Sunday, June 28, 2009

SilverHawks Sunday VIII: Getting a grip

This is the Miraj:
More specifically, this is *my* Miraj.

This is the underside of the Miraj.
Un latino azul!

That black strip? It does this:
It's a boy!

It has a handle. Now, it's not alone in that (after all, the villain vehicle/space squid Sky Runner has one too), but it's among very few toys I know of where the handle is recessed and...well, optional. Most action figure vehicles don't even think about handles, and most of the ones that do either try to make them inconspicuous by making them part of the design (like He-Man's Blasterhawk) or throw inconspicuousness to the wind and just slap a handle on it (like He-Man's Talon Fighter).

The recessed handle is a really smart move. It recognizes the need for play practicality--kids have small hands, space opera dogfights are hard to do with awkwardly-weighted plastic ships full of figures, you have to set it down in order to fire the missiles, etc.--while also recognizing the importance of aesthetics and the fridge logic that might result from slapping on a handle ("Who does He-Man expect to be holding his ship, and why would he accommodate them?). A lot of times, functionality and form are at odds with one another, but I think this strikes a great balance that maximizes both. It's a small thing, but it's worth pointing out and commending, at least.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

SilverHawks Sunday VII: Partly metal, partly real

I've never really given much thought to it, and I wouldn't actually call myself a "transhumanist," but I really don't have a problem with transhumanism. Using technology to improve ourselves and our abilities isn't a very controversial idea to me, but then, I wear glasses.

There are ethical concerns, to be sure, but I'm not certain how much they actually apply to things like cybernetics and bionics. We are already increasingly electronic; how many of us carry around smart phones and Bluetooth headsets*? I think we're a long way away from implants and replacement parts, but these attachments and accessories are a pretty close approximation. I'm not sure how much advantage there would be to a Bluetooth implant (for instance), aside from perhaps greater speed, but I know such concepts are in development (and there are some--like that sonar sensor--which do seem quite useful). And I'd be hard-pressed to see the significant difference between bionic limbs and some of the prostheses we have now. Sure, they're more advanced, and they may eventually mimic things like sensation, but morally and ethically I think they're pretty equivalent.

The real risks come from genetic modification, because there's a slippery slope toward Gattaca and similar eugenics nightmares. That being said, I'm a major proponent of GM with respect to crops and research, and I don't see any problem with the basic concept of applying it to humans in order to eliminate debilitating congenital defects and diseases and to extend and improve the quality of life in general. Obviously there would be details to hammer out, and there would be people who would abuse or try to abuse it, but the minor sorts of modifications that would be realistic and researched would, I think, present very little in the way of ethical issues.

Regardless of the realities, though, the idea that such modifications would result in a loss of humanity (and further, that such a loss would be generally undesirable) is very common in sci-fi, and particularly so in cartoons. I suppose that it's so common in children's stories because it's not only easily understandable, but it's also fairly uncontroversial (largely because it's fairly unrealistic, always a few decades away from any real relevance). It's hard to find stories involving cyborgs or other transhumans that don't either paint the modified characters in a negative light or explore the "machines dehumanize" moral. The only cyborgs I can remember in ThunderCats were the villainous Capt. Cracker and the Berserkers. He-Man had a few (Snout Spout, Mekaneck), but never even acknowledged that they were cyborgs in the cartoon** (as far as I can recall). Examples of this happening in the minicomics (Extendar is a notable example) were generally presented in the same negative, dehumanizing light. She-Ra's protagonists were almost universally the agrarian Rebels, while the only arguable cyborgs (such as Hordak) were members of the industrial Horde. This has always been an aspect of Cyborg's character, so naturally it was dealt with a few times in Teen Titans. Coldstone in Gargoyles suffered from this (also, he was a bit of a Frankenstein's monster), and there were similar sentiments in the Pack when Hyena, Jackal, and Wolf went in for cybernetics and gene splicing. This trope even shows up in some pretty unexpected places--like Transformers. I'm specifically thinking of "Autobot Spike," where having his brain downloaded into a robot body (albeit again, a pretty Frankenstein's monster sort of one) makes Spike violent and crazy. Even more bizarre is how this trope was a bedrock theme in Beast Machines. This one-sidedness is made all the more strange by that other staple moral of kids' sci-fi, that robots are people too. Just about the only

So given the generally negative attitude sci-fi, and children's sci-fi in particular, takes toward cyborgs, it's refreshing and surprising to see SilverHawks turn the trope on its head***. Not only are all the heroes cyborgs, but for the most part, only the heroes are cyborgs. Of the villainous leads, only Mon*Star could reasonably be called a cyborg, and that's only when he's powered up by the apparently mystical energies of the Moon*Star.

I don't know if the "dehumanizing" theme ever comes up in the series, but I doubt it--the series' belittling tagline (quoted in the post title) notwithstanding. I seem to recall the twins' bionic hearts coming up once more later on, but I don't think it's in that sort of negative context. "The Origin Story" treated the bionics as a routine necessity, not entirely desirable, but also not ethically troubling. I'll certainly be keeping an eye on this theme as I continue this series, but it's interesting to see a kids' cartoon--from an era where depth wasn't exactly their strong suit--bucking the general trend of popular science fiction.

*I don't, but only because I don't want to be turned into a Cyberman.
**This may make He-Man, then, one of the most progressive shows with regard to transhumans--that their conditions are unremarkable, except inasmuch as they give them superpowers. Alternately, it could just be that Mekaneck and Snout Spout in their ilk were very minor characters who only appeared in a tiny handful of episodes.
***The only other series I can remember that had major cyborg heroes were Bionic Six and C.O.P.S.--with only one hero (as I recall) in the latter case.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

SilverHawks Sunday VI: Another hit

As I mentioned last week, I was kind of surprised by the depth given to Mon*Star's character in the series' first episode. It was odd enough that they'd spend the entire first act introducing us to the villain; the way he was introduced, though, was even stranger.

Let me remind you a bit about the state of cartoon supervillains in the '80s: they weren't deep. The vast majority of them were evil for no apparent reason. When Skeletor explained his motivation for doing bad things (in "The Christmas Special," where his holiday-induced character derailment actually represented some decent character development), he said "I like feeling evil." Megatron's motivation was apparently the acquisition of power and energy, no matter what the cost. At least Galvatron was crazy. Cobra Commander was a straightforward megalomaniac. Even Mumm-Ra only wanted the power of the Eye of took most of the series before his character developed beyond that. Their characters are almost universally defined in the broadest of strokes: insulting the protagonist, devising elaborately doomed schemes, retreating effectively, vowing revenge. Lather, rinse, repeat, until cancellation.

And to be honest, I don't recall Mon*Star ever rising above the bar set by those contemporaries. It's certainly possible, but I think his prime motivations were still the acquisition of money and power, and revenge on Stargazer. But for that first act, there sure seemed to be some fantastic potential. Mon*Star doesn't begin the series with some grand show of power. The Mutants nearly committed genocide in the first episode of ThunderCats, and even though He-Man never had an origin episode, the first aired ("Diamond Ray of Disappearance") still features Skeletor defeating the Sorceress and nearly banishing our hero to another dimension. Mon*Star starts the series in a jail cell. He comes across as nothing less than desperate, bribing, threatening, and even begging the guards to allow him to see the Moon*Star burst.

That isn't the behavior of a terrifying supervillain, that's the behavior of a junkie.

Imprisoned in Penal Planet 10, it's been a long time since Mon*Star had his last fix. When the guards seal his window, he pounds at it relentlessly, shouting "No! This may be my last chance!" When he finally cracks the barrier, letting a sliver of light fall onto his eye, he quivers for a moment, then says "Yes! Yes! Give me your power, your energy!" Since he first appeared on screen, he's been throwing himself at the bars against his window, clawing at the guards through the bars in the door, and moving continually, frantically. When that light hits him, for the first time since he showed on screen, he calms down. In fact, the camera (such as it is) goes to a slow motion effect as the countdown nears its end and the starburst nears its apex.

Mon*Star speaks the power chant and transforms--and let's consider that chant for a moment. On first glance, it's pretty much exactly what Mumm-Ra's incantation is in ThunderCats--imploring some external entity for its power, which transforms the summoner into a more powerful form (incidentally, now that I think of it, this was an interesting reversal of the He-Man/She-Ra model, where the hero is the one with the transformation sequence--in both SilverHawks and ThunderCats, only the villains seem to have Prince Adam-esque alternate forms). Mumm-Ra's is slightly different; he wants to transform from "this decayed form" into "Mumm-Ra the Everliving." It was years before I realized that the "Everliving" part was actually significant. Sure, he's still Mumm-Ra when he's in the red robe and bandages, but he's not Mumm-Ra the Everliving any more than all the Voltron lions together-but-unconnected are Voltron, or something.

There's no such honorific with Mon*Star. When he summons the power of the Moon*Star, he asks it to give him "the might, the muscle, the menace, of Mon*Star." I'm sure I'm reading a bit too far into this at this point, but the implication is one of incompleteness. The Moon*Star's power doesn't change him from Mon*Star into Mon*Star the Omnipotent or Mon*Star the Destroyer, it just changes him into Mon*Star. It's the children's sci-fi equivalent of the people who take drugs to feel "normal" or "more like themselves," to fill some personal void.

When Mon*Star transforms, he nonchalantly, casually, almost mechanically, tears the wall off his cell. The guards open the doors to stop him, and he merely turns around calmly, implacably, while the robotic one shoots at him. The blast is apparently absorbed and redirected, though Mon*Star stays motionless and aloof, hitting and destroying the robotic guard. He then leaves his cell through the hole where the window was, proclaiming his freedom to a distant Stargazer.

And then we see him effortlessly re-tame his giant space squid.

I remember mentioning that '80s cartoon supervillains, when introduced, tended to get some major demonstration of their power, to show that they actually pose a threat to heroes (so perhaps we can suspend our disbelief for the next 129 consecutive defeats). Watching Mon*Star go from neurotic and desperate to destructively and mercilessly cold over the course of a single act is particularly effective at doing just that. We didn't even need to see him interact with the protagonists at all, Mon*Star acts as his own point of comparison. If the Moon*Star is powerful enough that it can turn a sniveling convict into Darth Vader, then our protagonists are in for an uphill battle.

If there's one thing that all '80s supervillains had in common, it was a desire for power. Mon*Star is the only one I remember who made that desire into a literal addiction. Mon*Star is a power junkie, empty and impotent without the influence of the Moon*Star's energy, but brutally effective with it. If the show followed through with this (and I don't remember it doing so), it would have been downright brilliant. Regardless, this was a magnificent introduction to the character, and in a single act, it provided us with more characterization than most of his contemporaries received over entire seasons.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Lest you think this has just become the Fortress of SilverHawks...

Sorry folks, it's been a fairly busy few months. Up until a week or so ago, I was working two jobs, and now I'm just working one (part-time, unfortunately) and applying for as many more as I can. The computer has become less "device for blogging" and more "device for applying for work." Consequently, the last thing I want to do when I have free time is use it even more. Surprising, I know.

But this doesn't mean I haven't been writing stuff, or at least occasionally thinking about writing stuff. I've got posts in the wings about Star Trek (both the movie and the series), the awesomeness of Action Age Comics, a brief hair-splitting on the difference between confusing-but-entertaining comics and just-plain-confusing ones, and a review for my good friends at Unshaven Comics (yes, Marc, finally). Plus, plenty more SilverHawks posts...I'll be milking "The Origin Story" for a couple of weeks.

So, yeah, not dead yet.

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.