December 22, 2012

Pole Position, episode 1 "The Code"

The crowd roars at a racetrack set up for a stunt show by sibling drivers Dan and Tess Darrett, and their artificially intelligent cars Roadie and Wheels. Watching from the stands are their spunky young cousin Daisy and her pet... something, Kuma. Also is the crowd is a bland guy in a suit, the studly Greg Dumont, who shares a meaningful nod with another bland guy in a suit, the sinister Vance.

The show goes well, with the Darretts racing over ramps and jumps and water pits and a series of interconnected tubes, their vehicles occasionally shifting to hovercraft and hydrofoil configurations. Dan is a hot-headed risk-taker of a driver, often at odds with the wisecracking Roadie. Tess, on the other had, is very meticulous, mapping out every future move in her mind, and often reassuring the uncertain Wheels. Part way through the race, they get a message from their uncle, Dr. Zachary Darrett. There's a level three emergency, which needs to be addressed as soon as the show is over.

They finish to much applause, the licks of Kuma, and Daisy bouncing up and down, saying she'll be a racer just like them some day. Tess is approached by Greg, who charms her with compliments and sets up a date with her that night. The Darrets then retreat to Pole Position 2, their ultra decked-out trailer, where they contact Pole Position 1. Dr. Zachary, a bland guy in a suit and moustache, appears on the screen and tells them that the organization's computer system has been hacked, leaving an outside force with the access codes for Roadie and Wheels, the information banks of whom could be disastrous if they fell into the wrong hands. The entire conversation, and the new access code, is overheard by Greg, who stands outside with a listening device.

Tess removes Roadie and Wheels from the cars (they're largely contained in two portable modules the size of small televisions) and brings them into the trailer to reset them to the new access code. Mischief is then had as Kuma gets mud all over Roadie's car, and Daisy dresses the two as Mommy and Daddy in a game of family dressup. Dan then returns the modules to their cars for the night (which are housed in a second trailer behind the first), and Daisy sneaks into the back seat of Wheels, where she often spends nights.

After the date with Tess, Greg meets with Vance behind a stack of tires, telling the man that the access codes have been dealt with and wanting reassurance his fee will be paid. Dan sees the two talking and recognizes Vance as someone who was lurking around earlier. Dan can't hear the pair, though, so he has nothing but suspicions when he tries and fails to warn Tess about Greg.

Greg sneaks into Wheels and uses the access code to get control of the car's systems, allowing him to drive off. Unfortunately, Daisy is still in the back seat and Roadie, on autopilot, races after in pursuit, only backing off when Daisy's safety is threatened. Dan and Tess (and Kuma) race up to Roadie as the situation sinks in, and they all take chase. To the delight of Vance, who heads for his chopper.

The two cars race through the woods and along a mountain road. At one point, Dan tries to jump to the other car, but it doesn't work out and Roadie falls behind. In Wheels, Greg is showing increased guilt as Daisy chides him for being a bad guy, and he eventually pulls off at a picnic stop to let her out. Greg contacts the other car to let them know where Daisy is, but Vance gets to the girl first, snatching her into his helicopter. Which takes off just as Dan gloms on to its landing strut and holds on for dear life.

Greg is furious when he finds out Vance kidnapped Daisy, who the other man wants to hold as insurance, but begrudgingly asks the chopper to slow down Roadie with a driven Tess at the wheel. The chopper starts smacking into Roadie with its landing struts, but all this does is allow Dan to get back in the car.

The two cars reach the city, where they race through streets and alleyways, and eventually down into the subway, where they speed over the tracks in hovercraft mode. Greg swerves Wheels past an oncoming train and intentionally smashes through a platform billboard, reaching a hidden tunnel beneath that's quickly covered by a duplicate billboard. Dan swerves around the same train, and shuts his eyes tight when Roadie tells him to smash through the same billboard.

They're all in the underground headquarters of Vance, which ends at a massive chamber filled with a huge computer. Vance is there, holding Daisy and threatening her safety if Dan and Tess don't stay where they are. Greg gathers the modules of both Roadie and Wheels (after fighting off the claws of Kuma) and docks them both into the computer terminal. Vance then opens a bottomless pit, separating he, Daisy, and the modules from Dan, Tess, and Greg, the latter of whom he reveals to be a Pole Position agent who turned traitor.

Dr. Zachary suddenly appears on the terminal screen, revealing Greg to be a triple agent, and that Wheels and Roadie have been rigged to take out Vance's entire computer system, which will explode in 30 seconds. Vance runs off into the waiting arms of cops outside his building, Daisy grabs the modules and raises the bridge back over the pits, and our heroes race off as the entire system shorts out behind them.

Dan and Roadie head home with Daisy, while Tess learns not everything from her date with Greg was an act. They fall into a kiss, unaware that she and Wheels are blocking honking traffic.


Well, I guess now we know why the opening title sequence doesn't feature any villains...

White Guys In Suits Conspiring Around a Stack of Tires Count: 1

Vance, the baddie of the episode (I don't know if he's a recurring foe or just a one-off) is neither interesting nor a threat. Remember Walter Peck from Ghostbusters? Vance is his less charismatic second cousin who sold out his accounting firm so he could become a "master" criminal, stealing computers in an overly machinized way and kidnapping little girls who then stomp on his foot and make his headquarters explode. Seriously, why would such damaging information be stored in Roadie and Wheels in the first place? Vance's entire ploy, intended to make him seem like a strategic mastermind, instead makes him look like a fool, even before the revelation of Greg's real role in things. And why the tease of Vance almost getting away at the end? If we're going to go the Vengeance of Vance route, can we at least give him the exit he deserves by having him slip in the puddle of a freshly mopped floor, go down the garbage chute, and wind up sitting in a dumpster with a banana peel on his head, a rat snickering from the moldy pizza on his lap, and a fail horn tooting out while Saban and Levy underlay it with a rhythmic beat? I'd rather that than just having him be cuffed by cops.

Please tell me this isn't the type of baddie we're stuck with? I understood such villains in Automan and Street Hawk, because they were live action and had to aim a little low with foes so as not to stretch beyond the budget being spent on stuntwork and effects. But this is a cartoon, for Pete Postlethwaite's sake! Cartoon villains should have color, pizzazz, wild designs and even wilder personalities! Especially in the 80s! I mean, come on, is this a show by Jean Chalopin, the guy who gave us Doctor Claw, the RM Corp Bots, and numerous villains whose names end with "-arr!", or is this a covert Glenn A. Larson production aiming to continue cashing in on Knight Rider? Because it sure as hell feels like the latter.

I think a big chunk of the problem also stems from the basic setup of the show, in that our leads are a travelling duo stunt routine, when they should instead be racers. By keeping them off a track with other cars, they're robbed of opposition, of colorful characters who can be painted as a rotating cast of friends, foes, and rivals, which would make this more an American Speed Racer than a retroactively watered down Bigfoot and the Muscle Machines. This is especially weird given the racing nature of the original video game, so why would they abandon that central idea for one far staler? DiC has always been notorious for playing it safe, so were they just afraid to instill such an air of competitiveness instead of focusing on teamwork? Because the two are not mutually exclusive, guys.

I do like the two leads. There's very little around them to play off of, but Dan and Tess are a fun and charismatic pair, and I like the dynamic of him being a reckless free-wheeler whose instincts are often at odds with Roadie, while she's a more intellectual driver perfectly in sync with Wheels. That said, the dialogue and voice acting are a bit of a chore, with Dan coming off as a knuckleheaded buffoon of the "Excuuuuse ME, Princess!" variety, and Tess taking forever to accept that Greg turned traitor after their swell date. And aside from a couple of funny lines, Daisy is every bit the annoying kid sidekick I feared, and I still haven't figured out what Kuma is supposed to be or what he adds to things.

So let's see, we've got half-way decent leads who aren't used well, an awful villain, a pointless plot, a series that's conceptually broken so as to quickly stagnate any chance of a solid supporting cast. What else. Um, Wheels and Roadie are far too goofy with their wisecracks and funny faces, and their ability to so efficiently drive on their own takes a lot of the challenge away from the skill of our leads. And Greg never takes off as a character to the degree they're trying to lift him to. And as much as I love the Saban/Levy score, it's overbearing and endless and sometimes threatens to drown out dialogue. And the entire Pole Position organization doesn't even try to make sense and is largely just there for the sake of having it be there. And the writing credits for the entire series are lumped together in the end credits instead of specifying who wrote which episode, which occasionally happened in 80s toons and I hate. And... and... wait, is there really only one bunk bed in that trailer for all three of them? With no pillows or blankets? What? *checks* Oh, wait, I see. She has her own separate room. But wait, how do they fit three rooms into that trailer? It's nowhere near as big on the outside as it is on the inside? WHY IS THIS A TARDIS TRAILER AND HOW?

On the plus side - yes, I have some positives - I do like the look of the show. Some of the characters are forgettable, but the designs themselves are very clean and crisp, with slightly better than average animation. The characters are consistently on model and the vehicles have weight and a good sense of motion. And the action is exciting. From the stunt display of the two cars swooping in and out of a nest of tubes to the big chase of the second half, which had some good twists and moments of danger overcome by skilled driving, it's well produced on a visual and technical level.

Also, I like the moment of Daisy dressing up Wheels as Mommy and Roadie as Daddy in a children's game of Family, if only because, when you think about it, this is a parentless child trying to sort out how things fit in this new family she's surrounded with. It's played very subtly and hidden behind some laugh lines, but it is a nice character beat.

Also, nice touch with the computer display of an 8-bit winding mountain road, which is a great tip-of-the-hat to the arcade game.

Unfortunately, the majority of the show is demonstrating right from the start why this likely didn't go beyond the 12 remaining episodes. It's exciting and poppy and occasionally neat to look at, but it isn't interesting and has a weak, nonsensical setup, bland villains and supporting cast, crappy dialogue, and heroes that aren't held up to their fullest potential.

It's a real slam on the breaks of my enthusiasm.


Having now watched the first episode of Pole Position, I see the lyrics to the theme song in a whole new light...

“From now on, like your parents were, you are the secret force of Pole Position!”

Translation: Oh, your parents aren’t dead. They just got tired of chasing villains who look like they work part-time at the Men’s Warehouse. Congrats, you’re secret agents!

“They're movin' real fast. They're the only ones who can get there on time.”

Translation: No one else is trying to get there, on time or otherwise.

“They're never too far behind, they're always fighting crime.”

Translation: By “always”, we mean when they’re not engaging in awkward domestic situations, and by “crime”, we mean ambiguous shenanigans and occasional tomfoolery.

”On the curve or the face of adventure in the danger zone.”

Translation: Sir, Mr. Kenny Loggins’ lawyer is on line three.

“Pretty soon they'll be off on a mission, come and watch them go!”

Translation: And tell your friends to watch, too. Especially if they’re a Nielsen family.

“Pole Position! What's behind their stunt show? Pole Position! What's behind their stunt show?”

Translation: Seriously, we don’t know. We’re asking you.

“Pole Position! Only their Uncle knows.”

Translation: And he’s not telling until you put on this bikini and pose for some pictures.

“Pole Position! Sit back and watch them go-oo-oh. Hey-O Hey-O Hey-O Hey-O Hey-O”

Translation: Hey-O Hey-O Hey-O Hey-O Hey-O

If it’s not obvious by now, the first episode of Pole Position didn’t blow me away. I thought the visuals, especially during the stunt sequences, were quite cool. I also loved the soundtrack which, fittingly enough, wouldn’t sound out of place in a video game. But this story... man.

Given that this is the first episode, is it too much to ask them to explain exactly what Pole Position is, what they do, and who they work for? They use this stunt show as a cover, that much the theme song tells us, but beyond that, we get nada. Speaking of the stunt show, why would they need it as a cover, anyway? Does the world of traveling stunt entertainment crisscross with nefarious villains bent on world domination? Doubtful. It seems to me it only serves to put the agents, and their hi-tech, sentient wonder cars out in the open. Noel, you are soooooo right when you say that this should’ve been centered around racing, instead. For one, it’s just a better fit synergistically with the video game that it’s based on. If the show focused on racing, it would naturally want to make kids go play the game, and vice versa. More importantly, that world is just far more interesting and full of dramatic potential. Noel hit the nail on the head when he said it could’ve been something akin to an Americanized Speed Racer. Not only would it naturally have provided the opportunity to create a cast of colorful recurring characters - the team’s pit crew, opposing racers, and scheming team owners - the race theme would’ve given you a natural and exciting climax to each episode. What we get instead is a sort of Knight Rider Jr., which could be okay if the writing were better.

I see what they were going for with the characters. Dan is supposed to be impulsive, while Tess is levelheaded, and together they balance each other out. Only they don’t, because, in reality, Dan is an idiot and Tess is dull. They’re more like a sitcom couple. Speaking of which, am I the only one who senses a sort of Flowers in the Attic thing for Tess on Dan’s part? I swear he seemed jealous of her affections for Greg. Some of this could’ve been mitigated had Wheels and Roadie’s personalities complimented their drivers better, but Roadie is simply a smart aleck while Wheels is an agreeable softie. Come to think it, it actually might have been better had they paired Dan with Wheels and Tess with Roadie. And then there’s Daisy and Kuma. Not content to merely have either an “adorable” kid or a “cute” animal sidekick, Pole Position gives us both. Thank God Kuma doesn’t talk at least, and no, I have no idea what kind of animal it’s supposed to be, either.

One episode does not a series make, and the first ones are almost always a little more miss than hit. With its mix of exciting visuals and catchy music, this could still be an entertaining series if they manage to find something slightly more interesting for our young heroes to do.

Tune in this Saturday as we race towards the next Pole Position with "The Canine Vanishes".

If you'd like to watch along with us, the complete series of Pole Position is available on DVD through Amazon or other online retailers.

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