Sunday, June 07, 2009

SilverHawks Sunday V: "The Origin Story"

Hey, it's a better title than 'Pilot.'"The Origin Story" is the first episode of SilverHawks, and watching it again for the first time in a decade or so reminds me of how odd and unconventional it is--and makes me glad I started doing this series, because it ought to make for some interesting posts.

While origin stories tend to be the norm in comic books, movie series, and pretty much all other literature and media, children's television shows often bypass that whole process. Part of the reasoning, I imagine, is due to the way kids' shows are syndicated; having a loose continuity or none whatsoever allows episodes to be broadcast continuously in any order, while progressions of events might lead to confusion or other problems. I imagine the way kids' shows tend to be written (with many episodes being developed at any given time) and other aspects of the production process have some bearing on this as well. Lots of series just relay the origin through the opening or theme song and call it a day.

SilverHawks' origin episode stands out for other reasons, though. After the theme song, the titular characters don't actually appear until halfway (or later--I wasn't watching the clock) through the episode. The entire first act is actually more of an introduction to the villains than the heroes. We begin with Commander Stargazer contacting some central authority to notify them of a breakout on Penal Planet 10 and to request backup to deal with it.

This flashback sets the stage for quite a lot of the show's key elements. We learn that the year is 2839*, and that Mon*Star is imprisoned on the Penal Planet in the Galaxy of Limbo (where the vast majority of the series' action takes place), put there by Stargazer himself (after his last escape).

The Penal Planet is located relatively close to the Moon*Star, a red celestial object that undergoes periodic bursts. There's another planetary object in between the Moon*Star and the Penal Planet, keeping it eclipsed. What would make the most sense** to me is if that object were the Penal Planet's moon, which perpetually eclipses the Moon*Star from the planet's perspective, except for periodic occasions when the moon moves out of its way. We first see the Moon*Star in eclipse--a crater-ridden planetary object with a red halo around it, so that would make the name sensible at the very least. It's worth mentioning, too, that the Penal Planet is apparently artificial, or at least largely artificial, since it looks like a brown version of the old JLA satellite. That would remove some of the ridiculous odds it would take to create this cosmic dance where the moon perpetually obscured the star from the planet's point of view, and we can just assume that the Penal Planet is mechanized enough that it maintains a somewhat variable orbit.

Anyway, the Moon*Star is undergoing a burst, and "this time" it's pointed at the Penal Planet. Over the next several scenes, the moon moves out of the way, allowing the full brunt of the burst to shine onto the Penal Planet.

The guards seal off the window to Mon*Star's cell in order to keep out the light from the Moon*Star. Mon*Star insults the guards, then tries to bribe them, then begs (!) with them to let him see it, even going so far as to say that they could trust him. The guards won't fall for it; they know Mon*Star isn't allowed to see the light from the Moon*Star, and they know what happened to the last guard who trusted him (which, it's implied, led to his last escape). So, um, not to second-guess the warden or anything, but if it's that dangerous to let Mon*Star see the Moon*Star, then why not give him an interior room?

As the star burst nears its apex (we know, because there's a voiceover countdown through the prison--again, don't you think it might have been a better idea to keep Mon*Star in the dark about this?), Mon*Star desperately punches at the metal plate covering his window, denting it pretty impressively. Here's something for the ladies! Eventually, he cracks it, and the red light of the Moon*Star shines in onto his eye...patch? I've never been entirely clear on Mon*Star's facial anatomy. The star burst countdown reaches zero, and Mon*Star does his transformation chant ("Moon*Star of Limbo, give me the might, the muscle, the menace, of Mon*Star!"). This turns him from a mostly furry guy with Lion-O's haircut into...well, this:
Ooh, spiky.

He proceeds to tear the wall off his cell, then destroy the robotic guard (with its own reflected laser blast).

Mon*Star escapes into space, where he almost immediately ends up in a Darkness video. He encounters Sky-Runner, his pet/mount, which is a giant laser-shooting space squid***.

I'm reminded once again why I loved this show.

Sky-Runner has gone feral during Mon*Star's time in the pokey (or just doesn't want to be pet to an evil intergalactic mob boss anymore), and so it attacks its former master. Eventually, Mon*Star subdues it with the "Light Star," an energy shuriken from his eye (no longer a patch, but with the same star-shaped pattern) which encases the squid's body in the mechanical armor that forms his seat.

We cut back to Stargazer's transmission, where he explains that Mon*Star returned to the Penal Planet and freed his henchmen, collectively known as "the Mob." Stargazer gives a capsulized bio on each member (something I'll be doing in future posts), then reiterates his call for help.

The second act begins with the narrator (who I'm pretty sure is Larry "Lion-O" Kenney, doing his best impression of the Super Friends narrator) bringing us back to Earth, where a team is being formed to assist Stargazer. A General who looks like he'd be at home in Gundam or Robotech and a Professor who looks moderately Vulcan are meeting to discuss the new team. They give the brief overview, mentioning the real names of the various SilverHawks for one of the very few times ever in the series--and as far as I know, we never do find out what Bluegrass or Stargazer's real names are, or if the Copper Kidd even has one. The general laments that they can't just send the team as they are, and the Professor replies: "One day we'll be able to send an ordinary person one hundred light years into space, General, but right now we can only send one who is partly metal and partly real."

If you listened to the theme song a few posts ago, theh you'll recognize that last phrase as one of the show's taglines. It's always bugged me a bit; I mean, metal is just as real as flesh and bone. I get the point, and I understand the need to rhyme, but it seems to undermine a bit the show's commitment to bionic heroes.

I digress. Immediately after this SilverHawk introduction, the Professor does a diagnostic check on their upgrades. During this check, the twins' (Emily "Steelheart" Hart and Will "Steelwill" Hart) have some kind of heart malfunctions. This causes tension and suspense for all of a second, until the Professor nonchalantly says they'll be fitted with mechanical hearts, and that they'll be fine. The General remarks that this makes their new codenames particularly fitting

We can rebuild him; we have the technology.Now, the diagnostic scene is very well done, with some top-notch animation. But they go through the shoulders, arms, heels, and left hands**** on the wireframe representation, and I'm not seeing a whole lot of flesh, bone, muscle, or anything else that would benefit from blood pumping. The SilverHawks are, outwardly, mostly metal, with only a face and one arm each to suggest that they're not completely mechanical. I suppose that would require some further underlying organic tissue, but I can't help but wonder how much their hearts actually do. I honestly don't know if this detail ever comes up in the series again, though I suspect it plays a role in the second episode, which an unspoken "part 2" to the series intro.

The next scene is a test run of various aspects of the series' technology--the SilverHawks' individual abilities (retractable wings and flight/gliding, boot jets, shoulder- and heel-mounted lasers) and their spaceship, the Miraj, in particular. It's a good introduction to the core concepts--each Hawk has his or her own pod in the ship, with Bluegrass as the pilot in the "Hot Seat." The winged hawks can launch from the pods, and the Hot Seat can detach from the main ship and fly solo. The main ship can become invisible (hence the name--"mirage"), but I think it may only be once the Hot Seat has detached, making it a pretty ineffective cloaking device. Regardless, the toy was freaking awesome.

The scene is pretty standard, with the SilverHawks destroying a combat training drone and demonstrating some of the standard combat techniques for the show. What is notable is that the only member of the main group to have any substantial dialogue is Bluegrass. The entire rest of the team--the stars of the show, who have only just now shown up in their introductory episode--has a grand total of two lines: each counting off and saying "release" when they launch from the Miraj. And that's it, for the entire episode.

So, like I said, an unconventional first episode. There are some good moments of suspense and action (the prison break, the combat training) and some more tacked-on ones (the artificial tension about the artificial hearts), and it really does a good job of laying out the exposition without too many huge infodumps. We learn where and when (roughly) the series will be taking place, who the main cast members are, what our protagonists' abilities are, and so forth. The bit where Stargazer is explaining who got sprung from the Penal Planet feels like it was lifted right out of the Series Bible or something, but other than that, they did a good job of building the universe. The animation is very good; ThunderCats was one of the bar-setters with animation on '80s TV, and this is clearly in the same style. I didn't really notice until the fight scene, but I'm about 95% certain that the background music is pulled directly from ThunderCats. I'm sure the fight/chase music is, and I think the Mon*Star transformation and Mumm-Ra transformations might be using the same cues as well. To hit a more meta point, there are already quite a few details I'd like to unpack about the show, and I'm curious to see how they pan out in future installments.

There were two other segments to this initial episode. One was an introduction, which I'd like to talk about in a future post, and the other is a different sort of introduction. As I mentioned in the first post, each episode ends with Bluegrass giving Copper Kidd a quiz about astronomical facts, much like the "knowing is half the battle" segments on G.I. Joe. These after-show moral segments tended to be largely disconnected from the series proper (even if they dealt with themes from the episode), so it was surprising to see this one build organically out of the story. Bluegrass comes back to the Miraj on the landing pad, and he sees Copper Kidd sitting in the Hot Seat, pretending to fly it. He asks the Kidd if he wants to be a pilot, and gets an affirmative response. He says that it's one thing to learn to fly the ship, but it's quite another to navigate through space, so he gives the Kidd a brief quiz about space, starting with Earth's solar system. After Copper Kidd passes the quiz, Bluegrass offers to train him in the simulator on Hawk Haven (the SilverHawks Limbo HQ), teaching him "all there is to know about the universe," and if he passes, he'll qualify for flight training. This is a neat development, and represents pretty much the only interaction we have between protagonists in the episode. I recall, in the misty depths of decades-old memory, that Copper Kidd's flight training does in fact come up within the plots of a couple of episodes at some point, which ties these segments into the episodes better than almost any other contemporary series I can think of.

And that's it for this week, squeezing in just before I can't reasonably call this "Sunday" anymore.

*According to some galactic standard, in a different galaxy, and there are apparently 38 hours in a day, so whether or not this means it's 830 years into the future (or 850-ish, since this was made in the '80s) is unclear.

**Note that my inevitably futile and frustrating attempts to make sense of the astronomy in SilverHawks begin here.

***Hm...between the giant space squid and the guitars that shoot musical energy, I'm beginning to think that The Darkness were channeling SilverHawks for that video).

****It took me a little while to figure out why they would specify left hands, but I think it's because all but two of the Hawks have unarmored right hands. That's still only three of the five, so it seems like a more general statement would have fit the scene better.

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