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.