Archival #5: Mela Versus Marathon, the Epic Struggle

The best description of nostalgia I've ever heard (no idea where) is the sweetest poison you'll ever taste.  That's pretty accurate.  I was recently hit with a wave of nostalgia for the very hit-or-miss output of one French animation studio, Marathon.  First, there was the announcement of the horribly named but otherwise promising new series Lolirock, followed by a rumor making its way through the Toonzone forums that their flagship series Totally Spies is due to return to CN in the fall.  I would dismiss the latter but (a) it was confirmed by one of Marathon's main execs and (b) Jenn Hale's interview on Talkin' Toons confirmed that she was indeed recording new episodes sometime last year.  So that one may get a... fifth or sixth chance.  I lost count.

I won't pretend Marathon's works were fine art - in fact, they were anything but.  But they had a very appealing pseudo-anime aesthetic, and the general tone of their series even at their worst was breezy & fun.  It's when they became a little breezy, flying straight over to laziness, that their series suffered, and otherwise promising ideas wound up being torpedoed via what felt like a lack of care.  It's that track record (along with that damned name) that keeps me from being totally behind Lolirock.  Here is an Archival of three of my more babbly, maybe more critical reviews of three of Marathon's series.  As usual, look for these italicized additions for some hindsight.

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(Originally posted 8/1/2006 as "I'm not mad, I'm disappointed. Well, maybe a little mad."  Team Galaxy is the only series that can tie or even best the Ben 10 franchise for sheer volume of wasted potential.  Even Butch Hartman did a backdoor pilot for "high school in space" that was better than this, and that was with his reoccurring tropes.  So let's start with the TG rant.)

Congratulations, Marathon. You finally made a show I didn't like. Team Galaxy is the suck, if it's preview episode is any indicator.  (Team Galaxy was never picked up in the States but it did air in Canada.  The "preview episode" was someone posting it in chunks on YouTube.)  Here's why:

1.) The main characters are really dull/irritating. Josh, the main hero, is either dull or bizarrely spastic/immature. He's inconsistent. Brett, the kid, is extremely annoying; he's in the Danny Chase mode of 'super-smart kids who are complete braggards', and that's never funny. Finally, Yoko is the worst of the bunch. Let's see... she's The Girl, which is always disappointing; she's a 'sensitive artist', a trait she shows mostly by being very shallow, self-centered, air-headed, & Valley-ish; and finally, she's meant to be a voice of reason but comes off as naggy, because her earlier behavior doesn't suggest she's suitable for the role. So you have an uninteresting, one-third almost offensive, trio of leads.

2.) Dull plot that's been done lots of times before by other series/movies. A perfect new student arrives, but even though he's got amazing skills, he acts weird. Turns out he's the vanguard of an alien invasion! Oh, no! I think I've seen this plot a few times before without the school trappings. On MST3k. A serious step-down from TS's cracktacularity and Martin Mystery's surprisingly obscure sources (crystal skull, anyone?).  (Martin Mystery is probably my favorite Marathon series.  I don't care if the heroes pick at each other constantly, I don't care if it's an In-Name-Only adaptation, I don't care even if Martin's designated love interest was annoying & shrill as fuck.  It was just plain FUN, and I loved recognizing some of the more obscure references to the paranormal.  It appealed to the part of me that grew up watching Real Ghostbusters.)

3.) Bad, bad, BAD voice acting. I can make peace with the use of Canadian VAs. Some of them are very good (i.e. the Evo cast, many of which would turn up in MM). But you didn't cast any of the good ones for this. You didn't even get a decent voice director who'd make sound decisions. Brett & Yoko's voices make my ears bleed; they're both nasal, high-pitched, and needlessly raspy. The guys' voices (Josh, EvilAlienDude, other random normal-male students) are indistinguishable. The aliens' voices are all in that high-pitched-warbly-vocoded-and-thus-wacky mode. And do not get me started on the fighter pilot who's apparently a princess and is screaming about her ship about to crash while sounded like Scarlett O'Hara getting the vapors.  (Josh was voiced by Kirby "Flatten That Reading" Morrow, who I consider proof that a VA can somehow get by on good looks.  I've never liked his voice work, and knowing that you have Sam Vincent *right* *there* made it even worse.  But whoever did that alien princess earns points for ballsiness.)

4.) If you're gonna have aliens, please use them. Why does a school for space pilots with lots of aliens look just like every other goddamn school on Earth? Why do you have a wacky cowboy teacher? Why is the school run by a human? Why are so many of the fighter pilots apparently human? You have all these neat aliens, and when you aren't using them to display your mad voice-mixed skills or stupid one-off not-gags, you're using them as set pieces. This doesn't really feel like a school that services the whole galaxy. It feels like a high school with some weird exchange students.  (This was a huge sticking point to me, since Martin Mystery actually showed that Marathon could handle non-humans relatively well.  Again, even Hartman's backdoor pilot made good use of the aliens, even if it was to underline their basic personalities.  At least it was something.)

5.) Finally, YTV, enough with the Canada references. They're not funny. You forced them into your airings of Martin Mystery, which worked better in the stateside airings as an 'international' show and didn't lead us to think that Canada's full of ghosts, zombies, & aliens. And just because your bad guy freezes things doesn't mean he has to be from Canada. We get it, you're the Canadian CN. You don't need to hijack Marathon's shows to remind us. And Marathon, stop letting them do it.

Overall, I'm very disappointed. Marathon can do and has done better than this. This feels like something a network exec would devise, not a production company with an otherwise good track record of derivative-yet-fun series. You lost the fun while making Team Galaxy. This is just plain derivative.

Hell, I can do better than Team Galaxy. And you know what? I think I'll try.  (Yeah...  I'll get back to you on that one.)

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(Originally posted 4/14/2007, when it looked like Totally Spies had finally been totally cancelled.  No commentary, since it kind of explains itself.)

Yes, even though I thought Cartoon Network had removed it months ago, it turns out it was only just now cancelled. This is a mixed bag for me.

On the plus side for the series, the first two seasons were great. They were silly, fun, and knew how to work an everyplot. They convinced me that TRAJQ was a fluke and that Jenn Hale was a good VA. They were capable of subtle satire (quick, watch the first two seasons and see how many times Clover's fashion/dating/popularity schemes blow up in her face). They broke away from trends that I found annoying and had the girls answer to parents who weren't their clones. Finally, they had a more fun than anything rival in Mandy, who simply took everything Clover did or would do to a higher level.

On the minus side, the second season really planted the seeds of the series' downfall by having the typically braindead "dull as anything guy to fight over" subplot; David was a character whose sole personality trait was preachiness, and thinking it was a good idea to bring him back for the last season was a sign of just how much the writing staff had stopped caring. Then with the third season, all by Andrea Taylor & Jenn Hale were replaced by subpar Canadian VAs (not even the good ones they used in Martin Mystery) as a money-saving measure (the California VAs are part of the SAG and thus have to be paid union wages, while Canada's VAs don't have any unions; it's a lose-lose situation because the Californians don't get work, and the Canadians get slave wages). Then you had the rather implausible decision to put three minors in their own super-house just for the kewlness of it. Then Mandy became more and more of a full-fledged villain. Then the satire with Clover's behavior was lost. Then more douchy characters (including a very Sue-ish version of the already perilously close Brittany and especially super-trainer-with-no-personality Dean) were added to be admired. About the only good new addition was retro-obsessive villain Boogie Gus; I gotta respect a man who wants to bring back the 80s.

The final straw had to be the last 'big movie' style story, which I'm glad I didn't see. What little I've seen had Mandy & her two lackeys as out and out villains (eeevil spies), the girls' mothers redesigned as not only clones of their daughters but spies as well (one of the things I loved was that Sam's mother only looked a bit like her and had some pudge, but the series didn't want to maintain any of those subtle bits of realism by the end). And of course, the series' most over-used, ill-motivated villain, Tim Scam, was wheeled out yet again. I am so glad that CN buried it.

It was good, then it sucked, and then it died. Such is the way of nearly all TV shows.

Of course, I'd be remiss not to talk about the fandom. Not since the JQ fandom has there been such a crazy speciman. On one hand, you had the grown-up fans, who liked the show, warts & all - Matt, Xada, the MIA Mez, Devin, Theo. Yeah, there was a tendency for things to swing towards porn, but when you have a show that sneaks in all manner of weird fetishes, you come to expect that. On the other hand, you have what Matt nicknamed, quite aptly, the Junior Jesus Squad. They were younger fans, and almost all of them were Fundamentalists. Their leaders saw them as protecting both the JJS and the show from such horrors as homosexuality or acknowledging that Clover was pretty promiscuous. It's from them that most of my MSTing fodder the self-insert stories spring. I kind of distanced myself from both ends, mostly because I could see both going down the JQ path of divisive cliquishness. That, and talking about how much the show had started to suck was getting boring.

Really, between Team Galaxy's overall stupidity (and again, bad casting - who the hell thinks Kirby Morrow can act, anyway) and the fourth season's overall blandness, you could clearly see that Marathon had lost the touch that made early TS and Martin Mystery so much fun. Pity, really. Still, I had some fun times, met some fun people, and overall, I'll look back on TS with fondness.  (Crossing my fingers that the new season won't suck... now.  Probably won't help.)

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(Lastly, Originally posted 9/21/2008, when the spin-off Amazing Spiez!  was first announced.  This is just a reaction to the announcement.  Yes, I watched it when CN aired it for a hot minute, so I'll be putting some clarification in there.)

Seriously, what the hell happened to you? Totally Spies and Martin Mystery were watchable for only half of their runs, Team Galaxy was garbage, and you have a CGI cartoon that's so ugly I can't watch enough of it to form an opinion. You used to be cheesy, predictable but still entertaining fun, and somewhere along the line, you decided to coast. Like I've heard it said, when you coast, there's only one direction you can travel in before you finally crash.  (Guess who was cranky when she wrote this...)

So I receive word that you've decided to do a sequel/spin-off thingy to Totally Spies, and I'm thinking, "Okay, this could be decent. The spies' kids or students they train or something." It sounds salvageable, until I see...

This.  (Don't click that - the best I can do is good ol' Wikipedia for a description.  I can't find the original horrible sample picture, which is probably a smart move on Marathon's part.)

Let's ignore the fact that Marathon can't even get their owned properties right (WOOPH? As in "woof"?) and concentrate on the other stuff that bugs me:

- The 'z' pluralizer. Hasn't that trend died? Yeah, I know, Marathon's always been a little behind, but this has been long played out.

- Another "Two lines, no waiting" story set-up. They actually got progressively worse at doing these, rather than better. Don't ask me how that's possible.

- What the hell is wrong with the proportions of the girl in the picture? Her head's bigger than her torso - width & length! Yikes!  (Again, this is from the sample picture.  Once the show started, she looked much more in proportion.)

- Here's the biggie. We go from a series very much centered on a butt-kicking team of stereotypical but still competent girls to a typical "bunch of guys and token destined-to-be-bitchy-or-useless chick" set-up. I've got some choice words about that.  (The sister, Megan, really did kind of fit the description.  She did that "girl = activist" thing that Lisa Simpson hath wrought, which kind of makes me twitchy.  But to be fair, she wasn't as bad as I expected.)

Now, my disgust with this recent trend towards marginalizing the female team members in the Legion cartoon is well documented, and seeing that it's actually part of a larger not-just-one-company trend is just nauseating. Apparently, it's okay for girls to have to force themselves to identify with a male character, but it's anathema to have boys relate to one of those scary boobie creatures. Is there a fear that having a favorite female character and being male will somehow make your son turn out gay, thus making this some sort of stealth homophobia? Or is it good old-fashioned Marketing moronics?

And you just know that the girl will either be (a) useless damsel in distress, (b) obnoxiously bossy & nasty to try and pass her off as mature, or (c) a horrible mixture of both. This is one of the things that kept me from enjoying "Ben 10" - Gwen was the only girl and swung between these two extremes; once they made her likable & capable in "Alien Force", I was able to go back and watch it again, knowing that it's just a phase before she reaches awesomeness. But most shows don't give you this opportunity. As far as we know, the team girl will always be useless & snippy, and that's all she can ever become.

As much as I hate "Kim Possible", the show proved that boys would watch a show with a female headliner, so I don't know why we're actually going backwards as far as an audience acknowledging that female characters can be, well, characters.  (And until that actually starts to improve again and not just with pastel horsies, I will keep harping on it.)

I hope Marathon will at least make a publicly viewable trailer of some sort, to see if it will really be as bad as it seems. But, y'know, that might mean making an effort to reach someone besides YTV's buyers (who seem to buy everything Marathon makes). I'll honestly be shocked if a Stateside station picks this one up. They have that CGI thing on Toon Disney, but you never know with them anymore. With Team Galaxy and everything that's followed, they shot their reputation in the knees.  (In the end, Amazing Spiez! wasn't on par with early TS, but it was enjoyable enough.  Each of the kids had a distinct personality that was never rendered null & void for the sake of the plot, and while they never really did anything with it, I liked the notion of a skeevy rival agency for the spies' bosses.  Still, it was very off-the-peg, and the notion of the Clark family's parents both being spies when they were younger made it feel a little bit too much like a Spy Kids variation when it was brought up.  If it came back, I couldn't be mad but I would be surprised.  It was just kind of... there.  Here's hoping Marathon's efforts in the future can avoid that fate, since in a way, being forgettable is worse than being so bad that people will seek it out to laugh.  One can always hope, I suppose.)

Comments

  1. Actually, "Team Galaxy" WAS picked up by CN sometime during it's initial creation and when TS was kicking all sorts of ratings ass back in...2004 I think (Google tells me the show was made in 2006, so yeah, off). However, I am 99.9% sure it aired at 11:30 am EST. How this has remained in my brain for 6-7 years is both amazing and depressing.

    They aired one, maybe two episodes before taking it out back and shooting it, or airing it at 6:30 am over two weeks because while no one gave a damn, the contract kinda forced them into airing them lest Marathon sue. I don't know which one. I didn't really check cause I watch it for five minutes and was like, "Wow, I don't like any of this".

    Also, the complete Season 1 of TS is coming out this year on DVD (as that annoying part 1 and part 2 box thing studios do cause they are dicks) and while a part of me wants to get it, there's another part of me that can't watch it anymore because I keep thinking of how 99% of the fans are douchemonkeys. It shouldn't be a big deal, and I can watch FiM despite knowledge of the less than ideal bronies out there, but this? Can't do it. Probably cause I can only think of three, maybe four people I can talk a out it that don't suck, and two of them have disappeared from the interwebs.

    BTW, the DVDs mention CN on them, so I guess it's coming back to CN. Again. Hopefully this time they don't just reair the same season over the span of three months like last time. Seriously, what the shit was with that?

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    1. Huh. Either I didn't notice Team Galaxy airing because the "preview" we got was so awful, or you're right about CN using their voodoo scheduling for good.

      The news about the new season of Totally Spies airing on CN at some point this year has more or less been confirmed by TV Shows on DVD, which is usually pretty accurate. However, I predict it'll be dropped unceremoniously like the other revivals in recent years. As for the DVDs coming out at all, I'm glad they're coming out & would like to at least get through season 2, when the series was at its best. It seems like a case where CN is putting aside their morbid fear of girl germs just long enough to indulge their absolute love of money.

      And you are so, SO right about the TS fandom being dangerously crazy. I never thought anything could surpass TRAJQ for dueling jackass factions, but TS did it. Still, I like the show enough I can treat it like you treat MLP & appreciate it in its own vacuum.

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