Well. Here it is. We have arrived at what is officially the first "filler" episode of the Pokemon anime. This is the first time in Ash's adventures that he doesn't encounter a character/location from the video games or obtain a new Pokemon. Don't get me wrong, I don't subscribe to the philosophy that equates all filler episodes with terribleness. Some of my absolute favorite episodes are technically filler – after all, the whole point of the anime is to expand upon the story from the games, so it stands to reason that there would be plenty of adventures outside the confines of the restrictive video game storyline. Unfortunately, the writers would eventually fall prey to the comfort of formulaic episode plots: Ash meets a character of the day and/or a Pokemon with a problem, Team Rocket tries to steal Pokemon, Ash defeats Team Rocket and solves the problem. Rinse. Wash. Repeat.
Anyway, this is our first foray into filler land, so let's get to it, shall we?
Our hero, Ash Ketchum, is fresh off of his second gym "victory" in three episodes, and wants everyone to know about it. Unfortunately, while Pallet Town's village idiot may have learned how to count to the number two, he still has no idea where he is headed next. His red-headed stalker/girlfriend Misty angrily informs him, for what appears to be the umpteenth time, that they are headed to "Vermilion City" home to a luxury cruise ship that Misty is just dying to see. "We won't have time for sightseeing!" declares Ash, advocating the exact opposite philosophy that will guide his future travels through Johto – after all, Ash is still setting a slower pace than his arch rival and secret nephew, Gary Oak. But that all changes when wise mentor Brock chimes in, "I've heard there's a great gym in Vermilion."
A gym?! Oh boy!
With the promise of more Pokemon battles ahead, there is nothing that can slow Ash down now.
...except more Pokemon battles of course. The scene quickly cuts to the end of a one-sided fight between Ash's mighty Pidgeotto and a Rattata belonging to some dumb kid who is clearly supposed to represent the Youngster trainer class from the games (I wonder if his shorts are comfy and easy to wear?)
This win is apparently Ash's tenth victory in a row (is he including his two gym "victories"?), and as he revels in the youthful praise of the Youngster, Ash's manages to accidently-on-purpose flash his two gym badges to the awe-filled reverence of his vanquished young foe.
Oh, these badges?
The Youngster informs Ash that there is a trainer named AJ nearby with his own (unlicensed!) Pokemon gym, who has never lost a single match! Our haughty hero responds with derision, claiming that this AJ has never come across the likes of him before (that's true – it's not every day that you come across the mentally-impaired love-spawn of the forbidden passion between a world-renowned Pokemon expert and his next-door neighbor). Misty sardonically notes that Ash is getting a big head, to which Brock sagely responds, "but his brain's still the same size!"
Unwilling to admit there might be Pokemon trainers capable of defeating him, Ash rushes off to track down this AJ with Misty and Brock in tow. They come to a giant spiked wooden fence with a circus tent inside, which according to a terribly digitally altered sign is home to AJ's unlicensed gym. (A note from Nintendo: do not try and set up your own Pokemon gyms. We will sue you.)
Misty notes that 98 wins is quite a lot – almost ten times as many as Ash has. This use of math seems to have unnerved our brainless hero, and he angrily responds that he "goes for quality, not quantity!" (a line that he will undoubtedly try to use again on their wedding night...)
Our heroes soon encounter AJ himself – a black and green haired tubster with the loudest shirt this side of Don Cherry. AJ asks Ash which Pokemon he will choose for AJ's 99th victory – and it takes Ash's brain a bit to process the insult behind the words. Our hero starts to mock AJ when he learns that señor tubby won't even start to challenge gyms until after his 100th victory. Ash's nose grows to Pinocchio-sized proportions as he brags about the two gym badges he already has. "Did you buy those badges or steal 'em?" AJ asks, "either that or you competed in some loser gyms. Where were they, Failure City or Whimpsville?"
Apparently Brock and Misty take offense to this characterization.
AJ calls out his star Pokemon – Sandshrew. Both Brock and Misty warn Ash that Pikachu won't do much against this Ground-type, but our dim-witted hero snaps that he knows what he is doing and tags Pidgeotto again. In theory Ash has the type advantage, and he smugly chuckles how it's too bad that Sandshrew can't fly...
Until it does.
Responding only to the sound of AJ's whip, Sandshrew quickly sweeps through both Ash's loyal pigeon, and the unnecessarily shrill Butterfree. Beginning to panic, Ash turns to Pikachu – who after seeing what happened to its pals Pidgeotto and Butterfree is having none of this battle. So as Ash yanks on his electric rat's tail, and Pikachu clings to the edge of the battle area, Brock and Misty begin to slowly back away, anticipating the violent electric discharge that soon follows. (I miss douchey fat Pikachu so much.)
But even as Ash's Pinocchio nose has snapped off, something more important is hiding in the canopy of some nearby trees – it's Team Rocket! They are somewhat impressed with AJ's Sandshrew, although Meowth points out that it looks fat and that Jessie and James should carry it. But the fabulous fashionistas are more engrossed in the aesthetics of the battle they just witnessed. Jessie can't believe that AJ goes out in public dressed as he is – his outfit is "positively hideous!" James is equally unforgiving, bitchily noting that his shirt looks like it is from a "century or two ago" and that he would feel right at home in a museum. Although New York wise-guy Meowth can't help but aside that "at least he doesn't look like he's trick-or-treating like you do," with painful results. (Ahh… unabashedly gay James and human-on-Pokemon violence – how I miss you Original Series!)
Ash's response to his first televised loss since the Pewter Gym is … less than magnanimous. He starts crying like the immature child that he is and begs AJ for a rematch, then quickly decides that something about the gym arena must be rigged – after all Butterfree never lost before (except against Misty), and flying Pokemon should always have the advantage over Ground-types! (Did you ever consider that Butterfree simply just sucks?) AJ brushes Ash aside and returns to the confines of his circus high-top, where the sounds of angry yelling soon emanate. Pushing his way inside, our dim-witted hero comes across the horrific sight of Pokemon inside crude looking straight jackets engaged in feats of strength with one another – with AJ at the center of it all literally whipping his Sandshrew to get back in the swimming pool. Well! Self-appointed defender-of-all-Pokemon Ash Ketchum cannot let this stand (plus how could AJ buck tradition and skip right to the feats of strength without first participating in the airing of the grievances?!), so he charges at AJ and tackles him into the swimming pool. (This is the kind of male locker room horseplay that is sure to attract James' attention) AJ begrudgingly explains that Sandshrew is not being tortured, it is wearing a "strength-intensifier" of his own invention (presaging the Macho Brace by several generations), and it is swimming to acclimate itself to water and help it nullify its natural weakness to Misty's favorite kind of Pokemon.
AJ orders Sandshrew to pick up its pacing, and the Mouse Pokemon curls up into a ball that is headed back and forth by a group of Rattata. Ash angrily interjects that he thought AJ said "pacing, not passing!", which elicits a groan from Misty and Brock. Pikachu helpfully offers its trainer a pillow, because, well even Dogasu's not too sure, but if Ash knows one thing it's that he said padding – I mean pacing! (Kudos to 4Kids for actually making something out of this Japanese non-sequitur when it would have been much easier to just cut this segment out of the dub entirely.)
Despite AJ's explanations about he and Sandshrew's training techniques and their quest to become the greatest Pokemon/trainer combination of all time (Hey, that's Ash's thing!), our hero still isn't satisfied. He turns to cool-older-brother Brock for support, asking if there isn't anything the squinty-eyed gym leader wants to say to AJ. "I do," responds Brock. "You're Pokemon are all in great shape, what kind of food do you feed them?"
But as Brock and AJ prattle on about the merits of proprietary Pokemon chow blends, Team Rocket is outside faced with an existential crisis – should they dump the motto and replace it with a song and dance routine? Meowth opines that everyone loves "meuthic," and being the true artistes that they are, Jessie and James are obliged to try and think through the costuming and choreography necessary to put on a show commensurate with their artistic talents.
Meanwhile, back in the tent, Ash still isn't finished arguing with AJ and espousing his patented line about loving his Pokemon above anything else. The two literally come to blows, and for the second time today Ash and AJ end up wrestling in the pool. Well, the combination of two underage boys, wet t-shirts, and wrestling has proved irresistible to James, and he quickly arrives with the rest of his Team Rocket compadres inside of a giant red ball with a hole in one end (ah yes, the land before mechas…). Pikachu has made the unwise decision to try on Sandshrew's strength-intensifier, which has forced the yellow chubster into a curled-up ball. Sandshrew sniggers and mimics this posture, which causes Team Rocket all kinds of problems. Never the brightest bulbs in the light fixture at the best of times, our villains are unable to distinguish one curled-up rodent from the other and grab AJ's Sandshrew by mistake. No one seems to notice when Team Rocket's ball suddenly sprouts two pairs of legs and stumbles out of the tent, but when the bell rings to signal the end of the training break, AJ immediately spots his missing Sandshrew. Ash believes this to be proof positive that AJ's Pokemon despise his harsh training methods, but something much more important is taking place outside.
Team Rocket is busy clamoring up a hill, but James has been stuck with the task of lugging the Sandshrew sack, and he informs Jessie that he is exhausted and that she should carry the bag now. "But a real gentleman always carries the bag," says Jessie coyly, letting us know how she prefers her men – subservient. "Is that so!" responds James, "well as you know, I'm no gentleman!" (Double entendres are the best kind of entendres) James took his first tentative step out of the closet last episode, and he has added yet another bundle of sticks (or dare I say "faggot") to the growing pyre of his own flamingness.
Unfortunately for our beautiful baddies, all their squabbling has given Sandshrew an opening to escape. It burrows underground with Meowth clamped to its tail, taking the semi-conscious Scratch Cat along for the ride. Sandshrew returns to the big top where Ash is trying in vain to recruit AJ's Pokemon to defect. Upon seeing how glad AJ and Sandshrew are to see one another, our dim-witted hero is forced to grudgingly admit that maybe AJ and his Pokemon do love one another. Meanwhile, Pikachu is vigorously trying to steal the ancient Japanese coin that is growing out of Meowth's head.
Meowth comes to after Ash picks him up by the tail, and gives Pallet Town's village idiot a Scratch to the face for good measure. Brock wisely surmises that it was Team Rocket who stole Sandshrew, and Meowth finds himself cornered by both the twerps and AJ, with no prospect of escape until…
Prepare for trouble…
…and make it double!
Team Rocket is back! Meowth encourages Jessie and James to "use the old motto!", even though they never did come up with a replacement. It doesn't matter though, hearing the sacred Team Rocket motto is enough to bring tears to the eyes of any TR fan. It is a classic, after all. Our voluptuous villains inform the green-haired tubster that they have no interest in his lame old Sandshrew, they're only interested in Pikachu. AJ refuses to hear any slander against his illegal gym, and immediately challenges Team Rocket to step outside to the battlefield, and Jessie and James accept for some reason, overestimating as usual their battling abilities.
AJ declares to Sandshrew that Team Rocket will provide them with their one hundredth victory, an application of basic math that seems to have once again befuddled Ash's puny brain, "one hundredth… ?" Team Rocket does apparently have enough sense to realize that if they are going to win then they are going to have to cheat. Jessie calls out her Ekans and James, oh my – ERIC STUART IS HERE!
It's finally happened! With not-quite eight episodes of the anime in the books, James has finally found a voice actor capable of liberating his fabulous spirit. The days of evil Tracey Sketchit are over! All hail Gaymes, in all his squealing effeminate glory!
Unfortunately, not even a proper voice actor can save James and his comrades. Sandshrew twists Ekans into knots and easily repels Koffing's poisonous goo. Meowth seems more intent in merrily chasing the balled-up Sandshrew around the battlefield so Jessie decides to resort to terrible puns to sway the tide of battle. "Stop pussy-footing around!" she tells the Scratch Cat. "Just biting my time!" declares Meowth before chomping down on Sandshrew – and getting a free NHL-style dental job in the process. "The moment of tooth!"
AJ tires of messing around and calls on Sandshrew to use Fissure – creating a brand new rift in the Earth's tectonic plates! (We won't see the likes of that in the anime today…) That is a use of the Viridian Gym's signature technique that is sure to make Giovanni smile.
Strangely enough, Ash actually allows Team Rocket to run away unmolested after they drag themselves out of the chasm that Sandshrew just created – he is not yet feeling the murderous urge to zap them full of thousands of volts worth of electricity every episode. Our hero even offers to let AJ join his traveling party now that the tubster is finally ready to take on the Pokemon gym challenge. But strangely enough, it seems that there are actually gym leaders (albeit unlicensed ones) that don't want to follow Ash around, and so Ash and AJ promise to meet again some day, a promise that Ash will break with every other character of the day that he will ever meet. (Although he and Samurai do get to make a cameo appearance in the Electric Tale of Pikachu manga) And with that, Ash is off to take part in his next great adventure.
Final thoughts: For a Season One episode, this one is a stinker. That being said, I would still rather watch all of my low rated Season One and Two episodes in a loop than any of their counterparts today. There are still a good number of interesting things that happened today: Ash received a lesson in humility that wouldn't really sink in for a while, James provided us with some more gay humor fodder, and Eric Stuart arrived as a mid-episode voice replacement. It's not enough to make this episode a must-watch for the Original Series, but I do think it makes it more interesting than your standard modern formulaic filler. Also, if this episode hadn't been dubbed in that short period when 4Kids was still trying to somewhat faithfully translate the Japanese episode titles, I would be willing to bet almost any amount of money that this episode would be called "The Taming of the Sandshrew" or some close variation thereof.