Friday, August 07, 2009

Roughnecks: Starship Troopers

So despite Veoh's best efforts to drive me away from their site, I finally managed to watch all the episodes of Roughnecks: Starship Troopers (except for a couple of clip shows). Actually, although all the materials I can find on the show call it either Roughnecks: Starship Troopers or Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles, the title card on the actual show calls it Starship Troopers: The Series.

The series is spun off of the Paul Verhoeven movie. Not an extension of the movie, but instead a reinterpretation, incorporating more elements of the novel than the film did, like powered armor suits and Skinnies. We follow Johnny Rico and Dizzy Flores along with their squad, Razak's Roughnecks, through virtually the entire Bug War (until the show stopped being produced after 36 full episodes and four clip shows, leaving four episodes unfinished), from its origins on Pluto through Tophet, the homeworld of the Skinnies, to Klendathu, the bug homeworld, and finally to the final defense of Earth (with other campaigns in between).

Right up front, I have to say that I liked the book. I was in the Army when I first read it, so I could relate to a lot of what Heinlein was saying about leadership and sacrifice and service. On the other hand, I hated the movie. Verhoeven had no interest in making a film that honored the book or portrayed realistic people; he wanted to make a satire that portrayed soldiers as brutal morons, and succeeded in making them look pretty stupid. For all their advanced technology, the Mobile Infantry of the movie were so tactically inept that they could have been mopped up by an equal sized squad of real-life soldiers from WWII--even the Italians.

And when in the final scene, Doogie Howser of the S.S. shows up to give his monologue about exterminating the entire bug race, I guess we're supposed to realize the fascism within ourselves or something, but all I felt was Verhoeven flipping me off. Because of course, when the bugs invade, what we should have done was sit in the street with our arms linked together while singing "We Shall Overcome"and making sure that someone with a camera was filming everything so we could put it on Youtube and embarrass the bugs to death or something. Fucking moron. Right back at ya, Verhoeven, with both barrels.

Luckily, the producers of the series realized they couldn't sell that concept for a weekly series (and yes, I realize Verhoeven gets an exec producer credit on the show, but like Fran Rubel Kuzui's similar credit on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, I think that's more a contractual requirement than an indication he ever had anything to do with the show's production). So instead, we get something closer to the novel. The humans actually aren't the bad guys. We also get to see more realistic tactics in the series than the movie. The humans wear powersuits (not the supersuits of the novel, but still...). The Roughnecks also employ heavy weapons, demolitions, close air support, tactical maneuver. None of it is textbook, and there's a lot of Hollywood silliness, like characters constantly running across each others' field of fire, but it's way better than the movie in that respect.

The series has to tread an uneasy line, though, between being a kid-friendly show and being a war drama for older fans of the book and movie. So on the one hand, the series employs more sophisticated storytelling techniques than your normal kids' show. Each week's episodes feature a campaign on a different planet, showing the progress of the war in continuity. There is romance. Characters face hard moral choices, losses and betrayals. Bugs get blown to smithereens. Characters get wounded, and even die on occasion.

But on the other hand, casualties are still very light. The language is highly sanitized. The episodes sometimes play out as clunky morality tales where Rico or one of the others learns a Very Important Lesson.

The same sort of uneasy balance played out in the visuals of the show. The art design of the show built upon the excellent design work from the movie; the bugs and ship designs echo what was seen in the theater. But the show added to it with mechanized armor suits and support vehicles and space fighters. Some of the planetary environments are breathtaking. And since this was a CGI show, they were able to use the camera with a sophistication that is impossible (or almost) to achieve in a traditional 2-D animated show.

But on the other hand, the demands of a TV schedule meant that quality could be very variable. Four different production houses made episodes of the series. They used the same software rendering the same models, so the look of the show stayed the same. But their animators weren't all on the same level, and the tight schedule meant limited amounts of time to fix mistakes or tweak shots, so you see lots of flubs that drop you out of the moment--characters' hands not locking right on the objects they're supposedly grasping, or Dizzy's lips not meeting Barcalow's right when they kiss. It doesn't help that the almost photo-realistic characters are lurking right in the shadow of the Uncanny Valley.

And though the voice acting is generally pretty good, the opening theme music is oddly muted and the sound of the rifles is downright anemic. So the sound is a mixed bag as well.

But overall, the good points of the show overwhelm the bad points. It was an entertaining series. It's too bad the production of the show was such a cluster that it ended up never having the final climactic episodes produced. The show leads you right up to the big climax and then ends on a note reminiscent of "The Empire Strikes Back." Aaargh.

If you want to see the series for yourself, you can buy the DVDs, or if you're up to the challenge of a little search-fu, you can try to track it down on I was down to the last three episodes when their episode home page suddenly emptied. The episodes are still in their databases and watchable, but you have to do some playing around with different search options to find them. I'm guessing Veoh is going to delete them pretty soon, but for now, here's a link that I hope will work.

But now that I'm done with Starship Troopers, it's back to Hulu for me.

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