Sparks Fly for Magnemite – Dig Those Diglett
Sparks Fly for Magnemite sees Ash, Misty and Brock visit Gringy City, an industrial town that is almost as pleasant as it sounds. Dirty, smelly, and blanketed with choking smog, the place seems to be all but abandoned, and as if today weren’t bad enough already, Pikachu’s cheeks are discharging sparks at random. The distressingly ineffectual Nurse Joy #222 lazily diagnoses Pikachu with a cold and tell Ash to leave him at the Pokémon Centre overnight… but then, to add a finishing touch to what is already the low point of the week, the power cuts out and leaves all the Pokémon in the ICU without vital life-support machinery. Ash leaves Pikachu at the Pokémon Centre, but he sneaks out and follows them because he’s kind of insecure and is worried Ash might ditch him. After stopping at the police station to consult Officer Jenny #400, who’s almost as unhelpful as Joy but at least gives them directions, they head for the seemingly abandoned power plant. As they walk through the dark corridors, they sense something following them – a wild Magnemite. Ash initially wants to catch it but Misty points out that it doesn’t seem to want to battle (yes, this matters; trying to capture a Pokémon that doesn’t want to fight you almost seems to be thought rude, if not downright impossible). In fact, Magnemite just wants to hit on Pikachu. Before anyone has time to ponder Magnemite’s choice of love interest, a swarm of Grimer, led by a Muk, burst into the corridor and, insulted by Ash and Misty’s failure to appreciate their charming aroma, attack. Ash, Misty and Brock flee and find their way to the control room, where a pair of cowering engineers explain the situation: the huge numbers of Grimer have clogged the power planet’s seawater intake. The Grimer break down the door, and it seems all is lost; there are just too many for Ash, Misty and Brock to deal with… until Pikachu’s strange boyfriend reappears with an army of Magnemite and Magneton. Together with Pikachu, they send the Grimer scurrying away, restoring power, and weaken the Muk enough for Ash to capture it (since it turns out that Muk’s smell leaks through the Pokéball – how the hell do those things work, anyway? – Ash quickly sends it back to Pallet Town for Professor Oak to deal with). Magnemite loses interest in Pikachu, since the sparks were actually symptoms of overcharging, which altered his magnetic field (it actually makes a lot of sense that Magnemite would recognise each other by their magnetism; I quite like this), and he’s burnt up his excess in the battle with Muk. Our heroes suggest keeping the charming little town cleaner to reduce the numbers of Grimer, Useless Joy and Useless Jenny thank them for making everyone in Gringy City a better person just by meeting them, and they go on their merry way.
Of course, they promptly get lost again. Ash is looking for the Fuchsia Gym, but unfortunately “Fuchsia City” doesn’t actually appear to be a thing in the anime, and the Gym is in the middle of nowhere, which makes it rather difficult to find. As they wander, an explosion rocks the hills (disturbing Team Rocket’s lunch and prompting them to seek revenge), and as they run to look they see a convoy of trucks being wrecked by a troupe of Diglett. The Diglett are interfering with the construction of a dam nearby, and the foreman has called for Pokémon trainers to help drive them off, including Gary, who remains as insufferable as ever. In the English continuity this is the first time Brock and Misty have met him, because Beauty and the Beach was axed. They hate him instantly. Fortunately, Gary isn’t around for long: none of the trainers present, including Ash and Gary, can get their Pokémon to emerge from their Pokéballs, much less actually fight the Diglett, and Gary leaves in disgust, along with most of the others. While Ash, Brock and Misty try to understand, Jessie and James are having a nervous breakdown because none of their evil schemes ever bear fruit. They conclude that their Pokémon aren’t powerful enough, and decide to invoke “The Principle of Induced Evolution!” This turns out to be a rather dull textbook. They learn that Ekans and Koffing will only evolve if they gain enough experience, but also that evolution might change their personalities. Jessie and James become conflicted and start sobbing over Ekans and Koffing, who begin to evolve when the tears touch them. Meowth says smugly that “their time to evolve just happens to be now;” he seems to be suggesting that they were about to evolve anyway, but Ekans and Koffing haven’t fought anything for two and a half episodes, so this seems to be less a matter of gaining experience and more about making their masters proud. Anyway, Ash and the others follow one of the Diglett away from the construction site and find a landscape being tilled and cultivated by Diglett and Dugtrio. They realise that all the forests in the region – which the new dam would flood – are gardens built and maintained by the Diglett, who are understandably protective of their lands. The other Pokémon refused to fight them because they agreed with what the Diglett were doing. The foreman, seeing everything his plans would destroy, gives in and decides to halt the construction. At this point Jessie and James show up with their new Pokémon, Arbok and Weezing, and try to go after Pikachu, but only seconds into the battle Jessie makes the supreme tactical mistake of sending Arbok underground, invoking the wrath of the Dugtrio, who summarily crush Arbok and Weezing before they can bring their new powers to bear (not sure what I think of this – on the one hand, it makes their evolution distressingly anticlimactic; on the other, it emphasises that power isn’t all that matters). Order is restored and, well, the dam couldn’t have been that important anyway, right?
In the Pokémon world, the environment is a very fiddly thing to deal with – and not least because it will fight back! Some (most? all?) Pokémon are sentient, which makes the notion of compromising their habitats an even trickier ethical question than it is in the real world. It’s effectively conquest, which is the same kind of theme as we got in Tentacool and Tentacruel. Of course, when your tools of conquest are, themselves, Pokémon, the whole thing doesn’t work so smoothly. The refusal of the trainers’ Pokémon even to come out of their Pokéballs implies some very curious things. First, they know what’s going on around them even while inside (again, how the hell do those things work, anyway?). Second, they already know what the Diglett are trying to do, and since I doubt they would immediately understand the implications of the construction project on their own, this further suggests that they’re already familiar with the Diglett as regulators and protectors of the environment. Attacking them is in some sense ‘not part of the deal.’ That’s not the interesting part, though. The interesting part is how this episode differs from Tentacool and Tentacruel. Until the bizarre accident with Team Rocket’s stun sauce, the Tentacool are essentially a passive part of the environment; everything they do is reactive. The Dugtrio, on the other hand, are active agents in all of this, just as much as the humans are. They deliberately manipulate the environment in order to create and maintain habitats for themselves and for many other species – and Brock speculates that this isn’t just a local phenomenon either, but something that Diglett and Dugtrio do all over the world. They have a large-scale, systematically implemented plan for the management of the landscape, and mount a co-ordinated defence of that plan when it is threatened. In fact, I think it’s a mistake to see the Dugtrio as part of ‘nature,’ or to see the ‘natural’ landscape of the hills and forests in the region as any less of a created, artificial environment than it would have become if the dam had been completed. The way the Dugtrio handle things revolves around balancing the needs of multiple species, and is much more subtle than what the humans have learned to do. Bear in mind, however, that the dam would probably have provided hydroelectric power and thus lessened the atmospheric pollution created by human dependence on fossil fuels (made so very prominent in Gringy City). In short, although ‘nature’ and ‘civilisation’ form one of the core dualities that Black and White focus on, and although that same contrast is a theme that Pokémon as a franchise has always dwelt on often, I don’t think we should view Dig Those Diglett in quite those terms, since the Diglett and Dugtrio as presented here are, dare I say it, ‘civilised’ in their approach to the world around them. Complications like this are – I think – exactly why trainers, who can act as mediators between Pokémon and humanity, are a vital part of society in the Pokémon world.
So, what about the Grimer? Where do they fit in all of this? Grimer and Muk (along with Koffing and Weezing, for that matter) are another of those strange little corner cases that make the Pokémon word so interesting. Like the Diglett, they blur the lines between civilisation and nature, in that they’re a product of civilisation but not a part of it; in fact they’re a product of that most undesirable aspect of civilisation, industrial pollution. You could even make the analogy that, just as Diglett create environments that are suitable for Rattata, Pidgey and other typical forest Pokémon, humans create environments that are suitable for Pokémon like Grimer, Koffing and Magnemite. Sparks Fly for Magnemite clearly has an environmentalist moral; the people of Gringy City get their comeuppance for all the pollution their town vomits into the air when the Grimer, who feed on that pollution, multiply out of control. The message is clear: we want a world without Grimer. They’re still Pokémon like any other, though, presumably with the same rights from an ethical perspective. Although Ash doesn’t often have reason to deploy his Muk, the Sludge Pokémon is a fantastic ally when he does (and an interesting… friend… to Professor Oak the rest of the time), so I don’t think we should necessarily assimilate the undesirable nature of their origins to the Pokémon themselves. Is it right to clean up the polluted areas that constitute their ‘habitat’? I’m not sure I have a satisfactory answer to this one yet, but for now I’m going to suggest seeing Grimer and Muk as regulators of the sensitive balance between humans and the environment – they can’t create toxic waste from nothing, and in fact they consume industrial waste. One can only assume that they actually break the stuff down, resulting in products that are less harmful to other Pokémon. They appear to make a situation worse because of the way they concentrate toxins, but I suspect that they’re really a positive influence. Too much pollution, though, and they’ll just multiply and swallow your city, and you’ll be no better off.
I’m not sure how far my conclusions today match the writers’ original intentions (if at all); rather, this is an outline of a starting point for questions the franchise could ask and elaborations that could be made on its existing themes. When I reviewed all the Unova Pokémon last year, I often talked about ‘doing more with less’ – this is sort of what I mean. New Pokémon are great, but we don’t actually need them when the existing ones still have so much untapped storytelling potential. Or at least, that’s what I think. You may have other ideas.