Friday, 29 May 2015

[Gemology] Some Would Say There’s Magic Inside (Laser Light Cannon)

The second episode in Steven Universe's opening double-bill, 'Laser Light Cannon', is far more representative of the series as it would slowly become. Whilst still based around the same type of plot (Steven is buying junk food, some sort of gem-creature is threatening the city, the Gems try and fail to stop it and Steven saves the day in a goofy manner) the focus is very much on the interiority of the characters as opposed to making surface level jokes. Where 'Gem Glow' has characters explicitly standing about and explaining key plot concepts to Steven, 'Laser Light Cannon' pushes these info dumps more into the background.

In many ways, the opening pairing of episodes is a perfect microcosm of season one as a whole. 'Gem Glow' is overtly an absurdist comedy with magical sci-fi action which reflects the first half of the season, whereas 'Laser Light Cannon' fixates more on a strange unsettling background menace, with the main thrust of the story's interest being in the character interactions. On the theme of mirroring, it's interesting to note that the second episode of the season features the firing of the light cannon against a red-tinted backdrop, whilst the penultimate one features the firing against a green tint.

'Laser Light Cannon' centres around the arrival of the 'Red Eye', a mysterious object that is slowly approaching Beach City from space with the intent of crashing into the ground and destroying it. The only hope of stopping it is with Steven's mother's laser light cannon, which is somewhere in the back of a storage locker. Much like 'Gem Glow', it features the banal coexisting with the fantastical, though is arguably much more successful in pulling off the concept.

The Red Eye is clearly something of an apocalyptic event (as it will destroy the city if it lands) but the episode is more concerned with Steven's relationship with his father; the encroaching Red Eye being something always present yet firmly in the background.  It would have been just as easy to centre the episode around the spectacle of the Gem's various ways of trying to defeat the Red Eye (and to be fair, Garnet constantly throwing Amethyst at it is the first genuinely hilarious moment of the show) but instead it is Steven's personal relationship with his father that is foregrounded. In many ways this encapsulates the entire ethos of the show: that while strange outside events can be motivators, it is our interactions with others that are the truly important things.

Both the fantastical and the mundane are expanded upon in the same manner, each of them hinting at a wider secret history. Seen from the viewpoint of Steven, the world of the Crystal Gems is both known (they are magic and they fight monsters!) and unknowable (they never really explain what the Red Eye is, and this is not the first time one has arrived on Earth). There's a lot that Steven doesn't know, and that includes knowing what questions to even ask. This is also the first mention of the Gem's explicitly "protecting humanity" as opposed to just being magical beings who live on a beach and casually fight monster infestations. It's clear that we are only seeing a small snapshot of a much bigger world, though the shape of it is uncertain.

Meanwhile for Steven, we learn that he isn't quite the privileged lead character of a cartoon show that 'Gem Glow' suggested. Instead his mother died in (magical sci-fi) childbirth and his father appears to be a washed-out dropout who lives in a van with the Gems acting as his surrogate family. At first viewing, Steven's father Greg seems to be a very problematic character, presented as he is as the stereotypical 'deadbeat dad'. He's seemingly abandoned the responsibility of bringing up his son to the Crystal Gems, his appearance is unkempt and dirty and he lives in the back of a van. His past is locked away in a storage locker, and Steven has to literally go diving into this past to find the solution to this week's problem. Of course, Greg isn't a deadbeat dad, but it's interesting how he is clearly indicated as such in this early episode yet at the same time being completely in keeping with his subsequent appearances.

What joins both the worlds of the mundane and the fantastical is Rose, Steven's mother. She is both shown to have been a central part of the Crystal Gem's team (and talked of as one who would have defeated the Red Eye with ease as opposed to the Gems who are roundly beaten) and a similar gaping hole in Steven and Greg's life. Without Rose, the Crystal Gems are failures. Without Rose, Greg is a failure.

Rose is heavily mythologised, being barely glimpsed in portraits and photographs. Even her appearance as a light construct at the end shies away from showing her full form, hiding the face from the viewer as if directly confronting the idea of Rose is something that no-one is quite yet ready to do. Especially for Steven, his mother not being there for him has been the only reality he's ever known, at the same time being constantly present and yet completely unknowable for him. She's constantly present but at the same time unreachable, unable to be viewed in full.

It is the collision between the two worlds that saves the day however, as well as indicating that Greg isn't quite the deadbeat he appears. The narratively important Laser Light Cannon only activates when Greg's repeated catchphrase "if every pork chop was perfect, we wouldn't have hot dogs" is spoken, showing that above all else it was Rose's relationship with Greg that was treasured. Which is handy, as 'a powerful weapon operated by a silly phrase' is also meant to be some sort of joke, but much like the ice-cream gags in 'Gem Glow' it falls flat. This also means that the team are stuck with having to repeat that same joke every time the plot necessitates the use of the light cannon, which, well, gets points for being consistent at least.

In many ways, 'Laser Light Cannon' is a much better introduction to what the show actually is and wants to aim for then 'Gem Glow'. It had the production number of 001 which indicates that it was perhaps considered to be the first episode but swapped about at a later date. The only key difference that may have made 'Gem Glow' a better opening is that it starts with Steven and then introduces the Gems, whereas 'Laser Light Cannon' opens with Steven and Amethyst in a scene together.

Perhaps it was best that 'Laser Light Cannon' was the second part of the opening double-bill. Viewers would have had it freshest in their minds. Because above all, it is episodes like this, not ‘Gem Glow’ that really stake out what Steven Universe is about.

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