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Steven Universe

Entry updated 4 November 2022. Tagged: TV.

US animated tv series (2013-2020). Cartoon Network. Created by Rebecca Sugar, also executive producer. Writers include Matt Burnett, Ian Jones-Quartey, Ben Levin, Kat Morris and Sugar. Directors include Joseph D Johnston, Jones-Quartey and Kat Morris. Voice cast includes Zach Callison, Michaela Dietz, Susan Egan, Christine Ebersole, Estelle, Deedee Magno Hall, Lisa Hannigan, Patti LuPone, Erica Luttrell, Kate Micucci, Matthew Moy, Jennifer Paz, Shelby Rabara, Grace Rolek, Tom Scharpling and Charlyne Yi. 180 eleven-minute episodes (including Steven Universe Future) plus eleven shorts to date. Colour.

Steven Universe starts as a fun cartoon about fourteen-year-old Steven (Callison) who joins his three magic female friends – Garnet (Estelle), Pearl (Hall) and Amethyst (Dietz) – to fight Monsters; he undergoes a series of Conceptual Breakthroughs that reveal the science-fictional backdrop to the series. We see events only from his point of view (or what he has been told happened): consequently the tone of the show matures along with Steven.

His three friends are Alien gems which project physical, humanoid forms (aside from Steven, all gems identify as female). Steven himself is half gem, half human: his mother was Rose Quartz (Egan), who birthed him by giving up her physical form; his father is Greg Universe (Scharpling), a musician. Of the Gems, Pearl is recovering from the loss of Rose, whom she loved – she also fights to break the mindset imposed by her former servant status. Amethyst was discovered after the war in an otherwise deserted gem Kindergarten; she feels guilt at being an instrument in the Gem homeworld's plans, of which more below, and behaves like Steven's unruly big sister (the other two are more parental). Garnet is revealed to be two gems (Ruby and Sapphire) who are in love and maintain a permanent fusion, as with fulfilled crystal pairs in Theodore Sturgeon's The Dreaming Jewels (February 1950 Fantastic Adventures; exp 1950; vt The Synthetic Man 1957). This is one of the recurring motifs of the show: fusion, in which two or more gems merge to become a stronger gem, is used as a metaphor for intimacy, whether family, friendship, romance or Sex. The supporting cast is legion, including humans such as Steven's best friend, Connie Maheswaran (Rolek); Lars (Moy) and Sadie (Micucci), whose relationship echoes that of Rose and Greg (the show is steeped in foreshadowing and callbacks); and gems such as the self-proclaimed "great and lovable" Peridot (Rabara) and the troubled Lapis Lazuli (Paz).

Gradually Steven learns that Earth had been invaded by the Gem civilization and that Rose led a successful rebellion against Xenoforming plans that would have destroyed life on our world, with the hostile Gems departing over four thousand years ago. The series is set in the present day (though this Earth is not our Earth, geographically or historically), with the first intimations of the Gem homeworld's renewed interest in this planet. Save for two visits to the Moon, the show stayed relatively earthbound until midway through the fourth series, with a journey to a Space Habitat housing a human Zoo; but the fifth season's rapid plot acceleration provided two visits to the Gem Homeworld and one to the moon of a planet gutted by the Gems.

Homeworld is ruled by three Diamonds: we meet Blue (Hannigan) and Yellow (LuPone) in Season Two; the third, White (Ebersole), though long inferable, is not named or met (in all her Art Deco glory) until Season Five's twenty-fifth episode. The Crystal Gems finally learn the roots of the rebellion were not what they (save one) had believed and that Pearl's tragedy is deeper than they knew. The story of the fourth Diamond, Pink (Egan), is told and the other Diamonds' responses – mirroring different facets of an abusive family's reactions to a Transgender relative – are confronted.

Within a complex plot full of adventure, character development, feels, Humour and more feels, Steven Universe works in its core themes of intimacy and consent, regardless of orientation. Rebecca Sugar has stated:

The show was always very much about family ... [i.e.] unconditional love and support ... I hope to also show people ... they can also relate to characters that are not heteronormative, and to families that are not traditional.

Steven Universe gives nods to its influences: the book featured in the original intro is A Wrinkle in Time (1962) by Madeleine L'Engle, while there are many references to Anime such as Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997), Manga such as Junji Itō's "The Enigma of Amigara Fault" from GYO (2002), Warner Bros. Cartoons such as those featuring Road Runner, and films such as Metropolis (1926). With Season Five's finale, which combines emotional depth, silliness, unnerving horror and bad puns, this phase of the story is brought to an impressive and satisfying closure. Steven Universe can be considered as the best sf Television animation and is a major sf work, regardless of media.

There were two strong postscripts: Steven Universe: The Movie (2019), followed by an epilogue season, named Steven Universe Future, which – apart from tidying up some loose ends – has Steven confronting the physical and mental trauma he experienced but buried during his adventures. Now that the Universe is at peace they rise to the surface and he proves ill equipped to handle them; and is reluctant to ask for help from those who love him. [SP]


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