Rabbit Hole

Published on September 11th, 2014 | by Michael

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Red Vs Blue – The Blood Gulch Chronicles

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Red Vs Blue is a machinima series developed by Rooster Teeth productions and is the first such series I’ve watched. Machinima (a portmanteau of Machine Cinema) describes a recently evolved genre of movies filmed using in game footage, in this instance the Halo series.  Red Vs Blue is certainly not the first machinima series, the tradition can trace its lineage as far back as the Quake speed run days at least, but it is perhaps the first bona fide breakout hit. At 12 seasons and counting it is the longest ever running American Sci-Fi series , it can be bought on Blu Ray and the first five seasons which make up The Blood Gulch Chronicles are up on Netflix (UK). This is obviously the kind of widespread availability and exposure the vast majority of web based series could only dream of.

‘I’ll tell you who the enemy is gentlemen. Apathy, passivity, indifference. And yes, also those red guys.’ Captain Flowers gives his team the lowdown.

Do you ever wonder why we’re here?

This (oft repeated) question is the central tenant of the series, set initially in an uninteresting boxed canyon with only two features of note – a blue base at one end and a red base at the other. In response to the question above, layabout Red teamer Grif responds ‘I signed up to fight some aliens. Next thing I know, Master Chief blows up the whole Covenant Armada, and I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere, fighting a bunch of blue guys’. However this is all just background – aliens are rarely seen and the war with the covenant is only mentioned tangentially. Instead the reds and the blues are locked in ferocious, if rarely actually deadly, conflict with each other, the only apparent prize to be gained is a second base in a boxed canyon and the humiliation of the opposition.

As with many such series, Red Vs Blue changed a lot in its early development. The original idea was that the Reds would be the focus on the story with the Blues there merely to commentate on their foes. However several of the initial plot ideas were found to be unworkable so the Blues were upgraded to main characters. Similarly, early fan feedback shaped a lot of the character development. More screen time was dedicated to fan favourites and well received characters traits were played up.

Red Vs Blue Simmons

Suck it, Blue!

Over the course of the first season, consisting of nineteen 5-7 minute episodes we are introduced to the bickering, rag tag, frequently incompetent bunch of space marines that make up the cast. The Reds are led by Sarge (voiced by Matt Hullum), a stereotypical Sergeant in the R Lee Ermey mould, characterised by his fanatical devotion to the conflict, his penchant for creating fantastical gadgets and his hatred of Grif. Grif (Geoff Ramsey), a Red soldier though decked in fetching orange, is lazy and apathetic. Simmons (Gustavo Sarola, in maroon) is the brains of the outfit as well as being a monumental kiss ass. The red ranks are bolstered by the arrival of garrulous rookie Pvt Donut (Dan Godwin) who is forced to wear pink, or as he would have it, lightish red, armour as well as socialist robot Lopez, who can only speak in Spanish due to a translator unit mix-up.

Opposing this mighty force are the Blues, led by the short tempered Church (creator and head writer Burnie Burns) who assumed command after the mysterious death of the former CO, the wonderfully named Captain Butch Flowers. Church’s only charge at first Pvt Tucker, a regular type guy who wants only two things, to get laid and to use the sniper rifle and is doomed to forever be denied both. They are given both a tank, Sheila, and a rookie of their own, the series’ breakout character Pvt Caboose (Joel Heyman).

Matt Hullum is the real MVP of the cast. Sarge and Caboose seem to be the only main characters done in a voice that is not the actor’s own, on top of which Hullum tries on an English accent for the despicable Wyoming, an (admittedly similar) hammy British villain voice for O’Malley as well as yet another distinct voice for Doc. Joel Heyman may not have this range, voicing only Caboose, but his odd inflections and seemingly random pauses and emphasis when delivering lines really elevate the character above his material. He infuses Caboose with a child-like innocence that makes a potentially very annoying character into the star of the show (he’s still annoying to his fellow soldiers, of course).  Caboose started out as merely a bit dim-witted but, sensing the potential the character had, the writers contrived several incidents to make him stupider still, including his possession by O’Malley and the shutting off of his life support systems – ‘it was dark, and I got to hold my breath!’.

Red Vs Blue Caboose

‘I don’t want to be dead, I want to be alive. Or…a cowboy.’

Those are our players then, but what is the game? The canyon they occupy resembles a multiplayer Capture the Flag map (which of course it is) but neither side really knows what their aim is, other than to beat the other. Despite the Sci-Fi setting most of the humour comes from the bickering between the squad mates – think Red Dwarf or Dark Star with space marines. The whole affair is actually reminiscent of something by Tom Stoppard or Samuel Beckett as the characters are in the midst of grand events (the war between humanity and the Covenant) and yet have very little to no knowledge of the greater scheme of things and instead kill time with rambling conversation and inept scheming. The writers decided to throw in an early curveball by having Church die at the hands of ‘team killing Fucktard’ Caboose. Church returns as a ‘ghost’ able to possess people and machines though a running joke has it that Caboose somehow manages to damage or kill each subsequent body he inhabits. Amusingly this is later retconned as it transpires that a time travelling Church is responsible for all the travails his past self endured. Taking Church’s place on Blue Team is Tex the Freelancer, a far more competent soldier than anyone else in Blood Gulch and an old flame of Church’s. However she too is killed in the only example of an inter-team kill in the entire series. An improbably long grenade toss from Donut does for her, revenge for her earlier attack which ended in Donut having to don his ‘lightish-red’ armour. However she too returns as a ‘Ghost’ and competes with Church over bodies to possess.

As well as some formidable combat skills, the key thing Tex brings with her to Blood Gulch is a plot. In her armour lurks evil AI program O’Malley, a psychotic villain so chillingly evil that every so often, even the Reds and Blue are motivated to try and put a stop to his scheming. O’Malley is a devious one though and can skip between unwitting human hosts via radio waves. Eventually he ends up sharing a body with Doc, a medic assigned to both teams (and who wears purple to demonstrate his neutrality). Unfortunately, no-one notices at first because the well-meaning Doc had managed to irritate both squads and so resides in a cave equidistant between the bases. Matt Hullum voices both Doc and Doc’s version of O’Malley (typically O’Malley is voiced by the same actor as his current host). Hullum’s O’Malley is a marvellous creation, a megalomaniacal villain in the vein of Dr Evil or Stewie Griffin, prone to shouting ‘Quiet, you fool!’ to both his host (with whom he has a Gollum/Smeagle relationship) and his chief henchman Lopez.

During the third season the switch was made from Halo to Halo 2

After a series of diversions involving a sabotaged teleporter as well as constantly respawning red and blue zealots (who act as parodies of Halo gamers), events come to a head on the ice plains of Sidewinder. Church has a five megaton bomb in his body about to detonate, O’Malley has gained control of Sarge’s secret weather controlling weapon and freelance Wyoming is intent on assassinating Tucker, who has learned that the conflict between Red and Blue is a sham orchestrated by unknown powers. The reason for the convoluted nature of the plot is so that a reason can be contrived to move from the Halo engine used for the first two seasons to the updated Halo 2 model used from series three onwards. When the reds and blue inevitably fail to stop the bomb going off, they are flung into the ‘future’, represented by the shiny new Halo 2 graphics. Tucker awakens after the explosion in utter confusion. Luckily the Reds are on hand to put him at ease. ‘Don’t worry; Donut comforts him ‘ you are safe, we are the reds, we are your mortal enemies. Wait, that didn’t sound right…’. They’ve also prepared a skit to help explain the situation. Needless to say, the sight of his former enemies teaming up with Caboose to put on a play confuses Tucker further. ‘You see, luckily was facing forward when the bomb went off’ Simmons explains helpfully. We were standing in front of him, so we were sent in to the future’. ‘Of course he was facing forward!’ Tucker retorts ‘what other way do people face?’. ‘That’s what I meant by luckily!’ Simmons confirms.  In fact the whole situation is clouded in mystery. The viewers are led to believe that the Reds and Blues only erroneously think they were thrown into the future but confirmation either way is a long time in coming, with certain facts not coming to light until the end of season 5.

Meanwhile, whether the future or not, O’Malley is still running amok. He bolsters his ranks by having Lopez build a robot army to ensure a ‘day of victory’. Alas, Lopez takes the instruction to literally and builds robots so slow that they’ll take 24 hours to kill the Reds and Blues, an actual day of victory. Our heroes have back-up of their own though as Tex helpfully builds them a high powered bomb. Unfortunately, this particular bomb is the very surly and acerbic Andy. In scenes especially reminiscent of Dark Star, the granddaddy of existential comedy Sci-Fi, the Red and Blues must persuade Andy not to explode, imploring that he imagine scented candles and long, relaxing baths.

Meanwhile, Church was sent hurtling into the past by the same explosion, represented by the much more primitive Marathon 2 engine. Here he meets Gary the computer who, in just over a millennium, builds Church a time machine so he can go and save his squad at Sidewinder. But Church fails, repeatedly, leaving duplicates all over time and space. He also goes and causes all the events of the first two series including his own death. In one attempt, he explains the entire situation to the assembled reds and blues. Typically, Caboose is the only one to grasp the situation.

Eventually he returns to his old friends just in time to save them from yet another bomb. By now, Tucker has found an alien sword and has managed to get himself anointed as a great prophesised hero, much to Tex’s chagrin. He, Andy, Caboose and an alien who drops by go on a great quest, the upshot of which is that Tucker returns pregnant. ‘I wasn’t even there that weekend!’ he protests in reflex when he hears the news. Grif and Simmons meanwhile take a stroll through a cave and find themselves back in Blood Gulch. Grif’s agonised screams last through the entire gap between seasons 4 and 5.

‘Doesn’t sound like I have any of the skills you need. Unless you wanna see my ping pong ball trick.’ Sister’s personality was altered to match Rebecca Frasier’s performance

In season five Tucker’s alien son junior joins the cast, as does Grif’s sister, Sister. She’d joined up to be closer to her brother but, being colour blind, wound up joining the Blues. Sister is that character who sooner or later gets added to all lewd adult comedies, the one who will say absolutely anything that comes to mind (cf. Rafi in FX’s The League). In this instance this is because the voice actor, Rebecca Fraiser, was known to the writers and during her audition had fun with her by writing offensive dialogue in order to find her limits. Upon discovering she had none, Sister was altered into being a much more promiscuous character than originally planned. Season 5 has some very well plotted moments, showing how far the series has come. This includes the Reds discovering a vast computer beneath the canyon, as well as the reappearance of Wyoming. Wyoming has in tow a time manipulation device, capable of resetting the last few minutes whenever he is at a disadvantage (similar to a save point in computer games). Fortunately Tucker is immune to its effects (in so much that he retains his memory of each rewind) and is eventually able to defeat the freelancer in the show’s extra -long 100th episode. However, like Church, Wyoming’s meddling with time has left behind dozens of duplicates, intent on killing Tex and the Blues. Just as it looks like the Blues will be overwhelmed, their erstwhile enemies the Reds swoop in like the Dukes of Hazzard, largely because Sarge couldn’t stand watching someone else kill the Blues, though by this stage any animosity between the two squads is just force of habit. Before the last Wyoming dies, he tells Tex that she needs to recapture O’Malley so that the UNSC can use him as a weapon against the covenant. In a bid to save Tex (now intent on letting O’Malley re-infect her), Church begins broadcasting on all frequencies. This gives us the amusing spectacle of seeing O’Malley infect each of the Blood Gulch crew in turn and how each of them is changed. Sarge dreams of endless war, Grif wants to conquer the Universe but can’t be bothered, Donut wishes for death to the patriarchy. Church, strangely, is unaltered.

Eventually Tex takes possession of O’Malley and flies away in Sheila, who has moved from her tank body into a spaceship. The Reds are not so easily beaten though and had smuggled Andy the bomb on board. To the grief of Church, Andy detonates, apparently killing everyone on board.

The Blood Gulch Chronicles end as they started, with the teams standing around, asking each other if they ever wonder what they’re doing here (though there exists several entertaining alternative endings). It would appear that they have learnt nothing from all the strange events they’ve enjoyed. But while Season Five would represent the end of The Blood Gulch Chronicles, it is not the end of Red Vs Blue. It would return as a revamped and reworked series, albeit one which retained all the characters and humour of the early days.

How does the show handle the transition from knockabout comedy in something more serious and story driven? We’ll find out in part two – Red Vs Blue: The Recollection Trilogy.

Michael

Michael comes from the middle ground between light and shadow, between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. He will write on comics, TV and film, plus anything else that might occur to him.

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