Genndy Tartakovsky never could seem to catch a break while he was working for Cartoon Network. The mind behind Dexter's Lab, Samurai Jack, Star Wars: Clone Wars and a huge contributor to other shows like The Powerpuff Girls, Tartakovsky has quite resume behind his name. Yet it did not account for much when it came to the treatment of his projects. When a show of his would end, such as with Dexter's Laboratory, Cartoon Network brought it back in arguably less quality form. On the other hand, when he had shows that reached critical success and generated massive fan followings, Cartoon Network had no problem cancelling those shows and keeping them dead as was the case with Samurai Jack.
Sym-Bionic Titan, sadly, was in the latter category. From September 17th, 2010 to April 9th, 2011, Cartoon Network aired Titan and billed it as "an exciting hybrid of high school drama and giant robot battles". Perhaps the concept might turn some off, I know I certainly wasn't excited about it when I first heard of it either, but the show quickly became more than that.
A Tale Of Two Planets
The plot for Sym-Bionic Titan revolves around a conflict between the planet of Galaluna and alien invaders known as the Mutradii. Under the command of the traitorous General Modula, the Mutradii invade Galaluna, topple most resistance and hold the king hostage. To prevent the capture and execution of his daughter, Princess Ilana, the king sends her, a soldier with a tragic past named Corporal Lance and a robot named Octus through a portal called the Riftgate where they crash on planet Earth. Soon after, the alien refugees must learn to blend into Earth society in the town of Sherman, Illinois while protecting the planet from hostile giant monsters sent through the Riftgate by the Mutradii to wipe them out and keep their alien history a secret.
The great thing about Titan is the world-building this concept allowed. The world of Galaluna is a lot like ours, only seemingly stuck in a fusion of colonial England with spaceships, laser muskets and mechs. One would think the futuristic concepts would clash with the almost Victorian backdrop, but it gives Galaluna a distinct style all its own. Meanwhile, the Mutraddi homeworld isn't seen and this presents a tantalizing mystery on just what kind of world where giant, fire monsters, shamans who control dreams, and Asiatic dragons could co-exist or even exist period. Earth is typical to what you would expect, but we got a variety of locations including the city of Sherman, Paris, Tokyo and so on.
As you would expect with a show about giant robots and monsters fighting, you'd expect that a lot of damage would result because of it. Well, Titan didn't pull any punches and shoved horrifying destruction head-on on audiences.
Both Earth and Galaluna suffered heavy-destruction, though the latter moreso given that this is where the shows conflict started. However, on Earth, it got bad. The first episode has a large portion of the city of Sherman vaporized by a fire monster and as the show went on, a large bridge and lake were made to cover the damage. The military would try vainly to stop the Mutraddi mega-beasts, but they were about as effective on them as the Japanese military is on Godzilla. Add all of this onto the highly implied civilian death toll and you've got one high-stakes fight going on.
Yet beside the aesthetics of each world and the wanton destruction the battle between good and evil unleashed, there was a sense of mystery between the possible connection between Earth and Galaluna. How could two worlds lightyears away from each other that both have humanoid dominate species come into being? Why did the Riftgate dump Lance, Ilana and Octus there? How does the Galactic Guardian Group, an autonomous secret agency that collects alien artifacts, have access to Galalunian technology and fighting styles? Sadly, that mystery will never be resolved, but a lot seemed to stem from Lance's father, Edward, who was thought dead after the initial trials of the Riftgate. This leads on to the next big thing Titan did right, characters.
Besides the giant robot fights, Titan had a set of memorable characters who all managed to get heaps of character development as the show went on.
The start off the main cast, let us examine the main heroine, Ilana. In brief flashbacks we see of her as a princess on Galaluna, we saw that she was the girl with the heart of gold. She loved interacting with the citizenry, opening up schools for tribal peoples and saving the occasional pet from the bottom of a well, much to the dismay of her protective father. The conflict with the Mutraddi weigh heavily on her throughout the series as balances between trying to go back and risk dying for nothing or continuing to hide on Earth as the Mutraddi continue to hold her homeworld.
Things only become harder with the high school aspects of the show. Despite being of the ruling class on Galaluna, she is ironically cast down to the "geek" status on the high school hierarchy of cliches due to her very formal manner of speaking and odd taste of fashion. She constantly tries to amend this by uniting the schools cliches together as if they were a kingdom, but her efforts always come up short and end up making her the butt of the joke. All in all, however, she has the easiest time adjusting to her new home on Earth and its society, unlike her assigned guardian, Lance.
Lance, as mentioned before, has fairly dark past. Orphaned at a young age after the death of his father and no sight of any mother, he essentially becomes a ward of the state and is enrolled into a military academy by the king, a close friend to Lance's father. He immediately runs into trouble with the snooty kids who have excelled at the academy long before him, but he does rise up to the occasion to prove his bullies wrong about him. However, after a fight with one of the bullies where the two sported mechs destroyed a large portion of the school, Lance developed a rebellious attitude to authority that lands him in jail many times. Yet as Galaluna falls, he shows his true skills as a warrior and tactician that help the king see him for who he really is and entrusts his daughters care to him.
Unlike Ilana, Lance has a hard time adjusting to Earth life. Of course, Earth society can't seem to get enough of him. In high school, his anti-social demeanor and personality instantly make him one of the cool kids whether he likes it or not. Despite the popularity he could enjoy, he remains fairly isolated and rarely does anything outside his group. That said, Lance is not your stereotypical emo character who whines about his past. He acknowledges it from time to time, but his mind is more occupied with returning to Galaluna to save it from the Mutraddi. Still, he has plenty of moments that make him likable enough. The episode revolving around him getting a driver's license and learning to play guitar show the lighter side of Lance.
Rounding out the main cast is Lance and Illana's robot companion, Octus. Octus could've been a simple robot who simply rounds out the third member to form the titular Sym-Bionic Titan, but he is such a fantastic character. Throughout the series Octus takes on two forms to blend in on Earth, a father hologram and a "geeky" hologram named Newton. Both forms are highly intelligent and blur the line between his robot side and "human" side. It is hard to describe the kind of character Octus is, On one hand, his human forms compliment his robotic nature, they are big and bulky and have a faint hint of unnaturality, especially when he uses his powers in certain situations. But yet he is endearing enough for you to forget that he is a machine at his core.
One of the best examples of this was during the episode, Family Crisis. An electric monster was threatening a G3 space-station and the three Galalunains are asked for assistance. Being mechanical, Octus was under heavy threat to the creature attacking and both Lance and Ilana flashback on moments they have had with him due to their worries about him being killed. Lance remembers a time when Newton's social ignorance about lying accidentally got Lance involved on a date while Ilana remembers a time she was sick and Octus in father mode cared for her intently.
Besides the main three characters, a robust set of side characters round out the experience. Each of the three get their own romantic love interests, completely subverting the obvious trope of the two main male and female leads falling in love and each are perfectly chosen. Ilana meets a nerdy boy named Jason, Lance meets a fellow antisocial girl named Kristin, who happens to be quite the martial-artist, and Octus even falls in love with a cheerleader named Kimmy. Kimmy is an interesting case as she appeared to be the typical stuck-up cheerleader popular in so many shows, but she really grows into something more. After getting close to failing her classes and being take off the cheer squad, she essentially forces Octus, as Newton, to tutor her. Yet, him being a robot, her feminine charms and wiles are no match for him. What follows next is a true look at the minds of high schoolers, so often conforming to stereotypes and behaviors certain people are expected to have. Kimmy always thought that her beauty was all she had going for her, but Octus explains to her that what others think shouldn't define you. From then on, Kimmy fell for Octus as he was the first person to ever see her as more than a cute face and Octus also managed to start developing emotions and feelings for her too. A shame this never managed to pay off.
As far as antagonists go, the Titan crew had plenty to choose from. The two most immediate threats were General Modula of the Mutraddi forces and General Julius Steel of the US Army. Modula was a calm and collected yet still crushingly brutal adversary who killed anybody who got in his way and continually tortured the king of Galaluna. Steel was the exact opposite, he was loud, bombastic and impulsive. He gave no regard to what others told him to do and was a fierce rival to the Galactic Guardian Group to the point that he attacked them after concluding they were a threat when he received his own giant robot, the H.M.E.R.
The Galactic Guardian Group, of G3, were unique in their own right. The footsoliders in the group looked like Daft Punk would resemble if they were an alien hunting army. They really channel the Power Rangers, but the most important member of the G3 is Solomon. Not much is known as Solomon, but he has a commanding presence whenever he is present with his amazing fighting skills and trademark appearance that makes him look like Alucard from Hellsing. At first he doesn't trust the Galalunian trio, but comes to regard them as allies and helps whenever he can. Only one person outranks him in the G3, but the leader is shrouded in mystery with the only indicator of his presence being a giant robotic hand. Spooky.
The fights were easily some of the most visually appealing and high-energy aspects of the show that never got old. Lance and Ilana had individual mech suits for themselves, Lance's focused on more offensive combat with blades, cannons, arrows and so on while Ilana was more defensive with long-range lasers and shields. When joined with Octus, who was no slouch with fighting, they formed the Titan. The Titan merged the skills of Lance and Ilana's mechs and led to several creative battles. Later on, the Titan gained the ability to fly and go into space. Now two fights were the same and you can tell the creators put a lot of heart and time into each one.
I could go on and on about this series despite its relatively short run-time. Between the gorgeous art, deep characters, and engaging giant robot fights, Sym-Bionic Titan was a special kind of show. It had heart and stood out starkly to the safe, child-friendly shows it aired alongside with. Sadly, its critical acclaim and high ratings weren't enough to keep it alive. The main reason for its cancellation allegedly stems from the fact it couldn't get a toy deal. A show about giant robots and monsters couldn't get toys? The only way that could happen is if Cartoon Network didn't even try.
I will still remember Titan for what it was and what it could be. I appreciated Toonami airing re-runs of the show for a while and caught them when I could despite the late hour they came on. Now I await a DVD release which will likely never come. Cartoon Network may not have appreciated what they had, Genndy, but I do and so do others.