Saturday Morning Cartoon Time! Featuring Giant Rodents, Pink Smurfs, Talking Toads, Walking Dustbins and Thundercatfish!
By Dave Newman on 12th September 2020
Life as an English teacher is busy, busy, busy, but I’ve skipped the gym and swim this morning to bring you a random selection of cartoon episode reviews!
Biker Mice from Mars – Steelfinger
I was starting high school when Biker Mice from Mars was being shown in serial form on The Big Breakfast on Channel 4 in the UK, so only really paid that and Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers a limited amount of attention, but it certainly seemed like a show I’d be into. An excellent cast, with Rob Paulsen, Dorian Harewood and Ian Ziering from Beverly Hills, 90210 playing the eponymous heroes Throttle, Modo and Vinnie and W. Morgan Sheppard, Susan Silo (using her unique female voice for a weaselly male) and Brad Garrett from Everybody Loves Raymond playing the antagonists Lawrence Limburger, mad scientist Dr. Karbunkle and henchman Greasepit. The Ian Ziering casting seemed to nab them Brian Austin Green and Jungle Boy’s dad as guest cast members too, plus Leah Remini from The King of Queens. Fantastic theme tune too, which I’ve included the full version of here.
In this episode, Modo is experiencing some depression about his robotic arm as well as some James Bond delusions too (captured in the teaser with a terrible Bond music ripoff). Limburger is in a position to exploit this and offers him a job and a new arm, which he ends up taking by going undercover. This allows for a number of James Bond homages (Modo will take a root beer – NOT shaken, NOT stirred) like Greasepit wearing and utilising a buzzsaw bowler hat. The undercover facade doesn’t last long and Limburger is prepared for a betrayal, but Throttle and Vinnie are close by too. Not too much complexity of plot to the episode. The plus points are the actors are all up for putting the work in and the character designs are fun, even though the animation is lacking.
I do wish the show had been released on DVD, I definitely would’ve bought it, but the collections were lacking. I gave the newer series from about fifteen years ago a go, but it wasn’t up to the par of this show, replacing Limburger and his Plutarkian comrades with a boring cat villain and a Donald Trump expy (Ronaldo Rump), which I’m kinda surprised hasn’t been mentioned in recent years. This show kinda lets itself down when it reduces itself to being a little too “cartoony”, but that show did it even more so.
Blackstar – The Zombie Masters
Kind of a proto-He-Man, John Blackstar was an astronaut from Earth who found himself transported to a very different world called Sagar and became a barbarian warrior with a magic sword. His enemy, the evil Overlord, has a sword himself that when joined with Blackstar’s sword makes an even more powerful sword, so they battle for that and to prevent the Overlord’s conquest of the planet (this is similar to the gimmick with the Masters of the Universe toyline where He-Man’s sword and Skeletor’s sword could fit together to make a more powerful one too). Blackstar has quite the crew of friends, including the sorceress Mara, shapeshifter Klone and the Trobbits, which is an obvious portmanteau of trolls and Hobbits. I believe they were supposed to be blue, but the main producer was colourblind, so they ended up bright pink. In addition, Blackstar has a flying dragon steed. An obvious inspiration from fantasy novels is evident. This was a period where books still inspired ideas, rather than being a step or two removed.
In this episode, Shaldemar, an obese villain, captures and turns some of the heroes into zombies by capturing their souls in his crystal ball. The character designs, oddly, are better for the guest characters than the main cast, including some good light and shading on Shaldemar and detailed costumes for his henchmen (who are recoloured creatures from previous episodes). A little bit of variation on look for the zombified characters, who look like they’re covered in mud (which is utilised as a plot point), have raccoon eyes and are just a bit more dishevelled.
Many writers of cartoons in the eighties have talked about how the finished result never matched their expectations, and I have to imagine that was the case here. The writing is fine, but the acting is too on-the-nose at times and anything other than basic movement looks silly. If it was a comic book, it’d get over 75%, but as a TV programme it’s veering closer to 50%. Sometimes you can’t tell a Filmation show from the late sixties from one from the early eighties, but luckily they did step it up for the mega-hit that He-Man was.
Filmation presents… King Arthur
Imagine being Dave Newman in 2000, the year he got his driving licence, going to a car boot sale in a field nearby and finding someone selling a bunch of videos, including the one touting the Blackstar episode above. Then imagine Dave Newman watching the episode through and finding there was even more tacked onto the tape!
First up, a King Arthur pilot (?). Limited animation, great character designs, lots of shading and detail and some decent acting (even though the actress for Guinevere doesn’t even attempt an English accent). The Black Knight kidnaps Guinevere and challenges King Arthur to fight him for her freedom. Arthur is immediately established as a powerful character, throwing an arrow through the window of his castle that is strong enough to split a tree in two. The story moves more to his squire, sent to rouse Merlin. And the show was looking decent until we meet Merlin’s goofy assistant, who doesn’t match the show at all.
Fairly quick and simple show, no more than about ten minutes, that didn’t exactly have a complex plot but you could tell Lou Scheimer and co had aspirations for it, with obvious Hal Foster/Prince Valiant influences. It would be remembered if it had advanced beyond just this short showing, but alas it’s relegated to obscurity. It’s very difficult to find on the internet, so you might need the video to find Ted Knight doing tales of yore.
Filmation presents… Dick Digit
A bit weird on the tape, as they use a late eighties ‘Filmation presents…’ logo and then shoddy typeface for the name before rolling into this pilot that’s obviously from the sixties. First introduced is the Jester, who seemingly can change his appearance in Zartan-like fashion, and then his marionette Dick Digit, who he does a routine with as a circus act, also involving a talking bird called Macaw. During their act, a tiny spaceship crashes through the big top and is taken back to the Jester’s futuristic winnebago. The tiny pilot tells of his planet being shrunk and destroyed by a mysterious force that’s also coming to Earth.
This feels like it should be incredibly goofy, but there’s a weird edginess to it that could be down as much to a bit of unfinished production. The alien invaders are represented as shimmering, featureless figures. Super-accelerated plot, with the Jester captured and saved and the aliens shrunk and defeated within minutes. I’m not saying it’s fantastic, and the costume and powers of the Atom seem to have been divided and given to the Jester and the pilot respectively, but there is actually enough here to generate a TV show or a movie or a special. The pilot, stranded on Earth and without a world to return to, teams up with the Jester and takes the place of the marionette as a real Dick Digit, no strings attached. It was doubtless those similarities that stalled it.
Dino-Riders – The Adventure Begins
From the later days of Marvel Productions, this series was produced for one season of thirteen episodes, but the first episode was released on video in an amended fashion, with a cool museum tour intro where a kid wanders away and sees two dinosaur skeletons come alive and battle one another, before switching to an establishing shot of prehistoric Earth, then heading to the stars in the future where the spaceships of the heroic Valorians and evil Rulons do battle. The TV version just had the series intro and jumped straight to the space battle.
Under attack, the Valorians attempt to use their STEP (Space Time Energy Projector) to escape. The tractor beam of the Rulon Dreadlock affixes itself to them, which gives the STEP a much-needed boost as well as pulling the Rulons, led by the toad-like Krulos, into the past with them. Stranded there, both sides make the best of it while either working with or subjugating dinosaurs to help them. The Valorians have empathic powers, so can communicate with the dinosaur and seek their cooperation willingly, as much to protect them from capture by the Rulons. The Rulons trap the dinosaurs and then place brain boxes on them to make them work for them before fitting them out with weaponry.
It’s a show that arrives fully-formed. The heroes are all accessible and likeable, with Dan Gilvezan as the leader Questar. A teenage Steven (sic) Dorff plays the youngster Llahd (some of the names are a bit obvious like that). On the side of the bad guy, Frank Welker provides Krulos’ throaty growl (as well as the noises for most of the dinosaurs!), using something akin to his Dr. Klaw voice but without resorting to croaks. Hammerhead, leader of the Sharkmen, is one of the angriest characters you’ll meet in a cartoon of the time, more obvious in later episodes where he screams most of his lines. Antor, leader of the Antmen, is a blunt weapon, not bright but a good soldier. And Rasp, the leader of the Vipers, is so much of a Starscream that it’s shocked many for years that it was Frank Welker playing him and not Chris Latta.
The toyline for this show was one of the best of the eighties. The figures were just a smidgen bigger than MASK figures with the same articulation, but the selling point was the incredibly realistic dinosaur toys, which you could attach weapons and battle platforms to. The rubber bands holding them on broke quite easily, or at least weathered over time, but could be reasonably easily replaced with generic bands. Lots of them had walking ability too, either through being four-legged and unable to fall over, or in the case of the Tyrannosaurus rex having wheels under the feet to help roll along. This episode is about the battle for the T. rex, which the Rulons manage to win to their side in an awesome scene, but then lose when the brain box is knocked loose. It’s a good idea to enable the villains to gain that ultimate power, but also put them in a position to lose it too.
After the credits have rolled on the episode, there are some adverts for Dino-Riders toys, with some bizarre pronunciations of dinosaur names, as well as other Tyco toys. The US version is presented above, but on mine you’ve got Nigel Mansell, who was like the Dan Severn of racing drivers (could do the job, great moustache, but one of the most boring bastards you could ever find), selling a Grand Prix race set.
Dino-Riders – The Ice Age Adventure
Another video release coming after the main series as a kind of swan song, this episode has the Dino-Riders in the Ice Age. The cast had greatly expanded by this point, with new Valorians, Rulons and dinosaurs. The Valorians have reactivated the STEP, which Krulos wants so he can return to the future and his armada. A battle for it sends the Commandos to the Ice Age, 65 million years in the future. They need to get back to the prehistoric era with their compatriots, but battles with evil Neanderthals and taming creatures like sabre-tooth tigers and woolly mammoths make that difficult.
I’ve always found that primitive characters and beasts are difficult to make work, so this one-off has its work cut out for itself to start with. You just find yourself wishing that everyone was back with the rest of the regular cast. It’s fine, though, not really the sendoff you’d wish for but nice to have a little something extra for the newest toys. Also, by this point Cam Clarke, Rob Paulsen and Townsend Coleman had joined the cast, and as they had in other places prior you get three of the four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles together but they really hit it big.
MASK – The Creeping Desert
I’ve reviewed MASK previously and have mentioned how it’s one of my favourite shows of all time. Although the entire series has been released on DVD in the UK, the US and Australia, there’s a little bit of a transfer error with this episode that means you can here the vocal track for another episode faintly during some parts of the episode where there’s no dialogue, so I’ve always kept my original recording of it off the TV.
While it’s snowy in the US and at Matt Trakker’s mansion, it’s becoming increasingly like an arid desert in the plush holiday destination Acapulco, where MASK agent Gloria Baker is on vacation. Matt, lumberjack Jacques LaFleur and Brit Alex Sector head there to investigate and find, as always, that VENOM is to blame in a real estate plot with a corrupt businessman.
As this is an episode late in the season, the big new toys Volcano (a Bigfoot van) and Outlaw (an oil tanker) feature on both sides. Volcano could roll and change modes due to battery power and Outlaw, which never really got the respect it should have in the cartoon and ended up in a hole more often than not, had a powerful missile launcher. The missiles were weighty and rubber-tipped and I’m sure more than a few kids got black eyes from it being fired a little too close to their faces. I used to construct buildings and forts from cornflakes boxes and it could knock them down if it didn’t go through them!
Even though it’s aiming for credibility and is a good episode with lots of action, there are of course a few funny bits, like almost all of Jacques’ dialogue because the voice actor plays him like Pat Patterson amped up (“It loks like mutt-her nay-chur tok her lonch break!”) and wimp Nash Gorey taking a tumble into the sea and getting picked up by Miles Mayhem in Switchblade in helicopter mode, which then changes to jet mode and you can see Gorey’s limbs flailing as they fly off! It looks like a repeat is upcoming at the end of the episode when he and Sly Rax end up in the drink again, but Switchblade crashes so the underlings have to push it. Despite stuff like that, Mayhem and VENOM still come across as dangerous instead of dolts. Beyond that, the animation is in the upper quarter for the series, so all round it’s enjoyable with plenty going on to entertain.
Tigersharks – SARK to the Rescue
From Rankin/Bass, who brought us Thundercats and Silverhawks, Tigersharks was a toy-based show (the figures emulated the transforming ability of the heroes from humans into aquatic beings with a head swap gimmick) that appeared on the animation block The Comic Strip (please give the intro a listen and try and tell me it doesn’t sound like Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go by Wham!). In this episode, the villains are after something and the heroes have to stop them from getting it lest they cause trouble with it.
Not having a massive amount of familiarity or exposure to the show, and not having a high expectation of it exactly being Shakespeare, I thought I’d focus on the characters and acting. The writing is mostly fine, which the actors who do see through to successfully completion. Brother and sister Bronc and Angel feature the most, acting as the Wily-Kat and Kit of this series. Some of the other Tigersharks, such as Mako, Octavia, Walro and Dolph work as rough analogues for the other Thundercats. They also get stock power-up scenes as well when they go in the Fish Tank, the device that turns them into their waterborne forms.
Quite interestingly, their are two teams of villains with an uneasy alliance between them. T-Ray leads the Mantanas and comes across as the toughest villain, but beyond his lackey Wall-Eye, who does avoid being a “Yeah boss!” underling, he has some simpering whiners for teammates called Carper and Weakfish, who are pretty entertaining neurotic characters.
Then you have the quasi-Russian Captain Bizzarly, a pirate captain who hates the water, with a massive dragon creature (Dragonstein) and some big, dumb team members with names like Grunt and Lump, whose names pretty much sum them up. Lump has a good moment towards the end where he turns into a giant ball to try and smash the Tigershark siblings.
Having not watched this in close to twenty years, it was a lot better than I remembered it being, even though it was pretty pedestrian. As Scott would say, it’s good enough for government work, but I’m glad it resisted giving into childish or too comical urges.
Conclusion: Feel free to chat below with your memories. Not sure how often my posting will be, but will where I can and may put out a vote to see what you want to see reviewed next.