This document is part of the Ocean Girl Archive — Last update: 2013-06-03 — sourcemeta

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“Never Seen a White Girl Swim Like You Before”

Ocean Girl (1994-1997) review

I took the biggest trip down memory lane when I decided to watch Ocean Girl this month. It’s one of those old series I watched on the Disney Channel (when Disney was invested in showing something remotely productive) that I enjoyed immensely for merely facilitating fantasies about swimming underwater without gear and playing with marine life like Charlie the Whale.

This fantasy was further facilitated by Karen Hesse’s Music of the Dolphins; a fantastic YA/Elementary novel about a young girl who lives among dolphins and is slowly domesticated back into general civilization. So to find out that Netflix’s Instant Watch managed to get the rights to the series and I could watch it at my leisure (at least until June 1st, 2013), made me incredibly happy. Unfortunately, unlike Music of the Dolphins, Ocean Girl does not hold up under the scrutiny of review and critical thinking.

From the get-go watching the series is an exercise in patience; to be sure, it was fun going back down memory lane and reliving vague memories of Saturdays and Sundays watching this series and laughing with my siblings about the utter cheese/b-movieness of it all, but my adult mind simply isn’t as engaged as I might’ve been when I was nine or ten years old. The pacing of this particular series, while not painfully slow, is borderline plodding and moreover, most of the characters really don’t endear themselves to the audience. Jason, Bret and Dianne Bates are for the most part, mildly interesting characters, but there’s nothing about their particular stake within the narrative that had me emotionally invested in anything they did.

My interest extended as far as their association with Neri and that’s about it. As the series progresses into a second and third season, their characters don’t get much better; if anything, by S3 Jason and Bret become outright obnoxious and Dianne is completely removed from the narrative altogether with a sudden change in careers that doesn’t do much to put her in the thick of the tale and the change of casting (as a result of commitment issues) results in a take on the character that feels completely different from Mrs. Bates of S2 and S1 to the point wherein they should’ve simply employed “Put her on a Bus”. The minor or secondary characters, the children that Bret and Jason communicate with on ORCA are largely forgettable because none of them are allowed to progress as characters beyond a season or two; once season one was completed, most of the characters excluding a few were allowed to stay on and soon thereafter disappear by season three, where new characters are introduced and easily forgotten as well with the exception of as the hardass Morgan Clayborn and the charming Dave Hartley.

The only characters I was glad to see go were Mick Byrne and Mera/Jane Seaforth; one was absolutely obnoxious and irredeemable in my eyes despite his problem; the other was blander than wet bread dying out on a beach (what a waste of a character), but a bland character I otherwise sympathized with because she had to deal with an older sister that had no concept of how to break someone into her lifestyle but left her hanging on the basis of “you will learn”; and later left her to help AN ENTIRE PLANET with the nondescript “THE GIFT™” on her own. The lack of continuity[1] within the show outside a few of the core actors leaves me cold and resistant to form any sort of attachment.

On the surface, the first season treated Neri (the series protagonist) like an extraordinary girl because of her circumstances; she and her father were in sort of accident that stranded them on island wherein they had to fend for themselves. The idea of a young girl who ended up surviving in the wilderness on her wits and whatever skills her father passed on to her is not unheard of, let alone a insane idea. It’s also not crazy to assume that the time she spent divorced from society would allow her to reinforce physical and mental strengths that would otherwise be assumed as impossible for humans, let alone women, to achieve at all.

(What I never believed, however, is the “Tarzan Speech” she used was as a result of her being apart from human society. Or that a society that was supposed so advanced, couldn’t learn to speak Standardized English and speak it well enough that they don’t sound like 1930s stereotypes in bad Halloween costumes.)

Then the end of the first or second season arrives with the revelation that Neri’s DNA is “not human” and said revelation later confirms that Neri is an alien from a water planet come to rescue the earth from mankind’s damage. From that point on, I basically believed Ocean Girl jumped the shark in a way that hurt its premise worse than the fourth season’s complete destruction of it. I’ve always hated this revelation because, for me, it felt like they were passive-aggressively stating that as a normal woman, regardless of her circumstances, she could not be naturally strong as she was, could not communicate with life forms like whales and moreover could not survive for as long as she had on the island unless she was abnormal or not human at all. Rewatching this again only solidifies my belief that they were invalidating her feats as a human woman by making her alien. From there, watching Ocean Girl was an exercise in patience, especially when I got to season three and was suddenly reintroduced to why, even as kid, I hated this season.

Quest for the Great MacGuffin

One of the reasons I’m guessing this particular season overstayed it’s welcome beyond the patented thirteen episode format (money aside) was the sudden revelation that Neri’s father was on a quest to save the earth using the almighty MacGuffin of the season known as the “Synchronium”; a spherical orb that was, for some odd reason, sent down to Earth (the “Opal Planet”) in pieces and various locations wherein they would be hard to find or snatched up at any moment by strangers.

Now, obviously, none of them expected their ship would crash for reasons never explained in the series up to S3, but the fact of the matter is that all of this was a bald-ass set up for the atypical “World Tour” episode arc that would take them outside of ORCA to break up the otherwise monotonous pace and non-event nature of the show. To complicate matters worse, UBRI, the antagonist organization, was made into a far worse nuisance when they also vent vying to find the pieces of the “Synchronium” as well.

The whole affair to be honest was a waste of production money and writing in my opinion. A lot of it felt purposely overlong. For whatever reason, Jason and Bret decide it’s a good idea to keep their mother out of the loop, when telling her would shortened the episode count considerably and moreover gave her something interesting to do besides bug the tribunal council and Commander Guile. Situations wherein the “ORCA Children” couldn’t possibly find out about the pieces that UBRI would have managed to get ahead of them without interference are conjured up out of the book of contrivance. Neri’s sister Mera contacts her with ambiguous messages like “There is no time” / “You must act now” instead of, you know, outright declaring “there’s a problem with the ocean, here’s what you need to find and here’s where you’ll find them”; when she arrives on Earth, she has no idea where the pieces are which makes me wonder why she was even necessary for the final five episodes or why she was contacting her at all as she was just as clueless as Neri.

The only thing it really did was reveal just how poorly put together the whole affair was. The only redeeming factor of this entire situation was the henchwoman Keller was put into relative focus where she was just a background character in S2. She turned out to be a better villain and character than the primary antagonist himself, who’s only redeeming investment in this season was the lack of a relationship he shared with his daughter, Lena, a fairly interesting character herself, whose arc was far more stimulating than the narrative it was built around. Overall, the hunt for the Blue MacGuffin is something that could’ve been omitted or shortened in exchange for what really should’ve been the focus of the season.

Nobody cares about Kal-Kal

So, in all their infinite lack of wisdom, alongside the Blue MacGuffin, the series also introduced another alien survivor named Kal. His backstory is as simple as this; he was “raised in a vacuum”, which explains jack about him or his culture and that he is a fairly intelligent mind contradicted by the fact that he has the mentality of a small child. He’s fairly detached from basic emotions, has a better understanding and respect for women than Brett or Jason do in their fairly short lives and is ignorant social Earth customs, but is eager to learn about the world around him.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t have been stuck with a lamer group of people to look to for guidance. From the episode after his introduction and onward, Kal as a character couldn’t have been more wasted. Out-of-Universe, it was pretty clear they had no idea what to do with him and how to fit him into the narrative beyond the fairly obvious. As someone whose parents were tasked to go after the Blue MacGuffin, there was a great opportunity wherein they could’ve utilized him far better than simply pointing at the screen so he could give them the exact location. They could’ve gone into the backstory of his parents and why he was the way he was. Hell, they could’ve had Diane studying him and learning more about his situation as opposed to just complaining about quakes that would be fixed with the MacGuffin, had she been allowed to participate in that plot. Anything than the jack-shit that they did with him.

In-Universe, the characters made it pretty clear that they wanted nothing to do with him. As if completely forgetting that Neri was once out-of-sorts, curious and die-hard about visiting ORCA and learning more about the human world, everyone treated Kal’s inquisitiveness and need to follow them to a new environment as a bother. Absolutely no one took the time to explain things to him; it was a dismissive sentence and line that would ultimately end with keeping him cooped up on the island and far away from their business.

The outright mistrust in Kal is further illustrated by Jason’s need to control him in much of the same fashion as he tried to control how Neri went about investigating ORCA and doing anything outside of the island. He professed without saying outright that he preferred that Kal remain ignorant of his environment because it was presumably easier to control him; once he learned of emotions – or rather fell back in touch with them – he could become an individual outside of his border of control and hard to reign in.

Bret, a character I would’ve expected would sympathize with Kal’s situation, was just as quick to dismiss and berate him for his curiosity, something he took obvious glee in whenever Neri was around once she got her way and was allowed to visit ORCA. Neri, much in the same fashion as she did with her sister Mera (only with less affection) left Kal to the winds and really made no effort to connect and communicate with him. He was only as good as the meals he could make for her friends and whenever he requested to be allowed to participate fully in their MacGuffin chase she denied him. The outright disrespect the character experiences from Neri, Jason and Brett alone is unbelievable; they showed more enthusiasm for the out-of-sorts Mera when she attempted to adjust to jungle life and later when she returned with means to help them at all.

It’s also baffling that episode after episode of inaction within the narrative itself, the only way the writers thought to include Kal was to use a damn “love triangle” subplot that went nowhere fast; Kal’s jealously comes out of nowhere. The character was never alluded to having any sort of romantic, maternal or possessive affections for Neri that would even facilitate the kind of plot that they used for him; it certainly didn’t do anything for the complete lack of a romantic relationship that Jason and Neri had with each other as the writers never thought to go through completely with that lost cause either after S1 and S2. And to be honest, I distinctly remember rooting for Kal throughout the whole time he was working for UBRI. I seriously wanted him to get back at these people who were treating him like wayside luggage, but they were so absorbed in their own little lives that they never really saw what they were doing to him.

But at the same time, as an older viewer, I realize not even UBRI did him any good either; they were, in the end, no better than Neri and the others on how they behaved around him and treated him. All of them were out to get something and they ultimately used Kal to get it, with no thought of either including him or thinking about him outside of the MacGuffin situation.

What’s even more hilarious is Mera automatically disliking and not trusting Kal when she lands on the Earth again. Part of me thought it was because she knew what was going on already, but the episode after she reappearance pretty much solidifies that Mera didn’t know diddly about the situation at all outside of “must get MacGuffin or Universe will explode” (because obviously the Earth is the center of the universe and the galaxy cannot survive without it). It’s never explained why, she’s just an outright jerk to this guy who is being no more honest with them than they are being with him. If anything Kal is an example of emotional manipulation and subject of alienation by his peers and family.

Nothing Neri and the others did included any kind of effort of helping Kal adjust and function in the world he was in; they preferred that he stayed off in the corner and when he did, harassed him until he did come out. It was only when he was gone that they appeared to give a shit about him, if only because of what he might reveal to URBI and once he was back they went right back to treating him exactly the same way as before.

As a fairly blank slate character, Kal was probably at his most interesting when he was working with UBRI. He was developing a personality, social skills and the patented art of lying to others and keeping things to himself; and he was fairly good at it. He was interesting and the effect of what the eventual betrayal would do to him would’ve been interesting. None of the characters really stopped to think about how they treated Kal may have been the reason he strayed from them willingly.

They constantly fell back on the “oh, he’s just a child, he’ll get over it”, when that really was not the entirety of the case at all. So that Kal had to forgive anything beyond giving the enemy the pieces to world domination without any of the same kindness returned to him was all sorts of absurd to me. His tale also ends rather incomplete and without closure, which doesn’t surprise me in the least.

  • “The Love Letter” sees Sally-Ann confessing that she likes Jason; Jason rejects her. Later in the season sees her again confessing that she likes him and Jason rejecting her with the added bonus of her finding out about Neri.
  • In the second season Winston the Indian Stereotype of awful sayings is shown to be able to swim just find (or at the very least tread water well enough that he can stay afloat). Suddenly, the third season renders him unable to swim at all and makes a big to do about his learning how to swim for two damn episodes.
  • The third season establishes that UBRI can find and get the Blue MacGuffin pieces faster than the OCRA crew, but for whatever reason their tracking devices suddenly have difficulties pinpointing the crashed pods that weren’t found by other people.