Mirror, Mirror: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe


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(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 previouslyHe-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.

Mirror, Mirror: Dungeons & Dragons

One of the things I won’t be touching upon on Star Trek Debriefed is how The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings started to build the incredible cult following that resulted in the Peter Jackson movies in this century. That includes the Ralph Bakshi-directed animated movie that I did in fact see growing up. But I will discuss the most popular property to capitalize on the cult success of The Lord of the RingsDungeons & Dragons.

Dungeons & Dragons, which was created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974 (the year after J.R.R. Tolkien died), is the original tabletop role-playing game, which has spread into video games and even full-on live action gaming. (AUTHOR’S NOTE: I know precisely zero about tabletop and live action role-playing games. My expertise is with video game RPGs, and mostly console ones designed in Japan. So, my apologies in advance if I screw up here.) For the uninitiated, role-playing games involve a player or group of players assuming the role of a hero (or group of heroes in most console RPGs). Owing to its tapletop roots and reliance on dice and homemade maps, statistics play an integral part in how RPGs operate (and its why video games have proven such a fertile ground for the medium). Character progression, stat increases, attacks, and so on are handled via statistics, which in tabletop games means rolling dice (the D&D format typically calls for a 20-sided die). In tapletop RPGs, games are usually “run” by a person who in essence designs the campaign (in Dungeons & Dragons, this person is referred to as the Dungeon Master).

Since Gygax and Arneson were fans of Tolkien’s works and the fantasy genre in general, the “default” RPG setting is medieval, with knights and dragons (duh!) and the like, but just about any setting can and has played host to a role-playing game. Despite Gygax anticipating sales of 50,000, Dungeons & Dragons was so popular that by 1977, a second game type, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, was released with more complex gameplay mechanics in mind. By 1981, there were 3 million players worldwide. The next year, the game was featured in Steven Spielberg’s hit movie, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, and a French language edition was published. However, 1982 was also the year that one of the most notorious controversies involving Dungeons & Dragons started, with the suicide of Irving “Bink” Pulling II.

Pulling’s mother, Patricia, who was an evangelical Christian, decided that her son had committed suicide because of the occult influence of the game, and started up a one-woman campaign (under the name Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons, or “B.A.D.D.”) to get the game banned, going so far as to sue TSR (the company that published Dungeons & Dragons). With conservative Christians (read: the batshit insane nutballs who have fucked up the country in my lifetime) ascendent in their cultural influence, Pulling gained national attention, and was helped in no small part because of a novel and tv movie called Mazes and Monsters.

Mazes and Monsters, based on the story of James Egbert III, was written by Rona Jaffe, who was previously best known for writing cultural essays for Cosmopolitan in the ’60s, takes some of the wilder rumors about Egbert’s disappearance in 1979 and accepts them as plausible. Basically, Dungeons & Dragons is blamed for Egbert’s disappearance (in actuality a suicide attempt) and eventual suicide, when in real life Egbert was depressed, isolated, suffering from parental pressure (he was a child prodigy who started attending Michigan State at the age of 16), and drug addiction. With the negative press raging, CBS commissioned TV movie (starring a then-unknown Tom Hanks) that aired on December 28th, 1982.

With all of this insanity going on, Dungeons & Dragons was a hot property. The game was a best-seller, there was Dragon, an in-house magazine, a series of successful video games for Mattel’s Intellivision, a line of novels, and a line of toys from LJN. It was also around this time that Dennis Marks, a writer, voice actor, and producer at Marvel Productions (and, at the time, a 20-year veteran in the industry) had the idea to create a series inspired by Dungeons & Dragons titled Sword and Sorcery. He pitched the idea to NBC, but they didn’t buy it. Still seeing merit in the concept, Marks went to Gary Gygax himself, got the D&D license, and managed to sell the show to CBS.

However, even though Marks had sold the series, Marks would not see the concept through any further. According to Marks, it was because he had burned bridges with not only Judy Price, who was CBS’s Vice President of Children’s Broadcasting, but Price’s counterpart at NBC, Phyllis Tucker Vinson, which forced Marvel’s President (and the DePatie in DePatie-Freleng), David H. DePatie, to fire him. (Marks also claimed that Vinson and Price were fired within a year for their unreasonable ways, but a quick Google search reveals that Price was at CBS at least through 1994, and Vinson at NBC through at least 1989, when she engineered a brief and unsuccessful return of Fat Albert to network television. Furthermore, Marks’ creator credit would be de-emphasized and shared with Battle of the Planets writer Kevin Paul Coates starting with the second season.) Whatever the reason, Marks was replaced with Mark Evanier, a writer with lots of experience in animation and comic books. Evanier has made it clear that he was there to prune characters and clean up the concept, as well as write the first episode. Evanier’s contributions to the series lasted for a whopping 48 hours, owing to the need by CBS to set their 1983-84 Saturday Morning schedule in stone.

The final concept that was hammered out is thus: six children (ranging, according to the series’ bible, ranging from ages 8-15) are at an amusement park and get transported to another world, called the Realm, while riding the Dungeons & Dragons ride. In short order, they meet the timid yet friendly baby unicorn Uni, frightful five-headed dragon Tiamat, enigmatic sorcerer Dungeon Master, and the villainous Venger. Dungeon Master gives the six children magic Weapons of Power (which Venger needs to defeat Tiamat) in order to help them survive in the Realm long enough to find a way home (or at least one they can actually go through without incident).

As mentioned two weeks ago, Steve Gerber was hired to be the story editor, on the suggestion of Mark Evanier (who was Gerber’s friend and had also written for Thundarr the Barbarian). With the exception of Karl Geurs, every credited writer that season had worked at Ruby-Spears while Gerber had been on staff there (and Geurs had been on staff at Filmation when Buzz Dixon and Paul Dini were there). However, the bulk of the episodes were written by Jeffrey Scott, one of the most prolific writers in animation history, with generally strong results. The most graphic (and darkest) episode of the season, “Quest of the Skeleton Warrior”, was penned by Buzz Dixon (upholding his reputation from Thundarr), though the graphic bit was due to an incredibly brief shot where lead character Hank’s flesh starts to melt away. Gerber’s episode, “Prison Without Walls”, was in part a reference to his work on the Marvel Comics character Man-Thing (which included, rather humorously, a series titled Giant-Size Man-Thing), as he found a character in the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual called a Shambling Mound that, at the time, was a dead ringer for Man-Thing. (The character was also one of a number from the first season who were also represented in the LJN toyline.)

However, as I also previously mentioned, story editing for the season was a fairly horrendous experience for Gerber. There were constant battles with CBS’s Broadcast Standards & Practices (and possibly also Judy Price), and he left after the season was over. Furthermore, Jeffrey Scott and producer Bob Richardson were tapped to work on Muppet Babies (which ultimately became Marvel’s longest lasting and most acclaimed series), and other than two additional scripts by Scott for the second season (“The Traitor” and “The Last Illusion”, two of his stronger episodes for the series), their contributions were lost for the rest of the series. Voice director (and co-story editor on the first season) Hank Saroyan also joined Muppet Babies as well (as voice director, executive in charge of production, and story editor), but seems to have still had an active role on the show while Karl Geurs was promoted to producer and story editor.

With Geurs and Scott turning in scripts for the eight episode second season (down from 13, though this was standard procedure on Saturday mornings), another writer was needed, and Geurs selected another former Filmation staff writer, Michael Reaves. By this time, Reaves had worked for the four biggest American TV studios (the aforementioned Filmation, Hanna-Barbera with The Smurfs, DiC developing Pole Position (which directly preceded Dungeons & Dragons on CBS in the 1984-85 season), and Marvel with Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends and The Incredible Hulk). However, his most recent work was story editing and writing for The Mighty Orbots for TMS that aired on ABC in 1984-85, and was by all accounts a disaster that ended with a nasty lawsuit by Tonka over accusations of infringement with their Go-Bots toys.

With Dungeons & Dragons, Reaves helped to introduce a far darker tone to the series, which was indicated by Venger introducing the pre-opening teaser, and the new, substantially darker opening. The majority of the disturbing moments in the series come in this season (and that includes both of Jeffrey Scott’s episodes, which have some particularly dire moments, especially in “The Traitor” when shrinking violet Sheila accuses Hank, whom the show makes it pretty clear that she loves, of selling out to Venger and possibly even killing her brother, Bobby), with “The Dragon’s Graveyard”, wherein our heroes conspire to kill Venger, almost getting rejected by CBS. (The network announcer’s preview for an August 1985 rerun, by which point the show was following Muppet Babies, is particularly telling: “Coming up, Dungeon Master has a mutiny on his hands when the kids take sides with a dangerous dragon to defeat the evil Venger, on Dungeons & Dragons!”)

But most importantly, Reaves introduced a backstory for Venger and Dungeon Master that was ultimately never paid off. The third season, which was further reduced to six episodes, found CBS suddenly cold on the series. Part of it was due to complaints (besides groups like B.A.D.D. that just plain hated Dungeons & Dragons, the show was considered the most violent cartoon on network TV, and there were lingering concerns over the LJN toyline, which had collapsed by 1985), and part of it has been attributed to a dip in the ratings (the show was in its latest-ever time slot for 1985-86, following CBS Storybreak, which was a limp effort to pander to the parents’ groups nipping at CBS’s heels), but the biggest issue seems to be that CBS was in the process of completely overhauling the Saturday morning schedule. Dungeons & Dragons and The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show (which got a late three-episode second season order) were the only shows on the schedule carrying over from 1983-84, and Muppet Babies and reruns of Land of the Lost being the only holdovers from the previous season. (Wikipedia also lists The Get Along Gang and Pole Position in the 1PM hour for the fall, but that time slot was heavily pre-empted by college football, especially on the West Coast, and I’m not even sure if Channel 3 bothered to carry the two shows that year.)

The aired product reflects the lack of faith. Newcomer Katherine Lawrence (who at the time was using the pen name Kathy Selbert) writes half of the episodes (with one, the Venger-free series finale “The Winds of Darkness” being based on a story idea from Karl Geurs and co-written by Michael Cassutt in the first script of his TV career) and admitted before her taking her own life in 2004 to being unaware of Reaves’ plan for the series (this resulted in “Citadel of Shadow”, which introduces Venger’s sister Karena, introducing some inconsistencies with that storyline). Also, music editor Mark Shiney and sound effects editor Michael L. DePatie teamed up for the very good but very busy “Odyssey of the Twelfth Talisman”. That leaves two episodes for Michael Reaves: “The Dungeon at the Heart of Dawn” (which continues his story arc) and “The Time Lost”. The latter episode proved problematic with Broadcast Standards & Practices, as it deals with Venger trying to alter the past so that the Axis Powers win World War II, complete with a member of the Luftwaffe in a pivotal role. The episode was written and storyboarded with Swastikas visible, but aired instead with the Balkenkreuz (the symbol of the Wehrmacht) awkwardly placed as a replacement for the Swastika.

Amazingly, neither “The Time Lost” nor any of the series’ nagging complaints are responsible for the end of Dungeons & Dragons. CBS was looking for a season-ending episode that would have also been the springboard for a revamped series (as network execs, then as now, constantly fret over the possibility of kids’ shows growing stale) that may have seen both Bobby and Uni written out of the show (and definitely would have seen a decreased emphasis on the Weapons of Power), and greenlit a script written by Michael Reaves, but legal problems at TSR, first between creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson and then between Gygax and other higher-ups at TSR (which saw Gygax ousted from his own company) resulted in the series ending and the finale stricken from the production schedule.

With the exception of a brief return in the spring of 1987 (temporarily replacing CBS Storybreak), Dungeons & Dragons was largely forgotten in the US (it was an enduring and hugely popular hit in South America, though), until the rise of the internet (which is a fairly common occurrence for ’80s shows). However, the internet being the internet, a fairly dark rumor started circulating (despite the D&D cartoon community being a generally very positive environment), that stated that the “true” story of the series was that the kids had died on the ride and were trapped in Hell with Dungeon Master being Satan. This is of course patently insane, but it offended Michael Reaves enough to post his finale script, titled “Requiem”, online. The script (which has spread like wildfire online, and was included with the first DVD release of the series) is the darkest Reaves wrote for Dungeons & Dragons, but stands as a denied classic of TV animation, and probably would have stood as a landmark for the medium. However, for now, it stands as the one thing we never received as children: closure.

Next week, we’re going to round out our look into cartoons premiering in 1983 with the most famous action-adventure cartoon of the decade.

Assignment: 1965: The Beatles

It’s June 12, 1965. A little-known husband-and-wife pop act, Sonny & Cher, appear on American Bandstand. As previously spoiled, The Supreme are at the top of the charts with “Back In My Arms Again”. And two days ago, Elizabeth Hurley was born in England. But most importantly, the Beatles are appointed Members of the British Empire (MBE) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

This ultimately caused a huge stink, since up to this point, the MBE honor was referred to civil servants and military heroes. Additionally, it’s believed that British Prime Minister Harold Wilson engineered the whole thing to score political points with young people (never mind that the legal voting age at the time was 21). However, the reason why the Beatles were given the MBE is in retrospect crystal clear: they were that popular and influential.

I’ll spare the usual lengthy biography of the Beatles and their four members, because quite frankly, the Beatles are still a huge deal some 50+ years later after they formed, and if you don’t at least have a general idea who John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr are (or were, in the case of John and George), then I really don’t know what to say at this point. And in 1965, everyone knew who they were. Everyone. They were the first truly internationally famous musicians of the rock ‘n roll era, and akin to movie stars before actually becoming movie stars.

Part of this immense fame was kismet, pure and simple. The Beatles were already big stars in the UK in 1963, with their first album Please Please Me becoming a huge success, and two two tours where they were opening acts for American performers (the first featuring now-forgotten singers Tommy Roe and Chris Montez, and the second featuring the legendary Roy Orbison, with whom George Harrison would later perform with in the ’80s as part of the Traveling Wilburys). The Beatles first attracted attention in the American press when they were mobbed at Heathrow upon returning from a tour from Sweden, but the real fire started when Walter Cronkite re-aired a report on the “Beatlemania” phenomenon on the CBS Evening News December 10th while looking for any positive news to cover following the assassination of President Kennedy. (Ironically, the report had aired on the CBS Morning News the morning of the Kennedy assassination, and was expected to air on Cronkite’s program before the horrible events of the day took center stage.)

The story is of course all-too familiar from here on: the Beatles’ music was finally released in America (Capitol, the American arm of EMI, the Beatles record label, had refused to release any of their music in America for most of 1963), and their popularity exploded, with their arrival in the US in 1964 and subsequent appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show becoming cultural touchstones for hordes of (literally) screaming fans. This inspired the record companies to look for even more British acts with the same blues-infused rock sound, sparking the British Invasion, with acts like The Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, The Dave Clark Five, and the Animals all finding massive success in the United States.

Being appointed as Members of the British Empire was the absolute apex of this initial wave of fame for the Beatles. With Help! (both the film and the soundtrack) on the way, their initial pop phase was nearing its end, and something very, very different was on the horizon. Already, the four had been introduced to marijuana by Bob Dylan upon their meeting in August of 1964 (and all four would later admit that they spent the making of Help! getting stoned off their asses), but now John, George, and Ringo were using LSD (with Paul not very far behind). This discovery of drugs by the band corresponded almost perfectly with The Beatles wanting to be something more than a pop act with screaming teenage fans, which is completely unthinkable in today’s music industry. In the weeks and months ahead, we’re going to see the effects of not only the Beatles having met Bob Dylan, but of the Beatles moving into more mature and adventurous territory.

Next week, however, will be the much-delayed look into one of the most controversial cartoons of the ’80s.

Assignment: 1965: Gemini IV and the Space Race

(Ed White performing America’s first space walk.)

As with most competitions between the United States and the USSR, the seeds for the Space Race were sewn during the Second World War. And in this instance, as with the suicidal competition over nuclear firepower, those seeds laid with Wernher von Braun and the V-2 rocket.

Von Braun conceived the V-2 as a way to conquer space, but the realities of the German war machine (and the race for the secret of the nuclear bomb) saw the V-2s used to attack targets undetected throughout Europe. As a result of this incredible (but ultimately underused) advantage, the US, the United Kingdom, and the USSR began a mad dash to collect as many German rocket scientists once the war ended. The US’s efforts, labelled Operation Paperclip, was the most successful, netting most of von Braun’s team of engineers. The US also managed to get their hands on more intact V-2 rockets than the other Allied Powers.

Despite this initial advantage, the Russians not only developed a better rocket, but they got a satellite in space first with Sputnik 1‘s launch in 1957. This sent an already paranoid American public into a tizzy, forcing President Eisenhower and Congress to create NASA and start the Space Race (as coined by Eisenhower himself) in earnest. After Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the Earth on April 12th, 1961, President Kennedy set the goal for NASA to reach the moon by the end of the decade.

In 1964, the US launched the Gemini program, and the Soviets launched the Voskhod program. Again, the Russians were first in something: Voskhod 1 has a three-man crew, and their crew (due to space constraints) did not wear space suits. The latter was wildy dangerous, and it wouldn’t be until 1968 that the Americans would achieve the same feat. However, with Brezhnez’s coup of Khrushchev, the third and fourth Voskhod missions were cancelled to focus on reaching the moon. The result was that Voskhod 2 ended up being the absolute pinnacle of Soviet domination in space, as Alexey Leonov performed the first space walk. Even with this triumph, the mission was a morass of technical issues, with a difficult re-entry, Leonov’s suit inflating after 12 minutes of spacewalking (forcing him to ease pressure on his suit below the safety threshold just to get back in), the hatch door having issues closing, and other issues.

The Gemini missions started in earnest on March 23rd, 1963 (five days after Voskhod 2’s mission) with Gemini 3 (the first and second missions having been unmanned test flights) with three orbits around the Earth. Next up, however, was Gemini IV.

It’s June 3rd, 1965. As I hinted at previously, “Help Me, Rhonda” has overtaken “Ticket to Ride” as the #1 song in the country, and it’ll enjoy another week at the top before being overtaken by The Supremes and “Back In My Arms Again” (which is at #3 right now). Jim Clark won the Indy 500 on May 31st, which was also the day that Brooke Shields was born. Yesterday, Australian combat troops joined the Vietnam War for the first time. And while Gemini IV is in orbit, The Rolling Stones will release “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” on the 6th and the Supreme Court will issue their ruling on Griswold v. Connecticut on the 7th, which for all intents and purposes legalized contraceptives for married couples (I’m sure that will come up later).

And, at Cape Kennedy in Florida, Gemini IV launches into orbit. Attention was at an all-time high for two reasons: one, it was the first American spaceflight controlled by the Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas. Two, the mission was broadcast internationally via satellite transmission. The objectives of the mission were threefold:

  1. Orbit the Earth for four days (at the time, the longest American spec flight) with 66 revolutions around the planet,
  2. Perform a space walk, and
  3. Perform a space rendezvous (the first of its kind) with the spent second stage of the Titan II launch vehicle that sent the Gemini IV into orbit.

First up was the space rendezvous, attempted during the first orbit. This part of the mission was actually unsuccessful, as maneuvering the command vehicle without radar into a poorly lit rocket spinning around spewing propellant. As such, mission commander Jim McDivitt scrapped this part of the mission after using up half of Gemini IV’s thruster fuel.

Next was the space walk, which was performed by the other man involved in the mission, Ed White. This part of the mission was planned for the second orbit around the Earth, but McDivitt delayed it briefly after the trouble with the space rendezvous. The space walk was also not without problems: there was a problem opening and closing the hatch to the spacecraft, and Houston was unable to directly speak to White (and it took 13 minutes for contact to be made with McDivitt). Outside of these issues, the space walk was a smashing success, with McDivitt’s spectacular photos of White published across the globe. The space walk was cut short, however, at 20 minutes. With Gemini IV about to hit the solar terminator line (plunging the Earth and the space walk into darkness) and exiting radio range, it was deemed too risky to continue.

Ultimately, the Gemini IV mission was a massive success for the US, with a number of great photographs and some good data collected from the three primary missions and 11 experiments. Moreover, with the shift in power and philosophy in the Soviet Union, the was the true beginning of America’s domination of the Space Race.

Next week, we turn our attention the England, and the British Invasion.