Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 2 Episode 11--The First Step

"Has it not occurred to you that we are all sacrificing ourselves for nothing? This has become Phaeton's war, not ours."

The First Step is the twenty-fourth episode of Exo-Squad. Able Squad has been tasked with providing air support during an operation to seize control of Mercury, and with Torres on Earth duty he's got a fill-in pilot, Yuri Stavrogin. J.T. and Yuri have history together, so when Kaz starts to fall under the newcomers influence Marsh bristles. On the Neo side, a thoughtful commander, Glycon, and his ace air commander, Thrax, attempt to defend. The Exo-Fleet prevails and Glycon dies. Thrax defeats Takagi in a dogfight but, realizing the battle is lost, spares his life.

What Works: Once again, everything about this episode works. Let's start on the emotional side.

Kaz gravitates to Yuri. Yuri is the best pilot Kaz has met, better than J.T., and it clouds Kaz's judgement. I totally buy this. Mistaking skill as a pilot for competence as a role model is an easy mistake to make. It's fun to see them joyriding around Port Chaos (the city where Hollis fled to a couple of episodes back), then around the still-being-retrofitted Resolute II. The animation captures the fun very well and helps sell the rest of the plot.

Yuri and J.T. also play well together. Without ever saying so, the episode establishes that they had history together, they used to be friends, and that J.T. grew up while Yuri didn't. Yuri obviously has the ability to get under J.T.s skin, and doesn't hesitate to use it.

Marsh.and Takagi is another nice dynamic. J.T. is MUCH harder on Kaz than he is on Yuri, and this is obviously because he thinks Kaz can be better but he's written Yuri off. Again, none of this is said, and yet it's all apparent. Marsh grounding Takagi during the big fight also comes into play during the climactic battle.

Finally, unexpectedly, there's a swan song for the Weston/Takagi relationship. She more-or-less writes him off as an immature git while at the same time encouraging him to be better AND going to bat for him, faking evidence to keep him from getting in trouble while Marsh is on the warpath. Kaz opening up to her about his father never being satisfied was a nice moment too.

Meanwhile, on the Neo side, we're introduced to a new recurring character, Thrax. As a Neo ace in a red Y-Wing, he's an obvious Red Baron figure. Thrax is thoughtful, introspective, and as far as we can tell the best e-frame pilot in the series. Though he was introduced as a throw-away character, he turned out so well that he'd come back again and again, and would even have made it to the planned-for spin-off series that never materialized.

Just as memorable, at least in the context of this episode, is his commander, Glycon. Glycon laments what the war is turning into, but still does his duty to attempt to hold Mercury and dies in the process. Good for him for leading from the front, and tactically the decision was sound. The Jump Troopers had taken the main Neo facility on Venus, but from their fallback position Glycon leads his ground troops in a counterattack on the base and saves his remaining e-frames to attack the ships. It might have worked, too, had Takagi not been, effectively, held in reserve.

Thrax deciding not to kill Takagi, even after having beaten him, is definitely an emotional highlight of the episode. Having some unabashedly sympathetic figures who are still, nevertheless, loyal Neo Sapien soldiers, is a welcome development. It's also nice to see our heroes bested from time to time. No matter how big a fish you are, there's always someone bigger out there.

The visuals of the episode are strong. Both Neo Sapien bases are kind of cool and futuristic looking. We get a good look at one of the Exo Cruisers, the Wellington, with its large circular docking port. And Yuri's e-frame is pretty nifty looking. Once again, it seems bizarre that we never got a toy of this.

What Doesn't: Ummm... I'm gonna have to really reach here. Ummm... ok, here's one. Yuri tells tall tales about the Neo ace Thrax and his red e-frame. Now, I could just about buy that he'd know about the ace and his red mech, but how would he know his name? Maaaaaaybe Neo Sapien propaganda?

Watch For:  As Winfield says, this is the first step towards the liberation of Venus. We'll see more about this in the near future. Thrax will continue to play a role in the series, and we haven't seen the last of Yuri.

Overall: Terrific episode. Couldn't ask for better.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 2 Episode 10--The Dogs of War

 "Only a dog is loyal."

The Dogs of War is the twenty-third episode of Exo-Squad. Torres is sent to work with Earth Resistance to capture a Neo Mega. The presence of Megas on Earth does not sit well with General Shiva, and he resists following the advice of his aide Lucullus. Despite a trap laid by the Megas and tension between Chicago Resistance Commander Eve Hanley and Rita Torres, the mission succeeds. As punishment, Shiva is removed from command of Earth and Livia put in his place.

What Works: Everything about this episode works. The writing is clever, the directing is excellent, it advances the plot, and it puts the spotlight on two lesser heroes. Examples of the writing--Torres: "I don't question orders, I just follow them." Cut to Lucullus, admonishing Shiva: "Surely you're not questioning Phaeton's orders."

The Eve/Torres tension strikes the right balance. Torres is abrasive, but she's used to being in charge. Here, she's more of an adviser and she settles into the role badly. It's not overdone, it strikes exactly the right note.

I like the dog imagery that frequently recurs. Dogs howl when they can hear the Neo Megas secret communication. Phaeton compares the loyalty of his troops unfavorably to dogs. And, here's a subtle one... homeless humans eating dogfood from a can. Didn't pick up on that one the first time you watched the episode, did you?

The resistance drop site feels pretty real to me. Throw out some trash, pick up some trash. Very cold war.

The human slaves look like skilled technical workers. Given that they're off to engage in some kind of top-secret biological project, that makes sense. (Though, come the reveal of that project, there are no humans anywhere to be seen.) I like the imagery of folks in chains, though at least one of them has enough freedom to engage in a Resistance intelligence drop.

The fight at the end is a good one. The Resistance has mined the tunnels, but it barely slows down the Neos. (We also get our first glimpse of the Neo's techhead J.J. in action.) In the end, it's Napier showing up at the Neo's rear which allows them to escape. He also remains the resident bad-ass of the show, going hand-to-hand with a light Neo e-frame and coming out ahead. Did I mention he wasn't in a frame at the time? Yeah, he's that hard.

The Neo Sapiens, too, get a good chance to shine this episode. The Neo Megas are front and center. Lucullus is amazing. The actor nails it, this guy is every smarmy little kid who's much smarter than you and knows it that you ever went to school with. His arrogance puts Algernon's to shame. His every suggestion is a good one, and Sulla only gets captured because Shiva ignores his quite sensible advice to wait for the leader of the Resistance.

Shiva gets to shine too. He feels his authority slipping away and resists, even to his own detriment. I love the shot of him stomping his four-toed feet. "I'll squash them like the insects they are." Great directing here. He slinks away after getting relived of command, but you just know his story isn't finished yet.

Phaeton has moved his flag to Earth for reasons unknown. He's obviously deteriorating physically. We get the first signs that he's deteriorating mentally as well. He definitely seems off his game here, trusting the Neo Megas, putting seemingly unearned faith in Livia.

Livia begins her rise to prominence. Though we haven't seen her (outside of what was probably an animation error) since early season one, here she is promoted to commanding General of all Earth Forces. She seems to enjoy taunting Shiva. It's difficult to tell if she's genuinely concerned for Phaeton, or if she's merely trying to secure her own position.

Praetorius also shows up, and this time gets enough screen time to establish both his bonafides and personality. He created the Neo Megas, now he has a new project.

What Doesn't: Ummm... I'd have liked an explanation for why Phaeton's on Earth now. He was on Mars for all of season 1 and at least through episode 5 of this season. And Livia does seem to come out of nowhere. Still, minor complaints, all told.

Watch For: Lots of hints in this episode. Praetorius, concerned about Phaeton, asks, "how long has he been like this? Is it Auto Muta--" only to be accused of treason by Livia. He's been sent to set up a lab in Antarctica. (The Resistance is keen to disrupt the supply movements going to his lab, but doesn't because Torres insists the Neo Mega mission has priority.) And, of course, the idea that Lucullus and Gracchus might be plotting against Phaeton will be explored.

Overall: Terrific episode. This is everything the show strives to be. It's especially welcome after the disappointment that was Inner Dark. And the next one, which takes place concurrently, is equally strong.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 2 Episode 9--Inner Dark

"Exo-Fleet spent a fortune teaching you how to fight. Learning how to walk away from a fight, well, that's something you have to pick up on your own." 

Inner Dark is the twenty-second episode of Exo-Squad. The sabotage of a ship being constructed in orbit around Chaos reveals cracks in the Exo-Fleet/Pirate alliance. Encouraged by Barca, Hollis takes advantage of a weapons demonstration to attempt to assassinate Simbacca. Though Able Squad gives chase, Hollis flees to the Renegade Clans. Barca tries to use this to eliminate Able Squad, sending them into an ambush, but thanks in part to a change in heart on the part of Hollis, the squad is able to steal a massive ship from the Renegades. Professor Algernon saves Simbacca's life and the alliance is secure.

What works: Chaos was introduced at the end of the Pirate Alliance arc, and needed some exploration. For better or for worse, this episode is it. We won't see Chaos again until the final episode of the series. Much of that comes from visual cues. We can see that it's a world with at least three major surface cities. There seem to be underground cities as well, which makes sense on a world with minimal sunlight and probably little in the way of atmosphere. Let's look at some locations:

Exo-Fleet Headquarters.Looks like surface buildings, perhaps on one of those sprawls of lights we see in the opening establishing shot of the episode. We also see that Chaos has (at least) two moons.

The city that Hollis flees to looks fairly small, more like a town really. It's underground, connected by underground caverns to where the weapons test was done.

The bar where Marsh and Takagi search for Hollis looks pretty typical. Folks drinking (amino acids? Or are they still on hard liquor?), folks playing pool, folks flirting. What did stand out to me was the one-armed bartender. He seems particularly hostile to Exo-Troopers, even by Pirate standards. I wonder exactly how he lost that arm...

We've also got a good number of Pirate incidentals. I like the pair in a shoving match that gets interrupted by the chase. There's also a cute Pirate in pink holding a rifle who scatters during the chase, only to show up again a bit later in the bar.

Moving on, I enjoy all of Algernon's appearances. This one is no different. (Though see below.) What works best is the casual hubris he exhibits when trying to cure Simbacca. "And if [your theory] isn't correct?" "That never occurred to me."

What doesn't: Unfortunately, more about this episode doesn't work than does.  Kicking things off, let's go back to that weapon's test. Each member of Able Squad has had their mech equipped with a unique upgrade. None of these will ever be used outside of the squad. Also, it can't have been THAT long since the fleet got to Chaos, so Algernon did all this in, at most, 3 months. That's a lot of time for 7 different technological upgrades. It all feels more cartoony than we're used to. For the sake of completion, here are the upgrades.

Marsala and Nara get their mech equipped with a pirate cloaking system. This upgrade gets used quite a bit in the series, as it's got good dramatic potential both in and out of battle.

Kaz gets himself a holographic decoy. Unclear if it shows up on radar of if it's purely visual. This one gets used only occasionally, if memory serves.

Alex's frame gets a sophisticated electronic jamming system. Unlike the others, Alex will eventually get ANOTHER upgrade to his frame, one that plays a bigger role in the plot.

Weston gets an arcing electrical weapon called Chain Lightning. This is another one that's basically only useful in combat, so it only gets a little play in the series.

Torres gets herself an anime-style battering ram fist. Defintiely the goofiest of all the upgrades, though I suppose it's in keeping with her really awesome laser sword.

Bronsky gets himself some cluster bombs. This one feels the least like an upgrade. If he'd just shot this thing off, I wouldn't have felt like I needed an explanation.

Saving the best for last, J.T. gets himself a weapon called Solar Flare, some kind of plasma shooting out in all directions with him untouched at the epicenter. This one gets used a lot, and is definitely cool.

Hollis flat-out attempted an assassination, and yet Simbacca gives him a pass at Marsh's insistence. That's not just out of character for him, it's downright silly. Perhaps if they'd exiled him to the Exo Fleet instead... but no, Simbacca should have probably struck him down where he stood. The lack of consequences doesn't work for me at all.

The Resolute II is introduced this episode, and I'm sorry to say that doesn't really work for me either. WHY were the Renegade Clans building what is clearly an Exo-Carrier, when Pirates don't have e-frames. Why is it in Exo-Fleet and not Pirate colors? For that matter, why are they building a ship at all? It seems clear that this is an underground political group, not a group that's likely to wage a space battle with Simbacca for control of the Clans. Much like the special powers introduced above, this feels like a marketing-driven decision.

Speaking of, the Renegade Clans could have been cool, at least in theory, but in practice their aims are unclear. The fact that we never see them again also undercuts their effectiveness as antagonists. It seems like there would be enough animosity towards the fleet that you don't need a separate faction for this episode to work. Again, it's probably the necessity of introducing the Resolute II that forced their inclusion.

Watch for: Remember that ginormous Pirate that ambushed Marsh and DeLeon back in The Embassy? He shows up with the group getting a tour, though he doesn't seem quite so large this time.

Overall: Definitely one of the weakest episodes to date. Dramatically, we needed to see Chaos to make it believable, but it doesn't seem like the producers had a clear vision for what life is like here. (Contrast to Mars, or Venus, or Tethys, and the mediocre world building becomes readily apparent.) Couple this with the toy-driven need to introduce a new good-guy ship and tech, and you've got an episode that suffers.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 2 Episode 8--Dragon's Rock

"When I joined the Exo-Fleet, this is what I wanted to see... the stars from space. But now I'd give anything to watch the sunrise on Venus."

Dragon's Rock is the twenty-first episode of Exo-Squad, and takes place directly following The Last Man and Mindset. The two wings of Able Squad meet up and have a simple mission, drop supplies to the resistance on Venus. Things go awry when Burns and Bronsky get captured to be part of Draconis' secret slave labor. He's building a fortress in case Phaeton tries to replace him with a Neo Mega. The captives manage to get out a signal and Able Squad rides to the rescue.

What Works: Easily the most interesting bit of the episode is the machinations of Draconis. He knows about the Neo Megas and he's terrified. Should he be? We'll find out. Capturing Terrans and keeping them off-the-books is a rather elegant solution to that issue though. (I love his second in command grumbling that "they eat too much," because remember Neo Sapiens have more efficient digestive systems than Homo Sapiens.) He's right to be cautious, we learn that General Drusis of Ceres was executed for (presumably) allowing the secret of the Neo Megas to get out.

He's got a cool-ass shuttle, too! I've long been a fan of the ship designs in this universe, and this one is no exception. I rather like that he uses the standard Neo Sapien purple and yellow to achieve the effect.

The Trail of Tears imagery is powerful, though logically I have a hard time imagining that Draconis would find all those folks to round up and move. It looks like it stretches from horizon to horizon. Perhaps he's just moving most of them from some other city, and Burns & Bronsky are just the stragglers?

Nara's crush on Marsala gets a bit of exploration, though this is a Marsala-lite episode. Marsala snaps at Takagi when the latter takes issue with the way the former is coping with the loss of two teammates. Marsala's approach is cold and rational, but, though "I do not express my feelings the way you do, that does not mean I feel less." Well said. Nara also hallucinates Bronsky as Marsala when she collapses due to dehydration and sunstroke. And, of course, they share a moment bonding over the Venutian sunrise.

This is the the first episode where Bronsky is, more or less, front and center. For the most part, he works well. He's still lazy, and a slob, and the worst pilot in the squad. (Note that he crashes the cargo ship, not due to enemy action, but due to weather.) But he's got a big heart and a strong back and he throws both into the cause.

And, of course, we can't have a Venus episode with James Burns as well. He looks awful! Which is a little odd, considering the timing. (See below.)

There are some nice example of tech in this episode. We finally see the Neo Sapien colored version of Hollis' frame.

We get another nice shot of a Pirate vessel de-cloaking to take on e-frames right at the start of the episode.

There's a really nice effect when Nara uses her spotlight to explore the abandoned resistance camp. I also enjoy that Nara busts out her ground support e-frame again, for the second and (I believe) only time in the series.

Finally, the little aftermath pan where we see the devastation wrought by Able Squad on Draconis' secret loyalists was very well done. Usually it's the good guys we see licking their wounds. This will start to change.

What Doesn't: The timing is a bit off. JT and Marsala drop off the Earth resistance while the rest of the gang (minus Nara, who was missing) engages the Neos on Ceres. Then they immediately link up (now with Nara coming over from the Arnhem.) Presumably James was dropped off simultaneously, but now they've got more supplies for Venus? That doesn't quite feel right. Also, James looks like he's been doing slave labor for a lot longer than a few days. Possibly, the Ceres mission was just a separate mission that took place weeks if not months later than Mind Set, but it's suspicious that JT and Marsala were on the same class of Pirate vessel that we saw them on in that episode.

Bronsky shoots off the legs of a Neo Frame with a hand-held rifle, then commandeers it. It's a little goofy, and it's not in keeping with the relative firepower of hand weapons and eframes as has been established up until now, as recently as Mindset.

Watch For: Draconis' schemes and fears will continue to play a part in the story in a big way. We'll also get more payoff for the Venutian sunrise imagery.

Bio: Nara, again. Now it's really feeling like padding, though at least it's an appropriate character. Bronsky would have been a better choice, though of course there are 39 episodes this season and perhaps a dozen bios.

Overall: A good character-based story. The quibbles about the timing are just that, quibbles, and they wouldn't be an issue at all if not for the ambitious attempt to tie this episode to the last two more tightly than absolutely necessary. The plotting of Draconis feels like a story advancement, and the impact of having Neo Megas in the mix continues to drive the story. A solid entry to the overall story.