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November 14, 2016

An Episode In Gaming: Code Lyoko (Part 2)

"Code Lyoko" review: Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7

Ready for the recap? In Part 1, I reviewed Code Lyoko’s two-part special, titled "XANA Awakens". It does a fine job at setting up the characters and the situation they live in at the start of the show. However, it aired as the first two episodes of the third season, which means that when the first season aired, we weren’t told a damn thing about these kids, how they became friends, why they’re fighting XANA or why they’re pointlessly putting the world in danger every day just to possibly save some virtual girl that may well never have been an actual human! Now, we know. And knowing is half the battle, so let's continue right now. It's time for me to cover Season 1. Let’s begin!

A first episode that focuses more on a secondary
character than the main five. Not a perfect choice.
Alright, so the actual pilot of the show presents, of course, the main five, but it also features some of the other students – among others, Millie and Tamiya, two younger students who created the student journal Kadic News. It’s a pretty small journal and it mostly contains gossips – which I’d be against, but please, these two are still kids. Of course they don’t yet have journalistic integrity. I give them a pass. They also usually go around with microphone and camera, although I have no idea what they do of the footage considering they’re never seen editing news reports and we never see anyone else watch a video version of their student journal. Anyway, there’s a ball tonight, so Yumi, Odd, Ulrich and Sissi help decorating the gymnasium. Sissi immediately proves that she can be a b**** by rudely telling Millie and Tamiya that they’re too young to go to the ball. Meanwhile, we also see Jérémie again, in his bedroom, talking to Aelita. He’s got a pretty neat set-up, a direct connection between the supercomputer and his laptop. As a result, he can work on programs for the supercomputer in the comfort of his dormitory room.

I should note that in Season 1, Aelita was their only way to know
when a tower was activated - therefore, when they couldn't talk
to her, they didn't know there was a XANA attack.

And what is XANA’s plan this time? A giant teddy bear attack? Wait, is that serious? Are you kidding? No, you're not kidding? Gee, that’s a weird start… Taking control of Millie’s teddy bear, making it grow huge, and attacking people with it. Have I mentioned that XANA’s earlier machinations made no sense? Either they’re silly stuff like this, or make no sense on an actual scientific standpoint.

Pictured: The pilot of a show that hadn't yet found the
theme it wanted to have. Therefore, giant teddy bear.
Aww, he's so fluffy, we're all gonna die!
As I mentioned in Part 1 of this review, every season is a story arc. Not all of the episodes bring the arc closer to an end – some are disconnected little stories without a relation to the overarching plot. In Season 1, the story arc is about Jérémie trying to find a way to bring Aelita on Earth from Lyoko, which proves difficult; she doesn’t have materialization (hear: DNA) codes like the others, forcing Jérémie to work on those from the ground up. Let’s tell the truth here, Jérémie is a genius, but he’s still a middle school kid who’s trying to accomplish programming wonders far beyond his abilities – but hey, if anything, this just shows how much determination he has. Nearly every episode of the season makes mention of Jérémie trying to move forward in this project. Oddly enough, XANA’s attacks in these 26 episodes are rarely, if ever, related to this. Either the villainous program believes that Jérémie can’t do it, or thinks it can get rid of the kids before he actually succeeds.

That’s the interesting thing in Season 1: XANA himself doesn’t have an overarching plan aside from “Kill these meddling kids”. He just launches attacks, tries to kill the group, some run to the factory and hop on Lyoko, others stay behind to help and save others, they bring Aelita to the tower, she deactivates it, the attack ends, Return to the Past.

As soon as Aelita enters the tower, we get a long stock clip
sequence of her walking very slowly to the center of the
tower. While, y'know, people are seconds away from
dying horribly in the real world. But no, Aelita, do take
your time! No hurry at all!
These become the beats that most episodes follow. Like clockwork. This season is where the formula is at its most obvious. Especially the moment where the team heads off to the factory, which uses the same bits of stock footage from the show almost every time. The group running through the sewers, or rolling on skateboards and scooters, or following the same downwards path… Yeah, this show also likes to use stock footage. It’s also fairly obvious when Aelita deactivates a tower, with her shots being practically the same on every single episode, intercut with shots of the action going on in the real world. Same goes for Jérémie pressing a button, starting the Return to the Past, and the beam of light flashing out across the factory and Kadic. It gets pretty blatant over time. I can understand, they likely want to cut some of the costs on animation. It does end up feeling pretty tired after a while, which is why they change it up past Season 1.

I should also point out another main issue with the show in general: Everything seems to work under the rule of drama. Crises will be avoided merely a second or two before they happen. On Lyoko, Ulrich, Odd or Yumi will always be devirtualized exactly at the required moment or lose exactly the amount of Life Points that will make the fight harder for them. But of course, everything is arranged so that, no matter what happens and how close they come to defeat, they don’t actually lose.

Alright, let’s look at this from point to point:
An example taken from the very first episode: XANA
vanishes from the teddy bear... a mere second before it
was gonna crush Ulrich with its nub.
-Yes, it’s very interesting that the current crisis gets averted just before someone is about to get killed. I do mean "interesting" as in, "it keeps the interest of the viewer". Younger audience members will stay on their seat, wishing to see more, and it keeps the suspense and the drama at a high level in the last minutes before the tower is deactivated. After a while though, it gets a bit silly, which is why, as the series goes on, this happens a lot less often. The willing suspension of disbelief can only stretch so much before it snaps apart. Not every single mission has to be completed seconds before somebody dies!
-Jérémie uses Life Points to describe his friends' current state on Lyoko. He also states how many LP they lose when they get hit. Some attacks are an instant kill, like getting run over by a Megatank (guess not everybody has Indiana Jones’ luck), but other attacks have variable effects. Think of it this way: The Life Points mean nothing on Lyoko, they’re usually mentioned just to increase the drama. A shot from a Kankrelat, the Goombas of Lyoko, can deal 10 LP of damage in one episode and 50 in another. Same goes for just about any other monster; the attacks don’t have set damage values, they change depending on what the author of the episode wants to do. This character needs to be devirtualized, like, right now? Surprise! Shot by a laser, lost all remaining Life Points, no matter how many the character still had! It’s subtle, but someone who watches the show over a short period of time will pick up on this. Come to think of it, if this is somehow justified by XANA adjusting the strength of its monsters, why doesn’t it give them all insta-kill lasers? …Oh… right… then it wouldn’t be “fair”… Or rather, you can build one good story out of that, and one's not enough for a full show.
Odd's Future Flash would let him prevent catastrophes,
but it just served to build MORE drama on top of
what is already taking place.
-As a final bit of general cheap drama, we also have Odd’s premonitions. In Season 1, on Lyoko, Odd could often see glimpses of the near future, which would allow him to prevent major catastrophes (such as Aelita falling into the Digital Sea below Lyoko). This would see use in a few episodes, again mostly to stir up additional thrill, but would then be discarded by Season 2 onwards. When even the producers of the show see how cheap that tactic really is… yeah, no wonder they removed it. Ulrich and Yumi did keep their bonus abilities, though – Ulrich can still use bursts of super-speed and split himself in three, using two clones to divert the attention of XANA’s monsters, while Yumi can still use telekinesis to move objects with her mind, Odd? No superpower, sorry.

The CGI was also a lot cheaper on the first few episodes, especially during the scenes on Lyoko. The movements were jerkier, less normal, and not as fluid as they would later be. Then again, that’s to be expected from a pilot. We can already see great progress before the end of this season.

So yeah, the giant XANA-possessed teddy bear is stopped, Return to the Past, there we go. In the following episodes, we also see more of the school, its faculty, and the possible student activities. In Episode 2, the team wants to start a pop-rock prog band! Which will unfortunately be a thing only in that episode and never be mentioned again, even if they manage to get Sissi’s lackey Nicolas on drums and, for some reason, the gym teacher, Jim, with a trombone. Oh yeah, by the way, if a giant teddy bear was too silly of a plan for you, XANA’s new plan is to redirect most of the city’s electricity towards the nearby nuclear power plant, to blow it up.

XANA doesn’t seem nearly as silly now, does it?

I could do the "shocking!" pun again, but I've done it
way too many times. My comedy needs a boost.
When the team tries to decide whether or not to tell the authorities, Aelita votes that she wants them to tell, even if it means the supercomputer could get shut down to prevent XANA from doing more damage. This sets up Aelita’s character as somewhat of a martyr. You see, since she is the only one who can deactivate towers on Lyoko, it’s perfectly understandable that XANA targets her more frequently. This also means that, whether she likes it or not, she’s the only one who can stop the attacks in the real world – and that these attacks happen at all doesn’t exactly make her very happy, either. It also becomes clear over time (past Season 1, at least), that Aelita holds something that XANA wants, and killing her or turning off the supercomputer would stop his looming menace. Aelita believes that her survival as an Artificial Intelligence is less important than the survival of all these real people. She’s got a point there, that’s the sad part. As a result, her willingness to get the supercomputer shut down with her and XANA still in it makes perfect sense. Not to mention that she is near-defenseless against XANA and that she must rely on her friends to escort her to the tower.

It's no saxophone, but I guess it'll do.
Although, once again, they manage to deactivate the tower just moments before XANA sends out all of the electricity to blow up the nuclear power plant, so we get another reset and, from there, we see the team's little band... which we'll never see again.

As for why they got Jim in the group with a trombone... Alright fine, progressive bands do include wind instruments even if they’re closer to rock or metal… though I’m not expecting Pink Floyd levels of popularity for this little middle school band. Unless they start singing about money. Since we never hear of that band again, it seems they dropped it after one show.

Yuck. Poor Sissi, covered in slimy alien-robot saliva.
On the other hand, I'm sure the director who ordered
this thing will be sued by the creators of Alien AND
Predator for plagiarism.
From that point on, XANA’s attacks get more varied. One day he’s attacking with a fog that chokes those who inhale it, the other he’s controlling bulldozers or an alien animatronic, or he's wreaking havoc on the academy’s telecommunications. The adults of the school alternate between reacting intelligently to the current crisis and being complete morons, each time depending on the plot of the day. On the side, the Lyoko-Warriors often make major mistakes just before a XANA attack, and manage to save face and correct their mistakes thanks to a successful Return to the Past once they’ve defeated XANA. Okay, I know it’s a reset button for a reason, but these kids sure like to use it to live again through certain social situations that did not go their way and actually make it go their way! …Are we sure these are the good guys? Okay, I’m joking, they are the good guys. Still, that particular habit of them is rather objectionable. Thankfully, this protagonist-centered morality gets toned down quite a bit in the later seasons.

At one point in the season, Jérémie manages to create the devirtualization program, with the downside being that it’ll work only once… and he ends up having to use it on Yumi when she’s about to be virtualized forever in that week’s blatant drama shot. While this was a pretty sad outcome, in the end it just gave Jérémie more confidence that he can do it.

One of the weirder (and, in my opinion, worse) episodes involves an Aelita lookalike becoming a classmate of Jérémie, Odd and Ulrich’s, and Jérémie starts believing that she’s actually Aelita, materialized thanks to the most recent program he built, and suffering from amnesia. Yeah, not a very good episode, and Taelia never reappears either, so yeah… let’s sweep this one under the rug.

Before you ask, yes, she looks way too much like Aelita. Before you ask,
the others are Mrs. Hertz the science teacher and Mr. Delmas, the principal.
Before you ask, yes, that sounds like bad fanfiction.
In my opinion, that was the writers trying 2D designs for Aelita, if they
hadn't figured one out yet.

It's a good thing that Ulrich, Yumi and Odd have each
gotten good enough to last if they're alone on Lyoko to
protect Aelita.
Some episodes later, Jérémie is able to bring to the real world a strand of pink hair from Aelita’s head, which by the way he won’t totally keep taped in a creeper’s journal for the rest of his life, oh no. And of course, he can never explain how he does things without spouting a huge load of scientific mumbo-jumbo that the young audience will never understand (though I suppose that’s the point). I’m not even sure I get everything he says either, so Odd’s demands that Jérémie repeats in layman’s terms is much welcome. The experiment plants a bug on Aelita that will reformat her program (and possibly erase her from Lyoko) the next time she deactivates a tower. Of course that’s when XANA attacks, by nearly shattering Kadic Academy into pieces, and Aelita does disappear after deactivating the tower… However, they manage to retrieve her by virtualizing the strand of hair. (Hold your screams of BS, you’ll be saying it so often your voice is gonna run out.) Maybe this salvaged her data from the system. Either way, it worked.

XANA attacks by spreading laughing gas, then later creates nanorobots that induce amnesia in those who inhale them, then later composes a deadly music that paralyzes those who listen to it too much and leaves them with a big creepy grin. Oh hey, for that last one, I see XANA went to the Joker School of Crime. Gotta hand it to that malevolent computer program, it sure got creative.

"Odd? Odd! Wake up! That face, it's not normal!"
"He has the same expression after he says a terrible pun."

Those stupid blocks... I really mean that, they're pretty
stupid. They're still a threat, though.
The best episodes of the season come in during the last third. Episode 19, Frontier, has Jérémie getting into an argument with Aelita and deciding to step into a scanner and virtualize himself to apologize to her in person. He gives Yumi the directions on how to virtualize him, then steps in the scanner. However, something goes wrong during the virtualization process and Jérémie winds up stuck somewhere between the real world and Lyoko. Thankfully, Aelita is able to hear his thoughts, and she manages to retrieve his data memory around the four sectors. They manage to do so in the nick of time, this despite XANA catching on and trying his best to stop her from succeeding. Once again, the problem is solved in the nick of time. Jérémie even gets to some place where he manages to touch Aelita, just for a moment! (By the fingertips, sure, but hey, that’s still one of the best moments in the entire show. I think I squee'd the first time I saw it happen. Considering I'm a guy, it sounded pretty damn weird.)

Had it been Odd in that situation, he would have started
flirting with Aelita.

XANA, demolition expert! Manipulator of the
earth itself! With a non-capital E.
Can sink schools faster than an iceberg sunk the Titanic!
In the episodes that follow, XANA somehow manages to remove the Earth’s gravitational pull around Kadic's campus, and later sinks the school multiple floors underground. Okay, seriously, that quantum supercomputer is getting way too powerful. It makes no freaking sense. Meanwhile, we also get an episode about the Lyoko-Warriors getting into some form of routine between their school classes and their fights against XANA, which implies that we haven’t seen all of their moments of heroics. For all we know, they may have had dozens more encounters with XANA and his monsters aside from the ones shown during this season! Let that sink in. They’re never really at peace, and by that point in the series, they’ve been doing these heroics for a few months.

In my opinion, the best episode of the season is “Ghost Channel”, where Ulrich, Odd and Yumi don’t actually come back from Lyoko following a victory against XANA. Jérémie and Aelita don’t know what’s going on – Odd and Ulrich are mysteriously absent from class despite a successful Return to the Past. They’re nowhere to be found on the school’s grounds! Meanwhile, the two are also in class with Jérémie, who’s acting more distant than ever before. This is actually a ruse built by XANA, who managed to create a near-perfect replica of Kadic Academy and its surroundings within Lyoko, and it sent Yumi, Odd and Ulrich there during the Return to the Past. I say near-perfect because the three start catching on when XANA finds himself having to repeat certain sequences, causing glitches where students or teachers will re-do the last thing they did. Jérémie gets to the factory and finds the titular “ghost channel”, and decides to head into Lyoko by himself to save them. Say what you want about the guy, he may be the nerdiest kid and a chicken, when the chips are down, he will jump into action.

Hm, some of these guys are definitely lower-resolution
than usual.

This is what happens when XANA, disguised as Jérémie,
meets a situation that lacks any logic. He's this close to
You know what's the scary part though? XANA will
actually learn from this display of friendship and, in
Season 2, start using it against the heroes.
And as it turns out, he did well – soon enough, the fake Jérémie would have brought the other three to the scanners in the fake factory, and the virtualization process would have actually deleted them entirely. The two Jérémies meet each other and when Yumi, Ulrich and Odd figure out which is the real one, the XANA Jérémie freaks out in one of the creepiest scenes in the entire show. XANA may have replicated so much of the outside world, there are still things he is incapable of mimicking – like loyalty, trust, or courage! Aelita manages to dispel the illusion just in time, somehow tossing Jérémie out, and back to the real world. Meanwhile, Ulrich, Yumi and Odd find themselves back on Lyoko and don’t remember what happened. They’re still good to fight, though!

(P.S. it becomes a running gag that Jérémie rarely, if ever, goes to Lyoko, and when he does, we never see his 3D form. We’re just told that he looks ridiculous. My instinct says he either becomes a Librarian or some kind of weirdo with an oversized cranium… er… moreso than he already has.) 

I’m gonna stop here for now. In Part 3 of this review, I’ll discuss the last two episodes of Season 1, then jump into Season 2. It should be a little quicker, considering I went over some of my pet peeves with the show in this part and I won’t need to discuss them again.