October 19, 2013

Sectaurs: Warriors of Symbion, episode 1 "Spidrax Attacks"

According to the opening titles, our story is set on a distant world called Symbion (cryptic name, that). It's unclear if this is a human-like society or a future human colony, but constant biological engineering escapes scientific control, leading to rampant mutations and fusions between species. Over time, a new species evolves: the Sectaurs, a fusion of human and insect. Dargon is the leader prince of the Shining Realm, fighting an endless fight for dominance of the world with the forces of the Dark Domain, led by General Spidrax.

As the episode opens, Spidrax and his forces attack the Shining Realm kingdom of Prosperon, razing the outer farlands and villages. Against the guidance of his friend, Zak, the captain of the castle guard, and stoic mentor, Mantor (I see what you did there), prince Dargon hops on his steed (Insectoids, which are all giant, flying insects in this universe) Dragonflyer and races into the battle. A young fighter named Sekor also dives into battle, but is quickly beaten aside by Waspax, a traitor to Spidrax's forces. Dargon then swoops in, pwning Waspax and his men long enough for Zak and Pinsar, a bawdy battle vet, to arrive with reinforcements. Spidrax then takes Dargon on one-on-one.

This entire attack is a diversion, allowing Spidrax's man Skito to sneak into the castle and steal from Mantor a map leading to the Hyve of the Ancients. With the map now in his possession, Spidrax calls for a retreat, and Dargon's forces are left putting out all the fires and taking stock of what damage has been wrought. Mantor tells them about the map, leading to plans to track Spidrax down. Sekor pleads to join Dargon's forces, but while they admire his pluck, they tell him he's too young.

Sekor and his high-flying Insectoid steed Altiply (I think that's what's said - the audio isn't great and neither of these two are on the Wikipedia character lists as they had no action figures) set off on their own to sneak into Spidrax's lair and steal the map back. Sekor is quickly captured, but an injured Altiply escapes. This ups Spidrax's guard, and when Dargon and Zak slip in to themselves steal the map, they're fought off and sent on a retreat back to Prosperon. At a pub that night, Dargon and his men (and the lovely barmaid/love-interest Stellara) stew and consider their options. Mantor feels he remembers enough of the map that they could trace the same route and try to catch up with Spidrax. Their first stop...

The Lake of Blood, filled with magma pits and iron tinted waters. Spidrax and his men are cutting across in a battle ship (with Sekor roped up to the mast). When they see Dargon's ship nearing in the distance, Spidrax turns to pass by the island of the Widow of the Web, instructing his men to put beeswax in their ears. As Dargon's ship passes, his men hear haunting harp music on the air and fall into a trance, crashing the boat into the island's rocks. Dargon is the only one who remains unaffected, possibly because he's knocked off deck into the water. By the time he catches up to his men, they're snagged in the walls of a spire made of interconnected webs, with the Widow, a beautiful and horrifying woman with four arms, setting about to make a meal of them. Dargon coated himself with mud to keep webs from sticking to him, and after a brief scuffle, he shoots the Widow down and frees his men.

On foot, they return to the trail to the Hyve, where they're met by Altiply, whose wounds are tended to by Mantor. Hearing something in the distance, Dargon leads his men to a pit containing a massive Tunnel Worm. Dargon has an idea: no shortcut outside of their current path exists to the Hyve, but maybe they can make one.

That night, Spidrax's forces are resting in a camp, when the Tunnel Worm bursts out of the ground, followed by Dargon and his men. The fight is furious, with Dargon's forces quickly taking the upper hand as they free Sekor, who dives in front of Dargon at one point, deflecting a dagger thrown by Spidrax. Spidrax and his men are forced into a retreat, but they still have the map and continue heading towards the Hyve.

As Dargon's men follow, he thanks Sekor, but tells the boy he must return home, and that he will have a place alongside them when he's old enough. After Sekor leaves, the rest of the men reach the base of a cliff, just as all of Spidrax's men appear at the top of it and open fire.

To be continued...


Before I begin, I just want to take a moment to thank Igor for his fantastic work these last few months. Let's face it, Starhunter was a bad show, but you and Noel somehow managed to make it interesting for us. And for our readers, who have come to enjoy Igor's quality writing and intelligent observations week after week, I just want to say this about my return: it's time to lower your expectations.

Virtually every major toy line of the 80s had a companion animated series, but they rarely blossomed into a synergistic phenomenon on the scale of something like Masters of the Universe, Transformers, or G.I. Joe. In most cases, one or both failed to capture the interest of kids and were soon canceled in favor of the next "big thing" (see former Showcases like Robitix, Visionaries, and Inhumanoids). And so it was with Sectaurs. The toy line, impressive but also more expensive than similar action figure lines of the era, never caught on with kids (or perhaps with their parents), and the Ruby-Spears produced animated mini-series wasn't renewed beyond its initial five episode run. My own experience with Sectaurs was limited. I never owned any of the toys as a kid, though I was vaguely aware of them at the time. I certainly don't remember the animated series. It really wasn't until I became an adult and began collecting toy lines from the 80s that I took a closer look at the property. Long story short, this is going to be a totally new experience for me. Let's get started.

First thing's first, there's no real theme song to speak of. The opening is just a dramatic voice over guy giving us an info dump over generic synth music that sounds lifted from a Turkish porn film. Is it too much to ask for a few guitar riffs and some wailing from a wannabe rock star? The first rule of marketing is, "Sell the sizzle, not the steak." Bad move, Ruby-Spears. Bad move.

As the actual cartoon began, I instantly recognized a few of the voices. Let's see, there's Destro over there, and hey, it's Optimus Prime! I'm honestly starting to think there were only five working voice actors in TV animation in the 80s. Anyway, I'm not sure who they play here exactly because I can't keep these names straight yet. I think one of the characters is named General Spandex and another is like Prince Tar Gum or something. No big deal, I'll adjust. I get that you have to come up with these off the wall - and as we'll soon learn, very on the nose - names for this kind of stuff. I mean, no kid is going to buy an insect warrior named Doug.

The story throws us right into the thick of the action as General Spidrax (thank you, Wikipedia) attacks a village on what looks like a flying tarantula (see what I mean by on the nose?). Our hero, Prince Dargon (again, Wikipedia), responds on what looks like an furry aardvark with wings. Advantage, Spidrax. While the generic and repetitive synth music continues to be a source of frustration, not to mention subconsciously making me want to lock my bedroom door and grab a box of tissues, I do like the animation. The backgrounds are richly detailed and the character models are quite nice. The design of the villains is far more interesting, however, as the more humanoid heroes all wear variations of the same blue-hued outfit, and Dargon is just a slightly insecticized version of the generic blond-haired hero so common in the era.

On the surface, the characters are all familiar 80s cartoon archetypes, but look closer and you'll notice some differences. Dargon may look like an insectoid Ken doll, but he shows an impatience that makes him more interesting than someone who eats mistakes and shits success like He-Man. He's a young man (?) still growing into his role as a leader. But a hero is only as good as his villain, and in Spidrax, we have that rare 80s bad guy who isn't a bumbling fool, but instead a vicious and ruthless thug. He's not exactly layered, and his motivations are right out of the "I want to rule the world just 'cuz" playbook, but at least he doesn't exit with fist shaking and crying, "I'll get you next time, Dargon!" Other than perhaps the stoic Optimus Prime Mantor, or the eager young Seacor, the supporting characters don't make much of an impression thus far.

I was definitely impressed by the episode's attempts at world building. Sure, it's all a pastiche of fantasy cliches and muddled mythology, but it helps to give Symbion a sense of history, which in turn makes it feel more real. From the Lake of Blood to the Web Widow, we go to some strange and interesting places in a short period of time. My only complaint would be that I wish we spent more time at these places. The Web Widow in particular deserves more screen time. Sure it's a rip-off of Krull (my God, I can't believe someone actually ripped-off Krull), but this Widow is so much cooler. Crossing the Lake of Blood to face off against the Web Widow could've been an entire episode itself, but here it's barely two minutes.

I'm not going to say that this first episode is some sort of revelation, but I was impressed by the seriousness of the tone. There weren't any of the gags or villainous buffoonery that we typically associate with 80s cartoons. This opening episode was a fast paced, attractively animated fantasy adventure that shows real promise. I enjoyed it, and I'm looking forward to part 2.

  • Pinsor and Zak use the word "Maggot" several times in what comes across as a bit of a racial slur. I chuckled the first time, but when they used it again, I squirmed a bit.
  • Noel, did I imagine it, or did our heroes actually go tie one on at their local pub?
  • Before riding into battle on their winged mounts, the characters all do some variation of a battle cry. They need to not do this.


Sectaurs is one of those toy lines which completely escaped my notice as a kid. I didn't have any of the toys and don't recall ever seeing any at my friends' houses. Well, maybe I caught a glimpse of one of the figures and didn't register it, but the hand-puppet mounts, that's something I'm pretty sure I'd remember. No, it wasn't until the last few years that Tony first made mention of this forgotten toyline, and when we saw it had a 5 episode miniseries, we knew we'd have to cover it at some point.

Now that we've reached that point, I'm not sure it was quite worth the wait.

Honestly, I was lost for most of the show. Except for the rambunctious kid who keeps trying to join the knights, there's a complete lack of personality to any of the characters in the show. We know our hero is a good guy because he's blonde and always saving the day. He has a Man-At-Arms sidekick, a mentor, father figure of sorts, but he also has a mentor figure actually named Mantor. And Mantor doesn't just run things at the castle, no, he's out on the mission, alongside Man-At-Arms, and fulfilling the same role. And then there's some other guys. You don't see me using their actual names, because I don't have a clue who's who, as they all have the exact same shade and style of battle armor, there's very little differentiation to the voices (except Mantor being Peter Cullen), and no actual characteristics or backstory or conflicts or anything to give anybody personality.

The series this most closely resembled in my experience is Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light. While that show also had bland leads, they still had some form of individual identity. Here, they've taken that blandness and cranked it all the way down to 0.11. Visionaries also had other strengths which made up for bland leads, neither of which we get here. Visionaries had a sense of humor, capturing epic fantasy in a way that also played out as a tongue-in-cheek zany satire of ancient knight ballads. Sectaurs plays everything so straight and on the level that you could stand a penny on its square shoulders. There's no chuckles, no winks at the audience as everything is played with a square-jawed sincerity. But not in a way which is itself charming or amusing, because it compounds on the blandness, dulling things further. Visionaries also had a fantastic group of villains, who often stole the show and even carried a couple episodes entirely on their own. Sectaurs has some bug men who hiss and look menacing, and that's it. The big bad is bad because he's bad, and his bad baddies do the bad things he tells them to, albeit so badly they're often defeated. Just like the heroes, I don't have a clue who any of these people are.

The story had me equally lost. I know there was a map that was stolen, to something called the hive... wait, Wikipedia is telling me it's the Hyve. Of course it is. The bad guys want to get to the Hyve, the good guys want to stop them. That's about all we get. The map changes hands a few times, and that's the episode as it leaves us hanging for the next installment of this limited series.

I will say that the show isn't bad to look at. Despite the limited pallet, the figure designs are nice, with realistic suits of armor and weaponry. The insect mounts are cool, though their shrieking voice acting is maybe a bit much. The animation itself is pretty good for the time, with nice images like figures clashing swords against the backdrop of a burning village, or the constant fluttering of insect wings. It's just unfortunate they were stuck with the head designs they were. I know this is a population partially evolved from insects - or whatever that opening told us - but the goofy, constantly staring bug eyes on every character look ridiculous, as are the flesh-colored antennae limply swaying around on their foreheads. It's like someone stuck a pair of googly eyes and a wishbone on He-Man's face and said, "Yeah, that'll do it." No, it doesn't. It looks awful.

The highlight of the episode is the encounter with the spider lady. There's a surprising amount of both menace and sexiness to her design and animation, as she poses a legitimate threat against our cast. A threat which is quickly gunned down and moved on from, alas, and too much of her setup is swiped directly from the Sirens of The Odyssey. It's still an entertaining bit, though they never explain why lead hero blonde man is immune from her spell.

And speaking of the spider lady, I was surprised how edgy this show got at times, with the razing of a village, villains literally shouting "Kill them!" in a time when such a phrase was usually softened, a location called the Lake of Blood, the spider lady clearly planning to eat the people she's caught, and the only female character aside from her (a waitress serving the men, of course) is introduced through a closeup of her toned ass in a pair of bikini shorts as she trots across a tavern. That kind of shot is unheard of back in those heavily sanitized by parental group days of the mid 80s.

Overall, this is just so incredibly bland and weightless that I struggled to remember what was going on even as the episode was still playing out. On a technical level, it's well produced, with strong action and clean visuals, and the cast performed their parts well, there just wasn't enough foundation on paper for them to build on, so it largely passed in one lobe and out the other. Here's hoping the remaining episodes pick things up a bit.

We'll be back next weekend with another Sectaurs adventure: "Slave City".


NoelCT said...

Tony, I find it funny how you and I pretty much agree on what this show is and what its strengths and weaknesses are, but we still completely diverge in our enjoyment of it. It's almost an inversion of Robotix, another show played dead straight with good animation but an extremely bland cast of people all dressed the same. There, I was the one who dug it, you were not. Granted, I fell out of it within a couple installments, so we'll see where we are by week 3. :)

Yeah, I got the Krull vibe, too. Obviously, someone behind the scenes was a fan.

The music is by, if you can believe it, Levy and Saban. I thought they were exclusive to DiC at this time, but looking it up, they did do a bit of work for Ruby-Spears and Filmation, too.

Gah, what was with that trilling battle cry? That didn't work at ALL.

Tony Williams said...

- I know, and I soooo thought you were going to dig it too. As I was watching it I was literally like "Noel will like that. He definitely won't like that.", and I was more or less right. I thought the +'s outweighed the -'s, but enjoyment is just something you can't measure by adding up the +'s and -'s.

- Wait, Shuki Levy did the music here?! The John Williams of 80s animated TV series did the 2nd rate synth-porn music for this show. Wow.

You're so right, the motivations here are quite muddled. What is this Hyve Spidrax has such a boner for? Maybe it'll become clearer in the episodes to follow, but that seems like a bit of info they should've included in the opening.

I hadn't made the connection with Visionaries, but you're spot on. There are a lot of similarities, but at least Visionaries attempted to create distinctive characters, not to mention set up crystal clear motivations for each side. Again, maybe this will all shake out by the end of the series... It could happen!

NoelCT said...

And it's not that this is a bad episode. It's not. I just couldn't get into it. It was a shiny enough State Fair stick to look at, it just wasn't wearing enough deep fried meat to sink my teeth into. :)

I think one of the other problems is they're trying to do too much here. If they'd taken the Web Widow out and saved her for her own full story, they would have had an extra 3 minutes to develop characters, threads, motivations. Maybe even strip out one of the two attempts to break into the bad guys' lair, one right after another, as both are equal failures, as we're just waiting for the plot to actually get rolling by that point. The villains had the map, they wouldn't wait to set out. Granted, without them waiting a night, we wouldn't get our heroes drowning their sorrows in Ye Olde Pub of Establishing Ass Shots, and I'd hate to lose that bit.

Tony Williams said...

I agree, they were definitely trying to jam too much into 22 minutes (a result of this truncated five episode format?) and the characters suffered as a result. Hell, they didn't even manage to give us most of their names. Add that to the fact that they all look like a bunch of middle-aged white guys at a Tick costume contest and it's easy to see why the toy line failed as well.

Ye Olde Pub of Establishing Ass Shots, lol! I smell a franchise!

Strannik said...

It's funny you should mention Visionaries. What is with 80s toy franchises setting their stories on formerly high-tech worlds transformed by apocalypses?

(It's probably because the writers wanted to do classic fantasy stuff and still occasionally use technology. The fact that the combination of fantasy and sci-fi worked for He-Man doesn't hurt. But I can't help but picture a Foundation and Earth sort of scenario, where descendents of Earth's colonists try to find Earth by retracing old colonies, visiting the planets of Visionaries and Sectaurs and wondering what the hell happened.)

But other than that... From what both of you are saying, it does seem like Sectaurs is a pretty bland show that has potential to be better but doesn't try. Sounds familiar... :) But at least this one is a mini-series.

Before I begin, I just want to take a moment to thank Igor for his fantastic work these last few months. Let's face it, Starhunter was a bad show, but you and Noel somehow managed to make it interesting for us. And for our readers, who have come to enjoy Igor's quality writing and intelligent observations week after week, I just want to say this about my return: it's time to lower your expectations.

Thank you. You are entirely too kind. And, I have to say, it's nice to see you back - and nice to see the long back-and-forth exchanges in the comments back. I missed those.

NoelCT said...

My guess is that it's because those types of post-apocalyptic stories were big from the late 50s to the mid 70s, as we not only had all those Cold War/WWIII fears, but we actually saw societies in Europe and Japan having to rebuild themselves from apocalyptic devastation. And the writers of the 80s would have been at the right age where they would have read these stories as kids. Thundercats is another example, where refugees from a world wasted by war find a planet littered with ruins from its own ancient civilizations.

This cyclical bubble of a sort, where franchises, themes, tropes are looped back on every 20-30 years, is something that fascinates me a bit, and it has the easy answer of the creators of today looking back on the things they enjoyed as children and reflecting upon it in their own work. Actual remakes/reboots have become the norm now, but derivatives, pastiches, and deconstructions have always been with us and often reflect this cycle. People like the sense of taking part in the things which first caught their attention and inspired them. It's why remakes/reboots/derivatives don't bother me.

Tony Williams said...

Thank you. You are entirely too kind.

Not at all. It was a pleasure to read the sort of in depth analysis that you and Noel provided each week. You're a gifted writer, and it's really been an honor to have you on board.

And, I have to say, it's nice to see you back - and nice to see the long back-and-forth exchanges in the comments back. I missed those.

Thank you. I'm so rusty that I had to get a tetanus shot after writing that first review, but it's good to be back.

This cyclical bubble of a sort, where franchises, themes, tropes are looped back on every 20-30 years, is something that fascinates me a bit, and it has the easy answer of the creators of today looking back on the things they enjoyed as children and reflecting upon it in their own work.

This is very true. A famous example of this are Spielberg and Lucas, both of whom took their love of old adventure serials and put a spit 'n polish on them for a whole new generation. What's old always becomes new again.