February 2, 2013

Pole Position, episodes 9-13

Episode 9 “The Bear Affair”


“The Bear Affair”? I’ve totally seen this! It starts off with these two big, hairy lumberjacks out chopping wood, and one of them is all, “My muscles are so sore,” and the other one is like, “I’ve got a cure for that,” and the first one says, “I bet you do!” ... [five minutes later] ... and then their boss shows up and says, “What’s going on here?!” ... [three minutes later] ... and he’s like, “No, I said grab my axe!

Wait a second, here. This isn’t... My bad. Ahem. So, “The Bear Affair”. Yeah. Basically, the Pole Position team are called in to investigate the disappearance of Joe Curry, an engineer who helped create Wheels and Roadie. When the team arrives at the phone booth where Curry was last seen, they find a teddy bear who says, “Take me to Susie Curry,” when you pull its string. Susie turns out to be Joe’s young daughter. A further message reveals that Curry has been taken to a large automobile factory on the outskirts of town. Leaving Daisy behind to watch Susie, Dan and Tess go to the factory and discover that Curry has been kidnapped by the factory’s owner, who is demanding Curry cooperate with him on... something. When Curry refuses, the factory owner dispatches his two guards to go and bring back Susie. What follows is a race against time as the Pole Position team attempt to rescue Curry and protect Susie from the factory owner’s goons.

Noel, this is flat out the worst episode so far. It’s so bad, so full of plot holes, missed opportunities, and just plain stupidity that it makes my brain hurt trying to recount it all. It begins promisingly enough. The fact that Curry helped create Roadie and Wheels makes you think we might get a little back story and perhaps some insight into Pole Position as a whole. Fat chance. It’s nothing more than a throwaway detail, never touched on again. There’s not even a moment of acknowledgment between Curry and the cars. You might also think that Curry was being compelled to create more cars like Roadie and Wheels for some sort of dangerous organization, but again you’d be wrong. Turned out Curry had been hired to create a special gas saving fuel injector. The injector worked, but unfortunately had the side effect of releasing toxic fumes. Curry naturally wanted to scrap the project, but the greedy factory owner only saw dollar signs. Don’t get me wrong, that’s certainly something worth stopping, but when you’re creating a fictitious adventure story with an infinite palette on which to paint, and you choose that as your threat... Gah!

The episode is also full of typical Pole Position silliness. Tess races after the two factory goons dispatched to bring back Susie, only to have Wheels break down. “Okay,” I hear you saying, “that creates tension as Susie and Daisy are now all alone and vulnerable.” True, but instead of focusing on that looming threat, the show spends the next three minutes with Tess at a local garage where she compels the slack-witted mechanic into letting her use his tools to fix Wheels. Speaking of the slack-witted mechanic, he looks and sounds like he could be the son of the not-as-he-appears pit mechanic “Mr. Wilson” from the episode “The Race”, again showing a lack of diversity when it comes to character designs. Oh, and the factory goons sent to grab Susie? They end up being caught in some sort of Home Alone style anti-burglar contraption she built. Threat: Eliminated. Drama: Doused. Hope: Gone.

What a dreadful 22-minutes of television. I’m glad to have it in my rear view mirror.


I don't mind the kids capturing the goons through Home Alone-style tactics. What I do mind is that WE DON'T EVEN GET TO SEE IT. Silly and grating as it may be, I'd much rather have half the episode be goons stalking around a house and being constantly outwitted by two little girls, but we don't even get that. We see them break into the house, then cut away, then show up again 5 minutes later as the girls are relaxing, the goons already foiled and trapped. And who puts the trap of a home's security system in their child's bedroom? ON HER ACTUAL BED, NO LESS?


Tony, I've seen this show get worse, but this really is a stupid mess with aimless plotting that, yeah, never seems aware of the potential it's establishing for the story it couldn't figure out how to tell. The whole bit with Tess's car breaking down? Okay, if we're going to go there, let's actually go there as not only is the car broken, but Wheels' CPU is broken, so why isn't she worried about the possibility of her friend's memory having fried and if he'll be the same Wheels when he wakes up? Why is there no reason for the car breaking down? Seriously, it just randomly happens! The episode is coasting along (as best as it's able), and there's suddenly smoke and the engine dies. There's no reason for this, no purpose to it. The purpose isn't even to slow Tess down from reaching the girls because she's already far enough away that the tension is there.

And most importantly, if you're going to have an episode about the engineer who helped build Roadie and Wheels, don't you freakin' DARE have a plot thread where one of the cars completely melts down UNLESS YOU'RE GOING TO INVOLVE THEIR CREATOR IN ITS REPAIR! Wheels' CPU shorts out and only the man who built him has a chance of bringing him back on line. THERE. THERE's the plot thread you need to give your story weight, AND IT'S SITTING RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU. HOW COULD YOU MISS IT. YOU FOOL. GAH GYARGH FLARBLE &*#r$#*&fdejdjek8!!!

*deep breath*

This episode sucks.

On the plus side, I find it interesting that "The Bear Affair", while being on the surface about a teddy bear MacGuffin, features not one, not two, but three big, burly manly men, two of whom rope up and gag our strapping young blonde male lead. And look at that still I pulled. That is, no joke, an actual still from this episode. Either this is a heap of coincidences, or someone behind the scenes had a good snicker at what they managed to slip through.

Episode 10 “To Clutch a Thief”


In the Cloak and Dagger world of Pole Position, peril is a constant companion. Take this episode for instance. In “To Clutch a Thief” - that’s just too clever - we begin with a high octane chase, as the brave agents of Pole Position pursue a dangerous spy ninja commando clown. Things get dicey for a moment as the big top troublemaker sends a slow moving bulldozer screaming toward Tess, who is trapped by a small metal plate that fell on her foot. As her hi-tech wondercars look on, themselves trapped by a small, thoroughly surmountable obstacle, Tess seems doomed. Thankfully, big brother Dan is there to save the day. Whew!

As if her day weren’t already filled with pulse pounding excitement, Uncle Zachary calls to inform the team that they are to return to their jerkwater charming hometown of Beverlywood, where Tess is to be crowned Queen of the town pageant - an honor only bestowed every twenty five years, and a veritable Darret dynasty. Alas, evil never sleeps, and when Queen Tess and her court make their way down the parade route, a dastardly knight pounces on her float and seizes the beautiful amulet around her neck. Egads! After a breakneck chase that sees the team square off with a giant elephant, they track the amulet to the lair of a dangerous senior citizen. When they enter, they find the woman dressed up like the Queen of the pageant. She informs them that for the past fifty years she’s harbored a dark jealousy over the Darret’s grandmother beating her out for the crown and this is her sick, warped way of dealing with it. But wait, there’s a twist! The amulet she’s wearing is not the one worn by Tess, but a fake. The real one was stolen by... her pathetic, dumb, totally incompetent fanatical son! Desperate for a taste of victory so common for the uncommon Darret family, he conspired to steal the real amulet. What follows is a chase so intense, so exciting, that the only thing I can compare it to is David Winters’ Space Mutiny William Friedkin’s The French Connection.

Full of breathless action and shocking twists, I’m sure I speak for Noel when I say that “To clutch a thief” is Pole Position at its absolute best.

This review was brought to you by Sarcasm. Sarcasm, a division of Snark Industries.


All sarcasm aside, it's not that bad of an episode. Instead of stupid nonsense, there's an air of zany silliness to the plot that makes it work better than some. The high-speed action opening as they chase down a clown in a hamburger-mobile. The fantasy of the elderly candy maker still bitter that she never got to be Queen. The chase that takes everyone onto a riverboat, complete with a Mark Twain-alike cameo. The earlier chase through the parade, where Tess has to go after a rampaging elephant with the prized necklace hooked on a tusk, and Mark hops on a unicycle to ride after the thief, who's on a bicycle/pretzel stand. It's absurd, but intentionally plays it as such, and so I had a fun time. And Tony, the hamburger-mobile is not an easily surmountable object. It was wedged in that entrance pretty good with its wheels stuck on the tire spikes, and as amazing as Wheels and Roadie are, I like the reminder that they can't get past everything without a little work. It takes the force of both of them to eventually push it aside, and they couldn't fly over because they can't fly. Their hover mode only takes them a couple feet off the ground. And as for Tess, it is a little silly how she got trapped, but I'll give them points for showing how heavy the object on her leg is when Dan has to struggle to lift it off.

Moreover, I think this episode is strong because it's the closest we've come to a character piece for our leads. Tess almost dies in the opening, and in her stress, actually lashes out at Uncle Zachary when he calls to send them somewhere new. And that new place he sends them is back to their hometown, where Tess gets to reunite with old friends, and step into the shoes of both her mother and grandmother. She even contemplates quitting Pole Position so she can settle down in a nice, quiet life... until crime hits even this hamlet and her call for justice is reignited.

Sure, not much is done with the thread beyond that point, but I still appriciate it being there. And the whole mystery around the necklace - I love the candied fakes - kept me intrigued and entertained. It's far from great, but it's definitely on the higher end of what Pole Position has to offer.

And if the parade balloon of a moose in a blue sweater looks familiar, that's Montgomery, leader of the titular team from The Get-Along-Gang, another DiC/Jean Chalopin animated series - based on a line of Hallmark greeting cards! - which ran alongside Pole Position from September to December of 1984. It's fun to see a little cross-promotion between DiC shows, and extremely amusing that it's for another misfire that had just as short of a screen life as Pole Position did.

That's right, Tony. The Get-Along-Gang is a Short-Lived Show.

*evil laugh*

Episode 11 “The Secret”


When the Pole Position team's semi breaks down on the outskirts of a small town, Dan enlists the help of a beautiful young jogger. Unfortunately this puts he and the rest of the Pole Position team in the cross-hairs of the local sheriff and the girl's father, the Mayor. After Dan is arrested on dubious charges, the gang begins to realize there's a few people in the quiet town of Vanity with something to hide... Okay, it's a gold mine.

Once again this, episode sees the “Secret Force” of Pole Position and their billion dollar hi-tech sentient super cars tangling with a couple of hicks over small stakes. The lack of dramatic ambition in this show is jaw dropping. I'm not kidding, this plot puts the “anal” in “banal”. I've compared Pole Position to Scooby Doo on several occasions, but even Scooby would watch “The Secret” and go “Rah, rum on!”

So we've established that it's stupid and dull, but because I feel compelled to say at least one nice thing about this episode, I offer this. There's a moment early on when Dan introduces himself to the young jogger, and Roadie, feeling affronted, voices his displeasure. In an effort to keep their cover, Dan explains it away as his radio. I know this sounds about as funny jock itch, but the interplay is executed well and it's a fun little moment. Sadly, it's like a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.

Noel, I hate to sound like a broken record, but this is a new low for the series. Not because it's a spectacular failure, but because it doesn't even seem to be trying any more.


I quite like this episode. The Peepee team ends up in a random town when their truck breaks down (the result of a pretty girl catching Dan's eye). Then there's a slow rise in tensions as little things seem off, like the prosperity of the place and unusual layers of ordinance. Then we get an escalating conflict with the Sheriff as first Dan, then Tess wind up in jail, with Wheels and Roadie impounded, all due to visibly trumped up or just plain false charges. It's great seeing the kids try to be respectful of the legal system, but then the system turns on them, leading us in the unexpected direction of Uncle Zachary giving the kids his blessing to break the law into order to put the law in its place and figure out just what in the hell is going on. Which pushes the law into a corner as the Sheriff and Mayor decide to blow the incriminating mystery away with a bundle of dynamite, even at the potential cost of lives.

This is a really solid slow burn of a mystery, and every beat and choice feels very realistic and motivated on both sides of the conflict. And as Tony mentioned, there's great little character bits, like the attempts to hide Roadie and Wheels from the populace, or sending Kuma out on a joyride as a distraction, or Dan trying to take Susan out on a date only to grow suspicious as she keeps telling him what places are off limits, or Uncle Zachary balking at "Ten thousand dollars!?", or Dan desperately racing to the rescue... on Daisy's little girl bicycle.

It worked for me all around, as while it's not the most exciting episode, it is a very smart and consistent one. But where I totally agree with Tony is that it's just not an episode fit for an 80s cartoon spin off of a racing video game. This would make for a solid episode of Automan or Street Hawk, but this is animation, and you need to give us something we can't see with a couple of actors on the backlot. There's no amazing spectacle, no massive plots, no color or energy to the characters or setting. It's all very bland and ho-hum, and not only does it not make use of the medium in which this show is being made, but how did they honestly expect to keep the attention of their childhood audience with stories like this? At least the previous episode had elephants and a carnival and a fight over the paddle wheel of a riverboat. Here, we get pat-downs and tires kicking up dust.

It's certainly not bad, but it also certainly doesn't work, and is yet another example of the ambition this series lacked from the foundation up.

Episode 12 “Shadow of a Trout”


Sha-- Shadow of a trout!? I give up. I flat out give up. *Sigh*

As the Pole Position teams wraps up another Earth-shattering case, they attempt to contact Uncle Zachary, only to discover that his emergency alarm has been activated. Concerned, they make their way to the top secret Pole Position HQ to investigate. Their Uncle is nowhere to be found, but they stumble upon a business card with the name Alfred MacGuffin (har-de-har-har) on it. They contact MacGuffin, who tells them that he had been in to see their Uncle earlier that day and that he had been acting strange, mumbling something about “Finding the colored fish.” With that as their only clue, the team scours the city. After a fruitless day spent searching, they see a news report fingering them for their Uncle's disappearance. With the heat building, team Pole Position once again sets out to find their missing Uncle, and to clear their names. The clues eventually lead them to the legendary Alcatraz prison, and that's when the real mystery begins! *fake enthusiasm alert*

It's tempting to say that this episode's use of actual McGuffins, as well as its other overt Hitchcock references, is clever, and perhaps it is by usual Pole Position standards, but it's accompanied by the same silliness that seems hard-wired into this show's mainframe. There is a genuine sense of mystery here (even if the payoff is meh). I also like that they finally get uncle Zachery involved, as well as the reveal that he's in a wheelchair, which has heretofore been just out of frame at Pole Position HQ. Unfortunately, that's all lipstick on a pig. A pig I've been Frenching nearly every day for the past two weeks thanks to this revised format.

Noel, I have a sense you might appreciate this episode more, as I'm sure you get more of the Hitchcock and classic movie McGuffin references than I do. As far as I'm concerned, “Shadow of a Trout” is for the birds. Get it? Birds. Nevermind.


Surprisingly, Tony, I don't. It actually gts off to a nice start, and my expectations went up when we actually get to visit Pole Position HQ only to find Uncle Zachary kidnapped, and I like that we finally get to meet him in the flesh and that the reason he entrusts the kids with all the footwork is because he's handicapped (especially like the tease when Daisy wonders why everything in his office is down to her height level), but that's about the extent of my enjoyment. Once the mystery proper kicks in, it's painfully bad at times the stupid twists this story takes, and having a character actually named Alfred MacGuffin is about as annoyingly obvious as the lighthouse beam our heroes catch an eyeful of. The way our characters piece together each stage of the mystery reminds me of the Adam West Batman tv series, but not in a good way. "Where are we going to find a colored fish? Look, it's the fishing wharf! Look, it's a restaurant named the Red Herring!" (seriously, that last one is real) "Wheels, give me a list of every fish with a color in its name. Rainbow trout! There we go! That one has every color! Hey, this puzzle box has a rock in it! The Rock, that's it! They're at Alcatraz!"

The other good point of this episode is that it has some of the best vehicle action animation we've seen in a while, but other than that and a few moments in the setup, it's beyond stupid to the degree of not even trying to create a compelling mystery, and MacGuffin's MacGuffin plot falls flatter than a sheet of paper under an anvil. And what the hell is with the dinosaurs in the opening! My first thought was divided between "Awesome!" and "Really? Are we really going there?", and the moment they reveal it's just an animatronic theme park, it was dead and gone and mostly forgotten.

I could actually see an episode like this working had it been the pilot episode, and this playfully silly piecing together of the clues was actually a test being staged by Uncle Zachary as he's initiating his nieces and nephew into the organization for the first time, only to have it hijacked part way through by the espionage plot. I still don't like the central concept of their series, but that would have made for a nicer entry point than the scattershot collection of mysteries we've had so far.

Oh, and where have the stunt shows gone? Have you noticed that, Tony, that we haven't seen them performing on the track for at least three episodes in a row now? I kind of like this, though, as the stunt shows ultimately add nothing. Instead, we're coming in just as our heroes wrap up one case only to move on to another. If the espionage/action team scenario is the route they really want, then I will give them credit that they've found a slightly better way to go about it.

Episode 13 “The Trouble with Kuma”


Uncle Zachary contacts the team, who are en route to a race in Hawaii aboard his yacht, to tell them that a giant tidal wave is headed for a small nearby island where the reclusive geneticist Dr. Lundo conducts experiments cross-breeding animals. Their mission is to warn the doctor and get him to safety. To ensure Dr. Longo knows the warning is legit, Uncle Zachary gives the team an encrypted message. Unfortunately, this gets damaged when Wheels hits a floating mine surrounding the island. Tess and Daisy stay behind on the beach to repair Roadie while Dan and Wheels make their way to Lundo's lab. One of Lundo's assistants shows up on the beach and warns Tess that Dr. Lundo has gone mad, turning his experiments to human subjects, and the group sets off to free the prisoners. Meanwhile, Dan meets the infamous doctor, who does indeed appear to be out of his mind. Without any proof to verify their identity, Dan and Wheels are chased by Lundo on a horse. Unfortunately, things are not what they appear to be. Longo's assistants made up the story about Lundo's sanity and are merely using Tess and Roadie to help them break into a large crypt where the doctor has hidden his research information. With the tidal wave bearing down on the island, the team must find a way to convince Lundo of their intentions, get back the research information, and get off the island before it's too late.

Well, well, well. What do we have here? An episode that doesn't totally suck! When I saw that the title had the name “Kuma” in it, I was ready to dismiss it as more ridiculous animal hijinks. Thankfully that proved not to be the case.

From the exotic and mysterious island locale, to the twist about Lundo's sanity, to the ticking clock and the impending tidal wave, “The Trouble with Kuma” keeps you engaged while also sprinkling in several fun moments. My favorite is when Dan first meets Lundo and tries to explain his situation to the skeptical doctor. When the truth fails, an exasperated Dan launches into a story about being a spy there to steal Longo's experiments. Lundo becomes enraged as Wheels gives us a sort of “Here we go again” sigh. It's a cute little moment, one this series could've used a lot more of. There's also a really nice flow and energy to the episode, something akin to the old Saturday morning serials of the 40s and 50s, where our heroes go from one bad situation to the next.

Noel, “The Trouble with Kuma” might be the best episode of the entire series. A small compliment, I know, but at least the series went out on a high note.


I'm gonna have to disagree with you on "the best". I'll save picking favorites for when we get to our Final Thoughts piece, but while this certainly isn't among the bottom of the barrel (and Pole Position is a deep, deep barrel), nor does it rank among the tops for me. It does do a lot of things right. We get an exotic locale filled with booby-trapped pyramids and Easter Island statues, a big climax in the form of the tidal wave, and a wildly colorful character in the form of Lundo, a bellowing, bearded figure astride his own bio-engineered horned stag with a large bird on his arm. It's also consistently exciting and entertaining, with constant action carrying us from crazy obstacle to obstacle. And Tess wrestles a giant barracuda. Let me say that again: Tess wrestles a giant barracuda. Dan acts like his typical moronic self, recklessly screwing up any attempt to reason with Lundo... while Tess wrestles a giant barracuda.

Tess is awesome.

My problem is that it's still just empty nonsense. While everything is fun, it's extremely random. There's no reason for any of these ruins on the island. If Lundo had them built, why? If they're ancient relics, then how is he using them as his lab instead of them being declared historical archaeological digs? Why is the island surrounded by mines? How does a massive sea mine from WWII only cause a little poof that breaks a single hydrofoil ski for our heroes, yet punch a huge, ragged hole in the side of the iron hull of the bad guys' boat? How is Tess able to repair all of the damage to Wheels with five minutes and a welding torch? His hydrofoil didn't need to be repaired, the whole thing was BLOWN OFF! Seriously, we saw the shattered halves of it fly into the air. How does Dan see the tire tracks of Wheels when we saw Wheels going over the beach in hovercraft mode?

It's certainly an episode playing its action against a much bigger canvas than past episodes, but it cancels out the spectacle a bit by not having a mystery that's as "strong" as some of the smaller scale stories. It's fun, but ultimately empty fun. And how do you have a story in which Kuma is reunited with his creator, and yet it's still out-matched by the Mount Rushmore episode in terms of giving the funny little animal pathos and personality?

We'll be back next weekend to share our final thoughts (we have several) on Pole Position.

The complete series of Pole Position is available on DVD through Amazon or other online retailers.


Tony Williams said...

That screen grab from "The Bear Affair" is now my wallpaper!

That's right, Tony. The Get-Along-Gang is a Short-Lived Show.


The Peepee team

Dude, did you just say "The Peepee team"?

Oh, and where have the stunt shows gone? Have you noticed that, Tony, that we haven't seen them performing on the track for at least three episodes in a row now?

*Slaps head* It actually hadn't occured to me come to think of it.

Like Noel, I'll save my thoughts on best/worst episode (That worst episode pick is going to be tough) for our wrap-up, but it hit me why I like "The Trouble with Kuma" so much--and I really wish It had dawned on me while I was watching it. It reminded me of a classic Jonny Quest episode. I'll expand a bit more on this next week. Stay tuned...!

NoelCT said...

Dude, did you just say "The Peepee team"?

Is it not fitting? :p

*Slaps head* It actually hadn't occured to me come to think of it.

Make it four episodes in a row, as there was no stunt show in the last episode, too. I believe one of the cars dropped the line "This isn't the stunt show, Dan!", but otherwise, they were headed to a race in Hawaii.

It reminded me of a classic Jonny Quest episode. I'll expand a bit more on this next week.

Okay, I can definitely see a little Jonny Quest in this episode. A crap-level Quest outing, but definitely of the style.

Strannik said...

Well, I'm glad that you guys made it through the entire series. Look like, on the balance, taking the several-episodes-per-entry approach was for the best after all.

I'm surprised by some of your reactions. I figured Noel would be trying to find good parts while Tony would be cursing and grumbling his way through. It was nice to see you guys give more mixed responses.

Overall, reading your recaps of Pole Position... A lot of the times, people might say that something doesn't live up to potential, but this isn't quite it. It's more like the show occasionally grasped at the edges of potential, just long enough to offer a glimpse of something that might have been interesting, only to take it away. It could have been a much better show with a different set of writers, but even then, I'm not sure if it would have been good or simply decent (then again, even "decent" sounds like an improvement compared to what you actually got)

NoelCT said...

That's a perfect summation, Strannik.

What surprises me most is that this show does have a great set of writer. I've already cited Michael Reaves, who was the co-creator and head writer of Gargoyles, story editor of the first few seasons of Batman: The Animated series, and co-writer of "World Enough and Time", which is near the top of my list of favorite Star Trek stories ever told. His co-writer and director of that episode, Mark Scott Zicree, another strong writer throughout the 80s and 90s, also worked on Pole. These are a pair of strong storytellers, and any show that includes their involvement instantly perks up my interest. Which is why it's so shocking that it turned out the way it did, especially with one of them in charge. I'll save further thoughts on this for when we get to our Final Thoughts piece.

Tony Williams said...

Agreed, very well said, Strannik. Like Noel, I'm gonna sit on the specifics until next week's Showcase, but this was the first animated series we've done where I had actually watched it as a kid, and I was a bit surprised that I never felt compelled to grade these episodes on a nostalgic curve.

Is it not fitting? :p

You'll get no argument from me!