Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 1 Episode 7--A Traitor Among Us

"Is your friend's safety worth the enslavement of three planets?"

Exo-Squad's seventh episode is titled A Traitor Among Us. It continues the second storyline, called Veil of Doom in some promotional materials. Unable to leave Earth to pursue their mission, Able Squad risks breaking into a Neo Sapien facility to get a report off to the fleet. When Diana surreptitiously frees Dr. Xenobius, they have little chance to effect their secondary objectives of destroying the GRAF generators and instead hatch a risky gamble to get exiled to Venus. Things look bleak (metaphorically) when they discover that those 'exiled' are actually dumped into the sun! Meanwhile, Nara is determined to find a way to get to Venus. Marsh's report gives her the chance, and she goes AWOL during a recon mission.

What Works: The episode opens with a rather effective dream sequence from Nara. Most of the imagery is grounded in reality, though it does end with a nice shot of her getting blown away when her farm explodes. The whole thing is a good impetus to her actions later in the episode.

During the break-in at the communications facility, there are some nice character moments. Marsala seems slightly surprised and slightly relieved that they weren't expected, no doubt because this plan didn't involve resistance assets or assistance. DeLeon is slightly chagrined at JT's imperious nature. DeLeon gets them out of a jam by blowing up a wall, and Marsala displays his incredible strength.

During the same break-in, there are some nice visual moments as well. We get a very nice close-up of Neo Sapien eyes dialating wide to let them see at night, and there's a very well-done fight between Marsala and a guard done mostly as shadows on the wall. Ambitious directing for kids TV.

I like Nara's decision to go AWOL, and subsequent execution of said decision. Though if I were Winfield, I'd probably NOT have assigned the mission to someone with an emotional connection to it. Not a bad, though, he seems like someone with a soft touch. I love the slow pan up her body when she lands, hair whipping in the breeze. The actress nails the line, "Wrong, Torres, I'm going home."

Napier remains one of my favorite characters. During his torture, he manages to reveal nothing of consequence. When Able Squad moves to rescue him, his first instinct is to rally his fellow prisoners, which gets him a rifle butt in the back. Undeterred, he tackles an armed guard two feet taller than him without hesitation to stop them from shooting up his rescuers. I love that kind of grit and determination, and can see why he is where he is in the resistance.

The dark imagery I like so much is on full display here. We get barbed wire fences. We get babies being dumped into the sun. We get implied torture. This isn't a very nice war.

The Neo Sapien pilots are delightfully jovial, getting banter like: "Another sacrifice to the sun god." "More garbage for the incinerator." It's really rather chilling if you stop to think that they're executioners, and yet I can totally believe that pilots (homo or neo sapien) in this role would quickly get over it.

The subject of exile gets a decent examination. Alex muses that putting malcontents together is a recipe for trouble, which causes JT to wonder if the Neo Sapiens were really as smart as all that.This pays off shortly thereafter when those pilots loop back around to the subject, dismissing terrans as fools for believing the story. "The exile of prisoners is not logical."

The tension between resistance and Exo Trooper remains high, climaxing with an appropriately lopsided fight between Jinx Madison and Marsala. Marsala does nothing more than restrain and calmly debate Jinx, which of course makes things worse. Diana picks this time of distraction to free Xenobius. It works for me, because of course everything is so bootleg in an underground outfit.

What Doesn't: Once again, what doesn't work is mostly nitpicks. Diana's overreaction to 'discovering' that Xenobius is free is comically bad.

Bronsky as comic relief, in an unfamiliar e-frame, is perhaps a little clumsy. Having said that, as low man on the totem pole, we'll see him get non-preferred frames again in S2. On the other hand, "your mental imaging represents an impossibility, operator Bronsky" is one of the funniest lines of the series.

JT's quip to Alex about having any "bright ideas" is painfully bad. I also found his used-car-salesman smile when pitching the exile plan a bit over the top.

Alex blows up his e-frame when they sneak into deportation. This seems like a waste of valuable resources.

Watch For: Diana's breakdown after it's revealed that they're being dumped into the sun seems extreme... until one remembers from last episode that her whole motivation for turning traitor was to be reunited with her 'exiled' family. Then it all falls into place. Alex's rage at her is also nice. This pays off over the next two episodes. There's also a nice Noretti namecheck in this scene.

Overall: This is perhaps as close to a perfect episode as we've yet gotten. Almost everything works. Nearly everything introduced gets some payoff, and the rest gets paid off soon. The stakes are both high (energy shields will free up the Neo Fleet to hunt the Exo Fleet) and intimate (heroes going into the sun, heroes betrayed, heroes captured and tortured, heroes determined to return home no matter the cost.) The imagery is dark but realistic, and even the directing is interesting. This feels like an episode in a series that has hit its stride.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Complete AllSpark Almanac

It looks like The Complete AllSpark Almanac is just three short weeks away, with an ETA of March 4th at fine comic book stores everywhere. (Probably hitting Amazon shortly thereafter, available for preorder now.) Here's Marcelo Matere's beautiful cover for the book, with excellent Josh Perez colors. (Josh also lent his talents to some of the new bonus material inside the book.)

For those of you who missed our Radio Free Cybertron interview, this is going to be a massive, 472 page tome that combines The AllSpark Almanac, The AllSpark Almanac II, The AllSpark Almanac Addenda we put together for the Transformers Collectors' Club, and ten-ish pages of new content teasing more of what Season 3.5 might look like. We worked closely with Derrick Wyatt to ensure that the book was as close to 100% canon as possible, with all new material carefully vetted (and a bit of old material tweaked or recontextualized.) I hope that you all get a big kick out of this one. V1 and V2 are insanely hard to find and fetch ridiculous prices on the secondary market, so it's very nice to get this material back in print where everyone can get a copy.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 1 Episode 6--Target: Earth

"Neo Sapiens do not change. Our behavior is encoded in the structure of our brains, thus limiting our adaptability. It is our greatest weakness."

Target: Earth opens with a prelude, letting the audience know that we're jumping ahead a year. Able Squad has spent that time in the brig for their insubordination. We then cut to Neo-Sapien occupied Earth, an Earth were Tokyo Rose-style broadcasts and traitors within the resistance are commonplace. Marsh, DeLeon, and Marsala link up with the resistance to try to, ostensibly, destroy an energy shield surrounding Earth. Actually, though, they're here to capture it's creator. Things get complicated due to Diana, a reluctant informer in the resistance trying to keep her husband and child safe. The further revelation that the Neo Sapien Dr. Xenobius did not in fact invent the GRAF shield apparently scuttles their mission. The human whose work he's taking credit for, Dr. Algernon, is on Venus, and the GRAF shield leaves no way on or off Earth.

What works: The overall theme of the episode, humans working with Neos, comes across very well and in a variety of ways. The obvious ones are Diana and Amanda Conner, but also keep in mind that Marsala is the mirror image of this. Amanda seems to be a true believer, whereas Diana is strongarmed into assisting the Neos by blackmail. Both work very well.

On the subject of Marsala and the resistance, Marsala offers Napier a hand, and he refuses the gesture. A nice bit of consistency, and it's mostly in the background.

I love the little animated intro to the Amanda Conner show. Animated in-universe. Very cute.

This episode especially made me appreciate the economy of telling a grand space-opera show in 20 minute installments. I especially appreciate the bit with Xenobius in his lab trying to figure out the GRAF shield. It's an odd scene at the time, but has great payoff at the end of the episode.

Speaking of, the GRAF effect is very cool, crushing an object in space remotely.

It's a nice touch that the e-frames used by the resistance are so damn beat-up and battered. Of course they would be. It's a nice contrast to what we see out in space with the fleet.

The bit of interplay where Marsh and DeLeon discuss the possibility of executing Xenobius--right in front of him--is also nice. It's not clear if they're just playing headgames or if it's a real conversation, an especially nice bit of ambiguity.

I also like both the time-jump and the rational behind it. Having the squad spend a year in the brig is a good reminder that actions in this universe have consequences. Breaking JT out of the brig, even if it saves the fleet, doesn't excuse his squad from breaking the law.

What doesn't: Alice Noretti is pretty much a hi-and-by character. As nice as it is to live in a universe where people can die, it's an odd element to have here. It also doesn't seem to add much to THIS story and its themes of collaboration and compromise. This element might have worked better--a LOT better--if Noretti was one of the members of Able Squad in the first arc. Maybe bring in Takagi to replace her, the whole point of him is that he's new.

Shiva comes across as a cartoonish villain when he tells Xenobius that he's dead if his GRAF shield fails. That doesn't seem like the actions of a race of logical supermen. Does Shiva even HAVE this authority? Protecting their conquests with energy shields is an ENORMOUS strategic advantage, what would Phaeton say if a top general executed the guy behind it because there were a few bugs? On the other hand, kudos to him for realizing that the craft they destroyed could have been a decoy. Nice to have flashes of brilliance that will pay off for the character later.

It seems odd to me to have Typhonus running around as Shiva's lackey. Some of this is based on my knowledge of what happens later, so it's not an entirely fair criticism. He also apparently dies in the attempt to capture the Exo-Troopers meeting with the resistance, though this may not be an error.

I have a hard time accepting that, given advance knowledge of when and where the resistance would be meeting the troopers, the Neo Sapiens would have ANY trouble apprehending them. DeLeon should have been dead the moment he reached for his flash grenades.

Watch for: GRAF will continue to be an important technology in season 2.

Noretti is gone but far from forgotten. Her presence will continue to be felt for a long time.

Overall: The start of the second storyline in the show is promising. The show continues to be dark, and although there are the occasional bits of cartoonitus (I'm thinking of the ease of our heroes' escape and Shiva's foolish threats) it's mostly a very exciting, very consistent universe.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 1 Episode 5--Resist!

"Phaeton must subjugate the planet, quickly and brutally and publicly. As long as humans believe they can resist, they will." 

The fifth episode of Exo-Squad is titled Resist!, and concludes the initial storylines both in space and on Earth. Marsh's squad spring him on the way to his execution and he helps extricate the fleet from the disastrous situation Marcus has led it to, with some help from an injured but conscious Admiral Winfield. Able-Squad is forced to put down on Earth and links up with the nascent resistance, which is initially hostile to the soldiers of the fleet for their failure. Together they score a public victory which allows Able-Squad to commandeer a shuttle and link up with the fleet.

What works: The initial space battle is exciting and tense. There is every sense that our heroes are in a very bad place and that things might not work out for them. Marcus initially seems to be a competent battle commander, issuing sensible orders. When the military doctrine he was raised on proves to be a house of cards he freezes up, only to focus on the (tactically) unimportant fact of Marsh's arrest. I appreciate at least getting a glimmer of why he's the number two man in the task force.

Too, the way Marsh gets the carriers free gives us more insight into Winfield's pragmatism (willingly sacrificing half his e-frames for the greater good) and Neo Sapien hesitancy in the face of unconventional strategy. Phaeton seems as discombobulated as Marcus when Marsh takes half the air wing on a suicidal attack on his bridge, if only for a moment.

I love that not only do we get good Neos but we get collaborators on the human side. The mayor of Chicago (which he renames Phaeton City in an attempt to cultivate good will) is a particularly prominent example, but during the scene of mandatory civil registration we see humans with clipboards helping the Neos.

It's also great that, even among good guys, there is tension. In particular, there is no love lost between Napier and the members of Able Squad, who despite insisting they are on the same side are captured by the resistance at gunpoint.

Another thing the series does very well is use real places. Registration takes place at the Chicago Board of Trade, and Phaeton gives another excellent speech at New Soldier Field.

By the way, the above collaborators don't get any mercy from our heroes just for being homo sapiens. And Phaeton has no time for the Mayor once it's clear that his ability to keep the more extreme terrans in line is limited.

Finally, it's great that Phaeton never seems to suffer from most of the cartoon villain tropes. When he falls under attack during his speech, his first instinct is to fight back. He grabs a gun and silences Napier by blasting the huge viewscreen behind him. When it's clear that Able Squad has the advantage, he has to be dragged away by Typhonus and Shiva.

What doesn't: Once again, very few things fail. Most of these are basically nits, rather than major flaws. The biggest issue is the disconnect in the story. Rather than an A/B plot, this first concludes the space battle before setting the squad down on Earth to check in on the resistance. It feels a little odd, pacing-wise.

Marsh springs the carriers loose by taking command of half the e-frames. Casualties are heavy, wiping out all of Baker and Charlie squads, but there are none in Able Squad. It'd certainly have been more realistic is a smattering of pilots survived, though I understand the needs to make the war a microcosm of heroes. I like that we did get some prominent scenes of extras fighting though.

The visuals of the show don't match the dialogue. We're told that the Exo-Carriers abandoned their support vessels and that there were six of them, but we're shown a large number of ships in the Exo-Fleet engaging in battle. There are two ships confirmed destroyed in dialogue, and another carrier-looking vessel that got destroyed last episode as well as in the previously segment. Add in a line of dialogue where Winfield accuses Marcus of losing half their firepower and my interpretation is that they lost three of six exo-carriers, though that's debatable.

It seems contrived that the squad was able to make its way back to the fleet. They didn't even know where the fleet was heading. Add in the fact that they were potentially heading back to court martials and execution and it's odd that they didn't choose to stay on Earth.

Watch for: One of the extras battling the Neos during the space battle is none other than Alice Noretti, a character who will come to prominence next episode but who is teased here.

We also get our first look at Amanda Conner, a reporter who has a history with Sean Napier. He mutters that he knew she'd sell out, she cries out his name in surprise when he attempts to disrupt registration. She'll have a bigger role in the story to play in the next episode as well, as well as season two.

Overall: The conclusion of The Rise of the Neo Sapien Empire plotline cements ExoSquad as one of the best attempts to do space opera that American animation has attempted. The dark imagery, moral ambiguity, fallible heroes, and attention to detail all recommend the series strongly. It took a few episodes to find its footing, but by this point all of the elements are working together. If you've made it this far, you're along for the ride.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 1 Episode 4--Blitzkrieg

"We're beaten. And where's the Exo-Fleet? Off chasing pirates while the Homeworlds crumbled."

We're up to episode 4 of Exo-Squad, Blitzkrieg, and finally (just about) everything works. The A plot is the conquest of Earth, accomplished through complete air superiority on the part of the Neo Sapiens. Organized opposition crumbles in mere days, and the population is brutally and efficiently enslaved. Sean Napier, a microcosm of humanity, has his hovercar shot down, attempts to flee Chicago on foot, is captured, works in a slave labor camp, escapes, hooks up with some fellow survivors, and begins the first stirrings of the Earth resistance.

The B plot features our heroes attempting to return to Earth from Saturn. They've been traveling for two days and still haven't heard anything more from the Homeworlds. Tensions are high; Marcus snaps at several crewmen and Nara hurls a fusion pack against a wall. When Maggie Weston manages to reestablish contact, their worst fears are concerned. Marcus orders the fastest ships in the fleet, the six Exo-Carriers, to full speed, to stop the massacre of humanity. Marsh attempts to belay that order, arguing that going up against a superior force with only half the fleet was suicide, only to find himself arrest for mutiny. He and Marsala attempt to use his trial to convince Marcus or some of the other high-ranking officers to contravene this disastrous strategy. It fails, and Marsh is sentenced to die. While being lead to his execution, the Exo-Carriers fall under Neo Sapien assault. To be continued!

What works: Irony! Phaeton gives another great speech, waxing poetic about the wonderous empire he is founding. Juxtaposed are images of slaughter and refugees and flames. Really very well done.  "The reign of the old humanity ends this day. We, the stepchildren of mankind, are now its rulers. Think, typhonus, what the rule of Neo sapiens means. Justice at last. Logic at last. Order at last. Our laws will prevail. What glories the homeworlds will see governed by our even hand. "

The politicians. Phaeton is in this for history and seeks to legitimize his conquest. Hence, we get treated to a scene of the Homeworlds General Assembly surrendering to his rule. Lest there be any mistake about who's in charge, armed troops survey the representatives at gunpoint. 

The tension. I love how those in the Exo-Fleet, still days away from being able to help their loved ones, are all at each other's throats. One might think that folks would all be pulling together, pitching in, but one would be wrong.

Earth resistance. This is sort of the pre-resistance that we'll meet in the coming episodes, but despite the Neo Sapiens being able to effectively obliterate any target from orbit, individuals continue to fight back. We see aircraft go up against vastly superior e-frames and lone folks with rifles shoot futile at Neo Sapien y-wings. We also hear tons of explosions, the background a cacophony of violence.

Winfield. The audience is reminded a few times that Marcus is only in charge because Winfield is in sickbay. I also like the Neo Sapien nurse, the other Neo Sapien we see in Exo Fleet besides Marsala. She's never very important but I'm glad she's there. 

Body language. This show continues to examine the human reaction. Observe the slumped shoulders of the Chairman of the General Assembly as he surrenders, the sweat on Marcus' brow, or how Marcus gets literally red-in-the-face when Marsh challenges his authority. 

Mutiny! It doesn't feel like that's what Marsh is doing, but technically of course Marcus is right. Marsh made a critical blunder by contravening Marcus' order in public, making it difficult for him to back down even if he wanted to. A private conversation might have gone oh so much better. But then Marsh is under as much stress as anyone. I like that the tribunal, presumably other ship captains, found Marsh guilty as well. That feels like a more real choice then having Marcus' orders overturned.

Imagery. This is dark material, and the producers don't shy away from mining the material for drama. "...we have a permanent solution to the human problem," barks one prison guard. We see work camps with electrified fences and guard towers, monuments crumbling, refugees trudging out of town with babies in tow. Bold stuff for a Saturday-morning cartoon.

What doesn't: Very little doesn't work. Marcus is acting within the established parameters of his character, and frankly getting some force back to Earth as quickly as possible is an entirely understandable decision. The intelligence they have was sketchy at best, and the Exo-Fleet and its carriers had been the dominant military force in the solar system for generations. I can see being skeptical that a space fleet constructed in secret would be able to stand up to it.

There are a few animation errors. Typhonus is shown attacking the Capitol building in D.C. while he's in the middle of a conversation with Phaeton. Later, Draconis and Phaeton enter the Homeworlds Assembly only to have Typhonus and Phaeton deliver an ultimatum, the switch back to Draconis. Nothing that can't be forgiven. 

Watch for: Phaeton muses that "the birth of the Neo Sapien age is a thing of beauty. It would be unthinkable not to witness the most important event in history! The moment Neo Sapiens sieze their destiny." This won't be the first time he uses this phrase.

Draconis gets a bit more characterization. He exudes arrogance, only to be rightfully put in his place. We'll get payoff for this characterization in season 2.

We'll also see some of the politicians again in early season 2.

Overall: This is about as good as American animation gets. Dark, really dark, but with wonderful language and fantastic imagery. The allusions to the Nazis are subtle enough to slip by but obvious enough if one is paying attention. You also get the sense that Phaeton genuinely believes what he's selling, which is nice in your genocidal bad guys. The episode has an odd structure and pace to it, but cutting between the distant fleet and the poor saps of Earth gives it a great tension, even if the action is lopsided and comes in odd spurts.