Five children from the real world have once again been called to the Digital World in order to save it from peril. Takuya, Kouji, Zoe, JP and Tommy all meet on a mysterious train that whisks them away to the Digital World to fight the war against evil. The kids must acquire legendary spirits in order to spirit evolve into Digimon themselves in order to defeat Cherubimon, one of the three Holy Angels, who has revolted against the other two.
As much as I tried to be as objective as humanly possible when it came to reviewing the first three instalments of the immensely popular Digimon franchise, there was always going to be some semblance of viewing the series through rose-tinted glasses upon revisitation due to the massive nostalgia appeal those seasons have to people my age. However, this all changes with the fourth season, Frontier, which never saw a broadcast in the UK, at least as far as I’m aware. I’m not entirely sure if it was because of a lack of nostalgia or because of the poor quality of Frontier itself, perhaps some combination of the two, but I ended up really disliking this particular incarnation, easily the weakest so far.
The previous entry into the Digimon franchise before this one, Tamers, set a really high bar in terms of its writing, not just compared to other shows aimed at a younger demographic, but even when put up against other works in the medium as a whole. The episodes were well paced, rarely feeling like a drag to watch even at 50 episodes in length, wasting no time advancing the plot and introducing complex themes and ideas that kept things interesting and fresh. Unfortunately, these are all compliments I cannot pay to Frontier. Watching it back-to-back with Tamers only served to highlight how much of a dive the quality of writing took this go around, being reminiscent of Adventure 01 in regards to its mind-numbing repetition and general messing about rather than getting to the actual plot, feeling very padded in order to reach that 50 episode mark. I might have been more forgiving if Tamers didn’t exist, but it proves that kids’ anime doesn’t have to be this shallow and monotonous, and it is jarring as hell going back after that, making it very hard to tolerate.
Although there is an overarching story in Digimon Frontier, it’s about the most clichéd and lazy plot you could possibly imagine. I could probably give anyone reading this five minutes to think of a new Digimon story and it would be better than the actual one present here, as the writers regurgitate the ‘Evil Digimon is trying to corrupt the Digital World’ premise that we have seen in pretty much every franchise entry to date, doing nothing to freshen it up or set it apart. As such, we’re also once again dredging up the same old formula for episodes that we’ve seen a thousand times before, being a monster of the week affair, and a tired one at that. Some episodes deviate from this, but it’s a rarity, and even when they do, they can end up being just as insipid and asinine as those that adhere to the formula, such as the train racing episode or the cheeseburger episode. Admittedly, as the series enters its second half, this issue is alleviated a fair amount, but it still does not do enough to hold my attention for the entire run time of an episode, and if you can’t hold an adult’s attention, I’m not sure what chance it stands with its actual target audience.
There is one area where Frontier attempts to do something new and bold with the franchise, but even then it falls flat on its face in attempting to do so. As opposed to all the other seasons where each of the kids has their own partner Digimon that they befriend and use to fight, we see the kids themselves become the Digimon, eliminating the partnership element completely, which is an astonishingly poor decision. The bond between the children and their Digimon made for a fantastic dynamic, as we see it grow over time and bloom into true friendship, so to rip that out and not replace it is plain baffling. I could see how they were inspired to do this, as Tamers featured a stage of evolution called Biomerging, where a human and their partner would combine together into a new Digivolution, but that was only a good idea because the fusion was the ultimate result of the bond the two had developed over the course of the show; take that bit away and it’s meaningless.
Whilst it would be a stretch to call the cast featured in Frontier bad, I’ve seen far worse, I don’t think it’d be wrong to call them the weakest group in the franchise so far. The prime example of this would be the designated goggle-head of the series, Takuya. He more or less comes off as a clone of Tai from Adventure 01, only less memorable, lacking the inherent likeability, charm and charisma of leads past, or the emotional depth of Tamers’ Takato. On the whole, he’s rather forgettable, and lacks any sort of clear arc, even if the writing tries to make you think otherwise, with characters remarking that he has undergone some sort of instantaneous change which I didn’t see myself.
Another of the big let-downs was Zoe, the lone female amongst the kids, who can only be described as token. Digimon as a whole is remarkably good at coming up with fantastic female characters, such as Sora, Mimi and Rika, who are well rounded and developed, which I can’t say of Zoe. She doesn’t really have that much personality, aside from the odd ‘Girl Power’ moment early in the series. This is yet another example of the writers trying to trick you into thinking she’s more developed than she is, as on a couple of occasions, they bring up her backstory of being an outsider, and struggling to fit in, but this is only relevant when mentioned, and outside of those instances, Zoe has zero issues interacting and integrating herself in the group, running counter to what we’re told later.
For an actual outsider, we turn to Koji, the designated outcast of Frontier. For me, this archetype within Digimon has finally reached breaking point, and this character feels stale from the second he appears on screen. Koji is pretty much just a carbon copy of the Digimon Emperor or Rikka, who initially appear as cold-hearted anti-heroes before softening as they spend more time with the DigiDestined, but without any of the nuance. He is as predictable as can be, and I am totally sick of seeing this character in every series within this franchise. They do try and do something a bit different with him later on, which I won’t spoil, but my total apathy towards this particular entry left me feeling absolutely nonplussed and entirely uncaring towards it.
On the technical front, not a lot has changed from Digimon prior. It looks totally fine, with Toei once again managing to squeeze a decent-looking show out of what I can assume was a rather low budget. There is still a decent helping of wonky looking CGI, but given this was still the early 2000s, I’m not sure anything better could’ve been done. The dub, as always, is surprisingly high quality, featuring a fair amount of big names, many of whom return from previous series to voice new roles, including Steve Blum, Crispin Freeman, Michelle Ruff, Derek Stephen Prince, Brian Beacock and Michael Reisz.
For the first time since Digimon started, we finally get a brand new opening to replace the iconic ‘Digimon Digital Monsters’ theme from the first three seasons, and it is awful. Whilst ‘A World For Us All’ may have its fans, I genuinely could not stand it. It’s as cheesy as you could possibly imagine, in both lyrics and music, and is up there with some of the worst 4Kids has to offer, despite coming from a different company entirely.
If Tamers was a giant leap forward for the Digimon franchise, Frontier is an even bigger leap back. With the least memorable DigiDestined to date by a large margin, seemingly endless and monotonous repetition and not even the draw of nostalgia to compensate, it’s hard to recommend Digimon Frontier to anyone but the most dedicated of fans.