Archive for December 29, 2014

More old SFTV: REBOOT (Spoilers)

Recently I’ve heard that there are plans to revive the old series ReBoot, the first computer-animated TV cartoon, which debuted a full two decades ago, way back in 1994. I hear a lot of praise for the later seasons of that show, but I only caught the first couple of seasons back in the day, and I didn’t remember being that impressed by them (though I thought more highly of later Mainframe Entertainment shows like Transformers: Beast Wars). Apparently, though, the subsequent seasons (produced after the show was dropped by ABC and moved to syndication/cable) got more serious and complex and skewed toward an older audience. So when I found the show was available in full on Hulu, I decided to check it out and see what I’d missed.

The premise of the show is a lot like TRON: Its characters are sentient computer programs who live in Mainframe, a computer system within the larger Net. They come in three types: binomes, the ordinary citizens, which are basically personified, robotlike ones and zeroes (tall, boxy, and cyclopean for the ones, short and spherical for the zeroes); sprites, the rarer, generally more humanoid entities who are the main characters; and viruses, the villains. The series focuses on Bob (Michael Benyaer), a Guardian who came from the more advanced Supercomputer to defend Mainframe; Dot Matrix (Kathleen Barr), whose nebulously defined role is somewhere between Mainframe’s leading business magnate and its de facto leader (basically a pro-business conservative’s dream); and her kid brother Enzo (initially Jesse Moss, later Matthew Sinclair and Christopher Gray), the obligatory cute kid who worships Bob and is always getting in trouble. They battle the evil virus Megabyte (the late Tony Jay), who’s constantly trying to gain access to the Supercomputer that only Bob can reach, and occasionally the “chaos virus” Hexadecimal (Shirley Millner), who’s incredibly powerful but insane and unfocused. And they’re aided by Phong (Michael Donovan), a more robotic-looking sprite who’s basically a wise-Asian-mentor stereotype and who runs the Principal Office, the administrative center of Mainframe.

They also have to contend with games sent by the User — presumably a human being running computer games on the network that contains Mainframe. A game is a cube that descends on a sector of Mainframe and transforms it into a game environment, where the sprites and binomes trapped inside “reboot” themselves into game characters (the original usage of the word “sprite,” I gather), gaining suitable costumes, equipment, and in-game knowledge and skills. If they lose, the entire sector is “nullified” — the buildings are destroyed and the occupants are reduced to mindless slugs called Nulls. Bob’s usual role, along with Dot and often Enzo, is to go into the games and win them in order to protect the Mainframers. Basically these people are at the mercy of cruel gods who torment them for their sport. It’s odd that they’re shown to enjoy playing games even outside the cubes; you’d think they’d see games as a terrifying natural disaster, the way we’d see a hurricane or earthquake.

The first season is pretty awful. Granted, this was the first time anyone had ever tried to make a TV cartoon in 3D computer animation, so one has to cut them some slack; but even so, the animation in the first few episodes is barely watchable. It’s not just a matter of technological deficiencies; they also feature bad camera work, bad timing, poorly done character movements and expressions, and the like. The writing throughout the first season is superficial; it’s geared almost entirely for comedy, and the humor is hit-and-miss. There’s also little attempt to explain and establish the world and the characters; it feels like coming into the middle of a story that assumes the audience already knows the basics. We don’t even hear the name of Megabyte’s headquarters (Silicon Tor) until the first-season finale.

The narration used in the first two seasons’ main titles is also pretty weird and a poor fit to the show. Let’s go through it:

I come from the net. Through systems, peoples and cities… to this place: Mainframe.

Okay, awkward and vague wording.

My format: Guardian. To mend and defend.

Paralleling a noun to a verb phrase — clunky. It feels like there’s a missing “My purpose:” or something in between.

To defend my newfound friends.

What do you mean, “newfound?” There’s no indication that Bob is a recent arrival. Indeed, his origin flashback in season 4 (by which point this narration had been dropped) reveals that he actually arrived in Mainframe a significant amount of time before season 1.

Their hopes and dreams. To defend them from… their enemies.

Wow, generic much? And here I thought you were going to defend them from their friends and family. At least it kinda rhymes.

They say the user lives outside the net, and inputs games for pleasure. No one knows for sure, but I intend to find out.

No, you don’t! At no point in the entire series does Bob express the slightest interest in finding this out. It’s like this was a first-draft narration written before they’d scripted the series, and somehow they forgot to rewrite it. It really doesn’t work at all. Fortunately, it’s dropped after season 2 and replaced with various successive narrations, although they’re all based on the structure of the original (minus the whole “I intend to find out” passage).

Anyway, there are some occasional amusing moments in season 1, including a ton of in-jokes and genre parodies, and it does introduce a few running gags that carry forward later, but you could pretty much skip the whole thing without losing much. It’s in season 2 that the show starts pulling itself together. The animation improves, and the storytelling starts to gain more continuity and complexity midway through the season, after an initial set of standalone episodes that would work fine to establish the basics of the show if you did skip season 1. The writing staff benefits from the inclusion of a number of comic-book authors including Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, and Dan DiDio. At the start of the back half of season 2 (episode 6 of 10), we finally learn some backstory about why there are so few sprites in Mainframe and get some long-delayed exposition about how the games work, and Enzo makes a friend, an artificially intelligent game sprite called AndrAIa (Andrea Libman), who stays behind after the game ends. Then a story arc kicks in for the final four episodes of the season, the first of the seven 4-part arcs that would make up the remainder of the series. Things get more serious as Mainframe is invaded by monsters from the Web (which is a nasty, toxic, alien realm — really not that far from the truth!), and the season ends with Megabyte trapping Bob in the Web. From here on, the tone of the series gets darker and more sophisticated, although there’s still a lot of parody and humor.

Anyway, season 3 begins with Enzo trying to fill Bob’s shoes as an apprentice Guardian, but at the end, he and AndrAIa are trapped in a game and taken away with it at the end. In between story arcs, they wander from game to system (apparently games are one of the only ways short of Guardian portals to travel from system to system — odd that Megabyte never thought of it) and age at an accelerated rate, turning into adult characters as the show geared itself toward a teen audience. Enzo grows into Matrix (Paul Dobson), a bitter, angry, musclebound antihero hardened by subjective years of constant game combat and despair at his failures in Mainframe. AndrAIa, by contrast, grows into a slim, sexy, scantily clad adult woman (Sharon Alexander) who’s just as good a fighter but has a warmer, more nurturing personality. Very much a gendered cliche, but I suppose I can buy AndrAIa needing to become patient and nurturing to serve as a check on Matrix’s rage and keep him from going totally off the deep end. With his green complexion and ultra-muscular frame, Matrix is basically the Hulk playing Rambo. A huge departure from the happy kid he used to be, but actually a plausible persona for a lost child who had to grow up without adult supervision to teach him impulse control. There is some pretty nuanced characterization in the later seasons.

(Although the underlying premise is inconsistent. The claim is that game time runs faster than system time, so Enzo and AndrAIa grew up while Dot and the others hardly aged at all. But Mainframe seems to run much faster than real time; they use nanoseconds they way we use seconds, and seconds are more like days or weeks. Of course, that doesn’t add up, since if a nanosecond were like a second, a full second would be nearly 32 years. Regardless, we’re supposed to accept that Mainframe time runs a lot faster than ours. So if the Users are human beings playing computer games, shouldn’t game time be enormously slowed down compared to Mainframe time, rather than sped up?)

Anyway, we get a story arc with Matrix and AndrAIa wandering from system to system, then a story arc where they finally reach the Web to track down Bob — who’s rediscovered in altered form, giving him a more detailed character design (and now voiced by Ian James Corlett). Season 3 culminates in a really dark story arc about the final battle to liberate the devastated Mainframe from Megabyte’s rule. It ends on a high note that could’ve been a series finale, but then we got two more story arcs that were originally released as movies. (And made in widescreen. Hulu’s editions are squished horizontally to fit a 4:3 aspect ratio, but better-quality versions are available on YouTube.) The first season 4 story arc/movie, Daemon Rising, involves the battle against Daemon, a supervirus that’s conquering the whole Net and has taken over the Guardians, as established in the second arc of season 3. The portrayal of Daemon is totally different from what I expected and really imaginative and effective, and it showcases how much the quality of the character animation has improved since season 1. By this point, the show is rather beautiful to look at, and the stories and characterizations are much richer. The story also provides flashbacks to the origin of the main characters, finally filling in a lot of the blanks left over from the first season.

I would’ve liked it if they’d ended here, really, since the final movie/arc, My Two Bobs, is devoted mainly to resetting things to the earlier status quo. Bob is reverted to his original, simpler character design (although the rendering is better) and his original voice actor, Megabyte is restored as the big bad (albeit with a new design and powers), and — since season 4 was cut down to two story arcs from the originally intended three — the movie ends on a rather unsatisfying cliffhanger. It’s still a ton better than the first couple of seasons, with much more character depth for the leads, but after Daemon Rising it’s rather anticlimactic, and it’s not a good place to have left things.

The revival series currently in development, ReBoot: The Guardian Code, was referred to in the press release as “an all-new ReBoot universe.” This implies that we may be getting, well, a reboot — a new continuity rather than a continuation of the original. If so, I’m not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, it would be good to get the cliffhanger’s loose ends belatedly tied up. On the other hand, Tony Jay is no longer with us, and Megabyte just wouldn’t be the same without his awesome voice. In any case, hopefully the writing will be more in line with the later seasons of the original. After all, it’s the later seasons that the fans remember more fondly. However, network TV animation these days seems to have little room for shows targeted at teen viewers. So we’ll have to wait and see.

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