One of the fascinating things about The Last Airbender is that it does not draw solely from martial arts stories and kung-fu adventures. The kung-fu classic is one element of the Avatar story, but in The Northern Air Temple we get our first full introduction to one of the other major elements: steampunk.
The episode is mostly focused on (steam-powered) flight, but we also see the grappling-hook flip-tanks of the Fire Nation for the first time. The flight sequences, especially the fly-off between Teo and Aang, are marvelously animated, and I would set them against anything by Miyazaki (allowing for the budget level difference, of course). It was fun to see Katara venturing into territory previously limited to Aang alone.
But the episode also draws on real life. The use of rotten-egg smell to detect natural gas leaks is a direct lift. Similarly, Sokka's idea for an air vent in the war balloon comes from ballooning technology in real life. These little nods to reality are hallmarks of the attention to detail that make the show so great.
In the discovery that the Mechanist is building weapons for the Fire Nation, we return to a recurring theme that the series stresses time and again: nobody is totally good or totally evil. People are complicated. Though the Aang gang are angry, they do not treat him as a villain. Instead they cooperate with him to throw off the yoke of the Fire Kingdom.
One thing I would like to note is the show's treatment of the paraplegic Teo. Any other American show would have stuck in cringe worthy expository dialogue like, "Oh, you're crippled." or "My legs may be paralyzed, but that doesn't mean I can't fly as well as you can!" I almost cheered when I saw that Avatar wasn't going to go there. There was no need: by showing what Teo could do and not making a big deal out of his handicap, having Sokka think the glider chair was neat, in fact they got the point across a lot better than they could have with whole paragraphs of exposition.
Another high point of the episode is the voice acting by Rene Auberjonois, best known as Deep Space Nine's Odo but also a veteran voice actor. Auberjonois is one of those actors who is incapable of turning in a bad performance, and he brings just the right nuance to the absent-minded inventor.
Other reviewers have remarked on the odd behavior of Aang coming to accept the destruction of the spiritual in the name of "progress". I see it in a different way: I see Aang coming to realize that nobody can destroy your own inner spirituality, and the trappings of it are only empty stone shells without people to occupy them.
Other reviewers have also remarked on how the battle felt artificially kid-friendly. However, the air temple inhabitants already knew they were surrounded and outnumbered, and could not hope to win with conventional tactics. Relying on unconventional methods like slime and smoke bombs, which the Fire Nation army could not have been trained on how to deal with, made strategic sense. And what's so "kid-friendly" about a huge gas explosion to blow the enemy army off the mountain?
I do have to wonder, though, what is to stop the Fire Kingdom from waiting until the benders have left and trying their assault again. Still, the capture of the war balloon was an ominous note on which to end.
I give "The Northern Air Temple" a solid B. It was not a spectacular story, but it worked well in what it did.
This episode is very underrated, and very unjustly so. Even though the pacing of this episode is somewhat off, it tells a great story that advances the plot and the world by a great deal. 'Avatar' is set in an Asian fantasy world, and this episode adds that dash of steampunk that makes things more colorful and the world broader.
The episode starts out languidly, with the gang listening to airbender stories. However, it is revealed that those are not old myths, but current events, and of course the gang immediately goes and investigates.
They arrive at the Northern Air Temple, where they see people gliding around. Not only is this place an old airbender home, but it's also a marker in the gang's journey north. Since the Southern Air Temple was the first place to come after the south pole, this might very well be the last place before the north pole.
The viewers follow Aang's perspective into the temple, and the inside turns out to be dark and forlorn, full of pipes, machinery, pollution, and desecrated murals and statues. As such, Aang's anger when the Mechanist appears is very understandable, and probably also felt by the viewers. It is this hopelessness that powers the first half of the episode.
Indeed, the entire rest of the episode is an interplay between despair and hope. Teo shows Aang the untouched doors to the temple sanctuary, and Aang starts seeing the positive spirit in Teo. However, all goodness crashes again when the gang discovers what truly lies behind the sanctuary doors.
The battle that dominates the second part of the episode seemed a bit dragged, but it is the first time where two large forces instead of individual combatants clash, and it is here where we get to witness the awesome power of the Fire Nation's military for the first time.
After the first wave, the true power in the form of steam-driven tanks starts assaulting the temple. Their animation is very nicely done, and it clearly shows the sturdy yet moving machinery. And this is where hope (after the first wave of attackers) is again replaced by despair as nothings seems to be able to stop the tanks. Only the brave act of Sokka wins the battle, and everyone rejoices.
In the end, Aang overcomes his shock and feels for the refugees, and accepts what has happened to the temple. As Teo puts it: "That means a lot, coming from you." And there is one last exchange of the driving pair of emotions for this episode: While Sokka cheers everyone on that they control the sky, the ending reveals that the Fire Nation has now gained even that edge, something that will be a very powerful plot device and advancement in the future of the show. A gateway to many victories indeed.
This episode is not as great as some of the truly good ones that the show has offered, but it can still hold its own. The good story, great story elements (such as the Fire Nation army or the hot air balloon), and the unbeatable foreshadowing - very likely the most powerful yet - cover up the flaw of the somewhat stagnant pacing nicely.
I'm glad this wasn't the first episode I watched. I used to avoid Avatar because I was afraid that the story and fighting scenes would be toned down for kids. Had I saw this episode first it would have done nothing but confirmed my fears. Its plot was in a way offensive, its action scenes were turned into jokes, and it over all was just a weak episode.
The plot in Avatar heavily revolves around spiritualism; it's one of the reasons I and many others enjoy the show. This particular episode, though, is a slap in the face to the spiritual aspect of the series. Throughout the episode they are destroying sacred monuments, temples, art work, and history all for material progress. What's worse is by the end of the episode this is considered "okay" by Aang and the others. For Avatar to always be on the side of spiritualism this episode stands in stark contrast to the morals it sets up in almost every other episode.
Although the plot was disappointing the action in this episode is really where it falls short. This is what I used to fear Avatar would be before I actually saw it. So the Fire Nation is about to attack and they have to defend themselves. But wait, lets not be reasonable about it, lets "kiddify" the action. Instead of fighting like normal they use smoke bombs, slime bombs, and stink bombs. All very poor choices to go to battle with, but they are "kid friendly" and it was also a bad attempt at humor. But wait, there's more! Awesome looking tanks are attacking! Unfortunately, they are defeated by dismantling their wheels and dropping slime on them. Again the "kid friendly" version of beating them is a very poor joke. The action left a lot to be desired.
On the whole, the jokes were very poor which is a shame because normally Sokka is hilarious. Teo and his father were dull, two dimensional characters that pale in comparison to other season one characters like Bumi, Jet, or Jeong Jeong. The only redeeming factor is that the episode has influence on the story arc. The Drill and the war balloons where introduced in this episode and Teo reappears in season three. Let us hope his appearance is more interesting than last time.