Monday, November 24, 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Star Wars Spinoffs and Spoofs

I've always been a proud uncle, but this past week, I was even more proud. My brother mentioned that he was walking through his living room a couple of days ago, and passed his 6-year-old daughter, who was quietly humming the Imperial March theme from Star Wars while colouring in a Christmas activity book. How could you not beam with nerdy pride?

It reminded me of how everything was coming up Star Wars back when I was a kid in the late 70s and early 80s, lingering in the realm of Saturday morning cartoons even years after when I was a pre-teen and the afterglow of Return of the Jedi was fading from pop culture consciousness.

The Secret Railroad did a Star Wars spoof episode not too long after Episode IV debuted (I can still remember the awesomeness of Mr Passenger pulling an extension cord out of his carpet bag, running it from his umbrella to a wall socket, then going toe-to-toe with Darth Vader in a light sabre duel with said electrified umbrella), and others followed overtly or somewhat subtly over the years. I wish that TSR episode was available online to share, but I can't find any sign of it — I fear the bulk of the series is lost to time.

However, one of the later spoofs that is still available is the "Gonzo's Video Show" episode from season 1 of Jim Henson's Muppet Babies. The show, in general, teeters precariously on the edge of being insufferably cute and aimed at too young an audience, but then sometimes spins right around and has funny elements that can appeal to older viewers — not as sly and adult as the original Muppet Show itself, but enough to make the cartoon series worth watching if you're in the right mood. And this episode is no exception. Of note is the inclusion of actual footage from Star Wars in the gang's playroom production (used to illustrate what the Muppet kids are seeing in their imaginations — rather than what's actually playing out on their camcorder), which is no surprise, given the Henson group's deep involvement with 'Empire and 'Jedi. Personally, I've always gotten a kick out of Kermit's narration of the opening crawl. The episode also strikes a cord with me because when I was a kid, my friends and I would pretend to be Star Wars characters and act out our own adventures — we called it "Star Wars With Us". We never video-taped these sessions like the Muppet Babies did, but we would have if one of us had had a camcorder. And so, for your amusement, here's Muppet Babies — scroll forward to about the half-way mark to get past the non-Star Wars material. (full episode)

From the potentially insufferably cute to the unquestionably insufferably cute, here's a cartoon spinoff of Return of the Jedi that came out shortly after the two made-for-TV Ewok movies. It's called, not surprisingly, Ewoks, and, like the the afore-menioned live-action TV movies, I don't know if it's considered official franchise canon, but I really hope it isn't. (full episode)

Lastly, I'll try and redeem this post with something cool that (unlike Ewoks) was actually worthy of the Star Wars monicker: Droids. This cartoon detailed the adventures of R2D2 and C3PO, in what were probably the years prior to their service aboard the Tantive IV at the beginning of Episode IV, although the prequel trilogy more-or-less undercuts that possibility. In any event, our favourite mechanical thralls find themselves associated with well-meaning racers/hoodlums, Rebels, and others, as they try to avoid the forces (no, not Forces) of the Empire, and, on one occasion at least, survive crossing paths with the dreaded bounty hunter Boba Fett. I remember the show being pretty cool back in the old days — good enough to warrant a prime-time special at one point, and I still enjoy the theme song. (full episode)

Monday, November 17, 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Toy and Game Marketing Gone Wild

Ah, Saturday morning cartoons. When they weren't trying to get you to buy hyper-sugared cereals during the commercial breaks, they were all about encouraging you to buy the toys and games they were based on. (Mostly. To be fair, there were some shows that weren't based on pre-existing toys or games, and didn't have any merchandising developed after they went to air either, but those were very much in the minority.)

In this instalment, we have two shows that epitomized this:

Dungeons & Dragons (full episode):

...and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (full episode):

The TARDIS - No Room For Fans

(spoiler alert)

In the week or so since the finale of the recent series of Doctor Who, I've been giving a lot of thought to the Doctor's Companions — and to those who would be Companions, but aren't — and it occurs to me that the TARDIS is a "no fan" zone.

It's something that came to me when Osgood died: that no-one who's a fan (and by "fan" I don't mean a real-world person who loves the show, but rather an in-story person who follows the Doctor's exploits, and, since I'm now thinking of this kind of person as a specific character type, we should probably capitalize them into "Fan" the way we would with Companion) of the Doctor gets to graduate to become a full-fledged Companion aboard the TARDIS. In fact, they don't even get the consolation prize of tag-along status aboard the police call box for a one-off adventure. All they can ever hope for is to receive a pat on the head for their assistance, and to be left behind when it's time for the Doctor to head off on his merry way.

So how is a Fan different from a Companion, or, for that matter, a tag-along?

First, there's the educational and emotional difference: unlike the Companions, the fans already know all about the Doctor (or, at least as much as any human with adequate historical records and government security access can know) and his adventures, and, based on this, have developed a fannish love for, and loyalty to, him. Companions always start off as ignorant of the Doctor until they meet him in person and are dragged into one of his adventures (or, while they're playing a separate role in the same incident, meet him and combine efforts in a shared adventure). The Companions have to learn about his past in bits and pieces as the Doctor chooses to reveal it, and as such are on much more emotionally unstable ground when they're forming opinions about him. The Fans (like Osgood, or Malcolm from Planet of the Dead), on the other hand, having researched as much as they can about the Doctor, have had plenty of time to evaluate his words and actions, and have already formed an opinion of him by the time they actually get to meet him. A Companion like Rose or Captain Jack may eventually develop a fannish devotion to the Doctor over the course of their adventures, but with the Fans, it's already there. The same applies with tag-alongs: they may grow to respect and love the Doctor, like Wilf, or begrudgingly put up with him, like Jackie, but that's only after they meet him; the Fans already know who they're dealing with, and how they feel.

Second, there's the obvious, crucial difference: that a Fan ultimately gets left behind, where Companions (like Martha, Donna, Sarah Jane, Clara, Amy, Rose [eeesh!], or any of the others) take up residence — or at least frequent flyer status — aboard the TARDIS and become regular sidekicks of the Doctor on his adventures, providing support or entertainment to the Time Lord, and sometimes acting as his conscience or even saving his immortal behind from potential discomfort or extinction.

Then there are the tag-alongs, like Wilf, Jackie, Mickey Smith, or Captain Jack Harkness, who the Doctor encounters in the course of an adventure (or just day-to-day life when dealing with regular folks), and who come along in the TARDIS (voluntarily or accidentally) for the remainder of the adventure, and then, at the end, go back to their normal lives. Actually, there are two types of tag-along: a tag-along who might come back and join the Doctor for another adventure, and may — like Captain Jack — get promoted to Companion status and take a long-term berth aboard the TARDIS; or the type who may just go back to his or her regular life (like Wilf or Jackie) and avoid further stumblings through time and space. (And yes, I know, you're going to tell me that Jackie came back aboard the TARDIS a couple of times, but I don't think you can really count her as a bona fide Companion since she ultimately had no interest in bouncing around the universe unless Rose was in danger.)

The Fans, on the other hand, like Osgood and Malcolm, get left behind.

Malcolm busts his ass for the 10th Doctor (or is Tennant now the 11th, because of John Hurt's insertion into the roster?) crunching the numbers to help bring the double-decker bus full of Londoners home, and you just know he'd ditch UNIT like a stained pair of old underwear if the Doctor would just so much as nod in his direction. But the invite never comes. No, too bad for poor Malcolm, the Doctor's in his mopey, self-pitying, I-just-wanna-roam-the-universe-alone sulk — or maybe it's because Malcolm just isn't cool enough, or female enough — and the scientist is stuck working for an organization that uses his talents but doesn't really respect him. Exit Time Lord.

As for Osgood, the 11th Doctor (or do we call Matt Smith #12?) blows past her — and her super-awesome 4th Doctor scarf — in his usual whirlwind during the Zygon crisis of Day of the Doctor, makes some demands, leaves a compliment or two, then heads off about his business. The most she gets comes later, this past series, when the 12th Doctor (or is Capaldi lucky number 13?) offers to bring her along, but fate tragically (and conveniently, for the Fan denial pattern) intervenes and she's killed by the Master before she can take him up on it.

I've been wracking my brain to think of any other character in the Whoniverse who fits the description of a Fan, but no-one in the series' of the 9th through 12th Doctors comes to mind. In terms of the older series, the 4th Doctor was my first Doctor as a little kid, but I don't remember any characters who fit the bill back then, and didn't have a chance to watch the show in the years afterward until the 8th Doctor's appearance in the Fox special.

Can any of you remember someone from the various old series who was a passed-over Fan rather than a Companion, tag-along, or background character?

Ultimately, the in-show Fans are a lot luck us — the fans in the real world: we all watch the Doctor's exploits from afar as he goes from adventure to adventure, series to series, companion to companion, and face to face, usually enjoying, but occasionally condemning him, waiting impatiently to see more of him, and wishing we could join him, if only once, but never getting that chance.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Dubious Spinoffs

I've been floored by some kind of bug for the past week, so, lacking the energy to do anything better, I've decided to post another quick instalment of the Saturday morning cartoon rewatch.

This week: dubious spinoffs.

In their desperate attempts to put out new Saturday morning content every season, back in the 70s and 80s, the networks and cartoon production houses would sometimes repurpose pop-culture icons in ways that probably seemed like a good idea at the time (and, admittedly, were kinda fun for kids back then), but in hindsight are probably best forgotten.

Except I can't forget them. Oh no, of all the things I could be allocating brain storage space to, quite against my will, I find myself dwelling on the utterly pointless. Case in point: this post's three selections.

For starters: The Robonic Stooges. Because what the venerable trio of knuckleheads needed was to be transformed into cybernetic superheroes. (excerpt)

And speaking of unlikely superheroes, how about The Super Globetrotters? The basketball entertainers from Harlem had a previous run-of-the-mill cartoon and made enough appearances in other media that I think it's fair to call this show a spinoff (of sorts). (intro)

And if those two offerings weren't weird enough, we'll finish with a little tale about the beleaguered castaways of Gilligan's Island, who apparently decided that life on their private Polynesian island was so intolerable that, in a desperate attempt to get back to civilization, they built a spaceship. Not a boat. Not a plane. Not even an inflatable pool chair with a little cup holder on the side. No, it had to be a spaceship. With artificial gravity, an FTL drive, and hard radiation shielding. To make a hop over a couple of hundred kilometres of water. But okay. Whatever. Unfortunately, despite having the genius to develop this impressive suite of technologies on their own, the castaways are unable to make a simple sub-orbital flight or bounce, and instead find themselves on a strange planet on the ass-end of the galaxy. Ladies and gentlemen, hold on to your aloha shirts, it's time for Gilligan's Planet! (intro)

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Superheroes edition

Sorry this weekend's instalment of the Saturday morning cartoon rewatch is late, everyone; yesterday turned out to be more hectic than usual.

Anyway, I hope your Hallowe'en was enjoyable this year; that you went to a good party, or had a fun time taking your kids out trick-or-treating, or answering the door and handing out candy. As a kid, one of the best times was when the calendar lined-up just right — like this year — with Hallowe'en on a Friday night, so I could stay up a little later because there'd be no school the next day, and then wake up on Saturday morning to watch new episodes of my favourite cartoons, with my sack of plunder beside me on the living room carpet so I could breakfast on chocolate bars and gum and bask in the afterglow of trick-or-treating.

While it's a little too late for that, I've lined-up a couple of cartoons that might re-awaken a little of that old feeling. This weekend, I'm going with a superhero theme, so grab a couple of left over chocolate bars, and get ready for some 80s-style Saturday morning fun!

First up, Spiderman and his Amazing Friends. This show featured the web-head teaming-up with college buddies and future (or was it former?) X-Men, Firestar and Iceman. They all lived with Peter Parker's Aunt May and her dog, and, somehow, without old May knowing it, they'd converted one of the rooms in her house into their high-tech superhero headquarters. Each week they'd battle another Marvel foe: from a scientist-turned-out-of-control-giant-spider-thing, to rogue Asguardian Loki, to Spiderman's old foe, the Green Goblin. Lots of fun action, and it helped cement my affection for comics. (full episode)

Next, it's time to SMASH!!!! with The Incredible Hulk. If I recall correctly, the big green guy was usually scheduled back-to-back with Spiderman and his Amazing Friends, with the whole thing billed as The Spiderman and his Amazing Friends and Incredible Hulk Adventure Hour or something like that. Marvel owned some prime real estate on our TV, in any case. Just like Spidey, the Hulk was another can't-miss show for my brother and I. (part of 1 of 3 of full episode)

Lastly, there was Hero High. I seem to remember a live-action stage show opening to the cartoon at some point, which is distinctly odd (although, didn't they do that with The Archies once upon a time too?), but I also remember wishing they'd just get on with the animation. Though this Filmation offering was nowhere near as cool as Spiderman, or the Hulk, or Superfriends, it was none-the-less reasonably entertaining when I was a kid. (intro)

One last thought about superheroes... I'd like to dedicate this post to a bunch of unsung superheroes I've met over the years: the caring siblings of kids with developmental disabilities. As some of you know, my wife is a volunteer coach with Special Olympics. Sometimes, when she hasn't had enough assistant coaches on hand, I've come in to help her with her two programs that teach younger kids about the value of playing well together, and the basics of different kinds of sports. On those occasions, I've seen something that's blown me away: siblings of some of the athletes — often younger siblings — coming in with their parents to help their brothers and sisters participate. I've seen a six-year-old girl — a pint-sized supernova — take her big brother under her wing like a mother hen, supporting him when he wasn't sure about what to do, and not only that, but going around the room and offering encouragement and help to other athletes, and then asking the coaches what more she could do to lend a hand. I've seen a seven-year-old steadfastly guiding his big brother towards a soccer net so that he could show off his ability to kick. And there have been others over the years, supporting their special siblings with a care and a maturity far beyond that of other kids their age. This at a time when they could be insisting on doing their own thing — playing with their own friends, competing in their own sports, reading, playing video games, or whatever. But rather than focussing on themselves, they've come in to be with their brothers and sisters. Some of these supportive siblings go on to join organizations as coaches or other volunteers, fundraisers, staff, or health and/or education professionals. Others may quietly support their special-needs siblings behind the scenes, because that's what families do for one-another — that's what you do when you care for your sibling. And so I think we ought to give a shout-out to the siblings who are always there for their special-needs brothers and sisters when they need them: you're the real superheroes among us.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Happy Hallowe'en 2014!

Happy Hallowe'en, everyone!

I hope the spooky season has been good to all of you, and that you've either netted a huge haul of candy from trick-or-treating, or that you've got a ton of candy left over that the kids who came to your door didn't get to (because one of the best parts of being an adult at Hallowe'en is eating the leftover candy).

This year's holiday was pretty fun in our neck of the woods. I put the lights and other decorations up last week (have to keep up with the neighbours — around here, Hallowe'en decorations go up right after Thanksgiving!), so we've had a while to enjoy them. Meanwhile, for the past week or so, we've started re-watching favourite seasonal films, like Ghostbusters, Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Sixth Sense, Monster House, and Monsters vs. Aliens.

We hit the pumpkin patch last weekend, coming back covered in sticky mud, but with some suitable jack'o'lantern fodder. I started working on mine yesterday, so that my wife would be able to do hers today, and that seemed to help get things done in time without us getting in each other's way. From top to bottom, here are: the Frankenpumpkin, done by my wife; the TARDIS/Police Call Pumpkin, also done by the wife; a generic happy/dopey pumpkin I threw together to keep the little kids happy; a Hallowe'en cat that I carved; and my masterpiece this year, the Awful Head-Chewing Monster Punkin. I have to admit, I was a little concerned that AHCMP might have been a little too over-the-top, especially for the really little kids, but all of the families who came around tonight — especially the ones with the tiny tots — loved it, so, I guess it was just on the right side of the line of fun scary versus sick and unsettlingly creepy.

With the jack'o'lanterns ready and a couple of hours until the trick-or-treating would start, I checked-off the next part of our holiday tradition by jumping in the car and jogging up the highway to the neighbouring city of Richmond to hit up our favourite fried-chicken joint and bring supper home (this goes way back to when I was a kid, and my folks would frequently pick up KFC for supper on Hallowe'en because it was quick and easy and they wouldn't have to do any cooking themselves while getting us ready to go out and answering the door for early trick-or-treaters; for me, it just became a part of the holiday, so my wife and I keep doing it, though we now get the food from a little mom-and-pop joint, rather than the Colonel). The hour-round-trip drive (very light traffic, all things considered) was perfect because that gave me time to re-listen to the old 1939 recording of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre radio production of War of the Worlds, which is a hell of an entertaining show and an example of radio at its finest.

By the time I came home, my brother had come over to spend the evening with us, so we dug into the fried feast with some tasty beverages, watched some old Hallowe'en TV favourites (It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, Disney's Lonesome Ghosts, Trick or Treat, and Ichabod Crane, and Bradbury's masterpiece The Hallowe'en Tree), watched the fireworks coming up over the treeline from a nearby neighbourhood, nerded-out on talk of upcoming superhero movies, comics, and Babylon 5 versus Star Trek Deep Space Nine, and relayed back and forth to the front door to deal with the onslaught of trick-or-treaters. And we didn't have to wait long for the kids — we had pretty solid waves of them coming in from about 6:15 through 9:15, mostly families with younger kids (no mooching uncostumed teens, which was good). By the end of the night, we had probably been visited by 157 trick-or-treaters, which was pretty good. Not as good as last year, when we were up around 220, but still a very good turnout. Always interesting to see what the costume fads are from year to year; this time around, ninjas seemed to be popular with the boys, while girls tended towards princesses, though there were a few superheroes, and one kid steadfastly rocked what must have been his parents' Ghost Face costume from Scream.

Of course, the two best parts of Hallowe'en these days, are when we get to see the kids' faces light up when they realize we've just given them full-sized chocolate bars (we don't mess around with those weeny little snack sized ripoffs in our household), and, almost as good, when the trick-or-treating's over at the end of the night, and we tally-up how many chocolate bars we have left over for ourselves. To quote Garfield: "Candy, candycandycandy!"

And now, to bed and a little Edgar Allan Poe before sleep.

Ray Bradbury was right: "... the greatest night of the year. Better than Easter. Better than Christmas. Hallowe'en."