Just forget the words and sing along

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Reflections on ReBoot

I've been watching an awful lot of ReBoot lately.  Shout! Factory, the folks who did those impressive complete series boxed sets of The Transformers  and G.I. Joe, gave the same treatment to ReBoot this year.  Seasons 1 & 2 came out back in the spring, and Seasons 3 & 4 came out just a month ago, and you can get the whole thing together in a big boxed set called The Definitive Mainframe Collection.  I bought the two separate sets because they were good and cheap.

For those who don`t remember, ReBoot was the world's first computer animated half-hour television program.  And it's Canadian, too, made by Vancouver-based Mainframe Entertainment!  It premiered in the fall of 1994 -- beating Toy Story by one year -- on YTV in Canada and on ABC in the USA.  The show was created by Mainframe's founders, Gavin Blair and Ian Pearson.  Blair and Pearson were already widely known in animation circles for doing the computer animation in the legendary Dire Straights video Money for Nothing.

The series was set inside a computer system known as Mainframe.  It followed the adventures of Bob (a Guardian...aka anti-virus software) who sought to defend Mainframe from the evil computer viruses Megabyte (who sought to conquer all of Mainframe) and Hexadecimal (who was just psychotic and near-omnipotent).  Bob was assisted in his mission by Dot, who I think was Mainframe's OS, which made a business mogul who pretty much owned all of Mainframe, and her kid brother Enzo, who idolized Bob and hoped to grow up to be a Guardian like Bob someday.

What really hampered their efforts was the frequent arrival of the Games, massive cubes that descend from the sky by the User.  Of course, if Mainframe's citizens lose the game, a whole block of the city gets wiped out (to save your high score, I'm guessing).  So, Bob, Dot and Enzo have to go into the games, take on the role of the Game's antagonists, and try to stop the User from winning.

So,  yeah.  Whenever you fire up Super Mario Bros, Bob becomes King Koopa, pretty much.  And this is one aspect where the series gains its cult classic status, as most games turn out becoming a gigantic spoof of a well-known movie or video game, with Bob becoming the game's villain.

Because it made sense, I started with Season 1, and the one thing that really struck me watching season 1 again after all these years was how tame season 1 is.  In the early 1990s, there had been a growing backlash towards increasingly violent children's programming.  Remember, the same year that ReBoot premiered on YTV was the same year that YTV pulled Power Rangers because a very vocal parents' group raised a ruckus about its violence.  So ReBoot: Season 1 is full of your non-violent cartoon cliches.  Megabyte comes up with some kind of comical scheme to take over Mainframe, and Bob just kinda pushes Megabyte's buttons until Megabyte is hoisted on his own petard.

A good example would be the episode The Crimson Binome, in which Mainframe is raided by software pirates, who in this computer world, take the form of actual pirates.  Do we get a swashbuckling adventure on the high seas as Bob brings the pirates to justice?  No!  Things are resolved when Dot takes a look at the pirates' financials, and convinces them that there's more profit to be had as a legitimate shipping firm.  The pirates then see the error of their ways and return all their stolen booty.  So, remember, kids!  Avoid a life of a piracy or else you might get...a free business consultation.

However, the episode Talent Night is pretty awesome, as Bob and Megabyte decide to settle things with a rock battle.  I once read about the production of that rock battle.  Apparently, the producers sought out one of the hottest club bands in Vancouver at the time, brought them into a recording studio, and told them to just go nuts.

Season 2 was where things started to change a little bit.  From what I've gathered online, during season 1, ABC made some pretty ridiculous notes on the series, and the gang at Mainframe felt devoted to these notes so as to get that much-vaunted USA exposure.  One of the most ridiculous notes was that, apparently, only the female antagonists could have cleavage, while the female protagonists could not.

And that's why Hexidecimal is ridiculously stacked while Dot has a vaguely breast-shaped band across her chest that some fans refer to as "the uniboob."

However, Season 2 was when Disney bought ABC.  Mainframe saw the writing on the wall...that ABC's Saturday morning line-up would soon be all Disney cartoons, so it was just a matter of time before they were canceled.  So, the producers decided to ignore all the notes from ABC, and just worry about the notes from the far-more-cool YTV.

Season 2 did introduce a vital new character, thought.  AndrAIa.  AndrAIa was a game sprite who became infatuated with Enzo in a game, and she figured out a way to leave the game and be friends with Enzo forever.  As season 2 progresses, she becomes Enzo's girlfriend/sidekick.

Season 2 ended with something that would eventually become the series' best known format:  the 4-episode story arc.  Season 2 ended with such an arc when Mainframe was invaded by a Web Creature.

Necessary backstory:  Mainframe was on "The Net," which was eventually established to be the Internet.  However, season 2 established a much more dangerous network known as "The Web,"  which was most likely the World Wide Web.  A monster from the Web invades Mainframe and it's up to Bob to track it down throughout this arc.

The third episode in the "Web Creature arc", Trust No One, is one of ReBoot's more famous episodes.  As this was the height of popularity of The X-Files, the whole episode becomes a gigantic spoof of The X-Files, complete with special guest star Gillian Anderson as the voice of the Agent Scully character.

Season 2 ended with quite the cliffhanger.  As Mainframe goes to war against the Web, Bob is forced to team-up with Megabyte to defend Mainframe.  As it looks like Mainframe is about to win the war, Megabyte launches Bob onto the Web, seals the rift, and then promptly turns on Mainframe.  Enzo, who was upgraded to a Guardian cadet by Bob, calmly picks up Bob's keytool (a Guardian's trademark weapon), and resolves to continue the fight against Megabyte. 

And BOOM!  No more ReBoot.  It took a year for ReBoot to come back for another season.  Computer animation was still really expensive back in the day, so it took them a year to raise the funds.  Luckily, they found a new USA distributor with the much more liberal Cartoon Network, that was able to help them secure more funding, and Season 3 premiered in the fall of 1997.

ReBoot: Season 3 really is a different beast compared to the first two seasons.  Season 3 is pretty much a gritty reboot.  In a typical Saturday morning cartoon scenario, Bob probably would have been rescued at the climax of the season premiere, defeat Megabyte, and the status quo would be restored.  However, Bob isn't rescued until 3/4 of the way through the season.  Season 3 consists of 16 episodes, and the whole season is divided into four, 4-episode arcs.

The first arc, To Mend and Defend, is where the new grittiness becomes apparent.  Mainframe is now in a state of total war.  Abondoning the comical schemes, Megabyte is now pure evil.  He's killing people.  He's racking up a body count.  He sees his opportunity for domination and he's taking it.  And Enzo, while he has been upgraded to a Guardian, is still just a kid, so he's struggling to keep up the battle.  But, Enzo manages to hold his ground, eventually imprisoning Megabyte in his sector behind a firewall...which, inside Mainframe, is a literal wall made of fire.  However, this arc ends on a down note, as Enzo and AndrAIa find themselves in a Game they cannot win.  I should have mentioned earlier that, if you lose a Game while you're inside one, you die.  However, Enzo and AndrAIa found a way around this.  They manage to shift their format to game sprite, and ride the Game out of Mainframe.

The second arc, The Net, opens with our re-introduction to Enzo and AndrAIa.  They are now young people in their 20s, using real-time years, and a lifetime of fighting in the games has made him grow up into a total badass, armed with a big-ass gun.  Yeah, he's a collection of 1990s comic book cliches, but dude, it works.  And kudos to Paul Dobson, who did the voice of grown-up Enzo.  It is still my definitive "gruff, anti-hero" cartoon voice.  I actually heard Dobson using that voice for Edmonton Oilers radio spots a couple years back, and that totally made me geek out.  But I digress.  Enzo -- now preferring to go by his last name Matrix -- and AndrAIa use the Games to travel from system to system on the Net, providing aid to whatever system they land in.  The arc ends with Matrix and AndrAIa discovering that game time is accelerated, so while they're now hardened warrior adults, not a lot of time has passed, so there's still a chance to save Mainframe from Megabyte.  The final system also has access to the Web, so that means Matrix and AndrAIa can head onto the Web and try to rescue Bob.

Which leads into the third arc, The Web.  Matrix and AndrAIa enlist the helps of the the Crimson Binome and those pirates from season 1 to help them sail the Web.  This arc is pretty good, as there's a lot more character stuff.  To help them navigate the Web, they enlist the aid of a search engine named Ray Tracer, and AndrAIa and Tracer have a bit of flirtatious relationship, driving Matrix into a jealous rage.  However, it does end with our heroes finally finding Bob, and heading back to Mainframe to finally stop Megabyte.

Hence the fourth and final arc, Viral Wars.  Matrix, Bob, and AndrAIa return to find Mainframe a devastated wasteland, Megabyte now in total control, and Dot valiantly leading the resistance.  The second episode of this arc, Showdown, features the long-awaited final fight between Matrix and Megabyte, and I swear, it was one of the most brutal fights I'd ever seen in a cartoon up to that point.  As Matrix is about to deliver the deathblow, I swear he's quoting Batman from his final battle with Superman in The Dark Knight Returns.  But don't worry, Matrix doesn't kill Megabyte.  Instead, Megabyte is sucked onto the Web, just like he did with Bob way back in season 2.

The series ends with a desperate gambit from Bob.  With Mainframe so badly damaged, Bob decides to sit back and do nothing and let Mainframe crash.  Maybe -- just maybe -- the User will restore the whole system from back-ups and Mainframe will be restored.  That's exactly what happens, and we have a mega-happy ending.

Or at least we did until 2001, when we all came back for Season 4.  Season 4 actually consisted of two TV movies, each one designed to be divided into a 4-episode story arc to spice up ReBoot's syndication package.  I'm sure somewhere I've still got these movies on VHS from when they were first broadcast on YTV.

The first movie, Daemon Rising, ties up one of the most tantalizing loose plot threads from season 3:  that the Guardians have become infected by a virus named Daemon.  Being lost on the Web when the infection happened, Bob is the only pure Guardian and thus the only one that can defeat Daemon.  We also get lots of flashbacks to before the series began, as we finally see the origins of Bob, Dot, and such forth.  This is a very action packed story arc, full of desperate characters who begin making desperate choices.  It's a very good arc.

It also provides a very interesting retcon for Bob.  Since Bob is supposed to be anti-virus software, why didn't he just delete Megabyte back in the day instead of allowing Megabyte to do his comic schemes for dominance?  Well, it's revealed that Bob subscribes to a radical theory that viruses can be reformed to be benevolent sprites, so Bob was allowed to let Megabyte live to try to prove his theory.

The second arc, My Two Bobs, opens when a second Bob is found lost and adrift on the Web and is brought back to Mainframe.  This one is a lot more character driven, as the two Bobs try to figure out which one is the real one, and as Dot tries to figure out which one is the man she loves.

Neat little attention to detail:  Bob's voice was originally done by Michael Benyaer, but Benyaer was unavailable for season 3.  So, Bob was recast with Ian James Corlett.  Benyaer was available again for season 4, so in My Two Bobs, Corlett voices one Bob and Benyaer voices the other one.  It's a nice touch.

Anyway, spoiler warning for a 10-year old cartoon, the second Bob is eventually revealed to be Megabyte in disguise, back for his revenge.  Megabyte's time on the Web mutated him into a Trojan Horse virus, which in the ReBoot world makes him a shapeshifter. 

Again, going back to things that never happened in season 1.  When Megabyte reveals his true form, he and Bob fight...they have a knock-em-down, drag-em-out brawl...something that these two arch-enemies had never actually done.  Blew my mind when it originally aired.

This arc ends with Megabyte once again taking control of Mainframe, and announcing that he no longer has designs on conquest or dominance, now he just wants revenge.  Megabyte gives the order, "Begin the Hunt!"

And we are presented with the most frustrating thing ever...a TV series that ends on a cliffhanger.  Apparently, the original plan was to do a third TV movie, and then end with a half-hour retrospective/clip show, and voila, a 13-episode season four.  But low ratings for the first two TV movies saw the third movie and clip show get cancelled. 

So, what of the future?  Rainmaker Digital -- aka the company formerly known as Mainframe -- finally resolved the cliffhanger in a webcomic back in 2007.  Rainmaker has had some form of a ReBoot reboot in various stages of development over the past five years, but nothing concrete has happened yet.

In the end, though, I am pleasantly surprised at how well ReBoot has held up over the years.  Season 3 still packed the same emotional resonance that it did when I first watched it back in college.  By taking a year off, and then coming back all darker and grittier, it's like ReBoot was allowed to grow up with its audience, and that's a very tricky thing that not a lot of people have been able to pull off.

So, yeah.  ReBoot is still awesome, and worth a revisit. 

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