It’s almost a truism that video game adaptations are horrible, The early entries set the tone. The problem for most of these adaptations is that what works for game play doesn’t work as a narrative, especially with older games. Pac-Man was about gobbling dots and running away from ghosts; characterization is minimal; Super Mario Bros. is about travelling through a series of death traps to find a missing princess. Naturally, there are exceptions.
Meanwhile, educational software exists to teach a subject, not necessarily be memorable. Oregon Trail, one of the earliest educational computer games, first released in 1971, is memorable because of the difficulty of getting across the continental US in the mid-1800s. The difficulty was what the game was teaching. Gamification helps students learn concepts, from history to typing to geography. While Oregon Trail is memorable, it really only appeared in schools. Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego, however, was commercially available and not only became a hit, it became a franchise.
The original Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego was created and released in 1985 by Brøderbund as a way to teach geography and research skills to children aged 8 to 12. The player, who was considered to be an agent for the Acme Detective Agency, had to decipher clues left by Carmen and her henchmen to figure out where they were and what they were about to do, all based on real world geography. Each successful case brought the player closer to Carmen herself. The names given to characters were all based on puns, starting a trend that continues through the franchise. The original game sold well for Brøderbund, leading to sequels including Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego in 1986, Where in Europe is Carmen Sandiego in 1988, and Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego in 1989, the last one adding history to the education provided.
As seen with many adaptations, if a work gets popular, someone will want to adapt it into a different medium. With Carmen, the core premise – a detective tracking down a master criminal – lends itself to adaptation far better than eating dots. However, the game is meant to be educational, so the first network to pick it up was PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service. The result was a TV game show for kids the same age as the computer game aimed for with Lynne Thigpen as the Chief and Greg Lee as the host, and the theme song by Rockapella. The players were agents for the Acme Detective Agency, tracking Carmen and her henchmen around the world. similar to the original game, though in a competition. The game show ran from 1991 to 1995, winning several Daytime Emmy awards and a Peabody before becoming Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego from 1996 to 1997.
While the game show aired, a series of eight books based on the video games were published. Written by John Peel, the books were a series of “choose your own adventure” novels using the titles of the video games. Peel kept to the tradition of puns for the names of his crooks as, once again, the reader became the Acme Detective Agency agent assigned to track Carmen and her henchmen as they left clues around the world.
By the mid-Ninties, Carmen was a household word. The inevitable happened and DiC studios produced an animated adaptation for Saturday mornings on Fox. The creators, aware of the violence in the other series Fox aired, such as X-Men, were concerned, but DiC created Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego without relying on or using violence to solve a problem. Replacing the player were siblings Zack (voiced by Scott Melville) and Ivy (Jennifer Hale), a pair of Acme agents charged with tracking down Carmen, voiced by Rita Moreno, and her army of henchmen. This time, instead of just being a master thief working for VILE, Carmen is a former Acme agent and steals for the challenge of the theft. This series would be the first where Carmen had a voice instead of just being glimpsed. With the new series, a new theme song based on a work by Mozart. The cartoon won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Animated Program in 1995.
Through every iteration, while Carmen has been the subject of the work, she wasn’t the star. For the games, the main character was the player, chasing Carmen and her crew. With the adaptations, it was the same thing, Carmen was the thief to be caught and not the lead character. However, with no Carmen, there’s no adaptation. The eternal chase is a valid approach to entertainment, ranging from Road Runner cartoons through to The Pink Panther movies, which focused on a bumbling detective searching for a thief. The format can get stale when overused. No one is hoping that Wile E. Coyote catches the Road Runner; that’s the end of the series. A villain who always gets away can get old, especially over a long run; see also, Batman and the Joker.
However, it is possible to turn the eternal chase around, focusing on the pursued instead of the pursuer. The gentleman thief, motivated by the challenge or by a personal code of morals and honour, has appeared in literature, film, and television. Arsène Lupin, Danny Ocean and his team in Ocean’s Eleven, Leslie Charteris’ The Saint, the Leverage crew, and Hitomi, Rui, and Ai from the manga Cat’s Eye show the range of gentleman and gentlewoman thieves in entertainment. The draw is competence porn, watching an expert do their job well, while still being able to root for the hero even if the hero is breaking the law.
With a show aimed at children, there’s a fine line to tread. There are few people who want to be responsible for telling kids that it’s okay to steal. Carmen Sandiego, though, is a master thief. Every adaptation has kept her as a master thief. It’s one of the character’s defining elements, along with the red hat and trench coat. At the same time, Carmen is the draw. It’s a delicate balance. Enter Netflix.
In 2019, Netflix, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and DHX Media teamed up to bring Carmen Sandiego back to television with the series Carmen Sandiego. Carmen (Gina Rodriguez), with the help of white hat hacker Player (Finn Wolfhard) and siblings Ivy (Abby Trott) and Zack (Michael Hawley), is turning the tables on VILE, stealing artifacts from them to return to their rightful owners. Carmen is still being chased, but she’s now the lead, not the pursuers. She is still a master thief, one who steals without hurting anyone, even if they are from VILE.
The first two episodes go into who in the world is Carmen Sandiego. After a successful theft under the eyes of Interpol agents Chase Devineaux (Rafael Petardi) and Julia Argent (Charlet Chung) in Poiteiers, France, Carmen gets tracked down by former classmate and VILE thief, Gray (Michael Goldsmith). She and Gray were in the same class at VILE’s academy for thieves, along with four other recruits. At the time, Carmen was known as Black Sheep, a temporary code name until graduation. While Gray and her other classmates were recruits, Carmen grew up on VILE’s island. Coach Brunt (Mary Elizabeth McGlynn) took Carmen in as a baby and encouraged her in learning about the world and how to steal. Despite her age, Carmen was one of the top thieves despite not being a student. VILE’s head council votes to accept her as a student.
As she grew up, Carmen engaged in a number of pranks, culminating with the annual water balloon bombing of VILE’s accountant, Cookie Booker, voiced by Rita Moreno. In one of the bombings, Cookie dropped her smartphone without noticing. Carmen did notice and grabbed it to add to her small stash of items. Any sort of cell phone is verboten for students to have on VILE’s island, though, so when it rings, Carmen is startled and answers it to get to be quiet. At the other end of the line is Player, a white hat hacker from Niagara Falls. While Player was just trying to let someone know of an exploitable hole in security, he and Carmen build a friendship over the phone over the years. She teaches him about different cultures through people passing through the island and he teaches her about the nature of white hat hackerism.
When it’s time for the final exams, Carmen aces all but one test. The one she failed, she believes Shadow-san (Paul Nakauchi) deliberately set her up to fail. She’s told she’s not allowed to go with her classmates on their first mission, but Carmen wasn’t always one for rules. Carmen sneaks on board VILE’s helicopter, stowing away. The catch is that she wasn’t there for the briefing or the planning session, where the way to the crime scene was by parachute. Carmen hitches a ride with Grey on the way down, though and runs off to try to find VILE’s target, an archaeological dig that has unearthed the Eye of Vishnu.
Talking with the archaeologist lets Carmen discover that there is something more valuable than money, knowledge. Before she can get too far into a discussion, though, her classmates arrive. They knock out the workers onsite, but are spotted by Carmen and the archeologist. The orders the new VILE thieves have include the command, “No witnesses.” Carmen, though, can’t let that happen and fights against her former classmates.
Carmen loses the fight and is brought back to VILE’s island. She’s forced to repeat her final year. During this time, though, Carmen plots a way to get off the island with the help of Player. Her goal, to not just escape, but to take the hard drive Cookie delivers once a year. Barring the helicopter, Cookie’s boat is the only way off the island. Carmen steals the hard drive, steals Cookie’s red hat and coat, and gets her name.
Back in the present, Carmen deals with her former classmate and friend Grey. Chase has managed to keep up with the two despite the damage he’s done to his car during the pursuit. Instead of Carmen, he gets Grey. Back at the crime scene, Julia discovers that nothing of value was stolen even though Carmen was seen with a sack holding something. Julia doesn’t have proof, but given that the vault holding the Eye of Vishnu also contained several other stolen objects, and that the owner of the building, a numbered company, was also the registered owner of a number of other locations that Carmen has hit, she believes that Carmen isn’t the usual thief and may have a goal of getting stolen items returned to their rightful owners. Why else would a thief be so brazen to wear red and let herself be seen by Interpol agents?
Over the rest of the episodes, Carmen maintains her private war against VILE. She’s not the only one after them; a secretive group called ACME, headed by the Chief (Dawnn Lewis) is trying to find proof of VILE’s existence. Carmen is the only link they have and Chase is the only Interpol agent who can identify her. ACME recruits Chase and Julia to find both Carmen and VILE. Chase is driven to arrest the infamous thief to the point where he is oblivious to senior VILE personnel when he’s in the middle of them. Julia is the brains of the partnership. but she isn’t able to maintain the pursuit to the degree Chase can. Both become valuable gumshoes for ACME.
The biggest change in the new Carmen Sandiego is that Carmen, the draw of the franchise, is finally the lead. The games, from first release in 1985 to the Google Earth game, and even in the animated series, Carmen was the pursued, but the main characters were the detectives after her, from the game’s player to stand-ins for them. The series doesn’t ask where Carmen is but who Carmen is. VILE is still the villain and ACME is back as the primary agency hunting. Dawnn Lewis’ Chief is modelled off Lynne Thigpen’s from the game show.
The series is aimed at the same age group the original games, the PBS game show, and even the DiC animated series were. This time around, though, there’s a few extras for the parents of the new audience, people who played the games or watched the shows in the Eighties and Nineties. Little references here and there, ones that can be shared with the younger generation, pop up in the course of the series, including a They Might Be Giants one in the first episode.
The new Carmen is still an educational series, focusing on geography and cultures around the world. The lessons tie into the plot of the episode, giving the reason why VILE has the evil scheme and why Carmen wants to stop them. The presentation of the facts come from both Carmen and Player, who share an interest in cultures not their own. Accents are genuine, though presented as to be understood by the young audience. The characters are diverse; Interpol, ACME, and VILE are all equal opportunity employers.
The pun-based names have been eased back a bit, but they still exist, if a bit more subtle. Grey had to be dissuaded from calling himself Graham Crackle. Cookie Booker, the accountant and bookkeeper, cooks VILE’s books. Paper Star (Kimiko Glenn) throws star-shaped origami shuriken. Dr. Saira Bellum (Sharon Muthu) is on VILE’s head council and is their technical expert and inventor. Chase is dogged in his pursuit of Carmen. The spy and snitch Mime Bomb is a mime (and, thus, has no voice actor).
The new Carmen solves the big problem of the eternal pursuit; if the pursued is caught, what happens to the series? With Carmen as the lead, the audience doesn’t have to deal with the main characters constantly being eluded despite all their efforts. The series allows the audience to root for Carmen, so the tension isn’t will this be the episode where she gets caught but how close will she get to being caught before she escapes. Carmen herself is shown to be competent and capable, so any gumshoe who gets close enough to see her let alone try to arrest her will be a worthy challenger. Chase, for all his shortcomings, is still a capable agent. Julia shores up the skills Chase is missing. Combined, the two give Carmen a challenge.
The series, while being its own work, gives nods to previous versions. The new Carmen received advice from Cookie, played by the first actor to give the character a voice. Carmen also steals her signature red hat and coat from Cookie, further cementing the hand off to the new generation. Player is a nod not just to the people who played the games but to the kid seen at the beginning of episodes of the DiC series. The theme music from the DiC series makes an appearance as elevator music. The new Carmen has more violence, with her and VILE agents battling it out. Most of the time, though, the VILE agents initiate the fights against Carmen and her team. Carmen is a thief, not a thug.
Carmen Sandiego is its own work, but it builds upon the franchise in such a way to be part of it instead of separate. Placing Carmen as the lead allows for the series to tell new stories while still bringing the elements that are expected of it.
Lost in Translation has covered several Spider-Man adaptations in the past, including Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and its reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man. Both focused on Peter Parker, the Spider-Man introduced in Amazing Fantasy #15. Spider-Man is Marvel’s flagship character. Whenever a new character gets a title, Spider-Man is there to reinforce the idea that the hero is part of the Marvel Universe. As a result, Spidey has met most of Marvel’s heavy hitters, from the Avengers to the X-Men. New York City may be a large city, but heroes will cross each others’ paths.
Peter, though, isn’t the only Spider-Man in Marvel Comics. Thanks to alternate universes, there can be an infinite number of Spider-Men. Indeed, some are from a different Marvel Universe, like the Spectacular Spider-Ham, who first appeared in Marvel Tails Starring Peter Porker the Spectacular Spider-Ham; Spider-Gwen, the Gwen Stacy of Earth-65 who became Spider-Woman, as seen in Edge of Spider-Verse #2; and Miles Morales, from Marvel’s Ultimate line, who took up the mantle of Spider-Man after Peter Parker died, as seen in Ultimate Fallout #4. In a possible future of the main Marvel Universe, Miguel O’Hara becomes Spider-Man in Spider-Man 2099. In the main continuity, Dr. Otto Octavius, Doc Octopus himself, once took over Peter’s body to become the Superior Spider-Man. And that’s just scratching the surface of Spider-Men, not even touching the versions that have appeared in animated series, in live action film and TV, and in video games, nor the Spider-related characters, like Spider-Woman, Venom, and Araña. Marvel released a limited series, Edge of the Spider-Verse, that featured stories of the various version of Spider-Man, bringing them together to fight the dangers of the Inheritors across the Marvel Multiverse.
Marvel does track its multiverses. Anything done under a Marvel logo, be it film, TV, or streaming, Even the company’s comics that aren’t part of the main continuity, like the New Universe and the mangaverse, are part of the overall multiverse. The Peter Parker from the classic cartoon is a different one from Tobey Maguire’s in the Raimi Spider-Man, who is a different one from the main continuity, but they are all Peter Parker and Spider-Man.
Pulling even a fraction of all the available Spider-People is daunting. The general audience is most familiar with Peter Parker, thanks to decades of him being the face of Spider-Man outside comics. Fans will know of the others, but the rest of the movie-going public might not. With a runtime of just under two hours, there’s not much space to introduce all of them in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, even if the number of alternate Spider-Beings is limited.
Into the Spider-Verse opens with Peter Parker (voiced by Chris Pine) introducing himself as Spider-Man, giving a brief rundown on who he is and what he’s done for ten years, with scenes taken from the various Spider-Media, from comics to film, and the different tie-ins, like the classic cartoon and a Christmas album. Once Peter’s intro is done, though, the focus turns to Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a high school student just starting at the prestigious Brooklyn Visions, a private school that only takes the best and brightest. Miles aced the entrance exam, but isn’t sure that he belongs there. At one point, he tries failing a true/false test, getting a zero. His teacher saw through it, though.
Miles’ life is complicated, like most teenagers’ lives are. He does wind up talking to another new student, “Wanda” (Hailee Steinfeld), who laughed at his lame excuse for being late for science class. Miles also sneaks out to meet up with his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), who shows him a safe spot to practice his graffiti. Aaron still has a shady side gig, the point where he and Miles’ father, police officer Jeff Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) have had arguments about leading to estrangement. As Miles works on his latest project, a radioactive spider, having escaped from Alchemex, lurks, eventually biting the teen.
The next day, the effects of the spider’s bite appear. Miles’ thoughts seem loud to him and are appearing on screen around him. His attempt to put to use some advice his uncle gave him on talking to girls fail horribly with Wanda when his hand gets stuck in her hair, leading to an impromptu haircut for her and stony silence for him. With nothing going right, Miles returns to his dorm room and flips through is roommate’s comics, finding the first Spider-Man comic and realizes that he’s having the same thoughts and problems the Peter Parker in the comic is having. Miles returns to the underground chamber where his artwork is and finds the dead spider. He then hears a fight nearby.
Spider-Man has located the Kingpin’s secret facility, being used to breach dimensional barriers to bring back Fisk’s deceased wife and son. The problem that Spidey has realized is that the device could collapse the space-time continuum, destroying not just Brooklyn, but multiple dimensions. Fisk’s device manages to lock on five other universes before Spider-Man can stop the process. The fight, though, leaves Spider-Man badly hurt. Spidey hands the key that can destroy the device to Miles, who sneaks away. Before he leaves, though, Miles witnesses Kingpin dealing the death blow to Spider-Man.
When news gets out about the hero’s death, New York City mourns. Peter Parker was well respected as both himself and as Spidey. His widow, Mary Jane (Zoë Kravitz), is surrounded by well wishers. Miles, still in shock and feeling responsible, attends funeral in the crowd in a cheap costume. He tries to train alone, but while he has Spider-Man’s agility, the rest isn’t there yet. To try to work out his thoughts, he heads to Peter’s gravestone. While there, a stranger approaches him. Miles reacts instinctively, knocking out the man. When he gets a closer look, he discovers that it’s a brunette Peter.
Once he recovers, Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), goes through the same intro Miles’ Peter had at the beginning, except this Spider-Man had been around for over twenty-five years, had been married to MJ but later divorced and hadn’t been taking it well. He’s older, heavier, and not quite on his game. The two head out to Alchemex’s headquarters in Harper Valley, where the plan is for Peter to sneak in, retrieve the files needed to recreate the key, now broken after Miles ran from Fisk’s henchmen, grab a bagel, and sneak out. Nothing in Peter B. Parker’s life ever goes smooth. He runs into Fisk’s chief researcher and Brooklyn Visions guest physics lecturer, Doctor Olivia “Liv” Octavius, Doc Ock (Kathryn Hahn) herself.
Miles and Peter escape the facility, lugging a desktop PC while being chased by armed mad scientists and Doc Ock as Miles is being taught how to use Peter’s web shooter. The competency of Miles’ late Spider-Man, though, means that the villains had to up their own game, and the pair are in deep trouble. However, a newcomer swings in to help. Spider-Woman, from another of the five dimensions, saves the boys and retrieves the computer before Doc Ock could grab it. “Wanda”, or, as she should be called, Gwen Stacy, gives her own backstory in the same manner as both Spider-Men before, this time with her own dimension’s Peter Parker having been the Lizard.
The three decide that the best place to try to figure things out is at the home of Peter’s Aunt May (Lily Tomlin). Aunt May had been expecting them and isn’t surprised at seeing her nephew at the door despite his funeral. She leads Miles, Peter, and Gwen to her Peter’s underground lair and introduces them to the other dimensional travellers – Peter Parker (Nicholas Cage), from 1933, in black and white, a masked detective in a noir pulp style; Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and her SP//dr mecha which she copilots with a radioactive spider; and Peter Porker (John Mulaney), the Spectacular Spider-Ham. The three go through their backstory in unison, much like the previous backstories.
With the five extra-dimension Spider-beings now gathered, the plan turns from stopping Kingpin to getting everyone home then stopping Kingpin. The problem is that there should be six, but the one from Miles’ dimension is dead. To avoid having anyone left behind, though. Miles has to step up, control his abilities, and become the new Spider-Man for his dimension.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse may have done the impossible. The movie introduced Spideys that weren’t Peter Parker, provided their backstory, gave them all credible motivations, and made them all interesting, while still keeping to their comic origins. Even the animation styles used for the characters kept to their original titles. Spider-Ham’s animation harkens to both Disney and Warner Bros; Spider-Man Noir’s kept to black and white, including the dots that older, pre-computer inking used; Peni was straight up anime-style. Yet the styles didn’t clash. By the time they appeared, the idea of dimensions colliding was well in effect in the film.
Introductions were quick, getting the point across, becoming a running gag, then turning into a proper ending with Miles’ version. The movie is Miles’ story, but there’s room for the other Spideys. Relationships between characters were real. The relationship between Miles and his father showed all the awkwardness when a teenaged boy is trying to become his own person but is still dependent on his parents. Peter B. Parker’s life falling apart, especially in contrast to the successful Peter of Miles’ dimension, shows a man who lost his direction. Yet, that Peter hasn’t gone to the extremes that Wilson Fisk did by creating a means to break dimensional walls to get his wife and son back.
There is the required Stan Lee cameo, this time as Stan, the owner of a comic book shop who gives Miles some advice. “It [the costume] always fits, eventually.” While the costume Miles bought didn’t fit, when he stepped up, he made the costume his, and it did fit who he is. The quote from Stan Lee during the credits really does apply to Miles, and to many people in real life, “That person who helps others simply because it should or must be done, and because it’s the right thing to do, is indeed, without doubt, a real superhero.” Even when he was trying to deal with his new powers, Miles did help Spidey because it was the right thing to do.
To emphasize that Miles’ dimension was different, little things changed. Some were obvious, some were in the background. His father was an officer of the Police Department of New York City, or PDNY. Koca-Soda has the ad at Times Square. Movie posters had familiar pictures but new titles, like Simon Pegg’s From Dusk to Shaun. Getting details right is a key element that can make or break an adaptation. Into the Spider-Verse went beyond that here.
As a film, Into the Spider-Verse will be the Spider-movie that all others will be judged against. While the movie is Miles’ story, the different Peter Parkers brought a nuance to the character not seen in any of the movies so far, an older Peter instead of the high school and university students portrayed so far. The movie managed to hit the right tone, a bit of comedy, a bit of drama, a bit of superhero action, just as in the comics. Spidey couldn’t solve his problems using his powers in his comic titles, and neither could any of the Spideys in the movie. Peter B. Parker eventually realizes that he was in the wrong and he needed MJ in his life. Miles and his father reconcile. Gwen opens a little to letting people get close to her.
The humour comes through in appropriate times. When the Spider-Man of Miles’ dimension dies, it is a sombre moment. Later, though, as Peter and Miles steal Dok Ock’s computer, the tone lightens. The scientists recognize Spidey, since he was wearing the costume, and one yells out, “It’s Spider-Man! He’s stolen a bagel!” before they break out their lasers. Even in the climactic fight, all the Spideys keep up with the patter, a Spider-Man trademark.
As an adaptation, the movie doesn’t adapt The Edge of the Spider-Verse, nor was it meant to. It took the concept from the mini-series and from the video game, Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions and brought it to film. The characters, though, are true to their original works, complete with appropriate animation style. The result is a film that embraces its comic book heritage instead of ignoring it.
Do stay past the credits. An eighth Spidey, Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac), makes an appearance, travelling back to when it all began, 1967. Worth staying for and is a brilliant adaptation on its own.
Last week, Lost in Translation took a look at animated adaptations with a high level view. It’s time to delve into a specific one to get a better view of how such things turn out.
Thanks to the success of Star Wars merchandise in 1977, toys and toy licensing became another way to make money from a movie. Sure, prior to Star Wars, there were toys made for some franchises, but not to the same extent and success. However, many of the most toyetic movies were also R-rated, meaning that the target audience for the toys were not likely to have seen the movie except in ads. However, the reduction of FCC regulations against using children’s entertainment as advertising presented a new way to introduce the characters to the new audience – cartoons. Thus, among other animated adaptations, RoboCop the Animated Series.
The original RoboCop was a violent, over-the-top satire of the Reagan era. Everyone has a gun. Automation destroys jobs. Detroit is bankrupt. The Detroit police get privatized, bought up by Omni-Consumer Products, who saw the city as a test bed for automating law enforcement. The movie wasn’t subtle. Officer Alex Murphy is shot with the symbolism of the Crucifixion. Scenes had to be trimmed to avoid the dreaded X rating, preventing the movie from getting into any theatre. Blood was shed by the barrels.
The perfect movie to adapt for children.
The 2014 remake, with its PG-13 rating, had its violence toned down. No more graphic deaths. No one getting shot with hundreds of rounds by a robot still in beta. It was one of the problems fans of the original movie would cite about the remake. The violence was reigned in. There still was violence. Drones got destroyed. Murphy got shot and burned. But the gore was gone. The remake’s satire hit closer to home, but the violence of the original allowed audiences to take a step back. The PG-13 rating was seen as the problem by fans of the original, not allowing for the over the top violence of the original.
With that in mind, if there was a backlash against the 2014 remake, how do things shake out for 1988’s RoboCop: The Animated Series? If a PG-13 rating forced the 2014 remake to focus the violence on drones, how much is lost for a weekly cartoon? Repeatable violence isn’t allowed. Shooting a gun is repeatable. Punching is repeatable. Running someone over is repeatable. And forget language. Even in syndication, there are words not allowed anywhere near children’s entertainment. “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me,” won’t be heard.
How well did RoboCop survive the translater to animation? First, a look at the the characters themselves. While Orion could license the characters, the studio couldn’t license the appearances of the actors. The actors own their looks. It’s the same reason why the character design for The Real Ghostbusters changed so much. However, the costume for RoboCop hid most of Peter Weller, so the character could be animated as accurately as the production could. Likewise, the ED-260, the upgraded version of the ED-209 from the movie, was accurate, with the new number allowing for differences due to animation.
For characters like Officer Anne Lewis and Sergeant Ross, the animation tries to be close to their looks without necessarily copying their actors. Lewis lost her curls, but the costume – body armour and a helmet with a visor – is close enough. Other characters, like the Old Man, have more extensive changes. However, Clarence Boddicker, the man responsible for killing RoboCop in both the movie and the series, has only minor changes. Boddicker appears in the opening credits and in the episode “Menace of the Mind”.
Animation helps with showing RoboCop’s abilities. The original movie used practical effects and stop-motion; the suit Weller wore slowed him down just from mass. An animated character doesn’t have that limitation, so having RoboCop lift a van by its bumper or run after a perp is easier to show. The technology of the future of Old Detroit changed, too. RoboCop and the rest of the police force use lasers. Some of the criminals still used guns, but since they were shooting RoboCop, there were no bullet wounds, no arterial sprays, nothing to worry parents about what their children were seeing.
Characterization of the characters was off. RoboCop comes off as his RoboCop 2 incarnation after community input forces several hundred new directives installed. Murphy acts more as Murphy’s cheerleader. However, the focus of the series is on action; dialogue is kept to a minimum. Bursts of dialogue aren’t much to build a character on. A few characters do change. SWAT commander Lt. Roger Hedgecock gets promoted from being a minor character in the original to a rival. Hedgecock isn’t a fan of automation and is trying to outshine Murphy. Casey Wong returns as the talking head of “Media Break”, the three-minute news segment that appeared in the movie.
A few characters were added. Dr. McNamara, an OCP designer working on the ED-260 project, wants RoboCop shelved in favour of his Enforcement Drone, and is the mastermind behind the plot in several episodes. The Vandals were a gang that caused problems in Old Detroit until stopped by RoboCop.
The series did try to work with some themes from the movie. Biting satire is out, but some still slipped in. A section of Old Detroit was called “Trickledown Town” and was where the old abandoned factories were. One episode, “No News Is Good News”, had a Geraldo Riviera parody, chasing non-stories until he focused on destroying RoboCop’s reputation. Even the idea of automating jobs came up for satire with ED-260 being pressed into traffic duty and causing collateral damage after an illegal lane change. Outside the satire, Murphy still had to come to terms with his humanity. While Lewis still saw Murphy as Murphy, others, including Hedgecock and McNamara, saw him as a machine or as a product.
RoboCop is a tough movie to turn into an animated series, especially one aimed at an younger audience. What is allowed in an R rated movie doesn’t get on television in prime time, let alone weekend afternoon for kids. RoboCop: The Animated Series had its fangs pulled because of the the new format. It tries, but the focus is more science fiction action, not violent biting satire of the Eighties. If it was a standalone work; it would be an entertaining series on its own. Tied to the RoboCop movie, the series is sanitized.
Lost in Translation as taken a look at a number of animated adaptations over the past few years, most recently with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and Sherlock Gnomes. Saturday mornings were filled with cartoons, some of them adaptations of other works. Nothing appears to be off-limits when it comes to animated adaptations. Some are well done; others, not so much.
With the deregulation of American television in the Eighties, toy manufacturers were allowed to create what were essentially thirty minute toy ads disguised as cartoons. While networks still had requirements, including non-violence, another frontier opened in the Eighties – syndication. Since the cartoons were being sold directly to the station, bypassing any network involvement, the rules were looser. Toss in a one to two minute public service announcement and the series can be sold as educational, even with lasers blazing and robots throwing each other around.
However, ads don’t work if no one watches them and writers rooms tend to have creative people in them who want to be more than ad copywriters. The result in the Eighties was a number of cartoon series based on toys that had complex storylines, character development, and ongoing plots instead of standalone episodes. Autobots may have stopped Decepticon plots, G.I. Joe may have prevented Cobra from World Domination, and She-Ra may have foiled Hordak but each series always returned to the baseline. A win by any of the factions meant the series ending. Jem may have had the most gains; her goal was to fund the Starlight Girls and make it big in the music industry. Ruining Pizzazz’s schemes was a side benefit.
The catch with cartoons based on toys is that the money for the series depends heavily on how well the merchandise is selling. While not an animated adaptation, Captain Planet and the Soldiers of the Future is a good example of what happens when a series is more popular than the toy. Captain Power ended on a sour note with the death of Pilot, a plot hook for a second season that never materialized. On the flip side, a popular toy gets more of its line released. Kids need only so many of Bumblebee, Man-At-Arms, or Kimber, even with new light-up features. The new action figure, doll, or playset needs to appear in the cartoon. Ultimately, the cartoon exists to sell toys.
Prior to deregulation, the typical animated adaptation was a cartoon based on a comic book character. DC Comics’ go-to for licensing was Superman, with cartoons featuring the character made in 1941-1943, 1966-1970, 1988, and 1996-2000. Marvel’s choice of character was The Amazing Spider-Man, with cartoons made in 1967-1970, 1981-1982, 1981-1983 (with Iceman and Firestar), 1994-1998, 1999-2001, 2003, 2008-2009, 2012-2017, and 2017 (ongoing), and appearances on The Electric Company in the Seventies. Even the third of the Big Three American comics publishers had their own series with Archie in 1968-1970, 1971-1973, 1974-1977, 1987, and 1999-2000 and Josie and the Pussycats from 1970-1972. Given the popularity of the characters, the adaptations were meant to draw an audience and sell advertising time. As other characters gained prominence, they, too, were adapted into cartoons. The X-Men has had several, in 1989, 1992-1997, 2000-2003, 2009, and 2011, and the DC Animated Universe, starting with Batman: The Animated Series in 1992 through to Justice League Unlimited ending in 2006 maintained quality through the run.
While comic and cartoon seldom interacted, there were times when the adaptation influenced the original. Batman: The Animated Series had several characters created for it that made the jump back to the main continuity, including Renée Montoya. The episode “Heart of Ice” introduced a background for the villain Mr. Freeze, one that turned him into a tragic figure, that was accepted as canon in the comics. After deregulation, though, the cartoon also became a way to sell action figures of the characters, an added bonus for the companies involved.
Animated adaptations of movies is where things get weird. While there are some films that do lend themselves to a continuation, such as Back to the Future, some movies adapted were aimed at a completely new audience. In most of those cases, the goal was to sell toys, but many of the adaptations were of movies that the cartoon’s target audience couldn’t see due to an R-rating. Rambo: The Force of Freedom (1986, a year after Rambo: First Blood Part II hit theatres) and Robocop the Animated Series (1988) are notable but also just the surface. The Rambo series features a Vietnam War veteran who decades later is still living the war. Robocop was a violent satire of the Reagan-era, over the top to the point of almost being rated X. Robocop could be turned into a police procedural, the violence toned down or even removed, though that does miss the point of the original movie. Rambo: The Force of Freedom turned John Rambo into a ecological warrior, fighting against polluters.
Other R-rated adaptations came out including The Toxic Crusaders, based on /The Toxic Avenger/. Even raunchy comedies aimed at younger adults got adaptations; Police Academy tried to bring the humour of the movies to a format for children. Some of the adaptations were to get a toy line out and sold; the adult market wasn’t and isn’t as lucrative as the general toy market. At the same time, the target audience only knows the characters through home video, edited televised showings of the films, or just pop culture osmosis.
With Back to the Future, the aim was an educational series. The draw of the film would be enough to get advertisers interested in buying airtime during the show, and the educational portions added to the sales value to networks. The Real Ghostbusters, while taking advantage of a PG-rated film* with potential for more stories, also had its own toyline. Both series had strong writing; The Real Ghostbusters even answered the question, “What would happen if someone hit Cthulhu with a beam from an unlicensed nuclear accelerator?” (The answer: He’d be very annoyed.) Animated adaptations of movies vary widely; some make sense, others are headscratchers.
With video games, the draw again came from the popularity of the game, especially in the Eighties. Video arcades could be found in every mall and Pac-Man Fever could only be cured with massive amounts of quarters. Home video game consoles came out, though with a slight dip in popularity around 1983 when Atari overestimated just how many people would buy an E.T the Extraterrestrial video game. Many of the early video games really didn’t lend themselves to any sort of adaptation, yet they were made. Pac-Man and related games were all about a yellow blob eating dots and running from ghosts; the Pac-Man cartoon had to create plots and give personalities to the games’ characters.
The explosion of the Nintendo Entertainment System on the market led to the North American audience being re-introduced to the Mario Brothers and a cartoon featuring them. This time, there was a bit more to hang plots on; after all, there was always another castle. With the NES and later systems capable of running games with more plot than “eat dots” or “don’t crash”, adaptations had more to build from. Some game studios took advantage of animated adaptations to add more details to their setting and characters; Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children and Mass Effect: Paragon Lost are good examples. Quality varied. Some cartoons were made to take advantage of the popularity of the video game, others managed to take advantage of the new format.
Animated adaptations of literary works were done mainly for educational purposes, introducing classic works to children. As a result, since the work would be one and done, the animation was a higher quality than that of a weekly series; there was time to do things properly. Not every animated film was for educational purposes; no one will argue that Gnomeo & Juliet‘s primary purpose is to educate children on Shakespeare. At the same time, cartoons of literary work aimed at children bring forward the characters and main themes in accessible chunks. The main requirement was that the original had to have something that was visually stimulating. The ghosts in A Christmas Carol and Scrooge’s redemption arc can make for compelling storytelling. A proper Victorian romance, or even an improper one, doesn’t make the cut. Sometimes, a studio just wanted to animate a favourite story, like Watership Down.
Not all animation is for children, though. In the Eighties, Nelvana released fare that was geared for an older audience. Rock & Rule, a take on Faust, featured popular rock musicians including Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop. The Devil and Daniel Mouse, Nelvana’s version of The Devil and Daniel Webster wasn’t as trippy, but was still aiming at an older audience, much like Heavy Metal had. Both films, being made by a Canadian studio, were aired on the CBC, which was available over the air and on basic cable.
Finally, there’s tabletop games. Animated adaptations of these fell under the same restrictions as ones for toys. Once the restrictions were removed in the Eighties, not many board games were turned into cartoons. Most board games are competitive, lending themselves to be licensed as game shows instead of cartoons. Even roleplaying games weren’t adapted, in part because of being a niche industry, in part from the “Satanic panic” of the Eighties. Dungeons & Dragons did get an animated series, but being the best known RPG will get attention from studios. It is telling that only two other RPGs, BattleTech and Heavy Gear, had animated adaptations. The built-in audience is small; each series relied on visuals, that of mecha combat.
The animated adaptation is not going away. It serves a purpose, most often to sell merchandise. Yet, the potential of the adaptation to go beyond just being an extended ad will keep an audience tuned in.
* Probably would have been PG-13 if the rating existed at the time.
Sherlock Holmes is a character that has lasted in the imaginations of readers for well over 130 years. Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, Holmes and his partner, Dr. John Watson, solved many a mystery. Each of Holmes’ adventures were written from Watson’s point of view, a filter through which Holmes could explain his deductions to readers. Over time, Holmes has been adapted in many ways from theatre to television, the most recent being Elementary. It was only a matter of time before he was adapted as a garden gnome.
Watson wasn’t the only character that remained in the pop subconscious. Other of Doyle’s creations are as well known, including Irene Adler, Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, and the Napoleon of Crime, Professor Moriarty. An equal match to Holmes’ intellect, Moriarty appeared in the story, “The Adventure of the Final Problem”, published December 1893 in Strand Magazine and with the collection of short stories, Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, in the same year. In it, Holmes had already deduced who the Napoleon of Crime was and had plans to arrest him and key members of his gang. Moriarty, though, worked out who was behind all his recent setbacks and promised Holmes mutual destruction if the detective continued to work against him. Holmes sees no problem with that, with a career of detective work behind him that bettered London. The chase is afoot, and Holmes and Moriarty meet again at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. After a fight, both tumble into the Reichenbach Falls, never to be seen again.
Doyle meant for “The Final Solution” to be the last Sherlock Holmes adventure. He was getting tired of writing about the character. Fans, though, demanded more, despite the apparent death. Doyle obliged with The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1902. Professor Moriarity returned in The Valley of Fear, published in 1915 as a lead up to the events in “The Final Solution”.
Moriarty intrigued fans of Sherlock Holmes. Despite having just the two appearances, Moriarty challenged Holmes on a intellectual level, an equal match for the detective where their final meeting resulted in their demise. Not just a villain, but a foil, a nemesis. One that can be expected to appear in an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. Even one where the detective is a garden gnome.
When Gnomeo & Juliet was released in 2011, the movie exceeded box office expectations. When a movie does that well, sequels are expected. Since Shakespeare never wrote a Romeo & Juliet: Part II, mostly because the titular characters died in the original play, there’s not much to build from there. However, low-hanging puns are easy to build upon, leading to Sherlock Gnomes. Gnomeo & Juliet managed to hit most of the beats of the Shakespearean play, changing only near the end. Could the creative team do the same with Sherlock Gnomes?
Most of the cast of Gnomeo & Juliet returned, the main exception being Jason Stathem as Tybalt. Joining the cast are Johnny Depp as Sherlock Gnomes, Chiewetel Ejiofor as Dr. Watson, Mary J. Blige as Irene, and Jamie Demitriou as Moriarty. Once again, the music of Elton John and Bernie Taupin form the bulk of the soundtrack, with the exception of a piece by Jacques Offenbach. The crew comprised of people from Gnomeo & Juliet who weren’t otherwise busy with other projects.
The movie opens with Sherlock Gnomes and Watson foiling the plans of Moriarty to smash some helpless garden gnomes at the museum. Gnomes and Moriarty have been matching wits for some time, with the villain leaving clues to taunt and test the detective. This time, though, it appears that Moriarty himself is smashed.
Elsewhere, Ms Montague and Mr. Capulet move together from 2B and Not 2B Verona Drive in Stratford-upon-Avon to a brownstone on Baker Street in London. The garden gnomes are put out in the small garden. Once alone, they animate once again. Lady Bluebury (Maggie Smith) and Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine) announce they will retire once the new garden is properly set up, with Juliet (Emily Blunt) and Gnomeo (James McAvoy) appointed the new gnome leaders. The scene lets audiences familiar with the first movie catch up on the characters, with Benny (Matt Lucas) having his hat repaired between movies. As the garden work goes on, Juliet is spending less time with Gnomeo. Feeling neglected, he decides to go on an adventure to find the flower that brought him and Juliet together in the first place, the purple Cupid’s Arrow Orchid.
Juliet discovers Gnomeo’s foolish adventure and goes out to save his butt. She is not impressed; she wants the garden in top shape. As they argue, they hear Benny call for help. When they return to the garden, the rest of the gnomes have disappeared. However, Gnomes and Watson are on the scene. With very little explanation, Gnomes begins searching for clues on the disappearance, ignoring questions from Gnomeo and Juliet. The detectives find Moriarty’s calling card and leave, with Juliet and Gnomeo on their heels.
Gnomes may not want meddlesome assistants with him, but he’s stuck with the newcomers. The clues lead through London, meeting a variety of ornaments from Chinatown to a toy store where Irene is in charge. All leads to a final encounter with Moriarty, who managed to escape his apparent smashing with just minor, reparable damage, at the Tower Bridge. The final battle sees Sherlock and Moriarty fighting then falling from the Bridge much like the illustration shown at the beginning of the movie.
Sherlock Gnomes takes a few liberties with “The Final Solution”, though the movie isn’t really an adaptation of the story, just the characters in it. Still, key beats from the story show up, such as Gnomes travelling to various locations to keep a step ahead of Moriarty. Much like Holmes, Sherlock Gnomes is brusque and lacking in social skills. In the literature, Watson acts as the filter between Holmes and the reader. In the movie, Watson fills the same role, not just to the audience but also with the gnomes the two meet. Gnomes is also a master of disguise, much like his progenitor, including disguising himself and Juliet as a squirrel in order to retrieve one of Moriarty’s calling card from the cutest Hound of the Baskervilles to be on screen. Being a family film, Sherlock Gnomes elides Holmes’ addictions, though as a garden gnome, it’d be hard to show his heroin habit.
The movie borrows an idea from the Robert Downey, Jr. in showing how Sherlock’s thought processes work. Instead of slowing down the action, Sherlock Gnomes uses black and white animation, showing how the detective works out problems. The processes aren’t that easy to understand, being meant more for comedy than actual problem solving tips. Gnomes also has Holmes’ eye for detail and observation, able to tell that Gnomeo and Juliet are having a lovers’ quarrel within seconds of meeting them.
With the basic premise of telling an adventure of Sherlock Holmes as a garden gnome, the movie could have taken an easy route of having just a gnome that looks like Holmes solve a mystery set to the music of Elton John and be done with it. Instead, Sherlock Gnomes brings in Holmes as he is in Doyle’s stories, intelligent, arrogant, and dismissive, and still highlights what would have been his last adventure if Doyle had his way while turning the character into a ceramic ornament. Gnomeo & Juliet demonstrated that the creative team could keep to the beats of a tragedy while still making a feature for the entire family. Sherlock Gnomes follows in the same footsteps.
In the tabletop role-playing game industry, Dungeons & Dragons is the 800 pound gorilla, the game that the general population knows by name. The game has had a cinematic adaptation that didn’t work as either a movie or an adaptation. However, the movie wasn’t the first adaptation of the game. In 1985, an animated series based on the game began airing on CBS. The series would last two seasons, with animation by Toei.
The 80s were an odd time for the game. Dungeons & Dragons had managed to break away from specialty game stores to appear in toy stores and book shops. At the same time, parent groups appeared to counter the game’s popularity, accusing the game and its publisher, TSR, of being satanic. One group, Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons headed by Patricia Pulling, managed to make some headway with law enforcement despite dubious research and math and even appeared on 60 Minutes in 1985. The D&D cartoon thus had some extra restrictions on it beyond the usual Saturday morning ones.
The opening credits of the cartoon told how the characters got involved. A ride at an amusement park deposits a group of friends into a fantasy world, where they’re immediately set upon by two villains, Venger and Tiamat. However, with the intervention of Dungeon Master, the group gains magic items that helps them escape. Each of the main characters represented a different character class. Hank became a Ranger, receiving a magical bow. Sheila, with her cloak of invisibility, became a Thief. Presto received a magic hat to become a Magic-User, the term used for wizards in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons‘ first edition. With the Unearthed Arcana also being released in 1985, character classes from that supplement were also used. Sheila’s younger brother Bobby became a Barbarian with a magic club. Diana received a magical staff, letting her become a Thief-Acrobat. And, finally, Eric became a Cavalier upon receiving a magic shield. After arriving in the world, Bobby befriended a young unicorn colt, Uni. Making a noticeable absence is the Cleric, but given the Satanic Panic around the game, leaving the class out meant feidling fewer calls from angry special interest groups.
Over the course of the series, the group of young intrepid adventurers sought to find a way back to their home. Dungeon Master would appear to provide guidance in the form of riddles, leading the adventurers into situations where they would use their abilities to help others in need. Meanwhile, Venger would appear to try to get the group’s magic items or Tiamat, former Babylonian goddess turned five-headed ruler of the evil dragons, would appear to menace. Dungeon Master was well-meaning but capricious, dangling hope in front of the adventurers, much like some actual DMs. Each of the main characters showed elements of their representative classes, from Sheila’s sneaking to Presto’s magic, though not exactly to the rules. Eric, on the other hand, didn’t show the Cavalier’s valour, though that was a decision made thanks to executive meddling. The rule at the time was to have teamwork, and anyone who went against the group was thought to be in the wrong. Eric was designated the one to be in the wrong, even if his idea, typically running away, was a viable choice.
The mechanics of AD&D were hidden, meant to be more the physics of the fantasy world than anything else. Monsters that did appear did come from the game. No one rolled a die to determine hit or miss, but such a scene would break immersion. Instead, the setting came from the rules, though not specifically Greyhawk, Gary Gygax’s home campaign. The adventures were aimed at a younger audience, the extreme low end of the “For ages 12 and up” range. However, some of the episodes wouldn’t be odd to have as an evening’s play session, even with D&D‘s fifth edition. Having Dungeon Master be a character in the series was an odd choice, but the role worked and showed potential players how to be a DM and still allow the players to have fun while working through a challenge.
The D&D cartoon was an odd duck in a decade that was defined by odd ducks. Few popular media ever faced a strong challenge by special interest groups as /D&D/ did, and, yet, the game remained popular. The cartoon followed in the game’s footsteps, creating its own niche and presenting a setting usable with the game without getting too bogged down in details.
Adaptations of games are an iffy prospect. There have been major failures along the way, from Super Mario Bros through Dungeons & Dragons to Battleship. Yet, studios keep trying, because the recognition factor of the names involved should pull in an audience, as seen with the announcement of the Tetris movie. With D&D, Battleship, and Tetris, there isn’t a proper setting as would be used in fiction. Maybe movies aren’t the best vehicle for game adaptations. World building takes effort, and movies don’t provide enough time to get the details down. Also a good idea is to pick a game that has a setting. D&D has several, but using them would mean making the movie using the setting’s name*, not the game’s. Yet, the animated D&D series was able to create a setting and a conflict that came from the game’s mechanics. An animated series also has the advantage of needing to be short and to the point without having to worry about the effects budget. Time to look at a game that has a developed setting and see how it was adapted. For this, let’s look at BattleTech, a game of mecha combat in the far future.
BattleTech started as BattleDroids, produced by FASA in 1984. The change in the name came after some legal pressure from Lucasfilm over the term, “droid”. Becoming BattleTech didn’t change the core idea of the wargame – two sides fielding walking mecha called BattleMechs to claim dominence of the battlefield. FASA licensed mecha designs from several anime, including Macross**, giving them their own attributes for the game. As the game grew, different factions were developed, and a history came about explaining why these interstellar empires were at war. The five nations of the Inner Sphere*** eventually received a supplement each, detailing their culture, economy, and interstellar relations – the Lyran Commonwealth headed by House Steiner, with German influences; the Draconis Combine headed by House Kurira, with Japanese influences; the Federated Suns headed by House Davion, with French and English influences; the Capellan Confederation headed by House Liao, with Chinese influences; and the Free Worlds League headed by House Marik, with Greek and Balkan influence.
As the setting expanded, the years progressed from 3025, detailing the Succession Wars to see who would form the new Star League. The Houses could barely keep their technology base, with many technicians performing rituals that were learned by rote instead of proper study. In 3049, a new threat appeared from beyond known space. The Clans, the return of the descendants of Star League forces that fled the Inner Sphere after the the revolt from one of the Periphery states resulted in the death of the First Lord of the Star League in 2766. The goal of the invaders was to restore the Star League and retake Earth. The Clan invasion forced the major Houses to research technology and upgrade to survive. Ultimately, the Clan invasion was stopped in 3052 after a coalition of forces fought a proxy battle for control of Earth. The major Houses then formed a new Star League in 3060 to pre-empt a second Clan invasion, but internal fighting inside the Federated Commonwealth, made of Houses Davion and Steiner, erupted as a civil war. In the aftermath, Houses Steiner, Davion, and Liao pulled out of the Star League, ending it. BattleTech grew from the basic box set to encompass published missions, a related role-playing game (MechWarrior), tie-in novels, video games, and even an animated adaptation.
BattleTech: The Animated Series aired in 1994. Produced by Saban, the fourteen episode series melded traditional animation with CGI and detailed the exploits of the 1st Somerset Strikers, an ad hoc team created by Major Adam Steiner, and instructor at the famed Nagelring Military Academy of the Federated Commonwealth Armed Forces (FCAF). Adam’s goal was to find out who attacked his homeworld of Somerset; at first, he believed the Draconis Combine was involved, but learns that a new invader was responsible. With the tacet permission of Archon Melissa Steiner-Davion, he commandeers a Draconis JumpShip to take investigate further. With him are Lieutenant Rachel Specter, Adam’s best friend and tactical officer; Lieutenant Ciro Ramierez, Adam’s assistant instructor at the Nagelring; Cadet Katiara Kylie, aerospace pilot and fellow Somerset native; Captain “Hawk” Hawkins of the FCAF; “Captain” Valten Ryder, mercenary picked up on Dustball; Franklin Sakamoto, Draconis smuggler and illegitimate son of the Combine’s ruler; Doctor Deirdre Nakamura, shipmate of Franklin’s; and “Patch” McGuire, mechanic.
The 1st Somerset Strikers soon learn that the new foe they face is Clan Jade Falcon, one of the invading Clans returning to take back Earth. The Jade Falcons forces in the area of operations are led by Star Colonel Nicholai Malthus and Star Colonel Kristen Redmond. Both have a technology introduced for the cartoon, an Enhanced Imaging implant that allows them to get a broader picture of the battlefield through virtual reality. At first, the ragtag Strikers spend almost as much time infighting as they do battling Malthus’s forces, but as Adam gains intelligence, the Jade Falcon commanders become rivals as Nicholai tries to defeat Steiner. It’s not easy for the Strikers; they lose Ciro to the Jade Falcons, where he is turned into a bondsman and becomes a ‘Mech pilot with an EI implant. In the final episode, the Strikers battle Nicholai and his forces over the fate of Somerset.
The EI implant allowed the studio to switch to CGI, showing ‘Mech battles via virtual reality. The characters are given ties to the setting, through relations, like Adam and Franklin, and through position, like Nicholai and Kristen. Ciro first appeared in Michael A. Stackpole’s BattleTech novel, Lethal Heritage. Franklin’s storyline began in Robert Charette’s novel, Heir to the Dragon. Distinctive BattleMechs were used, from Adam’s Axeman and Kristen’s Vulture to Valten’s Bushwacker, making its first appearance in the setting. Jordan K. Weisman, one of the series’ creators, also was a developer on the game. The production team took pains to bring in as many elements of the setting that they could fit, from having characters of both the Federated Commonwealth and the Draconis Combine working together to the choice of the Jade Falcons as the antagonists. Keeping the focus on the 1st Somerset Strikers helped the writers create their own stories while still using the decade of work already produced for the game as background.
There were some issues. As a cartoon, the animated series was aimed at the lower age of BattleTech players. The series couldn’t get into a lot of detail; a 22 minute episode doesn’t provide enough time to get into the depth of the setting while still providing an ongoing story arc and ‘Mech versus ‘Mech action. To get some of the ‘Mechs, the Technical Readouts were ignored. Hawk’s Mauler was originally a Draconis Combine-only design, yet the Fed-Com pilot has one. For the casual viewer, one interested in the series with little or no knowledge of the existing canon, this isn’t a problem.
Unlike the D&D movie, the problem with adapting BattleTech is the sheer amount of world building that has been done since 1984. Even in 1994, just ten years after the game’s first release, the Inner Sphere saw two Successor Wars, one that resulted in two of the nations becoming one through marriage and conquest, and the return of the descendants of the Star League. The political maneuverings between the wars were hinted at in the animated series, but could use more time to expand. A Game of Thrones does show it is possible, but a 22 minute episode requires a focus on the core characters without getting into too much detail of events beyond..
FASA did release a sourcebook based on the series, 1st Somerset Strikers, which served three purposes. The first was to act as an intro for new players brought in through the cartoon, explaining the different factions shown in the series. The second was to let existing players replay events in the series to see if things could go differently. The third was to bring the characters into the BattleTech canon. Star Commander Pytor, one of Malthus’ ‘Mech pilots, appeared in the Robert Thurston novel, I Am Jade Falcon while Adam became the Archon of the post-civil war Lyran Alliance, to name but two characters. However, the animated series is now considered an in-universe series detailing a fictionalized account of events that happened.
BattleTech: The Animated Series was an ambitious undertaking by FASA. The designer notes in 1st Somerset Strikers shows the efforts being taken to ensure that new viewers wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the setting while still getting key elements in, a challenging task, especially when different products and novels could show any given House as both savior and destroyer of mankind. The chosen format required liberties taken through necessity. Overall, the series makes an effort to adapt the game, even if it’s not perfect.
* For example, Dragonlance, though that adaptation had issues related to time needed.
** These ‘Mechs would later become “the Unseen” after a legal proceedings by Harmony Gold led FASA to remove their images. The conflict came about because of how each company had licensed the images; Harmony Gold had the Macross license, leading to Robotech, while FASA had approached the design studio instead of the animation studio.
*** There are minor nations outside the Inner Sphere, collectively known as the Periphery. They, too, have BattleMechs, but their capacity for warfare is limited compared to the major Houses. Some of the Periphery states still do have a role to play in interstellar politics.