Saturday, February 26, 2011

Photon The Ultimate Game On Planet Earth #4: This Is Your Life, Bhodi Li

Once upon a time there was a game called Lazer Tag which you played by pretending to shoot your friends. Competition came in the form of a game called Photon that in addition to being sold as a home game, was also available in nationwide arenas. Any kid who thought they could shoot a gun or had a birthday party was invited to plunk down their money and go all commando in a futuristic battle zone for points.

And to promote the game they came up with a story about a kid who was so good at Photon he was invited by a bunch of aliens to play it for real out in space against a bunch of meaner, uglier aliens called the Arrians (I love how in the pilot he sees one of the Arrians and says “Obviously a bad guy”). It seems there’s a special crystal on every planet in the universe, and every hundred years it needs to be recharged by being shot by a Photon laser gun. If the good guys do it, the planet becomes a verdant paradise. If the Arrians make the shot, it becomes a volcanic wasteland.

This story was distributed in the form of a live-action TV show that makes Mighty Morphin Power Rangers look like a triumph of special effects and realism, and two varieties of novel. The first was a series of six books based on the show penned by comic book writer Peter David, and the other was the one shot Thieves of Light, which took the same characters and setting, but presented them in a slightly more grown-up fashion.

So anyway, our hero Chris Jarvis, or as he’s known out in space, Bhodi Li, is about to rejuvenate another crystal when he and one of his Arrian enemies go over a cliff in their scuffle to be the first to claim the planet. Because for some reason only the bad guys have the benefit of being energy constructs that are sent safely back to their home base upon death (is it a choice between that and freezing time on Earth so nobody notices he was gone?), Bhodi goes splat…

…until he wakes up in a hospital, having been in a coma since some jerk jumped on top of him during a perfectly ordinary, non-lethal game of Photon. Later he tries to go back to the Photon arena to get in touch with his fellow Photon Guardians (a Photon Warrior is someone who thinks you only fight for points and bragging rights, a Photon Guardian is one of the aliens who plays it for real, and a Dark Guardian is someone evil who plays it for real. A plot point asks that you know the difference). Normally a ring he wears flashes to let Chris know his space buddies need him. Then he goes to the local Photon arena and wins the match as a signal for them to beam him up. Yeah. This time, nothing happens. He just wins the game. Good thing crystals never need to be recharged while he’s in school or the arena’s closed for the night. Yeah, maybe his buddies handle things without him when that happens, but there’s only five other guys looking out for the whole universe and none of them appear to have those kinds of restrictions on their availability.

Chris is convinced it’s some kind of Arrian trick, especially after he starts seeing people in his everyday life that look just like the human-appearing people from his time spent as a Photon Guardian. His doctor’s a dead ringer for the evil Mandarr, even down to the real name, and there’s a candy striper who looks like space ninja chick Tivia. Uh-huh. See that woman in yellow and white on the cover? That’s Tivia. Notice how her face is covered? That’s because she comes from a matriarchal society and inferior males like Chris aren’t allowed to see her face.

Chris decides to play along until he finds a way to escape, which he does by telling his bossy gym teacher that he’s stupid and none of this is real before pummeling the guy. And freaking out when he sees a lizard named Leon, like his gravelly-voiced pseudo father figure in the Photon Guardians. And playing Photon to a point even more obsessive than before. Could all of Chris’s adventures have been a dream? I said there’s six books, figure it out yourself.

I’m not familiar with Peter David’s work in comics, but I wasn’t that impressed when he wrote something that would be realized solely with words. The main thing about his style I noticed was he seemed to really like the “head/half a head taller than” description when describing height. It made it sound like he was referring directly to the characters’ model sheets when describing them, which is probably okay in the script for a comic book but no so much in a novel. The rest of the writing was dry and stark, and I never once forgot I was a guy killing time on the train.

His idea of a hip in-joke leaves something to be desired. I remember catching a reference to something out of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (drinks called Gargle Blasters) which was of course treated like it was real in the book’s vast, silly universe, and the time Chris arrived on the corner of Siegel and Shuster Street. Considering the people likely to read a science fiction action adventure book, those were a tad too on the nose for my tastes. And get this: Tivia’s lookalike is named Loretta. Like Loretta Haywood, the actress who played her on the TV show. When his delusions of adventures in outer space are supposed to be based on glimpses of stuff happening around him as he drifted in and out of consciousness. I'm just saying, shouldn't her name be Tina or something like that? Naming her instead after the actress makes no sense and is kinda lazy.

A sticking point I’m surprised got left in occurs when Chris is being psychoanalyzed for his delusions of going into space and saving the universe. The shrink asks whether Chris thinks playing a game where you pretend to be a space commando dehumanizes people and glorifies violence. Chris responds no, because if you don’t play fair, they kick you out. “A Photon Warrior has to be considerate of others.”

The others that he’s running around shooting in a war game. And this is the same guy who would occasionally run around shooting people with a real laser gun. Do the Arrians not count because they don’t actually die (even though Chris and his fellow Photon Guardians would, if they were to be tagged by the meaner, uglier aliens)?

I’m saying if your defense against the game making gun violence seem cool is that you’re not allowed to play unless you play fair, it doesn’t quite fly if the promotional material has unscrupulous bad guys who never suffer lasting consequences for being unscrupulous bad guys.

That’s Photon in a nutshell. Unforgivingly goofy, and in book form you can’t even laugh at the listless combat sequences and horrific special effects. The ultimate game, indeed.

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