Hi all again, and welcome to another Concept Crash.
Tonight’s Crash: Sonic Underground
Before we begin, an apology. I have no excuse, I really should be updating RAWRlog far more often. It doesn’t take long to write up one of these review-like article thingys, compared to the obscene amount of time it takes me to draw a single comic page. One, late, new years resolution of mine is to add here at least as often as I do with Back Office, if not more. Anyway, on to what actually grabbed your attention.
I love Sonic the Hedgehog. No, not in a bro-mantic sort of way, what I mean is that I love the Sega games, and throughout the early 90’s I, like many others, lost many a year fighting Robotnik’s Badnik army (Yes, I’m calling him Robotnik…none of this ‘Eggman’ nonsense). Naturally, when I learned of a Sonic cartoon back then, I was very interested. But alas, what we got was ‘The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog’, an odd Looney Toons rip-off starring Sonic himself, Tails, Robotnik, and a couple of random badniks they lifted from Sonic 2 (which was released the previous year).
It was…n’t what I thought it would be. Yes, the games themselves were very cartoony, but they had a certain edge to them, that the cartoon completely lacked. (Also no in-game PSAs…which was always a bonus). It wasn’t completely terrible, but as many reviewers have probably pointed out before, it wasn’t the best way to bring Sonic to animation. No…that crown belonged to another.
Just as the ‘Adventures of’ series ended, DiC released their second licensed Sonic series, entitled simply as: ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’. To simplify things, this series was also known as ‘SATAM’ (Referring to it’s original SATuraday AM slot – as opposed to the other show’s weekday afternoon slot). Many, MANY reviewers have covered this series in detail before me, so I’ll try not to bore you with the details of this show. (Check out the Nostalgia Critic for this, he does a very fun comparison between SATAM and the older show).
What I’d like to talk about tonight, is the whole concept of SATAM and why it kicked ass back then (and even now compared to a lot of kids shows), and furthermore, how that concept was crashed.
SATAM’s whole premise was that the bad-guy had already won. Robotnik had won the fight years ago….and now he was an undisputed Emperor of the whole planet. With his massive army of StormTrooper-like SWATbots, he looked and felt untouchable, with Jim Cummings voice to add that extra touch of ‘evil’. Thus, Sonic is shown to be the underdog from the very start, and even when he did win at the end of an episode, that victory seemed very small. An entire evil empire still needed to be beaten.
This in my opinion, is the key to making a very good villain. SATAM’s Robotnik wasn’t just a copy-and-paste villain from other kids shows. This guy was for the most part intelligent, cunning and vicious. If he caught anyone, he didn’t just kill them, he’d rip apart their soul, turn their body into a robotic slave and make them watch themselves like that forever. (Very similar to the Borg…a possible reference?) He was just plain evil, and I loved that. I really wished we’d see more like him. Oh, and let’s not forget about Snively. He was a creepy sort-of Sith apprentice wasn’t he? He was an excellent side-kick, for the simple reason that he served to make his master (and uncle?) seem even more evil. Perfectly done.
Also, let’s not forget the good guys. No, it wasn’t just Robotnik that made SATAM a classic. The heroes of this show were excellent as well. Here we are treated to seeing Sonic as a revolutionary (ala Che Guevara I guess? Wouldn’t that make a cool T-Shirt! Che Sonica!) together with his friends and co-rebels, the Knothole Freedom Fighters. Instead of the baddie-a-day nomadic heros one would be used to in cartoons, the SATAM freedom fighters came across as overwhelmed, inexperienced, and scared. They lived their lives in hiding, doing what they could to fight against Robotnik and a fate worse than death, Robotization.
SATAM also introduces a change from the Sonic and Tails dynamic of the games and first cartoon. Tails is side-lined due to his age, and replaced with an ensemble cast. In addition to a classic Sonic (who hasn’t really changed from the last cartoon), we are also introduced to his love interest Princess Sally who takes on a scientist/leader role, Bunny a half robotized ‘Texan’ rabbit who serves as the muscle, Roter a walrus engineer (makes sense to me), and finally Antione, a cowardly ‘French’ fox who is often brought along on missions for no good reason. Together they formed a group of protagonists you could give a damn about and route for. These guys, together with the shows villian, made SATAM a classic.
SATAM ran for 2 seasons before cancellation. Several reasons have been thrown around as to why DiC ceased running the show, but one rumor I remember reading about related to a feud between DiC, Sega of America and Sega Japan. Regardless of reason, the show ended on a sort-of cliffhanger. By the final episode ‘The Doomesday Project’, the Freedom Fighters had just about stolen victory from certain defeat, and Robotnik was gone. There was very little story left really, even with Snively still out there with a new ‘mystery villain’. (Which turned out to be an evil wizard from an earlier episode….kinda lame)
Fans of the show, like myself, spent the next couple of years wondering if SATAM would ever return. Rumors were thrown around of a SATAM game coming to the MegaDrive, but Sega Japan never went that way with the franchise and chose to maintain their own canon for Sonic. However SATAM characters did make token appearances in Sonic Spinball (a Sega of America production. One their last before Sega Japan took over everything from Sonic 3 onwards).
It seemed like SATAM was gone for good. (With the exception of the Archie comic series, which I believe are printed to this day.)
Until…in 1999 DiC came back with another Sonic licence. There was hope. Even the title sounded good. It was called Sonic Underground, and SATAM fans waited to have their thurst quenched for another classic saga. But alas, all it did was crash a classic concept.
This was a very similar show, in terms of look, character design and overall concept. But there were differences, which were enough to ruin the concept it was based upon.
First, the villain. Sonic Underground (SU) literally copied and pasted the design of SATAM’s Robotnik. He looks identical. However, he is not the same villain at all. Jim Cummings has been replaced by Gary Chalk, and thus his voice loses that evil edge that only Cummings seemed to be able to pull off. That alone can be forgiven (Cummings is a master voice-actor, and was probably very pricey to hire by 1998/9), but what can’t be forgiven was what they did with him.
Just like with SATAM, he is an Emperor, already in charge, already won the war, and looking to win more. But…unlike SATAM, he has left most of the people un-Robotized. There doesn’t appear to be any clear reasoning for this. SATAM’s Robotnik’s only interest with the general population, was to turn them into robotic slave-labour. SU’s Robotnik comes across as either soft, inefficiant, or both for not doing this, since the former Robotnik was able to organize the mass capture and robot processing of every single civilian in his control. This gave him a merciless edge that this newer Robotnik lacked.
His support network is also different. Instead of having Snively as his odd balding leutenant, and an army of imposing black-metal SWATbots, we get Sleet and Dingo as well as a less impressive looking breed for SWATbot.
Sleet and Dingo bother me. They are little too much like Scratch and Grounder from the earlier Sonic cartoon, and like them, they are morons. I don’t like moronic villains. Yes, Robotnik and Snively did do stupid things in SATAM, but for the most part those things were usually mistakes. Beyond that they had military structure to fall back on. Sleet, Dingo, Scratch and Grounder seem to come from a school of thought were villains of a story need to be morons, to push forward the idea that only idiots do evil deeds. This is something I never like, since evil deeds can often be performed by very
intelligent (although morally corrupt) people. I feel that the failings of the SATAM villians were more to do with bad luck, or the fact they have simply been bested by the story’s heros. Simple stupidity does not a good villain make in my books, and Sonic Underground goes in this direction.
I guess now I should talk about are story’s heroes, shouldn’t I? I really don’t want to, because they are such a disappointment compared to SATAM. Remember the Knothole Freedom Fighters? Well…they’re gone. Now replaced by…Sonic….Girl Sonic….and Green Sonic who reminds me of Michelangelo from the Mutant Turtles. No more rebel leaders, Southern rabbits, or cowardly French foxes. Just a whole load of Sonics, and that can get real annoying…real fast.
This time around, Sonic isn’t just a champion of the people, he’s actually royalty and he has siblings. Instead of Sally’s father being deposed and seemingly killed, his own mother was queen, and was is on the run. Alright, interesting enough, but the advantage to having a character other than Sonic with a detailed background, was that we could take breaks from him and focus on other characters from time-to-time. This was what we usually got from Sally in SATAM (and may be the root of that character’s popularity?).
And how about the characters themselves? Sonic is as he’s always been, he can be annoying, but he’s not so bad. It’s his siblings that bug me. First we have Sonia his sister. The main question in my mind is why the hell is Jaleel White voicing Sonic, Manic AND Sonia? Sonia very clearly sounds like a guy pretending to be a girl. If they had actually gotten a woman to play the role, then she may have worked, but instead we get the fingernails-on-chalkboard effect whenever ‘she’ talks.
His brother Manic seems unneeded, he’s for the most part just a green Sonic with a gnarly surfer voice….and he plays drums…that’s it really.
And mentioning drums, it is about time to address the elephant in the room. Anyone who’s seen the show will know what I’m talking about. Now ask, in Sonic Underground are Sonic and Co running a super-secret rebel cell in forest? Are they tactfully hitting out from the shadows and pulling back just as fast? Meh…kinda. But not really, for you see that mostly, they have formed a band, named ‘Sonic Underground’ and tour around the world fighting Robotnik between gigs. That’s right, a band. They use the same van everytime too. Hmm…
Remember what I wrote about moronic villains? Well…that applies to the heroes too. These kids are total morons, hiding in plain sight and advertising where they are all the time. This makes the villains seem even stupider. SATAM’s Robotnik would have taken these 3 down after the 2nd episode. And thus…I can’t buy the idea of them fighting a rebellion, and that ruins the SATAM concept it was built upon.
And so, we come to Concept Crash of the night. SATAM brought forward a rarely used plot device, where the heroes are underdogs and must fight against a far superior foe. Sonic Underground attempted to replicate this with a music-video gimmick thrown in, but failed. It copied SATAM designs and stole it’s backgrounds, but even with those, it did not feel the same. The Freedom Fighters of SATAM were replaced with 3 Sonics and some forgettable help characters, and the villain they were fighting lost all of the effect of the SATAM original.
Despite having some of the same production staff of SATAM, they tried to copy their previous success and somehow seemed to forget what gave that show it’s edge.
Ultimately, SATAM may get a reboot (reboots seem to happen after the 20 year mark, and surprisingly this how is reaching there now), but thanks to the Sega-canon anime Sonic X that may not happen (I may cover Sonic X in a future Concept Crash, I have a bone to pick with that show too).
Sonic Underground was cancelled after one season, and is now re-run with SATAM. If you are a Sonic fan, I recommend checking them both out, but especially SATAM, as it is classic and a monument of good children’s programming. Watch Underground for the the sake of seeing how such a good idea can be ruined…
(Sonic the Hedgehog (games and character) are property of Sega, The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog (TV Series) and Sonic Underground were produced by DiC Entertainment (currenty Cookie Jar Entertainment))