Thursday, July 17, 2014

“The choices are yours, and yours alone!”: Dig Here, Meow Meow. Happiness Comes at the End

Oh Thank God. 

Dirty Pair hasn't quite managed to self-destruct just yet. This is brilliant. Returning to the motifs of “Hah Hah Hah, Dresses and Men Should Always Be Brand New”, the Angels are once again on vacation, which means some random ridiculous other story has to crash headlong into them. This time, it's a wizened prospector by the name of Grampa Garlic Joe, who crash-lands into Kei and Yuri's hotel swimming pool trying to evade the Blues Brothers goons from “The Chase Smells Like Cheesecake and Death”. I could criticize the show for recycling motifs from earlier episodes, but I'm not going to firstly because even in spite of the missteps, this has been an absolutely phenomenal run of fifteen weeks for a scripted genre fiction series, and secondly this isn't what the show is doing. This episode recognises Dirty Pair's by now familiar and signature themes and continues to build on and extrapolate them. And better yet, it's another comic masterpiece.

On the surface, this is another “Dirty Pair does a genre romp” story. The genre in question this time is pulp adventure serials, but in particular the revival of the style in the 1980s that followed the massive popularity of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones movies. However, the problem with the Indiana Jones movies, and anything else that tried to capitalize on their success, is that they were just that: Revivals. Spielberg and Lucas (though this does seem to be mostly Lucas, given Star Wars) dug up a bunch of old film serial tropes and cliches and...did absolutely nothing with them apart from slavishly reiterating them. And the problem with that is that those old films serials tended to be appallingly racist and sexist. And, well, so is Indiana Jones because it is completely and utterly lacking in any sort of postmodern self-awareness. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is rather infamous for its depiction of India, not to mention Short Round, but in my opinion it's the best of the three because it's actually ever-so-slightly cognizant of how silly it is: I think Raiders of the Lost Arc might actually be the worst in terms of gender roles and I find The Last Crusade to be basically unwatchable.

And Dirty Pair is *explicit* about what it's referencing this time and what its intentions are. Grampa Joe is manifestly an Indiana Jones analog, except instead of the rugged, manly and dashingly handsome Harrison Ford, he's an old geezer with two missing front teeth who pretends to be hard of hearing and scatterbrained just to be annoying and who eats too much garlic. When they're in the temple, the girls even find what are obviously the skeletal remains of the *real* Indiana Jones caught in one of La Kahanga's traps. But let's stop for a minute: Dirty Pair is about construction and healing, not destruction and mockery. This, by contrast, should at first feel off-putting and mean spirited and perhaps not what this show ought to be doing. That is, however until it becomes clear that what this episode is actually doing is rehabilitating the entire genre of adventure fiction. Remember, Dirty Pair only pokes fun at those it loves. Hell, a large portion of the show is really easy to read as Kei and Yuri poking merciless fun at *themselves*.

There are a number of ways it accomplishes this. Firstly, through its science fiction setting, Dirty Pair is able to completely divorce the traditional adventure trappings of booby-trapped ancient jungle temples and lost treasure from the genre's imperialist roots and its tendency to exoticize and misrepresent indigenous people. La Kahanga have no real-world analogs, and we learn nothing more about them apart from them being ancient, mysterious and disappeared. That would have been enough, but the show even goes one step beyond: La Kahanga are described by everyone as being not just incredibly old and mysterious, but unfathomably advanced.

Their temple is constructed around technology even Kei and Yuri don't understand, and it turns out in the end that they held the secret to some kind of “Super Energy”, which sounds as much like some kind of formula for perpetual motion and free energy as it does a video game powerup. Furthermore, that extraterrestrial life is what it is in the Dirty Pair universe, namely, something about which as much uncertainty exists as it does today, this hedges against the sort of distasteful Von Dänikenist infelicities lesser sci-fi works might be tempted to slip into this kind of setup: We can assume La Kahanga were human, just extremely advanced humans by even the standards of the modern Dirty Pair universe: An indigenous culture who make *us* seem "primitive" by comparison. This flabbergasts me, because it deftly executes a flawless proof-of-concept for things genre fiction *today* still can't figure out. I mean, of course this is the obvious way to salvage the stock adventure plot, isn't it? It's a perfect example of absolutely all the reasons I prefer science fiction over any pretension to representationalist cinematic spectacle.

Just on a brief tangent, I'm reminded of the Chozo, the mysterious culture of bird-people who raised Samus Aran in Metroid Prime, one of my favourite video games. Like La Kahanga, the Chozo had incomprehensibly advanced technology that allowed them to live in harmony with their natural surroundings, yet who mysteriously disappeared without a trace. The role of the Chozo, along with other similar hyper-advanced yet long-vanished civilizations Samus learns about in the Metroid Prime series, is to stand in for abandoned futures: Visions for utopia that have come and gone, leaving only their works. The role of Samus, equal parts bounty hunter, explorer, natural scientist and adventure archaeologist, is to piece these together in the ruins that still exist and take something away from their stories. What astonishes me so much about this episode is that not only is Dirty Pair playing on the level of Metroid Prime two decades early, it's coming in before the *original* Metroid, which wouldn't launch until 1986 and didn't have much more of a plot besides “go here and shoot things and BTW Samus is a woman”.

But underrated and manhandled Nintendo franchises are not the only things Dirty Pair anticipates tonight. For, as much as “Dig Here, Meow Meow. Happiness Comes at the End” evokes Indiana Jones, it is also strikingly reminiscent of Legends of the Hidden Temple, which I've mentioned before in passing and that suppose I should actually talk about now. Legends of the Hidden Temple was a children's game show that aired on Nickelodeon between 1993 and 1995: There were a number of shows like this at the time each with their own unique gimmick, and Legends' was facts about history. The basic premise was that six teams of two contestants each would traverse a mysterious “Hidden Temple” of vague Mesoamerican design in search of specific hidden artefacts to compete for certain prizes. The show featured a mix of trivia questions about historical figures and events alongside physical challenges, like crossing a moat in a particular way or navigating a multistory indoor maze. This is...actually pretty much exactly what Kei and Yuri help Joe do in this episode: Solve riddles written in ancient languages and having to figure their way out of impossibly convoluted traps and hazards.

Although I was watching Nickelodeon near the beginning of its run, Legends of the Hidden Temple was never a show I remember ever watching regularly. The fondest memories I have of the Nickelodeon-style children's game show were of stuff like the syndicated Video Power, PBS Kids' adaptation of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and Wild and Crazy Kids on Nickelodeon itself, which might actually have been my favourite show on the network, all stop. Legends of the Hidden Temple seems to be the one that most people remember the best these days though, maybe because it was one of the most elabourate and famous voice actor Dee Bradley Baker did a lot of the characters. I guess I just missed it, for whatever reason: I got satellite TV around 1995 or so, which may have had something to do with it (and I'll talk about in the 1990s) and I stopped watching Nickelodeon not long after. I *do* remember Animal Planet trying to copy Legends rather shamelessly with the absolutely insane ZooVenture in 1997, but that's getting off-topic.

My primary exposure to Legends of the Hidden Temple actually came from my cousin, who was my introduction to much in the world of pop culture and will go on to play a larger role in my memoirs once Star Trek comes back. He and I have somewhat comparable creative predilections, and one of the things we both did was make up, write, and oftentimes attempt to illustrate, our own stories based on and inspired by the media things we liked. He once told me about a story he came up with based on both Legends of the Hidden Temple and The Legend of Zelda about a group of kids who travelled through a remote jungle to explore ancient ruins in search of rumoured long-lost treasure. It was supposedly a comic book he wrote and drew himself, and while I don't remember ever seeing it, I do know the images and ideas stuck with me. I've mentioned before how drawn I am to the idea of a low-stakes adventure story where a group of friends travel around new and exciting locales together: It's the primary reason I enjoy Scooby-Doo as much as I do, and it's why I liked the Tintin stories so much too. My cousin's story sounded to me like it would be something like that.

And this is what “Dig Here, Meow Meow. Happiness Comes at the End” is as well, except it's not just a fun, low-stakes adventure, it's a story that radically transforms the entire idea of adventure story altogether. By overtly and flamboyantly rejecting Indiana Jones, Dirty Pair reclaims the adventure plot from the more unsavoury things that surround it. As much as it riffs on old pulp serials (notice how Joe keeps telling little mini shaggy-dog stories that sound like they're about to fall into pulp cliches, before he psychs us all out at the punchline, or the rather adorable way Mughi and Nanmo reference the “X marks the spot” trope), it still embraces the idea of them in principle, so long as they can be detourned. After all, Joe may be an old guy, but he's a cool old guy to have some fun adventures with. Running around with him is certainly more fun for Kei and Yuri then lounging around the swimming pool with that sap Stephan: Kei even exclaims “All Right!” when the brawl breaks out.

(This is also to an extent Dirty Pair acknowledging its own heritage: The series' roots are, of course, pulp magazines, so one would expect it would have a vested interest in keeping parts of those old structures alive while also elevating them and helping them progress.)

And it all comes together in the final scene, where it seems like Joe has swindled his partners Kei and Yuri the same way his old partner (the aptly-named Clementine) swindled him by lying about the true nature of the Super Energy formula parchment and not sharing the fame and fortune he accrued with the girls. But, while he has in one sense, considering that's a stock ending to this kind of plot and was telegraphed to an extent earlier, on another level he actually hasn't. We have to remember who Kei and Yuri are: The Lovely Angels. Their job is to transform plots, not take part in them. This is not their story, it's Joe's. Textually so, as Joe says numerous times this is something he's spent his whole life searching for, and though they make a big show of getting into character and becoming treasure hunters themselves, Kei and Yuri frequently make a point to remind us that their primary motivation is to help Joe realise his dream. Just as they were for Clicky and Joanca, the girls are once again Holy Guardian Angels who come to help somebody discover their true purpose and fulfill their Great Work.

And there's one other level to this. Thanks to their cleansing light making adventure stories ethical and acceptable, Kei and Yuri have touched the dreams of countless others, many of whom must have been in their audience. The “Call to Adventure” means something, even if it's maybe not what Joseph Cambell thought it meant. There is, at least the way I see it, an irresistible allure to adventure, to travelling and exploring and learning and growing. It's something I find to capture the imagination like little else, and your personal adventure could take many forms. Perhaps this is what it means when we discover our callings and are reminded of what a wonderful place, in every sense of the word, the world is. Perhaps that's something our starfaring voyagers understand too. It's once again OK to dream, to adventure and to make art about the things we discover through it.

Like I said. Best action sci-fi series ever.


  1. Raiders is an example of a politically egregious movie I can't help loving. And I feel no shame at all. It's partly because it came along when I was the perfect age for it, and partly because its just so bloody well made. The extended action sequences - particularly the truck chase - are some of the greatest ever filmed.

    1. Oh, from a production and effects standpoint Raiders is marvelous. A legitimate and rightly named watershed. And Harrison Ford is of course as charming as he always is.

      I start to lose my good graces for the movie when people start talking about what a Strong Female Character Marion is, however.

  2. Other examples in the UK of TV shows similar to Legends of the Hidden Temple include The Crystal Maze, which starred Richard O'Brian from of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the earlier Adventure Game - though this one is kind of different in nature from the old serials type of standard plot that you mention, it's still great and worth watching (loads on YouTube).

    I have to admit to liking the Indiana Jones movies, but in a childish way as that's the level they feel geared at.

    1. I remember Phil Sandifer writing about The Adventure Game on TARDIS Eruditorum a couple years ago-It sounded fun!

      I guess there is some enjoyment to be had in Indiana Jones if you approach it from that level, but, as was the case with Star Wars, I grow concerned when people try to turn those films into something bigger and more intelligent than that. And even so I still have ethical concerns with the depiction of women and nonwhite people.

    2. Yes agree completely - I should clarify that I meant I enjoyed the films as a child, as really that's their level of appeal. As a kid and a teen they were the epitome of escapism. So yeah any kind of *liking* in through my own nostalgia really.

      The Adventure Games are awesome yes!