Saturday, September 4, 2010

Cartoons From The 80's Messed With My Mind Something Fierce

The common wisdom about 80's cartoons is that they were all glorified toy commercials, so the hell with them--like 90s comics they were the exemplars of all that is horrible about the decade and the less said about them the better. It's a fair cop, to an extent--yes, most of them did exist to push toy lines, and everyone working on the shows knew that and composed their stories accordingly.

BUT after a certain time--these shows usually lasted 65 episodes after all--a certain irreverence sets in. Whether it's malice, boredom, or repetitive task-instigated insanity, things start getting a little . . .unusual. Plots start getting away from the usual good guys/bad guys thing and into darker areas than you might expect from a show designed to peddle plastic junk to toddlers and their parents.

And so, ladies and jellyspoons, join me as we take a look at some moments from these bygone days when people lost their shit and no one was smart enough to realize what was going on and stop them before they hit the airwaves and twisted the impressionable young minds of a generation that, like generations before them, never seemed to stop watching the damn thing. Not every cartoon mentioned was a toy commercial, but all of them shocked me with what you can get away with when no one's looking.

1. Star Blazers--This was my generation's Speed Racer--the first inkling that half a world away, some cool-ass animation existed that was completely different from what we were used to. Unlike Speed Racer, which was generally a comedy, Star Blazers was . . .well, like William Stryon wrote it.

Let's see: Earth is nearly bombed into wholesale extinction by the Space Nazis, and the only hope is with an ancient Japanese warship unearthed and made into a spaceship. The captain of said ship is dying from radiation poisoning the whole time and they only have one year to get to the edge of the galaxy and back with the cure, and they have to do this with the Space Nazis hunting them down the whole time. People die on this show--a lot, and it's not really hidden from you with any great effort. The desperate urgency of the whole situation is underlined by the narrator's sign-off/countdown every episode: e.g. "Hurry Star Force, there are only 216 days left!"

Yeah, sleep tight, kids.

On the plus side (and I will say this frequently) the intro is pretty cheesy, but becomes awesome through the sheer force of conviction:

And they showed this every day on Channel 27 before Good Times. There's a lesson in that juxtaposition, I guess, but damn if I could tell you what it is.

2. Spiral Zone--This show is messed up from minute one. in 2007, a demented scientist steals a space shuttle and drops a weird bomb-thing on Earth that creates a wasteland of highly suggestible zombies whose eyes go all yellow and sprout lesions (boy, remember when that happened?). The good guys are fighting a rather uneven struggle to keep it from spreading, a battle complicated by the efforts of the scientists lieutenants and the fact that no sooner did one get destroyed than they dropped another one somewhere else and they don't have the resources to mount a larger response to the Zone incursions, hence the show is in a desperate stalemate.

Oh, and people were actually trying to get into the Zone and want to be mindless zombie people. I told you this show was messed up. The theme song's pretty rocking tho--in 80's intros, the rule is always "when in doubt, shred on guitar, equals huge success":

I bet you didn't think the words "Spiral Zone" had 15 syllables. That's because you didn't try hard enough.

3. Inhumanoids--By the mid-80's Hasbro and Sunbow ruled the roost in terms of tie-in cartoons. G.I. Joe and Transformers dominated the 80's and ran into multiple season and begat cartoon after cartoon designed to emulate that success--Jem, Robotix, Visionaries, et al.

This was, I think, the one where someone snapped and whatever crazy stuff he came up with they just did. I don't know whether it was Hasbro, in designing gigantic toys that looked like they were made out of snot or dog skeletons, or Sunbow, in making it into a TV show that included one of the bad guys getting dumped into acid, deaded (needless to say) and resurrected as some fucked-up skeletonized tentacled thing. Oh, yes, and the good guys allies were evil-looking talking trees. Oh, and apparently the Earth is completely hollow and filled with talking rocks and/or demons. This show is deranged.

Oh, and zombies. Yes: they had an episode where they straight-up had a zombie outbreak. In two year's time we went from this to DuckTales. You tell me if that's a good thing or not.

4. The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers--In the criminal justice system the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups, the Galaxy Rangers and everyone else. Everyone else can go hang, because this is all about the Galaxy Rangers, holmes:

God, that intro rocks. The Law and Order allusion is because this was Jerry Orbach's job long before Law and Order became an American institution. This is a little more traditional at first--team of good guys fight bad guys, however, part of the difference owed to approach--it was a bit more grown-up than most (in an early episode, one guy takes two shots in the chest, and he ain't a robot, neither) but there were little things that made this show stand out. One, years before Firefly they were doing the whole "space western" deal and also . . .man, the collective angst in these people backstories are like Chris Claremont got a TV deal--Zach's wife has been kidnapped and turned into a crystal by the queen of a galactic empire (no, not that one), Goose is hired with the understanding he will capture and kill the renegade super soliders of which he was previously a member, Niko's from a destroyed space colony, Doc's looking for a challenge in a life where everything's come too easy.

The upshot of this is that rather than just having the Rangers fight the Crown Empire for 65 episodes, they actually gave each character a recurring rogue's gallery--Zach's personal grudge gave some stakes to the battle against the Crown, Goose fought the Supertroopers several times, and Niko had the Scarecrow, who was just completely insane--an ancient doomsday weapon who sucked the life out of people. It was a neat bit of world-building as compared to everything else on the tube, and it's kinda a shame that this show is not more well known.

5. G.I. Joe--Y'know, there's a lot about this show that doesn't make a lot of sense. And I don't mean the usual, like "why do the Joes and Cobras get behind two rocks 5 feet away from each other and unload on each other with their guns and can't hit anyone?" I mean the fact that during all the PSAs the Joes spend all their time peeping in people windows and breaking and entering into their houses and shit like that, why so many of the episodes ended up with fake people melting in ways that are sure to give your average 8-year-old some sleepless nights, and the fact that Cobra gleefully spent the opening of one season grave robbing the historically rich and famous and creating Serpentor, which may have seemed like a good idea in at the time, but with the rich look of retrospective, proves that a person named "Doctor Mindbender" shouldn't necessarily be your first choice for idea man.

6. Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors--Lord, this show is utterly batshit crazy. Evil plants can turn into cars and the only thing that can stop them is Han Solo and his D & D party in other, different cars. Just pretend it makes some kind of sense. For an American show, there's an awful lot of prepubescent girls being menaced by tentacles and I'm utterly suspicious of the Freudian implications of Jayce's quest to "unite the magic root."

The intro's pretty good though, in a sort of "bash your face in with the 80s" kinda way:

7. The Transformers--Season 3 gets a bad rap for being after the movie and everyone hates Rodimus Prime and "Carnage in C-Minor" is the worst thing wrought by human hands and on and on. But what people forget about Season 3 is that it is a rather thrilling document of the moment where the writing staff committed their nervous breakdown to film. They'd done almost 80 episodes plus a movie by this point, one can hardly blame them for finally breaking under that kind of pressure. How much can one group of people say about the notion of transforming robots at war with one another?

Let's see--Galvatron goes from being a powerful sadist to raving psychotic; Scourge steals the Matrix, cries and gets deformed on his way to taking over the Decepticons; Optimus Prime comes back as a zombie and tries to lead the Autobots to mass suicide; a hate plague turns everyone into homicidal maniacs; Perceptor gets his brain taken out and put into a geisha doll, and seems to be frighteningly OK with it; Starscream returns and is just as bitchy and queeny as a ghost as he was when he was alive; and Cobra Commander puts the Autbots' brains in human bodies for a rather ropey plan.

But none of these compare to my all-time favourite episode, "Webworld," wherein the Transformers decided the best way to address the treatment of the mentally ill was with transforming robots being abused by apes. Tired of Galvatron fragging them all the time, the Decepticons commit him to a planet-sized mental asylum. It goes about like you expect--he builds a gun in group therapy and tries to kill everyone, hooks his brain into the planet, which drives the planet crazy, and then he kills the planet too. I understand that was the original ending for Analyze This.

In fact, enjoy this clip from that episode:

8. Thundarr the Barbarian--Let me take you back to 1994, when man's civilization was cast in ruin. Please hold your "grunge music" jokes until after the following clip:

I clock it at seconds before this episode tells it's prospective viewer: "Hey, y'know what? This show takes place many years after everything you know dies horribly. Incalculable billions of people died just in this intro. Have fun!" Apparently, one rogue comet is all it takes for Earth to slide into something out of Jack Kirby and Frank Frazetta's (and Steve Gerber, who must have relished this job) shared collective dreams. If they had covered this in Armageddon or Deep Impact, those would have been far better movies than they were.

The main thing I liked about Thundarr was that Thundarr himself was an idiot prone to irrational violence (just like Papa Smurf!), who was prone to violence when he was tired of the plot for that week. Had Thundarr been a Marvel comic circa 2002, the decompression of the plot would have made him so angry he would have been wandering into ads and killing them with the Sunsword by the second issue.

Y'know, looking at them all collated like that, there sure were a lot of apocalypses and dystopias happening in these. Perhaps a more intellectual blogger would say something about how it was obviously a reaction to the Cold War brinksmanship that defined the age and caused everyone to live with a persistent nagging fear of nuclear annihilation, but such highfaultin' theories probably don't belong in the same entry wherein I indirectly referenced Ookla the Mok.

. . .or do they?


C. Elam said...

It's funny that I missed almost all of these growing up, for one reason or another. THUNDARR is the exception, and I thought it was pretty awesome at the time. I (think I) have DVD-Rs of the entire series, but I am sort of worried it cannot possible be as much fun as I remember.

I do remember the intro was sort of mildly traumatizing in that it was such a NEAR future. While I can understand the dramatic reason for that (all the familiar stuff as props in the future), it was still jarring to have a cartoon that said, "HEY KID! You won't live to see 30, so enjoy the hijinks now!" Perhaps I am reading too much into it.

Boy, the Kirby influence is readily apparent in both Thundarr and the face-changing dude in that intro. As for Gerber, I have recently decided that Thundarr is a spiritual brother of Korrek. Korrek was a bit of an idiot, too, if memory serves.

Kazekage said...

Well, I think the slight edge you have on me in years did somewhat skew your zeitgeist towards the previous decade more than mine, but that's a minor thing.

Actually, you're liable to enjoy Thundarr more now. The whole milieu is a lot more comedic and subversive than you might remember from kid-hood. Plus it's basically Jack Kirby's Conan and Jack Kirby's Mad Max falling in love and having a baby, and how is that not cool?

Yeah, there was a constant undercurrent of inescapable doom and dread of a hopeless future in a lot of 80's stuff--the Mad Max films, the Terminator--doom is never far away. Hell, one of the seminal TV events of the time was wherein America gets nuked and the rest of the movie is everyone dying of radiation poisoning. It was the zeigeist, which as I understand it is German for "zeitgeist." ;)

If the secret origin of Thundarr is that he came from a mayonnaise jar, that is a story I want--no, need to be told. Gerber's childlike amusement at messing with people is a joy to behold. This is a man who snuck "THE BLACK HOLE SUCKS!" into an issue of Defenders, after all.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

As far as I can tell, most of these series (the exceptions being "GI Joe" and "Transformers") didn't have major toy franchises directing them, which may explain why they could get away with so much more than, say, "Thundercats", "He-Man"/"She-Ra" or the first TMNT cartoon.

I do wish, though, that at least one of them could have followed the basic rules of narrative and actually have a proper ending - to my knowledge, none of these '80s cartoons offered anything in the way of real closure. You just watched some sixty-odd episodes and were either left hanging or found the same old status quo reinstated.

Interesting note about the multitude of apocalyptic scenarios, though I wonder if that's just a consequence of most of these series being firmly set in the SF genre - dystopian settings tend to be more conducive to those types of stories because you already have the heroes situated in a dangerous environment from the very start...

Kazekage said...

Well, it wasn't for lack of trying Galaxy Rangers got toys in Europe, Spiral Zone had a few re-purposed Japanese toys created, and Inhumanoids had a huge push one year, but they never caught on as much. I think for the most part, the gatekeepers didn't much care about the context of the shows, so long as the right characters were featured. :)

I can actually remember that one of them did. Voltron actually had an endpoint that followed the conclusion of the anime they'd nicked it from, then they moved over to the Vehicle Voltron. Of course, that didn't work as well, and so we soon walked that back and it was back to the Lion Force, how with extra Merla and Cossack. Oh, and Robotech. :)

I suppose that's part of it, although there seemed to be a hell of a lot of them through most of the 80's and then, just about the time where the Cold War cooled off, damn near none. And the decision does feel a bit . . .zeitgeisty? ;)

C. Elam said...

Quite possibly. I honestly think many of them never made it into my non-cable equipped parts at the time, but that is merely anecdotal.

Gerber is someone who I can recommend without reservation, because even his failures are more interesting than many writers' successes.

I thought Zeitgeist was German for "Everyman". No?

Kazekage said...

Well, post '85 I didn't have cable either. This was the last gasp of syndication, when cartoons got shopped around to every UHF station with hours to fill and even tations in the same market could have wildly different schedules.

Very true. It took me awhile to warm to him, but once I did, I developed an appreciation for just what an odd gem he is. The whole "Headmen" thing in Defenders and the Nebulon's Cult of Bozos were a good piece of business, as JR would say.

Only if you're Mark Gruenwald, Chris. ;)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

You know, from a purely technical/narratological point of view, I've never doubted that today's cartoons have a bit more sophistication than their predecessors (generally speaking, of course)... but there's something to be said for the days when the Moral Outrage Radar wasn't quite so all-seeing. After all, easily-offended parents can't protest something if they don't know about it, and it's just as likely "Galaxy Rangers" and their outside-the-box contemporaries got away with crossing the "safe" lines simply by virtue of not being popular enough to attract unwanted attention. :)

Did the ending itself provide closure, though? Or was it an "And Their Adventures Continued" sort of thing?

And, of course, they've made a comeback over the past few years. I do indeed see your point. :)

Kazekage said...

Well, to be fair, there was still a moral outrage radar at work, it was just lamenting the fact that stuff like that existed (i.e. Toy tie-in shows and stuff that looked like toy tie-in shows) and they never went too much further than that. So you could get away with slipping a lot of stuff under the radar, provided people had already pigeonholed you as something appalling but generally harmless.

It was a genuine end, really, as they had to follow the footage they'd bought from the original. When they started contracting for their own animated show, they soon walked it back, though.

Yes, to no one's surprise really, even culture you'd imagine wouldn't carry any zeitgeist ends up loaded with the stuff. :)