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Jem and the Holograms: Why the Heck Not

I don’t know what’s wrong with me, honestly.

I don’t mean why I’ve been on hiatus so long. That makes sense, to me at least. What confounds me is why I’m reviewing what I’m reviewing.

A while back I admitted to being, to my own bafflement, a adulthood viewer of the tacky, cheesy, badly animated 80’s girlie cartoon Jem, starring the band Jem and the Holograms. I’m still not sure why. The show’s terrible in that particularly 1980s glorified toy commercial kind of way, the music is hit-or-miss at best, and the animation is so stilted it’s like a musical put on by a company of badly-assembled paper dolls. I didn’t watch it as a child (as far as I remember), and genre-wise it’s a ways out of my orbit.

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Out with the old…

As I speculated whilst eviscerating the even worse live action movie trailer, it might be partly that it is cut from the same cloth as my early childhood, but since I actually encountered it by way of fanworks, I think it’s also because the fans have done a surprisingly good job at keeping it alive by working on the subtexts, implications (intentional or otherwise) of the show’s creators, and all that they’ve learned about storytelling as they’ve grown up.

Which meant that, despite the manifest weaknesses of the source material, I took notice that IDW is running a comics version that’s been attracting some positive press. I’ve acquired the first three volumes through my local library to check out.

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…and in with the new

Quick recap: in the cartoon, Jerrica Benton assumes the secret identity of Jem using a hologram-generating AI built by her late father, to lead her sister and foster sisters in a band in order to support her private foster girls’ home and retain control of the family record company. Her nemesis, promoter Eric Raymond, tries to undermine her by the success and general hell-raising wrought by the rebel band the Misfits. Jem/Jerrica has to hold their schemes at bay, support the so-called Starlight House children, and maintain her disguise from even her beloved Rio.

That last point is the biggest stumbling block of the cartoon once you’re in double-digits ages, because for one thing, there’s no apparent reason why Jerrica has to assume a secret identity at all, and it makes no sense to keep Rio, the band’s road manager and her boyfriend, out of the loop. For another thing, since Rio was notoriously depicted as a short-tempered, possessive jerk who dallies with Jem not knowing she is Jerrica and then goes off about hating deception, the double-standards and outright creepiness, while presumably unintentional, are a bit of a deal-breaker.

The comic, meanwhile, creates a much more reasonable scenario: Jerrica and her sisters, Kimber, Shana and Aja, are in their own garage band, which volunteers with the Starlight Community Centre. They are trying to record a video for a contest sponsored by their idols, the Misfits. Jerrica is an excellent singer but has crippling performance anxiety that renders her mute in front of cameras. In her hour of need, she discovers Synergy, the AI her father had created prior to his early death, who is able to use holographic projections to both jazz up the band’s music video and alter Jerrica’s appearance to create a persona for her to hide behind, called Jem. The band thence becomes Jem and the Holograms. The Misfits find themselves upstaged in the contest they themselves were sponsoring, and the jealous and hot-tempered Pizzazz, their frontwoman, leads the way in a war of popularity between the two bands, with the abetment of their manager, Eric Raymond and his right hand man, the computer whiz known as ‘Techrat.’ At the same time, members of both bands deal with their own relationships to each other and such romances as come their way, including Rio, here a music journalist who covers both the Misfits and the Holograms, and Kimber’s star-crossed romance with the creative talent and softer side of the Misfits, Stormer.

So right off the bat the premise certainly makes more sense than the original, ridiculous nicknames notwithstanding. Jerrica has an actual reason to need a cover identity. Rio’s character is recast into someone you can actually stand – crucially, he hasn’t known Jerrica since childhood, and when offered the chance to dally with Jem behind (as far as he knows) Jerrica’s back, he angrily rejects it. Eric’s self-destructive conniving is wound down to simply being a weasel – and a halfway competent one at that. Pizzazz actually cares about music itself as well as her own ego, and however much she despises the Holograms, her schemes aren’t as illegal or suicidal as they tended to be of old. Shana and Aja get much more character development and the Misfits are less of a sackful of angry cats. Synergy herself has much more of a character, which drives the Dark Jem plot in volume 3 when she temporarily goes a bit HAL 9000.

It’s been said that the cartoon has accidentally become something of a period piece of the 1980s. The comic is set in the modern day, and the contrast is both fascinating and hilarious. Because friends of mine currently wear their hair this way, I was particularly struck by characters like Kimber and Pizzazz rocking the long-on-one-side, buzzed-on-the-other style, in contrast to the bouffant look of their original incarnations. I’ve spotted one or two costumes that are clearly 2010s updates of their 80’s-wear, and a couple of characters share some of my contemporaries’ inexplicable fondness for adult-sized onesies.

Character design generally is really cool. All of them look recognizably like their cartoon selves, but more varied. In the cartoon, it’s not hard to see that both bands are mostly made up of copies of the same figure with different hair. In the comic Roxy, the Misfits’ drummer, is built like Avatar Korra, Jetta is now an Afro-Briton (middle ground between the original cartoon conception and what she ended up becoming). Stormer, and Aja to a lesser extent, are big, curvy women instead of Barbie dolls, whereas Kimber is flat-chested and scrawny.

Beyond that, there are lots of little touches that show just how far we’ve come since the 80’s. Twitter, text messaging, video streaming and social media all form important parts of the plot. Techrat goes from the mad inventor archetype to the more modern hacker/troll. The general art style has gone from 80’s Hanna-Barbera to a more manga-esque look. Apt since, in the absence of the 80’s, anime and manga are the logical place to look for over-the-top hair, but the drawing of eyes and use of abstract facial expressions derives from Anime too. The original cartoon gets lots of little nods, such as Jem having the word ‘Outrageous’ written up the leg of her pants in one scene, as does current pop culture, with one issue making references to things like the recently-revived Star Wars and Mad Max franchises. The writers are clearly fans of My Little Pony too, but I try to ignore that. However happy I may be watching kids’ shows, becoming a ‘brony’ is where I draw the line.

Interest in picking apart and interpreting the cartoon has persisted long enough among fans who grew up with it that the series’ fanworks evolved a number of conventions, known to Tropers as ‘Fanon.’ Arguably one of the comic’s major selling points was running with the most common piece of Fanon, that Kimber and Stormer, the respective songwriting talents of the Holograms and the Misfits, are romantically interested in one another. While Kimber and Stormer’s situation is fairly star-crossed, the fact that they’re both women doesn’t enter into it. Kimber is loudly unselfconscious about being queer, and when Aja inadvertently makes a homophobic comment early on, she apologizes instantly. The rift between them is the rivalry between the bands, not the bigotry of others.

That aspect has, I gather, gotten some criticism, not so much because of the relationship, but more because of how fast it progresses. Kimber is crushing on Stormer before they’ve even met; they’re saying ‘I love you’ after having been on maybe two dates, and while that is in character for Kimber, who is wont to love not wisely but too well, it all seems too neat and abrupt.

But then, I feel that way about the stories of a lot of comics I’ve tried out, like Saga or Gotham City Sirens. I think the format is one that makes pacing difficult by nature. In general, it all speaks to me of a story that is good, but in many respects kind of shallow.

While the Holograms all get better characterization, Jetta and Roxy over in the Misfits get less in turn. While acknowledged, their rough backgrounds haven’t really been used for anything. This may be to avoid the trap the cartoon accidentally set, whereby the Misfits were actually more interesting to some fans – Pizzazz still has a knack for stealing the scene, though, and they’ve got a spinoff series all to themselves, apparently.

While a lot of the good character interpretations are carried through from the cartoon, others seem to have gone unquestioned. The Jerrica/Jem duality could be deepened. Some fanon sees the buttoned-down, responsible Jerrica using Jem as a way to cut loose and go, as it were, Lady Ga-ga. But as in the cartoon, Jem and Jerrica don’t really seem that different. Jem looks taller and flashier than Jerrica, but they more or less act the same way. It’s particularly glaring when Rio interviews Jem for his magazine after they’ve been dating for a while, and he doesn’t recognize her unchanged mannerisms. In other words, Jerrica doesn’t bother doing the Clark Kent thing of altering her behaviour to reinforce the disguise.

The old saw that Stormer is supposed to be the ‘nice’ Misfit who doesn’t quite fit in with the band’s punk/rebel image is discussed in the comic. It’s not as bad as the cartoon, but the contrast, while compelling, is still overdone. Stormer is so nice that it doesn’t seem like it’s in her nature to write the kind of songs that you’d expect from a band like this.

Speaking of ‘a band like’ the Misfits, what kind of band are they? What kind of band are the Holograms? This one might be partly my fault since I tend to skim over the song lyrics. But the dichotomy – the Holograms are the happy, sunny ones, the Misfits are the edgy, tough ones – doesn’t seem to exist for any reason than just because that’s the premise the story came with. Pizzazz’s jealousy is almost all that seems to drive the rivalry. It isn’t clear to me what artistic vision unites each band. Incidentally, the Dark Jem arc, where Synergy malfunctions and starts brainwashing the Holograms into a dark, Goth/Emo style not their own, is clearly bad but inadvertantly seems to imply that that style and genre is somehow innately villainous.

Look, I realize I’m slipping into a ‘this isn’t how I would have written it’ tirade, but as much as I’m enjoying this series, it lacks a certain bite I can’t quite quantify. I think that the series is aimed at younger readers – certainly it’s aimed at a generation who can be counted on not to find queer characters surprising. There’s minimal swearing, and somehow it keeps bugging me that despite the main characters all being rock stars, even the ‘bad girl’ band doesn’t have a reefer between them. Kimber’s lackadaisical personality never seems to carry any consequences for her, her relationship with Stormer seemingly the only driver of her character arc.

I think another reason why I find this franchise interesting is that at about the same time I started watching the cartoon I was also re-watching Ken Burns’ Jazz series. The biographies of the musicians, especially during the transition from the Swing to the Be-Bop era and beyond, are hugely compelling. So the idea of applying one’s imagination to the history of a fictional band, especially with some daft sci-fi thrown in, is oddly alluring. Not that I want any of them to go the way of Charlie Parker, of course, but a little extra grit wouldn’t hurt. That said, it’s also worth remembering that this series is basically an origin story about them breaking into the industry, whereas in the cartoon they pretty much hit the big time first time out and go from there.

I don’t know if I like the cartoon as a guilty pleasure, or just study it to understand the better examples of the fanworks it spawned, or because I’m an obssessive who gets into things and it’s best to let it run its course. But I definitely like the comic. It’s progressive, characterful, visually appealing and well written. I like the dialogue a lot, it being very Whedonesque. Kimber reminds me a lot of Michelle Trachtenberg’s character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, actually. And Pizzazz’s character arc is hitting my ‘bad-guy-redemption’ buttons. I’m looking forward to the resolution of the series. While it didn’t get as edgy or mature as I might have hoped from a millennial-nostalgia-reboot, it’s a fun read. Outrageous, even.

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2017 in Comic

 

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The Journeyman Project 3: Better Late Than Never

Well, so much for big ideas.

Suffice to say I had a modicum of personal drama the past couple of months. Alas, others have commented as eloquently or moreso than I could on Captain America: Civil War.

However, I do have a loose end that deserves tying up. I was going to write a series on adventure games and by jingo, that’s what I intend to do.

‘Better late than never’ has a bit of a double meaning for us today; better I be a while getting back to this blog than not at all, thus I’ll resume my reviews of Adventure Games. And this one was one I encountered a very long time after first hearing of it: Presto Studio’s 1998 saga¬†The Journeyman Project 3: Legacy of Time.

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Your view in the game: bottom centre is your current disguise, bottom right, Arthur’s interface

As I said back at the end of March, my interest in adventure games dates back to Myst and Riven. When I first played Riven in the late 90’s, CD ROM was still how it was all done. By and by, we happened upon the discovery that one of the (five) discs that Riven ran on also had a demo for Legacy of Time.

Only in recent times and the rise of GOG.com was I able to chase it down and experience it in its entirety, and so I have.

In the Journeyman Project series, you play an agent of Earth’s Temporal Security Agency. Earth is a junior partner of an interstellar alliance called the Symbiotry. A traitor to the Agency, on the run since trying to sabotage Earth’s entrance into the Symbiotry, is trying to get your attention from across the millennia.

Now, an enemy is moving towards Earth which the Symbiotry is powerless to stop. The Symbiotry realize that they seek ‘the Legacy,’ a relic of a vanished ancient, advanced alien civilization that was deposited on Earth and its hiding place concealed from history. It exists in three parts, in times and places once thought to be myths: El Dorado, Atlantis and Shangri-La.

You have to travel to each of these time periods, interact with their inhabitants, learn their mythology, and, with the help of your AI partner Arthur, solve the myriad little puzzles standing between you and the safety of humanity.

This is much more the traditional point-and-click adventure game than Myst is. Unlike Myst, you collect an inventory of objects used to do anything from repairing a machine, reaching a lever, cutting a rope, or even bribing your way into somewhere. Some objects also go together to craft something you’ll need later, or are used in a different time period than where you find them.

From a gameplay point of view, the game has aged modestly well. As with Syberia, the process of moving around is cumbersome. Although from a first-person perspective, advancing to the next area is represented by a slow movement of the camera with a ponderous footstep effect. You can skip them by keeping one hand on the escape key, but nevertheless, it’s an unnecessary addition to what is essentially the same journey from still image to still image that Riven uses.

You can move at leisure between the three time periods if you get stuck and you’ll come back to the last point you left when you return.

The puzzles themselves are, for the most part, quite artful. In a number of cases, there is actually more than one variation on the solution. I first discovered this in Shangri-La. There, you have to lubricate a rusty prayer wheel that’s part of a sort of combination lock. I discovered in separate playthroughs that there are two ways to do this: either using a bowl of yak butter from Shangri-La itself, or one of olive oil from Atlantis. This ameliorates my big problem with Syberia, in that if one approach requires collecting an item that is easily overlooked, I still have a chance to solve it in a way that doesn’t involve scouring all three game worlds for whatever it is.

When you do get stuck, that’s largely what Arthur is for: he’s the hint machine. You can adjust in the game’s settings how much help he gives you, but he’ll give successive and more pointed hints on request if you’re really stumped. He also adds little witticisms and observations that are often based on the real histories of the civilizatons the game settings are based on. He kind of reminds me of Bob in the Dresden Files.

The downside is that the ‘witticisms’ can vary enormously from ‘actually pretty funny’ to ‘will you shut up already.’ It’s especially obnoxious in that it wrecks the tone from moment to moment. The first time you visit Shangri-La, shortly after its destruction (ever after you go back to before then) you find a dead monk, and Arthur is suitably sombre and horrified. Then a couple of moves later he’s declaring his desire to yodel into the Himalayas. Maybe his emotional subroutines are corrupted or something.

Otherwise, the character interactions are somewhat variable. Legacy is like Myst in that it uses real actors on a bluescreen and integrated into the environment – Full Motion Video – rather than building CGI characters – something that would have been really hard to do well at the time. You use your time travel suit to assume the appearance of people you meet, and interact with other people in their form. It has a strategic element, especially in Atlantis, because you get different results depending on who you pretend to be.

That said, it can be a bit of a guessing game chasing down which disguise will accomplish anything. I recognize one or two actors from 90’s shows like Star Trek: the Next Generaton, but the acting is forced or amateurish, though never to the point of seeming lazy. There’s a particularly quirky performance from the Lama of Shangri-La, whom Arthur dubs ‘Lama Blinky.’ I suspect the studio lights were getting in the actor’s eyes a bit. Mostly, though, the writing is just clunky. There’s a lot of what Tropers call ‘As You Know’ dialogue, with characters elaborating at length on things they know the person you claim to be already knows, or infodumping on you under a guise of idle chit-chat. It’s like an undercover mission in a kids’ tv show.

I must here give full credit to the game for doing something I didn’t think I had a right to expect: to the best of my knowledge, the actors are (mostly) from the right part of the world for the parts they’re playing. I kind of worried I was going to be watching a bunch of Anglo-Saxons in wigs and silly accents. But, judging from the surnames in the credits, the Atlanteans are mainly Greek, south European or Middle Eastern (or American immigrants therefrom, at least), the El Dorado people are Latin and/or Native American (I think), and the monks of Shangri-La are all East Asian (albeit not Tibetans or Nepalese). Not bad, considering. And, by and large, there’s not an excessive amount of stereotype. Talk of magic and spirituality isn’t much more pronounced in the Native Americans than in the other two groups. A couple of the Doradoans (Doradii? Doradoi?) seem a bit over the top, though. So far as I’m any judge, there is no particular Asian stereotype common to the Shangri-La characters. As for the Atlanteans, the only thing in the game that makes me cringe is the hammily cheerful African ferryman, who, while technically a slave, professes to be perfectly content with his lot. Swing, and a big, racist miss.

Visually, the game looks lovely. The graphics are low-res even by the standards of their time, but the designers lovingly studied the aesthetics of real-world civilizations to build these places. The Inca and Nazca lent a lot to El Dorado. If they’d had hot air balloons, this is what they’d have looked like, I daresay. Rather than do the usual thing and make Atlantis look like an idealized Classical city, they went for a lavish Minoan look. Much more plausible and unfamiliar to modern eyes. And, speaking as the grandson of a Buddhist, I had to laugh when I realized that the monastery of Shangri-La is basically the Potala Palace in Lhasa and the Boudhanath in Kathmandu in the wake of a head-on collision.

Actually, on that note, there’s something about this game that really jumped out at me. You remember how I said that you pick up some real-life historical trivia from Arthur pertaining to the real civilizations these settings were based on? Nowhere is that more true than in Shangri-La. Possibly because Tibetan civilization is better documented than Nazca or Minoan. Anyway, the game takes a stab at having educational content – it vaguely reminds me of Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego – but while you’ll pick up tidbits about ancient South America and the Mediterranean, this game contains virtually a grade-school level introduction to Tibetan Buddhism!

Talk to the Lama, and it’s all there: reincarnation, the Four Noble Truths, enlightenment, Nirvana. The whole shebang. The famous mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is even a key to one of the puzzles! I actually found out a few things about the mythology I hadn’t previously heard of.

It tickles my affections because Buddhism is the one religion I’ve ever even considered follwing, and as a secular code of ethics it still retains its charm. You can solve the three worlds in any order you like, but I think that the developers intended for you to do Shangri-La last – which I ended up doing in my first playthrough. The origins of the ancient alien artefact are expressed using the wheel of reincarnation as a metaphor, and there’s an extra step in finishing the level that’s analogous to enlightenment.

Which makes it a little distressing when you remember that you’re visiting all three civilizations a few days before their destruction. There’s no suggestion that we’re even trying to avert that and save all the characters we’ve gotten to know. If there’d been some kind of Temporal Prime Directive, as they say on Star Trek, that would’ve have at least acknowledged it. It’s a plot hole that jumped out at me my second run through, and left it with a rather melancholy air.

However, that omission aside, the game is quite clever, beautifully designed, and unexpectedly charming. Amateur-hour acting and writing aside, it’s a lot of fun, and kicks off a free-floating sense of nostalgia for a 90’s kid. Time travelling in pursuit of ancient alien artefacts was the kind of plot I’d have gone absolutely ga-ga over in those days. I’m glad I caught up with it.

Or it travelled through time via the GOG machine to catch up with me, I suppose.

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2016 in Video Game

 

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