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June 26, 2017

An Episode In Gaming: Sonic Boom (Part 2)

Part 1 – Part 2Part 3Part 4

In Part 1, I spent a lot of time discussing the characters – now we’re jumping into the story of the show! Or, well, at least Season 1 of the show and the early ones of Season 2, which is currently ongoing. How about we take a look at the first few episodes, and deduce a couple things from those? It will be interesting to study the show’s formula out of a sample.

Must be good to always have a sidekick ready to help you.
Why don't I have a sidekick again? ...That was a stupid question.
I don't need a sidekick for a written blog! If I ever move to video, though...

I also probably wouldn't be good enough of a leader to
actually use a sidekick effectively. Look at Sonic here,
immediately worried for his pal's safety!
The first episode of the show is titled “The Sidekick”. It starts as Tails gets hurt when his plane crashes following a battle against Doctor Eggman’s Burnbot (which doesn’t have a single fire attack despite the name). Following this, Sonic decides to let Tails go on “early retirement” as a sidekick and holds auditions for a new one. Being Sonic, he doesn’t think it through, and his ad says “All qualified candidates welcome” – which doesn’t prevent Tails from applying for the position. Nor does it prevent Doctor Eggman. In the end, it boils down to Tails, Eggman and a third guy who’s quickly taken out. Eggman doesn’t play fair, so Tails again finds himself in danger – forcing Sonic to admit to his fox pal why he was looking for a new sidekick: to keep Tails safe. Eggman brings out Burnbot, which has actual fire attacks now, and Tails is the one to save Sonic from drowning in frozen waters. They defeat Burnbot, Sonic keeps Tails as his sidekick, and Eggman flees, promising he’ll have another robot later to attack them.

Come on now, the silhouette on the poster clearly
fits Tails. He's the only one who can get the role.
This one sets the tone for the show, showing that there’s no strategy Eggman won’t use, especially to make use of the sillier setting of the series. He’s also shown to be still a threat, though quite goofy. Really, you call your robot Burnbot when it can’t burn a thing? He seems to take the sillier route of Sonic Boom in stride, playing along with the slice-of-life aspects. Would Game!Eggman apply for the role of Sonic’s sidekick, even as an easy way to get close to him and make it easier to defeat his enemy? I doubt it. This episode focuses more on the relationship between Sonic and Tails, and doesn’t feature the other team members as much. Sticks is absent; however, Amy and Knuckles show up, applying for the position of Sonic’s sidekick and making a poor impression. Amy thinks she can get the spot by singing and juggling – which is pretty damn funny; Amy, this isn’t a talent show! – and Knuckles thinks Sonic wants to be his sidekick.

"Amy, this is not the place. Go to Unnamed Village's Got Talent.
You'll be judged by Hawkie Mandel, Camel B, Heidingo Klum
and Simon Owl."
(And the design team behind Sonic Boom can make them all look fantastic.)

And action, there is! In Episode 1, Tails saves Sonic from
drowning. Guess propeller tails are good for more than
just one thing.
Another thing you quickly notice about the show is how it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Yeah, obviously it’s a comedy, but it’s a comedy that pokes fun at itself – and it also makes some light jabs at the franchise it’s from. One of the issues with discussing a good comedy is that there’s only so many times that you can say “This is funny, this works” before it gets repetitive. I personally think Sonic Boom is a decent comedy series. Lots of laughs to be had in every episode, and they manage to find twists on old jokes that I hadn't seen before. Even when they get to action sequences, they keep that air of fun and lightheartedness.

"We're letting you in, but this better not be one of your
evil plans. Is it an evil plan?"
"*sigh* Okay, come in."
Although Sonic Boom attempts to go further than this, and I’ll demonstrate with the second episode: “Can An Evil Genius Crash On Your Couch For A Few Days?” Boy, that’s a mouthful of a title. It starts with Eggman showing up at Sonic’s place in the middle of the night because his lair was apparently destroyed by the thunderstorm. And, well, he needs a place to stay, and I suppose the money he likely needs for making his thousands of robots mysteriously disappeared, hence why he can’t just go to the local hotel… unless there isn’t a hotel. Sonic and Tails decide to let him in. Following this, Eggman turns out to be a pretty terrible guest, criticizing the team and belittling them – although, considering he’s seen walking around Tails’ house in a pink onesie, he really shouldn’t be one to talk.

These pink pajamas are an evil plan all to themselves.

Why do the best scenes involve Sonic, Eggman,
and board games??
After Eggman gets told off on his behavior, he adjusts – boy does he adjust. He gets a lot friendlier, a lot more playful. It’s abnormal, and Sticks the conspiracy theorist is still convinced that this is all a plan. Eggman’s newfound love for pillow fights – yes, seriously – proceeds to shave off Sonic and Tails’ precious sleep hours, leaving them as tired messes. On this, Eggman reveals that it was his plan along, to deprive his hosts of sleep to such a point that they can't fight back, and then he attacks with a giant robot. At that moment, Sticks, much like a fanboy having finally a theory of his proven true, yells “I KNEW IT!”

"We'll catch the Obliterator Bot... After we've caught
all the Zs..."
Even though Amy, Knuckles and Sticks are still able to fight, somehow Sonic and Tails being too tired prevents the team from being able to fend off the robot. Unfortunately for Eggman, the robot misunderstands his voice commands and goes to attack his lair instead – forcing the doctor to ask Sonic and Tails to help him again. They eventually defeat it, but Eggman’s lair is destroyed for real in the process. They just drop him there and leave, choosing not to have to deal with this trouble again.

I quite enjoy this episode. It cements Eggman’s status as a villain who’ll gladly use the conventions of slice-of-life shows in order to enact his evil plans. He’ll eventually go back to using robots, but until then, he will benefit from the niceness of the heroes. Here, he plays with the idea of an enemy settling in with the heroes for an indeterminate period of time, making it a part of his plan.

That's Knuckles, with a trash can on his head, being
Knuckles. The typical "character becomes suddenly
famous for a moment" episode plot.
There’s something about modern cartoons. I haven’t studied the history of cartoons, but I can already tell you: There are many stock plots that writers rely on. There are those ideas that pop up on various TV series, whether it’s the slice-of-life or action ones, and you’ll instantly recognize them. There’s the bodyswap episode. The sudden extreme bad luck episode. There’s the episode where someone is in a rush looking for a gift for someone they like. There’s the episode about a friend who might move away soon. There’s the episode where the hero lets someone inside their house because that guest needs a roof over their head. You’ll notice that these tropes are still incredibly common, and tend to be the focus of various episodes.

However, as time went on, it seems that more and more daring content creators wanted to break away from the mold. Many modern cartoons make a conscious attempt at using these tropes in new ways, in ways that they weren’t used before. New content creators try to be clever with them. It is also pretty important to note that many creators of today were probably kids when cartoons became mainstream in the eighties and nineties. They’ve seen these series where every episode was standalone. They’ve seen the days of “no continuity”. They’ve also seen the days of “minimal continuity”. But most of all, they’ve seen the days where any plot was fair game as long as it could be justified within the context of a show – which isn’t to say that these plots were always being used creatively. Each stock plot episode followed the beats of that plot, usually without trying something new.

BoJack Horseman is one of those attempts at having no
reset button whatsoever. Like the real world. The D of
Hollywood is stolen on the first episode. Not only does
it never come back (and is always absent in the backgrounds),
people in the show start calling the place Hollywoo.
That’s why, since the mid-2000s, we’ve seen more and more TV shows make a conscious use of continuity. Or, at least, there was an attempt at making shows that contained both standalone episodes and continuity-relevant episodes. As time went on, we actually started seeing more and more shows that started off with standalone episodes, only for just about every episode to turn out relevant to the greater story in the end. And recently, we saw shows that tried to have EVERYTHING be connected to the greater plot, even mundane phrases or jokes from earlier episodes having greater meaning over time. I can list off a dozen examples from Adventure Time alone. We’ve come to a point where a lot of viewers desire continuity, we want things to move forward. Newer shows like Bojack Horseman or Rick and Morty go a step beyond, and never employ the status quo or a reset button.

Why did I go into this long exposé? Well, for two reasons: First off, the creators of the Sonic Boom TV series were at first trying to make a show with only standalone episodes. And that didn’t work, as the show eventually gained enough recurring characters and plot threads to classify as having a continuity – I’ll talk about that in Part 3. Second, after watching the full first season of Sonic Boom, I can tell you; many of these episode contain the stock plots I discussed, but actually try to do something new out of them. There is an effort in building over what’s been done before, reinventing what we’ve seen previously, and that’s what modern cartoons should all try to do.

Amy: "This thing is gonna ruin the entire subplot where I try to hide my
feelings for Sonic! I have to destroy it. Now how many hammers do I
need to summon to make it deader than dead..." 

Huh. I didn't know the Universal Translator had a
holographic projection function.
Episode 3, “Translate This”, has Tails create a universal translator that ends up reading into minds and revealing what the team thinks behind what they say. The machine causes discord in the group, so Eggman replaces it with its own – which just has a loudspeaker inside so that he can spout insults and divide the group further. Tails quickly realizes that something's wrong and heads to Eggman's lair to save his robot, but since his friends despite the Universal Translator, he decides to stay with Eggman and help the evil doctor for a while. (It's a ploy to send UT back to the group with a message asking them to save him.) Clever idea, but it’s not one of my favorite episodes. It does show that Tails, while quite smart, often lets his pride in his inventions grow beyond the bond he shares with his friends, which is an interesting character flaw. As for the UT... Sticks, the paranoid one, tosses it in the water mere seconds after Tails has been rescued.

What an adorable little creature! With her pet robot!

That green slime looks fake every time Buster s;pews it
out. But then again, it's garbage slime. No matter how
fake it looks, I don't want it anywhere near me.
Episode 4, “Buster”, features Sticks as the focus character. It’s a take on the old story of a main character being told to get a pet in order to learn how to deal with animals. Never mind the fact that the main characters are animals themselves, but shhh, these observations would make our protagonists’ heads explode. Unhappy with the selection of ridiculously adorable flesh-and-blood beasties in the local pet shop – the existence of that place raises so many questions – she eventually finds a robot dog in a nearby garbage can and falls in love. She takes it in as her pet and names it Buster, but the robot has a bad tendency to misbehave and spit yucky green goop all over her friends, at any time. Sonic and the others get fed up with Buster pretty quick, but Eggman, the robo-doggy’s creator (totally not suspicious) brings a gift for it. It turns out to be a trap; who knew? The evil bone-shaped machine in the gift turns Buster into a giant monster that overpowers the team, until Sticks orders it to spit out the bone. Eggman is defeated again, and Sticks agrees to let Buster go.

Is that Buster? Awwwww; They grow so fast nowadays!

That didn't actually happen. Proof: Buster isn't spewing
slime all over the place.
This episode doesn’t play around with conventions as much, though it’s quite interesting in how it handles the pet plot. Sticks prefers the creepy robot thing over the actual animals at the shop, and is incapable of training it the way her friends want her to. And at the end, when Buster is a monstrous tentacle creature, Sticks asks it to remember the good times they’ve had… and what follows is a montage of things that didn’t happen. Not only that; they both realize that these moments never happened. Now that is really funny.

Let’s end today with episode 5, “My Fair Sticksy”. Another Sticks-centered episode. This is another episode that highlights her conspiracy theorist tendencies at the beginning. I’ll say it right away, I don’t like conspiracy theorists. In real life, these people are capable of doing real, actual damage by spreading misinformation built out of nothing but flimsy leaps of logic and untrustworthy sources. Even today, there are hordes of people who believe a research claiming that vaccines cause autism out of some weird plan built by pharmaceutical companies – long after that research’s author came out and admitted that it was bullshit. What’s more, what frequently happens with conspiracy theorist characters is that this often becomes their only defining trait – and any additional personality elements merely tie back to that. Paranoid? Gullible? Not all there? Prepares for everything? Oh, it’s normal, they’re a conspiracy theorist. Many stories have made use of that type of character, usually for a quick laugh. Even Adam Sandler’s movie Pixels used it. I’ve come to despise the cliché as much as I despise the real people who behave like this.

She even has a machine to prevent people from reading her
thoughts. Come on now, Sticks, you should know that
aluminum foil is the only way to go.
Sticks is at least bearable in that this isn’t her only characteristic. It’s one of her big traits, but she’s more than that. Her conspirationist tendencies are toned down when she’s in good company – being with her friends seems to help her a lot. Her behavior can be partly explained by her growing up in the forest, although why she lived in the wilderness for so long is never explained, nor are we ever told how she ended up joining the main group. Outside of this character trait, she’s shown to be inventive, nice, quite the combatant, and devoted and loyal to her friends. Her conspiracy theory shtick is a running gag, and is frequent, but it rarely (if ever) drives her actions throughout an entire episode.

So, she's learned about "pinkie out". She still needs
to learn not to slurp her drik so badly.
In this episode, after fending off a meteor shower falling on the village with her crazy contraptions – weird, you’d expect this to be Tails’ field of expertise – she receives an important letter. It’s an invitation for an evening where she may win the elusive local Awardy Award – a funny nod to the games where this is a collectible item. Only problem being, this is an upper-class evening, and Sticks is a lot of things, but upper-class isn’t one of them. Sticks nonetheless agrees to take Amy’s lessons on becoming a proper lady, while Sonic accepts to be her escorting gentleman for the evening, on his own condition – no pants. That actually becomes a running gag in the show, where a lot of half-dressed animals refer to pants without wearing any.

The pants, or lack thereof, on most of the male Mobian
population on the island, is the reason why textile industries
in the vicinity are currently at risk of bankruptcy.

Sheesh, the doctor just breathes joy, doesn't he?
Sticks follows Amy’s lessons and is at least trying when the big event comes, though she still has much to learn – she makes many faux pas. Knuckles makes friends with some of the guests at the Awardy Award ceremony after mocking the complex yet unappetizing meals. Sitting at the nominees’ table, Sticks sees that Eggman is among the nominees. He completely fairly and legally filled the ballots with sheets voting for him with his latest ballot-stuffing bot, nothing illegal there, he promises. The winner is announced – and it’s neither Sticks nor Eggman. Angered, the evil doctor attacks with his ballot-stuffing robot, but it’s not enough of a threat. So he calls his army of robots and manages to trap the group, minus Sticks, in force fields. Despite her attempts at staying proper for the night, she decides she’s had enough, reverts to combatant-Sticks, saves the others and makes Eggman flee. Thus she learns the most important lesson of all: Be yourself. AKA, the #1 most taught lesson in cartoons and movies, ever. Then Amy asks how she could be more like Sticks, having apparently missed the point, and Sticks drags her into a dumpster.

"Why should we be classy? We're heroes!"
"That's never stopped James Bond from rocking the three-piece suit."

Solid episode! I quite enjoy it. It plays off Sticks’ strengths and puts her in a scenario where she ends up learning something – the basis for most good stories, really. The episode is notable for being the first appearance of many of the townsfolk, as many plots in later episodes involve the town’s residents in a way or another. It’s also full of laughs and even has the writers poking fun at themselves and the show (mocking the Awardy Award, while a small thing, proves to be an early example of what the show would become over time…).

Let’s continue this in Part 3, shall we? With an actual timeline, since past Episode 5 we start to have some actual continuity, and it’ll be interesting to study it.