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Gargoyles “Mark of the Panther/Pendragon”

Gargoyles_Pendragon_screenshot

And thus the World Tour begins to break down.

I’m not sure if “Mark of the Panther” and “Pendragon” are a sign of things to come, but after a string of solid, enjoyable episodes, we’re provided two surprisingly weak, unfocused ones. Previous episodes were willing to take their time to develop their central plots, usually through the exploration of a various historical/cultural factoid. Now the show is trying to squeeze its way back into the long term mythology, forcing things to happen way too fast without adequate explanation. This is Gargoyles when it struggles the most, when it tries to do way too much with so little, sacrificing proper setup and storytelling for spectacle.

Gargoyles 2×34 – Mark of the Panther

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The core problem with “Mark of the Panther” is that the story should be about something that directly (or indirectly) ties into the complicated parental problems between Goliath and Angela, and Elisa and her mother. The story told here has to do with a kind of rapey-and-revenge love tale. They connect at only a superficial level, and while Goliath and Angela’s relationship woes are understandable, the confusing relationship between Elisa Maza and Diane Maza is just that. The episode fails to clearly explain what exactly is the issue between the two, and Diane’s explanation – that she “disappeared” is vague at best and perplexing at worse – especially since she’s been in Africa all this time. This is the pre-cellphone days, what exactly was she expecting?

Other issues plague the episode as well. It seems to start off as an episode in which Goliath, Angela, Bronx, and Elisa have to chase down some poachers. Which is a bit low-key on the Avalon scale, but it’s something. It then devolves into a strange love tale – one of the poachers, Tea Gora, is actually seeking revenge on a Fara Maku. They fell in love, then Tea wanted to move to the city, but Fara didn’t want her to go, so he made a pact with the African god trickster Anansi, which ultimately turned them in were-panthers when they get upset. It was a act of selfishness on Fara’s part that so enraged Tea, that she hooked up with the unnamed poachers to kill every panther in Africa (I guess?) to ensure Fara was killed.

Already you can see the flaw here. We also don’t learn about Fara or Tea, unlike the characterizations we get of Hatsilane in “Heritage,” Max in “Golem,” or Rory in “The Hound of Ulster.” They just seem like two terrible people. Instead of a closer look into their relationship and the destruction of which, we’re treated with a stylized animated sequence detailing the specific Anansi tale that the episode is based on. No offense to the sequence, which is lovingly rendered with stiff movements evoking the classic forms of African paintings and sculptures, but why are we presented this, when Cu Chullian or The Golem of Prague wasn’t? It’s a somewhat more complicated piece of folklore than those stories but not so much so that the episode needed to explain it at the risk of sacrificing its characters. I suppose the writers felt it was such a fascinating tale that it was worth visually depicting. I admire the attempt but it was unnecessary and a bit too aloof from the show proper, particularly for a tale that could have been simplified to get to the meat of the characters.

The interesting stuff is the parental conflicts, but they’re never given room to breathe. Angela and Goliath fight again over the degree of affection the latter should give to the former due to their biological connection. Elisa and Diana fight over their separation and Elisa’s secrecy. The first conflict is fine, the second one a bit clunky. Didn’t Elisa introduce her mother to the transformed Derek? Just seems odd to place so much emphasis on Elisa being secretive and distant, considering all the stuff they’ve been through. There are aspects of this that make sense, but overall it doesn’t really work. Plus, none of this really connect to the Tea/Fara story, so nothing really comes together.

So they confront the actual Anansi at the end (wiki says he’s another one of Oberon’s children but the episode doesn’t say, so it’s a development that comes out of left field – I guess we’re to assume all magic people/creatures are Oberon’s progeny?) and he’s less of a trickster and more of greedy Southern plantation owner without the accent. They defeat him by cutting his magic web and stabbing him. It’s an okay sequence but nothing special. Fara and Tea getting together at the end undercuts Fara’s actions, though, but I guess being African-were-panther heroes is good enough. Goliath acknowledges Angela as his genuine daughter, and Elisa tells Diana the whole story of her gargoyles encounter. I’m pretty sure we won’t be seeing Diana again though, adding to the superficiality of their conflict. “Mark of the Panther” is too messy for its own good.

Gargoyles 2×35 – Pendragon

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“Pendragon” is slightly worse than “Mark of the Panther,” but not by much. Here, the problem is turning the tragic figure of Macbeth into a power-hungry villain, which is insanely out of character. I mean, this is the guy who is desperate to kill Demona so he can finally end his tortured immortality. Suddenly he’s casting spells and vying for Excalibur’s power? Where did THIS attitude come from?

This episode really was an excuse to get Griff to New York (but what about Leo and Una? The whole main issue was Griff being gone [Una being Griff's 'lover'], and now we’re just moving away from them again?). Macbeth and his henchmen, and the rest of the Manhattan clan are concerned about the random disturbing weather that’s occurring in New York. I think that has to do with King Arthur’s arrival in London (he left Avalon after the events that transpired there). The episode doesn’t really connect the two, but it is what it is.

Arthur wanders into a church, where the stone that hosted Excalibur is, and Griff follows him. The stone talks to Arthur about finding his sword, Griff recites a legend about it, and the stone deems the two worthy. Meanwhile, Macbeth himself recites an incantation that summons Griff and Macbeth to New York, and the Manhattan clan gets in on this. Macbeth is disappointed in the result and runs off, but is now aware of sword’s existence, so he decides that, since he was a king once, he can take the sword for himself. So he uses a plug-in crystal ball to summon will-o-the-wisp to track them.

I quickly wrote up the summary of the first half of the episode because of its ridiculousness and half-assed nature. It feels as chaotic as that probably read, and looks as messy and scattershot on the screen. I’m not sure what the hell is going on with Macbeth here. I feel like A) they’re missing a key scene (or episode) where we note Macbeth is still vying for power and/or recognition, or B) meant this to be another character entirely, but something went very wrong, and the writers had to scramble to put Macbeth in the role. It’s feels way off, in a manner that’s completely off-kilter to what we know the show is capable of.

The rest of the episode is somewhat better, but not by much. The Lady of the Lake is probably another one of Oberon’s children, who presents another challenge to Arther with some lame water monster he and the Manhattan clan dispatches easily. Then it’s off to Brooklyn, inside a hedge maze that they could’ve flew over easily to find the stone dragon in the middle, which hosts Excalibur proper. There’s a Brooklyn Botanic Garden, but there’s no mention of a hedge maze or a stone dragon centerpiece. The problem isn’t that they made these concepts up, the problem is that they feel as forced as Macbeth-as-villain. I’m not sure why they didn’t just do a Arthur/Griff fantasy detective story, keep the events in London, and bring Una and Leo into that mix. It would’ve been more focused, with the current situation among Griff/Leo/Una clarified, and without Macbeth’s sudden character change (no villain is really necessary, really – the trials and riddles were strong enough).

The obvious sword that Macbeth pulled from the stone dragon was fake. It triggered the stone dragon to come alive and attack everyone, but Arthur discovered the real Excalibur was inside the ruby rock on the stone dragon’s chest. After snagging it, the dragon is destroyed, and, in the show’s most ridiculously contrived moment, Arthur and Macbeth come to a mutual understanding and level of respect. That’s bullshit, particularly that Griff and the Manhattan clan are okay with this. But they were probably as confused as I was what with Macbeth being evil out of nowhere. I did like Arthur knighting Griff. It’s a nice moment, but the underlying problem is… who is Arthur? He was kinda useless in “Avalon,” and while he holds his own here, I’m failing to see how or why he’s such a big deal. Griff standing by his side because he’s royalty is inexplicable, considering how loyal he was to Britain and his clan back in “M.I.A.”

“Pendragon” doesn’t work except at the bare minimum. I kind of regret writing this, as the details soured me more and more as I gave this episode thought. Here’s hoping the next two episodes continue the string of good episodes instead of these lackluster ones.

“Mark of the Panther” B-/”Pendragon” C-

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CHILDHOOD REVISITED – Men in Black: The Series

Men in Black: The Series combined X-Files with Doctor Who, by way of a… 1970s crime procedural? The stranger thing is that it mostly succeeds. Until…

Cast of Men in Black: The Series.

The Men in Black live action film was released in 1997, pulling in almost $600 million at the box office. The film, like the animated series, was based on a comic written by Lowell Cunningham and illustrated bu Sandy Carruthers, published by Aircel Comics back in 1990. On the off-chance that no one knows the details by now, Men in Black focuses on a team of suited agents dedicated to controlling and regulating the flow of aliens and alien technology that makes its way to earth. The comics, in particular, were more broad, dealing with all sorts of paranormal activity. Think of the original Men in Black as Doctor Who’s Unit team as run by Constantine-clones, which also implies the original comic was not afraid to go to dark, creepier places.

Of course the movie would be family friendly, and there’s nothing really wrong with that. The animated series, which by all accounts was based on the movie, ultimately had a choice – to cull the tone of the movie, or maybe reach for something larger. Creators Duane Capizzi, Jeff Kline, and Richard Raynis were able to develop a slightly more richer, heavier adaptation. While the show has a typical lightness to it to appeal to kids, there is a surprising weight and pathos to this series early on, a dramatic tinge to the adventures of Agents J and K (and L), particularly in the first season, which I will get to. Men in Black: The Series only has a passing resemblance to the film, instead opting to weave its own intrigue tales of rogue aliens, culling from well-known series such as X-Files, Doctor Who, and 70s cop dramas like The Rockford Files, Dragnet, and Cannon. Even though it gets silly, the show maintains an underlying commitment to its plots, keeping the tension and mystery moving to the very end – at least at first.

But first, I want to talk about that intro.

What surprises me here is how both stylistic and aloof it is. It kind of cuts into the nature of the show yet doesn’t showcase the content of the show, more the feel of it. The harsh, visual cuts coupled with the surreal-but-insanely-catchy hip-hop theme is purposely unworldly, but not off-putting. It’s very 90s, but it’s a “good” 90s. There’s only vague reference to what the show is about, alluding audience to the show’s mysterious aesthetics over the specifics of the show’s premise. It’s a ballsy theme, with the “narrative” not even concluding, as the giant, grotesque alien surges above them, with K only giving a quirky look at J and his “cricket” gun. What happens? That’s irrelevant; it’s about the calm and cool (and comedy) within the extraterrestrial chaos.

Speaking of aesthetics, the show’s entire look, particularly in the first season, is hyper-stylized, reminiscent of the MTV cult cartoon Aeon Flux. Lots of sharp, angular points on characters make everyone look alien by default, which gives the show an extra layer of creepiness, but allows the alien menaces, in particularly, look truly terrifying. The style doesn’t allow for aggressive movements, which is to the show’s benefit and determinant. It’s forced to emphasize mysteries and mood with its plotting, keeping the tension and suspense moving up until the very end reveal, which is a great development, but it leaves any character-action sequences flat and stilted. There’s a lot of stationary stand-offs and quick-thinking reactions to end action sequences quicker than they begin, but this allows MIB: The Series to emphasize their clandestine organization as a secret working behind the scenes and not an army prepped for urban warfare.

MIB: The Series attempts to balance their secrecy by culling the mysterious, “trust no one” sensibility of the X-Files through the universal, dangerous/goofy conception of Doctor Who. It’s an obvious combination that works well enough by default (and the series does it better than Torchwood ever could), but it needs a template through which to filter the characters; Mulder and Scully are too dour and “romantically” linked; the Doctor is a god. The show opts to channel 60s-70s police procedural, where Agent K is the monotone, “just-the-facts” lead, with Agent J as the audience surrogate, through which the MIB organization is explored. It may surprise you to note that MIB, in fact, views itself as a policing unit, not like the FBI or the CIA or the DOD. They use typical cop terminology and enforce the “law” with stuff like stakeouts, investigations, following clues, etc.

All of this is distinctly prominent in the first season, which builds the MIB organization and its “world” beautifully and darkly. It’s obvious there is a distinct plan in place, that the writers are building towards something. The line “not everything is as it seems” gets tossed around too frequently for that to be a coincidence, used mostly as a theme about mystery and secrecy but also gearing up as some foreshadowing to some big internal revelations. Even in the pilot, “The Long Goodbye Syndrome,” there are hints at something beneath the surface. The hilariously stoic reactions MIB give to the hit place on J by an alien race is telling – Agent L (more on her in a second) tells him that it’s due to everyone knowing 100% that K will save him, but there’s an implication that the agents are easily expendable and that death happens so often that they joke about it. We’re even given a moment where J, not in on the “joke,” contemplates his life and his decision to join MIB. “Regrets?” Agent K asks him. Agent J doesn’t answer. It’s a small moment, but one that resonates throughout the show’s season of withholding data, of disinformation and privacy. (Apropos of nothing, the day is saved pretty much the exact way the Doctor saves the day in “The Wedding of River Song.”)

The first season indeed bounces back and forth between revelations and mystery, between doling out bits and pieces of characters and MIB lore while touching upon the kind of sacrifice this line of work leads to. The show’s biggest  and strongest story arc begins with “The Alpha Syndrome,” where we learn of the first agent and founder of the MIB, Alpha, and how he became corrupt with the powers and promises of alien technology – so much so that he literally changes his body, stealing body parts and grafting them onto himself to “evolve”. It’s real, grotesque stuff, and Alpha’s VO artist, David Warner, oozes the perfect amount of slim as he reads his lines. There’s history between him and Agent K, and even though K tries to make it personal, J showcases his value as an asset as he saves the day. The movie emphasized that J outside of the MIB was particularly talented enough to join the MIB ranks; here, we’re shown why.

The first season continues to play around with secrecy and history, and the darkness of involving oneself in this world. “The Neuralyzer Syndrome” uses an accident to take a sad look into K’s ill-mentioned past; that K would rather say his father died rather than face the fact he can never see him again speaks volumes (even sadder – when K’s memory is restored, Zed wipes J’s memory of the whole incident, adding a scarier layer of secrecy to the organization, a la S.H.I.E.L.D.). “The Inanimate Syndrome” plays with a potential alien romantic relationship between K and Eileen, a relationship that is doomed from the start. “The Head Trip Syndrome” is a favorite, culling the most “Doctor Who-esque” plotting, where a deranged, paranoid human blames the MIB for the existence of aliens, and begins to systematically take out the five original founders of the MIB one-by-one via time travel. (The psychological toll of such work is another theme strongly presented in the first season, like in “The Psychic Link Syndrome,” where a deranged alien attacks humans taking his pictures because he believes cameras drain him of his essence, a dark reference to Dr. Strangelove.) Then there’s “The Take No Prisoners Syndrome,” where a sinister alien named Dr. Lupo uses a clone to stage a riot at the MIB prison. Dr. Lupo, who also has history with Zed, is eventually captured, but the real story behind Lupo and Zed is kept to secrecy.

It’s clear there’s a lot going on, with a lot of potentially-rich stories building up between J, K, Zed, Alpha, and Eileen. Even the side characters like Agent L, U, the Worms, Frank, and Jeebs, while mostly there for comic relief, serve a purpose and possess their own agencies. I could easily imagine there being episodes delving into the various characters backstories, explaining more about the full history of the MIB (particularly how Alpha could be K’s mentor when K was one of the founding members of MIB), and examining how an organization like MIB can change/destroy you from the inside, in how it leaves you so removed from any form of a social existence. Then the second season starts.

The second and third seasons are active give-and-plays between creative forces and executive demands. You can tell there were issues behind the scenes, and while the writers more or less acquiesced to those demands – more use of the Worms! less complicated plotting! fewer references to killing and death! – I will give them credit for retooling it in such a way to tell a different kind of story. The X-Files/Doctor Who elements are toned down, while the Dragnet-by-way-of-Scooby-Doo is toned up (action sequences are even scored with a old school, heavy bass-and-drum cue). So while any chance of learning about the history of the MIB is gone, and the theme sacrifice and the psychology of secrecy is moot, MIB: The Series does start to have a little fun with itself. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the movies are a far cry from The Americans. But, as the case with most cartoons, there’s a line between silly and stupid, and MIB: The Series terrifyingly walks it.

The heavier use of the Worms isn’t the main problem, although they are as annoying as you’d expect. It isn’t that they’re overly goofy, it’s that they’re useless, and are just there for coffee jokes (and the same exact kinds of coffee jokes – no one seems to bother to explore the world of coffee to mine that humor). At least Jeebs and Frank are better characters as comic relief, as they represent two sides of the same stool pigeon coin, and at least offer the core MIB cast information. No, the biggest and most uncomfortable change is with J. First season J had a slight awkward streak but was attempting to maintain his social humanity within a world defined by self-privacy, and at the very least he was growing as an agent. Now he’s just an arrogant caricature of his former self. He’s still a capable agent, but the show now works to put J into goofy scenarios instead of maturing him. Again, this isn’t so bad, but as the show progresses, particularly in the dire fourth season, there’s an uncomfortable social stigma that arises from it.

I will say that a good 70% of the second and third season works really well though. The return of the bugs from the first Men in Black movie make for a dangerous set of villains, especially when they go after L for killing their brother in the film. There’s a pretty great “we work as a team” moment in “The Big Bad Bug Syndrome” among J, K, and L as they confront the various bugs who are attempting to capture them to bring them to their queen. Speaking of which, we get to see her in “The Mine, Mine, Mine Syndrome,” who is ready to give birth to a swarm of bugs to take over the world, and it’s a particularly good one to see the entire MIB team in action (an element that unfortunately gets swallowed up by K, J, and the worms). Villains continue to be a highlight, as they continue to be threatening and sinister – alien terrorists, mobsters, and all-around monsters, like the fire-spewing Drekk and the sonic-energy-powered alien Aldoosi. Alpha also makes sporadic appearances, continuing his hunt for body parts in delicious fashion, always staying one step ahead of J and K until the last minute. “The Out to Pasture Syndrome” is a great Alpha episode in its own right, and tight give-and-play between the agents and Alpha himself, with J as the pawn – who steps into his own at the end.

Yet you can see the writing on the wall. The plotting is broader – more of the various victim characters are silly, and a lot of the stories are really elaborate ways to place the characters in goofy situations. “The Little Big Man Syndrome” shrinks J down to a tiny size. “The Bad Seed Syndrome” jams J with a truth serum. “The Baby Kay Syndrome” transforms K into a fighting baby! K and J, who used to use their wits and skills in a specific, protocol-like context, become almost magically, karate-master fighters, leaping improbably into the air and performing backflips. More strained attempts at humor as well, although not every joke fails.

Despite these silly situation, the actual plots are still… well, not great, but strong enough to maintain a bit of tension and intriguing ambiguity. “The Worm-Guy Guy Syndrome” has Jay changing into a Worm via ridiculous plotting, but the villains as Judge Dredd-like galactic policemen capturing “criminal” aliens outside their jurisdiction shows kids the danger of vigilantism (so suck it, Batman). “The Baby Kay Syndrome” has the titular “baby K,” but the episode has a kidnapped daughter of a clearly dangerous extraterrestrial alien who did indeed wipe out the kidnappers’ planet. Not justifying the kidnappers’ actions by any means, but the fact that the episode even plotted that angle makes it worth mentioning. Even the most ridiculous elements – like the Fmecks, a species of six-inch sized aliens – have a well-developed undercurrent – they tried to eradicate their rivals, the Arquillians. My favorite “silly but tense” episode is “The Star System Syndrome,” where we learn the MIB agency in Los Angeles just casts aliens into horror films. It’s a dumb idea but it works because the show has fun with it, and even though the plot is predictable (is the hideous, played-out alien behind it all, or is it the cutesy, innocent alien team? Have you seen cartoons?), I can imagine younger audience being shocked by the twist.

Then the fourth season arrives.

It’s as if the full force of the executive meddling has come crashing down on the show. All of the tension, stakes, and mystery that were in even the more superficial episodes are gone. Villains are now mustache-twirling antagonists instead of the nuanced, motivated creatures of before. Large swaths of episodes are spent explaining things instead of building up the plot. There’s an interesting idea of Zed having to appease a council of aliens concerned about their image and representation (I like that Zed, like a typical police chief, is more of a diplomat than an agent), but that leads to the introduction of two new, throwaway characters, Dr. Zeeltor and Agent X (X is particularly shitty, not only because he’s a “loose cannon” bigoted alien disguised as a human, but the show has to write around L, changing her from an awesome, brilliant scientist into a babysitter. I’m not sure what’s up with the “I want to be in the field” angle with L, since she sure sees a hell of a lot of action even in her scientific position). The Worms, of course, are turned up to eleven. But worse is how utterly, utterly stupid J becomes. He starts to perform acts that endanger MIB and others, for petty reasons. Like in “The Virtual Crossfire Syndrome,” where he enters a “fake” video game (which is now real because of PLOT) just to prove a point. Note there are no real stakes here, just Jay’s ego. (I don’t want to get into how easily Alpha manipulates J in “The Opening Gambit Syndrome.” Seriously, at this point it becomes a klutzy black guy screwing things up while white people “who know better” look at him funny, and it’s not cool, especially with the kinda character he was in the first season.)

By the time the two part series finale rolls around, “The Endgame Syndrome,” it’s a mitigated disaster. It’s JUST an invasion. That’s it. No big revelations, no final twists, no major character reveals, no game-changing occurrences (MIB headquarters is eradicated, bu MIB just moves to a baseball stadium, because whatever). Nothing comes together, as various characters just chart on their own lame paths (Frank does stuff with puppies, after someone randomly drops a box of pups in front of him with no explanation). Even the mastermind Alpha has barely a line in it, let alone a clever scheme. Nothing is earned, which leaves the immensely promising MIB: The Series to end as a former shelf of itself. (I’m positive that this show would be better remembered if the dire fourth season didn’t fail so miserably.)

The first season of MIB: The Series is among the best DCAU episodes. The second and third episodes have issues but I’m willing to defend them as a mix of fun, excitement, and intrigue. The fourth season? Well, let’s just say I finally can understand why the neualyzer was invented.

 

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Tumblr Tuesday – 07/08/14

Apologies for the lack of Tumblrs! To say I’ve been busy in the last few weeks would be an understatement. Just know there is a heck of a lot of overtime coming my way!

Hey Arnold, after dark

10 Commandments of Typography

We need to accept that Dave Chappelle left his show for a simple, direct reason

The background from the underrated Darkwing Duck video game just makes this picture

We need to talk about Wonder Over Yonder (and I had some issues with some recent episodes!)

The Lion King model sheets

The Amazing World of Gumball mashups

And finally, Teen Titans, after dark

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