Monthly Archives: April 2013

Earth Day Special: Nostalgia, Applicability and Captain Planet

Every so often I go off on a massive nostalgia kick. This seems to be a common affliction with people in my generation. Growing up, as we were, in a bit of a Renaissance of animation, video games and literature, we’re lucky to have much to be nostalgic about.

But, nostalgia, in the words of Yahtzee Croshaw, “is like stuffing your cheeks with cocaine-infused marbles in that it makes you say stupid things.”

In the early nineties media overlord Ted Turner got a bee in his bonnet about corporate responsibility and commanded his underlings to create a program about environmental superheroes. Said underlings went to the cartoon stables and decided to crossbreed Power Rangers with Care Bears and thus was born Captain Planet and the Planeteers.


By your powers combined…

Gaia, the spirit of the Earth (resembling the Greek Titan in name only) shakes her head at humanity’s polluting ways and recruits five young people, one from each major continent (Australia goes overlooked for some reason) and gives them each a ring that allows them to call on one or another Classical element, plus ‘Heart’ which allowed telepathy with animals, among other things. When the Planeteers (as they become known) are, inevitably, confronted with a situation that their wits and individual powers can’t overcome, they activate them all in sequence summoning, a ridiculously powerful genie-like superhero who mops up the villainous polluting plot of the day.

The premises of the show are that a whole is stronger than the sum of its parts, if you need me to figure that out for you, and that we should all give peace a chance and save the world and that nature is inviolate etc. etc. It also drew in a startling number of celebrity voices, including Sting, Malcolm MacDowell, Martin Sheen, Vanna White and Elizabeth Taylor, plus a lot of the iconic voice actors of the time, like Jim Cummings, Frank Welker and Ed Asner.

Okay so you can sort of see how we’re off to a good start here. Now try actually watching it…

A half-hour program does have to streamline the content, but ‘streamline‘ isn‘t the same thing as ‘dumb down.’ Captain Planet does dumb down and sends the quality down through the floor. The writing gives the impression that the creators have heard of environmental crises, but they don’t genuinely understand what they’re talking about, and they have a similar relationship with anything outside the white-middle-class-American experience. Whatever region of the world is the setting du jour tends to get a massive injection of stereotype. The episode “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belfast” lives on in especial infamy for this reason.
Amerindian cultures (from which Ma-Ti, the South America/Heart Planeteer, originates) get this particularly badly, being all mystical, morally superior nature-communers.
The main characters themselves are dreadfully one-dimensional. Kwame (Planeteer of Africa/Earth) comes the closest to seeming well-rounded, and I’m not sure that that isn’t a just product of having the voice of LeVar Burton, who can make stereo instructions sound profound. Wheeler (North America/Fire) serves the same function as Doctor Who’s companions, to ask the audience’s questions, but he’s portrayed as arrogant, complaining and constantly wrong about everything. Compare him to Sokka of Avatar: the Last Airbender, who is frequently obnoxious and contrary but is still intelligent and allowed to be right every so often.

The show is often mocked for villains who are into ‘pollution for pollution’s sake.’ Most of them are technically in it for money or ideology or insanity of some sort but the cackling glee they take in doing as much damage as possible is headache-inducing. Example: the episode ‘Fare Thee Whale’ covers the real-life practice of getting around international whaling bans by throwing up a façade of scientific research; the evil scientist villainess uses it as a chance to refine her ‘concentrated pollution formula.’

Speaking of which, the dialogue is atrocious, with characters giving lectures to each other and speaking in terms so pedantic it’s like a bad radio play.

The show is, in all the wrong ways, a spiritual successor to Generation 1 Transformers: it’s created to push something (albeit a bit more honourable than toys) and the stories are just vehicles for that with no soul of their own. The show actually broke some pretty impressive ground in a few cases, highlighting social issues like AIDS, family planning and gang violence, but the problems above rob them of gravitas. The morality is absurdly black-and-white, never admitting to the concept of doing a bad thing for the greater good or vice- versa.

The episode ‘The Dream Machine’ demonstrates this. It was attempting to show the negative impact of runaway consumerism by presenting one of the villains springing it on a remote, rural South American community. But since this comes out of the USA it comes across as saying ‘We already have this, but NOT FOR YOU OR YOU WILL DESTROY YOURSELVES!’ As they say on TV Tropes, their Aesops are Broken.

Some would say this is because it’s a kid’s show, but its contemporaries like Batman: the Animated Series and Gargoyles proved that kids are not this dense, and can handle some actual subtlety and grey areas in the name of a good story well-told. Everything in Captain Planet has to be saccharine and morally clean, which just ends up making a show for kids sound like it was written by kids.

So why does anyone remember this fondly? It was an insult to our intelligence and ideologically a lot of what left-leaning people and organizations are stereotyped and sneered at as being. Oh, and I might add the theme song was horrendous.

There are at least three possible explanations. One of these is that its hackneyed-sounding motto of “the Power is Yours” actually counted for something.
I’m fairly sure that it’s the nucleus of the fact that I care about the environment in the first place. I once stumbled across an interview from the mid-nineties with LeVar Burton (who, between Star Trek, Captain Planet and Reading Rainbow was something of a fixture in my childhood) wherein he said that kids responded overwhelmingly to its message.

The second one is that, as I and others of that generation have grown up, the issues dealt with so ham-fistedly in the show have not gone away. Some of them, like Climate Change, sectarian conflict and economic inequality have actually gotten worse. So those of us from that generation use it to remember when we got to be idealistic about this kind of thing.

The third is that we recognize how good and effective it could have been. We love it for all the things it had the potential to be. It wouldn‘t have a fan fiction community otherwise. Watching as an adult you can see glimpses of the right ideas. If they’d made the show arc-based and character-driven instead of episodic and plot-driven, or the writers done enough research to lend some authenticity to the content, some good things could have happened. Given the show-stopping power of the Captain’s abilities, removing Captain Planet himself and making it just about the Planeteers‘ characters, or placing some strict limits on the circumstances where they can summon him would have been a massive improvement.

Every so often they got it almost right between lesson and story: the episode ‘Bitter Waters’ managed to deal sensibly with big business’s relationship with low-income communities, and call itself out on the double standards discussed earlier, but then blew it on the ‘stereotyped Native Americans’ front. Likewise the episode “’Teers in the Hood” dared to take the characters down a morally difficult path, but yet again, you can tell the writers had only ever heard of street gang violence without understanding it, and they only gave themselves 20-odd minutes to work in.

It would be nice if we could have such media with real-world applicability for kids without the preaching from the pulpit of privelige. Lots of shows have good and positive themes, but seldom actually arm your social conscience the way this one tried to. This and His Dark Materials conspire to make me wonder: is it literally impossible to make a clear statement and tell a good story at the same time?

I decided to do this retro review in honour of Earth Day, and like the show itself, it is rather weak. This is not merely because I’m a nerd in denial or a preachy soppy liberal (although both of those happen to be true) but because I and many of my friends still remember this show fondly and yet aren’t sure what to do with it. All I can say is that, as I make little gestures like picking up litter or turning off lights in the name of being an environmentally conscious citizen, and agonize over whether (and where) to go into activism, those five kids and their blue buddy are in the back of my head, reminding me that the power is ours…

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Posted by on April 21, 2013 in Television


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The Mortal Instruments: Or, a Prognosis of Teen Fantasy

Occasionally I wonder if there’s a limited number of times you can tell a given type of story before it has to get shelved for a while.

I’ll demonstrate what I mean with a guessing game: a story where slightly-more-than-ordinary young people stumble upon a whole world of magical forces and beings with amazing powers, just as a great evil threatens that world and the people our hero has grown close to as they go through love, adventure and personal growth together.

So: quiz time. Which of the following popular series am I talking about?

A) Buffy the Vampire Slayer
B) Harry Potter
C) The Percy Jackson series
D) The Chronicles of Narnia

The correct answer, of course, is none of those. As should be obvious from the title of this post, I am in fact referring to the Young Adult soon-to-be hexology the Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare.

The subsequent books to date are City of Fallen Angels and City of Lost Souls

The subsequent books to date are City of Fallen Angels and City of Lost Souls

Oddly enough I originally read the first book, City of Bones, not long after it came out in 2007, but after some kind of bookstore equivalent of marinating, the Mortal Instruments has come out swinging in the past few months, driven further on by the upcoming film adaptation, and new instalments doubling the size of what began as a trilogy, alongside a set of prequel stories.

The Mortal Instruments features Clary Fray, a gifted artist and teenage introvert who, spending a night out with her best friend Simon, sees several other young people capture, interrogate and kill someone. A someone who crumples up and vanishes before her eyes. Her shock is matched by this group of eccentrics’ shock that she can even see them.

She crosses their path yet again after her mother is brutally kidnapped and a demon sent after Clary herself. Rescued by the brash young warrior Jace, she gets the veil pulled from her eyes and learns she, and her mother, are members of an ancient warrior nation descended from Angels known as the Shadowhunters, who police the underworld of werewolves, vampires, fair folk and similar, while warring to hold demons from the void at bay. Valentine, a rogue Shadowhunter has returned, to resume his genocidal campaign against all magical non-humans. With Simon and the broody but dashing Jace at her side, she strives to rescue her mother and defeat Valentine’s search to claim the Mortal Instruments, the devices that will give him the power to carry out his plans, and discover the secrets of her heritage as she goes.

Let’s get the obvious point out of the way: a teenager with a secret magical heritage, meeting a group of people who live in that world, and going up against a villain whose name starts with V who’s returned to advance a racist agenda by way of magical artefacts? Why, yes, that is the exact plot of Harry Potter. Indeed, if you know what to look for, the brushwork is unmistakable.

The story is laden with clichés. Clary is the gifted but withdrawn teenaged girl who doesn’t think very highly of herself but is much-beloved by most everyone around her; Jace is the sarcastic, brooding bad boy who likewise is adored by everyone else, and who has a soft side which our heroine must tease out even though she’d be well within her rights to hit him with a broom; there’s a running feud between vampires and werewolves in the background and, lest we forget, there’s a bloody love triangle! That dies a slow and painful death aroundabout book three but its last throes involve a long-lost-sibling angle that makes the Luke-Leia kiss in Empire Strikes Back look normal in comparison.

The character types are so familiar that they struggle to come to life for me. Oddly, the characters who engage me the most are the secondary ones who fall outside the normal pattern: Maia, the runaway-turned-werewolf, Simon, the wisecracking nerd, and the shady but good-humoured Magnus are far more colourful than the core characters a lot of the time, and are by far the best written. Jace’s adoptive siblings start out no more complex than the basic sketches of their characters but ultimately grow into more nuanced people, particularly Alec.

As a villain, Valentine is more compelling than some. He’s quite rational and direct, without resorting to boasts or overt propaganda. The exact details of his evil plan seem to alter from book to book somewhat, in a way that doesn’t clearly say whether his plan is evolving or if Clare is just making up new dimensions to widen the scope of things. A greater focus on the mystery aspects might have been useful.

All this speaks to a certain immaturity of the talent. It’s the kind of thing you turn out for your Writing classes in high school. The thing that’s most puzzling about it is how much there is. In the story there are three Mortal Instruments, introduced one after another as Valentine advances his plans. Standard procedure, right? Seven Harry Potter books, seven Horcruxes. The pattern of the trilogy is fulfilled, the plot resolved, the battles won. And yet there’s two more books after that, soon to be three. I’ve only reached the fourth, City of Fallen Angels, so far, and it draws off of loose ends left in book three and continues several character arcs that normally would have been labelled ‘happily ever after’ and left at that. A lot of the action seems less to involve Clary and Jace than to revolve around them while advancing the arcs of characters like Simon and Alec. In a sense, Clare is now writing her own story’s continuation fan fiction.

Early on, therefore, I was prepared to brush the Mortal Instruments off as fun but a trifle angsty and indulgent (though less so since I realized that the author is using a pen name) but the more I thought about it, the more I found that Mortal Instruments did achieve some rather nifty subversions of the standard plot. The most obvious one is at the beginning where Clary storms out on her mother after a last-minute announcement that they’re heading to the cottage for the rest of the summer. But before they even get packed, Clary’s mother is attacked and the plot takes off. From Narnia to the Spiderwick Chronicles, the framing device of kids being dragged off to the country in times of tension has done long service, but Mortal Instruments shortcuts all that and the magical realm is woven into the streets, parks and back alleys of New York. Yes it’s urban fantasy, still a minor province of the genre, to which Charles de Lint and Jim Butcher are virtually the only major contributors.

The properties of the Mortal Instruments are explained pretty clearly throughout; this is a pet peeve of mine regarding the Lord of the Rings, in that the book never explains what exactly the Rings of Power actually do.

The other thing I like about the setting is that, much like the magical world of Harry Potter, once you get past the cool factor it’s a society riddled with its own share of injustice and prejudice, and this gets examined and challenged in a way that Rowling never really got around to in her series.

The drama makes for a page-turner, even if it does feel like it came out of a high school soap opera. There is one thing it does that a lot of stories like this don’t; there’s no way that I can say this without sounding like a bit of a pervert, but I find it a little annoying when teen romances lack sex. Anybody who remembers being a teenager can attest that one’s affection for a potential partner might have been sappy and romantic but wasn’t any less driven by simple hormones, and leaving it out often strikes me as dishonest or spineless. Clare takes a while to work up to that point, but the progression seems natural. Best of all, the only thing stopping the main relationship from finally getting that far isn’t any high-minded notion of decency on either the part of the characters or the author, but the simple fact that Clary realizes they haven’t got any articles of birth control on hand. No Bella Swan she!

You could read the fact that Clary makes that call as a reinforcement of the old ‘girls are the guardians of purity’ angle, but my gut at least says Clare isn’t going for that and by and large the frustrations of the romance are mostly teenage struggles to distinguish love from friendship from lust.

So, to my own surprise, I quite like the Mortal Instruments. They’re neither original nor intellectually deep, but they are fun, interesting and by an author with a wide range of reading informing what she does. I still think that it’s a closing chapter in this sequence of stories about young people in realms of magic and adventure. Soon the only way to tell this kind of story will be with a subversive or ironic approach. Until then, we may as well enjoy ourselves.

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Posted by on April 6, 2013 in Book


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