Saturday, May 30, 2009

Geek Obligations: STAR TREK (2009)

Well, as required by one nerd law or another, having seen the latest Star Trek movie, obviously the blogosphere (ridiculous word, that) is waiting with bated breath to hear what I thought of it. This despite not being that big a Star Trek fan (my Pull-Quote when it comes to Star Trek movies is that my favourite one is Galaxy Quest) and looking at the whole arguments about what is and isn't canonical with a certain detached amusement.

My review: It wasn't bad. There. Now that that's out of the way, I can talk about what was really on my mind while I watched it. That being that I was witnessing yet another in a long and necessary series of attempts to reinvigorate something for a newer younger audience.

It's an interesting line of inquiry--I continue to be fascinated with how things are remade and reexamined in the process of remaking them (and in this age of the Remake and Nostalgia Mining, I have no shortage of examples) Star Trek's been around in some form for 40+ years now, after all, and the gulf between where it all began and where it is now is pretty interesting, and seemed to me to be far more interesting fodder for a blog post than just my random thoughts about the movie--although there's some of that sprinkled amongst it, but this is mostly just rambling analysis--as we tend to do around here.

Star Trek was, like Gundam, an extremely successful failure. After crashing and burning on network TV, it found new life in syndication, grew it's cult audience over roughly ten years or so, and, in the wake of Star Wars, that audience was finally fair game.

Enter Trek's first stab at movie-hood: The Motion Picture. Also known as the Motionless Picture or, if you're me, The Most Pompous Goddam Movie Ever. It was a slow, ponderous think piece which attempted to be 2001-lite and Say Deep Things About The Human Condition. It did this by willfully trying to be as not fun as possible. For all Trek is lauded for being a progressive show and saying this about race relations and that about the futility of war in various episodes, what is willfully ignored in these accolades is that these little homilies were delivered so obvious and so leaden that any of the fun to be had with the show is smothered under moralizing so obvious and sanctimonious it makes one bleed from the ears.

Thus was the first movie--encountering a godlike force (apparently) bent on destroying all life, they found out "God" is one of us, a slob like one of us, and a stranger on the bus and that's as far as I care to push that allusion, thanks. Oh yeah--and everyone wore dental smocks. That was very off-putting also.

It doesn't really work, and not just because it willfully ignores what makes Trek work, but because it's completely out of step with the zeitgeist. While a 2001-esque think piece is a laudable goal, and inasmuch as there had been science fiction movies, most of them did fall into that "allegorical examination of the issues of today," (at least up to 1976) by the late 70's that no longer fit the zeitgeist.

Star Wars had changed all that. It was fast, kinetic, had a sense of humour about itself, and, while light on ideas, caught the zeitgeist for a whole generation in the same way that Trek had done with the previous generation--whatever process imprints these things strongly on a collective psyche happened again, and that's all there is to it, really. If Star Trek was going to speak to this generation, it would have to change its approach and try to find a way to stay relevant.

Relevance, and the argument that someone (and something) old can still be of value, are a thread carried through (to greater or lesser extent and effect) the next five movies. If one is disposed to read things in a certain way, Kirk struggling with living past his moment of glory or the Enterprise being put out to pasture is itself a meta-textual commentary on Trek's relevance in a world that's largely set side sci-fi for space opera.

Meanwhile, as this is going on, Star Trek has found a way to, if not confront Star Wars on its own turf, create something that can reach out to a larger audience than the 60s-era diehards. Looking back, Star Trek: The Next Generation, shouldn't really have worked--more often than not it's far too full of its own sanctimony and pomposity at times, and is all too often willing to slave the story to some scientific problem or artificial jeopardy rather than create conflict because In The Future Everyone Gets Along. It wasn't always the case, but looking back on some of those episodes . . .well, you just cringe.

Cringeworthy in hindsight they may be, Next Generation not only made its studio a lot of money, it provided a launching point for a whole new outgrowth of the franchise. Next Generation begat Deep Space Nine and Voyager, and Next Generation also begat four more movies for the franchise.

Unfortunately, only one of them's even remotely good. First Contact works--barely--because it's a fairly bulletproof premise (a zombie movie on the Enterprise) and some genuinely creepy moments (the Borg's rather literal take on Data's desire to be human) overwhelm the weaker bits.

TNG's inaugural movie, Generations, was, unfortunately, more of an exemplar of a TNG movie--it's all rather safe, and all rather half-baked. You may know Generations better as The One Where Kirk Dies Diving For The TV Remote (which was an early warning, I suppose that Ron Moore doesn't know how to write suitable closure for anything and Brannon Braga can't write period) or Longer TNG Episode, part 1 of 3. Insurrection continued the rather by-the-numbers Longer TNG Episode formula and was endemic of something that was happening with the franchise as a whole.

Basically, they were spinning their wheels and playing it safe. One tuned into Trek (Deep Space Nine excepted) and were reasonably sure they'd get the same thing every week with the serial numbers changed. Moreover, there began to be a pronounced and inescapable obsession with past continuity that ultimately same to a head with the final season of Enterprise, which might as well have been subtitled "Star Trek Fanfiction Theatre."

Needless to say, things hit something of a dead end. Maybe it was the continued preaching to the converted, maybe it was just the numbing grind of so much Star Trek being on non-stop for nearly 20 years. Maybe it was just that Nemesis is an awful awful movie, but Trek was put on the shelf for a time and everyone generally went back to the drawing board.

And we find ourselves right back where we started--the new Star Trek works less as a movie than as a curious case of trying to have your cake and eat it too. Functioning both as a justification for restarting continuity (usually a story engine doomed to fail) and a fresh start, and mostly succeeds.

The new movie by and large jettisons the Big Idea stuff of years past--there's some talk of destiny and living up to your potential, but primarily the new Trek is an action movie, and fairly revels in its Boy's Adventure devil-may-care attitude.

The director, J.J. Abrams, spoke before the movie that he was more predisposed to Star Wars when he was young, and that predilection shows, and shows most clearly, in our hero. James Kirk is, in the movie, pretty much Han Solo by other means. Never in any real jeopardy from frame one, Kirk strides through the movie confident and cocksure, and his attitude sets the tone of the movie.

The idea of younger actors stepping into the shoes of venerable SF iconic characters could have been a problem (and, if we're honest, it doesn't always work--Chekov was really only in the movie doing stupid things because Chekov was in the original and did very stupid things) but it's negotiated by the big three (Kirk, Spock, and McCoy)'s actors giving performances inspired by but not imitative of the original actors. It's initially somewhat odd, but it just about works, and goes a long way towards giving this Trek its own voice and sense of forward motion.

It doesn't always work, though. Like the original TV series, 2009's Trek is very much of it's time--there's a juddery handheld camera, random bursts of slow motion, and that oh-so-tired "let's drop all the sound out except the score so you know how poignant and tragic this all is." Moreover, it seems like action sometimes grows less out of the story's needs and more because they wanted an action sequence every few minutes.

And Nero is the most ephemeral and insubstantial villain I've seen in a movie since Slimer from the first Ghostbusters movie (and he had the excuse of being a ghost) It may well be time to admit that Trek seldom does individual villains well (especially when it comes to the movies) and this doesn't exactly break that streak.

This wasn't bad, but was very puzzling: There's a lot of water in this movie. It's very moist. It's mystifying, especially in the case of Nero's torture chamber/wading pool.

But the jeopardy Nero brings is more of a backdrop for what does work--how the characters come together and interact and ultimately gel into a coherent unit. It's also about cool space battles, which, naturally the film has in spades and delivers very well.

On the whole, it's a very satisfying movie. As a fresh start, it's certainly promising, but so much of this movie was spent setting up the moment where the keys to the car are handed over (metaphorically speaking) that really it's the follow-up to this movie that will determine whether this reboot is actually a fresh start, an Ultimate-style "old wine in new bottles" thing, or whether, after years and years, maybe Star Trek's day is past and it's going to join the similarly-hot-at-one-time-but-now-irrelevant Planet of the Apes franchise in the bin.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Well, because the reams and reams of copy I wrote about the various permutations of the Gundam metaseries is all well and good but sometimes you need to have visual proof to know what I'm talking about, the following Youtube clips are submitted for your edification (yes, I know Youtube clips are my stock and trade on the other blog, but I figured I could get away with it here. Once. Maybe.)

From the very good but sadly not covered in my analysis series 08th MS Team comes the following. One Zeon pilot takes on an entire platoon just to buy time for a hospital ship to escape:

From G Gundam, a fairly typical moment of the series, as Domon Kasshu uses the Erputing Burning Finger (make all the jokes you like--I have!) to own the living hell out of someone.

For those of you who say "That's absolutely ridiculous!' My answer is "Yeah, pretty much. It's melodramatic, ridiculous, and positively revels in it." Think of it as the anime equivalent of Batman throwing a car battery at someone.

From Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory (which was also not covered, primarily because it's not terribly good from a storytelling standpoint) We have series anti-hero, the Zeon ace known as Anavel Gato, taking revenge for the defeat of his country . . .by whipping out a nuclear-missle firing bazooka and taking out an entire spacefleet. As you do.

Finally, to end on a note more consistent with the heart of the series rather than the whammo-blammo stuff above, here's the end of the quite amazing Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket series. Very little whammo-blammo here, but perhaps Gundam at its best. It's a bit long (and spoiler-iffic and out of context, but whatever) but worth your time.

Friday, May 15, 2009


As I mentioned yesterday, while Gundam SEED and its sequel series had some small success, it's very much a backward looking series, that cherry-picks a few elements from older, more successful series here and there and mating it with stuff that was either not entirely successful, or utterly half-baked. It kept the franchise visible, sure, but it didn't really move things forward. Homaging the past is all well and good, but it's ultimately looking backward. To remind relevant, it behooves creators of continuing franchises to continually try to get it to speak to generations afterwards, keep the audience evergreen, that sort of thing.

Lord knows, war is not uncommon in our day and age, and Gundam prides itself on being the definitive war story/allegory. By and large, Gundam has dwelt in the WW2-era "giant military powers, more or less equal until scientific breakthrough" structure. To remain relevant, clearly, a middle ground would have to be struck to capture the attention of people today for whom war's nature has changed from that.

"I would like to address this statement to every single human being born and raised on Earth. We call ourselves simply Celestial Being. We are a private armed organization in possession of the mobile weapon 'Gundam'. The main objective of Celestial Being's activities is to completely eliminate acts of war and conflict from this world. We do not act for our own benefit or for personal gain. We have chosen to intervene for the greatest goal of all: To rid ourselves of the scourge of war. As of this moment, I make this declaration to all humanity: Territory, religion, energy; no matter what the reason or excuse, if there is an evident act of war being carried out, we will commence intervention with armed force. Any country, organization or corporation that promotes war will also be a legitimate target for our intervention. We simply call ourselves Celestial Being. We are an armed organization that was established to eliminate all acts of war from this world."

With these words, the latest Gundam series, Gundam 00, begins. Gundam 00 is a series of firsts for the franchise. It's the first series shot in HD, the first series split into two 25-episode seasons rather than one, complete 52-episode run, and it's also probably the most complicated Gundam series thus far. I will attempt (key word there is "attempt") to summarise without spoilers.

In the year 2307 (AD--no more of these made up dating systems) Earth is divided into several confederations, and three major power blocs control the world. The major powers hold the key to solar energy (the power source of choice now that fossil fuels have run out) and this naturally leads to war.

Celestial Being is an organization devoted to stopping war by overwhelming force. Their four pilots, the Gundam Meisters, have each had their lives ruined by war, and are eminently capable of wreaking unimaginable destruction.

What they don't know is what Celestial Being's true aim is. No one seems to, and all too many seem willing and able to appropriate the organisation and the chaos they cause for their own aims. Never mind Celestial Being's plan seems designed to make its own agents obsolete. For every armed intervention, the situation seems to escalate higher and higher. As they press the three major factions, they end up binding them together into a huge global power, rather than three smaller states. Worse still, three newer Gundam Meisters appear on the scene, and their more ruthless approach to the job seems to deliberately strengthen Earth's resistance. It all culminates in a pitched battle in space wherein the Gundam Mesiters are seemingly destroyed.

And that's the just the first season.

By the time the second season starts (with a five-year time jump), the United Earth forces and their agents the A-Laws are running riot. Moreover, a group of genetically engineered humans known as the Innovators seem determined to hijack Celestial Being's plan and twist it for their own purpose . . .but that could also have been in the plan all along.

Unlike other shows with shocking swerves (C'mon--you know damn well who I'm talking about) Gundam 00 always plays fair with its big reveals--when something happens and it seems completely out of left field, inevitably something later will come along and you go "Ohhhh . . .yeah. Now it makes sense." That makes following along with the overly complex plot feel a little less like homework.

Gundam 00 recently finished its run on Japanese TV and while it apparently wasn't as rip-roaring a success as SEED was right out of the gate, but apparently its numbers are good enough that a possible movie has been suggested, which means that this formula (today's issues with some crowd-pleasing elements from the past--the group of Gundam Meisters, gorgeous and full of oh-so-hot angst, recalls the pilots of Gundam Wing) with a more contemporary viewpoint seems to have done the trick, and thus, 30 years since the beginning, there will more likely than not be Gundam stories well into the future.

Clearly, there's some life in the whole thing yet.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


As the 20th century gave way to the 21st, a new Gundam series was mooted. Gundam SEED was an attempt--yet again--to forge a new viable continuity, a Universal Century for the 2000s, if you will (even if it's considered another Alternate Universe show). Gundam SEED was the result, and it was an astonishing success. It led to plenty of spin-offs, a sequel series (which we'll get to in a second) and ran a way with a bunch of awards.

This, despite the fact that it's not terribly good.

We're not going to spend a huge amount of time on SEED'S plot, mostly because it's a crazy-quilt of elements from previous Gundam series, with the names changed (Zeon=ZAFT this time, and they're not blatantly space Nazis this go-round). The first half of the show, in fact, is a dull, ponderous, studied and labored homage to the first half of Mobile Suit Gundam (civilians find ship and prototype mobile suit, get chased, whine a lot about it) only drawn out to ridiculous lentgth with the ansgt turned all the way up.

But there's elements from other series as well--we get the multiple pretty-boy Gundam pilots from Wing, as well as Wing's copious Ho Yay, concentrated in the relationship between Our Hero, Kira Yamato, and . . .uh, our hero (later) Athrun Zala. We're supposed to be saddened about the fact that Kira and Athrun find themselves on opposite sides of the war, but, even judged with against the usual amount of melodrama that goes on in shows like this, it's ridiculously overdone. Kira seems unable to do anything without crying, and his Newtype-like superpowers are things we're more often told about than shown.

It doesn't help, of course, that Hisashi Hirai's character designs are blank, lifeless, and pretty much the safe face with different hair. For you comics fans wondering why this needed a whole week of rambling discourse, let me throw you a concession and compare him to Greg Land and his Great Big Ol' File Of Porn Reference. Every character is a complete, cleanly rendered void from which no emotion or individuality can escape.

Of course, SEED's not totally without merit. Halfway through the series, as the neutral nation of Orb gets caught between the Earth Federation and ZAFT's war, and Our Heroes decide to side with Orb and commit themselves to stopping both side's ability to prosecute the war. It's an interesting concept, hadn't really been done up to now in the franchise, but in practice, it turns out that they just end up going after ZAFT when they return to space because, well, that's what they did in Mobile Suit Gundam.

Interesting concepts and questions raised and then not followed through on are a hallmark of the SEED era, and there's no better example than SEED'S sequel, SEED Destiny. Destiny (initially) is the story of Shinn Asuka, ZAFT soldier. Shinn saw his entire family massacred as collateral damage in a Gundam fight, and has a hard hate for war as a result and Kira Yamato in particular. Being an exceedingly powerful mobile suit pilot, he comes uner the sway of Gilbert Durandal, who uses Shinn as a pawn to implement his Destiny Plan--a scheme to institute a kind of genetic determinism which, he's convinced, will ensure peace.

It's an interesting dynamic--there's a little smattering of Zeta in the proceedings, but nothing like the studied, overdone, homage to MSG that the first half of SEED was. There was certainly an opportunity to progress things and do something interesting with a familiar formula.

Unfortunately, Kira Yamato is/was and extremely popular character and all this gets flushed down the toilet as the story is immediately reversed course to suit Kira, and any potential gets hopelessly muddled. The waste of potential is extraordinarily frustrating.

As happened with SEED, Sunrise milked things a bit more by compiling the series into movies, with various "fixes" for things that hadn't exactly worked according to plan. It smooths certain details out, but doesn't fix the central problem--that when you suddenly slave a series to a popular character who isn't even the focus of the story--you screw it up majorly.

Mind you, despite all this, SEED is still rather popular, and a few additional projects have been mooted to further continue its story. But ultimately, it's a bit too backward looking to really point the way to a future for the franchise. For that, it would take some blending of Gundam's more successful elements from the past and a point of view more in line with current events.

Oh yes--and you'd need to have it so densely complex that it forever threatens to collapse under its own weight.

Tomorrow, we look at Gundam 00, which attempts to do just that.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Yesterday, we finished up talking about Gundam's Universal Century period, and how the later series were an attempt to escape from a rather limiting storytelling engine. Ironically enough, that's where we begin today--after the ultra-bleak Victory Gundam, Tomino had little more to say on the subject of Gundam, and there didn't seem to be much point in continuing deeper into the Universal Century continuity.

(Not to say they didn't try, of course--there are plenty of video projects, manga, and movies that either continue or tell continuity-implant stories within the UC. However, by and large, the forward progression more or less stops here)

But Sunrise needed a way forward--15 years into Gundam's lifespan, it was obviously a proven franchise and it had to continue forward . . .somehow.

What to do?

The solution they hit upon was to use the Gundam concept as the blanket concept for series that would be self-contained entities in their own right--they would have Gundams in them, but in all other respects they were going to go their own way with it.

And there's no better statement of intent than the first series, G Gundam. Borrowing liberally from kung-fu movies, Street Fighter II, and the super robots that Gundam had been a reaction to in the first place, G Gundam is one of the most polarizing installments in the franchise. Either you love it's melodramatic boys-adventure qualities and the utterly gonzo "one Gundam for every nation of the world" thing, and the fact that EVERYONE SHOUTS A LOT, or you think it's just the most ridiculous thing ever.

The plot this time is this--instead of costly and destructive wars, the space colonies send Gundams down to Earth to fight in a tournament to decide which nation will control the others. Mind you, after several dozen years of this, the Earth is more than a bit knackered. It's up to Domon Kasshu (who might as well be called Shoutypants McForgreatjustice) representing Neo-Japan to not only win the tournament, but to track down both his missing sensei and a certain piece of technology that was supposed to rebuild the Earth but has gotten more than a little out of control.

G Gundam takes the usual melodrama the series is known for and exaggerates it almost to the point of parody. And yet . . .several facets of the series (the environmental . . .well, it's often a bit too heavy-handed to be subtext, but there is a definite "Earth is worth saving" message throughout every permutation of the show) are right in line with the ideals of the classic show. You just have it presented in a completely different milieu.

When G Gundam had finished its story, it was decided the next series would go in a more conventional direction--another war story. No one knew quite at the time that not only would Gundam Wing become the new template for later series, but would be the series which finally "broke" Gundam in America (for that rare stretch of time when it rode a wave of popularity around the turn of the century)

Back in 2000, one couldn't throw a rock at the Internet and not hit a Gundam Wing page, usually created by some girl passionately arguing for whatever pairing of the 5 Gundam pilots (and every other willowy, gorgeous male character on the show) and how it all made sense. It was . . .God, "epidemic" doesn't even begin to cover it.

Apparently, one of the things that really helped this new era of Gundam shows take off? Ho Yay. Serious Ho Yay.

But never mind that, let's get to the plot: Oppressed space colonists concoct a guerrilla operation known as Operation Meteor, in which 5 Gundams are sent to Earth to undermine the Federation and their elite squad, OZ. OZ, meanwhile, has its own plan and stages a coup against the Federation. Crosses, double-crosses, deaths, fake deaths, and lots of angsty melodrama ensue.

It was a hit in Japan and a hit in America, and turned out to be an ideal entry into America, as it was an encapsulation of everything Gundam was about (but more superficially)and gave you a good taste of what a Gundam series would be like (seeing as the plot of the show is basically everything from Mobile Suit Gundam to Char's Counterattack hyper-compressed down to the bare necessities) Unlike most of the Alternate Universe stories, Wing actually got a sequel--that's how well it did.

Sadly, the follow-up to Wing, Gundam X, didn't do as well. In fact, it kind of crashed and burned. Whether it was because it wasn't very "alternate" (The basic story is "what if the One Year Was so catastrophic Earth took decades to recover?") or perhaps because Evangelion was blowing up the traditional conceptualisation of the mecha anime (and hell, every anime . . .not that this turned out to be a good thing, but that's an entirely other column) but it never caught on, and thus things lie fallow for awhile.

But there's one more Alternate Universe card to be played, and it's played by the series' creator. Turn A Gundam screams "major gamble" from just about every frame--the story is deliberate and (initially) pastoral, the high-tech gloss of the series is largely abandoned for something . . .very different. The titular Gundam doesn't even look like the older-style Gundams.

Turn A takes place after a massive catyclysm has more or less eradicated all technology. To the extent there is tech around, it's very antiquated compared to the present day (minus the odd mobile suit here and there) and it all has to do with a mobile suit called the White Devil. What unfolds is a mystery that's not entirely explained, but just enough to tell a story of what happens when you dig up and use technology you don't necessarily understand.

Tomino's work here is as optimistic and ultimately hopeful as Victory Gundam wasn't at times. It's a puzzling series--the mecha and character designs are a bit unique and it's not a war story initially and it takes its time getting to it.

As a final chapter for Gundam in the 20th century, it was ideal. As we'll see next time, Gundam's attempt to continue into the next century get off to something of a rocky start . . .

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Yesterday, we talked at length about Gundam's Universal Century continuity and the progression of sequels to the original that carried the franchise through the 1980s. As the 80s gave way to the 90s, there was a question as a new Gundam series was prepared of where they could go now. They'd pretty much solved the Earth Federation/Zeon rivalry, and most of the series' major characters had been taken off the board, and so there wasn't a clear way ahead for an immediate sequel.

The answer, as it turned out, was to set things further ahead--thirty years after Char's Counterattack, and use the time-jump as a means of looking ahead to a new status quo. Thus begins the short sad story of the Second Universal Century.

The main motif in the 2nd UC is that the Earth Federation is slowly collapsing. As space becomes more and more heavily colonised (and more populous) and with the powerful, highly organised Zeon finally defeated, the political and military will to deal with colonial uprisings in any coherent way is gone, and into that power vacuum, various groups begin taking advantage of the Federation's impotence (This culminates in the live-action experiment G-Saviour, but we're not going to discuss it because it's so bad that Sunrise--the studio behind Gundam--has more or less disowned it) so, conceivably, any sufficiently organised military could take over a space colony and the Federation wouldn't lift a finger.

Which is exactly what happens in Gundam F91. The Crossbone Vanguard, the private army of the Ronah family, take over one of the newer space colonies and intend to establish an aristocratic system of rule. Naturally, there's more to it than that (isn't there always) and there are plenty of folks within and without who have their own agendas. It's up to Our Heroes to cobble together a resistance to the Vanguard and re-take the space colony, because lord knows, the Federation isn't much help. Luckily, they just happened to have the latest-generation Gundam on hand and the perfect pilot to help them . . .

F91 wasn't intended to be a movie, and it shows. So many random plot threads gets picked up and dropped during the course of 90 minutes that it's glaringly obvious that this was meant to be a series, the plan for which was aborted (for many many reasons) Sadly, we never quite learn how the Crossbone Vanguard is defeated (our only clue to what happens immediately after the film is the manga Crossbone Gundam, in which the Vanguard is reconceptualised as a force for good) but the stage is set for a somewhat familiar but very different reference point in the Universal Century.

For all the promise F91 showed and failed to capitalise on, its successor series, Victory Gundam, achieves and exceeds. It's second only to Zeta in terms of the quality of the series' writing. The comparisons don't end there, either. Victory is darker, more tragic, and more sombre than Zeta.

As I mentioned yesterday, when series creator Tomino is depressed, there is a high probability the series he's working on will be informed by this. It's not surprising, therefore, that Victory, created in the midst of deep personal troubles, reflects this. I'm told that on the DVD collection there's an extra wherein Tomino begs people not to buy it.

If this were Tomino's final word on the series (as it worked out, it wasn't) it would definitely end on a down note, but on a note that's true to the themes of the meta-series, more or less.

Gundam is a tricky beast. On some level, it embraces Japan's romanticisation of the martial spirit and veneration of duty. Time and again, the gifted but unruly misfit (Amuro, Kamille, you name it) is pressganged by circumstance into the military and, after a few rounds of rough military discipline, flourishes as a member of a team. They learn the value of duty and professionalism. There's a sense of ambivalence about this in the best of these sorts of stories, perhaps a result of the post-WW2 generation--having seen what fanatical following of those values brought them, I can't believe here wasn't a lot of questioning of long-cherished beliefs in the wake of that.

But at the same time, while delivering healthy doses of whammo-blammo action, it wants the viewer to see the ugly side (in the best of series--sometimes it's all about the mecha porn and angsty pretty boys, but that's jumping ahead a bit) of battle. How quickly one loses their innocence when killing is a way of life. Forming relationships only to see a friend killed. How a simple misunderstanding can turn into a blood feud and lead to unbelievable tragedy.

When it's not done well, it smacks a bit of trying to have its cake and eating it too--you get the action, you get all these interesting questions raised, and then you don't do anything with it, it's sort of making vague motions at being profound without actually, y'know, being profound.

That's not something you have to worry about here. Uso Ewin, Victory's protagonist, is the series youngest protagonist ever, and the underlying motif is his internal struggle to maintain his innocence and hope for peace and a better future (invoked whenever he speaks about "Kasarelia"--it's an ideal of where he grew up and where he'd like to get back to) contrast against the long bloody struggle against the Zanscare Empire, the latest colonial power to rise up against the wishy-washy Federation, whose favourite pastimes seem to be executing people in increasing raw-ass ways (ex: the guillotine, throwing people out airlocks, etc.) like Kamille, Uso doesn't join the homegrown militia League Militaire out of choice as much as he falls into it. Like Kamille, Uso will find love, and a surrogate family in battle. Also, like Kamille, Uso suffers great loss. No greater example of this is Uso's relationship with his friend and quasi big sister Katejina, who initially tries to protect him, but gradually becomes his worst enemy. The story of their crumbling relationship is very much Victory's story in microcosm, and it's hellaciously tragic.

Again, like Zeta, I'm not going to spoil this too much, because it's well worth seeking out (a touch difficult to do, because unlike Zeta, Victory never got a release outside of Japan) It's not an easy road, but if you want a convincing example of Gundam at its best and most engaging, well, here it is.

With such a grim story and such a bleak (but somewhat hopeful) ending, the minds behind the series didn't have a clear idea of where to go from here. The Universal Century stories would continue, but usually took the form of continuity implants (like Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory) that filled in bits and bobs of "between series" stuff, but by and large, they'd hit a roadblock. Tomino had nothing more to say--seemingly--with Gundam, and yet, it was such a moneymaker, it had to continue.

Fortunately, Gundam had been an institution for nearly 15 years at this point, and a new generation of creators had come up during the time it had been on the air and had some stories to tell. However, these stories would be different, cherry-picking elements of the series' history thus far and adding some twists of their own. Liberated from the bonds of series continuity and given free rein, what would they come up with?

We'll have a look at what they came up with tomorrow, when we begin our look at the Alternate Universe era of Gundam, and, incidentally, talk about that brief moment when Gundam broke in America. Join us, won't you?

Monday, May 11, 2009


Yesterday we began our journey through the history of the Gundam metaseries with a lot of background and a brief recap of the first series, Mobile Suit Gundam, and a brief explanation of how it was delayed success for all involved. But one doesn't build a franchise solely on one success, especially one that staggered on a bit before becoming thus.

One of the main problems one had in concocting a sequel to MSG was that the show had a built-in limiter--the One Year War--and the show ended pretty definitively with the defeat and exile of the Zeon. So apart from a few loose plot threads here and there, there wasn't much to build a new series around.

(I should add, this is something the later, continuity implant series set near or after the One Year War had--either you're dealing with events that are supposedly taking place just before the war's end or right after, which tended to lock the story into "look which Zeon remnant's returned for revenge" over and over again. Mind you, Gundam 0080, worked with that story to great effect and it's one of the best Gundam series out there and the closest it ever comes to credibly demonstrating the themes of war and the people caught up in it)

So, they decided to kick over the gameboard. Gundam series creator Yoshiyuki Tomino is known for a couple of things. One, when he's depressed, his series tend to end with most of the cast losing their lives (Tomino earned the nickname "Kill 'Em All Tomino" for series like Ideon, which end with all of the cast dying and the universe being destroyed. I am not exaggerating.) While he tends to be very apologetic when he's feel a bit more cheerful, the common thread of these darker series is that they tend to be very grim (naturally) and also damn good.

MSG's sequel, Zeta Gundam, is exactly that. If we're comparing things to Star Wars, Zeta is the Empire Strikes Back of the series. Here's why:

Seven years after the end of MSG, things have changed. Earth has decided to nip any more potential colonial uprisings in the bud and created an elite military force known as the Titans to deal with them. The Titans, taking preemptive action to extremes, are prone to doing things like targeting a colony wherein people are conducting peaceful demonstrations against Earth rule and pumping poison gas in and murdering every single colonist.

Moreover, as they grow from being an adjunct of the Earth government to a political power, they've found a way to not only weaponise Newtypes (this is, I should mention, the only Gundam show where Newtypes aren't hatefully annoying plot convenient superbeings) but force-create Newtypes, which has the unfortunate side effect of driving them insane. These insane Cyber-Newtypes are then used to pilot massive mobile armors, turning them into weapons of mass destruction.

Opposing them is the space-borne Anti-Earth Union Government and their Earth counterpart, Karaba. Initially very weak and rag-tag, at first the AEUG's sole advantages are their access to the next-generation of mobile suit technology and the services of one Quattro Bajeena (sometimes mistranslated, hilariously, as "Quattro Vajeena," which really undercuts the drama, doesn't it?) who, in a rather obvious spoiler, is actually our erstwhile Zeon ace, Char Aznable, returned from the "dead" and seemingly on the side of the angels.

Seemingly. With Char, you really never know, and one gets the impression--rightly--that he has his own agenda.

Things happen fast an furious in Zeta. The Titans become more and more autonomous and more desperate as the AEUG whittles down their power base on Earth. Pressures without lead to pressure within as one of the Titans mounts a coup. Oh yes, and the remnants of the Zeon government return from exile, making a desperate struggle now a three-way fight.

But at the end of the day it's all about our main character--Kamille Bidan (people have weird names in Gundam series--that's just how it is) Kamille, like Amuro Ray before him, is a brilliant but socially maladjusted child and budding Newtype. He begins the story getting into a scuffle with a member of the Titans. By the end of the story he's become a hero, he's earned the respect of his teammates, he's fallen in love, and he finally defeats the Titans at the end.

But he also loses his parents, the woman he loves, the surrogate family he'd created for himself, and for everything that goes right, so much more goes wrong for him, and his ending (and the series) is tragic in its bitter irony.

I don't want to spoil it any further--it's well worth checking out, and is set far enough ahead in continuity-wise where it doesn't require you to have seen the first series at all to enjoy it.

What goes up, must come down, however. Tomino has a tendency to over-correct after series made in depressing periods. So, after the bleak and near-apocalyptic events of Zeta, the sequel series, ZZ Gundam is . . .a comedy.

At first, anyway. It dawns on those involved, rather quickly, that this is a Bad Idea, and things get back on track rather quickly. There's not a lot to say about ZZ Gundam besides that--after the events of Zeta, the Zeon empire reasserts itself (as you do, they were in the best shape after the three-way war that ended Zeta and decide now is the ideal time to try to fill the power vacuum) and it's up to callow youth Judau Ashta and his friends to turn the tide.

ZZ ended the run of new Gundam series for awhile--being such a muddled mess as it is at times, it had rather run into a dead end, as all the plot lines from Zeta were more or less tied up and it was hard to think of a way to go forward. This was a rather important thing to suss out, now that Gundam was a proven commodity and there was a push for yet another sequel.

When the time comes to continue a long-running franchise, there are two major modes of thought. Either you try to advance things to a far enough point ahead to where you have an interesting point of continuation or . . .you run things back to the most popular elements of the initial concept.

Char's Counterattack takes the latter option. Billed as the final chapter in the grudge match between Amuro Ray (remember him?) and Char Aznable, Counterattack attempts to draw a line under the whole Earth/Zeon conflict in a very satisfying way.

And it almost succeeds. The story is thus: 5 years after the end of ZZ Gundam in UC 0093, Char returns at the head of a new Zeon faction, and returns with two objectives. One, finish his long-running rivalry with Amuro. Two, solve the Earth/Colony conflict once and for all by dropping a huge space colony on Earth and plunging it into a global nuclear winter, giving the planet time to heal and, incidentally, force all of humanity into space.

It's an interesting story, and one that's fairly gripping until the end, and I'm going to spoil it for you now, because it's so bloody ridiculous--At the finish of the Amuro/Char fight, their Newtype powers go into overdrive and the colony drop is averted by something like the Power of Love and oh yeah, Amuro and Char disappear.

What the hell is this? For one thing, it's a total bait-and-switch--the viewer's promised the final showdown and it's not exactly final if they just get hoisted off to Heaven (or whatever) before a reckoning is made. It feels . . .a bit hollow, somehow, and really, one could say that the Gundam series as it was then (the Universal Century part of it, anyways) never really recovers from the somewhat thwarted resolution here.

But there's two more Universal Century installments yet to go (and a bunch of other manga and assorted side projects which we won't cover because we only have the week) Join us tomorrow for a look at the Second Universal Century, and how a fresh start gets strangled out of the gate, and the second attempt ends up becoming perhaps the closest thing to a spiritual cousin to Zeta Gundam.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


Are we going to do a theme week every time work keeps me too busy to post anything the week previous?

Anything's possible.

I hadn't initially planned to do another theme week so soon, but an ideal topic fell into my lap, or more accurately, into my hands, recently, that being Dynasty Warriors: Gundam 2. For those of you not in the know, DWG2 basically takes every major storyline development and major character over the entire 30-year history of the Gundam franchise and makes a game effort to bind it all together in something like a reasonable plot so Gundam fans can nerd out mad-style over the fact that characters who would never meet at all fight alongside each other in what would be, for comics fans, like the JLA/Avengers crossover realised in video-game form--a nerd's dream, but the kind of thing that leaves most sane people scratching their head.

So I thought to myself, "Self, why not write about Gundam for a week? You'll be playing the damn game for ages trying to unlock anything, why not make a vague motion to justify it by reviewing the whole thing, or as much as you can get to in one-day installments. Oh yes, and while you're at it, you might try quitting the habit of talking out loud to yourself."

So here we are.

I've mentioned Gundam before, when we were talking about the possibility of comics continuity evolving into something like the Gundam's franchise structure--mainly, stories told with common elements that are simultaneously their own separate story with a definite ending or, in some cases, a sequel series that involves different main characters that moves the continuity a certain point forward.

We'll get to that more in a minute. For now, the two things you need to know about Gundam are:

1. It is the most successful failed series in anime history.

2. It endures despite a marked habit to undermine its own storytelling engine at every turn.

The "successful failure" thing is, of course, the first series, Mobile Suit Gundam. Initially, MSG was a utter failure--its episode order was curtailed and it wasn't until Bandai (who owns 90% of everything on Japanese television, I am led to understand) released the series as movies and released model kits of the various mobile suits (robot-like piloted war machines) that the series began to rise in popularity and, in addition to recouping the investment, created an institution.

The "undermining of the storytelling engine" deal is a bit harder to explain, but we'll do our best. First of all, it's worth mentioning here that MSG's initial contribution to the anime genre (specifically the mecha anime subset) was that it blended the high melodrama/war saga elements of things like Star Blazers/Space Battleship Yamato (wherein the entire series is the length and breadth of a great interstellar war as viewed from the perspective of a small handful of people caught up in the middle of it--some if not most don't survive, etc.) and the then-popular Super Robots like Mazinger Z (or, as we'd know them, the Shogun Warriors) In blending these two elements, Gundam creates the Real Robot genre, in which the formerly superhuman mecha are recharacterised as mass-produced war machines, no more or less special as a tank or a machine gun or anything like that.

It's as much of a realistic take on the genre as it is possible to have in a genre wherein people pummel each other in giant mechs. It struggles with science only enough to make it plausible and sell it's story (Gundam's pesudo-science motivator is the legendary Whatever Particle, the Minovsky Particle, which can do whatever the story requires) The story in Gundam is king (under the best of circumstances, anyway) and the story, as embodied in the initial series, is thus:

In Universal Century 0079, human beings live on both the Earth and in a series of space colonies within Earth's orbit. After a turbulent series of revolutions, one of the colonies declares itself a sovereign state--The Principality of Zeon--and declares war on Earth. The resultant One Year War (which lasts exactly that) begins for the viewer when a prototype spaceship and complement of Earth's latest generation prototype Mobile Suits. The ship and its ragtag crew of civilians and junior officers have to learn to become a fighting unit, as they're constantly pursued by the Zeon forces, one in particular, is their ace pilot, a masked man named Char Aznable, who seems to have his own connection to and plans for the ruling Zeon hierarchy.

Initially, Mobile Suit Gundam is a chase story--the ship is pursued by various Zeon commanders, some of whom we're actually given time to get to know, and as we learn, they're not much different from Our Heroes, and like them, caught up in events beyond their control. It's not unusual for the viewer to feel a certain sadness when some of the Zeons die (the common humanity of people separated by national identity is a recurring theme in the Gundam franchise) just as we're meant to feel sympathy for the crew of the ship, often pushed to their limits and beyond trying to survive the chase (Battlestar Galactica fans should find this familiar)

Then, about halfway through, the tide turns. The crew of the ship link up with Earth forces and begin to turn the tide on the Zeon forces. As things grow moree desperate, the war escalates. Mobile Suits like the Gundam initially a dangerous cutting edge weapon, is soon supplanted by the Mobile Armor--a giant weapon several times the size of a mobile suit. More ominous, however, is the revelation that certain mobile suit pilots, like Char and our nominal hero, Armuro Ray, are Newtypes, gifted individuals who have some sort of extrasensory gift that has never really been all that well explained, but we can reasonably assume might have something to do with the fact that MSG has a lot of hotshot pilots as main characters and Star Wars was released in Japan a couple years before Gundam and is fairly obviously an influence (why do you suppose almost every robot had lightsabers?) on the concept.

Newtypes, I should point out here, and a great example of Gundam's problematic storytelling engine. Newtypes (or their equivalents) are often referred to as the "next step in human evolution."

But Gundam is often about the common humanity of people caught up in war, right? It's hard to reconcile the two, partly because its hard to address common humanity with potential ubermenschen running around and partly because the Zeon leaders frequently use very Nazi-esque "master race" language to further their aims. It's rather hard to line that up with the writer's intent when you're basically justifying the bad guys' rhetoric at a certain level.

It also doesn't help that Newtypes are amazingly ill-defined in terms of what counts as one and what can they do (this flaw actually ends up ruining a major plot point in a later film) but I'll get to that a little later.

Nevertheless, this is the genetic map for all future Gundam series. Some of the elements may be jiggered around a bit, but by and large, the following elements will come into play--A war story, two factions representing space colonies and Earth, an arms race spurred to achieve military victory, a race of potential superbeings, and a group of civilians and the military on the run and several characters who may have their own motives.

We'll look at the first example of this storytelling engine going forward tomorrow. Be here next time when I try to cover a century or so of continuity as quickly and coherently as I can.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Nexus of Superhero Comics and Wrestling Part 2--The Re-Wrestlening

Not so very long ago, but years ago in blog-time, I remarked on certain similarities between the superhero comics genre and pro wrestling. As with everything I write, it seemed a bit rambling in retrospect and I probably wasn't entirely successful in getting my point across.

However, sometimes in life, one is given a second chance, and even better, someone else does the heavy lifting and sells it better.

In this case, Steven Grant. You can find the full column here, but here's an excerpt:

"As I said, the lessons learned from all this wasn't that storytelling is still the most effective means to build an audience, but that swerves and short-term shock tactics is what will sucker them in. The latter's predicated on the notion that, despite myriad wrestling blogs proving otherwise, the wrestling audience can't keep track of what happened a programming hour earlier, let alone a day or week or month. Paradoxically, a big chunk of swerves are intended to make fools of Internet bloggers while bookers and owners also proclaim that the bloggers are an insignificant fraction of the audience. Which is probably true, making it doubly sad and funny, that the audience segment they so vehemently deride as irrelevant is the one they try the hardest to baffle and/or win over.

I won't bother beating home parallels to mainstream comics. But another is how, like comics, pro wrestling indulges in a "business cycle" theory to comfort itself and justify "staying the course" during bad times"

There's more there, and whether you're a wrestling fan or a comics fan (or both) it's pretty edifying stuff.

Saturday, May 2, 2009


NOTE: Beginning what I hope will be a regular feature here at the Prattle, Call for papers is a series wherein I let y'all, the readers sound off on whatever's on your mind. This first entr was too good to pass up, as it all began when the superlative Gillan D. of Incantations fame tld me she was reading Watchmen for the first time.

I was intrigued to see what she thought, as she's not as deep into comics as I am and Watchmen is very much "comics about other comics." The end result is elucidated below and was quite interesting, I thought. Wonder how many people who read it when the movie came out felt like this?

Unlike the rest of the world, the Watchmen series passed me by until quite recently. It was during the adverts before the Dark Knight film that I saw the new about the new Watchmen film and I was instantly intrigued.

While comics aren’t new to me, the concept of an adult comic is. Living in a small Welsh village tends to place restrictions of the availability and choice of reading matter, so it wasn’t until a recent visit to the city that I managed to buy the complete graphic novel.

Now, graphic novels are new to me and I began with a great amount of interest. However, that interest quickly waned as I trudged through it. Seriously, it felt as if someone had attached a lead weight to both of my eyelids.

I’m aware that this was written in the mid 1980’s and I definitely felt it to be dated. I found the dialogue to be pretentiousness and it weighed down the story, making it more a feat of endurance than something enjoyable.

I had the impression that the writer was trying to create a work of art and trying far too hard as the finished story felt contrived and artificial. I would almost have thought it a clever parody, had I not known otherwise.

The speech given by Rorschach in the first chapter made me laugh out load. It was saturated with melodrama and reminded me instantly of Bela Lugosi in the 1931 version of Dracula - “Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make”. It made such a strong impression that I could actually imagine Rorschach speaking with a hammy Transylvanian accent.

The Black Freighter storyline, which was apparently supposed to echo the story of Adrian Veidt, made absolutely no sense to me and only appeared to be there to bulk out a failing plot. I felt that the story was far too stretched out so that it would make twelve chapters, corresponding with the clock ticking up to midnight.

There were a few things that disturbed me about the story too. For the sake of brevity, I’ll mention just two. The attempted rape turning into a consensual sexual relationship was tacky to say the least. At the risk of sounding sexist, I would say that particular plot reveal was typically written by a man. Also, the U-turn at the end of the story, where the all-knowing, all-powerful Doctor Manhattan is unable to find out Adrian Veidt’s plan because of the influence of tachyons, seemed far too contrived. After all, as tachyons travel beyond the speed of light, wouldn’t Doctor Manhattan already be familiar with their effects upon him?

In conclusion, while I’m aware that this story is highly regarded, I think this is very much a case of The Emperors’ New Clothes, where no one dares disagrees for the fear of appearing foolish. I believe this story is trying to be something it isn’t.

It’s a little as if Homer Simpson appeared as Othello. Instead of being dramatic, it becomes ridiculous.