Old metal will always be replaced with something new

Recently a question was thrown out there; why isn’t the giant robot genre more popular in the Western markets? The answer to this is both simple and complex, depending how deep you want to go, but also reflects the overall way of things when it comes to popular things in pretty much anything in any given era.

To use the giant robot genre as an example of this, almost every body of work is seen as science fiction. While science fiction itself has always been largely popular, the emphasize on giant robots, or mecha if you want to use just one word, has few stigmas to it that it simply can’t escape due to how world works. Using the Transformers as an example is a very straightforward one; despite it being a franchise that has rather sophisticated stories to it, ever since its inception it has been vehicle to advertise the toys and that dictated to what audience in what way those stories would be told. The genre has been vastly catered to children across in its modern form since the 1960’s, with each show in Japan getting slew of toys. This of course has always reflected back to the US with each of its localised show. Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot, Gigantor, and even Astroboy all were localised shows that were hits, but were children’s television. For adults (and for the whole family really) you had Star Trek and the Twilight Zone, shows that were more than just about robots beating each other or aliens, and Twilight Zone offering other sort of stories to boot.

There is a stereotype of Japan being a nation of technological marvels, and there was a time when it seemed to be absolutely true. The industrial growth Japan experienced after the World War II, and the economy bubble it experienced in the 1980’s, supported the admiration of technology. Cold War pushed technological advanced in both West and East, and man travelling to the stars had become an evident thing. There was a moment in history when science fiction flourished both in US and Japan, which lead the 1980’s to have more adult sort of stories concerning giant robots with the adults who had grown up with Ultraman and Mazinger Z. Similarly how we have people doing things like Pacific Rim with the people who grew up with Voltron, Robotech and Star Saber. Robotech were the first proper taste of 1980’s robot anime in the US, which would lead way to further ventured, and without it things like Gundam Wing would not have seen on US television. Europe was largely a different beast, Spain enjoying Mazinger Z, others enjoying the likes of Grendizer in form of Goldorak, and we Nordics were stuck with Balatak and Starzinger. UK always had its own thing going on and influencing its cultural scheme with Stingray, Thunderbirds and the like, which also were rather popular things in Japan. Hell, if you check UFO’s opening and compare it to how Evangelion’s opening was cut, you’ll see a lot of similarities.

 UFO is pretty damn good show, you should watch it

With the 1990’s rolling in Transformers had died out and would see a sequel with Beast Wars in 1996, but it wouldn’t be similar cultural impactor despite it being rather good show and how the toys drove toy engineering and design forwards. The Brave series continued as its spiritual successor, but in the West we saw none of it at the time. Evangelion, despite how much people love to hate it, came around the right time to make one last impact on global cultural consciousness, and when giant robots were to become passé.

The question why giant robots are not popular in the West can be answered simply with Times change. The genre has not innovated itself as visibly as since Evangelion, and as such has served in the role of being the last of mecha shows. Sure, there has been slew of revivals, competitors and imitators, yet none of them have done anything new. Living robots, robots that transform, robots that combine, robots than combine with humans, humans that are robots, robots that aren’t robots at all and so, it all has been done and the storytelling regarding them has not advanced. The best examples of mecha as a genre have always been about the people, but they fall in the same category as any other niche genre within its mother genre by being very specific in their contents. Something like Muv-Luv might’ve been a huge success in the 1980’s or even in the early 1990’s, but in 2000’s and 2010’s its story doesn’t carry have any punch behind it. The same applies to a lot of other franchises, and while you see the occasional show that becomes very popular for a time and may leave catchphrases floating around, like Gurren Lagann did, they’re still in the same old mould.

The people who grow up with mecha, even in the 1990’s, have grown old and so has the genre. It doesn’t attract new blood from the young ones, because there are other, better things out there. Just like Pokémon and Pikachu have become a thing of the adults and has been replaced Yo-Kai Watch and Jibanyan in Japan, these newfangled things have taken mechas spot in the niche spotlight. This is reflected in the West as well, with Edge of Tomorrow enjoying better ratings than Pacific Rim. Pacific Rim itself showscases all the elements a hardcore fan of monster smash flicks wants to see, and almost everything a general audience thinks are petty and childish. Why Tranformers movies have seen the success they’ve had is both because of nostalgia and that they hit that certain cultural spark, and are largely unapologetic about what they are.

The few old franchises that still kick around in the West are for children only. Hasbro still pushes a lot of Transformers toys out, accompanied by cartoons and comics, while Japan has mostly chosen to cater the ever older otaku audience with Schwarzesmarken, Macross sequels, Valvrave and the like. It doesn’t help that outside Africa, Middle-East and certain parts of Asia birthrates have been dropping, significantly so in Japan, which means less quality children’s robot shows outside the few that have been running for an eternity and will most likely run at least to the end of this decade.

It doesn’t help that the current cultural climate also takes technology at its face value. We lived in a time when every single technological leap made a difference in our lives, but nowadays it seems even the greatest findings, like the recent news about over 1200 newly discovered planets that could sustain life, goes to largely deaf ears. Space travel is mundane. Even the miracle machine in your pocket is mundane, everyday item. No, not your vibrator, your smart phone. There is no more marvel in a giant walking robot when Iron Man’s latest suit in Civil War makes them look absolutely archaic? How can Macross hope to impress with its designs when it still uses the same basic shapes and concepts since its inception? Of course Macross was never about the robots first and foremost, yet that’s the first things you’re always shown, the first things that pop to you.

Children wish to stand apart from their parents, each generation does. Admiring technology, and by extension, the fiction using technology to a miraculous degrees, is a thing of older generations. When you have a thing that people have tired of and regard it something worn out, you begin to cater something new, something colourful (or in case of Apple, something black and white) and something that would replace the old. However, as things cycle, we may arrive in an era where things like space travel is of interest again, and we may relive a sorts of new renaissance of giant robots in fiction, but I doubt it’ll happen in my life time.

As a sidenote, if you’re a âge fan, you should head to kiminozo.life and check out Evan’s Kimi ga Nozomu Eien Drama Theatre Vol.3 translation. It’s a good piece.

Thunderbirds Are Go and an analogy about reheating coffee

I’ve sometimes argued that modern 3D character based cartoons and other similar works are an extension of puppetry rather than animation. Some could say that 3D is the next step of supermarionation Gerry Anderson’s shows since Stingray used. The argument leans on the idea that the 3D model is first build to move, then animated for that motion. In principle, this is similar to puppets, where the puppet is build to move, then brought to live with strings or other ways, depending what kind of puppet it is. It has become apparent that the use of physical sets and effects has lived in an unsure state for a long time now, ever since computer images began flourishing. Some have said that practical effects have already died, but it would be more accurate to say that practical effects, sets and props exist alongside each other and supporting their best sides. Well, until computer graphics actually reach the level where they can simulate reality to every extent.

The new Thunderbirds series, Thunderbirds Are Go, is a good example of a series that blends practical sets and effects with CG. According to a promotional documentary Reggie & Thunderbirds – No Strings Attached the sets and props are all physical, and all the characters and Thunderbirds machines are made through CG. The way the first episode looks is by all means impressive, where all the Thunderbirds still retain their model like movement from the original series and the difference between models and CG is hard to distinguish without prior knowledge. Because the show was designed from the get go to mix these two elements as seamlessly as possible, the end result manages to look impressive.

Naturally, in this kind of show we have to question whether or not the idea of remaking of the classics of pop-culture is a good or even a valid idea in itself. Thunderbirds is one of those shows that didn’t just hit the pop-culture sense, but stuck there for decades. Some of Anderson’s later shows, like Terrahawks, didn’t have as much impact and remained as cult hits at best. In the 90’s BBC did a Thunderbirds revival with basically rerunning the original show and licensed Matchbox to produce new toys. These toys were great too, combining diecast metal with some plastic bits here and there. However, while rerun revival is great for a show, it’s not really adding to the already existing franchise. Perhaps this can be ignored, as this revival exposed completely new audience to the series. The success of the revival paved the path for other Anderson’s supermarination shows like Stingray and Captain Scarlet, and with video games now more or less a booming million dollar business, more games of varied quality was released across different platforms. In 2004 a live action movie named Thunderbirds was produced in order to keep the franchise on the customers’ mind, but this attempt was more or less a failure. Rotten Tomatoes has one star for the movies and IMDB brandishing 4,2. I have to say that the movie is indeed bad, replacing most what Thunderbirds is in favour of kids action approach much like what Spy Kids franchise has.

The revival also allowed way for a CG remake of Captain Scarlet to be produced in 2004 under the title Gerry Anderson’s New Captain Scarlet, a title that’s a bit mouthful to say. While the show in itself wasn’t bad at all and was extremely faithful to the core of Captain Scarlet, it didn’t reach the same status as the original for whatever reason. The new Thunderbirds series can be compared to it in many ways, from updating the designs to sticking with familiar looks. Perhaps certain kinds of shows, however well remade, simply can’t reach the same pop-culture status because the original will always be there to shadow them, if allowed.

Created in HYPERMARIANATION. That’s excellent, that’s exactly what it is to boot

With the 2004 Thunderbirds movie a failure and no new addition to the original TV-series had been made since Thunderbird 6 in 1968, Thunderbirds Are Go seems to be something the franchise has been asking for some time now; a new entry that doesn’t necessarily tie itself down by using the original series as source, like Turbo Charged Thunderbirds and the FOX Kids series that basically just cut and pasted new footage with the old. Making a new rerun revival wouldn’t work as well nowadays with technology more digital than anything else. While the designwork in the original series is good by all means and engineered new techniques to produce those models, they do look like they were designed half a century ago. Their core design is still valid and has stood the test of time, which is why the designs of the Thunderbirds machines in the new series opted to modernise them rather than revamp them completely.

The opening has a similar look and feel to the original one, albeit I’m still expecting to hear Thunderbirds are go right after the countdown ends

That’s the core of the new series; taking all the best bits of the old, the timeless coda, and take the aged, chipped paint off and rebuild a new sturdy shell. This is the best option to update the series for a new audience. Old guard has already voiced their distaste for the new series, calling it ugly and too fast paced. Calling it ugly is incorrect and shows prejudice, but it is fast paced. Thou, only as fast paced as half an hour children’s shows usually are. There’s only so much one can tell in half an hour, but then again we can also argue that the original show had large amounts of dead air in there.

Then again, it is a remake and ultimately doesn’t bring anything new to the overall table of television history. While rescue themed television shows aren’t too uncommon either, should the effort put of this series have been directed towards a completely new in the genre. Thunderbirds Are Go can be seen as someone warming up a cold cup of coffee while adding some sugar into it. However, this is more like using the same source bush for the beans, grinding a new set of coffee with new tools and spicing it up a bit.

Whether or not an old person who is in his thirties or something like that likes the show personally doesn’t really carry much weight in the end. Thunderbirds has always been a children’s show first and as such it should stay. We don’t need a realistically gruesome depiction of realities how rescue missions would work in Thunderbirds universe for the older audience. It’s not to say that all ages couldn’t enjoy Thunderbirds, as that’s far from them case. There’s no reason to expect a franchise aimed for the younger audience to suddenly cater to the older one. Sometimes, generational gaps just need to be recognized.

It has to be said that the series was clearly made by people who loved the original. The designs themselves qualify as their own post later down in the future, but even the CG has been made to mimic certain elements of the original show. The characters have that similar feeling to them, a sort of eerie uncanny valley that the puppets had, but slightly more lively. In addition, their shape and appearance has been modelled after them, thou far more in human proportions this time around. Even the little things like how the eyes were moved back and forth to breathe life into the puppets has been adapted slightly differently to the CG models. The modelled skin also was made to reproduce similar look to the puppets’ skin, where there is this sort of slightly glossy, almost shiny eggshell kind of quality to them. Going this far to root themselves to the original can almost be called a fault, but it ends up giving a very familiar look that’s unique to Thunderbirds in general. While I do applaud for them sticking with how Thunderbirds has always felt, I would say that they need to do their own thing with it as well. It’s apparent that a more overarching plot is being introduced to the series, which could go either way.

While it would have been interesting to see Thunderbirds Are Go made with puppets instead of CG, puppets themselves don’t lend themselves too well for fast paced action. Yes, Captain Scarlet and other shows proved that puppets can do action just fine, but they’ll never be as controllable or spot on as well designed 3D model animation. Personally, I would love to see a new series with modern supermarionation, but I guess we’ll only get that when someone rich enough will put the money into it.

I’m sure Gerry Anderson would be proud to see his legacy still living on with these new forms of crafts.

As a sidenote, I would kill if shows would still use similar approach to their openings like Stingray did. Stand-by for action! and Anything can happen in the next half hour! are such strong statements to make in an opening that it will attract anyone’s attention.

Gerry Anderson, 1929-2012

Now there was a guy who worked with marionettes. He made a lot of science fiction shows and engineered practical special effects to certain level of finesse for TV from the 50’s all the way to 80’s, and some 90’s and 00’s as well. He made effects and stories that defined television and pop-culture of the time, and we can still see the effects of the man’s work even these days. Now 2012, with its last gasps for air, decided to strike few times more.

Timeless opening, timeless song

Gerry Anderson is my childhood hero. The shows he worked on are a solid part of my childhood, from Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet to Space:1999. These shows are still excellent and are one of the best examples of dolls becoming alive and people making these inanimate things seem like real people. Under his supervision we could see natural disasters modelled like in small scale, see the destructive power of small explosions thrown into insane sizes.

I’m really a big fan of the original Thunderbirds and Space:1999. Anderson’s shows alongside with Toho’s Godzilla films made me fall in love with pop-sci designs and practical special effects. The fact is that a lot of the practical effects are far more believable because they have been there; they existed there at that moment. CGI will always look like fake until they manage to make it real.

Goddammit 2012, you just had to take two victims before you die? I’m just going to jinx everything, but if things are going to go like this, we’ll be reading about the deaths of Stan Lee and Shigeru Miyamoto next year. I’m just going to watch some Space:1999 and let’s call it a post, k?