Episode 4 "Strangers on the Ice"
Well, Tony, it sure fits our luck that, right after we publicly dismiss the series and alter our entire blog format just to get through it quicker, we hit an episode that I actually find to be pretty decent. Not good, mind you, nor anywhere approaching great, but "decent" is a definite raising of the bar from where we've been until now.
The plot this time involves a high-tech communications satellite the Pole Position team needs to transport to a Dr. Russell, only to encounter harsh winter mountain roads that strand their truck and crack Roadie's axle. They decide to take the scientist to the satellite instead, but no sooner does Tess drive off with Dr. Russell, when another Dr. Russell appears, and then another! This all leads to mass confusion, betrayals, a teaming up of corporate spies, and slippery shenanigans as everyone is sailing over slick frozen landscapes.
Don't get me wrong, there's still a good share of stupidity to be found here. Like, why does this team need to transport the satellite when it's already been transported to the middle of the woods and disguised as an outhouse? Couldn't the person who put it there complete the delivery? And why was the team given no more information on how to identify their contact than a name? And not even a full name as the first and middle are abbreviated. And all of the action is executed with the same clumsy staging and animation we're used to.
However, a lot of it actually is quite clever. Dan gets some depth when his free-wheeling antics almost kill him and he suddenly suffers vertigo every time he has to get behind a wheel. The three Dr. Russells and the plot behind them are a lot of fun, and break the baddie mold with designs that go beyond stiff guys in suits. I like how our heroes are robbed of their wonder cars for the bulk of the episode and instead have to resort to quick thinking and everyday solutions. Even Roadie and Wheels are largely separated from their vehicle bodies and are hauled around by the kids, offering what advice or wisecracks they can. Wheels especially has a great moment where he cons the baddies into sticking him in his car long enough to make trouble, but the advantage turns and he's the damsel in distress. My favorite line of the series so far is when he's about to go over a waterfall and Tess pulls herself up alongside him on the ice.
"Tess, you shouldn't have done it! I'm just an old rust bucket!"
"Maybe so, but you're MY old rust bucket!"
That right there is a legitimate hero moment and character connection the series has lacked up to this point. It doesn't fix this tragically broken series, but it is the highlight of a legitimately decent and engaging episode that has a good script blurred by shoddy execution.
Noel, as the credits for “Strangers on the Ice” began to roll, I believe my exact words were “Oh, sure, now you decide not to suck.” And “not sucking” is exactly what this episode does. Under normal circumstances, that might sound like a backhanded compliment along the lines of those old report card comments like “Tries hard in spite of obvious and profound shortcomings,” or “With a little more time, I believe average is within his grasp,” (I know I wasn’t the only one who got those... was I?) but when you’ve exhausted your thesaurus’ synonyms for “excrement” after three reviews, I’d say it qualifies as a genuine bit of praise.
With two of the first three episodes revolving around silly animal shenanigans, it's nice to get a little industrial espionage plot, and the Dr. Russell fake-outs are a fun touch. Add in the snowbound setting, which gives things a bit of danger as well as a cool aesthetic, and what you have here is a halfway decent slice of animated entertainment, and a substantial improvement over the often painful to watch first three episodes. They still manage to wedge in some Kuma hijinks (sledding? really?), and the music, one of the show’s few strengths so far in my opinion, is so goofy at times that it undercuts the... I can’t believe I’m really going to say this... drama. But for the first time, they actually seem to be aiming a bit higher than the tops of our shoes. If they don’t exactly hit their mark, I at least give them props for trying.
Episode 5 "The Race"
Tony, remember how you and I agreed Pole Position would work better had they built it as a racing show instead of some espionage/stunt performer thing? This looks to be the closest taste we'll get of what should have been and... well... it's not helping.
This isn't one of the worst episodes, it's just dull as hell. The race is fine, but takes up all of 5 minutes of the show, with more focus on our heroes bungling on the trail of two bland red herrings, Daisy and the car modules playing a nonsensical video game, and yet another MacGuffin plot about a chip that's going to be smuggled across the border during the race. Which isn't a bad plot, even though the twist of Mr. Wilson is telegraphed from the moment we first meet him. I even like the mini arc Dan goes through, of wanting to recklessly race faster than everyone else without the use of Roadie, but he burns through it in all of 3 minutes, and it ties into the deeper message of the series so far that Dan is a complete moron who should be kept away from objects of high velocity.
This episode doesn't sink to the depths of the one with the chicken, but it's still not all that good. I continue to argue the series would work as a racing show, even though my case isn't exactly proven here.
Noel, I still believe building this series around actual racing would’ve been the way to go. Unfortunately, they just transferred the same dumb plot from the previous episodes into a race setting in this one. I just thank God the chip wasn’t hidden inside a road runner’s colon or something. “The Case of the Road Runner's Rectum, the next exciting episode of... Pole Position!”
When it comes to fake-outs, I don’t give points for trying. Why would a middle aged, redneck pit mechanic have a video game system in 1984 if not for smuggling a microchip? I wasn’t buying his “Aw, shucks, ma’am. ‘Twern’t nothin.” cornpone Hee-Haw hillbilly hullabaloo for one second. Every time Dan and Tess argued over who had the chip, I kept yelling “It’s Mr. Freakin' Wilson, you idiots!” Speaking of the microchip, once again we’re given no reason to give two shits if the team recovers it or not. What’s it do? Who’s at risk if it leaves the country? Screw you, Uncle Zachary!
On the plus side, I think the finale feature a nifty “hero suit-up” moment, complete with a cool instrumental version of the show’s theme, and the final chase is pretty exciting.
Fun fact!: The sound effects used for the video game Daisy is playing at the start of the episode are from the arcade game Xevious, though she appears to be playing something akin to “Tanks” from the Atari 2600 game Combat.
Episode 6 "The Thirty-Nine Stripes"
Tony and I have largely agreed that making this show a mystery series built around Hitchcock-style MacGuffins was a definite conceptual error, yet they actually pulled off a good mystery for once. Mostly. Though it's really dry in the first half and none of the guest characters are memorable, I was really caught up in the mystery of the series of paintings that each have a section removed across a series of nights. I wanted to know who was behind it and how they were pulling it off. The why, that it's a circuit diagram smuggled out of Russia, is pretty blah and comes in too late to have any deeper involvement in things, but the how, that it's a little robot that pops out of soda machines that we slowly recognize in each location, is a solid twist, and even though I saw the reveal coming before they flashed it, I still did so with a smile of appreciation.
Also, the big climax of the episode is pretty good. It's a little silly with the robot sprouting a propeller and taking off, but once Tess and the cars are tailing the van that's captured her siblings, it's exciting, well choreographed, and the final setpiece of the van going off a cliff into the ocean ups the stakes, and I like how Wheels acknowledges he wasn't built to submerge, giving Tess a ticking clock to resolve the situation by. It's very well done.
That said, it's still a very dry and bland episode, with the usual level of crappy animation, and never really kicks into gear until later on. It also overuses Kuma to an annoying degree, and paints Dan as nothing but an idiot and an asshole throughout. Even when he gets dragged off to jail for being a bonehead, he's pretty unrepentant about it.
Also, if Pole Position is a secret organization, how are these agents just barging into places with the authority to set up surveillance and investigate? And Pole Position has agents in Russia? Really? And why do the cars need to change into hovercraft mode just to change lanes on a highway? There was nobody in that lane! Just drive into it with your wheels still on the ground!
My first note from “The Thirty-Nine Stripes” was, “Naturally, a high end art museum has a cola machine in its auction auditorium,” which pretty much tells you all you need to know about this episode. Oh, and the MacGuffin is once again (basically) a microchip. I know they seemed pretty exotic in 1984, but so did Grace Jones. That’s no reason to use either of them more than once, and certainly not twice in a row.
I did take a couple of interesting things away from this episode. For one, I liked that Dan seems just as frustrated by Uncle Zachary's total lack of transparency as we are. The other is that apparently Kuma is a boy. That is, if we’re to take Dan’s “Thatta boy, Kuma!” literally. Now, if we just knew what species he was...
Noel, I was also initially pulled in by the mystery, but once again, my interest is rewarded with a squirting flower to the face and a hearty “Wocka Wocka Wocka!”
Episode 7 "The Thirty-One Cent Mystery"
Tony, there's an asshole hanging from Jefferson's nose!
Surprisingly, the mystery of this episode is even more gripping than the last one, probably because it starts early with Kuma being kidnapped by goons. Yeah, we have a Kuma-centric episode, but instead of playing it for laughs, it hits some serious beats as he turns up again, scratched and disheveled, wearing a half chewed through collar and trying to tell everyone something before he's snatched away again. The bit with the 31 cents seems weird at first, but it's a really clever "ah ha!" moment when everyone figures out what it means.
After that, things do get a little silly, but in a good way, as a stolen, bejeweled totem pole is found hidden on Thomas Jefferson's eyebrow on Mount Rushmore, and that Kuma was taken because he has the lightness and dexterity to easily retrieve it. It's an absurd setup, but they play up and acknowledge the absurdity, yet still keep it grounded with moments like Kuma trying to rescue Dan from the side of Jefferson's nose. There's genuine concern on the... we still don't know what Kuma is, but there's genuine concern on Kuma's face, and it hurts when he's netted by the crooks again before he can help. After that, we get some good humor from the kid who keeps spotting Dan in odd situations, a solid chase sequence over mountainous terrain and across a dam, and a great moment where Dan tells the girls to stay behind because it might be dangerous, and they just share a look and plow right past him.
The villains are weak and the animation is still crap, but it's a pretty solid little episode, and maintains a consistent drive and cleverness throughout.
What is it with this show and animals being trained to steal Native American artifacts? What’s next, a mole trained to crawl into the Statue of Liberty’s vagina to recover a lost fertility mask? This whole episode just feels absurd to me. I mean, hidden treasure in Jefferson’s eyebrow? I kept waiting for Nicolas Cage and Jon Voight to wander by.
Noel, Kuma-centric is right, and that’s wrong. So, so wrong. If you think Kuma is annoying when he’s calm, let's talk about how he is when he’s amped up. He sounds like a cassette tape being eaten by the player. To top it off, these have to be the worst bad guys so far. If these two were any goofier, Disney would likely have sued for copyright infringement. At one point, they get in a tug-of-war with Dan and Daisy... and it’s a stalemate!
I just hated “The Thirty-One Cent Mystery” with a passion. The clincher for me is when Tess ends the episode with a drawn out info dump on how the totem got into Jefferson’s eyebrow in the first place. It seems some crook was fleeing from the authorities when he just so happened to wander by Mount Rushmore as they were repairing Jefferson’s eyebrow. Being a fast thinker, he hid the totem in the still wet brow. Folks, I couldn’t make that up without a lot of drugs.
Episode 8 "Dial M for Magic"
I had no idea what to expect from this episode going in, but the title left me fearing the worst. Strangely enough, the entire episode kept leaving me with no idea what to expect from one scene to the next as this is a WTF storyline on the level of an Inhumanoids episode.
Our heroes are passing through a desert when they come across a town populated by haggard children who whisper about a curse and tell the heroes they should clear out quick. There's phantom fires, a ghost lady who floats in the air and howls, a snarling demon that rises out of clouds of smoke, and a flamboyantly dressed magician named Zoltan the Magnificent, who says the heroes need to leave before they foil his attempt to clear this town of the evil that possesses it.
As our heroes investigate, they find that everything is an illusion, and Zoltan has duped the adults of the town into digging up another town that's been buried in a mountain (!?), which houses an abandoned gold mine. He tells them the gold is the cause of the curse, so all they have to do is dig it all up and give it to him.
Yeah, that sound pretty stupid to me, too, but what makes this episode work is that, again, it embraces its absurdity and runs with it full tilt. Zoltan isn't exactly what I was asking for when I said I wanted more colorful villains, but I'll take him over what we've had in the past. His sidekick has a good bond with Daisy and the flooding of the mine makes for a great climactic setpiece. The other climactic setpiece on the train as Zoltan makes his escape isn't quite as compelling, but the midnight thunderstorm it's plowing through makes for an exciting atmosphere, and this episode is boosted by some high quality vehicle animation shots, which the show has been lacking for most of its run.
I can't say this is a great episode, nor entirely coherent, but I did mostly enjoy the wild ride it took me on as it kept me on my toes with one completely unexpected twist after another.
In fact, Tony, I'd go so far as to say this series as a whole is starting to grow on me a bit. Not so much that I regret the compressed format we've taken here, but enough that I'm no longer finding each installment a painful experience. Either I'm getting used to it, or it actually is getting just a tiny bit better.
This is the episode where Pole Position goes full Scooby Doo. And we all know you never go full Scooby Doo.
Noel, I wanted to like this episode, I really did. I tried to tell myself that the town has a creepy atmosphere. That the colorful theatrics are an improvement over the whole bumbling villains thing we’ve been accustomed to. But none of that makes up for how utterly stupid this all is. They should’ve titled it “Children of the Corny”. Really, it’s not that different from a standard Pole Position episode. They just replaced the highly trained animal proxy-thief with a bunch of creepy kids. The goal is the same, however. Get the treasure by the most ridiculous and convoluted means possible!
I will toss a few scraps of praise - okay, one scrap of praise - the show’s way. The voice acting of the three main leads has grown on me, as have the characters. We really don’t know how old Dan and Tess are supposed to be, but I think it’s fair to say that at least Tess is over the age of 18. My guess is that Tess is the oldest, and she sounds it. Lisa Lindgren’s acting isn’t going to win any awards, but she does a good job of conveying the calm and level-headed aspect of her character. Dan’s voice has the unmistakable squeak of a teenage boy, and that’s because he was voiced by an actual teenager in 14-year-old David Coburn, who would become better known to 90s kids as Captain Planet. Even though the way the character is written could easily make him an unlikable prick, Coburn’s cheerfully confident performance makes him impossible to hate. Daisy’s voice also has the authentic qualities of a little girl, so I wasn’t surprised to find out that she was voiced by 10-year-old Kaleena Kiff. Mixing just the right amount of cute and precocious, Kiff lifts Daisy above the standard tag-along kid role, into a true third member of the team. I also have a soft spot in my heart for Melvin Franklin’s good-natured Wheels.
Alas, this episode sucks. It’s not as bad as the founding father dingleberry hijinks of the previous episode, but it’s weirder by half. Noel, this may be the point in the Showcase where we have our inevitable split.
Only five more episodes, and I lead off next. God help me.
We'll be back in two weeks to wrap things up with a look at episodes 9-13.
The complete series of Pole Position is available on DVD through Amazon or other online retailers.