Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 2 Episode 39--Beyond Chaos

"The fatal flaw of the Neo Sapiens is very simple. We do not have children. Because we reproduce artificially, Neo Sapiens do not feel a part of the endless cycle of life. Without parents, grandparents, family, the past is meaningles. Without children, the future is only darkness. Without tradition to guide us, without posterity to judge us, we live in a moral void as empty as space itself. We are desperate for something to give our life purpose. That is what Phaeton offered us."

Beyond Chaos is the fifty-second and final episode of Exo-Squad. The war is over, and Neo prisoners are rounded up all over the globe. Able Squad helps with the mop-up, and the squad breaks up to pursue their own paths: Takagi becomes one of the first cadets at the reopened Exo-Fleet academy; Nara moves to Venus to rebuild, discovering new facets to the genetic alteration Ketzer inflicted upon her; Weston marvels that Galba and Algernon have created a clone of Alec DeLeon with his memories from the black box (and the Noretti procedure), and they go on to help him restore Mars using GRAF technology; Marsala convinces the new Homeworlds Congress to create a new brood of Neo Sapiens able to reproduce sexually; and Marsh informs Winfield that he's leaving the service. Winfield gives him one last mission, to help the Pirate Clans divvy up their base on Chaos. But during this operation, the aliens who build the structure under the Martian desert show up, abduct the entire planet (including the jump troopers, Galba, Thrax, and Hollis) and head for the inner system. To be continued! Only, you know, not.

What Works: This episode is about what happens AFTER the war, and as such it's almost more of a sketch than a traditional episode. A large amount of ground is covered, and fortunately covered very well. The opening few scenes are all of the immediate aftermath of the war. Neo Sapiens are surrendering, flags are being lowered, prisoners are being liberated. It's a nice transition from the war we saw being furiously fought as recently as last episode.

We see Ketzer and his handiwork again as Thrax helps the squad attempt to round up Neo Sapien soldiers hiding in the Amazonian jungle. Telemachus has been killed by Ketzer, and Thrax gets to confront a genetically altered Medusa. Though it's open ended, this at least resolves much of the story introduced in The Night Before Doomsday. Notably, Ketzer refers to Burns as "an unfinished experiment."

Mars is restored, by Professor Algernon's GRAF technology. Not only is this a nice beat, in keeping with the theme of the episode of healing old wounds, but the Professor is wonderfully philosophical about it. "Gravity is the response matter makes to the lonliness of space. It's love, you see, the love that moves the stars. Phaeton thought that destroying an entire planet would be the ultimate expression of power. That was his lack of imagination. The ultimate power is the power of creation." (I almost gave his speech top billing, but Marsala's sums up the series better.)

Takagi as an Exo-Fleet cadet, and Butler as a commandant, both feel like logical directions to take the characters. It's also nice visual design continuity with Colleen O'Reilly's bio. Now, while Butler's line "officers never joke" is pretty lame, I'm pretty sure that's intentional.

After all this time, it's good to see Hollis again. That he now needs an exo-skeleton to walk about gives extra weight to the injuries he received in Fire Ship.

The will-they-won't-they between Nara and Marsala seems to come to a close here. Had there been a third season, it might have continued, of course, but he loves her enough to know that he's not what she really needs/wants. He expects her to return to the farm, get married, and have children, and he knows that's not something he can participate in. It's rather sweet, in a sad way.

Marsala goes on to give one of the best speeches in the series, transcribed above, underlining the root cause of the war. Ironic, then, that a Neo Sapien attempts to assassinate President Napier when he goes to a Neo internment facility to share the good news. That the attempt is foiled by none other than Shiva, further compounds the irony. Remember, of course, Shiva shared a stage when a human tried to assassinate Phaeton back in Seeds of Deception. Bringing history full circle, Shiva refuses to shake Napier's hand, just as Napier refused to shake Phaeton's when he saved the future dictator's life.

I like how clueless J.T. is about Colleen's feelings for him. Of course, him walking away before he can hear her ask him to come with her "to the stars" also foreshadows the ending of the episode.

It's nice to see Admiral Winfield (the ranch hands call him "Win") out of uniform and relaxing. If anyone has earned a chance to have a few moments without the crushing weight of command responsibility, it's him.

Ship design has long been a strength of the show, and this episode is no exception. The aliens look like sea creatures, albeit high-tech ones. They also glow, which helps give them an otherworldly appearance and underscores how different their power levels are compared to anything the Exo-Fleet, Pirate Clans, or Neo Sapien Order has fielded.

I like the debate Algernon briefly summarizes about the clones Phaeton has left behind. Yes, it'd be reckless and irresponsible to unleash another Phaeton on the universe, but on the other hand, a strong argument could be made that this Phaeton is, in some sense, innocent, especially depending on how many memories he has left. (This would have become a season 3 plot point, but it works in the context of this episode.)

I rather like the growth FX for the tree Nara touches. Less satisfying is that this is the last time we see her in the series, wondering what these new strange abilities mean for her.

What Doesn't: Most of what doesn't work is stuff that's setting up a season 3 that never happened. The biggest flaw, of course, is that the aliens don't really work in the context of this story. They were set up back in the Return to Mars storyline, of course, but without any real foreshadowing here they're just an element from out of left field. Fortunately, it's easy enough to disregard this element and just end on the prior scene, the restoration of Mars. Hell, that almost works as a series finale. Speaking of...

I love the restoration of Mars... but would it still be terraformed? Would it still have an atmosphere? Would it still have the Falls of Eryis? No, no it wouldn't.

While Alec's rebirth was well set up, having him come back to life without giving him anything more to do only serves to undercut his sacrifice in One Small Step. I do love how tentative Weston is about touching him.

After his minimal presence in the Liberation of Earth storyline, Simbacca's complete absence from this episode is disappointing. I'd very much have liked to see what he was up to in the post-bellum period. Probably making money hand over fist, if not consolidating his political and military position.

Similarly, Torres has nothing  much to do here. Bronsky we at least learn is going back to school "to learn how to talk to Eve Hanley," which is a nice touch. But Torres hasn't done anything important since Mars. Perhaps they shouldn't have pulled the fake-out and should have actually left her dead, for all that she's impacted the story.

Watch For: Amanda Connor, last seen in Mind Set, is among the prisoners liberated.

Medusa was aptly named, with her thick, ropy "hair," serpentine eyes and teeth, and her ability to blind Thrax. Of course, that may not be entirely coincidental; Ketzer may not have been able to resist. It's also nice to see that Nara isn't the only person that Ketzer has given powers (beyond enhanced strength and endurance) to. Speaking of...

Nara cries green tears, a subtle touch.

Bio: Marsh. Can't argue with that.

Overall: A strong ending for a strong series. What doesn't work is pretty much the set-up for S3: ending Nara's plotline as ambiguously as it does; bringing back Alec as a Neo Mega but never exploring that idea; and an alien invasion plotline. But getting to see the Neos surrender, the Homeworlds Congress authorize a new brood of Neos, seeing Mars restored, and watching Napier and Shiva repeat some of the mistakes of the past all make this episode a nice window into the post-war period of Exo-Squad. I can't blame them too much for shooting for a third season, so the flaws are understandable if unfortunate.

Overall, the series itself is a terrific space opera, probably the best attempt at the genre from an American cartoon and comparable to the strongest Japanese offerings. The rich characters, strong dialogue, logical and inventive plots, solid designs, and moral ambiguity all combine to make a rich universe. If there are open-ended plots, so be it, but the really important stuff got resolved beautifully. Strongly recommended.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 2 Episode 38--Abandon Hope

"I used to worry how I would face the end. Would I go bravely, like a soldier? But let me tell you something Neo Mega. It's life itself that matters, not how it ends. Every moment is a precious gift, if only we have the courage to accept it. That's where our duty lies; not in taking life, but in living it."

Abandon Hope, aka The Fall of the Neo Sapien Empire Part V, concludes the Liberation of Earth arc and is, surprisingly, the penultimate episode of the series. Really, you could end it here and be pretty satisfied. With the attack on the Great Slave Lake facility a failure, Winfield directs several squads of E-Frames to take Phaeton's Bunker. Inside said Bunker, Phaeton's deterioration continues. Livia betrays him, his generals are dispatched to hold an impossible position, and he waxes philosophical to Marsh while Praetorius works to repair the detonator. Burns and Marsala arrive seconds before Phaeton can execute Marsh (at his own insistence, a desperate delaying tactic) but Phaeton manages to fight all opposition to a draw and ooze his way to the detonator... where Nara's new mutation allows her to somehow stop him from pressing the button. She shoots him, ending the war, and around the world people rejoice.

What Works: Almost everything. Let's start with the fact that this is basically the series finale, with the next and last episode serving more as an epilogue. As such, there are a lot of characters to give resolutions to, and this episode manages superbly. There are a lot of characters in the series, and this episode manages to give just about everyone something to do. (The one major exception is our Pirate Clan characters, but they'll have a bit more airtime next episode.)

  • Marsh, our series protagonist, spends most of the episode in a cage, but despite this manages to connect emotionally to Phaeton and then get into a big slugfest with him at the end. A slugfest he effectively loses, by the way, as it ends with Marsh pinned and Phaeton free to move. Mostly, though, he's forced to watch the deterioration of what was once a great--evil, certainly, from Marsh's perspective, but great--man turned into a gibbering wreck. I love the emotion they wring from him as he witnesses Phaeton about to blow up the world.
  • Phaeton, our series villain, is brought low at last. I love the visual metaphor as he emerges from his E-Frame and collapses to the ground. "I will... destroy you... I am... Phaeton!" He sounds like he's trying to convince himself as much as anyone else.
  • Sean Napier leader of Earth's resistance, uses his armored column to spring a bunch of Neo officers whom Phaeton has ordered executed. He's come a long way from a man who wouldn't shake one of their hands.
  • Nara Burns, J.T.'s number two, has rather a different evolution. She fears that she's losing her humanity, and with good cause. Phaeton, of all people, even calls her on it. Despite this, she remembers her roots, shooting him (with Praetorius' gun, which is delightfully ironic considering that he was literally the only normal Neo Sapien personally loyal to him in the end) in the name of her brother.
  • Wolf Bronsky and Eve Hanley's relationship is acknowledged. He comes in with the uninjured Jump Troopers and saves the day, catching Shiva from behind after he's outflanked the invaders. He also realizes what victory means, and is quick to go out and "make some noise." This also ties in nicely to the ringing of bells motif that started with Fifth Column and continued by Phaeton's flashback this episode. 
  • Shiva is closer to his old self this episode. Phaeton asks if he can stop the incursion into the bunker and he is blunt. "No. But I will try." In defeat, he asks Bronsky to shoot him, claiming he has no desire to live, but Bronsky refuses.
  • Draconis isn't quite so lucky, killed by Rita Torres' battering ram fist. This is the only of Algernon's superpowers to be used in the episode, btw. It's also Torres' one big contribution to the plot, though she doesn't have any lines.
  • Typhonus, too, perishes attempting to carry out Phaeton's orders, blown up by the Resistance seconds before he could carry out the execution of the purged Neo Sapien officers.
  • Thrax and Galba are among said officers, and give the quote for the episode. Galba, tellingly, wishes that he had perished with the rest of his brood. It's a surprising little bit of humanity from one of the custom-made Neo geniuses. 
  • Takagi has a moment to morn Stavrogan, and as Marsala's second chair manages to take out some Neo Lords with a bank shot.
  • Marsala and Weston don't have a ton to do, though they each get a moment or two. Weston gets embarrassed for speaking during a meeting, then gets taken out by Shiva's flank. Marsala observes that Phaeton's lack of imagination makes it likely that his command center will follow the contours of the old subway grid, and even engages Phaeton before getting taken out by a Neo Lord.
  • The Jump Troopers! O'Reilly fixes the shuttle and gets the team back to Chicago. I love the bombardment evident as the shuttle arrives.
  • Pelligrino gets to read the Dante on the door, allowing Bronsky to shoot out part of the sign to change the message's meaning. Also, this shot of him tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the character.
  • Longfeather stays behind with the wounded at Gettysburg. "We can hold this ridge. It's been done before."
  • Livia gets to die, executed by Neo Lords for daring to sabotage the Doomsday Device. There's one visual exchange that sums up everything you need to know about her mindstate. Draconis good-naturedly tells Shiva that he'll be showing him up in battle, and Phaeton looks on delighted, even as the walls rattle from an orbital bombardment and Phaeton is preparing to destroy the world and 99% of all Neo Sapiens left in creation. She seems to be the only one who appreciates the absurdity, collapsing into herself. 
  • Praetorius makes his last appearance as well. I'm half surprised Phaeton didn't name him commanding general of Earth, but I suppose even he would see that as bad comedy given how little of Earth was under their control. He goes down swinging, though, a true believer till the end.
  • And finally, Admiral Winfield. He gives the briefing, then lets his men do their thing. It's enough, and the episode ends with him landing on Earth for the first time to claim victory.
Aside from character endings, the episode does manage to do a few things very nicely. Shooting up the sign over Phaeton's bunker leaves "speranza," or "hope." It's the last image in the episode, too, appropriately enough. 

As Marsala flies back to the Resolute 2 with Takagi in the back, the series takes a moment to remember some of the casualties along the way. It's a nice moment, and reminds us of what it's cost to bring us to this point.

Phaeton shares with marsh a moment when he was at peace. He casts his mind back to a lecture he gave at the University of Chicago. The weather was perfect, and bells were ringing. (See what they did there?) It's very late in the game to further humanize our villain, but it's a nice beat that not only sets up the bells but helps establish how Phaeton's mind is starting to drift. It only makes his ranting and lunacy that much scarier when he turns it back on. 

The Neo officers certainly look pathetic, don't they? Once again, the series does not shy away from disturbing imagery.

There are numerous ties to earlier episodes. Many I've noted, but one in particular stood out to me. Phaeton calls his imminent use of the Doomsday Device "the most important event in the history of the solar system." Those are almost the exact same words he used to describe the Neo Sapien ascendancy way back in episode 4, Blitzkrieg!

What Doesn't: There's a scene where Takagi and Weston whisper to each other during a briefing, prompting a throat-clear from Winfield. This produces guffaws from the assembled pilots far out of proportion to the incident. I realize that this is drawing a connection to a similar scene in the first episode, but it goes on for far too long and undercuts the seriousness of the mission briefing. Chalk it up to too much tension? I do like the one guy right in the middle who refuses to laugh.

Marsh's fight with Phaeton is brief and not as powerful as the season 1 finale. The stakes are higher, but they somehow don't feel higher. Sure, I get why having our protagonists duel makes sense, but the ending already subverts expectations enough that you could probably have cut this beat and had it still work.

I almost think the series missed a trick by allowing Marsh to get to this point, rather than just having Phaeton shoot him at his own request. It's also odd that we see Shiva put a fusion pack in Marsh's frame. Yes, that does deal with the fact that he lost it last episode, but it doesn't address WHY they rearmed the war machine. Taunting him with its nearness, perhaps? I think you'd need a line to that effect. Perhaps if he'd grabbed a fusion pack from one of the downed mechs, or somehow taken Hanley's frame (which probably used to be his, way back when) it would have worked better. 

Watch For: New Soldier Field makes another appearance, as the holding area for the "disloyal" Neo Sapien senior officers. It gets attacked by the resistance, allowing the "traitors" to flee. This isn't the first time New Soldier Field would be full of traitors and get attacked by the resistance.

Draconis is back in his heavy, S1 E-Frame.

During the montage of celebrations from around the world, we see several familiar faces. Our surviving Australian cast share a quiet campfire together.

Sidney in New York adds his horn to the revelry.

Bio: Algernon, not even in the episode.

Overall: Great episode. Ties into everything that's gone before, all the way back to the first episode, and especially does a good job at tying up the loose threads of Able Squad, Thrax, the Jump Troopers, the Resistance, and the Neo Sapien high command. If the series ended here, it'd already be a classic. That they decided to do one more episode to show us the aftermath only makes THIS episode even stronger.

The use of the Doomsday Device is also exceedingly clever. Most wars don't end on a coin-toss. There're often knife's edge moments, but they're usually somewhere in the middle. This war is no exception. I would argue that the destruction of Mars was what really sealed Exo-Fleet's eventual victory (a weakness of the series, truth be told, since that came about as an intervention from an outside force), though you could also point to Shiva's assault on Venus. By the time we're liberating Earth, Phaeton has lost the war. It's only a question of when and how. But by introducing the Doomsday Device, the series manages to realistically portray the Exo-Fleet's advantage while still keeping the stakes high. Yes, if Phaeton blows up Earth, in many ways, the Exo-Fleet "wins." There are no more Neo Sapiens, and they control Venus and the outer planets. But oh, my, it'd be the most Phyrric victory in history. I list it here, in the conclusion, because it's not so much a strength of this episode, but of the Liberation of Earth arc and indeed the series as a whole.

In many ways, a series is only as strong as its ending. The Sarah Conner Chronicles was a great series, but its wide-open ending that resolves nothing makes me hesitant to recommend it to anyone. Exo-Squad, by setting up the Neo Sapien threat and then resolving it so effectively, seals the deal for this show. AND we still have one more! Can't wait to see what they do with it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 2 Episode 37--The Night Before Doomsday

"Once, on the planet Mercury, a commander ordered me away from a hopeless battle. Perhaps he saved my life so that I could save yours."

The Night Before Doomsday, aka The Fall of the Neo Sapien Empire part 4, is the even fiftieth episode of Exo-Squad. It is two stories in one, told roughly in sequence. The first tale revisits Thrax, now the commander of the Amazon. He recognizes the hopelessness of the Neo Sapien Order's situation and refuses Livia's summons to come to Phaeton city. He's not the only officer disobeying orders, prompting Phaeton to use the Neo Lords to purge the officer class of the Neo Sapien military. Thrax battles valiantly, but ultimately succumbs. The other tale involves Able Squad, who discovers the location of Phaeton's secret Canadian facility. They assault it, hoping to put the Doomsday Device out of operation, only to discover that it has been moved to Phaeton City. Phaeton anticipates this move by Winfield, and though he has resigned himself to defeat, he still wants Marsh's head. He resurrects his best generals to accomplish this task and they succeed, capturing Marsh and bringing his nemesis before him against the backdrop of a weapon capable of destroying the Earth. To be concluded!

What Works: The episode opens with Algernon locating the secret base by the brilliantly simple strategy of just following the hovertrain spur line. The exchange that follows does an excellent job of showcasing how far that character has come. In addition to a hilarious little aside ("If I wanted to destroy the Earth--and I had as little imagination as Phaeton--I'd probably just blow it up") he waxes philosophical about the setting sun. "The sun is always rising somewhere. After all, our darkness means light to the other side of the world." It's a great line, but the Thrax quote was more emblematic of the episode itself.

Thrax is another high point of the episode. He remains as compelling as always. His relationship with Telemachus, introduced here (I was wrong, Kates was NOT the last named character) gives the character some opportunity for growth. He's not just an ace, he's a leader. His relationship with Medusa is somewhat less amiable. She continues to scheme and undermine her superior, which doesn't seem to phase Thrax at all.

Also, Thrax is pretty bad-ass when he dodges Medusa's blast and takes her out with one shot. Makes sense that a pilot with his reflexes would be fast on the draw.

The purge of Neo Sapien officers is a fascinating fascinating idea. It wouldn't have played well in S1 or early S2, but Phaeton's deteriorating mental state makes it viable. Calling to mind the Soviet Red Army purge, it's neat to see the Neo Sapien Order eating itself alive. My one complaint is that I would have liked more time for it to be explored. Half an episode, with no time for follow-ups, doesn't give the plot much breathing room.

The return of Draconis, Typhonus, and Shiva is rather macabre. Note that none of them has any lines this episode, which makes the whole thing feel rather ghoulish. Perhaps it takes them a little time for their personalities to get really up and running. They do a decent enough job taking down Marsh, at least.

Yuri Stavrogain shows up one last time... and I do mean one last time. We learn that he was JT's old wingman, which fits what we know. Sadly, he gets shot down after Nara gets in trouble, and does not survive the crash. It's a pretty good blast he takes, kinda catches him and the audience off-guard.

Kaz gets a nice moment to react to his death. He insists on accompanying JT on a rescue attempt after Yuri is shot down, then witnesses Marsh's capture. When he goes to extract Yuri from the wreckage, he finds his friend dead. It's strong closure to the relationship between them introduced way back in The First Step, and will indeed help motivate Kaz's future character development--what there is of it, anyway.

Livia, too, gets a chance to shine. When she learns of the Doomsday Device, she is initially elated, proposing to use it for an ultimatum. Phaeton rejects the idea out-of-hand. He'd rather just see the world end and be done with it. "I have Auto-Mutation Syndrome. What do I care about the future?" She's been as loyal as anyone to Phaeton, and for the first time she's starting to question those choices.

When the Neos counter-attack at the Great Slave Lake facility, Marsh's first order is for Marsala to get Algernon to safety. He may be a genius, and he may be finding his philosophical side, but he's still no combatant. The look of terror on his face is perfect.

Surprising no one, Ketzer is back. Medusa only has a few minutes of time between being freed from captivity by the Neo Lords and Ketzer's attack. He certainly looks ominous here, doesn't he?

The battle of Battle Creek resolves here, with the assistance of some orbital bombardment. Controlling the high ground is pretty rockin', huh?

During said bombardment, there's a nice moment when a solitary Neo E-Frame blasts into orbit and takes a few potshots at the Resolute II, before getting easily dispatched by one of the escort ships. It's a brief but very cool beat.

What Doesn't: The two plot structure weakens the episode. The purge could easily have been an episode all to itself. The assault on Great Slave Lake, not so much, but then there's plenty of other things going on that could have been expanded upon.

Bronski gets shot down, which serves to undercut the finale of the previous episode. Also, the shuttle design has changed.

After Yuri crashes, he activates his emergency beacon. While it's a great shot, it doesn't support him being dead just a minute or so later, and wasn't necessary for the plot. I could easily believe Marsh would return for Stavrogain, beacon or no.

There are several animation and continuity flubs. None is particularly horrendous, but taken in concert they do undercut the quality of the episode a bit. Phaeton is consistently in the generic blue version of his command E-Frame, whereas last (and next) episode it was the usual black. Manaus is mislabeled Phaeton City.

Watch For: Livia's new revalation about exactly whom she's been working for this whole time will have major repercussions next episode.

Nara's ongoing transformation will continue to play a role in the series. This is speculation, of course, but it seems likely it would have been a critical plot point in Season 3. (Alas!)

Telemachus, memorably introduced here, will too be seen again. Well, after a fashion...

Blink and you'll miss him, but Bronski (shot down fleeing Washington, D.C., remember?) is among Marsh's squad during the retreat from Great Slave Lake. Actually, his E-Frame is seen clearly several times, but of course it could be anyone inside it. There is a clear shot of him, though. Oops.

Draconis's E-Frame will change from his current small model to his S1 Troop Transport E-Frame.

Bio: Simbacca. Yawn.

Overall: We're getting to the end, people. With the cliffhanger ending, this one feels more like the penultimate episode of the series than what it actually is, two from the end. Phaeton has the capability of destroying the Earth, and has Marsh. The invasion is otherwise a huge success, but there is nothing more dangerous than a cornered animal, and Phaeton is very much cornered. Even his reactivation of his generals in some way feels like a retreat from reality. He's falling back on earlier, happier times, any past failures or treacheries forgotten. It's a strong offering, perhaps marred just a bit by the disconnect from the first half of the episode to the second. Still, all of the pieces are moving into place, and the next episode promises to be a huge climax, well worth the fifty episode investment we've now made. Stay tuned!