February 16, 2013

Computer Warriors: The Adventure Begins, a One-and-Done Special

One-and-Done is an occasional special we'll use to showcase shows that never went beyond a single pilot episode.

A top-secret government facility, hidden in the wastelands of an American desert, hides Paralax, a massive supercomputer the size of a skyscraper which stretches deep into the ground. A technician is operating a mechanical arm to replace circuit boards. When one falls, he leans over, accidentally moving the claw of the arm into the open socket on the motherboard. A power surge erupts, triggering an unauthorized core dump into the network.

Within the inner circuitry of Paralax, four anti-virus programs are created. Romm, the leader. Gridd, a diagnostics program. Micron, a statistical analyst. Skannar, a... scanner. They're tasked with tracking down four programs - Indexx, Null, Minus, all led by Megahert - who were warped into malevolent viruses before they escaped into the bitstream network.

Our villains are winding their way through the network on gliding speeders made out of circuitry, and our heroes are quickly on their tail, everyone sweeping through various branches and junctions. The chase leads to a telecom port, where the bitstream comes to an end. Finding a portal, Megahert feels they have nothing left to lose and decides to try flying beyond the bitstream. Doing so causes a flash of energy, and the port now ends in a blown out wreck, the viruses no longer in sight. Their opposition seemingly neutralized, the Warriors return to the central core.

Megahert comes to, watching as his wireframe body finishes taking on a solid form. Looking around, he finds he and the remaining Viruses are in a world entirely unknown to them: the suburban bedroom of an everyday boy. The door opens and in stomps the giant (compared to their size of a couple inches) boy, and they hide as he takes in the sight of his desktop computer's smoking disc drive, consults a manual, then heads out to check with Leon, his computer ace buddy. The Viruses emerge, tapping into the computer and realizing the power surge that created them also gave them an ability to maintain their forms outside the bitstream. Megahert wants to return as soon as possible, but with the disc drive damaged, they decide to hide and wait for the boy to return and repair it.

In the bitstream, Skannar voices his suspicions about the Viruses' fate, which are backed up by Paralax when she stops the group after tracing back the Viruses' tap into the computer. She repairs her end of the telecom port and upgrades the Warriors' systems so they too will maintain cohesion between dimensions. They exit the disc drive and take in their surroundings, but there's no sign of the viruses. Suddenly, a pencil sharpener, a soccer trophy, and a hardcover book on the shelf unfold into armed battlestations as the Viruses appear and open fire. A fierce skirmish erupts. It's discovered that everyones' digital blasts have no effect on the matter of this dimension, which keeps their battle from marring the environment, and allows the modified battlestations to be fully shielded. The Warriors are at a disadvantage and take the opportunity to flee the room when the family dog pokes his head in to investigate the noise. It takes a second for the Viruses to disengage their speeders from the battlestations and follow into the house, where they search the rooms one by one.

The Warriors regroup in the kitchen downstairs, where they decide to fight fire with fire and spread out to objects in the room. When the Viruses reach the kitchen, no Warriors are in sight, but they search slowly and carefully. When one notices that the clock on the counter isn't synchronized with the one on the wall, the counter clock opens up into a battlestation and opens fire. The viruses split up. One is chased into the basement where it pops the lightbulbs and hides in the dark. Skannar converts a flashlight into a flying craft and pursues. Others are chased into the laundry room where the viruses are tossed around a bit by the washer before they get away when Micron is tangled up in a sock and Romm is buried under a mound of detergent.

The Viruses gloat and zoom back to the bedroom and the newly repaired telecom port. Romm tries to get in touch with Gridd, who stayed behind to guard the room. He can't get through, but just before the Viruses reach the computer, a Pepsi can next to it opens up into a battlestation, Gridd at the trigger. Romm sneaks past the latest firefight, entering the port and helping Paralax eject four CDs, each of which captures a virus as imprinted data. Before our heroes can dispose of the discs, they're forced to again hide as the boy re-enters his room. He's off to use Leon's computer... and decides to take with him the four mysterious CDs he finds on his chair.

The Computer Warriors re-enter the bitstream, using an email in the boy's computer to trace the telecom port of Leon's computer, where the struggle to destroy the Viruses will begin anew.


To open, let me give you a sense of the people involved in this project. Carl Macek was a personal hero of mine, whose now controversial work with Harmony Gold on the Robotech franchise, as well as numerous anime films released (many theatrically!) through his distribution company Streamline Pictures, are largely responsible for the swift rise in mainstream awareness and success of anime in the late 80s/early 90s. Concurrent to this, he dipped his hand in several works of original US animation, as the co-creator and head writer of C.O.P.S. (the "fighting crime in a future time" one, not the reality show), as overall supervisor of the infamously troubled Robotech: The Sentinels, and as the co-writer and producer of today's subject. The 90s would be a tough time for him, with Streamline folding before it could take advantage of the anime boom of the DVD market, a rise in fandom slams against his early dub-only release style (forgetting subs couldn't be included as a separate track on video tapes), and little work for him outside of penning some short stories, and screenplays for the likes of Lady Death and Heavy Metal 2000. He eventually returned to anime dubbing for ADV, but his controversial status led them to largely just throw him small bones to work on, with the exception of Aura Battler Dunbine, a passion project and a title he'd wanted to license since back in the Robotech days. I'm currently working my way through the series, and the dub he produced is further proof that he was one of the masters of the technique. Sadly, he passed away from a sudden heart attack in 2010, and his legacy continues to be shrouded in controversy among a fandom split between acknowledging his skill and the results of his efforts to expose anime to the mainstream, and those stung by tactics that they feel were impure and an insult to the original works.

Bill Kroyer briefly worked as an animator at Disney before befriending Steve Lisberger and becoming one of the chief animation co-ordinators for TRON. When Glenn A. Larson wanted to add a little legitimacy to his TRON cash-in series Automan, Kroyer was one of the people brought in, and Tony, he was the animator of all of the Cursor segments. Not just the pixel blipping about, but when he'd spread into a wireframe and create the vehicles. Kroyer's next two projects (on top of TRON) are likely what helped get him the Computer Warriors gig: he was the head story director for the entirety of Challenge of the GoBots, and had just produced a Tex Avery inspired and Oscar nominated short film called "Technological Threat", which combined cartoony cell animation with CGI. Around this time, he also supervised the computer animation in Starchaser: The Legend of Orin and Jetsons: The Movie, and finally made his theatrical debut with the tepid cult hit Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. He was set to follow it up with Quest for Camelot, but that was a hellish production and he was replaced before it fully moved into production. Kroyer has since stepped out of the directing chair and has spent the last 20 years as a CG animation supervisor on live-action films such as The Green Mile, The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, Scooby Doo, and Garfield.

So those are the people from whom this show came. It's also worth mentioning that one of the key animators and layout artists was Andrew Stanton, shortly before he joined Pixar and became one of their most prominent talents, directing A Bug's Life, Finding Nemo, and Wall-E, as well as writing and/or producing many of their other works. Most recently, he made his live-action debut with the troubled John Carter production (a movie I still love regardless).

So there, I took the length of a review just to set up my review. :P

To get some complaints out of the way, the first of my two main problems with the show is that the leads are forgettable. You've got your leader, Romm, the stoic guy who scans things named Skannar, the somewhat bumbling character named... here's where I start forgetting names, and some other guy who's supposed to be good at diagnostics or something. Or maybe the bumbler was the diagnostics guy. I can't remember. Of the villains, I don't remember any of their names off the top of my head, and three of them have the exact same Gumby style design to their lopsided heads, their differentiation being their coloring and the level of shriek to their voices. And the other is a cyclops who has a Frank Welker growl. I like the idea of the entire group of characters - that they all literally just blinked into existence today, with the bad being programs twisted into viruses and the good being security to hunt them down - but their lack of a background doesn't provide much foundation to build a character on, and their muted personalities kept their distinctions from standing out. The TRON programs didn't have much in the way of personality, but they had a history that instantly gave them an anchor. Automan didn't have a history, but he automatically had a personality that made him stand out. This group of characters, they don't have either.

My second issues is the cartoony stylization of everything. And let me further emphasize: everything. I don't have an issue when it comes to the Computer Warriors and their digital world. It looks great on them, and is a nice echo back to what TRON was originally intended to look like before it shifted from a fully animated film to live-action. My problem is with the "real" world also having that same cartoony stylization. It prevents a sharper contrast being painted between the digital world and ours, and a show hinging on a war hidden in the quiet reality of our own bedrooms and kitchens doesn't have the same impact when those bedrooms and kitchens have the same stylization, with exaggerated curves and lopsided angles, as an episode of Bobby's World. And the action of warfare thus loses any and all threat when everything is so rubbery and soft that we know absolutely no harm will come to anybody.

These issues aside, I quite enjoy the episode. Kroyer was one of the early masters of fusing cell animation and flat shaded CGI, and he doesn't disappoint here, as every scene of the Warriors flitting about on their circuit speeders has the speed and grace of actual aerial combat, and I like the addition of digital world areas filled with wireframe spires and stalactites they need to traverse through. And every time one of the household objects unfolds into a battlestation, the rotating polygons work beautifully. It's a shame Kroyer didn't have access to this technology during his time on GoBots, as using it for the character transformations could have given that show the edge it needed to steal attention back away from Transfomers.

And speaking of the battlestations, that's the central concept and my favorite aspect of the show: there's a war between good and evil hidden in the room of a child, and every time he steps out the door, everyday objects - a soccer trophy, a pencil sharpener, a clock, a can of Pepsi, a flashlight, a hardcover book - unfold into a fully armed and armored battle station and the fighting would resume. M.A.S.K., Transformers, and GoBots had already set a standard for Earth vehicles hiding the weapons of war beneath everyday shells, but this series takes it further by making them objects that every kid has at least one of casually lying about their room. And taking a note from Micronauts, the characters in the show are the actual size of the action figures and toysets, thus furthering the illusion a kid's mind can create when they crack open a playset to stage a new battle in their room. It's a brilliant meta concept that toes with breaking the fourth wall by both expressing and inspiring what kids do every day with the toys in their room. They'd incorporate the things on their shelves into the battles, so lets make the things on their shelves a part of the battle! It's genius.

And despite the weak characterization, the story is very intelligently and precisely written, establishing a great pace with the opening action sequence, then maintaining it through the discovery of the real world and into yet another action sequence. Which, now that I think about it, is just one long chase scene that carries us through the whole episode. The gradual way this skirmish enters and then makes use of our reality is cleverly done, with nice moments like evading the dog or getting tangled up in a sock or a disguise being uncovered when one clock isn't synchronized with another. While I don't get how a computer can just instantly manufacture CDs (would be better if they had to make use of ones already in the room), I like the idea that programs are instantly encoded/trapped on the discs when they make contact, and that the resolution to the battle is foiled when the kid innocently scoops up the discs and heads to a friend's house, where another computer will start the conflict anew.

I don't know how much longer they could have maintained this material for an ongoing series (and they might not have intended to, as I still don't know if this is an actual pilot or if it was just meant to be a one-off VHS special), but I was pretty hooked by what I got here, with its strong action, brilliant central concept, and interesting experimentation of fusing different animation techniques. Had they moved forward with it, what I'd like is to explore the characters a little more deeply so they better stand out from one another, tweak the designs of the real world so they look less stylized, and start gradually unfolding a larger world plot as more complex computers and settings are explored, and we start exploring the actual intent of the massive supercomputer that gave our heroes life. There's plenty of room for them to have branched out, and the early 90s would have been a good time for it as animated shows were starting to take some firm steps into storytelling of a more complex and serialized nature. I'd be curious what Kroyer and Macek could have done with such freedoms.

Additional thoughts:
  • I love that the kid is portrayed as a literal giant, with booming footsteps and an echo to his voice as he mills about his room.
  • The music is... hmmm. I both like it and I don't. The 8-bit synth style is a great fit for the show, but it's a little too simplistic and childish for my tastes.
  • I love that this is all a result of a technician dropping something he wasn't supposed to and sticking a finger in an electrical socket.


*stands up*

Hello, my name is Tony, I'm 38 years old, and I collect toys. At present, I have approximately three hundred action figures, as well as several of their corresponding vehicles and playsets. Many of these are from the major toy lines of the 70s/80s/early-to-mid 90s (Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Masters of the Universe, etc.), but I also love and collect some of the more obscure lines. Having been in this hobby for over a decade now, there aren't many toy lines from that 70s-90s era that I haven't at least heard of, so when Noel suggested we do this one-off special on the toy-based Computer Warriors, I was pleasantly surprised to be, well, surprised. From concept to characters, this was all new to me, and I purposefully avoided doing any research on the toys themselves to keep it that way.

A few minutes into the show, I thought I had it all figured out. The Viruses and the Computer Warriors enter our world. The Viruses like what they see, and decide to use our ever-increasing dependence on technology against us. Standing in their way, the benevolent Computer Warriors, who enlist the help of the young boy whose room they materialized into. The boy would serve as the proxy for the audience and inject some necessary humanity into the story (like Spike/Buster/Sam Witwicky in the Transformers franchise) as he tries to balance school, his chores, and saving the world before supper. But a funny thing happened on the way to world domination. The kid, totally oblivious to what's going on, soon leaves, and the war between good and evil is relegated to the most benign of battlefields: the suburban home. Therein lies the relative genius of Computer Warriors. While the concepts of many such toy lines and their corresponding shows focused on adventures in far-flung corners of the earth and beyond, this literally brought the battle home. Was your toaster engaged in a dogfight with your telephone while you were out of the room? Maybe! It was a fresh twist on the transforming gimmick that had become pretty tired by the late 80s.

Noel, I agree this premise might have been difficult to sustain as a daily cartoon series, however it works quite well as a one-and-done special. The writing is surprisingly sharp and the episode filled with many subtle, clever moments. Because of this, I'll blame the thin and rather dull characterizations of the heroic Computer Warriors on the format of this episode. With a little more time, I'm sure the gray spectrum of their personalities would've been given a few splashes of color. That said, what I can't excuse are the silly antics and goofy vocal performances of the Viruses. Were they trying to channel Bobcat Goldthwait? It's almost - and I hate to pick this scab while it's still so fresh - Pole Position-esque.

Noel makes an excellent point about the animation. The “real world” needs a more straightforward aesthetic. Instead, the interior of the home is rendered in a style that recalls its more comedic contemporaries like Muppet Babies or Garfield and Friends. But what it does manage to achieve, primarily through the use of lighting and scale, is turning a rather familiar suburban landscape into an alien world filled with hidden dangers. The bathroom becomes a dark, shadowy cave. The family pet transforms into a strange beast. And a precariously positioned box of laundry detergent is now a death trap. I felt totally immersed in this environment despite the rather cartoony style of it.

Moving at the speed of a 28k modem, Computer Warriors is an entertaining bit of forgotten “What if?” promotion animation, and definitely worth 22 minutes of time for any 80s/90s aficionados.

Additional thoughts:
  • Why do the Computer Warriors and the Viruses come out into the real world in that particular scale? In the computer world they're, what, the size of an atom?
  • I thought it was interesting that they used an actual brand name for the soda can and instantly chalked it up to corporate inbreeding (X owns Y, which is a subsidiary of Z), but I couldn't find any evidence that Mattel and PepsiCo were ever under the same corporate umbrella. I did find several instances of Mattel's Barbie line using Pepsi branding, however.

Noel - The Toyline

Yes, I know Tony is typically our grand master when it comes to our toyline pieces, but as he mentioned, this was a line he'd never heard of before, whereas I not only knew of it, but owned a few pieces.

Instead of swiping pics from another site, I'll instead direct you to a post on the Parry Game Preserve, which details it far more thoroughly than I'd ever be able to.

As you can see, the leaders of each team, Romm and Megahert, were released individually, with their glider vehicles able to transformer into everyday circuit boards (that's the reason for their size, Tony, so they can plug into specific ports like a disc drive or motherboard). Also packaged individually were the good Debugg and evil Asynk, characters who don't appear in the animated special.

The rest of the characters were packaged with their retrofitted and transformable vehicles from the special (Pepsi can, digital clock, flashlight, soccer trophy, pencil sharpener, hardcover scifi novel). There was also a bulky calculator piloted by the good guy Dekodar, and the remaining playset is the desktop computer which folds out into the hero's base, and not only contains a new hero named Chip, but a villain named - you'll appreciate this from our Automan days, Tony - Cursor!

The figures themselves were just these chunks of plastic, only a couple inches tall, with simple joints at the shoulders and hips. The sculpts are very finely detailed, but we've already covered the lack of distinction in their designs. Given their forgetability and limited playability, the stars of the line absolutely were the playsets, which fully play into the idea of random stuff a young child could have lying around their room, just waiting for the skirmish to call them to battle. Their transformations were more along the simplistic lines of M.A.S.K., where something just pops open and there you are, than the more complex transformations of the Transformers, but it was still fun enough to get the job done. Impressively, the clock, calculator, pencil sharpener, and flashlight were also fully functional. Sadly, not so much the desktop PC.

I'll admit there was a limited level of playability with the toys, and they would lose their magic after a week or two (I had the calculator, soccer trophy, and at least one of the standalones), but there's still room there to expand. And as for whether or not the animated special was intended to just be a oneoff, I think it says a lot that there's five characters still left off screen, the heroes' main base, and an additional vehicle. This is material that could be added over the next few episode or a followup special, and more could be added as the line expanded. Alas, we never reached that point, and the line was cancelled after a year.

We'll be back next week to announce our next Showcase series.

The Computer Warriors special was released on video tape (pictured at top), copies of which can still be found easily at a low price.


Tony Williams said...

but a villain named - you'll appreciate this from our Automan days, Tony - Cursor!

I want to live in a universe where Computer Warriors became a full-fledged series with Cursor voiced by none other than Chuck Wagner.

I think one of the reasons the Computer Warriors toy line didn't really take off was the limited playability. With Transformers or M.A.S.K. you had duel play value because even in their "normal" modes they were cool cars or jets. But what's a kid gonna do with a fake flashlight or a Pepsi can?

NoelCT said...

Yeah, there is a point where something disguised as stuff a kid leaves lying around their room actually becomes stuff a kid leaves lying around their room.

Tony Williams said...

Lol! Well said, sir. In fact, that should be the epitaph on its tombstone.