As a kid, I always liked field trips. And while that probably sounds fairly normal (after all, all kids like escaping their institutions for the day and seeing something ultimately slightly dull in the real world, no?) my reasoning behind loving them is likely to seem somewhat unconventional. See, I didn’t like getting to wherever we were going; I liked the bus.
And it wasn’t like I was a particularly big fan of buses; they were often beige and festooned with an unsettling carapace of discarded chewing gum and whatnot. No, my main interest in buses was based on what we were allowed to do on them, which was anything as long as you sat down and left the teachers alone long enough for their twenty-three aspirins to kick in. And what my best friend of the time and I decided to do to pass the time, among other things, was to sing the Team Rocket motto over and over and over until the other people on the bus were ready to jab pens into their eyes just to take their minds off that damn song.
(As a side note, we also played this game that involved staring out of the window and suggesting which kinds of Pokémon would live in the locales we drove past. This game always started off well but about thirty five minutes in on an empty motorway it did get a bit challenging, reducing you to saying “Rattata!” again and again before we gave up and went back to the motto.)
But yes, the motto. The shining emblem of all that Team Rocket stands for as an evil organisation determined to reshape the world in their cruel, yet utterly lovable, image. Well before the likes of Team Galactic or those environmentalist nutters from Hoenn, it was the Big R laying down all kinds of shadowy evil in the world of Pokémon. Their sickening plans sought to corrupt the innocence and beauty of Pokémon and my childhood goal was to permanently destroy them completely. And I will forever love them for it.
Many players will have had their first fateful encounter with the shady organisation during their time with Pokémon Red and Blue, first encountering a few oddly dressed fellows with whips in the bowels of Mt. Moon, who were after some rare fossils. As players progressed through the game, they’d bump into Team Rocket (before ultimately thwarting them) at the Lavender Tower, the Silph Co. Building and the Celadon Game Corner before ultimately going onto to defeat the organisation’s leader, Giovanni, at the Viridian Gym.
Not content with humiliating themselves enough during their first campaign of villainy (my Butterfree wiped the floor with their legions of Arbok, Golbat and Weezing) Team Rocket returned three years later in the adjacent Johto region. More determined than ever, the organisation’s new executives successfully gained control of Johto’s radio tower in an attempt to contact their absent leader before the protagonist well and truly sends them packing once and for all.
But that wasn’t the end of the Team Rocket saga, as the organisation’s murky story survived and prospered through other Pokémon media, including the Pokémon Trading Card Game and the Pokémon Adventures manga. Dedicating a whole set to the power of Dark Pokémon (well, before that meant you were an Umbreon, at least) the set featured heavyweights such as Dark Raichu and Dark Dragonite, as well as a few cameos from popularized individuals from the organisation (which does makes it sound a bit like the Mafia).
Meanwhile, in the alternate universe of Pokémon Adventures, a far crueler and more powerful Team Rocket unleashed a regime of brutality onto the land of Kanto, combining the power of corrupt gym leaders and a fearsome Elite Four to try and gain control. Only a handful of skilled trainers and a cluster of remaining gym leaders could overthrow this great evil in a story that portrayed the original Pokémon narrative as creator Satoshi Tajiri envisioned it. The long running saga also painted in suggestions of a potential heir to the Rocket dynasty as one of the series’ later heroes (though if you’re really intrigued, chances are there may be a special Wi-Fi event for HeartGold and SoulSilver available in the future that may shed some light on the matter).
But while the games and the manga will always be important, the place where Team Rocket will forever reign supreme, besides in my heart of course, is the Pokémon anime. Despite attempting for over ten years and for over 600 episodes, Ash and the twerps have still yet to completely defeat the evil Team Rocket. In fact, despite their numerous and near endless blast-offs, front line agents Jessie, James and Meowth have become as constant a staple in the series as the likes of Ash and Pikachu, having appeared in every single episode bar the pilot. Sucks to be you, Misty.
Besides the main trio (who I will get back to later, I promise) the anime has also shown a vast array of Team Rocket operatives and agents, revealing the organisation to be far more tactical and cunning than in the games, if equally unsuccessful. Early episodes of the anime followed Ash, Misty and Brock on a complimentary cruise on S.S. Anne, unaware that the scheme was in fact a setup to steal vast amounts of Pokémon from unsuspecting trainers. Rival agents Cassidy and Biff (It’s Butch!) also proved to be a threat after their near-successful schemes involving fake breeding centres, a Pokémon trading service and brainwashing the Pokémon of the Orange Islands with their Drowzee.
The series has also been interspersed with brief views into the activities of Giovanni, whose approval is constantly sought by Jessie, James and Meowth. In-between looking displeased with the trio’s efforts and petting his smug Persian, the Rocket Leader also tries to breed super Pokémon in an attempt to take over the world. A challenging hobby yes, but after the events of Mewtwo Strikes Back, perhaps he should take up topiary or something a bit safer than genetic engineering?
But for nearly everyone of a certain age, the words Team Rocket will always evoke memories of a fierce woman with red hair, a clumsy gentleman with a purplish bob and a Meowth that could talk, to everyone’s amazement. The trio may have struggled to achieve their short-sighted goals– they’ve spent 600 episodes trying to catch a Pikachu that Giovanni probably doesn’t even want– but we really ought to credit them for both their resolve and their ability to appear completely disguised while wearing only a hat and a pair of glasses.
While much has changed since the humbler beginnings of the anime, Team Rocket have remained true to themselves throughout, helping to bring a sense of cohesive familiarity to the show, despite its maddening length. Many of the idiosyncrasies exhibited early on by the do-wrongers, ranging from Jessie’s violent temper to James’ string of semi-carnivorous Pokémon and the trio’s penchant for a preposterously expensive mechanised robot that will invariably blow up, have remained core aspects of the series.
And this reflects Team Rocket’s persistent drive to improve and better themselves, something that emerges more and more as the series develops. The villains are often seen working in menial jobs to pay the bills and make ends meet, while their more recent adventures have seen Jessie become a talented co-ordinator and James… well, James has nice hair. The trio have also gone on to catch more Pokémon and suffer more tearful goodbyes as old friends are left behind on the journey. I can openly admit that I had a tear in my eye when Jessie emotionally ordered her Dustox to leave forever in an episode that mirrored the emotional heartache of Ash’s goodbye to Butterfree in the original series.
But is change on the cards for our favourite slapstick antagonists? Following their success in overthrowing Team Galactic single-handedly (their words, not mine) Giovanni has charged Jessie, James and Meowth with the task of setting up a Team Rocket base in the unexplored Unova region. As they follow Ash on his Pokémon Black and White-esque journey, the trio now sport new black uniforms and a more serious demeanour, not even bringing along the old, lovable Wobbuffet for comic relief.
I’m sure we can all agree, a world without Wobbuffet is a world without hope. Though if the good times are gone, and the bumbling and lovable image of Team Rocket has faded away forever, then accept it we must. For we had the good times, we had Jessie, James and Meowth for the best years of their lives (though how many years and which particular ones is up for debate). We have enjoyed them thoroughly as they giddily sprung from their disguises and flew off into the distance in their Meowth balloon. Well, they flew as far as they could before Pikachu struck them down with a Thunderbolt; credit for trying.
Even if we never come across Team Rocket again, we will always remember the challenge of the spinning floor tiles in the Celadon Game Corner basement that proved to be slightly impossible. We will always remember opening that particular pack of trading cards that held the elusive Dark Blastoise Holo Card we’d been hunting for months. We will always remember the utterly useless Magikarp submarine and its somewhat flawed pedal-powered propulsion. And we will always remember that, “It looks like Team Rocket are blasting off again!”, even if it is for the very last time in our lives.