Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Aladdin (the TV series) 20th anniversary -- Episode 17: "Plunder the Sea" (9/22/94)

Out of the entire series, this might just be the episode that, until watching it so as to write this review, I’d retained the weakest memory of. However, I did remember being nonplussed by it. As such, being merely underwhelmed by it – as opposed to actively disliking it – would account for the poor impression that it originally made on me. This time around, I hoped to discover something that I didn’t pick up on twenty years ago that would give me a wholly new appreciation for it (as happened with “Never Say Nefir”).  That hasn’t panned out; not only am I disappointed by the episode again, I'm disappointed to find that I was disappointed by it again. (I just made my own mind spin a little.)

Clinched by using Mechanicles as the antagonist, the episode recycles key components of “My Fair Aladdin”, in terms of structure, premise, and characterization: we open on a pair of characters (two nomads in “Fair”, a merchant ship captain and a lone crewman here) in the midst of their travels, alone in a remote location, suddenly and surprisingly attacked by an unidentified, fantastical, monstrous entity. Here, we cut right to the captain having obtained the Sultan’s audience, recounting his wild story and demanding that something to be done, as his ship was destroyed in the attack and his cargo lost. On the other hand, in “Fair”, the nomads weren’t seen after the opening; instead, a couple of scenes later, we returned to the scene of their encounter, which Razoul and his men are examining. (Presumably, the nomads had reported their incident to the palace, just as “Plunder”’s the captain is seen doing.) When Aladdin’s gang investigate and search for the reported monster, it ends up being a Mechanicles invention, its purpose to subject a large chunk of the world to his “clean freak” impulses. (In “Fair”, he’s trying to turn the desert into glass. Here, his intention is to filter all of the salt out of the ocean’s salt water.)

But that’s not all: in both episodes, Aladdin has as a foil a suave, pompous, self-infatuated, impeccably groomed jackass who makes Aladdin feel inadequate, which motivates him to prove himself equal or superior to this new-on-the-scene alpha male. While Daru Tavelevil had turned out to be a phony who was hiding a dirty deal that he’d made with Mechanicles, Captain Al Bahtross is the “dashing”, athletic, but aloof type in the tradition of Duke Igthorn’s brother or (the super-powered version) Comet Guy, who, despite his bravado, self-absorption, and obnoxious-to-the-average-bloke penchant for seeming to have never had anything not go his way, is basically good-hearted. The twist at “Fair”’s climax was Daru being exposed for the rat that he was, while on the other hand, Bahtross, who hitherto had appeared preoccupied with being the “reigning champ” of sensational, super-human heroic feats, redeems himself through an act of selfless heroism, urging Aladdin not to rescue him from one of Mechanicles’ vessel’s mock-giant octopus tentacles, but instead to find a way to disable the machine, which in the skirmish, Mechanicles has kicked into some type of overdrive.

One peculiar difference between the two episodes is that here, wanting to show up Bahtross is what motivates Aladdin to take on the mission; in “Fair”, he had actually brushed off the matter of the rumored giant centipede and sent Genie to look into it, because as long as Daru remained a guest at the palace, that’s where Al had to be if he wanted to best Daru in front of Jasmine. This scenario engendered my major criticism of that episode: Aladdin’s rivalry with Daru, and Daru himself, was awkwardly dropped for the duration of the Mechanicles-giant centipede set piece and abruptly forced back in at the last minute with the revelation of his “arms transfer” to the shrill-voiced inventor. On the other hand, Aladdin’s rivalry with Bahtross plays out over the course of the whole adventure; its zenith and resolution are fully integrated into the zenith and resolution of the Mechanicles scenario. Given that, it’s not just the better crafted of the two episodes, but it in fact plays as what the earlier-aired one should have been.

Also, “Plunder”’s third-act set piece is much better. In "Fair", we just had the gang dropping rocks on the goofy-looking separated, individual, autonomous but clunky giant mechanical centipede pods in a nondescript chasm in the desert at night. But the situation at "Plunder"'s climax involves Mechanicles’ submersible vessel -- with its exterior shaped as a male human head with an austere, bearded face, it has a unique design that makes it a more imposing setting-cum-obstacle. The  “majesty and might” and linear perfection of the face, and the appearance of Mechanicles' control room, which looks like it was crafted by a master metalsmith, is more befitting of the classical Greek ideals of beauty that I’m sure Mechanicles values highly. And not only are the visual ideas here better, but the action is more complex; again, instead of just dropping rocks on the bad guy’s machines, there’s interdependent stuff happening on multiple fronts: Bahtross scrapping with the tentacle, Genie at one point scrambling to and succeeding in (more on that below!) plugging the suction intake portal thing (with the treasure chest recovered from the ship that sank at the beginning of the episode, which was actually the whole point of their mission, so they won’t want to lose it or see it destroyed, but its predicament is just one of several things going on at the moment), which has and Mechanicles in turn scrambling to get things operating again, and finally, Aladdin racing to confront Mechanicles and their duel of wits which results in the machine’s destruction.

And, yes, that’s even with the incongruous and frankly ugly tentacles (whereas the face has a “unique” design, the tentacles are “generic”), but at least they serve in the opening scene to create mystery and hide the true nature of whatever it is they’re attached to, and as objects of conflict at a few points in the plot, especially when one of them is what indisposes Bahtross, allowing him to say, in essence, “No, Aladdin, it’s more important that we stop this guy – forget me, even if it means you being the hero and not me!”

But let’s take a few steps back.  Yes, “Fair” is better in execution than “Plunder”. But it’s just a better execution of a construct that’s inherently limiting and unappealing, the character arc that both episodes subjected Aladdin through: he is driven to prove himself better than some smooth, narcissistic showoff, and in the end he learns … er, something … in “Fair”, he learns that his rival isn’t so great after all, and in “Plunder”, he learns…er, I guess he learns that true heroism isn’t about hogging the glory by doing all the big flashy stuff that stops the bad guy and saves the day, but that true heroism is in acts of selflessness made for the greater good … and he learns this the optimal way, by being the one – because Al Bahtross is busy being about to get killed – who gets to do all the big flashy stuff that stops the bad guy and saves the day? In the original movie, Aladdin was shown as cocky, competitive, and, yes, prideful (see the “One Leap Forward” number and his clashing with Razoul), so the show was justified in using said traits as a starting point. And I liked the quasi-realism of the sequence in which he stubbornly keeps himself tied to the mast for the duration of the storm. But as the series had no long-term, ongoing character arc for or any of the other regulars, this “Aladdin is threatened by some big shot but learns a lesson about what really matters” episode structure template is self-defeating. They may as well have foregone the pretense and just had him defeat the bad guy and save the day … after all, it’s good enough for pretty much every other episode, isn’t it?

And speaking of being good enough for other episodes, why can’t they just do a straightforward “Al and the gang vs. Mechanicles” episode? He’s a fine villain, and the build-up around a “mystery of the sea” only disappoints when we reach the “reveal” that it’s “just” another Mechanicles scheme. He can hold his own, and it just feels like there was a “one-shot”, non-Mechanicles story that was set up but left untold.

And isn’t there something familiar about Al and signing on as crew for a ship with an overbearing captain to search for an elusive monster? In part, it’s “Raiders of the Lost Shark” redux, with a one-note (un-)comedic character confoundingly and awkwardly voiced by Jason Alexander.

Genie Watch: He actually has an extended proactive, effective involvement here – see the undersea “search” scene in which he’s accompanied by Iago and Abu, and his above-mentioned plugging of the suction portal. While he lets himself be overpowered by the vacuuming force longer than he should before doing something about it, his “moment of glory” – in which he turns himself into a “majestic” whale and “heroic” music plays – is a welcome turn of events. 


As always, written with you in mind, Chris, old friend and mentor.

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