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!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 2 Episode 36--The Last Jump

"The last thing to develop are intelligence and wings. You don't need wings to fight... or intelligence." 

The Last Jump, aka The Fall of the Neo Sapien Empire part 3, is the forty-ninth episode of Exo-Squad. It backs up a bit from where the last one ended, to a briefing with Able Squad and Charlie 5 platoon. We learn that their target during the liberation of Earth is the Neo Lord breeding complex. As the squad gets ready to deploy, we see a few flashbacks and character moments, before launch. Shortly after the engagement at the Pentagon begins, Able Squad is summoned to the Resolute II to deal with the Doomsday Device situation, leaving C5 to fend for themselves, again. They try to hold out for an evac shuttle, but when it goes down they have no choice but to make a run for it. Cornered by hordes of partially developed Neo Lords, they make a stand at the remains of the Washington Monument before Wolf Bronski rescues them in the Admiral's personal shuttle. Butler get seriously injured during the evac.

What Works: The strongest moments in the episode are the characters ruminating right before the big fight. Everyone gets a brief something. Nara clutches her arm (injection sight of Dr. Ketzer's... whatever) and winces. Takagi and Torres share a look. Wolf eats. (No burping) 

And then there are the flashbacks. One is quite effective, Weston ruminating on Alec's death with all-new animation. This is especially effective, as it sets up the Butler/Marsh tension coming up in a few minutes, and I love the angles chosen on the Neo pyramid base. The other flashback, not so much.

Galba and Praetorius continue to work wonderfully together. Galba is now Praetorius' prisoner, ordered to the capital to face Phaeton's personal wrath. Praetorius' gloating quickly turns to rage when Galba taunts him rather effectively. His slap is brutal and unexpected, and quite effective dramatically. I rather like how close a thing it is, the shuttle with Galba and all fully-developed Neo Lords getting out just as the assault commences. 

Wolf gets shot down in a rather gut-wrenching moment. After Alec's death, and keeping in mind that the series only has a few episodes to go, one thinks that they might actually off him, if only for a second. 

The animation is unusually strong. There are lots of great close-up shots of faces emoting. Here is a particularly nice shot, Kaz doing his ace thing.

The Kaz/Bronski relationship is again shown, when Kaz immediately flies down to Bronski's defense. Bronski, choking on the flames of his own crash landing, mutters "you're the man," recalling The Art of War. Bronski may be the junior partner now, but it's a comfortable relationship.

Butler and Marsh have a brief, but tense, exchange when Marsh is recalled to the ship. I love the play of emotions across Marsh's face when Butler calls him out. "You guys sure don't stick around." He goes from surprised to upset to resigned, all in a matter of a second. You can't blame him for any of it, since he knows he's screwing Butler's people.

As Able Squad flies to the Resolute II, we are treated to a brief view of a few of the Exo-Fleet ships bombarding parts of the planet. One presumes that the total domination of space would be an enormous advantage, and it's nice to see it used. 

Praetorius activating all the Neo Lords, regardless of their developmental readiness, is a fun element. Though the squealing Neo Lords aren't nearly as effective as the fully-developed ones, they certainly give the episode a horror-movie like quality. It's a pretty audacious move, sacrificing potent power tomorrow for mediocre power today, but then Praetorius has correctly judged that this is the final battle. Neo Lords in the future count for nothing.

The last stand on the Washington monument was pretty neat. The whole second half of the episode, you got the strong sense that Charlie 5 was screwed, and the final moments, surrounded on top of a tower, pretty much confirmed it. This was, of course, slightly undercut by the audience knowing Wolf was on the way to bailing them out.

Speaking of monuments, I like that the Pentagon was a Neo facility. The use of real places and structures was always a strength of the show. 

Real places like... Battle Creek, Michigan, where we see another couple of moments in tank battle between Resistance and Neo Sapien forces. What a perfect name for a giant battle.  And I do love me those Neo Tanks. Kates gets name-checked again.

What Doesn't: Though there are many, many great details in this episode, as evidenced above, the overall pacing feels off. With the three flashbacks in the beginning of the episode and all of the Able Squad character development in an episode that seems to want to be about Charlie-5 platoon, the whole thing feels a bit like filler. The stakes are pretty low, just the lives of the Jump Troopers, and you don't really think the named ones are in much danger. At least, I didn't. Obviously I was wrong, as Butler does get injured, though oddly off-camera. We hear a scream but don't really see what happened.

The Marsh flashback to The Perfect Warrior is especially egregious. It's long, it has no particular payoff, and it ends with him waking up in bed, a shot stolen from Ultimatum. Not only is the reuse of this shot odd, but it messes with your timeframe. When exactly was the briefing he was giving? Poor marks, Exo-Squad. 

Marsala's flashback is less pointless but has an awkwardness all it's own. I won't ding them too much for him shifting back and forth from wearing a Neo Sapien uniform to his Exo-Fleet uniform. But when exactly is this supposed to have happened? Phaeton is wearing his modern clothes, and he's flying in a modern Exo-Wing. If this is the first rebellion, the details are all wrong. But it's awfully specific to have taken place during season 1, which has a rather tight timeline. Moreover, it serves no discernable purpose that I can see.  

Wolf borrowing the Admiral's shuttle telegraphed the rescue too much, and had an awkward feel to it. You'd really think Winfield would have bigger fish to fry. 

Watch For: Galba is bound with some kind of energy cuffs. I thought this was slightly odd, as this show doesn't normally go in for that kind of tech. 

I like the reappearance of the S1-style shuttle. Sadly, it will change into a regular shuttle next episode. 

Nara's genetic alteration, foreshadowed here, is still in play. 

Butler, in pain as the shuttle speeds off, tells O'Reilly "It's your platoon now, " which doesn't augur well for him and his injuries. Don't these troopers just look like they've had the snot kicked outta them? 

Bio: Typhonus. Our last new flashback. It would have been perfect just two episodes back. Here, it's a little awkward, as neither Phaeton nor Typhonus is in the episode. On the other hand, it's new information, and Phaeton contemplating how Typhonus is his right hand, and lamenting that he can't grow a new one, is a pretty nice beat. This episode also reminds us that Phaeton can grow new generals made-to-order, which will become important next episode.

Overall: Sadly not one of the better offerings. As I noted above, there are many strong elements, but they don't build to a coherent whole the way one would hope. It's by no means bad, but mostly serves as a bridge between the prior episode and the next. I suspect you could cut it out and not miss too much of a step. I get what they're going for; this four-part series examines the war from the perspectives of the Resistance, the Jump Troopers, Able Squad, and finally Phaeton's inner sanctum. I just think this episode didn't have quite enough story, and the reused footage does little to dispel that notion. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 2 Episode 35--Fifth Column

"Come on, it's time we got even! You can sit here and be scared, or you can help send those Neos back where they belong. What'll it be? We've been putting the Neos' weapons together long enough. Let's start takin' 'em apart!" 

Fifth Column, A.K.A. The Fall of the Neo Sapien Empire Part 2, is the forty-eighth episode of Exo-Squad. To my mind, despite the title, this is part one of the four-part Liberation of Earth saga.  The Exo-Fleet is ready to liberate Earth, and it's the job of the Resistance to pave the way. Every Resistance cell on the planet is given a target, with a simultaneous start time of 1800 hours CST. The fleet is set to launch their assault, the real assault, two hours later. Tension is high in the fleet as they get ready for what is possibly the final major action of the war. At the appointed hour, the Resistance commits their forces. The Neos are pressed back; they know an invasion is coming, but have little choice but to engage with the Resistance. Napier's cell liberates a Neo Tank factory in Detroit, with the help of the disgruntled slaves, and convinces many of them to take the tanks on a run at Phaeton City Chicago. They get bogged down along the way when the Neo's stage an ambush. Meanwhile, Praetorius feeds Galba information about a possible Neo doomsday device. Galba, obligingly, contacts the resistance to warn them but it's too late; Winfield has committed his troops.

What Works: This is an exciting start to what promises to be the climax of the show. Starting at the beginning, Phaeton is in good form. "I will never leave my bunker again," he declares, as he supervises the final touches to his bunker. (Including the carving of "LASCIATE OGNI SPERANZA VOI CH' ENTRATE" over his door, a slight continuity flub but we'll forgive it.) Livia, perhaps in denial, perhaps in the grip of fanaticism, observes that that won't be necessary once the Terrans are crushed. Phaeton then hears bells ringing in the wind, and goes on an epic rant. "Ask not for whom the bell tolls... it tolls for you Winfield, and you J.T. Marsh. I will destroy you all. Not even a handful of dust will remain for the wind to blow away!" These words will take on an ominous significance a few minutes later...

We cut to Winfield, who explains the title of the episode. (This is a kids show, after all.) It's a solid strategy. This, in turn, kicks off a round of tense waiting. The attack is coming, it's coming soon, and everyone in every faction knows it. My favorite moment is probably Wolf & J.T., chatting over coffee and chow. J.T. is perceptive, quickly picking up on Wolf's uncharacteristic worry--not for himself, but for "someone special" in the Resistance.

Just before the Resistance assault, we see what Hanley's cell is trying to accomplish--taking out a Neo Tank production facility and securing / disabling the material within. We get a last little bit of Neo cruelty when a worker collapses. "Replace that labor unit" the uncaring facility manager barks. It's interesting  to see them continue to dehumanize the enemy, even at this late stage in the game.

Next comes the fight itself. The  focus is the tank facility. It's a decent fight, and the high point is when one of the slaves leads the other in open rebellion. He even gets a name, Kates, probably the last named character to get introduced in the show.

It's right about now that Galba gets played by Praetorius. He feeds him information about a Neo Doomsday device, letting him know that Phaeton would rather blow the Earth up than let the Exo-Fleet have it. Galba may be smart but he doesn't pick up on the fact that Praetorius suspects him. It's nice to see that these characters weren't forgotten about. And this Doomsday device idea is intriguing. A bluff? Something more?

Though the focus of the Resistance storyline is the tank facility, we do get to see fighting in Paris and Sydney as well. It's a nice touch, definitely helps sell the global scale of things.

With the Tanks secured, Napier is faced with the problem of what to do with them. Katez lets him know there's no easy way to disable them, but also that they can be operated without a cyberjack. Napier proceeds to rally the slaves, leading them to attempt to liberate Chicago, the Neo capital. I think the Tanks are pretty neat, so it's cool (and a little surprising, given that there were no toys of them made) to see them get a spotlight so late in the game.

Little detail but once the Tanks get on the road, Eve blows up the "Phaeton" in "Phaeton City" on a road sign. A fun little bit of catharsis there.

Phaeton seems utterly uninterested in a column of Neo Tanks advancing on his capital, telling Livia to deal with it with a maniacal laugh. He's gone... or is he? Her subsequent ambush gives the episode a little more action, not that it needed it, and the last we see of the local Resistance is them in a pitched battle between Detroit and Chicago.

Finally, Galba warns the Resistance, but it's too late. The attack has already started. If this was a bluff, it failed. If not... well, if not, then we're in trouble. Galba is also outed. It certainly took the Neos long enough, but then, he is a genius. "We should have destroyed you with the rest of your brood," Praetorius spits. Great line, and great cliffhanger. Structurally, it's obvious the Neos can't win this fight. They're encircled, and despite their greater production capacity, hampered by their low numbers. We see what happens when the slaves rise up with even minimal support. By introducing the possibility of the destruction of the Earth out of spite, the stakes are kept high even while acknowledging that realistically the final battles in a war are not generally toss-ups. It's really rather clever.

What Doesn't: Ummmm... not too much problematic here. Weston/Algernon exchange is awkward. She gives Algernon Alec's black box, notes that it contain's Alec's memories, and asks him to keep it safe. It's a weird beat. (I'll talk more about it in a few episodes.)

Watch For: The bell tower that sets Phaeton off will show up again, in a completely different context.

Alec's black box, of course, will show up again.

There's a nice lingering shot on the sign over Phaeton's bunker. This is, of course, the sign over the gates of hell, as depicted by Dante. (This image was my screensaver for most of college, btw.)

Winfield and Simbacca have another moment, during the waiting. He remarks that he wanted to be a veterinarian, due to his love of horses. That line will get some payoff.

Nara is seen getting into a Rapid Assault Light Attack E-Frame, i.e. the Marsala type, right before the big attack at 2000 hours. She'll be back in her Reconnaissance E-Frame next episode. Also, Weston's in her normal uniform, no helmet. Next episode, that'll change.

Finally, as JT and the squad get ready for combat, you see that he's affixed a picture of Alec inside his frame next to Noretti. That's a nice little bit of character continuity.

Bio: Nara. Again. This should have been a resistance member, but I don't think there are any.

Overall: Great episode. There's really nothing wrong with it and a lot right with it. Lots of bits of past episodes pay off here, and surprisingly we're still setting bits up for the future. Great way to kick-off the final major storyline.