(There’s a reason why this sequence is in every single episode: it’s awesome!)
The ’80s were a wonderful time to watch cartoons. Besides cable and home video (of which we still have much to discuss), there were the weekends and, most importantly of all, the weekday syndicated cartoons. Granted, there are now multiple cable channels and the usual streaming services with which to watch cartoons, but the ’80s represented a massive windfall of animation for kids. Children in the ’70s relied almost entirely on Saturday morning cartoons and maybe reruns of older cartoons (usually one of the packages of Golden Age cartoons or something imported from Japan like Speed Racer). And with Hanna-Barbera as one of the two dominant entities on Saturday mornings, the day was loaded to the gills with derivative and often patronizing crap. And even if the show was good, the network censors did their best to batter away any creativity or quality in the interest of “protecting the children” from negative influences. (With this sort of entertainment, it’s not a shocker that so many kids who grew up in the ’70s are cynical and resentful.) The same fate may have awaited Generation X in greater numbers than it already does if not for Hanna-Barbera’s chief competitor, Filmation, and the show that started the flood of syndicated cartoons: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe existed in a perfect storm of plot, necessity, timeliness, and demand. By 1982, Filmation Associates had lost two of its three founders to retirement and all three networks no longer wanted to purchase any programs from what was at the time the largest animation studio in the country. The led Lou Scheimer, who had co-founded Filmation with the departed Norm Prescott and Hal Sutherland, to suggest to parent company Westinghouse that he could produce a show solely for syndication, to be distributed via fellow subsidiary Group W Productions. There were thoughts of expanding the episode count for Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (by far and away Filmation’s most popular and acclaimed series), but when Tom Kalinske at Mattel (who had had previous dealings with Filmation) was looking to promote the Masters of the Universe toys (and also create a cohesive storyline for the property, as the comics included with the toys were quite lacking and bore a strong resemblance to Conan the Barbarian), He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was born. Taking inspiration and having learned from their short-lived series Blackstar, Filmation revised the existing Masters of the Universe concept greatly. Gone were the two halves of the Power Sword (which was renamed the Sword of Power because Blackstar‘s villain Overlord wielded the Powersword, and also because that show’s pivotal weapon was the PowerStar) and in were Prince Adam, King Randor, Queen Marlena, Orko, Snake Mountain, and Man-At-Arms’ mustache, first name (Duncan), and adapted fatherhood of Teela. A character called the Goddess in the earliest of the comics packed in with the toys was massively revamped into the Sorceress of Castle Grayskull (a location that was also massively reimagined for the cartoon from the toys).
Following a deregulation of children’s television by the FCC (and a good faith effort to sell He-Man to the networks), Filmation announced their plan to sell the series straight into syndication. Sales were extremely brisk (outpacing DiC Entertainment’s copycat effort to sell Inspector Gadget by a great deal), with a number of international markets lined up and even a home video deal with RCA/Columbia. To help promote the show, the first three volumes of RCA/Columbia VHS and Beta video cassettes were sold at $29.95 during the summer of 1983, and a limited theatrical release titled The Greatest Adventures of All (a title rather shamelessly stolen from Filmation’s TV movie version of Flash Gordon) which combined the first three episodes of the series. On September 26th, 1983, He-Man premiered….
….and was a massive success. Almost overnight, He-Man became a cultural icon. Mattel, who was facing massive losses from the Great Video Game Crash’s effects on Mattel Electronics, was spared the dire fates of its competitors Atari and Coleco. Filmation, who was already working year-round to produce He-Man‘s 65 episodes, was revitalized, and enthusiastically started working on not only additional episodes of Fat Albert, but a second season of He-Man (which ballooned into a third season that ultimately doubled the first season episode count for a total of 130 episodes in the series). Despite this success, criticism was swift and plentiful. Activist groups like Peggy Charren’s Action for Children’s Television hammered the show for both violence and supposedly being a “half-hour commercial” (never mind that Lou Scheimer negotiated total creative control over the series, which is utterly unheard of now, as brand managers dictate series even more than the writers), and religious groups attacked the supposed occult influence (much as was the case with Dungeons & Dragons, something in the popular culture that involves magic and is aimed at children was blasted as being Satanic, and this sad trend continues to this day). Perhaps most comically, one of the most on-point criticisms was an article by syndicated columnist Jane A. Welch that decried the series as a bastion of bleeding-heart liberalism!
For Filmation, this meant that the networks would never have anything to do with them again. Reruns of Fat Albert and Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle aired on CBS through the start of the 1984-1985 season, but other than a rerun season of Fat Albert on NBC for 1988-1989 engineered by Phyllis Tucker Vinson (which absolutely died in the ratings), no network ever gave Filmation or Lou Scheimer the time time of day ever again. On the positive side of the ledger, RCA/Columbia’s line of He-Man video tapes shattered the then-modest sales records, and ultimately lasted for 25 volumes, an unprecedented number for the time. When the ratings showed that a third of the audience was female, Filmation proposed a spin-off series, She-Ra: Princess of Power, which lasted across two (possibly three) seasons (but which was a failure as a toyline, largely because Mattel botched it pretty badly). And, as mentioned previously, He-Man kicked off a dog pile of original animated series for syndication that ended up cannibalizing itself by the end of the decade.
But what of the series itself? He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, despite certain flaws (one could drastically improve the series by lopping off at least seven infamously bad episodes, for instance), lives up to the hype. While the worst episodes are strong contenders for the worst things Filmation ever produced, the best episodes rank as some of the best half hours of TV animation ever. A lot of this has to do with the quality of writers. Tom Ruegger (later of Animaniacs), Paul Dini (Batman: The Animated Series), Michael Reaves, Marc Scott Zicree, Robby London, D.C. Fontana (whom we’ll be talking a lot about on Star Trek Debriefed), David Wise (the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon), Larry DiTillio, Warren Greenwood, Rob Lamb, Janis Diamond, Bob Forward, and J. Michael Straczynski (yes, the Babylon 5 J. Michael Straczynski) all turned in consistently high quality scripts. Filmation’s generous submissions policy also bore fruit from freelance writers (some of whom were amateurs): Joseph Botsford wrote the spectacular “Teela’s Triumph” (as well as “The Reluctant Wizard” for She-Ra) and Who’s the Boss writer/producers Ken Cinnamon and Karen Wengrod (credited as “Cinnamon-Wengrod”) wrote “Here, There, Skeletors Everywhere”, one of the most wonderfully insane episodes of the series. The animation, in addition to working on Filmation’s stock system, is actually a bit spartan in the first season: Filmation was, at the time, at the forefront of effects animation in the country, but most of that sophistication is oddly missing until the second season when the budget and stock libraries started to allow for some visually adventurous material (helped in no small part by artists like Rob Lamb and Warren Greenwood crossing over to write the types of episodes they wanted to see made).
This bravery on the part of the production is part of why it succeeded. The second episode, “Teela’s Quest”, established the backstory that Teela was in actuality the Sorceresses’ daughter and that Man-At-Arms was merely her adopted father. (Click here for the Cartoon Review Website review.) The ninth episode aired, “A Friend in Need”, had an anti-drug message, and was the first of many to not feature Skeletor. “Prince Adam No More” hinged on Adam’s struggle to look good in his father’s eyes while maintaining the secret that he is He-Man. “Trouble in Arcadia” commented on gender and social equality, and mentioned the Magna Carta in its moral. “Double Edged Sword” ended with a sobering and powerful message on how actual war and violence is a terrible thing, but that it should never preclude enjoying exciting fictional adventures. “Into the Abyss” and “Not So Blind” featured villain-free adventures every bit as harrowing as episodes like “The Arena”, where He-Man and Skeletor finally battle one-on-one, only for He-Man’s compassion to be what wins the day. And the series finale, “The Problem With Power”, has Adam giving up being He-Man when he believes his actions have led to the death of an innocent man, only to almost instantly regret it. The very small cast-John Erwin, Alan Oppenheimer, Linda Gary, Lou Scheimer (performing as “Erik Gunden”), and Erika Scheimer with uncredited contributions from George DiCenzo and Jay Scheimer-rose to these challenges every time. (John Erwin’s voice for Prince Adam in particular got much better as the series went on, and Lou Scheimer-despite always claiming not to be a great actor-turned in some wonderful performances alongside four voice acting legends in Erwin, Oppenheimer, Dicenzo, and Gary.)
However, I cannot finish without mentioning one of the most remembered and popular elements of the series: the score by Shuki Levy. When Filmation’s long-time music composer Ray Ellis bowed out over fears that he’d never receive compensation (most of the money in TV for musicians lies with the royalties for episodes aired), Levy’s agent Haim Saban offered to provide even more music for less money up-front, and Levy did just that, creating one of the greatest scores for a TV cartoon series in the process, with the centerpiece being the famous theme song. Along with the score for Inspector Gadget, it launched the careers of Levy and Saban, and helped to make the latter a very, very rich man.
Next week, we’ll continue talking cartoons, and specifically the greatest Saturday morning cartoon show of all time.