Wednesday, 27 May 2015

[Gemology] A Refugee Of An Interstellar War (Gem Glow)

It's November of 2013 and Steven Universe finally appears on television proper, with a two-part opener consisting of the episodes 'Gem Glow' and 'Laser Light Cannon'. It's an interesting choice to be fair - both episodes are clearly written as introductory pieces, though introducing different aspects of the show. Clearly the choice was made to have 'Gem Glow' broadcast first as an ambassador for the show (despite Laser Light Cannon having the production code of 001, indicating it was the original first episode).

So it's down to 'Gem Glow' to give the best first impression possible and really sell the idea of the show before viewers turn off. It's a shame then, that there's a mounting and genuine horror during the episode that this could be a cartoon about a small boy who gets magic powers by eating ice cream.
There's nothing wrong with the episode per se, but it's very functional, even as a basic introduction. Steven is upset to discover that his favourite brand of ice cream has been discontinued, he goes home to his Gem friends who reveal that they've bought the remaining stock for him. Steven eats an ice cream and conjures his shield, the characters stand about telling each other things they already know and advertising their weapons in turn like a toy commercial, and then Steven manages to save the day by fighting a giant monster.

The success of the episode really depends on how much humour the viewer finds in Steven really enjoying ice cream, which is to say it advertises itself as a show aimed squarely at the 'disposable fluff' market of 'random' cartoon shows which are perfectly fine on a technical level and with a base level of humour but aren't particularly memorable after the fact.

Glimmers of the show it will later become do show through. The repeated motif of the mundane vs the fantastical is what starts the episode, as we open with Steven being very animated and upset about a terrible event which then turns out to be a lack of ice cream  and then returning home to find his magical Gem friends fighting hideous monsters as if this is the most banal thing in the world.

Nothing about Steven's living arrangements are explained in this episode, he is just a slightly obnoxious kid who for some reason lives with three monster-fighting beings called Crystal Gems. Interestingly, rather than use this as an opportunity to explain this setup, the episode instead proceeds to concentrate entirely on the concept of Gem weaponry. This does give each character a short scene with which to give the broad strokes of their personality but does give the impression that above all, the most important thing the show wishes to inform the viewer is that it is about a team that fight monsters with magical weapons, and that it will be typical cartoon humour.

Again, it's important to note that there's absolutely nothing wrong with this approach, and the second episode gives the other side of the Steven Universe story, but 'Gem Glow' is the first impression from which other episodes would be expected to build off and flesh out. It's a show that courts the sort of viewer who would find a character singing a song about ice cream to be inherently amusing.

What does notably work far better than the pilot (and perhaps the only thing in this case) is the animation style. Whilst the human design has been tweaked only slightly to make it a bit more cartoonish, the Crystal Gems have been changed from close-to-human to very cartoonish. Pearl is now exaggerated sharp lines, Amethyst is far more rotund and Garnet is all smooth surfaces. They exist in the same world as Beach City, but at the same time are clearly very distinct as opposed to the pilot where their strangeness was masked by being in a near-similar style to everyone else.

Like most early Steven Universe episodes, it improves on rewatching as it is very clear a lot of thought has gone into the production: the Cookie Cat song, for example, is a mirror of the Gem's situation, though the first time viewer would have absolutely no way of knowing that. Cookies Cats have been replaced by Lion Lickers, which could be a clue as to where Lion eventually comes from, but again this is something for the repeat viewer. 'Gem Glow' slowly introduces the rules of the world so that later episodes can subvert them, but to appreciate it on its own requires a degree of trust that the audience just doesn't have towards the show yet.

Thankfully eating ice cream doesn't activate Steven's powers (which would have got old fast) and the episode at least dispenses with the trope of Steven learning to use his shield by its end, instead having to fight the monster with a fridge. It's moments like that which give hope that Steven Universe won't be another cookie cutter mildly amusing but functional cartoon.

The world is thusly in place: we now know what to expect. Steven and the Gems fight monster with magical weapons, and Steven will probably end up saving the day via unconventional means suited to a small child when the Gems fail with their traditional methods. It looks like humour will be derived mostly from a child who acts a bit spoiled and greedy and is obsessed with ice cream.

But what more do you want? It's eleven minutes long. Just don't change the channel, not yet.

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