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T.H.E.M. Episode 1.1, "Won't Get Foiled Again"

(For the perplexed.)

“Free will is a joke!”

Comic book caption box: “MIRACLE CITY, 2012 A.D.”

Miracle City at sunset, silhouetted against the Pacific Ocean and a flame-orange sky. Flying cars, and the occasional flying superhero, flit between the mile-high office-spires of the Overcity. Our show is sort of animated, sort of not, which is the only reason the FX budget doesn’t rival the national debt. I picture it looking like a cross between the Bruce Timm / DC Comics cartoons and the rotoscoping in A Scanner Darkly. Everything is drenched in lurid colors, like CGI Skittles.

On the soundtrack, we hear Y2K-era electronica and a rising cacophony of radio static and media chatter. Miracle City appears to be San Francisco, but ten times bigger, more futuristic and more vertical. As we pan down from the gleaming Overcity to Midtown, all neon lights and giant video billboards, the camera follows something: a tiny metallic insect, like a robotic wasp. This little insect glides on radio waves and wifi signals, circling down past Midtown to the grotty alleys of City Bottom and the Undercity below.

At City Bottom, an old vagrant with wild eyes and wilder beard pushes a shopping cart filled with electronic junk. “FREE WILL IS A JOKE!” he howls. He rants about time travel and mind control, alien insects and the 25th dimension. I’m sure none of that will prove to be important. The robotic wasp circles him once and then dive bombs—zot!—driving its stinger into the back of the old man’s neck. He stops his rant in mid-sentence. The wasp is Klaatu Dalek, brain roach from Dimension Y. The vagrant is his unwilling host, a former theoretical physicist who blew out his sanity doing 25-dimensional hypermathematics.

A pretty woman stops on the street. “I’m sorry—what were you just saying about the 25th dimension?” The vagrant—now controlled by Klaatu—is suddenly reticent. “Oh, oh, nothing. I’m a crazy person. Don’t pay any attention to me.” But the woman persists. She starts talking about her own work in Y-theory and hypermaths. (What are the odds?) She is wearing glasses, lab coat, a laminated badge that says “US LABS.” The vagrant / KD tries to cut the conversation short, but he/it is somehow drawn to this woman. He can’t resist correcting her science, casually dropping a suggestion that upends five centuries of higher mathematics, then escaping into a dark alley while her mind reels.

“So. You vant to be a zuperhero.” “Of course! Who would ever want to be anything else?”

In the dank basement of a seedy looking piercing parlor, strange medicine is afoot. An earnest corn-fed farmboy is handing over his life’s savings to a sultry villainess called Syringe. He wants to be a superhero; she promises to inject him with a nanoactive superserum. Her henchmen—two big generic thugs named Lenny and Karl—strap the big farmboy into a chair. We see that the wannabe hero is wearing a wire. It’s a sting! Just as farmboy starts realizing that anything Syringe injects him with is going to be Bad News, the white-clad superhero Paladin, paragon of justice, bursts through the door.

Paladin makes short work of Lenny and Karl, but Syringe is defiant. “I know people in high places,” she tells Paladin. He is unfazed. “I know exactly who you know, villain. Who do you think sent me to shut you down?” But Syringe has one more trick up her black rubber sleeves—she injects one of her thugs with a massive dose of the superserum. “Make yourself useful for once, Lenny,” she says. Before he can say “I’m Karl, actually” his eyes glow green, we hear wet ripping sounds, and screaming. With Paladin distracted if not dismembered, Syringe slips away into the sewers and the night.

“There are those who think that life is nothing left to chance...”

Title sequence! Kinetic panels of superhero action, with the credits popping onto the screen like comic book sound effect text: “Kristin Bell! Jackie Earle Haley!” Instead of “Biff! Krak! Pow!” The theme song is “Freewill” by Rush. I always thought Rush from that era sounded like supervillain music, all pompous, ridiculous, and awesome with its Ayn Randian lyrics and prog-rock guitars. We see characteristic action shots from each of our heroes—or should I say, our villains: Sidney Simmons, not-quite-evil genius and would-be supervillain. Carol Abbott, wayward daughter of superhero royalty. Karl Donovan, rapidly mutating ex-henchman. And Klaatu Dalek, mind-controlling insect from Dimension Y.

“I thought she was the one with the superpowers.”

A gala dinner at Centurions Manor, home to the greatest superteam of the 1970s and 80s. But the Centurions are being put out to pasture, for the dinner is the launch of US’s newest superteam, the multi-ethnic teen-friendly Generation Z.

We meet Carol Abbott, trapped here and bored silly by the speeches from umpteen corporate sponsors and partners. Carol gets cornered by her mother Barbara, formerly Foxfire, reminiscing about her big hair and teal spandex days. Barbara orders her daughter to harass the caterers, look for Simon (Temple, aka Paladin), and at least pretend to be enjoying herself. Carol declines. We also catch a glimpse of Carol’s grandmother Hilde, aka Valkyrie, looking Wagnerian, regal, and immense.

Carol slips out of the banquet, and stumbles upon a whispered conversation between Olivia Kane and Brian [arg, what was his last name?], aka Aggro. Olivia is a former friend of Carol’s. She’s also the daughter of US’s very old, very rich chairman and founder, George Algernon Kane. Brian is the boyfriend of Carol’s little sister Kelly. He’s also, clearly, a douchebag. As Carol watches unseen, Brian hits on Olivia. She shuts him down, but tells him with remarkable specificity when and where Generation Z’s first “gig” is going to be: preventing an armoured car heist on the Miracle Bridge a few days from now. Brian wants to know who the villain will be; Olivia tells him not to worry, they’ll be “strictly C list.” Brian hopes it won’t be some dweeby mad science type. “It could be a chick, like a sexy villain bitch,” he offers. “I got no problem hitting a chick.”

Carol makes some sort of strangled, rage-swallowing sound, and Olivia catches her eavesdropping. Carol plays it like she just thinks Brian was hitting on Olivia. The two old friends are cold to each other. Carol says, “I have to look out for my little sister.” Olivia says, “Do you? I thought she was the one with the superpowers...”

The dinner continues. With Paladin a no-show, Barbara introduces the seven members of Generation Z, among them Aggro and Arclight, Carol’s sister Kelly. Each member of the fresh-scrubbed superteam runs onto the stage and utters some witless slogan, but Aggro gets his lines wrong, and Kelly goes off script to announce that she and Brian are engaged. Carol crushes a champagne bottle in one hand.

“Everyone thinks I’m a Nazi, just because I’m German and spent the 1940s trying to take over the world.”

Across the bay from Miracle City are the dilapidated streets of Henchtown. There, in the basement of his father’s little house, Sidney Sheldon works into the night. The basement is covered with machinery, computers, and half-finished robots, hacked together from consumer electronics and junk. Sidney is planning a heist—an armoured car carrying the Trident of Lemuria, his father’s power source and signature weapon—at the very time and place given to Generation Z by Olivia Kane.

Sidney is surprised by a midnight visitor, an old man in an orange prison jumpsuit. It is the Golden Age supervillain Baron Ether, just now escaped after more than thirty years in the Block, Miracle City’s super-Alcatraz. Ether is disoriented, and keeps mistaking Sidney for his father Sheldon, the Silver Age villain Tidal Wave. A chip in Ether’s head scrambles his thoughts whenever he tries to conceive a plan. Ether rants about the way US is always one step ahead of him and all the beautiful schemes they have foiled over the years. He makes cryptic remarks about something called the Chaos Butterfly—the one thing, he says, that US cannot foresee.

Sidney calls on his confederates, who arrive through a secret tunnel in his basement—Klaatu Dalek, in crazy vagrant form, and Karl, grown huge and monstrous and crustacean-y from Syringe’s nanoserum. Because the chip in Baron Ether’s head prevents him from explaining anything in a straightforward way, Klaatu detaches from his regular host and enters the Baron’s mind. In a collage of memories from Baron Ether’s century of villainy, Klaatu learns the Baron’s deepest secret—that he has always been in love with his nemesis, the Valkyrie, and that he hid the Chaos Butterfly in her care somehow. Klaatu is also surprised to see that the US mind control technology seems derived from its own alien Hive.

“What’s the difference between us and them? The heroes always win. They always see us coming.”

Carol uses her superspeed and stealth to sneak into Olivia Kane’s office at US corporate headquarters. On Olivia’s computer, she finds a strange file detailing all the superhero-vs.-villain encounters for the month, including several that haven’t happened yet, like Generation Z’s defeat of the Kraken on Miracle Bridge. Olivia comes walking down the hall and Carol dives out the window, somewhere above the 300th floor.

Miracle Bridge runs above the old Golden Gate Bridge--twice as high, three times as wide, and much shinier. Sidney, Karl, and KD concoct a plan to rob the armoured car carrying the Trident of Lemuria. Baron Ether offers moral support but regrets he cannot really help in his condition. (Sidney doesn’t fully trust him anyway.) At the appointed hour, Karl, even larger and more hideous than before, appears on the bridge and rips out a section of roadway in front of the armoured car. Sidney’s Kraken suit—an old-style diving suit with robotic Cthulhu tentacles on the helmet—appears on the other end of the bridge, along with a pair of squid-like robots. And KD flies into the van in alien form, taking over one of the drivers.

Almost immediately, Generation Z is on the scene, Aggro (Brian) and Arclight (Kelly) roaring down the road on hoverbikes, the flier Epic and the speedster Zipper screaming across the surface of the bay. The Kraken’s tentacles knock Aggro and Arclight off their bikes. Karl picks up a police cruiser and is about to clobber both of them when he is struck dumb by his first look at Arclight--her beauty and her apparent revulsion at the monster he has become. Karl freezes, and Epic plows him off the bridge and into next week’s episode.

Just then Carol crashes the party in disguise. No miniskirt and bodysuit for her, she wears combat fatigues, a domino mask, and a revolutionary beret. Both sides of the fight assume she is with the other. She actually plays the middle, trying to protect Kelly without making it too obvious, but also taking the opportunity to deck Brian. She tries to talk to the Kraken, telling him, “You got set up!” But the Kraken suit is revealed to be empty—Sidney's down on the Golden Gate Bridge, operating the robot suit by remote control.

Inside the van, Klaatu-as-driver gets to the Trident and passes it off to the Kraken’s squiddy robots. They drop down off the bridge and bring Sidney his prize. Klaatu detaches from his host and flies away, unseen. Carol takes off too, into the sunset, leaving the kids of Generation Z pounding an empty diving suit and wondering what hit them.

“I have become a Zen criminal. I act in tiny increments, never conceiving a plan in whole. Tiny, random steps, each one calculated to minutely increase the probability of my escape, my victory, my revenge.”

A montage over electronic music takes us from sunset to night. We see a newscast about the heist and its mysterious perpetrators. An aerial shot shows the wreckage, the armoured van tipped over and a word burned into its side: THEM. We see Olivia Kane watching footage of the heist. She stops the video, rewinds and watches again, deep in concentration. We see Klaatu in his homeless host, pushing his shopping cart past US Labs and looking up at a lit window. We see Karl, looking sore and hunted, climbing down into a manhole. We see Carol in her bedroom, carefully stashing her mask and beret and going down to dinner with her family. We see Sidney, carrying the Trident of Lemuria down the stairs to his basement lab... and finding it completely empty, ransacked and stripped bare of all his electronics and equipment. We see Baron Ether walking down the street wearing Sheldon’s clothes, and  followed by one of Sidney’s robots, carrying all the loot and gear he has stolen from Sidney. The Baron smiles.

Next: Sidney gets his shot at the big leagues, egregious Speedos of the Silver Age, and the unbearable sadness of the water-themed supervillain, in "Help Me, My Aquatic Friends!"

Date: 2010-07-28 01:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] robotnik.livejournal.com
Thanks! How's your game going? I'm definitely feeling rusty - and also having to fight the urge to try to cram the game with every idea I've had in the last five years.

Date: 2010-07-28 02:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] shiffer.livejournal.com
The game's going surprisingly well! I feel rusty as hell, but the players all seem really excited and happy with the game, so I guess it's not as bad as it feels to me. And the opening shot of the game was a PC jumping out of an airplane while on fire. So far so good!

Content management has been a real issue. I've been working on this setting (on and off) for the last 6 years, and when it turned out that I'm actualy going to run a game (it was rather surprising) I took stock and discovered that I have way too much to make a coherent narrative. I had to make some hard decisions as to what makes it on screen.

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