August 18, 2012

Robotix, chapters 1-3

We're sorry for taking a couple weekends off unannounced. Personal stuff came up that needed to be dealt with. But we're back, and thanking you all for your patience with a special double-post weekend, with this piece going up today and another installment appearing tomorrow. Enjoy!

Chapter 1: Battle of the Titans

Two ships streak into the upper atmosphere of a dead planet, passing over a ruined, ancient city. One ship is massive and black, unleashing a barrage of laser fire on the smaller underdog vessel piloted by the dashing Exeter. With him on the bridge are Tauron, a bearded and wise mentor figure, Zarru, the token annoying kid, and Kanawk, the constantly sneering voice of dissent.

Exeter pulls some snazzy moves to dodge the enemy fire, but they eventually take a crippling hit and their ship crashes to the surface. Everyone - our heroes plus about a dozen other people - pour out of the smoking craft, Kanawk quick to blame Exeter for their ills.

The ground suddenly tears open and two factions of giant robots - the good Protectons led by Argus, the foul Terrakors led by Nemesis - fill the valley, ripping into one another in an ongoing struggle. The Terrakors are eventually chased off and the Protectons turn to the humans, Exeter nervously introducing himself and his people. The Protectons offer to help with repairs and set about working on the damaged ship.

While everyone is working, young Zarru starts poking around and sneaks into a control console cockpit on the body of Narra, the spider-like female Protecton. A neural casing comes down over his head and he's suddenly linked, which allows Narra to start reshifting her form into brand new configurations.

She kicks the boy out when the Terrakors once again attack, the Protectons leading the enemy robots away from the humans to a nearby waterfall. They make a valiant last stand, but are quickly overrun by the Terrakors, who violently beat their opponents down. The last thing Argus sees as he's smashed into the dirt is Protecton Bront, the muscle of the team, running from the battle like a coward.

Chapter 2: Paradise Lost

Bront arrives at the human ship, pleading Exeter to get into his control console so he can have access to new configurations and save his friends. Exeter is uncertain, but Tauron convinces him that, with their damaged ship, the humans have already formed and interdependent link with the robots. Exeter forms the neural interface, turning Bront into a tank like vehicle, and Tauron rides along and they race to the scene and chase the surprised Terrakors off Argus. Tauron hops into Argus's control console, activating the interface and turning Argus into a tank. The combined firepower sends the Terrakors running... as well as suddenly making them very interested in getting their own hands on some humans.

When Exeter asks Argus what's going on, he and the Protectons lead the humans to a massive underground vault beneath a mountain, where millions of lizard beings are encased in stasis pods. The Protectons say these beings used to be them, and activate Compucore, the central intelligence of their planet, who starts displaying images from what this world, Skalorr, was like three million years ago.

Skalorr was once a thriving world, abundant with nature and resources. The simian-like Protectons used their knowledge for cultivation, culture, and peace. The toadish Terrakors thought only of war and plunder. Nemesis channelled his forces into building Terrastar, a massive battle cruiser that would allow him to wipe out the Protectons and conquer the galaxy, but he needed to get his hands on Compucore to get it to work. He launched an assault, but the Protecton's capital city transformed into a battle craft and chased the Terrakors away.

When their sun went bad, the two sides were forced to pull together. Nemesis still wanted to use Terrastar to bring people to another world, but that would only save several hundred. Compucore and Argus instead conceived of the stasis pods, which would allow the entire populace to wait for rescue.

Nemesis continued dissenting, right up until the day the sun explodes into a supernova.

Chapter 3: Traitor In Our Midst

Fire rained from the sky and all of Skalorr burned. The capital city was badly damaged, but managed to reach the mountain vault, Protectons and Terrakors alike taking their places in the stasis chambers. Argus and Nemesis were the last, sharing a final look at the Robotix, automatons designed to one day rebuild their world, before they too took to their chambers.

Time went by. The continuing bombardment of Skalorr was brutal and the vault was eventually ruptured, leaking in lethal gasses and radiation. Compucore activated the Robotix early and used an Essence Transfer to replace their programming with the minds of Argus, Nemesis, and other randomly selected individuals. Once they came to and got over their initial shock, the battle between Protectons and Terrakors for control of Compucore once again resumed, bringing us back to the present.

Everyone returns to the crashed ship where they continue repairs and take stock of their supplies. What vegetation is left on Skalorr is highly poisonous, so all the humans have to eat is what they brought with them. Exeter imposes a ration, but Kanawk's dissent reaches a boiling point as he and several supporters desert the group, feeling the Terrastar is a better bet to get off this world than their own wrecked vessel.

Kanawk and the deserters don't get far before they're surrounded by the Terrakors. Kanawk proposes an alliance, a pooling of their abilities to remove the new edge the Protectons have. After Nemesis hoists Kanawk high and they trade a few verbal jabs of oneupsmanship, the human is hurled toward the ground below.


The title sequence of this show is a nearly incomprehensible infodump of names we don't know and figures we can't entirely distinguish, punctuated by a robotic voice singing out "ROBOTIX". I didn't have my hopes high on this one, which looked dry and cluttered.

Well, I was wrong.

Kind of. This show is a bit dry. The human characters all fall into very basic archetypes, the uniforms don't do much to imbue individual personality, and the silly names are quick to be forgotten. Their personas and conflicts only serve to move the story forward and fill basic needs like the square jawed leader, the bearded advisor, the kid, and the dissenter. There's a random black scientist who shows up in Chapter 3, but like half the cast, he goes unnamed and unexplored. Even as Kanawk is pulling together his band of dissenters, they're just a random group of guys we've never seen and know nothing about. And we know nothing of the larger conflict that opens the show. Why are these people running? Who are they running from? Once the other ship shot them down, why did it just go away instead of either finishing them off or landing and taking them prisoner? It's as though the creative team simply doesn't give a shit about these people, so it just uses them as the narrowest of plot devices to keep things moving forward and setting up basic dynamics.

And this is true of the Robotix, too. We have Argus and Nemesis, Narra somehow manages to be graceful and attractive (don't judge me!) in a very inhuman form, and there's something about the runt and the muscle of the Protectons having been the complete opposite in their flesh forms, but other than that, there's no real character depth to build on. Very basic archetypes for half of them, the rest don't even have anything as distinguishing as a name and merely take up space or act on orders.

This is the main flaw of the show so far. On all sides, human and Robitix, Protecton and Terrakor, there just isn't anyone interesting to follow. The good are good, the bad are bad, and everyone just kinda falls into place, so it's not all that easy to get invested into things. There's no personal drives, no personal vendettas, no personal failures. It's all impersonal. Everyone is just responding to outside things in their own archetypal way instead of any of it having anything resembling depth or meaning. Even on a very basic level.

This, however, while a significant flaw, is really the only one I had. If the characters didn't grip me up front, the visuals certainly did. There is an indistinctness to some of the designs, but they're all well drawn and this world has a rusted, broken look that makes me wonder if this is the same production team who later worked on the very similar Visionaries. And like that show, the animation is wonderful, with stretches that are among the most fluid and striking 80s tv had to offer. I was worried we'd get another sloppy show out of the Super Sunday shorts, given how poorly Inhumanoids and Bigfoot were executed in the animation department, but they really brought their A-team to this one. The broken environments are enveloping, the battles slick with very unexpected flourishes, the apocalyptic devastation haunting and epic, the characters consistently on model, and unlike the Inhumanoids, the massive Robotix never loose their sense of size and weight, and I even like the very distinct ways in which each of them moves, given their radically different appearances and configurations.

While the characters are flat, the story itself is pretty good, with humans dropping from their own conflict into the midst of one that's defined this alien world for millions of years. The script does a good job of gradually introducing things and setting the stage for revelations that, impersonal though they may be, still hit hard and have sweeping implications. This clash between robots literally has the entirety of a world's population at their mercy, and whichever side eventually comes out on top will have signification repercussions on this species' future.

There's also great narrative bits like the humans being divided between fixing their wrecked vessel or hunting down an ancient alien one, both of which have about equal chances of actually working. Or the ticking clock of the dwindling food supply that gives everybody just a few days to find some form of solution. Or Bront seeming to flee from battle only to reveal he's hedging his bets on a new tactic that will help his side triumph. It would have been great to give some personal weight to some of this stuff, but it still holds up as strong plotting and kept me wrapped up in events. And even when we did get the big flashback infodump, it was very well handled and never lost me, laying everything out in a very steady fashion.

And now we get to the aspect of interfacing, because it's interesting how this concept would be somewhat recycled into the Headmasters era of Transformers. I'm only judging by that show's Season 4 miniseries when I say that was a cluttered mess that never fully worked and I'm still curious to see how the Japanese built an entire season around it. Here, I like that the Robotix are pretty much locked in set forms, but when a human merges with them, it almost expands their conscious in a way, allowing them to reshape themselves in a myriad of new forms. Remember how we'd get bored with our Transformers and instead of having them as either just a robot or just a vehicle, we started playing with the transformations, reconfiguring them in odd ways that, practical or not, looked really neat as we'd wonder how that odd shape would help or hinder them? No? Well I did that, and that's what the Robotix are like. They have a base form, so instead of a single transformation, they're now unlocked to become whatever variety of configuration they want to become. I love what we see of it here, and can't wait to see how it plays out over time.

These first three chapters are pretty darn good. The flat characters and the lack of any tiniest shred of personal weight are a big strike against it, but it's still well structured, interesting, entertaining, and man does it look beautiful.

Let me just close my half by saying that, as a fan of writers, I'm a little frustrated that I don't know who scripted this. Since we're editing off the film compilation, none of the title cards are included, and unlike the Bigfoot compilation, which slipped an extra "written by" card into the end credits, no attribution is given here. I'm pretty certain it's not by Dille, despite him penning two of the other Super Sunday segments. It doesn't have the weird flow and gonzo humor of his stuff. My bet is that it's 80s toon vet and frequent Sunbow scripter Doug Booth, who's credited as an associate producer. We've covered the three episodes he wrote for Visionaries ("The Price of Freedom", "The Power of the Wise", and "Sorcery Squared") and thinking back to previous shows of his I'm familiar with, this does line up with his style of well constructed plots and interesting ideas often hampered by weak characterizations. It may also have been Roger Slifer, also credited as associate producer, a lesser known Sunbow scripter and comic writer who co-created the infamous character Lobo during his run on Omega Men. It could also be a collaboration between the two, though I'm unable to find any other instances where they're credited as co-writers. While I'm somewhat familir with Booth and recoginize many hallmarks of his writing, I'm not nearly as familiar with Slifer so can't ultimately judge.

But if this is Booth, flaws aside, this is the first time I've seen him open a show and set the stage for everything on his own, and I'm curious to see if he pulls it off in the long run. Stumbles aside, it's off to a decent start.


Robotix is something that's remained on the extreme periphery of my nostalgia radar the last few decades. I knew little of the toy line beyond what I remembered from the commercials, which were ubiquitous at the time, and I had no idea there was a cartoon (though it was the 80s, so where there’s a toy, there’s a ‘toon). In short, I went into this totally blind.

Watching a cartoon for the first time is a bit like going to a singles bar. The first thing you notice are looks, and Robotix doesn’t look half bad. Hey, baby, come here often? How about a drink? Yo, barkeep, a White Russian for the animaiden here... Sorry. Reflex. As Noel said, it’s certainly a giant step up from the rather pathetic animation of Bigfoot and the Muscle Machines. I was particularly impressed with the level of detail and intricacy on the Robotix, where every gear, sprocket, and rivet is accounted for. The design of the Robotix themselves is another matter. Forget that some of them look like dinosaurs, even though they’re from a planet light years from Earth. They just lack the clean, iconic design of contemporaries like Transformers, or even - and I can’t believe I’m actually typing this - GoBots. Some are interesting, but clunky. Most are simply uninspired in whatever form they take. As for the humans... well, as we soon learn, no one really gives two shits about the humans on this show. (Would it surprise you to learn there weren’t any action figures made of the humans for the toy line?)

But as they say, beauty is only skin deep. You can’t have a meaningful conversation with a great chest. Believe me, I’ve tried. So what about the story? Not bad. It’s simple in the broad strokes, but layered with just enough nuance to give it all some weight. Conceptually, I like the whole essence transfer thing. For one, it helps to differentiate it from the rather played out sentient robot motif. It also would’ve provided numerous intriguing story avenues had the series gone forward. The other interesting aspect was fusing the "robot as character" facet of Transformers with the mech concept of something like Robotech or Voltron. The interaction between robot and human in battle would conceivably make for far more engaging fight scenes... If the characters were more interesting, that is. I really wish the players on all sides, human and robot, had been more unique, but such is the way of things in these types of shows. I will say that I found Exeter Galaxon a bit more quirky than your standard square-jawed, all-everything leader. I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something a bit off about him in a Space Ace kind of way. Even his name sounds like a parody. Everyone else pretty much falls down archetypal lines. Shady dissenter. Spunky, annoying kid.

Generally speaking, flaws, plot holes (where did that enemy ship get off to anyway?), and lapses in logic aside, I found these first three chapters agreeable enough. Agreeable, but not fun. Oh there’s the requisite one-liners and robot wrasslin’, but it all feels a bit stiff to me. Like trying to dance in a jacket that’s too small for you.

Fun fact! - 3:58 into chapter one, that musical cue is lifted straight from Sunbow’s G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero!

Tune in tomorrow as we take a look at chapters 4-6 of Robotix.


Strannik said...

And now we get to the aspect of interfacing, because it's interesting how this concept would be somewhat recycled into the Headmasters era of Transformers. I'm only judging by that show's Season 4 miniseries when I say that was a cluttered mess that never fully worked and I'm still curious to see how the Japanese built an entire season around it.

Well... The Japanese Transformers series ignored Season 4 of the American series and did its own take on Headmasters concept, where Headmasters were transformers that (to make a long story short) dealt with Energon shortage by turning their heads into smaller bodies. When they needed to go into battle, they recombined with their original, larger bodies - otherwise, those bodies remained in vehicle mode, and Headmasters basically treated them as vehicles.

Now, the next season of Japanese series - the Masterforce season - actually had human transformers, but in the same way as Robotix or American Season 4. In this season, human Headmasters and Godmasters fusing with vehicles to transform info robots. Now, those vehicles were basically lifeless hunks of metal until their Headmasters/Godmasters fused with them. What was interesting was that Godmasters (and, to lesser extent, Headmasters) had access to powers regular old-school Transformers didn't, which actually led to tensions between human Transformers and purely robot Transformers (mostly among Decepticons, though it occasionally came up in Autobot forces as well)

NoelCT said...

Yeah, I know the Japanese series ignores the US Season 4, mainly because it debuted in July of 1987 with the US version not coming out until November of that year, so the Japanese production crew wouldn't have had access to that material because it likely didn't exist when they started... but I was mainly referring to how they built a season on the concept. :)

What I didn't know, and thanks for mentioning it, was that the concept of the Japanese Headmasters didn't have a human interface at all and were just more robots. That's interesting. I'm betting the human interface included in the season which followed came because the US Headmasters materials finally made its way across the pond by then.