Pokémon Paparazzi – The Ultimate Test – The Breeding Centre Secret
Ash’s location: Belarus.
These episodes happened. They were a thing. Let’s talk about them.
One day, as the kids are eating, Ash glimpses what he takes for a rifle scope poking out of some nearby grass. Thinking quickly, he knocks Misty and Brock down and summons Squirtle to flush out the gunman… who turns out to be just an egotistic young photographer named Todd. Todd quickly gets over the misunderstanding and invites everyone back to his cottage for pancakes. He tries to get some shots of Pikachu eating, but Pikachu gets nervous and fries him. He explains that he refuses to take pictures of Pokémon posing, since his art is to capture a Pokémon’s natural image – and, far more strangely, is only interested in Ash’s camera-shy Pikachu. When the group leaves, Todd follows stealthily, but Ash playfully springs into all of his shots, and complains that Todd is being disrespectful to Pikachu’s feelings. He persists, since he was hired to ‘capture’ Pikachu by a tearful old couple, figuring they must have once owned a Pikachu themselves. When Ash and the others fall into a pitfall trap (courtesy of the ‘old couple’), Todd notices that Pikachu and Ash are positioned perfectly for a photo… until the bottom of the pit crumbles and Ash falls into an old aqueduct pipe. Todd leaps in after him and gets Ash to grab the end of his tripod before he is swept away, soaking the camera (so he has learnt A Valuable Lesson). Team Rocket appear and start lobbing grenades as Ash dangles over a sheer drop, but Ash twists the camera around to get them to pose, and James forgets to throw the grenade in his hand. Once Ash is rescued, Todd sets up his (spare?) camera to take a photo of himself with his new friends, but trips as he dashes to join the picture, bowling the others over and ending up with a naturalistic, unplanned scene of laughter. Todd joins the team briefly after this, and will be with us for the rest of the entry.
I couldn’t care less about this episode, and I couldn’t care less about Todd, who is a transparent tie-in to the photography game in which he stars, Pokémon Snap, though I suppose his insistence on photographing Pokémon as they appear in nature, which the episode presents in a positive light, is at least a fairly admirable way for someone in his position to do business. If there’s anything about this episode that interests me, it’s Pikachu’s reluctance to be photographed, which none of the other Pokémon Todd is offered seem to share. Pikachu has never before, in my recollection, been shown to be particularly shy or self-conscious; in fact, aside from his initial rocky start with Ash, he’s generally very friendly. Then again, he’s never been the subject of a photographic study before, and he may find Todd’s somewhat obsessive manner off-putting. Ash’s irritation at Todd for not respecting Pikachu’s wishes is, of course, entirely in-character.
In the Ultimate Test, Misty makes a suggestion to Ash: “you haven’t gotten a badge in a long time… maybe you should make another Gym Leader feel sorry for you.” Ash furiously challenges her to a battle but Todd interrupts to suggest that Ash try taking the Pokémon League entrance exam, and conducts them to a testing centre where he can sit it. Also at the centre are Nurse Joy #84, and a disguised Jessie and James. Joy tells the kids a bit more about the test: it’s an alternative way to earn membership in the Pokémon League, which is great for people who are too old, sick or busy to travel between towns for badges. The first two sections of the exam are theoretical: one section of true-or-false questions, another of pictures and silhouettes to identify (how can anyone tell the silhouette of a Jigglypuff, seen from above, from that of a Voltorb?). Ash manages to come third-to-last, out of more than five hundred candidates, ahead of only James and Jessie (who is disqualified for insulting the examiner). The third section is a three-on-three battle against the examiner, using only rental Pokémon. Ash gets off to a good start, defeating the examiner’s Flareon with a Weezing, but his Arbok tries to Wrap a Jolteon and gets filled with spikes for her trouble, and his Meowth is frozen solid by a Vaporeon. James, meanwhile, tries to take down a Graveler with a Pikachu’s Thunderbolt, and is then disqualified for calling out both his remaining Pokémon (an Ivysaur and a Charizard) at once. He refuses to return the rental Pokémon, but the examiner commands the Pokémon to turn on Jessie and James, and Ash finishes them off with his Weezing’s Explosion. Team Rocket’s presence has apparently invalidated the whole exam, and Ash is offered a chance to retake it, but can’t be bothered.
This is one of those episodes that really start me thinking. It gets me thinking because it offers a way to bypass the eight Gym battles normally necessary to become a member of the Pokémon League and compete in the Indigo tournament – in other words, to bypass what is normally the point of a good chunk of each game. There is nothing in the exam that even requires you to own Pokémon at all. Joy mentions that the exam provides a way for those hampered by age, sickness or full-time employment to join the League, but there isn’t necessarily anything that prevents someone in such a position from owning or training Pokémon – only from travelling to collect badges. In fact, the exam is very deliberately set up to strip trainers with powerful Pokémon of any advantage they might have, by forcing them to use rental Pokémon only. The implication seems to be that the exam is meant to invite people who aren’t Pokémon trainers at all to become members of the Pokémon League. This in turn implies that the League isn’t purely a sporting organisation, that it has reasons for wanting to attract hobbyists, academics, and specialists to its ranks, and that there are benefits to membership beyond simply being able to enter tournaments (just about any random ten-year-old can become a trainer, so it stands to reason that there are some restrictions on non-members… one hopes). Membership in the League may be the first step to finding employment with them, or a beneficial addition to one’s credentials in searching for other jobs (heaven knows, anyone seeking to enter the Pokémon healthcare profession would need one heck of a resume to break the Joy family’s iron grip on all the senior positions). What I mean to suggest is that the Pokémon League is responsible for general Pokémon-related affairs in Kanto, not just the practice of competitive battle, and therefore benefits by having a roster of sanctioned experts in fields such as Pokémon breeding, human-Pokémon relations, and Pokémon ecology, upon whom it can call for consultation, and who in turn benefit from enfranchisement. Pokémon trainers likely make up the bulk of the League’s membership – after all, the entrance exam is implied to be extremely challenging, and Ash scores dismally despite his generally decent knowledge of Pokémon, so it is by no means an easy way in, as Jessie and James seem to think – but it seems clear that other people with quite different interests in Pokémon are a significant minority.
As they continue their journey through a small city, the kids see an advertisement for a breeding centre that claims to be able to evolve Pokémon. Todd says that centres like this are the newest big thing, so Ash decides to check it out. The woman working the front desk gives a ludicrous spiel about “Pokémon love power! Love love love!” but people seem to be getting results, so Misty decides to leave Psyduck there to see if they can’t knock some sense into him. Soon afterward, the kids meet a restaurant owner who’ll give a free meal to anyone who can show him his favourite Pokémon… Psyduck. Misty decides to double back to the breeding centre and, finding it closed, the kids slip in the back door. All the Pokémon, including Psyduck, are caged in a dark room. As Todd starts taking pictures to document what’s happening, the kids overhear the centre’s owners in the next room gloating over their plan to steal all these Pokémon. As Misty attempts to free Psyduck, Jessie and James arrive to steal some Pokémon themselves, and the ensuing argument attracts the attention of the owners, Butch and Cassidy, Jessie and James’ hyper-competent rivals with far higher standing in Team Rocket. The duos start quarrelling, and the kids slip away, but the centre’s security system cages everyone except for Misty, Pikachu and Togepi. Jessie and James are caught as well trying to retrieve a Victreebel, which supposedly belongs to James… even though we’ve never seen it before… and it promptly begins a long-running gag by trying to eat its trainer… Anyway. Butch and Cassidy call the police, and Officer Jenny #319 arrests everyone. Misty, however, returns the next day in disguise and distracts Cassidy so Pikachu can slip inside and grab Todd’s camera, which she uses to prove Butch and Cassidy’s guilt. The breeding centre is shut down and the kids all go to the restaurant for their free lunch. Finally, Todd leaves the group to go climb some mountains, but not before finally pointing Ash in the direction of Cinnabar Island.
There’s no single theme I really want to draw attention to in this episode, but there are a couple of little points, so I’ll comment on each. The breeding centre, first of all, is interesting. How do Butch and Cassidy actually run this place without being caught? They could probably delay people who asked for their Pokémon back, possibly for days, but eventually someone would surely grow suspicious. We do see them handing Pokémon back to trainers, so obviously they don’t steal everything. The centre is marketed towards people who are too busy to exercise and pamper their Pokémon, so it’s possible they target people who could go for weeks before getting concerned. When that happens, they claim to have lost the paperwork… and only once several people are seriously annoyed do they pack up and vanish with all the Pokémon. It seems possible that some amateur trainers might neglect their Pokémon to an extent if they think the breeding centre is taking care of things; indeed, when Misty first decides to leave Psyduck in the breeding centre, Ash suggests that she’s just trying to ditch him. Misty, interestingly, insists that she caught Psyduck and she’s going to stick with him; she just wants to see if the breeding centre can accomplish anything with him in a couple of days. This is interesting because – remember – Misty didn’t catch Psyduck at all. He just… kinda climbed into her empty Pokéball. Despite this, and although she doesn’t really like him very much, Misty apparently does feel responsible for Psyduck. For better or worse, he came to her and she is his trainer, and that is just the world she lives in and has to accept, which I think is an interesting perspective and testifies, if nothing else, to Misty’s stubbornness. Finally, Butch and Cassidy. I like these two. Unlike Jessie and James, they’re actually credible villains, and generally presented as coming near to success with their fairly intelligent plans. In that, they fulfil the same dramatic function that Jessie and James would, much later, come to fill in their scarily competent Unova incarnations (and, similarly, they don’t appear all that often; overexposure would make their defeats stand out a little too much). I think I may bring them up again in the Viridian Gym episode, but for now, I’d just like to point out their importance in demonstrating that Team Rocket as a whole is in fact a very real danger.
So, yeah. These episodes happened. They were a thing. That is all.