The March of the Exeggutor Squad – The Problem with Paras – Attack of the Prehistoric Pokémon
Ash’s location: Belgium.
I have way too much to talk about in this entry so I’ll just get going.
Ash, Pikachu, Misty and Brock find a carnival! Hooray! Ash and Brock promptly get changed into… I don’t even know. Frills. Misty and Pikachu, in a fit of embarrassment, ditch them and run into a down-on-his-luck magician named Melvin and his Pokémon partner, an Exeggcute. Misty foolishly agrees to fill in as his beautiful assistant for a little while… and is mortified when Ash and Brock turn up to watch the show. Melvin has zero stage presence, lacklustre juggling skills, and a fire spell that singes the audience and sets off the tent’s sprinkler system, causing everyone to leave in disgust. Ash tells Melvin not to give up, and devises his own magic act by stuffing his Pokémon into a chest and pretending to conjure fire and water. Misty watches in mock amazement until Charmander accidentally sets the others on fire and the whole thing dissolves into chaos. Ash notes that Exeggcute doesn’t do much… so the Pokémon uses Hypnosis to turn Ash into Melvin’s obedient mind-slave. They run off into the nearby Leaf Forest, without Brock and Misty, where Ash helps Melvin to capture a herd of Exeggutor, so he can brainwash people into… enjoying his magic show. Dream big, Mel. Dream big. Team Rocket appear and capture the ineffectual magician, and his Exeggcute evolves to save him, but unfortunately his newfound powers drive the other Exeggutor insane and start a stampede. By the time Misty and Brock find Ash and get him back to the carnival, the ringmaster has planted a bomb to destroy the rampaging Exeggutor before they cause too much harm. Ash quickly realises that only Charmander’s fire can snap them out of their trance, but Charmander isn’t strong enough to deal with all of them at once. Misty convinces Melvin that his fire spell WILL work if he really tries, and he does, and it does. The stampede ends, the Exeggutor go home, un-exploded, and Charmander is rewarded for his perseverance by evolving into Charmeleon.
I really have only a couple of minor points to bring up for this episode. The first is that Hypnosis, which in the games just puts Pokémon to sleep, is used here (as in some other episodes) as a mind-control power. The fact that a power of this nature exists is clearly awesome, if a little worrying. The second is that Melvin’s Exeggcute apparently manages to evolve without the use of a Leaf Stone, as did, presumably, all the other Exeggutor in the herd. No-one questions this at the time; Ash is too stoned to care, Melvin probably doesn’t know how Exeggcute are supposed to evolve anyway, and Brock and Misty aren’t there. I can think of three explanations for this. 1) The writers screwed up… and, let’s be honest, this one has Occam’s Razor on its side here. 2) Stones aren’t the only way to make Pokémon that use them evolve; they’re just the easiest way, which, of course, massively affects the arguments in play in Electric Shock Showdown and the Battling Eevee Brothers. 3) The area is named the “Leaf Forest” because there are actually Leaf Stones buried there, or crushed and mixed through the soil, or something similar, and these unusual conditions allow Grass Pokémon to evolve there when they wouldn’t otherwise be able to (years later, it was established in an episode of the Johto series that Leaf Stones and Sun Stones can in fact remain potent if crushed and distributed on the wind, though obviously the writers of this episode didn’t know that yet). You may decide for yourself which seems most likely.
A few days later, near a hick town called Mossgreen Village, Meowth succumbs to a terrible fever. Jessie and James shrug; “he’s got eight lives left.” They are approached by a woman called Cassandra, who admonishes them for not taking better care of him and gives them some powerful medicine to cure the fever. Meowth, who has a bit of a human fetish, immediately falls in love with her. Later, looking for a Pokémon Centre and finding none, Ash himself meets Cassandra and learns she has a problem. Cassandra and her grandmother run a small shop selling herbal medicines, and she wants her Paras to evolve into a Parasect so she can use his spores in creating new miracle potions, but he’s too cowardly to fight, and can’t gain any experience points. Ash tries to challenge Cassandra and throw the match, but even the tiniest spark from Pikachu and the gentlest spray of water from Squirtle send Paras reeling… and then Ash tries Charmeleon. Charmeleon has no interest in toning things down and chases Paras off with a Flamethrower. In the woods, Paras falls in with Meowth. Meowth thinks that Cassandra will love him if he helps Paras, and drags Jessie and James into the scheme with promises of the vast wealth Cassandra’s miracle potion will bring. He quietly sabotages Arbok and Weezing when they battle Paras, and then pretends to faint from a gentle poke. Drunk on Exp., Paras goes to challenge Pikachu to a rematch, which Pikachu throws once again, this time successfully. Charmeleon remains unruly, but Team Rocket show up to cheer for Paras, who manages to stab Charmeleon into submission and evolves into Parasect at last, before finishing Charmeleon off with Spore. Unfortunately for Meowth, Cassandra refuses to take him on as the mascot of her company – she could never break up his team! Besides, her grandmother has just dragged in a random wild Persian that will serve just as well.
The Problem with Paras is a weird episode. It’s one of a scant handful of episodes that explicitly mention “experience points,” and seems to go out of its way to imply that they work exactly the same way as they do in the games, which is so counterintuitive it becomes absurd. How on earth is Paras ‘gaining experience’ or becoming stronger in any concrete sense by repeatedly having his ass saved by Meowth in his battles with Arbok and Weezing? The whole thing seems like a reference to the way we normally train weak Pokémon in the games – if you switch a Pokémon out of a battle, it will still gain an equal share of experience points, however little time it spent actually fighting (if any), but I doubt anyone thinks of this as anything more than an abstraction designed to simplify gameplay. I am convinced that this episode is actually a stealth parody of the whole concept of experience points. The repeated direct references to “experience points” are just so blatant, so far out of step with the series, and draw so much attention to the absurdity of what they’re doing that I really don’t see how they can be meant seriously. What’s actually going on here, then? The episode becomes far less logic-defying when viewed through the lens of evolution being a largely psychological phenomenon, which has always been hinted to be the case. Paras isn’t kept from evolution by needing more of some kind of abstract ‘points’ which are accrued when a Pokémon is formally declared the winner of a battle; he’s kept from evolution by a major psychological block, born of his own conviction that he is a poor fighter. When Paras appears to defeat Arbok, Weezing, Meowth and Pikachu, these false victories – although they do nothing to increase his actual strength – allow him to imagine himself as a winner (this remains true even if Paras is actually aware, subconsciously, that his victories are being staged; it’s still possible for him to become immersed in the fantasy). The lucky shot he gets in against Charmeleon finally pushes him over the threshold, causing him to realise that there’s no physical reason for him not to have evolved a long time ago.
So, now that we’ve seen Charmander become Charmeleon, and his reaction to his newfound powers, let’s see how he gets the rest of the way. It all starts when Ash runs into Gary, who has joined in a Pokémon Fossil Rush at Grandpa Canyon. Because Ash and Gary compete over everything, Ash joins the dig as well. Team Rocket are lurking nearby as well, and planning to dynamite the whole place so they can scoop up the fossils at their leisure. Ash finds them and, one botched explosion later, he, Pikachu, Jessie, James and Meowth are trapped in an underground cavern, surrounded by supposedly extinct Pokémon. Pikachu’s electrical powers prove ineffective against the fossil Pokémon, so Ash brings out Charmeleon… who settles down for a nap. Luckily, the fossil Pokémon hear something that scares them off. Unluckily, that something is an Aerodactyl, who clocks Charmeleon on the head, grabs Ash, and breaks out through the roof of the cave, with Pikachu and Charmeleon clinging to his tail. Once they’re on the surface, Charmeleon challenges Aerodactyl, who just taunts him and flies away with Ash. Charmeleon decides he will take no more of this; he wants his wings NOW. He evolves into Charizard and pursues Aerodactyl through the sky, sniping him with Flamethrowers. Ash is overjoyed until he realises that Charizard will happily write him off as collateral damage. Misty realises the same thing, finds Jigglypuff, and convinces her to sing Aerodactyl and Charizard down. Aerodactyl drops Ash and falls back into the caverns, while Charizard grabs Ash as he falls and sets him down on the ground before falling asleep himself. When everyone wakes up, Officer Jenny #869 declares that IT WAS ALL A DREAM AND WE ARE SHUTTING DOWN THE SITE NOW BECAUSE OF REASONS. Ash remembers, though… and suddenly has a mysterious red- and blue-spotted egg in his possession…
First things first: this episode is basically the poster child for evolution being triggered by psychological factors. There is no way Charmeleon has gotten from level 16 to level 36 in three episodes; he evolves not by gaining experience but through a supreme act of will, brought on by his overwhelming desire to reduce Aerodactyl to cinders. What I really want to talk about, though, is Charmeleon’s character development. Ash is astonished by Charmeleon’s sudden disobedience in the Problem with Paras, which Cassandra’s grandmother puts down to Ash’s own insufficient skill and Charmeleon’s lack of respect for him. It’s true that, by game logic, Charmeleon is an ‘outsider’ and can’t be expected to obey Ash past a certain level, but considering Ash’s strong relationship with his Pokémon, and the fact that Charmander was always so nice, it’s still a striking turnaround. There is a hint at the end of March of the Exeggutor Squad that Charmeleon is going to be quite a handful, but I think the problem really starts in the next episode. Charmeleon has just evolved, and was already Ash’s strongest Pokémon aside from Pikachu. He was probably expecting to face ever stronger opponents in his new form… but instead, for his very first battle after evolving, Ash sends him against a cowardly weakling Paras, and tells him to go easy on it. I think he found this unbelievably insulting, and was still in a bad mood when Ash called on him in Grandpa Canyon. When he was able to evolve into Charizard all on his own, he came to the conclusion that he simply didn’t need Ash anymore, and decided to act accordingly until Ash was prepared to treat him with more respect. Notably, though, he does have the presence of mind to catch Ash when Aerodactyl drops him, and bring him safely to the ground, even as he’s drifting off to sleep himself. He still regards Ash as his human, and clearly still feels he has some responsibility to him. I suggested in a recent entry that Ash’s relationship with his Pokémon has an almost parent/child cast to it; this works with relatively few problems when his Pokémon are small and cuddly, but grows problematic when they take on more mature, powerful forms. It takes sixty episodes before he and Charizard finally start working as a team again.