Monday, September 29, 2014

Adventures of the Rope Warrior (Snark)

Making something that’s boring but beneficial entincing to kids is a tricky job, not helped by how a lot of edutainment makers seem to severely underestimate kids’ ability to tell when they’re being led on. Certainly I have fond memories of some of the edutainment shows of my youth, but one approach that seems almost impossible to pull off is when the makers try to weave their moral into a story of grand adventure to grab young viewers’ attention. Most of the time you get a Captain Planet and the Planeteers, something remembered more for the absurdity of its presentation than the positive values it contained.

Which is why I feel a little bad saying that David Fisher’s pair of books are pretty dumb. But then, books about a guy who gets the strength to save the universe from alien drug dealers and obesity-promoting corporate bosses by jumping rope, well…If anybody’d ever heard of this, Captain Planet’s place in internet history might in trouble. Or at least Drug Avengers's.

I say I feel bad because the benefits of jumping rope are something I’m inclined to think he truly believes in. The first of these Rope Warrior books came out in 1996, but in August of this very year he put out a new book of jump rope tricks. I do believe this is an entire lifestyle for Fisher, and yeah, nearly all of us could stand to spend more time looking after our health. Still, if you write a morality tale, and you name two negative characters Maury and Ima Whiner, you do it to yourself, really.

It also doesn’t help how both books start off with this:

Granted it’s talking about feats like using a jump rope to swing on something or twirling it to deflect projectiles. The kind of stuff people only do in high fantasy, and without which the jump rope would have no place in the narrative. Still, it sounds really weird to set out to tell the reader jumping rope is totally awesome while telling them not to do any of the things the role model the story gives does with his jump rope.

But I’ve delayed talking about the story itself long enough. In 2086 (90 years after the work is published rather than the usual even 100, cute), the Roper family are the first humans to live on another planet in an experimental station on Mars. They’re really into fitness. So much so that young Charles got the nickname “Skip” for his love of skipping rope.

Obviously happy family in action plot. DEAD.

But one day their idyllic existence of getting up at 4:45 AM to jump rope every morning is shattered as evil aliens from the planet Keebar (Keebar??) attack the Mars station and try to perform some kind of insidious operation on Skip’s parents. When it fails, their leader, Varco, guns the Ropers down and blows up their emergency escape ship, leaving young Skip alone and jumping rope for years, awaiting rescue.

But eventually rescue does come: an old friend of the Ropers comes by to check on them after 15 years of no regular reports (yeah, really). A friend who’s since joined the “Intergalactical Drug Police,” but I had a lot more fun just calling them “the Space Narcs.” Anyway when Skip finds out the Space Narcs are on the trail of the guy who killed his parents, who runs an interplanetary drug ring, he wants in too. And because he’s the main character, he gets in.

It turns out the Space Narcs’ next big operation is to destroy an isolated but heavily-defended drug factory. As opposed to someplace in the middle of civilization but not sticking out like a frigging sore thumb, but whatever. We’re talking about villains only one step up from ones who chop down acres of rainforest just because they’re bored. The Space Narcs have a formula that can make anything coated with it indestructible, but not enough of it to actually shield anybody, let alone multiple agents, from getting close enough to destroy the factory without being blown away by its massive laser sentry guns. Skip suggests they coat his jump rope with the formula so he can twirl it to deflect the lasers while the other Space Narcs blow up the factory, and so his jump rope will actually figure into the plot. Because he’s the main character he's given his wish, and because he's the main character his idea works.

But unlike in other brainless, socially-relevant adventure stories, blowing up one extremely obvious source isn’t enough to topple the Keebarian (yes, Keebarian) drug empire. The Space Narcs did find a clue to where to look next, though: the word “GIRTH” and the fact that they tracked Varco’s escape ship to Earth. Being the newest member and thus the one least likely to be recognized, Skip heads to the planet of his parents’ birth to find out the meaning of GIRTH.

So we begin the second book, Survival of the Fit, and with the setup out of the way all remnants of subtlety are lost without a trace. GIRTH turns out to be the name of a huge company that runs a city where everything is automated and most people never leave their homes. Gee, in a book where the hero jumps rope, that can only mean evil’s afoot!

Indeed, as Skip finds out when he infiltrates their headquarters and meets up with a pair of shapely females who were kidnapped for trying to host a workout show on public access (one of whom falls in love with a guy named “Skip” waaaay too readily), GIRTH is under the control of none other than his archenemy Varco the Keebarian drug kingpin! The reason GIRTH doesn’t let anyone get away with being healthy is so they’ll die young and their bodies can be harvested for the impurities a sedentary life inflicts, which it turns out are the secret ingredient in Varco’s evil Space Drug! And the reason he got mad at Skip’s parents, if you care, was because they took such obscenely good care of themselves there was nothing in them to make drugs from. Which leaves us with an absolutely beautiful Space Whale Aesop: exercise regularly and eat right or you’ll be contributing to alien drug trafficking. Good lord.

The blob guy looks about as confused as I was.

And the book manages to get even more insane. Skip proposes to the Space Narcs that he and the girls go back and try to encourage people to get fit. The Space U.N. applauds his devotion but thinks that’ll take too long, Varco will figure out what they’re up to and move his operation somewhere else, and the only viable option to stop him now is to blow up planet Earth for the greater good of the civilized galaxy. Not even the city where they know his headquarters are, the entire frigging planet. Makes me wonder if the other planets who belong to this group worry about what might be going on on their planets that’ll get them blown up.

What are you even pointing at, Skip?

But wouldn’t you know it, the Space Narcs arrested a guy who tried to blow up their ship who turns out to be from the future! And if he takes Skip far enough back to have time to spread the joys of rope-jumping and stave off the need for planetary destruction, he might be able to bargain for a lighter sentence! And after accidentally ending up in the Cretaceous period first because that’s a rule about time-traveling in subpar stories, they finally get to their intended time period, which surprised me a little by still being about 50 years in the future relative to the book’s publication.

I was kind of expecting Skip to come back to the late 20th century and have his adventures in fitness alongside some normal kids from our time. Such as in some supremely ill-advised programming like Lazer Tag Academy or something.  

Speaking of....

Or worse, that David Fisher might try to evoke some more interest at school assemblies about the joys of jumping rope by claiming to be Skip Roper himself come back to save the world with the power of aerobic exercise. Or maybe even on one of those televised appearances he’s so big on you knowing about.

And despite the promise of another adventure, this is where the saga of the Rope Warrior ends. You almost have to think the author knew that, with how the book ends with the time traveler making another stop to save Skip’s parents too, thus ridding him of any baggage he might’ve had and leaving nothing but his passion for jumping rope. And that’s another problem a lot of these heroes meant to teach messages suffer from: they’re so clean-cut and boring the message they try to encourage seems boring by association. “This guy saves the world from aliens and says I should jump rope? Geek. Let’s go watch the Power Rangers instead, they fight aliens with laser guns and super-cool robots.”

Yes, I'm aware something was stuck to the scanner. It seemed appropriate.

Just from a technical standpoint, the first book feels like the author wanted to shove in every single little idea and detail he came up with, thinking that’d make the limited story it actually tells more gripping. There was a fair bit I didn't mention to keep the summary from bogging down. Like when Skip’s been on the station for years he realizes he’s grown out of his kiddie jumpsuits and goes to put on one of his dad’s. There’s some kind of biological sample in the elbow that melts into Skip’s blood when he puts it on. In both books, we never find out what it did to him.

Also, right after his parents are killed, Skip sees himself on the Mars station’s security cameras and realizes he’s walking around all angry and obsessed like Varco did. He decides he needs to keep his cool and not let anger overtake him. And that’s the last we hear of that. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume the reader’s meant to take away the lesson they shouldn’t let their problems take control of them. But if Skip realizes that and overcomes his problems that quickly, he’s even more dull to read about…

But point being, there’s an awful lot of stuff going on in the first book. It feels very, very busy for a young adult novel. In the second book by comparison, it felt like I was watching an old movie serial most of the time, with lots of little cliffhangers at the ends of chapters. Where some GIRTH security guards shoot into a cardboard box we’re led to believe Skip’s hiding in, and he winces as lead rips through the sides of his hiding spot…except he was actually climbing the wall of the building, and what he was wincing at was one of the guards making a bad joke. When the Keebarians think they’ve tricked Skip into returning to his Space Narc buddies carrying a time bomb, in the next chapter we find out he actually realized his Space Narc identity badge felt kind of heavy and turned the tables on the Space Drug Pushers.

But speaking of the Space Narcs, I’m really worried about them being run by idiots. In the span of the two books we find out they incarcerate their prisoners somewhere the prisoners can see their impounded vehicles, meaning if they were to escape their escorts or cells…yeah. There’s also a rule that any Space Narc can challenge any other Space Narc to combat at any time. This challenge cannot be denied. Not to the death or anything, but what the hell kind of drug-policing body is this??

The rule’s real reason for existing seems to be so a main character gets a chance to prove himself before the Space Narcs when an incredulous senior member doesn’t believe a guy who’s only been in the agency a day should be hearing about all their most important plans. Which, really, Skip probably shouldn’t, but he wouldn’t be involved in the plot if he didn’t. The way the author clumsily plasters over that plot hole it just sounds like the Space Narc administrators are using the contraband substances they confiscate for themselves.

And whatever other problems the series had, the second book almost seems as if it was never proofread. One particularly awful incident shows itself after the heroes find out what the secret ingredient in the villains’ Space Drug is, and the Space U.N. decides they’re too firmly entrenched for any solution to work but the (regrettable) annihilation of planet Earth.

Now, as noted the Space Narcs arrested a guy who turns out to be a time traveler, and Skip and another human Space Narc decide to have him take them back in time along with the girls from the public access workout show. Once in the past, Skip and the girls plan to spread a message of health and fitness to derail the villains’ plan before it can start, and save Earth from destruction.

But that’s when the bad continuity checking kicks in. Skip and his human Space Narc buddy decide not to tell the girls about the Earth being destroyed in their present…but then they immediately do. Yet when they go back in time, a character accidentally voicing his surprise at Earth still being where it’s supposed to proves they actually did go back in time. The idea that Earth wouldn’t be there causes the girls to ask what he meant, and they’re distraught to learn Earth was destroyed. Despite having been told about that before they left.

Like I said at the beginning, I feel a little bad raking these books over the coals. Mostly because the author does seem to believe in his message, and a little bit because he seemed to think the Rope Warrior was going to be huge. In the back of the first book are profiles of a couple of the supporting characters, seemingly meant to go on the back of action figure packages.

There were was even a fan club membership form.

Look at that. The author believed in the Rope Warrior books and their fan club so much he set a date when he’d stop accepting applications, even. Does anybody out there still have one of those posters or newsletters? I’m just so morbidly curious after hearing about this.

But let’s get real. A role model who fights alien drug lords and travels through time…but what you’re supposed to pay attention to is him jumping rope? Was never gonna happen.  Good on the author for his dedication to the merits of jumping rope. But good on whoever made him realize his attempt at a rope-jumping pop culture icon would never happen, too.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Loonatics Unleashed - The Music Villain (Snark)

Here we go with the kickoff to the finale of Loonatics Unleashed. Technically they consider the finale to be a two-parter, and that’s the two after this one. But forget that. This episode leads straight into the last two and has events you need to know about for those to make sense. It’s a three-parter.

This episode’s called “The Music Villain,” eh? As in the stock member of a superhero rogues gallery with a music motif?

The Loonatics are at Zadavia’s little underwater house where she’s praising how much more formidable they’ve gotten, like Bugs with his magic sword and Wile E. in the “non-technology hero department.” No idea what she was watching to make that assessment, since if anything the show relies on his inventions even more now than the last season. In fact as she says that we clearly see footage of him using his turn-things-to-water gun from “Cape Duck.” “I’ve been trying to get out of the lab more” indeed.

Right after this they’re interrupted as Zadavia gets a talking email saying she and guest are invited to the show at the Cosmic Abyss that night, but it’s only from “a friend.” Lexi says that’s apparently a mondo venue, and despite being some kind of super vague important dignitary/law enforcement official, Zadavia’s curiosity’s greater than her caution and she decides to see who sent the tix.

Daffy acts as if he’s obviously going to accompany her to this, but she comeidcally picks Wile E. instead. At least she didn’t pick Bugs. Daffy shows up anyway, since it’s hard to keep teleporters from gate-crashing these things. He even acts like a jerk and tells Wile E. to get them some drinks, and Wile E. does. Hey, if he’s a jerk, you’re a doormat.

Check the reactions on the crowd.

The generic music act ends, and introducing the next act is none other than Mr. Leghorn, almost unrecognizable yet somehow more recognizable than ever because of how much more Doug Dimmadome-y he became in between seasons.

Meet Bootes Belinda, an annoying funk musician OF THE FUTURE! He sounds a lot like the guy who talks over the intro sequence, actually, because, well, it is the same guy, Bootsy Collins. Dang, went all out for a name for his character, eh? He constantly says “Hit me!”, and I’m inclined to humor him.

After a minute Zadavia recognizes the music the band’s playing, and Bootes calls out to “Zadie” before he starts blasting lasers from his stupid future guitar into the stands

The entire band starts destroying the stadium, and despite having energy powers sufficient to go up against fighter ships, I have to notice Zadavia’s content to do nothing more than blast a few pieces of falling debris before they hit her and her escorts. Not other people, just her, Daffy and Wile E. This leaves the two Loonatics present to try and subdue the militant musicians. Granted Zadavia was just talking about how much they’ve honed their skills, but is this really the time to promote their personal growth?

Daffy and Wile E. aren’t much use and get flung into the stands, and the band fly away on their floating stage, having achieved…something.

Back at Loonatics HQ (and not the underwater house) Zadavia’s still sure she heard that short bit of music before, and right then Bootes easily hacks their communications and taunts Zadavia that they do indeed have a shared past even though she claims to have never seen him before. Flexing his Batmanesque Detective Skills™ once again, Bugs suggests they “do some snoopin’ and see where handsome and his funky band play next.” Which will work! Because after collapsing their previous venue and attacking the attendees, he’ll show up to play wherever he’s booked next and WON’T be intercepted by legions of police and/or military waiting for the guy to show his face. Besides, he’s obviously interested in Zadavia, so even if the Loonatics do run into him at his next gig, what are the odds it’ll just be a distraction so they won’t be around to stop flunkies from grabbing her? I’m going to go with high to very high.

But we don’t even have to wait. Retiring to her underwater house, Zadavia’s flabbergasted to find “the Lumarius Flower of Freleng” floating in her room, since “it can’t be, not here.” When she touches the bloom, it sucks out her rainbow powers. Bootes was hiding and comes out to explain how the flower’s “the black dwarf daisy, a cosmic light sucker. No photons escape its petals.” And since her powers are apparently light-derived, she’s badly weakened. Although if she was able to recognize the flower you’d hope she’d know that and know better than to touch it.

And remember Bugs’s plan to check where Bootes’s band will be playing next? They’re not calling around or checking booking records to find that out, the Loonatics are out randomly hitting nightclubs hoping to find one he’s playing at. I just…wha…why…how did…<deep breath> We went from Bugs solving mysteries with his master detective skills to randomly throwing out lines hoping for a bite? Why nightclubs when he was big enough to get booked at a huge stadium? And perhaps best of all, the Loonatics aren’t out checking different clubs, so as to make semi-effective use of their time with this gambit. All of them are together for some reason as they do this.

Daffy apparently got a bit of action while they were in there, though, leading Bugs to declare “You’re hopeless, Duck.” Consider who came up with the genius plan he’s not sticking to before you remonstrate anybody, oh Great Leader.

Bugs’s watch goes off then, and he automatically can tell that Zadavia’s in trouble and they speed to her underwater house to the rescue. You see?! I told you, you were just leaving her ripe for the picking, but noooooooooooooooo!

They run in and find the place trashed, which I guess Bootes did just to be a dick since obviously no struggle took place.  “Looks like the maid’s in for a butt-kicking,” Daffy opines. “Uh, I don’t think a maid did this, Duck,” Bugs replies. And I don’t think he was serious, ya big-eared twit.

Wile E. plays back the security cam footage, showing Zadavia touching the flower and getting sucked dry before Bootes himself calls them on the holo-phone. He shows them he’s got what’s-her-face hostage, but is willing to let her go for “a little cosmic guitar” that Wile E. can “funkenstein up.” Wile E. traces the signal (which Bootes was expecting him to do), but first it’s off to funkenstein up that cosmic guitar. And that’s all they’re telling us about this thing for now. Cosmic guitar.

Zadavia put a security camera in her ow bedroom?

Upon arriving at the rail yard to meet up with Bootes, Bugs asks if everybody knows the plan. You’re only asking now? Everyone says yes while brandishing progressively larger weapons. Yeah, that’s not gonna turn the situation ugly. Bootes shows up and quips, “if it ain’t a blast from the past!” He does ignore all their weapons, though, and just wants the guitar.

As soon as he has it, the band attacks the Loonatics but proves more than a match for the varmints’ firepower. That is, until Wile E. gets them with his trusty jello gun. Somehow being trapped in jello exposes the band members to be robots (or “mannequins”) except for the keyboard player, who somehow uses his keyboard to set two trains on a collision course with the car where Zadavia’s being held. Gotta say, it’s actually pretty clever for this show to have the real villain trick the heroes into thinking one of his flunkies is the leader to take them by surprise. Even if none of them noticed how he was suspiciously absent before.

The Loonatics stop the trains just in time, but Zadavia proves to be a holographic dummy, and this gives the keyboard player time to free his puppets and make off with the cosmic guitar. And none of the Loonatics bother to think of pursuing with those jetpacks they got there with.

Back at his hideout, the keyboard player siphons Zadavia’s rainbow powers, which she still has somehow despite the thing with the flower, into the cosmic guitar which makes it truly cosmic, I guess. Zadavia wakes up and remembers seeing him before, back on Freleng, this menacing personage proving to be one Rupes Oberon.

The villains to come from Freleng have all been insultingly one-dimensional, but this one’s just painful. Rupes, or as the credits call him and so shall I, Keyboard Man, became embittered and joined a cabal for universal domination because…Zadavia ignored his composition for a new Frelengian national anthem (How can a planet have a “national” anthem? To quote one of the masters, “Doesn’t the fact that it’s universal make it international?”).

Although as usual Zadavia hardly comes out smelling like a rose. “But Rupes, we already had a national anthem. One that had words.” That’s why you turned him down? Because of the existence of lyrics??

She’s only explaining this now, by the way. The way it plays out in the flashback he’s serenading her, then Deuce whispers something in her ear and she gets up and leaves without so much as a “thanks but no thanks.” Yeah, he’s a maniac for becoming a force of evil over that (I almost said lunatic). No doubt. Who knows what might’ve happened if she’d been polite about it instead of getting up and walking away, though?

At Loonatics HQ, the varmints are actually taking time trying to figure out who the band’s puppetmaster was. Clearly not the guy it obviously was in the last scene!

Look at this guy. He does not look like a cool, butt-kicking, crime-solving hero. Sorry.

Wile E. finally deigns to explain the significance of the cosmic guitar, and that it ties into string theory. To hear him tell it, “Think of the universe as a galactic orchestra. The Keyboard Man knows that if he can channel Zadavia’s energy into his guitar, he can use that power to control the universe.” Simple enough, not that he’ll ever do anything of that magnitude, but what does that have to do with your description of the universe as an orchestra?

Bugs magically intuits that what Keyboard Man wants above all else is attention. That’s right, but how does he know? Anyway, it means he’s going to try whatever he’s going to try at Galaxy Fest, the biggest music fest ever. Which has nobody there when the Loonatics go there and when the band attacks them again.

As before the Loonatics prove a poor match for the band and get knocked all over the place by their musical energy blasts, even without the bad guys busting out the cosmic guitar. As usual Wile E. has a device to fit the occasion (Really getting to strut his non-inventor stuff, isn’t he?), a satellite dish to reflect the band’s attacks. Bugs goads them into shooting by insulting Bootes’s mama, which works even though he’s just a puppet being controlled by Keyboard Man.

Where is that coming out of? Is he Inspector Gadget all of a sudden?

The mannequins are handily destroyed by their own reflected attack, but Keyboard Man appears to be all too happy to be rid of them, as it’s only then he busts out the cosmic guitar and uses it to drop the de-powered Zadavia off the stage and open a portal that’ll take him to meet some other powerful baddie he can join up with to complete his grand scheme.

Unfortunately Roadrunner catches Zadavia, who moans. “I’m afraid the guitar isn’t the only thing he’s taken,” Zadavia moans. “He’s also taken my powers.” Which you were getting so much use out of, with the way you make them do all the dirty work.

By the way, Bugs tries to console her by saying they can always get the guitar back. Even though he himself said before it made Keyboard Man invincible, and it gives a deranged musician control of the fabric of the universe. Please be in a hurry to do something about this, Greatest Action Hero of All Time! Man, this show was never that great, but it’s gone downhill fast the last couple episodes.

Who should Keyboard Man be paying a visit to but Optimatus! Who’s chained to a chair even though he wasn’t last time we saw him. I do hope they’re going to explain that.

But I ain’t betting on it.