Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Kid's Stuff, Part XXI -- Plot by Numbers, Part 1: Battle of the Planets #2

Plot by Numbers No More, Part 1

Two formulaic animes get born-again hardcore.

Battle of the Planets and Voltron are both Japanese anime imports with some striking similarities. Both feature teams of young defenders fighting giant otherworldly creatures sent to wreck havoc by mysterious and evil alien warlords. Even more astounding is the fact that they share a common fault of preteen-to-early-teen cartoons from the 70;s and 80's: repetitive “cookie-cutter” plots. I can boil down every single episode of either series. Don’t think it’s possible? Here, watch me.

Battle of the Planets, '78 version, Episodes 1 through 1 million

1.  7-Zark-7, robot guardian notices a new attack by Zoltar from Planet SPECTRA. 1-Rover-1 barks.
2.  Giant thing attacks city, “OMFG, help! G-Force!”
3.  G-Force team uses special watches to alter their vehicles and outfits to make them look cooler. Okay, so maybe just the vehicles look cooler. Bird beaks and capes are kinda dorky, you know?
4.  Vehicles drive around then get picked up by the Phoenix plane.
5.  “Wait! First we must attack enemy base/robot monster to expose its weakness/get back what was stolen. Let’s go! G-FORCE!”
6.  Attacks SPECTRA base.
7.  “Brrrrrooot, chhhhrip, tweeetooo!”
8.  “SPECTRA’s agents are too powerful. Form the whirlwind thingie. G-FORCE!”
9.  SPECTRA agents get ultimate blow job.
10.  “Back to the Phoenix jet”.
11.  Giant thing attacks Phoenix jet.
12.  “Quick, shoot some missiles at it!”
13.  “S H I T, that didn’t work!”
14.  “We’ll have to form the fiery Phoenix!”
15.  Forms fiery Phoenix.
16.  Monster explodes after being destroyed by fiery Phoenix.
17.  Team flies away. 7-Zark-7 babbles about something. No one cares. 1-Rover-1 flies backwards using his tail.
18.  Credits roll

Voltron, '84-'85 version, pick any episode – I dare you

1.  Lotor or Zarkon sends giant Robeast thing to Planet Arus
2.  Prince Lotor sends Zoltar an IM asking “Wat up, dog?”
3.  Giant Robeast thing attacks city.
4.  Castle of Lions alerts the team.
5.  Lion team attacks giant thing.
6.  “S H I T, that didn’t work”
7.  “We’ll have to form Voltron!”
8.  Forms Voltron.
9.  Fires the weapon du jour.
10.  “S H I T, that didn’t work”
11.  “Form Blazing Sword!.”
12.  Voltron flies outside the planet’s atmosphere. Makes Blazing Sword and poses for a few candids before zooming back to the planet
13. Voltron hits giant Robeast bad-guy thing with sword.
14. Robeast-thing explodes.
15. Credits roll

Heck even some later works do this as well. We can even carry this same tactic forward to current shows:

(Fill in the blank) Power Rangers

1.  Evil rubber-wearing thing plots to do something evil.
2.  Stupid comic relief characters get screen time.
3.  Evil rubber thing sends latest henchman and about 20 underlings to accomplish task.
4.  Power Rangers arrive on scene in civilian identities.
5.  Karate fight ensues.
6.  Underlings defeated.
7.  New Henchman disappears vowing to return.
8.  Power Rangers talk among themselves.
9.  Henchman returns and attacks.
10.  Power Rangers transform into costumes.
11.  Henchman shot with guns and slashed with swords. Suddenly he grows into a giant monster version of himself.
12.  “S H I T, that didn’t work!”
13.  “Call the zords!”
14.  Zords appear and Power Rangers jump into driver’s seats.
15.  "Zords must form Mega-giant-combined Robot Zord."
16.  Human shaped robot is made out of Zords.
17.  Giant Henchman shot or stabbed in such a way that they explode.
18.  Power Rangers back in civilian ID’s hi-five each other.
19.  Credits Roll

So what do all three of these shows have in common? Besides underage kids driving giant vehicles around that they could no way have proper licenses for? 

Besides exploding monsters and transforming means of transportation? 

What each has is an adherence to a specific plot sequence for every story told. At the beginning of every episode, you know exactly what will occur. Voltron will always form a sword and hit the Robeast with it to win the day. The Power Rangers will always need to form the giant robot Zoid to kick the villain of the moments butt. And G-Force will always have to go all fiery phoenix to blow up bad guy number XX. It’s like paint-by-numbers for plotting.

Recently I’ve come to the conclusion that the use of these recycled story designs is not due to a lack of creativity on the writer’s parts, but instead points to the shows being marketed to a specific segment of the viewing audience.


Specifically elementary school age kids. Simplistic and repetitive story lines create a degree of familiarity with the subject matter and make the shows more accessible to the under 11 set. After that age, kids will start to demand more complex plot elements that offer diversity of story outcomes. Younger kids enjoy knowing what comes next before it happens. 

I’ve watched my own three-year-old sit through the same cartoon (specifically Chuck Jones’s “Rikki Tikki Tavi”) three times in a row only to ask for it again. If youngsters like seeing the exact same show over and over again, then the best way to market to them is to provide an TV series where the changes to story elements are very minimal episode to episode. It also makes it much easier to market toys to them, as the repetition allows you to reinforce elements that are easily turned into consumer goods (Zoids, action figures, robot lions, etc.).

While the Power Rangers franchise has learned how to capitalize on children’s marketing, Battle of the Planets came out at a time when cross promoting wasn’t utilized quite as thoroughly. A bare handful of toys exist for each. Battle of the Planets has a few action figures of the heroes. The series was collected on to DVD and had a short run of comics produced by Gold Key. In 2002 it got a 12 issue series run by Top Cow. The gorgeous covers were painted by Alex Ross who also handled art direction. The series proved popular enough to garner three spin-offs focusing on individual characters Mark, Jason, and Princess plus a one shot crossover with Witchblade (not sure how any of these were handled, but the crossover idea seems quite far-fetched).

The original anime for Battle of the Planets was called Kagaku ninja tai Gatchaman and aired in Japan in 1972. Sandy Frank Entertainment brought it to the states in 1978, cut rather substantial hunks of controversial scenes out (i.e. graphic violence, profanity and transgenderism), tacked on some low cost animation about a robot and his robot dog to make it kid friendly and retitled the whole mess Battle of the Planets. The score for the show was marvelously redone by Hoyt Curtin, a youtube of the intro actually made me weep like a baby in remembrance. Frank’s company also took the most fragile looking of the BotP team, young Keyop, and gave him an annoying verbal tic that had him trilling, chirping and stuttering most of the time.  If you’re like me, clicking that link will bring tears to your eyes.

Some of the changes were definitely for the better. No one wants to watch a show that sounds like trailer park hos taunting each other (Got cher man! Got cher man!). But many of them seemed silly even to kids at that time. I know, because I watched BotP religiously as a tweener. The ridiculous robot intros and closings were particularly grating. But the team and their transmuting ship were ultra cool as were the monster-of-the-week creatures they fought. What I loved back in the late 70’s got a makeover in the mid 80’s. Gatachaman was revised as G-Force: Guardians of Space by Turner Broadcasting who restored much of the violent original content, but decided to give our heroes crappy sounding names like Ace Goodheart, and Dirk Daring. I’ve watched one on youtube, but without Curtin’s score the action doesn’t really grab me. You may feel differently. HERE is a link to its opening.

So how did the writers of Top Cow’s book proceed when creating the BotP comic? With so many different versions of the same anime, the possibilities of coming up with something a true Battle of the Planets fan would find enjoyable sounded as difficult as negotiating a mine field while blind folded. Yet here they stand, safe and sound on the opposite side clutching a respectful and mature book that plays to all audiences of the show. What changes did they make? Let’s read along and see. We start with the team suited up and flying the Phoenix after it’s gone all fiery. From the looks of things, the book is treating this like no small affair either. Dare I say, dangerous even?

Notice the little nuances these few panels pick out. First, each team member gets to keep their name from the BotP Sandy Frank series. They also get code names that clearly explain their different costumes (something the BotP anime never did). Keyop has lost his stuttering bird-flavored version of Tourettes. Jason says the bad word for a female dog, reinstating some of the vulgar language that was evident in the Japanese series. Lastly, the fiery Phoenix weapon is apparently a dangerous undertaking. Something that happened every episode with no visible effects on the crew or ship now has an air of danger and use only in last resort feeling about it. You might also note that the story from this point is all one big flashback that leads up to the team being “ghosted” in the Phoenix for too long. So cue the flashback screen waves as we revisit what caused this mess.

We start off with a mission briefing. Keyop is tending to an injured bird when the call comes in and Princess plays Sheppard’s hook, dragging him along. His soft-hearted side for animals will come into play later. Thankfully the mission briefing is being given by a large bald African-American general instead of a silly robot with flashing lights and a flying dog.

I like the Gamera comment since poking fun at another Japanese pop-culture franchise is almost the same as self-referential humor. The fact that they are facing the Terrapin mirrors the original anime’s first episode. Nice bit of fan service there. The general does his R. Lee Ermey bit and then hands it over to the science staff for an explanation of what the team has to do. The science staff turns out to be…

…also a human! That’s right, ridiculous robots have been wiped clear out of existence in this book. I couldn’t be happier. Also the look that Mark gives Jason there implies that Jason might have a problem following orders, especially orders that involve not doing some butt kicking when the opportunity presents itself.

As it turns out, I’m completely right. The team can’t get a reading on the mechanical turtle . The defense forces, all human fighter pilots,  are dying left and right. Long gone are the days of evacuated cities defended by robot army tanks and planes, both hallmarks of the kid friendly BotP TV show. Jason gets frustrated and plans on pressing a button to abort the mission. I’m not sure what this button would do. It’s not really explained. But it is behind glass and it flashes red impressively.

Impressive use of cussing there. We walk a fine line between all the series that make up Gatachaman history here, picking out the best parts and leaving out the trash. Well Jason, Mark does have a plan and it’s even more crazy than yours.

Specifically himself and Princess as pointmen, with the other three bringing in the plane on command to take the readings they need. This is not following orders, but hey-whatever works, right. First obstacle Mark and Princess encounter is one of the terrapin’s giant fans leading to its air duct system. I figured they were going to disable it with a few shots or fancy bird-arangs they carry. 

Boy, was I in for a surprise.

Yes, they go through the fan while the blades are turning full speed. And it only hits the tip of one feather on Princess’s cape. It’s right about this point that I fell in love with this book. There’s so much bad-assery in the world today that involves violent acts but so few really few cool scenes involving something new and inventive that you have to applaud one when you see it. Princess and Mark succeed in opening the turtles bay and Tiny pilots the Phoenix plane in. Jason is, of course, a paragon of patience waiting for Mark and Miss P to rendezvous with the ship.

A guard catches Jason leaving the ship. Jason disarms him, but not before he can sound the alarm. Mark is completely clueless as to how their cover has been blown.

Well, maybe not. Jason tries to cheer him up as hundreds of guards descend on both their positions by saying the chief wouldn’t know how much they’d screwed up the mission. Meanwhile the chief (the guy I called a science officer before) is listening in to their helmet mics in his office with a worried look on his face. Keyop gets a moment to shine. He is separated from Princess in battle and after dispatching the guards chasing him, comes across a strange lab. A strange and gruesome lab.

So Keyop goes bat-shiz insane on this guy and when Princess catches up to him…

…yeesh! Now I’m sure there’s a Keyop fan somewhere that thinks this is like pissing all over his childhood. I’m not that guy. Keyop’s been resurrected into a much better and deeper character than the twittering light-weight he was in the anime. Hats off to Top Cow. Jason arrives next, doesn’t want to know what’s happened but hustles everyone back to the Phoenix. They escape the terrapin with the information they need, but Zoltar has one last trick up his sleeve. He tells the SPECTRA commander to latch onto the Phoenix and self-destruct his ship, destroying them both. It’s right about this point that the SPECTRA commander has second thoughts about his job.

One of the lieutenants notices the commander’s hesitation, takes out a gun and kills him and the others on the bridge. He then does as ordered, catching G-Force’s ship and preparing to auto-destruct his own. The last we see of him, he’s sitting in a corner with the barrel of a pistol pressed against his chin. And G-Force, wrapped in the arms of the giant robo-turtle look like their fate is sealed. Great stuff and it plays perfectly to the adults who fondly remember liking the show without remembering the amount of lame material it contained.


1 comment:

  1. The Crapbox would like to thank Odell Abner Dracula for pointing out that it's "Zords" not "Zoids" as I had originally written. What can I say? I was past the age of that particular fandom's target demographic.


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