Friday, March 5, 2010

Saturday Morning Sorcery

For myself, and I suspect many others of my generation, a interest in fantasy was formed long before discovering Howard, Tolkien, or Leiber. Comic books played a part, but a lot of it was born in the ritual of Saturday morning cartoons. Before the rise of anime, before cartoons were slick, 30 minute commercials (even the toy tie-ins), there were a number of cheaply animated, sketchly plotted works of fantasy that captured our imaginations.

The first and maybe of the best of these was Thundarr the Barbarian. Airing originally on ABC from October 1980 to September 1982, Thundarr told the story of the titular barbarian in his battle against evil in a world 3000 years post-cataclysm--"a world of savagery, super-science, and sorcery"--as the narrator told us. Thundarr relies on his strength, his almost insane recklessness, and his lightsaber-esque sunsword to combat bizaare Jack Kirby designed wizards with nonsensical plans of pure evil. He also hung out with a sorceress, Ariel, and the humanoid, Ookla the Mok. Thundarr gets a lot of love of on the internet, and justifiably so. It's like Kamandi plus Conan with all the slow parts taken out for short child-like attention spans.

In 1981, Filmation brought Blackstar to CBS. Blackstar had a sort of sword and planet thing going. It was the story of astronaut John Blackstar who gets sucked through a black hole and spit out into "an ancient alien universe." Stranded on the apparently rather sparsely populated planet Sagar. He pulls on a fur skirt, jumps astride a winged, dragon horse, and swings the crystalline starsword in the fight for freedom. Fighting for freedom against the Overlord turns out mostly to entail hanging with the comic relief Trobbits--who are best described as part Seven Dwarfs and part Keebler Elves--and waiting for danger to find him. The cheap animation on Blackstar made Thundarr look like a Disney feature film, and the plots were thinner, if that's possible, but the exotic creatures and situations did have an appeal if you were 8 years old, which I was. Still, Blackstar only lasted one season.

Filmation struck again with a similar concept, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, in 1983. Masters of the Universe was, of course, a pre-existing toy line, but Filmation made some changes or additions for their animated version--which included adding a secret identity and making it generally more superheroish than the Donald Glut penned mini-comics that had originally described a more barbaric (dare I say, Thundarrish?) world. I was ambivalent about the changes as a kid, and my resentment has only grown over the years due to the relatively greater popularity of the cartoon with its pink-vested Prince Adam and comic relief Orko.

That same year--the same month, in fact--CBS gave us Dungeons & Dragons. TSR and Marvel Productions conspired to bring this to the small screen. It featured a group of kids transported to a fantasyland by one hell of a roller coaster ride (I assume their parents sued the amusement park). They promptly gained the accouterments and abilities of various D&D classes, a cryptic Yoda-esque mentor, and an evil nemesis. Tiamat appeared quite a lot, too, which was cool. I would suspect the cartoon helped get kids into gaming, but I've never met anyone that identified it as their gateway into the hobby, so I can't be sure. I know it influenced some of the adventures and early characters of my friends and myself, though.

There's kind of a lull in fantasy cartoons for the next few years until Visionaries, which was a toy tie-in and was in the era when that really began to matter. It was syndicated (like He-Man had been) and came on Sunday mornings not Saturdays in my market. Visionaries had an interesting backstory, though. It took place on an advanced world, where the age of magic suddenly returned and technology failed. As one would expect in such a situation, people immediately get divied up into heroic and villainous knights and start acting into a pseudo-Arthurian manner.

The era's last flourish was in 1991 with Pirates of Darkwater. Too old for Saturday Morning kids TV (well, at least until college restored that ritual), I missed out on it when it originally aired, but have since come to appreciate it. The story was a seafaring, fantasy adventure on an alien world. A young prince sets out to save his kingdom from an intelligent (and evil) liquid ("Dark Water") which was trying to tke over the planet. Pirates was clever in its use of alien exclaimations (and possibly expletives) mixed into its dialogue. It's really too bad it hasn't had a DVD release.

In the age before there were whole channels devoted to kids' programming, and before network Saturday mornings were given over to tweener programming and kid reality shows, gems like these--even the ones of lesser value--were things to be treasured. I can't claim they were of higher quality than what has come after--indeed, in many cases I'd agree they come up short in that regard--but there was a crazy inventiveness to some that slicker productions seem to have lost.


Chris said...

No love for Ulysses 3000?

Come on man! It was a trippy French Odyssey-in-space where the hero had a laser sword (and epic 70s facial hair).

Sure, the trappings were scifi-ish, but the plots and situations were pure Saturday morning fantasy.

Lagomorph Rex said...

You missed a couple in there, 1992-1994 also had the Animated Conan the Adventurer series, and 1997 had its sequel Conan and the Young Warriors.

I think it was 1991 had Peter Pan and the Pirates which was sort of a cartoon spin off based on the movie HOOK.

Caine said...

Nice post. I've always gravitated toward Pirates of Dark Water and feel as if Thundarr is the reason why I don't care for straight fantasy without science fiction elements mixed in. At the time, I always associated Thudarr and Ookla the Mok as a reimagining of Han Solo and Chewbaka but that was the kid in me. I now see them for what they are: archetypal.

Trey said...

@Chris - I have to confess--I've never seen Ulysses 3000 (I didn't air in my benighted corner of the world), though I've heard its praises sung before, so your point is well taken.

@Lagomorph - The Conan series weren't missed, but rather left out. I see them as part of the "next wave" of more toy commercial shows, though I realize I'm a little hypocritical with my inclusion of Visionaries. Still, their airdates are firmly in the 90s so their past the era I'm talking about. Peter Pan does straddle that line, and it was a good show--particular Tim Curry as Hook, though not as fantastic as those on my list.

@Caine - I think Thundarr and Ookla were a bit of both archetypes and Star Wars inspired.

Brian Murphy said...

Man, I loved Thundarr as a kid. Hell, I'd watch it now if it was still on TV.

Trey said...

@Brian: Ask and ye shall receive: Thundarr comes on Cartoon Network's sister station Boomerang at 1:00am nightly!

Talysman said...

@Caine, Trey: Ookla *was* Star Wars inspired, as were a couple other elements. Network execs had the creators re-design elements, including "add a wookie-like sidekick". So they made a beastlike character and named him after the nearby college, UCLA.

Incidentally, the reason why it resembles Kamandi is because Jack Kirby did the original Thundarr design work, Because of the above network meddling, the characters had to be resesigned by Alex Toth, which explains why I've always mistakenly thought Thundarr was a Hanna-Barbera cartoon.

Jim Shelley said...

Great Post - let me add a bit to the Thundarr thread - back in 2007 I approach Ruby/Spears with the idea of liscensing Thundarr (just to see how feasible that would be...) They said that Time Warner owned the character now and gave me the name of the lady to talk to at TW. I sent her an email and she said they weren't interested in doing anything with Thundarr at this time (standard corporate dodge-speak)

Shane Mangus said...

Thundarr, The Herculoids, Tarzan Lord of the Jungle, Jonny Quest, Return to the Planet of the Apes -- these Saturday morning classics served as my first taste of pulp adventure. All of them had a huge impact on my young imagination. Surprisingly, most all of them are still very watchable today and stand the test of time fairly well.

Trey said...

@P.S.:I would heartily agree with all of those--and add Filmation's Flash Gordon, too.

Brian Murphy said...

Man, I don't get Boomerang (pretty basic cable here), but I'm glad Thundarr is still alive and kickin'.

Trey said...

Brian, not that I would suggest anything illegal but I have seen bootlegs on sale on ebay or at cons.

But your right: sometimes just knowing Thundarr is still out there doin' this thing is enough.