Look! It Moves! by Adi Tantimedh #67: Comfort Sci-Fi

Posted by September 27, 2010 Comment

Stumbled on a cartoon series adaptation of the long-running French comic series VALERIAN on Crunchyroll.com this weekend and indulged in some of that other Science Fiction that the French do well.

I think a lot of us gave come to associate French Science Fiction with the sex-&-psychedelic visions of Moebius, the hysterical anarcho-fascist messianic fantasies of Jodorowsky, the political dystopicas of Enki Bilal (with or without writer Pierre Christian), but there’s a series that’s been around since 1967 that everyone in France knows but few in the English-speaking world do.

VALERIAN, AGENT SPATIO-TEMPOREL is pretty much the French answer to DOCTOR WHO, God knows the series has been around nearly as long.  Valérian, the hero, is a time agent for a benign UN-style organization from the future whose brief is to safeguard interplanetary relations across both Time and Space less via covert ops or dirty tricks than sensible dialogue and diplomatic discussion.  Espionage is only a last resort.  Valérian’s red-haired partner and love interest Laureline is a former troubadour and street performer plucked from 11th Century France and trained as a fellow time agent.  She’s not his sidekick but his equal, sometimes smarter than him, often more unflappable and streetwise than he is, though Valérian is no goofball but a savvy operator himself under the wise-cracking happy-go-lucky exterior.

The stories follow a similar dynamics as DOCTOR WHO: aliens as metaphors for vices, anxieties and avarices, caught in political situations that reflect those in real life: colonialism, genocide, the plight of refugees, invasions, racism, assassinations and so on.  And like DOCTOR WHO, Valérian and Laureline win not by outfighting the bad guys but by outsmarting them. The ethos is the same type of progressive liberalism that DOCTOR WHO always espoused.  The series has always been PG at most, though the stories are so dense it would take a very smart child to be read them. It manages to somehow stay on the light side despite the serious themes at play.  Even DOCTOR WHO is darker, more violent and more raunchy than the series ever was.  It may be satirical in its commentary, but it doesn’t have the black mercilessness that, say, 2000AD is defined by.  The fact that VALERIAN can deal with dark things happening without getting gloomy is a mark of how well-written and subversive it is.  In over forty years, lots has happened in the series, including the loss of the temporal agency itself and even Earth’s disappearance after a mess-up of the timelines, but Valérian and Laureline have stayed the same: plucky, determined and with a light touch even as they end up working as freelancers and mercenaries to keep going.  It has a kind of whimsical tone without being overly emphatic that I find uniquely French.

I didn’t know there was a recent anime series that ran from 2007 to 2008 until I came across it this weekend.  TIME JAM – VALERIAN AND LAURELINE ran for 40 episodes and basically does MOONLIGHTING IN SPACE with Valérian and Laureline meeting cute in 11th Century France before returning to the future to find the Earth has disappeared, and the series-long arc has them trying to solve the mystery while taking on jobs as freelancer mercenaries, spies, investigators and negotiators.  What’s notable is that the animation was done by a Japanese studio while scripted and directed by French staffers, giving the series an anime look but without the histrionics or over-the-top comedy of anime.  What’s especially notable is that the cast of the English language dub is entirely British, giving the show a wholly European feel and pretty much announcing that it’s not like any US series where you expect big space battles and life-and-death melodramas, even as the plots get crazy and fully of Science Fiction loopiness.  The Valérian and Laureline of the show also bicker more than in the comics version, following the TV and movie convention of screwball lovers who won’t admit they fancy each other by continuously driving each other crazy.

The VALERIAN series hasn’t been anywhere as successful a global franchise as DOCTOR WHO, but its influence has been seeping into popular culture for over 30 years.  Much of STAR WARS was influenced by the series, the Millenium Falcon’s design was inspired by Valérian’s ship.  At one point, Laureline wears a slavegirl costume that ended up being worn by Princess Leia in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and even Valérian got frozen in a block of ice before Han Solo did.  Artist Jean-Claude Mezieres went on to create designs for Luc Besson’s THE FIFTH ELEMENT and the city scapes and especially the air taxes are very reminiscent of the vehicles in VALERIAN.  Luc Besson’s company Eurocorps also went on to produce TIME JAM – VALERIAN AND LAURELINE.

The VALERIAN books have not had much luck getting published in English.  Three of the early ones from the late Sixties were published in the early 1980s in editions where the pages fell apart once you opened the books.  iPublishing published three of the fairly recent ones back in 2005 but went out of print when the company went out of business.  The supposedly final installment of VALERIAN was apparently published in France this year, and the UK-based publisher Cinebooks is publishing the series starting from the beginning this September, so hopefully we’ll finally get to read the original version on top of watch the anime series.

VALERIAN VOL. 1: THE CITY OF THE SHIFTING is published by Cinebooks and available from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk. All 40 episodes of TIME JAM – VALERIAN AND LAURELINE can be streamed from http://www.crunchyroll.com

Stuck in time at lookitmoves@gmail.com

© Adisakdi Tantimedh

(Last Updated September 27, 2010 11:01 am )

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