I had a whole other plan for this week’s blog (and, in fact, this month), but I saw on the news yesterday that The CW has canceled their Saturday Morning Cartoon block, officially ending the era of Saturday Morning Cartoons in American broadcast television.
Yes, I know that nowadays, kids of the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and even Boomerang as places where they can find programming tailored to them 24 hours a day (just in case your five year-old needs something to watch at 3am, I guess). Still, this makes me sad. I’m not sure if this is an experience that translates to my international audience (hey guys!), but the Saturday Morning ritual is one of the few ‘Typical American Kid’ things I really did as a kid.
I didn’t live in a place where I had a small gang of friends I could bike or walk to and hang out with at the drop of a hat, so there was no pick-up baseball or basketball for me; I didn’t have a dog for most of my youth, and I very rarely got into any trouble or even got beat up. However, I did set my clock to six-freaking-am every Friday night so I could get up and catch every single offering the major networks put out there for me with a big bowl of cereal or a couple of uncooked pop tarts at my side. I was, of course, adorable.
Sure, there were plenty of awesome cartoons (and live actions shows, I’ll get to that in a bit) on after school, some of which came on so early that I only saw them during the summer or when I was sick (tune in next week!), but Saturday Morning was special because it was something like five or six hours of stuff across four or five different channels that were just for me.
Oddly, then end of my favorite block of shows, the one that appeared on Fox as Fox Kids and/or ‘the Fox Box’ died almost the moment I left college. I came home, found myself somehow awake at eight on a Saturday morning, and turned on the TV to find to my horror that it was all infomercials now. The after school block had similarly gone to seed, replaced by news and totally-not-fake judge shows.
So, in deference to my nostalgia, and because literally every other entertainment blog is going to be all about horror this month, I hereby declare it Cartoon Month here at Descendants Serial! Even my traditional Halloween ‘Dear Hollywood…’ article is going to get a SatAM twist!
And for the first blog of this month, I’m taking a look at the weird, offbeat and just plain unknown shows that made my Saturdays just a little brighter and, on some level, influenced my style as a creator. Note that I say ‘shows’, because sometimes, the best thing on at a given time on SatAM was live action, as we’ll see in the fact that two of the following are, in fact, live action. Shockingly, they’re not Power Rangers or Beetleborgs.
So sit back, grab some sugary cereal, and enjoy!
Number 5: Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century
I’m just going to skee-ball you directly into the deep end here, one of the most bizarre concepts for a show I have ever come across—including the ones I came up with.
This show is exactly what it says on the tin. According to the first episode, when Sherlock Holmes went over the falls with Professor Moriarty in what (for a time) was his last adventure, he and his nemesis were somehow frozen behind the curtain of water and cryogenicly preserved until sometime in the 2100’s. Of course, Moriarty revives first, and in order to stop his schemes, Holmes is thawed out too and tasked with helping a descendant of Detective Lestrad (who maintained the family business for at least twenty goddamn generations! Royalty doesn’t even manage that and their job entails dodging paparazzi, breeding and weighing down the nation’s thrones so they don’t escape into the wild.) and a robotic Dr. Watson.
I…if you don’t think this is amazing already I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe that each episode is essentially a Sci-Fi version of a classic Arthur Conan Doyle tale of the greatest non-Batman detective. It fully commits to its conceits too, never commenting or smirking at what it’s doing, just staring at you defiantly and saying ‘Yeah, and?’.
Buuut… I will take the time to go off on a bit of a rant here about a trope I find incredibly weird. While SHi22C clearly takes place in the universe of Sherlock Holmes (with Lestrad being the descendant of Lestrad)… a LOT of shows just seem to accept that Sherlock Holmes (and other Public Domain characters like King Arthur) are actual historical figures. Most famously, we’ll often get scenes during time travel plots where Holmes is hot on the trail of Jack the Ripper—and actual serial killer (whose identity might have finally been discovered).
And no, they’re not just folding the public domain stories into their universe—they are literally using these characters as if they were part of real history without any reference to their stories. It’s almost as if these writers don’t know they’re fictional… which might be the case. Seeing as how reading and watching fiction is the core inspiration of fiction, they might have seen other stories treat the characters the same way (or that absorbed the public domain stories into their own history like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and ran with it.
Either way, the show was weird, fun and succeeded in what I’m sure was it’s job: getting me to go out and read the actual Sherlock Holmes stories. I actually own a sweet-ass leather-bound volume of the complete works now.
Literary merit, however can’t be attributed to…
Number 4: WMAC Masters
Imagine if you will, that someone took Power Rangers (and I could do a whole list of Power Rangers-inspired shows that were awesome) and stripped them of the super sentai/superhero and sci-fi elements, leaving just the cheesy-fun martial arts and amusingly ham-handed edutainment messages.
What you would end up with is WMAC Masters, and it is glorious.
The show was a kid’s version of pro wrestling; an ongoing competition of obviously choreographed fights interspersed with the personal lives and relationships of the characters that always wound up teaching you a lesson.
As always, the lesson portions are ignorable and worth sitting through because the action was pretty awesome. Like a real-life video game, the fights were staged on sets with various obstacles for the characters to use as well as special effects like fire rigs and breakable objects. They even have life bars to tell who is winning and who is losing.
Oh, and then ninjas would sometimes attack and the battle would become a competition of who could take out the most ninjas.
Adding to the pro-wrestling vibe, the characters went by fighting names and shticks, most notably ‘The Machine’, who was made up like a cyborg… because it was the 90’s and of course he was.
On the whole, it was really just a gussied up martial arts demonstration show, sort of a proto-The Deadliest Warrior without the history and science. The first season was also hosted by Bruce Lee’s daughter, which when I was a kid was more than enough to make it one of the most awesome things ever.
But, as far as live-action SatAM fare went, if you wanted more substance, you needed to go watch…
Number 3: Strange Days at Blake Holesy High
And now you know what I was homaging with Strange Days at Dayspring College. Your life is now much richer knowing that. Oh, and for the people who have asked, Descendants Basic Collection #5 (entitled Strange Days) has been delayed because I just plain can’t make the cover work. I’m trying to do either Warpstar’s fist or chest with the Yellow World shards sticking out of the skin, but it’s looking to be beyond my photoshop (or rather, Macromedia Fireworks MX) skill to do. I need a better idea for a cover. Maybe the Book of Passions with some kind of astral-rose lightning surrounding it….
But I digress.
Strange Days was educational television done right even when its core scientific tenet was (at the time) completely nonsensical. Ironically, some of its science lessons were later proven wrong, while the crazy core concept… is looking more and more plausible!
Okay, so the deal of this finely crafted piece of Canadian television is that a micro-black hole has opened beneath Blake Holesy High School (by the age of the characters, either Canadians are inherently smarter than Americans and skip a LOT of grades, or it’s really a middle school. Yes, I’m leaving myself open for the obvious joke, my Canadian friends, do your worst!) and it’s caused physics in the area to start to break down in unpredictable (albeit temporary and non-catastrophic) ways.
Conveniently, every breakdown of physics presents Our Heroes and their science teacher with a problem that can be solved or at least contained with the proper application of SCIENCE! via applying the lesson of the week to the unconventional manifestation of said subject.
The interesting thing is, we now know that physics is all kinds of screwed in the presence of a black hole, something that was a fringe theory when this show was created. Slightly less scientific, the micro-black hole seems to be psycho-reactive, acting like a more literal version of Buffy’s Hellmouth. Where the Hellmouth just attracted mystical badness that happened to reflect teenaged issues and angst, the Blake Holesy singularity actually reacts to teenaged issues and angst, for example splitting a person who is being overworked into duplicates so they can handle the load.
The problem of science since marching on, and the occasional presentation of a widely held myth (the 10% of your brain thing, most notably) notwithstanding, the show managed to teach science lessons while also being genuinely entertaining.
Not only are the characters actually well-drawn for a kid’s show, but the plot, which encompasses an X-files/proto-Fringe-esque SCIENCE! conspiracy, is complex and compelling as well as fairly emotionally satisfying. I would even do a full article on what this show does right, but I haven’t seen it in years and would need a refresher before I could tackle it. Unfortunately, the DVD release was pulled without explanation, so like MegasXLR, this is a series that’s hard to legally. Thankfully, unlike that show, no one seems to care that this one is up on Youtube, so I’ll get back to you on that…
Full disclosure here, this show is not from my childhood. I was twenty when it came out. But when I happened upon it and discovered it was ‘Buffy but SCIENCE!’, I couldn’t not watch it whenever I got a chance.
The same can’t be said for…
Number 2: Pro Stars
Let me be blunt: Pro Stars… was not a god show. Even as a kid I knew this. However, as well all now understand, being good is not a prerequisite to being awesome.
Pro Stars was a cartoon about Micheal Jordan, Bo Jackson and Wayne Gretsky—then at the heights of their popularity—secretly being superheroes dedicated to helping children and the environment. It was a nigh-perfect distillation of the 1990’s in America; all gaudy spectacle that really, really wanted to be socially conscious without actually being socially conscious. It was way too busy being weird.
How weird? Well the three athletes all seem to live together in a big multi-level gym. They also take their orders from an elderly Yiddish slang-using woman (I hesitate to say she’s actually Jewish, as she shows no other signs of being religiously or ethnically Jewish and all old people in cartoons back then used Yiddish slang—even if they were black and Asian) who supplies them with sports-themed spy gadgets.
Yes, these real, actual people are James Bond if he were a superhero instead of a secret agent… okay, James Bond is a superhero instead of a secret agent, but we’re not supposed to acknowledge that.
It’s the gadgets that really got to me as a kid. I was obsessed with things that transformed into other things, so sneakers with jump rockets hidden inside, to a hockey stick that can open up and deploy explosive pucks was right up my alley.
So far up my alley that I remember almost NOTHING else about this damn show. Episodes, villains… nope. No idea. I didn’t care because I was watching for the gadgets. Among the many, many insane things this show had were ice skates that worked on dirt, and a baseball bat that unfolded to become… telecommunications equipment. There’s a certain point where you can tell the writers realized that they weren’t constrained normal human thought processes.
The other thing I remember is the weird implication this show gave that being good at sports would give you actual superpowers that are tangentially related. Bo Jackson played football, therefore, he actually has super-strength (seriously look at the opening up there—he’s swinging a tree like a baseball bat!). Micheal Jordan is good at basketball, so he has peak human speed and reflexes and can make six foot standing high jumps even before turning on the rocket shoes. And Wayne Gretsky… likes to eat. I… this show, man. This. Show.
Okay, actually, Gretsky is shown to be as good at aiming as freaking Bullseye from Daredevil, but it still gets me that they felt the need to make him a big eater. Is there a hockey fan out there who can explain this? Did The Greatest cram fistfuls of burgers down his throat between games all the time? I guess if they ever revive this franchise, they can bring in Micheal ‘I eat an entire apple pie before meets‘ Phelps to fill this role and be the team Aquaman.
End of the day, while it wasn’t a great show, Pro Stars gets points for creativity, which counts for a lot when you’re a young creator loading up on influences and inspiration. To my deep, deep shame, Improv from the DU takes a lot of his character DNA from Pro Stars!Bo Jackson.
Number One: The Adventures of the Gummi Bears
I might be cheating here. The Gummi Bears were popular. Hugely popular. Not only that, but the show is historically significant, being the first big budget, high quality animated TV series by Disney, which in part ushered in a Golden Age in children’s animated programming.
The thing is though, when people get their nostalgia on, it’s all about the old standbys: GI Joe, Transformers, He-Man/She-Ra, maybe Care Bears, Inspector Gadget, Captain Planet and the Planeteers, Alvin and the Chipmunks… further down the line you’ll hear Smurfs, Doug and of course, Pirates of Dark Water. But you hardly hear people talking about Gummi Bears these days. There aren’t huge fandoms, or pushes for revival, or pleas to circulate the tapes. Hell, I don’t think there are even any Gummi Bears memes like there are with Captain Planet et al.
In fact, the closet I’ve come to finding something similar is a wonderful clip where Jimmy Fallon got Alisha Keyes (!!) to sing the song super-dramatically. And while that’s fun, it feels like this franchise fell by the wayside.
Anyway, the series is about the last remnant of an advanced (both technologically and magically) race called the Great Gummis. They’ve lost significant portions of their heritage and are under constant assault by an evil Duke and his ogres. Luckily, they meet a young human whose has a McGuffin that unlocks was is basically the instruction book for their civilization, allowing them to fight back and start to regain what was lost.
While it never really developed story arcs, the mythology of the series is suitably epic and the animation is gorgeous even today.
Of course, the thing that endears this series to me is that it was my first very early exposure to both the Lost Technology and MagiTech tropes. It was honestly one of my earliest exposures to fantasy settings at all, which is probably why I never shied away from adding higher-then medieval tech to my fantasy worlds or mixing power sources.
The show was also incredibly evenhanded when it came to gender (at least for the times). There were multiple female characters shown to be on equal footing on all levels (not just combat like a lot of shows do) with the males without really going out of their way to make a big deal out of it.
… speaking of which, if you’ll be so kind as to allow me this aside:originally this week, I was going to post a response to The Nostalgia Critic’s Top 11 Worst Episodes of Avatar: the Last Airbender. One of the episodes I agreed with him on was ‘The Waterbending Master’, which was all about overcoming misogyny—which is a good lesson, but even in Avatar is done in a cringingly awkward ‘girls deserve respect because they can hurt you physically and/or emotionally’ manner rather than ‘girls deserve respect because they’re people’. I also agreed with him that it’s hard o know how to feel about episodes like that because you don’t want to go against an anti-misogyny message, but even really good ideas can be done wrong and ineffectively… End Aside.
I’ll give the Gummi Bears credit for my philosophy there too; woman or man, a badass is a badass and Princess Calla is a badass as is Gruffi.
Also, their tech was insanely awesome. I fondly remember this one thing that was a giant, hopping claw for no reason. Gummi Tech rarely seemed to have a reason, it just was and kerploded at the drop of a hat.
Which brings us to the end of this week’s blog post. Feel free to mention your own favorite cartoons of yesteryear in the comments—I’ll even increase the allowed hyperlinks to two so youtube links won’t got to spam. We’re celebrating Saturday Morning here every Friday for the next month, so come back next week when I reveal my five favorite Saturday Morning Cartoons and the week after when I do the same for the afternoon block!
And this just in, The Descendants – The Complete Volume 1: Welcome to Freeland House is now on sale at Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords for $3.99 USD. In fact, All my books are now available via Smashwords. Other retailers are pending.
In case you’re wondering, The Complete Volume One contains all the Volume 1 Issues, the Special, the Annual, Who is… the Whitecoat, and Rise of Morganna. People asked for character dossiers, but the more I thought of it, the more important I felt RoM is to the series narrative. Dossiers will be a permanent feature for all of the Complete Volumes after this though. It’s just that this is a big damn book. 560 pages for $3.99—What a bargain!
Ebook only this time. It’s actually too big for Createspace to handle, much like the complete saga set of Rune breaker.
Finally, if you’ve already got the Basic Collection books, Rise of Morganna is going to be released for 99 cents soon, I’m not going to make you buy a whole other book just to get the mini. The Complete Volume is just a better buy, especially if you’re not in a place where We Can Be Heroes is free.