The Horizon Episode Challenge – Useless Without Context

Some time ago I entered into an ill-advised dare with other bloggers who write on anime; to watch a single episode of a series I knew nothing about, from the middle of its run, and write something about it. The series in question was Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere, and I watched the eleventh episode of it with no contextual knowledge.

Some television series work when watched with no surrounding context; one could sit and watch an entry in a police procedural such as Poirot or Columbo, or a science-fiction series like Babylon Five or Doctor Who with no idea of the overarching story and be presented with a complete mystery resolved in the episode’s run. In anime terms, one could watch an episode of a series like Brave Police J-Decker or Sailor Moon in a similar way; each episode is almost certain to be a self-contained adventure, or at the least have an easily worked out context. Such an episodic nature is considered by some to be a flaw of a programme; if each episode is strongly positioned as a single, isolated story then any character development is going to be limited and the whole will possibly feel underdeveloped or immature.

Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere, however, is quite the opposite; episode 11 begins in media res with what appears to be the resolution of a cliffhanger from the previous episode. It begins with a recapitulation of the reason for a fight between a hero and villain as the hero rushes to save someone called “Scarred” or “Dame Mary” from an unknown enemy. If this fight is a release of tension from the end of the previous episode, it is a weak one; the hero’s job is not to defeat his foe but get past him, which he does almost flawlessly, leaving the villain likely to return in time.

Note: what follows is the opening credits. The theme tune is notable for how poorly its lyrics scan, with the music featuring a number of pauses and rushed lyrics that do not well match the stresses of the words to the rhythm of the tune. While this can lead to interesting musical effects, here it makes the piece seem disjointed in a similar fashion to the song MAXON by JAM Project, used as the opening to the series Super Robot Wars: The Inspectors. For a television theme, having a strong melodic flow is, I would say, important – one exception, however, being the pause before the chorus in the opening to Dirty Pair.

Being disjointed appears to be a theme within Horizon; after the credits, the action cuts away from the initial combatants to a gallery of grotesques locked in combat in bizarre pairs. There are two apparent duels going on; one between an obese puppet-like thing and a spellcaster controlling gravity, and one between an artist capable of bringing her drawings to life and an old woman. Ensemble fights in superhero fiction often end up with each member of the ensemble paired off against a villain or group of foes suited to them, in order to allow their powers to be shown off in detail – however, Horizon’s fights seem poorly-choreographed. This is perhaps because what is being shown is the resolution of events begun in the previous episode, but rather than giving the impression of the conclusion of a duel, the action begins at a point where the heroes have already won. While the artist-mage claims she is on the back foot, the action gives no sense of this; her opponent has one trick (firing magical crossbows) which she is capable of easily countering with her own magic. Simply repeating this back-and-forth does not build tension but instead undermines the attempts at creating it.

The revelation that the whole engagement has been the heroes stalling for time turns this dull stalemate into a victory of sorts, and the action returns to the initial protagonist. Yet again, the scenes move too quickly for there to be any kind of real feeling; he finds the woman he is supposed to rescue, realises that an impostor is trying to take her place, and pithily points this out in a scene that could have been comical within the course of a few seconds. Even their heartfelt reunion and awkward courtship feels rushed; the fast-paced decisive action is one thing (and could well have been played for dramatic effect) but the urgency carrying over to the dialogue robs it of any power it might have. A series of plot revelations follow in quick succession; that Mary has been forced to play out her own marriage and divorce time and again for show, that she is a bargaining-chip of some sort (and her double is implicated in this) and that the hero, predictably, loves her. That the dialogue keeps cutting to observers watching it and commenting on it via real-time web chat is a neat parodic touch – it is as if the series realises how contrived and artificial this whole sequence has been yet nothing is apparently made of this. The whole affair feels entirely like what is being watched is a show-within-a-show; the protagonists break the fourth wall via their web-chat and live commentary on the action, almost explaining why it is unsatisfying.

As this happens, the pace slows down in some fashion; the storyline of Mary and her rescuer is concluded in an entirely predictable confession of love and kiss scene (although given how self-conscious the series has been proved to be, this is perhaps understandable). That this is then interrupted by Mary’s double overturns once again what the viewer may have been expecting; she does not seem to be part of the stage-managed, live-blogged fight at first. However, the observers seem to have predicted even this; the whole scene has been a series of literary allusions and parodies as Mary produces Excalibur from its stone for the duel against her double. Such a bastardisation of myth and use of its trappings (Mary’s double turns out to be a liberal interpretation of the Faerie Queene of Spenser) plays more on the earnest artificiality of the whole. I mentioned in my article on fanfiction that one reason why people may appropriate existing characters is to impose their vision of them on the original work, and Horizon’s playing with recognisable names in a ridiculous context is a prime example. The observer characters, and even the main players themselves, are taking names and concepts from myth and making them theirs as tools in their own rivalries.

At this, the need for Mary’s escape becomes clear; an insular cycle of myth-recreation has been set up that perpetuates pointless fights for entertainment. Even when Mary is given the chance to escape the Fairy Queen’s power, she continues to be part of this bizarre cycle, earnestly promising in a lovers’ tone an inevitable future coup. The tropes of high fantasy – lost siblings, forbidden love, mythic weapons et al have all been appropriated into the playthings of a technologically advanced people.

All this, however, marks only the halfway point of the episode; the pace is breakneck, as I mentioned above, yet this has since been justified; it is the final act of an in-show entertainment and so the unities of time and place have been completely disregarded for the viewer. The action cuts to a fleet battle perhaps predictably called the “Spanish Armada,” with the same sense of bored inevitability alluded to; the battle ends with the destruction of the Spanish flagship, and the suggestion that all these events – like Mary and the Fairy Queen’s duel and reconciliation – have been played out again and again.

However, much as Mary’s elopement with the initial scene’s hero broke the cycle, the intercession of another figure, Juana, in the battle; it is no longer over when it clearly should be and the heroes of the series need to fix this. While the fighting so far has been an entertainment, it is now shown to also have some other significance; the Spanish fleet is breaking the “rules” of the setting.

What follows is a more carefully-paced fight in a more predictable style. Here, even without much context of what is going on, the course of the battle can be tracked easily, there are clearly-defined heroes and villains, and as a result the episode is more understandable. However, it is still unsatisfying; while the rushed and confusing opening lacked any lasting interest, it was curious – it had bizarre superheroes, a risque sense of humour and as a result was entertaining in a strange way. A more traditional battle of war robots and battleships, while easily understood, is quite dull in comparison. The spectacle feels more empty and meaningless because there is less implication of context there. It is a series of incidents which, until the very final one, could come from any superhero or science-fiction story, dressed in bizarre clothes.

The final revelation, however, is amusingly anticlimactic; the entire motivation for these bizarre battles and commodified wars is apparently just a lovers’ quarrel about an unfaithful husband. This sums Horizon up well; it is defined by anticlimaxes, unrewarding revelations and hinting at some kind of metaplot which never seems to be resolved or used for anything interesting. Perhaps this is purely because I watched it without context and had to make do with implication as an alternative, but whenever I felt I had a handle on its direction it would then in the most matter-of-fact way knock this assumption down. Had this happened once or twice, it would have been amusing; the final sequence on its own, with the episode’s closing line being “I had sex with [your husband]” in the backdrop of a massive warship battle, works well as an absurd denouement. However, the whole episode felt like a series of these moments and as a reasult each individual one felt immensely unsatisfying. And on top of all this, I don’t even think the mysteries it set up were compelling enough to make me want to watch more.

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2 comments

  1. Pingback: Horizon on Tits II: The Eleventh Hour | GAR GAR Stegosaurus
  2. dm00

    You’ve walked into a conversation that’s been going on for hours and mistaken talk about meaning for talk about the menu.

    Your mistake is actually kind of charming when viewed as a metaphor for one of the threads in Horizon’s tangled tapestry of a plot: there, a substantial part of the world has mistaken a contextless mishmash of history and literature for a holy scripture and a plan for “salvation”.

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