Filmation, 1977/1978: BCI/Ink & Paint/Entertainment Rights, 2006
4:3, 286/55 minutes, English; Spanish Audio Track (Space Sentinels only)
Summary | MORE THAN WOLF…MORE THAN MAN!
Saturday morning cartoons, especially in the 1970s, were a dime a dozen and most flickered on and off within a year (some still do). I originally planned to review one such cartoon, Space Sentinels, to make fun of Filmation. Strangely, something happened while watching the series. I actually liked the show.
Sure, there are problems with the series. It’s badly acted in places. The animation is of Filmation standard. It’s as goofy as every other series of its era. Still, is Space Sentinels that bad when attempting to pick the show apart as I will with this review?
Well, it can’t be worse than Hammerman, can it? Then again, nothing is.
MORPHEUS, THE SINISTER SENTINEL (Len Janson & Chuck Menville)
During the course of “Morpheus” we’re introduced to the Young Sentinels and their powers. To wit:
Hercules, the strongman voiced by George DiCenzo, is an affable health nut.
Mercury is the resident fast-running smartass who knows martial arts since he’s Chinese. It’s an unfortunate character trait, but this seems to be a part of voiceover artist Evan Kim’s personality so it avoids being stain-your-jeans racist.
Dee Timberlake is Astraea, the black female leader of the Young Sentinels. She’s actually a well-rounded character, avoiding easy stereotype and being what the Wonder Twins would be if they weren’t so awfully realized.
MO (uncredited voiceover by – ahem – Filmation founder Lou Scheimer) is the cranky Dustin Hoffman-esque maintenance robot. Sentinel One‘s human interface (DiCenzo) takes the form of a giant holographic head with a bit of personality, but he’s mainly there as a mentor for the Young Sentinels. Origins are explained during the opening credits, which gets that neatly out of the way.
Now to the plot of the first episode. Morpheus is a prototype Sentinel with the power of all three Young Sentinels, but he’s evil. You can tell because he has no irises and by his, well, looking like Satan. He steals Maintenance Operator (MO’s “real name”) and plans on building countless Sentinel One duplicates in his plan to conquer the universe. This backfires on him when the Sentinels One turn on him and take over his ship, banishing Morpheus to deep space. It’s a simple plot to introduce the show and its particulars, and there’s nothing too goofy about the episode. That won’t last.
SPACE GIANTS (Len Janson & Chuck Menville)
Now we’re in Filmation territory. Zyra, a thief posing as an alien from another world, wants to defraud the American government out of gold deposits by explaining that gold fuels her ship. Needless to say, she’s lying. Enter the plot twist as the robots realize how imperfect the humans are, gaining sentience and amassing an army to destroy the humans. Luckily, the robots’ plan – and the army they amass – literally falls apart as the Young Sentinels knock one of the robots down. Its weight and a domino effect causes the San Alphonso fault to open and the robots to fall into it. This sort of plot twist will appear throughout Space Sentinels. Viewers should get familiar with it.
MO’s infatuation with Astraea begins here, by the way. Why a robot would develop an attraction for a human woman at all is not adequately explained. Maybe it shouldn’t be.
THE TIME TRAVELER (Kathleen Barnes & David Wise)
David Wise would later write for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. His style is in full display here as this story features time travel, a tyrannosaur (which really doesn’t add to the story), rocket launches and Hercules’ obsession with fragrant cheeses. Being a time travel story it’s blatantly obvious how the cartoon ends, but villain du jour Kronos’ voiceover is pretty good and the show moves along at a fast and entertaining clip.
Unlike when other writers use the kitchen-sink approach to cartoons, Wise and co-writer Kathleen Barnes use this approach well, even making reference to Kronos’ people being excluded from extraterrestrial politics for being too war-like. The episode isn’t perfect, but it uses its clichés effectively.
THE SORCERESS (Kathleen Barnes & David Wise)
What’s in Barnes and Wise’s kitchen sink here? A matter/energy converter, a supercomputer from another dimension, energy duplicates, mind control and the North Pole. Combining these elements, the results end up the same as with the last episode, except that the cliché of duplicates performing evil deeds isn’t that exciting. There’s really nothing notable about “The Sorceress” at all aside from Mercury acting out-of-character and MO constantly beating Hercules at 3D Pong. Well, the Sentinel duplicates did become ape-like perversions of themselves – which is funny since Hercules was plucked from prehistoric Europe, but I digress. The backgrounds are great as per Filmation standard.
THE RETURN OF ANUBIS (Don Glut)
Three explorers accidentally wake Anubis up from a five-thousand-year slumber, causing the Egyptian god of embalming to turn them into hieroglyphs. Meanwhile, Hercules and Mercury try to harness their own pyramid power (i.e., for Hercules to nap) until Sentinel One tells them of Anubis’ Power Pyramid. Anubis announces himself as the “god of darkness” (good research, Glut) and his plan of revenge on humans, using his Power Pyramid to emit a beam that causes a statue of Ramses II to topple. After the Young Sentinels fix the statue, they enter Anubis’ pyramid base. In one of those beauteous plot twists common to 1970s cartoons, Anubis is revealed to be an alien and the Power Pyramid an energy device that destroyed his world and harnesses immense power. Sentinel One suggests that Anubis go back in time with the Power Pyramid to before he destroyed his planet, placating Anubis and causing him to decamp from his Earth base.
No one bothers asking Anubis what evolutionary forces caused him to be a humanoid jackal, whether his people all look like that, why he wears only a skirt and headgear or why the idiot didn’t figure to go back in time earlier. Then again, it’s never worth it to explain Filmation cartoons – any superhero cartoon from the 1970s, actually. Ten-year-olds aren’t expected to care about these things.
Barring the obligatory plot holes, “The Return of Anubis” isn’t that bad. Anubis’ actions are that of a well-meaning alien feared and misunderstood by ancient Egyptians, causing the alien jackal to be entombed in stone and his spaceship to be walled up. Unlike other villains in the series, his actions are understandable and his motives relatively benign. He looks cool and has a pyramid-shaped spaceship. He’s not a god like he says he is, of course, but who’s paying attention to detail?
THE WIZARD OF OD (J. Michael Reaves)
In an interview done for the Space Sentinels box set, Reaves considers this his “throw sods at the wall and see what sticks” episode. Reality is being altered by some
plot device and the Young Sentinels meet an elf named Teaser. Teaser coerces them to go to the pastiche of The Wizard of Oz he calls a world and goofy shit happens. The show ends with status quo restored, but you knew that.
I hate this episode with a passion. If the very fabric of reality is being altered, Reaves could have turned MO into a living being or caused the ship to do more than have a chair turn into a hand. I don’t care that Reaves had fun writing “The Wizard of Od” if I can’t have fun watching it. Hercules’ fascination with health food is entertaining enough and the Young Sentinel banter is better than usual, but what happens to MO during the course of the episode?
Underwhelming. Somehow MO’s eyes still function when his head is a goldfish bowl. A fighter jet is constantly fighting a battle against its becoming a paper airplane and the Cheshire Cat is thrown into the episode to enhance the homage, but “The Wizard of Od” is one of those episodes where adult viewers watch it and go “what the fuck was the writer smoking?” Like Filmation writers need to be on drugs to write something bizarre. No one learned this lesson from watching Isis or Ghost Busters?
To reiterate, I really hate this episode.
THE PRIME SENTINEL (J. Michael Reaves)
The best Reaves story, but since his other stories are awful that’s not saying much. The Prime Sentinel – basically, a giant computer the size of a planet and the leader of all Sentinels – is being overtaken by “The Force,” one of those seemingly-malevolent-yet-benign beings that this show trades in. Here “The Force” has absorbed energy from an alien ship belonging to Thon of Dracon and his group of Young Sentinels. Eventually, Astraea talks to “The Force” telepathically. She convinces it to go to a nebula for the energy it needs in exchange for the energy it absorbed from the Sentinel ships. “The Prime Sentinel” is a straightforward story not different from “The Return of Anubis,” to the point where the basic formula for this sort of story starts to become rote. At least at the end we get to see the Prime Sentinel’s “face.”
Isn’t that great? He’s a literal deus ex machina and only MO sees him! Boy, that’s subtle. How about a burning space bush, too?
The character mini-bible for this episode describes “The Force” as follows: “Deep distinguished voice. Doesn’t sound like Norm Prescott.” Big surprise as to who’s voicing that character, then. So scoring the show wasn’t enough, “Jeff Michael”?
COMMANDER NEMO (Kathleen Barnes & David Wise)
Yet another evil-but-not-really villain as Commander Nemo and his mutant squid/manta Domino attack factories and oil rigs while Nemo abuses his mind-control device. His Neptune Society has built an underground city powered by, and built around, an active volcano. The first half of the episode deals with Nemo trying to launch his factory-destroying warship and the second half sees the volcano that powers the city overheat due to an undersea tremor. The Neptune Society, of course, is saved but Nemo eventually succumbs to the effects of the mind-control device and the city is destroyed. It’s a familiar plot, but the Domino character is awesome.
At this point there have been three episodes out of eight dealing with variations on the exact same theme. The weird thing about this factoid is that the same plot structure has been used by three different writers/writing teams. I’m beginning to wonder if Filmation recycled more than just animation cels and backgrounds.
MO tends to have the hots for Astraea, since his eyes/scoreboards make little hearts whenever he sees her. Mind you, MO isn’t as bad as 7-Zark-7 from Battle of the Planets at lusting over women, but this running gag tends to get annoying after a while. At least MO’s not as annoying as H.E.R.B.I.E. from The New Fantastic Four, so he has that going for him.
VOYAGE TO THE INNER WORLD (Jerry Winnick)
The Sentinels end up in a hidden civilization near the Earth’s core. A variation of the “civilization is at risk of crumbling” theme is used for the second week in a row, but MO is actually used as more than comic robot fodder here. To be honest, MO isn’t a bad character – he basically repairs Sentinel One when needed, which is often, and his Dustin Hoffman routine is surprisingly tolerable. Queen Dakari is just Ra’s Al Ghul from Batman, except her Lazarus Pit is Astraea’s brainwaves.
This is one of the few Space Sentinels episodes that doesn’t reaffirm status quo at the end as a character (Queen Dakari) actually dies and Dakari associate Aurania becomes de facto leader of the underground civilization. I wonder why Winnick didn’t write more episodes for this show.
LOKI (Dale Kirby)
One of the best episodes of the show. Norse mythology is loosely appropriated as Loki is a criminal freed from interdimensional imprisonment. Balder, the man who imprisoned Loki, controls a city in Loki’s dimension. Essentially, the entire episode is Loki doing the things a mischievous evil being like him would do – take over the Sentinels’ ship, match wits with Sentinel One, and have minotaurs riding dragons do his bidding.
Pity that Loki is defeated by accidentally having a “mental zinger” bounce back to him. In other words, he hypnotizes himself. Sad that such an entertaining villain falls prey to such a lame plot point. Up until then the Norse-mythology-as-dimension idea was surprisingly faithful to the source.
The minotaurs on dragons are kind of silly, though. The Midgard Serpent couldn’t be dredged up here? Then again, I am talking about a show that appropriates Roman and Greek mythology by having a multicultural cast wear spandex tights and capes, so maybe I shouldn’t nitpick.
FAUNA (J. Michael Reaves)
For the eleventh episode we’re back in Michael Reaves territory. Here two plot devices, a genetic research facility located in a forest and a feral 16-year-old girl with the ability to mentally control forest creatures, converge. Scientists led by Dr. Kurland have discovered how to mutate creatures by means of a ray. Fauna and her animal friends have been diligently working on destroying the research facility, and a wolf eventually enters the compound. It takes about five seconds to figure out where this story is going.
Now, back to Manimal.
Apparently Kurland and his associates have been mutating the local wildlife for years. Don’t worry, they reverse the process afterwards – can’t be unethical playing God, now. It never crosses Kurland’s mind to mutate himself with the ray, but that sort of thing wouldn’t become common until Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles beat that plot device into the ground.
Anyway, “Fauna.” Having forcibly been advanced untold numbers of years as a lifeform by the magic ray, the manwolf decides to dissemble the ray and…build a mind control device so that he can control the minds of all animals on Earth. Never mind that humans are animals themselves and his idea is shit, but that gets in the way of Astraea turning into a monkey and Hercules/Mercury banter. The manwolf almost succeeds in his quest for world domination, but Fauna distracts him enough for the scientists and the Young Sentinels to reverse his mutations. Basically, “Fauna” is a status quo story, except that the animals distrust Fauna afterwards because she helped humans. This story is a trainwreck with bad science, a megalomaniac talking werewolf with a speech disorder and a girl that talks in stunted English so you know she’s feral. I hate you, Michael Reaves.
THE JUPITER SPORE (Kathleen Barnes & David Wise)
Plot elements here: a jalopy thrown into space, alien flora, yet another character that attacks the Young Sentinels but is actually kind of a decent alien (thank you, Sonny Fox) and Hercules suffering from Jupiter-induced dementia. The Sentinels have to stop a plant species that threatens to overtake the world by collecting and introducing a predator species into Earth’s atmosphere. Both species kill each other in mutual interdependency, but not before the nonvillain of the moment tries to stop the Sentinels and Hercules succumbs to a radiation/virus hybrid.
The only big surprise in “The Jupiter Spore” is that the virus Hercules picks up can be killed by penicillin. The episode shows a surprising amount of scientific accuracy (well, more than “Fauna”) and any show that uses a jalopy both as plot device and as character development (Hercules loves Model Ts) can’t be bad. “The Jupiter Spore” is actually an enjoyable episode, but enough with the misunderstood aliens already! I will admit that the hallucinations caused by the Jupiter spore are a nice touch, since Hercules punching his own ship is kind of funny.
THE WORLD SHIP (Douglas Menville)
Myarr and Rissa are humanoid cat-like creatures called Slrr (presumably with character designs reused from Star Trek: The Animated Series), survivors of a planet destroyed by pollution and general poor handling. The planet has been converted into a spaceship and is on a collision course with Earth. Myarr is the typical inflexible male, Rissa the compassionate female in the manner of all stereotypes. During the course of the episode, Myarr suddenly deigns to take over Earth, but is talked out of it by the Young Sentinels. Since the suggested m.o. of Space Sentinels (and of Filmation itself) is to be morally responsible, Sentinel One points out some uninhabited planets that the Slrr can inhabit and another crisis is averted by the Young Sentinels. Thus ends the episode, and by proxy Space Sentinels itself.
Note: during the course of the episode, a mistake in animation is made. Here it is:
OH MY GOD! LOOK AT WHAT THOSE EVIL SLRR DID TO EARTH!
Normally I’m not worried about animation flaws like this as Filmation is the epitome of budget, but THE EARTH IS UPSIDE DOWN. Space Sentinels at its worst isn’t half as sloppy as Superfriends on a typical day, but I’m amazed no one noticed this basic flaw in background. It’s like the Hall of Justice being upside down, which I imagine happened at least once during Superfriends‘ run. While I’m picking nits, where’d Europe and Africa go?
Overall, Space Sentinels is a flawed series – few cartoon shows weren’t during the 1970s – but there’s no way this show should have been low-rated. It was competing against ABC behemoth Scooby’s All-Star Laff-A-Lympics, and no one’s going to beat Captain Caveman in the ratings and kids’ minds. CBS’ What’s New, Mr. Magoo? was the one that failed to blink first, replaced midseason by reruns of Speed Buggy.
Why Space Sentinels didn’t compete against Superfriends is amazing. Instead, CB Bears served as Space Sentinels‘ lead-in. Good counterprogramming there, Sonny Fox. A show based on a fad competing against Wile E. Coyote and Superman. That’s like Sledge Hammer! competing against Dallas and Miami Vice, except that Sledge Hammer! was genuinely funny and CB Bears was damn near scraping the Hanna-Barbera chum bucket.
I’m not going to go into detail about The Freedom Force, the series only having five eleven-minute episodes. Suffice it to say that this was Filmation’s own-brand Superfriends based on public domain characters. Merlin (Michael Bell) has his magic. Hercules is voiced by Bob Denison and is not related to the Space Sentinels character despite sharing his clothes. Isis (Diane Pershing) is the star of the segment with her power over the elements, her character being as ill-defined as ever. Sinbad (Bell) has a sidekick and barely appears in the series. This leaves the genuinely interesting character Super Samurai (Bell), a boy who turns into a purple-headed…giant samurai. All the boy needs to do is say the character’s name, and his voice goes guttural in the middle of his spiel. It beats the shit out of Black Vulcan, for sure.
The Freedom Force segments basically follow Superfriends protocol. A child dragon, for instance, is taught the way of the warrior by Toshi/SUPER SAMURAI after being told he’s not fit for war against flying machines. There’s also a personal rivalry between the dragon rider’s father and his dad’s former advisor thrown in there somewhere, hence the war. That episode goes through the motions and the child dragon does cute schtick too often. A more successful episode features Toshi’s friendship with Kyoto, the son of a magician. Kyoto is jealous of Toshi and frees a spirit from the underworld to become Scarlet Samurai. The spirit wants vengeance against Kyoto’s father and…well, I won’t spoil the ending here. This episode is just more engaging overall. Time travel, giant robots, bad appropriations of myth and general Filmation goofiness abounds.
Maybe it’s because I don’t have fond memories of pre-1980s cartoons, but the only thing that interests me in The Freedom Force is Super Samurai. At least The Freedom Force have a great home base.
As for DVD bonus features, there are interviews of certain people involved with Space Sentinels and Freedom Force. The Space Sentinels part of the set has interviews with David Wise, Michael Reaves and Robert Kline along with the obligatory Lou Scheimer bit. Scheimer also lends his bad self to the Freedom Force interviews, along with Buzz Dixon (who looks like Sgt. Slaughter) and Darrell McNeil, who shills his book about Filmation. As with all of BCI’s Filmation-based DVD releases, there’s the obligatory Andy Mangels documentary about Filmation. Images and other random backstage stuff about Freedom Force and Space Sentinels, like the actual scripts, are included.
The best bonus feature is test footage for a proposed Young Sentinels live-action series. Evan Kim is even goofier live than in animation, and it’s amazing that there wasn’t a live-action series since the test footage is actually pretty good. The footage is sketchy – this is, after all, just a run-through – but live-action Young Sentinels could have worked. Evan Kim is actually more comfortable in live-action than doing voiceovers, and he looks somewhat like his animated counterpart. Why wasn’t this show made?
To sum up, Space Sentinels is a good Filmation series and one of the better series in the studio’s repertoire. The Freedom Force I can take or leave, but even with the obscure titles Ink & Paint does a good job with regards to audio, video and general presentation. I’d love to see more of this stuff come out. Even though I dog Filmation a bit, the studio at least put out some good stuff in its time and it is a better studio than I’ve given it credit for. While Space Sentinels isn’t much more than a Saturday morning cartoon, it at least shows surprising intelligence and might finally find the audience it deserves on DVD. I hope Ink & Paint continues to do right by Filmation and give more of its obscure titles a dusting-off, because titles like this are certainly more interesting than GI Joe: Sigma 6 or Kong.
Well, maybe not Kong.
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