In the 22nd Century humanity has done and created many wondrous things, branched out into the rest of the solar system, terraformed Venus and Mars, and made an artificial race called the Neo Sapiens to mine and service dangerous areas. When the Neo’s revolted against their slavery Mankind created the E-Frame, powered armour with massive destructive capability, to overcome their own enhanced creations. For a time there was peace but one Neo Sapien has plotted, gathered power and weaponry, to takeover the worlds from the Terrans. Now all that stands between Neo Sapien rule and humanity’s survival is the last of the E-Frame military, the Exosquad.
Created in 1993 by Jeff Segal, Will Meugniot, and Michael Edens Exosquad is a 52 episode series about war, and one of the best in the animated field. It goes over the effects war has on people, territory, and how those are changed for better and worse.
After the first great Neo Sapien war there was peace and the Neo’s had gained some more rights, but were still treated with bigotry and hatred. Phaeton, a Neo Sapien governor, has been building power and an army in secret and when he lures the Exofleet away to go after space pirates he strikes. Launching a simultaneous attack on Earth, Venus, and Mars the Neo Sapiens take control of the known worlds. The Exofleet is all that is left of the Terran military forces and they face the power of the three worlds military might. J.T. Marsh leads a small squad of Exotroopers known as Able Squad, as they progress through this war. They win battles and lose some with every command decision.
We do see the three years of the war through the series, having it wrapped up at the end of season 2 before it was cancelled. While there was an ending epilogue episode showing what was happening after the war and also giving a cliffhanger final for a story that never came, it still had a very good conclusion to its story. That’s pretty good for a series with an ongoing plot.
That ongoing plot is at the heart of the series and what makes it very special. Its episodes may be self contained but each one leads into another and it doesn’t feel like any time is wasted. We don’t get 50 episodes of meaningless fights before there’s a sudden big push to retake the worlds in the last few episodes. There are arcs where the Exofleet retakes pieces from the Neo’s; they take back Venus in a large succession of episodes showing how hard the battles are. In the end of that arc we see life on Venus isn’t magically back to normal, the effects of the war has been harsh and it will take a lot of time and human effort to repair the damage, if it ever can be repaired. We even see the effects of it on the citizens of Venus and their bigotry towards all Neo Sapiens, even the ones that fight with the Exofleet.
That is part of the greatness of the series, that it is a war and not a fight of the week slugfest. Organised resistance happens, but trying to get them all to work together isn’t an easy task. Even after they agree to a single Earth resistance leader. There’s conflict between the resistance groups who feel abandoned by the Exofleet since they fight to survive on a daily basis while the Exofleet are in their space ships with running water, lots of food, and comfy beds. Then there’s forming uneasy alliances with old enemies because of the common threat. Retaking the homeworlds are done in large multi-episode arcs and a succession of battles that follow into the next, it isn’t shown as a simple or easy task. They win through strategy and tactics rather than finding a more powerful weapon.
There’s an emphasis on previous wars in history throughout the show, referencing quite a few bits and pieces of war history, but in particular the series channels World War Two heavily. From the Neo Sapiens believing they are superior beings who are destined to rule, to them trying to commit genocide, to Phaeton himself being an allegory for Hitler in many ways. His charismatic leadership had given the Neo’s the chance to rise up, but we see the war take its toll on him as he becomes more and more insane.
The characters are too numerous to fully mention. Each of Able Squad gets their own spotlight in some ways, fleshing them out. But it doesn’t stop at them, the fleet admiral and commanders get a lot of attention, the many members of the resistance, the ground troops that follow in the Exosquad’s wake, and the various Neo commanders from all the worlds as well as their troops. There are a lot of characters in this, showing how war isn’t just one group of troops winning battles but many men and women fighting their own fights in a variety of ways. There’s even an episode dedicated to the ground troops who have a ‘Starship Troopers’ way about them and their motto of “I don’t see any heroes here” before going into battle. This isn’t really a series about characters so much as the story its telling, so they’re not all given the time needed to properly develop but whatever fits the story. Sometimes it works out fine, other times it doesn’t.
What really makes the characters though is that there are assholes in the Exofleet and their allies, as well as Neo Sapiens who don’t agree with the war at all. The good guys aren’t all white knights and the bad guys aren’t all demons. In season 1 there’s Captain Matthew Marcus who really isn’t suited for leading a war but thinks the Admiral isn’t getting the job done so he arranges a mutiny so they can retake Earth directly. He’s a man misguided by impatience and lack of tactical ability, which almost gets the entire fleet wiped-out and has him say some fantastic final words to cap off the season. We see characters like him, who don’t agree with what’s happening around them. That leads to some great conflict and drives the show a cut above others since it’s not afraid to show how bad the good guys are and that the bad guys aren’t all terrible.
The other thing that does that is the show’s willingness to really go there in terms of the effects of war, people die. When E-Frames and ships blow up there isn’t a parachute after the explosion showing they’re all okay. When they explode there are people inside that die, no one gets out of the war unscathed. A member of Able Squad has to bury her entire family; we see them lose friends and allies giving the series a very unsafe factor when it comes to characters. It is not treated lightly or glossed over.
Now with all that being said the series has its share of problems. The animation is mid 90s level quality, as in all over the place. There is little consistency between episodes with frequent off model and colouring mistakes. The fights aren’t that dynamic, and are hardly the best you’ll ever see. Sometimes the animation errors make it hard to tell who has been shot and how many troops are in the squads. But what’s really weird is the 90s era designs for the characters and mechs. The mechs are more designed by a toymaker than an animation designer, or at least the approvals process was by a toymaker. The characters are a blend of 90s overcomplicated designs and comic book level silliness. The Exosquad seems to be the only military outside of G.I.Joe that doesn’t have a set dress code. Uniforms and even haircuts are all over the place leading to a very punk-ish looking military force. Just take a look at some of them:
Very 90s in every way. I don’t think the designs needed to have that much overcompliaction to them and it does date the series as much as the animation.
The story does have its problems too, mainly pacing issues. Season 1 was just three giant multiparters that felt very rushed in parts to set things up, especially at the beginning. Season 2 on the other hand had a more relaxed pace with arcs and a larger ongoing narrative rather than set multiparters. There were pacing problems within those episodes at times too, with the 90s problem of trying to shove far too much into an episode at times leading to rather rushed endings and things no dwelt on as much as they could’ve been. There are also many science problems, especially in regards to space. Sometimes they are fine, at least for regular science fiction series such as Star Wars or Star Trek, but others are just ridiculous. Take what happens with Mars in the end, which I wouldn’t spoil but it just shows that while the writers may be good with war history they aren’t as great with the sciences. There’s also the fact that lasers seem to blow up anything they touch, except for people who they might stun or kill without damaging them physically. It is standard cartoon logic but with a series willing to kill off many characters I expected a little better.
This is a great series, an overlooked classic in many respects and a true product of its time. I’d eagerly recommend it if you’re a fan of action cartoons or want to see something that isn’t done a whole lot in cartoon series. It’s very much a response to Anime, using the best of their style of storytelling but in a more Western approach. If you can get past the animation flubs and the pacing problems of the first season the ending of the first and the entire second season are truly magnificent TV. The first season is available on DVD in America and it is all available on Hulu in America.