Failure and Frustration

Ash never wins.

He never succeeds. He, after 14 continuous years of trying again, and again, and again, just never actually achieves his goal. Ash Ketchum set out to be the very best, to be a Pokemon Master, to earn the title of League Champion by claiming first place in a regional tournament and challenging the incumbent title holder -- but he's never done it. In a decade and a half, Ash has been a constant failure.

Now, he's had plenty of smaller successes along the way. Ash has successfully captured and trained tons of different Pokemon over the years, teaching them new attacks, earning their trust and witnessing many of them evolve into more powerful forms under his command. He's also cleaned out every region he's been to, earning every available Gym Badge from every Gym Leader we've ever seen in the series. He's even grabbed a couple of lesser championship titles, from the filler arcs of the Orange Islands and the Battle Frontier. But yet he never wins the big one.

Because he can't. He's not allowed to. The Pokemon show has become so successful and been so consistent for so long that it's like its hero is never, ever going to be allowed to actually finish what he started. If Ash ever won, it'd be over. If he ever actually became a League Champion in the series, that would be it. The end. How could the story go on? It couldn't. And so every time he gets close, the writers make sure he falls short.

Try as he might, Ash just can't seem to catch a break.

It made sense the first couple of times -- it actually would have been odd to see him succeed in that first tournament, since he was still so young as a trainer. But as the years have passed by, the stagnancy of his journey is becoming more and more apparent -- especially since, in addition to never winning a League tournament, he's also never aged.

The Pokemon cartoon is now older than its own protagonist. Ash set out on his adventure on his 10th birthday, and in the years since he's never gotten any older. He's never been drawn taller, his voice has never matured to a deeper tone -- he's ageless. Everyone else he encounters is the same way, too, as his traveling companions, his mom, Professor Oak and all the rest never change either.

This is made even odder since the Pokemon themselves are all clearly growing and progressing over time -- many have hatched from eggs as babies on the show, trained with our heroes for a while and evolved into their adult forms later on. The flow of time seems to work OK for them, so why is it that Ash Ketchum, after 14 years of traveling and completing a half-dozen different journeys away from home, is still just a 10-year-old kid?

The Pokemon TV series seems perfectly comfortable in keeping Ash just where he is, as a perpetually youthful and never-quite-successful protagonist is exactly what they want. Even if you grant the show's creators some grace on those two points, though, there's still one other issue that fans of the cartoon are still hoping will be addressed some day -- the identity of Ash's dad.

Selections from "Letters to an Absent Father," a fan comic by artist Mare Odomo that lampoons Ash's lack of a dad.

Ash is a fatherless hero. He has male role models throughout the series, as he clearly looks up to Professor Oak as a kind of grandpa and aspires to be as successful a trainer as the members of the Elite Four he occasionally encounters -- but his actual dad is never a part of this group. He's never been seen. After 14 years, he's just been constantly, unexplainably absent.

He isn't dead. He didn't pass away -- the show has offered at least that much info, explaining that he too is a Pokemon Trainer out on his own journey. But Ash, so far, has never encountered him.

It's odd. It's not like it's an event that absolutely has to happen on the show, as it's still doing a fine job chronicling his travels and presenting new Pokemon each week in funny or exciting situations. But Pokemon has just been going so long, and the audience that's been following it from the beginning are so invested at this point, that the show's creators are straying into progressively more difficult narrative territory to navigate. The longer Ash travels, the more he loses, the longer he never ages and doesn't learn anything about his father -- well, the more the believability of this one main character falls apart.

What Happens Next

Like always, then, all we can do is wait and see what happens next. Pokemon Black & White, the 14th season of the show, debuts this Saturday, February 12 on Cartoon Network in America. And there will be some small changes that come along with the shift in setting to the new Unova Region.

First, the show's overall art style is getting a tweak -- especially with its human characters. Ash is drawn with larger, more expressive eyes and an all-new outfit. He hasn't been made any older or taller, and his voice will likely stay just the same as before -- but at least his clothing swaps between generations are some small bit of progress for him visually.

Second, Ash and Pikachu will truly be going it alone when starting this latest leg of their decade-and-a-half adventure -- all of their past supporting characters are gone. Brock is the most major loss here, as he's accompanied Ash in all of the show's previous story arcs except one. Now, Ash will meet up and travel with two new characters -- Iris, a girl with enormous hair who owns the Dragon-type Pokemon Axew, and Cilan, the first Gym Leader Ash challenges in Unova and the owner of the Grass-type monkey Pokemon Pansage.

Ash's new look for the new Black & White cartoon season.

Other standards will stay the same, though, as you can expect to see the villainous Team Rocket continue to pursue Pikachu all the way through Unova. Dissecting them -- Jessie, James and Meowth -- could be an entirely separate and equally lengthy retrospective, so we won't go into all that. But it's enough to say that they're the exact same trio of bumbling bad guys that have been antagonizing our heroes since the second-ever episode of the show, 14 years ago. (Only this time they'll be wearing black clothes. Minor change!)

And that's really the Pokemon TV series in a nutshell -- it's a cartoon that set out to adapt a successful video game, then became so successful itself that it settled into a strict formula of doing things and now seems afraid to make anything more than minor changes to its own status quo. It can be frustrating, for longtime fans who'd love to see something more drastic happen in the long-running series.

Or it could just be comforting, as Ash and Pikachu are admittedly reliable and trustworthy characters who are always going to keep pursuing their original dream. And what dream is that? Well, you've read this far, so here you go:

I wanna be the very best, like no one ever was! To catch them is my real test, to train them is my cause! I will travel across the land, searching far and wide. Teach Pokemon to understand the power that's inside!

Pokemon! (Gotta catch 'em all!)

It's you and me! I know it's my destiny!


Oh, you're my best friend, in a world we must defend!


A heart so true! Our courage will pull us through! You teach me and I'll teach you, Pokemon! Gotta catch 'em all!

Gotta catch 'em all! Pokemon!

Image credits to Bulbapedia, The Pokemon Wiki and Mare Odomo.