Sunday, January 5, 2014

Escape from Planet of Nostalgia: Space Dandy, Sci-Fi Pop-Culture, and Absurd Revival

In the post-80s world, it becomes hard to envision a world of Sci-Fi that did not have Star Wars or Star Trek smack in the center of it, a black hole of inescapable gravity that clouded much of the genre's past and influences.Similarly, the 00s have more or less put the coffin in "Saturday Morning Cartoons," the types that people of a certain age might warmly reminsce about, in the style of "I used to rush to eat (Sugary Cereal X) and watch TV until noon every Saturday," bathing their eyes and brains in the likes of He-Man, Silverhawks, Thundercats, Brave Starr, Flash Gordon, and numerous other attempts to create the perfect storm of pop-culture profitability: toys, shows, movies, tie-ins.

The period between the 60s and 00s may seem like an exceedingly long time period, and they are, but within those time periods the genre of Sci-Fi evolved and expanded in new, bizarre ways, coming from the nuclear / cold war era 50s and into the more psychdelic 60s-70s to the post-war, post-modern 80s-90s, Sci-Fi changed with each time period, having to not only one up the previous decade, but also adapt to a rapidly expanding and changing landscape-50s paranoia about gigantic ants from Them! gave way to fears of nuclear influenced creatures like Godzilla, and invaders from the moon or mars had to increasingly expand outward from Earth as we ourselves expanded into the stars.In many ways the late 60s/70s era began to think about the worst possible sci-fi monster, "human," with films like Planet of the Apes, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Soylent Green and the like emerging, with 1979 s Alien perfectly straddling the period between a return to bombastic space odyssey (Star Wars) and pulpy Sci-Fi filled with bubble headed space suits,and Robby the Robot, and sexy space goddesses like Barbarella.

Of course, TV would help fill those gaps, with the original Star Trek fulfilling viewers needs and imaginations for bold new worlds, beeping technology, and women painted green in skimpy attire; it is also in the realm of TV that cartoons began to take hold, with He-Man and the like slowly trickling into the subconcious of Western, American viewership.Most "heroic" sci-fi cartoons (or, in reality, "heroic" cartoons) work in similar fashion:hero lives with a peaceful (usually human) people, and must defend them from some sort of evil, malevolent (and mostly inhuman) force-the further from the 50s and orientalist yellow peril you move, the less likely they look like Ming the Merciless, and more like Skeletor, ghoulish creatures of yellows, reds, and dark hues, always cursing and scheming to destroy the heroes with their new weapon or henchman of the week.

Star Wars of course changes a lot of the landscape of both how Sci-Fi would operate afterwards, but also how it was viewed in the pop-culture vein; in many cases early sci-fi was simply popcorn fodder or for children, things you would watch but discard afterwards, a disposable form of popular culture built more on profit returns than on saying anything particularly intelligent (although, as in the case of films like Day the Earth Stood Still, later viewers might find them interesting time capsules of 50s/60s fears, paranoia, and mindsets).In a lot of ways, Sci-Fi works built from works of literature mostly known as "Invasion Fiction," with H.G. Wells War of the Worlds being perhaps the most famous; but prior to Wells, most "Invasion Fiction" preyed on the fears of outsiders as ACTUAL humans, not tripod legged brains in jars; most works in English detailed the devilish attempts of Germans to erase proper English society from the globe, or positioned England as the only possible stop-gap between the "degeneration" of mankind from "outsiders."Star Wars is different; it builds on the space operas of Flash Gordon kitsch, played entirely straight-Star Wars makes fun of its characters and their situations, slight winks to the audience, but the series plays itself entirely seriously, and lacks the "cheesy" aspects of previous Sci-Fi works (something that, as a divergent discussion, one could say the 3 "prequel" films 100% forgot to do).Star Wars abandoned the Star Trek camp for an attempt at being a "serious" film that just happened to feature talking robots, magical space powers, oddly Catholic cosmology, a giant walking carpet, and a space princess with cinnamon buns on her head.

The Post-Star Wars era looked remarkably "Earthy" in comparison:more Alien films, Predator, and perhaps most notably the Terminator franchise (among many other works, revivals, and sequels to 'classic' films-Planet of the Apes in particular).These works tended to abandon the attempt at grand Space Opera a-la Star Wars, or even the Alien of the Week (That Teaches Us About Ourselves) of Star Trek for much more visceral narratives that pit humanity against antagonistic alien species or technology run amok.Sci-Fi, as stated early, requires an almost consistent update to utilize the fears, prejudice, or even weakness of its current audience to develop narratives; viewers in the 80s and 90s were no longer "afraid" of "outsiders" from foreign lands (and in many cases were probably now second and third generation descendents of said "outsiders,") but hey, that computer with the punch cards might one day try to play Global Thermonuclear War, isn't this crazy technology stuff just advancing so FAST?No time for Flash Gordon Ray Guns when a shotgun in a box of roses will do the trick, and who needs to worry about the cunning guile of Ming the Merciless when the Alien Brood Queen just simply wants to use your species as incubator and buffet?The "modern" sci-fi "fear" evolved more into the idea of a fight against extinction, a fight to stay relevant in a modernizing world, and a fight to stay individual in a slowly shrinking global environment.There were no flying cars in the 80s and no Jetsons, but there sure were fears of food shortages and cold war revivals.

Perhaps what is most important to glean from this discussion of the past is that Sci-Fi is not a "melting pot" as much as it is a "blackboard," one that is continually erased every time something "new" becomes "old," a medium through which the viewer can supposedly glance at the "future," but is more than likely going to be looking at the "future past" by the time the film hits the big or home screen.Sci-Fi spends a lot of time trying to stay "relevant" or "modern" to pick the brains of its viewers-the expansion of the internet in the post-AOL world and the sudden popularity of the Matrix are not idle coincidence.But, what exactly does that have to do with Skeletor, or for that matter, what does any of this have to do with Space Dandy?

While those behind the PRODUCTION of sci-fi might view their medium as a blackboard to be rewritten, those who engage, consume, and enjoy said material rarely view it so myopically; instead, they are the ones who notice the small Planet of the Apes reference here, or the appearance of a VHS tape there, things that fellow fans have left for them along the way and have just simply become a part of the "mythos" of sci-fi; there are, of course, those blinded by their faith-hello Dr. Who, Star Wars, Star Trek-but in many cases the people creating and enjoying science fiction are likely to have been fans themselves at some point, gently bending the ear of directors, or becoming directors themselves.They, too, were once footie-pajama clad tots burning their eyes out as He-Man screamed I HAVE THE POWER and beat Skeletor once again, or watched as the Silverhawks came to the rescue just in time to stop Mon*Star, all while (supposedly) imparting a message about teamwork, friendship, hard work, or other moralistic lessons that would allow them to bypass scrutiny from TV censors and networks worried about parental backlash (which was shockingly a thing at one point-today it'd probably just make the show more popular).

It is with this state of mind in place that it becomes able to approach why Space Dandy is such a delight; even if its single currently existing episode were to exist as a stand-alone work, divided from any possibly continuity with another episode, it is a blisteringly fast tour of sci-fi trope, tableau, and styling.Dandy openly acknowledges that it is not serious, and comes in at near Spaceballs levels of genre-acknowledgement.Space Dandy is also cognizant of the fact that its viewers are likely those same people that grew up 20, 30 years ago watching Saturday morning cartoons, watching Terminator, and playing video games; it wears its heart on its sleeve, and in a few ways approaches the sort of sci-fi absurdity of Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, playing its genre for a laugh while also reveling in its best parts: splashy visuals, alien life forms, sexy girls in skimpy 'space' costumes, and of course, overly camp villains plotting from a distance.

Let's take a moment to look at some visuals before resuming this line of thought:

Here is the Space Dandy logo (in Japanese); one of the most striking things about it is its use of blue, gold, silver, and of course red; it also has the 'exploding from a single point of origin' aesthetic with its big blocky letters that triangulate to a single space in the logo's background.Here are a few other logos from other franchises:

One of the common themes of "classic" pop-sci-fi cartoons tends to be big, flashy logos usually adorned with some sort of 'ornament,' and Space Dandy is really no different in this regard; each work has its own little "flair," but there is a oddly genre specific uniformity to them: gradients of color, large ornamental symbol, blocky, outlined letters.

the logo alone doesn't make the show that particularly unique, but instead just part of a greater body of works; perhaps most interesting is to take a quick look at the "antagonists," of whom we've really seen very little so far:

These three are the current "villains" of Space Dandy, and of particular note are the two with the most screen-time, Dr. Geru and Bee; Geru in particular is almost entirely made of references to science fiction works, from his destroyed statue of liberty head ship and facial features (Planet of the Apes,)

but Geru also has something oddly in common with Mon*Star, villain of Silverhawks:

Both feature eye ornamentation and are, of course, less than human looking, and Geru also has the 'traditional' saturday morning villain garb of being almost bizarrely out of touch with the rest of the characters.However, Bee, his associate, is yet another odd link between the Geru and Mon*Star; those who might remember Silverhawks may also remember that Mon*Star's yes man is literally a character named Yes Man, a small, green, snake-bodied man who pretty much exists solely for Mon*Star to have someone to talk to (fans of Skeletor can likely fill in other similar characters here, like Beastman, who seem to exist solely to go "but why do you want to do that, boss?" so as to not make the villains seem ridiculous (well, more ridiculous).

Of course, the "big bad" that we know little about pretty easily brings to mind said Skeletor:

But he might also remind you of another villain, Mumm-Ra:

Its pretty easy to note why "dead" people were villains for cartoons of these types, mostly that it makes them easily identifiable as "evil" to children without having to go into much more exposition on the matter; it also helps alleviate the possibility of the characters being "too human," where their counterparts usually embodied the best and brightest parts of human existence: noble bravery, friendship, valor, honor, sacrifice, and the ability to always be muscled.

Space Dandy's titular hero, is, well

None of those.

In a pre-release review, the New York Time's Mike Hale seemed overly critical of Space Dandy's inability to "hit the target" of its comedy, using the opening sequence in Boobies to denote an apparent lack of comedic skill that comes off as "sleazy;" Hale writes:

This cringe-making scene is presumably meant as a lampoon of the typical titillating "fan service" aspects of Japanese science-fiction anime, but the satire has been entirely lost in translation. That may be literally the case: Adult Swim is presenting an English-language version of the show, and it's possible that the humor isn't as broad or crude in the original. ()

What's interesting here is the phrase "lost in translation"-there's really nothing different between the "comedy" of Space Dandy, although in translation things are always changed or adapted; instead, Hale's criticism seems to completely miss the focus of Space Dandy's comedy: it isn't in crude jokes about boobs, but instead of nearly 60 years of pop-culture; Dandy is an objectifying jerk, a Captain Kirk on steroids, a Flash Gordon more interested in his hair than injustices; Boobies is the commodified Jabba the Hutt Palace without a Rancor, the crystallization of 60 years of "sexiness" in science fiction that has always decided that the best way to picture a woman in the future is, apparently, latex cut out clothing and gogo boots.The villains appear almost as if on cue to plot and scheme like they need to, but with their ineptitude turned up 100 degrees; no adult viewer views Skeletor as threatening, and Space Dandy's villains have taken that cue to heart more than their need to produce thrills and chills.Dandy's ship is a bizarre timecapsule of camp, a bizarre mixture of science fiction and Hawaiin kitsch, co-piloted by a robot that literally prints messages in punch-card format.Space Dandy has jokes, but it itself IS the joke, as it takes every single beloved thing in Sci-Fi and posits it into a fast paced 23 minute episode.

The final pieces of the first episode give the viewer an odd panorama of sci-fi monsters and beloved archetypes: giant insects, tentacled beasts, huge eyed man-eating monstrosities, and blocky, geometric robots (well, here its more conical, but Gort approves I'm sure)-said robot even gives viewers the T2 "thumbs up" as it dissolves, a simple, yet almost easily missed little reference that's part "hey I know you love that" and "this isn't anything but a loving send up of this genre."Geru (in the dub) makes a Buzz Lightyear joke, and the entire episode comes to a literal end by killing every single cast member like a demented Looney Tunes callback, the "Its a great trick, but I can only do it once!" revived to galactic proportions.

And, perhaps the best way to encapsulate Space Dandy.Cowboy Bebop was a tour of sci-fi pulp, Bruce Lee films, and hard-boiled dramatics (mixed with occasional winks of comedy); Space Dandy is figuratively and literally a cartoon, a work that uses its elasticity and absurd nature to dazzle the eyes and tickle the audience with jokes; however, the reason Space Dandy works is because of its careful attention to where it came from and how we came to be where we are in the genre; it knows exactly what Sci-Fi has done and where its been going, and it has no interest in "furthering" the genre-it isn't interested in erasing the "blackboard" like other works, but instead its more interested in how it can turn the language on the blackboard into a ribald inside joke that those who are enamored with the genre can laugh at while also doing the "oh you!" gesture at its more ridiculous moments.

Space Dandy isn't interested (at least so far) in cutting a swath across science-fiction as the new icon, but is instead interested in asking everyone over for a drink (Gilgamesh gin, perhaps?) and laughing at just how ridiculous a genre Sci-Fi is and always will be-that its much better to love something's history so strongly that the best possible tribute you can give it is a glorious roast.
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