Electric Shock Showdown
Oh, the excitement! Ash is on a roll, and now he’s in Vermillion City for his third Gym battle! Oh… but we forgot to mention… the Vermillion Gym Leader, Lt. Surge, is a total nutcase who’s hospitalised sixteen Pokémon in the past month. Pikachu doesn’t like the idea of fighting this crazy person, but Misty taunts Ash for the two pity Badges he collected in Pewter City and Cerulean City, and that’s the end of that. Ash and Pikachu, with Brock and Misty in tow, march up to the Vermillion Gym and demand a battle with Lt. Surge, a jovial but condescending fellow who, for some reason, assumes that Misty is the challenger, even though Ash is the one standing front and centre in their group (does he really present such an unimposing figure?). Surge thinks the idea of Ash challenging him is hilarious, and laughs even louder when he sees Pikachu, calling them both “babies.” Surge calls out his own signature Pokémon: a Raichu, Pikachu’s evolved form, whose electrical powers are vastly superior to Pikachu’s. “Electric Pokémon,” Surge claims, “are only useful once they learn all their Electric attacks,” so Ash should have forced Pikachu to evolve at the first possible opportunity to maximise his power, like Surge did. Pikachu’s doubts about the battle evaporate when Surge and Raichu taunt him, and the match begins. Raichu quickly demonstrates that she has Pikachu totally outgunned, ignoring his relatively paltry Thundershocks and hitting back with a blast that nearly knocks him out cold. Pikachu doggedly keeps fighting, but Raichu just starts tossing him around the field with her superior physical strength and Ash has to surrender to keep him from being beaten up any further. While Ash and the team regroup at the Pokémon Centre, Nurse Joy #98 overhears their conversation and randomly decides to offer Ash an incredibly valuable Thunder Stone, which would evolve Pikachu into a Raichu – no strings attached, though she cautions them to think carefully about it, since evolution is irreversible. Ash doesn’t think he wants Pikachu to evolve just to fight, but decides to leave it up to him. Pikachu slaps the Thunder Stone away and gives an impassioned speech; Ash, of course, doesn’t understand a single word, but Meowth translates for Jessie and James, who are spying from the window: he wants to fight Raichu again to defend the honour of all Pikachu. Ash, with a suggestion from Brock, devises a new strategy while Pikachu recovers, and as soon as they’re both ready, they head back to the Vermillion Gym. On the way they run into Team Rocket, who have come to cheer for them – Jessie and James have realised that if Pikachu loses, then all the effort they’ve spent trying to steal him will have been a waste, so they do a strange little dance with a morale-boosting chant, then run away. These guys already have way too much emotional investment in stalking the kids and Pikachu, and we’re only a few weeks in… at this rate they’re going to be basket cases by the end of season one. Anyway, Ash and Surge have their rematch, but this time, Pikachu makes use of his one big advantage over Raichu: she has greater physical and electrical strength, but he’s a lot faster, and can evade most of Raichu’s physical attacks like Mega Punch and Body Slam. Surge gets annoyed and commands Raichu to blast the whole stadium at once with her Thunderbolt so Pikachu can’t dodge, but when the dust clears, Pikachu is… standing on his tail, perfectly unharmed, having discharged all the electricity through it and into the ground. Raichu tries to attack again, but she’s all out of power and has to go back to physical attacks. Pikachu gives her the run-around until she can’t keep fighting any longer, then finishes her off. Lt. Surge admits defeat and gives Ash his Thunder Badge, they shake hands, Ash and Pikachu celebrate, and Team Rocket wander off into the sunset, realising too late that “we wasted this episode cheering for the good guys!”
So, if you’ve been paying attention to my anime reviews so far, you’ve probably guessed that I’m interested in Electric Shock Showdown because of Pikachu’s refusal to evolve. In the end, this is how he beats Raichu – in the games, Pokémon that evolve using stones normally stop learning attacks, which is why Raichu, who evolved before learning Quick Attack or Agility, was so much slower than Pikachu. If we’re just thinking in terms of the ability to learn new attacks, though, why not evolve Pikachu after the battle? He’s already learnt the speed techniques that gave him an edge over Raichu, and (as long as we’re going by the logic of the games here) evolving won’t cause him to lose those techniques, so surely he’d have the best of both worlds? It’s plausible the anime is taking the position that Pikachu are, universally, capable of quicker and more precise movements than Raichu, which really does make a lot of sense if you just take your eyes off their in-game stats for a moment. I think it’s also plausible that Pikachu might have more endurance than Raichu; notice that, in the second match, Raichu’s pretty much done after one good Thunderbolt – she burns twice as bright, but half as long. However, tactical considerations are clearly not what’s occupying Ash’s mind when Nurse Joy offers him the Thunder Stone. In general, Ash, Brock and Misty seem to take the view that using a stone to evolve a Pokémon constitutes forcing it to evolve, which seems fair enough, on the face of it. Assuming my previous wild inferences are correct, most Pokémon evolve when they are psychologically ready for the change, which is more or less voluntary. Using a Thunder Stone or similar item, on the other hand, takes the choice out of the Pokémon’s hands and puts it firmly in the trainer’s. This is something of an ethical tangle in itself but it actually isn’t the main question here, because Ash, who doesn’t like the idea of forcing Pikachu into a massive and permanent physical and psychological metamorphosis, leaves it up to Pikachu. The main question here is why, when given the opportunity to decide for himself, does Pikachu refuse evolution?
Back in Ash Catches a Pokémon, Caterpie wanted nothing more in all the world than to become a Butterfree. As I noted at the time, though, Caterpie is, well, a caterpillar, and the whole purpose of his existence is to prepare for evolution. I suppose it’s not impossible to imagine a Caterpie who is perfectly happy being a Caterpie and never becoming an adult, but I doubt that’s common; most of them probably assume that succeeding in life entails evolution. The only other evolution we’ve seen in the series so far is Clefairy evolving into Clefable in Clefairy and the Moon Stone, which I kind of skimmed over at the time. Like Caterpie, the Clefairy are something of a weird little corner case as far as the psychology of evolution goes, because of their strange relationship with the Moon Stone, the meteor which (according to the conspiracy theorists) first brought them to Earth. The Clefairy worship the Moon Stone and perform ritualistic dances around it while singing and praying. We also see them gathering up shards of the meteor and collecting them in a central chamber around the main stone. Their reverence for the stone doesn’t seem to be related to any desire to evolve (in fact, they don’t even evolve when they hold the shards), but then again, they don’t seem to be particularly upset when they wind up Metronomesploding it into a million pieces, so I guess they took it as a consolation that a bunch of them evolved when the pieces touched them. Maybe they have a concept of fate and didn’t evolve themselves using the Moon Stone earlier because it wasn’t “the right time”? The Clefairy are inscrutable by design and trying to probe their motivations makes my head hurt, but we can at least say that they aren’t upset by the idea of evolving due to a chance event at a time not of their own choosing. I suspect they may be unique in this, though, because of their unusual relationship with their Moon Stones. In the games, Pokémon that have evolved using stones typically don’t exist in the wild; that type of evolution normally requires human intervention to bring the Pokémon and the stone together. Assuming this holds true in the anime as well (which, granted, is quite an assumption), Pikachu may not consider Raichu a natural evolution of his species, but rather a form specifically modified by humans to be better at fighting (not unlike Mewtwo – assuming Pikachu doesn’t understand the science involved, what would the difference be from his perspective?). He might even think of Raichu and other Pokémon like them as sell-outs, which would explain why the whole thing seems to be a point of pride for him.
Another, possibly complimentary, explanation is that the anime simply makes certain basic assumptions about evolution, and particularly the use of evolutionary stones, that the games do not. With the exception of The School of Hard Knocks (in which Joe has to memorise trivia like “Pidgey evolves at level 18”) the anime is generally extremely vague about the concept of “level;” it’s possible that Pokémon in the anime can, or believe they can, continue to grow stronger without limit, in which case the Thunder Stone would only be a quicker and easier way to power Pikachu would also be able to earn with hard work. Remember also Meowth’s odd comment in Ash Catches a Pokémon about Pikachu’s power “exceeding its evolutionary level;” on the one hand, yes, it’s Meowth, on the other hand, he seems to be suggesting Pikachu could be, or could become, even stronger than a Raichu. Equally, it might be the case that the stones are not the only way for Pokémon like Pikachu to evolve – or, again, that he might believe they aren’t. When you think about it, this makes a lot of sense; a species that can’t reach adulthood without access to rare substances found only in certain areas would be pretty odd, especially given that most Pokémon that use stones can’t dig for them. If this seems fishy given what we know from the games, consider that Electric Shock Showdown was made fairly early in the franchise’s life, when it might not have been at all clear which – if any – of the rules laid down in Red and Blue would remain immutable as (or, for that matter, if) the franchise matured. I think the theory is fairly consistent with Pikachu’s behaviour during and after this episode; he could use the stone to provide the surge of energy he would need to evolve right now, but believes he could eventually evolve in his own time – if he ever even needed to – and doesn’t want to take the ‘easy way out’.
Whether he is correct or not, I leave as a question for the reader.