Our heroes find themselves on the run, and suddenly we're watching something that resembles a melancholy anime version of the Bourne films. Things are grittier as the finale speeds up and now there really is something at stake. You know the makers have done a good job because as an audience member you feel as driven and compelled as the characters. Over the course of the last eighteen episodes you've become one of the main characters, part of the family, and that emotional bond is put to the test in this episode. A marvel as usual, but I found it to be missing something (or someONE) that gave the show so much of its charm.
Episode 20 - 'A New Beginning': Unfortunately, this was the last episode ever made. Unfortunately, it wasn't quite what I had hoped. Knowing that the show had been cancelled when I started watching it, I hoped the last episode would make a wise decision and, if not wrap up the entirety of the show's central premise and goal (to reclaim Galaluna), at least supply the answers to the questions we've built up over this season, and leave it at a place where we can be satisfied to walk away, even if it is a shame. It's irritating to say that this last episode provides no answers. It does, however, go out with a bang. The best titan combat scenes of the show are all here - perhaps made sweeter by the return of said hero. You can't help but cheer at this point when you see that colossus tearing through the baddies. It's become iconic, and the return of the sight is grand. It's a high note to go out on, but it's a crying shame they didn't settle things here before they were cancelled.
And there you have it. An essay-length post describing, in an episode-by-episode form, exactly why this show, Sym-Bionic Titan, is so damn awesome. Now, go and watch it, join the deviantART groups, post on the forums, and for God's sakes, if they ever do decide to release a second season, buy all the bloody merchandise you possibly can.