Category Archives: Retro Television

Classic vs. Cult-Classic: Defining Cowboy Bebop’s Pop Culture Status

A space opera, a noir, and a western walk into a bar. There is no punchline for this joke, but it’s the best way I can describe Cowboy Bebop. Episodic, as whimsical as it is serious, and surprisingly diverse in the background, Cowboy Bebop premiered in North America on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block and went on to inspire a generation. I hear it mentioned in the background radiation of my life and it makes me wonder, is Cowboy Bebop a classic or a cult-classic?

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screenshot via opening sequence

Defining A Classic

There is no official governing body that attaches the “classic” moniker to archived media. Reviewers may refer to titles as a classic. Media companies will slap the label on the most popular or oldest titles in their archives. This system seems to encourage interpretation and debate, which is fine. I am up for a good debate (as long as I get to speak in essay format). But investors and consumers and retailers want solid numbers. They want to know where a title should be sorted. In the instance of Cowboy Bebop, it fits under three: Science Fiction, Anime, and Animation. But its age also puts it where other old titles are shelved: Classics.

Classic does not always mean old. There are plenty of old television shows I have never heard of before or know very little about. There are also a plethora of shows that have permeated pop culture to the point of universal recognition: Seinfeld, I Love Lucy, and Friends are a few I can name off the top of my head. Looking for shows that are more than sitcoms? Star Trek: Original, Dragnet, and Baywatch are a few others.

Cowboy Bebop has also permeated pop culture in its own way. The question is whether people unfamiliar with Toonami or anime know what Cowboy Bebop is about.

Cult-Classic vs. Classic

The definition of a cult-classic is another term that lacks an official designation. The Oxford Dictionary and Urban Dictionary say the same thing, but is the size of an audience the only criterion separating a classic from a cult-classic? The Rocky Horror Picture Show is perhaps the most famous cult-classic on the market, but wouldn’t its notoriety slide it into the “classic” category? Or is there something missing from the equation?

Marriam-Webster’s first definition of classic is “serving as a standard of excellence.” So an “official” classic should be quality work. Right? The problem is that quality in art is subjective. My favorite movie is Speed Racer but, according to a couple friends of mine, Speed Racer is an unfortunate waste of money. (Somehow, this is not a major strain on our friendship).

The defining trait of a cult-classic is how many people know of it and how much they love it. They tend to be movies that had a short time in the limelight but have since fallen into obscurity: Brave New WorldFirefly, and Pacific Rim are a handful I can name off the top of my head. Anything that attracts a niche audience and requiring a specific cerebral mindset to understand can also be criterion for identifying a cult-classic.

Anime is a medium with a niche audience in North America. I hate to admit this, but I am now one of those older fans. I came of age when Toonami was an after-school television block and LiveJournal was the place for online fandoms. The business model behind Crunchyroll became lucrative when I was in university. Which is to say, there is a generation of anime-watchers younger than myself and I have no idea if they know what Cowboy Bebop even is. Do they know Toonami’s contribution to the anime industry outside of Japan? Did they also have a five-year gap in their anime-watching habits, only to be reintroduced to the genre with the premiere of Attack on Titan?

 

I believe Cowboy Bebop had its space in the limelight and now sits nestled in nostalgia-land for a lot of its fans, which makes its audience smaller than anticipated. For me, this labels it as a cult-classic.

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screenshot via opening sequence

The Real Folk Blues

I asked fellow Potted Lid writers Basil and Dame Uta their opinion on Cowboy Bebop’s status as a classic or a cult-classic. Both labeled Bebop as a classic. Despite our differing views, they are opinions formed from anecdotal evidence. And it’s hard to draw serious conclusions from anecdotes, which is why I need some solid evidence about the reputation Cowboy Bebop has among the masses.

If you have a minute to spare, please take this survey I created to help me out. I’ll post the results once I acquire 100 responses. Please share to everyone you know because I want to know how far-reaching this little show is to the rest of the world.

Thanks!

The Lost Potential of Firefly: Knowingly Adding Nothing to the Discussion of this Cult Classic

Firefly details the misadventures, both legal and illegal, of the cargo ship Serenity and its crew as they avoid detection from the bureaucratic Alliance and earn a living doing odd jobs on the intergalactic frontier. Firefly was originally released in 2002, fifteen years ago, thus putting it into the “retro television” category albeit just barely. Regardless, Imma write about it. Fight me. (Spoilers Ahead)

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Siblings River and Simon Tam. Screenshot from the pilot episode “Serenity”

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Stargate SG-1 Seasons 1 and 2

In a dusty storage room underneath Cheyenne Mountain, a group of soldiers dodging patrol play a game of poker. They are the unsuspecting victims of Jaffa from the alien warlord Apophys who captures one of the soldiers and injure the others. An investigation of the incident leads to the restarting of the stargate program. A hastily assembled team including Colonel O’Neill and Captain Carter goes through the stargate back to Abydos to retrieve Daniel Jackson (from the movie Stargate) and locate where the mysterious invaders came from. Thus begins Stargate SG-1, a military science fiction adventure you can probably watch with your kids at this point.

Seasons 1 and 2 introduce and explore three themes: SG-1 vs the world, the nature of godhood, and Earth’s place among the stars.

SG-1 vs The World

Several episodes in season 1 require SG-1 to rely on no one but themselves to solve a problem or save a planet or rescue a friend: “Fire and Water” and “Cor-ai” and “Tin Man” are notable examples. A few episodes at the beginning of the series play with this theme, but the characters’ relationships to each other lack the foundation they have later on the series. The turning point is “Fire and Water” which is the first time Daniel Jackson is believed to be dead and actually isn’t. While the team struggle to accept his death on Earth, Jackson is interrogated by an amphibious alien who lost his lover in Babylon a couple thousand years ago. SG-1 recovers their memories and goes to rescue Jackson.

Perhaps the most telling is the episode “Within the Serpent’s Grasp” which is the big finale finish for the opening season. SG-1 boards an invading Goa’uld ship with the intent to destroy it only to meet obstacle after obstacle. And with the stargate program closed down, there is no hope of back up coming to their rescue.

The “us vs them” mentality prominent in the first season disperses in the second. SG-1 becomes the flagship team of Stargate Command with all the support of the United States government at their backs (on most occasions). While SG-1 is on their own for a couple episodes, there is no longer the looming threat that the entire world is against them. Stargate SG-1 lost some of its charm with that switch.

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Screencap from Season 1 Episode 2 “Children of the Gods Part 2”

The Nature of Gods

The first season introduced multiple societies that mistook SG-1 as gods. SG-1 always waved off these comments by saying they were regular humans like the people they visit, and I really hoped the writers would have gone further with that sort of interaction. What if a society didn’t believe SG-1? What if SG-1 were unwillingly worshiped by a village? Sadly, I may never get this episode.

The second season fixes these problems by not introducing a society that believes them gods in the first place. In this way, travel via stargate is normalized; SG-1 is no longer rehashing the same sentiments in every episode for the viewers that may have missed last week. Additionally, the Goa’uld are believed more and more frequently to be false gods, and this paves the road for the larger rebellion against the Goa’uld System Lords. As emerging technologies prove the Goa’uld System Lords can be defeated, Stargate Command’s mentality shifts from “The Goa’uld Can Be Defeated by Sheer Dumb Luck and More Luck” to “Defeating the Goa’uld Is Challenging But Not Impossible.” This is enough for the viewers (i.e. me) to believe that the Goa’uld’s downfall is inevitable.

So where the first season sets up that SG-1 are not indeed divine, the second season sets up the imminent fall of the greatest threat to humanity.

Earth’s Place Among the Stars

In season 1, SG-1 encounters two societies with technology more advanced than them and hears about an additional four. Those two societies are the Nox, who refuse to use violence even in self defense, and the Tollans, who kept their technology a secret so as not to repeat a sin in their recent past. Both the Tollans and Nox refuse to share their knowledge with SG-1 because Earth is still so very young and foolhardy.

The four other societies were introduced in the episode “The Torment of Tantalus” wherein SG-1 encounters what may have been a meeting place of four different races to form an alliance. One of these races is the Asgard whom SG-1 meets in season 2. While the Asgard have not directly shared technology with SG-1, they do share information in the episode “The Fifth Race.” O’Neill learns that the Asgard were one of the races of an alliance called The Four Races which included the Asgard, the Nox, the Furlings, and the Ancients who built the stargate system. At the end of the episode, one of the Asgard tells O’Neill that the humans of Earth have taken their first steps to becoming the Fifth Race of this alliance.

Which means, if this development keeps going, that Stargate Command might become a mecca of alien life in the later seasons. There is much potential!

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Screenshot from Season 2 Episode 5 “Need”

Bonus: The Many Deaths of Daniel Jackson

Daniel Jackson is the most prone to odd happenings as a result of his curiosity. Therefore, he’s the most likely to have near death experiences. Or rather, several experiences wherein he was supposed to have died but didn’t. Let’s recap everything in seasons 1 and 2 (out of a total of ten seasons):

  • On Abydos in the original movie Stargate, Jackson volunteers to be left behind to study the ruins on Abydos and is reported as dead so no one attempts to look for him. He’s revealed to be alive in the pilot “Children of the Gods.”
  • Jackson is kidnapped by an amphibious alien because he could read cuneiform and therefore knew the location of the alien’s lover. The rest of SG-1 was sent back with foggy memories of Jackson’s death but he reveals himself to be alive at the end of the episode. (Season 1, “Fire and Water”)
  • Jackson is sent into an alternate timeline where his alternate self is dead and he must convince his friends’ alternatives to let him return to his reality/dimension. (Season 1, “There but for the Grace of God”)
  • Jackson is fatally shot in the stomach on board a Goa’uld invader ship, revives himself in a Goa’uld sarcophagus, and then narrowly avoids the C4 bombs that destroy the ships. (Season 2 “The Serpent’s Lair”)
  • Jackson is covered by a cave in inside a mineshaft and revived using a sarcophagus stolen from the Goa’uld. He later gets addicted to it. (Season 2, “Need”)
  • Jackson unwillingly switches bodies with a rebellion leader named Marcello and spends a whole episode in a dying body while his teammates try to convince Marcello to switch back. (Season 2, “Holiday”)

So we’re averaging about three near deaths a season. Which means the show is going to eventually make a meta commentary and/or running gag. Fingers crossed, y’all!

*Morike recaps Stargate SG-1 on her personal blog KT’s Bookshelf. Check her out for more commentary on intergalactic adventures!