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.