Vox Machina (et alia)

Recently I watched the first season (twelve episodes) of a new Amazon Prime “original” series, The Legend of Vox Machina. I say “original” because Amazon didn’t originate it and, according to Wikipedia, the first ten episodes were funded by a Kickstarter campaign, so it seems Amazon didn’t really even pay for it.

On the other hand, by acquiring the rights and putting it on their streaming service, they allowed this animated series to be decidedly adult (which, in the USA, means over-the-top violence and gore with some bits of coy T&A because Americans wallow in blood and are scared to death of (yet obsessed with) sex… which is a weird definition of “adult” given it’s what I remember about being 12 years old).

That said, it has some good bits and nothing that really pissed me off.

It reminded me of the Amazon “original” series Invincible on two counts. Firstly, most obviously, because of all the bloody violence. Secondly, in being an alternate take on a well-established trope. On the other hand, I gave Invincible some props for its deconstruction of the superhero trope and high marks for its originality and freshness (such as when “Superman” brutally murders the rest of the “Justice League”).

Vox Machina didn’t seem very original (let alone deconstructive), but it was still fun to watch (not everything has to be cutting edge). After some reading on Wikipedia, I see why, though. The show descends from the Dungeons & Dragons culture, which has been around for quite some time (and has even more ancient antecedents).

In general, I think it’s hard to find a medieval fantasy story that isn’t derivative of Tolkien (although I can name a few, starting with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series). Full disclosure, I’ve never played, nor had any interest in playing, D&D. Role playing just isn’t my cup of tea. (I did sometimes, long ago, play Moria.)

The seven members of Vox Machina in deep, deep trouble.

Vox Machina began public life in 2015 as the web series Critical Role, in which professional voice actors play Dungeons & Dragons. What’s referred to as Campaign One consists of 115 episodes and features the group Vox Machina. The web series is rooted in an actual game of D&D done to celebrate Liam O’Brien’s birthday, and everyone had so much fun they kept playing. For two years.

Then they were approached about turning the game into a web series. Critical Role went on to campaigns two and three, with different parties in each and the latter apparently still airing. Meanwhile, in 2017, there began an irregularly published comic series, Vox Machina Origins, that has put out (only!) 15 issues and is apparently still extant.

Which is all to put the double-quotes around “original” Amazon series. (For that matter, Invincible is based on a 114 issue comic book series that ran from 2003–2018.)

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The above should not be taken as a complaint. It’s just history, but it does explain why I didn’t find The Legend of Vox Machina terribly fresh in terms of story. The general vibe has been around for almost half a century.

Which also should not be taken as (much of) a complaint. What matters is whether a story appeals and engages. While it didn’t set off fireworks for me, I did enjoy it, and it has some nice beats that I especially enjoyed. There are plenty of laughs and some very touching moments. Overall, I give it thumbs up and recommend it for those who like medieval fantasy and aren’t put off by language, violence, and gore.

One thing that especially redeems it is being animation rather than live-action. Animation provides a distance and a surreal nature that allows what is actually complete surreal nonsense to land better. The nature of such stories demands animation.

[We now have a canonical example of what I mean. The anime Cowboy Bebop is one of the best animated stories ever told. There are some anime movies that compare, but I can’t think of a TV series that touches it. The Netflix live-action version, though, immediately suffered from being live-action and got the quickly canceled fate it richly deserved. (I bailed after three episodes. Being live action by far wasn’t the only problem.)]

The members of Vox Machina (left to right): Percy de Rolo, Pike Trickfoot, Grog Strongjaw, Scanlon Shorthalt, Keyleth (of the Air Ashari), Vax’ildan Vessar, and Vex’ahlia Vessar.

The story involves a band of seven close-knit friends seeing adventure, wealth, and a good time. On the other hand, they’re a bit inexperienced and often mess things up. They’re prone to hard partying and getting into fights. Given their druthers, they’d rather be drinking.

The band consists of:

Percival “Percy” Fredrickstein Von Musel Klossowski de Rolo III (Taliesin Jaffe), human. He is the scion of Whitestone, but he barely escaped a takeover by the evil and magical Briarwoods in which his family was brutally murdered. He has vowed vengeance, especially for his sister. His weapon is a gun he invented (although there turns out to be a bit more to that story).

Vex’ahlia “Vex” Vessar (Laura Bailey). She’s a half-elf ranger who has studied dragons after her mother was killed by one. She also has vengeance in her heart towards that dragon. She is twin sister to Vax.

Vax’ildan “Vax” Vessar (Liam O’Brien, whose birthday party began all this). Vex’s twin-brother, a half-elf rogue. He’s the one that picks locks and sneaks around undetectably.

Pike Trickfoot (Ashley Johnson), a gnome and cleric of the goddess Everlight. Her arc regarding the conflict between her spiritual and adventuress natures was one of the story beats I especially enjoyed. She finds that what matters is who you are in your heart.

Scanlan Shorthalt (Sam Riegel), a horny mouthy gnome bard whose music is magical. He is often “the distraction” (although not always intentionally).

Keyleth of the Air Ashari (Marisha Ray), a half-elf druid currently on a personal quest to prove herself worthy of leadership of the Ashari. Events will test her resolve and abilities.

Grog Strongjaw (Travis Willingham), a goliath barbarian dumb as a bag of rocks and equally impervious. Definitely all brawn and no brains (but a heart of gold).

All-in-all, quite the merry band.

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The series consists of a short arc (first two episodes) that brings them to the attention of the leaders of the realm, Tal’Dorei. Their (surprising to everyone) success against a mysterious and very deadly foe earns them a place as the heroes of the realm.

But at a banquet meant as a celebration and meeting of other rulers kicks off an arc that covers the remaining ten episodes. It all begins when it turns out that two of the invited guests are the Briarwoods who murdered Percy’s family and took over Whitestone.

A fight between Vox Machina and the Briarwoods (who kick their ass and take their leave) gets the heroes in deep hot water with the rulers. The group is confined to their quarters, but all Percy can think about is going after the Briarwoods.

And, of course, they do, both for vengeance and to clear their names.

They also have a bear, although it doesn’t join them on missions.

The narrative follows the expected path without major surprises (although there is a small one that I won’t reveal). But it’s a pretty solid story with plenty of action for excitement and laughs for fun. (I very much prefer the leavening of humor in stuff like this. It brightens what would otherwise be too dark and depressing.)

There are the epic long-running battles familiar to anime fans, as well as some familiar anime animation tropes, especially regarding the characters’ suppressed romantic feelings. The foes they fight seem almost unbeatable, but the group manages to rally and find a way. And with only twelve episodes, the battles don’t run on as they do in some anime series (I’ve seen single battles that lasted ten episodes or more).

The language (which can be crude) is entirely modern as are many of the references. For example, when Scanlon hears that the group will be acting as rebels against the rule of the Briarwoods, he’s hopeful he can wear a beret (he even sings about it).

For another example, a spell that goes: “Disgusting mud and spit; turn into some healing shit!” This is not a show one can (or should) take too seriously.

With only twelve half-hour episodes, it’s not much of an investment, so I’d say it’s worth a try if you’re looking for something fun. If the first episode doesn’t grab you, though, the rest of the season won’t. For those who stick with it, be assured a second season is in the works (which is good considering the rather huge cliff they’re hanging off at the end).

§ §

Speaking of live-action shows, I tried Amazon’s The Wheel of Time, but bailed after two minutes. I could tell it was going to be one of those “woke” shows pushing THE MESSAGE, and I want no part of that.

There is a saying, “Get Woke, Go Broke,” which we’ve seen play out time and again (very recently with Doctor Who, a show that used to be a favorite of mine but which now I can hardly stand to watch).

Let me be as clear and specific as possible: This has absolutely nothing to do with the motivations for waking up to very real social problems. I’ve been onboard with that since the 1960s civil rights and feminist movements (and we have so far to go).

But when you corrupt art with politics, when your stories reek of it, you are turning out worthless pointless crap. The good stories, the ones people remember, are always the ones that burned in the storyteller’s heart, that demanded to be told. When politics and social messaging become part of the story, the story becomes a lecture, and lectures are boring.

§

It’ll be interesting to see how The Wheel of Time fares. It’ll be especially interesting to see how another Amazon attempt at social messaging fares, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. What I’ve been hearing isn’t good, and apparently there has been a huge fan backlash regarding the corruption of Tolkien’s great works.

The trailers have apparently been “ratioed” — getting far more Dislikes than Likes — and Amazon has been caught creating fake propaganda that attempts to promote the show.

While I’ve never been a huge fan of traditional medieval fantasy, I do have high regard for Tolkien’s work. As I mentioned above, most fantasy since derives from his work. I don’t quite have the level of umbrage the long-time fans do, but I stand with them.

I only hope the series goes the way of the live-action Cowboy Bebop, a quick death that sends its own message: Respect great art!

§ §

Stay respectful, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

11 responses to “Vox Machina (et alia)

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I could have left off the et alia part as the post got too long to mention Disenchantment, which just dropped a new set of episodes on Netflix. The show has been keeping my interest okay, but it’ll never be a fave. (Futurama, on the other hand, definitely is, and I enjoyed the Simpsons for many years (it’s gotten a bit long in the tooth now, though).

    A second season of Space Force also dropped on Netflix. So far, though, I’m just almost done re-watching the first season in preparation for watching the second. The show can be awfully stupid in places but has enough beats I like to keep me watching. I do like Steve Carrell and John Malkovich (along with the occasional appearance of Lisa Kudrow as Carrell’s incarcerated wife). OTOH, Ben Schwartz has always grated on my nerves. A lot.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I’m an outlier again. Apparently the second season of Space Force did better with critics, but I found it excruciating. The show is Idiot Clown humor (and frequently infantile), which I’m not a big fan of, and the idiocy was on full display here without the freshness of being a new show to mitigate it.

      The season silently drops some characters from season one, most notably Kelly (Jessica St. Clair), who played a love interest for Mark Naird (Steve Carell), and Duncan (Spencer House), who was a mild love interest for Erin (Diana Silvers), Naird’s daughter. Seeing those characters absent reminded me that they’d silently dropped the Russian “spy” Yuri (Alex Sparrow) somewhere in season one.

      The seven episodes of season two are very episodic, and there isn’t much of a seasonal arc. The cliffhanger from season one was, other than some flashbacks, silently resolved by the time season two begins (both the American and Chinese astronauts are already back). There’s a (rather lame, I thought) thread about PTSD-like issues Angela Ali (Tawny Newsome) has from the journey to the Moon, and little else to like about the season. I changed my rating on the show from a Thumbs Up to a Thumbs Down and removed it from my watch list. I’ll be surprised if there’s a season three and won’t care if it happens.

      I agree with the reviewer who said that the voice Carell uses for his character may go down in history as one of the dumbest character choices ever (the show actually lampshades it a bit).

      OTOH, John Malkovich is always fun (except that time he played Hercule Poirot), and — per my previous comment — the show actually presented a side of Tony Scarapiducci (Ben Schwartz) that didn’t make me want to kill his character immediately. (I wondered if Schwartz got tired of playing such idiot assholes and might have campaigned for a better character presentation.)

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Heh! Numerology: This is post #1212. 😀

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I’ve had my eye on Vox Machina, but wasn’t sure if I’d like it. Thanks. Good to know it’s entertaining. I see it has pretty good ratings, so a lot of people seem to enjoy it.

    I actually have played D&D, a few isolated sessions as a teenager, and then a prolonged campaign (7 years) in a group at work. I was never gung-ho about it. (The dungeon master of one of our earlier campaigns actually kicked me out for being insufficiently dedicated, but the DM for the 7 year one was more pragmatic.) For me it was more of a social event than anything, but some of the guys in our group really got into it.

    As you know, I didn’t care for the political preachiness in Doctor Who. But while Wheel of Time has a multiracial cast, I didn’t feel the same heavy handed messaging. The show wasn’t great (and it’s hard to believe they really spent the money they’re rumored to have on it), but I found it moderately entertaining. Although I know many of the book fans were pretty unhappy.

    I anticipate die-hard Tolkien fans will also be disappointed in The Rings of Power, although in this case, it seems like a relatively small group. Most people who read the books don’t read the appendices, or go on to read The Silmarillion. So for most it will be brand new material. Doesn’t mean it can’t be a big disappointment if they’re not careful.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I’m pretty sure you’d find Vox Machina entertaining, especially as you have some background with D&D.

      I don’t really remember the story from Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, mostly just that I bailed somewhere around book nine, in part because I thought book six (IIRC) was just filler in which nothing of import happened, and in part because I’d begun to find the whole thing tedious. So, I had no expectations going in. I believe strongly that the first moments of a story reflect both the storyteller’s chance to involve us and set a keynote for the story. When it starts with a photogenic chase of Random Dude by a bunch of Random Women on horses (how was that even a chase? slow horses?) that ends when one Random Woman suddenly realizes she has magic powers she can use to block the chase (I was already SMH), and then the first words out of her mouth have to do with how men corrupt everything,… that was more than enough for me. It follows what’s become an unfortunate trend that elevates, and often masculinizes, women while denigrating men, which just isn’t necessary (or helpful socially; in fact, it’s polarizing). Stories can, and must, depict strong, capable women, but there’s nothing wrong with strong, capable men, either.

      Don’t know what’ll happen with the Tolkien TV show. The articles and YouTube videos I’ve seen suggest a strong enough of a backlash to have put Amazon back on its heels a bit. The people they’ve used to promote the show in response have been strong along the intersectional inclusivity vector and have stressed those values but haven’t said much about the quality of the story. If the show’s best feature is that the LGBTPOC will embrace it,… well, they can have my share, too.

      All that said, as I’ve said often, I’m really not that into straight medieval fantasy, especially when it takes itself so seriously (which was one complaint I had about Game of Thrones). Maybe if TWoT show had taken some time to let me know who the characters were and what the stakes were, but if that opening scene is putting their best foot forward,… then Meh! Plenty of other fish in the sea!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Wow, that was a shock — the first really good episode (S33E12, Pixelated and Afraid) of The Simpsons I can recall in a good long time. It was tight, well-constructed, and very endearing. What a nice way to start the evening’s viewing!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I finally got around to watching Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? While not my favorite kind of anime (it’s medieval fantasy and very, very Shonen), it’s cute and light-hearted. The background concept reminds me a bit of (the computer game) Moria — descend into a dungeon with many levels and fight monsters that become more and more powerful and numerous as one goes further and further down.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      As is almost always the case with Japanese anime, as we get deeper into the story it shows amazing depth and character. I find I’m very over typical action movies and superheroes (at least those that take themselves seriously), but anime continues to deliver superior storytelling. And as I’ve said before, one key seems to be animation versus live action. The former fits the mode, but live action reveals what preposterous nonsense superheroes (and empty action movies) really are.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    A SF-loving friend of mine told me he’d been really enjoying watching the 1999–2003 Australian-American science fiction TV series, Farscape.

    His description sounded intriguing enough that I looked for it on my streaming services… Netflix… nope; Hulu… nope; but Amazon Prime… yes! All four seasons. Remastered! (They also have the three-hour miniseries, Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars (2004), which apparently wraps up a cliffhanger from the end of season four. (Unfortunately, that one isn’t free for Prime viewers.)

    It has both humor and heart. It reminds me somewhat of a cross between early Doctor Who and Babylon 5. Jim Henson Television is associated with the show, so some of the aliens aren’t the usual humanoid-with-bits-pasted-on-their-faces that we got used to in Star Trek.

    I’ve only seen the first two episodes so far, but I’m hooked!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Huh. Of all my posts this year, this is the most ignored. Only seven page hits!

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