Steins Gate - Part 1 Review
The essential paradox of the concept of time travel is that if a time machine were ever to be developed and become workable in the future then we would surely already have had visitations from people coming back to "fix" events in the past. Unless of course the technology is controlled by some evil enterprise that uses it secretly to manipulate and maintain world domination without the general public knowing. A more likely scientific explanation for the time travel paradox - as everyone will know from Back to the Future's admirably clear and entertaining presentation of quantum theory - is that changing any event in the past will create new or multiple timelines. Steins Gate plays with both the evil organisation concept and the alternate timeline theory and makes its time travel adventure just as easy to follow and no less entertaining.
In the opening episodes of Steins Gate, we are introduced to Hououin Kyouma or 'Okarin' (his real name is Okabe Rintaro). Kyouma is a self-styled "mad scientist", a researcher who experiences something unusual when he attends a scientific conference at the Radio Building in Akihabara. Strangely, he seems to have experienced a different version of reality from everyone else and the conference he attended now seems to have been cancelled when a satellite crashed into the building. Kyouma however has no memory of this. He was at the conference, saw a girl get killed and experienced a weird sensation at the moment of the satellite impact. Could all this phenomena possibly have anything to do with the fact that the scientific conference was about time travel?
Well it could be, but there's a lot of other unexplained events to consider. Kyouma, for a start, is just a little bit paranoid. He visits crank conspiracy sites on the internet and is convinced that the bizarre events are connected to something he calls Steins Gate. His theory is that time travel research is being controlled and manipulated by SERN, a worldwide organisation "bent on evil research" who may have developed time travel technology through mini black holes created in their Hadron Collider. Kyouma's own experiments and theories in this field don't sound any more plausible, but there's definitely something strange going on with one of his own Future Gadget Laboratory experiments, namely Future Gadget #8, 'The Phone Microwave (Temporary Name)'.
Clearly Steins Gate operates as a mixture of SF and conspiracy thriller with a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek humour. But it does also attempt to deal with the concept of time-travel seriously (up to a point), which means that things are a little more complicated than I've suggested. If time travel exists, it may even be possible that it is created by people coming from the future to help people in the past develop the technology. Now there's a paradox for you. Kyouma himself has developed D-mail allowing him to send text messages by Phone Microwave (Temporary Name) back to the past, but there are also a few mysterious characters hanging around and observing his work, all of them particularly interested in an antiquated IBN 5100 computer Kyouma has found and then lost again in a timeline switch.
It's this kind of switch around that keeps you on your toes. Small changes caused by a short text message it seems can nevertheless have a major impact and unintended consequences. Steins Gate can be a little confusing with characters appearing and disappearing and even in one case changing gender, but rather more of a problem as the series progresses is the question of what exactly the experiments are meant to achieve. If it wasn't for the fact that Kyouma seems to be the only person able to retain memories of past timelines, you'd swear that even he's forgotten what he's trying to do. By the middle of the first half of the series, when they're not turning bananas into goo, much of the experiments for some reason seem to centre on using D-mails to resolve father/daughter difficulties for Kyouma's growing harem of lab assistants. And by the time they finally get around to taking the technology more seriously around episode 12, the idea of sending back memories doesn't sound terribly plausible, and it's not even clear what they really hope to achieve through this.
The cast of characters however are are strong enough to keep Steins Gate entertaining even when it seems to lose direction and credibility somewhat. Although evidently a geek, Kyouma the mad scientist is a bit too exaggerated for the viewer to entirely identify with him, but there are plenty of other interesting figures here. In addition to the obligatory little-girl cuteness of Mayuri ("Too-too-roo!") and the geek/perv computer hacker of Daru, various other female lab assistants are recruited along the way, all of them having mysterious backgrounds of one kind or another with personal reasons for their interest in the time machine experiments. Undoubtedly, one or more of them will prove to be a plant, a spy or possibility a visitor from the future, but in addition to keeping the conspiracy element alive there's entertaining interaction between the characters.
The art and character design of Steins Gate isn't striking by any means, but the series looks reasonably good. The characters are rather simplistically designed, but each of them have strong and distinct personalities. The Akihabara locations are well established, even if the majority of the action takes place in Kyouma's "laboratory" above his landlord's CRT screen repair business. The animation style is mainly characterised by its hazy quality, which means it looks kind of murky in places, but breakout scenes and special effects work well and the look suits the nature of the SF in the real-world genre style of the series.
Steins Gate - Part 1 is released on DVD and BD by Manga Entertainment, the series English versioned by Funimation. The Blu-ray set reviewed here contains the 12 episodes of the first part of the series on two discs, with eight episodes on one dual-layer BD50 disc and four on a single-layer BD25. The BD is AVC encoded with a 1080/24p transfer and Dolby TrueHD audio tracks. The UK set is Region B encoded.
As mentioned in the body of the main review, the series mostly uses a hazy quality with muted colours, which means it doesn't really come across spectacularly in High Definition. The image quality nonetheless is fine and there are few notable problems other than the usual colour banding issues, which may or may not be an issue depending on the settings of you display device. In those scenes where stronger contrasts and deeper colours are used, the image looks particularly good.
The original Japanese audio track is presented in Dolby TrueHD 2.0, the English dub is Dolby TrueHD 5.1. Both are fine with a robust and clear presentation of the dialogue and soundtrack. English subtitles are optional and are in a white font. All on-screen text (phone texts, e-mails, computer posts) are also subtitled with overlays. It can be difficult to follow everything, but usually there's not much requirement on the viewer to read it all, as the main points are covered in the dialogue.
There's not much of interest in the extra features. The commentaries on Episode 1 and 12 are provided by the American crew responsible for the English dub. There's a map of Akihabara which is good for placing where the locations are in relation to one another, but a time-line map might have been more useful. The usual Textless Opening and Textless Closings are here as well.
Time travel is always an interesting area for a science-fiction series and Steins Gate spices things up further with some conspiracy elements from a mysterious evil agency in the future. While it is entertaining enough in its own right setting the scene and introducing the characters, Part 1 unfortunately loses momentum midway through and doesn't substantially develop its potential until the last few minutes of the final episode. There's more than enough here however to ensure you come back (to the future) for Part 2, where you would expect the pace to pick up considerably.