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Thursday, 16 September 2010

Ulysses. Only he could do the things he did.

There was a time, thankfully in the dim and distant past, when the prevailing wisdom among television executives was that live action sci-fi was, at heart, a juvenile genre. This being the case, they would often feel the need to furnish shows with an audience identification character for the kiddies. You know, a kid, because kiddies can only follow and enjoy a story if it has other kiddies in it. Which just goes to show that the average network executive understands the thought processes of a 12yr old boy about as well as they understand nuclear physics or the inner workings of the cardio-vascular system in an asthmatic donkey. Just ask Noah Hathaway how much respect he got.

Kids don't want to watch kids because kids can only do kids stuff. Floppy haired whiners stowing away in cargo holds are nowhere near as exciting as square jawed macho men having laser gun shootouts with robots or state of the art outer space dogfights. Simple psychology. In fact the only token kid on any sci-fi show ever that was anything other than a total dead loss was (and yes, this is absolutely just a transparent excuse to post a pic) Rachel Blanchard on War of the Worlds.

Innocent young me had one of his first crushes on her then.(Slight cheat here cos I couldn't find a War of the Worlds pic. Clueless will have to do, although she was a couple of years older in that.)

And quite frankly, the me of today would struggle to resist the older model. ( Seriously, did you see her in Peep Show? That woman does things to a man.)

But wait, I hear you cry, the title of this post had led me to believe we'd be getting talk of Ulysses 31, what's going on? Well, I'll tell you, I realised that I'd posted a blog about Smallville and not stuck any pictures of hot women in it. SMALLVILLE! The show with a hot woman:everyone else ratio of approximately 97000678763:1. What was I thinking?. Of course I couldn't not redress the balance, that would be immoral, so I settled down with my thinking cap and came up with a wonderfully subtle, no it's not blatant at all, method of shoehorning something into a post on an '80's kids cartoon. So, ahem...

When it comes to being a child and trying to watch a television show, perhaps the only thing more annoying than the presence of these 'identification' characters in live action shows is the presence of their spiritual cousins, the cute comic relief character, in cartoons. Grown up geeks such as myself are often shot down by those who just don't get it, whenever we bemoan these woeful creations existence, with the argument that the shows were designed for kids and we should not expect them to adhere to the standards of an adult show. "It's just for kids" they cry. "The kids love it. Get a life." etc. etc. etc. I never used to be sure just how to respond to that argument.Certainly it seemed to have logic on it's side and it was oft times expressed with a sheer eloquence than my own crack handed paraphrasing cannot do justice to .So I was left in a quandary. Was I wrong? Were my opinions, of which I had been so certain for so long actually worthless? I needed to know.

Much debate, research and perusal of dictionary, encyclopedia and thesaurus later I had my answer. I was armed with a rebuttal so eloquent, so insightful, so downright intellectual, that there could be no argument. It went like this. "Bullshit"

I loathed these hateful little monstrosities as a child just as much as I do now and I never had any friends that said differently. So there. Every show had one and be it Uni squealing, Snarf, or Orco with those bloody magic tricks, you just wanted to punch the screen whenever they appeared.. The bottom of the barrel though, the absolute nadir, is NoNo. Yes, NoNo. I mean really. NoNo?

The robotic, well, plaything I suppose, of Ulysses' son Telemachus spends his time eating nails,looking gormless, complaining about being left out of things and being generally annoying. There is actually a scene in an early episode where Telemachus tries to dump him completely. I quote "Lets hide from him. He's so slow and stupid." Now at first I thought that this was a prelude to a story about friendship and loyalty and 'leave no man behind' and so on but no. Now the show being a French/Japanese co-production I'm willing to assume that the line was probably not intended to be quite so harsh and suffered from an over literal translation somewhere down the line but still, it made me laugh. It's made even funnier by the vehemence with which it is delivered by the dub artist.

Which brings us to the second of the problems with Ulysses 31. The dub suffers, as other shows have done, with the problem of trying to match the English translation to the foreign animation.This leads to some very odd pacing of dialogue and occasional lines that seem completely out of place, obviously added purely because the lips were still moving. In fairness though, this is a problem that is excusable in a kids show because kids don't notice shit like that. Certainly I was rather taken aback at how noticeable it was when I came to watch the complete series, having no memory of it ever having occurred to me back in the day.

The thing is though, dodgy dubbing (excusable) and annoying comedy character (par for the course) aside, Ulysses 31 is, quite possibly, one of the best cartoons of it's era. It's got a quite spectacular high concept, some absolutely stunning designs with the Odessy itself being a beautiful piece of work and the huge room stacked floor to ceiling with comatose crew members, doomed to lifelessness until Ulysses can escape the curse of the Gods is still a chilling concept all these years later.

Plus, of course, the insanely addictive theme song. Hear it once on the morning and you were guaranteed to be singing it all day. (At this point I was going to attempt to have a video here, of Philip Schofield and Gordon the Gopher in the broom cupboard, miming along to the song but I didn't for 2 reasons. I didn't trust myself to get it right and the video is all over youtube so I suspect I might be 10 years late to the joke.)

I'll be honest, I've had the DVD box set of this show now for quite some time but while I devoured a huge chunk of it in one go upon purchase I've only just gotten around to watching the final few episodes. Why? Well, as great as it is it suffers slightly from the fact that it was made in a time when childrens shows, and most live action shows in the action/adventure and sci-fi genres for that matter, were made episodically. That is, serialisation was frowned upon and every episode had to end with a big old push on that reset button. Robbed of any kind of forward momentum the episodes can begin to seem a little repetitive and the over earnest nature of the characters (seriously, this lot take humourless to another level) means it's not really suited to viewing marathons. More of a dip in and out show. I'm ashamed to say I shelved it for a while.

I have mixed feelings about these last few episodes. On the one hand was frustration because I knew the episodes were running out so all the resets were extra frustrating, especially since some of these later episodes could so easily have been building blocks in a grand finale. One episode sees Ulysses aiding a rebellion against the Gods in exchange for a map home but it comes to nothing. In another episode the comatose crew are awakened but at the end of the story they return to their curse to save Ulysses life. It was all so maddening.

On the other hand we have the finale which I loved. Given the above instances so late in the series I was kind of resolved to getting another open ended final episode that finishes like all the others with the Odysseus flying off to the next adventure, never to return home. But no, Ulysses defies Zeus, passes his final test and gets everyone safely home. Would it have been better if the episodes mentioned above and others like them had been allowed to play into the finale? First impulse is to say yes, but then we would be expecting it. Was it an elaborate double bluff by the writers? Nah, I reckon a fortuitous by-product of other factors more than likely but regardless, it fooled me. And I'm glad it did, it ended the whole affair on a proper high note.

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