Sunday, November 30, 2014

“Seeking something they have lost”: Where Silence Has Lease

For me, Season 2 has always been “the weird season”.

It begins as early as the opening credits. The title sequence is the same as the first season, but the theme song is a new recording that sounds off-puttingly fake to me for some reason. Riker has his beard, but he's still not properly stocky. The uniforms are the same familiar spandex ones, and yet Tasha Yar isn't at the tactical console. Deanna Troi has the hairstyle and uniform she'll sport for the majority of the series, but it's the wrong colour. Geordi is chief engineer, but he's only a lieutenant instead of a lieutenant commander. Worf is security chief and he's got his chain-mail sash, but he lacks the makeup that gives him the iconic and recognisable look I associate with him in that position. Even the new creative team, fresh off the Mass Exodus of the summer, doesn't stick around, so it's hard to get too attached to anyone or anything here. The whole show is at this awkward transitory phase between one incarnation and the next, exhibiting traits I'd associate with both its first season and Micheal Piller-era formes, but never satisfyingly falling into either camp. It's liminal to be sure, but it doesn't feel liminal in a way that embraces the power of liminality: Rather, it comes across more as...immature and underdeveloped.

And then there's Doctor Pulaski.

Probably the definitive embodiment of how “off” Season 2 of Star Trek: The Next Generation feels to me is that this is the sole season where Gates McFadden does not appear as Beverly Crusher. Gates had been fired abruptly at the end of the first season by Maurice Hurley for unspecified reasons, though it's fairly evident Hurley simply didn't like her very much and decide to act on this by giving her the pink slip. This was probably one of the single dumbest moves in the history of the franchise: Yes, there are conceptual issues with Doctor Crusher as a character, but you'd have to be mad not to see that everything that *was* good about Bev is directly thanks to Gates McFadden, and that as an actor she's one of the show's biggest assets and raw talents. That Hurley felt Gates didn't deserve the same chance to make her character her own that every other actor on the show got is a black mark on his entire tenure as executive producer. Ironically enough, Hurley is a staunch defender of Denise Crosby and Tasha Yar and thought her loss was a shame. I mean it was, but you'd think that would have led him to behave differently.

Regardless, Gates McFadden's exit necessitated creating a new chief medical officer character, and who the producers and the incoming creative team came up with was one Katherine Pulaski, possibly the most contentious and polarizing character in the history of Star Trek. Her ardent defenders adore her firstly because she's not Gates McFadden, who (just as Maurice Hurley did) some people seem to surprisingly resent for some stupefyingly inexplicable reason, but secondly because she's Diana Muldaur, returned to Star Trek for the first time in twenty years. And the thing about Diana Muldaur is that she's Diana Muldaur: A titanically commanding actor with an effortless and innate knack for portraying devastatingly competent female professionals with wry senses of humour. Meanwhile, Data fans hate her with every fiber of their being, because Doctor Pulaski starts out incredibly abusive to Data, and a lot of people have a lot of very strong feelings about and attachments to Data and project a lot of things onto him, in particular *numerous* marginal and oppressed identities. So, unfortunately, there's kind of a bit of a tinderbox under Muldaur right from the start.

I'm going to be taking the ever-unpopular middle path here. I love Beverly and can't ever accept anyone other than her as CMO or science officer of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D or accept any version of Star Trek: The Next Generation that doesn't have her in some capacity. What Maurice Hurley did to Gates McFadden was inconceivably shitty and wrong on pretty much every level, and I'll never forgive him for that. And Doctor Pulaski is pretty transparently nothing more than a genderbent Bones McCoy who doesn't work anywhere near as effectively because casual racism, in particular the sort of racism that prevents a person from acknowledging another person actually counts as living thing, is no longer cool and has absolutely no place in the world of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

However, I'm an admitted huge fan of Diana Muldaur, and can't honestly say I'm not thrilled to have her as a regular (well, in spirit at any rate: Perhaps as a statement against the injustice that had to happen to get her that position, Muldaur refused to be credited as a regular even though she technically was). And what a lot of people fail to remember about Doctor Pulaski is that in spite of how fucking obscene the position she started in was, overcoming her racism was supposed to be part of her character arc, this happens fairly early on in the season and by the end of the year she becomes as close a friend of Data's as anyone else on the Enterprise.

And like so much else about Star Trek, I believe in the potential within Doctor Pulaski: Had she been written as a character who truly played to Muldaur's strengths and was allowed to be her own person instead of just being femme!McCoy, there's absolutely no reason she couldn't have been as successful or effective as anyone else on the show. Indeed, Diana Muldaur circa 1988 is precisely the sort of person who should have gelled perfectly with Star Trek: The Next Generation, and under better circumstances she would have made a wonderful addition to the cast. I just don't think that needed to be done at the expense of Beverly Crusher and Gates McFadden.

(Of course, I'm skipping over the *other* major new cast addition, but she's not in this episode so I'll save her for another couple of essays.)

Yet even I do have memories of Doctor Pulaski, however hazy they may often be, and there are quite a few moments interspersed throughout the year where I find she does work, and works very well. And, just like her, Star Trek: The Next Generation itself certainly works on more than one occasion during this season, writer's guild strike and behind the scenes turmoil be damned. And “Where Silence Has Lease” is absolutely one of those occasions. In fact, of all the second season stories, I think it's this one that consistently stands out to me the most strongly, because it's here a very defining aspect of Star Trek: The Next Generation finally coalesces. Although it ends up as a(n actually relatively well done) musing on mortality and how different people conceptualize death, this is a story first and foremost about exploration and curiosity. I feel like it constantly needs to be stressed that the Enterprise crew are supposed to be explorers and scientists, not diplomats and soldiers. Star Trek's repugnant and inescapable militarism frequently works against this, but to take anything enjoyable or useful out of the franchise this really does have to be the way we read it, especially this show.

In “Where Silence Has Lease”, the Enterprise is on a starmapping mission. They stop to investigate the hole in space, because it's unknown to them and want to learn about it. Up until the end, this is a phenomenally low-key, low-stakes story. You would think then that this would be boring, but I don't find it to be at all for two reasons. One, I happen to really enjoy low-stakes stories personally and am entirely comfortable and content watching a show where “nothing happens”. But that's me and I'm weird. The point that's probably more relevant to my readers is that this episode paces itself really well, and makes its so following along with the crew as they try to solve the mystery is fun and interesting. All kinds of freaky things happen in the hole, from space seeming to curve in on itself and behave in an almost self-aware way to the ghost Romulan warbird and the M.C. Escherprise Worf and Commander Riker poke around on.

(On top of that, this is all really clever usage of stock footage and pre-existing sets, handily disguising the fact this episode was obviously made in deference to both the writer’s guild strike and an overflowing budget.)

It's because of this focus on literal exploration and discovery that the tail end of the episode can do what it does: As thematically incongruous as the juxtaposition my at first seem, Captain Picard and Nagilum's musings on mortality are a logical extension of the sorts of ideas the story is working with elsewhere. We all travel and explore to learn about who and what we are and what our role in life is meant to be. The behavioural science of Nagilum and Doctor Pulaski, the theoretical physics of Data and Worf's warrior's code are all different systems of situated knowledge and thought that people use to help themselves come to terms with this basic, universal sense of curiosity (just incidentally, I love how Captain Picard's conception of death is so manifestly *not* the existentialist-atheist one). And this unites us far more than it drives us apart: Look at how Worf gets a number of scenes where he seemingly acts violently and impulsively, to the point you might think the show is making fun of him, but then *Riker* is the one who starts to lose it after his experiences on the Yamato, to the point Picard gets bemused.

(And after all, Worf did turn out to be right about the giant beast who lives inside a hole in space, didn't he? Note how this exchange happens immediately after Riker and Picard discuss old mariner's tales about World's End.)

I could nitpick some things. Though Diana Muldaur's stage presence is as commanding and likable as ever, Doctor Pulaski does not exactly make an endearing case for herself when she refers to Data as “it” and the “you are of a different construct” scene with Nagilum is problematic on several levels. If nothing else, it's unbelievably embarrassing to watch a stately middle-aged veteran actor having to do bits like that, and once again Star Trek is coming across as pretty damn immature. And we're also once again digging up an irritating trend from the Original Series that should be *long* in the ground by now, namely, the random one-off redshirt death. I mean it even *literally is* a red shirt that guy is wearing, not even taking into account the switch of the operations division uniform to yellow and that command division personnel are traditionally spared this indignity. And one does wonder why Captain Picard is so quick to abandon the hole so a "real science vessel" can be sent to investigate it: So...the Enterprise *isn't* a science vessel then? Isn't this *exactly* the sort of thing it's supposed to be doing?

But even with those comparatively minor annoyances (well, they're minor *for now*. The more this franchise does this kind of thing the less patience I'm going to have with it and it's on thin ice as it is), it's unapologetic focus on exploration and curiosity marks “Where Silence Has Lease” as a key moment in the development of what I want Star Trek: The Next Generation to be. Future episodes I rank among my favourites, like “Cause and Effect” and “Timescape”, will all have the same core conceit of the Enterprise coming upon an uncharted area of space where weird and fun things happen and trying to piece it all together. This to me is the heart and soul of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I infinitely prefer it to all the Klingon and Romulan realpolitking and Borg scaremongering the show is so beloved for. This is the sort of thing that got me to fall in love with this style of storytelling in the first place.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Myriad Universes: DC Star Trek: The Next Generation Volume 1

As we discussed last time, much of the initial tie-in merchandise and spin-off works based on Star Trek: The Next Generation were created before the actual show was so that they could actually tie in to things. This poses an interesting case when discussing things that are actual textual narratives, as it means the authors are working with prototypical assumptions about the characters and setting, and are as a result operating from the exact same position of uncertainty as the people working on the show itself are.

DC's first Star Trek: The Next Generation comic book, a six issue limited series that ran from Fall, 1987 until Summer, 1988, is one such work. The first issue, “...Where No One Has Gone Before!”, was quite obviously penned before “Encounter at Farpoint” had aired (as you can probably guess just from the title) and is endlessly fascinating because of it: The characters are all drawn from broad-strokes assumptions about what they'd be like, presumably because the creative team only had access to Gene Roddenberry’s writer's guide. Captain Picard suffers the most from this, being even grouchier, angrier and more stringent than he was early on in the show, although the series does do a decent job balancing this out with a sense of hardened isolation and introspection he feels brought on from his years of experience in deep space. Commander Riker, by contrast, tends to alternate between being barely visible and forgettable to being a generic heroic Star Trek lead.

The other characters, however, are eminently more interesting: Deanna Troi is more prominent, commanding and fleshed out than I think she ever is until season six of the show (well, discounting for the moment her development in the later DC comics, that is): Perhaps owing to DC being a publisher mostly known for superhero books, Deanna is treated as an essential member of the team whose psychic powers, which are far, far more powerful than they are on the show (think Professor X but without the telekinesis) prove absolutely critical on more than one occasion. She also gets a whole lot of speeches, and brings every other character down to rights at least once over the course of the series. Data, meanwhile is fascinating because he is quite overtly emotional, and *extremely so*: He gets emotionally overwhelmed at every little thing (he's even sad to have “adrenal pumps”), both positively, or at least inoffensively, in the first issue to dangerously negatively in issues four and five.

Die-hard fans might recoil with shock and horror at this, but let's stop an actually think about Data for a moment. Is it ever actually said anywhere at any point in the first season, in particular this early on in the year, that Data is emotionless? Sure, he doesn't understand a lot, but that doesn't mean he doesn't feel anything. At the very least if Brent Spiner is supposed to be playing an emotionless character he does an abjectly terrible job of it, because Data is permanently smirky and wry for the entire year. And, much as I loath to bring up “The Naked Time”, Data was affected by the polywater intoxication in that episode just as everyone else was. And furthermore, Data has hopes and aspirations, things that we would normally call very emotional reactions. So while later developments in the series retcon Data's pursuit of his humanity as a pursuit for emotions, that's very clearly not what was originally going on with his character, and this comic series serves as an interesting limit case in this respect because it survives as an artefact reminding us the accepted narratives of Star Trek: The Next Generation weren't always so set in stone.

Also getting a major upgrade is Tasha Yar, who is not only leagues ahead of her television counterpart in just about every respect, she takes an active role both onboard the ship and on away team missions, actually plays a major part in five out of the series' six issues and kicks more alien ass than every other character combined. The first issue is her most first-pumpingly triumphant moment, as she singlehandedly subdues a giant mech that had been commandeered by the children of an extraterrestrial dignitaries who were supposed to meet with Captain Picard and used it to hunt down the away team. Tasha acts straightforwardly like what we'd expect her to be here: A more toned-down and sanitized version of Private Vasquez.

In the trilogy that makes up the bulk of this series, her backstory as a survivor of a failed colony becomes crucial, as an energy weapon that's crippled the Enterprise has knocked out the away team as they were investigating a derelict starship leaving them each afflicted in different ways: Tasha ends up being plagued by hallucinations of her past which turn out to be connected to a person who is none-too-subtly implied to be a *sexual predator* who assaulted her when she was younger and who stowed away on the abandoned vessel. Tasha overcomes her hallucinations through sheer force of will, tracks the guy down all by herself, throws him around and then throws him in the brig. It's glorious. It eventually turns out everything was the work of the Q Continuum, who were further testing the Enterprise crew to see if they could live up to their ideals of self-improvement. Because Tasha was so resolute and proved she could move beyond her past, while still acknowledging it was a part of her, this convinced Q that humanity would indeed continue to better themselves to the point they would eventually be able to reach the next stage of evolution, and furthermore that Tasha and her crewmates were the people who would help bring that about.

As dodgy as parts of her arc here may be (I'm a bit iffy on having Tasha spend most of an issue lying in sickbay hallucinating, and the cover art she's in is *really* questionable), it's still worth noting these six comics give her more development and more respect than she got in the entire seven years of the actual TV show.

Also interesting is how Q itself is handled: Q is depicted as essentially a collective consciousness, albeit one who tends to manifest in the form of John de Lancie. But what's really neat is that the comic actually pulls a minor redemption job on the character himself: The story eventually ends up being essentially “Deja Q” three years earlier, except not terrible: The Q of “Hide and Q” is shown to be just one aspect of the larger entity, and he's depicted growing more and more unhinged and vengeful thanks to spending too much time apart from the collective, to the point he actually becomes human...and suicidal. Picard knocks the Q's phaser away, accidentally killing Geordi in the process, which sends Data into a blind, hulking rage that takes the combined efforts of Tasha, Deanna and Riker to subdue. Q eventually sacrifices his life to protect the rest of the crew when Mr. Rapist escapes the brig and tries to commandeer sickbay, and this selfless act causes Q to re-accept him as part of the body, reviving Geordi in the process.

Speaking of Geordi, apart from being temporarily dead for a few issues (which is far more poignant and handled with far more maturity and gravity than absolutely anything in “Skin of Evil”, I might add), he's pretty much the same as on TV, although he gets considerably less page-time even when he *is* alive. Worf, meanwhile, is brilliant, to the point it's extremely easy to map a great deal of his later personality onto the character we see in this book, just without all the comedy stoicism. He certainly gets more to do than he did on the show at this point in time. The Crushers, however, aren't so lucky: Beverly debuts as a shallow, vapid, vain, self-absorbed prima donna and Wesley is written to be every bit as excruciatingly insufferable as he came across on screen: He's a genuine spoiled brat, which is kind of how it should be, and one keeps wishing he'd take a wrong turn somewhere and get blown out into space. At least Beverly got better as the series went on and the creative team were able to catch up with the TV show-Wesley...doesn't.

And oh yeah-This series has its own original characters too. A husband and wife team of crewmembers called the Backleys who seemingly only exist to make fun of the fact that there are families on the Enterprise because *literally all they do* is squabble and bicker with each other. Seriously, every single stereotype of sitcom married couples you can think of, these two blithering idiots have it. And they're in *every issue*. One wonders how the Basil and Sybil Fawlty of the stars ever got married, let alone got a commission for the Enterprise.

The art here is completely ridiculous. It's got every bit of that proto-Rob Leifeld style of art that was starting to come into vogue at the time, so everything is overtly stylized, everyone is laughably ripped with black hole singularities for waists and strike poses that defy all known laws of physics. For some reason, Captain Picard resembles an ancient Greek statesman more than he does Patrick Stewart, and the Enterprise itself looks absolutely ghastly, as if none of the artists had ever heard of, let alone seen or used, a reference picture. (Deanna, meanwhile, actually benefits from this: She's drawn very elegant and statuesque, a humourous contrast with Marina Sirtis' lean, stocky build). I find this strange, as one of the names on the credits is Pablo Marcos, who will go on to handle some of the art duties on DC's regular monthly Star Trek: The Next Generation book that premiers next year, and I've always been a huge fan of how well that art captures the look and mood of the show. Although that said, the art here certainly does make a unique contrast with the stark photorealism that will define later Star Trek comics from both DC and Malibu.

Apart from the Q trilogy, the standout story for me from this miniseries is issue 2, which is a Christmas special. Yes, you read that right, and no, I'm not kidding. Entitled “Spirit in the Sky!”, the story chronicles the Enterprise's encounter with a species called the Creeg during midwinter celebrations. At the same time, an energy being manifests on ship, although at first it's only noticed by Deanna, Wesley and Geordi. The being can pass through people leaving them with feelings of warmth and friendship and is being pursued by The Creeg, who turn out to be an entire race of literal Grinches from How The Grinch Stole Christmas, and who want to capture and imprison the energy being. The entity can take on many different forms, as is shown when the crew chase it through various decks of the Enterprise inhabited by non-human crewmembers and their families, but appears to the human crew as Santa Claus. Every single sentence I have just written is a thing that actually happens.

The reason I like this story, apart from the fact it is self-evidently amazing, is because it goes out of its way to spotlight every single main character and depicts the Enterprise as a genuinely multicultural community. Each character gets a small scene where they speak directly and privately to the audience about what the season means to them and why this year's celebrations, their first on the Enterprise are important to them. I also really enjoy the scenes where the crew are chasing the entity through the various decks and we get to see the creative team come up with all kinds of wild and imaginative scenes and creature designs the show absolutely could never have done. It does away with Star Trek: The Next Generation’s bothersome anthropocentrism, at least temporarily and on a superficial level, in a way only comics could have done and makes the ship feel vast and alive. Oh, and the crew's custom Totally '80s formalwear from their personal wardrobes looks absolutely killer, especially Tasha's and Deanna's.

As much as I laugh at this series for being silly, which is definitely is, I do confess a fondness and appreciation for it. Some of the ideas it's working through are genuinely provocative, if occasionally undercooked, and it's quite obviously trying to make the best stories it can out of a source material that doesn't quite know what it wants to be yet (or, perhaps to be more accurate, doesn't know *how* to be what it wants to be yet). It's a constantly intriguing look at how people looked at Star Trek: The Next Generation before everyone knew what Star Trek: The Next Generation was supposed to look like. And because of that, while DC's second volume will go on to hit astronomical heights thanks to bringing in a visionary writer, it's first stab at Star Trek: The Next Generation shouldn't go completely overlooked either: It's an artefact reminding us of the potential that exists in all stories that's sometimes only visible when stories are at their most ethereal.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Totemic Artefacts: Galoob Star Trek: The Next Generation

What's the value of merchandise? You ask collectors or Internet scalpers, apparently “more then the down payment on your house”. Other people, however, probably the sorts of people who share a fervently anti-hegemonic leftist perspective, will tell you “less than nothing”, and will likely go on to you at length about the injustices of sweatshop labour or the damaging effects the overuse of petroleum products has on the environment, or how capitalism appropriates play and obfuscates our sacred link to the natural world through selling kids worthless plastic tchotchkes.

There's an important discussion to be had here, and one I'm entirely uninterested in having myself. My sole contribution to the debate would be twofold: One, stressing the power of generative homebrew maker and enthusiast culture to undermine this industry just as it has the potential to do to all industries, and two, simply offering a humble reminder that toys are important to kids, and thus, are important to everyone. Play is how we all conceptualize and make sense of situations throughout life: It's another form of metaphor and storytelling, and a very old one.

Every culture throughout human history has had some form of sacred totem or figure upon which people project symbols and meaning, and these, just like any object with personal significance, are important to them. Maybe toys are our version of this phenomenon. I know for me the appeal of dolls and action figures is this: It's deeply meaningful for me to have a physical representation of a character I admire, and it's almost as if the toy's presence reminds me of what the work they hail from means to me. When I was a child, action figures helped spark my creativity and inspired me to come up with stories featuring the characters they represented. In fact, even today, whenever I find myself writing about a story from pop culture, I tend to surround my workspace with whatever bits of merchandise pertaining to the series I have, and I find it both inspires me and helps me write better.

Shinto tradition even holds a belief in spirits called Tsukumogami; inanimate objects that obtain sentience after reaching a hundred years of age or depending on how they're treated. There's even a ceremony called Ningyo Kuto, where children essentially hold a wake for dolls they no longer wish to keep, paying respects to the toy so that it's soul is laid to rest. And who can honestly say they don't have a beloved personal possession that holds such sentimental meaning to them because they've had it forever or because it reminds them of a special moment, or person, in their lives? That capitalism has co-opted toys and play is the fault of capitalism and its relentless engines of dehumanizing assimilation, not that of toys or the toymakers themselves, who really only exist to bring joy and meaning to people. 

Star Trek: The Next Generation is a strange show to base a toy line around if you stop and think about it. Well, at least in 1988 it would have been: This was back before the industry started to cater largely towards (wealthy) adult collectors, so the target demographic here would still have been kids. And the fact of the matter is this isn't an especially kid-friendly show when you get right down to it: There's nothing in it that would specifically turn kids away, to be sure, but likewise there wasn't a whole lot to specifically attract them either (we'll conveniently ignore Wesley Crusher for the moment). Even by this point Star Trek: The Next Generation had established itself as a rather heady, slow-pace philosophical sort of show that dealt with a lot of adult emotions and experiences. After all, more than one story in the first season dealt explicitly with the re-examination of old relationships, and a common theme so far has been memories and our past lives, both literal and metaphorical.

This is not exactly the sort of material your average 7-10 year old, who's probably the person these sorts of toys were going to be aimed at, is necessarily going to be interested in. It's not like this was the Original Series, which had a comically stupid fight scene with a dude in a silly costume on the backlot once an episode and where Starfleet went to war with the Klingons *every day*. In spite of its truly groundbreaking and inspiring design for the starships and environments, there's nary a space battle nor phaser blast to be seen anywhere in Star Trek: The Next Generation, which, even though those are the parts of the show that tend to be the most remembered, is a pattern that holds for its entire seven year run. And yet, no sooner did Star Trek: The Next Generation get announced then representatives from toymaker Galoob were at the Paramount sets taking notes and trying to figure out how to turn a series that didn't even physically exist yet into a successful line of toys.

Actually though while I mention the original Star Trek, a better point of comparison here is probably Star Wars. Kenner's toy line based on the film series had been wildly successful in the early part of the decade, and Galoob themselves had their own Star Wars line. Savvily, their Star Trek: The Next Generation figures were designed to be in scale with their Star Wars ones-I always appreciate it when toy companies have that sort of foresight. But the point remains that Star Wars was a massive success in the toy business for a reason, and that's because Star Wars is *incredibly* kid friendly. It's got distinct and iconic Good Guys and Bad Guys, incredibly flashy and iconic setpieces, most of which involved myriad variations on Stuff Blowing Up, and a ton of memorable and beloved characters, creature designs and settings that are easily translatable to plastic form. Indeed, Star Wars and toys are so synonymous that many peoples memories of the franchise are actually based more around the toys and other bits of the Star Wars merchandising empire than the movies themselves.

Star Trek doesn't really have any of that, certainly not Star Trek: The Next Generation, and certainly not Star Trek: The Next Generation at this point in time. Remember, this was a show so cash-strapped thanks to a major clerical error in pre-production it resorted to stock footage, bottle episodes and recycled soundstage sets to creep in on budget. And yet even so, the vision of Star Trek: The Next Generation Galoob offers us is a fascinating one nonetheless, and has a certain sort of wonder and enthusiasm that manages to define the way I remember this part of the show's history. This was not my Star Trek: The Next Generation toy line, I should add: No doubt due to its extremely short (a year and a half) shelf life, it wasn't something I was largely aware of at the time, although in hindsight I may have had some vague awareness of its existence. But looking through the archives at the few toys Galoob did put out, I was struck by the fanciful charm that seems to pervade so many of them: It feels like this line was the work of people who loved what they were doing and had a deep-seated love of the source material (which, indeed, was the case).

Although the line itself only had ten characters (Captain Picard, Commander Riker, Geordi, Tasha Yar, Worf, Data, Q, an Antican, a Selay, and a Ferengi who fittingly resembles Letek), a couple replica play vehicles you could put them in and a die-cast Enterprise, there were plans to expand into role-play with stuff like themed walkie-talkies and a toy version of Geordi's VISOR (the only surviving sign of this is a toy electronic phaser). Even without them though, the action figures themselves definitely seem to be ephasizing the version of Star Trek that's about exciting and imaginative space adventures on mysterious, faroff planets. All the toys have phasers or tricorders (irritatingly sculpted to their hands), and there were going to be paper dioramas called “action environments” where you could supposedly act out your own adventures with your own away team. From the pictures, the “Alien Planet” diorama looks like it would have been more creative and visually interesting than any of the actual alien planets in the first season were.

If you're raising an eyebrow at the choice of characters, bear in mind this line went into production before the actual show did, so the designers had to guess which characters would be the most popular and the prominent in action scenes. Furthermore, this was only the first wave and we can assume all the characters would have gotten figures eventually had the line not been canceled. Although that said, the noticeable omission of Doctor Crusher and Deanna Troi is a bit concerning: According to former Galoob employees Jim Fong and Bob DiGiacomo, they felt that Tasha, being security chief, would be involved in a lot of action scenes (how ironic) and would make a good fit, because boys as a general rule don't buy action figures of women and girls traditionally didn't buy Galoob action figures at all. The question then becomes, of course, why this was the case and why Galoob felt Star Trek: The Next Generation was something they had to sell exclusively to boys. For the record, Playmates' first line of (wildly successful) action figures in 1991 featured *everyone* who was a regular on the show at that point in time.

Speaking of design, I lastly wanted to spotlight the retail packaging of the Galoob line. I can't really explain why I like them so much, but I do. There's a very heartwarming, endearingly 1980s look to both the toys themselves and the packaging they came in that I find endlessly appealing. It looks pretty much exactly how I'd expect a line of Star Trek: The Next Generation toys to look in mid-1988, if that makes any sort of sense whatsoever to you. What this also means is, like the show they sprang from, these toys look uniquely of their time. They're evocative of a very specific era in Star Trek history and, while the Playmates line will eventually go on to achieve astronomical successes in a few years, the Galoob line represents an intriguing dead end, a tantalizing road not taken.

Again, much like the show itself.

If you're interested in learning more about the Galoob line, TrekCore has a lovely and extensive three part interview with Jim Fong and Bob DiGiacomo I highly recommend checking out.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

“And I think it's gonna be a long, long time/'Till touchdown brings me 'round again to find...”: No Need to Listen to the Bad Guys. We are Space Truckers!

What could I possibly say? This was perfect. A perfect story serving as a perfect capstone to a perfect show. Words fail me trying to convey the mixture of emotions I'm feeling right now.

There really could have been no better way for Original Dirty Pair to go out. A finale that knows it's a finale and knows the promises it must reaffirm. Who else could Kei and Yuri be but Space Truckers? Sure, they're technically undercover again, this time to infiltrate an independent truck company on the verge of folding due to corporate pressure, but it feels a little bit different this time. There's no obvious diegetic guise the girls slip into here, and they certainly don't seem to be acting very hard. Indeed, Kei and Yuri are for one final time handled perfectly, and this might be the story that shows their relationship in the best and purest light. They're just being themselves here, which is the boldest, most brazenly revolutionary thing they can do. And they clearly relate to and empathize profoundly with the truck drivers, and why wouldn't they? They share a common bond as travellers on the cosmic highway, as fated to be alone together as they are to constantly journey from place to place. The title “No Need to Listen to the Bad Guys. We are Space Truckers!” couldn't have been more accurate: It's as apt a summary of the episode itself as it is a crystal clear statement of purpose for Dirty Pair on the whole.

(And notice how, in the teaser for this episode, it's *Yuri* who gets the most excited about becoming a trucker, saying it's something she's “always wanted to do”. Try as she might to pass herself off as a romantic, refined Yamato Nadeshiko heroine, at heart Yuri is just as much a working class wanderer and voyager as Kei is, and her true colours shine the brightest and most vibrant of all.)

We've seen Space Truckers in Dirty Pair before, in “Lots of Danger, Lots of Decoys”. But that episode, much like the TV series it's from, had an extremely goofy, tongue-in-cheek tone to it. That wasn't a bad thing, and a lot of the first Dirty Pair show was laugh-out-loud funny. But this time it's played a bit more serious and a bit more sophisticated. Not that there aren't still laughs to be had, of course, but the comedy tends to come more in light doses delicately woven into the fabric of the narrative itself, rather than shoved front and centre in slapsticky glory. There's an elegance, nuance and sense of mature dignity to the writing here that really sells the quiet tragedy of Uncle Jayd and the truckers, and Kei and Yuri effortlessly fit right in. This has been a signature of Original Dirty Pair from the beginning, but it's so very important that this episode in particular embodies this sophistication as well as it does, because of its delicate subject matter. We know from subtext dating back to The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair where Kei and Yuri fall in terms of the class, gender and labour wars, but this is the first real time that's *explicitly laid out* for us. It's crucial this happen now, in the finale, and that it happen as elegantly and deftly as it does, because this means the show leaves us reaffirmed in our loyalty to it as well as to Kei and Yuri themselves.

One of the things I immediately noticed and that brought a smile to my face is this episode's soundtrack. It uses all of the memorable cues from not just Original Dirty Pair, but the Dirty Pair TV series as well. This hasn't been the first time Original Dirty Pair has recycled music from the old show, but it feels particularly appropriate here, especially considering the cuts they went with. The score fees like a Greatest Hits collection of all of the best Sunrise Dirty Pair music, with the exception of the tracks from the movies. Which is appropriate, because, as much as Original Dirty Pair was most definitely it's own show, it also felt like an extension or reimagining of the TV show. This feels particularly special and meaningful, because “No Need to Listen to the Bad Guys. We are Space Truckers!” is as much a delayed finale for that show as it is a finale for this one.

Remember, this came out right about the same time as With Love from the Lovely Angels, due to the latter being stuck in production limbo for three years, and the shunting of everything to OVA means Dirty Pair and Original Dirty Pair are intrinsically linked (even with the last episode of the former ending with a teaser for the first episode of the latter...done in the latter's style). What this all means is that “No Need to Listen to the Bad Guys. We are Space Truckers!” is very much the end of an era for Dirty Pair: There's one last movie in the pipeline, but that's more of an epilogue than anything else. This story then in many ways marks the official end of Sunrise's Classic Dirty Pair franchise, at least in collective memory. It's the final episode of the final episodic series done in this style, and the penultimate work in that style period. Adam Warren's Amerimanga is only a year away now, and Sunrise will strike back with its own comprehensive reboot Dirty Pair Flash five years after that. And while Haruka Takachiho keeps writing novels starring Kei and Yuri for another twenty years, the series never again reaches the levels of popular, commercial, critical (and dare I say aesthetic) success it saw here.

The writing on the wall couldn't be any clearer than the fact this is the very first episode not to end with a cheerful “Next time on Dirty Pair” trailer from the girls. Samhainn is over.

Fittingly, “No Need to Listen to the Bad Guys. We are Space Truckers!” also feels like a Greatest Hits collection of everything that makes Kei and Yuri so wonderful: They take down an incestuous corporate-state power in the form of a giant shipping conglomerate that's working hand in hand with pirates and local police to forcibly stamp out independent truckers (as in, using *lethal* force) so they can monopolize the merchant's trade. They despise corruption but, as Kei herself says, what they hate even more is people who abuse power to oppress others. The girls promise that selfish people like that are always doomed to fall, and they can speak with conviction because they know that, as the Lovely Angels, it's their calling to act on behalf of the universe to ensure that they do. And so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that the universe of Dirty Pair is one where banal evil will always fail, because that's what the universe of Dirty Pair is all about. Kei and Yuri help people because they heal them. Their mere presence allows situations to improve for everybody.

But more importantly, Kei and Yuri aren't just divine agents of positive change, they're divine agents of positive change because they're *good people*. They love, they understand and they forgive, and that's as important as anything else. Kei and Yuri show Jayd how to move on with his life without forgetting his past actions by both fighting *and* caring for him. And while they pretend-fight about the technicalities of the statute of limitations at the end, this is simply the expected trappings of a performance by “Good Lawkeepers”...And of Sunrise Dirty Pair. They very clearly would have let him go regardless. But ultimately conscious intent is unimportant here: Kei and Yuri make things better simply by acting and getting involved. This is what makes Kei and Yuri utopian ideals: Through living the life they're meant to and that's healthiest for them, they've become role models worth meditating on. This is the whole reason the girls have the trans- and posthumanist symbolism of the Glorified Body surrounding them: Kei and Yuri are here to teach and to learn and to make the universe a better place by doing so.

Astrologically speaking, Kei and Yuri are a fire sign and a water sign, respectively. Both fire and water are symbols strongly associated with fluidity, mutability and change. Change can come in many forms, including that of death and destruction. And we all know what tends to follow the Lovely Angels no matter where they go. But death is as natural a part of life as birth, and sometimes worlds have to be destroyed before newer, better worlds can arise in their place. This is reflected in Tarot as well, where the symbol of Death is usually seen as a sign of the impending end of one stage of life and the beginning of a new one. Similarly, Kei and Yuri have also been associated with the Tower, representing imminent and traumatic change, usually in the form of the collapse of a familiar and stable structure. But then again, sometimes such things must first fall before things can change for the better. And the Tower can also represent a transcendence and freeing of the mind and spirit: Apparently, the “Triple Goddess” flavour of Tarot refers to the Tower as “Kundalini Rising”.

As Glorified Bodies whom we can learn from and aspire to be but whose presence can frequently lead to catastrophic, yet needed, change, perhaps the real purpose of the Lovely Angels is to help bring forth the next stage in human evolution. Singularity Archetypes in the form of divine, utopian ideals. After all, it's said that the Singularity looks like the apocalypse to those below it. Who's to say role models aren't goddesses, or that trying to better yourself isn't a form of growing enlightenment? Who's to say we really won't transcend our current forms as the end result of simply trying to be better people?

I know I have Dirty Pair: Flight 005 Conspiracy to look forward to, but as good as I expect that movie to be and even though I fully realise it's going to be an even more sombre occasion and a more fitting place to eulogize the series' material Soda Pop Art wing, I need to take some time here to say a few words about what Kei and Yuri mean to me personally. Because Original Dirty Pair is special. Over the months I've spent trying to study and learn from it, Dirty Pair has very swiftly positioned itself as one of the very few things that transcend arts and entertainment for me. This is more than a show for me. It's images, emotions, experiences and ideas I would catch fleeting glimpses of throughout my life and try to distill out into something without realising it already existed somewhere. It's happy memories of the way life should be.

Things seem to happen to me for a reason, and I discovered Dirty Pair during the most uncanny of times, where the lessons and ideals it represented seemed to manifest themselves directly within my material, physical life. In some strange way, I almost *really do* feel as guided by Dirty Pair as I would be by a goddess or a spirit guide. And it's been this show that's spoken to me the loudest and the clearest: Original Dirty Pair is utterly perfect and an absolute work of art. From beginning to end, it's everything I ever wanted out of episodic visual media and everything I hold the most dear, and it came into my life precisely when I needed it the most. This will be something I'll always remember, will always hold close to my heart and will keep returning to time and time again. Kei and Yuri gave my life direction and purpose-I'll never forget that.
“I can't say anymore”

Thursday, November 20, 2014

“Never go to war. Especially with yourself.”: Red Eyes are the Sign of Hell

Just like its main characters, Dirty Pair as a franchise is an expert in the art of obfuscating comedy. On the surface, this series seems to the uninitiated to be the most ridiculous thing ever, and even the title story of The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair played out very much akin to a straightforward parody of pulp sci-fi and space opera tropes, and even of Haruka Takachiho's own Crusher Joe. It's probably because of this that Dirty Pair possesses the hyper-niche, marginal status it does. This *also* means that Dirty Pair is able to quietly do something flagrantly radical and openly experimental and go completely unnoticed and uncredited except by a handful of ardent admirers because it's not the kind of series that sort of thing is necessarily expected of.

Just as Kei and Yuri can make wisecracks and giggle disarmingly in the middle of a crisis, so does Dirty Pair's reputation keep it as fiercely marginal as its heroes themselves are.

Which is why episodes like this one are Dirty Pair's secret weapon. “Red Eyes are the Sign of Hell” is, without question, the darkest, most sombre story this franchise has done to date, at least on screen. It's also one of the best. Even though Affair of Nolandia definitely had its more contemplative moments and had that one admittedly disturbing bit of psychological and body horror, it was on the whole a tight, jaunty, engrossing piece that kept the audience engaged from start to finish. Even “Criados' Heartbeat” had to throw out a subplot about the girls' vacation and Kei getting ready for a date and kept an upbeat tone throughout. This though is genuinely difficult to look at sometimes: This episode has a body count to make both Doctor Who and the original Star Trek blush, and I'm pretty sure every single supporting character introduced here gets gruesomely and ruthlessly killed off by the end of it. But more importantly, these deaths are absolutely not played for cheap shock value or sensationalism: Each and every one is played as a tragic loss and an unconscionable blow, which is only to be expected given this episode deals in some of the most incandescent anti-imperialist rage I've ever seen from Dirty Pair.

“Red Eyes are the Sign of Hell” is a perfect case study for exactly why “That Little Girl Is Older Than Us. The Preservation Was a Success?!” was plainly the misstep it was. The plot here is absolutely no less formulaic or predictable than it was in that episode, but it absolutely doesn't matter. Kei and Yuri are dispatched to a planet whose government is embroiled in a thirty year war with a rebel faction that was on the verge of signing a peace treaty before a group of elite assassins showed up and started indiscriminately slaughtering the rebels, serving to escalate the war even further. The show wastes no time in letting us know what we're in for, by the way, with the assassins, who the camera shoots essentially as horror movie monsters, showing up and gunning down an entire platoon of rebel soldiers in the *teaser*. While there, the girls run into a freelance arms dealer by the name of Mazoho with whom Yuri had unspecified prior dealings with. Pretty soon its revealed the assassins are actually kidnapped soldiers from other planets who have been brainwashed into acting out a terrorist campaign against the rebels by a third party interested in prolonging the war.

It's pretty obvious fairly early on that Mazoho is going to end up being revealed as the scheme's orchestrator, and the show is plainly uninterested in keeping this inevitable twist a secret. From from it: The show does just about everything it can to telegraph Mazoho as the culprit from the beginning. In fact, Original Dirty Pair seems to go out of its way to let us know precisely how stock this setup is at every opportunity, even to the extent of having the massacred soldiers in the teaser state immediately pre-massacre how much they're looking forward to time off or a cease-fire, which doubles as possibly the single best bit of gallows humour in Dirty Pair yet: The show might as well have had them say they only have two days left to retirement. But the plot structure isn't the point here-Much like Kei's distracting theatrics in “Are You Serious?! Shocked at the Beach, Wedding Panic!”, the show is making its plot conspicuously vestigial by deliberately pointing out how stock it is so we focus on other things, namely the repercussions all of this has for its setting and what it's trying to tell us through that.

Understandably, we immediately want to side with the rebels here. They're the ones suffering the most grievous and catastrophic losses and, simply because they are rebels fighting against a government, I'm going to make a presumption of my readers and guess we'd all likely give them our sympathies without learning anything else about the plot or setting. And the episode does acknowledge this desire, as it's with them that Kei and Yuri spend the overwhelming majority of the story and their city is depicted as a burned down, bombed out post-apocalyptic wasteland where even children must act as sentries (which results in a nice nod to “Who Cares If They're Only Kids!” from Kei. The implication is that the kids don't make it, by the way). It might be a bit off-putting at first to see the episode absolve the government of any and all blame: There isn't even a twist that Mazoho was working clandestinely with them, they really are depicted as entirely innocent. The leader of the army is even the first overtly sympathetic person we meet.

But the story here is not a simple one of a populist uprising versus statist authoritarianism. The critique of imperialism is manifestly not embodied by the local government here; This planet is overtly a backwater, run-down one, frequently described as “faroff”. With the exception of the lavish entryway for visiting dignitaries Kei and Yuri are greeted in, the government buildings and the soldiers themselves look grungy, dirty and worn-out. This isn't a corporate-state power tightening its grip over its populace or trying to assimilate some foreign indigenous culture, this is a long and bloody protracted civil war in the galaxy's equivalent of a third world country. And in that kind of scenario, only one party truly profits: The sprawling world powers with a vested interest in exploiting the conflict for their own ends. And that's why Mazoho is the perfect villain for this piece, even if he seems a tad predictable and facile at first glance.

Mazoho is explicitly referred to as “The Merchant of Death” by Randall McMurphy, which means he's not just any arms dealer, he's immediately evocative notorious arms dealer Sarkis Soghanalian, who gained infamy by supplying Saddam Hussein with howitzer artillery to use against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. For a time, Soghanalian was known as the leading arms merchant of the Cold War, and, in addition to Hussein's government, also provided his services to the Mauritanian Polisarios, Ecuador, Nicaragua, the Phalange during the Lebanese Civil War, and to Argentina during the Falklands War with the United Kingdom. However, what this summary leaves out about Soghanalian's life and operations is the fact his dealings with Saddam Hussein in particular had the full backing of the United States government, in particular the CIA, the entire Reagan administration, Richard Nixon, Jack Brennan, Spirou Agnew and John Mitchell. The US not only didn't do anything to stop Soghanalian, they actively encouraged his efforts, hoping Saddam Hussein's government would be receptive to US interests.

Really, the stunning thing here is that Dirty Pair seems to have broken the Merchant of Death story before the actual Merchant of Death did, as Soghanalian's actions working with the United States during the Iran-Iraq war didn't become common knowledge until 1991. But that's never stopped our girls before who, let's not forget, share the power of clairvoyance. There's a very important point to be made here, and the show makes this perfectly clear by depicting Mazoho as just about the most contemptible character imaginable. He's explicitly called a pervert and constantly objectifies and harasses Kei and Yuri, and the climax has him rolling in leading an ominous and lavish-looking fleet of starships seated in a throne of a captain's chair drinking from a martini glass while laughing contemptuously at the soldiers throwing their lives away below him. Mazoho is a composite of arms dealers and the neo-imperialists who use them as proxy agents. He's a distillation of the worst aspects of western capitalism, once again intrinsically linked with patriarchy and oppression: In a word, Mazoho is a Ferengi.

Speaking of Star Trek: The Next Generation, this episode marks an interesting point of comparison with “The Arsenal of Freedom”, as they both cover similar subject matter...In two wildly different ways. And, counterintuitive as it may seem, it's the Japanese cartoon that comes across as the more urgent and sophisticated. As great as “Arsenal..” was, it was quite explicitly aiming for a largely comedic tone, hence the overt Douglas Adams influences. “Red Eyes are the Sign of Hell”, by contrast, is deathly serious in every meaning of the term, as the title probably indicates. The entire episode is a procession of pointless, unnecessary inconceivable death and destruction to satiate the greed of a power-hungry psychopath. People needlessly give their lives in the hope it will protect their friends, families and homes just that little bit longer, or end up killed violently, suddenly and meaninglessly. And it finally all becomes too much for Kei and Yuri to bear, leading them to play against type for perhaps the first time: They take the fight into their own hands and punish Mazoho themselves. By quite literally taking his life with their own hands.

Even though they leave a trail of devastation in their wake, the Lovely Angels *never* directly bring it about themselves. The cosmic cleansing is something that accompanies their presence because of who at what they are; it's not something they consciously will into existence. This is, after all, almost the entire point of their characters. They'll take out nameless mooks in more lighthearted stories, sure. but it's different this time. With nobody left to fight for their freedom and agency (...because they're all *dead*), Kei and Yuri stoically, wordlessly face the might of Mazoho's starfleet themselves...but not with the Lovely Angel. Deliberately positioning themselves as the honourable warriors Mazoho is the complete opposite of, Kei and Yuri actually put on spacesuits and face down an entire battle wing *in person* armed only with handheld weapons. If you must fight to the death, do it such that you see your opponent and know the person you intend to kill. And with the ensuing volley of gunfire, the episode fades to black.

We know what's going to happen, of course. We know the girls survive. They have to (and just in case anyone was worried, there's as always our cheerful teaser for the next episode). But the images linger long enough to convey their message.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

“Defrosting Ice Queen”: That Little Girl Is Older Than Us. The Preservation Was a Success?!

It might be worth taking a little time to look at the way Original Dirty Pair was first distributed to viewers. This is, of course, an OVA series: Far from the stigmatic connotations direct-to-video works have in the West, Japanese OVA programming is best seen as an early precursor to something more akin to Netflix Originals or Amazon Prime Studios-Shows that have a vocal and loyal enough audience worth catering to, but one that's not big enough to justify trying to pitch the show to a major network. In addition, this would be the medium of choice for more unconventional, experimental works that would be hard to sell anywhere else.

The thing about OVA though is that, as the title might suggest, these were things released only on physical home video media, which meant you had to actually go out and buy each new release as it hit store shelves. In the case of Original Dirty Pair, the show was spread across five volumes of VHS and Laserdisc, each with two episodes each. Today's episode, “That Little Girl Is Older Than Us. The Preservation Was a Success?!”, was released on what would have been volume four as a double bill with “Revenge of the Muscle Lady!”. The reason I bring this up is that, for the first time, Original Dirty Pair sort of feels like it's treading water a bit here, and that's something of a larger concern when we're talking about an limited run OVA series with a sparse ten episodes as opposed to a major network television series that ran for a full season with an episode count pushing thirty and all the accompanying pressures, restrictions and obligations that go along with such a structure.

It's not that this episode is bad, far from it: In fact, this is a perfect case study for how much progress has been made in the past four years. The TV series basically had two modes-Unbridled masterpiece and catastrophic misfire. There were a small handful of middling or mediocre episodes later on, but by in large this was the general model we were working under. Here though, every episode up 'till now has been absolutely magnificent and a contender for the franchise's best work. But the downside of that is when we finally hit “functional”, “serviceable” and “watchable” it's much more more noticeable and worrying than it would be in any other context. What we have this time is a bog-standard detective story in a light sci-fi setting: There's an unsolved mass murder on a star liner culminating in a scientist putting his young daughter into cryogenic deep-freeze and sending her off in an escape pod. Madame Beryl was assigned to the case, but couldn't solve it, and it goes cold for twenty years until Kei and Yuri stumble upon the girl's escape pod while returning home after coming off on an unrelated investigation. Stuff happens, there's some cute moments with Kei trying to bond with the kid and a shootout with the orchestrator of the original attack, who turns out to be the most predictable suspect imaginable.

The big problem here isn't the rote plot itself, plot is often the least important or interesting aspect of a Dirty Pair story and the series can and does get a lot of mileage out of playing with particularly stock plot structures. And it's not, for once, that the girls are belittled, infantilized or written irritatingly out of character: Everyone is in top form and behaves the way we expect them to (although Yuri ends up with frustratingly little to do). You may raise any eyebrow at how Tia seems to grow on Kei to the point she momentarily thinks about looking after her, but remember that though Kei and Yuri are not the child-raising type, they've never had problems with little girls. Anyway, I choose to read this part of the story as Kei once again acting like a big sister archetype (note how it's her teaching Tia gymnastics that allows her to escape from Bill during the climax). No, the major issue here is that Dirty Pair doesn't actually *do* much of anything with this plot, to the point one questions if this even needed to be a Dirty Pair story in the first place.

The thing about Dirty Pair stories is that they always have to show in some way how Kei and Yuri's presence and actions bring about material cosmic progress on a grand scale, and that's what's not as clear here as I would have liked. There's no imminent threat to the continued well-being of human society that needs to be cleansed with fire here, just a standard issue story about professional jealousy and small children. The sensible rebuttal would be to point to Tia herself; to point out how she gets closure for what happened twenty years ago and that Bill was finally brought to justice, and say *that* has made the universe a better place. And while certainly true, I'd be more inclined to accept that reading wholecloth if Tia was a bit more of a character and less of a macguffin. I mean say what you will about Missinie in Affair of Nolandia, but she was a *person* with real thoughts, real feelings and a real tragic character arc. Tia just sits around and glares at things until it's time for her to make her big move in the climax.

And the larger issue is that, while sort of sweet, nothing about this episode specifically required Dirty Pair's structure or setting: You could have done this story in any other series about detectives solving mysteries with very little change, which to me does seem like something of a waste of a coveted spot amongst the ten episode limited run OVA that's to date the second-to-last Dirty Pair anime series. Also a missed opportunity is the use of cryonics: Even the episode title itself heavily hypes the fact that Tia is technically chronologically older than Kei and Yuri and the characters seemingly bring this fact up every five minutes (even if it's a bit silly for me to hear twenty years prior constantly spoken of as if it was an eternity ago, but maybe I'm just old). And yet the cryogenics is nothing more than a plot device to keep Tia conveniently out of the way for twenty years and *maybe* as a rather lame play on the phrase “cold case”.

Here's an example of the rare instance where Star Trek: The Next Generation really did do it better. While definitely problematic in other respects, one thing “The Neutral Zone” conveyed really well, and what “Time's Arrow” will similarly echo four years later, is the utopia of the 24th century (or to be more precise, the utopia of the 24th century as interpreted by Captain Picard and the crew of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D) and how it contrasts with the less-than-ideal world we live in now. It took strides to define its utopia and to demonstrated why it was important and worth striving for Another thing “The Neutral Zone” did really well is that it showed how out of time and adrift its three cyronic sleepers are, and how they needed to redefine themselves, their identities and their lives in what is quite literally a brand new universe.

“That Little Girl Is Older Than Us. The Preservation Was a Success?!” doesn't really have any of that: Because Tia's cryogenic freezing is played as gimmicky and functionally as it is, it misses the chance to say something really provocative about ideals. Here's a perfect opportunity to show the real effects of the material cosmic change Kei and Yuri bring about by showing how a world with them in it is a far better place for a child to grow up in than a world without them would have been, but the episode frustratingly doesn't seem to do anything with this beyond the occasional hints that Tia might be grateful to Kei and the extremely minor “Bill is dead now so that's a good thing”. Actually, the best use of the cryonics theme in this episode might actually come from Kei, whose response to Yuri's suggestion she “freeze [her]self to preserve [her]youth” is a wonderfully characteristic bit of backhanded flattery that's probably the best line in the entire episode.

(In this regard, it may be worth bringing up again the fact Kei and Yuri are tacitly immortal and, depending on the adaptation you're looking at, are thus entirely possibly a great deal older than 19. But as is always the case with Dirty Pair, it's the symbolic artifice that's important here. No matter how chronologically old or young they may be, Kei and Yuri are permanently of seishun age and any performances they're involved in are going to acknowledge this in one way or another.)

All of this is in no way to suggest this is a poor episode: On the contrary, in basically every other respect it's a perfectly crafted and entirely watchable and enjoyable bit of television. I certainly wouldn't call it a total waste of time and it completely and utterly lacks all of the appalling ethical lapses that have defined mediocre Dirty Pair in the past. The only thing holding this episode back is the *phenomenal* bar the show has been setting so far-“watchable” does not look good next to “genre-defining masterpiece”, and that's unfortunate. And it is here where we start to understand the logic underpinning consumer reports-style reviews of creative work, even if we don't agree with them on principle: People who picked up “That Little Girl Is Older Than Us. The Preservation Was a Success?!” alongside “Revenge of the Muscle Lady!” certainly wouldn't have been disappointed in their purchase, but they might have been disappointed this wasn't *quite* on the level of the previous releases they bought. In that format, it might start to feel to some that they haven't got their full money's worth.

Today of course, you have access the whole scope and breadth of animated Dirty Pair on YouTube and Hulu. You can just push play and marathon the whole franchise in one sitting if you want, and in that context this episode might simply come across to you as one you end up paying slightly less attention to than others. But then again, if you're only a casual fan with a limited amount of time, energy and patience for entertainment...Well, it's kind of hard for me to recommend this over much else we've looked at featuring the Lovely Angels.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

“And let the past remain the past”: Revenge of the Muscle Lady!

The thematic framework Dirty Pair inherits from Japanese women's professional wrestling cannot be overstated. The inherent and accepted performative artifice of puroresu is absolutely central to how Dirty Pair operates at a basic level, as is the genre's target demographic. As an anime or manga, Dirty Pair is typically understood as seinen in the usual system of genre classification: This would be works specifically aimed at men between the ages of 18 and 40. Except...that can't really be true, can it? In Japan, the original market for women's professional wrestling was women themselves, and the wrestlers became icons to a generation of teenage female fans: Men were a periphery demographic. And so it is with Dirty Pair, which, while later appropriated and stolen by men (as men always do to things targeted towards women and have done throughout recorded history), certainly must be seen as a series written with an at least significantly female audience in mind.

Dirty Pair has done pro wrestling before, of course; There's no way it couldn't with its lineage. We have an entire chapter dedicated to Kei narrating a wrestling match in The Dirty Pair Strike Again, the girls being confused for wrestlers in “How to Kill a Computer” and participating in a sort of mock match themselves in “Go Ahead, Fall in Love! Love is Russian Roulette”, then fake fighting coded as a full-on worked shoot in “Hire Us! Beautiful Bodyguards are a Better Deal”. “The Chase Smells Like Cheesecake and Death” even featured actual wrestlers as major antagonists, Kei's personal heroes Lan and Jerry, who were running an underground doping ring based around exploiting their brother's developments in steroid research. This episode, “The Revenge of the Muscle Lady!”, plays out vaguely similarly, with an acquaintance of Kei and Yuri's going rogue and getting involved in the trade of pharmaceutical muscle enhancements and the girls having to go in and sort things out.

But the major difference this time is that this is a story that doesn't just evoke the trappings of pro wrestling as a nod to Dirty Pair's heritage, it actually works entirely by the genre's logic and storytelling conventions itself. The animosity between Sandra and the girls is quite explicitly a grudge match, especially the final confrontation in the rocket hangar bay, and the entire story is basically a wrestling angle. And what makes this story in particular unique and special is that it takes that style of narrative structure and blends it with subject matter more fitting Dirty Pair's audience: Namely, young adult female fans of pro wrestling and science fiction (remember, this is Japan in 1988 so that demographic isn't quite as strange as it probably sounds to a certain sort of Western audience). What we have here is a story that has its roots in school and relationship drama caricatured to puroreso levels.

In spite of the obvious steroid references, this is not a story about doping or drug use in sports, that's largely just a framing device to get the girls to confront Sandra. Indeed, it has very little to say on the matter, and if anything it acknowledges the ubiquity of steroids and other underhanded shenanigans in professional sports: Recall how Kei has to cheat to win her first match herself. Cheating is simply part of the game, and, after all, Original Dirty Pair has done addiction cycles already so there's little need for it to repeat itself here. What's important about this plot point is what it tells us about Sandra: Sandra hates Kei and Yuri because they got Trouble Consultant positions and she didn't, despite supposedly performing better than them in the various aptitude tests (whether she did or not is irrelevant, the important things is she *thinks* she did and considers herself superior). This marks Sandra as a heel, and heels are supposed to do mean things. In the world of Dirty Pair, this translates to being a bully to Kei and Yuri and running an underground drug operation the 3WA has to bust.

And Sandra's heel status is clearly meant to contrast with Kei and Yuri's face as part of the story's central message. Even her gruff demeanor and steroid use makes her visually look and seem bigger, stronger and older then Kei and Yuri, who next to her look almost childlike here (accentuated by the general capricious and casual tone they adopt throughout this episode). But the truth of the matter is that Sandra is none of those things. All the training and steroids in the universe can't hide the fact she's not measurably grown since her school days, or even really mentally moved on from them. Kei even tells her something to that effect directly to her face. Sandra's nursed a grudge and intense, seething hatred of Kei and Yuri for gods only know how many years, going over events from her past over and over again simply to stoke her thinly-veiled feelings of inferiority and betrayal. Kei and Yuri, meanwhile, have gone on to have an illustrious career and live a charmed life together, and Sandra really has no-one to blame for her own failures other than herself, even though she can never accept it and will cling desperately to her own entitlement complex.

This all comes together beautifully during the fight in the cargo bay, where Sandra abandons all pretenses of form just to brutally whale away at Kei, while Kei keeps ducking and weaving out of her path. Sandra keeps screaming injustice and accusations, and all Kei can do is look back with shock and horror. At first the Star Trek fan in me kept wanting Kei to strike back with a big Captain Picard speech throwing Sandra's words back at her and pointing out that, far from being inferior the Lovely Angels are actually *better* than Sandra because they live their lives together in the moment instead of wallowing in self-pity and rage, but then I realised that wouldn't have been the appropriate tack to take here. While she doesn't say anything, Kei's expression speaks volumes, for it's one of profound sorrow and sadness. Kei is heartbroken by Sandra because she knows Sandra could have been a friend and a colleague if she didn't have so much hate within her.

The only hurt and betrayal here was what Sandra's anger and bitterness brought on herself and others, and, now that she's up against the Lovely Angels' cleansing fire, there's really only one fate in store for her. Perhaps this is why this story has a minor reoccurring theme about womanhood and what it means to be a woman, and why the subtitle poses a question about “the true form of women”. Obviously, being a kind of utopia, there's far more gender equality in the Dirty Pair universe then in ours. But remember this, like all Dirty Pair stories, is a performance, and, being the sort of science fiction it is, is meant to provide commentary on *our* world. Much like the trick “The Ultimate Computer” pulled way back in the original Star Trek by making Richard Daystrom of African descent, Sandra's inner turmoil is definitely something that can be compared with internalized misogyny, which is a real thing that real women go through as a reaction against patriarchy. And people like that deserve some manner of pity and sympathy, even if circumstances force us to fight them as our enemy as much as the forces of hegemony themselves. That's the big difference between Sandra and Kei and Yuri: While Sandra hates, Kei and Yuri empathize and forgive.

It's also interesting to take stock of how this episode immediately follows on from “Are You Serious?! Shocked at the Beach, Wedding Panic!”, if not in terms of plot, then certainly thematically. While that episode was very much about Yuri, this one is largely about Kei, and Original Dirty Pair gives her the exact same care and nuance it gave her partner (and her, for that matter!) last time. Pay close attention to how the girls divvy up screentime here-Kei gets the big fight scenes and the brunt of Sandra's evil monologues, while Yuri runs around trying to keep the rocket meth lab from taking off. However, neither one truly slips into a support role: Yuri tries to, especially in the scene with the bomb after she meets up with Kei, but she never quite manages to, always finding herself falling into an action sequence somewhere, much to her chagrin. Yuri even tries to hide behind Kei during Sandra's final meltdown, passing the plot and conflict onto her, but it's played for laughs and Kei doesn't let her get away with it. This story is as much about her as it is Kei, and that's going to prove very revealing.

Notice how when Kei finally does get a story about her, it's explicitly within the performative artifice of a literal wrestling angle. Even when the story overtly tries to focus on her, things aren't comfortably straightforward. So, “Revenge of the Muscle Lady!” isn't *really* about Kei, it's rather a play Kei and Yuri have placed themselves in as insert avatars and is actually about something else, namely solidarity and what the way different people conceptualize the past and memory says about the way we live our lives. Even here, Kei is deflecting narrative forces in intriguingly different directions. Although really it's Yuri who gets the best visual metaphor for this in that genuinely delightful scene where she shoots out the spy drone that's following her as she climbs the cliff face...A spy drone that, for a brief moment, actually shares our camera's POV and tries to shoot Yuri through the Male Gaze. That's what you get for trying to leer at Yuri's interiority, you pervert!

But it's appropriate that the girls would be on the same wavelength here, because its their working together, and staying together, that ultimately saves the day. Digetically in the sweet “I'll be the arms, you be the eyes” scene, and extradiegetically all throughout by serving as the necessary counterexamples to Sandra's agony and pain. Sandra lived in one sad moment from her past that she could never find her way out of. Like DaiMon Bok in “The Battle”, she can't ever let go of what happened years ago and the person she used to be. But Kei and Yuri, who live in the eternally unfolding present, have found a way to extend a happy moment to last several lifetimes. They once again show us the value of tenselessness not just linguistically and mentally, but philosophically and spiritually. And as the modern shamans they are, they do it through performance. Kei and Yuri seem to shake off the rather devastating injuries they acquire over the course of this episode rather easily and quickly, with Kei even drawing attention to this and writing it back into the text through a sort of improvisation. Just like the grudge match itself, it's was all just an act.

But isn't that why Kei and Yuri are so wonderful to begin with? They live. They take action.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

“Someone who's loved you forever”: Are You Serious?! Shocked at the Beach, Wedding Panic!

This is the moment where Original Dirty Pair finally lives up to its title.

“Are You Serious?! Shocked at the Beach, Wedding Panic!” is a very Yuri story. Structurally, it's extremely reminiscent of the other big stories that have focused specifically on her as a character, namely “The Curse of the Backwoods Murder”, “Gotta Do It! Love is What Makes a Woman Explode” and “Something's Amiss...?! Our Elegant Revenge”. As was the case in each of those past adventures, Yuri becomes entangled in a love story that plays out very much akin to stock or cliched Harlequin fare, with Kei becoming the third wheel. Part of Yuri really wants to just completely immerse herself in the romantic atmosphere of it all, because she does have an attraction to that sort of mushy stuff and wouldn't necessarily mind living a quiet and charmed fairy tale life like that. This time, she falls in with the second son of a notorious mob family involved in a counterfeit operation the girls have been sent in to bust. She goes along with it mostly to keep up her undercover identity and gain access to the family's printing room, but she pretty clearly has real feelings for the guy too.

In spite of being a deft Miami Vice style “you become your alter ego” sort of plot on top of things, this is largely the archetypical Yuri story. The reason why this is her signature plot is because the girls' personalities and characterizations are drawn quite explicitly from astrological symbolism, and Yuri is a Piscean. Those born under this sign are said to be romantic dreamers who are infinitely fluid and malleable: They can reshape themselves into any number of different identities, but tend to be most drawn towards roles that allow them to be very expressive, such as art and dance. This makes sense because, if you recall, the Dirty Pair novels are all told from a first person perspective, namely Kei's. This means Yuri isn't technically a character, or rather it would be more accurate to say she's a *diegetic* character and the only things we learn about her are what Kei cares to tell us. In that respect, Yuri really is an ephemeral, intangible being.

However the downside to all this is that Pisceans can get so wistful and so formless they can become totally detached from reality and become lost in their own fantasy worlds they imagine for themselves. And, like clockwork, in each and every one of the stories that has taken care to seriously engage with who Yuri is at a fundamental level, this is depicted as the greatest threat she faces. In “The Case of the Backwoods Murder”, she starts to dream about rekindling a relationship with her childhood friends Thunder and Lucha: Yuri can only view them through rose-tinted and distorted memories of her youth, and imagines running off with them as part of a inauthentic romanticized conception of simple country living. This freaks Kei out for a number of reasons, so she spends most of the story trying to keep them apart. Meanwhile, in “Gotta Do It! Love is What Makes a Woman Explode”, Yuri's willing to throw her entire life away to fly off with a boy she hasn't seen since she was seven who promised to marry her someday because she fools herself into thinking he's actually going to keep this promise from decades ago.

But just like in all those other instances, what's actually the most interesting, at least to me, is what this reveals about Kei. While Yuri only exists within the series' diegetic text, Kei is even more elusive because she possesses every ounce of Dirty Pair's narrative agency. Where Yuri is tacitly a character in Kei's story, Kei herself is *aware* she's telling a story and knows how to play off her audience to elicit a certain reaction from them. Dirty Pair in its original novel form is in truth a delicate call-and-response Kabuki dance between us and Kei, and how the anime adaptations have attempted to deal with Kei as a character tends to tell us a lot about how well the various creative teams have understood and conceptualized this over the years. Where Yuri wears the guise of a Yamato Nadeshiko, Kei's chosen mask is that of the Yamato Nadeshiko's foil; a comically unrefined rural working class woman. But while Kei herself may freely and openly take on the role of comic relief, given how steeped in performativity this series is she can't actually be straightforwardly written that way. She's no more her character than Yuri is.

And so whenever Dirty Pair has cast Kei as a comedic, bumbling foil to Yuri's refined cool competence and elegance, it has utterly failed, because it has the girls become their masks. In essence, the creative teams themselves are falling into the most archetypically naive mistake beginning pro wrestling fans make: Taking kayfabe at face value. Kei's funny, but her humour can't come from incompetence or lack of culture: She has to be *deliberately*, *consciously* funny, and of her own volition. She has to be funny with *agency*. Like the classic standup comedian who makes jokes in deference to a challenging world, Kei is funny because she wants to deflect attention away from herself and towards her story in general and Yuri in particular. Kei is in truth fiercely marginal, to the point it's written into her down to the level of her appearance and her birthday. Which only makes sense, because Kei is a storyteller, and storytellers are shamans.

All of which is to say the way the girls are written here is absolutely superb and entirely in keeping with all of their symbolism in this respect. These characters are so heartwarmingly recognisable as Kei and Yuri it's somewhat difficult for me to put into words: The OVA Series has been nothing but good so far and I'm not surprised by this, but it strikes a deep chord nevertheless. True to form, this episode is set up from the beginning to put Yuri front and centre, with the camera lovingly taking its time to pan around her in beauty shot after beauty shot,  deliberately and methodically dressing Yuri up as a classical romance heroine. Kei, meanwhile, only pops up every now and again through intentionally intrusive cuts, oftentimes literally hanging about in the background with a grin on her face and a twinkle in her eye. And the episode contrasts them in other ways too: Yuri spends the story acting genteel and contemplative, while Kei bounces around restlessly. Yuri thinks Carine is handsome, while Kei goes for more muscly guys, preferably brash ones.

Where Yuri gets to play the ingenue archaeological student, Kei takes on the role of a salty barmaid, an impoverished flower girl and an unassuming nun. As we've seen in the past, Yuri throws herself wholeheartedly into one role to the point she almost vanishes into it completely while Kei constantly leaps in and out of different stock personae; a magician performing a quick-change routine. Kei darts around making herself conspicuously marginal, always making sure the narrative's attention is on Yuri instead of her and entirely cognizant of the way we're interacting with the story. Kei may be a fool, but she's a wise Shakespearean fool if she is, and it's said those who take the path of the Fool posses the inner peace and wisdom to let the turnings of the universe guide and shape them rather then struggle in vain to impose their Will. It's thus appropriate that this episode should evoke “Something's Amiss...?! Our Elegant Revenge” (even with a plot about a mob family), which was the first real time we got an unfettered look at this side of Kei's personality.

(This is in fact, so fundamental and essential to who the girls are that had Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture simply swapped Kei and Yuri's roles such that Yuri was the one who got seduced by the dashingly roguish cat burglar and received the big love story plot and Kei was the one slinking around wearing monster skins and stumbling through ventilation shafts it would have been about a billion times better and more effective.)

And yet in spite of Kei's deep fondness and love for Yuri compelling her to craft a Harlequin romance starring her, there remains an inescapable truth about the Lovely Angels that precludes this wedding from having a conventionally happy ending. Though Yuri probably has some subconscious awareness of this, Kei is very mindful of it on multiple diegetic levels: The exaggerated looks of confusion and bewilderment she gives in response to Yuri's whirlwind romance and marriage are of a woman facing the prospect of zero-summing. Though Kei pretends she's jealous of Yuri every time this kind of story happens (and lesser creative teams will fall for the ruse and write her under the assumption she is), she's actually upset at the possibility of Yuri leaving her, not just because Kei loves Yuri herself and doesn't want to be alone or lose her soulmate, but also because Kei *literally* can't live without her as there's no Dirty Pair without Yuri.

Notice how Yuri's wedding is to-the-note stereotypical Christian, even though Yuri herself isn't and such weddings would be practically unheard of in a country whose populace is 2% Christian. Yuri would even reject her beloved Mughi as a bride, for fear the cat's hair would mess up her dress. And that's the problem in a nutshell-Yuri is so caught up in her fantasy she's on the verge of dropping out of Dirty Pair, thus completely negating Dirty Pair as a functional form of storytelling. Kei is absolutely right when she tells Yuri and Carine in the big emotional climax that “We don't have time for this!”: The episodic action sci-fi world of Dirty Pair precludes Yuri from running off to live this kind of story. They're simply not compatible. Well, that and the fact a bomb was about to go off destroying everything in a five block radius, but isn't that what I said? The Lovely Angels exist on a different narrative plane of being, which is reaffirmed when Yuri begs Carine to come with them at the end, and he says he can't.

And when Carine parachutes out of the plane as “Aki kara no Summertime” starts to play, who do we cut back to but a smiling and welcoming Kei in the pilot's seat? Yuri has a lover and a life partner whether she's aware of it or not. Like most things, she probably has some inkling of it, even if it's not something she openly thinks about regularly. But Yuri has a divine role to play herself, and this means she'll always come back in the end. There was never any real danger to Dirty Pair, nor any chance this kind of major character development would ever take. Like everything else, it's just a story, and one we immediately know how it's going to turn out. Knowing how a story ends does not invalidate the telling of the story itself, though, because it's only through dreams and stories that we can understand ourselves and each other. Perhaps Kei and Yuri act for each other as much as they do for us, and they hope their performances will help show us how we can all do the same.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

“Know when to walk away/Know when to run”: And So, Nobody's Doing It Anymore

If there was going to be an episode that caused me any manner of trepidation, it was going to be this one.

Dirty Pair has historically not been good when it comes to gambling or games. Any kind of games: Casino games, card games (unless the Bloody Card is involved), video games, the lot. Despite “Go Ahead, Fall in Love! Love is Russian Roulette” being an early highlight of the TV series, “The Vault or the Vote? A Murderous Day for a Speech”, which saddled Kei with a crippling gambling addiction basically for shits and giggles, gets *my* vote for quite possibly the single worst bit of filmed Dirty Pair ever made. Even the first chapter of “The Case of the Backwoods Murder” from The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair bugs me a bit, because Takachiho seems to cluelessly conflate video arcade games with gambling, and as someone who has very fond memories of afternoons spent in such places and for whom video games as a medium became dreadfully important, it left something of a bad taste in my mouth. I know Japan has a much stronger tradition of linking arcades with gambling then the West does, such as in pachinko halls, for example, but it's still not to my tastes. And of course, there was that terrible, terrible Famicom Disk System game from last year.

So I was a bit nervous to see the trailer for this episode prominently featuring the girls dressed to the nines in a casino, a deeply worried Gooley and Mughi dressed as what appears to be a pallet-swapped Mario. Thankfully, the episode itself turned out to be completely contrary to any expectations I might have had. It really is it's own thing (indeed, this may well be the episode that codifies what the stylistic tone and general themes of the OVA series are), but if we were to compare it with one of the TV episodes, we wouldn't liken it to either of the casino or gambling romps, but rather to “Something's Amiss...?! Our Elegant Revenge”. As was the case in that story, “And So, Nobody's Doing It Anymore” is actually about, at least in part, diegetically and extradiegetically underestimating Kei and Yuri. It leads us along thinking the girls (and in one scene, even Mughi) are going to go badly astray somewhere along the line, building to some embarrassing failure and then just...doesn't. And, I have to sheepishly admit, I fell for it.

Most of the plot for “And So, Nobody's Doing It Anymore” is essentially window dressing for its central joke, but there is a point to the to the high-rolling casino trappings. There are two main threads to unpack here, one of which flags the story's ultimate resolution and one of which involves the fact Meteo is a game that's built to be rigged and built to get people addicted. The casino can control where the asteroids land, and thus determine the winner game to game based on their video surveillance of the bets people are placing. The whole idea seems to be to get people into a high after successive wins, thus getting them addicted so they'll spend more and more time and money at the table chasing that initial high. As exaggeratedly sinister as that may sound, it's actually not too far removed from the way casinos operate in real life: Despite their assurances that all their games and tables are based on “luck” and “skill”, really they're all designed around carefully orchestrated mathematical patterns and formulae that are calculated to pay out just enough to keep you interested in playing...even though in the end you will always lose far, far more money than you'll ever win.

Casinos rely on exploiting addiction cycles, and keeping that in mind does allow us to sort of see a link to video games. This episode doesn't make the connection at all, it's purely about gambling, but the franchise *has* made the link in the past and it's worth taking some time to parse out. Very early video games, meaning certain arcade games and their intellectual precursors the pinball tables, did very clearly rely on getting players hooked somehow. After all, their entire business model was predicated on getting people to put quarters into the cabinets, and the dream of any coin-op operator was to get a whale who was so addicted to the games he'd park himself in the arcade for hours upon hours plugging in quarters to beat his high score or to get further in the game (and as I write this, yet another pioneering moment in the evolution of Gamer Culture is revealed to me). In fact, the whole idea of video game difficulty itself probably stems from this, as the goal has always been, in the words of the immortal Angry Video Game Nerd, “to piss you off just enough so you want to keep going”: Ghosts 'n Goblins is but one particularly notable example of a game that works precisely this way.

And yet by 1988 video games had already begun to move away from that model. Nintendo had completely redefined the medium by emphasizing the potential of video games to be eminently sharable things that could bring people together and inspire their imagination, and while punishingly difficult games certainly continued to be made, there was no longer the requirement to wed that to an exploitative addiction-based business model as the advent of home consoles meant you could buy a game once, take it home and never spend any more money on it again. So, game design was allowed to grow in different directions, emphasizing the transcendent psychedelic fun of the experience itself (which, while certainly something arcade games could do, was not always by default a guiding design principle). Indeed, by 1988 a whole slew of instant classics for the Famicom, Famicom Disk System and NES were already out; games like Super Mario Bros. 1 and 2 (both versions of it), Duck Hunt, Castlevania, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Mega Man, Contra and Bubble Bobble. Games that were all revolutionary masterpieces, and none of which worked by archaic carnie rules.

What then, do we make of Mughi looking for all the world like a knock-off Mario in this episode, if there's nothing else remotely about video games in the whole story? Well, since Mughi is with the Lovely Angels and he shares their job of helping evoke positive change in the universe, I choose to read that scene as an endorsement of the future of video games Nintendo embodies in 1988. Maybe that's what the title means too: “Nobody's Doing It Anymore” refers to how nobody's playing those old casino games anymore because the fad has passed and they've moved on to better, more fun and more egalitarian sorts of games. Well, that and the fact the space station explodes and rains down asteroid storms on the planet below, but isn't that what I said?

But this focus on the theme of addiction also means we can read “And So, Nobody's Doing It Anymore” as a more effective version of “Symbiosis”, because both stories look at how addiction can be weaponized by authoritarian power structures and those who profit from them to keep people docile, complacent and controllable. I prefer the subject matter of “Symbiosis”, because I find drugs and the pharmaceutical industry to be a better metaphor for this system then people running a crooked gambling casino, though they're naturally both symptoms of capitalism in one respect or another. “And So, Nobody's Doing It Anymore” is certainly the stronger standalone work of art though, and its very localized, introspective focus on Dirty Pair and its mythology ends up redeeming a lot.

Because Dirty Pair has done casinos before, because it has made fun of Kei's gambling and does, at least in its Sunrise incarnations, invoke the high-rolling James Bond as often as it does, we think we know how this story is going to play out. The whole opening act exists so Gooley can do what he's best at and talk down to the girls. And the narrative seems to want us to side with him, giving him that scene where he paces around his office worrying that Kei and Yuri will fall prey to gambling addiction, and comically freak out when he gets the bill for the “preparations” the girls need for the mission. Which again, the series under Sunrise has done this before. Then the girls spy on the station before going undercover as whales. And there's even that tense build-up when the casino boss orders his technicians to get Kei addicted to Meteo, and then we immediately cut to Kei winning big and saying “I could get addicted to this”. The whole story is clearly building to the girls catastrophically screwing up, getting themselves addicted and getting away by the skin of their teeth at the last minute, perhaps with the help of the legendary TroCon they've been sent to retrieve.

And then It Just Doesn't Happen.

The girls' plan goes off without a hitch. Their “preparations”, involving lavish and expensive costumes and a big-ass space cannon which Gooley was convinced were all frivolities, actually turn out to be vital to their mission: They need their outfits to blend in with the gamblers, and the cannon is used to deflect the asteroids and reveal how rigged the game was. Kei and Yuri even explicitly say this is what they're going to do directly to the camera early on, but the episode makes us forget about that as we worry the girls are going to fall prey to the vices of gambling. There's a big public fight between Kei and Yuri in the climax that seems to come out of nowhere, but it's soon apparent this is a big show they're putting on to manipulate the casino owner into slipping up and revealing his plan. And it's the honourable, disciplined martial artist TroCon with a perfect record (Gooley naturally neglects to mention how the girls, in spite of their methodology *also* have a perfect record) the episode has spent its whole runtime building up to be a hero who ultimately snaps and trashes the place, *not* the supposedly flighty and irresponsible Kei and Yuri. The girls have set up and sprung the perfect trap for patriarchal assumptions we don't even know we have.

Kei and Yuri are performers who have put together an incredibly meticulous act. And we've once again made the mistake of confusing kayfabe with reality.

(There's also a really clever nod to the Angels' astrological and spiritual symbolism here: Kei and Yuri are sometimes associated with a syncretic Japanese Buddhist goddess of luck known as Benten or Benzaiten. Particularly Kei, who, as a Saggitarian, is said to be blessed with preternaturally good luck and fortune. And in this episode Kei certainly does seem to have extremely good luck, as she rakes it all in at the Meteo table. But remember that was artificial, as the payout is controlled by the casino operators. Furthermore, Saggitarians are said to be terrible gamblers. The real reason Kei is so lucky is because she can play the game without becoming addicted to it, and perhaps also because of the blessed life she leads with Yuri and Mughi.)

As much as this episode relies on tripping up those who would underestimate people like Kei and Yuri thanks to their cultural predisposition to patriarchy, I would like to say a few words in my defense here. I have never once, since I began observing, studying and trying to learn from them, lost faith in the Lovely Angels. They remain every bit the ideal forms for me they've always been, indeed they're even more so the longer I've spent time with them. What I do question and have doubted on occasion is the strength of the material Soda Pop Art forces they travel through. I know Kei and Yuri would never betray me or let me down, but I do fear sometimes that their TV shows, movies and books will let them down. Because Soda Pop Art is inherently and fundamentally capitalistic, and capitalism is based on patriarchy and other forms of inequality, exploitation and oppression.

It's up to those of us who would meditate on such lovely ideal forms to make sure the works we craft in their honour pay proper respect.