Almost a Real Boy
In 1991, the Japanese electronics company Sega was looking for a blockbuster character for its video games; a charismatic protagonist who could rival Nintendo’s Mario and generate millions in sales. Sonic the Hedgehog (a blue, streamlined avatar who looks about as much like a hedgehog as I do) was introduced that June. The character was an immediate success. By 1993, he had surpassed Super Mario as the most popular gaming icon in existence.
Sonic the Hedgehog, which ran on ABC from 1993 to 1995, was one of several attempts to extend this very strong brand into the television arena. Another show, called The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog ran concurrently, and Sonic Underground slightly later. There was a Japanese anime series called Sonic the Hedgehog and, much later, Sonic X, another series with some of the same characters, set on earth. But most fans of the Sonic character agree that Sonic the Hedgehog was the darkest, best, and most complicated of all these attempts to bring Sonic to the small screen.
This four DVD set, released by Shout! Factory, collects all 26 episodes, including the pilot “Heads and Tails”, the origins establishing two-parter “Blast to the Past”, and the series ending cliff hanger “Doomsday Project”. The backstory to the series, laid out in “Blast to the Past”, is a rather rudimentary good-against-evil, nature-against-technology saga. The idyllic city of Mobius is taken over by an evil genius, (first Julian, later Robotnik), who turns a benign technology to replace aging body parts into a frightening machine which turns living beings (most of the characters are animals, not humans) into robots. A small group of children – Sonic, Princess Sally, the French-accented Antoine, part-Robot Bunny and others – escape to the great forest where they join a loosely connected federation of freedom fighters dedicated to overturning Robotnik’s rule.
Robotnik, and his weasel-ish brother Snively, turn leafy and idyllic Mobius into the grimy, pollution-infested Robotropolis with the aid of a huge spaceship. He is a sort of stock villain, with his sneering laugh, his vast orange mustache, his beloved mechanical bird, and like all cartoon villains her is prone to missing chances to exterminate Sonic and his pals just because he cannot keep his mouth shut. Yes, more than once, world domination slips from his metal-gloved hands because of “monologuing”. It’s a Saturday morning staple. What else is new?
Against Robotnik and his monolithic empire – patrolled by robots and monitored continually by the ominous Spy Orbs – we set Sonic and his teenaged pack of misfits. Sonic, voice by Jaleel White of Family Matters, is all headlong impetuosity, smart-mouthed and joke-y. For a character whose only living relative (Uncle Chuck) has been captured by the enemy and turned into a robot, he seems to have remarkably little dark side.
In one of the bonus features, writer Ben Hurst flips through a 100+ page series “Bible” that describes all the characters in depth, but really, if you listen to the (extremely annoying) theme song more than once, you’ve got the whole psychological make-up of Sonic. “Sonic ... he can really move. Sonic…got an attitude.” That’s pretty much it. Fast feet, fast talk, no heart or soul.
His friend Sally is a little more complicated. She, at least, is seen to visibly miss her father, the king, who has been cast into a mysterious “Void” by Robotnik during the takeover. She takes a motherly interest in Tails, the youngest of the crew, and she is the planner, the worrier, and the information gatherer. She and Sonic have a like-dislike relationship (the writers may have been going for love-hate, but it’s not quite there), and their banter is meant to be amusingly sarcastic. Other characters are intended to add comic interest – Dulcie the Dragon, who flies badly and lands in a series of crashes, Antoine, the French-accented martinet, Nichole the computer – but nothing rises to the level of laugh-out-loud funny.
The graphics, though, are interesting. Backgrounds, particularly of the dark, doom-laded Robotropolis are painterly and complex, with harsh shadows and ominous colorings. You do feel a certain nightmarish shiver every time the action moves to Robotnik’s world. Yet against this rather compelling scenery, the characters look flat and one dimensional. Imagine say, the Smurfs cavorting through a De Chirico painting and you’ve pretty much got the idea.
And that’s the basic problem with this series. As in a videogame, atmospherics and plot don’t just supersede character…they blot it out as if it never existed. The characters move through very complex situations, and well-imagined settings, gathering “power-ups” (first the power rings, later the much more potent “power stones”) and accomplishing missions. You almost expect to see a point counter at the corner of the screen. You could even look at the episodes as a series of game levels. Items that characters acquire in one episode (scrolls, power stones) often turn out to be useful in another. There are “Easter-egg”-ish trapdoors that lead to sub-plots, such as the time when Sonic and Sally end up in the “Void” and release both Sally’s father and the evil sorcerer. (Both have to go back, however, since they can no longer survive in the real world.)
That’s frustrating because the most ambitious episodes – “Blast to the Past” for instance – incorporate a very dense and complicated mythology. There is a sharply imagined “Floating Island”, a Sphinx-like, riddle-asking guardian owl, and a pair of magical “time stones” that allow for travel to the past. It is all so carefully plotted, that you almost wish for real characters to inhabit these worlds. Imagine Sonic’s world populated with heroes who had deep flaws and secret agendas, well-established histories and complex connections with their fellows. Instead, we’ve got a hero whose favorite sayings are “Way beyond cool” and “Let’s juice.”
The bonus features for this DVD show how proud the writer Ben Hurst and the actor Jaleel White were of this series, how fanatical its fans have become since the show’s cancellation and how remarkably relevant its scenarios of freedom-fighting, enslavement to technology, and spying governments are today. You can’t help feeling that, while this may indeed be the most nuanced and complicated series ever written about a videogame character…that’s a pretty low bar to clear.