Monday, December 12, 2011


(Beginning a new feature that will hopefully expand the scope of the Prattle, provide some content and has nothing to do at all with the fact that I haven't had any comics to talk about in a fortnight or so, here we take a look at my other big obsession--80's cartoons)

So, back in the early-to-mid 80's, thanks to a loosening of advertising guidelines with respect to children's television, it became OK to create cartoons based on toy lines whose sole purpose was to show off the toys with only the merest skein of a story to hold the whole thing together. This coincided with the rise of syndication as a major force in filling program hours (this would ultimately be killed dead by the infomercial at the end of the decade, but that's another rant altogether) The upshot was--there were more independent stations (typically UHF) and they needed airtime filled, and these were a good investment, as kids tuned in every day and pestered their parents for what they saw, and kids, being creatures of habit around the age of 10, would set aside hours of their live to circle round the TV and watch the damn things.

I speak from experience.

Now, for a successful cartoon back then, you needed a couple things. The first was a toy deal--whether the toy company instigated it or would back you with one later on is immaterial. The second was, you needed 65 episodes for a single season (Think about that--cartoons now are lucky if they have 65 episodes in their entire run) or enough to run an episode a day for five days of the working week for three months time.

So, when you get right down to it, mass production is really the goal here more than artistic expression. It's nice if it happens and the people are involved enough and care enough to raise it over and above the level of a toy ad, but in general the main goal is to full 65 half-hours and sell that bastard across the country. Then, if all goes well, you come back and do 65 more.

There are a number of ways to do it. Robotech squeezed three anime series together and sanded off the rough edges as much as they were able to make it a generational saga. Voltron did the same with two other anime series (though really everyone only knows the first one) Transformers did a 13-episode first season, and made up the difference with the second, G.I. Joe did three five-day miniseries before they rolled out the other 50 episodes in its first season.

Now, the point of this discursive blather is to set up a problem--generally, whatever your storytelling engine, sixty-five episodes of it is a fucking awful lot to do. Imagine watching the Coyote chase the Road-Runner every day for three months and see how long it takes you to get sick of it. Even the best shows can get numbing after awhile--how many times can you watch He-Man punch Skeletor, or Mumm-Ra get his ass kicked by furries (or heaven help us, Berbils) before the episode is a foregone conclusion?

Which finally, however many hundred words I've written thus far, to the subject of today's little rant: The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers, a show you've never heard of, but should definitely check out, as it's an interesting little curio that generally managed to stay fresh through its only 65-episode season.

It also has one of the most badass intros of all time:

(Yes, you were just dropkicked in the face by the 1980s. Take it and like it.)

The folks behind Galaxy Rangers came to the table with a number of influences in their heads--Thunderbirds, X-Men, anime (especially Space Adventure Cobra) The Velvet Underground (no really!) and Westerns (obviously) and decide they were going to smoosh all that together into a tasty melange which manages to be traditional and offbeat and pretty awesome.

The general plot is more of a skeleton for the various sub-stories to run through, but here we go: After mankind has it's first contact with friendly aliens who give them hyperdrive technology, mankind starts its early colonisation efforts, which are fairly on-the-nose references to the Old West. However, as mankind makes its way to the stars, a crumbling but still powerful interstellar empire, the Crown, is still a force to be reckoned with.

From here, the plot vectors off in several directions, each of them a storytelling opportunity. Sometimes (merficully rare) episodes would involve a range war between colonists, or problems with aliens or colonisation tech gone amuck, Or the Rangers would run up against one of the minor gangs that plagued the colonies--the Black Hole Gang, Captain Kidd, and the awesomely named, yet sadly underused, Daisy O'Mega.

But the two main threads were directly tied to two of the Rangers, and it's past time we got to know them, so let's ROLL CALL this!

ZACHARY FOXX--The leader of the group, Foxx is tied most directly to the threat of the Crown Empire, as in the opening episode, his wife is kidnapped by the Empire and turned into a Psychocrystal (The leader of the Empire, the Queen of the Crown, creates Psychocrystal to power her Slaverlords, who enforce her will across the galaxy. Humans seem to make the most awesome psychocrystals) To get her back, Foxx gets cyborged and can turn his hand into a cannon. He's also played by Jerry Orbach who was on Law and Order forever. I would like to think these two things are related, but can't really finesse a reason why they would be.

NIKO--The Token Psychic Girl who's not a Token Psychic girl, Niko gets to kick ass with the boys and thankfully avoids being constantly kidnapped or a useless shrinking violet through most of the run of the show. Niko's psychic power is enhanced with the strength of her bionics (all the Rangers are cyborgs) but even if she didn't have that, her tendency to jumpkick people in the face or draw on them with the Ranger equivalent of a sawed off double-barrel shotgun. Niko is pretty damn hardcore, is what I'm saying.

SHANE GOOSEMAN--Man, the Goose, despite having a ridiculous name, ended up being the breakout character on this show. Gooseman is a Supertrooper, a pre-Rangers attempt by Earth's military to create super-soldiers. This went wrong, as they so often do, and in trying to juice them up, they created a bunch of super-powered psychotics, all except for Goose, who is the only stable one. Goose's bionics give him the power of reactive adaptation--whatever he needs to do to protect himself, his body will automatically adapt to protect himself. As a condition of his duty as a Ranger, Goose is also charged with hunting down the other renegade Supertroopers, which is our other long-running subplot through the show's run. Goose is also Clint Eastwood, more or less (mostly more) and is utterly badass. If you meet one of the ten people who remember this show, there is a better than average chance, 80% will say Goose was their favourite character.

DOC HARTFORD--Doc is the plucky comic relief of the group, and he sadly gets the least character development out of our little quartet. That said he's always quick with a joke (and his humour doesn't feel all that forced), never portrayed as less than competent, and actually has a pretty interesting skillset. Doc essentially has a Six Demon Bag of computer programs which can infiltrate and take over any computer system. Even better, said Six Demon Bag is shaped like a whiskey flask, which is all kinds of awesome. Despite getting the short end of the stick when it comes to character development, he's still just as cool as all the other guys.

I'm leaving out the rest of the extended cast or I'd be here all day. Wikipedia has a partial listing of them here (though they sadly omit Daisy O'Mega), and even the show's creators on the DVD commentary joke that they would gleefully add 5 10 characters per episode and think nothing of it--whatever broadened the scope of the show and gave them liberty to explore in later episodes was fine with them. Whatever else you can say about Galaxy Rangers or how well it aged, it one cannot fault for ambition.

So, uh, why is it mostly a footnote now? Well, it had a couple strikes against it--one, they couldn't quite balance their toy deal with their syndication clearance, it had the handicap of debuting simultaneous with two other space Westerns, the seriously cool Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs and the utterly wretched excuse for a cartoon that was Bravestarr (Seriously, I have seen few shows as utterly despondently terrible as fucking Bravestarr). But their main problem (and they're pretty up-front about this on the DVD) was that the show was successful in the wrong demographic--older and college kids loved it (especially in Europe), but as demographics didn't really make allowances for more grown-up kids digging cartoons at the time so while it completed its initial order, it wasn't brought back for a second series, although there was plenty of storytelling gas in the tank.

The entire series is available on DVD (and has been marked down in price quite a bit as well) and its well worth a look, as it presages quite a few things that would become more common practice (more obvious anime influences, arc stories, a little more maturity in characterisation, etc.) and pretty much did Firefly before Firefly was a thing. It's well worth your time!


Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Aaaand I'm back. :)

Loving the new subject, especially since I've started dabbling in anime per your recommendations. ;) "Mobile Suit Gundam" hasn't really worked for me on account of obscure/utterly bewildering characterization (I mean, doesn't showering at a man's house suggest friendship rather than imminent betrayal?) but I think I might take a look at a more modern version, like "Gundam 00".

Anyway. Galaxy Rangers. You know, it's popped up a lot on TV Tropes in connection to specific tropes I enjoy, but... they're riding robot horses. In space. With synthesizers and electric guitars playing in the background. I just can't. :)

Kazekage said...

Welcome back! I'm following your battle with Slott on Bleeding Cool as I type this. Most people have a job where they bash their heads repeatedly against a large rock (metaphorically speaking) and really, while getting paid doesn't fix it, it for damn sure helps you buy some aspirin. :)

Yeah, I think Mobile Suit Gundam hasn't really aged all that well, and has quite a lot of that "even the bad guys are noble!" theme that runs through postwar Japanese culture (then again, look at how many people try to draw equivalency between the two sides in the American Civil War, amirite?) and it doesn't quite play so well now. Gundam 00 will probably play better for you, as it's 50+ episodes and a movie (which breaks ground hertofore not seen in a Gundam anime) and is a lot more . . .current? I guess. I have a couple other suggestions for you as well:

Macross Plus--This was what the guy who directed Cowboy bebop was known for before he directed Bebop. 4 episodes, and it's pretty much a pure character study of three people and doesn't require a damn thing else. It's also got Yoko Kanno doing the music, so it has a fantastic soundtrack as well.

Bubblegum Crisis--Not the 2040 one, the original one. It's a bit more episodic, and suffers a bit from not having an adequate wrap-up (Bubblegum Crash doesn't count) In a future equal parts Terminator, Blade Runner and Streets of Fire, four women with badass Iron Man-esque armour try to foil the plans of evil uber-corporation GENOM. It's a bit dated, but it has its charms, not least of which is its soundtrack. If you have some small pleasant disposition toward the 80's (the synthesizers and electric guitars are here too, but more in a rock mode, than Galaxy Rangers) I think you'll dig it.

Well, in its defence, they don't show up too often (and they're basically there to sell toys) and they're nowhere near as annoying and disturbing as Bravestarr's Thirty-Thirty, who is . . . bad. It depends on how forgiving you can be to a show that's main focus is selling toys, and while it's worth trying here, there's sometimes (as when I tried to watch Silverhawks again) that even I couldn't do it.

C. Elam said...

Hey look, I finally remembered to comment. (Even though my internet went down the first time I tried)

Thanks for this. I never saw the show *OR* (to my recollection) the toys back in the day, so this title is always one I see and go "OK?" because I utterly missed it. Which I think is all the proof you need as to why it wasn't successful - a lot of people didn't even know about it.

(I mean, I probably would've considered watching it given the opportunity, based on that faux anime opening)

Complicating matters with this show is the fact that one of Toei's international titles for GORANGER was "Galaxy Rangers", so that kept showing up in the end credits for Power Rangers shows. It still may, for all I know.

Kazekage said...

I have no idea what your internet was trying to tell you there.

Well, the toys never made it out here--they only went to Europe, where the show was a good deal more successful (it would be also cool if they were BETTER toys, but never mind)

As to people not knowing about it, this is where I mea culpa up and say something I shoulda mentioned in the article--back in the peak years of syndicated cartoons--let's say 1984-1988--it was possible to have cartoon blocks that stretched from 6:30-9:00 in the morning and from 2:30-5:00 in the afternoon. Peak times were just before and after school. the established shows got the peak slots. Galaxy Rangers, skewing older as it did, tended to get less favourable slots. I think in my neck of the woods it came on at 8:30 on the late, lamented, and utterly weird WKFT "Counterforce" 40.

Well, you can pick up the DVDs cheap now, man. It ain't too late.

Never mind doing an eBay search will make a whole mess of listings for Power Rangers Lost galaxy show up, because you just can't escape, can you?

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Now wasn't that a textbook example of wasting time? I could've gone downstairs and chatted up a brick wall instead; at least walls don't panic at the sight of eight-letter words. :)

Thanks for the suggestions! I'll be sure to let you know when I track them down...

You know, I was willing to cut "Silverhawks" a lot of slack for simple nostalgic value - okay, they can breathe in space, I'll accept that. But then they end every episode with wildly inaccurate astronomy lessons? That just makes me feel foolish for watching. :)

Kazekage said...

I know, right? Now mind you, that shit was kinda entertaining in a crazy way, but it was one of those things where the wave soon rolls back and you just feel so depressed about the way everyone acts. :)

I think they'll be more to your taste. I'm trying to line them up with Western things you dig---thus, not so much of a culture shock. :)

Well, being that the two characters involved in the astronomy lessons--Copper Kidd and Bluegrass--are functionally retarded, it's no surprise they can't grasp basic astronomy. My big problem was, uhm . . .well, the Silverhawks themselves aren't very awesome. The stock six, anyways. The 4 extra Silverhawks are way more interesting and they barely show up. It's like the exact reverse of Thundercats, wherein the New Thundercats were so useless you hardly cared if they were there or not.

PS: Thundercats ended up being really awesome, didn't it?

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Mind you, I may not have the energy anymore, but there are others much more willing to cut through the Big Two's BS...

Is it me, or were the villains much more compelling than the heroes in most '80s cartoons? (Well, maybe not Original Mumm-Ra, but the Silverhawk criminal gang seem much more memorable to me than any of the core cast...) To this day I prefer the Misfits to the Holograms, etc. :)

You know, I was actually rather disappointed in how it turned out. The pilot is still great, but it's like they switched gears immediately afterwards and started emulating the '80s version a touch too closely - so much filler, so little characterization, etc. That said, credit where it's due: the traditional love triangle was actually resolved in a way that both surprised me (the hero doesn't get the girl? Twist!) and bothered me (either Cheetara had no idea Lion-O was interested in her, or she deliberately led him on, and I'm not comfortable with what either option says about the only adult female in the entire series...)

Kazekage said...

I read that. It was, uhm . . .it sure was something. :)

Pretty much, not least because for the most part they were the only people who were allowed to have a substantial amount of character to drive the story along. Now that you mention it, yeah--everyone seems to remember COBRA or the Decepticons. The closest I can come to identifiable protagonists that really clicked were characters like the Dinobots, who were allowed to be more vilalinous (sorta--for awhile they were kind of semi-renegade Autobots) until they turned into the Lovable Stupids.

Oh I dunno. I kinda liked some of the episodes. "Song of the Petlars" I thought was really great and the flashback episode that (kinda) explained everything was pretty awesome (not least for the Silverhawks and Tigersharks cameos) and . . .I dunno. I'm not 100% sure what to think about the last twist really, as the show tended to forget for long periods of time that Tygra was pissed at Lion-O at all, so their fealty to long-term planning has a few blind spots. . .

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Quite. A bit too Kirby-centric for my tastes, but he made some excellent points about why the industry is the way it is.

There's a bit of hilarious irony at work: so many Western narratives push for sympathy with the underdog, but in '80s animation, the villains were the underdogs: always defeated, always second-best, always having to get back up and try again. You're more likely to pity '80s Shredder or Skeletor than any of the Turtles. :)

And then some: I remember a span of two episodes where Lion-O is criticized for acting rashly and jumping into an ambush, and in the very next one Tygra castigates him for being overly cautious. They tried to frame it as him being antagonistic towards Lion-O regardless of his actions (which admittedly makes sense in terms of sibling rivalry), but... I don't know, I kept feeling like the show was straining against some preconceived barrier. I loved the revelation that the Thundercats' ancestors were Mumm-Ra's servants - it worked quite well with the subtle critique of Thundera as a classist/racist society - but then it turns out Lion-O's predecessor was a good guy all along anyway? It comes off as a bit of a mishmash, like they didn't have the stones to just go all-out.

Kazekage said...

I agreed with a lot of his points, I just . . .I guess (realising this is very hypocritical of me to say) I wish that people wouldn't feel the need to be so prickish about everything in comics nowadays. It makes reasonable discussion nigh-impossible, and lord knows, a little of that would go a long way.

I wonder if some of that is that the kids were meant to identify with the heroes, so they were generally blank slates that the kids were supposed to project onto and they thought that would work, but in reality, it just went the other way.

[now with the orphaned half-comment being where it should be!]

That was. . .odd. I remember those two things too and even I was like "Hang on. . ." The thing is, is that if he's going to gainsay everything Lion-O says . . .well, it kind of undercuts the "naw bro, I was always there for you" stuff from the finale a bit if we don;t see a bit more of the complexity in their relationship before then. That said, I did like the teeny revelation that came out--that the animals were all Mumm-Ra's slaves and really, the cats were pretty racist when you got down to it . . .it'd be nice to just push it a little bit further and examine some of those things again, as the show would do stuff like the "Forest of Magi Oar" episode and completely flip the hero/villain stuff on you halfway through.