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Saturday Morning Cartoon Spotlight: Masters of the Universe.

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A while ago Chud ran a series of articles about the joys of Saturday morning cartoons. Well a few of us liked them so much we thought we would resurrect the column from the dead. So why not join Donnie, Ian and myself as we wax lyrical about all things cartoon. We are starting with a personal favorite of mine, Masters of the Universe. For those of you that don’t know what it was about I will let Prince Adam himself explain.....

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7yeA7a0uS3A

KEN:  Full disclosure ;  MOTU was my Rosetta stone in geekdom so I think it’s fair to say I may be a touch bias here. So before I run away with this I’m going to turn things over to the guys for their initial thoughts.

IAN: To be honest, I was really hoping you would just dive right into it, Ken. You’re synonymous with Masters of the Universe as far as I’m concerned and I expect more than a few people on the boards feel the same way. While I enjoyed the franchise a great deal very early on, it was never my #1. That honour went to Star Wars, but He-Man and chums weren’t far behind. They were in much the same bracket as Transformers (more on that later) and G.I. JOE - or Action Force as it was known here. Although, oddly enough, I think part of my fondness for all things Eternia had as much to do with the influence of other franchises as it did the show itself.

The live-action MOTU movie was my conduit into the series. It ticked a lot of boxes all at once. You had your Hero’s Journey template, the elemental Good Vs. Evil conflict of course (complete with poster boy hero and monstrous antagonist), but you also had a pretty distinctive meshing of styles. Usually a more swashbuckling knights and wizards style universe and Sci-Fi trappings are mutually exclusive; at least in terms of the two being set literally side-by-side. Star Wars might be fairytale, but it’s a space fairytale. There are lightsabers as opposed to actual swords. But MOTU blended these elements on a surface level. In doing so, it almost created a sort of kids’ neo-swords and sorcery hybrid. Laser pistols and “magic” coexisted in this strange and wondrous beast.

It might be easy for someone who didn’t grow up on the show to look back now and dismiss such a cynical and shrewd bit of design. And though the franchise, indeed, owes a great deal to others before it, there’s something to be said for such an unapologetic juxtaposition, even if it may not have the same niche appeal as steam-punk to a lot of people. I don’t really think there can ever be “too much of a good thing” when you’re at the right age for stuff like this so I suppose it’s fitting I loved the geek trope smorgasbord approach that went into the property. What might feel to an outsider looking back now as a box-ticking, throw everything into the mix kind of approach, felt more like a Best Of album. Pretty much everything your pre-teen heart could desire was there. Epic canvas? Check. Colourful array of characters, some with preposterously great names? Check. Skull-faced nemesis? You betcha! Whether or not these ingredients were the result of careful decisions taken by suits with dollar signs in their eyes matters as little to me now as it did back at primary school when I eschewed Power Rangers in favour of Man-At-Arms, Teela, Battle Cat, et al. With so much going on, I’d be surprised if even the most cold-hearted child couldn’t find something to enjoy here.

I should probably take a breath now, before this turns into a tangent on my love for Frank Langella’s performance in the film (which still works like crazy, incidentally) and how disappointed I am Skeletor never kept his promise to return to the big screen.

KEN:  I think you hit the nail on the head there in terms of the science/fantasy mix. That for me was what drew me to the series in the first place. For a young kid just getting his geek on that combination was a potent mix indeed. Another big thing for me was how surprisingly good the animation was. Castle Greyskull and Snake Mountain are iconic pieces of design and I still love them today. Hell even the character designs themselves are none to shabby, the animators did one heck of a job bringing Eternia to life.

This show was my life for a long time. I was a member of the Master of the Universe club (complete with secret hero name of Kelon Sauce) and I collected all the comics. Not to mention the toys, which (thanks to my wife) I have ended up collecting again recently.  But as much as I loved He-Man and friends for me even as a kid it was all about Skeletor. Hand on heart to this day he is one of my all time favorite villains.  Which brings me to my first question, personally I think he is one of the reasons the show was so great, what do you guys think?

IAN: I agree 100%, Ken. A hero is only as good as his villain as they say, so when you have a protagonist as powerful (and iconic) as He-Man, it takes something pretty special to deliver a fitting nemesis for him. But Skeletor more than fulfilled the criteria. Adam/He-Man is such a clean-cut good guy in many ways (as opposed to, say, Bruce Wayne/Batman, working on the fringes of acceptance) it only amps up Skeletor’s credentials when you factor in his Darth Vader/Starscream style relationship with Hordak. I like the fact that he wasn’t a rival royal figure. He wasn’t from the MOTU equivalent of House Harkonnen to Prince Adam’s House Atreides. He was more of a dastardly Iago figure, an opportunist always grasping for the upper hand. Not only does it make the character more interesting, especially among his peers, but it provides a much richer basis for driving conflict on a storytelling level as well.

That’s a bit of a roundabout way of saying it’s nice to have a cartoon villain who’s interested in more than just power for the sake of being powerful. The quasi-mystical aspect inherent in any sorcerer figure opens up much more interesting doors to me than those offered by generic despots backed up by a legion of faceless foot-soldiers (although they have their place, too.)

On a purely superficial level, Skeletor - to me - remains one of the more striking cartoon villains ever. His design, like so many of the best examples, is simple yet supremely effective. He doesn’t need to look like he was ripped from the cover of a Rob Liefeld comic to intimidate. Sure, he’s no twiglet. He clearly has a gym hidden in the back of Snake Mountain. But one look at that skull lets you know right away this guy is not to be trifled with, more than any impossible physique ever could. His non-face was as close as it got to horror movie territory for shows like this. It stood out like a cartoon version of Michael Myers’ crisp white mask, an image made more threatening because of how unexpectedly captivating and repulsive it is, especially in Langella’s portrayal. Just like the show in general, Skeletor is the result of lots of different influences and touches all being dropped into the same cauldron. The only thing missing from the character was a moustache which he most certainly would have twirled, if only he had the face-skin on which to grow one.**

DONNIE: Some incredible input so far from both of you on what I agree is an amazing series.  It’s going to be hard to step in this late into the game already, but I will certainly give it a shot.

For me He-Man and the MotU is important for one simple reason alone - they were my baby sitters from the moment the show first aired.  As a latch-key kid growing up in the eighties, television in general was there to keep me entertained and out of trouble.  With both my parents working and not having much money growing up, television was one of my few outlets.  And He-Man was one of the first shows I remember that wasn’t on PBS.  Every afternoon after school, I would come home, do my chores and get my homework done in time for Adam to greet me with his introductions every afternoon at 4:30.

And what wasn’t there to love?  The music was entrancing and mystical-sounding in and of itself, the characters were creative and stunningly-designed, and at the end of each episode they talked to you and taught you valuable lessons!  On top of the fantastical amalgam of science and sorcery that Ian mentioned, there was plenty to keep a wide-eyed six year old entertained for an afternoon.  Like Ian, my first childhood love has been and always will be Star Wars, but for my day-to-day life, He-Man and the MotU was like a best friend that I got to see after school every day.

As for the question you posed about Skeletor and his villainy, Ken, I couldn’t agree more.  There are three villains in my geek fandom that I hold in my top three faves: Doctor Doom, Darth Vader, and Skeletor.  Now, notice for a second what all three have in common visually - all of them have a very similar visage, one that immediately strikes terror the instant you catch sight of them.  I think that’s an important element in a good villain.  Before you are even introduced to a bad guy’s back story and motivation, you need to fear him just by looking at him.  And I think that’s one of the reasons my top three contains the baddies it does.  Like Ian mentioned, what’s more fear-inducing than a skull-like appearance?

Focusing back on Skeletor specifically, what elevates Skeletor beyond just an un-pretty face is his ruthlessness to acquire what he desires most, no matter what the cost.  He’ll let you fall to your death - even if you are one of his minions - if it means he’ll finally have the secrets of Castle Greyskull.  Now granted, the Powers The Be over at Filmation did balance that a bit with some camp and a little comedic slap-stick, but I think that was just so kids our age wouldn’t find ourselves so terrified by a blue-skinned body-builder with a bone-cranium for a face that we would completely shit our pants.

Ken: There is a tendency to think of Skeletor as pretty camp but if you revisit some of the early episodes of MOTU, he is, as you say Donnie, quite dark. Mind you this is also the same villain that disgused himself as a fat chef and hid Hordak in a cake to kidnap Princess Adora, so it’s swings and roundabouts really.

For me though he is what makes the program still worth my time, as a character he is far more iconic that your normal cartoon villain and i think deserves his place alongside Luthor and Vader.  I have written many a Chud Blog on Skeletor (cheap plug) and could easily write many more but I want to discuss He-Man himself for a while, if that is ok with you gents.

It has been said that He-Man represents the worst example of American jingoism from the 80’s, I can sort of understand what people are driving at here but what say you guys?

IAN: I have a feeling my take on this is going to be shaped a lot by my upbringing. He-Man might be an Adonis, Superman with a sword essentially, but I never had a problem with the dashing American poster-boy sweeps aside all opposition sub-text. Partly because it’s easy for people to read stuff like that into the show now, and also in large part because, as a child growing up in Northern Ireland, He-Man (and even Prince Adam) might as well have been aliens to me. Humans simply don’t look close to that in this part of the world so I think I automatically just filled in my own blanks and assumed Eternia was in some parallel/alternate universe where all the guys are ripped to the nth degree, all the girls are slinky size 8’s, and everybody has immaculate teeth.

Another reason I don’t really accept the whole “worst example of jingoism” complaint is because that would imply some sort of sinister agenda behind He-Man as a character. He wasn’t really a Sci-Fi/Fantasy Steve Rogers though, as the show’s moralizing epilogues Donnie already mentioned showed. Sure, they might be hilariously transparent now, but those cautionary tips on peer pressure and listening to your parents were too sweet to deserve any vitriol. Even Cringer, who was often depicted as a combined feline version of Shaggy and Scooby-Doo, the very opposite of someone hard-wired for heroism, couldn’t help but show the courageous potential he had by putting himself on the line for He-Man. Inviting the children watching to read between the lines in this way doesn’t seem like something a soulless propaganda machine would do. Surely then it would have just said “if you fall below the level of He-Man in any way, kids, you’re a failure!” ad nauseum.

Also, does anyone else find Orko hitting on Teela pretty funny? It really leaps out at me watching them back now and I had no recollection of that happening from when I first got into the show. I’m half-expecting Man-At-Arms to tell him to knock that on the head, when he floats a line like “only for you, Teela” out there.**

Ken : Well Orko was supposed to be the big man on Trolla (his home world) so it stands to reason he would be a Ladies man.

Donnie:  I agree completely with Ian.  Even now, I honestly don’t see any representation of American Jingoism present at all.  I mean, if you want to stretch the definition a bit solely because it’s a big, muscular man who can take on pretty much anything (much like Arnold flicks in the eighties), then I guess it’s there.  But Ian makes some great points against that, and I agree with him - He-Man was created mainly to build upon that whole Conan/sword & sorcery vibe that was prevalent in the late seventies and eighties.  The fact that He-Man just as quickly tried to solve conflicts through smart or peaceful means as he did with his muscles is evidence enough that there’s no Jingo Fettish present.  The writers at Filmation have stated in interviews that their whole mission statement for the show was to offer a fun, action-packed cartoon but to ensure that it taught a message or a lesson to the children.  And like Ian mentioned - at the end of the day, children were presented with a show that showcased courage over adversity, moral lessons, and a little comic relief that certainly goes against any hardcore “America - Fuck Yeah!” kind of agenda.

I had completely forgotten that Orko hit on Teela.  Come to think of it, I don’t really recall any real romantic sub-plots in the show at all.  I’m certain Adam and Teela never really flirted.  She was so disgusted with him most of the time because he was a lazy, cowardly rich boy.  And I don’t think there was any real Lois/Superman kind of heart-aflutter stuff going on between her and He-Man either.  In fact, Teela kind of came off like she was playing for the other team, now that I think about it.  Her tomboy roots and place as part of the royal guard certainly didn’t leave her much time to do any moonlighting in the romance department, either way.   Am I remembering it wrong, or did the show never really tackle any kind of character romances?

Poor Orko.  That guy never got the respect he deserved.  At least he got to do all the bumpers going into and out of commercials.  I always loved watching those.

Ken:  You are right, and I think that was refreshing in a way, not to have a big will they/wont they thing going on.  In fact I think the only real romance on the show was Man at Arms and the Sorceress.

I’m pretty sure Skeletor was tapping Evil Lynn though.

Ok I think we should probably bring this entry to a close before we end up forming the Chud chapter of the Masters of the Universe Fan Club. So I’m going to pose one final sum up question.

Do you think that MOTU deserves the legacy it has created for itself in pop culture?

For me that is a resounding yes, if only for bringing us the genius of Skeletor. However you guys have made me think about the show in ways even I hadn’t considered before. Re-watching episodes on the basis of this column has reminded me that (as you say) He-Man solves more problems with brains than brawn. And for a show that is supposed to be about selling toys it actually introduced surprisingly few new characters to the mix over it’s run.  So yes, as a show that mixed sword and magic, with a colourful cast it achieved greatness beyond what was originally intended.

IAN: Maybe some super-fans out there will know otherwise, but I don’t recall much in the way of deliberate romance either, Donnie. The most notable stuff seems to be implied, like the Skeletor/Evil Lynn dynamic you mentioned, Ken, or the odd sub-plot where Cringer takes a shining to some strange kitty or something. But this was distinctly “birds and bees”, very de-sexualized, so it barely even registers. And I honestly find that refreshing as well. It would take the bloom off the rose a bit to go back and find a wealth of sordid sub-text in a show with such a wholesome image.

The enduring purity of M.O.T.U. is actually one of the reasons it’s been so much fun revisiting it for this series. It might sound corny, but the morals of these stories never go out of style. A property with a solid foundation like that which throws in some neo sword and sorcery action on top, for me, absolutely deserves to live on. There’s a timelessness to its design, both aesthetically and structurally, that can easily be modified or revamped. With some sharp writing and passion, I don’t see why He-Man can’t live on for as long as children of all ages watch cartoons.**

Donnie:  Fine points both, gentlemen.  I certainly agree that Masters deserves every ounce of the legacy it has earned.  The show resonates on many levels for so many fans, even after all these years.  Even folks who make fun of the characters or the “gay themes” around the net are inadvertently keeping it alive.  There’s a reason why this show got a reboot (and a damn solid one) before even Thundercats.  He-Man is a rich tapestry of characters, morals, and art design - so much so that the figure makers The Four Horsemen have been working on new figures for years.  And you can still get new released every month based on the original designs on Matty Collector’s web site.  There’s obviously a large enough fanbase to keep that flame alive.

Well thanks for your input guys, I look forward to the next one of these we do. Until then I shall close this off in the same way that every single episode of MOTU ended....

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6Y-e13EqK0

Wise words my friends, wise words.