Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Exosquad Series in Review

Though I’m a big anime fan, there’s something about a well-produced American action cartoon that gets my motor running, and Exosquad has been one that I’ve been searching for a while. I can never remember seeing it on TV up in Canada, and it was only through Internet word-of-mouth that I figured out that this show existed. I really looked forward to the DVD, and a viewing of (most of) the rest of the series on Youtube followed, Hulu still being inaccessible to a Canadian.

Now that I’ve seen it, I realize what everyone was going on about. There are some flaws, but this is overall a really good show, even if it was one that I didn’t entirely connect with.

If you haven’t seen it, the premise goes like this: humans in the far-future engineered a race of labourers, called the Neosapiens (who look like big blue humanoid aliens, but are quite local). The Neosapiens rebelled and the rebellion was quelled, leading to a state of ostensive peace between the two races, which is still going on as the series opens.

But Phaeton, a Neosapien leader, wants his people to be completely free, and makes his move for freedom through conquest. On the opposing side, the focus is on the Abel Squadron, a group of humans and one Neosapien, lead by J.T. Marsh. Weapons take the form of the standard sci-fi equipment, but also the ubiquitous E-frames, mecha of various kinds, usually resembling walker mechs or that Power Loader from Aliens.

Visually, this series has bright neon colours, crazy hairstyles, and blatantly action-figure-like character designs. The tone of Exosquad belies this content, however, so I got to just accept the show’s appearance, but I can see how this might be difficult for some to look past.

Exosquad feels very rough and strong, almost as if the modern Battlestar Galactica or some other live-action sci-fi series were converted into a Saturday-morning cartoon but not totally defanged. And once we get into the substance of the story, we’ve got something good here.

Phaeton begins with intelligence and understandAbel motivation, which makes him more effective, as it usually does. He wants to free his people from the oppression of fake peace and make a better world for them, but is never hesitant to crush anyone and everything to get it. Any parallels to real-world situations are purely intentional.

As the series goes on, however, Phaeton degenerates physically and mentally, partially due to a disease, and his self-destructive and egotistical tendencies come to the surface, as he slips into what in lesser hands might be standard cartoon-villain fare: a single-minded personal vendetta against the main hero, and, eventually, a desire to destroy his future rather than make it. But in Exosquad this instead becomes a chilling downward spiral, though one that’s a bit spoiled by the second season’s tendency to drag.

For season 2 is much longer, and while just about any episode within it would come off as a decent piece of work to a new viewer, seeing a big chunk of competent but not plot-advancing episodes can get tedious. It’s better when an episode has something individual to recommend it, even if it doesn’t advance the plot, but sometimes it still gets tedious, you know?

As to the heroes, uncompromising harshness, some shifting allegiances, and glimpses into the world they live outside of the military (usually presented in an archetypal way) make their story fairly stirring, though some characters get more personality than others.

A lot of the main squad characters are standard military archetypes and also seen often in cartoons, too, but some become slowly more fleshed out. F’r instance, even if Bronski’s constant belching in the early episodes can get really irritating, I give the writers points for making him an actually competent character despite being “the fat guy”.

Others remain not so much. I couldn’t ever get an angle on Alec DeLeon’s personality, so he seemed to be there just to provide an extra set of guns, and his death scene near the end of the second season didn’t move me, especially with his quick resurrection to cheapen it.

Marcela was interesting because he’s a Neosapien on the human side, but there’s more than a few problems with the character. He’s the only Neosapien of this allegiance given a long-term showing (though another episode makes mention of there being several Neosapiens in the human fleet, no others are directly seen except for a female Neosapien nurse, who appears only in the first few episodes), and, perhaps because he has to carry the burden of being the only “good” Neosapien in the cast, Marcela often comes off as a rather flat character, and not necessarily because he’s stuck in any kind of “drone” mentality. It’s more like the writers are afraid to touch him.

In a lot of the early episodes, Marsala behaves like a stereotypical fish-out-of-water cartoon alien, taking everything literally and acting extremely formally no matter the situation. Thankfully this fades a bit, but Marsala seems always to be the cool and detached one, that the audience never really gets to be known as a “character” instead of an unfortunately often bland image of hope.

There are a few exceptions to Marsala’s dull characterization, but they mostly only come when he’s directly playing off other Neosapiens. In particular, his self-doubt and then faked betrayal near the end of the first season had me going for a while, even as I wanted to think the series was too smart to pull that crap, especially after the truly ugly displays of prejudice Marsala faced. It also helps that that Marsala acts when he has what looks like a genuine prompt to rebel, too.

There’s also Marsala’s various conflicts with his “brother”, Phaeton, and his eloquent speech at the end of the series, agitating for Neosapiens to be allowed the chance to procreate naturally, and thus become a truly liberated species. More stuff like this, and I would have found him to be a “full” character, but truly rich moments, where Marsala comes off as a “real” character, warts and all, are rare with him. In fact, the “bad” Neosapiens often appear to have more personality than he does.

The hints of a beauty-and-the-beast style relationship with female soldier Nara Burns are thankfully low-key, since that concept is a banal cliché in itself, and the two of them end up more or less breaking it off.

I also hoped that more would be done with the story of how Marsala got from a Neosapien rebel leader to a member of the Abel Squad. The revelation about it happened all too briefly, and demanded to be further explored before it could be taken seriously as anything but a shock to the audience.

Unfortunately the narrative went into scarcely any further details, and this is a general problem with the Neosapien backstory: it relies a lot more on telling, rather than showing, when it comes to detailing the past oppression of Neosapiens. The audience knows that things like this happen in real life, so it’s easy enough to imagine everything without receiving direct input from this specific series, but a closer look into the ill treatment of the Neosapiens would only be welcome.

In addition, while the creation of more and more bizarre and specialized types of Neosapiens (mostly based on animal forms and of much lower intelligence) seems like a ploy to sell more action figures, there’s often a sense that they are just as much displays of Phaeton’s perversity and hypocrisy, in creating “slaves” for the freedom-fighter Neosapiens themselves, and something else about the Warrior Brood is unsettling.

One thing that was a little too hard to swallow was the constant creation of exact clones which can fulfill their predecessor’s role without a hitch. It’s unnerving for a viewer to think of characters being easily and completely replaced/restored, and it shows how callous Phaeton is that he would allow it, but it seems like the storyline itself is employing the same callousness, without any self-awareness. In particular, the death of Alec DeLeon is cheapened by his being Abel to be restored in the same manner as Phaeton’s generals.

A slight undercurrent of anti-intellectualism also bothered me. The scientist Doctor Algernon being initially portrayed as a whiny pissbag was one thing I couldn’t stand, though fortunately he got better in the second season, still leaving one wondering why a series about cybernetically-modified heroes would have the main scientist character as a jerkass. In the same fashion, the Neo Megas also continue the trend of large-brained characters in fiction being smarmy jerks, though eventually they give a counterexample in Galba.

I haven’t talked much about the Pirate Clans in this series, because, well, I didn’t find them as interesting as the Neosapien and Terran powers. Their conflict with the Terran humans is well set-up, and so is the rocky beginning to their alliance in the second season. But...nothing beyond that really stands out. The Pirate Clans are a good addition to the series, but nothing to write home about.

And yes, the series does end on a cliffhanger. Or more properly, the main arc is finished and just as everyone is getting settled down, a new alien threat appears, apparently connected to some mysterious artefacts that were found in the second season.

Unfortunately, no more episodes were made. Without the appearance of the new threat, the series ending stands as well as it is, but hearing of plans for the third season makes me wish that more was never produced.

I roll my eyes whenever anyone calls a good Western action cartoon “American anime”, and Exosquad has been specifically billed as such. But speaking as someone who’s actually seen mecha anime, Exosquad feels different. It’s rougher somehow, both in terms of its ruggedness and its slightly unpolished nature. It doesn’t have that softer tone that even a lot of very intense anime ends up having. Exosquad’s more gaudy designs (which might only be termed “anime” in the dumbest definition of the word) and the fact that its mecha look nothing like most anime giant robots, also helps it to be something different.

If there’s anything at all that seems Japanese about this show, it’s that the heroic characters have cybernetic implants and no judgement is made on them. Though the idea that Japanese works are more positive re: cybernetic modification is hardly an unbreakAbel rule. (See Grace from the recent series Macross Frontier for an example of an evil cybernetic character in anime)

One reason I’m surprised that I have no memory of seeing this series is that most of the voice actors are Canadian, which should have made it a shoe-in to air up here, given Cancon regulations. Richard Newman, Gary Chalk, Michael Donovan, Michael Benyaer, Janyce Jaud, David Kaye, Scott McNeil, Paul Dobson...they’re all here. The voice acting isn’t as rich as it could be, but it’s serviceable, even when it’s very obviously just a handful of people doing most of the voices.

The animation might be problematic. Besides the actual artwork and designs, which, as mentioned above, are garish and very “toyetic”, on a TV budget such complicated character designs are difficult to animate well, so it might come off as looking very stiff most of the time.

The first season was recently released on DVD by Universal, and it was pretty bare-bones, with no extras at all. The video quality is decent, except that it seems to take a sharp dip in the episode recaps before climbing back up again in the episodes proper. According to websites, they’re using the second season opening for some of these episodes, which is really unfortunate.

Hopefully this release sells enough that the much longer second season sees a DVD set. But with the lack of promotion, some consumers have expressing difficulty finding it at retail, and the “cartoonish” surface of this show, doesn’t get my hopes up.

While this show didn’t “click” with me as intensely as I wanted, Exosquad is a good thing to have and a good thing to see, and deserves to be remembered.

Yes, for those of you keeping track, I am aware that Robotech toys were sold under the Exosquad banner, and I have been mentally comparing the Neosapiens to the Zentraedi ever since I saw the first episode. But the overlap between those of you who read my journal and have seen both Macross and Exosquad is so small that I might not bother.

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