I’ve been watching the new Thundercats cartoon since its debut, and so far I find it to be mildly entertaining. It’s got startingly good production values, to be sure, and it gets points for trying to do straight-up swords-and-sorcery on a medium in which in its rarely attempted, but so far, it seems that they usually don’t have anything new to say.
Then came the third episode “Song of the Petalars”, in which the series tries something new and gets a good story out of the deal, even as it fails to live up to its potential.
The premise goes something like this: after Lion-O and the group decide to hide from an approaching squadron of lizards, they run into a clan of Petalars, tiny plant-like beings who have been literally blown away from their homeland. The Thundercats, heroes that they are, offer to help in their return pilgrimage. The catch is that Petalars are extremely short-lived species, going through an entire life cycle in a day. Over the course of the episode, Lion-o bonds with a particular Petalar, Emmerich, whom he comes to know throughout the entirety of the petalars’ life; in the end, just after the group finds the way back into the Petalars’ homeland, Emmerich dies of old age.
This episode had a lot to like: it has a great premise, which for me is usually enough to forgive a multitude of sins, like inconsistent characterization on the Thundercats; the character designs for the Petalarans are fantastic, and the overall tone of the episode makes me want to hug its creators. And yet, at the end of the episode I got the feeling that the creators either didn’t think the whole premise through, or did and decided to ignore its implications for the sake of the story they wanted to tell. Which is fine, I guess—the episode was still an exceptionally good one—but it could have been so much more.
For one, I would have really liked to see the episode explore the idea of what history means to a people with such short lifespans. For example, by the time the Petelarians managed to return to their homeland, for them it would have been several generations since any of them had actually lived there. That being the case, what motivates them? (I might have missed a relevant bit here).
Not only that, there’s the fact that if a day is a lifetime, a homeland can be a very ephemeral thing. Say the episode had been taking place during a day-long storm: that storm would have been all that Emmerich ever knew, and he’d likely be unable to visualize a world with a sun—he’d likely consider it the stuff of folklore. It all makes me feel that the Petalars entire goal felt misguided. By the time we meet them, they’re chasing a dream that isn’t their own, and going to a home that doesn’t exist, and the episode itself doesn’t really question that (I feel; I missed a bit of dialogue which may have been significant). It would have felt more natural, I feel, if they’d been natural nomads instead of allegorical Jews.
I also felt that something was lost by having Emmerich having the bulk of his interaction with Lion-O, particularly since it closed off the rest of the Petalarian civilization from the audience, preventing us from further seeing what their society is like. I also sort of wish that they’d dealt with what it means for him to spend what amounts to most of his life interacting with only one person—an outsider, at that—in a society that (from what we saw) appears to value the collective over the individual, it would seem that something like that would make him a pariah,which is something I would have liked to see explored.
There’s a bunch more stuff, but it all boils down to my belief that the concept for the Petalars was too good and too rich for the writers to only spend 15 minutes on it, and that the episode could have been more thought-provoking than it could have been, with a few tweaks. I hope we get to see them again.
That said, even with all of the unused potential, I felt the episode was excellent and bodes well for the cartoon.
- I really hoped Emmerich had been a girl. Four issues in, the show has been pretty consistent in portraying men as the default and women as the exception, which I find disheartening. It may get better yet—Avatar: The Last Airbender didn’t really get gender-neutral until season 2—but given the show’s established cast and connection to past incarnations—I’m not sure if the creators trust the fans to react positively if they’d introduced an all-new, female Thundercat–I’m not particularly optimistic.
- I continue to be impressed with the way the series handles the fight scenes, particularly the way it allows us to see Lion-O actually cutting down enemies with his sword in a way that feels natural and brutal while still being “safe”, without making the lack of blood or gore feel weird. A lot of otherwise awesome good cartoons have had problems with this sort of thing, so I’m glad to see that this particular obstacle isn’t insurmountable.
- “Thundercats” is still a silly name.