The other day a friend of mine and I were discussing Joss Whedon and the Avengers franchise, and the sum of my comment was that those productions were not bad, just not good. They weren't incompetent, but they didn't really bring anything to the table that hadn't been there before; they just brought more of it at once. People seemed to be reacting more to the fact that the movies got made at all, and weren't an awful mess, than because there was anything genuinely exciting going on. I felt the same way about Dimension W, a competent but ultimately generic series that exists mostly to tick off a list of ingredients but not invest them with the kind of ferocious creativity they were begging to have applied to them. The show is like a toupee: it doesn't look bad from a distance, but the closer you get the more you realize there's little there save fakery and façades.
Dimension W drew most of its attention from the fact that Funimation was a production co-partner for the show. This sort of trans-Pacific partnership is actually not all that noteworthy or even new; Manga Video was a co-partner for the first Ghost in the Shell film, and that was 20 years ago. In this case, it hasn't even resulted in a show that is all that distinguished from the rest of its competition in that season. Its biggest standouts are that it features a main character who's not either a sullen or wide-eyed adolescent — instead, he's a sullen adult with a wide-eyed sidekick, big update there — and its setting is reminiscent of 1950s SF of the Big Science Goes Amok flavor. None of this adds up to more than a distraction, mainly because the project doesn't find a way to be more than just the sum of its ingredients. It fills a space on a shelf and in a broadcast schedule, but not in our heads or hearts.
Much of the setup for Dimension W and its subsequent complications are reminiscent of Isaac Asimov's novel The Gods Themselves. In that story, mankind discovers how to tap into another dimension to generate endless clean energy. The bad news is that a) doing so has a nasty effect on things in that other dimension; b) there are beings in the other dimension who have been exploiting a similar effect in our own; and c) its long-term effects will be nothing short of catastrophic for both parties. Gods won both the Hugo and the Nebula, and for good reason; it used its premise to touch intelligently on a whole slew of topics — ecology, cosmology, the use and abuse of science, the possibilities of truly alien biologies, and much more. (A TV series based on Gods would be a splendid experiment, come to think of it.)
Dimension W — the name should be a giveaway now — describes a near-future where clean energy has been made possible by "Coils", devices that function in much the same way as Asimov's speculation. A multinational corporation, New Tesla, holds the monopoly on Coil manufacture, and is prepared to go to any lengths needed to protect their control over the market. Sometimes that means hiring bounty hunters to find and destroy illegally produced Coils. Kyoma, the protagonist, is one such bounty hunter, a grumpy fellow with an active distaste for anything Coil-powered (he drives an antique gasoline-powered car). The character design hints at how he's a man out of his own time: he affects the dress of a 19th-century laborer (leg windings, a happi coat, etc.), and his weapon of choice is ninja-like throwing shivs. His disgust for Coil tech, as it turns out, is not an affectation; it's eventually explains as being more like a grudge.
One night while on a mission, Kyoma crosses paths with Mira, a girl who turns out to be the robot creation of the scientist that founded New Tesla. She was stealing Coils for Dad, and now the old man has gone missing in some kind of catastrophe that shut down Coils for miles in all directions. Much to Kyoma's disgust, Mira ends up becoming his sidekick (he calls her "junkheap") and apprentice of sorts in the Coil-hunting trade. Eventually their work turns up a slew of coils printed with enigmatic numbers — referred to as, you guessed it the "Numbers" — that have significance for both Kyoma and Mira, and point back into their respective histories. You never bring in a character who's missing a big chunk of his memory (Kyoma, in this case) without that becoming something to reveal.
Pick up the pieces
That right there might be part of the problem with Dimension W: the individual elements — the setting, some aspects of the characterizations, the details of the mysteries, etc. — are more interesting than the composite whole they're assembled into. When the show tries to drill into the specifics, it makes as many bad decisions as good ones. Worse, it's the bad decisions, or at least the unadventurous ones, that drive the show's forward movement.
One such bad decision, and one that surfaces fairly early on, is the way the power of "Dimension W" is never really explored in a way that complements the premise. Think about it: given the presence of a power source that could generate unlimited clean energy, what kinds of stories could you tell about the world, and the people in it, against such a background? Instead, the Coil technology becomes a black box out of which is pulled a whole succession of baroque plot elements.
Without ruining too much, I will say that there is a consistency to how such things are supposed to work — but it's the sort of open-ended consistency that's really no consistency at all. Episodes 4 and 5 are the big giveaway, with a mystery-cum-ghost-story tenuously hitched to the Coils — less a sign that the show has an uninhibited imagination and more that it's just plain indiscriminate. It's enjoyable in a throwaway, pulp-fantasy vein, but after a while the way the story is so cavalier with its own best ideas becomes downright irritating. It's like pouring a glass of vintage Chablis to go with a corn dog.
A shame, because what little that does work here could have worked even more if it was complemented with a story that didn't hang off it like a cheap suit. Kyoma's unhappy background, and his relationship with Mira, are elements that deserved a more coherent setting and a better plotline to do them justice. Kyoma's background is partly revealed by way of the Gradually Lifted Veil of Selective Amnesia (a plot device I have always despised), and the master-and-sidekick routine between him and Mira never really becomes more than that: a routine.
Another story element I liked better in the abstract than in the details was "Loser," a disfigured super-criminal who hides behind a mask and uses his escapades as a cover story for the sake of tracking down the Numbers. He has his own agenda, one that coincides with Kyoma and Mira's, although that tends to mean more that he and Kyoma are merely in competition for the same enemy, one who turns out to be a stock Mad Scientist. A project with pretensions of being mainstream entertainment is typically only as good as its villain, or at least its biggest challenge, and the bad guy here feels about as dangerous as a blow from a rolled-up newspaper.
Great premises, I'm discovering, are cheap; great executions of a great premise are far harder to come by. Some time ago I watched, and shook my head in dismay at, Fractale, a show that opened with a fantastic premise on the order of The Matrix and squandered it with shocking haste. (Ditto Guilty Crown, another silver-medalist player in the Waste This Idea Olympics.) Shangri-la, on the other hand, had good ideas lost in the Mulligan stew of its plot, but made up for it by way of a colorful cast and total, unshakable faith in its loopy convictions. Its craziness was contagious. Maybe the problem with Dimension W is that it wasn't crazy enough.