(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."
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.
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.
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.
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.