After years of waiting the entirety of Dragon Ball Z is now available on DVD in the UK, and sales have impressed Toei enough that they have been willing to entertain the idea of more series being released here. Dragon Ball Z is the centre of a huge franchise, it's preceded by the more comedy-orientated series Dragon Ball and followed by the more action-orientated Dragon Ball GT, as well as boasting dozens of spin-off movies and specials. We expected Manga to go with the films for the next Dragon Ball releases, the original series is fun but dated now whilst the sequel series is considered inferior by many fans as it is not based on Akira Toriyama's original story. However, it's to the sequel that Manga have turned, so the question is whether it deserves its negative reputation.
Set many years after the events of Dragon
Ball Z, Dragon Ball GT sees the Earth mostly out of peril and most of the Z
warriors settling down to a normal life. However, a villain from Goku's
past - the diminutive despot Emperor Pilaf - shakes up this relative peace when
he finds and uses the Black Star Dragon Balls, accidentally wishing Goku back
into childhood. The Black Star Dragon Balls are older than Earth's current
set and are unstable, they have been hidden away for centuries as their use will
cause the end of the world... unless they can be gathered and re-sealed within a single year.
However, unlike the normal Dragon Balls the Black Star ones are scattered
throughout the galaxy after use, meaning that Goku must travel to new worlds in
order to find them. Despite his new child body Goku is still up for the
challenge, and sets off to the stars with Trunks and a stowaway - Gohan's
daughter Pan! Pan is headstrong but a capable fighter, and the power of
all three of them is going to be needed to recover the balls from the strange
alien worlds they come across. In their path stand evil planetary rulers,
bizarre religious cults, robot armies and strange alien races, but they are the
least of the hurdles our intrepid heroes will have to overcome. Out in the
depths of space the evil doctor Myuu has created a series of cyborg warriors,
each displaying immense power and strange abilities unlike anything Goku has so
far encountered. Whilst most of them are not too much of a challenge a few
are a serious threat, and worst of all they know about the Dragon Balls and are
actively gathering them too! Goku, Trunks and Pan are unaware of the full
danger that lies ahead of them, particularly in the form of Doctor Myuu's
greatest creation - the cybernetic organism known only as Baby. Baby's
potential power exceeds even Goku's, and he holds a strong grudge against the
Saiyan race, will Goku and his companions learn about Baby's existence before
it's too late? And if they do, can they find a way of fighting what can
only be described as their greatest foe yet?
As a basic synopsis the above is pretty much in line with what you have come to expect from the Dragon Ball franchise. The heroes have to undertake a task to save lives (getting the Dragon Balls), a major foe turns up (Doctor Myuu) and introduces an even greater foe (Baby) for them to overcome. In this regard Dragon Ball GT is no different from many of the Dragon Ball Z story arcs, and with its much more recent vintage it boasts improved visuals and animation. The series does a great job of ageing the cast, and brings in a new generation of characters - sons and daughters of Goku, Vegeta, Gohan and Krillin, along with Uub, a reincarnation of Majin Buu who Goku trains as his successor - who could easily have become the basis for another epic series.
Unfortunately though, apart from Pan, these characters are largely relegated to the sidelines in favour of the original cast, Goku and Vegeta haven't really aged (a missed opportunity) and Goku becoming a child again doesn't have a great impact on his abilities, so he remains vastly overpowered. This is a problem for the series as a whole, as almost all suspense is removed from most battles by the knowledge that Goku isn't really trying - he doesn't even turn into a super saiyan until about halfway through the series, so you know there is always another level of power in reserve. This isn't to say the fights aren't entertaining, the action remains the best aspect of the series but the challenge is removed until late on.
The new characters being sidelined is not the reason Dragon Ball GT never
really took off with fans though, the main problem is that it has largely run
out of original ideas. There is very little in these 34 episodes that is
not a retread of something from Dragon Ball or Dragon Ball Z, and
it's often quite shameless about it. To start with Goku is turned into a
child because of comedy villains from the original Dragon Ball series,
then goes on a quest for the dragon balls with a bossy young girl, a resourceful
young man and an annoying mascot character. This pretty much mirrors his
journeys with Bulma, Yamcha and Oolong & Puar in the original series, and
basically half of this series is a throwback to the earliest parts of the
Dragon Ball franchise. Goku, Pan and Trunks (plus the annoying robot
Giru) visit several strange locations and generally end up liberating the
inhabitants from the clutches of some evil force in return for a Dragon Ball.
One episode is basically a repeat of their first meeting with Oolong from the
original series, and as it goes on these similarities just keep coming.
Doctor Myuu is basically the same as Doctor Gero from the Android Saga, he even
looks pretty much identical, Baby is a combination of Kid Buu and Cell, and
subplots about mind control are similar to Garlick Jr's use of the Blackwater
Mist and Babidi's evil-enhancing magic - there's even a rehash of Majin Vegeta.
Watching it you soon realise that the series is running on fumes, but there are a few good ideas in amongst it all. Among them is a liquid-metal villain (yes, this did come out after Terminator 2: Judgement Day) who displays a few powers similar to Kid Buu but is able to travel freely through metal and has control over any metal he touches. He's a formidable opponent for Goku, and one of the few times in the series that you can't see how Goku can win. The extent of Baby's mind control powers are pretty freaky too, growing more effective as the series goes on and introducing a nightmare scenario that adds an element of horror. Baby's origin makes him quite interesting, and adds a bit of ambiguity over who has the moral high ground - Baby has
been born for revenge, and his attacks highlight the warlike nature of the Saiyan race. However, it's only towards the end of this first series of Dragon Ball GT that these elements start to come to the fore, prior to this Goku, Pan and Trunks battle against a series of pointless villains whilst the rest of Dragon Ball Z's extended cast are largely sidelined. Most notable by his absence is King Kai, whose telepathy would have been really useful in warning Goku about what Baby was up to, and his absence is never really explained.
Dragon Ball GT Series 1 is not really bad, and although it does have some wince-worthy moments (the formation dancing Para Para Brothers and Marx Brothers soundalike Sugoro spring to mind) none of them are particularly worse than some of the stuff we've seen from the franchise in the past. It looks better than Dragon Ball Z, boasts some good action scenes and - towards the end of the series - it brings out some interesting ideas that do give it a bit of a shot in the arm. The problem is that for the most part it isn't doing anything new. Pretty much everything in the series is a rehash, retread or re-imagining of something that the franchise has done before, in some cases entire episodes are almost exact copies of existing ones. The cynical amongst you may say that this is par for the course for Dragon Ball, and whilst it's true that Dragon Ball Z became pretty formulaic it has absolutely nothing on this. There is still entertainment to be had from Dragon Ball GT, it's action-packed, fun and even a bit creepy at times towards the end of this first series. There are elements of a good story and some challenging enemies hiding inside a mass of reused ideas and situations from earlier parts of the franchise, but for a large part the series suffers from the same problems that the latter parts of Dragon Ball Z did - when you make the fighters so powerful that they can destroy planets on a whim, where can you go next? The franchise has been struggling with this for a while, and took the action off-world to give Goku and co more room to fight and more powerful enemies to face, but in the end it probably went as far as it could. Sadly when faced with the same issue Dragon Ball GT doesn't seem to be able to go anywhere but backwards.