The Ultimate Steven Universe Retrospective-Part 1

 

Pilot

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Before I discuss the series proper I feel I should talk about the pilot episode for the series, also known as “The Electric Skull“. This episode is officially non-canon to the rest of the series, as it does contain a number of inconsistencies to the series which become apparent once you’ve watched either. The major difference is that whereas the art style of the series is more polished and colourful, this pilot features a darker colour pallet and physical movements. The animation, while decent in it’s own right, does pale in comparison to it’s successor as the designs of the characters here have a rather unnatural and at times even disturbing appearance. The character designs are also significantly inferior to their successors with the possible exception of Pearl, whose boyish face I feel would have actually been able to match the series, especially as a character whose design incorporates both male and female appearances would have made sense in a series in which breaking against gender normativity is very much at the forefront. That isn’t to say that Pearl’s design in the series is bad at all, I don’t know if I’d even go so far as to say that I prefer it in the pilot, but it is still a design which I do rather like.

In terms of story, there really isn’t much to talk about here. As a pilot episode, it’s narrative is intentionally designed to try and set up a formula for which the series would follow. One thing I can say works particularly well is the character of Steven. Granted I don’t know if this is just because I have knowledge of what he would become later, but the fact that I don’t find him to be especially annoying despite this early version of the character depicting him as being a tad bit irresponsible, is commendable. The other character who is given any personality so far is Lars, a teenager who works at the Donut Shop, and a character whose mean-spirited cynicism is something I’ve never really liked, and while he would go on to have his redeeming moments later on, he remains one of my least favourite characters in the series, especially in this pilot where his insults to Steven can come across as especially antagonistic.

One last aspect I’ll talk about is the song Steven plays in the episode, whose chorus would end up becoming the opening theme song for the series. As a little piece of music, it is nice as a song for the main characters, even if the “pizzas” lyric does feel somewhat forced in, something which is actually pointed out in the pilot. The context in which it is played in the pilot however does feel contrived, as Steven seems to just start playing the Gems a song out of nowhere after they return from their mission. I’ll talk about it when I get to it but the series provides a much better origin story for the song.

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So in conclusion, the pilot for the series is affected severely by some awkward animation  and feeling like a first draft of a script. Still, if it did manage to lead to the creation of the series then that should count for something. For that it gets Two stars out of Five.

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1.1: Gem Glow

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Finally, after too many words spent on the pilot, we reach the first episode proper. Saddled with a significantly improved animation style and a larger crew working behind the scenes, Steven Universe truly begins….with a story about Ice cream sandwiches. So it’s basically Lucky Star.

I’ll just get this out of the way. Gem Glow is not really the best way the series could have started. If you didn’t watch the pilot then you should be forgiven for being lost on the concept of the series, as the episode doesn’t really try to explain any of the backstory behind Steven. The audience as such wouldn’t really know why this boy has a crystal for a belly button, or why his caretakers look like a very over-the-top glam rock band who fights monsters to apparently protect the world or something. The only thing which this episode really establishes is the fact that Steven still hasn’t fully learnt of his Gem powers, still being young. This point manages to establish a starting point for Steven’s eventual character growth.

The actual premise of the episode is that Steven’s favourite food, Cookie Cats, have stopped selling. When he finds out that the Gems have obtained for him the last remaining of the treats, his Gem powers appear to activate for the first time. A simple enough idea for early on in the series but I do still maintain that it probably shouldn’t have been intended for the first episode. One thing this episode does manage to do is establish the individual identities of each Gem through the semi-training montage that occurs after Steven’s Gem glows, establishing Garnet as the calm and collected one, Pearl as the orderly and protective one, and Amethyst as the loose one. These are just their personalities at their most basic level. The other characters of note are the two workers at the Big Donut (the Donut shop), the aforementioned Lars who while still coming across as rather unlikable, is more tolerable at least than his pilot counterpart, and Sadie who despite her height is also a teenager, and is shown to be far nicer towards Steven.

Steven himself is a child who carries such a positive demeanour that it is hard to find him irritable like so many other main characters in children’s shows. What makes him particularly stand out is how real he feels as a character, despite being a human-gem hybrid. He has a bit of a tendency to act on impulse and makes foolish assumptions (in this episode’s case that his gem powers are fuelled by Cookie Cats) just like real children his age would (incidentally, yes I am aware of later on in the series when we are informed of his real age). Incidentally, let us also talk about the song of this episode, the Cookie Cats Theme song. A fairly basic rap number about the deep and intricate mythos of the eponymous cat, who is apparently a “refugee from an interstellar war” as Steven explains. The idea of a snack mascot having mythos is humorous I will admit, maybe one of these days Frosties will tell us how Tony the Tiger is out to avenge the genocide of his clan by the Shadow Leopards or something. Of course this backstory is also meant to serve as foreshadowing for that of the Crystal Gems, which is certainly a fun thing to come back to this episode for. As the song stands on it’s own, I would say it is one of the series’ weaker songs, not really something I would listen to in my spare time. Sure, it’s catchy but the songs that the series would do later make it feel embarrassing that this is where it started.

On the technical side of things, the series look really nice in it’s early episodes, with lush and tranquil colours serving to  take up much of the series against illustrative backgrounds contrasting finely with the character models. The only criticism I would have with it is that some of the facial movements of some characters can occasionally look stilted and unnatural, much like the pilot. For a first episode Gem Glow does feel somewhat underdeveloped in how much it wishes to establish, and feels like it shouldn’t have been the first episode at all, but it is still watchable due to some charming moments of early characterization and foreshadowing which are honestly endearing to watch after one has seen where it would eventually lead.

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1.2:Laser Light Cannon

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Wow, it didn’t take that long for me to get up to the first episode I saw did it? Laser Light Cannon really should have been the first episode since it does a much better job at establishing the tone and setting of the setting than Gem Glow. While this episode still doesn’t fully establish the identities of the Crystal Gems for new viewers, it does manage to make the idea that these aliens who protect this city from harm and raise this young boy more believable through the plot, in which we see them on such a mission. That is really all the audience needs to know at this point, and the episode does still provide with more information later. This episode is especially notable among the early episodes for the sense of excitement it creates from the threat of a magic comet hurtling towards Beach City. The city which we see more of through it’s boardwalk, seeing many side characters make their debut in the series, though since they each have more prominent roles later on, I won’t talk about them now.

It is in this episode that we are introduced to Steven’s father Greg, an aged former Rock musician (get it, rocks and gems) who now works as a car washer and that is not an insult to him at all because Greg displays an inherent likeability through his gentle and collected nature. He makes a nice break from the typical cartoon dad who is either portrayed as complete comic relief or an anti-fun control freak. Greg on the other hand feels very much like a real person, as evidenced by the scene when Steven is searching through the garage while he relays the story of him and Steven’s mother, Rose. In addition to this scene serving as a nice bit of father-son bonding it also demonstrates how this episode again should have been the first as it conveys backstory to the audience in a way which doesn’t feel contrived, and which intentionally limits the information of that backstory so that it doesn’t detract from the rest of the episode or spoil any further developments in this backstory that the series would later build upon.

The song “Let Me Drive my Van into your Heart” is a song by Greg when he was younger which Steven plays in the van as they drive to the beach to deliver the titular cannon to the other gems to destroy the comet. The song’s fast-improvised electric guitar intro followed by a romantic melody do feel in character with what we see of Greg and help to establish the atmosphere of the scene, which takes a direct cue from the best scene in the Anime masterpiece FLCL in which the protagonist Naota also had to prevent a comet from crashing onto the earth, with the song having a slightly similar vibe to the Pillows (incidentally, anime references are going to be a recurring theme in this series). And the climax of the episode manages to remain engaging due to the multiple challenges our characters face in helping the cannon to set up as quickly as possible, such as the cannon falling into the wrong position, and how no one knows how to get it to fire. This gives the scene a similar sense of tension to when Naota’s bat only stopped the comet but could not quite push it away, escalated by the gorgeous pink light which enraptures the entire screen. And when the cannon fires, it shoots out a fabulous rose-shaped blast, symbolising that the legacy  of Rose Quartz lives on through Steven before the series would even expand upon that, and the comet is destroyed and the day is saved.

This episode once again is one which is good to come back to in hindsight due to the foreshadowing that it presents. But in addition to that, the episode is also excellent in it’s own right, managing to pack intense drama and pathos in just 12 minutes of television. This is easily the episode that I would recommend to someone who hasn’t seen Steven Universe yet as it manages to summarize the series in such a perfect way for such an early episode.

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1.3: Cheeseburger Backpack

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Merchandising: get an authentic cheeseburger backpack with Steven Universe brand toothpaste, made from genuine fan’s tears.

 

Steven is taken with the Gems to a mission for the first time in Cheeseburger Backpack. One thing that the series so far is doing particularly well is in how it slowly builds the world with little bits of information episode by episode. This helps to keep the pacing at a steady flow and prevent tedious exposition from dominating the early episodes, which is especially appropriate for the detailed world the series establishes. The titular bag which Steven purchases in the episode to help them carry equipment during the mission, which demonstrates his willingness to try and prove his ability to the other Gems. Most of the episode in which they explore the Temple is spent following Steven as he uses items from the bag to help them advance to the next part of the Temple, these either succeed or fail as his plan to distract the Crystal Shrimp blocking their way to the spire with bagels proves successful, but he doesn’t properly plan how to use the raft for example.

 

The ending of the episode displays the series’ willingness to break apart from predictability, as the Statue they were meant to bring was the one item Steven forgot to put in his backpack. The moment when he attempts to substitute it with a plush doll is one where most series would have this change-at-the-last-minute plan succeed, but here it doesn’t, and the entire Temple becomes flooded as a result. This further shows how powerless Steven is at this point in the series, again so that his eventual growth can become more satisfying to the audience by keeping the series’ pace slow.

This episode was ultimately inconsequential in the grand scheme of the series but still carries a good lesson to younger audiences on how one might not always succeed, and does have some nicely paced world building. This review was shorter than the others because there isn’t really as much to talk about in regards to this episode and many of the other episodes early on in the series.

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1.4:Together Breakfast

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Steven’s good intentions once again go not according to plan in this episode, wherein he decides to make breakfast for the Gems, but their too busy to notice so he decides to enter the castle, barging into their rooms. This premise allows for a further expansion of the Gem’s individual personalities. The most developed piece of information is the argument that occurs between Amethyst and Pearl on the cleanliness of the former’s room. Although having been established that Pearl’s defining characteristic was her grace and Amethyst’s was her free spirit, this episode gives us the first indication that the Gem’s may have more complicated relationships with each other than we thought. Of course that aspect isn’t really gone into with much detail in favour of exploration of the castle, in which the series shows off it’s lush backgrounds and animation, particularly in the turning corridor sequence in which Steven has to run, turn upside down while keeping the Breakfast at balance.

I can’t quite help but feel that the choice to have the Breakfast become a monster for the climax does feel like a simple way to ensure a monster of the week is kept as the series’ episode format. It feels somewhat disconnected from the rest of the episode, as if the writer simply made up the ending as they went along. Since I haven’t really talked about this aspect of the series yet, I should perhaps talk about the soundtrack which carries an eclectic mix of ambient and electronic instrumentation to establish the rather alien environment of the series. In this particular episode, dubstep is used over Steven carefully coordinating the strawberry onto the breakfast.

Once again, this episode was inconsequential but enjoyable in it’s own right. Given a slight edge over the other by a more fluid display of animation in scenes such as the aforementioned chase through the turning corridor or Pearl’s sword collection. I actually did find my rewatch of this episode more enjoyable than I thought I would, coming from the prejudice towards the early episodes that the series would get better as it went on. It does show the effectiveness of this series when you can go back to the early days and appreciate what they set up.

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1.5:Frybo

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So when I returned to this episode, I was struck to find that it was a lot more graphic than I remembered. Featuring such delights as people being force-fed, blood-ketchup, and a fully naked Steven. And none of this is a criticism as I actually think the horror aspect of this episode is probably it’s strongest aspect. Frybo, a mascot for Beach City’s fries shop proves to be rather a frightening monster of the week. Of course, as Pearl comments towards the end of the episode, it was already frightening before it got possessed by the Gem shard. It’s clear blue, soulless eyes filling children’s nightmares. And of course, while it doesn’t actively kill anyone (the PG rating after all) what it does instead by forcing people against their will to eat fries is still disturbing in how it uses body horror. The use of ketchup as a PG supplement for blood helps to further illustrate the episode’s horror directions. Some might say that this is too disturbing for a young audience, but I think it’s nice to have a series intended for children try to disturb them every once in a while.

Less impressed am I by the conflict which sets up this aspect of the episode, in which Peedee Fryman, the young boy who originally mascots as Frybo for his father’s business, wants to find an excuse to escape his work because it takes away from his ability to live life as a young boy. This whole character motivation is so cliché it’s got holes worn in it. It doesn’t help that although he does have a detailed backstory, Peedee himself is a rather uninteresting character. I get the impression that he was originally meant to serve as the human best friend figure for Steven but Rebecca Sugar probably realized this and decided to add a much better character for that role later on. Okay well, it isn’t entirely true that this aspect of the episode is fully Cliché. When Steven and Peedee go out to enjoy themselves, one probably expects a montage of them going on fairground rides. Instead, in keeping with the series’ attitude towards predictability, Peedee ends up still unsatisfied by his new-found freedom because his issues with his work seem to stem much deeper than they initially appeared. The actual depth of this development in his character is undercut by the biggest problem I have with the episode, Peedee’s dad. His father, who the episode tries to establish as a flawed but loving individual, ends up having the flawed aspect of his character played up far too much. His attitude throughout the episode, treating his son as just a means to get work done and help his business to develop, only helps to make him come across as selfish and heavily unlikeable. He may have learned something towards the end, but still his attitude towards his son does leave a bitter taste in one’s mouth.

So Frybo is an episode which works best when it focuses on horror. The main conflict between Peedee and his father largely fails to interest me due to Peedee being a rather boring character (though as a sidenote, I do rather like the pubescent voice that his voice actor Atticus Schafer give him). This isn’t helped by his father whose business-first attitude causes him to seem unintentionally spiteful.

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1.6: Cat Fingers

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My, the more I look at these early episodes, the more I realise how much of a penchant they seemed to have for body horror. This episode, much like Gem Glow, is an episode about Steven’s inability to properly use his powers. Whereas in that episode, he wasn’t able to get them to work properly, here the conflicts comes from it overpowering him. The premise involves Steven discovering his new-found ability to shape-shift, specifically by turning his fingers into cat heads. The image of them is honestly rather disturbing, hence why I brought up that body horror aspect. After a sequence of Steven going through Beach City to see the reactions of the side characters, the conflict of the episode begins when Steven realises he can’t use his cat fingers as real fingers due to the fact that the cats feel pain when pressure is applied to them. Soon enough this conflict becomes increasingly unstable as the cats start overtaking Steven’s body while the Gems go away on a mission.

It is here that the true meat of the episode comes into being as Steven comes to Greg for assistance instead. The interaction between Steven and Greg in this episode displays how caring Greg is. Earlier on in the episode, Greg was shown to wish to get uninvolved in the Magic of the Gems, but of course in the climax, he is put in a situation where he is ultimately forced to get involved in order to save his son. This is a detail which some may not notice when watching the episode for the first time, which helps to reward rewatches and serves to demonstrate some of the detail which is placed into the narrative to give each action more impact. The resolution to the problem, in which Steven has to be sprayed with water to get rid of the cats because “cats don’t like water” is another moment of this as the episode started with Steven and Greg playing with hoses at the car wash. The fact that such a playful moment ended up being turned into a very serious resolution to me demonstrates the series’ unpredictable nature.

This episode manages to demonstrate how the series is able to use a sci-fi fantasy starting point as a means to develop it’s characters and uncover their relations and depth. Although as much as I do enjoy this episode, and even gained more respect for it when I rewatched it and noticed details I hadn’t before, I can’t quite give it a full rating due to the fact that it’s emotions don’t really feel developed enough. While this episode does to some extend demonstrate how the series would later on become a series about big science-fiction ideas creating involving character drama, I also think he series since then has done this a lot better. This certainly doesn’t mean that the episode is weak, there isn’t anything really wrong with it, and I did enjoy coming back to it, but it does suffer from the same flaw that a lot of episodes did in how it doesn’t seem to have much of a punch once you come back from where the series would eventually go.

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