October 27, 2013

Sectaurs: Warriors of Symbion, episode 2 "Slave City"

Dargon and the Knights of the Shining Realm run for cover as they're fired on by Spidrax and the Dark Domain forces. The two sides duke it out until Spidrax's forces retreat. Dargon's pursuit is delayed by Pinsor hanging from a cliff. When they finally do give chase, they're then sidetracked by a giant wasp who seals them into its giant hive. Attempting to escape, Pinsor breaches a wall only to catch everybody up in a flood of golden fluid. Dargon and Dragonflyer are separated from the others and find a way out. The others hook themselves into roots over a waterfall feeding into the boiling Sea of Acid Rain. Unable to hold on much longer, they position themselves over a large log and jump, riding it on the current while worrying about how rapidly it's dissolving.

As they head towards an island, they're surprised when the island starts heading towards them. It's a giant, living creature who swallows them whole. The creature is full of amphibious Sectaurs under the command of Captain Borgia (again, poor audio, so if that's not his actual name, correct me), a slaver who uses the creature as a ship and steers it through brutal torture. Our heroes make a break for it, but are captured when they run into tentacled monstrosities.

Spidrax swings by Slave City, a rough and nasty port town, to sock up on slaves for his continued mission to the Hyve. When he sees the stock Captain Borgia is bringing in, Spidrax is more than delighted to take ownership of a batch of his most hated foes. Our heroes again make a break for it, but are gunned down by venom blasts (aka stun rounds).

At a nightclub in Slave City, Dargon has followed the trail of his men to Captain Borgia, and roughs some info out of the slaver. Catching up with Spidrax's marching forces, Dargon knocks out a soldier and slips into the dude's armor. When the army sets up camp for then night, Dargon corners Spidrax and the two duke it out. Dargon wins, but he's raised the alarm and doesn't have time to search for Mantor's map, so he frees his men and reunites them with their weapons. There's a big fight and our heroes get away, but Spidrax is still after the Hyve, so the chase continues.


I'm not even sure where to start with this. I watched the episode in a bit of a numb daze, and I'm still fighting to shake off this daze as I sit down to gather my thoughts. As with the first episode, this isn't bad. It's well produced, looks neato keen, and is full of rousing action. It's also an episode packed to the brim with stuff happening. Unfortunately, that stuff is just stuff, none of it having any real meaning or import as our heroes are tossed around through events that have nothing to do with anything, just to fill the running time and keep everyone busy. Seriously, you could take this entire chapter out of the quest to stop Spidrax from reaching the Hyve, and nothing would change. Not one thing, as we end exactly where we began and the point of it all jabbed us in the eye for even trying to look for one.

The string of events could be written by an 8 year old. "They're walking down a path. And then a bee appears. But it's a big bee with a ginormous stinger, and its wings flap so hard there's lots of wind and they have to go into the cave. But the bee sits in front of the cave and it's not a cave but a big nest full of honey and combs and when they break the honeycomb all this honey comes out and they fall over a water fall. Only it's a waterfall into acid so they can't fall, until they see a log that they can fall on and then they fall. But the log is melting so they float towards an island, but it's not an island, it's a big fish and it swallows them, but they're not dead because the big fish is full of fish people who use the fish as their boat."

Was this an early experiment in the Robert Rodriguez camp of using actual children to co-write stories for children? It's just such a random sequence of events, delivered with all the bland, indistinct designs and dialogue, most of which is drown out by the constant shriek of insectoids and the battle trills of their riders, that I couldn't do anything but just stare at it, not really processing it or taking it in, but literally feeling the butt cheeks of my brain clench up as everything just skimmed off into the ether. The only time I'd really perk up and take notice was when incredibly weird or stupid things would happen. Like Dargon slicing off the coil of Spidrax's whip, only for the handle to start spurting out green blood. Or when they punctured the honeycomb and a tidal surge of stuff that isn't honey because they literally call it "hive (not Hyve) liquid" comes rushing out like a dam just broke, and why is there so much fluid there? What is it and what purpose does it serve? Yeah, hives are full of honey, but not this much. And honey is more viscous instead of the frothing waves which hit them. And a single chamber of honeycomb doesn't hold that much fluid. And why is there an entire sea of acid? And why is it the Sea of Acid Rain!? It's not raining, it just a standing body of water, so just call it the Sea of Acid. And why does Zak become the total idiot always stating the obvious for a minute? They're hanging over a pit full of tentacles. Everyone can already see the tentacles, some are even already wrapped in the tentacles, by the time Zak finally blurts out, "Look! Tentacles!" You don't say! And then we see the monster attached to the tentacles, as it slavers its jaws, gnashing and roaring at our heroes, who are all cowering in fear, and what words of wisdom does Zak finally bestow upon us? "It looks hungry!" No plucky one-liner? No rousing battle cry to inspire the others? No cry for mommy or even a "Great Caesar's Cricket!"? No? Just "It looks hungry!" *sigh* This unimaginative, lifeless writing is going to be the death of me if it doesn't stop before the next three episodes are through.

Now all this said, the story does pick up a bit in the second half once we reach the slaver thread. There's actually great themes of subjugation throughout, not just here, but earlier with Spidrax. That bleeding whip? He later gets another one knocked out of his hands, and it starts to wriggle away, revealing it to be a living creature he's enslaved as a tool used to further enslave as he's constantly whipping and whipping and whipping his own giant flying spider monster. That little wriggle alone is a magnificent image which speaks volumes for what this show could achieve if it would actually try a little more now and then. As it is, even the slaver arc falls flat, as for all his heroic swagger, all Dargon does is free his men and fly off. He doesn't get the map. He doesn't strike a significant blow against Spidrax. We never see him take out the slaver he tracks down and the slaver's whole organization. We never see him free the other bedraggled slaves we saw. We never see him free the poor living ship which is itself painfully punished into every move they steer it in. I understand that one man can't change society overnight, but this is an 80s cartoon, dammit, and heroes were supposed to be heroes in that day and age, and we never even hear Dargon express a single line of regret or concern about those he's left to continue suffering the fates they've been snatched into.

So no, we're two episodes in and I'm still not won over. I still can't say as it's a bad show, but it's sure as hell not doing anything to grab my interest, and even the constant action is so hollow that it's not entertaining me all that much. So far, I don't see the fact that I can count this entire show's run on the fingers of one hand to be a bad thing.

And as Tony pointed out in the first episode, can this show please stop constantly using "maggots" as a slur? Always uttered by our heroes? It's uncomfortable enough as it is, and the frequency is becoming unbearable.


Before you get too excited, this week's episode "Slave City" is not an exploration of Symbion's BDSM culture (*puts away nipple clamps and riding crop*). In fact, it's also not really an episode in the traditional sense. Due to this mini-series format, it's more like a segment of a larger story, and as such, it's not structured in the standard three act style. Sure, a lot of stuff happens, some of it actually pretty good, but nothing is really resolved, and there's no arc within the episode itself. It's all just a bunch of narrative wheel-spinning and repetitive action. I think that ultimately explains why I found it to be so unsatisfying at first blush, but somewhat better upon reflection and a second viewing. Anyway, let's dig a little deeper into "Slave City", shall we?

First off, get on your knees and lick my boot, worm! Sorry, still in BDSM mode. Ahem. Perhaps it's a comment on how boring my week has been that I actually found myself reflecting on the cliffhanger ending of our last episode. I haven't exactly been waiting with bated breath or anything, but I was curious to see if anything would actually happen here. Will the Sectaurs recover the map? Will we finally learn something about this mysterious "Hyve"? In short, no. "Slave City" is nothing but an action-packed travelogue. Like the previous episode, I believe this does do a good job of world-building as we're once again whisked through a series of interesting locations, but these characters remain paper thin, and because we still don't have a clear sense of the stakes, their toil never gains much emotional purchase with the viewer.

In my previous review, I gave faint praise to the way our main hero and villain were portrayed, but it seems like that may have been a case of premature acclamation. The impetuousness I sensed in Dargon is mostly absent here, replaced by standard 80s square-jawed do-goodery. And you remember how I said of General Spidrax, "at least he doesn't exit with fist shaking and crying, 'I'll get you next time, Dargon!' "? I spoke too soon. We do finally get a chance to spend some time with the supporting Sectaurs away from Dargon, but other than helping me begin to put names to faces, I sensed very little distinction between their personalities. Same with Spidrax's henchmen. We now know their names, but they mostly just screech, hiss, or growl. I'm beginning to sense that this, not cost, is what led to the toy line's early demise. What ultimately sold toy lines like G.I. Joe were the colorful and distinctive personalities created by Larry Hama on the figure's file cards and in the comic book, which were then taken and broadened somewhat for use in the subsequent cartoon series. Each of those characters had a birthplace, a back story, and a personality quirk which not only made them unique from one another, but created a sense of reality. To quote the great Mr. Hama, "...the intellectual property of a toy is not a widget. It's not a product bobbing down a conveyor belt where bored drones paint on eyes and insert o-rings. It's the little bit of information that triggers the internal fantasy machine to fill in the holes, gloss over the mold lines, forgive the compromises for the realities of manufacturing, and creates that wholly personal 'state of play' wherein universes are born." (taken from the foreward of Mark Bellomo's The Ultimate Guide to G.I. Joe 1982-1994, 2nd edition)

I know it sounds like I've done a one eighty on this show, but there's actually a lot to like in this episode. The tone, for one. I mean, slavers aren't exactly your standard 80s cartoon fare, and Spidrax's promise to work his new Sectaur slaves "to death" has a real menace to it. The environs are grim, and the inhabitants grimmer, and Sectaurs never feels the need to balance this out with anything cutesy. I actually do think it could use a touch more humor, but at least the attempts we do get are amusing and spring naturally from the situation...
"Jump onto the logs!"

"Are you crazy?"

"What are you worried about? We're not going to survive the jump anyway."
...a few more exchanges like that would go a long way toward fleshing these characters out, not to mention making things more fun. Heroes quipping their way through dangerous situations is a beloved 80s trope that's too often missing amongst the self-serious Sectaurs.

If you can think of this not as a stand-alone episode, but as a chapter in a larger story, "Slave City" is just action-packed enough to make you forget that you don't care what happens. If these final three episodes can flesh these characters out a bit more and make us care what happens to this colorful world we're traveling through, we just might have something worthwhile here. If not, hey, at least it hasn't been dull.

  • First there was the Sea of Blood, and now we get the Sea of Acid Rain. You've gotta think the cruise industry isn't exactly booming on Symbion.
  • I didn't think it was possible, but the music actually got worse. After a promising start, complete with an epic synth-choir, it eventually settles into something akin to a cat running back and forth on a synthesizer.

We'll be back next weekend with another Sectaurs adventure: "Valley of the Stones".


NoelCT said...

Tony, there's a big difference between world-building - wherin additional layers are added which explore the complexity of this society at large - and just throwing random shit at the viewer. The slaver section is world-building, I'll admit, but the giant bee and the Sea of Acid Rain, which make up over half the episode, are just random shit. And even that slaver section is just a nugget that ultimately doesn't play out as Dargon leaves it behind with nary a blink of concern for how people are affected by it. I actually think the most compelling bit is that poor living ship which has been enslaved from within, but even that ultimately has no payoff.

As for this being a chapter in a longer story, I have to disagree. There are no threads left hanging from this, no promise any of these situations will tie into the broader mini-series as a whole. The cliffhanger we get here is nearly identical to the end of episode 1, and square zilch of the situation on either side has changed. Dargon still has all his men, Spidrax still has the map. This is a stand-alone story pretending to be part of the bigger picture, and doing a pretty poor job of it. There's no development, no new insights to give additional depth to things. As you said, it's just wheel-spinning.

And your quote from the jumping scene was a lot sharper the first time I heard it. ;)

I do agree with you about the darker tone. Other shows of the time did it better, but it still gives a nice bit of atmosphere to what we see here. And great Larry Hama quote! :)

Tony Williams said...

True, it is just random shit, but no more so than Sand People, Jawas, the Mos Eisley Cantina and the Sarlacc Pit. I actually like that none of it is really explored or explained in much depth. That every stop doesn't have some dried up, crusty old dude there to give us the legend "Why the Sea of Acid Rain you say? Well, legend has it...". Not having much info makes me feel like a stranger in a strange land. I'm probably giving this far too much credit, but it's all very colorful and makes this two dimensional world pop off the screen a bit. Unfortunately the characters remain mind-numbingly bland.

I agree with you on them doing a poor job with this middle portion. Nothing is resolved. The ball is never advanced down the field (that's a football reference by the way :p). They have a beginning, sorta kinda. They have an ending I assume. What they don't have is anything consequential in the middle. That is a *wee* bit of a problem, but that's where the colorful locales and the constant action grease the gears enough to keep things moving.

Gah! And to think I just watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for the first time this past year. Okay, so it's not a moment of inspired wit, but an homage :p.

My collecting focus has been on G.I. Joe of late, and so Bellomo's book (written with generous cooperation by Larry Hama) has ever been close to my finger tips this past month.

- Gonna force "Great Caesar's Cricket!" into a conversation this week by any means necessary.

- I took the inclusion of "Rain" in "Sea of Acid Rain" as a bit of social commentary.

- Man, it never occurred to me that Dargon and Co. don't even bother to take down the Slavers, so consumed are they with finding this Hyve... whatever the Hell that is.

NoelCT said...

True, it is just random shit, but no more so than Sand People, Jawas, the Mos Eisley Cantina and the Sarlacc Pit.

Quite the contrary, my friend! All were essential bits of world-building. Tatooine is a fringe world, outside the interests of both the Empire and the Rebellion, and given the massive population of pirates and smugglers going to and fro from its ports, it's created a situation where the black market flourishes. The Jawas are part of that market, scavenging the deserts and using their mobile fortress to keep their merchandise secure as they do business with outlying homesteads. The cantina is that port of call, the hodge-podge of dealers and free-wheelers who skip in and out of this unregulated planet on business deals, and the locals who cater to their business. As for the Sarlac, it's that place in the desert where people disappear when they get on the wrong side of the Hutts, who represent the power of underground mob capitalism when nothing keeps it in check, and they also make sport of their disposals in the pits, alongside the nasty story of digestion that's used as a further warning not to upset their business.

And as for the sand people, ignoring broader EU ephemera and just going by what's in the film, they're the natives, the true locals, shot down to a dwindling few and eager to strike back in bitterness against the constant stream of aliens who have turned their world into the fringe criminal kingdom of the outer systems.

The giant bee and Sea of Acid Rain don't do any of this. ;)

Gonna force "Great Caesar's Cricket!" into a conversation this week by any means necessary.

It was either that or "Sweet Merciful Mandibles!"

I took the inclusion of "Rain" in "Sea of Acid Rain" as a bit of social commentary.

Sure, but would it still kill them to show some actual rain? Does this sea cause rain? Was it caused by a biblical downpour back in some fabled day? As it is, it's just sitting there.

Man, it never occurred to me that Dargon and Co. don't even bother to take down the Slavers, so consumed are they with finding this Hyve... whatever the Hell that is.

I would have had him get sidetracked in doing so for the remainder of the episode, with his men staying in Spidrax's clutches until at least next week. Pull out the bee and Sea of Acid, and you'd buy yourself enough time to explore this story thoroughly.

Tony Williams said...

Oh, it's not just random bits of flourish like the stuff in Sectaurs, you're right there. What I meant is that, like Sectaurs, none of it is explained to us. I think it all serves the same basic purpose, but the stuff in Star Wars is obviously more thoughtful. No one behind the scenes gave any thought as to how any of this stuff fits into the culture of Symbion, but given the shallow nature of cartoons like this it does its job well enough IMO.

I'd hate to lose the stuff in the bee's nest and Sea of Acid (Rain), so I'd keep that, stretch it out, and have the episode end on Spidrax buying the Sectaurs... Kind of ironic that Spidrax wanted the buy Sectaurs but kids apparently didn't :p.

Strannik said...

Personally, I'm closer to Tony's opinion on this one. Setting details qualify as world-building - but just because it's world-building doesn't mean it's automatically good world-building.

I can see where Noel is coming from, but here's a thing. A lot of time, setting elements may be used for world-building in a way that's not necessarily obvious. For all you know, the writers planned to do something with Acid Rain Sea later. And in a lot of times, we've seen writers put in references to concepts and characters and figuring out what those references actually mean later.

Mind you - I'm not optimistic about Sectaurs' ability to do any good world-building, but as a rule of thumb when it comes to shows in general, I wouldn't write off things like that quite as readily. At least not this early.

Tony Williams said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tony Williams said...

Personally, I'm closer to Tony's opinion on this one.

Victory is mine!

I can see where Noel is coming from, but here's a thing. A lot of time, setting elements may be used for world-building in a way that's not necessarily obvious. For all you know, the writers planned to do something with Acid Rain Sea later. And in a lot of times, we've seen writers put in references to concepts and characters and figuring out what those references actually mean later.

That's a really good point. Setting it up now to use later... unfortunately they never got the chance.