Priority One Alert: That Joss Whedon Thing

So, hey, if you’re reading this, you’ve noticed that the blog is behind schedule. By like a year.

I’d post some big spiel on how it happened and everything, but I’m sure no one wants to hear what amounts to be some bad excuses.

Anyways, this post is the one that would actually go on August 17th of this year (as opposed to early August of last year, which is where the upcoming post on “Mudd’s Women” should have been posted), and is happening because gossip has come out that pretty well intersects with the sorts of things I cover: namely, that Joss Whedon has, according to his ex-wife, has been a hypocrite when it comes to his long-professed feminist values.

Now, obviously, I’ve criticized Joss Whedon before on this very blog. And I have a great deal of further criticisms of his work, and certainly of his politics. insert your preferred “Bernie Would Have Won” meme [HERE] But this one cuts deep. And not just because of how much the man’s work means to me. That’s because one of the main inspirations of this whole “lets blog Star Trek” idea was found out to be not such a great person in much the same way as Joss, not too long ago. And while this isn’t a huge shocker, it’s nonetheless a massive disappointment. And it’s incredibly relevant to Star Trek Debriefed.

It’s no secret that Gene Roddenberry was horrendously flawed, and seemed to sabotage himself constantly. Granted, the acts of self-sabotage were often because Roddenberry demanded a level of control over his show that wouldn’t be granted to any producer before the ’80s (and not consistently until around the time that Whedon developed Buffy for television), but his flaws played a huge part in why Star Trek only lasted three seasons. Despite being an era of out loud massive sexism everywhere, NBC held it against Gene for having affairs, as much because he used his position to cast his mistresses in prominent parts as because his interpersonal skills with network executives frankly sucked. But with fans and more than a few actresses, Gene did possess the charisma necessary to get the adoration he craved. And this is where Gene Roddenberry and Joss Whedon are woefully alike: when in possession of power over people, they both used that power to manipulate people.

But there are two things that separate Roddenberry and Whedon: one, studio and network executives never gave Roddenberry a whole lot of power. In fact, they seemed to revel in stripping Gene of his power as much as possible. Second, Roddenberry never seemed to actively engage in presenting a false of himself to the public. Granted, Gene allowed the fans to create the illusion of him being an impeccable human being, but he certainly wasn’t above, say, complaining about the Star Trek films in public, or allowing his hanger-ons to decanonize the Filmation series when that studio was closed (and the legal status of the series was placed in flux for a time). Bot Joss loudly and proudly has proclaimed himself to be a feminist, and did use his marriage as cover for the problematic parts of his work. And while Gene kind of hand-waved (or, more accurately, never was forced to acknowledge) most of Star Trek‘s issues (except Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s notorious episode “Code of Honor”, for which the blame was laid squarely upon the feet of that episode’s director), Joss has constantly side-stepped those same concerns because he’s declared himself to be a feminist and ally. Worse, he never did mount that vigorous of a defense of Marti Noxon when she was showered with a ton of flack for “ruining” Buffy while that show was on UPN. Contrast this with how Gene protected Dorothy Fontana for decades by accepting credit for rewriting “City on the Edge of Forever” (and therefore saving her the from direct-and sometimes quite sexist-bile of Harlan Ellison), and you may, like me, find Gene Roddenberry to be a more sympathetic figure in regards to gender politics at this juncture (which is a rather nihilistic state of affairs if you ask me).

And worse, since I’ve long identified with Xander, the original Joss Insert Character/Problematic Joss White Male Character, I find myself wondering if the redemption I see in Xander and seek for myself is a total pile of bullshit. While I generally refuse to announce myself as a feminist or an ally because I’m certain that I don’t do enough to help and I certainly bear far too many scars of privilege and upbringing to be worthy of such titles, I now wonder if I’m full of shit and am merely another one of those “good guys” who is anything but. And this is only emphasized by the fact that the next post I’m writing is about “Mudd’s Women”-an episode of Star Trek with some obvious and notoriously troublesome issues with its sexual politics (to say nothing of the loads of male gaze baked into the plot). These are issues that I was going to be addressing here, but now it’s going to come with a lot more doubt and introspection.

Mirror, Mirror: Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends And The Incredible Hulk

In true internet fashion, the separate intros are in awful shape or time-compressed.

Despite having a longer and more extensive history with the characters of DC Comics, I consider myself to be more of a Marvel Comics fan. A lot of this is because famed Marvel writers like Steve Gerber, Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, and Marv Wolfman wrote extensively for animation in the ’80s. But an even bigger reason is because Marvel Productions, the animation studio owned by Marvel Comics, was responsible for a lot of the most popular cartoons of the time. And I’ve written about most every single one. But now we’re going to talk about the oldest cartoons of the lot: Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends and The Incredible Hulk.

Granted, I’m being a bit historically facetious here: Marvel’s ’80s animation efforts were prefaced by a number of shows, most by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises in the ’70s. DePatie-Freleng, which was founded by Friz Freleng and the final producer of Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, David H. DePatie. The studio became famous for the opening animated titles to The Pink Panther, which successfully launched a series of theatrical shorts (which were partially bankrolled by NBC, who aired them on Saturday mornings), as well as a notoriously low budget (and limited character lineup) revival of the Looney Tunes in the late ’60s. However, DePatie-Freleng had minimal success breaking into Saturday morning television (which was dominated by Hanna-Barbera, Filmation, and live-action producers Sid and Marty Krofft), but in the late ’70s, they produced a pair of shows for Marvel Comics: The Fantastic Four, and intended sequel of Hanna-Barbera’s ’60s cartoon version of the comics (which is now infamous for the robot HERBIE, introduced because of a rights snafu with The Human Torch), and Spider-Woman, which was part of a hasty character roll-out initiated when Filmation developed a character named Spider-Woman (though she was eventually christened Web Woman). These two series were successful enough that Marvel purchased DePatie-Freleng lock, stock, and barrel when Friz Freleng retired in 1980, and the result was Marvel Productions.

Naturally, the new Marvel Productions wanted to move into making further cartoons based on their characters, but there was a problem: the staff, consisting primarily of veterans from the classic days of Warner Bros. (and even then, it was depleted since Freleng’s “retirement” involved making compilation films and specials for Warner) had little experience with action-adventure shows. Luckily, Filmation was experiencing a major exodus, as producer Don Christensen, once a major asset, was becoming a serious problem (which would eventually result in him being fired in 1981 when Lou Scheimer realized what was going on). So, Marvel scooped up a great deal of experienced, highly skilled talent (and would continue to poach from Filmation throughout the ’80s)……but not enough to animate a series in America. The solution was twofold.

First, Marvel went to upstart Korean animation studio MiHahn, formed by Steve Hahn. MiHahn had just animated Plastic Man for Ruby-Spears, which was a massive success. Hahn was a hard-nosed producer, and along with his assistant Nelson Shin, MiHahn was ready and willing to take on more work. Secondly, Marvel went to their friends at Toei. Toei was (and still is) one of the biggest and most successful movie and TV studios in Japan, responsible for an endless stream of animated shows and feature films as well as the live-action Super Sentai franchise. The latter franchise, interestingly enough, began life as an offshoot from a live-action adaptation of Spider-Man in which Marvel gave Toei free reign to adapt the character to Japanese sensibilities. Toei Animation also adapted the Tomb of Dracula comics into a TV movie. And with Toei being one of the top outsourcing studios at the time (and renowned for the quality of their work), it was a no-brainer that Marvel would continue their partnership.

NBC was interested, but there was some doubt that Marvel could actually make a series. As a result, they produced a 26-episode Spider-Man series as a proof of concept. The show, while possessing solid animation and stories faithful to the comics (with designs directly inspired by those of famed Spider-Man artist John Romita), suffered from a lackluster cast, specifically Ted Schwartz as the title character. However, it (and presentation art by Romita himself) sold NBC on Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.

However, this was during the era of Superfriends, so a solo Spider-Man cartoon was the last thing NBC was looking for. And that’s how the Spider-Friends were born. The original plan was to pair Spidey with his old friend The Human Torch and Iceman of the X-Men, but the same rights issues that kept the character out of the 1978 series. The result was that Iceman was suddenly a sarcastic joker, and a new character was created: Firestar. Conceived as a female mutant with essentially the same powers as The Human Torch (NBC was extremely specific on the point of what exactly could be done with fire-based powers), but as a former member of the X-Men (as was the case with Iceman). And, thanks to some superb casting and good writing, it worked.

For the second season, The Incredible Hulk was given his own show (after a guest appearance in the first season). Despite some rather silly network restrictions, the show was a success, and quite faithful to the original comics (including mimicking the art style of then-current Hulk artist Sal Buscema), though NBC ordered no more episodes (and only one more season of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends before sending it into reruns). However, the second season brought a major innovation: narrations by Stan Lee himself, in the same breathless style of the narration in the ’60s Marvel Comics that Lee had scripted and co-plotted.

Oddly, this is where things ended for Marvel adapting their own characters. They tried a backdoor pilot for The X-Men a couple of times (the last including a character named Videoman, who appeared in multiple forms during the series in a blatant and poor attempt to cash in on the popularity of video games), and even produced a pilot in 1988 (which was oddly adapted into Konami’s famed X-Men arcade game in the early ’90s), but no one was interested. Worse, Marvel Productions spent most of the decade producing shows for Sunbow, Henson, King Features and others while not retaining any rights to them or benefitting from the profits. The result was that Marvel Productions was shut down and reorganized at the end of the ’80s, a victim sadly of being both behind the times of the ’70s superhero boom, and ahead of the ’90s superhero resurgence.

Next week, the first of the posts about the new cast members of Star Trek, and in this case, a post about the most notorious wardrobe element of the entire series.

Assignment: 1966: Ralph Nader

It’s February 13th, 1966, and there’s really not that much going on. Except for a story in the Washington Post titled, “Car Safety Critic Nader Reports Being ‘Tailed'”, which detailed how carmaker General Motors had been harassing activist-turned-author Ralph Nader because of his book Unsafe at Any Speed. This humble story picked up speed (pun not intended), and soon GM and the entire auto industry had a public relations disaster on its hands. The book, a well-researched screen against the excesses of auto design and lack of proper safety and engineering, had been utterly ignored, but swiftly became a bestseller in the wake of this controversy, and it made Nader a very famous man.

The first-and longest lasting-effect of GM’s total stupidity (both in the design flaws in the Chevy Corvair, which was singled out in the first chapter of Unsafe at Any Speed, and its treatment of Nader) was the formation of the Department of Transportation, whose first and foremost responsibility has been regulating America’s cars and roadways. The second effect, however, is a big reason why I’m talking about Ralph Nader: the rise of consumer advocates.

Now, obviously, Nader and other consumer advocates have done a world of good. The regulations and laws passed because of their efforts in the ’60s and ’70s made America a safer, better place. But this is an ’80s blog as much as it’s a ’60s blog. And by the ’80s, consumer advocates, and their close relatives, the advocates for children, were quite frankly making asses of themselves while the Reagan Administration was tearing apart the country with deregulation after deregulation. While the children’s advocates were bitching about toy-based cartoons (the best-and for the most part, most popular-of which had little to no interference from the toy companies), American animators were losing their jobs left and right because of outsourcing (which ultimately cost these groups their greatest and most steadfast ally, Filmation, to be sold to L’Oreal and put out of business). And both groups advocated for the banning of toy guns, in part because of the stories of cops shooting kids with them, which basically punted on the issues of poor police training (one of the secondary issues of the current Black Lives Matter movement), police militarization (again, part of the problems that fed into Black Lives Matter), and America’s rampant love affair with actual guns. The result is that it’s harder for me to import a Megatron toy from Japan than it is to purchase an actual Walther P-38 (the gun Megatron transformed into on The Transformers)-and in certain instances, cheaper, too!

So, for way too many people of my generation, consumer advocates are bad jokes, in part because instead of combatting actual unjust business practices, they started trying to combat secondary (if that) symptoms of greater problems that were ignored. For every movement like the No Nukes movement (which was Nader’s next big movement after the automobile industry was sufficiently shamed into better practices) it seemed like there were dozens of silly movements that made it easy for a smiling, telegenic personality like Ronald Reagan to paint these passionate (and not necessarily professional) people as kooks who wanted to mollycoddle the entire country. But if this was the entirety of Ralph Nader’s legacy, I wouldn’t be writing this.

But I am, because Ralph Nader bungled his way into Presidential politics in the worst way. While he is certainly right in being critical of America’s two-party electoral system, the problem is that the laws of the land are designed to support the existence of two political parties, period. Sure, there was that messy time in the 19th Century when the Federalist party collapsed and the Democratic-Republicans split in two, but for the most part, this country has operated under a two-party system for its entire existence, and it would take massive changes to the political infrastructure to change it to a more parliamentary process like that seen in Canada or the UK. So, Nader’s opinions have really only been good for fostering distrust and disenchantment with the system, which not only benefits monied interests, but has helped to drag the country ever rightward, even though all evidence suggests that Americans are really democratic socialists at heart.

Oh, and it has invited a never-ending spiral of apathy and petty bickering into our nation’s political discourse.

And I know you must think this is because I believe that Ralph Nader is the reason why George W. Bush got elected in 2000, but no, that isn’t it. While preaching that the two parties were the same did Al Gore no favors (as history has proven repeatedly in this century so far that there are very real and striking differences between the two political parties), the reality is that Gore ran a shitty campaign because he was an ungodly bore whose wife was a villain to many young people and minorities (thanks to her involvement with the PMRC, but that’s another story for another day) and whose running mate was an arrogant, Democrat-in-name-only douchebag who also pissed off a lot of young people and minorities due to his involvement in trying to censor video games in the ’90s (again, another story for another day). Oh, and there was the issue of Florida’s voter rolls being illegally purged of left-leaning voters in numbers that would have made the Florida recount debacle irrelevant had anyone prevented it. So, yes, Nader got a bit of a raw deal, even though he refused to follow the advice of some of his supporters (including Thom Hartmann) to abandon campaigning in battleground states (like Florida) and focus on states where the Presidential election was effectively decided in order to get 5% of the vote and qualify the Green Party for federal matching funds (and provide that party with some semblance of a national foothold).

But he didn’t, and ran again in 2004 and 2008, by which time enmity for him was so high that he was accused of being funded by the Republican Party. And this, ultimately, will be a substantial part of Ralph Nader’s legacy: by behaving rigidly in a system he considered to be rigid and corrupt, he negated years of hard work to stroke his own ego and find himself labeled as an agent provocateur and a hypocrite.

Next week, we’ll be staying in 1966 to talk about the future of Star Trek……and how it nearly ended before it even began.

Mirror, Mirror: Superfriends, Wonder Woman, and Superman

Super heroes are big business right now, but here’s a little secret: they’ve always been huge with my generation. Besides Batman, which I previously discussed on the occasion of its 50th Anniversary, comic book adventures were always a part of the culture. And this week, it’s time to discuss the other ways the heroes of DC Comics were a part of my childhood.

First, there’s the one of the longest-running and most remembered cartoons of the era: Superfriends.

As we’ll eventually discuss, the late ’60s saw a huge boom for super heroes in Saturday morning cartoons after Filmation established itself with The New Adventures of Superman. However, by the end of the ’60s, saturation combined with strict new content restrictions on violence on television swept away all of the super hero shows, resulting in Filmation surrendering the rights to the DC Comics characters. Things were so bad that Hanna-Barbera acquired the rights for a song, and instead of re-introducing the characters directly, Batman and Robin returned to TV in two episodes of The New Scooby-Doo Movies, using Filmation’s cast (Olan Soule as Batman, Casey Kasem as Robin, Larry Storch as The Joker, and Ted Knight as The Penguin) in the process before proceeding with Super Friends for the 1973-74 TV season (by which time all of Filmation’s rights had lapsed).

The initial version of Super Friends, which featured no super villains at all and introducing the horrendously awful sidekicks Marvin, Wendy, and Wonder Dog, was a complete dud. While it continued to retain Soule, Kasem, and Ted Knight (who was on the verge of having to abandon his robust animation career because of the huge success of The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and had more than a few animators poached from Filmation, the bloated, hour-long stories and weak action landed with a thud. The season wasn’t an entire loss, as there were many elements that actually worked. Hoyt Curtin’s score, often one of Hanna-Barbera’s greatest assets, soars here (especially with the iconic theme song, of which I’ve posted a remixed version above). The character designs and animation, while nowhere near as detailed as the comics, are still pretty excellent for the era (and especially from Hanna-Barbera, who was starting to move a lot of its animation to Australia at the time), with the Hall of Justice (which was based on Union Hall in Cincinnati, home of H-B’s then-corporate parent, Taft Broadcasting) being the best and most fondly-remembered. But the greatest asset is the cast and voice direction. Super Friends (along with The Addams Family) was one of the first two cartoons voice directed by Wally Burr, who literally dragged the art kicking and screaming into the modern era, with large casts, superb performances, and legendarily long recording sessions. With Batman, Robin, and the narrator all legacy cast members from the Filmation cartoons, Burr’s biggest impact was in casting Danny Dark as Superman, Shannon Farnon as Wonder Woman, and Norman Alden as Aquaman, and frankly, they all elevated the material to an outstanding degree. But after a second season comprised entirely of reruns, it seemed as if Super Friends was doomed to be forgotten.

However, a two years later, with super heroes all over prime time and Saturday morning television in live action form, ABC ordered reruns of the series in a half-hour format, and the show was a huge success. This led to a total reboot of the series, with Marvin, Wendy, and Wonder Dog jettisoned in favor of the Wonder Twins, Zan (played by Michael Bell) and Jayna (Louise Williams), whose pet was the Space Monkey Gleek. The All-New Super Friends Hour, while saddled with morals, health tips and other half-hearted filler, was a major step forward, with actual villains (including established comic book foes Gentleman Ghost and Black Manta), but it would be the next season of the franchise that because the most popular.

Challenge of the Superfriends, besides being the first incarnation of the franchise to combine “Super Friends” into one word (something that is completely ignored in modern licensing), pitted an expanded Superfriends roster against the Legion of Doom, a collection of the most prominent of the DC Universe villains (the big exception being all of Batman’s foes except The Riddler, who were off limits to Hanna-Barbera because of Filmation’s competing The New Adventures of Batman, which aired on CBS and was denied use of The Riddler except for an incorrectly colored cameo in the opening credits). Backing this were half-hour adventures in the mold of The All-New Super Friends Hour, which would would be the general template for future seasons (albeit with increased appearances from Legion of Doom members). All was not perfect, however: Hanna-Barbera created Black Vulcan, a token minority character along the lines of the existing Samurai and Apache Chief characters, specifically to avoid paying royalties to Tony Isabella over the character of Black Lightning.

Things continued with minimal changes (the biggest being the addition of another original hero, El Dorado, who was by far and away the most successful of the ethnic heroes-though Samurai was also a pretty good character in his own right) until the 1983-84 season, when Hanna-Barbera took the series into syndication (it became one of the few syndicated cartoons aired on weekdays on Channel 5 in Vermont). ABC, despite funding 8 new episodes, cancelled the show outright (rendering those episodes unseen in America for years). This is where I come in, as those reruns on Channel 5 were my first exposure to Superfriends. ABC, however, brought the show back again for 1984-85, as Superfriends: The Legendary Super Powers Show. Suddenly, Superfriends was under a huge transition, as Adam West returned as Batman, and Firestorm was added to the cast (Olan Soule stayed on board, however, as Professor Martin Stein, half of Firestorm’s alter ego). Moreover, the show was now tied into Kenner’s excellent Super Powers toyline, and there was a new main villain: Darkseid, from Jack Kirby’s Third Earth stories. Along with Darkseid (voiced to great effect by Frank Welker) were Kalibak (again, voiced by Welker) and Desaad (voiced by Hanna-Barbera regular René Auberjonois, who was experiencing his second wave of live-action fame as Clayton Endicott III on Benson). Braniac, who had been retired following the tragic death of Ted Cassidy (along with Black Manta), was completely redesigned in line with the comics and voiced to great effect by Stanley Ralph Ross, and B.J. Ward (in the lone exception to what seems to be an unwritten rule that she be paired with Michael Bell’s characters romantically) assumed the role of Jayna because Louise Williams was no longer living in the LA area. Sadly, however, Wonder Woman was also controversially recast, with Constance Cawlfield assuming the role. Put simply, she was awful. (And, as insinuated by Shannon Farnon, she got the job because she was dating voice director Gordon Hunt. This claim is dubious, however, since Hunt, the father of actress Helen Hunt, eventually married B.J. Ward, one of the best and most prominent voice actresses of the ’80s.)

The next season brought even more changes, as the animation style was totally revised to match the artwork of artist José Luis García-López and Cyborg, from the popular comic The New Teen Titans, was brought aboard. Stories were much more serious, too, and The Joker finally appeared. Furthermore, “The Fear”, written as the pilot for a Batman solo series, told the origin of the Caped Crusader outside of the comics for the first time, and “The Death of Superman” featured just that. Best of all, Wonder Woman was again recast, with B.J. Ward assuming the role. (While not Shannon Farnon, she still excelled in the role.) But the changes were all for naught, as The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians was demolished in the ratings against the last half hour of The Smurfs and the first half hour of the heavily hyped Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n Wrestling (which even more thoroughly trashed that season’s edition of Scooby-DooThe 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo, in its second half hour), leading to ABC pulling the plug on Superfriends for the last time.

As I mentioned in the post on Batman, Channel 3 made that show a staple of early Saturday and Sunday mornings. But before Channel 22 filled weekday afternoons with cartoons, there was another super hero show on Channel 3, at 4PM on weekdays: Wonder Woman. Originally airing from 1975-1979, the show was actually the second attempt to bring Wonder Woman to live-action television (the first, starring Cathy Lee Crosby, bore so little resemblance to the character that the pilot to the series was titled The New, Original Wonder Woman). By the ’70s, Wonder Woman had emerged as a feminist icon despite some of the kinkier aspects of the character as conceived by William Moulton Marston. Regardless of those aspects (and the polyamorous relationship that Marston was involved in until the day he died), Wonder Woman was by far and away the best-and strongest-female super hero at the time, so it’s not terribly shocking she has always enjoyed a stronger popularity than the sales of her comic books have implied.

Wonder Woman the TV series succeeded because it openly leveraged the character’s status within the feminist movement, while (until CBS forced changes in the second season) staying faithful and proud of its roots in comic books. The first season in particular is incredibly accurate to the early Wonder Woman comic books (albeit with the bondage themes excised), right down to the period setting. Later seasons are close to the era’s comics, though the lack of super villains (common with the super hero TV shows of the ’70s) are a bit more glaring without the Nazis around to bash. But even with this attention and care (given to the series by Stanley Ralph Ross-yes, the same one who wrote for Batman and acted on Superfriends-and Douglas S. Cramer-who we’ll be talking about a lot in the future), Wonder Woman was great because of Lynda Carter.

Carter, who in addition to being an actress is a singer and the 1972 Miss World USA, not only looked the part, but has practically embodied Wonder Woman, both in character and out of character. Wonder Woman could have become simply a sex symbol (and boy did the networks and studio try to sell it that way), but with Lynda Carter as the star, she became a role model for everyone. The ambitious and timely lyrics like “Make a hawk a dove/Stop a war with love/Make a liar tell the truth” and “Change their minds/Save the world” work because there’s no question that Carter believes in the ideal of Wonder Woman (she campaigns vigorously for women’s rights, LGBT equality, breast cancer research, Pro Choice rights, and other causes), and it shines through in the episodes. More importantly, Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman was quite possibly the finest of the many great female heroes of my youth because she took the potentially suffocating roles of feminist icon, super heroine, sex symbol, and role model and epitomized the best of all of those qualities.

As influential as Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman was, though, in the ’80s, one super hero set the gold standard: Superman.

Promoted with the tagline, “You’ll Believe A Man Can Fly”, Superman: The Movie reached for and achieved heights that most films-super hero-related or not-desperately wish they could reach. Director Richard Donner preached verisimilitude as the key to the feature’s success, and given the extremely difficult development process, he was right. Originally starting pre-production in 1974, Superman: The Movie wasn’t released until December of 1978. Part of this is attributable to the difficulties Alexander and Ilya Salkind had in assembling a crew and then a cast, but the actual production dragged on from 1976 until the middle of 1978, in part because the sequel was shot concurrently (in part because of the busy schedules of Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman, the top-billed stars for the feature). There were also extreme technical challenges surrounding the flight of Superman and the Phantom Zone criminals who feature primarily in the second film, and tensions between Donner and the Salkinds and especially producer Pierre Spengler, so much that director Richard Lester was brought in as a go-between/backup director. In the end, filming was temporarily abandoned on the sequel with 75% of it shot in order to concentrate on the first film. (In addition, the ending was revised to remove the intended cliffhanger where the aforementioned Phantom Zone criminals are freed at the closing of the film.)

In the end, Superman: The Movie was a massive success critically and financially. The special effects were revolutionary, the story inspiring, and John Williams’ score was yet another massive triumph for the composer. The cast was equally superb: Marlon Brando brings enormous gravitas to Jor-El, Gene Hackman is definitive as Lex Luthor, Jackie Cooper and Marc McClure nail their parts as Perry White and Jimmy Olsen, Glenn Ford is inspiring as Pa Kent, and Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine are superb comic foils to Hackman as Otis and Miss Teschmacher. But it is Margot Kidder as Lois Lane and Christopher Reeve as Superman who make the film work. Kidder’s Lane is tenacious, witty, smart, and marvelously human, while Reeve is the first performer to effectively emphasize the “man” over the “Super”. The effects make you believe that a man can fly; Reeve makes you believe that the man is real.

However, the series almost immediately fell apart. When filming on Superman II resumed, Richard Donner was no longer the director. Richard Lester was, and in order to take away Donner’s directing credit, the film was heavily rewritten and reshot at a quick pace and cheaply (as the cost overruns on the first feature had caused the Salkinds to renegotiate their negative pickup deal with Warner Bros. multiple times, costing them parts of the lucrative international and TV rights to both movies). Worse, since Marlon Brando sued for his portion of the gross profits (and won), his scenes were excised. Gene Hackman, who had filmed the overwhelming bulk of his part for the sequel, refused to participate further, and was replaced with not only a stand-in, but had many lines re-dubbed by an uncredited Stanley Ralph Ross (using the voice he would later give to Brainiac on Superfriends). Tom Mankiewicz and Stuart Baird refused to take part in solidarity, and John Williams, busy with commitments to The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, didn’t score the film and Ken Thorne was hired instead at his recommendation (and while Thorne did an admirable job, his orchestra was far smaller than the London Symphony Orchestra used in the original, and it suffers in comparison).

Superman II was a critical and financial success despite the controversy, but watching in retrospect, it feels wrong. The comedic bits (especially during the fight in Metropolis, which already suffers because it was filmed on a soundstage and not in New York City) are far too slapsticky, and the reshoots are fairly obvious (Margot Kidder, who was particularly upset about the firing of Donner, is noticeably gaunt in the reshot footage). However, at the time (and even with the extended TV cut, which restored a great deal of Donner’s footage) no one was particularly wiser (and the sentiment against the theatrical version would not reach any real consensus until it was easy to share video on the internet), but with Superman III, which was conceived entirely without Donner and features a ton of slapstick comedy (to say nothing of having Richard Pryor as the second-billed star and Pamela Stephenson in the busty blonde bimbo role that she played incessantly during the ’80s) and just loses its way, while shoving aside Margot Kidder as revenge for having spoken out against the Salkinds. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, which was spearheaded by Christopher Reeve outside of the influence of the Salkinds, was even more embarrassing, since it was produced by Canon, who siphoned the budget to keep their house of cards standing for a while longer while also cutting a substantial (and important) part of the picture before release.

Amazingly, there was still a ton of goodwill for Superman and Christopher Reeve after the series petered out. And while Reeve would never again put on the red and blue tights (in part because of a horse-riding accident that left him paralyzed), there was one more Superman series during the ’80s.

Superman, produced by Ruby-Spears for CBS in order to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the character, is a bit odd. Bill Woodson narrates the intro in a holdover from Superfriends, the narration being the same as the one from The Adventures of Superman (which was itself adapted from the narration to the classic radio show). Lex Luthor has a girlfriend, Jessica Morganberry, who is clearly patterned after Miss Teschmacher, as well, and the opening theme is a re-orchestrated version of the Superman March from the movies. But despite this, Superman is clearly based on the newly-revised mythos for the character that sprang from DC’s company-wide reboot following Crisis on Infinite Earths. Character designs were done by famed Superman artist Gil Kane, and the story editor was Marv Wolfman, who was one of the architects of the revised Superman mythos (ironically, CBS executives were not aware of this when they hired him). Also, each episode features a “Superman Family Album” segment which, in a lightly serialized fashion, shows us Clark Kent’s childhood from his crash on Earth until his departure from Smallville. Despite being successful, CBS passed on backing more seasons simply because the show cost too much to produce. This doomed the show to a sad level of obscurity until it was finally released on DVD, but even then, the show represents a great missed opportunity in the Superman franchise.

Next time, it’s the 50th Anniversary of one of the biggest expansions in the history of sports.

Assignment: 1966/Mirror, Mirror: Batman

It’s January 12th, 1966. Four days ago, the US version of Rubber Soul by the Beatles was released and “We Can Work It Out” reaches the top of the charts (with “Day Tripper” also at #10), displacing “The Sounds of Silence” from Simon & Garfunkel. Making its debut on the charts at #99 (after a full-page ad in Billboard in December) is “California Dreamin'” by a group named The Mamas and the Papas. (Suffice to say, the pop music charts are loaded with classic songs right now.) In grimmer news, Vernon Dahmer, a civil rights activist in Mississippi, was murdered in his home on Monday the 10th as members of the KKK torched his home the day after he announced a voter registration effort for Forrest County. (No one would be held accountable for the crime until 1998.) The big news of the day: President Johnson declares in his first State of the Union address that the Great Society programs and the Vietnam War could be both funded while proposing the formation of a new cabinet level department: the Department of Transportation. But on ABC, we have the debut of the final of our ’60s “B”-themed fads: Batman.

While Batman is now at least as well-known as Superman (a situation that has had some seriously negative effects for how the Man of Steel is portrayed), in the ’60s, Superman was an icon (with the memory of George Reeves’ iconic Adventures of Superman, as well as the lauded Fleischer/Famous Studios theatrical shorts of the early ’40s, being a huge reason why) and Batman, whose only media adaptation was a pair of serials in the ’40s (and had been one of the scapegoats of the notorious Frederic Wertham-ispired witch hunts of the ’50s against comic books), was much more obscure. However, in the early ’60s, Ed Graham Productions (most famous for creating Linus the Lionhearted) optioned the rights with the intent of producing a live-action Saturday morning kids show for CBS. However, two things changed this: one, CBS passed on the show, and two, a repackaging of the first Batman serial as An Evening with Batman and Robin in 1965 was popular enough (especially in an ironic light with college students and adults) to inspire DC Comics to license the property to ABC, who in turn sub-licensed the production to 20th Century Fox, who themselves handed the project off to producer William Dozier and his studio, Greenway Productions.

Dozier, who had never read comic books before, took one look at the then fairly absurd world of Batman (the comics had only recently jettisoned the ’50s-era science fiction elements) and decided that the TV show needed to be a campy pop art spectacle. And since the intended hour-long series was instead spread across two half-hour time slots on consecutive nights, the cliffhanger aspect of the ’40s serials was parodied, as well (and voiced, uncredited, by Dozier himself). The problem is, ABC and Fox were expecting a straightforward, hip version of Batman, and this was anything but that.

No one complained, though, because the show was a smash success, revitalizing interest in the characters, and attracting cameos and guest-starring roles from all sorts of famed actors. So many, in fact, that the trademark building-climbing sequences would inevitably feature Batman and Robin running into someone famous. The result is that the cast is one of the show’s greatest assets. Adam West plays Batman totally straight as the heroic champion of justice, Burt Ward is perfectly excitable as Robin, the villains (which included a rotating roster of such actors as Cesar Romero as the Joker, Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, and Frank Gorshin as the Riddler) ham it up delightfully, and everyone else helps out by reacting wonderfully to the ensuing insanity. That’s not the only secret to the show’s success, as the iconic theme song, Batcave set (which cost an astronomical $800,000 to build), and Batmobile (built by famed car customizer George Barris from a 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car) can attest.

However, Batman suffered from its instant success, and ratings slowly tapered off, and a feature film (intended to sell the show internationally) released between the first and second seasons was unsuccessful. With the third season, the show was cut to one day a week, and Yvonne Craig was cast as Batgirl to add sex appeal and to appeal to young girls. (On a sadder note, Madge Blake’s role as Aunt Harriet was drastically reduced as she was ill.) It wasn’t enough to save the show, as ABC cancelled the series at the end of the season. (Sadly, an attempt by NBC to pick up the show failed because the Batcave set hard already been destroyed when the network inquired about the show.) However, with 120 episodes produced, Batman was immediately sent off into syndication, and thrived.

And that’s where I come in. Batman was, for much of the ’80s, was the show that opened up Channel 3’s broadcast day on Saturday and Sunday mornings. At 6 AM. So that’s when me and my brother would get up. Every. Single. Weekend. I can literally remember only two weekends when we didn’t watch the show, both during the winter of 1984: one, as a result of a Nor’easter that knocked out power on a Saturday, and two, on a weekend where the family went….somewhere. (My memory is good, but not that good.) Sure, we mostly took the show straight (this was the era of Superfriends, after all), but it was so damn fun that we can hardly be blamed. And Batgirl, with her special revised entrance in the opening credits, individual theme song, motorcycle, and bright, sequiny outfit, was pretty much what started me on the road to believing that girls were awesome, desirable badasses. For people that grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, this show was Batman, but that’s another story for another day.

Next week:

Mirror, Mirror: Ghostbusters

There are two rather strange trends about the ’80s that only added to the wonderfully strange culture of the time: The Adult Franchise Marketed Towards Kids and The Franchise That Shouldn’t Be. The former is an almost natural outgrowth of the Reagan era, where an America seemingly obsessed with traditional values consistently sold them out for a quick buck. The latter is a product of a string of surprising hits that, if they didn’t get a sequel, were the subject of years of rumors about one. Neither trend is particularly rare these days, in part because it actually paid off pretty well in the ’80s (I’ll spare you a full accounting).

The most famous intersection of these two trends is Ghostbusters, which if you haven’t heard, is being revived after years of rumors and discussion. And, as has been the case for much of the franchise’s history, Ghostbusters is changing into something significantly different from what it previously was, and certainly from what it has been perceived to be. The main reason, of course, is because the people involved with the new Ghostbusters are different from previous production crews, and more importantly, they have a much different agenda in mind (besides the all-consuming Search For More Money). But, if we’re being honest, this is the curse of The Franchise That Shouldn’t Be: the franchise was only intended to be one movie, but when it goes beyond that one film, the integrity of the one film’s world runs a very real risk of being compromised.

With Ghostbusters, this process happened before the film was even made. Firstly, Dan Aykroyd’s initial idea included some wild elements like time travel and tons of huge ghosts, which Ivan Reitman suggested was wildly impractical, leading to the working class feel that the movie has. In regards to the casting, Aykroyd envisioned roles for himself, Harold Ramis (with whom he wrote the final script), John Belushi, Eddie Murphy, John Candy, and Paul Reubens. Most of these plans never came to fruition: Belushi died, Murphy had a prior commitment to Beverly Hills Cop, Candy eventually passed for reasons that remain murky, and Reubens was jettisoned in favor of model/actress Slavitza Jovan. Instead, Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson, and Rick Moranis were cast.

These changes didn’t just work, they helped to make the film a smashing success. And with a strong score by Elmer Bernstein, the iconic title song by Ray Parker, Jr., and some absolutely superb special effects, there was plenty of praise to be had. And there was plenty of merchandising that popped up in response to the immense success of Ghostnusters (helped massively by the superb logo). However…..there was a problem.

During production, Columbia’s lawyers discovered (read: were threatened with a lawsuit) that Filmation had produced a live-action TV show named The Ghost Busters in the ’70s. Alternate titles were mooted, but everyone directly involved with the film demanded it after seeing dailies of a large crowd of extras shouting “Ghostbusters” repeatedly. So, a deal was struck (which involved Columbia pretty much completely screwing over Filmation), and the name struck. But when it came time to make Ghostbusters The Adult Franchise Marketed Towards Kids, things got ugly once more.

While Filmation had not secured a guarantee that they would be the studio to make a cartoon based on the movie, they did negotiate with Columbia. But Columbia wanted nothing to do with Filmation, and secured a deal with DiC to produce a cartoon that would air both on ABC and in syndication. So, Filmation decided to produce a sequel series to The Ghost Busters, titling it Ghostbusters. And DiC (which was in the process of being sold to Andy Heyward at the time) retaliated by naming their show The Real Ghostbusters. It was undeniably childish, especially since DiC had the advantage: their show was on network TV a full year before having to brave the wilderness of syndication. With that exposure, DiC was almost assured of victory, even without the saturation of syndicated cartoons by 1986 (which was greatly exacerbated by DiC). It’s a particular shame as Ghostbusters is a fairly entertaining cartoon, albeit a bit more hampered by Filmation’s stock system than the studio’s other shows of the decade. Of course, The Real Ghostbusters was a bit more than “fairly entertaining”…..it was an instant classic.

A key issue with The Adult Franchise Marketed Towards Kids is that it gets massively dumbed down as a result of its newfound popularity with children. And with Ghostbusters the movie, this was an acute issue: our heroes smoke, drink, and swear casually, Peter Venkman is a blatant womanizer, some of the ghost designs are rather graphic, and a key plot point hinges on a pretty blatant metaphor for sex. And while The Real Ghostbusters smoothes away most of these rough edges, the series is anything but dumbed down, especially in the syndicated episodes. Venkman is still a bit of a lech at times and the ghosts (especially in the syndicated episodes) are pretty horrific, and Shuki Levy’s score largely ignores the playful elements of Elmer Bernstein’s movie score for something much darker and moodier, even when taking into account the occasional songs from a Haim Saban-backed group named Tahiti. (Levy scoring for The Real Ghostbusters ended his and Saban’s relationship with Filmation, which was strained pretty much from the start since Saban had Levy scoring for every studio that would accept his terms.)

The problem is, once the first season for ABC and the one-and-only syndicated season was completed, ABC decided to hire consultants to take a look at all of their Saturday morning shows, and The Real Ghostbusters never recovered. Besides declaring that the horror elements be curbed, these consultants decided that Slimer, the first ghost busted in the movie (who became a sort of pet in the cartoon), needed to be brought into the spotlight, as well as fostering the creation of the “Junior Ghostbusters”, or children that help the cast bust ghosts. All six lead characters were fit into more strictly defined roles, but Winston, the black man, was, in a patently racist move, became the driver and mechanic of Ecto-1 (roles that had previously been assigned to Ray). And Janine…..poor Janine. While none of the character designs were particularly consistent with the appearances of their actors from the movie, Janine was one of the biggest deviations visually, as she was now a redhead with a wild hairstyle, pointy glasses, and typically seen wearing a tank top, miniskirt, and heels. But her voice, as provided by Laura Summer, was a dead ringer for that of Annie Potts, and the characterization was consistent with the film, right down to her unrequited interest in bookish brainiac Egon. The consultants completely nerfed the character, forcing a total redesign and recasting to make her more motherly.

J. Michael Straczynski (yes, that one), having written for the show’s first 78 episodes (including serving as story editor for the syndicated run) left in protest of the onerous changes, and was eventually proven right, as ratings were never again the same. Coupled with the recasting of Peter Venkman from Lorenzo Music (famous as the voice of Carlton the doorman on Rhoda as well as Garfield) to Dave Coulier in an attempt to placate Bill Murray (who was the main obstacle towards making a live-action sequel), the show had its heart ripped out, and even a brief return by Straczynski to right the ship (which was swiftly reversed) couldn’t help the show. Worse, Ghostbusters II was made during this period, and was far from successful. Taking its cues from the later seasons of the cartoon (while also taking care to negate the Egon/Janine romance, which Harold Ramis was not a fan of), the movie was safe, unfunny, and disappointing. (It also suffered from Murray being visibly disinterested.) And after these disappointments, the franchise faded away.

That is, until Extreme Ghostbusters. Serving as a sequel to The Real Ghostbusters, the show was a bit of a tough pill to swallow at the time, as it explicitly ages the original cast (though Egon’s stated age is ironically the same as Harold Ramis’ when the first movie was released). The thing is….it’s actually a pretty decent show. It’s painfully late ’90s in its naming, cast makeup (the new Ghostbusters consist of a goth girl, a wheelchair guy with a decidedly awesome first name, a skeezy Latino, and a straight-edged black guy), animation (it’s done by the same people responsible for the late ’90s GodzillaMen in Black, and Jackie Chan Adventures cartoons, and has the same oddly bland color palette and character design), use of CGI, and darker tone. But it understands where The Real Ghostbusters went wrong, and cares about its legacy. The problem was that it was a syndicated show right as the market for syndicated cartoons was dying its final death, and it didn’t have the entire original cast-just Egon, Janine, and Slimer.

As unsuccessful as Extreme Ghostbusters was, it did prove that there was some life in the concept, but with that it needed the original cast. But Bill Murray, who was and is the biggest star of the core Ghostbusters cast (as the cartoons proved, Sigourney Weaver and the character of Dana Barrett were not an integral part of the franchise’s success), still held out, and it wasn’t until Harold Ramis died that hopes of a true sequel were finally laid to rest. Now we have the well-intentioned if dubious in application all-female reboot (which seems to operate on the principle that the franchise lacks strong female characters when Janine and Kylie prove this to be a false statement) and a much more dubiously-intentioned “traditional” male Ghostbusters movie. Without getting into the SJW/Gamer Gate debate (which I’m not only completely over, but I know for a fact would end badly, even if my rant on Willow’s sexuality has actually been well received when I was certain that it’d end badly), it seems like The Franchise That Shouldn’t Be is taking a turn towards a desperate ploy for attention (especially in light of Extreme Ghostbusters‘ rather understated and natural move towards equality). And considering all that it has survived with a staggering amount of its integrity intact, it would be a shame if Ghostbusters got derailed trying to play both sides of a messy, misguided political debate.

Next week, it’s back to 1965, and one of the most popular TV specials of all time.

Mirror, Mirror: The Cosby Show

I’ve written about I Spy and Fat Albert, but now it’s time to complete the trifecta of Bill Cosby-related posts with the biggest hit of the lot: The Cosby Show. It was the most successful sitcom of the ’80s, and one of the great pillars of the genre (along with I Love LucyAll in the FamilySeinfeld, and both the American and British versions of The Office). It was one of the most positive examples of African Americans on TV in the face of a new, even nastier strain of racism that has been growing in this country since Ronald Reagan was elected President. The cast was incredibly talented, and there were tons of superb guest actors and celebrities throughout the entire run. However, there are also some serious story and behind-the-scenes issues with the series. (And that’s before the issue of Bill Cosby’s multiple alleged sexual assaults come into play.)

The sexual assaults are a primary issue for The Cosby Show because unlike I Spy and Fat Albert, some of the accusations have involved women who appeared on the show, and a number of the accusers say Cosby assaulted them on the set of the show. Other than the Playboy Mansion, no other location is as tied to Cosby’s horrendous legacy. It also means that either Cosby hid it from the other people involved with his show, or they turned their back to it. The entire situation is vile, pure and simple, and it taints The Cosby Show.

Of course, it’s easy to say that this is the only real issue with the series, besides the usual issues of continuity (oldest daughter Sondra simply did not exist in the pilot, and the dialogue to that effect was never revised, for instance) and bad episodes (a reality for all TV shows). The entire Huxtable family is based on Bill Cosby, his wife, and their five children, and the entire sexual assault scandal has exposed the idea of Bill Cosby’s family being suitable for such a model as a total sham. Also difficult is the issues Cosby had with Lisa Bonet, who played the second-oldest Huxtable child, Denise. In 1987, Bonet got married to Lenny Kravitz, appeared in the movie Angel Heart, and appeared in a topless photo shoot for Interview magazine. The marriage was the only thing that didn’t create controversy (though rumors persist that Cosby wasn’t thrilled about that development, either).

And with her slated to star in the spin-off series A Different World, Bonet’s popularity with Bill Cosby plummeted, and then completely cratered when she got pregnant, which forced the series (which was already undergoing major revisions after the first season) to drop Denise since the character was a “good girl”, and therefore unlikely to get pregnant out of wedlock. Ultimately, Bonet returned to The Cosby Show, but ended up getting fired during the penultimate season over a “creative dispute”.

Then there’s Theo, who was based off Cosby’s only son, Ennis. The first episode is rather infamous for the scene wherein Cliff tears into his son after he brings home a bad report card, and it sets up a running plot with Cliff and Theo butting heads, usually over school. The problem is, Cosby’s son Ennis was eventually diagnosed with dyslexia, which was dutifully incorporated into Theo’s character. That episode is quite frankly a revelation for Theo, and represents a complete sea change for the character. But many of the previous episodes are instantly rendered to be cruel, and the lip service to this in the episode where Theo’s dyslexia is revealed is just not enough, particularly since the brutal and horrific murder of Ennis Cosby in the years since The Cosby Show left the air.

Lastly, there’s a big problem with The Cosby Show projecting a much more idyllic world for the Huxtables than is plausible. Part of this is because of all the celebrities that went out of their way to appear on the show (one of the best examples being an appearance by Stevie Wonder as himself). But a huge amount of this is because of Cosby’s objection to, as stated by Eddie Murphy in his stand-up film Raw, “filth flarn filth”. While he does have an argument, The Cosby Show is often a bit Pollyannaish at times, especially when compared to A Different World, which tackled serious issues head on with refreshing regularity (and was the first non-news program on US television to address HIV and AIDS). And with Cosby’s blatantly hypocritical moralizing (which ultimately led to the Hannibal Buress rant that turned public opinion against him), it’s pretty much impossible to defend him or the show on this count.

But with all of these many concerns, The Cosby Show is still a very, very funny show, and its production values are pretty excellent. And again, in America of the Reagan era, seeing a minority family on television functioning normally was a big deal (and speaking as someone from a white bread state like Vermont, I cannot emphasize how influential The Cosby Show and A Different World were to my perception of race growing up). But, damn, is it hard to go back to The Cosby Show now with everything we know now.

Next week, we’re going to step back in time a bit and visit a couple of 1983 shows featuring a certain helluva tough actor.

Mirror, Mirror: Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids

(One of these videos is not like the other because of the current sorry state of the Filmation library.)

One of the bitter ironies of having cartoons limited to Saturday and Sunday mornings and for a two-to-three hour period on weekdays across three channels was that a greater percentage of the cartoons were reruns of older shows in that environment than under today’s 500 channel world of cable (or, in my case, satellite) television. It’s practically impossible to watch an ’80s or even ’90s show on TV these days, and forget about older shows. But in the ’80s, older cartoon shows were everywhere. And while I covered a lot of this ground when discussing The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show, this point needs to be re-emphasized, as does another detail: the networks hated Filmation with a blinding passion by the time I turned 5 (which is when I start remembering watching cartoons).

But here we are, discussing two of Filmation’s finest cartoons of the 1970s: Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. The former, based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs series of books, was a significant series for Filmation, and for TV animation. While the animated Star Trek marked a return to action-adventure for Filmation (a genre that the studio was literally built on in the ’60s, with Journey to the Center of the Earth in particular being a fond favorite of mine), Tarzan was the flagship action series for the studio, anchoring a number of programs with the notoriously mis-titled Super 7 until the early ’80s. Additionally, Tarzan was the show where Filmation began using rotoscoping to increase the level of realism in their shows.

These technical and behind-the-scenes details obscure Tarzan‘s reason for greatness: it was, hands down, the best adaptation of the books ever produced. Granted, the Tarzan books aren’t exactly great literature (and are very much products of their time), but they are exciting adventures with a well-crafted world and an excellent hero. Unlike most of the prior adaptations, the Mangani ape language is faithfully used, and Nkima, not Cheeta, is Tarzan’s monkey companion throughout the series. Beyond this, there was plenty for Filmation to work with, and the studio did not disappoint. The art, inspired by the work of legendary artist Burne Hogarth (while still very much in the Filmation style), features some of the strongest background paintings of any Filmation series. And Ray Ellis’ score, typically a high point in Filmation cartoons, reached new levels with Tarzan. Alternately exotic and sweltering, the score is unlike anything else, and is bolstered by some great early synthesizer work. At present, it is one of the most demanded releases from Warner Archive (Warner holds distribution rights to this and a number of other Tarzan adaptations), and I’m inclined to agree: it’s a beautiful, enthralling program with a superb cast (it’s one of the precious few Filmation productions that the great Ted Cassidy worked on, it addition to Filmation regulars Robert Ridgely, Jane Webb, and Alan Oppenheimer).

On the other side of the spectrum, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids was based on the stand-up comedy of Bill Cosby (specifically, the stories of his childhood in North Philadelphia), which had first been adapted into a rarely-seen special, Hey, Hey, Hey, It’s Fat Albert, animated by Ken Mundie with music by Herbie Hancock. The special was far from a smashing success, and worse, it had cost $400,000 (just shy of $2.6 million today), which was also supposed to cover a second special, which Filmation ended up producing (the equally rarely-seen Weird Harold Special, which has never seen a home video release, nor was it ever shown a second time). Lou Scheimer had been eager to produce Fat Albert as early as 1969 (he had been in talks with Cosby before the comedian had went with Mundie), and the hard work paid off: not only was Fat Albert Filmation’s most successful cartoon (it aired on CBS from 1972-1984, an eternity for Saturday mornings), it was the studio’s most acclaimed production, as the educational bent made it a critical darling while the music and fun resonated with kids.

While I Spy losing exposure in the wake of Bill Cosby’s rape scandal is harsh, Fat Albert losing exposure represents a huge loss, not only because of its continued popularity, but because it is still the gold standard of educational cartoons 40+ years later. Most of the shows that carry the “E/I” designation are quite frankly boring as Hell, and pretty much none of them tackle the serious subjects that Fat Albert did regularly. Besides the landmark episode “Busted” from the syndicated run (which replicated the now-debunked Scared Straight!, including the profanity), episodes tackled drugs, gang violence, STDs, racism, and other similar fare at a time when cartoons were at their blandest and most inoffensive. Even now, there is still a lot of value in the series, dated as it may seem.

Both of these shows aired on CBS during the 1983-84 season, which is the first year of Saturday morning cartoons I can recall with any sort of memory. Tarzan aired right after Dungeons & Dragons for most of the season, sandwiched between Saturday Supercade and The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show, while Fat Albert aired in an early afternoon time slot, which while successful in the ’70s, was a death slot in the ’80s (and would be taken over by college football after NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma broke up the NCAA’s tight control on how many games were aired each week). As little as I remember that run (and the syndicated series was one of many to never come to Vermont), I distinctly recall the 1989 run on NBC (mentioned in the Dungeons & Dragons post), and it was an old favorite to my 10 year-old self. But most importantly, these were the two shows that formally began my admiration for the work of Filmation.

Next week, it’s time for more ’80s TV, but this time from 1984.

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: WETK Vermont ETV, CBMT CBC 6, and Cable TV

So, I’ve spent three weeks of a Star Trek blogging project talking about TV stations in the ’80s, one being the weird UHF station that did whatever it wanted at times, another being the respectable rural station that did loopy things in spite of themselves, and the third being the good child that makes all the right choices and succeeds in ways that no small-market station ever should (Channel 3 is far better run than the stations here in Vegas have ever been, despite being in a larger market). And I also discussed the two outlier stations that I barely watched (Channels 8 and 31). However, there’s still the matter of two stations that I watched less, but that still made an impression.

First is WETK, Channel 33, the PBS station serving Vermont. Channel 33 predates PBS, which is why it was referred alternatively as Vermont Educational Television or Vermont ETV until well after I had moved away-those names refer to the PBS predecessor, NET (National Educational Television). One point of order is the channel number for WETK. While I certainly watched it plenty enough on Channel 33, the weather and over-the-air TV being what it was, this wasn’t always the case, and station management certainly understood this, because the station had tons of repeaters (the ’80s-era station ID screen, which I can’t find, because Vermont, was one-thirds a list of the IDs of repeaters). So, more often than not, we’d get the station on Channels 20 or 44 (the latter is now Vermont’s Fox affiliate, which is a story for another time). Besides that, the teachers at East Montpelier Elementary would happily appropriate PBS programs that fit into their lesson plans on occasion.

Generally speaking, it was your standard PBS affiliate. Sesame StreetMister Rogers’ NeighborhoodNovaMasterpiece Theatre…..you get the idea. That is, until the summer, for ten days. Since PBS is the gimpy, pathetic state-backed TV network, the affiliates have to have pledge drives and generally beg for donations. WETK’s solution was not only good, but it made for ten days of awesome TV: they held an auction of donated items. Furniture, art prints, nice dinners, services….just tons of stuff were donated by viewers and strewn across a fairly spacious studio at the station (which was and still is in Colchester, a suburb of Burlington), hosted by Jack Barry (a legendary broadcaster in the state), with appearances by all sorts of well-known Vermonters getting roped in as volunteers. The entire affair (lasting ten hours each of those ten days) was set up like a telethon (the obvious model being the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s telethons hosted by Jerry Lewis, which were a mainstay on Channel 22), with bidding done by phone. The entire thing was a genius idea (and obviously completely undoable in the age of eBay), and I’ve never heard of such a thing being repeated. (The model is actually rather close to Patreon, come to think of it.)

Perhaps most marginal of the stations I could watch in the ’80s was CBMT, Montreal’s CBC station. Marginal, primarily because it was Canadian, and very infrequently viewable. And a lot of those times it could be seen, it was in French (and therefore either bad memories on my part or the result of some strangeness with CBMT’s French sister station, CBFT, coming through over Channel 6 via a repeater). There’s really not much to tell beyond that-the only shows I can recall watching on the station(s) were some Disney shorts in French (including, quite fittingly, the Goofy short “Hockey Homicide”), a few snippets of some random shows, and a decent amount of the CBC’s iconic Hockey Night in Canada. And, later in the ’80s on Saturday afternoons, Star Trek. And always on cable.

As stated in earlier weeks, I did not have cable in the ’80s. This is because competing cable companies in Barre and Montpelier (one being Adelphia) decided to spend the decade in a pissing contest over East Montpelier, which is even more hilarious if you’ve actually lived in Vermont enough to know that it’s a very small town. So, until the fall of 1990, cable was something I experienced during visits to certain relatives’ houses, and almost exclusively on weekends (which means that seeing syndicated cartoons of the era otherwise unavailable to me like She-Ra and Filmation’s Ghostbusters wasn’t happening. As a result, other than stumbling across the rare item of interest like the aforementioned CBC reruns of Star Trek (which were edited entirely differently from the reruns on Channel 22-most acts ended with a freeze frame on CBC 6) and watching horrible movies (Howard the Duck being the obvious poster child), it was down to two channels: USA and Nickelodeon.

Many cable networks have completely warped since the ’80s (MTV, A&E, The Learning Channel, AMC….), but none quite as subtly as USA. While USA is now known for original dramatic shows and WWE Raw, USA was home to music video programs, sports (the network was originally called the Madison Square Garden Network, in fact), various off-network dramas, WWF wrestling (now known as the aforementioned WWE), cult/B movies (the most colorful package being Kung Fu Theatre, which showed the type of badly-dubbed Asian martial arts films that inspired Quentin Tarantino), game show reruns, and a ton of cartoons.

Most of the cartoons were a part of the USA Cartoon Express. The cartoons were almost entirely from Hanna-Barbera until the end of the ’80s, when the block was massively reformatted (with all-new bumpers featuring a dopey cartoon polar bear serving as the conductor) and started featuring reruns from ’80s syndicated cartoons (and heavily edited for time in the sloppiest fashion possible). This was kind of OK, but really…..it was Hanna-Barbera. And for every good show (the majority from the earliest years of the studio, or on TV elsewhere), there was a ton of really bad ones. Thankfully, USA picked up He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Channel 22, for whatever reason, dumped the show promptly after the 1985-86 season (which was also when the series went into reruns). So, for an hour at least, He-Man was back, and that was good. History shows that She-Ra aired on USA, as well (and, as with He-Man, outside of the Cartoon Express), but I never saw it. Part of it is probably timing, but there’s likely a more obvious reason: I was watching Nickelodeon.

Nickelodeon, while officially the same network, was completely different in the ’80s. The main reason: they produced practically nothing themselves. And with USA grabbing rights to everything Hanna-Barbera had to offer, this meant that Nickelodeon had to look far and wide, including internationally, for shows. LassieMister Ed, and Dennis the Menace were black-and-white reruns that, if not for their kid-friendly content, would have aired on Nick at Nite (then, as now, a retirement home for sitcoms that had fallen out of syndication, though the shows were almost entirely bland-and-white in the ’80s). DangermouseCount Duckula, and The Tomorrow People were imported from the UK. Mysterious Cities of Gold was a French-Japanese co-production, and Spartakus and the Sun Beneath the Sea dropped the Japanese participation, but gained an even more unique art style and a theme song from the Puerto Rican boy band Menudo. Filmation’s animated version of Star Trek was of course from America, and both wonderfully different and astonishingly the same as its live action predecessor. Pinwheel, Nickelodeon’s lynchpin morning program, was mostly a Sesame Street-styled show, but featured shorts acquired from all over Europe (many of which had been dubbed into English by the BBC for The Magic Roundabout). However, the most popular show was from Canada, and, as the title made instantly clear, You Can’t Do That on Television.

Without giving much away immediately, You Can’t Do That on Television, was an open statement of rebellion against normal kids’ shows. And children of my generation ate it up. Amazingly, even the starkly traditional and retro Mr. Wizard’s World (a Canadian-produced revival of Watch Mr. Wizard, which aired from 1951-1965 on NBC) fit in with the atmosphere of rebellion against Saturday morning TV. With the introduction of Double Dare in 1986, the network ended the ’80s ready to conquer the (TV) world, and I would be there to see it.

Next week, we’ll still be in the ’80s, but this time we’ll be looking at a specific night of the week on CBS, and some shows that were both iconic, and in one case, incredibly problematic when compared to Star Trek.