Monday, 25 May 2015

[Gemology] At Least People Like Jokes (Pilot)

It is May 21st 2013 and Steven Universe first bursts into the world courtesy of Cartoon Network's website. Only it doesn't. The show itself begins broadcasting on 4th November 2013, and there's a good argument to be made that it doesn't properly start until 'Mirror Gem' is shown on September 25th 2014.

What was shown online in May 2013 was the pilot, a strange shadow of the show that was already redundant by the time it aired as already the show-proper was being produced for broadcast in just over four months. At the point where the public saw it, it was already decided that this was not the direction for the show, and quite dramatic visual changes had been made behind the scenes.

Pilots in television are an interesting thing. They are the earliest form of a television show, a proto-idea, still trying to burst from the cocoon as everyone involved scrambles to form their ideas into an actuality. Ideas that work on paper don't always work once actors, sets and the general act of creation brings it to life, and so the pilot will often present wildly different tones and characters to what an audience eventually gets used to. At the same time though, it is the job of a pilot to convince the television network that a show is workable, to clearly lay out what it will be about and to actually test out ideas on-screen.

So at the same time that no-one expects a pilot episode to be good, it is the job of the pilot episode to be the best ambassador for a show's potential that it can be. By all accounts the unbroadcast Game of Thrones pilot was unwatchably awful but it still managed to convince HBO that a series was worthwhile, and helped the writers to understand just how to lay out such a complex work. The unbroadcast Doctor Who pilot was remade after it was realised that perhaps they shouldn't deflate the central mystery of the show in the first episode by revealing that the Doctor was a scientist from the 42nd century.

Looked at in these terms, it's remarkable how closely the pilot of Steven Universe stays close to what actually went to series. The characters and settings are roughly the same, the marrying of humour and unsettling imagery is there, and the basic dynamics of how the show works, at least in the early days, are present.

The biggest difference is most obviously in the art style. It would be churlish to complain solely based on the fact that it's not the same style that ended up being used, but it does hinder the episode rather than help it. The style used is much more detailed, with the Gems in particular looking more more alien and unsettling. Pearl in particular comes off badly, her design reflecting an almost 80s punk-look rather than the refined character that the later show presents. Creator Rebecca Sugar later stated that she wasn't happy with the designs, especially that of Pearl, and reworked them to be much simpler in order to allow the animators to interpret them in their own style.

In many ways this was for the best. The pilot attempts to extract humour from the complete wrongness of the Electric Skull, which is a flying screaming skull that is clearly not of the same world as Beach City. Unfortunately the design of the Gems is as equally unsettling as the skull, so rather than a bizarre intrusion into the world, the world is already host to equally strange intrusions with an identical tone. The skull doesn't get to shatter the cartoonish domestic life of the Gems as they are already very strange-looking. The same style of unsettling distonal intrusion can be seen as the show matures, though in a much more developed way, from Pearl getting stabbed in 'Steven the Swordsman' to the screaming mirror in 'Mirror Gem' and beyond.

The entire thrust of the episode is based around a single joke - namely in setting up a situation where Steven needs to think up a snappy comeback in order to save the day. As an exercise in making such a ridiculous premise convincing it works, but it isn't apparent that it is justification for seven minutes of television, let alone the eleven minutes the show would eventually take. Notably, this model of story construction was abandoned when the show-proper finally broadcast. Episodes tend to be based around problem solving or the relationships between characters rather than treating a ridiculous premise as something inherently worthwhile to build an episode around.

What does the pilot actually say about Steven Universe in its most raw form then? It's clear that a lot of the backstory is there, though not all. For example, the intro to the show gives a big clue as to one of the eventual reveals about Garnet's character with its fire/water imagery. The characters are broadly in place, and the setup of the show as presented - a silly comedy with some unsettling moments and Gems fighting monsters - is laid out.

What we don't get is anything that will indicate the core of the show going forwards. At this point, as presented as an advert to justify it's existence, Steven Universe is exactly what it says on the tin. There's no indication the show can or will go deeper than it does and that it will treat the characters as anything more than broad archetypes. To be fair, it's a similar problem which plagues the show's early episodes, which tend to be reluctant to reveal it isn't anything more than an Adventure Time reskin. Playing the long game can be laudable, but risks playing your hand too late.

It is May 21st 2013 and Steven Universe just burst into the world. Only it didn't. Not yet.

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