House Gengar: Stalking the Shadows
Abra and the Psychic Showdown – The Tower of Terror – Haunter vs. Kadabra
It’s time for the Saffron Gym episodes already? Ash does the Gyms in kind of a weird order, since he doesn’t take roundabout routes through underground paths the way we do in the games to avoid pointlessly obstructive gate guards. As a result, Sabrina, normally the sixth challenge for players of the games, is Ash’s fourth. As expected, he gets curb-stomped.
Let’s laugh at him!
The thing about the Saffron Gym is that its leader is a certifiable loon. Sabrina has a split personality: a playful and childish self, outwardly manifested as a psychic projection of an incredibly creepy little girl, and an intense, heartless Pokémon trainer, both of whom possess formidable telekinetic powers. Sabrina senses Ash coming a mile away, and sends the image of her child self to lead him off a cliff. She’s kinda like that. After Ash, Brock and Misty make it to Saffron City alive and are captured by Team Rocket (in possibly the most successful day of their entire career), child Sabrina teleports in, freezes Jessie and James, retrieves Pikachu, and teleports the group right to the Saffron Gym. A passing jogger warns Ash that the leader is a total psycho, but Ash (being Ash) enters the Gym anyway. The place is practically a cult. The other psychics fear and worship Sabrina, who mind-blasts one for daring to question her, then responds to Ash’s challenge by insisting that, if he loses, they have to ‘play’ with her. Ash… still isn’t taking the hints, so Sabrina sends out her Abra. Abra rather lazily teleports around Pikachu’s attacks and then, seemingly at Sabrina’s command, evolves into Kadabra. As well as teleporting, he can now redirect attacks with Confusion, and basically make Pikachu his bitch with Psychic. Ash surrenders, and Sabrina makes good on her promise to ‘play with them’… literally, shrinking them and stuffing them into her doll’s house. Luckily, just as child Sabrina is about to crush them, the random jogger teleports in to rescue them. Once they’ve teleported outside, Ash demands that he teach him to use psychic power to even the odds against Sabrina. They argue, and the man pummels Ash with telekinesis until, impressed by Ash’s determination, he reluctantly suggests that they should travel to Lavender Town to catch a Ghost Pokémon, since only they can face Psychic-types on an even footing.
Ash is nothing if not determined, and a few days later he enters the Pokémon Tower in Lavender Town. I don’t really like the way the anime does Pokémon Tower; in the games it’s an incredibly important monumental cemetery built to honour all Pokémon, while in the anime it’s just this dingy old tower at the edge of town that people don’t talk about because it smells like old socks. Also, a Gastly, a Haunter and a Gengar live there and spend most of their time watching slapstick comedy on TV and playing silly practical jokes to mess with anyone who stops by. This… is actually really interesting. Because this episode aired so long ago, everyone has gotten used to the idea of Gastly and friends as pranksters rather than anything truly malevolent, but the idea is actually original to the anime; nothing in the games is even remotely suggestive of this kind of characterisation (for all we know, it could be just these individuals that are like that). Anyway, after Brock and Misty have been scared away by the ghosts’ tricks, Ash eventually works out that they’re more interested in comedy than horror… only to be knocked out cold by a falling chandelier. Haunter releases Ash and Pikachu’s souls from their bodies so they can fly with the Ghost Pokémon for a night. They all have a good long romp around the tower pranking each other, and poor Misty, who has no idea what’s going on, as Ash learns to see the funny side in scaring people. Eventually, though, Misty and Brock find Ash’s body, and he decides he’d better return to the world of the living, much to the disappointment of his new friends. Ash gives up on catching a Ghost-type, since they’re near-impossible to track down and aren’t interested in battling… but Haunter decides to follow Ash anyway. Together, they head back to Saffron City with renewed confidence…
… which turns out to be utterly misplaced when Haunter vanishes the moment Ash steps into Sabrina’s chamber. Ash panics and forfeits, so Sabrina turns Brock and Misty into dolls and chases after Ash as well, but the random jogger returns and teleports him out again. The jogger (actually Sabrina’s dad, though Ash never quite catches on) explains Sabrina’s backstory – her singleminded devotion to pursuing psychic power isolated her from her family, and eventually split her soul in two. He’s actually waiting for someone who can save Sabrina. While Ash goes to look for Haunter, who’s busy tormenting Team Rocket, Brock and Misty strike up a conversation with the doll next to them on the sofa – Sabrina’s mother, who’s been a doll for years, but continues to insist “please don’t think badly of Sabrina! She’s really a good daughter!” I… I’m calling PTSD. Anyway, Ash finds Haunter and returns to the gym to challenge Sabrina again… and Haunter disappears. This time Pikachu (to Ash’s tearful gratitude) voluntarily steps into the ring to keep Ash from being doll’d. Although he manages to land a good Thunderbolt on Kadabra, Kadabra just Recovers off the damage and Pikachu gets mangled as badly as the last time… until Haunter reappears. He makes no attempt to battle anything, but instead tries out his latest slapstick routine. Sabrina watches in bewilderment for a while, but eventually cracks a smile, which soon runs over into hysterical laughter. Because of their psychic link, Kadabra succumbs as well, and Sabrina’s dad declares him unable to battle. By getting Sabrina to laugh for the first time in over a decade, Haunter has managed to reunify her soul, making her give up the whole ‘psychotic cult leader’ thing. Out of gratitude, Sabrina confers the Marsh Badge on Ash and releases her ‘dolls.’ Haunter chooses to stay in Saffron City with Sabrina, and Ash, Misty and Brock go on their merry way.
Okay, remember how I thought Pokémon League oversight must be fairly slack to let Lily, Violet and Daisy get away with running the Cerulean Gym as a ballet studio? Well, I take it all back, because Cerulean City has NOTHING on this nonsense. Actually, I can sort of empathise with the Pokémon League here. When a Gym Leader is a criminally insane cult leader and the most powerful psychic of her generation, but also perfectly happy to sit around in her Pokémon Gym not bothering anyone, except for the occasional trainer too stupid to notice the warning signs… well, can you blame them for just letting her get on with it? After all, if someone tried to get rid of Sabrina, she might be provoked into leaving the Gym, and no-one wants that. Still, it’s rather a depressing comment on the central authority for Pokémon trainers in Kanto, and for that matter on Kanto’s law enforcement, that the one who eventually sorts it all out (after Sabrina has been Gym Leader for, one imagines, several years) is a relatively inexperienced wandering trainer with three badges and a grand total of six Pokémon. In fact, no, it wasn’t even Ash; Haunter totally saved his ass in there. The people of Kanto were saved from the Psycho Psychic of Saffron by a wild Pokémon with an interest in slapstick comedy (clearly no-one ever thought to try sitting Sabrina down with a box set of Monty Python’s Flying Circus). The League are either woefully incompetent or just don’t care; nothing else adds up. Either way, it’s clear that Pokémon Gyms can, if they so choose, act with a tremendous degree of autonomy. Heck, the Gyms themselves are probably the power behind the Pokémon League, rather than the other way around – the anime has no Elite Four until much later seasons, so the Gym leaders are pretty much the cream of the crop, and several Gyms, notably Fuchsia and Blackthorn, probably predate the formation of the League. Although the society of the Pokémon world appears superficially very similar to our own, there must be some pretty major differences lurking beneath the surface if powerful trainers are as above the law as they seem to be. The fact that the strongest trainers are generally decent people is probably all that keeps the whole tottering edifice from collapsing.
The elephant in the room is the question of how Sabrina ever became a Gym Leader in the first place. We know from her dad’s flashbacks that she began her psychic training at a young age (I’d guess between six and eight) and very quickly developed a habit of lashing out at her parents with her telekinesis when they annoyed her. It’s unlikely, then, that she became the Saffron Gym Leader first and a deranged psychopath later. Nor would she have gotten her Gym officially registered and gained the authority to hand out Marsh Badges if she had come to the Pokémon League with a proposal like “please give me League funding so I can build a temple for my personal cult and have a place to keep all the people I turn into dolls with my horrifying mind-powers.” I may not give the Pokémon League a whole lot of credit, but let’s be reasonable here. It follows that the Saffron Gym was already established and she took over at some point – getting League authorisation for a Gym isn’t easy (if it were, then A.J. from the Path to the Pokémon League would have done it), but taking over an existing one seems relatively hassle-free in the conclusion of Showdown in Pewter City – it’s probably assumed (falsely, I might add) that no Gym Leader would hand over the reins of power to an inferior trainer. It seems normal for Pokémon Gyms to be family businesses, but I don’t think Sabrina’s father is a Pokémon trainer (her mother, conceivably, might have been, but I have trouble imagining Sabrina’s mother as a Gym Leader). The other odd thing about the situation is that Sabrina’s cultists don’t actually seem to be Pokémon trainers either. They’re totally occupied with exercising their psychic abilities (which are remarkably feeble in comparison to Sabrina’s) and, aside from Kadabra, we don’t see a single Pokémon in the Saffron Gym. What’s more, the cultist who ‘greets’ Ash, although he declares emphatically that Ash is not worthy of challenging Sabrina, doesn’t make any effort to meet that challenge himself. I suspect what this all adds up to is that Sabrina muscled in on the Saffron Gym as soon as she was old enough to train Pokémon, turned the old leader and the other trainers into dolls, and converted the place into a training centre for human telepaths. Taking challenges is a minor nuisance, but at least gives her opportunities to practice her terrifying powers. Moreover, I suspect the original Saffron Gym didn’t specialise in Psychic-types, otherwise you’d expect her to have kept a lot of the trainers and Pokémon from the old regime. Remember the Fighting-type secondary Gym in the games’ version of Saffron City? Yeah… I think I know why it doesn’t appear in the anime.
(Its anime equivalent is actually the “Fighting Spirit Gym,” which turns up in the very next episode, but that’s even less of a proper Gym, so I’m sticking with my wild speculation)
So that’s Saffron Gym – a place I hope never to visit again, but which offered some surprisingly valuable insights on the culture of Pokémon training in Kanto. For the rest of this chunk of the series I’ll be hopping around a bit – I want to put episodes 25 and 29 (Primeape’s episodes) together, as well as 26 and 32 (Ash’s Fuchsia and Celadon Gym battles) – so bear with me; I’m on the home stretch.