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Feb 27

First Episode Impressions – Pokémon

151 give or take like 650

It’s the 27th February! This is an important day for me for several reasons, one of those being it’s the birthday of my livelong beloved franchise Pokémon! The Pocket Monsters have captured the hearts and minds of millions over the past 21 years, so I’ve decided to rewatch the first episode of each saga of the anime, and write up my thoughts on that episode and a little on the seasons in general. So that’s Kanto, Johto, Hoenn, Sinnoh, Unova, Kalos, Alola and more!

So without further ado, let’s begin this nostalgia trip with Pokémon! I Choose You!

Indigo League

Pokémon! I Choose You!

So, starting with the episode where it all began, way back in 1997. I imagine if you’re reading this, you’ve seen this particular episode, where Ash and Pikachu first meet and begin their journey. So I won’t recap the events for this one, and just jump straight into episode analysis.

It’s interesting to see some of the ideas and patterns that quickly got dropped once the series properly established itself. You’ll see real animals, like when Pidgey eats worms; Dexter (Ash’s Pokédex) laying down some mad sass; and actual violence like Ash throwing rocks and Misty slapping him (edited out of modern broadcasts, sadly). Later episodes would talk about levels and Pokémon death, concepts very quickly dropped as the episode count increased.

There’s also a lot of overdramatisation. Ash and Gary have crowds of people sending them off on their journey, unlike later seasons and trainers, and the Spearow attack is really treated as a life or death scenario for Pikachu, helped in part by the musical score (which is superb, with many great background songs throughout the season that are well worth listening to). It’s also interesting to see just how weak Pikachu is in this episode, but considering he’s a Level 5 Starter Pokémon… that makes sense.

The show does a good job of setting up future plot points too, both near and far, from Misty’s brief appearance to help establish her as a main character, to Ho-Oh at the end showing there’s always more to discover, especially as he was a total unknown in a time before I could see an entire new game’s Pokédex from a quick Google search. There’s little touches too, such as the obvious Game Boy intro transitioning into the anime style, and the less obvious Ash trying to pick Gary’s starter first, which wouldn’t pay off for 5 years or so. So, yeah, spoiler, I still love this episode.

And the series? For better or worse, Kanto goes at one hell of a pace, with Ash having a full squad and three badges in the first 15 episodes, though I guess the producers had no idea they’d be doing this for the rest of their lives. It struggles with characters though. Ash does improve, and is shown to deeply care for his Pokémon, but the fact he’s gifted almost every badge in Kanto doesn’t make him look strong. Misty struggles from having a lack of things to do, and Brock, while coming up with many ways to help Pokémon, only has a few minor stories, such as Vulpix.

I still enjoy the series, but it lacked an overall arc outside of “let’s go on an adventure”, and it was over so quickly the series had to stall for time while waiting for the next set of games, leading to what many call the “filler” season of the show…

Orange Islands

Pallet Party Panic

I thought I’d picked the first episode of the Orange Islands arc… but this one is set entirely in Kanto. Oops. Anyway, we open with Ash celebrating in Pallet Town with friends and family for making it to the Last 16 in the Indigo League. After foiling another classic Team Rocket scheme involving spicy food (and despite TR even having TWO balloons), the episode shifts to its actual focus.

Professor Oak needs Ash to collect a mysterious Poké Ball from his professor friend in the Orange Archipelago (the GS Ball incase you were wondering), but as he and co head off, they get attacked by a Fearow who really has it out for Ash. In a great callback, it’s the Spearow from the first episode, now evolved. Ash’s Pidgeotto, inspired to protect a flock of its own kind, evolves into Pidgeot and fends off Fearow, staying behind to continue to defend them, providing a sendoff for one of Ash’s longest allies.

I do like that kind of nod for longer viewers, even though Pidgeotto was made to look really weak prior to evolving in this episode. Still, it helped to provide an arc for him, and helped begin the transition to the next era (Ash needed a party space for Lapras, afterall). Which brings me neatly to…

And the series? I do love how the Orange Islands was willing to experiment a bit more, including the Crystal Onix, a foreshadowing of shiny Pokémon, and the gym battles being trials instead of fights… sound familiar Sun and Moon fans? Ash starts to become a more mature trainer too, with Charizard finally deciding to obey him in an episode I’ve never actually seen. Thanks terrestrial television!

Misty, again, had little to do, while new companion Tracey… was also there. He made a nice change from Brock, but I didn’t cry when he decided to stay with Oak, put it like that. Again, the focus was more on the journey, but with no obvious game script to follow, I really enjoyed this series as I had no clue what would happen each episode. Ash’s final 6v6 battle with Drake was a series first, and was a satisfying conclusion to this neat little arc. Oh, and the theme for this series, 2BA Master, is probably my favourite opening in the whole show. Sadly, following this, the writers decided it was probably time to slow things down…

Johto

Don’t Touch That Dile

Y’know, I’m not sure if I’ve seen this episode before, the start of Johto was kind of skipped over on terrestrial. It begins with Ash and co lost in a forest (for the 100th time). As they wander, we see Suicune presiding over a lake before vanishing. Elsewhere, Team Rocket stumble upon Professor Elm’s Lab, nick his Totodile from under his nose, and make a break for it.

Ash arrives at the Pokémon Centre of New Bark, but Nurse Joy isn’t there, having gone over to see Elm and running late. They head over there, learn about the theft, and eventually track down Team Rocket, leading to a battle (one of the few where Jessie had Lickitung on her squad) and their blast off, as Totodile is returned, ready to be collected by a new trainer the next day. Ash gets his Johto League registration, and the journey to the first gym begins.

As the first episode in a whole new world (da na na na naaaaa na), it feels… pretty familiar. More like a continuing journey than the new start later seasons would go for. There were some neat touches, like Elm having already given one starter away to a new trainer, and the difference in research focus between himself and Oak, but the core cast felt the same as ever. The only difference really was Ash’s Charizard obeying him now. Familiarity isn’t a bad thing, but with odd tropes like being lost in the woods and eight badges back in full force, it was harder to get excited.

And the series? Oh boy. Johto dragged on and on and on, primarily because of a high amount of filler episodes, featuring a character and Pokémon of the week, some Team Rocket plot to steal them and / or Pikachu, blast off see ya bye. The lack of progress was agonising. It took Ash 28 episodes to get two badges, by which point in Kanto he had five. The switch from terrestrial to digital television also ensured keeping up with the show was a nightmare for poor kids like me, and when those episodes you did get to see were mostly filler…

The series did pick up towards the end and the “Master Quest” season, thanks to the Whirl Islands subplot providing a tighter focus for a bunch of episodes, and the Silver League produced a satisfying climax, including the long-awaited 6v6 Ash v Gary match. Misty got more to do, becoming more responsible and preparing her for her departure at the end of the series (I cried at that one), as both Brock and her went back to help run their gyms. The series ends with Misty getting her bike back and Ash seeing Ho-Oh once again, bringing everything full circle and truly denoting the end of an era.

Luckily, the writers seemed to pick up on that maybe they’d made a boo boo in the fillerific first half of Johto, changing things up as we entered the Advanced era.

Hoenn

Get The Show On The Road

Our first shots of Hoenn are new female character May riding her bike towards Littleroot Town to get her first Pokémon. The focus then shifts back to Ash, getting off the boat to Hoenn and looking for medical attention for his sickly Pikachu. Professor Birch picks him up and takes him to his lab, but Pikachu runs off in its disorientation. As the two split up to search, May reappears, bumping into Birch, and has her first experience handling Pokémon. She’s not a fan though, and it goes badly, as Mudkip squirts water in her face.

Elsewhere, Ash finds Pikachu but the electric mouse sees him as a threat, zapping him and running over a cliff, with Ash diving to protect his best bud. They’re saved by Birch and pulled to safety, as Pikachu comes back to his senses. Cue Team Rocket in their machine that is the exact thing Pikachu needs to be cured, blasting off and renewing Jessie’s interest in catching Pika (she’d been having a “is it all worth it” moment). May chooses her first Pokémon, Torchic, and is inspired by the relationship between Ash and Pikachu to give the whole Pokémon thing a proper try, and the two begin their journey.

There were some interesting ideas here… but the show resolved them before trying to explore them. Jessie seemingly had memories of Hoenn but they became little more than a one episode melancholy attitude, while May’s “I’d rather travel then train” is similarly abandoned, to the point where she even forgives Ash for destroying her bike (yes, that’s a running theme). Still, Ash does come across as a bit more experienced, even without any of his other Pokémon, and Birch’s proactive nature helps him stand out from Oak and Elm. A solid start for a new series that actually felt like a new start with a new cast, new look and new squad.

And the series? Despite a few dumb moments, this series did show Ash as a more veteran trainer, though his total lack of rivals meant you had no real yardstick for his experience. May entering contests finally gave the female character something to do, cutting down on filler as the show could jump between gyms and contests, and make her the novice finding her feet. Brock returned… but did little asides from supervise. And then there’s Max.

Max is a young kid, too young to actually train Pokémon, who acts as exposition in many ways. He’s also utterly, utterly crap. Even characters with no real plot arc, like Tracey, could catch Pokémon and carry episodes. Max can’t, which is also why his movie is the worst in the franchise. Anyway, ignoring that brat, the show did a solid job of pacing itself and telling stories, including the Team Magma and Aqua plots, but nothing spectacular. Still, they again finished up early as the wait for the DS games carried on, so looked to Fire Red / Leaf Green and Emerald for inspiration…

Kanto Battle Frontier

The Scheme Team

With all of their Hoenn adventures over, this episode very quickly splits everyone up, May and Max returning to Olddale Town and Brock to Pewter City, leaving Ash to head home to Pallet alone. As he passes through Viridian City, he’s approached by Scott, curator of the Battle Frontier, who’s looking for strong trainers to take the challenge and thinks Ash could be the guy. In front of the Viridian Gym, Ash decides to battle the new leader as a test of his strength. That being Elite Four member Agatha.

The veteran wins a fairly close battle, her Gengar comboing Ash’s Pikachu out, but the fight proves Ash has the mettle to go in the Battle Frontier. As Scott explains the totally different system of Frontier Symbols (badges) and Frontier Brains (leaders), Team Rocket, who had an entire chunk of the episode dedicated to them returning to headquarters, attacks, with the debut of their all new motto. Agatha and Ash quickly blast them, and as he returns home, he finds Misty. And Prof Oak. And then Max and Prof Birch arrive. Never a dull moment.

After the sendoff Misty and Brock got at the end of Johto, this one does feel fairly rushed, though considering May, Max and Brock all return for this arc, that makes sense. Still, this episode does a good job of showing Ash adapting to journeying solo again, and there’s a ton of old characters for longer time fans to enjoy (Butch and Cassidy, Agatha, Misty). The episode does a lot with a little, which became kind of a running theme for the series.

And the series? This entire arc runs for about 60 episodes, in which time May wins five ribbons and does her Grand Festival, and Ash earns the six symbols and fights Brandon, the “champion” multiple times. It’s very akin to classic Kanto’s pacing in that very few episodes are filler, but it all feels unnervingly fast coming after Johto and Hoenn.

And weirdly, despite being set in Kanto, the series doesn’t utilise the area much. Three episodes are in Saffron City but Sabrina is nowhere to be found. Misty very quickly vanishes again.The only real callbacks come towards the end with Ash’s old squad, though there is also a neat sendoff episode at the end where Ash’s Sceptile and May’s Blaziken fight to a draw.

This series is most memorable though for being the one where 4Kids lost the rights, and Pokémon USA took over dubbing, starting with the 10th Anniversary special and everything after the first dozen episodes of this arc. A younger me was very weirded out by that. Luckily, that feeling would soon fade with familiarity and a new cast member, as we jump onwards to Sinnoh.

Sinnoh

Following A Maiden’s Voyage!

Dawn’s just turned 10 years old, which means today’s the day she starts her Pokémon journey. She wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps and be a top Coordinator (like May in the last season) and fantasizes over what she and her starter Pokémon will do over breakfast. Sadly, when she arrives at Professor Rowan’s lab, shenanigans have happened and several Pokémon, including starters Piplup and Chimchar, have escaped, so she volunteers to go out and retrieve them.

She quickly finds Piplup and Chimchar bickering, but it’s not long before the former gets caught up by some angry wild Ariados. Through quick thinking and agility, Dawn tricks the spiders into letting Piplup and some other trapped creatures go, but Ariados gets its friends and attacks Dawn again. Piplup, moved by Dawn’s plight to save him, uses Bide and blasts the Ariados away after taking a lot of hits. Returning to the lab along with the other escapees, Dawn quickly chooses Piplup to be her partner and starts her journey. Also Ash gets off a boat, Pikachu gets nicked by Rocket, Team Rocket blast off and the episode ends with Ash chasing after his best bud.

Ash’s segment is literally the last two minutes of the episode. Otherwise it’s all Dawn, in an episode somewhat akin to Ash’s first. It also sets up a bunch of longer plot threads, including the mischievous Chimchar who is prominent throughout the entire series, and has loads of little touches, including the first instance of the “no need to worry” catchphrase. Dawn comes across as smart and talented, not an idiot like Ash was or disinterested like May. It’s really refreshing.

And the series? I adore Diamond and Pearl. To this day it’s the best arc of the entire show, and the reason why I always come back to watch Ash’s adventures. Dawn is portrayed as Ash’s equal, leading episodes and able to go toe to toe with him. Piplup equals Pikachu too, right down to the refusing to evolve shtick. She goes from passionate but inexperienced to a talented and reliable individual.

Ash shows his by now more veteran instincts, focusing more on actual battle strategy and truly bringing the best out of his squad. He comes across as someone who’s been on the road for a few years, as he should. He also gets an amazing rivalry with Paul (better rival than Gary Oak, sorry), who is such a polar opposite in so many ways, and seeing the two interact and fight all series long was a treat.

Brock’s also there, getting a few more episodes but kinda doing the same stuff unless the very, very end where he finally gets development after a decade. But it was never his journey, it was Ash’s and Dawn’s, so that’s okay. The rest of the series does so much, with the focus on having lots of smaller narrative arcs about a Pokémon learning a move or an upcoming battle or meeting one of the good half-dozen rivals for Ash and Dawn meaning it felt like there was never a filler episode.

Combine that with smart uses of nostalgia to progress the show, great writing, good animation and an epic climax in my favourite episode Semi-Final Frontier, and… yeah. I love this series. I want to rewatch it all again. So let’s move on before I turn this mini-essay not so mini…

Unova

In The Shadow Of Zekrom!

Onwards to Gen5 and Unova! We open with Ash, his mum and Professor Oak getting on a plane to Unova for a work holiday. Meanwhile, a serious Team Rocket are given their next assignment to cause havoc in Unova and flush out the organisation there (Team Plasma). They try to steal Pikachu when they all land, but a mysterious Pokémon blasts them all away. Spoilers – it’s Zekrom.

While Pikachu seems a little off, Ash meets Professor Juniper and gets to watch new trainer Trip choose his first Pokémon, Snivy. In the only real incidence of racism in the series, Trip calls Kanto trainers and Pokémon guys from the boonies. The two end up battling, but Pikachu’s illness prevents it using Electric moves and so the legendary beater loses to a starter Snivy. The episode ends as Zekrom shows up again over the lab, causing havoc with the electrical gear in the first ever two-parter opening. Also Iris was in the episode for like 15 seconds.

It’s not as great a starter as past seasons. Ash comes off as overbearing at times, especially in what should be Trip’s defining moment, not his. Plus his inability to pick up on Pikachu have the same illness it did back at the start of Hoenn is weird. Professor Juniper is a bland goody-goody who’s defining straight is she’s a gurl. Zekrom just appears and disappears on a whim and… eh. It’s nothing majorly bad, it just felt like a downgrade from the past season.

And the series? Unova is both progressive and regressive, it’s weird. Ash loses a lot of his veteran charm, but still tells great stories about his Pokémon. Iris is Misty but Dragons, but her nature loving personality helps distinguish her a bit, and she has several long arcs that pay off. Cilan is Brock but food puns, and he… well, struggles with the same “nothing really to do” shtick of Brock.

But they all get fairly cool rivals. Ash has Trip, a combo of Paul and Todd (the dude from Pokémon Snap) who provides a decent enough foil. Iris gets Georgia, a trainer who specifically wants to beat Dragon types. Cilan gets Burgundy, who… also struggles from a lack of anything to do. Really, they’re both “Connaisseuses” who analyse Pokémon for a living, but they get no chance to really delve into that. I like all of them, but only Trip ever really feels like a threat.

The real compliment has to go to Team Rocket though. After over a decade of jokes and blast offs, they get to be serious villains, who only show up once in a while with a serious scheme that takes a while to defeat, if at all. Not only does this free up time in normal episodes, it makes their plans feel like legitimate threats. Sadly the Plasma stuff never pays off as it had to be rescheduled behind the scenes, with two post-league arcs that race through the N content and then some godawful island hopping that is so utterly rushed and meaningless it provides an ultra sour ending for the arc. But not to worry, Kalos will save us! Right?

Kalos

Kalos, Where Dreams And Adventures Begin!

We start as a young girl by the name of Serena is woken up by a Fletchling. The little bird flies out her window and we get to see our first look at the Kalos region. That’s her done for the episode. Our focus shifts back to Ash and Alexa, a brief travelling companion from the last dozen or so episodes of Unova. He shouts hello to the region and falls down the aeroplane steps. I wish I was joking.

Being a needy git, Ash shouts and complains about wanting to fight a gym right this second. Alexa’s sister, a Gym Leader, is away, but there’s another gym where they’ve landed, so they part ways and Ash goes to challenge the gym… but needs badges to qualify (ignore the 40-odd he already has) and gets forcibly ejected from the Gym, with Clemont and Bonnie saving him. They all become friends, Ash and Clemont have a battle which is interrupted by Team Rocket, but a wild Froakies helps them blast them off and the episode ends as they head to the region’s professor’s lab.

I. Fucking. Hate. This episode. You’re given no reason to care about Serena, Ash comes off as not just overeager in the way he shouts at everything, but also a twit from his utter impatience and whining. Bonnie also shouts a lot, but she’s an eager little girl, so I’ll let that one slide. Clemont comes off the best, but as he is the Gym Leader for this city, why he panics over his own gym’s defenses is just bizarre. Froakie just jumps in because “bad is bad, good is good”, and Alexa does next to nothing. This episode establishes so little it’s painful.

And the series? I can’t give you a fair analysis of XY, because I gave up after 15 to 20 episodes. Any semblance of intelligence left in Ash had vanished, as he became the worst tropes of Japanese children’s television, loud and stupid. Serena had, when I stopped, no direction other than “I have feels for Ash”. She does get a purpose later on when she becomes a Pokémon Performer, aka contests from Hoenn / Sinnoh, but I never got that far.

Clemont is Brock / Cilan but failed inventor, with his machines often blowing up and giving everyone afros. Reading up, he does actually leave the group for a few episodes when it’s time for his Gym Battle with Ash to train and prepare, but outside of wanting to be a better gym leader and a few confidence issues I don’t think he goes anywhere either. Bonnie is limited by her little kid status, but does bring some energy to the show and technically has her own Pokémon in Dedenne, making her better than Max. Not that that’s hard.

When I stopped watching, nobody bar Ash had any purpose or direction, and Ash was a Grade A imbecile, highlighted in an episode where he prepares to fight Bug type leader Viola by… tying balloons to his Pokémon. While the series does show the art style taken to its zennith, with battles and performances looking amazing, the writing fell apart. So of course Ash does the best he does in any tournament at the end of the season, earning the silver medal. ARGH!

Alola

Alola to New Adventure!

And finally, here we are, at the newest series, which I’ve not actually seen before. Ash and his mother are on vacation in the Alola region, delivering an egg to Professor Oak’s cousin. We see Ash playing around and enjoying himself, before Tapu Koko (the island’s guardian and pseudo-legendary) decides to start… testing him, I think. Ash gets lost in some woods and chased around by that terrifying black and pink bear, but loses it and arrives at the Pokémon School.

There he meets Lillie, Mallow, Lana, Sophocles, Samson Oak, Professor Kukui and Kiawe. Seriously, they’re all in this episode. Ash helps Kiawe fend off a Team Skull attack, and learns about the Island Challenge and Z-Moves and the other stuff these games have. Later that evening, he once again sees Tapu and chases, with Tapu giving him his own Z-Braclet, inspiring Ash to stay in Alola and attend the school so he can take the Island Challenge.

This episode goes at one heck of a pace… but it never feels worse off for it. Non-game viewers won’t pick up on the significance of the huge cast, but as someone who has played I found it insane how many of the important cast are present (four trial captains, two professors and the lead female).

The change in animation style works well too. It’s most notable on Ash, with other characters sitting in various places on the spectrum between the old style and the new. Still, it all radiates energy and passion and… fun. Much like the games. The island feels like a place you’d love to live, and while Ash is impulsive, he doesn’t come across as stupid. Plus this is probably the most interaction he and his mother have had in forever…

And the series? With only 15 or so episodes out in Japan, and only two dubbed ahead of the series premier, it’s impossible to tell exactly how things will go down. Still, the parade of gifs and clips I’ve seen on social media have shown a series willing to have fun and play around, helping differentiate itself from past arcs, much like the games do. I’m totally on board to see where this goes in future episodes.

Which I guess brings us to the end? It’s been a fun journey for me to relive memories from over the past 20 years or so. And hey, maybe I’ve inspired you to watch a season or two. Stay tuned to the blog for Movie March, coming soon!