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Nailed It! Sym-Bionic Titan   Leave a comment

by SPAM,  Contributing Writer

For this installment of Nailed it! I want to talk about a show that should sound familiar to every boy who grew up in the 80s and 90s. The characters are a group of high school archetypes: a nerdy one, a dark angsty one, a token girl; who have crazy uniforms, giant robots, and combine to form an enormous, humanoid fighting robot. They fight giant evil aliens who threaten to destroy their city. Sounds familiar, kinda like Power Rangers, right? or Voltron? or Gigantor, Ultraman, Battle of the Planets/G-Force/Eagle Riders, Robotech, Gundam, VR Troopers, Beetleborgs, Masked Rider, Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad, Tattooed Teenage Alien Fighters from Beverly Hills and for the seriously anime inclined Evangelion.

But unlike those shows, this show is perfect! It has great drama, fun characters, amazing action, and a story that develops through the season. This show is Sym-Bionic Titan.

Sym-Bionic_Titan_6568

Sym-Bionic Titan was created by our old friend Genndy Tartakovsky (who you might remember from Samurai Jack) and first aired for one 20-episode season on Cartoon Network in 2010.

The plot is relatively straightforward: the planet Galaluna (where everyone just happens to look human and speak English) is conquered by the traitorous General Modula and his army of alien monsters, the Mutraddi. The King sends his daughter, Princess Ilana, with a broody young soldier named Lance, and an experimental AI/robot called Octus through a “Rift Gate” (wormhole) to Earth. He hopes that she can blend in, lay low and return once the war is over. Their escape pod lands outside the town of Sherman, Illinois where the three pose as normal high school students. As is always the way, Modula is soon able to find out where they are and start sending giant alien monsters to kill them. That’s when Lance and Ilana activate their “armors,” which are 10 to 20 foot tall mechs. If the threat is too much, they combine armors inside Octus to form the giant robot, Titan.

Titan is about drama and characters. It aims at a slightly older demographic for Cartoon Network, which allowed for more complexity than just a giant robot fighting alien monsters. The story is driven by relationships, and not just romantic ones.  It is about fitting in, feeling ostracized, finding yourself… normal high school issues. Tartakovsky actually cites both Godzilla movies and John Hughes movies as inspiration for his giant robot show!

Let that sink in.

This particular monster was inspired by The Breakfast Club.

This particular monster was inspired by The Breakfast Club.

Where Samurai Jack is mostly a series of standalone episodes, this show is best when watched in order. When I first started watching Titan I caught it here and there and I thought the show was pretty good. When I watched it in order I realized how perfect it really was. For example, in the first episode a monster blows a crater in the middle of town. In episode 2 there’s a bridge being built across the crater. In episode 5 there’s a full blown construction site in the crater and a street race across the bridge.

Titan doesn’t have a signature one-hit-kill move, which allows it to stand out in this genre. Voltron’s blazing sword, Sailor Moon’s moon scepter elimination, or Megazord’s power sword all looked cool, but didn’t it seem stupid that good guys always waited till the last minute before using it? Titan has to fight hard to find each monster’s weakness, meaning each victory feels earned. When the Power Rangers spent 10 minutes having the Megazord punch a monster before thinking, “oh yeah, our sword shoots a laser that kills everything,” you start to question their intelligence.

Fair warning, from this point on there will be minor spoilers. 

Characters

The heart, body , and mind get brought up a lot in the pilot. These are the three parts of Titan, and our three protagonists’ major traits. They start out as “the caring one,” “the tough one,” and “the smart one,” but quickly become fully fleshed out and believable characters.

Princess Ilana is one of the best written female characters I’ve ever seen. She may be more well rounded and believable than some actual female people I know. She starts out a bit sheltered and socially awkward; she has trouble dealing with the cliques and social hierarchy in school. As the show goes on, we see her grow and be less ostracized; and she does so without having to compromise her values and conform to social norms. She’s feminine, smart, kind-hearted, and badass warrior. When she knows she’s right, she stands by her principles, but she’s willing to compromise for the good of the group. Also, unlike most cartoon characters, Ilana wears different outfits in every episode. Most shows don’t do that sort of thing because it’s easier for animators, but to me, it helps reflect her character. She has her own style, and she doesn’t hide it; she doesn’t compromise it just to fit in. She’s up there with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Wonder Woman, and Princess Leia as a positive role model for girls… or anyone for that matter!

Lance starts out an antisocial hotheaded douche-bag. He doesn’t want to blend in or get a house. He actually suggests fortifying a cave near their crash site and living there. You get the impression Lance’s ideal scenario would be the Princess sitting within his sightline doing absolutely nothing until either the Mutraddi attack or they get the message that they can go home. As the show progresses, Lance is… still sorta an antisocial d-bag, but in a mysterious loner way that makes him popular with the ladies. He does manage to connect with Ilana, and learn to be more trusting of others. We learn about his past, and why he has “issues” and see him learn to open up, if just a little bit. We even see him smile a few times, and get a romantic interest.

Upon their landing, Octus sets up our trio with identities as the Lunis family. Because of his holographic abilities, he chooses the guise of a nerd named Newton while at school, but when the situation calls for it he can change his appearance to the father, Mr. Lunis. Octus starts out as a bland, emotionless, robot/ boring nerd, but he quickly shows that he has real emotions. There’s a whole episode dedicated to Octus questioning what he is; not a human, but not a simple machine, and it has a number of homages to Ferris Buler’s Day Off. He cares for Lance and Ilana as much as they care for him. Halfway through the show Newton’s gets a serious girlfriend, Kimmy Mysner.  Kimmy is the head cheerleader, pretty, popular, and particularly antagonistic towards Ilana.  She is the stereotypical “mean girl.” As the show goes on she becomes more sympathetic, and although the two girls aren’t really friends, their relationship becomes a little more amicable.

 You know… for KIDS!

Then there are the antagonists.

General Modula might as well be Mumm-Ra from Thundercats or any other “evil-for-the-sake-of-evil” bad guy. But unlike those guys, he’s competent, making him much scarier. When you finally see a flashback to his coup it gave me chills. I can’t say much without spoiling, but his brutality and ruthlessness are apparent. All we know about his past is he used to know both the King, and Lance’s Father, something happened, he was presumed dead, and came back with an invasion. Given more time to be fleshed out Modula could’ve been really complex. As it stands, he is pretty one note, but at least it is a good note.

General Steel tries to capture Titan, presumably because he’s an alien and therefore a threat… even after watching Titan protect the town from the giant monsters that show up. Steel is an idiot; jingoistic and incompetent, but he’s got some funny lines and is fun to laugh at, especially because he’s voiced by John DiMaggio.

Solomon is the mysterious leader of the Galactic Guardian Group, or G3, a “men in black” style secret agency protecting the earth from aliens. His design is an homage to pulp hero Solomon Kane, a Puritan who wonders the earth vanquishing evil. He seems to be more powerful than your ordinary human, and you’re not sure whose side G3 is really on.

Art

They're all out of you.

They’re all out of you.

The art in the show is simply amazing. Backgrounds are very typical Tartakovsky: beautifully painted, no outlines, and full of little easter eggs. Characters designs are similar to Tartakovsky’s Star Wars: Clone Wars , the award winning 2D animated series he designed, created, directed, and produced, not the 3D, CGI crappy one… obligatory George Lucas joke. Characters all have unique silhouettes, which may seem minor, but makes them more iconic and identifiable. Mutraddi monsters feel threatening, as opposed to the goofy ones from the Sentai shows where Power Rangers got their footage. Action sequences do a great job blending traditional animation with CGI; the car race I mentioned earlier is a great example. Animation isn’t always 100% consistent; things like the size/scale of the armors or Titan does fluctuate, Newton’s nose/face in profile can get a little squidgy from episode to episode, but it’s never really distracting.

Cancellation

So the inevitable question arises: “if this show is so perfect, how come it only lasted one season?”

Well there are a couple factors. One could be that the show heavily implied (if not showed) death. Unlike Samurai Jack, the bad guys weren’t robots (maybe a few of them were) they were aliens, or sometimes human. When aliens attack the city, they don’t usually land on the outskirts. Remember the giant crater I mentioned as a yardstick for continuity? Well before it was a crater it was the middle of a bustling downtown district. Anyone who lived, or worked or happened to be driving through there got killed. Take a second look at the first 5 minutes of the pilot: the ship crash lands, Lance and Ilana get attacked by the military, they activate their armors and Lance starts blowing up tanks. Those tanks were run by human soldiers that Lance just killed.

Another possible reason for cancellation would be the time slot. The show originally aired in what most networks call the “Friday night death slot,” Fridays at 9. It gets that name because people tend to be out then, and shows get sent there to die. Since the main audience of Cartoon Network is kids, this isn’t normally a problem, but Titan was also aimed at teens who might be out. Then, Adult Swim pushed up its start time to 9; because it’s technically it’s own network CN didn’t need to worry about ratings, and agreed. When this happened, Titan got moved to Wednesdays at 7pm with a block of live action programming. The live action shows were not highly rated (or good), and although fans were willing to follow the show to its new slot, the rest of the block didn’t attract new viewers to Titan.

The last, and probably worst reason: it didn’t have toys. That’s right. A “giant robot” show with dozens of crazy looking monsters where they didn’t make any toys. No action figures of Lance, or Ilana, that can be placed into larger figures of their armors. No multiple Ilana variants with all her different outfits. No Solomon complete with G3 base playset. No oversized Titan paired with a Mutraddi box sets. No 1/6 scale collector’s edition Titan with multiple hands and weapons that can be swapped out and displayed in a case. No plastic versions of Titan’s many weapons. As if it wasn’t bad enough that they explicitly canceled the show because it didn’t have toys, it’s almost worse that nobody could make toys from this property! Do you have any idea how many Power Ranger toys were made?!

Luckily, this story has a happier ending than most. Despite possibly playing a role in the shows cancelation, Adult Swim is currently airing reruns of Sym-Bionic Titan so you can watch the series in its entirety, once again! It’s on late Saturday night (Sunday morning if we’re being technical), but that’s why god invented DVRs. And just days ago, Netflix picked up a bunch of Cartoon Network shows for instant streaming, so it seems like it’s only a matter of time before you can waste a weekend marathoning Sym-Bionic Titan.

Were you a fan of the show? Do you plan on checking it out?  What cartoons do you think Nailed It!? Tell us below!


SPAM only took 2 film related classes in college, but he’s seen a lot of stuff and has very strong opinions on everything. He’ll tell you exactly how he feels about something, whether you want to hear it or not.

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Posted June 21, 2013 by atomicsam in Nailed It, TV

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