Exosquad is an American animated television series created by Universal Cartoon Studios as a response to Japanese anime. The show is set in the beginning of the 22nd century and covers the interplanetary war between humanity and Neosapiens, a fictional race artificially created as workers/slaves for the Terrans. The narrative generally follows Able Squad, an elite Terran unit of mecha pilots, on their missions all over the Solar System, although other storylines are also abundant. The series ran for two complete seasons in syndication from 1993 to 1994, and was cancelled after one third-season episode had been produced. Reruns later aired on USA Network. The music from the show was used in the third season of the paranormal series Sightings as additional background score.
The series is set in the years 2119–2121 AD, several decades after humanity ("Terrans") has expanded its presence beyond Earth, terraforming and colonizing Venus and Mars. These three planets are "the Homeworlds", the core first of the Terran interplanetary state and later of Neosapien Commonwealth. Not all Terrans are affiliated with the Homeworlds, however: the Pirate Clans, descendants of Terran criminals exiled to the Outer Planets who live off looted Homeworlds' space freighters, are a major independent faction in the show. The first episode opens with the Earth Congress dispatching the entire Exofleet, humanity's space-based military, to counter the Pirate threat.
With war with the Pirate Clans looming, an uprising begins among the Neosapiens, an artificial humanoid race coexisting with Terrans. In the back-story, the Neosapiens were used primarily as slaves during the colonization of Mars and Venus and therefore have been engineered to be physically stronger and better adapted to hostile environments than humans. Their mistreatment by Terrans led to the First Neosapien Revolt fifty years before the series' begin, which was mercilessly crushed but had brought some positive changes into their lives. Still not content with his fate, the Neosapien Governor of Mars, Phaeton, sets a new insurrection, codenamed "Operation [Neosapien] Destiny", in motion as soon as the Exofleet leaves to chase after the Pirate Clans. The absence of the Exofleet is also a part of Phaeton's plan as it enables the Neosapiens' capture of the Homeworlds without much effort.
The two seasons that the series was on the air follow the progress of the Neosapien War, as seen through the eyes of Able Squad, an elite E-frame unit, composed of J.T. Marsh, Nara Burns, Maggie Weston, Kaz Takagi, Alec DeLeon, Rita Torres, Wolf Bronsky, and Marsala. Their exploits unfold against the backdrop of the ongoing war, as the squad participates in events often crucial to turning its tide. The show features a realistic outlook on war: many characters die in combat, military operations are carefully planned and reconnoitered in advance, and psychological effects of warfare are explored. For example, separate episodes detail Exofleet's reconnaissance of Venus prior to its recapture, the actual liberation, and the repulse of the first Neosapien reconquest attempt. Moreover, even after Venus is retaken by Terrans, several episodes deal with the remaining Venusian resistance and Neosapien forces who hid across Venus, refusing to surrender and awaiting reinforcements.
The second season draws to a close with the defeat of the Neosapiens and the liberation of Earth, but it ends with a cliffhanger suggesting that a third season would describe a war against a new alien race, and that the Terrans and the Neosapiens would be forced to ally with each other. However, the series was cancelled soon after the end of the second season so a third season was never made.
Exosquad features an ensemble cast that portrays eight members of the Able Squad.
- Lt. / Lt. Cmdr. J.T. Marsh (voiced by Robby Benson), the original leader of the Able Squad, is a responsible and capable officer respected by troopers and superiors alike.
- Lt. Nara Burns (Lisa Ann Beley) is the least experienced member of the team, whose parents died during the Neosapien assault on Venus. Her relationship with Marsala is a recurring theme in the series. After Marsh's promotion, Burns becomes the new squad leader.
- Lt. Margaret "Maggie" Weston (Teryl Rothery) is the field repair specialist of the squad. An introvert and a loner, she has a hidden crush on Alec DeLeon.
- Sgt. Rita Torres (Janyse Jaud). The second in command of the Able Squad and a perfect soldier, often juxtaposed to Wolf Bronsky. She has a soft spot for children and harbors intense hatred towards the Pirate Clans.
- Alec DeLeon (John Payne) is the intelligence and communication specialist. Of French origin, he is very intelligent and well-educated, making him J.T. Marsh's right-hand man.
- Wolf Bronsky (Michael Donovan) is the longest serving trooper in the Able Squad, a crack-shot and a slob. Despite his appearance, he has a heart of gold, knowledge of arts and is a very romantic person.
- Kaz Takagi (Michael Benyaer) is the other "rookie" of the team, besides Nara Burns, who respects all fellow members deeply but often causes them trouble. He especially regards Bronsky as his mentor, with all due consequences to his discipline.
- Marsala (Garry Chalk), one of the few Neosapiens serving in the Exofleet, is a complex character, who often makes insightful comments on the situation at hand. Over time, he develops a deep emotional attachment to Nara Burns. Throughout most of the series, he is seen as very stoic, often not getting the punchlines of jokes and remaining calm when provoked.
While the main focus of the show is on the Able Squad, individual episodes and story arcs are frequently dedicated to other characters as well. For example, the C5 Jumptroop Squadron, several Homeworlds Resistance cells, prominent Pirates, and high-ranking Neosapien officers are all given much screen time.
Exosquad had a very serious approach to the plot with several intertwined narrative threads and a number of characters displaying a full spectrum of human emotions, relationships and experiences, such as friendship, love, hatred, personal tragedies, treachery and taking responsibility for others. Michael Edens, the story writer and editor in the second season, credited the show's realism for much of its success. Prejudice and racism are recurring themes in the series, as both Terrans and Neosapiens are shown to harbor hatred and a sense of superiority towards each other. Interplanetary politics and space war typical for military science fiction were presented with an assumption of the fictional future history of the Solar System up to that point. The Able Squad's duties became more spread out as the second season unfolded, and there were separate story arcs on Mars, Venus, Earth, and in space. Espionage and intrigue were often featured instead of straightforward battles.
Will Meugniot, the executive producer of the series, once compared anime series Mobile Suit Gundam and Exosquad to the Pacific and the European Theaters of World War II, respectively. Michael Edens recalled in an interview that the plot was supposed to remind of the Second World War, too, for example with the Neosapien reconquest attempt of Venus, capture of the Moon and battle for Chicago paralleling the battles of the Bulge, Okinawa, and Berlin, respectively.
The series owes its title to the Exo-Frames (commonly referred as E-frames): multi-purpose mecha-like powered exoskeletons mostly utilized as armored combat vehicles or reinforced body armour by the characters.
The show was conceived in 1989 by Jeff Segal, who had been head writer and story editor of Challenge of the GoBots for Hanna-Barbera Productions prior to joining Universal as President of Universal Cartoon Studios. Segal intended to create another robotic boy-action property. The show was originally entitled Exoforce. It was modified in 1993 and the title was changed to Exosquad (as a result of a trademark conflict) when Playmates Toys made a deal for the Master Toy License. Segal receives "Created by" credit on the show, however Will Meugniot contributed immensely to the look and style of the show, and Michael Edens, as story editor, supervised development of episodic stories and helped to guide the story arc.
Exosquad was among the first animated series by Universal Animation Studios (then known as Universal Cartoon Studios) and was created under influence of anime imported from Japan. As a result, its complex story line covered a large number of topics from war through romance to genetic engineering and was able to appeal to a broad audience. Although the first season ran for only thirteen episodes in 1993, the rising popularity of the show allowed Universal to make the second one three times as long. In its second season, Exosquad was put together with another action series form Universal, Monster Force.
As the second season progressed, some characters, according to Michael Edens, "took on a life of [their] own": for example, Nara Burns killing Phaeton and the Neosapien Thrax becoming a major recurring character after his initial appearance were not pre-planned. Another character, Alec DeLeon, was supposed to perish in the destruction of Mars but the Universal executives strongly opposed it, so he was killed several episodes later, on the Moon, only to be promptly resurrected in a Neo Mega body.
The show was purportedly cancelled after 52 episodes because at that time, many independent production companies were being taken over by larger networks, who wanted to produce their own content. Exosquad was eventually moved to poor time slots, such as 4 a.m., until the ratings were no longer sufficient to sustain it. The final episode detailed the post-war political and social climate prevalent in the Exosquad universe, and closed with J.T. Marsh engaging a group of alien space vessels, whose exact nature was to be explained in the third season or a feature movie. Michael Edens later remarked that the staff originally planned the aliens to be insectoid and that the Pirates' dark matter, Dr. Ketzer's experiments, and the unactivated clone of Phaeton would have played a great role in fighting them. The idea of a movie based on Exosquad was being promoted by executive producer Jeff Segal, and it was also planned to expand the fictional universe with a spin-off series, then codenamed Exo-Pirates. Both initiatives were scrapped with the cancellation of the third season.
Media and franchise Edit
The first season of Exosquad was released on seven VHS cassettes shortly after its original run, and in 2007, it was made available on Hulu video on demand service. The complete second season was published on Hulu in February 2009. The first season has been made available on Zune Marketplace. Bootleg copies have been circulating through online stores. On December 23, 2008, Universal Studios Home Entertainment announced the 13 episodes comprising the first season of Exosquad would be published on DVD on April 14, 2009. It was released on the announced date as a two-disc set. Curiously, only three episodes in this set ("Seeds of Deception", "Resist", and "Betrayal") have the actual Season One opening; the other ten episodes are incorrectly shown with the Season Two opening.
Between 1993 and 1996, Playmates Toys produced a line of action figures and model kits of E-frames and spaceships featured in the television series. The descriptions of the toys are a major source of Exosquad universe lore. The toys were often compared to the popular Robotech franchise, and Playmates acquired the license to Robotech to produce both toy lines under the same label, spawning rumors of a possible crossover. This possibility was considered by the authors but later abandoned.
A Sega Genesis video game under the same title was developed by Appaloosa Interactive and published by Playmates in 1995. A comic book adaptation was published by Topps Comics in 1994. Additionally, an interactive movie book and a board game based on the series were released.
The critical reception of Exosquad was generally positive, as it was described as "no ordinary cartoon", "truly a superb piece of work", "a kind show that [one]’ll never forget",> and "one of the greatest anime epics ever made". Phil Summers of Shamoozal.com commented that while "the early 90s wasn't exactly the best time for cartoons", Exosquad was "one of the most underrated cartoon series of all time". Summers spoke highly of its "serious, ongoing storyline", complimenting the maturity of raised themes, and denoted the decision to cancel it despite the rising popularity as "weird". Likewise, Thomas Wheeler of MasterCollector.com described the abrupt ending as "a VERY frustrating cliff-hanger". Both Summers and Wheeler praised the quality of the toy line that accompanied the series. TG Moses of Evabeast.com pointed out that the two main strengths of Exosquad are its "phenomenal" story and its characters. Like Phil Summers, he complimented the mature themes (such as racism, religion, and politics), calling the show "thought provoking and inspiring" with "an incredible amount of depth" in it. Moses specifically praised the characterization of the Neosapien characters, which avoided "absolute good and evil" designations, and voice acting in the show, wherein he perceived it "better than everyone else". Both Will Meugniot and Michael Edens commented that Exosquad was the best show they have worked on.
Gord Lacey of TVShowsOnDVD.com reviewed the first season upon its DVD release and likewise praised the maturity and complexity of the show, which subverted his expectations. He criticized the occasionally blurry visuals and too quiet audio of the release, rating them both 7/10. Lacey named the absence of DVD extras as a possible source of disappointment for the fans of the show.