If you came to the Star Trek Debriefed project here from the main site, you knew this one was coming. There are few shows that have stuck with me as long as Star Trek, and G.I. Joe is right at the top of the list. As with Star Trek, its fast action, engaging characters, and wonderful humor drew me in. (That it was the only other show on the air for the bulk of the decade was another huge factor, as familiarity breeds not only contempt, but great devotion.)
G.I. Joe was the first of the wave of syndicated ’80s cartoon shows (a great majority of which were based on toys, or imported from Japan, or both) to air, though not the first to be developed. However, there was only a five-episode miniseries in 1983 and another the following year before going to a full series in 1985, so it avoided most the initial controversy over the syndicated cartoons.
Part of the reason for this is because Hasbro never had the faith in the series at the start that they did with later series, or that Mattel had with He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Hasbro’s initial ambitions were only to skirt network rules by having their ad agency, Griffin-Bacal, produce animated ads for the G.I. Joe comic book, and then to use that footage to spice up the toy ads (which could only have a few seconds of animation to be accepted for air on Saturday mornings). However, with the response being enormous (the comic became an instant best-seller for Marvel Comics), Joe Bacal and Tom Griffin saw an opportunity for a hit TV series-to be coincidentally produced by their fledgling studio, Sunbow Productions, which was responsible for the Sesame Street-like syndicated show The Great Space Coaster and, under the previous identity of Sunwagon, had backed and produced the US dub for the first two years of Star Blazers.
The resulting miniseries, titled G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (but popularly known as The MASS Device to avoid confusion with the series as a whole), was a success because of some extremely wise decisions. The actual animation production was handled by Marvel Productions, which until 1981 was DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, the studio most known for the theatrical Pink Panther shorts of the ’60s and ’70s. The decision was made to have the actual animation done in Japan, by Toei Animation Co., Ltd. (the largest and oldest animation studio in Japan), and to eschew most of the limited animation techniques that studios on both sides of the Pacific were using to keep costs low. The end result is a miniseries that looks surprisingly close to theatrical quality.
The best decision of all, though, was in regards to the writing. Correctly sensing that the majority of writing for Saturday mornings was subpar, Griffin and Bacal went looking for someone who had written for prime time television. They settled on Ron Friedman, who had been writing for TV in 1965, primarily for sitcoms like Gilligan’s Island, All in the Family, and The Odd Couple before transitioning to hour-long dramas and action adventure shows (most prolifically for Fantasy Island). While Friedman was given some material from the toys and comic books to work with, he threw almost all of it out and started from scratch. (Friedman has repeatedly mentioned that he was given information about what guns the characters used, so it seems likely that he was merely given the filecards from the toy packages, which in 1982 had minimal biographical information.)
The MASS Device, while a bit lacking in terms of accurate military protocols and tactics and featuring some rather dodgy science in places, was a sprawling action/adventure tale with liberal doses of science fiction and a large cast of well-developed, believable characters. Between weekly presentations on the weeks of September and December 12th and a condensed, time-compressed “movie” presentation on Thanksgiving Day, the series was a big enough hit to persuade Hasbro to produce a sequel miniseries, titled The Revenge of Cobra, and begin plans for a full season of episodes.
Revenge, while tasked with introducing even more characters (the villainous forces of Cobra in particular swelled enough that the line “It’s G.I. Joe against Cobra and Destro” in the original theme song was revised to mention “Cobra the Enemy” instead) and faced with a noticeably smaller budget, was an even bigger success, in no small part because the miniseries had more pronounced comedic beats and a lighter tone (Cobra Commander in particular is softened considerably, as voice actor Chris Latta’s performance was completely reworked to present a broader, slightly more inept, lead villain). Also, the new additions to the cast (with wisecracking sailor Shipwreck, jive-talking machine gunner Roadblock, and master of disguise/mercenary Zartan making the greatest impact) greatly enriched the series and were in many cases even more popular than the existing characters.
However, Friedman, now finding himself busy with a variety of tasks for Sunbow (he was tasked with revising scripts for sister series The Transformers, as well as writing a third G.I. Joe miniseries for the fall of 1985 and developing ideas for a feature film version of the two cartoons), was not retained to assemble a writing staff for the 50 episodes that would be needed to air G.I. Joe in weekday syndication. Instead, veteran comic book writer Steve Gerber was hired.
Gerber, most famous for creating Howard the Duck (and for suing publisher Marvel Comics in a creator’s right dispute that was still on going in 1984), was a respected and popular writer. More importantly, he had moved into animation once his lawsuit with Marvel was initiated, and had created Thundarr the Barbarian at Ruby-Spears (in addition to working on a number of lesser series) before story editing the first season of Dungeons & Dragons for Marvel. Gerber’s experience on Dungeons & Dragons was so awful that he had personally decided to swear off animation…..until Sunbow called, and said the magic word: “syndication”. Gerber jumped at the chance to write without the interference of network Broadcasting Standards & Practices departments (who were guilty of, in Gerber’s mind of “protecting children…..with lies”). To help him edit 55 scripts (and get the 50 episodes not assigned to Friedman written), Gerber looked to two of his closest friends: Buzz Dixon and Flint Dille.
Buzz Dixon was a military veteran who had broken into writing for TV cartoons at Filmation before meeting Steve Gerber at Ruby-Spears. The military experience was why Dixon was hired to edit; his first draft script for Thundarr‘s second season opener (which was so objectionable to ABC that they used it to test candidates for BS&P positions well into the ’90s) was why he was chosen to write for the show (and eventually to succeed Gerber as Supervising Story Editor). Flint Dille, the grandson of Buck Rogers publisher John F. Dille, had worked at Ruby-Spears under a variety of jobs, and was gifted with a great sense of humor. The other writers read like a who’s who of the ’70s comic book industry: Mary Skrenes (co-creator with Gerber of Omega the Unknown and the inspiration for Beverly Switzler, Howard the Duck’s best friend), Roy Thomas (who wrote the famed Kree-Skrull War storyline in The Avengers and adapted Conan the Barbarian for comics), Gerry Conway (infamous for having ended the Silver Age of comics by killing Gwen Stacy), Marv Wolfman (responsible for The Tomb of Dracula), Roger Slifer (who created Lobo for DC around the time he started working for Sunbow), and Denny O’Neil (who, with Neal Adams, revitalized Batman in the ’70s). Also contributing scripts were a then unknown Paul Dini, Stanley Ralph Ross (best known for his work on the Adam West Batman and Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman), Christy Marx, Martin Pasko (who was responsible for the name of Thundarr‘s Wookiee-like character, Ookla the Mok), and Donald F. Glut (most known for the novelization of The Empire Strikes Back).
G.I. Joe comic writer Larry Hama, already smarting that he had been passed up for writing the cartoon by Sunbow, was even less thrilled by the writing staff of comic book veterans, all of whom (save for O’Neil) having had bitter feuds with Marvel Editor-in-chief Jim Shooter at the time. Also, certain characters being developed by Sunbow writers (and all issues supported by TV ads were essentially driven by the animated segments), and the end result was a rather nasty relationship between the two camps (whom Hasbro intentionally kept from working together)-especially by Hama, who by all accounts still holds a grudge.
The Sunbow series, however, was an even bigger hit than the toys: it was the top-rated syndicated cartoon for the 1985-1986 season even though the toys were the third best seller (behind The Transformers and Thundercats). This, of course, led to a second, 30-episode season and what was intended to be a theatrical movie. G.I. Joe: The Movie was sunk as a theatrical feature (to this day, it has been screened theatrically only twice) because Hasbro’s 1986 line included a character dubbed the “Cobra Emperor”. While this might have worked in the comics, in the cartoon, Cobra Commander’s place as the undisputed leader of Cobra had been confirmed multiple times. Buzz Dixon was therefore forced to lobby for an origin story for the character, who was ultimately named Serpentor (after lawyers noted that the original choice, King Cobra, was a brand of malt liquor).
That origin story, the five-part “Arise, Serpentor, Arise!”, written by Dixon (though credited to Ron Friedman for contractual reasons), is typically science fiction-oriented: Cobra’s name personnel get completely fed up with Cobra Commander and (at the prodding of new character Dr. Mindbender) decide to literally build one from the DNA of various world leaders (focusing on notorious despots and conquerors). However, it was far from the story Dixon had wanted to tell: he had wanted to tell “The Most Dangerous Man in the World”, which involved Cobra dropping everything to recapture the “Karl Marx of Cobra” (whose philosophies were co-opted and warped by Cobra Commander) when he is suddenly freed. While Serpentor did not scuttle those plans entirely, Hasbro also approved approved Buzz Dixon’s “alternate” story approach: that Cobra Commander really did have someone pulling his strings, a Lost Horizon-esque community of snake people (which, in a further nod to the novel and film, was given the temporary name Cobra-La, but Hasbro loved that too, to Dixon’s eternal consternation). So, “The Most Dangerous Man in the World” was jettisoned (though Dixon reused the title for an episode where existing comedic character Shipwreck and two newer ones, pacifist medic Lifeline and mishap-prone communications specialist Dial-Tone, are “promoted” to Colonel via Cobra interference and proceed to run the team into the ground until General Hawk returns).
In the meantime, Transformers: The Movie and My Little Pony: The Movie died at the box office, and the former caused a massive backlash over the death of lead character Optimus Prime. As a result, the planned theatrical release of G.I. Joe: The Movie was scrapped, the death of Duke (which had inspired the robotic bloodbath in Transformers: The Movie) reversed, and the film released directly to video after a TV premiere in April of 1987 (in Vermont, it was on a dreary Sunday afternoon). The following fall, the movie was split into five parts and served as the anchor for a heavily reduced rotation of G.I. Joe rerun episodes hosted by wrestler Sgt. Slaughter (who had been written into the series at the start of the second season). In Vermont at least, this was the status quo for G.I. Joe for the 1987-88 and 1988-89 TV seasons…..and then it was gone.
I did not know (and would not know until discovering USA’s reruns of the series a few years later), but the reason why new episodes never came was that DiC, a competing studio founded in France by Jean Chalopin and by then owned by Andy Heyward in America, had convinced Hasbro that Sunbow didn’t know what they were doing (in part by capitalizing on the health of CEO Stephen Hassenfeld, who was secretly dying of AIDS and trying to wrap up his affairs). This generally meant that DiC (who was in the process of poisoning the syndicated cartoon market by flooding it with poorly, written and animated series) created new shows for Hasbro, but G.I. Joe, the one Sunbow series that had ended on an inconclusive note (and was still on toy aisles), was revived.
This deal had a lot of problems. The big one being that the Sunbow series had been heavily backed by Hasbro themselves, and had a pretty lavish budget with a huge voice cast and generally high quality animation (all of which was done by Toei in Japan), whereas the DiC G.I. Joe was funded entirely by DiC (which, with 161 half hours of animation in production to air in 1989-5 of which were G.I. Joe-was spread desperately thin). The result? Most of the voice cast was jettisoned, mostly for then-unknown (and mostly Canadian) talent. (The only holdovers were Chris Latta, Morgan Lofting, Ed Gilbert, Jerry Houser, and Sgt. Slaughter-and all except for Latta, who was reduced to voicing only Cobra Commander, were gone after the first season of episodes in 1990-91.)
The new head writer, instead of Michael Charles Hill (writer of fan-favorite episode “Cold Slither”), as had been planned at Sunbow, was Doug Booth, a producer (and writer of “My Favorite Things” from the second season). Booth, for whatever reason, jettisoned a lot of existing characters and relationships (including having Destro dump the Baroness for Zartan’s sister, Zarana, who herself had previously had feelings for G.I. Joe computer expert Mainframe, who never appears in the DiC series), and generally “dumbed down” the writing to appeal to a younger audience. A number of Sunbow veterans (including Christy Marx) were roped into writing for this show, but there is some evidence that scripts were adapted or re-written from discarded Sunbow ideas: Flint Dille is co-credited as writer of a DiC episode, and denies having anything to do with the show (and holds Booth in contempt whenever the DiC series is mentioned in his presence). Additionally, a stand-in for sleazy reporter Hector Ramirez appears in an episode, further belying Sunbow roots. And, perhaps most shamefully of all, Sunbow-era G.I. Joe episodes (with DiC’s opening and the new show’s theme song playing over the existing Sunbow end credits) reran alongside their DiC cousins in order to fully pad out the rotation for syndication.
It was when I saw the DiC G.I. Joe package on USA in the ’90s (which oddly lacked any of the five-part miniseries, even DiC’s “Operation Dragonfire”) that I fully understood why the Sunbow show was such a favorite, and why of all of they toy collections I gave in and allowed to be sold before moving to Las Vegas (more on that story much later), seeing the G.I. Joes go was the hardest.
This show was good. No, this show was excellent. It was very well animated for its era (well, mostly), and the writing and acting were sublime. The characters (of which there were many) were incredibly nuanced and well-developed. You had ultimate boy-scout (and series star) Duke, sarcastic counterintelligence agent Scarlett (who doubled as Duke’s love interest, even if they almost never acted on that affection), straight-arrow (and slightly overprotective) stick-in-the-mud Flint, friendly girl-next-door (and Flint’s far more openly acknowledged girlfriend) Lady Jaye, dim but loyal Bazooka, movie-quoting ex-stunt man Quick Kick, wisecracking Alpine, card shark flyboy Ace, megalomaniacal tyrant Cobra Commander, rational tactician Destro, duplicitous mistress of disguise Baroness, and on and on and on.
However, besides Zartan (and his dumb but occasionally useful lackeys, the Dreadnoks), the consensus favorite amongst the staff (and many of the fans) was Shipwreck, the aforementioned wiseass sailor introduced in The Revenge of Cobra. With his parrot, Polly (who was introduced partway into the production of the first season), Shipwreck was an unending source of fun. He hit on all three female Joes (getting slapped by two of them), went to dive bars, ignored orders (and got away with it!), made Snake Eyes wear a dress (you’ll never see that in the comics!), shirked responsibility…..and was almost as great of a hero as Duke, Scarlett, Flint, Lady Jaye, and probably the stars of a few other shows, too. He was as close to an animated version of Howard the Duck as Steve Gerber ever got to make, and no more did it show than in three of the show’s best episodes: “Once Upon A Joe” and “There’s No Place Like Springfield” Parts 1 and 2.
“Once Upon A Joe” dealt with Cobra stealing the McGuffin Device, and G.I. Joe destroying an orphanage in the ensuing chase. While the rest of the Joes rebuild the orphanage, Shipwreck (whose marksmanship led to its destruction) manages to avoid working (through the strategic application of slapstick comedy) and ends up telling the orphans one of the most cracked fairy tales ever committed to film-with himself (as the even more Popeye-like “Shipshape”) as the hero and Wet-Suit and Leatherneck (who ripped Shipwreck, an orphan himself, for destroying the orphanage) as rock-stupid disappointments “Frog Face” and “Leatherhead”. And naturally, it is Shipwreck who finds the McGuffin Device (which projects the true nature of its user and can alter reality) and uses it to defeat Cobra and Zartan.
“There’s No Place Like Springfield”, written by Gerber himself, takes the opposite approach to Shipwreck, as it’s mostly serious with only brief bits of comedy. In it, Shipwreck and Lady Jaye are on a covert mission to rescue Dr. Mullaney, who is on the run from Cobra and is the only one who knows how to complete a formula that breaks the molecular bonds between hydrogen and oxygen, turning water into a deadly explosive. He also knows the location of Cobra Temple Alpha, the home base for all Cobra operations. That is, until he zaps the last ingredient into Shipwreck’s subconscious mind, to only be released by a specific code word. Cobra finds the three, and Mullaney disappears in the chaos, making it imperative that Shipwreck gets back to the U.S.S. Flagg. He almost does, but is trapped in the SHARC he and Lady Jaye were using, and it sinks to the bottom of the sea….only for Shipwreck to wake up five years in the future, after Cobra has been defeated. He is married with a child, as Doc managed to reverse Cobra’s genetic engineering to Mara (an ex-Cobra soldier whom Shipwreck fell for in a previous episode), and he, like most of the Joe team, lives in Springfield, which is just like any other town.
Shipwreck, who never imagined he was the “Daddy” type, is thrown for a loop. And then the dreams start. He’s harassed by visions of the Cobra brass, all demanding the ingredient which he does not know. And following an incident where he sees Roadblock melt after going through a car wash. Shipwreck ends up arrested, and then begs to be put back in the hospital….and then the bottom drops on the episode. The town is a fake front for Cobra Temple Alpha, and everyone (including Polly) is a Synthoid (Synthetic Humanoid, seen in yet another earlier episode). Shipwreck is submitted to a trippy interrogation session before he spills that he needs to hear the code word and is put under and as a voice runs through the dictionary. With the aid of the real Polly (who proves his standing as the genuine article by mentioning a night of apparent debauchery the two shared), Shipwreck escapes, completes the formula, and successfully goads the Dreadnoks into triggering an explosion that alerts the Joes on the Flagg (which Shipwreck had been told was destroyed, and Lady Jaye killed with it) to his location. The final twist of the knife, however, involves Shipwreck going to his “home” to save his “family”…who are of course Synthoids, too. Polly saves Shipwreck’s life, and devastated, he leaves with Flint and Lady Jaye.
In the Gerberian tradition, the episode draws from elements of Gerber’s life (Shipwreck’s “daughter” is based both on Gerber’s own daughter and the daughter of Cat Yronwode, an independent comics journalist and publisher), pop culture (the address to Shipwreck’s home is Number 6 Village Drive, a reference to The Prisoner; and the second part features an extensive recap largely because Steve Gerber was a huge Superman fan, and G.I. Joe‘s narrator, Jackson Beck, was also the announcer for the Superman radio show), and existing continuity. It’s every bit as tragic as “Once Upon A Joe” is funny, and stands up with the best TV has to offer, animated or otherwise.
On Thursday (hopefully!), we’ll finally return to 1965, and a fight that made the Pacquiao/Mayweather controversy look like amateur hour.