Friday, September 30, 2011

Clone Wars: Shadow Warrior

Epigraph: “Who a person truly is cannot be seen with the eyes.” As symbolic as it sounds, this is taken pretty much literally. 
Warning: What an episode truly is cannot be seen without spoilers. 
The episode begins with Anakin and Padme going to Naboo to stop a Gungan attack on  the human population of the dry parts of the planet. It’s a pretty couple of scenes; the purple cast in the sky, the Gungan technology, Jar Jar’s clothing, and even the humans’ outfits added to a sense of completeness for Naboo that was perhaps nurtured also by the palette’s similarities to The Phantom Menace. I got the feeling that going to Naboo was, for Anakin, like going home. The ship design seen briefly was cool too; a large transport built along the same aesthetic as the yellow Naboo snubfigters, it features a coning tower and looks like an aerial submarine. 
 Once underwater, the humans learn that the Gungan leader Boss Lyonie (same one we’ve seen previously) wants to start the attack. Clued in by Lyonie’s terrible voice acting, Anakin destroys the amulet affecting Lyonie’s “headthoughts”. It turns out that Lyonie’s aide, Rish Loo, is working with Count Dooku. The workings of the amulet is never quite explained, which I liked: it’s reminiscent of the Force in the original trilogy, back when we didn’t know much about what is was or how it worked. With the inclusion of the Nightsisters in last season of Clone Wars, I’m willing to pass on the amulet as something similar to their powers. The smoking glow-globes in Loo’s office were a cool touch too.

When he sees that the humans are involved for the long run, Loo murders Lyonie and flees. With some protestations ("We don't all look alike,") Jar Jar is talked into masquerading as  the late Boss.
This episode moved quickly from one encounter to another, splitting into Anakin-Loo-Dooku and Padme-Jar Jar- Grievous subplots. It was fast-paced in a good way, if not especially tightly written. The actual shadow warrior plot device -- Jar Jar's disguise -- is pretty much forgotten halfway through.
Yes, Grievous shows up-- and, unannounced, becomes an interesting focal point for the episode. It was as surprising to me as to Jar Jar that it was the cyborg general, not Count Dooku, commanding the droid army reserves. (That means that Sidious’s entire staff-- Dooku, and Grievous, not counting the defected Ventress-- were on Naboo at this point. Didn’t the Darth ever learn not to put all his Separatists in one basket?) 
Now maybe I was just so surprised because I don’t pay enough attention to promotional material-- Grievous was in the trailers. But he is used well here, making me actually care what happens to the Gungans if only because it’s connected to what happens to him. 
Jar Jar’s body-language as he completely fails to not appear afraid of Grievous is legitimately funny. 
As much as I wanted to see Grievous vs hundreds of ninja Gungans, the fight itself wasn’t what ended up making me surprised at this episode. (By the way, how did the Gungans disable the droids, besides knowing that it worked last time in TPM?) Grievous was incredibly outnumbered, but he’s Grievous and they’re Gungans, right? It’s going to be one of those “Mace takes out forty million battle droids” things, right? Except that, first of all, the Gungans attack one or two at a time. Disappointing, when I expected a lot from the choreography. The captain’s death was gritty but still too earnest to break away from the  harmless feel of the recent Clone Wars battles.  Despite the large-scale fights, I think that’s what my big problem has been with TCW lately: the seeming lack of consequences.   No one can die, no one can remember when they’ve turned to the dark side. 
And then Grievous gets a spear through his chest that scrapes sparks off his neck. He’s quartered by Gungans, and suddenly there’s consequences, because now the allies of the Republic have Grievous captive. They can turn the tide of the war. He’s become a vulnerable brain in a clawed shell--heck, the Gungans can dissect him. 
But of course they don’t. There’s this one interesting moment of terror being traded in for the bad guy being dragged away on pikes, and then Grievous just becomes one point in the Anakin/Padme drama that finishes up the episode. 
The fight between Anakin and Dooku was a bit more intense than the beginning of the Grievous fight, with Anakin’s expressions and the silence but for Dooku’s breathing conveying more than witty dialogue ever could. It takes place inside a sculpted fort that reminds me of the giant head sculptures in both The Phantom Menace and the Lego prequels. Anakin is knocked cold and Dooku insists the Gungans trade him for Grievous, knowing Padme will give in. She does, but only after Jar Jar and Lyonie convince her. I’d like to see a story where she didn’t listen to them -- maybe too focused on the idea that she can’t let love get in the way of tactical advantage. But in the end it doesn’t seem to be her decision. The Gungans enact the trade, agree not to go to war, and everything ends up pretty much the way it was before. The consequences are, again, set aside.
Much has been made about the title of the episode being a reference to the film “Shadow Warriors”, a Lucas favorite. While I’ve only read a synopsis of the movie myself, the only homages I saw were the character in disguise and the crucifixion motif.
All in all, Grievous shone, the fights were entertaining, and the episode brought up some interesting questions about the Anakin/Padme dynamic. It was certainly better than the season opener. 
Some side notes: I do admit some bias here...Tarpals was one of the only cool Gungans, sortof a glimpse at what they could have been, and his death makes some part of my brain go “nuuuu”.
In the beginning of the episode, does Jar Jar notice pressure hurting his ears? Was this a last-minute addition after fans complained about it in the Mon Cal arc?
Swimming kaadu! That’s cool. It makes sense that they would do that.
I like Rish Loo’s wasp-shaped, painted speeder bike.
Next week is droids go to Lilluput, but Gungans plus Kurosawa wasn’t as bad as I thought.  At least it had potential.

It looks like we won't have a new Thundercats episode until the last week of October. Pity.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Clone Wars: Prisoners

My Clone Wars session this week comes a mere 24 hours before the next episode, and I’ve discovered to my joy that the revamped is continuing their tradition of uploading full episodes after their inaugural weekends. So the viewing of “Prisoners” is relatively crisp. The season premiere was a disappointing grasp at both spectacle and the introduction of new and returning characters, and ended on a dark note with the heroes separated and, in the case of Kit Fisto, literally imprisoned. Can “Prisoners” decide what it is in time to be a satisfying finale? 
This episode is quieter than its precursors after the initial interrogation droid-style offscreen torture scene, with some nice shots of Ahsoka and the prince, Lee-Char, swimming through the murk. The dialogue is still almost painfully lackluster. I’d compare it to high school fan fiction were it not the fact that it has so much plot...and that I’ve read some pretty impressive high school fan fiction. The most I can say for it is that the plot moves fast and...exists. The sound of bubbles and swishing fins creates a well-realized world that pops like a bubble when anyone, but especially Lee-Char, talks. 
Ashley Eckstein enunciates Count Dooku the same way every time, or so it seems, absolutely infusing it with hate as if his title is one of disrespect rather than rank. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing; it matches the Ahsoka lip-curl and makes sense for the character. It’s just the same thing every time, as if she’s grown so familiar with the hate that she’s put a rhythm to it. 
This episode involves Anakin being forced to watch while his wife slowly drowns...while in a room with a Jedi Master who cannot be permitted to know that they’re married. I want to see this from the Force-sensitive perspective so badly that the lack of dialogue about it almost doesn’t matter. What must that feel like? What must Anakin have to do to bury those emotions? Or is the Chosen One as good at hiding the Force as he is at using it? 
(This is as close as I’m getting to writing fanfic for this episode.) 
The other thing that bothered me about this was that Kit Fisto was in it for one reason: because he’s the aquatic Jedi. However, he did little to use that to his advantage, not even anyone mentioning that it’s useful that he can breathe. This isn’t the sardonically humorous Kit seen in Cestus Deception, except in one moment: the trademark grin. Otherwise, it might as well have been Aayla, Obi-Wan, or one of nearly any of the Jedi Masters down there with the rest. 
The internet commentators noticed a Jaws homage in the depth of Tamsen, but with the single exception of the shark spiralling down into messy water, I don’t see it. The shark in Jaws was killed on the surface, with a whole lot more ordinance. (Yes, the knife-grenades Tamsen uses were a cool concept pulled out way too late in the episode.) Now we’ve had a Godzilla episode, a Jaws episode, and next week looks like it’s going to be Kurosawa with Gungans. My commentary on the Thundercats episode “Drifter” should show that I like my references subtle, maybe even coy. Something like Tamsen’s death is not a love letter to a previous franchise if it’s couched inside an unexciting, humorless, veritably waterlogged TCW episode. It’s a dividing line pointing out just how far Filoni’s final product is from the other, better material he obviously knows is out there. When I start to think that the writer exists in some sort of alternate universe bubble where no show has ever been better than Clone Wars, I think we know there’s a problem. 
In my post about the season premiere, I wanted three things out of these episodes, things that, unlikely TCW actually having good writing, seemed plausible:
1. Underwater sequences show off lighting and effects. 
2. Fight scenes rival Kit Fisto’s fights in Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars. And...
3. Admiral Ackbar will appear. 
My opinions from the last post haven’t changed: points one and tree were accomplished.
And that’s all there is to say about that.
At least Ahsoka didn’t save the day this time, but instead she, along with most of the adult characters, just sortof disappeared from the climactic battle. The whirlpool scene in “Gungan Attack” was, for all intents and purposes, the more epic of the three large-scale fight scenes. 
I leave you with an addendum to my statements about this week’s “Shadow Warrior”: a viewing of the preview clip actually presents some material that sheds light on episode 1 and the sort of connectedness to the movies I’ve been waiting for. Dooku’s “It started here,” makes a nice bridge between the Naboo in the episode and the Naboo in TPM, although the “years ago” that follows it is completely unnecessary. Dooku bringing in MagnaGuards like Grievous has is an unexpected mix of characters, and Anakin’s face as he grimaces in pain from their electrified weapons reminds me of Luke in Return of the Jedi. Maybe I was wrong to speak so harshly about “Shadow Warrior”, but the fact remains that it’s Kurosawa with Gungans. Time will tell.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Clone Wars: Water War/Gungan Attack

It's new season time for Clone Wars, a chance for things to get bigger and better and more exciting. It's a chance for Megan to get even more irate about Ahsoka and the writing. However, I figure I have to be fair, in the spirit of the thing. So this blog is going to focus on judging the season premiere based on what the trailers have shown us the show's strengths will be, which is:

1. Underwater sequences show off lighting and effects. 
2. Fight scenes rival Kit Fisto’s fights in Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars. And...
3. Admiral Ackbar will appear.
The trailer did not focus on dialogue or story or characterization, which, for example, the trailers for "The Mortis Trilogy" did. My goal is to see whether TCW lives up to the other three things, since they are the things it has specifically promised us in the trailer. I figure that’s fair. And of course I’ll observe all the rest of the fun along the way. 
The epigraph: “When destiny calls, the chosen have no choice.” Applying this to Anakin brings one to convoluted arguments as to what he was actually Chosen for. Applying it to Luke--well, he did hesitate before going to face Vader, and went anyway. Was that his choice? She may not be a Skywalker, but I’m betting it gets applied to Ahsoka here. 
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to watch this one live on the big screen like I’d hoped too, but I did enjoy the lush ocean views. The spindly bridges and tentacled Seperatist craft are pretty cool. The occasional establishing shot reminds me of the first views of Otah Gungah. 
The opening scene is a court in which the attendees are as ready to shout “Down with the Republic!” as they are to shout “Down with the Quarren!” or Mon Cals, as species determines. The whole episode is based on more Republic interference with planetary problems; the sharklike Seperatist ambassador is there to even the scales. (...Let’s try to keep that the only pun in an episode that started with “plunging the water planet Mon Calamari into disaster”.) Said shark ambassador is...well, a shark, and this could be the straw on the anthropomorphized camel’s back based on some of the alien designs we’ve had over the years. But if Ackbar is in the episode than OT homage has to count for something, and Ackbar is basically a large, suited salmon. Shark Ambassador is set apart from the others by a horizontal orientation and flippered legs that tend to be held right next to one another,  to look like one fish fin. 
I would feel like there’s political commentary in the way the Republic swoops in, bashes the Seperatists, and sends in troops to solve someone else’s civil war if it weren’t all portrayed so earnestly. Ackbar nearly comes to blows with Shark Man in the court, and there don’t seem to be any reporters there to send that back to Seperatist worlds labeled “proof that the Republic is unstable and morally corrupt”.  Despite there being “heroes on both sides”, the Republic heroes seem to see things as pretty black-and-white. But this is me trying to apply TCW to real-world political events, and the parallel is very imperfect). The prequels were never about saying that the Seperatists’ rage against the tax machine was justified, so TCW cannot be either. And remember, we’re on a show where the heroes are, ultimately, going to be on the wrong side... (maybe that’s the unaviodable destiny after all). 
I like the voice of the Mon Cal senator, and the no-nonsense way in which she says “that boy is the supreme commander of our military”.  The deserves some gravitas, or at least someone noticing that it’s unusual. On the other hand, Ackbar’s unswerving loyalty to tradition while he at the same time tries to be a mentor for the prince is sortof silly. 
This episode brings us to the biggest stash of ammo my anti-Clone Wars brigade may have ever found: “I do not believe the Quarren will attack.” Scene break. “Attack!” Scene break.“It’s an attack!” Really?! And this is played very seriously, with far too many drum-filled pauses and shots of scary robots to be supposed to be as funny as it unavoidably is. That’s it. Who wrote this? I’m throwing something at you. It’s going to be a copy of “Firefly”. You can watch it while you nurse your aching head.  (And yes, I caught the “it’s a trap” reference, thank you.) 
Okay, rest in peace, dialogue. Let’s go back to talking about the thing the trailer promised: fights and animation. Shark Man biting into his enemies was...despite the seemingly obvious...unexpected and frightening. The pipe break had some great detail in the bubbles and glass.
Previously mentioned aching writer does give us “They’re cheering for them,” “Then make it for you,” which is worth something. 
I can’t believe PMAW didn’t take ‘boy from Tatooine dying underwater’  as a chance for some “I hate sand”-type introspection. Instead we get Times Ashoka Saves Anakin’s Chosen Life: +1 . 
 I can tell that somebody put work into designing the Habitrail Mon Cal cities and the impressive, giant coral reefs.  The animation is commendable and the music was decent. The Chinese lantern-esque,  electric-type, half-robot half-jellyfish probably looked great on a big screen. The lighting in the cave is impressive, bringing out the lights in the mammals’ helmets and the Mon Cal’s eyes. But the dialogue is...pretty bad even for Clone Wars, and the action tended to be just...boring. Three-quarters of the way through “Water War” I’m beginning to wonder whether it’s worth sticking around for clones, the inevitable Kit Fisto grin, and more sickeningly heroic Ahsoka. 
I do love how not thrilled Obi-Wan sounds when Yoda suggests Gungans. 
There we go, a “boy from the desert planet” reference. Nice. 
And Kit’s mini-mission made this fangirl smile. A’right. 
The fighting in the second episode gets faster and more entertaining, and the brightness above the water was a shock. The four-way fight at the end was kinda cool, with Kit beating the heck out of Shark Man. I was amused for a moment by the idea of Ashoka being Genre Savvy enough to know that any mentor figure who says “I’ll hold them off” is doomed to die, although in this case, Kit’s got a Plot Shield

So, did the episodes live up to the trailers? We'll really have to wait until next week, but for now 

1.The animation was good, but couldn't drag the poor writing and slow plotting out of the depths...
2. the fight scenes, with few exceptions, lacked the panache of Tartakovsky's version, and...
3. Admiral Ackbar, well, he appeared. 

As the Mon Cal war was advertised as a trilogy, the cliffhanger isn’t all that cliffy. Doesn’t nearly everyone in this scene have a plot shield? It’s a plot bubble shield. Both NerdApproved and Fangirlblog recently put out lists of why people should watch Clone Wars, as if they know we need convincing, but I have to say that Water War/Gungan Attack was a bit...wait for it...washed up. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Halo: Cryptum

Halo: Cryptum is a vastly more intelligent novel than the others it shares its franchise with. The writing style reminded me of Roger Zelazny at times, in that it described very visible, very exotic scenes while still keeping things very vague. This is understandable coming from Greg Bear, a Nebula-winning writer. The reference in the acknowledgements to his son being a Halo fan might explain why he agreed to write this. The story starts out as something of a “Tom Sawyer in space” adventure, with a very young adult feel that surprised me after the bloodiness of the other Halo novels. The feeling persists as the novel goes on, but the transformation of the main character brings it into a different sort of realm from most science fiction novels with human protagonists. 

(There will be spoilers in this review, since a lot of the concepts are by nature spoiler-y, but would be hard not to discuss.) Of course a lot of the appeal of Cryptum is finding out how its elements fit into the canon of a game that they don’t really feel like at all. In Halo, Forerunners are the deities of the antagonistic Covenant. They are a plot device: the ancient, all-knowing species who create the titular Halos. In Cryptum, we never quite see what the Forerunners look like. With description such as “slitted eyes” and “massive hands” I pictured them as something along the lines of the Elites. As others have pointed out, Greg Bear might have been leaving the physical description open in case 343 wanted to design them in future games. It also makes sense for the alien point of view character to ignore describing things that would be normal to him but are not to a 21st century human reader. Because of that viewpoint, the reader is led to assume things--things such as the fact that the first planet they’re on is actually Earth, or that one of the “human” characters is actually something resembling a hobbit. But the subtlety is appreciated. Bear knows how to write the science fiction as a sort of mystery--he releases an IV drip of clues that let the reader figure things out at a the satisfying pace he wants them to.
The main character is, at first, almost entirely a vessel for the reader, or as much as an alien can be. It seems almost too obvious that a first-person-shooter game should have a first-person protagonist in its tie-in novels, although it didn’t bother me overmuch that there wasn’t a single viewpoint character in other Halo fiction. His role as a vessel could explain Born’s unusual introduction. (I had to look up his name, since it is very rarely used in the novel. It is a shortening of the poetic names Forerunners apparently bestow on themselves and their servants.) The first few chapters are almost entirely in medias res, with flashbacks showing how Born got to the adventure he’s in. Because of that, the reader doesn’t get much of a sense from him of what a typical Forerunner child is like, or whether indeed he is one. He is, like Tom Sawyer, child adventurer incarnate. While I wanted a vision of a banal “day in the life of a Forerunner” to set the whole thing up and explore them as a species, Born is immediately tossed into a world that is almost as alien to him as it is to the reader.  
By the end of the book he is no longer himself. The Forerunners seem used to transformations, and Born becoming a voice for the Didact is unusual to him, but not so much that he ever protests it or thinks it more unusual than any of the other optional ways of growing up that are presented to his species. The changes he goes through leave him someone completely different at the end of the book, having grown up through a process of replacement. A human character could not quite have taken the same leaps, and this definitely sets Cryptum apart.
It is an oddly austere universe that Born adventures through. The huge swaths of time are so casually mentioned that they make any single human endeavor, nevertheless campaigns like those of the ODSTs, seem tiny and insignificant. All the human accomplishments that gave Halo its unique and repeating components have analogs here. That’s understandable: of course the authors know that Halo readers like powered armor, and that they like A.I.. However, it is a bit daunting to learn that when Doctor Halsey created both, she was in fact just re-doing work that had been done by the Forerunners (or Precursors) thousands or millions of years ago. Referring to the Forerunner’s A.I. as “ancilla” is a great touch, though; I absolutely love it. We almost get a steampunk version of Halo in the first chapter, with a clockwork boat singing to underwater monsters, and Born’s ancilla (a transparent blue female, of course) talking to her Forerunner charge via his armor. However, it again makes me think something like “How important could the twenty-two days that Noble Team had together be if all of this other stuff was going on for millennia?” If all this happened and none of the humans in the Halo games have any idea, why do they matter?  Conversely, why do the Precursors and the Forerunners matter if they were all forgotten? Is ignorance an inevitable fact when one is faced with the scale of the universe? I simply do not like, on a personal level, the idea that as a species we might have lost millennia of history, and spent all this time on paleontology and cosmology, completely missing the fact that our species was once engaged in high-tech interstellar war before we were forcibly de-evolved by the winners of that war. That’s just not progress right there. 
But the musings the book sent me on aren’t really the point. Establishing a pre-historical science-fiction world was, presumably, the mission Greg Bear was given. And he did accept it and perform admirably. The writing, though almost entirely descriptive, flows infinitely better than other Halo novels. (Which, yes, is sortof like saying that someone scored a D instead of an F: it’s not a huge achievement. I would, though, give Bear a B.) He makes up a lot of technology, but instead of being overwhelming it condenses into an overall feel of the universe inside the book. Its faults probably lie with the people who commissioned it and plotted it out.  
Endless repetitions on the “ancient lost species” theme is one of the things that Halo is criticized for. It is very stock science fiction: to compare a game that came out within years of Halo: Reach, Mass Effect 2 also features an ancient lost civilization that came up with massively powerful weapons. Star Wars uses this trope (best evidenced by the tombs of the Sith in Knights of the Old Republic).
And in Cryptum, we find not one lost civilization, but two. The Forerunners have their own legends from the past, the Precursors. I couldn’t help but find this a little ridiculous. Halo, for me, has always been about looking into the future. Greg Bear instead seems to want to push the universe in the opposite direction, into an endless succession of grand lost pasts. To an extent, it does lend the universe gravitas. But it also gets a bit extreme.
However, you might say, connecting the Forerunner time period to the Halo stories we know is one of the implied purposes of a tie-in novel. A reader could go through huge swaths of Cryptum without reference to anything that really smacks of Halo. The ways in which it does can be surprising. I raised an eyebrow when the main Forerunner characters casually mentioned that humans had once not only been a wide-spread spacefaring race, but had been comfortably allied with the San’Shyuum. In Halo, these aliens are the Prophets, enemies of both the humans and the Sangheili, and fond of complicated headwear. In Cryptum, they are described as a race which is well-suited to interacting with humans, and “obsessed with the idea of youth” to the point of being hedonistic. 
However, Cryptum’s lack of Spartans, Halsey’s daughter AI, or indeed, almost entirely of gunfights didn’t mean that it wasn’t enjoyable. It was a different type of tie-in novel, obviously penned by someone who knows how to make worlds. The Halo references are there-- the ringworlds themselves occasionally float through and are as massively destructive as they are whispered to be in the games. I could roundly praise Bear for using one of my favorite techniques that fan fiction writers use: making it sound like original fiction at first, just to make the world that much more solid.  I’m not sure the main character was enough of a character at all for me to be waiting with baited breath for the next book, but Cryptum was something I would definitely recommend to a Halo fan. After The Mona Lisa, it’s the best out of the bunch. 
I’d just want to make sure that the person I was recommending it to was a fan of sci-fi, adventure, and alien worlds in general first. 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Thundercats: The Duelist and the Drifter

It's rare that I unequivocally praise things, but I loved this episode. The character designs were great. The strange, willowy Drifter moved more like a leaf than a person, not quite like anything I've seen before. The Duelist looked like a spiky king from a deck of cards, or maybe a Yu-Gi-Oh-inspired wizard. In this episode we first see a town completely devoid of cats-- Lion-O says he's only heard of such things in stories. They don't use the Thunderean money, but more importantly for me, that means we get to see all sorts of different animals-- wolves, pigs, rabbits, parrots, as well as what might be goblins and what might be elves. The sword contest shows off character designs that pay homage to Asian shows, styles, and traditions without devolving into stereotype or ripoff. There was a great Zen feeling to the whole episode, some of it coming from the Drifter's sage advice and his soothing, mellow voice.

The twist is a bit obvious but at least Lion-O gets it fast too. What I didn't see coming was Lion-O's apparent belief that even if he loses the Sword of Omens, he can always make another one. I can't help but comparing to "Lightsaber Lost", one of my favourite episodes of Clone Wars and one in which Our Young Hero also gets a Mellow, Unconventional Mentor. Lightsabers are about as mystic and personal as the family heirloom Sword of Omens. However, the actual method of loss is much more personal and complex in "Duelist", and Lion-O's first thought is to use his rookie blacksmithing skills to build a new weapon, even if his has had Important Mystical Item written all over it in ancient Thunderian since the 1980s. Ahsoka's sleuthing after the lightsaber she lost to a thief isn't a huge strike against Clone Wars, but it is a notably obvious point of divergence.

After Lion-O's out of body experience in "Legacy" I did expect a whole lot more reference to how strange it must have been for him, but it seems like that's going to be left to the fanficcers. This episode offers a lot to write about: I'm tempted to tell about the various heroes the Drifter has tried to counsel, or the story behind the goblin with the ruler tattooed on his arm, myself.

Stray notes:

The Usagi Yojimbo influence is almost too obvious.

Some Ang Lee there; raindrops get cut in half. It's a beautiful scene too, with the golden sword.

Yep, new favorite episode.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Thundercats: Journey to the Tower of Omens/Legacy

I got to watch Thundercats on TV tonight. This is an unusual occurrence, and even the smaller, fuzzy-screened TV that I was relegated to while my brother watched Shaun of the Dead on big screen was a nice change from my laptop. I turned the TV on a bit early because I was pretty sure I had forgotten which channel Cartoon Network was and wanted to check. I happened to come across the last half hour of a TV movie that had an animation style similar to Clone Wars, so I waited to see how that was.

What pulled me in was the gigantic clawed feet stomping across a high school gym floor. This movie had monsters attacking a high school and girls with rocket launchers, and the lines "I ain't no farther figure" and "That guy with the jetpack looked like my gym teacher." It passed the Bechdel Test, at least for a moment, and had some glorious scenes of great dragonlike things having visceral animal fights. It had characters screaming and yelling like they didn't know what they were doing, and then some dizzying flying effects as they figures out that they did. I was immensely amused. Turns out it's called "Firebreather", and is a made-for-TV movie, not a weekly show at all. Alas. Further Googling reveals a pretty stock high school angst plot, but what I saw was pretty awesome.  I recommend it.

So, Thundercats. I didn't talk about last week's because I sortof needed time to decide what I thought of it; this week's brought a similar reaction. "Journey to the Tower of Omens" had a great Temple of Doom homage. I love Temples of Doom, with pitfalls and ledges and spinning saws and all. This temple obstacle course was used to good effect, showing off each character's strengths. Panthro is by far my favourite. The end fight was very cool: I don't remember if Mumm-Ra had wings in the original show, but he uses them to great effect here. However, Cheetara still bothers me what with not...doing much.

This week's episode was called "Legacy", and the previews showed a lot of sci-fi elements that reminded me of Knights of the Old Republic. There was a big Star Wars feel this episode: in the corridors, in the spaceships coming into the battle station, even in Mumm-Ra's voice. (Lion-O even reminded me of the galaxy a long, long time ago with his comment "Who knew the past looked so much like the future.")  The premise for the episode is basically Lion-O uses an Animus. He astral projects or something into the body of his ancestor, "Leo", who once served Mumm-Ra alongside a Tigra relative and an unnamed female who may have been a panther. Leo and Mumm-Ra had a dynamic that reminded me a lot of Carth Onasi and Admiral Karath, or even Darth Vader and Palpatine.

On a whole, this episode was...unusual. Because of the setting in Third Earth's technology-rich past, it was aesthetically very different both from the previous episodes and what I remember of the original. The show seems to be trying to incorporate both space opera and high fantasy, in fact pretty great. I'm curious as to see where it goes, even if it's jarring to begin with. This episode also just brimmed with cliches, and I found myself mentally using the "but it's just a cartoon" excuse at certain lines.  The beginning and end had moments of cleverness. I just wish there had been more of them. There's great potential here-- Lion-O dealing with his ancestors and speciesmates serving the Big Bad; explanations for the dynamic between Leo and the Tigra analog; what it was like for Lion-O to wield the powered-up crystals his ancestor wrested from Mumm-Ra and then go back to having only one crystal and the body of a younger (cat-)man. I hope some of that will be discussed in the next episode when we get to see the team's reaction to Lion-O waking up from his trance. The fight between Lion-O and Mumm-Ra in their powered-up forms felt like a boss fight, and I suppose it was for Leo. It was a bit strange placed in the middle of the season, but was in fact intended to be a flashback to a "more civilized age", so I suppose that's what it was for.

 I did feel that Lion-O's  inhabiting the body of the older, larger Leo was a nice callback to the the first episode of the original show, in which the teenage Thundercats put in stasis woke up to grown bodies. Characters having to grow up fast (sometimes literally, in the case of the Petalars), and the mutability of age seems to be a theme in Thundercats. It's a fitting one too, if, like me, the viewer also has to think about how many other people of her age are still watching cartoons.

"Legacy" is both a look into the past and a doorway to the future. It sets up the arc that, I presume, the rest of the season will follow. The initial MacGuffin, the Book of Omens, has been found in episode six but also introduces two more. The team is going after magic crystals now, with no idea where to find them.  I'm going along for the ride.

The image that sticks with me most from tonight's cartoons, though, is the protagonist of "Firebreather" in a metallic blue-lit room, flicking a clump of burning ash off his fingers.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Mass Effect 3's Poster Shepard

BioWare has taken their decision-making public for the next Mass Effect 3 trailer. Fans had been clamoring, even petitioning for a female Shepard to appear in official material of some form, and so BioWare gave us that. The appearance of the character would be determined by what we at first thought would be a single poll on facebook, which actually turned out to be two: a first round and a second, “finalist” round, which actually featured some designs not appearing in the first round. The winner was the Shepard with shaggy red hair, and this has been causing a slew of opinions around the internet. Not like certain parts of the internet have the monopoly on opinions or anything, but centering the poll around facebook has made those opinions very visible to anyone who chooses to vote.

This red-haired, green-eyed Shepard has been confirmed to appear in the trailer. She has brought out a slew of people who seem determined to say one of two things: either that because she’s red-headed she’s a "ginger ", or that because she’s red-headed she’s sexy. 
I have tried to say out of the trailer!Shepard discussion as much as possible. I have tried to keep one big thing in mind: Just because this character model is in the trailer does not mean that she is the one we have to play in the game. I’ve never played Vanderloo Shep. Nor have I been turned away by his appearance in the trailers. The Shepard in the trailers is not canon, she is not “real”, she is not taking anything away from the game you want to play. Her appearance in the trailer serves as a placeholder for whatever customized Shepard character you want to imagine there, just like Vanderloo Shep did. 
It is absolutely silly and incorrect to start lobbing stereotypes at a video game character because of their hair color. 
I also, though, have to get some things out of the way.
I voted for the blonde in both cases. Why? Because she looks like my Shepard. Because she looks like me.
A quiet, but very energetic part of me wants to criticize male gamers for voting for  the stereotypical “hot, fiery” redhead. But would I have voted for the one I thought was most attractive if it had been a poll to choose an alternate male Shepard? Yes. So that’s an incorrect argument too.
Do I think that there are far too many red-headed females cast as the butt-kicking character? Yes. Do I think that the Mass Effect universe is strangely bereft of blondes? Yes.
So my Shepard is going to be a blonde, just like she has been for the past two years or so.
And my male Shepard is going to be as close as my impatient fiddling with the customization menu could get to a man I’m attracted to.
So the point I’m trying to get to is...let’s not judge trailer!fShep because of her hair color, or at least not in frakking public. I’m all for getting into the minutia of what a character’s appearance says about them, and I’m also all for complaining about red-headed tough girls. However, this really isn’t the place. All the new femShep design says is that the majority of the fans voted for her. If you, like me, aren’t one of the ones that did vote for her...well, instead, play Mass Effect the way you want to play it, with your own characters.