It is not unheard of for fantasy and science fiction to cross their wires. Douglas Adams wrote Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which involved a time machine and an alien robot, and followed it with The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul, where Dirk had to deal with Norse gods. It’s frankly why I don’t divide the two categories on my shelves, because the dividing line is so fine. Apparently, Guillermo del Toro has no problem crossing those lines, because his broader Tales of Arcadia story moves from the modern-day fantasy of Trollhunters to modern-day science fiction with 3Below, the story of a pair of refugee teenagers in a small American town.
Aja (Tatiana Maslany) and Krel (Diego Luna) are the heirs to the planet of Akiridion-5. During the ceremony that will make them king and queen in waiting, there is a coup led by the sinister General Morando (Alon Aboutboul). The king (Andy Garcia) and queen (also Tatiana Maslany) are . . . disincorporated? The Akiridions are energy beings, so yeah. Anyway, Aja and Krel escape with the help of Zadra (Hayley Atwell) and Varvatos Vex (Nick Offerman). Zadra stays on Akiridion while Varvatos flees with the royals on the Mothership (Glenn Close). The ship is damaged and crashes on a planet called . . . Oorth? Specifically in the town of Arcadia Oaks. To help them blend in, Mother disguises herself as a house that will blend in. Unfortunately, her knowledge about the planet is several decades out of date, and her stylish new appearance is solidly early ’60s.
To hide the royals and disguise them from the locals, Mother is able to change their forms to look like people who will mostly be ignored—a senior citizen, a girl, and “a Latino.” However, Detective Scott (Ike Amadi) sees the teens and insists that they go to school, where they are taken into the protection of Señor Uhl (Fred Tatasciore) once he finds out they’re refugees. The kids have to pretend to be ordinary Earth teenagers and deal with the problems of high school while Krel fixes the ship and Mother recharges enough to regenerate their parents. General Morando still wants them all dead, and Zadra has found out that his triumph was made possible by a traitor.
The whole story is at least in part about the immigrant experience, which is explicit in many, many episodes. The royals do not like the term “alien” at all, and Uhl freaks out when Birdie (Fiona Shaw) calls them “illegals,” a term he insists is not permitted in his school. Before he knows that, however, he has also demanded a meeting with both their parents, no excuses, leading to their programming a couple of blank robots (Cheryl Hines and Tom Kelly) to portray their mom and dad using exclusively ’60s pop culture awareness; the blanks are eventually dubbed “Lucy” and “Ricky.” But of course an excuse he would’ve accepted would have been “our parents were killed in a coup.”
Season one of the show takes place overlapping with Trollhunters, though it’s not always possible to place exactly where on the storyline it takes place. (Some episodes show events we’ve already seen but from Aja and Krel’s perspective, especially the one that parallels the show where they’re first introduced in Trollhunters.) The climax of season one corresponds to the final episodes of Trollhunters, showing the extraterrestrial threat that we didn’t notice while trolls were invading.
Season two, however, is in the summer after that and shows the building extraterrestrial issues—and the ominous government threat of Colonel Kubritz (Uzo Aduba), who first became aware of extraterrestrials when she was responsible for holding Stuart (Nick Frost) in custody. She is obsessed with the extraterrestrial threat to Earth despite Stuart’s being kind of dopey and incompetent and practically everything except cooking Mexican food. Unfortunately, she believes that allying with Morando will give her the strength to keep all other extraterrestrials out and that he won’t at all subjugate her planet once he’s consolidated power over Akiridion.
It’s really a common plot—pairing with the tyrant to keep other forces at bay only to discover, you know, tyrant. It’s a lesson that humans don’t seem to learn too easily, despite how often it appears in our fiction. We know it’s a bad idea, but history shows how often we do it anyway. Krel, toward the end of season one, shows he’s studied enough Earth history at that point to be familiar with Winston Churchill, and a little more information could get him to tell her about several Nazi client states that made the same deal only to be subsumed, likewise nations that made that deal with the Soviet Union. It’s an argument that might persuade her.
One of the running jokes of the show is how much Varvatos Vex hates being a senior citizen, being all old and wrinkly. He’s a great warrior, always going on about glorious death and so forth. And then he’s old and feeble as a human, and the whatever-it-is that Mother does really makes them inhabit their human bodies. The kids can’t use their extra arms in human form; they don’t have them. Varvatos meets up with another group of senior citizens who sit around the park playing chess, which he turns out to be really bad at, and it’s there that he meets and falls in love with Nancy Domzalski (Laraine Newman). And that whole subplot is hilarious and reveals interesting things about her that we definitely didn’t learn from Toby (Charlie Saxton).
Similarly, we learn that Steve Palchuk (Steven Yeun), the bully of Trollhunters, has a Thing for fierce women. He refers to Aja, who wants to be a warrior and not a queen, as his “ninja-kicking angel,” by which he means an angel who kicks like a ninja. We’d previously seen him fascinated by Miss Nomura (Lauren Tom) in her troll form, and being beaten up by Aja is enough for him to fall in love with her. Though she knows basically nothing of human customs; in the second season, there’s a lot of conflict between his wish to do simple human things and her need to, you know, fight the people who are trying to kill her or whatever.
Neither Aja nor Krel really want to rule, to be honest. Aja wants to be a warrior, and Krel mostly just wants to be noticed and liked for himself. His simple joy when Toby and Eli (Cole Sand) call him their friend is especially heartwarming after his misery when his whole yearbook got signed “have a good summer,” which he accurately points out is what people say in it when they don’t know what else to say. It turns out, though, that he’s a talented musician and engineer, neither of which his father would consider valid and important and both of which save the day.
In the end, the show is about family and home and how you define them. And what “alien” really means, and “monster.” And about betrayal and atonement. It’s also got an incredibly stacked cast, as you may have noticed, and I still haven’t told you everyone who’s on it. Once again, I don’t really like the human character design, but Akiridion-5 is a well planned world that’s fascinating to look at. And man, but I’m looking forward to the third series in the story, which is set up in the final episode.