Poorly animated television series that are only slickly concealed toy advertisements unite! We..have…the power!
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe debuted in syndication in September 1983, and for a generation it was either the most awesome, or most awful, event to occur on television since ABC’s Battle of the Network Stars. He-Man, in case you didn’t know, is the protector of the planet Eternia, ever in struggle against the forces of evil embodied by Skeletor, who schemes behind the dark walls of Castle Grayskull, batteries not included.
He-Man is somewhat like the other fantasy heroes that were popular in the early 1980s like Conan the Barbarian (only more chaste) or Thundarr the Barbarian (only less clothed and possessing fewer ‘R’s in his name). He-Man is surrounded by conspicuously sexy counterparts who all seem to be voiced by 70-year-old women, a tiger, and a diminutive sidekick in a big hat that always sounds like he is half-drowning. (Editor’s note: is it possible to half-drown? Either you drown or you don’t.) (Writer’s note: Shut up, Editor.)
His enemies beyond Skeletor are consistently oafish in the “Which wayddidee go?” sense of it, leaving their exasperated overlord to sputter and fume and mince about like a thwarted mustache-twirler from a 1920’s serial. There is very little about Skeletor, beside the skull face, that passes as menacing. And while we’re at it, what’s up with the skull face anyway? Dude is jacked. He had pecs the size of people’s heads and yet no skin on his face? What the French Hatbox? Does that mean he has no skin under his blue unitard, or does that mean the blue unitard is his skin?
Kaboom. Mind is blown.
That’s really about the extent of the mind-blowing where this show is concerned. The production house behind it, Filmation, was responsible for many Saturday morning series throughout the Seventies and Eighties, most recognizably Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Where that show sometimes used a heavy hand to teach kids an important and valuable life lesson, the only lessons He-Man really fronted were these:
1. Mattel sells He-Man toys at a department store near you!
2. See a spaceship, new character, or interesting bit of scenery in the show? You guessed it: we have toys for them!
3. Even though Teela, The Sorceress, and She-Ra look like they’re dressed in stripper costumes, women are not sex objects, kids.
State of the art animation for syndicated television was limited in the Eighties. The average scene consisted of various static figure poses where the only motion on-screen is the flapping of gums, and for an “action” series, there was usually page after page of verbal exposition. My friends and I once had a contest to see how many times the characters actually blinked their eyes in a specific episode. The answer: never. Clearly these folks can’t blink and talk at the same time.
Does that land He-Man in the “so bad it’s good” category? Sort of. Heaven help the person who buys the series box set and devotes a day to reliving their childhood. It will be revelatory, and what it reveals is that you wasted your childhood. But if you can resist the urge to binge on episode after episode, there are some charms to be found from the show. A big one is that, even though the major baddie has the face of death itself, the show is not “dark.” Goofy, sometimes to the point of insanity, but not dark, which is something that cannot be said for a lot of modern children’s entertainment. There is little about He-Man and the Masters of the Universe that jibes with the real world, and that is kind of a blessing in disguise.
Equally baffling was, after a couple years of the show, the Golan-Globus production company responsible for a handful of Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris’ “shoot ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out” actioners adapted the show for the theaters. In it, Dolph Lundgren took on He-Man and Frank Langella (!) played Skeletor (!!), Meg Foster played the va-va-voom evil mistress Evil-Lyn (just so you knew that she was evil, of course), and Courtney Cox played an Earth girl magically transported to Eternia. Well, of course she was. Anything less would be absurd. Does any of this make sense?
The movie flopped. Courtney Cox would still be known as the “dancing chick in the Dancin’ In The Dark video” until her big break with Friends arrived nearly a decade later. Dolph Lundgren would do a few more smash-em-ups until he disappeared into the Hollywood Relocation Program (to be extracted in time for The Expendables), and Langella? Don’t mention Skeletor to Langella. He will kick you in the nuts if you do.
Masters of the Universe would later return to the small screen as an animated reboot (groan) that was more serious (double groan) and darker (GROAN) but it’s core audience had moved on. The toys were not enough to make it live and breathe again. But it is amazing to think about what could be accomplished in 1983; that a series with less than a toymaker’s design concept could actually have a life, and influence, on the culture. If someone decides to, out of nowhere, shout “I have the power!,” everyone knows what this person is talking about. They may think he’s lost his mind, but they know.
One month later in 1983, another animated series would launch onto the small screen. The show would be based in modern-day Earth, involve terrorists with hardcore weaponry, would feature bombs, bullets, and exploding jets…and yet nobody in this show would ever die. That, however, is a conversation for another time.