Friday, August 3, 2012

Avatar: Lily's Robotech

The first part of this adapted from a piece I wrote for Geekspeek a while back. It came out well enough that an excerpt was used for some ad copy for Robotech DVDs. (Though the ad credited Geekspeek and not me, alas.)

The 80s were the golden age of transforming robots.  I liked Transformers, but I absolutely loved Robotech. It's influenced the person I became as an adult. It wasn't the first anime show I had ever seen, as I had watched Battle of the Planets and Starblazers a few years prior, but it was my first love. It was originally three unrelated series in Japan that were combined into one when it came over here because you needed to have a certain amount of episodes in a series in order to syndicate it. Uncle Carl (Carl Macek) gets a lot of flak from certain quarters on the internet for this (and for his dubbing of Akira), but I think he's done more to popularize anime in the 80s and 90s than absolutely anyone.

Each of the component series has something to recommend it.

Macross: Roy Fokker and Claudia. They were an interracial couple, but nobody ever commented on it. Roy was a fighter pilot and Claudia a member of the bridge crew. Roy comes to Claudia's quarters after a a ferocious dogfight. They're on the couch, just talking, with Roy kind of strumming his guitar, and she says that sometimes it seems that what he does is just a game to him. "It's never been a game," he answers, and she goes off to the kitchen. When she comes back, she finds him slumped over. Cut to a doctor walking away from Roy's body on a gurney saying that he died of internal bleeding and Claudia covering her face and crying.

The main character in the Macross saga was named Rick Hunter. (No relation to Fred Dryer). As the series went on, he gained command of two younger pilots, Max and Ben. Ben was just a lovable fuckup, kind of there for comedy relief. He wasn't a good pilot and he screwed up just about everything. He gets killed in the episode after Roy dies, and the episode after that is Rick trying to write a letter to Ben's parents.

That's how it is in war. It's shitty and your friends die for no reason at all.

Armies of the Southern Cross
: I don't have a lot of commentary on Southern Cross. I think it's the strongest in the Robotech Mythology, but I doubt that has much resonance for anyone who isn't me. It was neat, and I liked what I saw, but I don't nearly as well as I know the other parts. Hovertanks are pretty cool though. I started watching near the tail end of SC. 

Kid's shows were almost entirely episodic at the time, and it blew my mind to have a complex ongoing story. When we started watching, things were gearing up for a final battle. The heroes had to prevent the Flowers of Life from blossoming, otherwise the Invid (aliens so scary that they were what the current crop of alien invaders were fleeing) would invade earth, destroy most of humanity and enslave the rest. And even as a kid, I was thinking, *yawn* "I think our heroes will pull it off."

Well, they didn't, and there was an overwhelming alien invasion that destroyed almost all life on the planet. I thought it was just about the coolest thing I'd ever seen.

: This is the story of life in the aftermath. It's a collection of cliches, but I still love it. We open with the main character, Scott Bernard, proposing to his girlfriend before he gets in his mecha as part of a battle group to retake Earth. She gives him a pendant with a recorded message accepting the proposal, but he doesn't get a chance to listen to it until after she, and the rest of the force is wiped out. Scott is the sole survivor and he assembles a ragtag group of freedom fighters to take the planet back. And it's full of melodrama (the Invid clone a infiltrator that happens to look exactly like Scott's dead girlfriend. (The novel rationalizes this by saying that her genetic material happened to be the sample that's recovered and used as a template)), but it works. Also, it didn't hurt that I hadn't quite turned eleven when the series premiered, so I hadn't been exposed to a lot of these cliches yet. 

The thing I liked about Scott was how absolutely broken he was. He was raised in outer space, he was an officer and veteran soldier and stunningly naive. He can't get over Marlene's death, and the other characters point out how creepy it is to name this amnesiac girl who looks like his dead girlfriend after his dead girlfriend. I like the climax to the series. The finale was called "Symphony of Light", and they convinced the leader of the alien race that Earth just isn't a good place for her people, so she leaves. It wasn't what I was expecting, but it was just awesome to get a resolution other that "Pound the other guy until he stops moving."

And at the risk of one of my infamous digressions, as this post is really about Avatar, which I haven't even begun discussing, the novelizations are really pretty good. (Each chapter began with a Dune-like epigraph, and any book with a throwaway line about Vonnegut's concept of the duprass as a bonded pair is really a cut above the norm.) Brian Daley (who wrote those Star Wars radio plays I liked so much) and James Luceno, two long time friends and Star Wars novelists, collaborated on them under the pen name of Jack McKinney. The world was different back then, and the novels were just about the only Robotech things out there and I'd go to my local Waldenbooks every week looking for the next. 

I wanted Lily to share the same experience I had when watching Robotech. Netflix has all 85 episodes, and I thought we could watch them when she was old enough. She is rather precocious, but she's still not quite six years old, (even if she at times acts like a surly thirteen-year-old) and I thought she was just too young for the series right now.  

So we settled on Avatar: The Last Airbender. This was in the two week period when school had ended for the summer and my contracting job had ended and my new position had not yet started. We watched a lot of cartoons together. My buddy Feighlogh had recommended Avatar highly ages ago, but I started the first episode and turned it off five minutes later, unimpressed.  

From what I remembered of those five minutes, it seemed tolerable, but uninspired. I figured I could sit through a couple episodes if Lily took a liking to it. 

So we started it...and finished the entire series inside of those two weeks. 

I started it as something to kill time until she was old enough to watch Robotech, and, (it pains the child of the man I've become to say this) it wound up being better than Robotech. 

Where to start? There are four nations in the world of Avatar, corresponding to the classical elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water, and they were in loose balance until the Fire Nation wiped out all but one of the Air Nomads in a surprise attack, because they knew the Avatar, who reincarnates an initiate of the next element  on his or her death, would be an Air Nomad next. 

People in this world have the capability to learn bending, which is manipulation of their element, through mastery of their martial arts. The bending styles are in turn based on real life martial arts, and each has a very distinctive look. Only the Avatar can master all four styles, but he vanished 100 years ago. Two siblings who live in the north south pole, Sokka and Katara, (voiced by my girlfriend Mae Whitman!) find Aang, the avatar, who had spent the last 100 years in suspended animation in an iceberg. 

She's just as adorable as Mae
And they have all sorts of awesome adventures. I'm not going to go into too many details, because they'll be meaningless if you haven't seen the series and will contain spoilers besides.

Going to have lots of SPOILERS after this point, so you've been warned. If you've seen the show, read on, if not, go watch it! The post will be here when you get back!







Greg said here that his favorite character was Uncle Iroh, not realizing that everyone's favorite character is Iroh. Well, except my favorite character is Zuko. And Lily's is Aang. And Feighlogh said his girlfriend's is Toph.

Those exceptions notwithstanding, everyone's favorite character is Iroh.

Everybody loves Iroh
I was talking about the show with Lily one day, and she said her favorite character was Aang, because he's kind and funny and fun-loving. Mine is Zuko, because of the path he had to walk. 

His father is the Firelord. When Prince Zuko spoke out of turn at war council, critisizing a commander's proposed atrocities, he was forced to fight a duel. But not with the commander. Because the commander was speaking in his official capacity, it was ruled that Zuko had insulted the Fire Nation itself, and would have to face his father in this duel. He refused to fight and was left permanently scarred by his father and then banished until such time as he could find the Avatar, a sentence that was tantamount to exile, as the Avatar had not seen for one hundred years, and no one thought he was coming back.

Did I mention that he was only thirteen at the time?

So Zuko travels the world with his uncle, with one small ship under his command, a wrongfully punished man who was twisted by the act, endlessly searching for the Avatar. He grows as a person, slouching towards redemption over the course of the first and second seasons, righting wrongs and even occasionally foregoing his pursuit in order to do the right thing. Finally, when given the chance to join the Avatar or capture him, Zuko silences his better angels and turns on the beloved uncle who had shown him nothing but kindness. Aang, the Avatar is blasted by Zuko's sister, Uncle Iroh is captured and thrown into the dungeons of the Fire Nation and Zuko is returned to the Fire Nation in glory. I'm pretty savvy about these things and I was certain that he would join the heroes. But evil is a hard habit to kick. He spends the next season regretting his choice, even though it brought him what he thought he wanted.  

I told Lily that he was my favorite because he makes mistakes and she said, "You like everyone who makes mistakes." It's true. I'm a sucker for a good tale of redemption. The scene near the end of the series almost brought tears to my eyes.

Zuko: Uncle, I know you must have mixed feelings about seeing me. But I want you to know... I am so, so sorry uncle. (starts crying) I am so sorry and ashamed of what I did! I don't know how I can ever make it up to you, but I...
(Iroh grabs Zuko by his shirt and embraces him)
Zuko: How can you forgive me so easily?! I thought you would be furious with me!
Iroh: I was never angry with you. I was sad, because I was afraid you'd lost your way.
Zuko: I did lose my way.
Iroh: But you found it again! And you did it by yourself! And I'm so happy you found your way here.

Not that the other character aren't wonderful too. Even minor characters show up more than once. And there is a consistent thread of decency throughout the show. I had feared that when the kids found a friend of their dad's that he would be a jerk or a traitor, but he was just a stand-up guy, just like their father. He went off to war, not because he liked fighting, but to protect his family.

I made a list of what I thought was the essential episodes of the series. I tried to boil it down to the fifteen episodes that best illustrate the overall narrative. It's a shame because I lose two of my favorites, "The King of Omashu" ("
Now what do you have to say for yourself, Mr. Pippenpaddle-Oppsocopolis?") and "The Ember Island Players" ("This is the kind of wacky, time-wasting nonsense I've been missing!"), but alas, I wanted to keep it to a point where we could watch it in one day, if not one sitting.

  1. The Avatar Returns: Actually the second episode, but the first is mostly covered by the opening narration and the recap.
  2. The Storm: Where we learn how Zuko wound up as he did.
  3. The Blue Spirit: One of my favorites. Aang is captured by Zuko's rival who is going to deliver him to the Firelord, so Zuko disguises himself as the Blue Spirit and rescues Aang.
  4. The Blind Bandit: Introducing Toph, sassy blind earthbending prodigy.
  5. City of Secrets and Lies: The heroes settle into Ba Sing Se, the capital of the Earth Kingdom, but find, not the allies they were expecting, but a stifling and autocratic bureaucracy, meant to evoke the worst aspects of Chinese dynasties.
  6. Lake Laogai: The series won an individual achievement Emmy for this episode, and rightly so. Jet, a sixteen year old freedom fighter, had been kidnapped and brainwashed into become a sleeper agent. When the heroes confront Long Feng (who is voiced by Clancy Brown yet!), the head of the secret police that really controls Ba Sing Se, he triggers Jet's programming and turns him against the heroes. When Jet breaks free, Long Feng murders him on screen. (It's not made absolutely explicit that he dies, but that's definitely the impression I got. It's lampshaded in a later episode when the characters are watching a fictionized play about their adventures, and when they get to this part,  Zuko asks, "Did Jet just...die?" and Sokka replies, "You know, it was really unclear.") It was pretty intense.
  7. The Crossroads of Destiny: Season 2 finale, where the heroes lose big time and Zuko drops the ball.
  8. The Day of Black Sun, Part 1: All the allies of the previous seasons gather together to assault the Fire Nation during the brief period of a solar eclipse where Fire benders will lose their powers (and kudos for acknowledging how short eclipses really are)...
  9. The Day of Black Sun, Part 2: ...and find the place abandoned, because the Fire Nation knew about the eclipse too. Many of the adults are captured performing a delaying action to allow the kids to escape.  
  10. The Boiling Rock, Parts 1 & 2: Kick ass jailbreak episode where they rescue Sokka and Katara's dad. 
  11. Sozin's Comet, Parts 1-4: So awesome in so many ways. Aang spends an episode soul-searching for a way to defeat the Firelord without killing him. Zuko is reunited with his uncle. Even more guest stars return and everyone gets a moment to shine.
Not just a great cartoon, it's a great show, period.


  1. Sokka and Katara are from the South pole, dood.

    1. Bah! For a university professor, you spend an awful lot of time watching children's cartoons!

  2. Heh heh. Really good post. I liked your choices for favorite episodes. Tales from Ba Sing Se would make my list, because of the scene were Iroh sings "soldier boy" and how the music repeats throughout Iroh's journey around the city. I felt like this one of the most moving scenes in the series.

    1. I liked that one a lot too. I enjoyed Sokka's haiku battle too. It would probably be on a list of my fifteen "best" episodes, but the purpose of the list was to distill the complex narrative into something that could be watched over a day (or at least a weekend), and as good as the episode is, I think it relies a little too much on knowledge of stuff that's been established elsewhere to be accessible to a new viewer.

  3. Oh, and have you caught The Legend of Korra?

    1. Yeah. We watched the whole thing. It's really pretty great. I like the feel of Republic City. Kind of 1920's Shanghai. That's not something I've ever seen done elsewhere.

      I caught an episode where the writers said they didn't want to have any filler episodes; they just wanted a single focused narrative. I'm of two minds on that. I like the wacky, time-wasting nonsense, and it would be impossible to condense Korra much further than it already is. On the other, it's even more tightly plotted than Avatar, and it feels really epic in its scope. Also, J.K. Simmons does voicework for it and he rocks.

      Looking forward to the followup series.

  4. Fair point on not including Tales from Ba Sing Se. Oddly enough, I had been thinking about the Haiku battle the other day, but I couldn't remember what series I had seen it on.

    I watched the entire series 1 run of The Legend of Korra today. The episodes are so short when you cut out commercials that it only took me perhaps 3 1/2 hours to get through them. I gotta agree with you on just about all of the points you made. I had read the Republic City would be a bit steam punky, and I think it worked better that I had imagined it was going to. I also liked the 1920s New Orleans style music sprinkled into a couple of episodes.

    I do think the writers dragged out the pro bending stuff a bit, but they manage to tie it to the the larger story effectively, so this didn't really bother me.

    I also thought they packed a bit too much into the last 3 or 4 minutes of the finale, but then again I'm not sure that extending that would have been any more effective.

    I have a bit of a hard time reconciling David Faustino as the voice of Mako with the fact that he played Bud Bundy, but he does a capable job.

    I'm also looking forward to series 2.

  5. Love Zuko! Love Iroh too! Love that scene of forgiveness!!! I'm dying rite now...