Women at Work: “Walkabout”
24 July 2016 3 Comments
“…law and order [Chung CHUNG!].” — Dingo
Written by: Michael Reaves, Steve Perry
Original Air Date: February 7, 1996
Introduces: Matrix, Anastasia Renard, Shaman
Timeline placement: May 1 – 2, 1996
Location: Australian outback
TMNT episode I could make a comparison to: “Membership Drive”
- The world tourists arrive at the Australian outback. Not long after they discern their locations, they are besieged by a strange gray / silver fluid, which begins flooding the area and reshaping until it suddenly retreats.
- Elsewhere, not far away, Dingo, formerly of the Pack, speaks to an aborigine shaman, who tells the former mercenary that if he wishes to begin anew and wipe the slate clean he must go on a walkabout and attempt to find the Dreamtime, a parallel state of being. Dingo begins his journey, and quickly runs into the tourists.
- Because they are old enemies, Dingo and the tourists fight. Eventually, the Pack member summons his battle armor.
- At a nuclear power plant elsewhere in the outback, Fox and her mother, Anastasia Renard, are discussing Xanatos’ latest project, code named Matrix. Anastasia is deeply skeptical of the project and their ability to control it; Fox is confident that their safety measures–including an agent working to keep locals away–will be sufficient. They begin the next stage of the project.
- The battle between the gargoyles and Dingo is interrupted by the return of the grey goo. Faced with this bigger threat, the foes begin working together until the goo once again retreats.
- The danger passed, for now, the tourists and Dingo begin comparing notes. Dingo denies knowing anything about the goo, and notes that if anyone is out of place here and suspicious, it’s the tourists themselves. They take a look at the now-passive remains of the goo and Dingo identifies it as a nanomachine colony.
- Dingo takes the tourists to the shaman, who states that the nanomachine goo is a corruption in the designs of the Dreamtime, and it is only through the Dreamtime that it will be stopped.
- Acquiescing to Anastasia’s wishes, Fox attempts a system reboot of Matrix and discovers that they’ve lost control of their nanomachine colony, which begins to encompass the research facility. They are barely able to escape on helicopter, eventually crashing. They continue on foot, eventually arriving at the shaman’s fire.
- After further introductions and explanations (including the revelation that Dingo lied and indeed knew of the nanomachines, and that Matrix’s prime directive is to create order from chaos), everyone agrees to work together to stop Matrix before it reaches critical mass and absorbs the energy from the nuclear plant, after which it will become unstoppable.
- Plan A is to upload into the Matrix software the contents of an optical drive cartridge Fox and Anastasia managed to save, thus deleting its programing, but it requires the uploader (Dingo) to approach the plant. Goliath and Angela agree to join him. It fails, and the three return to the fire.
- The shaman, who had been skeptical of plan A but had said nothing about it, now pipes up and argues that what they need to do is communicate with the artificial intelligence and convince it of the error of its ways. Fox notes that communication isn’t possible, Matrix thinking and processing exponentially faster than biological sentients can, and so the shaman suggests that they attempt to do so within the Dreamtime.
- Thanks to some drugs, Goliath and Dingo’s consciousnesses make their way to the Dreamtime, where they quickly encounter Matrix. Despite their ability to give shape to their thoughts, they are unable to fully stop the artificial intelligence using force, and so they turn to words, arguing that its approach to fulfilling its directive is problematic, and that there are other ways to do so that don’t involve exterminating all life from Earth, such as, Dingo suggests, pursuing law and order (Chung CHUNG!). Despite allegedly being an artificial intelligence with processing power exponentially more powerful than a human’s, Matrix appears to find this convincing and stops its rampage.
- Back in the real world, Team Organics is approached by Matrix, who agrees to team up with Dingo to become a superhero duo, with Matrix serving a super-charged Iron Man armor.
Mythology and Continuity Notes:
- Dingo was last seen in “Upgrade”. We learned in “Grief” that he had left the Pack and gone on his own way.
- We learned of Fox’s pregnancy in “Outfoxed”. We last saw the character in “Upgrade”.
The Avalon world tour, up until now, has mainly featured three kinds of episodes: those dealing with the existing cast and concepts (“Shadows of the Past”, “Monsters”, “Sanctuary”) episodes focusing on new characters (“Heritage”, “M.I.A.”, “The Hound of Ulster”) and episodes featuring a mix of both (“Golem”, “Grief”). Eight episodes in, a pattern has emerged, with the episodes dealing with established characters generally faring better than those with new characters (“M.I.A.” is an exception). Neatly, episodes that mix old and new characters are somewhere in between.
“Walkabout” is the third kind of episode, and most like “Golem”–we have new characters in Matrix, the shaman, and most interestingly, Anastasia Renard, but we also have established characters like Fox and Dingo, with the bulk of the focus on the latter. Unlike “Golem”, which had so many perspectives and stories it could only dedicate a minute or two to each of them, “Walkabout” feels much more focused, which allows it to proceed at a brisk pace. Unfortunately, such nimbleness comes attached to a story that really required more room to breathe.
So far, the world tourists’ adventures have carried somewhat low stakes; if Avalon sends them some place, it has been to save individual, specific lives, or at most a community. “Walkabout”, then, represents a big step up, as a nanomachine colony empowered to work on a molecular level is arguably the biggest threat the gargoyles have ever faced.
And yet, it never quite feels that way, thanks in large part to the episode’s twenty-two minute running time, which doesn’t allow time for much context or emotion. We’re given no real sense of Xanatos’ nanotech operation; despite operating at a nuclear power plant, the only onsite personnel appear to be Anastasia and Fox, which is impossible. We are asked to believe that Xanatos had no contingency plans for out of control nanites, which feels out of character given what we know of the character and feels especially so given that his record of keeping control of his creations is absolutely dismal. The episode is staged in such a way that we’re left to believe that most or all of the power plant personnel were left behind and died–we’re not shown a fleet of helicopters escaping, and we are told that it takes, at the very least, a helicopter’s speed and maneuverability to escape the facility, and I don’t see why Matrix would leave them alive, given its parameters and goals. This is addressed nowhere, and Fox, despite being played somewhat sympathetic here, seems not at all concerned about any repercussions. Team Xanatos’ actions almost destroyed the world, and yet they are never mentioned again.
Despite the way the episode attempts to sell it and the terrifying quickness with which Matrix appears to operate (or perhaps not: there’s really no way to get a sense of the scale of the episode’s setting) there’s no real sense of the nanomachine colony as a threat. The changes it causes appear to be perfectly reversible. It comes into contact with at least three humans, and leaves them unaffected. Everyone is quick to trust Matrix once it stops its initial assault, demonstrating absolutely no concern about what might happen if it ever changes its mind again, or the potential risks of making Dingo its caretaker. The way the episode is paced gives the sense that events are occurring in more or less real time, making it seem as if the threat was over and done with in less than an hour. Gargoyles has had problems with scale before, often being unable to truly convey how massive some of the things that occur in its world are, and this might be the biggest example to date.
“Walkabout” is both the world tour’s fourth hero origin story and within that category, arguably the first two-fer, with both Dingo and Matrix crossing over onto the side of the angels. And while things must have looked quite different from the production side of things, it still feels somewhat baffling to see the showrunners attempting this at all, given how every single one of these stories have found themselves ill-suited for the single-episode format. It’s proven hard enough to sell our heroes’ transformations–the moment when they decide to stop being the people they’ve been for the six minutes since we’ve met them, and to become something else for the two minutes it takes for the episode to finish–when dealing with a single character, so doing it for two seems like a recipe for disappointment. Sure, we may know Dingo and remember his disgust at what the Pack had become, but there’s a long way from that to being a goodie, and the transformation here isn’t convincing–we really don’t have enough context about his life, pre-“The Thrill of the Hunt”, for his nostalgia to land. There is a sense that he is to some degree faking it, acting the hero so that the world-destroying death machine won’t kill them all, but if that’s intentional, then more should have been done with it, I feel. Matrix, meanwhile, is the standard utopia-means-destroying-everything A.I., until some facile nonsense by Dingo convinces it to stop destroying everything and work with the ex-con. Their relationship actually becomes quite compelling when next we see them, in the Bad Guys comic book, but boy it is not an auspicious beginning.
Far more interesting and successful are the interactions between Fox and her mama Anastasia, who, ironically, benefit quite a bit from existing in this episode largely to set up future stories. Fox’s relationship with Papa Renard was already one of the more interesting dynamics in the series, an it’s fascinating to see just how much warmer things are between the two women. Even if one doesn’t take future stories into account, the fact that Anastasia is largely supportive of everything Fox is doing, while still expressing skepticism when she needs to, is a compelling bit of characterization, and suggests why the Renard family ended the way it did, with divorce and estrangement. It feels incredibly adult, in a way only Gargoyles really could consistently nail, when compared to its peers. I am here for every bit of it.
The last notable element in the episode (again, the world tourists are largely bystanders here, although less so than in “The Hound of Ulster”) is its exploration into the aboriginal Australian concept of the Dreamtime, which is mostly expressed through the shaman, and really, there’s not much I can say here that isn’t damning with faint praise. There’s nothing here as glaringly racist as in “Heritage”, but there’s nothing here especially praise-worthy either–the shaman is yet another person of color who exists solely to facilitate other characters’ journey, and the show’s exploration of the concept of Dreamtime feels shallow and somewhat appropriation-y. You know what kind of story this is when the shaman, despite the stakes, elects to stay behind during the big “lets stop the destructive A.I.” mission, even though he knows far more about the Dreamtime than either Goliath or Dingo, and probably has more to say to an all-powerful baby than either of them. As for the Dreamtime, the show uses it essentially as virtual reality with another name, and offers nothing of substance about it; I understand just as little as I did about it coming out of the episode as I did coming in, and from what I’ve read, the concept as actually understood by Australia’s aborigine peoples bears little resemblance to what we’re shown here. While this is all pretty standard when it comes to fictional representations of Australian aborigines (see: Chris Claremont’s X-Men and the character of Gateway), it’s disappointing coming from the show that created Elisa Maza.
And perhaps that’s the issue: creating characters like Elisa is not enough. Sure, actually featuring characters belonging to marginalized groups and cultures is half the battle–and one that too many works fail at–but half the battle is, well… The other half, which involves things like granting these characters subjectivity and validating their struggles, is something Gargoyles never quite consistently got, as seen here and, in a much more significant way, next episode.
- While working on this post, I decided to go through my old copy of Don Rosa’s The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, and specifically the story “Dreamtime Duck of the Never Never”, which explores some similar concepts to “Walkabout”. Not only does it feature an alternate (and more compelling, I feel) take on the Dreamtime and its role in aboriginal cultures, but also for what I feel is the best take on the whole aborigine wise man concept in comics, and not just by default. Life and Times as a whole is fantastic, in ways that should appeal to Gargoyles fans, especially those that like the series because of its historical and educational elements; I highly recommend it.
- I rarely talk about Gargoyles‘ music, but there are some really nice touches and instrumentation in this episode.
- I find it funny how the very few shots of the episode are very flora- and fauna-laden, so as to establish the Australian location, before suddenly shifting to the empty outback. Is that at all realistic? I have no clue.
- I’ve noted elsewhere that Fox often dresses terribly, and that her maternity outfit here is particularly egregious. Adding insult to injury is the fact that Anastasia looks rather fantastic, which makes me suspect that Fox’s sartorial eccentricity may in fact be canonical.
- The way Dingo says “law and order”–several times even!–will never not be funny.
- Seriously, though, Goliath and Dingo totally entered the Dreamtime using drugs, right?