My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic was originally meant to advertise a new line of My Little Pony toys. Instead, it became a massive hit, not just with the intended audience of pre-tween girls but with people of all ages. Toys and other merchandise sold well, enough that Hasbro showed gains while other toy companies were struggling, but audiences tuned in because of the characters. Within the Mane Six alone – Applejack, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, and Twilight Sparkle – there is a pony to appeal to everyone. Their core natures meant that any episode featuring two of them would have a conflict that the ponies would have to work out. No one pony is given preference, so resolving the conflict means finding a compromise that works for both. For the target audience, it’s a lesson in how to get along with friends who act differently.
The Mane Six aren’t the only characters in Equestria. Applejack and Rarity have younger siblings, Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle, who, along with Scootaloo, form the Cutie Mark Crusaders, a trio of young fillies who want to grow up. Parallels to younger siblings and to puberty may be intended with them. Other ponies have made appearances, as regulars, such as DJ Pon-3 and Big Mackintosh, or as visitors to Ponyville, such as Trixie and Cheese Sandwich, the latter based on and voiced by “Weird Al” Yankovic.
With a series that mixes fantasy adventure with slice of life, there is plenty of room for ponies other than the Mane Six to get together and save Equestria. Online roleplaying fora exist for just that. With people wanting to play in Equestria, an official licensed role-playing game should have been expected. In early 2017, River Horse released* Tails of Equestria, the official My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic RPG.
Tails of Equestria comes as a single hardback book. The cover features art by Amy Mebberson with three ponies on an adventure, none of whom are part of the Mane Six. The unicorn on the cover is the sample PC (Pony Character) in character creation. Inside, stills from the show are used to illustrate the rules being explained on the page. There’s even a full spread map of Equestria and surrounding lands. PCs aren’t stuck in Ponyville; they can travel to such places as Manehattan and Vanhoover.
The game’s mechanics are easy enough to learn. There are three attributes – Body, Mind, and Charm – rated at a die type, from the four-sided die to the best die, the twenty-sided die. Most rolls will involve one of the attributes, though talents may modify the die type rolled. The Gamesmaster (GM) sets the difficulty anywhere from 2, very easy, to 20, “has anybody ever done this?” A roll of 1 results in bad luck; something goes wrong and hinders the pony. If the pony’s player wishes, he or she can use one or more Tokens of Friendship, the game’s drama point mechanic, to reroll the die, roll the next larger die and take the better result, or even succeed without rolling, depending on how many Tokens are spent. Other ponies can help, reducing the number of Tokens of Friendship needed to get a result. Teamwork makes tasks easier.
Character creation is quick. There’s ten steps, but each step only requires a simple choice. Players just have to decided on type of pony, whether to be brainy or brawny, what their Cutie Mark talent is, a quirk, and a name. Pony portraits are encouraged, either drawn by hand or through an online pony creator, the latter with parents’ permission and supervision. The unicorn on the cover, Firebrand, has a hand-drawn pencil portrait as an example. River Horse also has character sheets with pony outlines to fill in available for sale. If players prefer, they can use MLP toys as miniatures.
The game is aimed at the younger audience of the TV series. The writing is simple and direct, well illustrated when needed. The game reinforces the main theme from the cartoon, friendship is magic. Even if a player doesn’t give another a Token of Friendship to help in a task, ponies are encouraged to work together and give a helping hoof. The quirks, minor drawbacks that limited what a pony can do, help show how two ponies are different but can still work together. The game gets a little heavy-hoofed with the message, but the target audience won’t notice. There are helpful hints for the GM through out the game, with more in the GM’s section on how to run the game. There’s even an option to run a Cutie Mark Crusader-style game, with players being young colts and fillies trying to discover what their cutie mark talent is.
Tails of Equestria also has an adventure for beginning players. The Mane Six need to find out what’s turning ponies into statuettes but they promised to give their pets a party. The players are recruited to watch over the pets while the Mane Six are gone. Given that Fluttershy’s rabbit, Angel, is the complete opposite of his name, things don’t go smooth for the PCs. And while it seems like the Mane Six are off having an epic adventure while the PCs are rounding up wayward pets, the end of the adventure leads into the first expansion set, The Curse of the Statuettes.
Mechanics alone do not determine the tone of a game, though matching them to the setting helps greatly. MLP:FIM has its own themes, the big one being the power of friendship. Violence doesn’t solve problems; friendship does. Tails of Equestria follows this theme. The combat section takes just two pages and is called “scuffling”. Ponies who lose all their stamina need to rest; they get to see stars around their head when stamina reaches zero. Ponies that help each other see the difficulty of their tasks get reduced. One pony might not be able to lift a heavy table; four ponies can easily move it to where they want it. The focus of the game is on friendship. Even the number of Tokens of Friendship depends on the number of friends, including the GM, who are playing. A new player means a new friend, so everyone else gets an extra Token while the new pony gets a number equal to everyone playing, even the people who couldn’t make it. After all, a friend is still a friend, even if they’re not at the table.
The only real problem with Tails of Equestria is how it handles the Elements of Harmony. Every Pony Character must choose one, but there isn’t much on how the Elements are used. The idea is that if a task fits one of the Elements well, a pony with that Element can succeed without having to roll. Fortunately, the adventure included in the book shows how it works, but there isn’t much else.
Tails also has a small bestiary, just containing the creatures needed for the introductory adventure. The same section also has the Mane Six fully statted out plus generic ponies of all three types. The expansions should have more details; The Bestiary of Equestria has far more if players are interested, including new character types like Griffons and Buffalo. River Horse is supporting the Tails of Equestria line with a wide range, including a sourcebook for the MLP:FIM theatrical movie.
Game designers have a difficult task when adapting a work to a game of any sort. With tabletop RPGs, the goal is to take what has been shown and expand it so that players can have fun in the setting. Tails of Equestria took My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic and presented the setting as a place for players to play in and have fun, much like the cartoon invites audiences to do. With only small problems, Tails of Equestria gets to the heart of MLP:FIM and makes it possible for players to do the same thing the Mane Six do, have adventures with friends helping each other out.
* In North American, the game and its supplements is distributed by Ninja Division.
Nostalgia is powerful, especially when decision makers choose what to remake. It works to get long time fans in, but an original’s target audience may be far younger than the fans have become. Today, a look at once such case, 2000’s The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle from Universal Pictures.
The characters of Rocket J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose first appeared in 1959 on Rocky and His Friends, airing in black and white on ABC. In 1961, NBC picked up the series and aired it as The Bullwinkle Show in colour until cancelling the show in 1964. In syndication, the series became known as The Rocky Show, The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, and The Adventures of Bullwinkle and Rocky. While the series had low-quality animation from an outsourced studio and a small cast of voices, the writing featured puns, satire, and self-deprecating humour.
A typical episode of the show would have two parts of an ongoing story featuring Rocky and Bullwinkle acting as bookends. Between the two chapters, other shorts appeared, including “Fractured Fairy Tales”, retelling classic fairy tales with a twist; “Peabody’s Improbably History“; “Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties”, a parody of older melodramas; “Aesop and Son”, fracturing fables instead of fairy tales; “Bullwinkle’s Corner”, where Bullwinkle mangles poetry; and “Mr. Know It All”, where Bullwinkle demonstrates what not to do in different situations. All of this – the two chapters featuring Rocky and Bullwinkle and four other shorts – fit into a half-hour episode, including commercials.
The main draw, the actual adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, featured a small number of voice actors. June Foray portrayed Rocky and every female character that appeared, including Pottsylvanian spy Natasha Fatale. Bill Scott played Bullwinkle and Pottsylvania dictator Fearless Leader. Paul Frees took on the roles of Pottsylvanian spy Boris Badenov and Captain Peter “Wrongway” Peachfuzz. The narrator of the chapters was William Conrad. The writing kept things moving at a brisk pace, allowing for a hurricane of puns. Rocky and Bullwinkle would start off in a misadventure that would lead to a cliffhanger. Along the way, Boris and Natasha would get involved and try to eliminate Moose and Squirrel in ways that would backfire on them.
While the series lasted only five seasons, syndication ensured that the show would last through reruns. Rocky and Bullwinkle appeared on over-the-air broadcast stations and cable-only channels, entertaining several generations. The show’s influence can be seen in series like The Simpsons. Naturally, this level of popularity meant that a studio executive would eventually see the benefit of a Rocky and Bullwinkle film adaptation.
In 2000, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle picks up thirty-five years after the original series’ cancellation. Rocky and Bullwinkle have returned to Frostbite Falls in a forced retirement; the town, though, is suffering from deforestation. The Narrator has returned to his home, where he narrates aspects of his daily life, much to the annoyance of his mother. Pottsylvania has turned into a democracy after the Cold War, leaving Fearless Leader, Boris, and Natasha out of power and out of work. The animated world looked bleak.
Fearless Leader, though, did not take being out of power sitting down. With Boris and Natasha, he convinces Minnie Mogul, played by Janeane Garofalo, to sign a contract to bring back The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. When Minnie pulls the contract out from animated Pottsylvania, she finds that the villains are attached to the project. The three Pottsylvanians go from being animated characters to live-action characters, with Robert De Niro as Fearless Leader, Jason Alexander as Boris, and Rene Russo as Natasha. Despite the unforeseen attachments, Minnie still tries to get the project approved, but studio head P.G. Biggershot (Carl Reiner) hates moose movies shuts the film down.
Six months later, Fearless Leader has RBTV, Really Bad Television, set up over all available cable channels. Using the power of television, he will turn every American viewer into a zombie to command as he wishes. The FBI, though, knows that Fearless Leader is up to something. The chief, Cappy von Trapment (Randy Quaid), assigns Agent Karen Sympathy (Piper Perabo) to get the two people who have had the most success stopping Fearless Leader – Rocky and Bullwinkle. The mission must succeed, at any cost. Karen flies to Hollywood and breaks into Phony Pictures Studios to greenlight The Rocky and Bullwinkle Movie as a fantasy adventure road trip film.
The green light breaks through the dimensional barrier between the real world and the animated and pulls Rocky, Bullwinkle, and the Narrator out of Frostbite Falls and into the lighthouse where films are green lit. Rocky, still voiced by June Foray who also voiced all the animated women, and Bullwinkle, voiced by Kevin Scott, no relation to Bill Scott, who took on all the animated men, are now 3-D computer animation, though still recognizably themselves. The duo and Karen leave the lighthouse to begin their road trip fantasy adventure, with just forty-eight hours to get from Los Angeles, CA to New York City, NY and stop Fearless Leader and RBTV.
However, a mole in the White House warns Fearless Leader that Rocky and Bullwinkle are on their way. He orders Boris and Natasha to stop Moose and Squirrel, giving the spies a new invention created by one of RBTV’s whiz kids, the “Computer Degenerating Imagery” or CDI. In a demonstration on an animated weasel, Fearless Leader degenerates the victim, sending him where other degenerates go, the Internet. Boris, though, prefers the old ways, and loads up a RBTV van with weapons of cartoon mayhem.
Boris and Natasha catch up to our heroes in Oklahoma. They force Karen, Ricky, and Bullwinkle to leap out of their car using cartoonish bundles of TNT. With the heroes still recovering, Boris and Natasha try a more traditional method of stopping Moose and Squirrel, a cannon. Rocky and Bullwinkle use a traditional method of not being blown up – running away. Karen, though, berates Boris on his evil ways, flattering the spy and getting her close enough to put out the lit fuse. With Boris and Natasha waiting for the boom, Karen takes their van and gets Rocky and Bullwinkle in with her. Seeing all their gear on the road, Natasha starts reading the user manual for the CDI.
Temporarily foiled, Boris and Natasha give chase on foot until, through a wild coincidence, they have the opportunity to steal a helicopter. Once airborne, Natasha radios the Oklahoma State Police, telling them that they are pursuing a stolen van driven by a woman claiming to be Agent Karen Sympathy. A patrol car carrying two troopers and a cameraman from a Cops-like TV show pulls over the RBTV van and arrests Karen. She tells Rocky and Bullwinkle to keep going to New York as she’s being put into the cruiser.
The road trip continues, with Boris and Natasha still trying to stop Rocky and Bullwinkle. In prison, Karen befriends Ole (Rod Biermann), a young prison guard from Sweden who may be the only character more oblivious than Bullwinkle. The FBI agent promises to go to a movie with him if he helps her escape. Once out, though, she steals his truck after telling him that she’s just going to park it. Rocky and Bullwinkle get off track and wind up in Chicago, still pursued by Boris and Natasha. The duo also escapes and, in another wild coincidence, they meet up again, almost literally colliding with each other. Unfortunately, the police looking for Karen catch up, and our heroes are taken into custody.
Karen, Rocky, and Bullwinkle are brought before the court of Judge Cameo (Whoopi Goldberg) and are charged with one count of grand theft auto, one count of escaping prison, one count of impugning the character of a guard, four counts of talking to the audience, and eighteen counts of criminally bad puns. That number goes to nineteen thanks to Bullwinkle. The defense attorney, Bullwinkle, calls his first witness, Agent Karen Sympathy. Unfortunately, Bullwinkle forgets his the defense, not the prosecution, and makes the case for the prosecuting attorney. Judge Cameo, though, finally puts on her glasses and recognizes Rocky and Bullwinkle. Since celebrities are above the law, she dismisses the charges.
Time is running short. The fastest way to New York, NY, is by flying. Karen buys an old biplane and the threesome take off, leaving Boris and Natasha behind. The biplane can’t take the weight of everyone and loses altitude. Karen falls out of the plane. Rocky manages to catch her and flies her to New York, NY. Bullwinkle is left to fly the biplane and manages to make a wrong turn, crashing on the lawn of the White House.
In New York, people have been zombified by RBTV’s broadcast. Rocky and Karen infiltrate RBTV to try to shut down the broadcast but are caught and hooked up to the zombifier and turned into vegetables. In Washington, DC, Bullwinkle has had his chat with President Signoff (James Rebhorn). When von Trapment arrives, he sees both Signoff and Bullwinkle staring at the TV and fears the worse. Bullwinkle, though, is too thick to be affected by the broadcast. With just seconds to go before Fearless Leader’s speech, the fastest way to send Bullwinkle to New York is to scan him and email him, letting the moose surf the web to RBTV HQ where he prints himself out.
Fearless Leader starts his speech, instructing viewers to vote for him in the upcoming election. Bullwinkle, though, accidentally disrupts the broadcast then rescues Rocky and Karen. With Fearless Leader, Boris, and Natasha defeated, Bullwinkle tells the viewers to vote for whoever they want, tells whoever wins to reforest Frostbite Falls, and tells everyone to turn off their TVs. RBTV stops being Really Bad Television and becomes Rocky and Bullwinkle Television. Agent Sympathy gets a commendation from von Trapment and goes to a movie with Ole; Frostbite Falls is reforested; and the Narrator returns home to his mother.
Much like the original cartoon, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle has elements in it for both children and adults. The kids can enjoy a road trip featuring goofy cartoon characters with situations that aren’t too much different from what could be seen in reruns. Adults can also enjoy that or get into the self-deprecating humour, the puns, and the satire. Throughout the film, Rocky and Bullwinkle wink at the idea of a fourth wall, talking back to the Narrator and generally have fun with the idea of being characters. Bullwinkle’s last line in the real world compares Really Bad TV with Rocky and Bullwinkle TV, noting that there isn’t much different. In the original, similar humour comes up. For example:
Rocky: “A-bomb! Do you know what that is, Bullwinkle?”
Bullwinkle: “Yeah! That’s what they call our show!”
The film rewards a wide knowledge of movies. At one point, Fearless Leader does an impersonation of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver; essentially, De Niro parodies himself. Elsewhere, as Karen is arrested by a Oklahoma State Trooper for grand theft auto and impersonating an FBI agent:
Rocky: “But that really is Agent Karen Sympathy.”
Trooper (John Goodman): “Yeah, and I’m really John Goodman.”
The puns come from everywhere. Character names, like Agent Karen Sympathy, Signoff’s military advisors General Admission and General Store, and Minnie Mogul. Place names, like Cow Tip, Okla, and De Bitter, Ind. Even Frostbite Falls had Veronica Lake. At least a third of Bullwinkle’s lines involved a bad pun. Even visual puns were used, like the green lighting of the movie.
The movie is shameless in its satire. Its main target is Hollywood, both film and television, particularly itself. Viewers of RBTV are turned into zombies, a common accusation against all of television. Minnie Mogul rejects scripts for being “too intelligent.” Celebrities are above the law and are never found guilty, though this works for the heroes. Outside the entertainment industry, President Signoff boldly stands in the middle of the road, kissing babies. The same cluster of fast food restaurants and gas stations appear every so often along the highway.
Casting a live-action adaptation of an animated work is difficult. The animated characters have a specific look that audiences are familiar with, but the characters don’t have to obey the laws of physics in their designs. Boris is far smaller than Natasha and is closer to Rocky’s height. Even given that Rocky is large for a flying squirrel, it’d be difficult to find an actor that size. The casting for the movie did well, though. Jason Alexander needed a few extras – fake mustache and eyebrows – to look like Boris. Rene Russo only needed to change her hairstyle and add makeup as Natasha. The costuming department did the rest, matching the actors’ outfits to the animated characters’. De Niro as Fearless Leader needed a bit more work; the character also went from Pottsylvanian dictator to ruthless entertainment executive and his look reflected the change.
The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle made an effort to be a continuation of the original series. The initial problems – the deforestation of Frostbite Falls and the escape of the Pottsylvanian villains to the real world – were just catalysts for the main thrust of the movie, the road trip adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Once the duo reached the real world, the usual antics could be shown and played with. It’s not the destination that counts; it’s the journey. The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle may not have been a critical success, or even a box office success, but it did get to the heart of the original series and brought it out on the big screen.
About two years ago, Lost in Translation reviewed the 2015 series, Thunderbirds Are Go, the CGI/miniatures remake of the classic Supermarionation series created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. That wasn’t the first attempt at adapting and updating the series. In 2004, a live action version hit movie screens. Today, Lost in Translation will review the film to see how well the series made the jump to the new format.
The 2004 film, directed by Jonathan Frakes, begins with International Rescue responding to a fire on an oil rig. From Thunderbird 1, Jeff Tracy, played by Bill Paxton, directs his sons in rescuing the trapped workers. Scott Tracy maneuvers Thunderbird 2 as close as possible so that rescue lines can be shot down to the workers. Not all of the Tracy family is there; the youngest, Alan (Brady Corbet), is watching the report from Lise Lowe (Genie Francis) on TV at his boarding school with his friend, Fermat (Soren Fulton), the son of International Rescue’s mechanical genius, Brains (Anthony Edwards). Alan and Fermat mimic using the controls of Thunderbird 2, predicting what Scott needs to do. However, one of the workers is Mullion (Deobia Oparei), a mole working for the Hood (Ben Kingsley). Mullion fires a small rocket at Thunderbird 1, where it leaves a gooey substance.
With his father busy, Alan’s ride back home comes in the form of Lady Penelope (Sophia Myles) and her chauffeur, Parker (Ron Cook). She brings Alan and Fermat back to the island in FAB-1. During the reunion, Alan expresses his desire to be a Thunderbird and follow in his family’s footsteps despite his age. The discussion ends with neither Alan nor his father satisfied with the outcome. During this, Lady Penelope gets a call; the fire on the rig wasn’t an accident.
Still upset with not being allowed to join his brothers on International Rescue, Alan takes Fermat down to Thunderbird 1. They go through the motions of the initial launch, but Alan accidentally starts the vehicle’s engines. He shuts them down, but not fast enough. Jeff calls him up. Leaving Thunderbird 1, Fermat notices the goo, a gallium compound that is electro-reactive. Alan tries to tell his father but gets grounded.
On a submarine, the Hood uses the gallium compound to find the island. His plan, take over International Rescue’s headquarters. To do that, he needs the Tracys to leave and the best way to do that is to have them rescue someone. The Hood has his other minion, Transom (Rose Keegan), launch a missile at Thunderbird 5 in orbit. John Tracy (Lex Shrapnel) is injured in the impact and gets out a mayday. Jeff, Scott, Virgil (Dominic Colenso), and Gordon (Ben Torgersen) leave on Thunderbird 3. Once Thunderbird 3 has launched, the Hood invades.
Alan, Fermat, and Tintin (Vanessa Hudgens, credited as Vanessa Anne Hudgens) notice the Hood’s sub arriving. They try to get to the house first, but the Hood is faster. Inside, the Hood uses psychic mind control to force Brains to turn over command and control to him, then cuts off the the Tracys in orbit, shutting down Thunderbirds 3 and 5. Alan and his friends, though, have snuck inside using the vents and discover the Hood’s plans; to use Thunderbird 2 to rob a number of banks, pinning the crimes on International Rescue. Fermat’s allergies, though, give the kids’ position away.
Alan figures the best way to escape is to use one of the remaining Thunderbirds. The Hood also realizes that and sends Mullion with a number of mooks to retrieve the kids. Alan’s knowledge of IR’s equipment lets the kids escape, only to be trapped by the Hood himself. He does manage to escape, discovering the Hood’s weakness, but falling through one of the vents used by Thunderbird 1 to bleed off the exhaust from the engines. Transom fires up the vehicle’s engines. Afterwards, she checks the monitors and does not find Alan, Tintin, or Fermat.
It’s close, but the three kids did survive, landing in the water just as the flames engulfed them. Alan works out that the best way to get help is to contact his father; they just have to get to the transmitter. Fermat reveals that he has Thunderbird 2’s guidance component, which prevents the Hood from leaving.
In London, Lady Penelope realizes that several disasters haven’t been responded to by the Thunderbirds. Since the only way for IR to not respond is that they’re in trouble, Lady Penelope has Parker take her to Tracy Island, after breaking several prior commitments.
At the transmitter on Tracy Island, Fermat gets a message to the Tracys in orbit and starts trying to restore control to them. Transom, though, tracks the signal and jams it before Thunderbird 5 The Hood sends Mullion out to retrive the kids. Alan knows he’s coming and goes to the junkyard where he rebuilds a hoversled. He gets the vehicle ready just in time, getting it going just as Mullion arrives. The chase ends when Alan pushes the hoversled too far, losing Tintin and Fermat, who are captured by Mullion.
FAB-1 arrives at the island. Lady Penelope and Parker march into the house and confront the Hood. He has Mullion and Transom try to capture the pair, but Parker’s sordid background lets him stand toe-to-toe with the Hood’s heavy with the occasional assist from Lady Penelope. The Hood, though, uses his psychic abilities to stop the pair. When Alan arrives, the Hood demands the guidance component back. Not wanting Lady Penelope or Parker to suffer, he hands over the component. The three heroes are taken to the freezer where the rest of the captives are being held. With the guidance component returned, the Hood and his minions launch in Thunderbird 2 to go rob the Bank of London.
In the freezer, Lady Penelope and Parker untie themselves then the rest of the captives. Parker unlocks the door, letting everyone out. Fermat restores control to Thunderbirds 3 and 5 just in time. With Thunderbird 3 too far to reach London in time, it’s up to Alan, Fermat, Tintin, and Lady Penelope to stop the Hood using Thunderbird 1.
In London, the Hood uses a tunnelling vehicle to get from Thunderbird 2 to the Bank of London’s vault. He takes the direct route, which damages supports for the monorail. When Thunderbird 1 arrives, one of the monorail cars falls into the Thames. Alan, realizing that the only people who can help are he, Tintin, and Fermat, runs to Thunderbird 2 to begin the rescue. Working as a team, the three kids get the monorail car back to the surface as the rest of Alan’s family watches.
Lady Penelope leads the charge into the Bank of London to stop the Hood. She and Jeff are taken prisoner by the Hood. However, Alan knows the Hood’s weakness – the villain gets tired after using his psychic abilities. He forces the Hood to overextend himself and, with Tintin’s help, defeats the villain.
Thunderbirds was aimed at kids. The protagonists are young, the film was rated PG, and there’s a level of humour that comes through even during intense sequences. However, the original Supermarionation series was also aimed at kids. The villains are frightening but not overwhelmingly so. The fight between Mullion and Parker is light-hearted. The main themes are of friendship, family, and responsibility. The movie is a family-friendly action flick.
As an adaptation, there was an effort to stay to the feel of the TV series. While getting actors who look like marionettes is difficult, the casting managed to pull it off. Of note, Lady Penelope, Parker, Brains, and the Hood are close to perfect casting. Ben Kingsley not only looked like the Hood did in the original, he made sure the character came off as competent. The villain didn’t luck out, nor did the villain make a simple mistake; the heroes had to work for their victory. Ron Cook as Parker was also note perfect, with the right accent and attitude. Even the Tracy boys had hairstyles that their characters had as marionettes.
The draw of Thunderbirds is the vehicles. Again, there was an effort to make sure that the Thunderbirds looked like they did in the TV series while still updating the looks to reflect modern sensibilities. Thunderbirds 1 and 2 were sleeker but still recognizable. Only Thunderbird 4, the sub carried by Thunderbird 2, had a major change. The sub also had the least screen time, with most of that time spent showing the interior as Alan piloted it. FAB-1 also changed, more out of necessity. The studio couldn’t get permission to use the Rolls Royce marque without using an actual production model, none of which have six wheels. Ford stepped in, providing a modified Thunderbird for Lady Penelope that harkened to FAB-1 in the TV series.
The story itself would fit with the original TV series. International Rescue remained a rescue service, not a crime fighting unit. Lady Penelope handled the investigation side of the plot, as she did in the series. While the focus was on Alan, Tintin, and Fermat, the latter being a new character, the Tracy family still were in character. The only real issue, if it can be called one, was the focus on Alan. The nature of the film and its target audience required a younger protagonist. Yet, Alan was still a Tracy.
Overall, while there were elements that diverged from the TV series, Thunderbirds worked to be a successor, keeping with the look and feel of the original. The effort pays off; the movie is very much a Thunderbirds story, even if there isn’t any Supermarionation involved.
‘Tis the season for Christmas specials, the time honoured tradition of rerunning classic cartoons and movies for the amusement of the viewing audience. And what is more pleasurable than watching an older adaptation around a toasty warm television?
Many of the beloved specials are, indeed, adaptations, works from other sources adapted for television or film. From the networks’ view, these specials are an easy way to get an audience that is otherwise busy. The older cartoons still draw an audience as parents introduce them to the next generation. Some specials have been around for over fifty years; the main limitation being the advent of colour. Black and white gets relegated to specialty channels and PBS for the most part today. Still, there are a number of adaptations that come out this time every year:
And that’s just scratching the surface. However, the all those adaptations pales next to the one novella, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which may be the most adapted Christmas story in history, possibly even more so than the Nativity itself. A Christmas Carol is the atonement of a rich miser who is shown the error of his ways and given a chance to redeem himself. acting as a moral compass for the time it was written in.
There have been theatrical releases of A Christmas Carol, with the best known being the 1951 version, Scrooge starring Alastair Sims*, but also includes The Muppet Christmas Carol and Scrooged. While the story has a limited time for being in theatres, at most late November until early January, it can draw an audience and get repeated on television and on Internet streaming sites every Christmas season afterwards.
Film hasn’t been the only way A Christmas Carol has been adapted. Besides TV movies, television series have taken the story for their own use. Typically, the Christmas episode adapting the story has the ghosts visit either the miserliest character in the main cast or introduce a new character for just the episode and have the cast take on the roles of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. Sometimes, the story of A Christmas Carol gets played with. Blackadder’s Christmas Carol had the Ghosts show a kind man what would happen to him if he continues his gentle ways, including having the world destroyed. Most shows play the story straight. Sitcoms dipped into the story most often, but even The Six Million Dollar Man used A Christmas Carol for the episode, “A Bionic Christmas Carol”, played mostly straight. The animated series The Real Ghostbusters had the main characters accidentally bust the Ghosts, as would be expected. Scrooge U gets into the nitty-gritty of the various adaptations.
Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy Holidays, whether you watch an adaptation or spend your time doing something else.
* In the US, the film was released as A Christmas Carol.
MST3K ran ten seasons, eleven if the KTMA season is included, jumping first to Comedy Central and then the SciFi Channel before coming to an end. The show grew in popularity as fans circulated tapes to people who didn’t have access to the series. Several traditions came about during the series, including the annual Turkey Day marathon, where several episodes were shown in a row. Thanks to word of mouth and circulating tapes, the series is still popular, leading to a revival on Netflix.
The premise of the show is simple enough that the opening theme tells it; evil mad scientists who want to take over the world kidnap an unsuspecting schlub, sending him to the Satellite of Love where he’ll be subjected to cheesy movies, the worst they can find. The goal, to see how long it takes to break the victim’s mind. However, the victim has help on the SoL, robots who can riff the bad movies with him. The Mads have come close to breaking their victim, most notably with Manos: The Hands of Fate.
The episodes follow a fixed format. While the bulk of an episode is dedicated to movie being riffed, it’s not the sole feature. The host segments, including the opening one to introduce the movie of the week and the episode’s plot and the ones surrounding commercial breaks, give both cast and audience a break from the cheesy film. During the Joel (Joel Hodgson) years, the opening segment was used for the invention exchange. When Mike (Michael J. Nelson) became the experimental subject, the opening segment began to focus more on introducing the episode’s plot, including showing him as Mike Nelson, Destroyer of Worlds. The riffing is the draw, the host segments the reason to keep returning week after week.
In 1996, Best Brains, the production company behind MST3K, decided to try a theatrical release. The movie chosen for riffing on the silver screen was This Island Earth, originally released in 1955 and itself an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Raymond F. Jones. This Island Earth has many problems, the biggest being the main characters, Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) and Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue), are passengers on the railroad plot. Even the engineer of the plot, Exeter (Jeff Morrow), doesn’t do much to steer the onscreen events. The film does have opportunities for riffing, though. This Island Earth does have a 71% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so it isn’t necessarily bad. The difference between critics and viewer response, though, is telling; viewers found the movie lacking.
If MST3K: The Movie was just riffing on This Island Earth, audiences wouldn’t get the full effect of the TV series. The host segments are as crucial to MST3K as the riffing. The nature of a theatrical release, though, means changing up how the segments appear. There’s no need for a standard opening theme; the audience already knows what film it is seeing. However, not everyone going to see the movie will know what the premise is; as mentioned above, MST3K wasn’t available in all areas. Thus, the movie opens with Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) explaining to the audience what he’s about to do to Mike and, now, them, and why in an over the top sequence in Deep 13, setting up the plot of the movie, which is more involved than the plot of This Island Earth.
On board the Satellite of Love, Mike is exercising on a hamster wheel in a scene taken from 2001: A Space Odyssey, being coached by Gypsy (Jim Mallon). When he takes a break and a drink from a water bottle, Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy) arrives to assure Mike that nothing at all is wrong, absolutely nothing, why do you ask and what is that rhythmic thumping. Turns out, Crow (Beaulieu) has his own plan to escape the SoL, involving a pick axe. Mike tries to stop the attempt, but, as even Crow predicted in his own plans, he breaches the hull. As the air rushes out the hole, Mike and Crow manage to grab on to something. Tom Servo’s spindly hands and arms aren’t enough to save him, though, and he shoots into the hole. The hole isn’t big, though; Tom fits perfectly over it, giving Mike time to find a plate to act as a more permanent fix.
Once Mike and the bots are given the movie sign, they head into the SoL’s theatre. With the budget for a feature film, the sequence through the theatre doors, the transition from host segment to riffing, is given an upgrade, though still looks appropriate. This Island Earth starts, the riffing begins, and everything is familiar to fans. Because of the differences between film and television, there are no commercial breaks. To make up for that, the next host segment comes when the film breaks. Dr. Forrester tries to make up to the audience and adjusts his estimates before he takes over the world.
On the SoL, Tom and Crow dare Mike to fly the SoL after he claims to be one hundred per cent certified on Microsoft Flight Simulator. Mike has no initial problems flying the SoL, then he hits something, the Hubble Space Telescope, now caught on the side of the SoL. To get it off, Mike turns to the manipulator arms, conveniently labelled as “Manos“, complete with musical sting. With some care and a little extra damage, Mike gets the Hubble off the SoL and releases it, where it plummets into the Earth’s atmosphere. Way to go, Mike.
With the movie fixed, Mike, Crow, and Tom return to the theatre and resume riffing. When This Island Earth shows the completed interocitor, a faster-than-light communications device, Tom Servo remarks he has one in his bedroom. The trio escape the theatre and go looking in Servo’s room, which is a total mess. They find the interocitor and call out for help, reaching Benkitnorf (John Brady), a Metalunan like Exeter in This Island Earth. Benkitnorf isn’t too impressed, seeing as he was in the shower when Mike and the bots called. Despite the intrusion, the Metalunan tries to help, but isn’t familiar enough with the interocitor’s settings, much to Tom Servo’s dismay and discomfort. Dr. Forrester breaks into the communications with his own interociter, sending the trio running back to the movie.
Mike and the bots finish their riffing of This Island Earth. Instead of being broken like Dr. Forrester expects, they’re recreating the final scene, having a grand party. Dr. F tries to zap them with his interociter but ends up zapping himself to Benkitnorf’s shower instead. With the movie ending, there’s no traditional stinger, a replay of a scene that caused hilarity. Instead, Mike and the bots riff their own credits. “Puppet wrangler? There weren’t any puppets in this movie.”
The riffing during the movie doesn’t call back to previous episodes. The idea was to make it open to new audiences without the familiarity of long-time fans, with the assumption that people going to the movie are science fiction fans. Thus, there are many Star Trek-related riffs, plus playing up on obvious gags. Helping is the addition of Russell Johnson in This Island Earth as Steve Carlson; Johnson is better known for his role as The Professor on Gilligan’s Island. There’s even a brief riff involving Mork & Mindy in reference to the character Exidor (Robert Donner). That isn’t to say that there isn’t any callbacks. The “Manos” manipulators with Torgo music is but one example.
MST3K: The Movie works as an introduction to the TV series. Meddling by Gramercy Studios caused issues that affected the presentation and availability. The movie opened in only twenty-six theatres, yet did pull in audiences where it did play. Gramercy, though, was backing Barb Wire*. However, the core writers of the movie were the core writers of the TV series; the riffing is top notch, if limited to a common knowledge base. The expansion of the Satellite of Love gives a bit of an insight on the characters.
While the cast and crew feel that Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie isn’t their best work, it does show how even a TV series featuring films has to make changes when moving to the big screen. The nature of the two media necessitated a slightly different approach in presentation. What works for TV doesn’t for film. MST3K: The Movie, though, does make the jump to the silver screen with few problems.
Continuing with the month of remaking films featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000, Lost in Translation will take a look at the first movie in colour to be riffed on the series, 1986’s Robot Holocaust, with Norris Cuff as Neo, Nadine Hart as Deeja, Joel von Ornsteiner as Klyton, Jennifer Delora as Nyla, Andrew Horwath as Kai, and Angelika Jager as Valaria.
The Great Robot Rebellion of ’33 resulted in the destruction of New Terra and the coming of the Robot Holocaust. Humanity in a nameless destroyed city that looks suspiciously like New York City has been subjugated by robot overlords, resulting in needless gladiatorial duels to the death. During one, Klyton, a free robot, picks the pouches of spectators, but is caught by Neo, an outsider. Neo interrogates Klyton using his robot telepathy, discovering that the Dark One, also known as “the Darkwan”, forces the strongest humans to fight, taking the victor away for an unknown fate.
At the Power Station, Valeria, chief servitor of the Dark One, has a feeling that something is off back in the destroyed city. Deeja, in the city, challenges the authority of the robot overseer. As a result, the Dark One authorizes cutting off of fresh air in the city. Most of the humans fall, but Deeja, her father, and Neo are unaffected. Deeja and Neo are told to fall as if they can’t breathe, and Deeja’s father negotiates with Valeria to get the air restored. The Dark One orders his minions to bring Deeja’s father to the Power Station.
With the quest set – rescue Deeja’s father, who developed a way to offset the poisonous air – Deeja, Neo, and Klyton take a small group of rebels through what were once subway tunnels, starting in mutant-filled Central Park. Along the way, the group runs into a band of Amazons led by Nyla and their prisoner, Kai. Neo challenges Nyla to a duel. Nyla is defeated and the price of defeat is to lead the group to the Power Station.
Quests wouldn’t be quests without a trip through a sewer. The sewer Nyla leads them to is the home of sewer worms, dangerous creatures that feed on the flesh. While the first idea was to send Klyton as bait to lure the sewer worms out where they could be seen, Neo chooses option B – chopping their way through. The brief violence does provide action, and the group gets by the death trap.
The next stage is an abandoned oasis. From there, the band of rebels head back to the city, where they are attacked by mutants. One of the band is killed, but they rest survive, thanks to Klyton’s force field. The rebels do find the Power Station. Posted on the approach are the remains of the winners of previous gladiatorial duels, dead, their bodies left as a warning. Neo finds a ring and takes it. The group looks for an alternate entrance and finds an old subway emergency exit.
The Dark One isn’t unprepared. Even the emergency exit is trapped. Pit traps, angry robots, giant spiders, and the unending anticipation of being attacked dog the group. The rebels penetrate deep into the Power Station and confront the Dark One. However, it is Valeria, forsaken by the Dark One, who is the instrument of the villain’s destruction.
As with Danger!! Death Ray, one main issue is budget. Budget isn’t a cure-all; a large budget is by no means a measure of success. Just look at Battleship, a $US200 million misfire. But too small a budget creates limitations that hamper the production. With Danger!! Death Ray, budget limitations meant using toys and models. With Robot Holocaust, the victims of the budget restriction are sets and costuming. The movie looks cheap, which doesn’t help the suspension of disbelief.
However, the biggest asset Robot Holocaust had going for it was being made in the Eighties. Going back to the History of Adaptations, the Eighties were the first decade to have more popular original movies that adaptations. Anything went; follow the leader wasn’t working as expected. The Terminator, while not in the popular list, caught people’s attention as a science-fiction/horror film, leading to 1991’s Terminator 2, which did get on the popular list in the Nineties. Movie goers are willing to cut films slack in areas provided that they make up for in others. /Robot Holocaust/, though, didn’t do that.
The script as filmed feels very much like someone’s Gamma World. The elements are there for the game – post-apocalyptic world with robots controlling humans in one settlement, another settlement run by Amazons, a third that are no better than barbarians, and a stranger with mental powers that affect even robots. The characters wind up going through several underground structures that would be called dungeons if the scriptwriters had played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons instead. There’s even a mutant plant creature. The problem with adapting a tabletop roleplaying game, among many, is that many games, particularly those published before 1986, don’t have a definite setting, and Gamma World is one of those. There are certain assumptions, such as an apocalypse occurred outside the memory of the elders and that mutants are running around, but Gamemasters were encouraged to destroy their hometown and remake it within the game’s paradigm.
Even if the film wasn’t based on a Gamma World campaign, its setting has a lot of backstory, leading to the use of a narrator. Film has a limited amount of time; few people are going to sit in a theatre for six hours to watch one movie. Even today’s television binge watchers take breaks every couple of hours for food and hygiene. Film is not a good medium when a setting needs explanation. Star Wars managed to use an opening crawl to good effect, but George Lucas was deliberately invoking the serial movies of old. Robot Holocaust doesn’t have that luxury. Worse, even with the opening narration, Neo’s robot telepathy is still out of the blue and doesn’t get much screen time after the first use. The movie’s setting may have been better served in a longer format, one that allows for a proper exploration of what is possible, such as television or a book. As it is, the audience is being expected to accept a lot with no real support from the movie.
Can Robot Holocaust be remade? The elements for a decent movie are lurking within the MST3K fodder of the original film. The format, though, will need to be changed. Robot Holocaust puts a lot on the audience in a short time, barely acceptable when the film was made. A low budget movie to begin with, Robot Holocaust, as presented on MST3K comes across as a student film, along the lines of Dead Gentlemen Productions’ Gamers and Demon Hunters, both of which were done while the group was in university. Today, though, the power of what major studios had in the Eighties can be had by amateur filmmakers off the shelf at little cost, thanks to open source software and improvements on technology. The Four Players is another good example that shows the ability of amateur film making today. It should be possible to remake Robot Holocaust.
The big question on remaking Robot Holocaust is the format. The big problem the movie had is focus. There is a lot happening in the background that gets the short shrift because of the lack of time available in a film. The movie moves slowly, but it may be better served as a TV series. The characters would get more screen time, allowing the audience to get to know them better and building on the relationships between them in a more believable manner. The opening credits of the potential series could show the apocalypse, leaving more time for plot and character development in the episodes. The events of the movie can be covered in the first season, but the focus becomes the quest and the building of trust between the rebels.
Like Danger!! Death Ray, budget did play a role in the quality of Robot Holocaust, but the budget wasn’t the cause of the movie’s problems. Remaking /Robot Holocaust/ needs to take into account the needs of a post-apocalyptic plot, and that does require time that most films don’t have the luxury of investing in background. If Robot Holocaust is made, it will need a new format.
Comic adaptations of works have grown over time. From the time of Classics Illustrated, comics were used to adapt a work to a format readers would be more familiar with. Adaptations of popular movies allowed readers to re-live the thrills at a time when home video was non-existent. Today, though, the comic format allows creators to continue a work from another medium. It’s not a new phenomenon; DC Comics published a four-part series of graphic novels continuing the story of Village in The Prisoner: Shattered Visage in 1988. Today, though, getting the information out on adaptations is far easier thanks to the Internet and cross-medium works are far more common.
The benefit is that a work can find a format that works best to gather and keep an audience. Movies are expensive to make and market, and even if profitable, they may not have enough of a following to justify a follow up work. Television, while not as expensive as film and able to spread costs over a number of episodes, are still subject to whims of ratings; a niche series may not have the critical mass to survive a season. Comic books don’t have the expense burdens a film would and can be sustained with a far lower number of readers than a TV series can with low audience numbers.
Even series that have had a good run can take advantage of the switch to comics. Fans will want more, especially just after a series has ended, and the series’ creator can explore areas that the show couldn’t, either because of expense or network limitations. Such is the focus of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer continuation comic series. The Buffy TV series, itself an adaptation, ran for seven years, a good run. The series had a definite end, with Sunnydale sinking into a Hellmouth to seal it and an army of Slayers defeating demons trying to overrun the Earth. But Buffy’s story wasn’t done.
Buffy and her friends still had the army of Slayers, and that issue was worth exploring. Creator Joss Whedon continued the story in the comic series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, published by Dark Horse Comics. A new threat hangs over the world, and Buffy and her army need to discover what it is before the Apocalypse happens. Or, the same old same old for the Scoobies. And the series wouldn’t be Buffy if personal issues came up. Not only does Buffy have an army of young girls with supernatural abilities to try corral, her sister Dawn has run into some problems, and her own personal life is falling apart. Again, nothing new for Buffy. The fans, though, expect Buffy and her friends to have to deal with personal issues while saving the world. Skipping that skips the essence of the TV series.
The comic series does deliver. The characters’ behaviour reflects their growth over the run of the TV series, from teenagers in high school to young adults trying to figure out what their place is in the world while dealing with weirdnesses most people never have to worry about. The graphic format allows for effects that would be difficult to achieve on television, either because of time needed, the expense, or because of the laws of physics. Dawn, as part of a curse, grew to be several stories tall; showing this on screen would require green-screening and filming her scenes twice, once with her and once with the regular sized cast. When TV episodes need to be completed within a week, that’s extra time that could be better used, especially if the curse is season long. In another scene, Buffy and Angel wind up changing settings page to page; if filmed, that would mean setting up in multiple locations for only several minutes of film. It’s doable for an episode, but would mean making extensive use of sets instead of location shots to minimize travel time. In a comic, both are easily done. Dawn can be drawn far larger than the rest of the cast without any camera effects or multiple takes and the new settings that Buffy and Angel use are needed in each panel anyway, whether they stay in one location or jump every panel to somewhere new.
Buffy Season Eight picks up after the destruction of Sunnyvale. Buffy and her Slayer army have found a home in Scotland with room for the young women to train. Dawn gets cursed while studying at university. A new threat and old adversaries return. Worse, the threat is one that Buffy herself creates. However, the draw isn’t the situation, it’s the characters. How the Scoobies react to the new threat and old problems is the key, and the comic shines there. The TV series was always more than just being about a student staking vampires, and the comic continues with the idea that the heroes are people, too, even the vampires.
Comic continuations come with their own shortfalls. Page limits mean a comic can be read in five to ten minutes, unlike a forty-two minute television episode. Comics are released monthly, unlike television’s weekly schedule. Artwork may not resemble the characters*, though that was not an issue with the Buffy comics. Sometimes, the limitations of one medium that will force a creator to come up with a work around that results in a better product will be avoided. While the limits of the medium can’t be helped, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight avoids most of the shortfalls, though does get self-indulgent at times. Some subplots linger too long, while others get ignored. However, what one reader finds dragging, another will find enthralling.
Overall, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight works as a continuation. The situation that develops in the comic builds from what was shown in the TV series. The characters grew from their experiences; the Xander of the comic is not the Xander of season one, but the Xander of the end of season seven after everything he went through. The hints of what Buffy was doing as seen on Angel were expanded. Like gravity, continuity is a harsh mistress, but fans have expectations. The continuation comic meets these expectations.
* When creating a comic based on a live-action property, the actors still have control over their likenesses unless there’s a clause in their contracts allowing for comic tie-ins. Marvel Comics ran into the problem in the Eighties with both their Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica comics, where they didn’t have the rights.to the likenesses.
Continuing from two weeks ago, franchises lead to two other forms of adaptation. The first is the cinematic universe, where the work is adapted to a new medium with its own continuity based on the original but allowed to go in its own direction. The main advantage is that there is no continuity lockout for the general audience, at least at first, and catching up means watching the previous installments instead of trying to find forty to eighty years of stories.
The second form is the expanded universe. Unlike the cinematic universe, the expanded universe allows for works beyond the original medium to build up the setting. Different aspects can be explored that couldn’t be delved into in the original, either because of where the focus was or time limitations. Continuity lockout can become a problem, but there are ways to avoid it. Expanded universes are typically associated with franchises; popularity and demand allow for the original to expand. While Star Wars has the enduring popularity to support a universe far beyond the original movie, Manos, The Hands of Fate does not.
Franchises have a number of ways to manage expanded universes. Going back to Star Wars, Lucasfilm managed levels of canon, from the core movies to the books and games to the older animated series. If a work in the expanded universe contradicts a movie that came out later, then the older work is either considered wrong or considered true, from a certain point of view. The only exception may be the work done by West End Games; WEG worked with Lucasfilm to fill out the Galaxy Far Far Away for use in the RPG. Paramount, though, treats the Star Trek expanded universe differently. The only canon sources are the TV series and the movies; all other works have no influence, at least officially. Even the animated series is generally non-canon, except when it is canon, like “Yesteryear”. At one point, Paramount forbade different licensees from collaborating, probably after FASA worked with John M. Ford, author of The Final Reflection*, on the Klingons and their history and culture.
The advantage expanded universes have is that they can provide information that otherwise doesn’t appear in the original work. Going back to Star Wars, the names of the aliens in the Mos Eisley cantina didn’t come from the movie; they came from the action figures from Kenner. The credits don’t list the names, and the only alien who rates a name was Greedo, who didn’t get to see another scene afterwards. The rest, including Hammerhead and Walrus Man, had their names on Kenner’s packaging. Even R5-D4, the astromech that blew a gasket after being bought by Luke and Lars, was just “this R2 unit” in the movie and only got a name in other media.
Whether ideas from the expanded universe make their way into the main works depends on the franchise. As mentioned, Paramount places restrictions when it comes to Star Trek; FASA’s explanation of the differences between Klingons from the Original Series and Star Trek: The Motion Picture never appeared in any Trek series since, not even when the difference was pointed out in Deep Space Nine‘s “Trials and Tribble-ations”. Lucasfilm, though, maintains control on what gets placed into the expanded works, so it is possible to see an items from a comic to make an appearance in a TV series. In fact, Lucasfilm provided the WEG sourcebooks to Timothy Zahn when he began his Heir to the Empire series, and Brian Daley’s Han Solo books introduced the Z-95 Headhunter, which has appeared since Han Solo at Star’s End was published in video games and in Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
Continuity, especially when the different expanded works can share information, becomes an issue if not managed well. Fortunately, there are ways around the problem. If it’s equipment, like the above mentioned Z-95, then just have it appear without explanation. This works best with gear that isn’t too specialized. Audiences are familiar with the idea of new technologies appearing in real life, from cars to phones, so something like that happening in the expanded universe adds a layer of verisimilitude. Characters, though, do come with extra baggage. Their previous appearances will have shaped them, How the character is handled may depend on the medium. Comics have a history of footnotes referring to past issues, but other media may either have to either ignore the background and just present the character as is or take time for a flashback. With novels, an author can spend a page filling in readers without losing the flow. Movies and even television can’t spend that much time unless the information is plot-relevant. But if information isn’t plot-relevant, does it need to be brought up? Introduce the character properly and the personality will let the audience in the know feel comfortable with the portrayal and the rest of the audience isn’t left scratching their heads.
The benefit of an expanded universe comes down to income. If a work is popular, fans will pay for more about it. However, fans will also recognize when the expanded work is sub-par and will avoid it. Creative types who are engaged to work on the expanded universe, though, are likely to be fans of the original, so will put in an honest effort. The catch, though, is that as the original’s universe expands, new fans may come in through one of the expanded works and may not be aware of the origins.
Expanded universes aren’t for every franchise. The setting of the original has to allow for the expansion. With Star Wars and Star Trek, there is a vast setting beyond what was seen in the original works. The 007 expanded universe – video games, comics, and novels by authors other than Ian Fleming – keeps the focus on James Bond; adding a new 00 agent wouldn’t have the impact and the new character may be better served in his or her own original work instead. Likewise, not every franchise creator wants to expand. The Harry Potter universe is popular, but, outside the movie and video game adaptations, there isn’t much beyond the original books except for the stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. JK Rowling isn’t interested in expanding to the degree Lucasfilm has, and she maintains control of the Potter-verse.
The line between adaptation and expanded universe is much like the line between adaptation and franchise, very fine and mostly exists from perception. The main differences is that the expanded universe can influence future works even in the original medium and that fans are aware that there is more than what is presented in the original. This pushes the expanded universe from adaptation to continuation, and will be noted in future reviews.
* However, Ford’s creation of the Klingon “Black Fleet” in the afterlife appeared in the pilot episode of Star Trek: Discovery. As an expanded universe grows and matures, new writers will incorporate ideas from even areas that aren’t canon if the ideas are good.
Toy manufacturers know that a successful TV series based on one their products leads to better sales. Deregulation in the 80s allowed toy makers to fund what were essentially half-hour toy ads masquerading as cartoons and live-action shows. The key issue is getting the target audience to watch, which means making the shows enjoyable to watch. Hasbro has had the most success with their spin-off series, from the various Transformers efforts to My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. The latter series has helped Hasbro gain in sales while other toy makers saw sales falling. From the creative point of view, the success of a series based on a toy hinges on two elements – the popularity of the show and the popularity of the toy. If either drops, the show is no longer supported. There have been times when the show’s popularity far outstripped the sales of the toy it was based on. One of the exemplars of the phenomenon is Captain Power & The Soldiers of the Future.
Mattel‘s major line has been Barbie. The doll has sustained the company for almost 60 years. However, few companies want to rely on just one product to sustain them. Mattel expanded its toy lines to include items of interest to boys, with Hot Wheels the best known line. In a competitive market, companies are always searching for the next big thing to cash in on. Mattel thought they had found that next big thing with interactive TV.
In the 80s, interactive TV was in its embryonic stage. The idea of viewers participating with what they watched became possible as electronics took advantage of the potential of the silicon chip. While the first patent in the US for interactive TV was issued in 1994, the concept predates the patent. NABU Networks was an ambitious attempt to combine cable television with an Internet-like connection with the ability to play games appeared in 1983, though it folded in 1986. By 1987, Mattel developed a version of the technology for their own use, but didn’t have yet have a toy developed.
In steps Gary Goddard, who had an idea for a live-action children’s series. Mattel saw a way to use their new technology, The result is Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. Mattel had requirements, mainly at least three minutes of interactivity per episode, but allowed Goddard to develop the series the way he wanted. Technically, this means that Captain Power isn’t an adaptation but a joint effort. However, the development of the series was separate from the interactive technology and the toys released. The fate of Captain Power is still instructive.
The toys and the show were parallel developments. Goddard, who also acted as the producer, decided to film in Toronto, Ontario. To qualify for tax breaks*, he had to make a decision about which parts of the show would use Canadian talent and which parts wouldn’t. He went with using American writers, including J. Michael Straczynski, Larry DiTillio, Marc Scott Zircee, Michael Reaves, and Christy Marx. Goddard reasoned that if the writing was strong, the directors, all pulled from Toronto’s television industry, would be able to work with the scripts despite being unfamiliar with science fiction**. The writing staff was able to work with the requirements. The big one was the three minutes of interactivity . The closing credits provided one minute, and the writing staff started most episodes with an action sequence that led into the main plot, eating up another minute there. A climactic action sequence would use the last required minute, if not more.
Mattel developed the toy line, including the PowerJet and action figures. The PowerJet and similiar, like the PowerBase and the MagnaCycle, were deisgned to interact with the TV series and with three video tapes released. The toys reacted to signals in the shows, scoring both hits made on targets and hits made on the toy. Get hit too often, the pilot ejects. The toys could be played with as stand-alone, not needing the show or the video cassettes, but the main focus was the interactivity.
Captain Power, for being a live-action kids show designed for a thirty minute time-slot, was ambitious. It was the first series to feature a regular CGI character with Soaron, voiced by Deryck Hazel, followed later by Blastarr, voiced by John Davies. The sets were built at an unused bus repair facility. Effects, barring the lasers, the flashing targets, and Soaron and Blastarr, were all practical. Even the back story showed work. When the series starts, the Metal Wars, the last battle between man and machine, are over, with the machines under Lord Dread, played by David Hemblen, winning. The Earth is a desolate, blasted landscape, with pockets of humanity trying to survive against the Bio-Dread Empire. However, a light stands against the darkness. Captain Jonathan Power, played by Tim Dunigan, has assembled a small team. Equipped with Power Suits, the Soldiers of the Future stand against Dread and his army of robots.
Each member of Power’s team has a specialty. Major Matthew “Hawk” Matheson, played by Peter MacNeill is the aerial expert; his suit includes wings and jets to let him fly. Lieutenant Michael “Tank” Ellis, played by Sven Thorsen, is the heavy assault expert. Sergeant Robert “Scout” Baker, played by Maurice Dean Wint, is the infiltration and espionage expert, with a suit that can project a camouflage to let him blend in with the Bio-Dread troopers, and Corporal Jennifer “Pilot” Chase, played by Jessica Steen, is the technical expert and pilot of the team’s Jump Ship. The characters had history, as well. Tank is the product of a cloning experiment. Hawk lost his son during the Metal Wars. Pilot was a member of the Dread Youth, an organization meant to install blind loyalty to Lord Dread into young adults.
That brings up another point. The series was dark. The villain already won by the start of the series. Dread’s forces were robots commanded by humans whose uniforms were modelled after after the Nazi’s. Even the Dread Youth were a reference, this time to the Hitler Youth. Topics covered by various episodes included the loss of a child and how people treated victims of AIDS in the late 80s. The final episode ended with the death of one of the main characters. Soaron digitized victims, sending them into Dread’s Overmind computer. Captain Power also had a story arc; each episode built up towards the season’s climax. The writing staff did not dumb their scripts down, and were inspired by science fiction series of the past, including Star Trek and The Twilight Zone.
Scripts were written for a second season but were never filmed. The series was not renewed. The sales of the toys weren’t strong enough for Mattel to consider funding a second season. On top of that, Captain Power came under fire for its violence. That combination led to the series ending on a downer with the death of Pilot. However, the series transcended what Mattel wanted from it. It was a well-written science fiction series, first and foremost, and it picked up an adult audience through word of mouth and on USEnet.
A reboot of the series has been announced. Phoenix Rising has signed on Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens to develop the new series as a weekly hour-long show. The new series is still in development, though, and no air date has been set.
Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future shows the limitation of being tied to a toy line. If it had been separate, the success of associated toys wouldn’t have been a factor in the decision to end the series. However, since it was, Mattel had to make the choice in continuing to produce an unsuccessful toy line to support a popular show, and went with its own bottom line. Such is the nature of the corporate world. However, when the creative staff, from writers to directors to actors, all pitch in, a work can go beyond its origins and be remembered.
* Canadian content regulations uses a points system. To qualify as a Canadian production, over half the production must include Canadians. The writing staff could be all American, provided the production made up the difference elsewhere. Goddard used Canadian directors, as mentioned, and kept all the post-production companies in Toronto busy during Captain Power‘s only season. The other benefit of qualifying as CanCon is that it made the show easier to sell to Canadian stations. Canadian television has CanCon broadcast requirements, a minimum about of time that has to be Canadian-made. Captain Power, being CanCon, helped fill that requirement.
** Toronto was and is often used as a stunt double for American cities. The directors of the time were more used to shows like mysteries and police procedurals. The last major science fiction series attempted in Toronto prior was The Starlost, which had many problems.
For television, the Nineties were the age of syndication. Streaming and the thousand-channel universe were still just beyond the horizon, but cable channels and local stations had time to fill. First run syndicated series filled in the hours, including Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and its spin-off, Xena: Warrior Princess.
Hercules started as a series of TV movies with Kevin Sorbo as Hercules and Anthony Quinn as Zeus. After the TV movies were successful, the series was greenlit. During the first season, Lucy Lawless made several appearances, including as Xena in several episodes. The popularity of the character led to a spin-off series. While Hercules and Xena had their own sidekicks – Iolaus, played by Michael Hurst, and Gabrielle, played by Renee O’Connor, respectively – the two shows shared common supporting characters. Salmoneus, played by Robert Trebor, and Autolycus, played by Bruce Campbell, among them.
Neither series felt restricted by history; for fans, this was a feature, not a bug. Myths were used as inspiration for episodes. The Greek gods were given new personalities, though ones that fit with known mythology. Zeus was an old man, regretting his wilder youth. Aphrodite, played by Alexandra Tydings, was a Valley Girl, at times oblivious of her effect on mortals. Ares, especially as played by Kevin Smith on Xena, was charming, but that was a veneer over seething destructive rage. Hercules and Xena both lasted six seasons. Later seasons included the occasional episode in modern times, with Hercules taking on the name Kevin Sorbo and acting on a TV series about his legendary journeys, while Xena, Gabrielle, and Joxer (Ted Raimi) were reincarnated. With Sam Raimi in charge of the production, even the car, the one that has been in every movie he’s made since The Evil Dead, made appearances.
The setting seemed ideal for tabletop roleplaying. Thus, West End Games, publisher of Star Wars The Roleplaying Game, picked up the license and published the Hercules & Xena Roleplaying Game in 1998. At that point, WEG had been successful with the Star Wars license, using a mechanic known as the D6 system. The system first appeared in the licensed Ghostbusters RPG, then was refined for Star Wars. WEG’s success is such that Lucasfilm is still using the company’s sourcebooks*.
So, when WEG released Hercules & Xena, the game was available in two forms. The first was a single book in full colour including photo stills from the series. The second was a boxed set that included the book and added a second book for game masters plus adventures to get players going and a set of the special dice used. These dice were six-sided, but instead of pips or numbers, they had appropriate markings. Five of the dice had two hydra heads and four chakrams while the sixth, meant to be the wild die, had one hydra head, three chakrams, one Eye of Hera, and one Thunderbolt of Zeus.
WEG modified the D6 system, using the d6 Legends mechanic. Instead of adding up the numbers that showed up on the dice, players just had to count successes. With the included dice, successes were chakrams, after Xena’s preferred weapon. Hydrae were failures. With the wild die, the Thunderbolt of Zeus was counted as a success and then allowed the player to roll the die again. The Eye of Hera cancelled a success and allowed the GM to introduce a complication if so wanted. The system provided for cinematic action, just like the shows the game is emulating. The RPG provided for specialties based on what was seen in the shows, including Xena’s pinch, Hercules swinging Iolaus around to hit opponents, and Hercules’ chest stomp. If a move wasn’t included, there was enough information to create it.
Mechanics, though, aren’t the only way to provide the tone, though they help. The game doesn’t require much bookkeeping; the GM sets a target difficulty and the players attempt to beat it with their skill dice roll. Character creation is quick – spend twenty-four dice among the eight attributes, then spend ten dice among skills and specialties, purchase equipment, and that’s it. The main book even helps with describing a number of different types of characters, from warrior to priestess to chronicler to entrepreneur and the suggested attributes and skills for them. Players are also not limited to creating human characters. Centaurs, nymphs, and satyrs are all possibilities for characters.
The game itself is written as if it was a set of scrolls written by Salmoneus and found only recently. The writing is such that it is possible to hear Robert Trebor’s voice while reading, and includes a few wink-nudge moments, just like the two TV series. The example of play in the main book, despite not featuring any of the characters from either shows, could easily have been in an episode. The overall presentation does bring out the setting of Hercules and Xena. The GM’s book, Scroll of the Ancient World, includes tips on how to role play the gods, from Aphrodite’s Valley Speak to Hades’ dark brooding.
The game did have some problems. The main book wasn’t enough alone to run the game; it was missing key sections, especially on how combat worked, though the base mechanic was detailed enough to let players figure it out. Starting characters were nowhere near the competency of the characters from the show, including Joxer. The GM’s book had suggestions on how to start players with experienced characters, but even then, they wouldn’t come close to Gabrielle or Salmoneus. The main book, though, did include stats for the main characters in both series. This was also a complaint with the Star Wars RPG. The game does include the stats for the main and recurring characters, though, allowing players to take on their roles.
The core rules also hinted at a number of planned supplements that would expand the game, allowing for greater flexibility. However, WEG’s parent company, a shoe importer, ran into financial problems. The importer pulled funds from WEG to remain afloat before filing for bankruptcy. WEG could not sustain itself with the loss of cash and wound up closing, losing all of its licenses. Hercules & Xena was the last RPG published under the WEG name, with later game releases done in partnership with other companies.
Licensed role playing games need to balance playability with accuracy to the source. A good core mechanic is a start, but the presentation needs to maintain the tone of the original. The Hercules & Xena RPG has both. The system is solid, having been refined with other games, and the writing brings out the details that drew fans into watching both Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess.
* Dave Filoni has mentioned in commentaries for Star Wars: The Clone Wars that several designs for equipment have come from The Star Wars Source Book published by WEG.