What Have We Learned, Tara?: The Ongoing Problem Of LGBT Representation In Media

Yesterday, March 10th, was the 19th anniversary of the premiere of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was noted in fan circles and by Sarah Michelle Gellar herself in an appreciative message across her social media accounts (alongside an image of her from the Season 1 promo photo shoot in that truly hideous beige dress). I’ll admit that the 19th anniversary isn’t that big of an issue for me: besides the 20th being a nice, round number, next year is also the 15th Anniversary of me first watching the show. But, later that evening, I stumbled upon a trending topic on Twitter that dovetailed with my previous blog post on Willow’s sexuality: LGBT Fans Deserve Better. And after clicking on the link, my heart quickly sank:

It happened again.

“It” being the death of a popular gay character on a show (this time it was The 100, which I don’t watch) in tragic fashion. And worse, fans were so distraught that a fundraiser for The Trevor Project (an absolutely wonderful charity that I wish that we didn’t need) in the name of helping people who might be feeling suicidal.

It hurt to read that, and it hurts even worse to write it.

And then I see that The 100‘s showrunner has been less than responsive to the death of this character, Lexa.

My heart sank again.

Haven’t we as a culture learned anything? Representation on television matters. Heroes matter. If there’s anything-and I mean ANYTHING-we should have learned from Tara’s death all those years ago is that no matter how well plotted or conceived a character death is, there are repercussions, and they are ugly, and they are horrible, and they hurt. One of my favorite quotes from G.I. Joe‘s biting satire of ’80s TV, “The Wrong Stuff”, is when Cobra Commander says, “You lack imagination, Destro. We possess the ultimate weapon of control! People trust television; it’s their friend. They believe what television tells them about the news, the weather, or G.I. Joe! Don’t you see? We control the creation of truth!” It is of course one of the many chillingly accurate points in an episode of television that skewers its own medium with some brilliant black comedy, but there is an incredible positive side to this point: people who are not a part of the cultural majority have long been humanized by television, and Ellen DeGeneres coming out of the closet in such an open and honest way paved the way for the incredible strides that LGBT people have made since 1997. The year before, Congress passed DOMA, The Defense of Marriage Act, one of the most vile pieces of legislation of my lifetime. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was still a relatively new policy for our nation’s military, which forced gays and lesbians serving our country into the closet. Now, DOMA has been ruled Unconstitutional, and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is deader than disco, and we have Ellen DeGeneres and the ensuing flood of fictional LGBT characters to thank for this. But even then, we’re still making the same mistakes and giving voice to the same damaging stereotypes like the Dead Lesbian and the Evil Lesbian.

Worse, the character of Lexa was killed off because her actress, Alycia Debnam-Carey, is fully committed to Fear the Walking Dead, which is expanding past its initial six-episode season (Season 2 will be 15 episodes). The thing is, on Fear the Walking Dead, like its parent show, characters are never safe. It’s highly conceivable that Debnam-Carey’s character dies within a year or so, freeing her up to return on The 100. (this naturally ignores the reality that it’s possible to write off a character without killing them off.) This is just painfully sloppy, especially in comparison to Tara’s death, which was the culmination of a storyline that pre-dated Amber Benson’s incredibly fortuitous casting in the wake of Seth Green’s abrupt departure in Season 4.

In this way, I fear we may have regressed in how LGBT characters are represented.

I had made my comment on Twitter, and was beginning to move on with a heavy heart until Emma Caulfield (who played Anya on Buffy and is all kinds of awesome besides) posted a link to a post on The Mary Sue about the entire situation (it’s here, and the writer, Teresa Jusino, did a far better job breaking down the issue than I’m doing), which did nothing to make me feel better. In fact, with one paragraph, she made me feel literally sick to my stomach:

“Fans often cited a similarity between Lexa’s death and Tara’s death on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In that case, too, the ‘real’ lesbian was mourned while the queer girl who’d previously had a long-term relationship with a guy didn’t get as much attention – that is, until she kept asserting on the show over and over that she was indeed a lesbian, and that her relationship with Oz was a fluke.”



It sounded like something from my rant on Willow’s sexuality, and it made me realize that no one is right here. It’s all just a giant disaster, and it breaks my heart for everyone making The 100, for the fans distraught over the death of their favorite character, for the bi fans who are being subtly thrown under the bus again, and for everyone else, because this makes us all smaller and pushes us further apart. The worst part is knowing that I don’t know how to help at all, and I desperately want to be able to wave a wand and make it so that everything and everyone understands that love is love is love, and that things like the death of Tara, or Lexa, or whoever on a show doesn’t leave viewers feeling like they don’t matter.

I wish it was that easy.

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: The Transformers

In the ’80s, children in America fell in love with giant robots for the first time. Sure, Gigantor, one of the first Japanese cartoons imported to America in the ’60s, was about a giant robot, and the Godzilla movies and the various Ultraman TV shows had giant robots in them, as well, but these guys never captured the public imagination like the robots in VoltronRobotech, and most importantly, The Transformers.

Like so many cartoons of the ’80s, The Transformers was based on a toyline, and as the name suggests, the gimmick of the toys is that they transform, usually from cars and planes and other vehicles into giant robots. However, the Transformer toys have a more complicated history than that. Toymaker Hasbro, partly in response to Tonka licensing a Japanese toyline named Machine Robo to be marketed in the US as GoBots, licensed transforming toys from Japanese toy company Takara, from the Diaclone and Micro Change toylines. (Additional toys were licensed from Takatoku Toys, ToyCo, and ToyBox.) Despite being wildly incompatible in terms of scale, the toys were well-constructed, and with a few notable examples, had human proportions in their robot modes. The gimmick was enough to make the toys a success, but Hasbro didn’t stay pat.

As with G.I. Joe, Hasbro skirted network rules by propping up a terribly-written Transformers comic book (seriously-Transformers comic books make the G.I. Joe ones look almost good) with an animated TV ad, which was incorporated into the inevitable toy commercials and primed the pump for the cartoon. That cartoon was an instant success, despite an insanely short production schedule that resulted in an astonishing number of animation errors and re-takes (the fourth regular episode of the series, “Fire in the Sky”, was delayed until December from an intended October airing because literally half the episode needed to be re-shot) and an extremely limited cast (there were far more of the heroic Autobots than evil Decepticons, resulting in tons of generic place-filler characters to even the odds).

The main reason for this is that The Transformers‘ cast (both the characters and the actors themselves) was nothing short of superb. Of particular note were lead hero Optimus Prime, lead villain Megatron, treacherous second-in-command Starscream, super-sized space ship Skyfire, and the original three special teams: the Dinobots, the Insecticons, and the Constructicons. While it’s essentially a guarantee that the main hero and villain will receive a particular focus on shows like this, the writers of The Transformers almost reveled in not only having the two characters face off, but in making it personal. Prime in particular became a father figure to a lot of kids, in no small part because the Autobots introduced in the second season were a bit more childish than the more mature, jaded characters introduced in the other seasons. Starscream, besides codifying a popular trope in television (link not provided on account of me not being evil), was one of the more prominent examples of, “Hey! It’s….” since Chris Latta’s performance as Starscream was largely the same as his performance as Cobra Commander on G.I. Joe (minus the occasional hissing). Skyfire, while a personal favorite character, is more remembered due to the legal issues surrounding his use. The toy, named Jetfire, was one of the ones licensed from Takatoku Toys, which was acquired by Bandai, making a Japanese release impossible. However, the Jetfire toy was, in Japan, a recreation of the VF-1S Super Valkyrie from iconic Japanese cartoon The Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, and pioneering American dubbing studio Harmony Gold held the international license to the series, and was in the process of localizing it as part of Robotech. So, the character was renamed and redesigned, and writers were ultimately discouraged from using the character.

As for the special teams, the Dinobots, besides having a fruitful career as comedy mules, were robot dinosaurs, which is as awesome as it sounds. The Insecticons were robot bugs, and it was established from the start that they could create a horde of clones (which invited kids to ask for multiples of the three toys). However awesome these groups sound, the Constructicons, besides transforming from green and purple construction vehicles into robots, were able to merge into a much bigger robot, Devastator. While this was, to an extent, the main conceit behind Voltron (the five lions did not transform into robots in addition to combining to form the title character), it was explosively popular in The Transformers, and soon the toyline and series was filled with these gestalts….but none were quite as impressive as Devastator.

However, nothing lasts forever, and The Transformers saw a nastier fall than most. Hasbro, seeing the huge successes of The Transformers and G.I. Joe (and hoping to make one out of their My Little Pony toys for girls), started commissioning Marvel and Sunbow to make movies based on their properties. G.I. Joe: The Movie was planned to be released first, but production issues (namely, the issues surrounding Serpentor’s origin) pushed it to the third release slot. This meant that Transformers: The Movie was released first and, taking inspiration from G.I. Joe: The Movie‘s plot (which was planned to feature the death of lead character Duke as a major plot point), pretty much the entire first season cast was killed off in the first half hour. Not shockingly, children were traumatized (as the audience for The Transformers was younger than G.I. Joe’s), especially since one of the dead was Optimus Prime himself. At the end of the film, the only confirmed first-season Autobots were Bumblebee, Cliffjumper, Jazz, and the Dinobots…..which immediately backfired on Sunbow. Jazz, a popular and regularly appearing character, was essentially retired when his voice actor, Scatman Crothers, was forced into retirement as production of the second season wrapped up when his lung cancer (which he had been hiding) spread to his esophagus. He died in November of 1986. Cliffjumper’s voice actor, Casey Kasem, walked out on the series over a character he considered to be offensive, and he took his friend (and Scooby-Doo co-star) Don Messick with him. And for reasons unknown, most of the second season cast was sidelined, which meant that the cast was almost entirely new, and with the failure of the movie, most kids were out of the loop on all but Prime’s death and Megatron’s reformation into the batshit insane Galvatron. A hastily-produced two-part episode, “The Return of Optimus Prime”, sought to rectify the most notorious character death, but the damage was done, and only three more episodes were produced (and these episodes were extremely poorly distributed and rarely seen until the revival of the show’s popularity in the late ’90s).

However, despite the cancellation of the series and the downturn of popularity of the toys, Transformers never really disappeared. A weak sequel effort (which utilized a re-edited version of the original cartoon) called Transformers: Generation 2 floundered about for a couple of year before Beast Wars revived interest in the brand. And while Beast Wars saw the beginning of Hasbro (and their various media partners) engaging the internet fanbase with half-baked continuity nods to the original cartoon (or, more frequently, the poorly written comics that online fans preferred for reasons that escape logical explanation), love of the original series and the transforming gimmick (which is still insanely awesome, after all) has remained constant (as seen by the constant flow of toy reissues and new toys designed to better mimic the original cartoon).

Next week (and maybe on Thursday this time), it’s time to discuss another animated trend-starter…..whose trend had results as awful as the show was good.

Mirror, Mirror: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero

If you came to the Star Trek Debriefed project here from the main site, you knew this one was coming. There are few shows that have stuck with me as long as Star Trek, and G.I. Joe is right at the top of the list. As with Star Trek, its fast action, engaging characters, and wonderful humor drew me in. (That it was the only other show on the air for the bulk of the decade was another huge factor, as familiarity breeds not only contempt, but great devotion.)

G.I. Joe was the first of the wave of syndicated ’80s cartoon shows (a great majority of which were based on toys, or imported from Japan, or both) to air, though not the first to be developed. However, there was only a five-episode miniseries in 1983 and another the following year before going to a full series in 1985, so it avoided most the initial controversy over the syndicated cartoons.

Part of the reason for this is because Hasbro never had the faith in the series at the start that they did with later series, or that Mattel had with He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Hasbro’s initial ambitions were only to skirt network rules by having their ad agency, Griffin-Bacal, produce animated ads for the G.I. Joe comic book, and then to use that footage to spice up the toy ads (which could only have a few seconds of animation to be accepted for air on Saturday mornings). However, with the response being enormous (the comic became an instant best-seller for Marvel Comics), Joe Bacal and Tom Griffin saw an opportunity for a hit TV series-to be coincidentally produced by their fledgling studio, Sunbow Productions, which was responsible for the Sesame Street-like syndicated show The Great Space Coaster and, under the previous identity of Sunwagon, had backed and produced the US dub for the first two years of Star Blazers.

The resulting miniseries, titled G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (but popularly known as The MASS Device to avoid confusion with the series as a whole), was a success because of some extremely wise decisions. The actual animation production was handled by Marvel Productions, which until 1981 was DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, the studio most known for the theatrical Pink Panther shorts of the ’60s and ’70s. The decision was made to have the actual animation done in Japan, by Toei Animation Co., Ltd. (the largest and oldest animation studio in Japan), and to eschew most of the limited animation techniques that studios on both sides of the Pacific were using to keep costs low. The end result is a miniseries that looks surprisingly close to theatrical quality.

The best decision of all, though, was in regards to the writing. Correctly sensing that the majority of writing for Saturday mornings was subpar, Griffin and Bacal went looking for someone who had written for prime time television. They settled on Ron Friedman, who had been writing for TV in 1965, primarily for sitcoms like Gilligan’s IslandAll in the Family, and The Odd Couple before transitioning to hour-long dramas and action adventure shows (most prolifically for Fantasy Island). While Friedman was given some material from the toys and comic books to work with, he threw almost all of it out and started from scratch. (Friedman has repeatedly mentioned that he was given information about what guns the characters used, so it seems likely that he was merely given the filecards from the toy packages, which in 1982 had minimal biographical information.)

The MASS Device, while a bit lacking in terms of accurate military protocols and tactics and featuring some rather dodgy science in places, was a sprawling action/adventure tale with liberal doses of science fiction and a large cast of well-developed, believable characters. Between weekly presentations on the weeks of September and December 12th and a condensed, time-compressed “movie” presentation on Thanksgiving Day, the series was a big enough hit to persuade Hasbro to produce a sequel miniseries, titled The Revenge of Cobra, and begin plans for a full season of episodes.

Revenge, while tasked with introducing even more characters (the villainous forces of Cobra in particular swelled enough that the line “It’s G.I. Joe against Cobra and Destro” in the original theme song was revised to mention “Cobra the Enemy” instead) and faced with a noticeably smaller budget, was an even bigger success, in no small part because the miniseries had more pronounced comedic beats and a lighter tone (Cobra Commander in particular is softened considerably, as voice actor Chris Latta’s performance was completely reworked to present a broader, slightly more inept, lead villain). Also, the new additions to the cast (with wisecracking sailor Shipwreck, jive-talking machine gunner Roadblock, and master of disguise/mercenary Zartan making the greatest impact) greatly enriched the series and were in many cases even more popular than the existing characters.

However, Friedman, now finding himself busy with a variety of tasks for Sunbow (he was tasked with revising scripts for sister series The Transformers, as well as writing a third G.I. Joe miniseries for the fall of 1985 and developing ideas for a feature film version of the two cartoons), was not retained to assemble a writing staff for the 50 episodes that would be needed to air G.I. Joe in weekday syndication. Instead, veteran comic book writer Steve Gerber was hired.

Gerber, most famous for creating Howard the Duck (and for suing publisher Marvel Comics in a creator’s right dispute that was still on going in 1984), was a respected and popular writer. More importantly, he had moved into animation once his lawsuit with Marvel was initiated, and had created Thundarr the Barbarian at Ruby-Spears (in addition to working on a number of lesser series) before story editing the first season of Dungeons & Dragons for Marvel. Gerber’s experience on Dungeons & Dragons was so awful that he had personally decided to swear off animation…..until Sunbow called, and said the magic word: “syndication”. Gerber jumped at the chance to write without the interference of network Broadcasting Standards & Practices departments (who were guilty of, in Gerber’s mind of “protecting children…..with lies”). To help him edit 55 scripts (and get the 50 episodes not assigned to Friedman written), Gerber looked to two of his closest friends: Buzz Dixon and Flint Dille.

Buzz Dixon was a military veteran who had broken into writing for TV cartoons at Filmation before meeting Steve Gerber at Ruby-Spears. The military experience was why Dixon was hired to edit; his first draft script for Thundarr‘s second season opener (which was so objectionable to ABC that they used it to test candidates for BS&P positions well into the ’90s) was why he was chosen to write for the show (and eventually to succeed Gerber as Supervising Story Editor). Flint Dille, the grandson of Buck Rogers publisher John F. Dille, had worked at Ruby-Spears under a variety of jobs, and was gifted with a great sense of humor. The other writers read like a who’s who of the ’70s comic book industry: Mary Skrenes (co-creator with Gerber of Omega the Unknown and the inspiration for Beverly Switzler, Howard the Duck’s best friend), Roy Thomas (who wrote the famed Kree-Skrull War storyline in The Avengers and adapted Conan the Barbarian for comics), Gerry Conway (infamous for having ended the Silver Age of comics by killing Gwen Stacy), Marv Wolfman (responsible for The Tomb of Dracula), Roger Slifer (who created Lobo for DC around the time he started working for Sunbow), and Denny O’Neil (who, with Neal Adams, revitalized Batman in the ’70s). Also contributing scripts were a then unknown Paul Dini, Stanley Ralph Ross (best known for his work on the Adam West Batman and Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman), Christy Marx, Martin Pasko (who was responsible for the name of Thundarr‘s Wookiee-like character, Ookla the Mok), and Donald F. Glut (most known for the novelization of The Empire Strikes Back).

G.I. Joe comic writer Larry Hama, already smarting that he had been passed up for writing the cartoon by Sunbow, was even less thrilled by the writing staff of comic book veterans, all of whom (save for O’Neil) having had bitter feuds with Marvel Editor-in-chief Jim Shooter at the time. Also, certain characters being developed by Sunbow writers (and all issues supported by TV ads were essentially driven by the animated segments), and the end result was a rather nasty relationship between the two camps (whom Hasbro intentionally kept from working together)-especially by Hama, who by all accounts still holds a grudge.

The Sunbow series, however, was an even bigger hit than the toys: it was the top-rated syndicated cartoon for the 1985-1986 season even though the toys were the third best seller (behind The Transformers and Thundercats). This, of course, led to a second, 30-episode season and what was intended to be a theatrical movie. G.I. Joe: The Movie was sunk as a theatrical feature (to this day, it has been screened theatrically only twice) because Hasbro’s 1986 line included a character dubbed the “Cobra Emperor”. While this might have worked in the comics, in the cartoon, Cobra Commander’s place as the undisputed leader of Cobra had been confirmed multiple times. Buzz Dixon was therefore forced to lobby for an origin story for the character, who was ultimately named Serpentor (after lawyers noted that the original choice, King Cobra, was a brand of malt liquor).

That origin story, the five-part “Arise, Serpentor, Arise!”, written by Dixon (though credited to Ron Friedman for contractual reasons), is typically science fiction-oriented: Cobra’s name personnel get completely fed up with Cobra Commander and (at the prodding of new character Dr. Mindbender) decide to literally build one from the DNA of various world leaders (focusing on notorious despots and conquerors). However, it was far from the story Dixon had wanted to tell: he had wanted to tell “The Most Dangerous Man in the World”, which involved Cobra dropping everything to recapture the “Karl Marx of Cobra” (whose philosophies were co-opted and warped by Cobra Commander) when he is suddenly freed. While Serpentor did not scuttle those plans entirely, Hasbro also approved approved Buzz Dixon’s “alternate” story approach: that Cobra Commander really did have someone pulling his strings, a Lost Horizon-esque community of snake people (which, in a further nod to the novel and film, was given the temporary name Cobra-La, but Hasbro loved that too, to Dixon’s eternal consternation). So, “The Most Dangerous Man in the World” was jettisoned (though Dixon reused the title for an episode where existing comedic character Shipwreck and two newer ones, pacifist medic Lifeline and mishap-prone communications specialist Dial-Tone, are “promoted” to Colonel via Cobra interference and proceed to run the team into the ground until General Hawk returns).

In the meantime, Transformers: The Movie and My Little Pony: The Movie died at the box office, and the former caused a massive backlash over the death of lead character Optimus Prime. As a result, the planned theatrical release of G.I. Joe: The Movie was scrapped, the death of Duke (which had inspired the robotic bloodbath in Transformers: The Movie) reversed, and the film released directly to video after a TV premiere in April of 1987 (in Vermont, it was on a dreary Sunday afternoon). The following fall, the movie was split into five parts and served as the anchor for a heavily reduced rotation of G.I. Joe rerun episodes hosted by wrestler Sgt. Slaughter (who had been written into the series at the start of the second season). In Vermont at least, this was the status quo for G.I. Joe for the 1987-88 and 1988-89 TV seasons…..and then it was gone.

I did not know (and would not know until discovering USA’s reruns of the series a few years later), but the reason why new episodes never came was that DiC, a competing studio founded in France by Jean Chalopin and by then owned by Andy Heyward in America, had convinced Hasbro that Sunbow didn’t know what they were doing (in part by capitalizing on the health of CEO Stephen Hassenfeld, who was secretly dying of AIDS and trying to wrap up his affairs). This generally meant that DiC (who was in the process of poisoning the syndicated cartoon market by flooding it with poorly, written and animated series) created new shows for Hasbro, but G.I. Joe, the one Sunbow series that had ended on an inconclusive note (and was still on toy aisles), was revived.

This deal had a lot of problems. The big one being that the Sunbow series had been heavily backed by Hasbro themselves, and had a pretty lavish budget with a huge voice cast and generally high quality animation (all of which was done by Toei in Japan), whereas the DiC G.I. Joe was funded entirely by DiC (which, with 161 half hours of animation in production to air in 1989-5 of which were G.I. Joe-was spread desperately thin). The result? Most of the voice cast was jettisoned, mostly for then-unknown (and mostly Canadian) talent. (The only holdovers were Chris Latta, Morgan Lofting, Ed Gilbert, Jerry Houser, and Sgt. Slaughter-and all except for Latta, who was reduced to voicing only Cobra Commander, were gone after the first season of episodes in 1990-91.)

The new head writer, instead of Michael Charles Hill (writer of fan-favorite episode “Cold Slither”), as had been planned at Sunbow, was Doug Booth, a producer (and writer of “My Favorite Things” from the second season). Booth, for whatever reason, jettisoned a lot of existing characters and relationships (including having Destro dump the Baroness for Zartan’s sister, Zarana, who herself had previously had feelings for G.I. Joe computer expert Mainframe, who never appears in the DiC series), and generally “dumbed down” the writing to appeal to a younger audience. A number of Sunbow veterans (including Christy Marx) were roped into writing for this show, but there is some evidence that scripts were adapted or re-written from discarded Sunbow ideas: Flint Dille is co-credited as writer of a DiC episode, and denies having anything to do with the show (and holds Booth in contempt whenever the DiC series is mentioned in his presence). Additionally, a stand-in for sleazy reporter Hector Ramirez appears in an episode, further belying Sunbow roots. And, perhaps most shamefully of all, Sunbow-era G.I. Joe episodes (with DiC’s opening and the new show’s theme song playing over the existing Sunbow end credits) reran alongside their DiC cousins in order to fully pad out the rotation for syndication.

It was when I saw the DiC G.I. Joe package on USA in the ’90s (which oddly lacked any of the five-part miniseries, even DiC’s “Operation Dragonfire”) that I fully understood why the Sunbow show was such a favorite, and why of all of they toy collections I gave in and allowed to be sold before moving to Las Vegas (more on that story much later), seeing the G.I. Joes go was the hardest. This show was good. No, this show was excellent. It was very well animated for its era (well, mostly), and the writing and acting were sublime. The characters (of which there were many) were incredibly nuanced and well-developed. You had ultimate boy-scout (and series star) Duke, sarcastic counterintelligence agent Scarlett (who doubled as Duke’s love interest, even if they almost never acted on that affection), straight-arrow (and slightly overprotective) stick-in-the-mud Flint, friendly girl-next-door (and Flint’s far more openly acknowledged girlfriend) Lady Jaye, dim but loyal Bazooka, movie-quoting ex-stunt man Quick Kick, wisecracking Alpine, card shark flyboy Ace, megalomaniacal tyrant Cobra Commander, rational tactician Destro, duplicitous mistress of disguise Baroness, and on and on and on.

However, besides Zartan (and his dumb but occasionally useful lackeys, the Dreadnoks), the consensus favorite amongst the staff (and many of the fans) was Shipwreck, the aforementioned wiseass sailor introduced in The Revenge of Cobra. With his parrot, Polly (who was introduced partway into the production of the first season), Shipwreck was an unending source of fun. He hit on all three female Joes (getting slapped by two of them), went to dive bars, ignored orders (and got away with it!), made Snake Eyes wear a dress (you’ll never see that in the comics!), shirked responsibility…..and was almost as great of a hero as Duke, Scarlett, Flint, Lady Jaye, and probably the stars of a few other shows, too. He was as close to an animated version of Howard the Duck as Steve Gerber ever got to make, and no more did it show than in three of the show’s best episodes: “Once Upon A Joe” and “There’s No Place Like Springfield” Parts 1 and 2.

“Once Upon A Joe” dealt with Cobra stealing the McGuffin Device, and G.I. Joe destroying an orphanage in the ensuing chase. While the rest of the Joes rebuild the orphanage, Shipwreck (whose marksmanship led to its destruction) manages to avoid working (through the strategic application of slapstick comedy) and ends up telling the orphans one of the most cracked fairy tales ever committed to film-with himself (as the even more Popeye-like “Shipshape”) as the hero and Wet-Suit and Leatherneck (who ripped Shipwreck, an orphan himself, for destroying the orphanage) as rock-stupid disappointments “Frog Face” and “Leatherhead”. And naturally, it is Shipwreck who finds the McGuffin Device (which projects the true nature of its user and can alter reality) and uses it to defeat Cobra and Zartan.

“There’s No Place Like Springfield”, written by Gerber himself, takes the opposite approach to Shipwreck, as it’s mostly serious with only brief bits of comedy. In it, Shipwreck and Lady Jaye are on a covert mission to rescue Dr. Mullaney, who is on the run from Cobra and is the only one who knows how to complete a formula that breaks the molecular bonds between hydrogen and oxygen, turning water into a deadly explosive. He also knows the location of Cobra Temple Alpha, the home base for all Cobra operations. That is, until he zaps the last ingredient into Shipwreck’s subconscious mind, to only be released by a specific code word. Cobra finds the three, and Mullaney disappears in the chaos, making it imperative that Shipwreck gets back to the U.S.S. Flagg. He almost does, but is trapped in the SHARC he and Lady Jaye were using, and it sinks to the bottom of the sea….only for Shipwreck to wake up five years in the future, after Cobra has been defeated. He is married with a child, as Doc managed to reverse Cobra’s genetic engineering to Mara (an ex-Cobra soldier whom Shipwreck fell for in a previous episode), and he, like most of the Joe team, lives in Springfield, which is just like any other town.

Shipwreck, who never imagined he was the “Daddy” type, is thrown for a loop. And then the dreams start. He’s harassed by visions of the Cobra brass, all demanding the ingredient which he does not know. And following an incident where he sees Roadblock melt after going through a car wash. Shipwreck ends up arrested, and then begs to be put back in the hospital….and then the bottom drops on the episode. The town is a fake front for Cobra Temple Alpha, and everyone (including Polly) is a Synthoid (Synthetic Humanoid, seen in yet another earlier episode). Shipwreck is submitted to a trippy interrogation session before he spills that he needs to hear the code word and is put under and as a voice runs through the dictionary. With the aid of the real Polly (who proves his standing as the genuine article by mentioning a night of apparent debauchery the two shared), Shipwreck escapes, completes the formula, and successfully goads the Dreadnoks into triggering an explosion that alerts the Joes on the Flagg (which Shipwreck had been told was destroyed, and Lady Jaye killed with it) to his location. The final twist of the knife, however, involves Shipwreck going to his “home” to save his “family”…who are of course Synthoids, too. Polly saves Shipwreck’s life, and devastated, he leaves with Flint and Lady Jaye.

In the Gerberian tradition, the episode draws from elements of Gerber’s life (Shipwreck’s “daughter” is based both on Gerber’s own daughter and the daughter of Cat Yronwode, an independent comics journalist and publisher), pop culture (the address to Shipwreck’s home is Number 6 Village Drive, a reference to The Prisoner; and the second part features an extensive recap largely because Steve Gerber was a huge Superman fan, and G.I. Joe‘s narrator, Jackson Beck, was also the announcer for the Superman radio show), and existing continuity. It’s every bit as tragic as “Once Upon A Joe” is funny, and stands up with the best TV has to offer, animated or otherwise.

On Thursday (hopefully!), we’ll finally return to 1965, and a fight that made the Pacquiao/Mayweather controversy look like amateur hour.

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.

Mirror, Mirror: WVNY TV22

(Representative sample of Channel 22 programming and reception, circa 1987.)

In today’s age of Netflix, cable, and iTunes, watching TV is extremely easy. But in the ’80s, it wasn’t so easy. Cable was in its infancy, to the point that some of the best things to watch on cable were TV stations from big cities, like TBS out of Atlanta, WOR and WPIX out of New York, WGN from Chicago, and Boston’s WSBK (all of which were not affiliated with one of the major networks, and relied on broadcasts of sporting events in addition to syndicated programs). However, if you lived in, say, East Montpelier, Vermont, cable wasn’t necessarily an option. And your choices for watching TV (because going outside isn’t exactly the greatest option for much of the year) are pretty dismal. And, if you’ve just gotten home from school and it’s any time prior to 1987, your options for watching cartoons absolutely suck (and they aren’t that hot after 1987, either).

Thankfully, that one option is both the best and the worst option. WVNY, ABC’s affiliate for Vermont and Plattsburgh, New York, had impeccable taste in cartoons. Besides Visionaries, Channel 22 aired The Bullwinkle ShowRobotechVoltron, The TransformersSuper Sunday, and The Inhumanoids-and those were just the weekend shows. Channel 22 was also one of the most dedicated G.I. Joe affiliates, airing the show from the first episode on September 12th, 1983 until the start of the 1989-1990 season-a full season after the series went into a condensed “best-of” run of about 20 episodes and the movie chopped up into five parts. However, for our purposes, Channel 22 had a more important role: they aired Star Trek.

On the one hand, Star Trek airing alongside cartoons like G.I. JoeThe Transformers, and The Real Ghostbusters seems like a bad idea, because you would think that low budget cartoon shows intended to sell toys would compare poorly to a budget-strapped ’60s show with pioneering special effects. However, in practice, these cartoons were completely compatible with Star TrekScooby-Doo, of course, being from the same era, goes without saying. But the other shows were incredibly fortunate in their compatibility with Star TrekHe-Man and the Masters of the Universe, besides using a lot of the sound effects from Star Trek (ironically, even more than the animated spin-off produced a decade earlier by the same studio, Filmation), shared the same moral conscience. The Real Ghostbusters shared the same sharp wit as many episodes of Star Trek, and even made fun of it on at least one occasion. G.I. JoeJem, and The Transformers were all varying degrees of science fiction in their premises and plots, and at their best had some decent helpings of action, humor, and tackling of weighty subjects, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles featured an even sharper wit an propensity for parody. As for the other shows (My Little Pony ‘n FriendsThe Super Mario Bros. Super Show, and Police Academy), the less said, the better.

Star Trek‘s effect on the Channel 22 schedule doesn’t end there, however: in order to air the show at 5PM and still show two hours of cartoons, General Hospital was pre-empted, and wouldn’t be seem again on the station until well after I moved to Las Vegas in 1990. (This was not the only time the station would ignore the desires of ABC: Red Sox games were a Friday night fixture in the late ’80s, and my research into air dates reveals that He-Man and the Masters of the Universe appeared on Saturday mornings, in the middle of ABC’s block, during the winter of 1984.) Sadly, Channel 22 would slavishly air the overly-preachy (and completely irrelevant to pre-teen audiences) ABC After School Special, which always led to an hour of abject boredom.

Of course, no situation is perfect, and that goes double for Channel 22. Without cable, transmission was seriously spotty, to the point where the idea of watching it without a snowy picture is practically impossible to conceive. To this end, Channel 22 couldn’t even be watched in a good deal of the state…..including the very part of the state where most of my relatives live. For these parts of Vermont, the de facto ABC station was WMTW Channel 8 out of Portland, Maine, which had a barn-burning transmitter on top of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire (the digital switchover, which proved unworkable with an automated, generator-powered transmitter inaccessible for much of the year, was the only thing that could stop the station’s signal), had neither cartoons nor a pre-emption of General Hospital to make afternoon TV viewing bearable. And even when you could watch Channel 22, the station had a habit of broadcasting dead space, having tape faults in the middle of an episode, and other technical foul-ups. (So, basically, they were your typical small-market UHF station.) However, when the alternatives were PBS, soap operas, Oprah, or Donahue, you learned to grin and bear it.

Next week, we continue our journey through 1980s TV and a station perhaps even loopier than Channel 22.

G.I. Joe’s Sunbow Curse, And The Delay of Retaliation

Since Wednesday, the internet (and G.I. Joe fandom in particular) has been abuzz over Paramount’s surprising decision to delay G.I. Joe: Retaliation until March 29th (or, for those keeping track, three months and one week after the world is supposed to end). Rumors state that it’s because Battleship was an instant bomb, or because it might get swallowed up by The Amazing Spider-Man (not likely, as the pre-release buzz has been quite mixed) or The Dark Knight Rises (actually quite likely), and of course the official word that it’s so that Paramount can convert the film to 3D (which is a bit stupid, given the backlash against 2D films converted into 3D, and 3D in general).

This is all fine and dandy, of course, but anyone familiar with how the film industry works can see what the issue is: Retaliation is a steaming turd, and Paramount has no intention of releasing two such failures in as many months. Furthermore, there’s simply no way at all that Hasbro was consulted, as this change could prove to be disastrous for the G.I. Joe toyline, as merchandise for the movie is either already in stores, or is on its way. Given that the line has been, at best, a niche line for collectors and an indifferent waste of shelf space at worst, I find it difficult to believe that retailers will be happy with Hasbro (Target, which has yet to revise their action figure aisles for the next wave of summer blockbusters, is likely to be particularly upset). And let’s not forget this year’s JoeCon, which was moved up to coincide withRetaliation‘s release. Fun Publications, which runs the convention and the official fan club, is already smarting from a security leak that resulted in member credit card info being stolen. They really don’t need any more bad news.I, being the snarky and borderline cruel person that I am, have considered everything, and can blame the repeated failure of G.I. Joe on one thing:

Yes, blaming the potential failure of a big budget Hollywood film on a low budget (and often very cheap looking) cartoon show from the ’80s is very silly on many levels, but let me explain. As many of you are aware, the Sunbow G.I. Joe series met a premature end when rival animation studio DiC gave Hasbro an offer they simply couldn’t refuse to assume production of the series (it is also assumed that DiC further convinced Hasbro that Sunbow was a substandard animation studio-an attitude that persists within the company to this day). The thing is, DiC’s G.I. Joe was hardly a creative success, and may very well have been a financial success mostly because it followed Sunbow’s continuity, and was distributed alongside the Sunbow series until USA dissolved the Cartoon Express in 1996.

Further attempts to adapt G.I. Joe to TV and film have been even less successful. G.I. Joe ExtremeSigma SixRenegades, the two CGI movies, and Sgt. Savage have all failed to catch on with pretty much anyone, even the mainstream G.I. Joe fandom. I’ve been calling this the Sunbow Curse, partly to be a jerk, but mostly because it’s true: by abandoning that which made the modern 3 3/4″ version of G.I. Joe popular, Hasbro has doomed a franchise that has no real gimmick to it (other than that of the characters and the storyline) to failure. Furthermore, in declaring the comic as the source of G.I. Joe’s popularity, a great truth has been lost: Sunbow’s animation was used to promote the comic, largely as a way to promote the toys in an exciting fashion that ABC, NBC, and CBS would not have otherwise allowed on their airwaves. In fact, the comic quickly became a pit of poor storytelling, as Larry Hama, who was at the time considered a very poor writer, was never able to effectively deal with the ever-expanding cast (see: Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow, and Scarlett devolving into Mary Sues), and it seems clear that he was likely getting burned out at around the time where the comic seemed to be actively repudiating popular (depending on your opinion of G.I. Joe: The Movie, mind you) elements of the cartoon (except the Flint and Lady Jaye relationship, which was forced upon Hama by Hasbro).

And really, at its best, the comic was a painful exercise, with its ninja porn, over-reliance on military jargon and acronyms, and navel-gazing over the Vietnam War (energies which were best suited to Hama’s period comic, The ‘Nam). Plus, I can’t emphasize just how much Hama’s hatred of the Sunbow series made getting into the comic difficult: the first issue I was exposed to was #61, which, ignoring the Billy/Cobra Commander/Fred VII B-plot for a moment, confused the hell out of me because not only did Hama refuse to have Hawk rendered as a brunette to match the toys and cartoon (an issue that was downright baffling when reading issue 3 of Marvel’s G.I. Joe/Transformers crossover miniseries at around the same time), but Hawk (or, not-Duke, if you will) actually refused to rescue captured Joes, something wildly antithetical to the ethics of the cartoon……but in tune with Hama’s beloved military protocol. (As an aside, Sunbow, despite the supposed prima facie evidence, did have a writer on staff with military experience: Buzz Dixon, who was responsible for codifying the “we all go home or nobody goes home” mantra, and whom was responsible for about as many “wild” episodes of the series as Supervising Story Editor as his predecessor, the late, great Steve Gerber. The thing is, Mr. Dixon has understood how to balance realism with a good story throughout his career.) So, not only was a comic book aimed directly at kids inaccessible, it contradicted the much more widely distributed (read: free) take on the franchise in ways that go deeper than the subject of just who Scarlett was sprung on.

So, it should come as no shocker to anyone that Retaliation was/is going to deviate from G.I. Joe as most of us experienced it: the people behind the film have explicitly stated that they were looking to emulate the comic, which of course means NINJAS! In fact, Roadblock (played by The Rock of all people) is himself a ninja, as well as a more obvious leader of the team (never mind that Flint and Lady Jaye, Power Couple 1A of the Sunbow series to Duke and Scarlett’s Power Couple 1, are in this film). Oh, and since Channing Tatum is too famous for this movie, Duke,THE HASBRO-ACKNOWLEDGED FACE OF THE FRANCHISE, is rumored to die in the first reel. So, despite all of these steps to appeal to the nostalgia crowd (note how Cobra Commander with have his face plate), it seems like story decisions are being dictated by the cast, and not the characters. This simply will not work for G.I. Joe. The characters (and maybe a few select vehicles) are all the line has going for it. And, truth be told, there are a ton of great characters, good and evil, to exploit. There can be a plethora of G.I. Joe movies without Duke and/or Scarlett, or any of a number of other characters, and still be tons of fun. The plot can be sci-fi, pure action-adventure, or even fantasy, and still succeed. Hell, one could blatantly follow the James Bond formula and it could very well work. But pandering to a very small audience with ninjas, and then dictating other plot and character decisions based on who you were able to cast will not work. In fact, it sounds suspiciously like the formula to the Doctor Who “classic”, “Attack of the Cybermen”, which is generally considered to be the very nadir of that long-running franchise.

What was intended to be a celebration for G.I. Joe in its 30th year of the A Real American Hero incarnation has instead turned into bad comedy. And given that Hasbro doesn’t seem interested in giving up on G.I. Joe, even when it desperately needs a break, and probably a good turnover in staff (or, at the very least, a good backing down from the “let’s make a movie out of every Hasbro boy’s toy” mentality), the line will likely continue to falter, and one of the greatest cartoons of the ’80s will still lack a worthy successor.