I imagine that most of us have seen this old gag in one form or another: someone discovers gold and goes off the deep end with gold fever, probably getting lost in day dreams of wealth, or flipping out over the need to protect their claim. Then in the end, as having a character get rich threatens the status quo, it turns out that the ‘gold’ was actually pyrite, AKA: Fool’s Gold. In fantasy stories, it might also turn into rocks or leaves instead because fairies are jerks.
The same sort of thing is getting set up now with actual gold by people who are hoarding gold in case the global economy collapses—because as we all know, soft metal will be incredibly useful when you’re reduced to hunter gatherers.
There is also a variant of that where someone from another world or setting finds gold or something similar and discards it because they don’t recognize the value of it in the current setting. Expect the phrase ‘worthless yellow rocks’ to come up in these situations.
We’re going to be dealing with the later scenario this week in the form of golden story opportunities that just plain didn’t get used to their full potential and due to some factor or other, never had an intrepid writer come along, pick that ball up, and run it the rest of the way into the endzone.
In the grand tradition of the internet, most of these ideas are going to revolve around 80’s cartoons. But unlike the grand tradition of the internet, this isn’t just about nostalgia. See, there’s a reason a lot of high concept stuff was bandied about in that era and why those concepts pretty much never got unearthed again.
First, what you have to understand about the cartoons of the 80’s is that they did not exist to entertain, get advertisers or sell DvD box sets. No, they were half hour advertisements for toys. That’s all they were: a way to make whatever plastic thing they were putting out at the time look so badass that kids wanted nothing more than to have a version of it in their houses to act out that badassedness in their own living rooms.
G.I. Joe was there to show off new colorful characters with toyetic equipment and ridiculously awesome vehicles (drill tanks!) every week. My Little Pony was all about introducing ponies with new colors and hip stamps (I refuse to say the proper term) and firing little girls’ imaginations that these were little friends they could play with.
It was an arms race to come up with something new and flashy and weird to capture kid’s attention both on screen and on the shelf. That’s where all the weird concepts came from. G.I. Joe had cornered the dudes with guns market, so someone came up with robots, then transforming robots, then mad scientists and monsters, then new, weirder monsters. By the time the Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles comic hit mainstream, it was just more catalyst for the insanity and suddenly we had Biker Mice From Mars and The Wild West Cowboys of Moo Mesa (Why yes, you can watch that free on YouTube).
Sadly, the crazy ideas were basically all there was. Again, these were commercials for toys. People don’t put that much thought into cartoons. Sure, some of them were awesome and fun enough that they’ve endured long enough for me to make that joke about internet traditions, but… there wasn’t a lot of substance there. No one had much incentive to dig deep at the time.
A few franchises managed to live on into the 90’s and some made the jump to comic book form where a shift toward marking the stories as the product in addition to the toys led to a expansion of the great concepts they were born with. Transformers was probably the most successful, especially with the absolute masterpiece of a series, Beast Wars (and then devolved back to mindless fluff with the live-action movies), but G. I. Joe, Thundercats, Scooby-Doo, and stunningly plotless wonders He-Man and My Little Pony also managed to grow depth in later-day reimaginings.
Sadly, not all such stories with great concepts found themselves resurrected into the days of cartoons with actual plots and skilled writers. In fact, some of these did get resurrected and they still failed to make use of the good elements they had.
And oh boy, I bet you’re going to be surprised by some of these…
The Show: Centurions was a sci-fi action show about lantern-jawed badasses fighting cyborgs and robots (often in environmentally themed situations) with the help of special armor that can accept attachments that converts it into specialized battle vehicles. These attachments were beamed down from a goddamn satellite where their pet orangutan lived. It taught me the term ‘Wild Weasel‘, and also that having a pet orangutan is boss.
The Concept: I actually can’t understand how they missed this, considering that it could have involved WAY more toys for them to sell, but the exo-suits are a pretty amazing concept, especially since in one episode, we discover there are more than those three.
The thing is, each guy only has three or four different configurations. Now, if you’re focusing on the characters and these armors are just their ‘superpowers’, that’s more than enough. But if you approach this as technology based science fiction setting, there is a LOT of potential here with dealing with the development of new configurations, training new Centurions, and testing all of this.
What makes this even more obvious is that the show actually went out of its way to highlight what was then cutting edge real-world science, especially in the fields of research, clean energy, and habitation. It’s almost criminal that someone hasn’t brought to show back and basically followed the exact same model with more in-depth world-building.
Just the exo-suits alone could and should be recycled into something because the concept of wearing a transforming vehicle is just so badass.
Thundarr the Barbarian
The Show: as you know, the world was destroyed in the early 90’s. Terminator said so, dammit. Sadly for Skynet, the ass-whooping came from a rogue planet giving us and the moon a gravitational bitch-slap instead of a pissy computer. Two thousand years later, out of the ashes came a world spawned from whose womb every metal album in history sprang retroactively. It was filled with monsters, lost technology and evil wizards. And it was up to Thundarr and his pals to kick all their asses.
The Concept: More than any of the others on this list, I can forgive the creators of Thundarr for not following through on their most awesome concept because… well most of that happened centuries before the show was set.
Here’s the thing: two thousand years after the cataclysm, the setting is more or less in place. Monsters and creations of mad wizards are everywhere, wizards rule all and for the most part, those wizards are a pack of complete assholes. The obvious question is ‘how did we get here?’.
Really! Why are all the wizards jackasses? Didn’t any of them, when they first came into their powers, think ‘I shall make the world better’? Even if they did it by good, old fashioned enslavin’, someone had to try, right? With all this magic and lost tech, it seems impossible that no one even tried to rebuild the world. Further, there had to be a time when there were groups who opposed the evil wizards besides Thundarr. Really, there are so many stories here
Plus, Jack frickin’ Kirby was on the creative team for this. Can you imagine if even the core Thundarr stories were a single arc under the pen of the man who created the New Gods?
I did say these weren’t all 80’s cartoons, yes?
The Show: Everyday people around the world gain superpowers. Season one deals with events surrounding prophetic paintings bringing a group together to stop a villain named Sylar. At first there seems to be an over-arching plot, but by season two, it starts to disintegrate into a random events plot. The opening and closing narration constantly pump-fake at the character Mohinder possibly studying this phenomena.
The Concept: First, a caveat: I hated Heroes Precisely because of the title combined with that last part. This show was never and to my knowledge, was never intended to be about the characters being superheroes in much the same way Lost was never meant to go anywhere or mean anything ever. The constant teasing and fake-outs of the next episode being the one where Hiro or Peter finally nutting up and being… heroic…vastly overshadowed a more interesting concept that they teased by never actually deployed.
As much as I love superheroes, the intriguing thing about the set-up and the Mohinder segments were two-fold: first, where the hell did the powers even come from? I mean seriously, there’s your myth arc right there, but instead of following through with that idea, the answer seems to be that superpowers were always just kind of here and people just didn’t notice until now. Mohinder’s philosophical ramblings might have been used to tie it all together, but instead, they’re rendered into boring-ass padding.
Second, and far more important is the part right at the beginning of my description: Everyday people gain superpowers. That’s honestly all we needed. Everyday people gain superpowers and the characters we’re following are being observed by Dr. Mohinder concerning the impact of superpowers on day to day life and human psychology. Hell, the first episode, with the girl jumping off a construction site on video just because she can, the cop using his mind reading and getting both the good and the bad aspects of the power, and the nerdboy discovering he can stop time are what made me tune in for later episodes because I thought there was going to be more of that.
But no, we just got Heroes. Ugh.
Trivia: the DvD commentary on the first episode described how they got Peter’s coat to flare out awesomely in the breeze instead of whipping around everywhere through the use of secret air pockets built into it to catch and direct the wind. This was the inspiration for Ian’s flight cape in The Descendants.
Josie and the Pussycats
The Story: The members of an all-girl band moonlight as amateur sleuths. Also they sing a song like every episode. They wore long tails and ears for hats. That’s… really all there was to it.
The Concept: I told you some of these would surprise you. Don’t look so shocked, don’t go ‘oh’. I telegraphed this all over the place; you have only yourself to blame.
Pussycats is one in a long line of 60’s and 70’s cartoons in a highly specific subgenre of ‘teenagers with a gimmick solve mysteries. Scooby-Doo, Jabberjaw, Speed Buggy, Funky Phantom (Bookmark this mention. Trust me) are all in the same vein with Scooby-Doo being the most well-known example, but Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys did it first. Of those, Pussycats is the one that I think had the best built-in potential as a concept even granting that Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated was great.
The missing ingredient is, as usual,the part that was shoehorned in there to make a buck. The characters are in a band solely to excuse having songs in each episode. I have no doubts that there existed Josie and the Pussycats LPs they were hawking with the show. However, they don’t really do anything with the fact that they’re a band.
First of all, unlike Scooby and the gang, the Pussycats are famous. That really ought to have put a crimp in their ability to act openly and ask questions that could be solved with disguises, subterfuges, expenditure of their wealth, or just being smart. Further, they clearly tour all the time, so their cases should be time sensitive in that they need to get everything tied up in time to bug out for the next show, preferably in such a way that they won’t have to testify.
Hell, seeing as they are famous and that they screw a lot of bad guys whose crimes don’t result in decade-long sentences, retribution should be something they’re constantly dealing with and a great source of recurring villains and arcs.
What I’m getting at here is that their gimmick happens to be a good source of drama on its own that synergizes nicely with the mystery solving thing to create new conflicts, opportunities and ways of thinking. This isn’t a plea for realism, this is a revelation that there was way more fun to be had.
Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego?
The Show: One of the rare excellent edutainment shows, Where on Earth… is a spin-off of the Carmen Sandiego games and game show (which were also excellent). It pits main characters, Zack and Ivy (teen agents of an organization seemingly dedicated solely to stopping Carmen Sandiego) against the titular character, a thief who ambitions are only equaled by her bottomless economic and technological resources. Carmen is a Big Thinker. While more thieves are content with stealing the Mona Lisa, Carmen would rather steal the Lourve, or possibly go back in time and steal the Mona Lisa before it was finished. And yes, she’s fully capable of doing this. Constantly.
The Concept: Granted, the entire point of the franchise is to teach kids about geography and history in the course of tracking down this…unstoppable Goddess of Larceny… and Zack and Ivy are pretty much audience surrogates regardless of the fact that they were still decent characters.
Buuuut, how awesome would it be if Carmen were the main character? Arguably, she’s the most well developed character in the series, taking a sort of big-sister approach to her pursuers even while she evades them at every turn. Add to her rather affable character the ability to look into the process and associations someone would have to have if their chosen profession is ‘steals monuments’, and you have the potential for an amazing show.
Even going beyond Carmen herself as a character, the technology she and the Acme Detectives (yup) employ in the series is pretty damn impressive and it’d be cool to see what happens when it starts to trickle into the world at large. Hell, what if there was another superthief out there who isn’t as nice and playful as Carmen?
But seriously, more Carmen, please. She was one of my first cartoon crushes
This is another of those things I could make multiple lists about. For example, while coming up with ideas for it, I realized it could have been all about Saturday morning cartoons and also came up with five others that were all X-men related and another five related to Spider-man. If people like this segment, I’ll do more like this.
Anyway, this ties back to that thing I talked about a long time ago where people always ask writers where their ideas come from. Well… here’s where more of those ideas should be coming from. You can’t copyright an idea and no, it isn’t stealing or else no one would be able to come up with new stories because they’d all be stealing from Shakespeare et al.
While I outlined the reasons these never got expanded, there’s not good reason why no one else has picked some of these and other under-developed ideas and made them better than they were originally.
Next week, I’m unlocking the vitriol cannon once again as I tackle one of the demon of bad writing we haven’t talked much about yet: the Idiot Plot.
By the way, Rune Breaker IV: Evil Unto Evil is now available on Apple iTunes and DriveThru Fiction, so now device incompatibility is NO EXCUSE!
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