Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Review: Exo-Squad Season 1 Episode 3--Hidden Terrors

"He's one of us, but Marsala's a Neo Sapien. He doesn't feel what we do."

Hidden Terrors is the third episode of Exo-Squad, and once again the title has a double meaning. There are the pirates with their well-planned ambush, but there are also Phaeton's machinations. The pirates draw the Exo-Fleet in by letting them pound the hell out of the surface of Enceladus, then unleashing their full might. Meanwhile, a hapless Neo Sapien cabinet (finance minister Geadis) discovers evidence that Phaeton has been diverting industrial materials for years, building an army and a space fleet larger than the Exo-Fleet. Nara is captured, drawing Able Squad into an ambush which she helps save them from. Explosive decompression almost kills her and takes out several pirates, but Marsala gives her his helmet and saves her life. The Exo-Fleet nearly commits to another engagement, with the pirates on their home base on Tethys, but news of a massive Neo Sapien assault on the homeworlds causes J.T. to call off the attack after Marcus freezes up.  

What Works: Many elements pull together to make this the strongest offering yet from Exo Squad. The big battle between the pirates and the Exo-Fleet works well, with clear stakes for both sides and an understandable tactical picture. Watching the Fleet pound the snot out of Enceladus is fun, and you get a sense that Simbacca is shrewd and has balls of steel to wait it out. He's still over-the-top, but gloriously so. 

Phaeton's attempt to justify his deception work well, because they are grounded in legitimate grievances. Neo Sapiens can't own ships, we discover. Can't even own firearms. You continue to get the sense that this is a leader with charisma and vision, albeit a dangerous one. (Though I'll say more on this in a bit.)

I'm also rather taken with the designs from the show, and this episode is a good showcase. The ship designs of the Exo-Fleet work really well, and manage to have a different aesthetic from both the pirate fleet (seen more in the previous two episodes) and in the Neo Fleet (seen a bit here, but much more later on. Certainly, the color schemes help, but even beyond that each faction has their own use of shapes and styles that define a coherent universe. This episode shows us a number of pirate artillery platforms, mobile from the look of them, for our heroes to go up against. We also meet Exo-Fleet ground troopers, called Jump Troopers, who have a very cool deployment system. Think paratroopers but from low orbit. Very neat. Also fun to see that some of them don't make it down to the ground. Realistic and makes you think that these guys have to have steel nerves to get into those little boxes. (Though I'll say more on this in a bit.)

I love J.T.'s casual racism when Nara asks if he's got family like the rest of them. And this is a guy who is basically tolerant of Neo Sapiens and LIKES Marsala. This, more even than Phaeton's words, helps the viewer understand why the conflict was inevitable.

The use of imagery in this episode is strong. There's the lovely shot of Phaeton caressing a hologram of earth. There's Simbacca struggling against the explosive decompression to, successfully, reach for his helmet. (A scene so nice they used it in the opening credits for season 2.) There's Nara looking up at Marsala, who has just given her his helmet and with it her life, and passing out. And there's poor James Burns watching his family farm get destroyed by Neo Sapiens and giving a strangled "Mom's in the house!" (Michael Donovan, who also plays Bronsky, really nails the line.)

Winfield's injury during combat was nice, and helped raise the stakes for this episode and the episodes to come. It was also rather shrewd of the writers to give J.T. an injury to keep him out of combat and let him participate in the politics of command.

What Doesn't: Not much about this episode falls flat. McKenna is basically mister exposition this episode, and Marcus actually seems less off-the-ball. I didn't mind him freezing up in the face of a huge shift to the bedrock of his universe as much as some of his prior evidence of incompetence. 

This is a minor complaint, but we've got four important Jump Trooper characters introduced in S2. This episode would have been a fantastic time to introduce them. I realize that they probably weren't quite far along enough on the development timeline for that to happen, so this isn't a bad, more of a missed opportunity. 

I have a hard time buying that Phaeton could assemble a space fleet AND an army without anyone knowing. Figure he's got to have at least a million guys trained... that's a hard secret to keep. Perhaps if they'd tracked Nazi Germany more closely, started with a large Neo Sapien army that wasn't allowed to have ships, I'd have more readily accepted it. Still, buy the premise, buy the bit I suppose. 

Watch For: In the montage of places attacked on Earth, we see the Sydney Opera House. The premature liberation of Australia will be a major storyline in Season 2. 

Overall: Very strong television, with little of the weakness of the previous two episodes. I get the sense that they've found their voice. The action is strong, the stakes are high, the characters likable but with flaws, and the REAL conflict has just started. By the time you've made it to this point, I think you're solidly on-board with Exo-Squad. And the really good news is, it gets even better!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Review: Exo-Squad Season 1 Episode 2--Seeds of Deception

"Soon the vermin will not dare to make fun of us."

Seeds of Deception, the second episode of Exo-Squad is much stronger than the first, though it still suffers a bit from the production team finding their feet. After a brief "previously on Exo-Squad" segment, we launch back into the space battle between the pirates and the Exo-Fleet, which results in a pirate retreat back to the moons of Saturn. There's some jockeying over the tactics between Admiral Winfield, Captain Marcus, and Lieutenant Marsh, which eventually results in the fleet committing itself against Enceladus without prior e-frame reconnaissance, a tactical blunder that Simbacca prepares to exploit.

Meanwhile, we get to see the situation on Earth through the more-interesting b-plot.We're introduced to Sean Napier, a cop who'd rather be in the Exo-Fleet. He gets into a bar fight, foils an assassination attempt on Phaeton, gets injured in the process and then loses his job when he won't shake Phaeton's hand. We also get more foreshadowing that the Neo Sapiens are up to no good.

What worked:The b-plot worked. We meet an interesting new character and get to know him a bit. Part of the trouble with the Able Squad is that we're mostly seeing them as a block. There's the sense that they're all individuals but few of them have had the chance to shine. Napier, on the other hand, immediately stands out as having goals, dreams, and complications.

The assassination attempt has a real-world feeling to it, including having someone (Napier, as it turns out) get shot off-screen right before a commercial break. This gave some nice tension.

We get our first (and, as it turns out, one of our only) glimpse of civilian life on Earth. There are some sci-fi touches in there, like the little triangular coins used as money and the idea that rather than alcohol they're drinking some kind of vitamin supplements. Silly, but fun world building none-the-less. It's apparent that partially shaved heads are very much in vogue, which is probably a practical by-product of the cybernetic interfaces that the military and police (and, for all we know, construction workers and other people who interact with heavy equipment) use.

I love the look of the pirate fortifications. A minor aesthetic detail but a nice one. It feels unearthly, which is of course the point. There's good use of background / foreground as we push in on Simbacca's lair.

Wolf Bronski and Kaz Takagi each get some decent characterization this episode, Kaz for ignoring orders to do some hotdog flying, Wolf when he'd protectively watching over the injured Kaz after the battle. Everyone else in the squad gets at least one scene, surely a conscious effort. Maggie tells off McKenna, Torres kicks Bronski in line, Nara dispatches another video, DeLeon methodically takes out a pirate craft, and Marsh ruminates on the burden of command.

There's a nice bit with some litter getting sucked into the atmospheric filtration system as Able Squad launches. Lovely touch.

Phaeton and his entourage on Earth (Livia and Shiva, both of whom will become important in time) allow for some nice foreshadowing of the conflict to come. Phaeton's glee with the news that the Exo-Fleet is going even deeper into the outer solar system is nice, as is Livia's distaste of humanity. The moment just before Phaeton gives his speech where his mask slips for an instant and he recovers is a thing of beauty. The actual speech he gives about humanity uniting is works both on the text level but also as foreshadowing for his eventual forced unification of the different families of humanity, under his iron fist.

What didn't: The battles with the pirates still fall a bit flat for me. Definitely a step up from last time, but there's something about them that doesn't work. I'm not quite sure what. Part of it is the animation, which is a bit clumsy. Some of it is that it's hard to get an overall sense of the battle through the eyes of Able Squad, reducing the conflict to a small series of squad-level battles with an unclear relationship to the overall big picture.

Napier's boss has an awful, awful accent. Took me right out of the show.

Again, I'd rather that the tension between Marcus and Winfield be more nuanced. In this instance, Winfield yielded to Marcus' tactical judgement. I'd have liked it to be less of a transparently bad decision.

Another carryover from last episode, McKenna's role is unclear and doesn't seem to add much.

Nara doing a second videogram to Venus seems repetitive. Surely there is some new way we can get insight into her psyche.

The voiceover that kicks off the episode is strange and feels redundant, especially with the presence of a "previously" segment. Perhaps this would have been a good spot to use McKenna instead.

Watch for: The kid doing some anti Neo Sapien graffiti will eventually wind up with the resistance.

In response to said graffiti, Phaeton muses: "horns. Horns could be very useful." This line will have serious payoff in mid second season.

The banner showing Homo and Neo Sapien holding hands gets torn asunder during the assassination attempt, which is of course nice visual foreshadowing.

Overall: A much stronger outing than last time. Incidentally, this was the first episode I managed to catch way back in 94, and probably a better introduction to the series than The Pirate Scourge. We're actually getting a sense of impending menace and momentum on the Neo Sapien arc. Seeing Earth gives us higher stakes when the larger war inevitably comes, and we waste less time futzing around with plot elements that don't pay off in the episode in which they were introduced.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Review: Exo-Squad Season 1 Episode 1--The Pirate Scourge

It's been a few years since I've done a regular review feature, and I've been itching to get back into the swing of things. A series of fortuitous events has occured that made Exo-Squad a natural candidate. First off, I read the James S.A. Corey book Leviathan Wakes, an excellent space opera that takes place entirely inside the solar system. I love the space opera genre, but it's rare that you get a good one that makes the solar system feel so large and interesting. This aspect in particular reminded me of Exo-Squad. I also have finally found a decent copy of the second season. Prior to this, I've been running off digitized versions of old VHS copies I taped during my freshman year of college.

(Flashback to 1994: me, laboriously carrying my VCR from my dorm room to the common area, because that was the only cable jack on our floor. Hooking up the machine to the wall, and then to the TV, plopping in a tape and hitting record and editing out commercials on the fly. At 6:00 AM. Every weekday morning for the better part of two semesters. Impressively, I missed only one episode of the entire second season the first time it aired, though the one I missed was a critical one.)

For those of you who don't know, Exo-Squad represented an attempt by Universal Cartoon Studio to break into animation syndication in the early 90s. It's one of the last of the Sunbow-style American/Japanese hybrid styles of attempting to have it all, tons of motion and tons of detail. Consequently, it suffers from the same kind of quality control issues that similar cartoons saw. Nonetheless, it's ambitious scope made for some great mecha and spaceship designs, nuanced characters and sympathetic antagonists. Some of the "good guys" aren't all that nice, and plenty of the villains have understandable motivations. They also didn't shy away from death, giving a sense that even main characters could buy-it. For the most part they don't, but killing off some of their rich second-stringers gave that illusion. I'm a huge fan of the show, and I thought an episode-by-episode examination would let me see it in a new light. On to Episode one!

"That's just a sneak preview folks. Next time, we're coming back for real."

The Pirate Scourge is our first introduction to the universe of Exo-Squad, and it starts off not with a bang but a whimper. We get some brief exposition in the form of a documentary, touching on the Neo Sapien rebellion of fifty years prior, before witnessing a freighter ship on its way to the inner solar system get ambushed by pirates. Our heroes, stationed in orbit around Mars on the Exo-Carrier Resolute, are dispatched to investigate and trigger an ambush, costing a shuttle of engineers their lives. In response, the Homeworlds' Senate, instigated by the Neo Sapien delegate from Mars, Phaeton, authorizes a vast armada to hunt down the pirate scourge. We end on another pirate ambush, this time on the Exo-Fleet itself.

What Works: There are some very nice bits and pieces in here. Phaeton's speech to the Senate is rather nicely delivered, though probably a bit too transparently motivated by something sinister for any venue other than a kids cartoon. In this context, it works well.

Perhaps my favorite line in the episode is delivered unassumingly, Nara Burns talking about how the videogram she's sending will take over an hour to get to Venus because of the distances involved. That kind of attention to physics grounds things and feels very real and lets the audience know what the rules are without being too ham-fisted about it.

I love that the freighter crew has a hologram of a dancing, scantily-clad woman. Anime influence showing for sure. I also love that it bounces around the derelict ship as Able-squad investigates.

Overall the introduction to the various members of Able Squad is solid. Not amazing, but gets the job done. You get names, functions, a sense of personality. Obviously we get more, much more, over time, but this is foundational material and works as such.

Bronski getting an injury and trying to shrug it off was a nice character moment.

What doesn't: Sadly, the whole is less than the sum of its parts in this episode. It's hard to put my finger on why, but it's just kind of boring. There is a big space battle, but they reserve it for the last few minutes of the episode. Things that could have been played for action (mostly the pirate machinations) are instead played for tension. I think finding some way to open on a battle would have helped a lot. This isn't a persistent problem, more a symptom of deciding to open with a slow burn, but I think it could have been avoided.

I don't like how incompetent Marcus is. Even for a force that's been at peace for a couple of generations, it seems unlikely that the flagship would go to an officer who is less than able. If there's some reason for it (politics, let's say), it'd have been nice to see it. But moreover, for a show that goes out of its way to make the villains have legitimate grievances (pirates and Neo Sapiens both), I think you could have had Marcus as a capable officer and still be a foil for JT and Winfield.

A shot of the fleet flying past the camera is used twice. Clumsy. And another shot of the fleet entering an asteroid field seems to show a density of rocks so close to the ship as to be ludicrous. I can accept a bit of poetic license, but this seems absurd.

Charles McKenna isn't as interesting as the writers think he is. The opening info-dump wasn't really necessary to understand anything in the episode, and his haranguing of JT and Takagi didn't add much. Nice visuals though. Much of it winds up in the opening credits (which I'll get to after the episode review.)

Things to watch for: I love the fractional sneer Marcus gives when Winfield orders him to launch e-frames.

Nara addresses her video to mom, dad, and James. All will be important as the series progresses.

Overall: A weak start, though with some interesting elements mixed in. It only gets better from here.

Aside: I mentioned the credits. The version I'm watching this time out uses the S2 opening credits for the whole series. This isn't horrible, though it does have you wondering who Butler and O'Reilly are for a good 20 episodes. Certainly they're exciting, and probably not wasting time on exposition is the right choice.

However, the original airing did something rather clever. Given the slow burn nature of the reveal of the Neo Sapien threat, the main S1 credits didn't work for the first three episodes. They created an alternate set, just for those three. Sadly, I don't think this has shown up on any high-quality source; neither Hulu, the DVDs, VHS tapes, or even LDs used the aired credits. I've included a copy here of the S1 early opening. I apologize for the quality, I was pulling off a 20 year old VHS tape. It's nice that they don't give away the game in the opening.

Thursday, December 4, 2014


I was watching a little Five Faces of Darkness the other day (I know, I know, I'm a masochist) and was struck by how odd some of the characters were. Specifically the off-colored Shockwaves that show up. While Shockwave proper never shows up past the movie, leading many fans to conclude that he perished during the movie or in its aftermath, his lineart was oddly the basis for several generic guys that show up. I have a very nice scan of the Action Master Shockwave art so I thought I'd try my hands at a digibash. Presenting... BUILDWAVE!

Function: Combat Engineer
"The universe is but grist for me to plunder."

Believes that anyone and anything can be categorized in one of two ways: allies or raw materials. Is obsessive about whatever his latest engineering project is to the point that he has difficulty comprehending anything that isn't directly related. Has the ability to analyze visualize incredibly complicated plans and see them to fruition. Carries a double-barreled dis-assembler blaster that causes anything mechanical to revert to its component elements, and has an integrated laser torch for cutting or welding.