October 4, 2015

Vytor: The Starfire Champion, episode 3 "The Spirit Tree"

Myzor bitterly watches on his monitor as the Terrons throw their centennial Spirit Tree celebration. The Spirit Tree, a massive, beautifully gnarled feature just outside their town, is a symbol of peace which filters the local drinking water and gives everyone a feeling of tranquility which keeps them from becoming warlike. Every 100 years, it releases a seed into the wind which will fly off to another land and bless it with a Spirit Tree of their own.

As the seed drifts away, the crowd cheers and begins in their celebratory games. Targil makes some impressive throws with a boomerang, but Vytor decides to showboat a little as he whirls his trimerang about. Baboose decides to up the challenge by blindfolding Vytor, but this leads to the trimerang repeatedly cutting into the Spirit Tree, which quickly withers and dies. As he removes the blindfolded, Vytor takes in what he's done and everyone's shocked looks at him. Myzor gloats and orders Dreadlock to prep to attack.

As Vytor and Baboose both blame themselves, Eldor tells of a time in the distant past where a tree was destroyed, leading the people to lose their cheer and become warlike. Sure enough, Terron villagers are already fighting over fish, and building spears, axes, and large catapults. Vytor feels he's unworthy of the Starfire Legacy, and hurls the Shield off a cliff. Baboose is devastated to see this and climbs down to try to retrieve the Shield from a jut of stone, but his vine snaps, so he ends up surfing the Shield down a series of small waterfalls. Before it hits a big one, he's saved by monklets, monkeys with racoon tails who can speak in a limited, grunting fashion.

They pull him into the trees and help him down a mountainside to where the Shield was driven into the river floor at the base of the waterfall. The monklets warn him of a monster, but Baboose brushes it off and dives in. Just as he reaches the Shield, a monstrous fish appears and starts gnashing its teeth at the retreating boy before he's again rescued.

Seeing his people become increasingly warlike, Vytor wonders what he can do. Eldor tells him they must recover the Spirit Seed as it may be used to restore the tree to health. Even lacking his Shield, Vytor takes up the task, hopping into a boat/glider and trailing the air currents. He tries using the Starfire Ring to ask Lyria for help, but she says to trust his own heart.

Expecting conflict, Skyla flies off to Myzor's citadel where she hacks into the intercom system. As Dreadlock orders his Mutoids to take to their ships, she alters the order to "WRECK your ships!", so Dreadlock is left in a stupor as they dutifully take to smashing their vehicles to pieces. As she zips off to escape detection, Dreadlock sweats through a call from Myzor and orders the Mutoids to hastily repairing their ships as best they can.

The current leads Vytor to a coastline where he lands to investigate. He's suddenly pinned down with spears and set upon by Queen Claudia of Arboria and her people, who all soar about with underarm gliders, as they believe him to be a spy of Myzor. Myzor, it seems, has long sought to steal their "secret knowledge of the wind". Vytor tries to explain that he's the son of Trion, but this makes Claudia even more angry, so he's strung to her son, Pandar(?), so he can be led to captivity.

As the two boys cross a walkway, Vytor keeps trying to explain about the Starfire Ring, and when Pandar grabs it, it protects itself with a flash of light. Pandar falls over a ledge, the shared rope yanking Vytor along with. They land in a quicksand swamp. Vytor is close enough to climb out, and he uses the rope to drag free the lifeless form of Pandar before breaking the bonds and running. He doesn't get far before he looks back at Queen Claudia mourning over her son, who isn't breathing. Vytor surrenders, talking the queen into letting him do chest compression on Pandar, who soon coughs his lungs clear.

Finally believing in Vytor, Claudia uses her computers and knowledge of the wind to calculate where the Seed is likely still floating about, and her people load his boat/glider into a giant crossbow to fire him right there. Sure enough, he gets hold of the Spirit Seed and heads back home. His glider gives out just before he arrives, but in swoops Skyla.

At the waterfall, the monklets hatch a plan where they tie down an entire tree in a sling trap, and hand Baboose the end of the rope strung with melons. He fishes it into the water, and as the fish monster gloms on, the monklets guide the boy into triggering the sling which hurls the fish a few waterfalls further down the river. The boy triumphantly reclaims the Shield.

The Mutoids attack Terro, laser beams making short work out of even their heavy arms of stone age weapons. Targil himself takes on Dreadlock, with the assistance of Baboose who shows up and starts clanking the villain with the Shield. Vytor arrives and is reunited with the Shield. Armed with the trimerang, and backed by Targil and Skyla, they make short work of the Mutoids and drive Dreadlock to a retreat.

The people cheer, but are quickly silenced by Eldor who laments their call to war. Vytor shocks him by producing the Spirit Seed, and with some extra help from the Starfire Ring, the tree is restored. As everyone drops their weapons to the groud and tweety birds swoop in to join in the celebration, Eldor now tells people to remember to follow their hearts.


I know there's still one more episode left to go, but after watching "The Spirit Tree", I feel confident when I say the following: Vytor: The Starfire Champion is the dumbest cartoon of all-time. Flat-out the dumbest cartoon. Of. All. Time. Right now, I imagine that you're going through your mental Rolodex of dumb cartoons trying to find one to trump it, but believe me when I tell you that none of them are as dumb as Vytor. So why is it that "The Spirit Tree" - perhaps the dumbest episode of Vytor yet - is also the best? I don't know, exactly, but let's see if we can find out together.

What we have here is your classic "with great power comes great responsibility" episode. The entire concept of the Spirit Tree is eye rollingly ridiculous, but it serves its function as a totem endangered by our hero's misuse of his power. I tried not to think about it too hard, as the writers certainly didn't, but at every turn, I was forced to put it under the microscope of logic only to watch it disintegrate before my eyes. For the sake of my raging headache, I'm going to skip over the fact that the all wise Chief Eldor more or less sat there doing Yoga while Vytor destroyed their sacred tree and move on to the larger issue of recapturing the Spirit Seed. We're told the seed is released every hundred years and goes off in search of a land that needs it, but when Vytor carelessly destroys his village's Spirit Tree, the solution is to track down the seed and bring it back. Anyone else have a problem with this? Some other poor land out there is denied their chance at this seed because the Terrons want to cover their own ass. Isn't that, I don't know, selfish? If theirs is the land with the greatest need, wouldn't the ooobie doobie magic bring the seed back to them?

Next, I tried to ignore the stupid basic function of the tree, but the story wouldn't let me do that either. The tree, we're told, keeps the hearts of the Terrons peace-minded. Ohhh-kaaay, so it's like a giant tree bong. I'll run with that. So when it's destroyed, naturally the villagers instantly become war hawks... except Chief Eldor. And Vytor. And Baboose. Why? Dunno. Then, when the village is worked into a frenzy and preparing for war, Myzor - who it seems does nothing but sit around his crib watching the Terrans on his giant flat screen - decides that's the ideal time to strike. What the fluff, man? I get that their champion is off Orville and Wilburing his way across Fantasyville, or whatever the Hell they call this world, but the villain decides that the perfect time to attack is when the Terrons have fortified their village and are in a blood rage? Wow. Just... wow. Speaking of Myzor, can we all agree that he's the worst villain ever. Dude does nothing. NOTHING. He just sits on his ass and watches TV. He could be my cousin Gary for crying out loud. Forget Myzor Sarcophogus, how about Myzor Procrastinator?

So, after all that, why did I say this was probably the best episode so far? Maybe because the bar is really low. I mean, there's nothing exceptional here. Even potentially good moments, like when Vytor saves the life of the Prince of Arboria (not saying anything about these names - not a thing), it's spoiled by the show's ham-fisted approach. Skyla's side adventure is amusing, but pointless, as is Baboose's monkeyshines (see what I did there?) with the shield. But despite all this, and the weak final confrontation where our baddies are once again dispatched with the greatest of ease while their boss watches Big Bang Theory reruns at his giant rock crib, this episode - shitty as it is - does move at a fast clip and entertains on a higher level relative to the previous two. If that's not a backhanded compliment, I don't know what is.

(additional stills)


This is a much more midline episodes, not quite swinging to the heights of last week, but nor scraping the bottom of mediocrity like the week before that. I love the idea of Vytor screwing up, and in his frustration and anger at himself, giving up the mantle of the Starfire Legacy as he literally tosses his shield away. And when he then learns of a way in which he can fix his mistake, he decides to go for it, sans weapon, just with his hands, his wits, and the occasional assurances of the lady broadcasting through the ring on his chest. This leads to the kingdom of Queen Claudia and her son, and I like how they're quick to disbelieve Vytor. He has no weapons, nothing to show he's the heir of Trion, and it's obvious his father meant a lot to Claudia given how angry her reaction is. It is maybe a bit much that she wants to lock Vytor up as a spy of Myzor based on zero evidence, as Myzor is hardly the only civilization we've seen with flying devices, but I like the situation it leads to with Vytor saving Claudia's son with some handy CPR. None of this stuff is great, but I'll go with it.

Where the episode really nails it for me is the side-quest of Baboose. Yeah, I can already predict that Tony's not going to be a fan of the annoying kid thread, but I like how dedicated Baboose is to getting Vytor's shield back. There's talking monkeys, giant fish monsters, and sling-shot antics. I really do enjoy how this unfolds, and how when Baboose makes it back to the Terron village with his recovery, he dives right into battle. He might not be able to activate the power of the Starfire, but he's got a solid piece of metal in his hands, and he can sure as hell swing it with a sound thwack. And he's not too shabby about surfing on it, either. I mean, sure, Vytor could have just used the ring to fly the shield right back to himself like he did in the last episode, but again, I'll go with it. And I love how they ecologically preserved the giant man-eating fish just by flinging him down one waterfall level.

The rest of the story, eh. I like the visual of the Spirit Tree, and do love the sudden moment where Vytor's attempt at showboating slices the hell out of it, but very little about it makes sense. Why does chopping off a few smaller branches cause the whole thing to instantly wither? And why does this lead all the Terrons to suddenly become warlike as they arm up with spears and catapults? If you're going this route, here's how situations like this work: ecological destruction leads to war because resources die out, food becomes too scarce to fill the people, they become desperate to get what they can for them and their own, damning others who lay claim. Even with the running time shorthand required, you could still sell this with the tree being the heart of the ecosystem and it being crop season, turning neighbor against neighbor after they've harvested what they can. Instead, we just hear the damage of this symbolic tie between the three kingdoms (which includes Myzor's kingdom, which is hardly living up to its end of the symbolic deal) simply dampens the general mood and everyone starts reflexively picking up sharpening stones and spear shafts. It's almost comical. And we never even see any hostile activity beyond the arming. No picking of fights and rising of tensions with neighbors (beyond that brief tug-of-war over fish) or even amongst themselves. No, the Terrons are just looking peeved and stockpiling for nothing, as when they ultimately fight, it's just to fend off invading Mutoids in a way no different than anything we've seen before. Though I do love how all their weapons mean largely diddly, as even their catapult stones are blown out of the sky before hitting anything.

And then the entire quest for the seed. Yeah, I get it from a fantasy plotting perspective, but being able to restore something by feeding it its own recently spawned seed has some very icky implications I wouldn't have hesitated to get into back in my grossout shock-jock days. Suffice it to say, I don't understand and the episode doesn't really seem to care as long as they can have a McGuffing to dangle before their plot.

Oh, quick shout out to Targil. I like how, even though he's been upstaged as the tribe's champion by Vytor, he's still a good dude and fried to his former rival, and that we get a nice fight between him and Dreadlock when the village is invaded. Yeah, he has his ass handed to him at first, but then we get some solid Targil/Baboose team-up action before Targil tenpins a row of Battle Droids. Yes, I know they're Mutoids, but they're so "roger roger" that I'm just going to call them Battle Droids from now on. Especially since they aren't mutated from anything, they're just robots! Though, oh how I love the scene of Skyla casually hacking into Dreadlock's command intercom and giggling as she leads them to smash their own vehicles. That was lovely. I adore you, Skyla.

Overall, it's a wobbly episode. It doesn't make sense half the time, doesn't even seem to care if it does or not, but there are still some really good ideas and sequences in there. The fun just managed to outweigh the frustration for me, at least.

A few extra thoughts:
  • On my second viewing for the synopsis, I just caught the line that the Spirit Tree filters all the drinking water of the Terrons. Does this mean it has a prozac style property that accounts for the more constantly peaceful state? Or that drinking water in the area naturally has properties (caffeine?) that lead to more agitation and aggression?
  • There's two writers on this episode. The first, Benjamin Masselink, was a freelance writer who bounced around a bunch of shows in the 60s and 70s (mostly cop and westerns). This was his first produced script in 9 years, and was the last of his filmed before he passed away in 2000 at age 80. His only other credits in genre animation where a few episodes of Valley of the Dinosaurs. As for the other writer, Michael Dale Brown's only credits before this were an Iranian war movie (back when Hollywood teamed up on films with Iran) and an 80s action movie with this amazing VHS cover. Both are unusual choices for this series, and I wonder how much of the wobbliness of the episode is due to both being involved as they've otherwise never collaborated.
  • The mechanics don't make any sense, but the shots of Vytor in his glider are quite beautiful.
  • As much as I love the scene, what role does having the Battle Droids smash their own ships actually play in the story beyond a delaying tactic? Them taking off after hastily and only partially completed repairs doesn't really pay off in any way.
  • Arboria having "secret knowledge of the wind" doesn't really mean a thing as every single human society we've seen so far has the power of flight, even the Terrons.
  • I love that the fish slingshot is the monklets' plan, not Baboose. You're a noble kid, Baboose, but you certainly aren't the sharpest flint in the fire kit.

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