Sentries of the Last Cosmos

  Fans of a video game are recruited into a gang by its designer.
  Original Airdate: May 6, 2000
  Episode # 37
  Rating: * *

Credits Cast

Written by John Shirley and Rich Fogel
Directed by Dan Riba
Music by Kristopher Carter
Animation by Koko/Dong Yang

Will Friedle as Terry McGinnis
Kevin Conroy as Bruce Wayne
Cree Summer as Max Gibson
Chris Demetral as Corey

Seth Green as Dempsey
Patton Oswalt as Eldon Michaels
Tristan Rogers as Simon Harper
Alex Thomas Jr. as Barfid

Okay, you and I are fanboys, right? I mean, obviously I am, or I wouldn't have this web-site. And the fact that you're here is a pretty good indication that you are too. Go ahead, say it out loud—it's nothing to be ashamed of. "I am a fanboy." There now. Doesn't good, honest self-confession leave you feeling better?

Now lean closer while we exchange further confidences. You don't like "Sentries of the Last Cosmos" much, do you? Of course, you've probably been outspokenly honest with this opinion elsewhere. Which is fine, too—the typical fanboy is almost offensively honest about his dislikes. But have you been honest with yourself (never mind with others) about why you don't like it? Probably you've said it was poorly animated (true), with lackluster designs (also true), and was far too derivative of Star Wars (gawd, how true). But I'm asking you to admit to the deep, dark fact of the matter. (You can whisper it, if you like, because it's an embarrassing admission to have to make.) You don't like it because. . . it makes fun of fanboys.

Stings, doesn't it? Fanboys may know the words to every Monty Python routine (I've been busy teaching them to my little friend Eric the Half-Bee), but about themselves they are famously humorless. Oops, that's another hurtful confession, isn't it? I mean, we laugh at Comic Book Guy, and Doug and his friends on The Simpsons. But c'mon, it hurts a little, doesn't it, to see ourselves skewered so perfectly? We can't say we don't like The Simpsons, because it is so obviously the work of genius. But "Sentries," as noted, is not genius, and so we can safely deliver that devastating old standby: "Worst episode ever!" I only ask that we be honest about our reasons for hating it.

Now, I've made a big deal about honesty here because it's a lack of honesty is that is the fatal flaw in "Sentries." Though the episode is full of contempt for fanboys, it refuses to admit this fact and even panders to them as it denigrates them. Unsparing self-honesty is good for the soul, but it is a positve necessity if a satire like this is to be successful.

Satire works by diminishing its characters, by revealing their weaknesses in pitiless detail. And none of the characters in "Sentries" emerges with any credit. Not Simon Harper, the greedy, backstabbing businessman and exploiter of fanboys dreams; nor Eldon Michaels, the sloppy, übergeeky creator of the "Sentries of the Last Cosmos" videogame; not least, the stupefyingly credulous Corey and his pals—slack-jawed gameplayers whose inability to distinguish fantasy from reality would be poignant in a Spellbinder episode, but which here is merely pathetic.

The problem is not that the characterization of Corey and his fellow fanboys is fundamentally inaccurate, or that it's too easy and stereotypical. If we're going to be honest with and about ourselves, we must admit that there are grounds for this kind of caricature. But the implication of this caricature is that there's something wrong with the deep identification Corey feels for the game; anyone who can be so easily led astray, we feel, is already probably lost. That, at any rate, is the point of the revelation that he and his companions were taken in by a clever criminal, and presumably that is what Corey and his pals should have taken away from that revelation, too.

So why in the name of Yoda and all that is Jedi do they seek out Eldon Michaels at the end of the episode? Clearly because, having wasted their time sitting worshipfully at the feet of a false "Wise One" they are now ready to sit worshipfully at the feet of a true one. But wasn't the lesson that they shouldn't be sitting worshipfully at the feet of any "Wise One"? The body of the plot made them out to be thundering nitwits; since they emerge from that adventure none the wiser, the seeming implication is that their obsession with "Sentries" has permanently blighted their intelligence.

Well, maybe it has, and it would be an interesting (and mordant) satire that argued it was so. Instead, this one panders to its targets by granting the benighted Corey and his companions their wet dream—direct and unimpeded access to the creator of their obsession—and dishonestly pretends that this is a happy ending. It's as if Spellbinder's victims in "Hooked Up," once freed from his illusions, had eagerly returned to lap up more of them, and as if we were encouraged to be pleased with this turn.

The dishonesty here is of a piece with the episode's dishonest treatment of the villain. Simon Harper is a businessman, the financier who backed Michaels' game and then got stickyfingered with Michaels' credit and share of the profits. The plot of "Sentries" here mirrors not Star Wars but Tron, yet it takes a more complicated view of the villain than does the Disney movie. There, Dillinger cared only for money and power and nothing for the games and programs he lifted; were he transported into the grid he would certainly be mortified to find himself doubled as MCP's "Sark" sidekick. But in "Sentries" Harper revels in the game's gadgets and mythology and takes genuine pleasure in playing "Wise One" to his pawns—at least as much pleasure as Corey takes in being a pawn. So at the end, to Terry's query about Harper's motives, Wayne cannily observes that "It's not easy giving up being a god."

But let's think through the implications here: It's not the cashflow that moves Harper, but the ownership; he lusts not for the wealth the game generates, but the glory of being able to say, "This is mine." As much as Corey, then, Harper loves the "Sentries" universe; as much as Corey, he wants to be part of it, and to play a role within it. But we should recognize that this is not a businessman's attitude. It's the attitude—and this is going to hurt to hear—of a fanboy.

Such a claim won't be welcome to the fanboys out there who think of themselves as the artists' natural ally against the mercenary corporations that finance them. But a moneyman doesn't care about credit and artistic authorship; if he interferes with the product it is for solid capitalistic reasons (audience appeal and the like) and is therefore likely to be relatively unintrusive as long as he trusts those doing the actual creating. (Though the chances are he doesn't trust them very far at all.) But the mogul who genuinely loves the property, and who tries to mix his own labor into it, is acting like a fan, and is using his position to act out the fanboy's dream of contributing to the fantasy universe he loves. In doing so, he tyrannizes the artist-author as a rival god-creator, and will eventually find himself drawn to the fanboy's ultimate solution: Eliminate the artist-author altogether and assume ownership and authorship of the created universe for himself—just as Harper does.

Only a businessman-fanboy would be in a position to act out this lunatic desire (as the Adam West fanboy chairman of Warner Bros. did as he gradually imposed a campy sensibility on the movie series). But the impulse is easily recognizable in the phenomena of fan-fiction and in those fiercely sectarian quarrels about what aspects of a fantasy universe are "canonical." The former represents the fanboy's attempt to add something of his own to the fantasy and thereby make it a little bit his own, and it is a (mostly) benign impulse because it adds to the whole. Not so the latter, which amputates whole chunks off. Fanboy attempts to deny authoritative status to certain parts of the fantasy universe (assertions, for example, that Batmite or Ace the Bathound is not "really" part of the Batman universe) are entirely disruptive and dictatorial and trespass on the right of the artists and authors to develop that universe as they see fit. The only "real" universe these fanboys allow is the one that they are willing to recognize, which is just to say that they are acting out the role of creator, decreeing which parts are "real" and which parts aren't.

As I say, it's a hard thing to have to admit: Harper-as-fanboy is the real villain of "Sentries," not Harper-as-businessman. But it's a point that the episode, having made, tries to elide. That, at any rate, is a further function of that "happy" ending: it's good to bring fanboys and creators together, it implies. Never mind that Michaels was almost murdered by the last delusional fanboy (Harper) he got entangled with, and never mind that Corey and his friends (as discussed above) are too weak-minded to be trusted. The picture of a Wise One lulling his admirers with stories of places long ago and far away is obviously calculated to flatter the fanboys in the audience with the conceit that they have the right to place burdensome demands on the storyteller and that the storyteller is (or ought to be) only too happy to oblige them.

The storyteller-fanboy relationship, as illustrated in "Sentries," is one fraught with the danger of exploitation, a fact hard for the average fanboy to accept. Had the episode the courage of its convictions and called Corey and Harper for what they are—the kind of creeps Harlan Ellison gleefully eviscerates in his essay "Xenogenesis"—it would have been unpalatable but respectable; perhaps even necessary. Absent that honesty, it's reduced to talking out of both sides of its mouth, abusing its audience while pretending to flatter them.

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What Others Are Saying ...
"This wasn't the dark, gritty story some fans prefer, but it was an interesting look at fan mania, Star Wars, and The Last Star Fighter."World's Finest

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