Sunday, 13 October 2013

Waiting for ReBoot

I almost don't want to write this post; it feels too much like tempting fate. What I'm about to talk about, and the feeling of hope that it brings, is still so ethereal and fragile that I fear just typing this might cause it to shatter. But that's silly and this is important, so I'll say it anyway:

ReBoot is coming back.

ReBoot - the world's first ever computer-generated cartoon, envelope-pushing pioneer of children's television, and one of the most unique shows of all time - is finally coming back!

It feels like I've spent my entire life waiting for it to return. And, in a funny way, I have.

When my brother and I first discovered ReBoot - very early on a weekend morning, over half-a-lifetime ago - it was already well into its second series. The first episode we ever saw was one called Painted Windows which, by some incredible twist of fate, is the exact point that it starts transforming from just a great cartoon into something truly special. It marks the change from separate episodes into one grand overarching story, which meant we were waiting with bated breath each week to see how things would resolve. Then, just a few episodes later, the series ended with what I still consider to be the mother of all cliffhangers.
It blew my impressionable young mind in a way that I'm not sure has ever been topped. In just the five or six episodes we'd seen, this whacky kids' show went from minor character conflicts to all out war, tore up the rulebook, and ended on the darkest note imaginable. I'd never seen anything like it.

I don't remember how long it was before they aired the next series - I just remember the waiting. When it did come back, it was even better. It was still the same fun and silly show, but now it had an edge, and it kept taking risks. Just when it seemed to have settled down into a new rhythm, it blew our minds all over again. In a move that wasn't just dark but outright brutal, ReBoot spun off in an entirely new and unexpected direction.
Then, just as things got really good, it vanished. Mid-series, without any warning, it just disappeared without a trace. Once again we found ourselves waiting for this cartoon to return.

We would be waiting for a long time. It wasn't until broadband came along, many years later, that we were able to track down the rest of the series - which never did air in Britain. For a few brief moments, after the intense and satisfying climax (and the incredible musical number that followed it) there was closure.
But it turned out they'd also made a direct-to-video fourth series that we hadn't known about. We immediately devoured that too, and it was brilliant. It wrapped up a bunch of threads from the earlier series, and gave us backstory and depth that we never realised we were missing - there was even some heartfelt redemption for certain characters. It was as smart and funny and dramatic as ever. Then, as a shocking third-act reveal drove the tension to boiling point... ReBoot suddenly ended.
Series four, like series two before it, ends on a truly enormous cliffhanger. That was a decade ago. And we've been waiting ever since.

This is actually the default state for any ReBoot fan. We waited week-to-week to watch the show evolve. We waited desperately to see what would happen after that first phenomenal cliffhanger. We in the UK waited in blind confusion after it was nixed mid-series by CITV. We waited for the internet to be invented before we could see the rest. And, for almost ten years since, we've waited, desperately, for any news at all.
From the very first moment I saw ReBoot, I've been waiting for more of it.

I'm not the only one, either. I was at New York ComicCon a few years ago and - as well as geeking out embarrassingly hard in front of Gavin Blair, one of the show's creators - I attended a ReBoot panel. Every single person in the line was surprised by how many other people were in the line - it wasn't huge, but it was much longer than the queue for a decade-old cancelled kids' show had any right to be. It was standing-room only, and the love in that place was palpable.
So what exactly did this cartoon do to earn such love? How did it make such a lasting impression on me after only four-and-a-half episodes (because we missed one)?

Partly it's down to creating such a unique and interesting world. ReBoot takes place inside a computer, in the digital city of Mainframe. It's like Tron, essentially, but far more subtle - we're never explicitly told that's what this setting is, and the characters are only semi-aware of it. But it's shown to us through design, names, terminology ("Alphanumeric!"), and the very mechanics of how this universe works. A lot of it seems heavy-handed now, but this was before computers were ubiquitous or even widely understood. It may have been for kids, but it trusted its audience to figure all this out without any hand-holding.

I knew and understood, for instance, that the main character, Bob, was an antivirus program before I even knew there was a word for that. Bob, along with Enzo Matrix and his sister Dot (see what they did there?), protect Mainframe from its resident viruses, Megabyte and Hexadecimal - two incredible and genuinely scary villains who really elevate the show. But as well as fighting viruses the heroes must also - and here's where it gets really interesting - fight against the User.
Games, as in computer-games, are a kind of natural disaster, with all the devastation that goes along with that. They descend upon Mainframe, swallowing anything in their path and, if the User wins, the results are catastrophic. Bob and the others function as the enemies in these Games, trying to prevent the User from winning and bringing ruin to the city.
That's an incredible concept if you think about it because it sets us, the viewer, as the ultimate enemy in this series. And it's not wrong - we've all killed countless thousands of digital characters. Even the word "User" is damning. That's pretty deep for a kids' show.

This mature attitude to its themes, and the non-condescending way it presents information, really set ReBoot apart from everything else I was watching at that age. When the story began to get more mature too - when the viruses turned from normal cartoon villainy to genuine evil, and Enzo went from idealistic child to revenge-driven hardass (not to mention getting cancelled for being too violent) - it really cemented itself as something amazing.

It's a combination, then, of a setting and story like nothing else, a willingness to take risks and push boundaries, and a refusal to talk down to its audience. I was roughly ten when I first saw it - my brother was even younger - and there was a real danger that we had idealised it with far too much nostalgia in the years since. But when we did rewatch it, far from not holding up, ReBoot was actually even better than we remembered. The story is still solid and well written, the characters are still great, and now we understood all the jokes and references to things like Evil Dead and Blues Brothers. It's not just a great kids' show, it's a great show.

Maybe this is coming off as a little pathetic - devoted to a show that's been dead far longer than it was ever alive; waiting for the conclusion to a cliffhanger that will never come. It's time to move on, surely. And maybe I, and every other ReBoot fan, could have come to terms with that by now, were it not for the constant reminders.
Rainmaker Entertainment, the studio that owns the series, has been teasing us for years with tiny scraps of hope, only to yank them away at the last moment. They were going to continue the series. Then they were going to (ironically enough) reboot the series. Then there were going to be some cinema-released movies. Then just TV movies. Then there was a fan-created webcomic that was official canon. Then it wasn't canon. Then there was a weird teaser trailer and a demo clip. Then there was silence.
This newest flicker of hope, the one that spawned this post, is just the latest in a long chain of promises and disappointments.

But this time feels... different. Instead of the usual trickle of hearsay and rumours, Rainmaker built up to this new announcement with an online campaign and the launch of a new website. It's a website plastered with imagery from the four original series, too, where previous announcements have used only the logo and occasional images of the city. Maybe even more encouraging is the news that Rainmaker are rebranding their television division as Mainframe Entertainment, the original name of the company when ReBoot was in production and, more importantly, the name of the show's main city. There seems to be a level of commitment this time that hasn't been there before.

Assuming that all goes well, and that Rainmaker don't break our hearts yet again, that leaves only one question: will this be a continuation from series four, or will they be starting from scratch? The wording of the press-release, such as "all-new" and "reimagining", seems to imply the latter - but that website, which launched by selling T-shirts to fans (because who else would buy them?) and touting images and characters from the cartoon's past, suggests otherwise.
I know it's premature, and I know that I should have learnt my lesson by now, but I just can't shake the feeling that this might actually be it. There may finally be a resolution to that eternal cliffhanger.

It's been twelve years since we prepared for the Hunt.
We have waited long enough.