There's been several shows we've reviewed here over the last four plus years that I'd never watched before, but in most cases, I at least had a passing familiarity with them. Most of these shows had been from the 80s or early 90s, and the bulk of them were cut from the same cloth as the shows I watched growing up. But here we had something that I'd never even heard of before. Something adapted from an obscure foreign comic in an unique anime style with no familiar writers or voice talent. In short, I went in blind, and with nothing to cling onto.
As you might imagine, it took me a while to get acclimated to the tone and style of this show. It felt kind of confusing at first. Like being in a foreign land where you don't speak the language. But slowly, I adapted, and even as I was feeling my way through, I found that I was enjoying those first few episodes. The animation was gorgeous, and though I never did warm to Adrian (bit of a jerk, though understandably so) or Cybersix (rather dull, particularly once the exploration of her history was dropped), I liked some of the characters. Lucas could almost be considered too goody-goody, too perfect, to be interesting. A big, handsome hunk of uber masculinity, yet also sensitive and intelligent, he seems more like someone's idea of a fantasy man than a real person. Yet, thanks in no small part to the voice performance of Micael Dobson, Lucas was just incredibly likeable, and I found that I cared about Cybersix mostly because he did. Then there's José. He's a character I think Noel and I both began to grow weary of for a whole host of reasons, but at the start, I liked him. The idea of this little goosestepping maniac being the big bad was funny to me, and I hadn't yet seen his antics a dozen times over.
But the show quickly began to flatten out, occasionally jumping off of the rails entirely. Episodes like "Lori is Missing" and "Brainwashed" weren't bad, just dull and uninteresting, while "Blue Birds of Horror" and "Gone with the Wings" were flat-out cringe-worthy at times. In the middle of all this, explorations of Cybersix's past were all but dropped, José's act began to wear (very) thin and things settled into a monster of the week pattern that grew more and more tiresome as the weeks slowly ticked by. Toss in an irksome "Will they or won't they?" subplot, and I was counting down the days until Noel and I left Meridiana for good. Then came"Daylight Devil".
Easily the peak of the series, the penultimate episode really took things to a new level. This is the Cybersix we should have gotten all along, and it wasn't a fluke. The potential for this kind of storytelling was there all along. The final episode, fittingly titled "The Final Confrontation", doesn't reach the dizzying heights of "Daylight Devil", but it sees a return to the sort of world building and exploration of mythos that we were promised early on, and it easily qualifies as the most atmospheric episode of the series.
Now we come to the toughest part of any final thoughts: the final thought. Cybersix was a beautifully animated series filled with unique character designs and a refreshing amount of uncalculated quirk. But too often, it was dull and inconsequential, with clumsy storytelling and shoddy world building. Being neither toyetic nor conventional (from a Western perspective), and not featuring a hook or gimmick to set it apart in a crowded marketplace, I can certainly see why it never became a hit. It's neither good nor bad, but rather both, often at the same time. This is not a series that I would ever watch again, but it was still a journey with more value than mere entertainment. Cybersix really represents the first time I was out of my element or comfort zone for any length of time, and it was an educational ride, if not always an enjoyable one.
Let's slip a little asterisk for me behind the Final Thoughts, as I am still planning to slowly chug through the comics. I'll have a full wrapup on them and how I think they relate to the show down the road.
As for the cartoon itself, here's the thing...
There is not a single bad episode of Cybersix. There isn't. Every single one is a fun story, strikingly executed and animated, and had I caught any of them individually while channel surfing, it would have hooked my attention and had me checking the schedule for when the next one would be on. Yes, even "Gone with the Wings", for all its messy plotting and clunky creature designs, is still an exciting, fun, exquisitely well animated time. Again, there's not a single episode here that would have put me off on its own.
The problems come when you watch them all back-to-back like we did, when you see them sinking into the formula of José getting a monster and going wild until he's comically foiled, rarely letting the monsters step to the forefront for their own stories away from the evil child, and failing to add additional supporting players to the villain cast to keep things interesting and lively. They do deal with this later on, with "Full Moon Fascination" and "Daylight Devil", but it takes a while to get there, after slogging through the same basic premise of José after José after José. Look at Batman: The Animated Series. You know those amazing episodes with the Joker? String them along back-to-back. Joker after Joker after Joker. His laugh, Harley calling him Mistah J, that little theme he always had on the score. Even those would become aggravating after a while. Not because they're bad, but because they become repetitive and lack variety. That's why it's important for episodic shows to have interruptions and multiple formulas to juggle. Between Joker episodes, you'd get the Catwoman episodes, the Mr. Freeze episodes, the Clayface episodes, the one-off villains, and the occasional one where it's just something different to break out of the formulas for a leg stretch.
That is the main thing Cybersix lacked: variety. They had 5 great stories to tell, but took 13 episodes to tell them. There's two easy fixes for this. 1) Less José. There's so many plots involving him that don't really need to involve him. The Police Chief is a Techno working for the villains? Make him the focal character of the plot! Not just some lackey hanging behind the kid. Terra? There was no reason for José to be involved in his story at all, especially since him being imprinted with some of José never really goes anywhere. 2) Reshuffle the plots you have. Both "Full Moon Fascination" and "Daylight Devil" are great stories, but they're also very similar in terms of their villain arcs, and instead of being as close in proximity as they are at the tail end of the season, shuffle one earlier to break up the José streak. And Terra shouldn't come after Data-7. Again, similar plots, so start with the one that ends tragically, with Cyber failing to save a fellow lab creation to set up a few more episodes down the road where a similar situation ends positively.
I don't think any of the writers on this show are bad, but there is a lack of an experienced story editor sitting down to map things out. Between them, Barry Whittaker and Judy Valyi wrote some of the best episodes, but they have zero additional experience carrying a show. There's nothing wrong with pulling talent from the localization community and giving them a shot at scripting something else - again, they all did well, and look at where Jono Howard's taken off to since - but this group did need someone more experienced guiding them all through it. Hell, given that the French-Canadian Gaumont Multimedia was shutting down their animation department right around this time, I can think of a handful of writers between projects who would have been an amazing fit here.
Because of this, the scripting of the show is left feeling amateurish, uncertain, like they're learning on the fly. They set up some amazing things and do ultimately pay them off in amazing ways, but everything in the middle is disorganized and underdeveloped. The romance between Cybersix and Lucas just keeps wheel spinning. José gradually gaining control over the entire city largely happens in the background. There's little development of Cybersix and Data-7 as siblings. Lori goes through a huge amount of character growth in just buried little moments (in the comic, she's from a circus family - why wasn't she a part of the circus episode!). Cyber's need to drink the green vials goes away only to come back again. Post "Data-7 & Julian", we never see any of her backstory or how she came to be who and where she is. Worst of all, whenever they do have really interesting sub-villains - Terra, the Police Chief, Elaine, Griselda - they kill them off. Yes, some in powerful, poignant moments, but also moments that don't allow us to look forward to that character coming back for future stories down the road without them contriving some explanation for how. Instead, we just get to look forward to more José. -_-
Everything else about this show is wonderful. It can't be said enough how gorgeous everything looks and moves, and despite the crap I gave it over everyone having dead bird hair, they are very unique and distinctive designs I had fun watching. Cybersix's longing for connections and identity is extremely compelling, and it's a shame aspects of that ran into US television standards of the time because they're handled impressively well. The voice acting cast was flawless. Julian was great. Design aspects aside, Yashimoto and Ikiko were wonderful. Though he never fully got to shine, Detective Henrique was very promising, and Lori evolved into a compelling presence. And even for all the crap José deservedly gets, he was an entertaining villain, with great screwball plots, my favorites being the circus and the sheer scope of "The Eye". And I did like how he overshadowed Von Reichter so much that, in the end, he surpassed his ultimately underwhelming creator.
None of the problems I've mentioned are enough to keep from recommend the show, from soaring when I hear that theme, from getting pulled into the world and the action, from cheering as good triumphs over evil, from swooning at that amazingly well staged kiss. It's a show that is clunky, that is lacking in someone mapping it out more thoroughly, and I can actually understand why that would hurt its ability to hold an audience (despite networks being the reason it didn't get much airplay in the first place). But I'm thrilled it's a thing that exists. It began well, it ended well, and I can always skip through the middle when I rewatch it, and trust me, I will be rewatching it. If anything, it serves as an amazing showcase for the talents at TMS, and what they're capable of when they fully cut loose and do something they're passionate about. Shame they never got to do much of anything similar to this again, instead going right back to doing DC toon work for Warners. Though, for anyone who's interested, several of the directors did pool together in 2008 for Daughter of Twenty Faces (aka Chiko, Heiress of the Phantom Thief). It's never been officially released over here, but I've found some fansubs I'm eager to dig into, and it definitely looks to have a similar sense of action and an introspective heroine dealing with identity issues, so I'm on board.
In terms of the comic book, while I've got a long way to go in terms of exploring it, I do want to express both my surprise that it of all things served as source material for this progressive adventure series, and my joy that the creators of the show departed from it as much as they did. They're so different in tone and taste levels as to almost be entirely different animals, and I think the show having a crew with women in very prominent roles (co-story editor Valyi, Keiko Oyamada the most frequent episode director, others among the writing/directing staff) really helped reshape the focus from the largely juvenile dudebro squick approach of the comic series, making it more an emotional journey amidst action than a flicker of hope in a sleazy grime-pit of a wretched town. Not that such an angle can't be interesting in it's own right, but I already care far less about what the comic has to say about things and wants to do to its characters than I do what the tv show would continue to do with them had it been picked up.
In the end, yeah, this is a show that I'm sorry to see go. It has frustrations, it has points where it slogs down due to a lack of arrangement, but it's never bad, and is often some of the most striking action television I've ever seen coming out of the 90s, which is really saying something given how cool an era that was for toons.