Saturday Crapshoot: Wing Commander Academy
Every week, Richard Cobbett rolls the dice to bring you an obscure slice of gaming history, from lost gems to weapons grade atrocities. This morning though, he's settling down in front of the TV in his pyjamas for an animated series that really set the fur flying throughout deep space.
Watching the Wing Commander movie was a difficult experience for me, mostly because I couldn't decide whether it was more like a dentist accidentally drilling through a nerve, or like being stabbed in the back with a serrated dagger. Even by the low, low standards of game to movie conversions, it was a stinker. The characters I'd been flying alongside since around 1990 were ruined. The addition of mystical elements to its serious sci-fi universe were just as stupid as George Lucas trying to mix a bit of science into his magic. Most of the storyline was cut due to a lack of budget, and the need to keep the hideous alien puppets off camera as much as possible, and... oh, god. Just no. Terrible film.
It wasn't however the Wing Commander series' first foray into the mainstream. Back in 1996, shortly after the third game took the world by storm with its full motion video, incredible space combat and then-unheard of $4 million budget, the decision was made to bring Wing Commander to TV audiences.
...as a Saturday morning kids cartoon. This is really going to hurt, isn't it?
Actually... no. Wing Commander Academy is no Batman: The Animated Series, Avatar: The Last Airbender or (rolls die) Animaniacs, but it's far, far better than it has any real right to be. It doesn't have a huge budget on its side - to be honest, it's very cheap - and yes, it has its goofy moments, but for the most part it takes both its subject matter and its audience seriously. While cheaply animated and lacking in shininess, it does its best to replicate the original games' universes. The characters are smart and capable, with very few stupid moments thrown in for the sake of keeping the story flowing. The relationships between them ring true, with some very goofy moments, but just as many decent moments. It works. It's Wing Commander, just a slightly different side of the universe.
Perhaps most notably, the usual cartoon rule that everything has to be wrapped up nicely by the end of every episode... is not in force. Academy isn't afraid to end stories on a downer, or present war as something other a cheery, glorious adventure. In one early episode for instance, one of the main cast has to blow up a comrade who recently declared his love for her. In another, a legendary hero turns out to have taken a turn towards Nietzsche. In others, the show plays with the fact that the cast - as fighter and bomber pilots - aren't privvy to the high-level tactical decisions being made elsewhere on the ship, and often have very distorted ideas of what they're risking their lives for. None of this is desperately earthshaking for fiction as a whole, but for this timeslot, it's good stuff. It's also a rare case where this kind of spin-off has both slipped into canon, and generally been embraced by the fans.
So of course, it got canned after thirteen episodes.
The 80s and 90s were a seriously weird time for licensed cartoons, with practically anything up for grabs, regardless of whether kids should even have been aware of what it was based on. This didn't necessarily make for bad cartoons, of course. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes for instance was an entertainingly silly romp, with its villain announcing things like "Mad? I'm not mad! I'm just... angry!" It just happened to be an entertainingly silly romp whose female lead was originally a genetically engineered sex slave whose first real line in the movie was "Shall I cook you something? How about a blow job?" There was Toxic Crusaders, based on The Toxic Avenger - all kinds of wrong in that - and Beetlejuice, which recast the paedophile ghost as Lydia's wacky buddy. There were cartoons based on Police Academy and Rambo and those are just the ones off the top of my head. Really. What the hell?
And then there are some of the other licenses. Let's just stick to the game ones. Everyone knows of The Super Mario Bros Super Show, The Legend of Zelda and Captain N: The Game Master, but they were the sane ones. There was also Saturday Supercade, which made characters out of such unlikely sources as Q-Bert (a 50s era slice of surrealism) and Frogger (turned into an investigative journalist - yes, really) and Donkey Kong, pre-Mario. There was Bubsy, a cartoon nobody could like, based on a a character that everyone hated. What could possibly go wrong? Finally, we shouldn't forget the grand-daddy of desperate licenses. Yes, Rubik: The Amazing Cube. Good god. Someone actually wrote that.
A Wing Commander cartoon then. Sure, why not? Sounds good.
Wing Commander isn't available on DVD, though copies of the episodes aren't hard to find. YouTube has them in really bad quality, broken up into pieces. WCNews has links to higher quality versions, as well as the recommended order to watch them in. We're going to take a look at the very first, "Red And Blue", but first, a quick primer in case you've never heard of this series before.
Wing Commander was the second best space combat game series ever. The first was Freespace 2. I grudgingly put the X-Wing series at third. X-Wing vs. Wing Commander was a bit of a holy war situation in the 90s, where X-Wing, Tie Fighter and so on unquestionably had better mechanics, while Wing Commander did a far better job at being cinematic, telling a story, and filling its world with great characters. In the first two games, you played a regular pilot, and named him accordingly. They used VGA graphics for cut-scenes, and were notable for - amongst other things - a branching storyline, lots of character interaction between missions, and being some of the first games to experiment with speech. For Wing Commander 3, the VGA graphics were replaced with full motion video and actors in front of blue screens, with Mark Hamill playing the pilot - now named Blair, as a jokey reference to his character's blue hair in the first two games. Wing Commander 4 was very similar, but with actual sets. Finally, Wing Commander: Prophecy and Arena never existed. You hear that? They. Never. Existed.
Blair was a pilot for the Confederation, which was usually nicknamed Confed, but not in fact Duckman's assistant. They were a pretty standard naval set-up, stuck in the middle of an epic World War II style battle with a race of humanoid cat aliens called the Kilrathi. There are other aliens too, like the bird-like Firekkan and technologically advanced Precursors known as the Steltek, but they're never desperately relevant - the majority of the game focuses on the Terran planets, with occasional cut-aways to characters like Prince Thrakhath of the Kilrathi Empire, and his sounding board Khasra, who constantly sounded like he was about to choke on his own mucus. There were spies, relationships, character arcs, medals, and huge space battles, stepping up from simple 2D sprites in the first game to then-hyper advanced full 3D models later on, but always with gloriously cinematic production values.
Oh. And some incredibly cheesy trailers, of course.
At the start of Wing Commander Academy, Blair hasn't been through any of that. He's not the Heart of the Tiger feared by the Kilrathi, nor the Hero of the Confederation that blew up their home planet. He's simply a cadet, though thankfully one old enough to spare us any James Bond Jr type horror. As we meet him, he and his fellow cadets are locked in an epic space battle that's quite obviously some kind of virtual reality simulation, because this kind of episode opening always bloody is.
"Bandits at 4 o'clock" announces Blair, diving his fighter through space.
"Sure, Maverick," his wingman Maniac radios back. "Tell us something we don't know!"
Immediately, there's a hint as to why Wing Commander Academy is popular with fans. One of the biggest complaints about the movie - bearing in mind that there are roughly 5,740 to choose from - was that the games featured a mostly-star cast. As mentioned, Mark "Luke Skywalker" Hamill was Blair, serving up a wonderful performance as an older, still idealistic but ultimately exhausted hero. Maniac was Tom "Biff Tannen" Wilson, in a role he commented at the time he particularly enjoyed because many people now had someone else to see him as. In the movie, we were lumbered with Freddy Prinze Jr and Matthew Lillard. As trades go, this is almost exactly akin to paying £5 to have your sexual organs repeatedly smacked with a spiked baseball bat. Still, more fun than watching the Max Payne movie!
Both reprise their roles in Wing Commander Academy, as does Malcolm McDowell, who played Admiral Tolwyn in the series, and plays Commodore Tolwyn in this. This does wonders for tying the action to the 'real' Wing Commander universe, and none of the trio phone in their performances. This is especially important for Tolwyn, who's a dead ringer for McDowell in the first place, and Maniac, mostly because until Tom Wilson came along, he was easily the most hated character in the series by most. He was so obnoxious, and such a liability, that many reacted to him flying on their wing by simply turning the ship around and blowing him up at the earliest possible opportunity. Only when his obnoxious flyboy nature merged with Blair's more professional one did he become a fun character in his own right, and the ensemble dark horse for the next few games. Here, he's in the middle, mostly because his rivalry with Blair has yet to be fitted with a foundation of actual respect to make it bearable. (This was also seen in Prophecy, which Didn't Exist, where the main character was a new pilot called Casey, and Maniac again descended into the realms of being an unbearable dick, despite still being played by Wilson)
The two duel with the Kilrathi fighters, which are Dralthi types that resemble chipped saucers. "Hey, these guys are good!" announces one cadet, marking the first major deviation from Wing Commander canon. One of the big problems with the series was that the AI couldn't fly for shit, turning most battles into glorified jousts rather than dog-fights. Dralthi were also made out of tissue paper, often resulting in their elite pilots' cries of "You cannot defeat the Drakhai!" being rudely cut-off by you defeating the Drakhai.
Basically, on the grand scale of things, Dralthi fall somewhere between Sputnik, and the ship you shoot for bonus points in Space Invaders. Only slightly less scary, and easier to kill.
They waste no time making short work of the cadets though, none of whom can be bothered to pretend that this is an actual fight. One female pilot is forced to eject, sending her fighter crashing straight into an asteroid. It's her snappy comebacks that need the most work though, when Maniac taunts her with "You should have stayed with your ship, Archer!" and the best she can return is "Ah... go fly your own ship." That's just pathetic. Report to the Swordmaster for basic training, cadet! After taking a ceremonial poop in Maniac's bed, of course. Though I suspect he's basically used to it by this point.
Now only Blair and Maniac are left. Blair forms up on Maniac's wing, and the two dive into an asteroid field to try and thin the crowd out. This is going pretty well, and the two even head over to take on a whole career, when... the game crashes. It appears that even in the future, regular computers aren't capable of handling a new Wing Commander game. That's just sad. But another point for legitimacy!
Hopping mad at the loss of his victory, Maniac announces that he could totally have gotten that carrier, and for some reason people don't continue fueling the most delusion most likely to get him killed at the first available opportunity. "What you did in that simulation was against every flight reg in the book!" complains Blair, though I don't remember seeing him flying with nail scissors or taking his pants off mid battle. Maniac politely invites him to go **** himself, or at least the kids cartoon version.
During the debrief, everyone remains blissfully ignorant of the rodent like man wearing a "SUSPECT ME" T-Shirt busy fiddling with his watch in front of them all for a future plot point, and is sent on their way. Blair decides to take some time out checking a fighter statue outside the window, demonstrating the intelligence and intuition that will one day save the entire human race from a state of perpetual war by commenting: "It always reminds me of why I came to the Academy... to fly." As opposed to what, Blair? Using the soda machine? Bunking with Maniac? Delivering weak chat-up lines?
"I wonder what it's like up there. In a real fight, I mean," says his female companion, a pilot called Viking, who he's totally not hitting on with his attempts to sound deep and meaningful.
"I guess we'll find out. But we're being trained by the best! We'll be ready when the time comes."
"I wish I had your confidence."
"Yeah." Blair gets himself a soda from the vending machine. "Uh, listen, I was wondering if maybe we could get together some time, maybe study for our Kilrathi psychology exam?"
"I'd like that," says the pilot, who gives her name as Victoria. This is bad news for her. She's not a character from the game, which in Wing Commander Academy typically means that she's about to die or have an incredible piece of bad luck to demonstrate that war sucks. Still, she's nice enough not to point out that, being giant walking space cats, Kilrathi psychology can be summed up on the back of the napkin she isn't about to write her mobile phone number on the back of, leaving Blair to enjoy his soda. One day, he'll have the option of docking his little Rapier with a porn star engineer. Today, his sexual future revolves around an evening of talking about space pussies without any accidental Freudian slips.
Thankfully, Maniac shows up to splash some cold water on his libido. "Hey, Maverick!" he yells from about two steps away. "I was about to prove who the best pilot was when that simulator shut down."
"The best pilot's the one who completes his mission and comes back alive," Blair retorts, although in this case that doesn't actually work. They were both still alive when the simulator crashed, after all.
"Come on. You know you want to be Wing Commander." TITLE DROP! TITLE DROP! TITLE DROP! "But you're too busy being a perfect little cadet to admit it."
Well, if so, he's going the wrong way about it. One of the weirdest things about the original Wing Commander game is that you start out as a rookie, but your commanding officer decides it'll be a really good idea for the rookies to be in charge. That never gets countermanded, so you spend most of the game bossing around much more respected pilots, and also Maniac, for the three seconds it takes you to scatter his arse across deep space in the name of a little peace and quiet.
On the other hand, I haven't read the Wing Commander tie-in novels, and I may have missed something in a manual, but this is the first time I've heard Blair's call-sign of Maverick actually explained. Turns out it's ironic, because he's the kind of guy who sticks to the rules like glue. That's pretty good if the cartoon came up with it. If not, it's a cool thing to put into the pilot episode.
Maniac spills Blair's drink, because he's more than a bit of a dick right now, and tries goading him into fist-fight. "I am not going to fight you," Blair tells him, but Maniac isn't listening. He pulls back his fist, only to have it caught by a girl about a third his size and weight, who nevertheless overpowers him by simply gripping his arm, and then switches that into a judo throw that sends him flying across the universe. Blair silently stands there making a note to never, ever take her last Rolo.
"What's going on here!" demands one of the Academy staff, alongside a very familiar white haired man who stares down at the three with barely disguised contempt. That's not really an emotion though, just Tolwyn's usual face. The girl, whose name turns out to be Archer (another of the regulars, though not one from the games) makes up an unconvincing lie about it being unarmed combat practice.
"Next time, keep it in the gym," the teacher orders them, turning to the white-haired man beside him. "Commodore Tolwyn, I apologise for my cadets'... enthusiasm."
"Is that Malcolm McDowell?" Luke Skywalker whispers to Biff. And it is - the current captain of the famed TCS Tiger's Claw, the most decorated officer in the fleet, and voted Least Likely To Bomb Innocent Worlds With Biogenic Weapons three times running. Ah. Hindsight...
"It's an honour," stammers Blair, though he'll come to regret this in a few years when Tolwyn declares him a traitor, and forces him to fly a desk for ten years of his career. The two do eventually find some mutual respect, but only in time for Wing Commander IV, where things... don't go very well.
It turns out that the Tiger's Claw (your ship in Wing Commander) is being refitted, and Tolwyn is bored. He declares that he'd like to see the cadets in action, in real space. He splits them up into two wings, Red and Blue, declaring Blair the leader of the Blues, and Archer the Reds. No, just kidding. She's a girl. He doesn't even bother glancing down to acknowledge her presence as his eyes swoop over her head and he picks Maniac. Needless to say, Maniac immediately sees this as his chance to prove his superiority to a group of cadets who'd quite likely turn him over to the Kilrathi just to shut him up, but Blair isn't interested. They're just going to be having a friendly game where nothing can possibly go wrong.
Things immediately go wrong. The rat-faced technician from earlier sneaks through the deserted Academy at night, torch in hand, only to give up all pretence of stealth by phoning the Kilrathi on a screen that takes up an entire wall. Rat Face tells Random Kilrathi that he's changing the deal, and that if he wants the classified Academy files, he'll have to take him back to Kilrah. Exactly why a rodent-like man would want to live on a planet full of giant genocidal, xenophobic cats remains something of a mystery. The Kilrathi agrees, pausing only to regret that the animation makes him look far too cuddly for an intergalactic warlord of his standing. They agree to meet up in a nearby nebula, with the cadets' war game as a diversion. Rat Face knows how to switch off their weapons' safety modes, ensuring they blow each other up instead of just knocking their shields about a little bit. Because he's evil, he grins about it too.
The day of the games arrives. Maniac wastes no time challenging Blair to a private dog-fight - the two meeting up in a nebula while their teams hold steady on the side. This will block any signals getting back to the Academy, but finally let the two discover once and for this week which of them is the best pilot. Blair instantly face-palms at this, but finally agrees. "May the best pilot win," grins Maniac. "That'd be me."
Up in space though, it turns out that Blair needs a new call-sign. "This is Cheating Bitch," he doesn't quite say. "Switch communications to Tac-2." With his team on the line, he explains the plan. He will go to duel Maniac, but only so the Blues can follow his approach vector back to the Reds and catch them completely unawares. Actually, that's pretty smart, and one of the first of many genuinely good tactical decisions. Ordinarily, I'd complain about the bad sportsmanship, but there are two mitigating factors here: 1) the Kilrathi don't 'do rules, and 2) It's Maniac. Putting a tarantula in his cockpit would be okay.
Unfortunately, the Kilrathi's ship is hiding little more than a zero-gravity stone's throw away in the same nebula, because space is incredibly cramped like that. Its commander immediately phones Prince Thrakhath, who declares the sudden appearance of Terran fighters to be curious, but orders that the pick-up must go ahead as planned. "I will have those Academy files," he gargles, because he's Evil. "That information will render their fighter squadrons useless."
"They usually fly Scimitars in this series," mutters the Kilrathi commander. "That does more to make them useless against our forces than anything we could come up with."
"What was that?"
Blair hides behind asteroids in the nebula while Maniac tries to lure him into attacking by calling him 'chicken'. Having apparently seen Back to the Future before, he just ignores it completely, content in the knowledge that the Blue team are going to town on the Reds. The ambush goes perfectly, right up until the part they start shooting at each other and find that while their shields claim to be holding, the big explosions that almost kill one of them say otherwise.
Meanwhile, Rat Man crawls onto the Kilrathi ship, files in hand. The Kilrathi commander stares at him like he's just scraped him off one claw, suggesting that this will likely be imminent.
"Did you bring the data?"
"I'd be pretty stupid to turn up here with out it," snaps Rat Man.
"I have never met a spy before. Face to face. How does your honour allow you to betray your own people?
"Honour? I want REVENGE! I was a cadet at the Academy until they washed me out..."
Rat Man continues in this vein for a while as the Kilrathi stares in silent contempt, before losing all interest, slamming the door in his face and just opening the airlock. Being a spy apparently isn't much of a problem to his people. Being a spy for such petty reasons... the Kilrathi aren't particularly down with that.
While the Kilrathi take out the trash, Blair and Maniac are still dog-fighting. Maniac gets the drop on Blair, who calls him to say there's a problem with his shields. Unsurprisingly, Maniac doesn't buy this for a single femtosecond, and prepares to open fire. Luckily, before he can blow Blair out of the sky and ultimately doom humanity to a life of opening tuna cans for their new feline overlords, Archer radios in a distress call.
This brings us to one of the neat things about the writing in this show. The second they get that call, even Maniac immediately pulls himself together and focuses on the mission itself. There's an almost audible click as they quit dicking around and do their job, and the slow build-up of their relationship over the show's short run is largely built on realising that they're both ace pilots who can rely on each other.
"Whadda say, Maverick?" grins Maniac.
"I'm your wingman!" Blair instantly replies.
The greatest pilot in Confed and also Maniac immediately engage in their first cheaply animated, but still basically effective real sortie, and witha few well placed blasts, the Kilrathi capital ship is blown up. They rescue Archer and return to the Academy, knowing that there's no possible way they can get away with any of this, they're clearly about to be booted out of the Academy, and the rest of the series will have to be Wing Commander McDonalds. Their careers are totally over. Totally.
Yeah, right. Luckily for both of them, they've got special Hero Insurance. "You got away with it this time," growls their commanding officer, finger wagging. "But the next time you go off to fight your own personal duel, bagging a whole Kilrathi FLEET won't keep you in the Academy."
"Sir, later in my career, I'll be blowing up the whole Kilrathi homeworld," ventures Blair. "Can I call in some of that karma now in exchange for not peeling potatoes for the next year?"
They're not quite off the hook though. Tolwyn announces that he's not simply a special guest star, but one of the main characters. From now on, the cadets will be under his command, aboard the Tiger's Claw. Yes. Wing Commander Academy consists of basically one single episode at the Academy, and the rest of it is all out in space doing actual shooty space stuff. True, it's far from the front lines, mostly because the top brass doesn't trust Tolwyn at the moment and is doing its best to keep him out of the way of the real war stuff, but that doesn't matter. As of this point, they're effectively combat personnel, dogfighting Kilrathi aces, exposing dark Confed secrets, and risking life and limb on a daily basis against a foe that wants to use their gizzards as catnip. Their response? Unsurprisingly: "YAHOOO!"
That's because it's a 90s show, of course. These days, it'd be "GOOOGLE!"
Red and Blue is a decent opening episode. Maniac is a bit too far down the insufferable curve on it, though more for trying to deck Blair than for anything he gets up to in the cockpit. The two do occasionally fight in the future, but it tends to be over faster, and played out more with bravado and grappling than anything else. It doesn't take long for them to click like in the FMV games, and the show's better for it.
If you're a Wing Commander fan, it's worth checking out the rest. It's also worth mentioning that there was a Wing Commander Academy game back in 1993, though it's completely unrelated to the series in all but name. It was a fairly pointless spin-off of the main franchise that effectively put you in a simulator of a simulator, flying fairly tedious stock missions without any of the cinema or story that made the series great. You could make your own missions, but there was no good reason to actually do so. Wing Commander's actual mechanics were never more than 'okay', and without the story elements, it really gave those X-Wing heathens the right to feel smug about their series being better. For that alone, it must burn in eternal hellfire, or be stocked on the shelf next to Privateer 2. Whichever hurts more.
This Academy though? Fun show. Sometimes, spin-offs really do get it right.