A few episodes into A Certain Scientific Railgun, you realise that it’s filling the gaps between the action that went on in A Certain Magical Index. So Tōma sticks his nose in when he loses Index, Index sticks her nose in when she loses a doughnut, and aside from that it’s business as usual for partners in Judgement Misaka, Shirai and Uiharu, and their friend Ruiko Saten. However, as they zap some bad guy butt and solve minor mysteries around Academy City, the seeds are being scattered for a more insidious, overarching plot.
The anime was first collected into eight releases, each containing three episodes, which explains the many opening and ending themes and the series’ vignette styling. Quite often this means that, as a full 24-episode run, Railgun feels fractured. When a string of attacks on espers by a gang called the Big Spiders, led by someone calling himself Wataru Kurozuma, brings the real Kurozuma out of the woodwork to save Misaka – the eponymous Railgun – and Kuroko, he disappears after a couple of episodes never to be heard from again. After being little more than an irritation, rescuing female characters that have thus far never needed rescuing, he’s left as a frayed end in the narrative. And in between these vignettes, rushed in the same way as Index by melting too many light novels down into too short a series.
But that’s the worst of it out of the way. The closer you come to the core of the story, and the conspiracy underlying low- or no-level citizens gaining power from an unknown source, the more ruthless the rush of dark sci-fi becomes. In this sense, the series moves in waves, with the first reaching its peak around episode 10, and the second at its height by the end of episode 22. At its best, you feel that this is what the A Certain… series should have been from the start, trimming Tōma as the lead, and going the whole science-fiction hog instead of hovering somewhere between fantasy and sci-fi. The villain of the first cour is more credible and affecting than any in Index, as we feel the sting of her callous defences coming away until the complexities of her crimes are laid bare, ignited by the suffering of the people she’s deceived. She makes a welcome break from the shallow shrieking nutjobs we’re too used to sitting through, which makes it even more a shame when Railgun falls prey to relying on this cliché at the peak of the latter half.
Even in the spaces between the central plot, episodes are highlighted by stringing up a satisfying amount of incompetent thugs, exploring the truth of the city’s urban legends, and the potential of personal reality and self-belief, no matter your abilities. And with new friends and old stepping in as they’re required, as ever, the power of friendship ties it together and brings a tear to the eye.