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cleo running across a planet with brian and akila Image: Dreamworks Animation

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Peacock’s animated adventure Cleopatra in Space takes the past into the future

The DreamWorks series features a fun, flawed heroine

Mentioning Cleopatra, last ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty, usually conjures up images of desert sands, pyramids, and the Nile River — not necessarily space adventures, hoverboards, and laser guns. But DreamWorks Animation’s Cleopatra in Space, one of the launch titles on the new Peacock streaming service, catapults the Egyptian queen into a futuristic world. There, she trades sphinxes and sandals for a space academy known as P.Y.R.A.M.I.D. (Pharaoh Yasiro’s Research Academy And Military Initiative of Defense).

Based on a graphic-novel series by writer-artist Mike Maihack, Cleopatra in Space is just as vibrant and wacky as it sounds, at least based on the three 22-minute episodes sent to reviewers. The small sample size makes it hard to get a sense for the first season’s full arc, but the show uses its zany concept effectively, meshing Ancient Egypt and futuristic outer space for some fun, episodic adventures.

The first episode kicks off when teenage Cleopatra discovers a tablet that opens a portal, which sucks her into the future. There, she meets fish alien Akila, cyborg Brian, and wise cat professor Khensu. She quickly learns that she is the prophesied Chosen One, whom Khensu believes will save the Nile Galaxy from destruction by an evil overlord. (The overlord happens to be named Octavian — guess this’ll prep her for later encounters). But the council of cats who rule the galaxy don’t want to advertise who she is to the enemy, so Cleo must masquerade as a P.Y.R.A.M.I.D. student in order to train in combat.

cleo, akila, and brian at the control panel of a ship Image: DreamWorks Animation

Cleopatra in Space doesn’t do anything rivetingly new in its setup. There will always be Chosen Ones, like Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender and Harry Potter, who are singled out to rise above and defeat whatever great evil sweeps across whatever land. But Cleopatra in Space uses its clichés effectively. The main characters have typical stock cartoon personalities — Cleo is the spunky protagonist, Akila is the super-caring BFF, Brian is the tech-savvy nerd — but they’re hyperbolically exaggerated, to hilarious and well-thought out effect.

Cleo, for instance, has a level of cockiness and impulsiveness that’s typical for male heroes like Ben of Ben 10 and Lance in Voltron: Legendary Defender. Arrogance and boldness aren’t traits totally absent from female heroines, but unlike similarly reckless heroines like Adora in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and Korra from The Legend of Korra, Cleo isn’t as ready to accept her destiny as the Chosen One, and would rather spend her time hoverboarding through the halls of the P.Y.R.A.M.I.D. academy. The first episode starts with Cleo still in Egypt, rolling her eyes as her father lists his duties for the day, and declaring that when she’s queen, it’ll be a fun job.

It’s clear that throughout the show, Cleo will have to confront her own laziness in this strange new world, rising up to be the hero she’s destined to be. But till that happens, she’s a fun, carefree, imperfect heroine whose brief moments of introspection allow her to be dimensional.

Setting an animated show in space is nothing new, but infusing the world-building with Ancient Egyptian motifs, from the glowing pyramids that make up the academy to the electronic-infused Egyptian melodies of the score (inspired, says score production manager Courtney Lofty, by Paramore, M.I.A., and the score of The Prince of Egypt) makes the show stand out. The characters’ outfits all have gold embellishments reminiscent of Ancient Egyptian costuming, and there’s that council of intelligent cats presiding over the planet. One episode in the batch of three brings the main trio to a jungle planet, likely indicating adventures across the Nile Galaxy. Cleo is as new to this world as the audience is, and the show uses her amazement at discovering futuristic technology like hoverboards and anti-gravity belts to amplify our own sense of wonder.

The full first season will be 12 episodes and feature a vague overarching plot concerning a Big Bad taking over the galaxy, plus Cleo’s continued quest to return back to her family in Ancient Egypt. But unlike other DreamWorks streaming shows, this one takes a more episodic approach. For Cleopatra in Space, that means fewer plot-heavy episodes to start with, and more one-off adventures. It seems to be following a model closer to series like Gravity Falls, where each episode has its hilarious hijinks and the greater plot is slowly threaded throughout, rather than She-Ra, where each episode pushes the plot along. That works in Cleo’s favor, as singular adventures are the perfect avenue for exploring a zany new world through the eyes of a spunky, hilarious heroine.

Correction: A previous version of this article listed the wrong episode count for season 1. We’ve updated the article to reflect the correct number of episodes.

The first season of Cleopatra in Space is streaming on Peacock Premium.

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