Ep. #2ORIGINAL AIR DATE: Nov. 4th, 2013
SONG: Yes, “Let Me Drive My Van (Into Your Heart)"
SYNOPSIS: An ominous Red Eye arrives above Beach City and the only way to destroy it is to use Rose Quartz's cannon, but where could it be?
My response to Steven Universe's introductory episode was lukewarm. Nothing about it set itself up as a gold standard for western animation at the time. I did walk away from ”Laser Light Cannon” with a different feeling from what I usually get from other toons currently airing and that bit of subtlety ultimately worked in its favor, producing a series that would eventually stand out on its own. What do I mean? Let's find out.
It's sundown on Beach City and the local fries joint is closing up. Steven and Amethyst rush in at the last minute and playfully demand the owner, Mr. Fryman, to fork over “the bits.” Fryman complies and the two walk home with leftover fries. Fun time is over when Steven spots a giant circle floating in the sky. Amethyst recognize this as bad news and takes the boy to Garnet and Pearl who have also spotted the ominous object. The circle appears to be some kind of giant, mechanic red eye called the, er, Red Eye. Steven is in awe, but the Crystal Gems know this is not good news as it will crash down and destroy everything. The only way to stop a Red Eye is Rose Quartz's light cannon, except with Rose gone, who knows where it is?
Ahhh, Rose Quartz. This is our first mention of the former Crystal Gem leader. She'll continue to be a revered figure for Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl; the three constantly speak proudly and lovingly of their former comrade. Steven grew up listening to these tales and have spent his entire life recognizing his mother as a wondrous figure. Sporting his mother's gem on his belly, Steven has a lot of her legacy to live up to. Even in death, her weapon is the only solution to stopping the Red Eye. Fortunately, Steven has an idea: ask his father, Greg Universe, for its whereabouts.
The other Crystal Gems are less than enthused to rely on Greg. As Amethyst stated, Greg is kind of a mess. They think he might have misplaced or somehow broke the cannon, but Steven has a little more faith in his father. Besides, Garnet's plan can only do so much: tossing Amethyst to the Red Eye.
Greg is a character I didn't appreciate at the beginning of the show. At first glance, he fit the mold of every father or paternal figure associated with western animation: lazy, incompetent, and stupid. The way the Crystal Gems talk about him is one thing, but his first meeting doesn't do well to brush off these allegations: the man lives in his own van and owns a failing car wash. He looks sloven and out of his elements. Greg only knows so much of the "magic stuff" the Crystal Gem possess and the latter group explicitly told him to keep out of it, which is why Steven lives with the Gems when it came time to complete his training, but not Greg. Course, being literal walking distances from each other, it's not like the two are separated. But you get this dreadful feeling that this man looks, sounds, and acts like a deadbeat dad; a loser who knows or seems to understand so little of his son's life that it's easy to assume he'll fit his particular stereotype and be portrayed as a negative influence in Steven's life. Course, books shouldn't be judged by its cover: I'll talk about Greg as the episodes progresses, but know that he's better than he sounds.
Not that “Laser Light Cannon” doesn't attempt his goodhearted nature right off the bat. It's clear he and Steven have a good relationship; Greg is soft-spoken, kind, and humbled. His gentle nature provides a clear explanation on Steven's own jovial personality and kindness and that it's not just a trait he got from his mother. Steven tells his father that the Gems needs Rose's light cannon to stop the Red Eye. Greg isn't sure if he still has it, but his storage might. Steven maneuvers through the tightly packed room, pointing out various artifacts and old materials Greg used to own. The latter reminisces, especially his time with Rose. Prior to their involvement, Greg was a one-man band that traveled across the country with his music, even if he wasn't a very successful one. He met Rose in Beach City and stayed there ever since. He's still not sure how a woman like her fell for a guy like him, but it's clear their memories were very happy ones. The most important information is that Rose “gave up her physical form” so Steven could be born. This isn't a censorship of the word “die”, but a particular structure of Gem biology that's specifically never happened before. The mystery behind this meaning has been the subject of debate among fans, ranging from “Oh, she's just hiding” to “Maybe Steven has the potential to shapeshift back to Rose” and so forth.
This scene is one of those moments when I realized Steven Universe was unique enough to set itself apart from the rest: it's an exceptionally peaceful and calm scene. Steven Universe relies heavily on shojo genre and setpieces as well as a bigger focus on slice-of-life. Compare this to Adventure Time, a show starring a boy that focuses heavily on epic adventures and a feeling that yes, you are a kid who can have fun, super cool quests. Not that AT hasn't had its introspective pieces, but it's much more enthusiastic and bursting with boyish energy than Steven Universe's mediative methods. There is a looming giant Red Eye floating in the sky that can spell doom and time is of the essence, yet Steven's bonding moment with Greg is treated in the most optimistically serene manner possible. The candy-pop music and beautiful pastel coloring further evokes the soft tone it's going for. There's something amazing about seeing an American cartoon that uses this style, especially in spite of what's happening right now. A typical western cartoon with this at stake would be intense and fueled with action; Steven Universe makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside by emphasizing character interaction and non-violent behaviors.
Steven finds the cannon, but getting to the Crystal Gems is an endurance test of its own: too heavy for the van, they have to drag the thing on a red wagon (which ends up broken down by the sheer weight of the thing.) The Crystal Gems, needless to say, are shocked Greg actually had it. This part of the scene is also why “Laser Light Cannon” resonated more with me than “Gem Glow”, its use of music and song which will be an integrated part of the show. Steven puts on his father's old CD, an embarrassing, but no less affectionate track Greg clearly made for Rose. “Let Me Drive My Van (Into Your Heart)" plays even as the Red Eye looms closer, dragging anything within its gravitational pull. Steven tries to activate the cannon. Encouragement from his father causes Steven's gem to finally glow and get the old weapon working. The Crystal Gems and Steven aim, shooting off the most fanciest laser beams ever to burst out of a cannon. It works and the Red Eye is defeated, its chunks landing all over Beach City...but at least its safe!
Greg's single deliver of the line, “Rose” as he's wipes away a tear is equally sublime in execution, representing his undying love for her in a single word. “Laser Light Cannon” properly introduces Rose Quartz and everyone's relationship with her. Like “Gem Glow”, they feel innocuous, but later episodes prove how much this one set the template for Rose's prominence, even in death. In spite of her passing, she will continue to leave an incredible mark - for good or ill - with the main cast.
“Laser Light Cannon” was not enough to convince me Steven Universe would be worth it right away, but it was a very early sign of its potential. It promised danger and outside conflicts for our heroes to solve, but it also balanced itself with sentimental moments where characters relaxed and talked about their lives and feelings. It wasn't always going to be about magical powers and otherworldly presences, it was always about the emotional core. It'll take time for this to really hit its peak, but hey, If every pork chop was perfect, we wouldn't have hot dogs.