Tools of the Imagination — Starcom

Starcom: The US Space Force
Produced by DiC Entertainment, released 1987, available on YouTube

GI Joe meets NASA

Starcom is a shining example of the difference between recalling something and remembering something.  People remember GI Joe; they recall Starcom.  They recall a show kind of like GI Joe, with somewhat similar toys, but details are usually pretty sparse and they usually end up just writing it off as misremembering an episode of GI Joe.

In fact, Starcom wasn’t a GI Joe knock-off but more of a Flash Gordon knock-off, meant to ignite kids’ interest in outer space.  The story was rooted (in theory) in a little bit more realism than the sci-fi fare of the time (remember when the Decepticons teleported Cybertron into earth’s orbit; if you had a week, you couldn’t list all the ways that would be a bad idea, even for the bad guys).  So while Starcom does have aliens and interplanetary space travel that takes hours instead of months, it also has an emphasis on biospheres, weather patterns, and some of the more mundane wonders of studying space.  All of it is set against the heroic efforts of the uniformly benign Starcom as they try to keep the peace against the enigmatic Shadow Force, led by Emperor Dark, who is trying to do bad because it’s a Saturday morning cartoon.

Story – 4 out of 5
Starcom’s story, while nothing truly exceptional, is better than most because of the slight nuances that play out.  It’s true that, as a kids’ show in the 1980s, nuance isn’t the best word, but the Shadow Force often have slightly more intelligent plans than their counterparts on other shows.  Moreover, they are often depicted with a greater level of understanding.  Rather than try to overwhelm Starcom, they try to use elements of a given planet to their advantage and the Starcom forces often have to use similar intellectual resourcefulness to overcome them.  Yeah, laser blasters come into play, but for a kids’ show, it’s above-average stuff.

Art – 4 out of 5
The art is stellar.  1980s cartoons made a leap forward in quality artwork, but this show really stands out.  Only theatrical releases had better artwork than this show and the detail is often on par with a lot of the anime that was being imported at this time.

Animation – 3 out of 5
While the art was stellar, the animation was nothing outstanding.  But nothing at all bad, either.

Characters – 3 out of 5
The characters of the show are a little bland and generic, but by having a tight cast of three principle heroes (Slim, Crowbar, and Dash) and three primary Shadow Force villains (Malvanna Wilde, General Von Dar, Major Romak), the characters get a little more personality than in other shows (like, say GI Joe which had over twenty protagonists in its first year alone).  Sort of like the Real Ghostbusters, the characters aren’t much, but what they are is done well.

Acting – 3 out of 5
The acting is unremarkable, even for the 1980s.  There are some cringe-worthy moments and some really stellar moments, but as a whole, nothing stands out.

Overall – 4 out of 5
Starcom remains largely an unsung hero of the 1980s cartoon behemoth.  It was a well-done show that just didn’t manage to catch on.  It’s well put together, had a fun gimmick (more on that next week), and was rooted in some good intentions.  Maybe it’ll get reimagined in the coming years.  But for now, Youtube videos will have to suffice.

Tools of the Imagination — Sword Art Online

Sword Art OnLine
Written by Reki Kawahara, Illustrated by abec, Published by Aniplex, released 2012, available on Crunchyroll

Dungeons & Dragons in the future…but not

Sword Art OnLine – or SAO – is the poor man’s anime version of Ready Player One.  Not that that’s a bad thing.  SAO is a perfectly okay anime, but that’s all it is: Okay.

Set in the fantasy world of a fully immersive MMORPG, the story of Sword Art OnLine follows Kirito who is trapped along with several thousand other players inside a virtual reality.  Their only possible escape is to complete the 100th floor of the dungeon, while death in the game results in real-life death.  The reasoning behind this is staggeringly vague, the result of the machinations of Kayaba Akihiko the Steve Jobs/Howard Hughes super-genius who built SOA.

Story – 3 out of 5
The story is kind of unique but also has gaping plot holes.  The contrived reasoning to keep the thousand of players in the MMORPG is that if they log-out or have their systems severed, they will die.  Which is fine, except to have thousands of people trapped inside a virtual reality for multiple years is a stretch.  An off-handed comment late in the show acknowledges that a small window was granted to allow the victims to be transported to hospitals for care but little more is said of this.  Also, Akihiko is beyond brilliant because the combined resources of the world cannot hack into the game to free the people or even find a way around their being locked in.  These suspensions of disbelief are the biggest problem, but if you can get around it, the remaining show is pretty fun.

Art – 3 out of 5
There’s very little that can be said about the art.  It’s good, but seems uninspired.  There isn’t a tremendous level of detail in the characters or backgrounds.  And the character designs aren’t remarkably varied.
One note to make is I heard about SAO because the weapons company Cold Steel had a knife appear in the game.  This was my initial reason for watching, only for the knife to only turn up for a moment at the end of the series, and then to be drawn so generically as to not have been worth it.

Animation – 4 out of 5
The animation of the show is quite good.  Fight scenes vary radically but some of them are really excellent, offering more than just traded super attacks.  There’s a dynamic element to the camera in many episodes that really works.

Characters – 2 out of 5
None of the characters in the show are memorable in the slightest.  Kirito is a very blaise and generic anime hero who makes the ubiquitous soliloquies about friendship and being a loner, but none of it seems rooted in any real personality.  Asuna, the heroine, isn’t as overbearing as some female leads but she just has no outstanding characteristics.  The supporting cast is equally as unremarkable, with every single role being hit like marking off needed troupes from a list.

Acting – 3 out of 5 (for Japanese voice actors)
Much like the art, the acting is about par for the course.  There are no outstanding performances but nothing that’s distracting either.  The performances aren’t nuanced, but then neither are the characters.  At the end of the day, the actors do their jobs passably and acceptably but that’s about all that can be said.
Overall – 3 out of 5
SAO isn’t a bad show at all.  It’s very entertaining at points and can be real fun, especially if you’re into swords-n-sorcery.  But it’s not an outstanding show in any sense of the word.  It’s just sort of a fun place-holder to bide time until something better comes along.